Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Return Of Xander Cage?

The revival of Vin Diesel's career following his return to a starring role in the Fast and the Furious franchise in 2009 quickly led to a third Riddick film (shot earlier this year, and likely to be released in 2013), and talk of a continuation of the XXX series. However, for the time being it seems that the proposed XXX3: The Return of Xander Cage, is stuck in development hell. The exact reasons for this do not seem altogether clear, but the fact is less surprising than it may appear, and not solely because the second film in the series, 2005's XXX: State of the Union, was a flop. The fact remains that it has already been a decade since the first XXX movie came out, and even were the film to get a green light today it would almost certainly be 2014 before its release. A dozen years is a long time for a franchise--especially one which is premised on being an update of an earlier concept. XXX, after all, was sold as "James Bond for a new generation" in its overhaul of the idea of the adventurous and formidable, yet suave and high-living, secret agent who gets the girl(s) and saves the world from the depredations of assorted madmen.

As an attempt at a "neo-Bond," however, XXX had its share of problems. In contrast with other Bond-inspired Hollywood blockbusters, like Indiana Jones (with its archaeological theme, fantasy elements, period setting, and homages to yesteryear's movie serials) and True Lies (with its heavy element of suburban domesticity borrowed from the French film La Totale!), its reworking of the material was superficial. The early part of the film certainly succeeds in establishing a different tone with an opening scene in which a tuxedo-clad operative's conspicuousness at a Ramstein concert gets him killed, and the antics of its rebellious, extreme sports-loving protagonist. However, once Cage has been drafted into the service of the National Security Agency the innovation becomes almost completely aesthetic--Cage's conspicuously not walking and talking like an Etonian, meetings in dance clubs instead of casinos, fur coats instead of evening wear. Everything else is standard Bond imitation, the mission, the gadgets, the villain, the bad girl who turns out to be a good girl, the assault on the bad guy's lair with the clock ticking away to oblivion and the final pursuit, all of it much more copied than reinvented, down to Cage winding up at the wheel of a missile-firing car racing down a Czech road with the Russian villain's former girlfriend in the passenger seat. One might add, too, that while the execution of much of this was competent enough, the film displayed neither the flair or the scale to out-Bond Bond (was the ski chase, for instance, really so "extreme" as to put it in a different class from those already seen in the Bond films?), while some bits were decidedly sub-par. (The villain's plan is especially stupid, all the more so for being explained through reference to "anarchism.")

In short, XXX was a serviceable action film which had some fun with its idea of a Generation X/Y version of Bond, but which fell short of properly realizing that ambition, which at any rate is already showing its age ten years on. The "extreme" label has from the start seemed to many like a mere matter of marketing rather than substance, and in any case has long since been played out as superlative, gimmick and brand--so much so that it is no longer even the butt of jokes.1 Vin Diesel is now forty-five years old, a fact which has not been an obstacle to his continued participation in the FF films (he appears in Fast Six next year), but which makes him less and less plausible as the star of "the new generation's" version of anything--especially if one considers how much older he would be in further sequels (the prospects for which are naturally a crucial factor in any decision to continue the series). Meanwhile, even the Bond films have stopped trying to be Bond films of the kind it took as its starting point. Indeed, rather than the start of some new wave XXX now looks like the last major attempt by Hollywood to make an actual action movie using the Bond films as a model--virtually everything seen since then conceived as parody, from Cody Banks to Get Smart to last summer's Cars 2--while makers of more serious spy thrillers take their cues from Mssr. Bourne.

The result is that that update would now seem in need of a massive update itself. Even if this were feasible, and frankly I'm not sure that it is, it would probably leave the series unrecognizable, little of the original XXX's concept (already thin stuff to begin with) remaining but a title, a couple of character names, a casting choice or two--and it hardly seems strong enough to survive that. At this point I think it simply isn't going to happen, and that it's going to keep on getting less likely with time, the window in which the project could have looked like a good idea closed.

1. Stargate fans, for instance, will remember the episode "Wormhole X-Treme!"--which aired way back in 2001, almost a year before XXX came out.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond, by Simon Winder

New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006, pp. 287.

In writing The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond I found myself revisiting the vast literature about the character, taking a new look at books with which I had been long acquainted, and checking out newer additions to this corpus for the first time. Of these the book that made the strongest impression on me was Simon Winder's 2006 The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond.

Unlike most of the books published about Bond for popular consumption, Winder's book was not put together as a compendium of production history, plot summary, reviews and trivia, but rather uses the series as a lens for looking at post-war Britain – both the stuff of the history books, and his personal, lived experience of it, while offering a range of thoughts on the series itself. At once a piece of film criticism, cultural history and memoir, there is a thesis of sorts running through it all, namely that James Bond offered a British image of power, relevance and glamour in those post-World War II years when Britons keenly felt the lack of these things.

As might be guessed, his doing so many different things in a single volume makes for a loosely structured and unsystematic book best taken as a collection of bits. However, these bits come from an author with a broad vision of the last two centuries of British history, a striking sense of the quirky ways in which the world-historical and the personal can connect, a wonderfully eclectic literary taste and a deep and subtle appreciation for film as an art form. It also happens to be the case that, at least in this telling of it, Winder does seem to have lived a life oddly explicable in the terms of the subtitle ("A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond"), supplying him with an anecdote appropriate to just about every wrinkle of the phenomenon he considers. To Winder's credit, his writing is also brisk and colorful and humorous to the point of frequently being laugh-out-loud funny. When reflecting on such matters as how the leading political figures of the interwar era look on film or the bizarrely anachronistic boarding school to which his parents packed him off, the career of actor Walter Gotell or the echoes of World War II in his childhood pastimes, the musical scores of John Barry or the manner in which a younger Winder conducted himself as an international traveler, he deftly and entertainingly combines autobiography with wide-field political, military, social and economic historiography, with results that are frequently as incisive as they are flip.

Still, Winder's take has its limitations. Like many another commentator on things Bondian he fell in love with the films (and the books) when he was rather young (as a ten year old watching Live and Let Die in its first run), and then grew apart from the series, especially as the series grew apart from its own '60s roots. While still greatly admiring of much of what he sees in From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, his later reaction against the series is nothing short of blistering. Certainly a sardonic touch is commonly a component of such reflections, while the sociological aspects of his study make a critical take on the material and the history it reflects (the hard facts of what empire involves, the neurosis that sets in when empire goes, the racial attitudes of yesteryear, etc.) natural. However, Winder seems to have gone from the extreme of adulation (the extent of his youthful devotion to The Man With the Golden Gun will astonish even hardcore Bondians) to the opposite extreme in his apparent determination to repudiate his Bond-besotted past (the rapid piling up of one denigrating remark after another regarding just about every aspect of the series equally astonishing). At the same time, while he has an exceptionally sharp eye for the ways in which the novels and the films appealed to Britons of the '50s and '60s (and to a decreasing extent, after), the reverse side of this seems an obliviousness to the ways in which they could have engaged just about anyone else. The result is a number of bits which don't work. Winder's remarks about such things as how non-Britons respond to the films (that, for instance, Bond's appeal to those of us on this side of the Atlantic is only comprehensible as a matter of his giving Americans a chance to laugh at British delusions) can only be read ironically by those generously disposed toward him, while a handful of his barbs (for instance, his wholesale dismissal of the Bond girls as lacking in sex appeal) can come across as a strained effort at iconoclasm.

Even where the recapitulation of British history is concerned there is one point where the book struck me as weirdly self-contradicting. Despite the leftishness of his outlook much of his characterization of postwar Britain (his praise for Attlee and his lack of same for Thatcher aside) takes at face value the right-wing cliches about that history: the '50s as all grim austerity, the '70s as stagflationary disaster, the '80s as a time of national revival. There seems a disconnect here, though rather than some personal quirk of Winder's I suppose it is simply a testament to how pervasive that version of events has become in the popular consciousness. (It may also be a legacy of Winder's childhood in a Daily Express-reading household in the '60s and '70s, and a matter of the contrast of his early impressions of the world inside that context then, and his independent impressions later.)

Still, it would be unfair to linger on these points. If at times Winder seems overeager to provoke, he is much more often thought-provoking. If there are times when he is inconsistent or confusing, he more frequently cuts through the inconsistencies and confusion surrounding his subject. Even when he was at his most unconvincing, I never came close to closing the book, the eccentricities of The Man Who Saved Britain perhaps inseparable from what it gets right, which is considerable, and I dare say, also inseparable from its considerable charm.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review: A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin

New York: Bantam Books, 2011, pp 1016.

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has been widely admired for its sweep and scale, its vast and engaging cast of characters, the intricacy of its plotting, and the vividness of its world-building, which is not just full of memorable touches (like the "sky cells" of the Vale), but in the complexity of its politics far more like the Medieval world of actual history than we are accustomed to seeing from our epic fantasies. There is, too, its fiercely anti-romantic take on this genre, which can still seem an interesting counterpoint to the dominant fantasy tradition, and which Martin for the most part handles brilliantly. ("Life is not a song," Littlefinger tells Sansa, and Martin proceeds to prove it to her, and everyone else, time and again, in what it is that Sansa really finds when she meets her prince, the triumphal entry into the city after the Battle of the Blackwater, in the sagas of the lords who set forth to claim their "rightful" crowns and find something else instead.)

As far as I was concerned the first three books - A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000) - simply got better and better, and naturally I was eager to read the fourth when I got through them. As Martin made clear, it ended up being too big to conveniently publish as a single book, and so he ended up splitting it into two volumes, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. Moreover, he decided to have the events of the fourth and fifth books track different sets of characters through simultaneous events, with the two sets of threads only reconnecting in the latter part of the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons.

It is now apparent that a major reason why this installment got so large was that Martin turned Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth into major viewpoint characters, while starting major threads concerning events in Dorne and the Iron Islands. Reading them I initially welcomed the increased attention to the Lannisters, but with Tyrion gone and Tywin dead, they proved a less interesting bunch, while Brienne's adventure likewise proved a letdown, admittedly widening our view of this world a bit, but not really advancing the larger story, or being interesting enough in itself to make us overlook the fact. The episodes in Dorne and the Iron Islands appeared unnecessary diversions cluttering up the narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the remarkable momentum the story had developed by Storm of Swords (the pace of which was positively giddy at times, as one chapter after another served up shattering twists) does not continue in Feast, the developments described appearing comparatively minor and marginal. Still, while my enthusiasm for the saga had been dimmed somewhat, Martin did end the story with a couple of compelling cliffhangers concerning Cersei and Brienne, and I hoped to see how those threads worked out. I also looked forward to the continuation of the stories of Tyrion, Jon and the rest. Naturally, I went straight to Dragons.

Alas, we only reconnect with the characters whose stories dominated Feast six hundred pages into Dance, and see very little of them in the three hundred pages after that - a disappointment, even considering Martin's advance notice about how this part of the narrative is structured. We do not see either Sansa or Littlefinger, and Jaimie rates just one chapter, while Brienne rates only the smallest slice of one (which reveals nothing of how she escaped the noose at the end of the last story, or where she will be going now). Cersei gets only slightly more treatment, rating a mere two scenes (though they are meatier).

Of course, that leaves the storylines totally left out of Feast. However, just as Cersei is less interesting without having her family around, so is Tyrion less interesting without the rest of the Lannisters (this group definitely more than the sum of its parts), or even Bronn and Shae, both of whom had earlier made their exits from the story's main stream. The picaresque adventures he has after King's Landing have their moments, but simply lack the charge of earlier parts of his story. Jon fares better, his struggles as a newly minted Lord-Commander of the Night's Watch having an intrinsic interest (helped by the secondhand view it offers of Stannis's continuing fight to claim the throne). We also learn something of young Bran's destiny, while Theon Greyjoy reenters the picture, and plays a larger role in the subsequent events than one might expect. Unfortunately, Daenerys' time in Meereen increasingly seems a detour along her path to what now seems her inevitable restoration to the throne - which is also what the plot lines he developed in Dorne and the Iron Islands still feel like.

The result is that Dance, despite some strong bits, is also overcrowded and bloated, and confirmed my suspicion that we already saw the story's climax in the third volume, leaving us with little to look forward to but the falling action winding everything up. The fact that not one but two volumes comparable to the one books four and five were meant to be, and the increasing length of time between the release of one book and the next (books two and three appeared just two years after the preceding volume, while it took another five years for Feast, and another six for Dance to come along) does not make me optimistic. Unless the pace picks up, it may be 2030 or later before we find out how it all ends up - and many devoted readers might not really care anymore by then. Given the stunning first three volumes, that would be a real shame, and naturally I'm hoping that things will go differently, Martin and his editor finding a way to wrap up the heart of the story in one surprisingly good volume (or two short ones released very close together) coming out sooner rather than later, and save the rest of the material for side projects like the tales of Dunk and Egg.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cory Doctorow On Summer Blockbusters

Over at Locus Cory Doctorow recently published a piece on why science fiction movies "drive him nuts," in particular the big-budget blockbusters, with this summer's The Amazing Spiderman the case in point. There is much in here that is familiar, not least such films' combination of stunning visuals with intellectual hollowness (and the gratuitous Star Wars prequel bashing Doctorow throws in), but he does offer some comparatively fresh angles. His more interesting remarks mostly have to do with his take on "How Hollywood Does Science," particularly the tendency to think of science as a magical source of cool stuff rather than a process. As he notes, the labs in the movie look not like places where working people actually do things, but showcases for finished products, while "The characteristic tasks of science – arguing, staring intently at screens, begging for funding, writing down stuff and revising it, and getting heated up about something cool and unexpected" are absent from the scenes set in the "Science Billionaire’s Science Tower."

This removes the whole from anything like a recognizable reality. Granted, as Doctorow notes one can take it all as opera, "stylized, larger-than-life, highly symbolic work that is not meant to be understood literally," but this leaves him unsatisfied - because it seems to him unjustifiable on the grounds that scientific activity is "visually interesting." I'm personally doubtful that people "staring intently at screens" constitutes compelling cinema; indeed, this has long been a significant problem for computer-themed movies, resulting in many an unsuccessful attempt to make presentations of hacking seem more interesting, with the result that ultimately the industry fell back on integrating such activity into more conventionally action-oriented storylines. Still, Hollywood's tendency to not just cut "the dull bits" but act as if they don't exist has effects beyond irking viewers with a modicum of scientific or technological literacy (like Mr. Doctorow). It also has a massively distorting effect on the way the average non-scientist thinks about the subject - much like the god-like presentation of the "Science Billionaire" in the lobby has had a profoundly distorting effect on economic thought, such that the average person seems to think of the Edisonade not as an outworn Victorian myth, but a viable basis for a national economy in the twenty-first century.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Paul Kincaid and Last Year's Best

Receiving plenty of attention on the web recently is science fiction critic Paul Kincaid's review of three science fiction anthologies purporting to offer round-ups of the year's best (the annuals by Gardner Dozois and Richard Horton, and the Nebula Awards Showcase 2012) in the Los Angeles Review of Books in early September.

Unfortunately, Kincaid reports the experience as underwhelming. Reading the assembled stories it seemed to him that for the most part "the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them," rather than an engagement with the world. And where that repetition is concerned, we appear to have passed the point at which we have "rubbed away anything that was bright and new." The result is that we increasingly get science fiction about science fiction, and especially science fiction as it used to be, "older . . . familiar futures," (as in Elizabeth Bear's update of '40s-style robotics tales like "Dolly,") or science fiction that looks rather more like fantasy ("more and more of the stories shortlisted for the Nebula Awards . . . either overtly fantasy or else indistinguishable from fantasy for all practical purposes), often because of their presentation of futures which are "magical or incomprehensible" (as in Gavin J. Grant's "Widows in the World"). In either case, the results bespeak the writers' loss of all "real conviction about what they are doing." This seems to him a matter of a loss of "confidence in the future," or at least, the future's comprehensibility.

Just as the stuff of the stories is familiar, so is the stuff of Kincaid's commentary - in part because there is much truth in what he says. Indeed, I have written so much about all this myself that saying anything more about most of his points seems to me superfluous. The exception is his note about incomprehensibility, his remark that
somewhere amidst the ruins of cyberpunk in the 1980s, we began to feel that the present was changing too rapidly for us to keep up with. And if we didn’t understand the present, what hope did we have for the future?
I find that line of thought dubious. As those of you familiar with this blog have likely noted by this point, I (like Robert Gordon, and Bob Seidensticker, and Ha-Joon Chang, and Michael Lind) have been unimpressed by the claims that we live in some era of unprecedentedly deep and rapid change, the "information age" thus far a modest tweaking of the industrial age. What actually seems to me most striking when I reflect on recent decades is how little political, economic and technological change actually occurred, certainly in comparison with the expectations of an earlier and supposedly more timid generation of futurologists and science fiction writers. (Remember world government? The twenty-four hour work week? Space manufacturing? Contrary to many an expectation, the nation-state and the business corporation remain the dominant political and economic actors, people still devote the great majority of their alert, waking hours to work rather than leisure, and we remain very much Earthbound as a species.) In many ways it seems as if we are standing still, and that is what makes problems like climate change seem so frightening - the failure of needed new technologies and public policies to emerge at anything like the speed, or on the scale, necessary for effectively dealing with them. The conscientious can only wish that the reality matched the hype in this respect.

This raises an obvious question: if change is not so rapid as many suggest, then why the continued attachment to the theme? Part of it may simply be the sheer power of the hype, to which science fiction has been especially subject. That fact by itself means that even those who don't share the expectation can still find interest in it - like Charles Stross, who has expressed considerable skepticism about the idea, but continues to write in this vein, as in his latest collaboration with Cory Doctorow, The Rapture of the Nerds (a sample from which you can check out here), the ironic title of which suggests much about the nature of the work.

However, the insistence on the world's incomprehensibility can have yet another function, namely that of dodge. To throw up one's hands in confusion can be an understandable response to their genuinely intimidating largeness, but it can also be a convenient way of avoiding the serious social and ethical and political questions raised by our problems (like our ecological crisis). There certainly seems an incentive to take that route when so many of the obvious responses to such problems - substantive critique of the prevailing orthodoxies, efforts to envision really meaningful alternatives, despair in the absence of such - are regarded as naive, disreputable or simply risky for the career-minded, encouraging the ever-present temptation to self-censor. Postmodernism has always concealed a significant amount of evasion behind its smugly enunciated epistemological doubts, and postmodern science fiction has not been an exception to the pattern. Indeed, the lack of conviction Kincaid finds in the writing is best understood as a parallel to that lack of conviction pervading our broader cultural and political life.

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