The Year of the Geek: 365 Adventures From The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Universe, by James Clarke. Published by: Aurum Press.
When did it become fashionable to become a geek? Geekiness is, after all, surely after all, by definition a shameful, untrendy preoccupation. Does this mean that anyone who claims to aspire to be a geek is necessarily a pretender to the nerd throne?
Well, no. Some people blame this trend on things like US sitcom Big Bang Theory and the excellent but now defunct British near equivalent The IT Crowd. But, in truth, this tendency which has resulted in websites like Den of Geek and books like this, has always been there. After all, you can’t get Spider-man without meeting Peter Parker first.
This book takes a chronological approach with a different geek anniversary highlighted for every day of the year. This, it must be said, is potentially of some use to someone who writes professionally on geek issues like me.
May 25, for example, is the anniversary of Star Wars’ US release in 1977. Lord of the Rings’ author JRR Tolkien was born on January 3rd while even the fictional birthday of Harry Potter (July 31st 1990) is noted.
Some of the anniversaries are arguably not very major (the fourth season premiere of Babylon 5 on November 4 1995 is commemorated – as if any of us would forget this date anyway?) Some are arguably not very geeky (the outbreak of the First World War in 1914) but are interesting anyway. There is some discussion of each anniversary.
What elevates this book above the norm, however, is the innovative use of infographics used to illustrate a rich array of charts which demonstrate everything from the longevity of respective Doctor Who actors to the box office success of the Star Trek films.
An excellent addition to the coffee table of every socially maladjusted maladroit in the land.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Have you ever fancied trekking around Tatooine? Hiking around Hoth? Basically, visiting anywhere that you’ve seen in any of the Star Wars films?
Well, basically you can’t. As none of these places really exist. However, for eighty pages of large, (27 x 1.5 x 37 cm) attractively illustrated maps, timelines and such like based around the Star Wars universe, The Star Wars Galactic Atlas (Egmont, RRP £20) cannot be faulted.
Star Wars Propaganda (Egmont) written by Star Wars aficionado Pablo Hidalgo purports to be an anthology of propaganda posters from from throughout the fictional history of saga e.g. “Remember Alderan: Never Forget” and “Trump and Vader 2016: Let’s Make America Great Again” (okay, I made the last one up. There are no references to contemporary politics here at all).
To be honest, posters have never been an obvious background feature of the films. Fictional propaganda played a much bigger role in the Paul Verhoeven film Starship Troopers. Despite this, the book is undeniably marvellous to browse through, whether you’re a Star Wars fan or not. It is an inspired idea, beautifully realised.
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.
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.
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).
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.
It is an odd point in human history when we find ourselves devoting our resources towards producing a Star Wars Anti-Stress Colouring Book. It is even odder that I, of all people, am reviewing it.
For I don’t enjoy colouring in. I never have. I certainly don’t find it as relaxing as many people apparently do these days. Quite the opposite. At Junior School, we always seemed to being made to colour things in with horrid felt tips or pencils, sometimes at speed. I remember once having to colour in a big picture of a medieval banquet with some urgency to finish some project or other on time. I consider it one of the many blessings of adult life that since my teenage years I have never had to colour anything in again. I hope this continues.
The question remains, what was all that colouring in practice in aid of? I am still rubbish at it. I colour in different directions and over the lines. If colouring in was considered as important a skill as English or Maths, I would never have progressed beyond play school.
Fortunately, I do like Star Wars and happily as I approach middle age, the franchise is not only still very much with us but is still just about acceptable for me to like.
Anyway, if you like images which look like the films viewed through a kaleidoscope while having an LSD trip, you should love this. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, this shouldn’t disappoint.
Some might think it a bit silly that I’ve chosen to record my memories of all of the US presidential elections I can remember. I went through the same process for the recent British General Elections last year but that sort of made sense. I am British, after all. I am not American, have never voted in a US election and being a bad flier, have never been to the US, indeed have never even left Europe. As my hopes of there ever being construction of an Atlantic Tunnel recede, it is possible I may never do, especially as I’m not sure I’d fancy going on it anyway. Why should these elections concern me?
The official answer simply is that the United States remains so powerful that its actions have a huge impact way beyond its own borders. It’s sort of like the butterfly effect but one caused by a ginormous butterfly creating a hurricane by flapping its enormous wings. Cool eh?
But the real reason is that I am just interested. I have always been interested. I don’t know why. As some Americans might say: go figure…
I was pleased when I learnt Americans could all speak English. Personally, I really appreciated the effort. Why couldn’t the French or the Swedish go to the same trouble? Frankly, it smacks of laziness. Regardless, this lack of a language barrier made it easier for my Uncle to move to New York when I was four (an example of the “brain drain” much spoken of in the Thatcher years). Another relative, a cousin moved to the US later. The common language also made it easier for me to consume Dr Seuss books, Bugs Bunny cartoons and episodes of Hart To Hart from an early age.
I was born in December 1976, a month after Jimmy Carter narrowly beat the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency. I’d just missed seeing Watergate and Vietnam (on the TV news at least). I am also too young to remember Jimmy Carter being beaten by Ronald Reagan in November 1980 or Carter’s old vice president Walter Mondale being trounced by “the Gipper” (Reagan) four years after that. There is thus not much about elections in this instalment.
I do remember Reagan, however, and despite every cell in my brain telling me otherwise, I liked him and sort of still do. Oddly, despite having a very real fear of nuclear war, Reagan’s rhetoric and massive defence build-up undoubtedly increased already fragile international tensions in the early Eighties. The Cold War was already colder than it had ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. He pushed us closer to the brink than anyone else.
Like the little girl with the flower in the famous 1964 campaign ad, I could have thus been killed several times before I even knew what was going on. Never mind everyone else.
Of course, some argue Ronnie’s plan all along was to push the USSR into submission through pressure which Gorbachev ultimately did. In fact, there is no evidence Gorbachev’s reforms had anything to do with western pressure. Certainly, nobody ever seems to have said this out loud if this was the case, even in now declassified private conversations.
Reagan actually probably delayed the end of the Cold War, refusing a total ban on nuclear missiles because he wanted to keep his treasured Star Wars program.
Jokes like this didn’t help: “My fellow Americans,” he began during a public sound check in 1984. “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Arguably, the first bit is okay. No one was liked to think Russia had actually been outlawed. But the chilling words “we begin bombing in five minutes” understandably caused a panic.
Despite this, despite the horrendous deficit he ran up, despite the Iran-Contra affair, I still have a soft spot for Ronald Reagan.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
TV movie Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure is released. A follow up Ewoks: The Battle For Endor is released in 1985.
The Ewoks, an animated series aimed at younger children, runs for two series.
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.
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.
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.
Lucas announces plans to make three films set before the 1977-83 trilogy, after all.
Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) dies, aged 81.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Genndy Tartakovsky produces Clone Wars, an acclaimed animated series set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
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.
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.
Empire director Irvin Kershner dies aged 86.
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.
Clone Wars is cancelled as focus shifts towards the new films.
Star Wars Rebels, a 3D CGI animated series set between Revenge of the Sith but before A New Hope begins.
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.
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!”
Thirty eight years after it all began, Star Wars is as popular as ever. So what does this Star Wars Starfighter Workshop have to offer?
Well, you can make an interactive model of both a TIE Fighter and an X-wing using press-out pieces of card. My wife completed both within about forty five minutes and enjoyed the process, though she found it a bit “fiddly” at times. The question is what to do with them models now they are finished. Unless you were having the gentlest game of Star Wars ever, they are sure to collapse if they touch virtually anything. Perhaps you could put some classical music on and recreate 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. Very slowly. For hours. Just like the real thing.
The workshop also includes a Star Wars themed Story and Puzzle book (fact files, spot the difference between the two Storm Troopers etc) too.
Looking forward to the proposed Star Wars spin-off feature about Han Solo’s early years? Don’t bother. Everything you need to know about the early days of the roguish space captain is here…
Even longer ago…
Medical droid: Congratulations Mr and Mrs Solo: It’s a boy!
MR SOLO: Well done luv! What shall we call him?
MRS SOLO: I’ve got a list of the most popular boy’s names for last year: Anakin…Boba…Han… Jabba…Jago…Lando… Luke…Qui-Gon…
MR SOLO: Ho ho! Bloody ridiculous. “Luke” just sounds made up. How about “Han”?
Fifteen years later…
Careers droid: According to the survey, you should try to become an accountant, a Storm Trooper or a smuggler/ship captain/ future leader of the Rebel Alliance.
Han: Hmmm. Accountancy’s boring but they do get paid well. I suppose I could do a Year Out first…
Tatooine 15 years later again. Han is visiting Jabba the Hutt…
HAN: You know if you do try to send anyone to kill me, I’ll have to shoot them? It doesn’t matter if they try and shoot me first. It’s just self defence. I’ll have to.
JABBA: <Of course! Why would anyone waste time debating that? Think of all the Stormtroopers who get shot every day. . No one goes on about wasting time discussing whether they shot first or not do they? YEEERRRROOOW! Mind my tail! Arsehole.>
Han sits alone, drinking at the bar of the Mos Eisley Cantina…
HAN: Jeez. Where the hell is Lando? You just can’t trust that guy to do anything…
Han notices a Wookie sitting next to him (it is Chewbacca).
CHEWBACCA: Wyaaaaah! Rugguhhh.
HAN: Hey…I don’t suppose you fancy being co-pilot on my new ship?
CHEWBACCA: Uma firmin…<Okay. Why the hell not?)
HAN: What? You’re agreeing just like that? Don’t you want to know anything about me first?
<Not really. I can see that you are a charismatic and cynical space adventurer with a roguish charm and a doubtless eventful past. In theory, hearing about your life in detail would be great but, to be honest, it would probably take some of the magic away. Sometimes it’s better to leave an air of mystery around these things, don’t you think?>
HAN (drinks): I’ve got a bad feeling about this…
(Alternative names for the film: Han Rocks The Cradle, So Near And Yet Solo, Greedo Is Good, That’s The Way The Wookie Crumbles…)
Time Out magazine has voted on its choices for the Top 100 Science Fiction Films of All Time. It is a fine list chosen by a distinguished panel with most if not all of the best movies from the genre from Star Wars, Blade Runner and Matrix to Planet of the Apes, Gravity and Starship Troopers recognised and included. For me, however, it contains one gaping flaw: 2001: A Space Odyssey is at the top.
My criticism here may not be popular, I appreciate. Many of us have fond memories of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic. Who could forget the awesome power of the opening Abach Spach Zarathustra music (altogether now: “Dur…dur..dur…DUR DUR!”)? Or the amazing moment when the prehistoric man throws a stray animal bone into the air only for it to be replaced by a 21st century space craft in the very next shot? Or the chilling sequence in which the homicidal dysfunctional ship’s computer HAL is slowly dismantled, his mind active throughout (“Dave? Dave? What are you doing Dave?”) horrifically aware of what’s happening to him.
Great moments, yes. Indeed, I am in danger of talking myself out of the entire argument. But great moments alone do not make a great film. The fact is that taken in its entirety, 2001: A Space Odyssey is often a colossal bore.
Disagree? I suggest you watch it again before condemning me too harshly. Have you ever watched it more than once? I doubt it. It is frankly a must see, a film everyone should see once. But it is undoubtedly very hard work. And I would defy anyone not to be bored while watching it.
The prehistoric bit at the start is, for one thing, mostly quite silly. It is easy to forget that these silly men jumping around in ape costumes appeared a full year after the original and somehow more convincing simians of Planet of the Apes. The special effects are still good during the spaceship sequences, yes. But this was an age when special effects were still relentlessly shown off, taking centre stage rather than being incorporated seamlessly into the background. There are, after all, only so many minutes of spaceships moving along to classical music that most viewers can take.
And the end. If you didn’t understand the end, don’t worry! Nobody else does either. It’s a load of Sixties psychedelic bollocks. You would have to be stoned to think you understood it. And, in 1968, many viewers were.
Perhaps I am a man of lowbrow tastes but surely the primary concern of cinema is to be entertaining? And 2001 while often awe inspiring falls down when compared to Blade Runner, Aliens or Star Wars, on these grounds alone. It is impossible to be entertained when for most of the film you are bored.
Should 2001: A Space Odyssey be on this list of the 100 greatest science fiction films? Undoubtedly. Should it be at the top? Definitely not.
Today sees the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations. But with all the questions raised by this year’s unusually strong field of contenders (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena amongst them), one question remains more tantalising than any other: could Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity becomes the first science fiction film to secure the coveted Best Picture Oscar?
It would certainly be a first. For while sci-fi films have been the recipient of countless technical and science fiction awards, the genre despite (or perhaps because of) the big box office it has generated, has generally been viewed with lofty disdain by the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences throughout its eighty five year history.
Even the advent of higher quality sci-fi at the end of the Sixties changed little. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes (both 1968) went unrecognised in the Best Picture category. The latter was even based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, the French author who had previously penned the source material for the multi-Oscar winning Bridge on the River Kwai. But it was all to no avail. Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was nominated in 1971, although its science fiction content was generally overshadowed by controversy over its violence.
Then, in 1977, a new hope. Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture. True, it was beaten for the main prize by Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (a fairly unusual case of a comedy winning. This has only happened three times since). But with sci-fi entering a new period of high quality in the next decade (Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminators), did this mean the genre would finally receive its due?
Alas, no. the Eighties was also a period in which the Academy went out of its way to award worthy films (Amadeus, Out of Africa, Driving Miss Daisy) rather than those that were necessarily entertaining. Sigourney Weaver got a nomination for Aliens. But nothing from the genre has won since.
What has changed? Well, for one thing, 2004 saw the final part of the Lord of the Rings saga, The Return of the King carry off the Best Picture statuette. No, that is not a science fiction film and yes, Daniel Radcliffe is right to complain none of the Harry Potter films were ever nominated in the big categories for anything. But it feels like a start.
Then, in 2010, James Cameron’s blue creatured 3D space epic Avatar came tantalisingly close to Best Picture glory, only for gritty (and, frankly, overrated) Iraq drama The Hurt Locker to seize the crown.
Also, we seem to be enjoying another era of high quality sci-fi courtesy of The Huger Games films, Ender’s Game and Elysium.
And finally, Gravity has received a wealth of critical acclaim rarely bestowed on a film of the science fiction genre. Even Alien and Blade Runner never received such praise at the time of their release.
Whether Gravity ends up carrying off the greatest prize at the awards ceremony in March, or not, it has certainly struck a blow for this critically unsung genre. We shall have to wait and see.
Once stories had a beginning, a middle and an end. Not anymore! Today, the trend is for the middle and the end to come first, then the beginning to come along later. For this is the age of the prequel. Stay tuned for Part One of this feature next week…!
The Hobbit (Book: 1937. Films: 2012-2014)
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a “prequel” to the Lord of the Rings saga in the sense that we’re using the term here. The book of The Hobbit was published well before the later trilogy (1954-55). But the films (the second Hobbit film is due out in December) are a different matter appearing a full decade after the Rings saga came to the screen (2001-2003). Got that?
Does it work?: Gandalf is greyer, Gollum a shade less green and Bilbo is Tim from The Office (Martin Freeman) rather than the one from Alien (Ian Holm). But so far, most complaints have been about the Hobbit saga being needlessly padded out into three films rather than about any inconsistencies n the chronology.
Star Wars Prequels (1999-2005)
This attempt to explain the origins of Darth Vader was less well received than the original trilogy (1977-1983), many fans finding it more boorish, cartoonish and perhaps even racist than the original three. The last film Revenge of the Sith (2005) does wrap things up neatly though, ending around twenty years before 1977’s A New Hope. This trilogy also probably did spark off the modern fad for prequels too.
This acclaimed recent TV series focuses on the life of Thomas Harris’s serial killer Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), before the events of the very first book, Red Dragon (1981).
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
This film does cheat a bit imagining Watson and Holmes meeting at school: in fact, they clearly first meet as adults in the first Sherlock Holmes story A Study In Scarlet. But it is a fun film and features the first ever computer animated film character (a stained glass knight who is hallucinated at the start). The movie was a flop though.
Young James Bond (2005-2008)
The adventures of the future 007 have been depicted in five books by Fast Show star Charlie Higson set in the 1930s when Bond was still at Eton. The books are: Silverfin, Blood Fever, Double Or Die, Hurricane Gold and By Royal Command.
The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
This was actually the sixth of CS Lewis’s Narnia novels but is actually set much earlier than the others. It opens in late Victorian England and explains the birth of Narnia. Some Narnia series today rank it as the first book in the saga, order-wise.
Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005)/Star Trek films (2009-?)
The Star Trek franchise was briefly killed off by the unexciting Scott Bakula series which chronicled the early days of the Enterprise in the 22nd century. The JJ Abrams series of films which detail the early lives of the characters from the original series (including a previously unmentioned liaison between Uhuru and Spock) have thus far proven far more popular.
Despite, rather oddly, being set in the present day, this TV show starring Tom Welling as the young Superman proved remarkably popular and enduring.
Before Lewis, there was Morse. And before even that, this recent 1960s set ITV series sees Shaun Evans playing Endeavour Morse at the start of his police career.
Monsters University (2013)
Monsters Inc ended rather neatly. So this prequel flashes back to Mike and Sully’s (child-friendly) college days.
Muppet Babies (1984-1991)
The Muppets in cartoon-form in one nursery supervised by a giant nanny. Basically rubbish.
The Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1996)
Taking its inspiration from the short sequence starring River Phoenix as a teenaged Indy at the start of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this star studded TV show saw the young adventurer played by several different actors (notably Sean Patrick Flanery) enjoying high jinks across a range of early 20th century locations. A pre-Star Wars example of Lucasfilm prequeling.
X-Men Origins Wolverine(2009)/ X-Men: First Class (2011)
The first X-Men prequel (exploring Wolverine’s past) wasn’t great. The second one set in the Sixties (and featuring a cameo from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) was better. Despite James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier (the young version of Patrick Stewart’s character in the original X-Men trilogy (2000-2005) occasionally spouting lines like: “I suppose I am a real professor, aren’t I? Next thing you know, I’ll be going bald!” Ooh! The dramatic irony!
Very clearly a prequel to the Alien films despite various official attempts to deny it. Still not very good though.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
A sequel and a prequel, unusually. On the one hand, we see Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) continue to build his crime empire in the 1950s following on from the first film. On the other, we flash back to the start of the century and see his father Vito (Robert De Niro when he’s an adult) coming to America and slowly getting the family business started. Unlike the Michael stuff, these early bits are in fact derived from Mario Puzo’s original novel. The film ends just after Pearl Harbor (1941). The first film starts just after the war’s end (1945).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
An excellent prequel set in the near future which explains how the apes of Planet of the Apes (1968) managed to usurp humans as the dominant race on Earth.
First of the Summer Wine (1988-1989).
Prequel to the long running comedy set just before the Second World War. Peter Sallis (Cleggy) plays his own character’s father and Seymour appears even though none of the characters met him until a mid-80s episode of the original series. Not as bad as it sounds, as the young actors are well cast (including an extra one called Sherbet who we can only presume was killed in the war). It does rather miss the point though as “young men acting like children” isn’t quite the same as “old men acting like children”.
Ten great ideas to transform the world of TV, film and music…
A new series of 24 should be made in which Donald Sutherland plays Jack Bauer’s evil estranged father.
A new Bond film should be made in which an elderly Bond played by Sean Connery is called out of retirement for a final mission.
All theme tunes should include a version which includes the title amongst the lyrics in the manner of Anita Dobson’s Anyone Can Fall In Love (for EastEnders) if they do not already do so. Particularly: Star Wars, the 70s and 80s Superman films, Coronation Street and Last of the Summer Wine.
Why Do You Think You Are? A new documentary series which forces celebrities to justify their existence.
None of the Carry On films (with the possible exception of the first one Carry On Sergeant and the later Carry On Regardless) feature any characters saying the title of the film at any point. This is disappointing. Digital technology should be used to insert a character (perhaps Charles Hawtrey) saying the line at the end. This should occur even when Hawtrey is not actually in the film, regardless of whether the film is in colour or not or whether the film’s title makes grammatical sense (as with Carry On Follow That Camel or Carry On Again Doctor).
Some films and TV shows feature characters who have the same name as the actor playing them e.g. Jack Torrance (Nicholson) in The Shining, Rik (Mayall) in The Young Ones and Miranda (Hart). This should be made compulsory for one character in every production from now on as it will reduce time wasted by actors missing their cues.
The use of robot voices in songs, such as in ‘Something Good’ by the Utah Saints, once commonplace, have sadly become a rarity. All songs past and present should feature a robot voice at some point including instrumental classical pieces. Please sort this out.
Films in which samples of dialogue are used as the title are always rubbish and should be banned. Consider: Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Slap Her She’s French, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot and the obscure Dustin Hoffman film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me? An exception should be made for Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (and all Carry On films: see above).
Doctors In The House: New sitcom in which all the surviving ex-Doctor Whos plus K9 share a house in London. Tom Baker is the zany one and is constantly frustrated when the other characters interrupt his attempts to narrate each episode. David Tennant is the charming likeable one. Christopher Eccleston is the moody, artistic one. Colin Baker is the pompous one. His glasses are occasionally knocked out of line rather like Captain Mainwaring’s. An old Tardis is used as the house phone which forms a central part of the set as does a dartboard with a photo of Matt Smith’s face attached to it. In episode one, a family of Daleks move in next door.
Not A Penny Moore… New sitcom about the Moore family. Demi is the cougar of the household, desperately competing with her younger sister Mandy. Roger plays the elderly granddad, wheelchair-bound and always with his cat. Alan plays the moody bearded uncle who rarely leaves his room. The late Sir Patrick Moore plays the eccentric great uncle perpetually spying on his neighbours through his telescope in the attic who he suspects of being German. He is constantly bothered by young children looking for cheats for Zelda III.
Few greater changes can occur on a movie’s production than the leading man being replaced at the last minute.
But what if history had played out differently? Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones now, but it almost happened.
HARRISON FORD Vs TOM SELLECK
The role: Adventurer/archaeologist Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The first choice: Tom Selleck, star of TV’s Magnum PI.
The replacement: Harrison Ford. Despite small parts in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, Ford was not actually a big star in 1981. Even his role as Han Solo in Star Wars had not in itself assured him widespread and enduring fame, any more than it did for his co-stars Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher.
The switch: After struggling to receive serious attention from the industry into his mid-thirties, Selleck landed the role of Magnum in 1980. Although a big success, contractually Selleck found himself unable to take the role of Indiana Jones which went to Ford instead. Annoyingly, a strike on the set of Magnum meant that Selleck could probably have performed both roles anyway.
The result: The film was a box office smash and an all time classic, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Film and spawning three sequels.
What happened to the new star?: Relatively late in life, Harrison Ford became one of the biggest movie stars of all time and for close to twenty years had a reputation for never being in a flop (although, in truth, the critically acclaimed Blade Runner and Mosquito Coast both failed commercially). In addition to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises he appeared in the highly regarded “grown-up” films Witness, Frantic, Working Girl, Regarding Henry and Presumed Innocent. Despite never winning an Oscar, he is one of the biggest Hollywood stars of all time.
And the first choice?: Selleck stayed in Magnum – a big success in its day – until it was cancelled in 1988 (the character was killed off). He appeared in one or two transparent attempts to emulate Indiana Jones such as High Road to China and Lassiter during the Eighties as well as Quigley Down Under. He played the King in Christopher Columbus The Discovery (for which he received a Razzle) but aside from Magnum is probably best known for his role alongside Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg in the comedy Three Men And A Baby and as Monica’s older lover Richard in Friends.
Conclusion: I’ve no desire to compound Tom Selleck’s misery on this subject but from what we’ve seen during his career, it’s hard to imagine he would have a) been as good as Indiana Jones as Harrison Ford was anyway or b) had the same career Ford subsequently enjoyed. Would Selleck have taken up a half-arsed role in Cowboys and Aliens? Would Selleck have married Calista Flockhart? Would Selleck’s second wife have written ET? We must assume not.
Crumbs of comfort: Tom Selleck is still a household name. And he has arguably demonstrated more of a flair for comedy than Ford has. And before we get too sympathetic: Selleck is a vocal supporter of the National Rifle Association.
The winner?: HARRISON FORD
MARTIN SHEEN Vs HARVEY KEITEL
The role: Captain Benjamin Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979).
The first choice: Harvey Keitel, then best known for his roles in the early Martin Scorsese films, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.
The replacement: Martin Sheen, previously the troubled James Dean-alike Fifties hoodlum in Terence Malick’s Badlands.
The switch: Keitel was fired and replaced by Sheen early in the troubled production. Coppola felt Keitel struggled to play Willard as a “passive onlooker”.
The result: Keitel must initially felt like he’d had a narrow escape. Apocalypse Now was soon christened “Apocalypse When?” by critics as the production overran, the crew in the Philippines were hit by a bout of food poisoning, director Ford Coppola grew increasingly power-mad and co-star Marlon Brando arrived much fatter than expected and delayed production still further while he took time out to read the Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness upon which the film is loosely based. Although only in his late thirties, Sheen, then struggling with alcohol, also suffered a heart attack while filming. Despite these issues, the film was a critical and commercial success and is rivalled only by Platoon (starring Martin’s son Charlie Sheen) as the best ‘Nam film ever made.
What happened to the new star?: Despite quitting the booze and keeping busy, Sheen didn’t choose particularly great film roles during the next two decades. Indeed, the period saw him slightly eclipsed by his sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. However, his role as President Josiah Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s long-running TV drama The West Wing put him back on the map. Now in old age he appeared recently in the new Spider Man film and generally plays small “elderly father” roles.
And the first choice? Keitel slipped into near obscurity in the Eighties before enjoying a comeback towards the end of that decade playing Judas in Scorsese’s controversial Last Temptation of Christ and securing an Oscar nod for a role in Warren Beatty gangster film, Bugsy. The Nineties were very good for Keitel with hard hitting acclaimed roles in Thelma and Louise, Jane Campion’s The Piano, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn and Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and lighter roles (although again as a gangster/criminal type) in the likes of Sister Act. His profile has fallen in the 21st century though.
Conclusion: Hmmmm. Sheen has starred in two classic films Badlands and Apocalypse Now and one great series The West Wing. Harvey Keitel has starred in two classic films, Mean Streets and Reservoir Dog and had notable support roles in three others Taxi Driver, Thelma and Louise and Pulp Fiction. Sheen is perhaps the slightly more famous of the two men, thanks partly to his sons. But oddly, as huge a deal as Apocalypse Now must have seemed at the time, in the long run, neither actor has been obviously more successful than the other. Both have kept busy, done some great stuff and both have done hell of a lot of stuff you’ll never see.
The winner?: A DRAW
MICHAEL J. FOX Vs ERIC STOLTZ
The role: Marty McFly in science-fiction rom com Back To The Future (1985).
The first choice: Eric Stoltz, then best known for his role alongside Cher in Mask (no, not the Jim Carrey one).
The replacement: Michael J. Fox then the star of US sitcom Family Ties. The ‘J’ incidentally, doesn’t stand for anything. Michael Fox’s middle name is Andrew but he reasoned Michael A Fox might sound silly or even a bit conceited.
The switch: Brutal. Filming had commenced when Eric Stoltz was fired for playing the role too much like it was a drama rather than as a comedy. Fox – unlike Tom Selleck on Magnum – was lucky to be able to work around his Family Ties schedule although endured a punishing timetable with many scenes being filmed early in the morning. Stoltz – who was physically similar to Fox although eight inches taller – remains in some shots used in the finished film.
The result: The film was a box office smash and is still much loved. There were two sequels, both big hits despite being slightly less good.
What happened to the new star?: Fox became a huge star overnight as the film coincided with the release of Teen Wolf, a film disliked by Fox personally but which nonetheless did well. Fox appeared in the BTTF sequels and the weighty Casualties of War but his star waned in the early Nineties, probably in part due to Fox struggling to come to terms with the private news of the diagnosis of his Parkinson’s disease in 1991. He enjoyed an impressive comeback in 1996 with his role as a youthful looking political adviser (based on Bill Clinton’s own George Stephanopoulos) which led in turn to a triumphant return to sitcom in Spin City. He announced his illness in 1998 and has become a vocal spokesman for the disease since, as well as voicing Stuart Little. He’s also enjoyed recurring 21st century TV roles in Boston Legal, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And the first choice?: Poor Eric Stoltz must wish he could time travel and change history himself sometimes. But he did get to stab Uma Thurman through the heart in Pulp Fiction and directs Glee sometimes.
Conclusion: Although not cursed by the ill-health of Michael J. Fox, fame wise, sadly Stoltz isn’t even really a household name.
The winner? MICHAEL J FOX
JOHN TRAVOLTA Vs RICHARD GERE
The role: Several: the leads in Days of Heaven, An Officer and A Gentleman and American Gigolo
The first choice: John Travolta, already a huge star after Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
The replacement: Richard Gere, who ironically had starred in the original London stage production of Grease in 1973.
The switch: Travolta foolishly turned down all these roles. Gere took them all instead.
The result: All the films did well. Days of Heaven was more of a critical than commercial hit.
What happened to the new star?: Richard Gere became a star. He is still probably as much admired for these early roles as anything he has done since although enjoyed another massive hit with Pretty Woman in 1990. His career has had a few ups and downs over the years and may have been harmed slightly by his pro-Tibetan stance but he has never vanished from view. He returned to musicals for the Oscar winning Chicago in 2003, a role also turned down by John Travolta.
And the first choice?: Travolta’s career endured a dramatic fifteen year slump relieved only by the success of Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking in 1990. By 1994, however, with the Seventies becoming fashionable, turns in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty suddenly made him very cool again and he returned to stardom. Occasionally, he’s made bad career choices since (the Scientology inspired Phenomenon and Battlefield Earth) and he’s not exactly “cool” anymore. However, he remains a star.
Conclusion: Gere to some extent owes his career to John Travolta’s early poor career choices. Yet as with Keitel and Sheen, the decades have evened the score somewhat.
It isn’t just The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. No science fiction or fantasy saga is complete without a wise old bearded God-like figure often played by a theatrical knight who occasionally fights, usually dies but like E.T himself (or the MP John Stonehouse) comes back later.
Spoiler alert but you really should keep up you know. John Stonehouse came back ages ago (look it up)…
First appeared: 1937 (in print in The Hobbit), 2001 (on screen).
Does he die? Yes. Gandalf the Grey falls down the crack thanks to the big fiery Balrog thing in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Does he come back? Yes. As Gandalf the White in The Two Towers.
Who played him? SIR Ian McKellen
Fun to play? McKellen seems to have enjoyed it and apart from the “insane laughter” scene in Frodo’s bedroom in the third film has done a great job of it.
Is he Jesus/God?: No. JRR Tolkien was keen to emphasise the books were not supposed to be allegorical.
Name: Obi Wan Kenobi/Old Ben Kenobi
First appeared: 1977 Star Wars, later rechristened Episode IV: A New Hope
Does he die? Yes. Darth Vader turns him into a dressing gown towards the end of the first (or fourth) film.
Does he come back? Only as a badly animated and well paid ghost. Bet Marlon Brando wished he’d thought of that for the Superman sequels? Although he’d have been too fat anyway.
Who played him? SIR Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor as the younger sometimes unbearded Obi Wan in the inferior prequels.
Fun to play? Not at all. “…new rubbish dialogue reaches me every day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable,” Guinness complained. He also resented being nicknamed “Mother Superior” by a young Harrison Ford. Understandably. Sir Alec made a small fortune, however, having claimed a 2 ½ % share of the profits on the three films although thanks to the exorbitant tax rates in the 1970s, not as much as is commonly thought. MacGregor’s complaints about filming against blue screen, meanwhile, were amongst the first bits of negative publicity to break around The Phantom Menace in 1999.
Is he Jesus/God?: Perhaps. But then, a similar case could be made for Han Solo. And Harrison Ford was a carpenter. See? It all makes sense.
Name: Albus Dumbledore
First appeared: (in print) 1997 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and on screen in the 2001 film.
In the US this was called Harry Potter Can’t Believe Americans Don’t Know What A Philosopher Is and Apparently Think A Sorcerer is Basically the Same Thing.
Does he die? Yes. Snape (Alan Rickman) chucks him off Hogwarts at the end of the penultimate volume The Half Blood Prince. In the film, his death is reminiscent of Alan Rickman’s own character’s death in Die Hard. Except Bruce Willis wasn’t involved.
Does he come back? Only in a dream sequence.
Who played him? Richard Harris until his death after the second film. Succeeded by SIR Michael Gambon thereafter.
Fun to play? Ignoring the fact the Irish Harris didn’t actually have an Irish accent when playing Dumbledore (who isn’t, as far as we know, supposed to be Irish), the usually excellent Gambon for some reason initially put on a somewhat half arsed Irish accent when he took on the role. Happily, this soon went and he was great from then on.
Is he God/Jesus?: Probably not, although like Jesus he is gay. JOKE. No, in reality, Dumbledore was not really gay.
Nearly there but not quite:
Aslan in the Narnia books: He does die, come back, is wise, bigoted, bearded and is very clearly supposed to be God. He is not a man though. HE IS A LION.
Jaga (from Thundercats): Wise counsel to feline Skywalker-type Lion-o, Jaga dispenses important nuggets of wisdom such as encouraging him to enter his litter tray regularly but dies en route from the Thundercats’ home planet of Thundera to Third Earth. He does come back as a ghost though and fits the bill very well. However, he is rather transparently (literally) “heavily influenced” by the character of Obi Wan Kenobi. Unlike everyone else Jaga isn’t feline at all. This isn’t explained.
His Dark Materials: A big fantasy saga, yes but with NO bearded wise God-like grandfather figure. Perhaps reflecting the atheistic nature of the plot.
Optimus Prime: A robot, yes. But he was wise and dies (in 1986’s Transformers The Movie) and later comes back. He may die in the new films too. Who knows? I was asleep.