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Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Glimpse of the Future: A First Look at FlashForward

by Gary Westfahl

If nothing else, watching "No More Good Days," the first episode of the new ABC television series FlashForward, suggests why many people who are devoted to science fiction literature and film pay little attention to science fiction television; for even more so than films, television regularly displays a visceral aversion to all aspects of the genre that make it uniquely interesting.

Series creators and producers Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer did begin promisingly by purchasing the rights to a novel by a noteworthy science fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer's Flashforward (1999); however, when the new paperback edition of the book says only that it was the "Inspiration for the Hit ABC TV series," one realizes immediately that the series will not be a faithful adaptation. True, the series employs the basic premise of the novel: everyone on Earth blacks out for about two minutes and has visions of their futures. And the experiences of certain characters in the novel are replicated: a woman sees herself with a man other than her current partner; a widely separated man and woman have the same vision of the two of them together; and one man sees nothing at all, leading to the grim conclusion that he must be dead in the future.

However, science fiction stories often focus on the drama of investigating mysterious phenomena in the universe, and accordingly employ scientists as protagonists — in the case of Flashforward (the book), physicist Lloyd Simcoe, colleague Theo Procopides, and Simcoe's fiancée, engineer Michiko Kumora, who work at CERN's Large Hadron Collider and immediately deduce that its high-energy experiment aimed at detecting the Higgs boson somehow must have caused the blackouts and the visions. But one can readily imagine television executives blanching at such a scenario: "A hit television series about scientists? Who live in Switzerland? Give me a break!" Instead, Brannon and Goyer prudently replaced Simcoe, Procopides, and Kumora with two FBI agents based in Los Angeles, Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) and Demitri Noh (John Cho), who are assigned to investigate the FlashForward, and Benford's wife Olivia (Sonya Wagner), a beautiful surgeon who works at a local hospital. Thus, if the obvious resonances with Lost were not sufficiently persuasive, producers could endeavor to sell the series by exclaiming, "It's 24 Meets Grey's Anatomy!" And focusing a series on the conflict between humans and a cosmos reluctant to yield its secrets would never do; instead, the conflict must be between good guys and bad guys. Hence, while in the novel all video and audio records of what occurred during the blackouts are blank, the series allows one character to survey all such records and find a video of a single man walking around a baseball stadium during the blackout — a man immediately labeled "Suspect Zero" who creates the exciting possibility that the FlashForward was all some sort of strange terrorist plot. (Did I mention 24?) And don't hold your breath waiting for any intriguing scientific ideas regarding what might have caused the phenomenon; for while this episode does briefly mention NASA investigating "solar flares" and other possible factors, the scientific explanation most emphatically presented in the episode is that it was all the work of God.

One might also wonder why the visions in the novel, which were of life twenty or so years in the future, were replaced in the series by visions of life only six months in the future. Well, for one thing, the change lays the groundwork for a thrilling first-season finale in which characters advance to the moment of their visions and finally discover if they were accurate or not (and, if the series is renewed, to presumably experience, as in the novel, some sort of second FlashForward). In addition, the characters in the novel reported observing some new household technologies and learning about new political developments, which might be too disconcerting for a mass audience, so having visions that are only six months ahead allowed producers to present images of a future that is identical to the present — precisely the sort of future that most people prefer to envision.

Still, like the visions experienced by these characters, a first episode of a series provides only a fleeting glimpse into its future; no one watching "The Man Trap," the first aired episode of Star Trek, could have predicted that the series would become an enduring monument in popular culture, and there are reasons to hope that FlashForward might eventually offer viewers some "good days" — or at least, some better days than this one. David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga have track records in writing and producing science fiction film and television which suggest that they are capable of rewarding work in the genre, and the first episode includes characters seen only briefly who will be more fully developed in later episodes and may take the series in more interesting directions than ongoing efforts to track down the evil terrorists who might be responsible for the FlashForward. Suffice it to say that I'm willing to give this series a second look, which is more than I would say about most of the television series I've encountered in recent years.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — and the second edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature.

"No More Good Days." FlashForward. New York: ABC-TV, September 24, 2009.

Series created and produced by Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, "inspired" by the novel Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

Episode directed by David S. Goyer

Episode written by David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga

Series starring Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Sonya Wagner, Zachary Kingston, Jack Davenport, Dominic Monaghan, Peyton List, Brian O'Byrne, Christine Woods, Courtney B. Vance, and Bryce Robinson

Official Website: - FlashForward


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person Review 9

Both: Given the visuals and origin of 9, we had high hopes for this. High enough that we felt it wise to dial those expectations down several notches before seeing it, lest we be disappointed.

We didn't dial them down far enough.

Lawrence Person: I've been looking forward to this movie for two years. As for why, before I can talk about 9 the feature film, I have to talk about 9 the short film.

The original short film is a real masterpiece. Clocking in at just over nine minutes, it told, in non-linear fashion and without words, the story of a horrible mechanical thing hunting small canvas bag people and stealing their souls, and the efforts of the titular protagonist to fight it. It was clever, original, beautiful to look at, utterly gripping, filled with pathos, terror, wonder, and the sense of a fascinating back-story beyond the boundaries of the film's frame. It was a worthy nominee for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and after seeing it, Tim Burton gave creator/animator/writer/director Shane Acker the go-ahead to turn the short into the feature film.

Parts of 9 the feature film retain the short film's virtues, but much of the rest falls woefully short of the magic of the original.

Howard Waldrop: This reminds me of nothing so much as Hugh Harmen's Academy Award-nominated 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth, as done by a creepy stop-motion iconoclast like Ladislaw Starewicz or Jan Svankmajer. (Warning: 3 seconds of full frontal animated clay nudity in that link.)

The surviving intelligences of a machine-human war seem to be sewn together with burlap 'toe sacks, and have been made in a series. The film is about all of them and their world, but mostly concerns 9.

The CGI is excellent. I was stuck in a D-Box seat; even that didn't detract from the movie. (It starts out quietly, but soon there are enough sounds and explosions to please the worst gamer who ever was or ever could be.)

LP: The look of the film is truly gorgeous, and hats off to Acker and the CGI team at Focus Films (or their subcontractors). If the jury-rigged, burnished, Steampunk-by-way-of-World War II look of the film appeals to you, it might very well be worth seeing merely on that basis alone. In this it's a lot like MirrorMask: the visuals are much more interesting and original than the plot. But anyone working in visual arts or computer animation will get more than their money's worth out of the ticket price.

And the first ten minutes of the films are very effective, with our tiny protagonist waking up in a half-destroyed house with no memory, no voice, and no idea what's going on.

HW: 9, by (his?) arrival, upsets the status quo (which seems to be Run and Hide). He first meets 2, then ends up with 1, the leader of the group. There's also a Mord the Executioner equivalent (8), who looks like a Golem, or burlap version of Bibendum, the Michelin Man.

LP: They live in an abandoned cathedral over which 1 rules in his pope hat and robe with all the subtlety of Jonathan Edwards and none of his better lines. There's also what appears to be a World War II-era bomber (possibly a B-24) from the final war against the machines crashed into the cathedral, which tells you very quickly that 9's world is not our own. (That, and the alchemical trappings, make it very clear that this is A Fable and not science fiction. And speaking of fables, there's an explicit shout-out to The Wizard of Oz.)

HW: Because 9 is inquisitive and naïve, things begin to go very badly very quickly. We meet the rest of the group while their world starts falling apart. Big problem: A dormant factory once used to manufacture war machines comes back on line: soon everywhere is covered with bio-mechanical versions of raptors, spiders and less-classified things. Some of them are right out of Bosch and Breughel (and, like Bosch, the director has a Thing for knives...).

LP: Some of the monsters are very imaginative. The first one we meet (a mecho-skeletal horror known only as "The Beast"), is the one from the short film, and is every bit as menacing here, and possibly even more so in its reborn form as a sort of canvas hypnoworm with some truly evil adaptive camouflage . But beyond The Beast, most of the monsters here seem to owe some degree of debt to machine intelligences in The Matrix movies, right down to the multiple glowing red eyes.

HW: There's some pretty exciting stuff here; it's repeated often enough you want something else to happen. Eventually, it does.

LP: The struggles between the 9's brethren and their mechanical foes start out quite gripping (especially given how tiny our heroes are; all of them easily fit inside a single army helmet), but quickly grow repetitive. As do the circular arguments between 1 and 9.

HW: I wasn't bored; I was somewhat let down by the last ten minutes, a sort of feel-better-about-things-coda, like the last scenes of a John Ford cavalry movie where all the dead soldiers ride across the sky...

LP: The worst thing about the film is the dialog, which falls utterly flat in almost every scene. This is something of a shock, since screenplay writer Pamela Pettler did a much better job in both Corpse Bride and Monster House.

Even more surprising is the somewhat lackluster voice acting in many of the scenes, especially given the quality of actors assembled here. Jennifer Connelly has fun (and the best lines) in her role, and Martin Landau and John C. Reilly bring their diminutive characters to life. But Elijah Wood and Christopher Plummer are allowed to get away with generally unsubtle, one-note performances, and I think Acker has to take the blame here, as both have done much better. (One of the many similarities with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, another labor-of-love feature debut by an animator-turned-director.)

HW: Good thing I wasn't 8 years old when I saw this. I would think it was one of the best movies ever made and would be looking for more just like it. Because I'm all grown up, I know better.

LP: This is another film I really wanted to be great, or at least very good, and it just turned out OK. It's short and reasonably entertaining, but far less original and emotionally involving than I had hoped. Howard's right: This is a great movie for the 8-12 year old set, much like Monster House, but like that film, the menace and violence may be too intense for younger viewers. (And unlike Monster House, it wasn't marketed as a YA film.) Teenagers may enjoy it too, but many adult viewers are likely to find that the non-visual aspects have a ho-hum, by-the-numbers quality to them. You've seen this plot too many times before. And the ending is more than a little sappy. (Though not as irritating as The Last Mimzy.)

If you haven't already seen the short film, you might want to see the feature film first, because just about everything good about the feature film is contained in the short film, with none of the irritations. (But either way, you should see the short film; it's still great.)

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Shane Acker

Written by Pamela Pettler (script) and Shane Acker (story)

Starring the voice talent of Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover , Jennifer Connelly, Fred Tatasciore, Alan Oppenheimer, Tom Kane, Helen Wilson

Official Website: 9 | Film Overview

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