Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review - WALL-E

Story by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter

2008 Nebula Winner for Best Script

I was going to lead this review off with a bit of snark about how in Hollywood even the hoariest old SF cliches are treated as fresh and exciting. Why Pixar studio's WALL-E, to go straight to the point, uses dozens of them! And then I'd segue into how the script was still very good. Of course then it struck me: the cliches were the point. WALL-E, like Pixar's previous movie The Incredibles, is in part a tribute to the source material and it made me enjoy the film even more.

The earth has become a polluted wasteland and so humanity leaves it behind to travel in luxury among the stars. They leave behind robots to clean up the planet and over the centuries they slowly fail until only one, the titular WALL-E, is left. He continues to dutifully pile up the trash left behind until one day a spaceship lands and a gleaming white robot named EVE emerges. WALL-E falls in love for the first time and sets out to impress EVE as she pursues her own mission.

The Nebula awarded was for "Best Script" and it's hard to dispute that WALL-E is a superior bit of screenwriting. The first half of the film is effectively a silent movie as the main characters barely speak. Exposition is provided in only the broadest strokes through advertisements. While the writers may have avoided dialog in this portion of the film they did not skimp on developing plot or character. If that wasn't enough the conflicts in the first half of the film get resolved and then the second half of the film could almost stand on its own as another movie. That was an ingenious bit of planning as both halves play off each other but possess completely different styles.

One thing that I appreciated in WALL-E was that it was not simply another hypocritical attack on consumer culture while simultaneously attempting to sell things to audiences. While that attack was definitely there I think it was layered by a recognition that people want convenience and comfort. The "evil corporation" in the back story that ran the world seemed to just be too efficient at giving people what they wanted. In this kind of film with an environmental message businesses are typically portrayed as diabolical, all-consuming evils while WALL-E acknowledges a more realistic view of businesses. By not having a "villain" beyond human nature itself WALL-E was a more effective movie.

Getting beyond the writing WALL-E was, as you can expect from a Pixar film, superbly directed and animated. The world in my view appeared to have much more depth than previous animated films that Pixar has done. This is in part due to a greater use of distant shots that help emphasize the isolation. The first portion of the film in particular has a much more natural look than what we've seen from them before. Later on other more obviously cartoonish characters come in and the environment becomes more close and it looks more like previous Pixar efforts and in this case the "plastic" effect of CGI doesn't harm the imagery.

The references to SF aren't just in the writing, by the way; I noticed the use of the patented Battlestar Galactica shaking tracking followed by wavering zoom shot. The whole film really is an homage to great science fiction.

I wish I could compliment the cast as highly as the writing and animation but I'm sorry to say that the actors simply aren't given a lot to do. What they do in this movie they do extremely well; it's just when there's no dialog for half the film then they don't get a chance to show off. It really is the animation that carries the characterization and story in WALL-E. There are only four characters that speak in sentences and only two of them ever interact.

There has only been one Pixar movie that I have not enjoyed completely and it wasn't WALL-E. Even with it's use of many tired old themes WALL-E manages to make them all seem bright and new again. This is a classic example of an animated movie that works on multiple levels and a perfect example of how the people at that studio are making movies that will be remembered for generations.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review - Powers

by Ursula K. Le Guin
2008 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I was generally unimpressed with the nominees for the Nebula in the novel category this year. Three of them were YA books so, to put it politely, I was nowhere near their target audience. The other two felt like nominees more for their names than the books (I love Pratchett but I'll be the first to tell you that Making Money was not one of his best). Of all the nominees Powers was the one that I knew the least about. I knew the author and it was part of a YA fantasy series and that was it. Remembering my problems with almost everything Le Guin has written since 1975 I braced myself for the worst, flipped open the hideous cover, and started to read.

There is a young slave a pre-industrial city who has occasional visions of the future. He is being schooled so that as an adult he will be able to teach the household children but because of the schooling he gradually becomes more socially aware. Eventually a troubling event causes him to flee his masters and seek purpose.

Powers is the third book in a series. I have not read the previous two but there was nothing in this volume that was difficult to follow. Powers stands on its own easily even with a few things that were likely references to other books in the series.

The novel reminded me a lot of Le Guin's early work. That's a good thing. Unfortunately it feels like a watered down version of those early works. I suspect that has to do with the Young Adult target audience and I know that if I read this when I was twelve and reading those kinds of books I would have been much more interested.

The key to that is how moral ambuiguity and comparitive cultures are at the heart of the story. The protagonist wanders through many different locations and none of them are "perfect". This is in spite of a few of them being traditional environments for "ideal lifestyles" in SF (usually the bad novels where the author is promoting their own beliefs). There are few villains in the story. On the other hand there are a lot of characters shaped by their environment to be something inadvertantly destructive.

While he's surrounded by complex personalities the protagonist himself is a bland, generic, faultless hero cynically designed to appeal to the reader. His major "flaws" are that he's not athletic and is a sensitive soul. On the other hand he reads a lot, is kind to all living things, and strives to be normal. While he discovers moral complexity he is set apart from it. This might be effective for the bookish teen picking up the novel; as an adult who has seen this kind of thing too many times I was disinterested.

I can't say that I was excited by the plot either. While there are interesting moments it the story meandered quite a bit and didn't hold focus. The book becomes a repetition of wandering to a new place, liking it at first, seeing the flaws, and wandering off again. Toward the end Le Guin suddenly remembers that she had been developing a plot in the first quarter of the novel and resolves it quickly.

One aspect of YA books that always bothers me is that they're written for a much lower reading level than I enjoy. I recognize that this part of dealing with that market even though I am not part of it. The prose in Powers is simple, direct, and flat. I know that Le Guin can do better than this since even in her worst books I've found her prose to be pretty good.

What this adds up to is a book that isn't bad but it is not for me. It is not for adult SF fans who have literary tastes. If you enjoy light fantasy then it might hold a bit more appeal for you and I would not hesitate to give a copy of this to a kid looking for some fantasy. Of course I'd give them A Wizard of Earthsea first.

Monday, May 11, 2009

World Fantasy Award Special! The Winning Novels in Five Words or Less!

And now because one person demanded it (or something like it)! I'm giving myself five words to categorize each of the World Fantasy Award winners. The first is the broad box I'd put the book in, the last is my general reaction to the story, and between is what comes to mind.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Traditional, Fairy Tale, Charming, Enjoyed
Bid Time Return - Modern, Victorian, Time Travel, Disliked
Doctor Rat - Allegorical, Anthropomorphic, Screed, Preachy, Annoyed
Our Lady of Darkness - Urban, Horror, Lovecraftian, Creepy, Pleased
Gloriana - Elizabethan, Sexual, Gormenghast-esque, Intrigued
Watchtower - Traditional, Psuedo-medieval, Commune, Quest, Bored
Little, Big - Urban, Fairies, Generational, Memoirs, Ambivalent
Nifft the Lean - Traditional, Pulpy, Lieber-esque, Novellas, Reviled
The Dragon Waiting - Traditional, Historical, Name Dropping, Okay
Bridge of Birds - Historical, Quests, China, Humorous, Loved
Mythago Woods - Allegorical, Metatextual, Post-WWII, proto-Gaiman, Positive
Song of Kali - Urban, Horror, Indian, Disturbing, Squeemish
Perfume - Historical, European, Meandering, 1800's, Dreary
Replay - Urban, Time Travel, Growth, Curious
Koko - Urban, Vietnam, Suspense, Non-Fantasy, Irritated
Lyonesse: Madous - Traditional, Coming-of-age, Fairies, Idiots, Shoddy
Only Begotten Daughter - Urban, Allegorical, Religious, Quirky, Likable
Thomas the Rhymer - Historical, Fairies, Folk Tale, Ecstatic
Boy's Life - Urban, Memoirs, Boomers, Southern, Wistful
Last Call - Urban, Games, Epic, Rollicking, Playful
Glimpses - Urban, Time Travel, Boomers, Despised
Towing Jehovah - Allegorical, Religious, Preachy, Mixed-messages, Cold
The Prestige - Historical, 1800's, Tesla, Magicians, Taken-in
The Physiognomy - Urban, Insanity, Psuedo-Victorian, Odd, Confounded
Godmother Night - Urban, Memoirs, Deadly, Coming-of-age, Satisfied
The Antelope Wife - Urban, Generational, Memoirs, Passive, Hurled
Thraxas - Traditional, Stereotypical, Unfunny, Painful, Murderous
Galveston - Urban, Post-apocalypse, Coming-of-age, Inconsistent, Weary
Declare - Historical, Espionage, Lovecraftian, Religious, Hungry
The Other Wind - Traditional, Earthsea, Wrapping-up, Fans, Indifferent
The Facts of Life - Historical, Memoirs, Coming-of-age, Family, Interested
Ombria in Shadow - Traditional, Gormenghast-esque, Intrigue, Layered, Shocked
Tooth and Claw - Other, Psuedo-Victorian, Dragons, Lifeless, Insufficient
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Historical, 1800's, Stylistized, Fairies, Sequel
Kafka on the Shore - Urban, Quirky, Coming-of-age, Fated, Pondering
Soldier of Sidon - Historical, Twisty, Mind-bending, Thoughtful, Impressed
Ysabel - Urban, Coming-of-age, YA, Unpleasant, Dissatisfied

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Review - "City of Truth" and "Danny Goes to Mars"

Since congress passed that law which said that any geek who saw Star Trek this weekend must comment about it on his blog I need to say something. I've pointed out in the past that the only Star Trek series that I really enjoyed was the original and that means that the reboot really spoke to me. And I enjoyed it. I can't call it a brilliant piece of film making; it was just an entertaining SF romp.

Yes, the science is stupid. I can't complain about that since Star Trek has always used situational made-up science. You have to accept the premise of the information provided in the movie and just let any connection to the real world go. It also didn't really follow continuity and I can't say that it's a bad thing. It doesn't matter that Robert April didn't captain the Enterprise first or any of the other four dozen nitpicks I've seen attached to the line "ruined the movie for me". The film was about making a fresh start with a franchise that has been beaten to death.

What Star Trek did have was the best directed space action I've seen in a long time. I'm not talking about the quality of the effects (they were what you would expect in a big budget action movie); the selection of shots, positioning of the action, and things like that were spectacular. The actors did a great job of distilling the essence of the characters and making it their own. The movie juggled the light humorous scenes with melodrama just like the original series did.

In short, I'm now eagerly looking forward to the sequel and the last time that happened was The Lord of the Rings.

Okay, on to the Nebulas!

"City of Truth"
by James Morrow
1992 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

This was an oddly dichotomous tale. The first half is terrible. The second half is wonderful. The first half is an attempt at parody that crumbles to dust as you think about it. The second half seeks deeper meaning and conveys it well.

There is a city called Veritas where all of its citizens are conditioned to be unable to lie. In this city is a highly placed citizen charged with destroying art for its deceptions. His son is dying of a rare, inevitably fatal illness and this citizen grabs onto a desperate chance from the works that he's been burning. He wants to use the power of positive thinking to try for a miracle. The only way he can do this is to learn how to lie.

The concept of a place where everyone must tell the absolute truth is interesting but Morrow handles it so poorly that I wanted to put the story down and walk away before I was ten pages in. Instead of starting from the concept and working outward he starts with modern society and then overlays honesty onto that. A society where honestly is forced is going to be very different from our; if you go around spouting the things you try to hide then you'd have to come up with a different way of dealing with them.

A perfect example of the problems with Morrow's parody is that restaurants do not serve hamburgers and steaks; they have "murdered cow". That presupposes that a cow can be "murdered" (an ethical issue which different people may have different "truths" for), ignores the fact that it is such a narrow descriptor that it is impossible to distinguish the dozens of different kinds of food that come from beef, and the fact that a cow died to provide it is implicit in the definition of the word "hamburger". It's the kind of gag that could have been cute in moderation but the pages are filled with this kind of thing. Morrow is inconsistent with his treatment of honesty as well and the whole thing just left me with a headache. The gag names don't even hold together when viewed as a whole; why would anyone buy "adequate" goods when someone has to be honestly making "great" ones?

Once Morrow gets away from that heavy-handed parody the story improves dramatically. The gags fall into the background and it becomes a more personal tale. The good elements were there before but they were buried under people who were obligated to say the worst things when they would be "funny". With that stripped away the emotion in the story can shine through.

The second half of "City of Truth" wouldn't have been as effective without the emotional developments in the first half. And yet the jokes in the first half were so distracting and unfunny that they completely disrupted the story. That makes a recommendation tricky for me. On balance I think it's worth reading but mileage is going to vary quite a bit based on your tolerance for Morrow's humor.

"Danny Goes to Mars"
by Pamela Sargent
1992 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

Dan Quayle jokes have not aged well. With the "major political figure is an idiot" memes having a life span of only a few years we've been through a lot of them. That means that this piece of Dan Quayle fanfiction (and it's hard to describe it as anything else) doesn't have the impact that it did twenty years ago.

A breakthrough in space propulsion has allowed NASA to plan a mission to Mars that will take only a few weeks. For political grandstanding President Bush arranges to have Vice President Quayle put on the mission. Quayle takes his responsibility seriously but naturally there are complications.

Sargent presents Quayle as a good natured goof who sticks his foot in his mouth continually. This is probably for the best since it allows him to be a reasonably pleasent protagonist. Sargent also doesn't really take political shots in the story; the worst it gets is presenting Bush as a politician. This story could have easily fallen into some cheap shots and the fact that it didn't helps it be more readable today.

Unfortunately it doesn't really rise above the level of readable. It is just fanfiction that's peppered with Quayle facts and if you don't care about Dan Quayle then this story won't hold any interest for you. The plot procedes predictably, the notes it hits are the ones that you'd expect. It's a bit of inoffensive fluff and I can't recommend a story just because it didn't bother me.