The Man in the High Castle

Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):

It seems like a familiar sight. A lone sultry and very famous singer delivers a seductive performance of “happy birthday” to the birthday boy, actually her secret lover, who also happens to be her leader. But as she reaches the third line, something jars. The words change and things take a chilling turn. “Happy birthday…Mein Fuhrer,” are the star’s next words. For while this is Marilyn Monroe, she is not singing to President Kennedy, the charismatic young American president but to … someone else entirely.

So, begins the trailer for the second season of Amazon Prime’s, The Man In The High Castle. And as if we didn’t know already, this is a world in which history has taken a very different turn from our own. And not for the better.

THE REICH STUFF

The premise of The Man In The High Castle stems from the endlessly fascinating question; what would the world be like, had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan triumphed at the end of the Second World War instead of the Allies, (that is the United States, Soviet Union, British Empire and others)?

It was a question which once haunted the feverish, troubled but hugely imaginative mind of author Philip K Dick. The man whose writing ultimately inspired many of the greatest science fiction films of all time including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, Dick been just too young to fight for the US in World War II himself but nevertheless realised what a close thing the outcome of the war had been. Over fifty years’ ago, inspired by another novel which convincingly  imagined a victory for the slavery supporting Confederacy in the 1860s American Civil War, he set to work producing a book depicting a similar alternative ending to World War II.

Prone to hallucinations and sudden bouts of paranoia, Dick had a relatively short turbulent life, dying in 1982, aged just 63 without seeing most of his work reach the screen. But he enjoyed probably more success The Man in High Castle than with any other book during his lifetime.

WELCOME TO AMERICA: 1962

The first season of The Man In The High Castle in 2015 brought the book’s chilling vision vividly to the screen. The United States of America we know from this period (portrayed in the early series of Mad Men, amongst other things) was confident, victorious and powerful poised on the verge of huge successes such as in the space race, but also riven by racial division and on the brink of disaster both in the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the growing war in Vietnam. But the America portrayed here is very different: it is no longer in fact, even the “United States” at all. We soon learn that the west coast of the former USA is now under the control of the victorious Japanese while the eastern bit is under Nazi German rule. The Rocky Mountains meanwhile are a neutral buffer zone between the two sides, this being where the mysterious “man in the high castle” is said to reside.

 Tantalising hints as to what has befallen the Allies are scattered liberally throughout both the series and the book. One character suggests the great war leader President Franklin D. Roosevelt was assassinated long before the war started in this reality, perhaps explaining why the US did not win. Another suggests that the war dragged on until 1947 instead of 1945 here, only ending when Nazi Germany dropped an atomic bomb on Washington DC.

TORN ASUNDER

A divided land then and few of the characters we meet are not facing a conflict of the loyalty of some sort or another. With the first season still on Amazon Prime some might want to steer clear now. But for everyone else, here’s a quick reminder…

San Francisco resident Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) for example, an expert in aikido appears happy living under Japanese rule at the start of Season 1. That’s until her half-sister Trudy who turns out to have been a member of the anti-government Resistance, is unexpectedly killed. Juliana finds herself drawn herself into the work of the Resistance as she attempts to complete Trudy’s last job: delivering a tape entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy to the mythical man in the High Castle. Intriguingly, the tape depicts an alternative version of history in which the US and the Allies defeated Germany and Japan! Essentially, the world in the tape is very like our own.

Juliana is aided and abetted by her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) a man enjoying some creative success but who has a dark secret which pushes him closer and closer to full blown rebellion: he is Jewish. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) meanwhile faces conflict of a different sort. Although supposedly a member of the Resistance he is in fact a secret agent in the employ of SS Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). Although very clearly a baddie, Smith is far from the typical stereotypical black and white Nazi villain. As his name suggests, he is an American-born participant in the new regime. A family man living a comfortable suburban life, it is suggested he has been drawn to Nazism by the apparent failure of the old American system in the Great Depression of the Thirties. Trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is yet another character who finds himself torn between conflicting loyalties. The new series also sees Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) begins to take more interest in the Man in the High Castle.

With Juliana, increasingly unsure what to do about the treacherous Joe, Joe doubting his own continued commitment to the Third Reich, Smith increasingly doubtful about the Nazi philosophy after the illness of one of his children, more revelations from The Grasshopoper Lies Heavy tapes and mounting tensions between Germany and Japan, the ten hour long episodes of Season Two of The Man In The High Castle promise to be just as compelling and as full of intrigue as the first.

At the root of the series’ success however is its authentic portrayal of a chilling but plausible alternative version of American history that though perhaps a touch more plausible in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory, has mercifully never existed.

WHO’S IN IT?

ALEXA DAVALOS

Playing the starring role of Juliana Crain, French-born Alexa has appeared in a good range of TV (Angel, Mob City) and films (notably The Chronicles of Riddick and Clash of the Titans).

RUPERT EVANS

With a key role in Ewan MacGregor’s recently released directorial debut American Pastoral, British actor Evans who plays Frank Frink has been in plays, TV and film aplenty, notably offbeat superhero flick Hellboy.

RUFUS SEWELL

Instantly recognisable as the older man love interest Lord Melbourne in the recent ITV Victoria, Sewell, also British, has been playing sexy villains for years in A Knight’s Tale, The Legend of Zorro and other films and TV.

2,001 ‘facts’ about 2001: A Space Odyssey

(Part One)

Director Stanley Kubrick considered withdrawing the film soon after release in response to tabloid reports that groups of young men had been launching ‘copycat’ manned space expeditions to the planet Jupiter.

Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Kubrick made the film as part of a plot to fake the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landings. This is, of course, nonsense. He was already too busy faking the Vietnam War.

The final line of the film is “My God! It’s full of stars!” This claim is untrue: in fact, there are no Hollywood stars in it. Leonard Rossiter is literally the most famous person in the film and even he hadn’t been in ‘Rising Damp’ then.

The apes at the start of the film are speaking in genuine prehistoric dialect. Roughly translated, they are saying things like: “God, this is taking a while to get going isn’t it?” “Hey! Watch what happens when I throw this bone in the air!” and “Shit! Where did that big black thing come from? That wasn’t there just now…”

Ever the perfectionist, Kubrick made one extra throw the bone in the air 7,674 times, even before he switched his camera on.

The song ‘Daisy Bell’ was not Kubrick’s first choice for the famous HAL shutdown scene. He had originally planned to use the song, ‘Cinderella Rockerfella’ sung in duet with another computer voiced by Barbara Streisand. This didn’t happen only because Kubrick never thought of it.

Although authentic-looking, very few of the scenes were actually shot in space.

Stanley Kubrick originally planned to film the movie in real time, starting in the prehistoric era.

Some viewers reported finding the film overlong. Some even claimed it was longer than the actual year, 2001 itself, including those who had watched it during the year, 2001.

A pilot for a spin-off TV sitcom , ‘You Can Call Me HAL,’ in which the computer sang ‘Daisy Bell’ during the credits and occasionally killed people was made, but never aired as it was shit.

Some have noticed that if you move the letters of the name ‘HAL’ one letter back in the alphabet it spells out the initials: ‘GZK’.

Things which the film predicted correctly about the year 2001: there would be some were people around doing stuff with computers and space. Things it got wrong: manned space expeditions to Jupiter, computers don’t usually take that long to shut down, classical music wasn’t that popular.

Kubrick was reportedly disappointed that very few people really thought the flying bone had actually turned into a spaceship.

He also was surprised so many people guessed the ‘twist’ that the planet of the apes at the start was supposed to be Earth.

Alternative names for the film which were considered were: Million Dollar Space Baby, The Keir Dullea Movie, Monolithicent, Kubrick’s Pube and The Apes of Wrath.

Book review: Timeless Adventures From The Father of Science Fiction, H.G. Wells

Book review: Timeless Adventures From The Father of Science Fiction, H.G. Wells. Published by: Prion.

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the get go: none of these adventures is ‘timeless’. Yes, they are still generally readable and are certainly very forward thinking. But they are all very obviously of their time, a time which is now over a century ago. Perhaps it is foolish to expect otherwise.
This is a fine volume containing four major works and ten short stories from H.G. Wells. The description of Wells as “the father of science fiction” might sound like a bold claim. However, if we are talking about British sci-fi, in Wells’ case, it’s actually pretty much on the button.
As a young man, Wells invented the time machine: not the device itself sadly, but the concept in the book of the same name which is included here (from 1895). The Time Machine in which Wells’ unnamed time traveller encounters nice Eloi and a nasty load of old Morlocks in the year A.D. 802,701 remains a good read. It has been filmed once, marvelously, by George Pal in 1960 and once, terribly, in 2002, by Simon Wells, great-grandson of the author.

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The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896): Don’t be put off by the appalling 1990s film version starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. The book still seems weird, even now but is nevertheless a great story, about an exiled doctor conducting bizarre experiments on animals and people on a remote island. It is surprisingly relevant to ongoing ethical debates about the appliance of science today.
The Invisible Man (1897): Very famous and undeniably clever, this is nevertheless, less fun than it sounds.
The War of the Worlds (1898): Finally, before a selection of more minor, shorter works, comes Wells’ genre-defining classic of Martian invasion. It has itself been adapted a few times, notably Orson Welles’ (no relation) headline-generating radio broadcast in 1938. But it, like so many other versions of the story, that missed perhaps its most compelling feature: that this amazing futuristic alien onslaught begins in Wells’ own stomping ground: Kent, in the last years of the Victorian age.

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Book reviews: Star Wars books 2018

Star Wars Geektionary. Published by Egmont.

Star Wars Alien Archive. Published by Egmont.

First, the bad news. There will be no Star Wars films out this Christmas, the first time this has occurred since 2014.


But there is some consolation. Firstly, a Star Wars film has already come out this year already (Solo). Second, these two delightfully illustrated books are out too.


There’s all manner of useless and made-up information inside. And I should know: I wrote the last ever Star Wars Clone Wars annual.


Ever wondered what species Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi was? (“It’s a trap!”) No? Well, he’s (or was) a Mon Calamari apparently. Try ordering one next time you’re in Zizzi’s.


Ever seen a Puffer Pig? Ever bargained with a Barghest? Is Tooka and Loth-Cat a cartoon series? Apparently not.

Have you ever seen a Steelpecker? Don’t laugh! It’s a bird from the planet Jakku! Yeah? Feeling silly now aren’t you? But where are Thisspiasians from? Doh! From Thisspias, obviously. Where else?

Occasionally, inspiration runs dry (Yoda’s species we are told is “unknown”). But this is good clean fun, particularly if your child has nothing more important to remember.

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Philip K Dick: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Blade-Runner-2-DirectorArticle reproduced from Geeky Monkey issue 8 (2016): written by Chris Hallam

Make no mistake: science fiction author Philip Kindred Dick was a man like no other. Paranoid, difficult, prone to visions of pink beams of light and strange God-like heads looking down at him from the sky, yet somehow simultaneously charming and hugely intelligent. Dick somehow managed to produce a wealth of novels and short stories during his 54 years. Works which formed the basis of the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and TV series The Man In The High Castle. 34 years after his death we assess the legacy of a science fiction colossus…

Perhaps no man has had as much impact on modern sci-fi as Philip K Dick. Assuming your favourite sci-fi films were produced in the last thirty years, there is every chance they were either based directly on one of Dick’s 44 books or around 120 short stories, or at least strongly influenced by them. Admittedly, some adaptations have been better than others – is Paycheck or Next among anyone’s favourite movies? Probably not. But all are linked by common themes, which arose from the eventful life of a deeply troubled genius.

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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? 

“Ironically, he had gotten exactly what he had asked Rekal, Incorporated for. Adventure, peril, Interplan police at work, a secret and dangerous trip to Mars in which his life was at stake – everything he had wanted as a false memory. The advantages of it being a memory – and nothing more – could now be appreciated.”

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1966)

Douglas Quaid: “I just had a terrible thought… what if this is a dream?”

Total Recall (1990)

It is an all too common story. Or rather, it isn’t. A man dreams of going to Mars. This being the future he could actually achieve this in theory, but the planet is off limits to everyone except ‘Government officials and high officials’. Our hero Douglas Quail is nothing more than a lowly pen pusher, and being unable to afford the trip goes for a cheaper option: having false memories deliberately implanted into his brain by a company called REKAL. Quail will feel like he’s had the experience of enjoying a ‘James Bond in space’-style fantasy adventure as a secret agent on Mars, without ever having actually been there.

From the beginning of Dick’s short story, ambiguity reigns. Has Quail been to REKAL’s offices already? Is he in fact already a secret agent being controlled by REKAL, or is this just part of a carefully constructed fantasy too?

Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film adaptation of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Total Recall, picks up the initial concept and runs with it. Dick’s story remains only in essence, but in essence it is always there. Changes were made: Doug Quail becomes Doug Quaid, presumably because Quaid (like the actor Dennis Quaid) was a cooler name than Quail which in 1990 would have reminded people of the much mocked US Vice President, Dan Quayle.

Schwarzenegger’s hero now also becomes a construction worker, doubtless in recognition of Arnie’s unusually muscular physique. Yet even the notion of Arnie as a loser (or more accurately as the sort of ordinary Joe he appears to be at the start of the film) still takes a bit of swallowing, particularly as he’s married to someone who looks like Sharon Stone.

The film had a long gestation period with actors as diverse as Richard Dreyfus, Patrick Swayze and William Hurt all being considered for the lead role before Schwarzenegger stepped in and hired Verhoeven. The source material was not obvious cinematic gold either, being one one of 120 Philip K Dick short stories. The only significant previous Dick adaptation was Blade Runner, at that point still considered a flop whose reputation was only slowly starting to rise. It is easy to see why filmmakers might have been wary.

The end result is less cerebral than the short story. Packed with action, violence, special effects and typical Schwarzenegger one liners. “Consider this a divorce!” is memorably uttered, seconds before Quaid guns down his wife, or perhaps ‘wife’). Total Recall was in contention to be one of the most expensive films ever made up until that point, and it went on to be a smash hit at the box office. Although I would be wary of advising any readers to type the words “Dick films biggest gross” into a search engine to check this, it is a fact that on inflation-adjusted figures, Total Recall is the biggest commercial success from Dick’s oeuvre, surpassing that of Spielberg’s Minority Report in the following decade.

For like Verhoeven’s later sci-fi based on Robert Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers (1999), or if you’re a fan of politician Boris Johnson, Total Recall manages the clever trick of being both silly and clever at the same time. While it seems likely the intelligence underlying the film was lost on many viewers who just saw it as an Arnie shoot-’em-up set on Mars, both the film and the story tap into a long standing Dick preoccupation: the idea that there is another reality underlying our own.

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It is a concept explored again in Len Wiseman’s inoffensive but unnecessary remake of Total Recall (2012) starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale. It is also touched upon in some of Dick’s other works, notably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and the less well known Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974). The latter is a novel in which the main character, famous TV star Jason Taverner, wakes up to find that the world he lives in has forgotten him. Indeed, it is as if he has never existed. Colin Farrell would briefly experience the same thing after appearing in Oliver Stone’s Alexander later in the decade.

The idea has had an impact on cinema way beyond straight adaptations of Dick’s work too. For example, in The Matrix (1999) in which Keanu Reeves’ hero discovers that reality as we know it is merely a façade shielding us from a far more horrible existence. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2002) sees a young couple, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, deliberately choosing to have all memories of their relationship erased following a bad break up. Soon, without even realising that they have met before, they meet and fall in love all over again. Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1999) sees the main character Truman Burbank, also played by Jim Carrey, slowly begin to realise that his apparently ordinary suburban life is in fact an elaborate construct for a reality TV show watched by millions since his birth.

Original stories? Of course. But they all owe a debt to Philip K Dick.

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What if…? Alternative worlds

Few of us will ever forget the terrible history of the end of the second World War. With Franklin Roosevelt assassinated in 1933, the United States proved unable to defeat Germany and Japan. The former USA was thereafter divided between the Japanese established Pacific States of America in the west and the Nazi-controlled former eastern states.

Of course, this isn’t what happened. Roosevelt in fact narrowly survived an assassination attempt shortly before his first inauguration. The Mayor of New York sitting next to the President Elect heard the gunshots and immediately stood up. He was shot and killed. Roosevelt, crippled by polio and thus, unable to stand, remained seated and survived. And (spoiler alert!) Germany and Japan lost the war.

The possibility that it might have ended in victory for the forces of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan is almost too horrendous to contemplate. Yet this very nearly happened. Little wonder then that Dick’s The Man In The High Castle (1963), one of his most acclaimed novels and now a successful Amazon Prime TV series, is only one of a number of stories which explores this theme.

Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland (1992) for example, imagines a Nazi occupied Britain in which the dethroned King Edward VIII (he of the abdication crisis) had been reinstalled by the Nazis, receptive to the King’s fascist sympathies. Set in 1964, with Hitler preparing to celebrate his 75th birthday, the US president in this world is Kennedy. Not the famous JFK, but his father Joseph P Kennedy, who in our reality had seen his own political career flounder due to his anti-British and pro-appeasement tendencies during the war. In Harris’ world appeasing the Third Reich is still fashionable into the 1960s, much to the ageing (and corrupt) JPK’s advantage. Similarly, CJ Sansom’s novel Dominion (2012) sees Churchill crucially failing to become leader in 1940. The Prime Minister Lord Halifax ends up making peace with the Nazis after the British leadership loses its nerve in the face of apparent certain defeat in 1940. The war is thus dramatically shortened, but peace comes at a terrible price. Finally, Philip Roth’s acclaimed The Plot Against America (2004) sees the US coming under the fascist spell when the popular but pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindbergh unexpectedly wins the presidency in 1940, beating Roosevelt.

The Man In The High Castle predates all of these, but certainly was not the first book of its type either. Dick in fact seems to have been directly inspired by a combination of the revived interest in the Third Reich brought on by the high profile trial of the leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann, captured and ultimately executed in the early 1960s, and by a book by Ward Moore called Bring The Jubilee. This 1953 novel envisaged what might have happened had the Southern Confederacy rather than the Union won the American Civil War of the 1860s. This ultimately leads to Germany beating Britain and France in a shortened version of the First World War and the 20th Century world becoming divided between American Confederate rule and a German empire.

Dick’s The Man In The High Castle was to be one of his biggest successes. It also features a novel within a novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which imagines what the world would be like had the Allies won the war after all. Even this differs from what actually happened, Churchill remaining in power after the war (in fact he returned to power only in 1951, having been defeated in the 1945 election) and the 1949 Communist takeover in China never occurs.

Like most Dick adaptations, the TV series follows his writing quite loosely (the USA becoming a victim of atomic attack for one thing) and this seems likely to continue with a second season in the pipeline. But the essence of Dick’s vision: a living, breathing, authentic alternative world is apparent in every scene.

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Dystopia Limited

Regular Geeky Monkey readers will have already read an extensive feature on the making of Blade Runner in issue three (you can get a back issue from http://www.get-geeky.today). Despite this, it should be emphasised what an impact the collective vision of Philip K Dick and director Ridley Scott had on subsequent filmmakers.

We are now in 2016 and thus only three years away from the 2019 setting of the film, and while the Replicants and (as with Back To The Future Part II) flying cars are unlikely to become a reality by then, in other respects the film seems eerily prescient. Dick, who had set the novel in 1992, never lived to see the completed film, but was pleased with what he saw of Scott’s polluted neo-noir dystopian vision during his final months.

It is true, Dick can hardly be credited with inventing the notion of a dystopia. But despite the inherent pessimism of much of Seventies cinema (a time when it was quite normal for many films to have unhappy endings), much of the sci-fi scene in the early Eighties was still surprisingly optimistic. The visions of the future presented in the Star Trek or Star Wars films were all for the most part upbeat. The authentic-looking heavily polluted gloom of Blade Runner was, ironically, a breath of fresh air.

1982 was a big year for box office flops for seemingly every film except ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Blade Runner joined The Thing and Tron among the box office failures. The author was now dead and the prospect of more Dick adaptations initially seemed slim.

In an act three twist no one saw coming, the years ahead would see Blade Runner’s reputation slowly rise and its influence grow. The film has been credited with influencing everything from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Akira (1987), Kathryn Bigelow’s Millennium-set virtual reality drama Strange Days (1995), Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998), Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006).

Second Variety (1953) was another Dick story bought for movie rights before his death, but was slower to make it to the screen. Screamers (1995) starring Robocop’s Peter Weller focuses on soldiers being pursued by manmade machines designed to destroy them in the late 21st Century. Although badly received on its release, it did ultimately spawn a cult following and a sequel, Screamers: The Hunting (2009).

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The age of paranoia 

“Paranoia, in some respects, I think, is a modern day development of an ancient, archaic sense that animals still have – quarry type animals – that they’re being watched… And they’re being watched probably by something that’s going to get them… and often my characters have that feeling.”

Philip K Dick interviewed in 1974

Most people have a healthy degree of scepticism about the world around them. Dick, however, took this to unusual extremes. Initially, his paranoia seemed to have some foundation: as a young author soon after the end of the McCarthy era anti-communist witch-hunts, he was visited several times by FBI agents. This despite the fact Dick himself was never overly political, although he was enjoying something of a beatnik existence at that time.

Later he began to use amphetamines heavily and his mental health (though not his creative abilities) began to decline. By the early 1970s, according to his biographer Anthony Peake in A Life Of Philip K Dick: The Man Who Remembered The Future he was, “Extremely paranoid, believing at different times that communists, Nazis and the FBI were on his trail.”

Dick’s visions and hallucinations are too many and varied to detail here. While undeniably interesting – he once believed he saw a giant head floating in the sky, another recurring theme was a vision of a pink beam of light – they are really only relevant insofar as they influenced his work and increasingly turbulent domestic life. This probably peaked in an incident in which the author appears to have burgled his own house (what exactly happened will probably never fully be known).

Not surprisingly, this paranoid tendency was soon reflected in his work. The Adjustment Bureau (2011) is only based very loosely on the early Dick short story The Adjustment Team (1953) but both feature the recurring motif of the course of reality being determined by powerful external forces beyond human control. In the case of the film the mysterious bureau men and the lives of ambitious young politician David Norris (Matt Damon and his new girlfriend Ellise played by Emily Blunt).

This sense of paranoia extends into Minority Report (later filmed by Steven Spielberg with Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, the future star of the Total Recall remake) in which a society has managed to eliminate crime through the deployment of pre-cog psychics. They are able to predict crimes before they occur and thus prevent them from ever actually happening. This early Dick story is one of the most successful adaptations, although a recent attempt to make a TV series flopped. Richard Linklater’s animated A Scanner Darkly (2006) based on the 1970s novel also reflected strongly Dick’s descent into drug culture.

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Listen up Philip: PDK in the 21st Century 

“My God, my life is exactly like the plot of any one of ten of my novels or stories. Even down to fake memories and identity,” Dick once admitted. “I’m a protagonist from one of PKD’s books.”

Philip K Dick died only a few months before the first major adaptation of any of his works, Blade Runner, was released. Not all of Dick’s works have translated well to the screen. Paycheck (2003) sees Ben Affleck undergo a memory wipe, tackling similar themes to Total Recall. Next (2007) starring Nicolas Cage as a man employed by the FBI to predict and prevent terrorist attacks is only very loosely based on the Dick story The Golden Man.

While his novels and stories are undoubtedly still widely read, a second series of The Man In The High Castle already underway for 2016 and a Blade Runner sequel starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling coming in 2018, it is clear the screen has given his work a new lease of life. This is only fitting. For with most of his work still potentially ripe for adaptation, it is possible we could be seeing more Philip K Dick adapted films and TV series for many decades to come.

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What’s in a name? 

Why is Blade Runner called Blade Runner? It’s a fair question. There is, after all, no reference to the term in either the book or the film. Deckard is only ever referred to as a bounty hunter and Replicants are not mentioned by that name in the book at all. It is easy to see why director Ridley Scott wanted to condense the memorable but cumbersome Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but why Blade Runner?

In fact, The Bladerunner was the name of a book by Alan J Nourse from 1974 which Dick’s friend, celebrated Naked Lunch author William Burroughs, had written a treatment for a movie version of called Blade Runner (a movie). In Nourses’s book, the title made sense as the main character ran ‘blades’ as part of a futuristic black market medical supply operation. To cut a long story short, the film never got made but Ridley Scott loved the name and bought the rights to it.

Dick had very nearly called the book The Electric Toad, Do Androids Dream? or oddest of all The Killers Are Among Us Cried Rick Deckard To The Special Men. The book also had a strong influence on the 2000AD comic story Robohunter which was created before Scott’s film in 1978.

Philip K Dick, it is fair to say, had a flare for an unusual title. Among his many novels are The Man Who Japed (1955), Dr Bloodmoney or How We Got Along After The Bomb (1965), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1970), The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1970) and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (published posthumously in 1986).

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Paycheck! 

Some are great, some are bad. But which of Philip K Dick’s movies have done the best at the box office?

(Source: Box Office Mojo, March 2016)

Worldwide total grossing opening weekend figures, in millions of US dollars, unadjusted for inflation.

  1. Minority Report (2002) $358.4
  2. Total Recall (1990) $261.3
  3. Total Recall (2012) $198.5
  4. The Adjustment Bureau (2011) $127.9
  5. Paycheck (2003) $96.3
  6. Next (2007) $76.1
  7. Blade Runner (1982) $27.6
  8. Impostor (2002) $8.1
  9. A Scanner Darkly (2006) $7.7

Total:$1,161.7

Average:$129.1

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Film review: Ghost In The Shell

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Ghost in the Shell is out now on Digital Download.

106 minutes

Directed by: Rupert Sanders

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche

First, the good news: in 2017, for the first time ever a superhero film starring a genuine actual woman person proved a big hit at the box office.

However, it wasn’t Ghost in the Shell. It was Wonder Woman.

The mystery, of course, is not so much why this happened but why this hadn’t happened before. There are a few possible explanations:

Explanation 1: Cinema audiences are all similar in character to Donald Trump. They claim to like women but secretly fear and despise them (even the ones who are female themselves): Happily, FALSE. Resident Evil, Underworld, Tomb Raider and other female-led non-superhero films have done well with audiences after all. As did Wonder Woman…

Explanation 2: No one outside the Geekzone knew about characters like Elektra, Aeon Flux, Catwoman and the franchise Ghost in the Shell. Everyone knows Wonder Woman: Probably TRUE, yes. Except in the case of Catwoman, who everyone knew but which was truly dreadful.

Explanation 3: That’s just it! Wonder Woman was actually good. All those other films were bad! Surprisingly, this is generally TRUE too (although Ghost in the Shell, as we shall see, isn’t bad). But why should this be…?

Explanation 4: Women are just bad at playing superheroes. FALSE! Garner, Theron, Johansson were and are all good actresses. It’s not just Gil Gadot, great as she is.

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Explanation 5: Filmmakers really haven’t got the knack of making superhero films for women until now. Oddly, this is more likely to be the explanation than anything else.

Perhaps I am wrong to group Ghost In The Shell alongside these other films. It is arguably a different kettle of fish. It is science fiction, a direct remake of the Japanese anime which is  in fact one of the most successful animes there has ever been. it’s Blade Runner type setting is reasonably visually impressive and the film is certainly action packed. Johansson is fine as the synthetic human who has been transformed into an anti-terrorist operative  although it is difficult to reject the widespread criticism that an Asian actress would have been more suitable for the part.

Ghost In The Shell is never awful but it isn’t especially original, lacks a sense of humour and is sometimes quite boring. Great films do sometimes fail at the box office. This did fail but ultimately really isn’t great.

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Star Wars book reviews: 2017

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Let’s face it: here is something about Star Wars. Nothing compares to it. It is simultaneously one of the biggest films of all time and a cult favourite. These reviews cover just a small sample of the huge range of Star Wars books released (mostly) in the past year. 2017 is, of course, the 40th anniversary of the original film’s release. The strange thing is none  of these books are even being released because of that. There are always just lots of Star Wars books being released anyway and these are some of them.

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Art of Colouring: Rogue One A Star Wars Story and Star Wars Rogue One Profiles And Pictures have both been released by Egmont to capitalise on the success of the recent mildly enjoyable Rogue One film. The colouring book has its weaknesses -why would any one want too colour in storm troopers who are black and white anyway? – but both are otherwise competent enough. Make Your Own U-Wing (also Egmont) similarly does exactly what it says on the tin.

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A more philosophical supposedly grown-up approach to the franchise is taken by former Obama Administration official Cass R. Sunstein in The World According To Star Wars (pub: William Morrow). It is good but mostly quite silly.

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By far the best book on the history of the franchise here and indeed, perhaps anywhere,  is Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered The Universe (Head Zeus, 2015). Utterly absorbing and totally comprehensive.

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Finally, before her untimely death last year, Carrie Fisher’s memoir The Princess Diarist (Bantam Press, 2016) generated a disturbance in the Force by revealing the then teenage actress’s on set affair with Han Solo actor Harrison Ford, then in his thirties and nearing the end of his first marriage.

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“I love you!” “I know!” is the couple’s famous exchange in the film. And we should know  too. The affair had already been referred to in Chris Taylor’s book mentioned above. This was published some time before Carrie Fisher’s confession. Why did nobody pick up on it then?

Fisher’s final book is not really a fitting tribute to the late author’s formidable talent. The diary extracts written by her younger self are not really fit for publication. The rest is lightweight fare from a great writer on lazy form.

Ultimately, though, consider this: no books have been released entitled How Smokey and the Bandit Conquered The Universe. Or How Annie Hall Conquered The Universe. Or How Saturday Night Fever Conquered The Universe.

Why? Because Star Wars is utterly unique. Truly, a Force unto itself.

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Book review: Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore

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In 1978, Alan Moore decided to quit the job at the Northampton gas board and dedicate himself full time to breaking into the comics industry as a writer. It was a high risk strategy. He was twenty-four years old and his young wife was pregnant. But Moore saw it as his last chance to exchange a job he hated for a career he loved.

Success came slowly with occasional one-off stories (Tharg’s Futureshocks) in the new science fiction comic 2000AD. Later, came Skizz, D.R. and Quinch and my own personal favourite, The Ballad of Halo Jones. More success came through the short lived and inappropriately titled Warrior comic (it was not war-related at all). Moore provided the backbone to the comic between 1982 and 1985, most famously with V For Vendetta, set in a late 1990s futuristic fascist dystopia. He also wrote Marvelman, now known as Miracleman, a promising superhero strip derailed by a legal dispute with Marvel Comics. This proved an forerunner to his greatest success, DC’s The Watchmen.

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Today, Alan Moore is still in Northampton, in his sixties and is renowned as one of the most successful comic writers ever albeit one with a bit of reputation for disputes with his employers or prospective filmmakers attempting to adapt his works (Moore has famously never seen any of the four films directly based on his own comics).

His fascinating story is detailed thoroughly by the always excellent Lance Parkin in this comprehensive biography.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin, published by Aurum Press (2013)

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Book review: The Impossible Has Happened by Lance Parkin

The Impossible Has Happened

The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek. Author: Lance Parkin. Aurum Press. Published: July 21st 2016.

It has been fifty years since the creation of Star Trek and the franchise is undeniably going strong. A new film and a new TV series are both scheduled to appear later this year.

Twenty five years after his death, the reputation of the series creator Gene Roddenberry is more uncertain. On the one hand, he has been subject to a personality cult almost as elaborate as that surrounding Scientology creator and sci-fi author. On the other hand, he has been demonised as a fraud, a philanderer and a phoney. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

He was born in 1921 and served with distinction as a pilot in the Second World War. After the war, ironically he came very close to death in a Pan Am air crash which killed seven people in 1947. He served in the US police force drifting into TV writing and creating one non-Star Trek series, a police-themed one called The Lieutenant. He then created Star Trek which ran for three series between 1966 and 1968. At the time, it was neither very successful or a failure. Mission Impossible which ran at about the same time was probably more successful. Leonard Nimoy indeed joined the Mission Impossible cast after Star Trek ended. But unexpectedly, Star Trek became a huge success after it had ended through syndicated repeat showings. The show grew and grew and grew.

Many of the myths surrounding Star Trek seem to come from stories Roddenberry himself told at science fiction conventions in the 1970s. Some had the commendable aim of consolidating a following for the series but others clearly had more to do with Roddenberry’s ego. Yes, the series did end after three series but Roddenberry’s claims that it was ended unfairly by small-minded producers don’t add up. It was no longer profitable and the last series was significantly worse than the others. Roddenberry also subsequently exaggerated his own role as a champion of equality and civil rights claiming falsely that he fought narrow minded studio heads over the issue In fact, though he wasn’t racist by mid-20th century standards, the 1960s series only ever featured as many other minorities as most other US TV series of the time. Nichelle Nicholls’ Uhura, for example, was barely ever given anything important to do. She was one of many women Roddenberry had affairs with and in truth, the original series really didn’t have a progressive role towards women at all.

Leonard Nimoy certainly grew to hate Roddenberry. The man would often claim sole credit for the success of the series, ignoring the contribution of many others. He had no role at all in the making of the most acclaimed film 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (which he hated) and his own increasingly drunken, ageing cocaine-addled influence partly explains why the ultimately excellent Next Generation series had such a dull start.

Author Lance Parkin provides a balanced portrait of a man who for all his many flaws took TV on a journey where no one had gone before.

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Blu-ray review: High-Rise

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Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Elisabeth Moss, Reece Shearsmith. Director: Ben Wheatley. Released: June 18th 2016.Studio Canal

Anarchy has often made material for some surprisingly dull films.

As exciting (or depending on your viewpoint) terrifying as a good riot may be, its difficult to maintain the sustained energy of a genuine rumpus for long on screen. It’s true Quadrophenia was enlivened by a memorable battle between Mods and Rockers while Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was essentially all a big build up to an urban riot. But JG Ballard’s celebrated 1975 dystopian drama High-Rise is all about a riot: essentially a sky rise building’s not so gradual descent into violence and barbarism. How long can a film continue to shock, titillate and surprise you over a two hour period?

Quite a lot as it happens. Hot British director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers) is in many ways a perfect fit for this sort of thing and ably assisted by a cast of beautiful and not so beautiful people, this just about works while never quite scaling the heights of a novel which has influenced everything from the Blockmania of Judge Dredd to David Cronenberg’s early tower block based horror Shivers.

Indeed, as the accompanying featurette on author JG Ballard reminds us, Cronenberg is one of a number of directors (along with Spielberg) to tackle the late author’s books before. Set in a futuristic version of the Britain of the 1970s and featuring audio commentaries and interviews with cast and crew, High-Rise probably won’t be your favourite film of this year. But it will probably be one of the more interesting.

 

 

Book review: Star Wars latest Egmont titles

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Some of you may not like to hear this, but Star Wars is to some extent supposed to be for children. How else do you explain the Ewoks? Jar Jar Binks? Cast your minds back: Who are the stars of the opening scenes of the original film? Luke? Obi Wan? No. C3PO and R2D2. Doubtless you yourself were a child when you were first sucked in by the Force. It is thus hardly surprising then that the franchise (now ultimately ran by Disney) is still keen to attract as young audience.

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With this in mind, Egmont Publishing have released the following three books aimed at children of eight and above in a new series entitled Adventures In Wild Space. These focus on Milo and Lina Graf who embark on a perilous journey across space to rescue their parents who have been kidnapped by agents of the Empire. The action takes place between the events of Revenge of the Sith (the last and best of the three prequels) and A New Hope (otherwise known as the”first” one). All three books are good fun and have pictures throughout.

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They are:

Star Wars: Adventures In Wild Space: The Snare by Cavan Scott

Star Wars: Adventures In Wild Space: The Nest by Tom Huddleston

Star Wars: Adventures In Wild Space: The Escape by Cavan Scott (a prequel to the other two books, in true confusing Star Wars style).

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Also released, are a novelisation of The Force Awakens by Michael Kogge, a picture book version of the same recent enjoyable film and a fun flap-lifting interactive book set in the Star Wars universe, Bounty Hunt.

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Book review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Book review: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

By Arthur C. Clarke.

Illustrations by Joe Wilson.

Published by The Folio Society.

All illustrations from The Folio Society edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

. © JoeWilson2016

2001: A Space Odyssey is a long film. Having experienced both it and the actual year 2001, it must be said the film seemed the longer of the two.

In summary: Music. Prehistoric ape men throwing bones into the air. Spaceships moving very slowly to classical music. Leonard Rossiter. The excellent HAL shutdown sequence. The space baby bit which nobody really understands. Many hippies came away in 1968 thinking they had seen the best film ever made. Perhaps they were right. No one had after all, seen Timecop then.

Some muse that the film proves that director Stanley Kubrick helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landings the following year. This seems unlikely. Kubrick was after all a very meticulous director, famous for insisting upon multiple takes. If he had been hired to film the moon landings, they would probably still be being filmed.

This is not the film, however, it is Arthur C. Clarke’s much more palatable book, illustrated for the first time (by artist Joe Wilson). It is not a predictive text. Having cleverly predicted the moon landings would be in 1970 (he made the prediction in 1945 and was only one year out!) Clarke seems to have been about a century out at least in predicting how advanced we would be by 2001. Anyone hoping for the discovery of a giant space baby in that year would have been sorely disappointed.

But this is ultimately an enjoyable and nicely illustrated read. Scoring it out of 2,500, I would unhesitatingly give it…2001.

Star Wars timeline: From A New Hope to The Force Awakens

 

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A long time ago…

1977:

The first film, initially entitled just Star Wars is released. It is an unexpectedly big hit, easily beating its nearest rivals Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Smokey and the Bandit to become the biggest US film of 1977. Taking inflation into account, as of 2015, it is the third biggest grossing film of all time. None of the younger members of the cast are well known at the time of the film’s release. Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia)j is  the daughter of actors Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.  Harrison Ford (Han Solo), an ex-carpenter had appeared in director George Lucas’s second film American Graffiti and had been in the as yet unreleased, much delayed Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979).  Mark Hamill plays Luke Skywalker, a character Lucas once envisaged being called “Luke Starkiller”.

1978:

Star Wars is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar but loses to Woody Allen’s acclaimed comedy Annie Hall. No other Star Wars films have been nominated for Best Picture his in the years since. In fact, no science fiction film has ever won the Best Picture (although Avatar appears to have come close).

The first toys and novelisations of the saga appear. Some of the books contradict things which occur later in the films (some feature Luke and Leia marrying, for example).

The famously terrible Star Wars Holiday Special is broadcast on US TV.

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1980:

Star Wars Episode V The Empire Strikes Back is released.  The first film is now dubbed Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (in 1981) and prequels are clearly planned for the future. Empire is directed not by George Lucas but by Irvin Kershner. New characters include Yoda, Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett. Debate continues to rage as to whether A New Hope or Empire are better.

Hamill also appears in World War II drama The Big Red One this year, in a largely futile bid to escape typecasting.

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1982:

Star Trek II changes its name from The Vengeance of Khan to The Wrath of Khan, to avoid any confusion with the forthcoming Star Wars film, Revenge of the Jedi.  In the end, the Star Wars sequel’s name becomes Return of the Jedi anyway.

1983:

Episode VI Return of the Jedi directed by Welshman Richard Marquand is released. It is fondly remembered for the Ewoks and for Jabba the Hutt but is usually considered narrowly the worst of the original trilogy. It is still a smash hit though. There will be no more official Star Wars films for another 16 years. Indeed, at this point, Lucas seems less keen on the idea of ever producing episodes I-III at any point at all.

President Reagan, a Star Wars fan, calls his new ambitious (and ultimately unworkable) Strategic Defence Initiative, “Star Wars”.

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1984:

TV movie Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure is released. A follow up Ewoks: The Battle For Endor is released in 1985.

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1985-1987:

The Ewoks, an animated series aimed at younger children, runs for two series.

1985-1986:

Animated series Droids starring C3P0 and R2D2 runs for one series, with Anthony Daniels reprising his role as C3PO. It is set somewhere before A New Hope but after the three as yet unmade prequels.

1987:

Ten years on from Star Wars, George Lucas seems to have abandoned plans for any Star Wars prequels and is distracted by Indiana Jones and Star Wars related projects as well as the aftermath of his divorce.

Star Wars has also trigged a sci-fi boom at the movies since 1977.

Carrie Fisher begins a career as a successful novelist with her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards From The Edge. Despite a troubled personal life, she enjoys smallish roles in The Blues Brothers, Hannah and Her Sisters and When Harry Met Sally during the decade. Harrison Ford is now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood thanks more to Indiana Jones and well received roles in the likes of Witness and Blade Runner than specifically to Star Wars itself. Hamill, stung after being rejected for Tom Hulce’s role in Amadeus (1984) has taken a break from acting.

Mel Brooks releases his rather belated Star Wars spoof Spaceballs. Featuring Pizza the Hutt and the catchphrase “the Schwartz be with you,” it receives mixed reviews.

Jedi director Richard Marquand dies suddenly, age 49.

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1992:

Now in his forties, Mark Hamill begins voicing The Joker, for Batman The Animated Series. It proves to be probably his most successful non-Star Wars role and leads to lots of other voice work.

1993

Lucas announces plans to make three films set before the 1977-83 trilogy, after all.

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1994:

Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) dies, aged 81.

1997

To mark the franchise’s 20th birthday Special Editions of all three films. Although many fans are keen to see the films on the big screen, many are annoyed by the sometimes intrusive changes Lucas inserts into these and later new editions.

1999:

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is released. It is directed by George Lucas and is his first film as director since 1977’s Star Wars. He also directs the two subsequent sequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The cast (with the exception of newcomer Jake Lloyd who plays young Anakin) are, unlike the 1977 film, mostly quite well known already: Ewan McGregor , Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson.

The Phantom Menace makes more money than any of the first six Star Wars films (ignoring inflation).

The film disappoints many however,  criticism (now often on the internet) largely centring on, the racial stereotyping evident in the character of some of the alien species, the character of Jar Jar Binks and the apparent overuse of CGI (and many other things). The character of Darth Maul proves popular, however.

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2000:

Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) dies age 86. He did not enjoy the production of Star Wars (Harrison Ford dubbed him “Mother Superior” on set) but liked the finished product when he saw it. The role did make him very rich but he disliked the fact that he was soon better known for it than anything else in his forty years on screen.

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2002:

Episode II Attack of the Clones is released with Hayden Christiansen (then largely unknown and indeed still so, aside for this role) joins the cast as the older Anakin. A light sabre fight featuring Yoda proves popular and generally the film is slightly better received than Phantom (although does much less business).

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2003:

Genndy Tartakovsky produces Clone Wars, an acclaimed animated series set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

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2005:

Episode III Revenge of the Sith, the third and final prequel is released. It is much more popular than either Phantom or Clones with fans and is the second highest grossing SW film thus far (ignoring inflation). Most fans prefer the 1977-83 trilogy, however. There are no more proper Star Wars films for another decade.

2008:

Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated film is released. It is panned by the critics and flops at the box office. Despite this, a new Star Wars: Clone Wars TV series begins. Tartakovsky, who was behind the first Clone Wars series is not involved.

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2010:

Empire director Irvin Kershner dies aged 86.

2012:

Disney buys the Star Wars franchise off Lucas for $4.05 billion or £2.5 billion. Plans for a new trilogy, the first directed by JJ Abrams, then at the helm of the two recent Star Trek films.

2013:

Clone Wars is cancelled as focus shifts towards the new films.

2014:

Star Wars Rebels, a 3D CGI animated series set between Revenge of the Sith but before A New Hope begins.

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2015:

Rogue One, a spin off Star Wars film is due for release in 2016, followed by another spin off film based around Han Solo’s early years.

Ford, scheduled to feature in The Force Awakens is slightly injured in a light aircraft crash. His 73rd birthday is in July.

Christopher Lee (Count Dooku in the prequels, though better known for many other roles) dies aged 93.

The Force Awakens is scheduled for release later this month.

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Book review: Whoniverse – An Unofficial Planet By Planet Guide To The Universe of Doctor Who by Lance Parkin

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Book review: Whoniverse – An Unofficial Planet By Planet Guide To The Universe of Doctor Who From Gallifrey To Skaro by Lance Parkin.

Published by: Aurum Press

Out: October 22nd 2015

The Doctor is in. And he is is likely to remain in for some time. Even ignoring the inconvenient interruption of the years from 1989 to 2005 (when aside from a failed TV movie, Doctor Who was not on TV), the series nevertheless has an impressive legacy, stretching back to 1963. And the universe within the show, helpfully covered by Lance Parkin here, obviously covers countless millennia and numerous imaginary worlds and timelines.

It perhaps goes without saying that this is a book for true fans of the series, starting as it does with almost academic sounding chapters entitled “the structure of the universe” before launching into accounts of the likes of Kaldor, Peladon and The Shadow Proclamation. This is not a history of the series or an episode guide but a guide to the wider Who universe. In truth, I am perhaps not a big enough Who fan to fully appreciate it. Many others would.

That said, with great pictures throughout taken from the show and the long running Doctor Who Magazine, this would be a worthy addition to any coffee table.

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Book review: Where’s The Wookiee?

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Where’s The Wookiee?

Published by Egmont

Out now

Make no mistake: you definitely wouldn’t miss a Wookiee if you ever saw one in real life. They are tall, hairy and look like yetis. If you’ve seen the character Chewbacca in Episodes IV to VI (as in, the old, good ones) or in the trailer for The Force Awakens, you’ll know exactly what they look like, for he is the most famous of them all. There’s also a bunch of them in the most recent proper Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith.

Of course, as they don’t actually exist in real life you’re unlikely to ever see a Wookiee outside a science fiction convention. This fun children’s book, essentially based on the format Where’s Wally or if you’re American, Where’s Waldo, allows you to spot a Wookie (and indeed other characters) amidst a busy but charming array of nicely illustrated crowd scenes. Sometimes you’ll spot him instantly. Sometimes it will take ages. But he’s always there. That’s just the way the Wookiee crumbles.

A great way to keep the children quiet for a good while then, especially if they love Wally (which by the way is no more a typical British name than Waldo is) and/or Star Wars.

As Chewbacca himself would say: “Yeeaarraagh grruuughhh muurraa yaarg!”

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Book review: The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Jem Roberts

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Frood, as in “There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is” is a word created by Douglas Adams himself. He would never have referred to himself as one of course and one wonders if the term which is defined as a “really amazing together guy” by no less an authority than The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy generally applied to Adams, a man who was, after all, notorious for missing deadlines. What’s not in dispute, thirty five years after his first novel first appeared and thirteen years after his absurdly premature death is that Adams was a genius and among the top set of the best British comic writers of the twentieth century.

Adams was at his least “froody” only a short while before his greatest success. Six foot five inches tall and prone to taking day long baths while his housemate rising comedy producer legend John Lloyd went to work at the BBC, Adams despaired of ever being successful himself. This is odd as we are only talking 1976 here when Adams was still only 24. It is also a little odd as he had already achieved quite a bit such as working alongside his heroes Monty Python (by a strange coincidence appearing in one episode of Python, number 42).

But the next few years would see a period of frantic overwork for Adams: scripting for his dream show Doctor Who, writing a children’s cartoon Doctor Snuggles to make ends meet and, of course, scripting the radio series, TV shows and books of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. The saga would make Adams a millionaire before he was thirty and would dominate the last twenty years of his life.

The Babel Fish. The number “42”. Marvin the paranoid android (a popular character, who, of course, was not actually especially paranoid, just depressed). Towels. Slartibartfast. Vogon poetry. The saga provided the perfect vehicle for Adam’s hugely inventive brain. Five novels were produced in total (though the fourth one So Long And Thanks For All The Fish was a bit of a dud) and Adams was behind numerous adaptations notably a memorable text based computer game and various attempts to launch Hitchhiker as a film. This was, of course, only finally realised after Adams’ death. The result by Garth Jennings in 2005 was a mixed bag as Roberts notes somewhere between a success and a failure. The closest Adams came to a film was a possible collaboration with future Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. This foundered over Adam’s script which left any director little creative leeway and the saga’s previous tendency to resist any sort of narrative structure.

Like Jem Roberts’ brilliantly exhaustive previous book The True History of the Black Adder, this is a superb well researched book, especially detailed on all the many side projects Adams embarked upon with varying degrees of success. It is truly as essential a guide for any fan of the saga as the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide was for Ford Prefect as he travelled across the universe.

It is a shock to realise Douglas Adams would be barely into his sixties if he were alive even now. This is a fitting tribute to a giant of comic literature, taken from us far too early.

Book Review: Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe by Amy Pascale

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Review: Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe

Amy Pascale

Published by: Aurum Press

Joss Whedon was born to be a writer. Not only were both his father and grandfather, successful writers of radio and TV but he even managed to have an unhappy childhood. How could he fail?

As one of Whedon’s colleagues puts it: “if Joss had had a single happy day at high school, none of us would be here.” He proved equally socially awkward in the UK as well as the US, attending Winchester School in Hampshire the early Eighties. In short, he was geek long before it was fashionable

As an adult, Joss Whedon would become one of the most accomplished TV and movie writers of the last twenty years. But he’s certainly had his ups and downs as Amy Pascale’s wonderfully thorough biography reveals.

His first job, writing for sitcom Roseanne was generally frustrating with only one of his scripts really getting to the screen, albeit in a particularly good episode in which cynical daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) has a poem read out at school. Whedon’s first film also had a neat twist: what if one of the dippy high school girls (a “Buffy”) typically killed off in horror films asserted herself and became a vampire slayer herself? But Whedon was young and lost control of the project. The end result in 1992 (the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Kristy Swanson) was technically a hit but pleased few people who watched it, least of all Whedon himself. Something similar happened with Whedon’s later attempt to revive the Alien franchise, Alien Resurrection. Whedon’s script was good but the directors, the Jeunet brothers went their own way.

Whedon’s attempts to save Waterworld from disaster also fell on deaf ears largely due to resistance from star Kevin Costner. Whedon found the production of the 1995 sci-fi film in disarray “This guy has gills man! What on Earth were you guys thinking?” Whedon recalls thinking on his arrival.

However, when Whedon’s script doctoring has been given full rein as in the cases of Toy Story and Speed, Whedon not only “saved” both movies, but made them amongst the most memorable films of the Nineties. Actress Sandra Bullock to some extent owes her career to Whedon’s love of strong female characters for her winning turn in her breakthrough role.

It was the return of another such character Buffy, now played by Sarah Michelle Gellar now on TV which brought about Whedon’s most perfectly realised project and the main topic for much of this book. Building on the foundations of groundbreaking mid-Nineties teen dramas My So Called Life and Party of Five, Buffy was never massive ratings hit but nevertheless changed TV forever. With the characters speaking in their own witty highly sophisticated lingo reflecting Whedon’s love of Shakespeare, Buffy also spawned classic episodes Hush (in all of the main characters are temporarily rendered speechless), The Body (in which Buffy’s mother dies suddenly, echoing the death of Whedon’s own mother ten years earlier) and Once More With Feeling (the hugely acclaimed musical episode).

Buffy also spawned the successful spin off Angel. Yet Whedon’s career faced a setback in 2003 and 2004 when he suddenly went from being the master of three series – Buffy, Angel and sci-fi drama Firefly – to the master of none when all three shows ended. Just as Whedon revived the failed film of Buffy for TV with huge success, acclaimed but short lived TV show Firefly was revived for the big screen as Serenity. But though good, the film too failed at the box office.

Although clearly a huge Whedon fan Amy Pascale never shirks from dealing with Whedon’s failures (TV show Dollhouse flopped, various projects such as an animated series of Buffy never got made) to his successes which include a production of Much Ado About Nothing to the current TV series Agents of SHIELD as well as the recent huge smash hit movie Avengers Assemble. Amy Pascale has produced an essential guide to one of the greatest screenwriters of our time as he enters his fiftieth year.

14 Alternative Taglines For Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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It is often said that if you gather an infinite number of apes together with an infinite number of typewriters, they will eventually produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Here’s an even better idea: as Shakespeare’s plays have already been written, why not use the apes to make a film called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes instead? With the film already on general release, however, all that’s missing is the perfect tagline:
Repeat after me: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes…:
1. What Became of the Monkeys?
2. The Apes of Wrath.
3. Caesar Goes Bananas.
4. Hang on! Where’s James Franco gone? Wasn’t he in this? He didn’t die in the first one did he? I can’t remember.
5. Ooh ooh ooh. They want to be like you ooh ooh.
6. Close. But No Banana.
7. Monkey See. Monkey Do.
8. This Time They Didn’t Drink PG Tips.
9. Softly softly. Catchy Monkeys.
10. Go Ape.
11. Definitely Not the Shit Mark Wahlberg One.
12. Guaranteed: Contains one of the finest simian mass cremation scenes of any movie this summer!
13. Bloody hell! Andy Serkis really has got this motion capture stuff sewn up hasn’t he?
14. Serious. Monkey. Business.

Thirty years of The Ballad of Halo Jones

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If you were reading the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 20000AD, thirty years ago this month, you would doubtless have noticed a new character.

The Ballad of Halo Jones written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Ian Gibson first appeared in July 1984. 2000AD, which had started in 1977, already featured many of its best known science fiction and fantasy strips notably Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine. Ian Gibson had, in fact, drawn many Dredd episodes as well as the more humorous Sam Slade: Robohunter.

Alan Moore is a legend in the world of comics today. This was less true in 1984, but he was hardly unknown then either, having already penned both the futuristic drama V For Vendetta and Marvelman (later known as Miracleman) for Warrior, a title Moore had largely dominated but which was on its way out by 1984. He was also doing Swamp Thing for DC and had produced the extraterrestrial fantasy Skizz and D.R. and Quinch for 2000AD.  He had also written many Tharg’s Futureshocks; the Twilight Zone-style one off stories which many 2000AD staff first get established on. Moore had worked once with Gibson on one of these, “Grawks Bearing Gifts”.

But the first Halo Jones story wasn’t a hit. Lance Parkin in his biography Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore writes: “Now, Halo Jones is regularly cited as a high point of the magazine’s long history. Then, it was a different story. Every week, the magazine polled its readers on their favourite strips, and Halo Jones was notably unpopular during its first run (#376-385, July-September 1984)”. What was the problem?

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Was it because most of the characters were girls? Halo is introduced as a teenager, one of a group of female friends (plus Toby, a robot dog) who live on the Hoop, a large crime-infested artificial population centre constructed off Manhattan Island. It was fairly unusual for 2000AD to have a female lead character at this time but it is probable a few factors conspired against the strip. Readers complained of a lack of “action”. Moore assumed they meant a lack of “violence”. Cynical but perhaps accurate, there is little of either in Volume One (at least, not until the end). The story also features a fair amount of futuristic slang which may have alienated some readers. Although to be fair, the slang “Squeeze! Squeeze with a bare arm!” isn’t that unusual bearing in mind the strip is set in 4949, nearly 3,000 years in the future. Another possible point against it is that there is also little interesting to mark out Halo at this point. She is just another one of the girls.

Volume Two which appeared in 1985, however, was much better.

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For one thing, the intriguing prologue features a lecture, set even further in the future which not only updates us but hints for the first time that Halo might be destined to become a figure of genuine historical import. Halo also develops more as a character, working as a stewardess on a space cruise liner the Clara Pandy during a year long voyage and leaving her less ambitious or unlucky friends back on the Hoop.

The ship turns out to be a perfect vehicle for all sorts of great stories, many working as stand alone strips. Toby, Halo’s companion reveals a ferocious dark side while a particularly strong story concerns The Glyph, a soulless sad character rendered invisible after countless sex changes have robbed him of his true identity.

Volume Three, is by Alan Moore’s own admission, the best of all.

Although it appeared only a year later, in 1986, ten long years have passed for Halo and she has become a more cynical, harder and more interesting figure. Washed up, she bumps into her old friend Toy Molto (a giantess) and the two decide to join the Army.

Predictably, this ends badly with the two becoming involved in the encroaching war in the Tarantula Nebula, a Vietnam-style conflict, periodically alluded to in the strip since Book One. Funny, ingenious and at times, moving, (one episode sees Halo talking for some time to a wounded colleague before realising with total horror that they have been dead for some time), Halo experiences the full indignity of combat. The war on the planet Moab, particularly leads to a memorable battle in which the strong gravity of the large planet leads time to be distorted leading the conflict to literally be appearing to pass either in slow motion or sometimes even accelerated speed. Halo also becomes embroiled in an unwise love affair with the monstrous General Luiz Cannibal and loses her innocence in more ways than one.

Adverts for the Titan anthologies of the story at the time hinted at ten volumes of Halo even suggesting she became a pirate queen. But, in fact, Volume Three would be the end. Moore fell out with 2000AD and went onto The Watchmen and phenomenal comic success. Only Neil Gaiman has come close to his status amongst contemporary British comic writers.

The Ballad of Halo Jones remains his overlooked masterpiece. I urge you to seek it out.

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Is Gravity a science fiction film?

I was surprised by some of the online reaction to my recent blog entry, “Could Gravity be the first science fiction film to win the Best Picture Oscar?” It wasn’t so much that people disagreed whether it would win or not. Indeed, I am not actually really expecting it to win myself (12 Years A Slaver currently looks like a safer bet). I was more surprised that some disagreed that Gravity was even a science fiction film in the first place.

This seems odd and my initial thought was that respondents were exhibiting the odd sort of snobbery which often bedevils the genre. Even Canadian author Margaret Atwood has in the past denied that her futuristic novel Onyx and Crake is science fiction, even though, it quite obviously is.
Definitions of science fiction do vary quite dramatically, however, so let’s think about this:

Gravity centres on a major accident in space. In this, it resembles Ron Howard’s film, Apollo 13. But Apollo 13 is clearly not science fiction as it is based on real events. The same goes for the film of Tom Wolfe’s astronaut-themed, The Right Stuff. The fact that both are also set in the past does not matter. Science fiction can be set in the past. Consider the early scenes of The Time Machine or even the Star Wars films which are all set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But these two films (unlike Star Wars or The Time Machine) are not sci-fi anyway as they are based on real events. They are all ‘sci’ and no ‘fi’.

In the loosest sense, then Gravity is constructed around a fictional science-themed scenario. It is not clear whether it is set in the future or the present, although I would presume, the future. However, it also features astronauts dying in space. This has never actually happened, thankfully. A total of seventeen people died in the Apollo 7 fire in 1967 and Challenger and Columbia explosions but none of these were actually in space. It seems likely that had any secret Cold War Soviet space missions ended in fatalities, we would also know about them by now.

This pushes Gravity further into the realm of sci-fi. One respondent cited the fact that the film is “all too plausible” as evidence against it being science fiction. This is silly. Much of the best sci-fi, such as the recent film Contagion, depicting a devastating apocalyptic plague, is very plausible.

One thing my blog totally failed to anticipate, however, was that another science fiction film Spike Jonze’s Her, would also get nominated for Best Picture.

Good luck to them both.