Ooh

Guillermo del Toro will be directing The Hobbit.

Guillermo del Toro has officially signed up to direct The Hobbit, according to reports leaking out from a film premiere in France. The Pan’s Labyrinth creator will oversee a double-bill of films based on JRR Tolkien’s fantasy adventure, which paved the way for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, director of the Oscar-winning Rings trilogy, will serve as executive producer.

Interesting choice. I can actually see this being better than if Jackson was directing, in some ways.

P.S. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — best new show of the 07/08 tv season? I love me some Pushing Daisies, but Sarah Connor is actual science fiction, so I am biased towards it. Particularly when they have John Connor mention the singularity.

Beowulf

A quick post about this, mainly because Abigail said the other day that Beowulf “looks like the unholy love child of The Polar Express and 300” and, having seen it, I think this is a trifle unfair. Beowulf is better than The Polar Express because its characters almost never look like creepy soulless automata — the motion-capture definitely has an easier time of it with closeups, older characters and characters in motion than it does with distance shots, young characters, or as Roz Kaveney notes, moments of repose, but there are still long stretches when you forget about the technology and are absorbed into the story.

And Beowulf is better than 300 because, well, just about every film ever made is better than 300, but specifically because it has characters for the motion capture to distract you from, not to mention action sequences that aren’t pure tedium and a healthy sense of its own ridiculousness. With the exception of the truly bizarre cheeseboard of accents (it’s very nearly worth the price of admission to hear Ray Winstone’s cockney hard-man delivery of “I am Beowulf, and I’m here to kill yer monstah!”), the film is not a comedy by any stretch of the imagination. It is a film about manly men doing manly things — this Beowulf is basically the Jack Bauer of the early middle ages — but it’s still a film that knows full well when it’s being OTT and winks at the viewer just enough to make it all fun. When Our Hero is swallowed by a sea monster and then bursts its single, giant eyeball from inside its skull, for instance, the moment is almsot immediately undercut by the people listening to Beowulf relate his tale. ([Sceptic] “How many was it you killed, again? Twenty?” [Beowulf, frostily] “Nine.” [Beowulf’s comrade, sotto voce] “Last time it was three.”)

The point is also made more than once that Beowulf is not entirely sane; and there are other, occasional serious moments that lift the whole, such as the confrontation in which a diminished, worn King Beowulf basically dares a captured Frisian invader to kill him. The Frisian wavers, of course, and Beowulf, dismissively, tells his men to “given him a coin and let him go. Now he has a story to tell.” It’s such moments that remind you that this story is actually about things that matter; about power and heroism and reputation and the slow passing of an age. None of which gets in the way of the greatest reason why I’m quite happy having spent time and money watching Beowulf: the stupendously realised dragon in the final act, and the even more stupendously realised action sequence featuring said dragon. I have been waiting a long time to see a convincing dragon on the big screen, and had thought I was going to have to wait until they got around to making The Hobbit, but Beowulf scratched the itch good and proper. What can I say? Sometimes I’m shallow.

A Conversation About 28 Weeks Later

The following discussion was recorded after going to Sci-Fi London’s screening of 28 Weeks Later last Sunday. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d suggest proceeding with caution, not so much because there are spoilers — though there are — as because our ramblings aren’t likely to make much sense. If you want actual reviews, here’s the New York Times (liked it) and here’s The Guardian (not so much). Otherwise, enjoy!

Graham: Welcome to this week’s installment of The Third Row Discuss, featuring —

Tom: Theme music!

Ian: Zombies! Arrrrgh.

Graham: — we have just been to see 28 Weeks Later at the Sci-Fi London film festival, my name’s Niall Harrison —

Tom: It’s Sunday the 6th of May, 21:36, Officer Harrison presiding.

Graham: So. It was about zombies!

Ian: It was about zombies.

Tom: But was it really about zombies?

Ian: Yes.

Tom: No.

Ruth: No, it was about people fucking up.

Ian: OK, it was about the military.

Tom: It was about the American military fucking up. And therefore it was about zombies!

Graham: Although for most of the film, the American military intervention was depicted as a positive thing.

Ian: Yes — they were doing their damn best to fix the problem, to fix the infrastructure and set everyone up on the Isle of Dogs. And then they fucked up.

Graham: I’m just thinking: could there possibly be an Iraq metaphor here?

Ian: I think the issue is that it wasn’t the military intervention that was the problem, it was the civilian imperatives that caused the problem — the military weren’t able to cope with the problem because of the civilian requirements. That was the major issue.

Tom: Was it? Surely the problem was that the military response was stupid.

Graham: Or at least disproportionate.

Ian: They brought too many civilians back too early.

Tom: And centralised them, yeah. And did it in a city. Which is quite a difficult place to control.

Niall: But looked quite cool. Which I think is possibly not to be underestimated when considering the development of this film.

Tom: If the whole thing was set near Stanstead Airport — which would be a really sensible place to house refugees — it wouldn’t have looked nearly so cool.

Graham: They were going for all the London landmarks that Russell T. Davies hadn’t yet trashed. (And by the way, I’d like a bet on that Wembley Stadium will have appeared in Doctor Who before the year is out.)

Tom: So can I just check — when did 28 Days Later come out? [2002 — Ed.] Because Wembley Stadium wasn’t finished when it came out. So how did it get finished in the meantime? Zombie builders?

Niall: OK, step back. Was the film GOOD or BAD?

Ian: Good.

Ruth: Good.

Graham: Good, within the bounds of its genre.

Tom: Yeah.

Niall: Yeah, I would have quite happily watched the film about rebuilding the UK after the events of 28 Days Later that didn’t turn into another zombie film, but that wasn’t the film they wanted to make.

Tom: I would too.

Ian: I was hoping that there weren’t going to be any zombies in it.

Graham: But it’s like expecting Sunshine not to suddenly pick off the crew one by one.

Niall: Well, not quite, because I was expecting this to turn into a zombie film, whereas I wasn’t expecting Sunshine to turn into a slasher film.

Ian: That is possibly why it would have been awesome if it hadn’t. It would have been great if we as the audience were expecting at every turn zombies to pop up … and they just didn’t.

Ruth: I like the way at the start, you see the attack on the farmhouse and you think that’s already the 28 weeks later.

Niall: The start did a really good job of reminding us that fast zombies are fucking terrifying.

Ruth: Yes. Although in this they could come out in daylight, and I’m pretty sure in the original they could only come out at night.

Tom: Wasn’t it vice versa? They hid during the day and only went out at night?

Ruth: Are you sure?

Tom: No.

Graham: It’s perfectly plausible for the zombies to have evolved —

Tom: Well …

Graham: — given the film’s approach to genetics, which Tom is about to expand on.

Tom: No, I don’t think there’s any point going over the film’s technical flaws. Because it’s a blockbuster, it has lots of them, and you just have to live with them.

Ian: Well, about the people not succumbing to the symptoms for whatever reason — that happens. People can be carriers, is the basic idea.

Tom: So the dad — Don — why was he infected and chasing them? Why was he different to a normal zombie?

Graham: Because he’s played by a lead actor.

Ian: He wasn’t that different to a normal zombie, he just happened to be following them and was particularly successful at doing so.

Tom: But not at very high speed. And didn’t seem to close in for the kill.

Graham: On another note — Doyle, the soldier, I kept thinking all the way through, “This is a Nathan Fillion part”. You know, non-nonsense, gruff, conscience …

Tom: I see what you mean. He talked a bit like him, too.

[And I’ve just remembered where I’ve seen him before: he’s Jeremy Renner, aka Penn — Ed.]

Niall: A thought: are there any zombie films that are not idiot plots? I was thinking about this, because clearly, for the plot of this film to happen there needs to be a lot of idiocy. But it’s plausible idiocy — idiocy of sentimentality, when Robert Carlyle goes to visit his wife after they find her, idiocy of military overreaction contributing to the situation getting out of hand.

Tom: Yes, both those are horribly plausible.

Graham: And idiocy of not figuring out that Robert Carlyle has an ID card that lets him in to see his wife.

Tom: Well, hang on, the idiocy is that his access all areas maintenance pass gets him into the most serious biohazard areas in the base. Which don’t have guards, incidentally. And aren’t covered by CCTV.

Ian: Basic rule: never kiss tongues with a zombie. Or with someone who might be a zombie.

Niall: What was going on with the helicopter in Regent’s Park ploughing through those zombies?

Tom: Reinforced blades, perhaps?

Ian: Yeah, I don’t really think that would work.

Ruth: Obviously it’s a secret military helicopter that has special technology.

Tom: Also, the distances were slightly annoying. They’re in the Isle of Dogs, and then they escape, and — they get picked up in Regent’s Park? Because it’s … the nearest large open space? So Mile End park, Victoria Park, City Airport itself … they’re no good?

Graham: Nah, Jubilee line to Baker Street and you can walk from there.

Tom: And then the guy says — can’t pick you up in Regent’s Park any more, for some reason I’m not clear on, so you’ll have to go to Wembley! Because that’s nice and close.

Ian: They were going for landmarks.

Tom: But it would have been so easy to do that without getting them wrong. But you’re right, complaining about that is like complaining about the helicopter blades or …

Graham: So, why did they make this film? What elemental truth were they trying to show us?

Tom: If you make a zombie film, people will go and see it and pay money to do so.

Ian: Yes.

Ruth: Maybe they wanted to answer the question about what happened to the rest of the world, which was left hanging.

Niall: How did the first film end? I can’t remember.

Ian: They were in a field with a banner, and we saw aircraft flying over.

Tom: And you can hear radio chatter from the plane and it’s in Finnish. Or so I read on Wikipedia.

Ian: And we saw all the zombies dying of starvation.

Ruth: So you knew that people survived outside the UK.

Ian: They were falling over in the streets, like “rrrgh! Urrk!”

Graham: That’s not going to come over well on the transcript. But thank you.

Ian: [Closer to the microphone]: AAAARGK! RRRAGH! UAARRK!

Niall: At this point we need a third militarised-dystopian-Britain film, to make a trilogy with this and Children of Men.

Tom: I was getting some Children of Men vibes — in particular, save the children because they have the genetic potential to save humanity, and the firebombing of the refugees. So we need a third film with bombing of refugees.

Ruth: Well, I’ll look forward to that …

Ian: This didn’t have the feelgood happy ending of Children of Men, though.

Graham: Can we have the invasion of Britain film that is a rom-com?

Ian: No.

Niall: Why would we want to watch that?

Graham: You know, another rom-zom-com. Zombies find love amidst the ruins.

Tom: Or possibly a romantic comedy about the English civil war — a rom-crom-com.

Niall: Presumably 28 Months Later

Tom: — and then 28 years later, 28 decades later … 28 kalpas later, the Stephen Baxter far-future installment!

Ian: 28 Months Later will presumably have mainland Europe, Africa and Asia are all destroyed by zombies, and America’s still strong!

Graham: But Australia would be isolated, so it would be a rom-pom-com.

Tom: I hate you so much. But you could probably contain the zombies in Europe. You could protect Africa because all you have to do is hold the Suez canal and Gibraltar.

Graham: If we want stories about the spread of a global epidemic, Blood Music by Greg Bear is a really good example.

Tom: Although not quite the same situation.

Ian: I suppose Twelve Monkeys is somewhat similar.

Tom: Twelve Monkeys Later?

Ruth: That would be the next one.

Graham: Visually, the thing that sits with me isn’t so much the zombies, but just that once in a while you see the figure silhouetted in the distance, and it’s Robert Carlyle in zombie state.

Ian: I think they possibly overused the fact that he was extra-terrifying because he was, like, their dad, but I’ll forgive them for it.

Niall: There was also a lot of use of sniper-scopes and similar, which was very effective.

Ian: The scene going down into the underground was terrifying.

Ruth: It was.

Graham: I got a bit bored of that — it seemed to me to be going on too long. We knew damn well they were going to get down there.

Tom: That sniper-scope thing … have you seen that in films before? It’s an active infra-red scope, which looks very different to a light intensifier, because you have those glowing eyes.

Graham: Climax of The Silence of the Lambs?

Ruth: Yes, she has those reflecting eyes.

Tom: Because the only other place I’ve heard of it recently is on a Paris Hilton sex tape. Which has the eyes. I haven’t actually seen this, but I heard that it was done.

Graham: M’lud.

Tom: Let the record show. It’s just funny … apparently, I read, it’s now a big trend in gonzo porn, to use active infra-red.

Graham: Can we steer the topic away from gonzo porn and towards the happier subject of zombies killing everyone? Actually, the other very specific reference I felt was when they’re heading into the safe zone on the DLR at the start of the film, with the voice telling them everything will be OK — it’s the opening sequence of Half-Life.

Niall: I did like seeing the DLR used as a refugee train. I mean, it’s another London shout-out, but it was a nice touch.

Tom: Because the DLR is run by computers, so it’s almost the one thing you could easily get running if you didn’t have humans.

[At this point, we paused to consume food. There was further discussion, but alas, it was not recorded. We attempted to summarise the important points.]

Ian: So, what we were saying? Zombie movies, subgenre of survival horror, humans are stupid. There you go.

Niall: Humans vs. undifferentiated mass, weak link, and so on.

Tom: There is always a dopey bird who does something stupid for her boyfriend. Except sometimes it’s a man. In the remake of Day of the Dead, there’s the man who’s keeping his zombie wife alive — he’s the equivalent. But I do think they tend to exploit female sentimentality very often.

Niall: Did anyone know anything about the film going in, in terms of the structure? Because — like you said, Ruth, I thought it was already 28 weeks later, and then everyone fucking died. Apart from Robert Carlyle. But even the kid! I wasn’t expecting them all to die so quickly.

Tom: Although the clues were there, because they were clearly still worried about zombies — at first I thought it was just Robert Carlyle and his wife, going through the cupboards of this house, trying to survive. Which I’m sure was intentional.

Ian: Yes, especially since the zombies died at the end of 28 Days Later.

Niall: But it does build up to that moment where they open the door and it’s bright light outside, when you’d thought it was night. I think in the end the film goes into the roll of “sequels that are worth seeing but are obviously not as good as the originals.” Because it did find some new ways to do abandoned Britain shots, but a lot of it was repetition. The Regent’s Park carousel was a nice image, for instance.

Graham: Except not in Regent’s Park. Clearly in a field in the middle of Berkshire.

Niall: That’s because they can’t actually let Regent’s Park run wild for six months.

Ian: There were a lot of shots of “oh my god, it’s London! And it’s empty! Again!” But that is cool.

Ruth: They weren’t as effective as in the first one.

Ian: But the start of 28 Days Later was so awesome, they couldn’t replicate that. Although firebombing the Isle of Dogs was quite good.

Niall: The use of aerial shots was quite good because it built up to the firebombing. You’d have these flat overhead shots, and we’ve seen those in lots of films —

Graham: — and Torchwood!

Niall: — and then they used the same shots for the firebombing of the Isle of Dogs, which I thought was really effective.

Ruth: It also reminded me of The Apprentice

Tom: In terms of imagery … I think this is similar to what Philip Pullman said about the way he writes books, when he came to talk to OUSFG many years ago. He doesn’t start with a plot, he starts with a series of images he likes and then figures out how to link them together. And that’s exactly what this film was, which is why it makes no sense at all.

Ian: “Should have put that in the original film — oh well, I’ll put it in a flashback.”

Sci-Fi London

This past weekend was the sixth Sci-Fi London film festival; I didn’t go to as many films as usual, primarily because I don’t think the programme was as interesting as it has sometimes been. (Which is to say there was no Primer this year.) Still, not a wasted weekend: on Friday, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex — Solid State Society looked and sounded fabulous, even if, having not seen any other Ghost in the Shell ever, I had very little idea what was going on. On Saturday, The Mars Underground was, as expected, pure Mars-porn, and left me wanting to read Voyage and the Mars trilogy again. And on Sunday, the shorts programme was, as ever, a mixed bag — my favourites were “Victor Y La Maquina”, which was funny and touching and stylish, and “Coming to Town”, which starts out Wrong and gets Wronger (you can watch it here) — while 28 Weeks Later is, on balance, worth seeing, although inevitably suffers somewhat from diminishing returns syndrome. (Those of us who went to see the latter had a post-film discussion that with any luck I managed to record; I’ll try to sort out a transcript by the end of the week.) Also on Sunday, of course, was the quiz, where the oh-so-modestly named Team Awesome managed to trounce all comers, most importantly the SFX posse. (More accurately, perhaps, Graham and Paul answered most of the questions, and the rest of us ate muffins.) Magnanimous lot that we are, though, we invited them to join us in St James’ park to drink through the drinkable part of our winnings (a crate of the ubiquitous Cobra Beer), and proceeded to geek about Heroes, Drive, and other such things.

What’s next? Everything I haven’t had the mental energy to tackle over the past few weeks, plus a couple of other things. (It’s amazing — or perhaps not — how comprehensively the Clarke had been dominating my thoughts.) I need to get some of the content from V251 up onto the website (any requests?); I need to work on a piece for Scalpel; I need to plan Wiscon and related antics (including the vital questions: do I attempt karaoke, and if so what do I sing?); I’m going to see A Matter of Life and Death on Wednesday, and have the film to watch at some point as well. Oh yes: and to celebrate having decided one award, I’m immediately going to try to read the shortlist for another, which may or may not lead to reviews. Have I missed anything?

The Links Our Stuff Is Made Of

1. News from Novacon: Convoy is dead; long live Contemplation.

2. Is there a backlash against Year’s Best books? See recent reviews by Dan Hartland and Paul Kincaid. In the meantime, Jonathan Strahan has announced the table of contents for the book I’ve been waiting for, his Nightshade Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy:

1. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman
2. “El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle
3. “I, Row-Boat” by Cory Doctorow
4. “In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages
5. “Another Word for Map is Faith” by Christopher Rowe*
6. “Under Hell, Over Heaven” by Margo Lanagan
7. “Incarnation Day” by Walter Jon Williams
8. “The Night Whiskey” by Jeffrey Ford
9. “A Siege of Cranes” by Benjamin Rosenbaum*
10. “Halfway House” by Frances Hardinge
11. “The Bible Repairman” by Tim Powers
12. “Yellow Card Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi*
13. “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” (Fantasy) by Geoff Ryman*
14. “The American Dead” by Jay Lake*
15. “The Cartesian Theater” by Robert Charles Wilson
16. “Journey into the Kingdom” by M. Rickert*
17. “Eight Episodes” by Robert Reed*
18. “The Wizards of Perfil” by Kelly Link
19. “The Saffron Gatherers” by Elizabeth Hand
20. “D.A.” by Connie Willis
21. “Femaville 29” by Paul di Filippo
22. “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe
23. “The House Beyond Your Sky” by Benjamin Rosenbaum*
24. “The Djinn’s Wife” by Ian McDonald*

I haven’t really read enough short fiction this year to have an opinion about this list. I’ve marked the stories I’ve read, all nine of them, with asterisks; some I would definitely have picked (“The Djinn’s Wife” is probably the best of Ian McDonald’s three River of Gods-related stories; “Yellow Card Man” is probably the best story Paolo Bacigalupi has published so far, full stop), some I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t (including, and I recognise I’m in a small minority here, “Journey Into the Kingdom”, which seemed quite a bit below M. Rickert’s best to me; ditto “The American Dead”). But it’s long past time we had an all-under-one-roof Year’s Best book, so I’m still eager to get my hands on this.

3. Miscellaneous links: John Clute reviews Nova Swing, M. John Harrison’s latest novel (in the Guardian!); a very disturbing video for any Calvin and Hobbes fans; the history of SFBC original anthologies; an interview with Catherynne M. Valente; I Read A Short Story Today; Charlie Brooker on UK SF TV (and BBC4’s SF season in particular); Abigail Nussbaum on Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett.

4. The Prestige. I saw this on Friday and have been processing it since. It’s a good film, very neatly put together, with good performances from Christian Bale and Rebecca Hall, and it does, I think, a remarkably good job of translating Christopher Priest’s novel to the screen. Given that I had some reservations about the book, this means I also have some reservations about the film, such as the fact that when you get down to it the whole thing is a Star Trek “transporter malfunction” episode in fancy dress. Of course, Nolan’s cut out the present-day frame. The replacement frame, and the nesting of other frames within that, works well, but necessitates some changes in emphasis that I think, on balance, makes the film’s portrayal of magic less sophisticated than the novel’s. Some elements that are quite obvious from early on in the book are obscured in the film. Arguably, Nolan actually does a better job than Priest of handling the inevitability of the prestige, the fact that you know you’re going to be tricked — in fact, you know what the trick is going to be: the girl is going to get out of the locked box — and remain impressed when it happens anyway. But the way he does so is somewhat at the expense of the analysis and critique of storytelling that I liked in the book. And not everyone gets it. Here’s Peter Bradshaw, for instance, missing the point entirely:

“Prestige”, a magicians’ technical term invented by author Christopher Priest for his original 1995 novel, means the crowning moment of a trick. It’s the gasp-inducing climactic flourish, the moment whose devastating impact has to be guarded as closely as possible before detonation. So it is odd that the prestige of this film, the trick ending, is gradually given away over the final 40 or so minutes in a series of extended takes and giveaway closeups. Why? Because the director figured we were going to guess anyway?

If you’ve already read the book and seen the film, see Gary Westfahl’s review at Locus Online for a more thorough and interesting take.

In Brief

Here’s the terrible secret about this blog: the posts don’t just happen. They are planned. I don’t usually read a story, or a book, or watch a film or a tv show, and think, “hey, I want to write about this”. Sometimes that happens — it did with Children of Men, for instance — but those are the exceptions. More often, I’m on the lookout for things I want to write about. Recently, though, my plans have all come to nothing, or at least not very much. What follows are some fragments of aborted posts on some not-as-interesting-as-I’d-hoped failures: some stories, a film, and a tv show. (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?)

“Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” by Rudy Rucker

Inspiration is a tricky thing, especially when publicly acknowledged. When, a few years ago, Paul di Filippo wrote Fuzzy Dice, a novel inspired by and intended as a tribute to Rudy Rucker’s tremdous, barmy, transreal exploration of transfinite mathematics, White Light, it seemed somewhat miraculous that he pulled it off: his novel was just as tremendous as, and arguably even barmier than, Rucker’s. More recently, Rucker has in turn been inspired, as he acknowledges in the headnotes to the Asimov’s appearances of these two stories, and in a more-or-less loveletter to the book in question published in the November 2005 NYRSF. But while you can see how di Filippo got from White Light to Fuzzy Dice, if I didn’t know Rucker’s inspiration was Charles Stross’s Accelerando, I don’t think I’d have guessed the lineage. The two writers tell their stories in very different ways.

So far, whatever it is that Rucker’s up to is not very exciting. “Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” (note that both links are to excerpts, not complete stories) are set in the same future history. The former is backstory to a forthcoming novel, Postsingular, and explains how a nanotech singularity gets reversed by a clumsy plot gimmmick; the latter is part of the novel, and dramatises a rather more novel singularity, involving the overlay of a digital realm onto the physical, thanks to what amount to smart nanotech tags, which are the sort of thing I’m sure I’ve read Bruce Sterling enthusing about at some time or other.

Rucker’s plainspoken, laid-back style is almost the polar opposite of Stross’s data-dense lingo; if anything, these stories feel more like the work of Cory Doctorow, or like descendants of Vinge’s “True Names”. Which is fine, except when plainspoken becomes simply flat, and it too often does: the explanatory digressions are thinly veiled, and most of the characters are just thin. Ond, the (anti)-hero engineer at the centre of both stories, has motivations that are simplistic at best, and simply embarrassing at worst (his big realisation that bringing on the singularity might not have been a great idea comes when his wife starts electronically cheating on him); and most of the female characters are shrill, except when they’re being stupid. Neither story has the energy or the charm of White Light, and the ideas in them feel tame and familiar, even when they’re not. Probably the most interesting thing about the stories (aside from the use, or possibly invention of, increasingly improbable SI prefixes) is their embrace of the “postsingularity = magic” idea: in “Chu” a computer program is described, with very little irony, as a magic spell, while “Postsingular” features more spells, heaven, and some angels. But the whole enterprise has the sort of curiously weightless feeling that Accelerando was (mostly) notable for avoiding, and doesn’t inspire great confidence in the novel.

Death of a President

Death of a President is the second speculative docudrama about the US that I’ve seen this year, the first being the lower-budget, but more ambitious and more successful, C.S.A.. Writer-director Gabriel Range spins a tale that does exactly what it says on the tin: relates the circumstances surrounding, and the fallout from, the assassination of President George W. Bush in Chicago (which city is lovingly captured in a series of sweeping establishing shots) on October 19, 2007.

The first part of the film, which portrays a Presidential visit that meets with widespread protest, is good. It perhaps tends somewhat towards the hysterical, but arguably that’s necessary to set up a situation in which it’s plausible that the secret service would lose control. The second part of the film, which focuses on the fallout, is much less good, because the only part of the fallout it focuses on is the investigation into whodunit, and because that investigation is about the most predictable and politically heavy-handed you can imagine. A series of archetypal suspects — in particular, the shifty, pasty white man; the black man who may or may not have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and, of course, the Syrian — are wheeled out in turn, and I suspect it’s not spoiling anything if I tell you that the last of those three is subjected to a hasty, shoddy trial and a conviction that subsequently turns out to be a mistake. (The identity of the actual assassin is about as big a cop-out as I can imagine.) In the background, Cheney ascends to the Presidency, rattles some sabres, and gets PATRIOT 3 passed, but otherwise seems to do remarkably little. Range is entitled to tell the story he wants to tell, of course, but I can’t help thinking that a slightly broader perspective would have made for a much more interesting film.

Torchwood

What struck me most about Torchwood was how normal the normal bits are. For all the fuss made about the incorporation of Rose’s family into the Russell T. Davies incarnation of Doctor Who, the Tylers and their friends always felt to me like a tv family. By contrast, Gwen, her colleagues and her boyfriend seemed a bit more grounded. Admittedly, part of this perception is probably due to the fact that some of Gwen’s mannerisms and dialogue reminded me alarmingly of someone I knew at university; but even allowing for that, the scene (for example) where Captain Jack takes Gwen for a drink had a sort of incongruous meeting-of-worlds feel to it that recent Who only managed once or twice in two seasons.

As I’m sure most people reading this are more than well aware by now, I haven’t been overly impressed by new Who. It’s had its moments — mostly involving scripts by Steven Moffatt — but not many of them, and they’ve been almost lost in the general mediocrity and occasional outright amateurishness. But I’ve liked much of RTD’s other work (particularly The Second Coming), and wondered whether he might do better starting a show off from scratch. The other notable thing about Torchwood, though, is how much it doesn’t start from scratch. Its genetic makeup seems to be (even leaving aside the elements taken from a certain well-known show) about 10% Doctor Who, 5% Spooks (mostly the soundtrack), 30% Men in Black, 10% Generic British Drama, 5% Buffy, and 40% Angel.

The second episode (the Chris Chibnall-scripted “Day One”), in particular, had an Angel vibe about it — not, as some have said, for the loose similarities the plot bore to “Lonely Hearts” (the similarities were there, but they were very loose), and not particularly in the tone, but rather in the general structure of the show, and the sense of what it was trying to do. Captain Jack has been reinvented, consciously or not, as a more Angel-esque figure: invulnerable, somewhat more brooding, prone to standing on high buildings staring out over “his” city, and power-walking through the opening credits in a long flowing coat. The story took a fantastic element and used it as a metaphor for an aspect of human experience (Modern Life Is Sex); and Jack’s sidekick Gwen, while more of a viewpoint character than Cordelia ever was, offers the same sort of connection-with-common-humanity that the Queen of Sunnydale High provided for Angel. At one point in “Day One”, Jack asks Gwen to tell him “what it means to be human in the 21st century”, which as mission statements for tv shows go is surely ambitious enough for anyone.

The problem for me is not so much that Torchwood‘s influences are so obvious, but that they have been followed in their flaws as well as their virtues, without any real thinking-through. For one thing, the writers seem to be of the “sf doesn’t need consistent plotting” school; and to continue with the theme, Joss Whedon isn’t the strongest plotter in the world, either, but he tends to be much, much better at papering over his holes than RTD or most of his team. Nor do these writers have Whedon’s skill at fleshing out secondary characters: Toshiko and Owen remain cutouts. And the whole of the UK seems to indulge in the sort of mass-denial of alien existence that would put Sunnydale to shame — and as Martin Wisse notes, that kind of denial doesn’t really play in a science-fiction world, particularly on the sort of scale it’s used here. Torchwood may yet develop its own identity — it took Angel almost a season, after all — but at the moment it’s not even close to being a must-watch.

EDIT: Discussion of this post seems to be happening on the lj feed. Which, of course, means it’ll vanish into the ether in about three weeks. Sigh.

Children of Men

A man walks into a coffee shop, pushing through a rapt crowd to reach the counter. He barely seems to register the news on the screen playing in the corner: that “Baby” Diego Ricardo, the youngest man in the world, has been killed in a fight after he refused to sign an autograph. He was eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours, and eight minutes old. We follow the man out onto the street. It’s recognisably central London—there’s even a WH Smith’s in the background—but obviously not now. Animated posters are splashed across the walls of the buildings and buses. The cars have a hunched-over, solid cast to them. There’s a strong police presence. Bags of rubbish piled up at the roadside. And as the man stops to add something, perhaps sugar, to his coffee, the cafe he just walked out of explodes, filling the street with shrapnel and black smoke.

It’s not quite the cinematic equivalent of a door dilating, but it’s not far off. Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of PD James’ 1993 novel Children of Men (which I haven’t read) does a remarkably good job of showing its world rather than telling about it. The above explosion, for instance, is just something that happens: an everyday occurrence. Once you accept the story’s premise, that humanity became globally and near-instantly infertile a little over eighteen years previously, the grim, grimy world it presents hangs together. You can kick it, as you can kick the worlds of films like Gattaca and Code 46. With no children, all sense of stewardship over the planet has vanished, and a terrifying fatalism hangs in the air. Things are falling apart: a tv program flashes up tragedies and atrocities from around the world, before asserting that Only Britain Soldiers On (or words to that effect). It has done so, it seems, by retreating behind its borders, and pursuing a ferocious policy of evicting any and all immigrants, or at least rounding them up to be held in internment camps, such as the one at Bexhill-on-Sea.

There seems to have been a small surge of interest in British dystopias this year. Aside from Children of Men, we’ve had the big-screen adaptation of V for Vendetta, Jo Walton’s latest novel, Farthing, and Jim Younger’s debut, High John the Conqueror; and this year’s Sidewise Award-winning novel was Ian R. Macleod’s wonderful The Summer Isles. You can make of this what you want: on the one hand, the original stories were written over a span of more than twenty years, so in many ways it’s an entirely artefactual surge, but on the other, it’s undeniable that many of the issues they address—of liberty, privacy, and complicity—have a depressing contemporary relevance.

Of the two films, Children of Men is the better by far: more detailed and more human. By the standards of action films—arguably by the standards of film in general—it is admirably down-to-earth, both in its set pieces (there’s a marvellous, tense escape scene, using a car so old that the characters have to get out and push it so that it can be jump-started) and in its depiction of what human bodies can take, and what they look like when they’re damaged. The man in the coffee shop, Theo (Clive Owen, in a superb performance), is well on his way to middle age, and spends half the time limping around in a tatty 2012 Olympics top and flip-flops. People die matter-of-factly, messily, and without warning. Nothing is soft-pedalled. The film’s flat, grey palette, and use of long one-take tracking shots on hand-held cameras reinforce the sense of reality: one astonishing sequence late in the film, in which Theo has to get into a battered building besieged by the army, and then out again, lasts for about six minutes, consists of about three shots, and is as harrowing as any war footage broadcast on the news.

The object of his search is the film’s other main character, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a refugee who is, miraculously, pregnant. As you might expect, given conditions in the UK, the plot revolves around Theo’s attempts to get Kee out of the country, via an offshore rendezvous with a boat from the (possibly apocryphal) Human Project, perhaps the one group who are still looking for ways to reverse the plague of infertility. It is very much to the film’s credit that it doesn’t play up the symbolism inherent in this scenario too heavily. There’s Kee’s name, of course, and when Theo meets her she’s under the guardianship of a resistance movement called the Fishes, and when he finds out she’s pregnant, the revelation takes place in a barn; but that’s more-or-less it. Kee is more than a macguffin, and though she doesn’t know who the father is, it’s not a miracle birth. And when she and her baby are seen in public late on, people react with the diversity of reactions you would expect: some reaching out to touch her, some crossing themselves, some not sure what to do.

When I walked out of the cinema, I said to my friends that I wasn’t sure whether Children of Men was genuinely excellent, or simply the best-directed bad sf movie I’ve ever seen. I said the world hangs together if you accept its premises, and that’s true, but you do have to accept those premises—the sudden and human-specific infertility, for which no explanation is given, and the presence of vast numbers of illegal immigrants even after a decade or more of closed borders. It’s a setup that verges on the melodramatic, and there’s something about the timescales involved, to my mind, that doesn’t quite track. Fortunately, we want to handwave things. There’s so much else to admire about the film, technically and artistically, that it fully earns both our suspension of disbelief, and the few redemptive moments it allows itself. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the film is that there is no grand uprising, no dramatic change in the status quo; indeed, we barely get to see the people in charge. The closest we get is a visit to a privileged relative of Theo’s. The rest of the time we are, like the characters, left to struggle with the pieces of a broken world.

EDIT: some more discussion here (including about how feminist or not the film is) and here (including about how ambiguous or not the ending is).