Art ages. The second a book hits the shelf, a movie hits the cinema, a painting hits the exhibit or a song hits the radio, that art is in some ways locked into that time period forever. Maybe as time passes that art ages poorly and is sentenced to oblivion — like, say, a racist Donald Duck cartoon or two — regardless of whether it was deemed appropriate or entertaining at the time of publication. Maybe as time passes that art does the opposite, somehow seems more fitting for the current time rather than the time in which it was published, which can often be a hallmark of good sci-fi art (like the original Westworld movie) or good political art (like the V for Vendetta comic) or both (like 1984). But sometimes it’s not so simple. Some art — like The Birdcage — remains both a product of its time and perfectly fit for the future.
This is not an automatic compliment, even in the case of a film as funny and as culturally significant as this one. It’s impossible to rewatch Birdcage — pitched as a somewhat innocent laugh-a-minute comedy and little else — and not think about how the same movie would be made today, what might be changed, what might be emphasized or removed entirely. Today, discussion of the movie must start and end with the way gay or bisexual characters are represented in the film.
Continue reading The Birdcage (1996)
Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
In hindsight, Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld was an uncomplicated affair. Sure, the premise required a bit of explaining — there’s a Wild West theme park staffed by lifelike robots, offering full immersion for wealthy tourists looking for romance or violence — but the plot was deceptively simple and the characters were drawn without a trace of ambiguity. The humans were the heroes and the malfunctioning robots were the villains. As we’ve detailed in our Writer Series on the works of Crichton, lots of good science fiction operates in exactly this way: classic stories playing out in strange, unfamiliar settings or time periods. No matter how unsettling the concept, how futuristic the design, how far-off the entire experience feels, Westworld is still a movie about a killer robot. And this is hardly groundbreaking, even in 1973, considering that the very first robot in cinema (from Houdini’s 1918 silent serial The Master Mystery) was already wreaking havoc on its human overlords:
In some ways, Killer Robot Cinema (evermore an acceptable genre classification on Motion State) has progressed a great deal since 1918. The murderous machines went from stacked-and-spraypainted cardboard boxes to sleek metal automatons to, finally, looking just like humans, which is presumably the pinnacle of droid design both in fiction and in real life. In some ways, though, killer robot cinema has hardly moved an inch. Humans are still playing God, still inventing advanced A.I. in robot form, and those robots are still turning around and killing them for it.
Continue reading Face Off: Westworld (1973) and Westworld (Series)
There were a number of factors that prevented me from rushing out to see You Were Never Really Here on opening night. First was the weather, which is not really an excuse at all if you’re a New Englander like me. The second factor was the review snippet plastered on the poster that referred to the film as “Taxi Driver for a new century.” Do I enjoy Taxi Driver? I do. Do I enjoy “modern updates” to ’70s classics like Westworld, for example? Occasionally, yes, I do. But this kind of explicit tailcoat-riding is either lazy marketing or inadequate criticism or, likely, both. I don’t think I saw Interstellar because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!” and I didn’t see Annihilation because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!“, but I do know that I enjoyed those movies primarily for how not-2001 they both were.
But this, too, is a weak excuse. Two big preventatives: firstly, in a move most unforgivable and piteously ironic for someone who purports to point out “inadequate criticism” in the first paragraph of this very review, I had never before seen anything directed by Lynne Ramsay. People had gently suggested this oversight as something I should reconcile tout suite. “Start with Ratcatcher,” they said, recommending Ramsay’s feature debut. “Start with We Need to Talk About Kevin,” they said, recommending her 2011 effort. I’m a bit of a completist in this regard, watching one movie by the Coen Brothers and then suddenly finding myself rewatching them all. Maybe my appreciation of You Were Never Really Here would be heightened if I first paid my dues to Ramsay’s previous films, no?
Continue reading You Were Never Really Here (2018)
- The great Alan Rickman passed away last week after a battle with cancer. We’ll be watching Die Hard in his honor, marathoning Harry Potter, and recommending is writer/director efforts The Winter Guest and A Little Chaos to anyone who’ll listen.
- HBO has reportedly halted production on Westworld, the Jonathan Nolan-helmed series adaptation of Michael Crichton’s seminal original film. That’s the latest in a long string of mysterious production shakeups at HBO, but it’s hard to get too rattled about it considering nearly everything they put out is of impeccable quality.
- A lightsaber with a crossguard hilt will apparently crop up in Star Wars Rebels, and it’s possible (although highly unlikely) that Supreme Leader Snoke will make an appearance as well. I’m all for bringing elements of The Force Awakens into the earlier-set parts of the Star Wars saga, but the lightsaber concept alone kind of makes Kylo Ren’s iconic weapon a little less special. I hope I eat those words.
- Can we talk about the impressive unveiling of 10 Cloverfield Lane? Consider how impossible it is to keep anything a secret these days. Consider how we only have to wait two months for the film, rather than two years. Consider how J.J. Abrams must have known that the Force Awakens marketing blitz would effectively serve as its own smokescreen, press outlets wrongly assuming that J.J. wouldn’t dare think of multitasking with a Star Wars film at stake (even if T.J. Miller sniped it). Trailer below.
Continue reading Film & TV News: January 18
1993 is very likely the pinnacle of Crichton-ness: Jurassic Park shot the writer to a level of stardom he’d only grazed with the likes of The Andromeda Strain and Westworld, and filmmakers scoured his existing properties for an opportunity to catapult themselves into Spielberg-level notoriety. This needed to happen fast, before anyone else jumped on a Crichton adaptation, but there were essentially only three of his novels that hadn’t yet been adapted. One was Congo, which featured super-smart gorillas, so that wasn’t much of an option (until it was, years later); second was Sphere, a really weird subterranean “imagination adventure” that couldn’t possibly be adapted (until…well, you know); and the third was Rising Sun, a relatively low-key murder mystery masquerading as a cultural economic diatribe (or is it a diatribe masquerading as a murder mystery?) that seemed to provide a perfect mix of commentary and storytelling. For quick kicks, the choice was an obvious one.
And as tends to happen with projects undertaken for such reasons, Rising Sun sadly marks the downward trend in Crichton adaptations sloping sharply away from Jurassic Park. Probably anything would fail to measure up to Park, but the tale of clashes that is Rising Sun failed thoroughly in every arena (except the box office — it rode Park‘s wave to a pretty good domestic haul). TGSC, baby. TGSC.
Continue reading Rising Sun (1993)
It’s no coincidence that Michael Crichton’s name is a popular one on the earliest portions of the timeline of CGI in film and television. After his 1973 film Westworld pioneered 2D computer animation in a feature film, the television spinoff Futureworld continued the trend with the first use of 3D computer graphics to animate a hand and a face. Crichton’s 1981 venture Looker — which he wrote and directed — claims a similarly important milestone: the first CGI human character. Her name was Cindy, and she’s kind of the digital australopithecus that ironically enough seems only to have evolved into Andy Serkis playing bigger monkeys.
So why are Tron and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan lauded to this day for basically doing what Looker did a year earlier? Simple: because Looker is awful. END OF REVIEW.
Continue reading Looker (1981)
Michael Douglas famously referred to Coma as the first time he was a part of something with a good story, a good cast, and a good director. The latter of those compliments, while true, was at that point based only on Crichton’s debut feature Westworld and his earlier made-for-TV flick Pursuit. The middle statement, about the cast, seems oddly self-serving considering Douglas is in the cast. The actor’s career was likewise young, and oddly enough Mike Crichton and his brother Douglas once published a story under a pseudonym that combined their first names: Michael Douglas.
Whatever conspiracy the Michaels and the Douglases have cooked up here, it probably isn’t as sinister as the conspiracy afoot in Coma. Based on the highly popular novel of the same name by Robin Cook (a friend and contemporary of Crichton’s), the story of Coma is as well thought-out as Douglas claimed. The pairing of Cook and Crichton is a match made in medical thriller heaven, and Crichton’s script treatment of the novel is accurate and respectful of the source material. Slight changes were made, but the overall sense of paranoia that pervades the book is very much intact in Crichton’s screen treatment.
Continue reading Coma (1978)
Though known primarily for his novels, Michael Crichton made a name for himself in Hollywood not only through popular adaptations of his novels such as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain but also by directing films himself for more than a decade. Westworld was both Crichton’s feature directorial debut (barring the ABC made-for-TV film Pursuit) and one of his earliest original screenplays. Plagued with production woes from the start, Westworld is largely renowned today as a major landmark in science-fiction cinema and an important advancement in film technology.
As David A. Price writes in this New Yorker piece, computer-generated imagery is commonplace at the movies these days. Star Wars gets a lot of the credit for sparking the technological revolution in Hollywood (although there have been a few technological advances since then), and it’s certainly true that the effects team behind that space saga deserves most of the commendation in which they bask. But if the question is where did all of this start? — Star Wars and Avatar and every other CGI-laden movie of the past thirty years — then the answer is almost certainly Westworld.
Continue reading Westworld (1973)
Michael Crichton had an extremely productive early ’70s. Multiple film adaptations of his works were in the making, including a successful version of his 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, and Crichton himself began foraying into directing and screenwriting. But he continued with prose as well, publishing five novels in the first three years of the decade. Three of these bore his pseudonym “John Lange” and one of them (The Terminal Man) bore Crichton’s actual name; the fifth, a collaboration with his brother Douglas Crichton, was published under another pseudonym that combined the names of both brothers. Suspiciously, an actor named “Michael Douglas” became pretty damn famous not long after.
But that Crichton Brothers book — a somewhat zany story called Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues — sadly is the least effective of those early tales. It’s obvious, even in the film version of the novel, that the pair of writers either couldn’t agree on a direction for the story or just succeeded in writing a story that goes nowhere. Dealing is an absolute slog, and so maybe Michael Douglas’s uptick in fame should be attributed to something else (“like what?”) and not to his deft scriptwriting ability.
Continue reading Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972)
“I never went in much for science fiction,” says a microbiology specialist near the beginning of The Andromeda Strain. His colleague, another world-renowned scientist, agrees, “Nor do I.” They’re on their way to the tiny, isolated town of Piedmont, Arizona, where the entirety of the population has suddenly and inexplicably dropped dead. A military satellite has dropped to Earth around there, and so the scientists are sent in to determine whether this contagion is the work of an alien virus or extraterrestrial organism. But they don’t get too carried away with this notion. They’re men and women of disciplined learning, after all, and their aim is to employ clear reason and decisive investigation to make sense of the disaster.
In a way, this exchange is a pretty perfect representation of many of the works of the late Michael Crichton. To most, Crichton is a genre writer (to most, actually, he might just be “the Jurassic Park guy”); that genre is science fiction, evidenced by Park and The Lost World, Westworld, Sphere, Timeline, Prey, and a few others. Crichton’s written plenty of thrillers outside the realm of science fiction, too, stories concerning train robbers and Japanese corporate espionage and pirates and eco-terrorism. But these never fully eclipsed Crichton’s reputation as a sci-fi guy, and whether he was writing prose or scripts his fascination with technological advancement always managed to shine through.
Continue reading The Andromeda Strain (1971)