Saturday, 11 August 2012

Ray Bradbury Presents

The acclaimed sci-fi author Ray Bradbury passed away June 5th at the ripe old age of 91. His contributions to the genre were huge, and he was rightly beloved. But I never read a single one of his books (Well, maybe I read a comic adaptation or two). Most of my knowledge of Bradbury's body of work, like with a lot of other stuff, comes from cinema. So I'll take a look at four motion pictures (like a 91-year-old would say) that were in some way made due to a contribution by Bradbury.

Moby Dick (1956)
Director: John Huston

Bradbury was a co-screenwriter with director John Huston in this adaptation of Herman Melville's metaphorical sea-faring novel. The film makes several of the novel's underlying metaphores painfully clear, but at least it recognizes that it's where the real meat of the novel is, rather than an adventure in whaling. It's a man-versus-nature story, or rather, man versus his own overwhelming negative emotions, hatred, rage, vengefullness and spite. For those sins, man also deserves God's wrath, which like the biblical whale that ate Jonah, comes Moby Dick, the almost diablocal whale, and an unstoppable force-of-nature.

A young man named Ishmael (Richard Baseheart) seeks to head out to the seas as a whaler. He meets and becomes friends with a Polynesian harpooner named Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur) as both men are seeking out work in the harbour. They finally strike luck when a vessel named the Pequod, led by Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck), hires them aboard. But as the young whalers will soon see, they won't be just hunting whales for a living, they are hunting a very certain whale for revenge. For Captain Ahab blames the huge white whale Moby Dick for the loss of his foot, and has since dedicated his life to slay the beast. His hatred for the natural predator grows so strong, that Ahab doesn't care about anything else, not even the safety and survival of his crew.

"From hell's heart, I'll stab at thee!"
It's the sort of classic film that looks almost comically theatrical by today's standards. Gregory Peck hams it up as the crazed Captain Ahab, and the film also features a cameo by Orson Welles as a fire-and-brimstone preacher. But because in essence the story is about man's worst feelings, it's not necessarily a bad thing that the film drips of pure emotion. The effects scenes are very convincing for the time, and the look of the film is an accurate representation of my preconceptions as a reader. It chops a long novel into a fairly short movie (115 minutes) and thus also simplifies it a lot, but as an adventure story, this is one that is both an intriguing adventure and something that gives one a bit to ponder about.


Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Director: François Truffaut

Fahrenheit 451, perhaps Bradbury's most famous novel, had a very artistically successful movie adaptation. The title refers to the heat in which truth burns. Thus, the story is a cry for the freedom of speech, the value of literature, imagination and individuality. It's a very functioning portrayal of a dystopia, in that it's threats are not underlined by an ominous score or a dark cinamatography. Rather, Truffaut's stylish film evokes the best in 60's design, the cinematography is colorful and beautiful. It undelines the fact that the dystopian future it depicts, with all modern comforts but books being banned, is little more than a gilded cage.

Montag (Oskar Werner) is the head of the future fire brigade, whose job it is to raid private houses, find hidden books and burn them to cinders, rather than to fight actual fires. Basically he's Gestapo if the printed word is the Polish Jew in 1940. He lives a simple life, with his wife staying home and watching television, and popping pills and being drugged out of her mind at all times. But in one case, Montag meets Clarisse (Julie Christie), a bibliofile hoarding books, yet he finds her attractive so he doesn't blow the whistle on her. Clarisse in turn starts to help Montag open his eyes and see that the things he stands up for are wrong, and people are only free if they are allowed to read, think and act for themselves. Montag in turn is caught between his past life, and a life with Clarisse, which is the life of a fugitive.

While the effects have aged badly, they are still oddly ominous.
Truffaut proves once again his skills as a true auteur, as he won't frame this as a simple high-tensioned thriller or an action movie. That's not to say there aren't any suspense, with several very Hitchcockian chase scenes included. But in the end, the film's a thoroughly cerebral affair. The film's plot moves along very slowly, and similar book-burning scenes follow each other. Truffaut also likes to show in closeup just what books are being burned at any times, and they also include a number of Cahiers du Cinema, and his own book about screenwriting. The TV shows he contrasts thinking with, are thoroughly braindead material, only meant to get the audience's obidience. Werner acts the main role mostly without any expressions. That's so we the viewers must figure for ourselves what is going through his head at all times. One should think, watching this, whether we've already taken a step to this direction. Will all printed words be burned soon and replaced with iPads, Kindles and other technology, which can be more easily controlled by those in power? There's also a good reason why the film's opening credits are spoken aloud.


Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989)
Directors: Masami Hata, William T. Hurtz

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, Bradbury also did some work on the script of this animated film based on Windsor McCay's classic comic strip. He is credited of coming up with the "concept". Another recently passed visionary, comic artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud, wrote the story with Hayao Miyazaki's trusted screenwriter Yutaka Fujioka, and Home Alone's director Chris Columbus wrote the actual script with, um, Journey 2's Richard Outten. As one can plainly see, the writing staff has quite a varied set of talents, and even cultural backgrounds. But considering this, the script holds together surprisingly well, and features call backs on many of McCay's most memorable fantasy segments.

Nemo (voiced by Gabriel Damon) is a young boy who has a vivid imagination and a pet flying squirrel named Icarus. At nighttime his dreams tend to come alive, and his bed starts to fly, taking him to adventures. One night he barely escapes a charging train with his life. The adventure only ends when he wakes from falling out of his bed. The next night, after eating a whole pie, he's visited by Professor Genius and his ward, who explain to him that he's been chosen to be the playmate of King Morpheus's daughter Camille. So, the trio flies off to Slumberland. On the way, Nemo meets the troublespme Flip (Mickey Rooney), a clown who tempts Nemo to join him on mischief and trouble-making. Eventually, Flip's uncontrollability and bad influence makes Nemo break King Morpheus's rules and open a door which releases Nightmares to Slumberland. But can Nemo tell the difference of what he's deaming and what's real? INCEPTION!

The subconscious aspect of the story is dwelled on briefly, but then forgotten along the way.
The film is a near Anime, in that most animators working for this are Japanese. Yet it has a certain western flavor to it as well, and the characters are expressful and move according to their physique. The film spends quite a lot of time lingering on the various wonders and big ideas that McCay might have based a single-paged strip with. It also takes quite a long time for the central conflict to come to picture. The central nemesis, Nightmare King, is also a bit too clichéd and underwhelming main villain. I prefer my favorite nemesises to pull the strings for a long while rather than just appear at the final fight. Also the film's songs are ear-piercing and I hate the "good goblin" comic relief that appear near the end. The show is stolen by the anti-heroic Flip and his hedonistic, fun-loving and cigar-chomping habits. Rooney does fine job as his voice, too. The main problem, as with McCay's strip, is, that Nemo himself is quite a blank and boring character, more a vessel than a real person with conflicts and such. Of course, during the course of the film he learns the value of responsibility and whatnot. But this is still a vivid, colorful and interesting animated movie.


A Sound of Thunder (2005)
Director: Peter Hyams

Sigh. It's sad to leave Bradbury's career in such a down note, but we must aknowledge that this abomination also exists. One of Bradbury's most famous short stories features time-traveling to meet dinosaurs in the past. Of course, since time-traveling is an unstable concept at best, even the slightest change in the past can have catastrophic consequences for history once the traveler gets back. The best adaptation of this story is The Simpsons' classic Treehouse of Horror segment Time And Punishment, where Homer travels to the past with a broken toaster, squashes a bug, and finds that in the modern day Ned Flanders is the unquestioned overlord of the universe. D'oh! But Time And Punishment this ain't, and I tell you, a Punishment it surely am.

So in 2055 there's a company that brings hunters to the Cretaceous era to hunt the Most Dangerous Game... Dinosaurs! All animals have long been extinct, but the very rich still have a strong urge to kill living things, which makes the business plan a success. But the "Time safari" goers must follow strict rules, stay on the given path and only kill game that would die soon anyway to prevent any effects to timeline. Of course one asshole has to ruin it for everyone and strays off the path. This sends "time ripples" all through history and generally messes evolution up all through time. Since all changes don't happen at once, a team of scientists and hunters must go back and prevent the catastrophy before all of the world is entirely changed.

All of the above may seem quite interesting and good, but it's only since I've reduced the movie back to text form, which came from the mind of Bradbury in the first place. Watching the actual movie is another thing altogether, and a painful experience. The complicated story, involving futuristic machines and dinosaurs would need high production values to be done properly. Unfortunately, the producers making this film have had a budget that even Asylum employees would find to be a pittance. Thus, the effects would look bad in a PlayStation 1 game cut scene. And there's nothing charmng about CGI effects this horrendous. There's not even the tiniest shred of anything interesting in the film's extended cast. All they do is run around, shouting exposition and getting killed in unpleasingly non-violent fashion. The film is dark and badly directed, so one can't make much of what's happening on screen anyway. Renny Harlin was reportedly considered to direct this. While I can't imagine he could've done anything good with a budget so small and a script so stinky, at least he could've delivered a fun action scene or two. Stay away!

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