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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

December 10, 2006

In Praise of Dreck...
...some recent SF movies that weren't so bad

I saw a couple of sci-fi movies recently that got, as near as I recall, pretty much universally bad reviews, and bombed. And by “bad“, I don’t mean bad, as in “nice try, but a flawed effort”, I mean BAD, as in “why wasn’t the filmmaker shot and his children sterilized?” sort of bad. And the funny thing was -- I didn’t think they were so awful. Now, to be fair, I saw them on TV on nights when I was just kicking back with nothing else to do, nor am I saying they were great -- or even particularly good -- but as okay time killers, they were, y’know, okay.

One was Aeon Flux, starring Charlize Theron as a kind of super rebel in a dystopic future who, in true sci-fi cliché, begins to discover secrets about her world that some people don’t want discovered. The other was A Sound of Thunder, taking the core idea of the old Ray Bradbury classic story and using it as the jumping off point for a bombastic adventure movie.

Maybe it was because the reviews had been pretty harsh that I reacted the way I did -- I went in expecting an awful movie, and was surprised, whereas others maybe went in expecting a masterpiece and didn’t get it. Maybe it’s because, being a long time SF and fantasy fan, I’ve sat through a lot of bad -- BAD -- movies over the years, so my criteria is a little different. I grew up when fantasy movies were few and far between, and those that did creep along usually had smaller budgets than the average toothpaste commercial. And though Sound of Thunder’s CGI effects were a bit problematic at times, and the backdrops looked like backdrops, to me, special effects first and foremost are there to tell the story, convey information -- and they did that.

Both movies featured real actors -- no ex-kick boxers/ex-wrestlers/ex-bodybuilders, but honest-to-gosh thespians. And the movies, though “action” movies, weren’t of the numbing computer-graphic-rendition-of-hero-battles-computer-graphic-rendition-of-villains-for-ten-minutes variety. Oh, Aeon Flux came close, but not quite. And the visuals were a little different than a lot of SF movies which tend to go for dark n’ grungy -- Aeon Flux was a bright colours and green grass, A Sound of Thunder was retro fashions and dank jungles. And they both had stories to tell -- not necessarily brilliant, War and Peace stories, but stories. Aeon Flux even surprised me with its revelation about what was the secret behind its society (and I don’t often get surprised these days). And Charlize Theron was kind a sexy -- and I say that as someone who usually finds her a bit bland and forgettable.

Sure, A Sound of Thunder maybe went on a bit long and I can nitpick with the best of them. It lacked an emotional core or character arc -- despite there being a man and a woman, and the man had another woman who was kind of like his goddaughter, there was no real emotional anchor (in fact, when one of those characters gets killed, the hero doesn’t bat an eye -- which is a problem with a story where the characters figure if they accomplish their goal, they can undo everything that’s happened, so why worry?…and maybe a limitation of star Edward Burns talents). And once the characters figure out what needs to be done, the story becomes a fairly linear quest story, without any real twists or other shoes to be dropped, resulting in a movie that doesn’t quite build to a dramatic climax. And sure one could nitpick about the time paradoxes but, really, time travel/paradox stories never really make sense. All you can hope is the story tellers come up with some goofy idea that they, at least, stick with for the duration of their story…which I think they did.

I’m not saying these were great movies -- I think I’ve made that clear. But I kind of enjoyed them.

Hey, I’ve seen bad -- BAD -- sci-fi, including those with big budgets and “name” actors. Sphere anyone? Event Horizon? And I just didn’t think Aeon Flux and A Sound of Thunder belong in that category. Transcedent motion pictures? Nyah. But as glorified TV movies to watch on a lazy night, they were both kind of fun -- sure, that probably makes them the most expensive TV movies in the history of the world, but what the hey?

So what’s my point? Other than to hint that these maligned movies might be worth a video rental or, at least, flipping on if they’re on TV some night? I guess it’s what I alluded to before. Growing up, I could only dream about a time when studios would churn out big budget sci-fi movies with real actors -- movies serious enough to bother with a bit of plot and characterization, but unpretentious enough to be old fashioned escapist entertainment evoking pulp fiction and movie serials. And even today, I’ll admit, though such movies are more and more frequent, I still can come away disappointed. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes? Puh-lease. Even the Jurassic Park movies, or -- dare I say it -- the revered Matrix trilogy, though not bad, per se, left me kind of under whelmed.

And given the huge success of some of those films, I’m curious why there then seems to be this mass hive mind that abruptly decides other movies are, not just bad, but BAD.

At least, I think critics really, really hated Aeon Flux…or, um, am I thinking of Ultra Violet?

D.K. Latta, editor

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