Storyteller Yin-Yang

One of the older notes on my board just reads: Armageddon (1998) vs Deep Impact (1998)”. On weirdness points, the note could just as easily have read: Antz (1998) vs A Bug’s Life (1998)”.

The coincidence that both coincidences take place in 1998 (ah, the good old days) does makes it a bit weirder, but weird coincidences aren’t the point of my note or this post. The point is how audiences reacted to the films.

For this Sci-Fi Saturday, I thought I’d ramble about some SF Yin-Yang pairs that have struck me over the years.

To begin, Deep Impact was directed by Mimi Leder, who went on to direct Pay It Forward (2000). She has TV directing experience going back to 1987, and she’s been nominated for some prestigious awards, some of which she’s won.

Before Deep Impact, she directed The Peacemaker (1997), which was quite watchable, I thought. (Clooney usually is.)

Deep Impact was written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin. Rubin wrote Brainstorm (1983), Ghost (1990), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), among others. Tolkin is a novelist and filmmaker who writes his own screenplays.

The cast features Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, and Morgan Freeman. Some serious acting power.

It currently has a 45% / 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It opened stronger than Armageddon, and according to Wikipedia, has earned $349-million. Sounds pretty good, actually.

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Armageddon was directed by Michael Bay, who had directed Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996). The former I found fluffy harmless nonsense. I rather liked the latter (although it was also nonsensical).

Bay went on to become a hugely successful filmmaker with a long string of flashy thrill-ride hits.

Armageddon was written by Jonathan Hensleigh and (drum roll) J.J. Abrams. Hensleigh wrote the third Die Hard film, Jumanji, Con Air, The Saint, Next, and others. He’s married to Gale Anne Hurd, producer of lots of action films, especially for James Cameron. Hurd co-produced Armageddon along with Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer.

So this is a power lineup of action film folk.

The cast features Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Ben Affleck, Will Patton, Peter Stormare, Keith David, and Steve Buscemi. A few clinkers, but mostly a very good cast.

Now for the denouement…

It currently has a 38% / 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics didn’t really care for it much, but audiences ate dug like popcorn (which it’s nutritionally similar to).

According to Wiki, it’s grossed $553.7-million. I thought it would be higher than $200-million more.

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Admittedly, comparing the movies side-by-side, the difference isn’t that stark.

But what is stark is what happened next. Leder is likely only known to film cognoscenti. (She’s only done four films since.) But Bay, and the kinds of stories he does, have become a billion-dollar segment of the film business.

The Marvel movies and the DCU movies, for example, along with all the other modern action films (the Fast & Furious franchise, the Transformer movies, etc).

Not that it started with Armageddon. By 1998 all three Star Wars movies had been out for years, and there had been four Aliens films. The ninth Star Trek film came out in 1998.

But I think it’s when action films started getting stupid.

Micheal Bay and J.J. Abrams are key figures in an ethic of storytelling that’s big on action and low on logic, plot, character, nuance, depth, or other distractions.

Audiences seem to have expressed a preference for stories they experience sensually but not especially intellectually. (The fade of long-form blogging reflects this trend.)

As one example: the recent Sherlock Holmes movies (with Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes). These are framed as action films.

Which I think is disgraceful. Holmes, although capable of the physical, was all about the intellectual. Why does everything have to be a big-screen action film? Aren’t there enough of those already? (I used to have so much regard for Guy Ritchie, which, come to think of it, ties into the latter part of this post.)

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Besides Armageddon vs Deep Impact there’s an example that affects me more deeply:

The Simpsons vs Futurama

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of The Simpsons, but Futurama was awesome. The Simpsons is still on the air, while Futurama struggled for the four regular seasons it got and struggled mightily, over a period of years, to turn out six more.

You might think, in Anno Stella Bella, that a show like Futurama would be a bigger hit. Isn’t everyone gaga for sci-fi now? There’s a whole cable channel…

But no. It was just a bit too smart and required a bit too much SF background for many to fully enjoy.

The Simpsons has a smart background, often consisting of mathematical or physics jokes, but it also has Homer and Bart Simpson (and the rest), who are more universally accessible. Probably why the show is still on.

I’m sad Futurama (and Deep Impact) didn’t make a deeper impact.

I enjoy a good action film as much as anyone, but I want more than just visual thrills. That got old long ago for me. I need, if not something to keep me in the story, at least not so much illogical bullshit that I’m constantly forced out of the story.

§ §

Pivoting gracefully to another kind of storytelling Yin-Yang, for some time I’ve meant to post about George Lucas and Peter Jackson.

They’re the leaders of a group that includes Robert Heinlein, Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, and Kevin Smith. There are other SF writers, James P. Hogan, Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven, a few others. Frank Miller, the comic book writer/artist is in the group, too.

If you’re familiar enough with these storytellers you may have twigged to where I’m headed with this. In a word: disappointment.

Membership belongs to those who made a huge impact on some segment of storytelling. In many cases they created classics remembered as high points others only aspire to. And then they did something else.

Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, Firefly, Clerks, Dune. Heinlein wrote defining science fiction, Niven gave us Known Space, Ringworld, and Moties. Frank Miller gave us Batman: The Dark Knight Returns which largely defined the modern form of comics (he also gave us Sin City, a tour-de-force in graphic novel chiaroscuro).

These guys are landscape-shaping giants.

§

George Lucas was god for a while. I knew him through THX 1138 and American Graffiti (1973) as a hot up-and-comer. THX 1138, especially, was enticing for us science fiction fans.

I saw Star Wars the night it opened. It was like plugging into a high voltage socket. A game-changer. The two that followed were pretty good — certainly as good, if not much better, than anything else at the time.

But then Lucas made those other three “Star Wars” movies

Of which comedian Brian Posehn once said, “It’s like waking up to discover that your favorite uncle has snuck into your bedroom and put his penis on your face.” It’s a sense of violation from an unexpected and beloved direction.

§

Peter Jackson was god for a while. He delivered a vision of Tolkien’s Trilogy that seemed very close to what most of us had imagined from the books. Rather than utterly spoiling our imagination, he seemed to enhance it.

I didn’t know him in his earlier horror-thriller phase, I met him with The Frighteners (1996), which starred Michael J. Fox, and which I really enjoyed. It’s one of many unsuccessful films that I think are real gems. (Johnny Dangerously heads that list. It’s a great film.)

But then Jackson made those other three Hobbit movies

I’m not the first to observe there might be an adequate telling of The Hobbit in editing all three movies down to one 90-minute film. As it stands, watching is an ordeal.

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For many SF fans, Robert Heinlein divides into early-Heinlein and late-Heinlein (although the exact dividing line can vary a bit).

The early Heinlein was so good, so defining, it made him one of the three Fathers of Science Fiction (along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke). A true giant of a storyteller.

But late-Heinlein is embarrassing and makes one cringe.

§

I think Zack Snyder completely blew the doors of Watchmen. I was as impressed with his vision as I was with Jackson’s LotR. Another enhancement of the original. But then there’s Sucker Punch and some of his DC work.

Joss Whedon is a demi-god to many for Firefly (to others for Buffy), and he doesn’t really belong on this list. It’s more a Futurama thing with Firefly, which tragically only got one season. I loved The Cabin in the Woods, and I thought Justice League was okay.

So, Joss, you’re excused; sorry about that!

Kevin Smith is another borderline case. His early Jay and Silent Bob films are classic among filmmakers, but Jersey Girl… ouch. I tried to watch Cop Out; couldn’t finish (a rare Ugh! rating). But Chasing Amy is excellent, and Dogma is a favorite of mine.

There are the Wachowski sisters, who (were brothers when they) made The Matrix, their third film, another cinema landmark. Since then, I haven’t been impressed. (Their first two films, Assassins and Bound are favorites of mine.)

It occurs to me that Bruce Willis and Sandra Bullock are actor versions of this. They’ve been in some really outstanding films (Die Hard, Speed) and in some real turkeys (other Die Hard movies, Speed 2).

§ §

In contrast, filmmakers Quentin Tarantino, Joel & Ethan Coen, and Wes Anderson. They have never disappointed me.

But these are rare, and even giants are allowed to stumble occasionally. The inverse of up being the only place to go when you’re way down, is that when you’re in the stratosphere it’s fly or fall.

Most of us would be so lucky as to make a contribution to the landscape such as these have.

But Lucas and Jackson (and Heinlein),… that was disappointing.

Stay stratospheric, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Storyteller Yin-Yang

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s the latest version of the Life program I’m working to commemorate John Conway. This version wraps the left-right and top-bottom borders (and changes the color scheme):

  • Wyrd Smythe

    This version color-codes the living cells. They’re bright white at first, and the color fades over eight cycles to a dark cyan.

    Cell size is two pixels, and I’m thinking this actually works better with a larger cell size, although the smaller pixels are interesting. I have a one-pixel version cooking now.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I think I’ve mentioned before that I see early Lucas and early Heinlein as resulting from the restrictions that others put on them, restrictions that became increasingly untenable as their careers progressed and they became *the* George Lucas and *the* Robert Heinlein. Sometimes artists just benefit from the restraining hand of editors, spouses, or movie execs.

    I actually enjoyed both Deep Impact and Armageddon, but I got very different things out of them. Armageddon was the thrill ride, period. With Deep Impact, it was a more thoughtful consideration of how an event like that could play out. Though can’t really say I’ve rewatched either of these movies to any significant extent. When reruns come on, they don’t really draw me in.

    Strangely enough, the Star Wars prequels and Hobbit movies never bothered me as much as they did a lot of other people. In both cases, they definitely weren’t as good as the earlier movies, but I didn’t find them the absolute stinkers so many did.

    I sometimes think we feel too much ownership of stories and characters that have been in the public consciousness for a long time, so much so that if their creators take them in an unexpected direction, we feel justified in being outraged. Maybe the artists that eschew sequels or long running series are wise to do so.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Sometimes artists just benefit from the restraining hand”

      Sometimes. It can be a tough call, artistic vision versus artistic indulgence. It’s especially tough when artistic vision has been demonstrated before.

      I think you’re right about Lucas, and I’ve wondered if that’s what happened to Frank Miller. He put out a sequel to TDKR that’s either a minimalist vision or self-indulgent crap. I know I don’t care for it at all. But TDKR and Sin City are masterworks.

      To me Heinlein was more than self-indulgent. Fuses blew in that man’s mind, I think. He curled inwards. There’s no editing that could have saved those latter books. He shoulda just stopped after Stranger.

      (I’m not even sure how well Stranger would play with me now. I’m afraid to reread it. I had a collection of Harlan Ellison’s from Prime. I skipped the last two stories. That man is depressing to read and kind of monotonic in tone.)

      “I actually enjoyed both Deep Impact and Armageddon,”

      Likewise. As you say, one’s a thrill ride, the other’s a more thoughtful look at the idea. It’s the groundling love of thrill rides. The thoughtful stuff doesn’t usually get much traction. (And often when it does, it’s for the wrong reasons.)

      As a general rule people seem to prefer the mindless and a lack of logic about, or justification for, things isn’t that important. It’s only those more discerning viewers who get distracted by those things.

      “Strangely enough, the Star Wars prequels and Hobbit movies never bothered me as much as they did a lot of other people.”

      I was never that into Star Wars so I don’t really share Brian Posehn’s outrage. To me they were just laughably bad films. The plots are full of holes Death Stars can sail through, and the Anakin-Padme “romance” just may be one of the least compelling ever filmed.

      The Hobbit movies were bad adaptations. They’re rich in what I see as the worst thing adaptations do: add new material. I’m usually okay with what’s removed, that’s gotta happen usually, and I’m often okay with what’s changed. But new material had better be absolutely necessary and organic.

      I mean, seriously, you know how small the book is. They were bound and determined to make it a $$trilogy$$.

      “I sometimes think we feel too much ownership of stories and characters that have been in the public consciousness for a long time,”

      Definitely. (I’ve got a post I’m working on about that. 🙂 )

      That said, sometimes that outrage is justified. Or if not outrage (which isn’t really appropriate for art), disappointment and rejection. The Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, for instance, do a disservice to the stories. I can’t say I’m outraged, but I thought they were crap movies, especially since they were using the Holmes name to make a summer action film to make money. There’s just nothing to like there.

      We, as a culture, have a tendency to lap up shit-covered raisins because we love raisins so much. But maybe if we were a little more willing to put our feet down and reject some of the especially shittier offerings, the creators would learn we want more raisin with our shit.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On Heinlein after Stranger, I actually thought Podkayne of Mars was pretty good, written in the style of the juveniles. That said, I read the version that was originally published. I later learned that there’s an author’s preferred edition which has a different ending, one that the original editor wouldn’t accept.

        I have to agree on the Anakin-Padme romance. It was pretty bad.

        On the Hobbit films, some of the additional material was taken from the appendices at the back of Return of the King, and Thorin’s personality was probably inspired by Unfinished Tales. Although a good amount of it was made up whole cloth. (There was some of that in the LOTR movies too.)

        That reminds me. Have you heard of Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” series? I put it in quotes because it’s reportedly a prequel set in the second age of Middle Earth. Which means it will be a very different story. They’ve apparently committed to five seasons.

        I actually didn’t mind the Downey Holmes movies that much, but I’m glad the more cerebral versions are still around.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Podkayne (1963) came right after Stranger (1961). He doesn’t get really messed up until the 1970s. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) is post Stranger, too, come to that. (I honestly didn’t realize that until I looked to see where Podkayne fell. Thought that one was much older.)

        It’s I Will Fear No Evil (1970) and Time Enough for Love (1973) that things get … weird. (I suppose I should find a different reference point. I’m just so used to Stranger as the point when things got strange. And as I said, I’m afraid to read it again for fear I’ll see the seeds of his later path.)

        “Although a good amount of it was made up whole cloth. (There was some of that in the LOTR movies too.)”

        Yeah,… and you wanna talk about being outraged! Two words: Ents and Faramir. Talk about WTF additions. [SMH]

        “Have you heard of Amazon’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ series?”

        I’ve heard of it; can’t say I’m interested. Not a huge Tolkien fan to begin with. (No spaceships. 😀 )

        I’m quite enamored with both the CBS Elementary series (now over) and the BBC Sherlock series (long over). And I was a huge fan of House, M.D.. But you’re welcome to the Downey Jr ones. 😉

  • Wyrd Smythe

    This is a really good analysis of the problems with Man of Steel:

    (Makes some of the same points I made.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Same guy with an equally good analysis of the most recent Star Wars film (which, as this analysis points out, is exactly what I mean by “iconic” storytelling — the storyteller just stringing known memes like beads on a necklace, and Abrams is exactly that kind of shallow storyteller, and it begins back on Armageddon).

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