Welcome back for another installment, dear readers. Even though parts of the Internet have been taken offline due to the Artifex Union's conflict with the major studios, I've managed to cast my eyes over some of the films that have escaped the firewall blockade. This week: we take a look at transmedia bad boy Xomsky’s retelling of a classic science fiction tale; the latest superhero reboot and the first in the groundbreaking trilogy of movies based on Ben Pennington’s Kingdom of the Arachnae series.
PART THE FIRST: A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE
We’ve seen science fiction tropes reused and recycled for years, the most obvious of these being the J.J. Abrams Star Trek series, a re-imagining of the original Roddenberry Classic. Three films in and still going strong, that franchise has all the potential to spin off a web series or better still; find itself a home on Netvision’s sci-fi feed. Still it takes real courage to attempt what indie director Xomsky has put forth: a re-envisioning of Star Wars.
As Xomsky is mostly a Net phenomenon, a bit of exposition: Xomsky is one of the new generation of artists creating feature-level content for the web. He’s taking advantage of the fact that all but a few movie theaters are shutting their doors thanks to the movie renaissance that increased home bandwidth and 3DHD have brought to homes across the developed world. In the first of the three artistic manifestos: he declared the days of Old Studios dead; declared Hollywood dead and left a rallying call for the people to take back their entertainment by any means necessary. Wanted in the U.S. and the EU for copyright violations too numerous to count, Xomsky has released work heralded by many as genius. To date, he’s only ever granted one interview, and that to Xeni Jardin for Boing Boing. To date, it is one of the most read articles on the world’s most popular blog.
Xomsky’s posted the following to his Qlatch stream when asked about the project:
“Star Wars was the lingua franca of our parents’ generation. It informed their lives; it spawned spiritual movements and television series. The phrases from the original script are more embedded in modern culture than Shakespeare, more common than Superman. Yet, Lucas’s construct remains unchallenged, unexamined. It is my hope that my retelling of these classic tales, told in their original order, will shed new light on the mythos and give us perspective on a classic.”
While I balk at any comparison of Lucas to Shakespeare (I am an old English major, after all), I cannot deny my curiosity. How would Xomsky retell one of the classics?
Brace yourself. Because Luke…is a girl.
Wait, wait. Come back. It actually works. Sort of.
What Xomsky has done is switched Luke and Leia, so that Leia is raised on Tatooine and Luke is the young Prince of Alderaan. Han Solo is still male, and Chewie…well…how could you tell? (Wait…don't answer that. I’m not sure that I want to know.)
Xomsky's themes in the film do not stray far from the original: the coming of age story of a young person, facing the darkness in the world, and learning to trust oneself or, in this case, the Force. However, switching the gender of the main character causes the story to take on a different flavor entirely, and it is not unwelcome. To be clear: Leia’s character and her personality are not all that different from the original film: somewhat arrogant, guarded, but generally kind beneath the surface. The thing that makes it interesting is that she is NOT the gawky loser that Luke was; she has a self-confidence from the start of the film which, even if feigned, brings new life to the story.
The end result is a surprisingly lucid tale of a young woman coming in to her own power while finding her place in the universe. Xomsky’s script is significantly better than the original, but saves some of the favorite bits (“That’s no moon” and “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” for example) so that fans have some touchstones.
At first I was not sure what to think but then the idea grew on me. Chandra Ginn is a believable young Leia, trapped in her small desert world yet ignorant of the power she holds within her. When her mentor, the old hermit Ben Kenobi, finds her and starts to teach her, she finds her rhythm and becomes a commanding presence far faster than Luke did in the original. By playing on gender differences beyond the physical, Xomsky crafts a tale which is at once fresh and familiar.
Too familiar at times. For all its brilliance, once I realized I was watching Buffy the Sith Slayer, it all started to unravel for me.
Perhaps this is unfair, but with the dialogue being tighter than the original, and the gender change, and the mystical undertones of the Force, I started to wonder if Xomsky wasn’t really a frustrated Whedon fan. Perhaps one does not preclude the other. The point is, even with some truly top-notch names starring in this film (Jared Gladstone as Han Solo, Michael Clarke Duncan as the voice of Darth Vader) it is hard to swallow. It’s a good effort, and I expect it will ignite a firestorm when it is released to streaming sites, but I don't think your average entertainment-seeker is going to enjoy it. In that way, it’s a bit like watching one of those historical-period sitcoms that never quiet caught on a few years ago: you really have to know something to get the joke.
I predict that opinions will be sharply divided on this one. I can recall the furor caused when Ronald Moore turned Starbuck into a woman in his rework of Battlestar Galactica, even though Katee Sackoff acquitted herself quite well on the whole. Star Wars fans love their myth with a near religious fervor, and messing with the formula may alienate a good half of the fan base.
This will not surprise Xomsky. In fact, I rather think it’s his plan.
How better to drive people to see the film? Get a bunch of fans good and pissed, and they’ll grouse about it all year on their Qlatch streams - let alone their fevered essays posted to blogs all over the world. The curious will need to see what everyone is complaining about. And since the film’s revenue is no-doubt driven by impressions and Google Eyetracker, every curious watcher is money in Xomsky’s already formidable wallet.
This is not some schlocky work filmed in a warehouse. Xomsky’s work is cutting edge CGI, using the latest 3DHD camerawork and, unless I’m very much mistaken, he’s customized the recently open-sourced Imageforge software to render some of his actors. For instance, C3PO is not a very thin man in a brass suit anymore; he’s entirely computer designed, down to the inflection of his voice. There’s no actor behind the robot. I foresee a trend started years ago in movies like Final Fantasy, Lord of the Rings, and Tron: Legacy which were carried forward by increased processing power and more realistic computer voices. The end result? Fully computer generated movies. No actors at all, not even for voice work. Look for it coming to a screen near you, mark my words.
PART THE SECOND: DEL TORO AND THE SPIDERS
Switching gears, let's take some time to examine Guillermo Del Toro’s latest release, "Tangled Web", the movie adaptation of Ben Pennington's young adult "Kingdom of the Arachnae" books. Del Toro has had a challenge on his hands since the beginning; attempting to adapt the most popular youth book series since Harry Potter would have caused many lesser directors to flee outright. After agreeing to take on the film in 2015, he had this to say:
"I'm really looking forward to taking Ben's vision and making it a reality. He's constructed an amazing world filled with rich, interesting characters; characters who speak to today's generation. It will be an honor to bring this dynamic story to the screen. "
In case you've been under a rock for the past three years, Kingdom of the Arachnae is the story of Jenna Brown, a young girl who is the last surviving member of House Tegenaria, the rightful rulers of the Arachnaen Kingdom. The Kingdom is found at the center of the Hollow Earth, and the story follows Jenna's five year road from suburban outcast schoolgirl to the Queen of the Arachnaen. Critically acclaimed, the books have spent a total of 468 weeks at the top of Amazon's bestsellers' list. A movie deal was hardly a surprise, though the fact that Pennington himself is one of the producers certainly was.
Admittedly, the man has made a mint on his creative work, but he had no previous experience as a producer. The closest he’d come was a minor writing credit on 2013’s Evil Dead remake. Judging by the reception of that film (not even the cameo by Bruce Campbell could save it…sort of like Raimi’s Spider Man 3), his career in Hollywood seemed over. Not so, as he landed a lucrative contract the following year and when the first book in the series hit the shelves it sold like wildfire.
Judging by the film itself, that lack of experience might have lent to the fresh, energized feeling positively oozing from the screen. Matthew Macfadyen leads the cast as Ardomo, the seasoned Knight of Arachnae who finds, rescues, and then teaches young Jenna (played by newcomer Andrea Newton) how to take back her rightful place in the Dance of Webs. Supporting cast includes Lena Headey as Artima, Jack Gleeson as Iago the Younger, Helen Mirren as the Oracle of the Winds, and Famke Jenssen as the Dread Queen.
About Andrea Newton: she’s brilliant. I’m not sure where they found this young woman, but she’s a godsend. Comparison with Daniel Radcliffe is inevitable, and the comparison clearly falls in Ms. Newton’s favor. She possesses a confidence on screen that belies her youth and experience to date. She holds her own even in scenes with the formidable Helen Mirren which is nothing short of impressive. Ms. Newton has a bright future ahead of her if her performances continue to be this strong.
A word about the settings in the movie: I saw the film twice, once in standard 3D, once in 3DHD. If you’ve been avoiding 3DHD or are waiting for it to mature…wait no longer. The word I choose for the world Del Toro has brought to life is SUMPTUOUS. In 3D, it was amazing, in 3DHD, you could almost reach out and touch the plants, the cave walls and the swords of the dueling combatants in the Arena of the Shadows. Combine that with the standard surround sound and Pantifex’s AromaTech and you have a fully immersive experience. Sometimes it feels as if you are standing in the narrow caves, part of the small band of heroes trying to find their way to the Chamber of Wind and Words.
One word of warning: if you don’t like spiders, this is not the film for you. Especially in 3DHD. Again, for those who do not know the books, the Kingdom is populated by humans and an intelligent form of giant spider. The spiders are stunningly realistic, and will definitely disturb the faint of heart and the very young. You have been warned.
I’ll cut to the chase: I loved the film. In honor of the late Roger Ebert I give it two thumbs up. Though Roger might have viewed the 3DHD as a mere gimmick, even he would have a hard time dismissing the strength of the performances in this film. Go see it. You won’t be sorry.
PART THE THIRD: LOOKING INTO THE DARKNESS
Finally…the latest in a long line of superhero remake movies. It’s Batman. Again.
Forgive me readers, I cannot even muster the enthusiasm for this. Oh look, poor Brucie lost his Mummy and Daddy and now fights evildoers with the power of billions of dollars, black leather, and his boundless rage.
Understand, I was a Batman fan. Once. I enjoyed the Tim Burton Batman films in my youth, and Christopher Nolan’s interpretation was good. I felt the latter films were overdone, but hey, different strokes for different folks, right? I could let them pass. But this…well…this is just ridiculous.
Replacing Gotham with New York? Really?
Replacing Alfred with Wayne’s Grandmother? Really?
Introducing a love scene between Batman and Nightwing? Really?
This is not a comic book movie…this is slashfic with a budget. There’s reinterpreting the character, then there’s just derailing the whole thing and turning it into a farce. I cannot imagine what was going through director Bryan Sperry’s mind when he decided to accept and make this film. And I have absolutely NO IDEA why DC Comics accepted the deal after seeing the initial screening. I understand trying to make the material edgy and relevant, and in an era where most of the entertainment we consume is pumped directly to our homes, you need to make your work stand out to catch the attention of the viewer. But I think you can go too far with it.
This goes too far. Even Frank Miller, with his crazy “I'm the goddamn Batman” knew where to draw the line. This travels to the line and blows right past it.
No…I’m not homophobic. That’s not the point. The point is that by making Batman more “realistic” you lose the soul of the sort of hero he is. He’s the pinnacle of human willpower and persistence. He exists as a mere human in a world of super-powered mutants, gods, and aliens. And yet, he is one of the most feared and respected men in that universe.
You can’t sustain that persona if he’s buggering his former sidekick, buying off mob bosses instead of taking them down with fists and gadgets, and endlessly weeping over his lost childhood. The Batman is tough as nails, hard as stone, and yes, pretty messed up in the head. But he’s not trying to get in touch with his feelings…he’s using his rage as the fuel for justice…some might even say vengeance.
Sperry’s version of Batman is like a Lifetime movie. And a bad one at that.
Is it a bold vision? Yes. Unquestionably. It is bold. It is edgy. It’s also a parody.
You know what this reminds me of? Go back and read Garth Ennis’s The Boys. Look at the world of excess the “heroes” inhabit. Sperry’s version of the Bat is as if Ennis and Oprah co-wrote the script on a bender in Spain over a long weekend. It’s utter crap.
Save your money, save your sanity. You really don’t need to see Bruce Wayne dressed in leather brandishing a whip and shouting, “I’m the Batman, bitch!”
You really don’t.
*sigh, deep breath*
On that note, I leave you for this month. As usual, you can find me on Qlatch in the usual places, the Movie, Book, and Comic forums where I stir up trouble when not sending out nonsensical status updates to confuse and delight the masses.
Until next time, in the words of Stan Lee (who would never let Hollywood rape Spiderman the way DC let Batman get worked over), Excelsior!