Tag Archives: science-fiction

Why Rogue One is more historical drama than sci-fi – and all the better for it

18 Dec
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Felicity Jones leads the way in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story

Director Gareth Edwards has said he wants Rogue One: a Star Wars Story to be considered a heist movie as much as science-fiction. Actually, it occurred to me it was more like a historical drama.

Of course all the events in Star Wars do play out in the past, relative to our Earth (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). But Rogue One, unlike The Force Awakens, is also set in 1977 – or rather, whatever vision of an alternative world George Lucas was able to come up with in 1977, which is always dictated by the times. Look at any sci-fi film, and despite the attempts of futurity, you can always tell exactly when it was made. Lucas’s genius was to make his world pre-distressed, so that it seemed relatively ageless  but you’re still aware of the hydraulic whirrs on the machinery, the primitive (by now) recording systems that lie at the heart of Rogue One’s plot, the minimalist colour schemes that (like in Logan’s Run and Lucas’s own THX 1138) passed for futuristic in the ‘70s.

Edwards has recreated this world meticulously, so that it slots in seamlessly with the original trilogy. But just as BBC historical dramas sometimes get straitened and stifled by their corsets, there was always a danger he would follow the template too slavishly, to give us the Star Wars formula with none of the fun.

Instead, it’s a minor triumph. Rogue One is funny, exciting, moving, brilliantly acted, with plenty of surprises, and very much Gareth Edwards’ own.

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Arrakis me quick: my four Guardian features on the 50th anniversary of Dune

18 Jul
Baron Harkonnen by Sam Weber, for the Folio Society's 50th anniversary edition of Dune

Baron Harkonnen by Sam Weber, for the Folio Society’s 50th anniversary edition of Dune

When I was a kid, I packed a book in my lunchbox every day: always science-fiction or fantasy. To this day when I smell bananas I think of spaceships. I’d get so wrapped up in a book I’d read it not just on the bus, but walking along the street to the bus, like people do now with phones. I got through so many sci-fi books that one day I found I’d read the library dry. I just went back and started re-reading them all.

Recently, I found a purpose for all this useless knowledge: the Guardian commissioned me to write a series of articles about Dune, for the Folio Society’s special 50th anniversary edition. I hadn’t just read the book five times as a kid – I’d won a Mastermind-style contest at prep school with Dune as my special subject. So writing the intro piece, about how Frank Herbert had initially been rejected by 23 publishers, was a blast.

I also had to compile and review 25 top works of sci-fi and fantasy. I found I had read all but two of them (and with those I had seen the films), which simplified research somewhat. Nice to have my misspent youth coming in handy.

But my favourite piece was an idea I had, that they weren’t sure about until I wrote it: a travel guide to Dune, written as though for the discerning intergalactic traveller of the future.

Throw in a picture gallery and interview with Sam Weber, the amazing illustrator of the Folio Society’s prestige edition, and you have one of my favourite commissions of recent times.

I’m only sorry I didn’t get to write about the Dune film. But I did interview David Lynch a while back, and you can read that here.

If you’re a Dune fan, I hope you enjoy these articles – just click the links above. If you’re not – why not?!

Gravity: just out of this world

21 Nov

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Seeing Gravity, late, now comes with crushing expectations: it’s got more stars than the Hubble telescope, an IMDB ranking at 59th of all time.

To me, it exceeded them all. If you go – and you should – do see it in IMAX. Expensive? They could have charged me £100 and I’d have thought it worth the ticket.

CGI seldom impresses any more: we expect the impossible. But damn – George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are actually floating. Those space stations are actually exploding. It feels as real as that first train did to terrified early audiences.

The camera-work is vertiginously virtuoso: long, long takes (the first is 17 minutes; take that, Orson!), drifting and revolving as we follow the space-walkers in their suits, spinning round until we’re inside the helmet looking out with them. (As Ender’s Game observes, there is no “up” in space.) This is what happens when you take a great art-movie director  like Alfonso Cuarón and give him a Hollywood blockbuster’s tool-box to play with.

David Hare is not a fan. In a talk I attended at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, he blasted: “Gravity is a film in which, from beginning to end, nobody says a single interesting thing. You think, ‘hang on, this film is at the cutting edge, you’ve spent $80 million for digital effects; it might be worth spending a quarter of that on someone who could write dialogue, not just spaghetti Bolognese coming out of their mouths.’”

I can’t agree. It’s simple, and it’s affecting. A little too patly “Hollywood” in its character arc perhaps – without spoiling anything for those who haven’t yet seen it, the emotional key-line is “you have to learn to let go” – but I was still literally on the edge of my seat throughout, I still cried at the end. Even if my tears didn’t drift away in shiny silver globules like Sandra Bullock’s.

Cuarón, incidentally, deserves major credit for sticking to his guns: the studio wanted Bullock’s character to be a man.  Well, we’re up to $527,756,931 and still counting. With Bridesmaids having re-written the rules for female comedy (it’s the highest grossing of all Judd Apatow movies), this may be the defining moment when Hollywood finally catches up with the music industry, and realises that women can take the lead.

Though hopefully not naked and perched on top of a wrecking ball.

The Fallen: 18-year-old Brit makes sci-fi flick

20 Aug

 

I was impressed by the trailer (above) for micro-budget Brit sci-fi flick The Fallen. It had action scenes and explosions and hundreds of alien spaceships hanging in the air, as Douglas Adams once memorably wrote, in exactly the same way that bricks don’t. I was even more impressed when I discovered that its director, Rupert Rixon, is only 18, wtf. So I kept an eye out for the finished product.

Now the first episode in this ambitious six-parter, which together will add up to feature-film length, has finally been uploaded to YouTube (click here). Given the director’s age and the tiny budget (for their most expensive battle scene they managed to dig trenches, set off explosions, fire machine-guns and kit out actors in army uniform for just £600), it’s enormously impressive: pacey, well directed, making excellent use of derelict areas and buildings across England to give it that post-apocalyptic feel. Give Rixon a few years and a good producer, and you could expect him to be beating Hollywood at their own game.

And yet it doesn’t deliver on the trailer’s promise. The sound quality is atrocious, which is hard to forgive. And you wish as much thought had gone into the initial script as it clearly did into the filming.

A sci-fi or fantasy film only works if the alternate world it creates is credible, if it feels real. Lord of the Rings or Dune or even Harry Potter endure not just because of story and character, but because so much thought has gone into the economics, politics and language of their worlds. Here, we are told in an opening voice-over that most of Earth’s water has been sucked out by aliens, leading to global famine. It’s not thought through. Bottle-caps are used for money, which in itself makes no sense; a handful of caps is apparently fortune enough to provoke an armed fight at a poker table, yet 30cl of water costs 120. Humans need a litre per day.

The characters’ motivations, too, are frequently unclear or downright unconvincing; not least when a man running from machine-gun-toting baddies lights his way with a flare, which may look good on film but is not recommended for evading nocturnal pursuit. (Mind you, M did much the same at the end of Skyfall, and she’s meant to be the spy of spies.) And so far there’s not an original or surprising line of dialogue.

Does all this matter? You may think not, on YouTube. It’s free, it’s short, the audience maybe don’t expect so much. Comments so far have all been positive. But it doesn’t cost any more to think these things through, so why not do it? And if you feel this is harsh on an 18-year-old, it is I hope a mark of respect for Rupert Rixon’s prodigious potential that I am criticising The Fallen as I might a “proper” film.

Lessons for would-be film-makers? Get a proper sound recordist/mixer, and a decent script-editor. They will do your film far more good than the latest state-of-the-art digital camera that most directors get their rocks off on.

But the more important lesson is – just do it. You can’t complain you don’t have the right contacts, the right financing, the right breaks, the right training, when an 18-year-old can get out there and make a full-length sci-fi feature armed with little more than vision, determination and a giant pair of clanking brass balls.