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Archive for the ‘Bob’s Sci-Fi Meditations’ Category

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By Bob Clark

Over the course of this column, I’ve largely been covering the by now standardized track of comics-to-movies adaptations, usually centering on sequential stories both mainstream and niche that find themselves treated with big budgeted, high-profile motion picture productions, the likes of which audiences have grown increasingly accustomed to since the special-effects assisted advents of the Superman, Batman and Spider-Man features (all three of them by now in some manner of franchise reboot or another). Occasionally we’ve seen different cultural paths in a more or less equivalent vein– Japanese manga like Nausicaa, Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed finding themselves converted to all manner of animated iterations, hand-drawn or otherwise, sometimes with varying levels of direct involvement from the original illustrators who created the initial works in the first place. Less frequently, we’ve even looked at comics subject less to direct adaptations and instead siring off loose inspirations, such as Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan comics or Jodorowsky & Moebius’ The Incal sparking all manner of fires in blockbusters and indie-productions alike. But for the most part, the path from comics to film or television (in the case of the Timm & Dini Batman: The Animated Series) has been a uniform and straightforward one, always headed in the same direction. But if anything, there’s probably more examples of the opposite flow in terms of sheer volume.

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By Bob Clark

By now, enough time has gone by for a reasonably definitive answer on the question of Cloud Atlas to develop. Weeks have gone by since its release into theaters and subsequent failure to find purchase amongst audiences who have since moved on to subsequent releases like the new Bond, Tolstoy or Lincoln pictures (curious to think of the Railsplitter as quite the same kind of cinematic trendsetter as spies or Russian romances, but he did just save the republic from vampires, don’t you know). Much was made of this high-profile experiment with multi-narrative, multi-genre and multi-director filmmaking, its subject matters far removed from the typical Hollywood blockbuster and its budget significantly higher than your average art-house fare. That the film has so-far performed so tepidly has suggested among many critics a disappointment with audiences as profound as those with any auteur, especially as the major studios and production houses gear up for an extended period of franchise nesting instincts, a cinematic hibernation that puts both filmgoer and filmmaker to sleep in the face of never-ending sequels, prequels and remakes to boot. At the same time, there’s been just as much skepticism towards the overall merit posed by this film, adapted from a headscratcher novel by a trio of directors whose career highpoints were at least ten years ago or more, and with it a kind of passive-aggressive hostility towards the perceived waste of such capital, creative and otherwise. Is it the fault of audiences for not braving theaters and seeking out something this ambitious and daring, or the filmmakers’ for risking it all on a mediocre product and thus making any future high-concept experiments all the riskier? Or is the assumption that for a high profile film to succeed that its success be as visible as its production– isn’t it possible a cult-hit was the best-case scenario for something like Cloud Atlas all along?

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By Bob Clark

The old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I wonder if that really covers the full breadth of data it can store. When we stare at a painting or glance at a photograph in the newspaper, how much information do we absorb and process at any given moment, ranging from the aesthetics of the piece, the social circumstances surrounding it, and our own personal emotional response? Could you fit the human reaction to any given piece of art onto a solid-state hard drive? How many bytes would you need to unravel the myriad of feelings any work of expression can produce, even in a broken, snapshot state? And what about the intellectual reactions– can artificial computations match the speed of human thought, unconsciously criss-crossing all sorts of impressions and considerations in order to decode the various possibilities inherent in a single image? Could that computer then synthesize inspiration? If you fed a single screen-cap into a powerful enough computer, what are the chances that it could backwards engineer something like motion-picture it sprang from? If that computer’s name was Osamu Tezuka, at least it would be on the right track.

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By Bob Clark

When looking over the entirety of an artist’s oeuvre in any medium, it’s natural to see recurring themes and archetypes from work to work, and in the case of narrative artists similar kinds of characters, settings and conflicts repeating themselves over and over. For storytellers who have worked in multiple mediums and by all accounts can said to have mastered either, the question of recurring motifs becomes an even more pressing concern, because you can no longer look at the repeating creative patterns and say they owe much of anything to the mere constraints and demands of the form of expression the artist chooses. What does one say about the way a writer’s use of language changes from form to form– Shakespeare the playwright, and the poet? Beckett’s theater and literature of the absurd? DeLillo the novelist for page, stage and sometimes screen?

In the case of Hayao Miyazaki, responsible for some of the most celebrated works of animation since the halcyon days of Disney, and recognized as a master mangaka for his epic comic-book version of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the only real way to distinguish him as one thing or the other is the sheer volume of his output in either form. As a director and writer he has his mark on so many feature films, shorts and television series that it can often be hard to track down all of them. As a cartoonist, however, his body of work is relatively slimmer– yes, there’s the massive length of Nausicaa, but other than that only a handful of works compared to the better part of the Studio Ghibli efforts, and more. But among those few works of comics from the master’s hand is one that shows definite signs of precedence for anyone who values higher profile efforts like the anime or manga versions of Nausicaa or his later feature film Princess Mononoke. Standing as an ancestor to both of them, and to others in and out of the Ghibli canon, is The Journey of Shuna.

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By Bob Clark

While reading Masamune Shirow’s work in manga after being exposed to their animated adaptations, it’s easy to take for granted the growth and development of ideas and sensibilities apparent throughout much of his early work in the 8o’s. Throughout Dominion Tank Police and Appleseed it’s perhaps even more enlightening to witness the evolution on a step by step basis, as the mangaka’s concerns mature beyond the mere sci-fi mecha action set-pieces that his characters were written around and into a set of stakes, circumstances and scale that’s far more in touch with the real world, to a point. At the same time, as the more adolescent elements of pimped up robot action and even more pimped up sexuality remains in play, it’s apparent that we’re reaching the point where Shirow begins to truly outgrow one narrative branch, necessitating a move onto the next. By the end of his run on the fourth and final book of the series, Appleseed less and less resembles the high-concept utopian action-adventure manga it began as and feels more and more like Ghost in the Shell, for good and ill, and by the time that Shinji Aramaki made his CGI animated adaptations in the past decade, Appleseed had almost completely transformed into something else entire.

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By Bob Clark

In the West, the thirty-year vet manga artist Masamune Shirow is known mainly for spawning the Ghost in the Shell series, adapted for animation in critically acclaimed films and television shows by Mamoru Oshii and Kenji Kamiyama, respectively. Besides that work, he’s gained a solid, if somewhat suspicious reputation as one of the defining and most influential artists in his field over the past several decades, with a breadth of work in comics and illustration that’s hard to match. Granted, much of his most recent work has tended towards the pornographic, and even in his less openly erotic works there’s usually little to inhibit the self-gratification impulse prevalent in his stories and characters– nearly all of his high-concept sci-fi escapades revolve around dishy badass chicks who discharge explosive military weaponry first and disrobe for some kinky R&R later. In his best works, this is paired with a genuinely thoughtful introspection on philosophical and political themes, making fine use of police and military genres as well as high-tech cyberpunk, at times rising to become some of the most visionary and impressive critiques of 1980’s culture from almost every conceivable angle. At his best, Shirow makes sure to cover all the bases (sexual and otherwise), and in its first two books, Appleseed stands as some of his most impressive work, perhaps even more so than his classic Ghost in the Shell. But then, in the case of this manga, it helps that there’s nothing to outshine the original in quite the same way as Oshii and Kamiyama’s animation.

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By Bob Clark

The Spider-Man character is now celebrating its 50th anniversary in the pages of Marvel Comics, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko in the pages of Amazing Fantasy before being granted a full book of its own that would eventually become one of the flagship titles for both that particular publishing house and for superhero comics in general. It’s almost surprising that it took until 2002 for the first full-fledged motion picture starring Peter Parker, the science-geek turned teenage hero after a fateful bite from a radioactive spider, especially considering that before then there were no less than four Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, four live action Batman films with three different Bruce Waynes (and another eventually on the way courtesy of Nolan & Co.), one big-screen X-Men adventure and countless animated versions on the small-screen, as well as a handful of live-action series like The Incredible Hulk (there was also that movie Ang Lee did, but whatever). But then Spider-Man, like most of the Marvel superheroes, relied on powers that weren’t quite so easy to put on screen given the limitations of physically captured special effects in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s really not that difficult to make us believe a man can fly, or make us wonder where a vigilante gets such wonderful toys, but asking us to buy that a high-school kid can climb a skyscraper with his bare hands and swing from the rooftops with spinneret silly string? All one has to do is look at the live-action Spider-Man series from the 70’s to see how dreadfully silly it could look without the right tools at your disposal.

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By Bob Clark

Sometimes the cutting edge comes at the end of a blunt instrument. In a career that has included live action, animation and special-effects supervising, Fumihiko Sori has assembled a diverse creative output in the past fifteen or so years. That mix in his work from live action films, like 2002’s Ping Pong and 2008’s chambra Ichi and his three CGI animated efforts put him in a somewhat different register than other directors who freely jump from one discipline to the other. Plenty of anime creators have put live action time under their belt as well– some, like Mamoru Oshii, have almost as many traditional features to their credit as they do animation, and others like Hideaki Anno have pushed their craft in new experimental ways that even their animated fare has trouble keeping up with at times. But for the most part, these cross-disciplinary filmmakers have based their talents in hand-drawn animation, constituting a much sharper contrast between the qualities of their work in that medium to how they handle live sets, actors and cameras in the other. For directors working in CGI, however, the line is a bit more blurred, as even in animation they’re forced to work with physical sets, characters and action, albeit of a synthesized nature. This makes Sori’s work an interesting case study in the creative evolution of computer animation as a maturing art form in and of itself, and of the trajectories in general for digital tools in 21st century filmmaking.

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By Bob Clark

When pioneering sci-fi author Ray Bradbury passed away this week, there were plenty of places for the mind to turn to, reeling in the news of a great mind departing from the Earth. There were of course the numerous literary works he’d penned over the course of his decades long career as one of the most popular and thoughtful genre authors of the 20th century, and one whose influences can still be traced crystal clear through all manner of short-stories and novels. Additionally, one could think to the number of adaptations his work received over the years, from television miniseries like The Martian Chronicles or the fever-pitch crossroads of French New Wave and Hitchcockian dystopia in Francois Truffaut’s film of Fahrenheit 451, no doubt the author’s signature piece (influential enough for it to turn into a mere punchline of a title in Michael Moore’s 9/11 documentary). Beyond that, there were the years of interviews and commentary he provided on the nature of science-fiction, particularly when it came to the ways in which he resisted franchising some of his most popular works. One of the earliest items of interest I’d read about him, as a child, was that while he very often enjoyed original science-fiction films, he often despaired when the filmmakers turned to the same premise for a sequel, even when the resulting product turned out to be something as universally respected (within the genre community, at least) as The Empire Strikes Back. And as much as I’ve enjoyed the series of films represented by that sequel– one of the rare efforts to join the “better than the original” club of classics in many critics’ eyes– I have to admit that I’ve always rather agreed with him.

After all, just as THX 1138 led to the original Star Wars in George Lucas’ career, wouldn’t it have been something to have seen what might’ve followed in the path from that blockbuster-of-blockbusters, rather than just the next episode in the series? I’ve certainly held myself to little or no restraint when it comes to admiring that series, of course, and especially the much-criticized Prequel Trilogy, but at the same time I can’t deny that in dedicating his creative efforts and resources to franchising his saga, that Lucas may have very well cut short an even greater span and range of cinematic works. It’s something I wonder about when looking at Ridley Scott’s second and third features, especially considering that both of Lucas’ sci-fi features up to then had motivated the British director to consider the genre in the first place. Both staunchly works of hard-core (if not expressly “hard”) science-fiction, yet each of them miles apart from one another in theme and tone (farther apart, in some respects, than THX 1138 and Star Wars), the films Alien and Blade Runner have long since become two of the most beloved and respected contributions to the genre, as well as cinematic classics of any stripe. Once word of a sequel to the initial film went underway, it would’ve been very easy indeed for Scott to have joined that bandwagon and allow both himself and the series to repeat themselves for another exercise in bio-horror stalking in the dark (had he stayed on, it’s unlikely we would’ve gotten anything remotely resembling James Cameron’s appropriation of Heinlein-isms for Aliens, another arguable member of the “better than the first” club), but he had moved on to things both bigger and bolder (the teasing promise of the abortive Dune adaptation, and the eventual greatness of his tackling Phillip K. Dick) and smaller and weaker (basically everything up until Gladiator, with Thelma & Louise thrown in if you want to be charitable). In that sense, perhaps it’s smarter to stick with a franchise, or at the very least a genre, when you’ve got something good going, but at least he attempted something different, for better and worse alike. Or at least that’s what he’s attempted all this long until this week’s addition to his filmography, Prometheus.

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By Bob Clark

This past week has seen a fair number of developments on the American fronts concerning civil rights and prejudice in national politics, all revolving around the  discussion of broadening civil liberties for gays and lesbians. Starting with Vice President Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff comments on Meet the Press last Sunday, we’ve seen the Obama administration adopt a strikingly accepting tone for the question of granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples, a step that far exceeds the positions taken by past Democratic office-holders and candidates in the recent past, culminating in the bombshell announcement on Wednesday of the President’s full personal support for marriage equality. Many have looked at this development on purely cynical, partisan competition-minded terms– Biden’s usual hoof-in-mouth elocution stylings forcing Obama to either dispute him and risk losing the Democratic base, or match him and risk losing the rest of the country; the possible motivations of mobilizing said base of younger, more open-minded voters and, more likely, the millions upon millions of funds to be secured from liberal donors. But in my eye, it’s merely been a long-overdue definition of terms that most of us already assumed existed something like this in the first place– Obama didn’t so much come to this decision after long years of soul searching as much as he held in an opinion for a long time that was bound to be controversial, and came out of the closet about it.

Granted, as a mere personal belief as opposed to a public policy statement it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference as far as the way of the nation goes, but as a part of the larger discourse concerning gay rights and prejudice in all forms across the country, it stands as a prime example of the bully pulpit put to good use. It’s especially iconic coming from a President whose very election counters its own centuries-old tide of bigotry and reaffirms the very egalitarian ambitions that helped found the Republic to begin with, and even more especially so considering many of the recent revelations about the presumptive Republican nominee’s past as a prep-school bully who once helped hold a classmate down and cut off his hair, to boot. And as a part of the even larger cultural conversation about the increasingly hostile pattern of physical and emotional bullying in and out of  schools over matters of race, gender, sexual orientation or just plain not-fitting-in, the President’s open-arms endorsement of tolerance over the course of his first term in office and especially this past week stands as one of the defining aspects of his administration (indeed, if the Republicans have their way, it could wind up the only defining aspect that can’t be legislated or litigated into obscurity). As such, between these recent events and the higher profile that Marvel comics have had in recent weeks for obvious reasons, the time seems right to revisit one of the other major comic-book adaptations of the past ten years, and one that adheres remarkably close in spirit to a specific graphic-novel whose very essence is dedicated to the questions of prejudice and bigotry in all its forms. The film in question is Bryan Singer’s X2, and its source material the vaunted God Loves, Man Kills, from 1982.

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