Tuesday, April 29, 2014

To Squee Or Not to Squee: The Abominable

Here’s one from my third Cautious Enthusiasm list.

I’m a bit bewildered. I thought I was reading a horror novel. Hell, I thought I was reading a novel. What I got was a research manual on old-school mountain climbing that occasionally, grudgingly, allowed some story to intrude. Dan Simmons, WTF happened?

Simmons is an author whose body of work I can recommend in its entirety...except, I guess, for The Abominable. He’s taken effortless leaps from mind-expanding science fiction to Stephen King-y horror to, most recently, the supernatural-historical. Believe me, I was ready for his latest horror-tinged rewriting of famous events, even though I worried that the plot (explorers are stalked by monsters in a remote icy setting) sounded way too much like his earlier novel, The Terror. I shouldn’t have worried. The Abominable has its own, unique set of problems that make it, not an unbearable read, but certainly the worst Dan Simmons novel I’ve read in...ever.

The premise is hooky enough. Back in the 1920s, between the world wars, a race was on to summit Mount Everest (which, with typical colonial smugness, was considered a “British hill”). Said race-to-the-top hit a huge snag in June of 1924 when renowned climber George Mallory and his companion Sandy Irvine vanished near the summit. The details of their fate have remained submerged in mystery (Mallory’s body wasn’t found until 1999), and no one will ever know if they stood atop the world before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did in 1953. From this ambiguity, Simmons builds his alterna-history, which follows a secret expedition to find the remains of a wayward young noble whom Everest claimed at the same time as Mallory and Irvine. To set this up, the author smudges the borders of fact and fiction. In the introduction, his idea-seed for an Antaractic-set novel leads him to Jake Perry, an elderly climber whose stories give Simmons the motivation for both The Terror and The Abominable. Eventually, we realize that Jake Perry isn’t real -- or, at least, the character in the book isn’t. Did Simmons really meet an elderly climber, or is the “factual” origin of the novel equally false? In any case, it’s not as clever as Simmons thinks it is.

Most of the book is Perry’s account of the secret attempt on Everest, which he undergoes with a haunted British veteran and a super-capable French guide. Their story is utterly buried under piles and piles of RESEARCH. And this is why I didn’t like the book very much: Dan Simmons fell way too in love with his RESEARCH. Readers are assaulted with endless paragraphs describing everything from the mechanics of a Very-brand flare gun to the entire fucking history of British mountaineering. Simmons breaks down the logistics of the climbers’ gear, tents, stoves, weapons, tools, food, and clothing with such drooling fervor that I had to coin the term “equipment porn.” And when it’s not equipment porn, it’s architecture porn: Chapter Two devotes page upon page to the history and features of a wealthy estate that isn’t even important to the plot. I’m not saying research is a bad thing; it usually makes a historical novel richer and more enjoyable. But the sad fact is, a big chunk of The Abominable is simply boring. It takes three hundred pages to get to Mount Everest, and the analogy of trudging up a punishing mountain slope begins to seem perfect for reading this damn thing.

But, yes, eventually our heroes are climbing Everest, accompanied by a badass gentlewoman-adventuress and a doctor who’s basically Indian Jesus, along with a pack of native Sherpas who are on hand whenever someone needs to get killed off. Things get a tad more interesting, but the narrative also spins off in directions that disappointed me. Based on Simmons’ prior work, and based on the book’s title, and based on foreshadowing within the book, you’d think there might be, I dunno, some yetis at some point? Isn’t this a horror novel? Ehhhhh, well, about that. I won’t get into details, but the nature of the “creatures” is not what it’s cracked up to be. And when we realize where the plot’s going, we realize that we should have seen it coming, thanks to Chekov. You bring a gun onstage in Act One, it has to be fired in Act Three. You introduce (SPOILER ALERT) a band of evil Nazis, you damn well make sure they turn up later. The book’s climax is an endless, tedious chase sequence, which reminded me of another thriller I just read, Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. The difference is that Stephenson’s prose was lean, gripping, and witty, while Simmons keeps pausing to show us how much fucking RESEARCH he did. And said research largely consists of characters explaining stuff to each other in the way that nobody does in real life (“Let me pause to tell you the entire history of this German Luger in the context of World War I and beyond!”). After all that, the ending of The Abominable drags, with more architecture porn and cameos from famous historical figures. For some reason.

I have to emphasize that I wasn’t expecting the book to be such a slog. Simmons’ recent novels have certainly featured a ton of research and historical details, but they were also exciting and interesting. With The Abominable, he seems to have been so into the RESEARCH that he forgot how to write a good novel. His prose and dialogue are kinda janky, his characters are likable but stereotyped, his villains are beneath even Indiana Jones, and he falls victim to a lot of age-old clich├ęs (for instance, no one knows the woman is a woman until they meet her, due to a contrived lack of pronouns in earlier dialogue). The Terror was about the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition to the Arctic, and its research was well-woven into its plot, and it had a monster that didn’t feel like a giant lazy cop-out. I’m not sure why Simmons fumbled here. I mean, The Abominable is far from the worst book I’ve ever read; he’s still a good writer and some of the research is interesting. But it’s not up to standard. Why didn’t he just write a nonfiction book about early mountain climbing? It’d attract the right kind of readers and it wouldn’t feel like a betrayal to those of us who value Simmons for his horror fiction. I guess that Simmons, like so many before him, got done in by Mount Everest. I just hope he hasn’t become the frozen corpse of a writer.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Upside Down

It’s another Cautious Enthusiasm post!

I’m not entirely sure what to make of Upside Down. It is just so goddamn EARNEST. It wants to be loved and admired. I mean, hell, it’s a love story! That’s also a science fiction film! With a strong sociopolitical message! I think one problem is that these are three different film genres clamoring for space in a single movie of average length. Me, I like the sci-fi parts best (though they have serious problems; we’ll get to that). I confess to being charmed by this film while admitting that it doesn’t quite work. Like Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or David Fincher’s Alien 3 or Tarsem Singh’s entire body of work, this is a wonky film that alllllmost works because of its sheer creativity. I mean, you have to like a movie where the hero tells us, with a totally straight face, that the pollen from pink bees is used to make levitating pancakes. But it’s only creative if you ignore the plot.

The big problem with this sci-fi film is that it should have been a fantasy. It takes place on two planets which (astrophysicists, prepare to bite through your pipe stems) orbit side by side, so close they almost touch, each with its own gravity field. This means that the people of one planet can look up and see the other above their heads, inverted. And this, of course, raises a bajillion questions. The movie apparently takes place at the point where the two planets are closest. If they truly are spheroids, then they would gradually curve away from each other. So...what’s life like for all the people who don’t live at the junction? We never find out. Also, wouldn’t the very laws of physics grind both planets to pieces? And do they somehow share one atmosphere? Heck, at one point, the moon is visible. How can there be a moon that close to the junction? Wouldn’t its orbit cause it to smash into one of the planets? And since the opening narration establishes that these are indeed planets, does that mean it’s a movie about aliens? Aliens who look like humans and speak English with American accents? See, none of these questions would matter in a fantasy film, because fantasy has no need to explain itself. Upside Down errs when it applies real-world cosmology to an entirely impossible scenario. I love learning about the weird phenomena of the cosmos, but this is a fucking stretch.

But never mind. The plot! We have two unequal societies, Up Above and Down Below (who the fuck named these planets?). The former is opulent and high-tech, resembling what the future looked like in the 1950s. The latter is a cross between a Terry Gilliam film and the London Blitz; life is hard for the Down Belowers, who must scavenge reverse-gravity material to make a living (this is dangerous, because objects on the wrong planet will eventually combust). Our heroes are named...ugh...Adam and Eden. They’re from separate worlds but they meet as teens, thanks to two kissing mountain peaks. The Powers That Be tear them violently apart, and ten years later, Adam (Jim Sturgess) is attempting to turn his pink bee pollen (snicker) into a cosmetic cream that will give consumers a very literal facelift. When he learns that Eden (Kirsten Dunst) works for a planet-spanning corporation called Transworld, he scores a job there in the hopes of rekindling their forbidden passion. Little does he know that Eden has Convenient Plot Amnesia, the terrible affliction that strikes movie characters who need to forget things so there can be, y’know, conflict and stuff. And the subsequent plot progresses along very familiar lines. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, bad guys chase boy and girl, quirky supporting characters are quirky, fairy tale ending. Credits.

Upside Down has to sell itself on its special effects, and they don’t disappoint. Seeing the trailer was what got me excited, but I worried that the trailer showed the only good bits. Not to fret. The dual-world visuals are exploited to the max, and look astounding. They used every trick in the book to create their topsy-turvy aesthetic. The entire film is somewhat impressionistic, and definitely owes a lot to French surrealism; everything is dreamlike and heavily color-filtered (which, of course, further hurts the quaint notion that this is science fiction). From the creative, elegant opening credits to the inverted architecture...oh, yes, the movie’s a treat for the eyes. The gravitational magic trick never falters, and some effects are wonderfully subtle: when a man smokes a cigar on Floor Zero, the center of the Transworld building, the smoke roils in midair, trapped between the two gravity fields. Adam dons weighted clothes to help him move about Up Above, and when he removes them, he falls upwards and sticks to celings. There’s even a peeing joke. Watch Upside Down for the effects alone.

Just don’t expect much else. The rules of gravity may be constant but other rules are not. Contact between the worlds is so verboten that you could be arrested, have your house burned down, even be hanged for breaking the law...and yet, when the main characters are caught canoodling (more than once), they seem to get off scot free. Basically, story convenience wins out: Adam’s combustible antigravity clothes do not combust with any regularity, and Eden is of course destined to regain her lost memories at the exact point when it’s time for some backlit kissyface. Security is super-tight at Transworld, yet absolutely no one notices Adam scampering about after hours, doing highly illegal things with classified materiel. The subplot about Adam’s magical facelift cream could be its own movie, but it’s unclear as to how it works, or doesn’t work, or whether Adam’s trying to strike it rich, or whether he’s trying to stick it to the man, or where he keeps his secret stash of pink bees (snicker). The token third-act crisis when Everything Seems Hopeless is rather abruptly resolved, and the fairy tale ending is rushed and essentially discards everything that just happened, because TWOO WUV AWWAYS WINS, D’AWWWWWW. Blech. It’s romantic sludge in a setting that deserves better. Jim Sturgess also deserves better; the character of Adam is a stammering, giggling, abashed manboy with hair like a rat’s nest who is quite frankly a pain in the caboose. Kirsten Dunst is more lovable, but her Eden is so idealized she might as well be flapping her snow-white wings and tooting a golden trumpet. Luckily, the invaluable Timothy Spall is on hand to class things up as Adam’s friendly coworker. Nobody else in the movie is at all interesting.

In the end, is Upside Down a trippy sci-fi adventure? A Romeo and Juliet redux? A pointed commentary on the haves and the have-nots? A rags-to-riches tale about a boy and some pink bees (snicker)? It wants to be all these things at once. It’s best when its exploring the rules and physics of its world(s), worst when the characters are sticking their doe-eyed faces into each other’s personal space and spouting romantic goop from their pieholes. I know it’s supposed to be a timeless tale, and there’s a reason romance is always the top seller at Barnes & Noble, but that same reason is why Upside Down doesn’t quite work. Because it builds an amazing concept and then settles for the lowest common denominator. That said, I liked it. I recommend it to lovers of visually beautiful movies. Just...brace yourself for the DERP factor.

FINAL VERDICT: A squee for the effects and a big old raspberry for everything else.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Top 10 Plot Twists (pt. 2)


So I wrote a top ten list of my favorite plot twists in movies, books, TV, and games. And here’s another twist: it wasn’t enough! Sequel time! I’ve thought of a bunch more unexpected story turns that left me amazed, or stunned, or delighted, in some way. My timing is good because the new season of Game of Thrones is starting up, and soon enough, King Joffrey will get married to Margaery Tyrell, and...well, let’s just say it’s going to be yet another wedding that’ll make folks lose their shit. Can’t wait!

Please enjoy...


American Horror Story: It’s an Anthology
This first entry is very unusual, because it’s not really a plot twist per se. More like...a twist about plots? I think it belongs here because it had a similar effect on our expectations. Season One of American Horror Story wound up as it wound down, with all kinds of supernatural mayhem. Violet Harmon’s discovery that she’d been dead for several episodes was easy to telegraph, but by the season finale, the entire Harmon family had become cozy domestic ghosts. So Season Two would showcase a new family moving into the same haunted house, right? NOPE! Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk waited that long to spring the news (in between puckish cackles, I assume) that their horror show was a horror anthology and every season would tell a self-contained story all of its own. Some people whined about that (we’ll never know what happened with Jessica Lange’s adopted killer Antichrist baby!), but most were thrilled that we’d been fooled, and that AHS was going to hit us with different horror homages every year. It’s a “twist” that’s kept on giving.

Arkham City: The Joker Hires a Stand-In; Dies Anyway
I knew about this twist in advance, which kinda sucked, but enabled me to appreciate all the clues and foreshadowing. Of the many, many subplots pinballing around in Batman: Arkham City, one deals with the fact that the Joker’s dying of a virus. But...it’s the Joker! Yeah, the game perma-kills several Batman villains, but...it’s the JOKER! When he makes a miraculous comeback partway through, we’re both mystified and oddly relieved. Only, if you pay really close attention, you might guess the truth, which is that the Joker recruited the shapeshifting Clayface to impersonate him. Dun dun DUNNNN! Okay, now where’s the last-minute save? It’s...not there. Batman defeats Clayface, the last vial of antidote is lost, and the Joker dies. He fucking dies for realsies, and it’s such an unexpected thing that even Batman is left kinda traumatized. I mean, what will he do without the villain who all but defines him? It was a great swansong for Joker-voicer Mark Hamill and a great way to show how comic book rules are for the weak.

Final Fantasy X: Being Dead Is One Thing, But Imaginary?
“I’ve been dead this whole time!” An overdone twist if ever there was one. Leave it to Final Fantasy to offer a very unusual alternative within one of its typically bizarro plots. Tidus, the hero of FFX, is a spoiled athlete from the high-tech city of Zanarkand, and when the city’s destroyed, he is catapulted far into the future. Or so he thinks. Something weird is going on with poor whiny Tidus, and we don’t figure out what until very late in the game, when we learn that Tidus isn’t a ghost, he’s a fucking imaginary person. To condense an extremely convoluted explanation, there are these mystical entities known as the Fayth, human souls locked in a dreamlike stasis, and you wanna know what they’re dreaming about? Zanarkand, the long-destroyed city. And when the need arises, an individual from the dream, Tidus, is booted into the real world to be a savior. Don’t ask me how the hell it works; just know that I was delighted to have my expectations upended. Oh, and it turns out another character, Auron, really has been dead the whole time. Just in case y’all weren’t confused enough.

Identity: The Man Who Wasn’t There
Identity is a neatly underrated little horror/thriller from 2003 in which John Cusack, Ray Liotta, and a bunch of other rubes are trapped in a remote motel during a thunderstorm, and start to die horribly. Pretty typical Agatha Christie fare...only why do some of the deaths seem like improbable accidents rather than murder? And why can’t anyone leave the motel? And why is there a seemingly unrelated subplot involving a condemned murderer whose therapist is making a last-minute attempt to get him off? Did he kill the people at the motel? Nope. It’s quite simple, actually: the murderer is the people at the motel. All of them. He has multiple personality disorder and his doctor is subjecting him to a procedure intended to purge all but one identity. The people at the motel symbolize this process. It’s a great fucking reveal. The twist about who the killer is (it’s the cute little kid!) might be silly on its own, but in the overall context, it’s just the final piece in a very awesome puzzle. It’s also creepy as fuck. “As I was walking down the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there...”

InFamous: Does the Bad Guy Seem Oddly Familiar?
“I’m you from the future!” Yet another twist that’s been done to death, to the point where it’s now mostly employed as comedy. InFamous, however, took it seriously enough to effectively pull the wool over my eyes and make my jaw drop at the big post-final-boss-fight reveal. As the electro-powered Cole McGrath attempts to save (or subjugate) Fake New York City, he quickly learns that someone has been pulling his strings the whole time, puppet-mastering events to turn Cole into a tortured Jesus/Rambo figure. Main baddie Kessler, the sinister and mysterious leader of the Second Sons, knows just how to push Cole’s buttons, as well he should. Yep, he’s Cole from the future -- a future in which civilization is in ruins and Cole/Kessler has lost everyone he ever cared about. The horrible irony is that in order to avert tragedy, Kessler must cause it, turning Cole into a darker, more ruthless avenger than Kessler ever was. When Cole realizes the truth about everything, it drives home the point that there’s really nothing super about being a superhero. Reality’s too cruel.

My Teacher Flunked the Planet: There’s Only One Human Being
This extremely interesting and profound twist was well-hidden inside a children’s book. I didn’t quite get it as a kid; now I think it’s beautiful. Bruce Coville’s series about aliens disguising themselves as schoolteachers started out fluffy but got super-serious, and the fourth and final book is about no less than the fate of Humanity. Basically, an alliance of advanced alien races is considering blowing Earth to smithereens, that’s how appalled they are by the Human tendency toward violence, genocide, and self-destruction. Three Human kids have to be Earth’s defense lawyers. Tall order. But then our young heroes discover something amazing: Humans share a collective consciousness. Technically, we are a single entity in billions of bodies, but as we developed civilization, each individual body built up mental barriers, shutting itself off from the single great brain. And that’s why we as a species are such assholes: because we all know, on a subconscious level, that we are missing something crucial. That we are not alone; we are all part of the single Human Being. And if we could tear the walls back down and become a collective mind once again, we would have limitless potential. Let me reiterate that all this is in a children’s book. So let’s not condescend to kiddie lit. Well, unless it’s about lovelorn vampires.

A Night In Terror Tower: Oh, I Just Can’t Wait to Be King
More kiddie lit! Alright, the Goosebumps books were never very profound. They were kinda dumb. But author R.L. Stine did love his third-act twists; hell, he did “I’ve been dead the whole time!” long before it was cool. A Night In Terror Tower is about two American siblings, Sue and Eddie, being all touristy in London. While visiting the titular edifice, they get chased by a creepy executioner, discover alarming gaps in their memories, and travel back in time. What could it all mean??!! Maybe grown-up me could have figured it out, but ten-year-old me was blown away to learn that “Eddie” and “Sue” were Prince Edward and Princess Susannah of York, sent forward in time by a friendly sorcerer and given modified memories to spare them from a bloody coup. The discovery that our snarky modern preteens were actually medieval royals was awesome, and the TV adaptation (seen above) did a fantastic job of bringing the twist to visual life. (How convenient, that the magic spell also covered the kids’ clothing and accents!) It ain’t great art, but it gets a heap of nostalgia points.

Passage: Main Character is Perturbed to Find Herself Dead
This is kind of a distant cousin to the Chrono Trigger entry from my first list o’ twists: you don’t expect the main character of a story to get killed off two-thirds of the way through, especially when there’s no indication they’ll come back. However, Chrono did come back (in some endings, anyway), whereas the heroine of Connie Willis’s novel Passage ain’t so lucky. The book is an endearing mix of supernatural mystery and screwball comedy, as psychologist Joanna Lander struggles to unlock the secrets of near-death experiences and eventually starts inducing them via drugs. Startlingly, her own NDEs all involve being aboard the Titanic, which turns out to be a metaphor for the body’s attempt to save itself. But then Joanna dies. Permanently. For realsies. Only she keeps on existing within the narrative, because the book’s final act gets into metaphysical territory that’s actually pretty cool. When you’re done, you realize that the whole book was about Joanna’s death, in one way or another. This is why people read books more than once.

Star Trek TNG: See You In 500 Years
I find this twist just...sweet. Simple, yet profound in a personal way. It’s basically the culmination of the unique relationship between Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise, and Guinan, the centuries-old alien bartender. Guinan is never hugely important to the plot, but her wisdom and sense of humor make her a great recurring character and she hints that something very special exists between her and Picard. All is revealed in a two-part episode (“Time’s Arrow”) during which the Enterprise crew visits 19th-century San Francisco. See, Guinan happened to be living there at the time, and thus, the first “meeting” between her and Picard took place after Picard had known her future self for some time. Thus, Guinan spent centuries knowing she was destined to become Picard’s friend. It’s an entirely character-driven twist and the relationship between said characters is so understated, yet so effective. I wish Whoopi Goldberg hadn’t sunk her own career in kiddie bullshit, because she’s good. She’s goooood.

The X-Files: Leonard Wants a New Big Brother
Well, this final twist ain’t profound, but what the hell, I like it anyway. In “Humbug,” a classic episode of our favorite 90s cult sci-fi procedural, Mulder and Scully visit a town populated by ex-circus performers, some of whom are getting killed and mutilated. Best rogue’s gallery ever, dude! Is it the bearded lady? The tattooed creep who eats raw fish? The Fiji Mermaid? What about the alcoholic bellhop with the dead conjoined twin attached to his torso? Well, we’re getting warmer, actually. In a gross and creative twist, the killer is, in fact, the conjoined twin, whose name is Leonard and who tears himself loose from his big bro to prowl the night. The bellhop is dying, see, and Leonard only desires a new person to cling to. Too bad it’s an impossible dream. Family really is everything, I guess. Seriously, WTF. This twist is so bizarre that I had to put it here. The X-Files could be great that way; I prefer stuff like this to black oil and conspiracies.

Okay, time to fess up. These are all my least favorite twists. I hate them all. Fooled you! No, not really. Um, I’m actually not Dang-Blasted. I’m his long-lost Hungarian cousin, and I killed him and stole his identity. No? Not buying it? Plot twists are hard to pull off, which is why I love it so much when a work of fiction manages to fool me. I honestly don’t mind if people skip this list, because maybe then they can be fooled too. Fooled in the best of ways.