Thursday, October 18, 2007

Opinions on Science Fiction

A few days ago, I tossed out a subtle challenge, proposing that The Matrix was the best science fiction film of the 20th century and inviting alternative proposals. John deVille picked up the gauntlet. His nominees, originally offered in a comment, are reproduced below in toto, in blue, with my answers embedded.

Best sci-fi films? 2001, Blade Runner, Dark City, Altered States, Being John Malkovich, remake of The Fly, and The Thing all trump the warmed-over Lewis Carroll pop philosophy flick that is The Matrix.The Matrix is clever, beautifully photographed, with groundbreaking effects. But the messiah theme is subjected to far too many build-ups, resulting in an anti-climatic climax, and Reeves and Fishburne deliver wooden performances worthy of a CGI creation but not flesh and blood.

I have to respectfully disagree on a number of points here. Latched onto that whole rabbit hole thing did we. Not sure I've ever seen Lewis Carroll and pop philosophy strung together quite like that. :-)

Personally, I enjoyed both actors. But then, I detest (and I only use that word because I can't think of a stronger one) Jeff Goldblum. So whatever merits The Fly may have had as a movie, it lost me through casting.

At least The Matrix is self-critiquing of the whole messiah theme. Want a gross manipulation of that motif? See The Green Mile. No self-critique there. And all used to send the wrong damned message in a subtle enough way that nine out of ten people I've ever pointed it out to hadn't even realized how badly their emotions were being manipulated to make Susan Sarandon clones of them. I would have cried at the end with everyone else, but I was way too busy being pissed off at what had just been attempted on me and successfully perpetrated on everyone else in the theater.

2001 trumps The Matrix in terms of groundbreaking cinematography and concept as well as score and philosophical depth. Granted, there are deathly lulls but it succeeds as a work of art where The Matrix fails in that one might need or want to watch The Matrix twice but 2001 has far more captivating depth requiring multiple viewings.

2001 doesn't trump anything. Who the hell decided that Stanley Kubrick was a director? Here's an idea, if only we'd gotten Kubrick and Goldblum together for a film. Now there would have been something to see. But I can do better than mere personal invective. The sheer overratedness of Kubrick aside, I believe The Matrix surpassed 2001 in all three of the areas you mention. In cinematography, The Matrix was the first film to really take "bullet-time" photography in particular and CGI in somewhat less seminal ways, to their very edge. We see these things now in productions as mundane as commercials, but that first shot--with Trinity suspended in mid-air as the camera angle moves around her then continues the action--is something few of us who saw it will forget. The technology seems simple and mundane now, but not then. Score, I would argue, is simply a matter of taste. Certainly that of The Matrix is as strongly linked thematically to the movie as anything in 2001. Concept and philosophical depth? Give me a break! "What is real? If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." Reality is the central question here. I will venture that the Wachowskis are far deeper thinkers than Kubrick. (Of course, I can only venture that by ignoring the long downhill slide into intellectual mush that is the sequels. You'll note that I didn't say "the Matrix Trilogy." I avoided that, not only because the sequels belong to separate century, but also because, while fun, each is philosophically and intellectually less than its immediate predecessor.) Multiple viewings? I'm not tired of The Matrix yet, and it's been almost ten years and I've seen it countless times. Perhaps its greatest strength is its total lack of paradox. Name one more film about either time travel or virtual reality that doesn't trip over itself somewhere. Name me one place where The Matrix does.

Blade Runner doesn't have the groundbreaking effects but the pathos and acting of Ford, Hauer, and Sanderson deliver a solid punch. Scott's future urban landscape is genius. FWIW, I prefer the "corny" version with the voiceover to the "director's cut."

Love Blade Runner. Don't have anything bad to say about it. Probably the best shot you took in the whole salvo.

Dark City is one hell of a creepy yarn. It was what the Truman Show should have been. I'd put it on par with The Matrix.

Ooooh. Haven't seen it. Thanks. Now I know what to rent the next time I need a new sci-fi fix.

Altered States is corny but the concept still delivered what the best sci-fi does. So-so acting, creative effects, but one does have to like Ken Russell. I did; novelist and screenplay writer Paddy Chayefsky didn't and had his name removed from the credits. Either on par with The Matrix or a notch below.

At least "a" notch. Loved the movie. Not sure I'd consider it sci-fi though. Will say that it almost inspired me to give the isolation tank a try the last time I was in your neck of the woods. Can't remember the name of the place, but it's in downtown Asheville, downhill from the Mellow Mushroom pizza parlor. Was with my in-laws and didn't have the time . . . but I'll be back.

Being John Malkovich has none of the razzmatazz but is far more metaphysically interesting and challenging the old "what if we're all brains-in-a-vat?" problem. The use and execution of puppeteering to make points was far more captivating and moving that anything I saw in The Matrix which I found to be almost bereft of emotion. Who gives a shit whether a soulless lead and a soulless supporting cast beat the bad guys?

I'm sensing some real negative energy here, John. Let it goooooooooo. :-)

The always overlooked The Fly featured a virtuoso performance from Goldblum which Reeves is clearly not capable. His transformation was as gorgeous as it was terrifying and it closed with a wallop. The Matrix closes with a nod to the sequels, neither of which delivered because the set-up was philosophically lame.

Okay, you've used "virtuoso" and "Goldblum" together in the same sentence here, which, while an undeniably remarkable accomplishment, still makes no sense.

The Thing is a B movie, a goddamn good one. Great ensemble cast, with over-the-top cornball acting reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen. Carpenter's calibration of horror was genius backed up by a serviceable score. Give me a six-pack of PBR and I'll rewatch The Thing this afternoon over The Matrix.

I think, at this point, our transition from the genre of sci-fi to that of horror is more or less complete (to say nothing of where we've gone with the beer--I'm a Makeson man, myself). Not that the two can't mix (sci-fi and horror; not beer and near-beer). Alien is superb. And Aliens is one of the few sequels ever made that might arguably surpass the first in the series. After that though, we start downhill into the valley of sequel hell, in some sort of perverted race to the bottom with Rocky, who, I'm sad to say, is back in the lead. (You know, I actually joked about 15 years ago that my children would one day ask for $20 to see a Rocky sequel. I overestimated the effect of inflation on the price of a movie ticket, but not the resilience of the champ. Please God, let his next opponent take a .357 magnum into the ring and finish him. Hmmm. "And the nominees for Best Actor are Jeff Goldblum, Sylvester Stallone, and Barney Rubble." Q: How will we ever decide? A: Just give Paulie a vote.)

And would Fight Club count as sci-fi, because it clearly kicks The Matrix's sorry celluloid, single-serving ass, except I'm not supposed to talk about it.

:-) (It took me a minute because it's been a while.) But no, I wouldn't count it.

But I'll conclude here by saying thanks for taking the time to have an opinion. I may disagree, but anything from the keyboard of another hardcore Deadwood fan is at least worth making the effort to disagree with. Peace bro.