Month: March 1998

Dreaming Aloud: The Life and Films of James Cameron, Christopher Heard

Doubleday Canada, 1997, 260 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-385-25680-9

In the last minutes of March 23rd, 1998, James Cameron brandished his Academy Award for Achievement in Movie Directing above his head and exclaimed before a few hundred million viewers, “I am the king of the world!” Despite the fact that this hyperbole was quoted directly from his script for TITANIC, it was a sentiment that a lot of Cameron fans could share.

James Cameron, born in Kapuskasing, (Ontario, Canada) had come a long way from his humble origins. In fifteen years, he has produced some of the most stunning movies the world could have imagined. His cinematography reads like a box-office hit top-ten: THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, THE ABYSS, TERMINATOR II: JUDGEMENT DAY, TRUE LIES and finally, especially TITANIC. He has broken the most-expensive-movie-ever record not once or twice, but thrice. His movies consistently push the limits of moviemaking technology, and yet he seldom contributes substandard material. His movie, as shocking as it may seem, are techno-marvels built upon human emotions.

Cameron, like the best folk heroes, consistently goes against impossible odds. Many people thought him defeated after the saga of TITANIC’s making. 500+ million dollars of US gross box-office revenue later, Cameron proved them wrong. But if the skeptics had read Dreaming Aloud before doubting Cameron, they might have thought differently.

Dreaming Aloud chronicles Cameron’s life from his Kapuskasing Days until the eve of TITANIC. He see Cameron during his stint at Roger Corman’s B-flick studio, where he directed his first feature film (PIRANHA II). Then it’s his chance meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, future wife Linda Hamilton and fate with the first TERMINATOR movie. The remainder is known and expected, but author Heard makes it interesting. Whether it’s about his films or his marriages (Linda Hamilton being Cameron’s fourth wife. As the author says, “Marriage is something Cameron believes in but isn’t very good at himself.” [P. 188]) the style is completely readable (very possibly in a single sitting), especially for confirmed Cameron fans.

An index, a cinematography and a few photos complete the account.

But even despite the appeal of Cameron’s films and the breezy style in which it is written, Dreaming Aloud is at the same time far from being satisfying enough. A look at the bibliography reveals a scant six books and seven magazine articles used to write “Dreaming Aloud” This reviewer has read (heck, has written) essays with more sources than this. Dreaming Aloud may or may not be a compilation of these thirteen sources, but in retrospect it is also a very distant biography. We never get the sense that Heard has actually talked to Cameron, or done extensive legwork on his subject. The extended plot summaries (4-5 pages for each major movie) are not interesting for Cameron fans (who already know these movies by heart) and may feel out of place for the remainder of the audience. The usefulness of their length is doubtful.

Dreaming Aloud closes while pondering the after-TITANIC for Cameron. Given the success of the movie at the Academy Awards (11 Oscars, tying BEN-HUR’s record), this is a surprisingly powerful finale.

Fortunately, we now know that Cameron has taken his deserved place in the Hollywood hiearchy. He is in the enviable position of having dared the gods, and won. He can do whatever he desires next: it will be seen by millions. At the moment he is truly, as grandiose as it may seem, King of the (Hollywood) World.

Millions of fans cheer.

Ignition, Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Forge, 1997, 320 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-86270-9

EARLY 1996

—Hi, what’s up?
—Thought about our next book a bit. You know that we’ve got to deliver another thriller to Tor/Forge in the coming year.-
—Yeah, something a bit meatier than our Craig Kreident franchise for Ace.
—Exactly. So, I was watching DIE HARD yesterday, and-
—Ah yeah, pretty good movie. We could do something like this.
—Exactly. So, I began thinking where terrorists could do some damage, and came up with something pretty wild. Ready?  How about Cape Kennedy?
—Terrorists take over a shuttle? That’s a great hook!
—Thanks. Now, I guess we’d have some kind of shuttle flight-
—-so we could show off our Hard-SF background with the technical details-
—Yeah, and terrorists would threaten to blow up the shuttle on the launch pad while the hero would run around, killing bad guys and saving the shuttle.
—Terrific premise. We can do something with this.
—The best thing is that there’s plenty of explosives around.
—Right! A few rockets here and there, some hi-tech weapons…
—Not to mention helicopters and APCs and the shuttle!
—We could even sell the movie rights to Hollywood!
—But no reviewer would miss the connection.
—Hey, this one’s for the money, right?
—Uh-huh. So, back to the premise: We could always make the hero -an astronaut- a bit more vulnerable, something to chuck off in the movie-
—Like, oh, having him with a broken leg?
—Oh, come on, he’d be grounded- Hey, that’s not bad! He’d be pissed-
—Yeah! And then he’s wobble along blowing up terrorists (laughs)
—We could make this work. And what about a love interest?
—Uh… Got it! An ex-lover of his that’s gone up to flight control. Traditional fiery relationship. But then they kiss and make up.
—I like it. How about a villain?
—Oh, don’t know yet… We’ll get around to that later. I just want to make sure we’ve got a good amazon female henchman assassin character somewhere.
—That about wraps it. I’ll draft the outline and send it to New York-
—No special effort for style, I guess.
—Nah. We nailed it with Ill Wind: No need to waste style on thrillers. Descriptive is good enough. Gotta keep them turning the pages!
—That’s the goal! Okay, talk to you later.

MARCH 1998

Anderson and Beason probably never had the above conversation, but they succeeded in producing a perfectly entertaining thriller with Ignition. Okay, so the villain is simultaneously hilarious and bland, the conclusion is dragged-out and the image of a hero with a broken leg is often more comical than inspiring, but the remainder of the novel isn’t half-bad. A couple of big explosions, action scenes and classic wish-fulfillment makes this an engrossing read. Should make an interesting movie.

Airframe, Michael Crichton

Knopf, 1996, 351 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-679-44648-6

(Read in French translation as Turbulences, Robert Laffont, 1998)

Another year, another Michael Crichton techno-thriller. At least, this one is better than The Lost World… even if that’s not really saying much.

When future literary historians will dust up the shelves of turn-of-the-millenium popular fiction, they’ll have to take notice of the name Michael Crichton. After all, when you regularly top the best-selling lists like he does, year after year without any signs of slowing down, these things tend to stay in memory.

But when they’ll peer closer at Crichton, I get the feeling that they’ll run into a maddening puzzle. Was Crichton an author, or not?

Are there any creative endeavor that Crichton hasn’t tried? Besides being a best-selling novelist (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Rising Sun, Disclosure…), Crichton is/has been a fairly good movie director (THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, WESTWORLD… even one of my favorites: RUNAWAY), a computer game programmer (an obscure illustrated text adventure called, I believe, AMAZON), a TV scripter/producer (E.R.), a screenwriter… where does he find the time to write these books? (Notice that we haven’t mentioned his medical studies, or his family, or that he once won an Academy Award for improvements in movie accounting. No, really!)

Crichton, these days, is arguably more famous as Crichton himself than as the guy who’s slaving away behind the keyboard putting words one after the other. Part of this might be caused by his novels. Okay, so Crichton has made a living out of warning people about technology. But besides that, his books feel like prepackaged products: Formidably competent, usually utterly entertaining, but devoid of flavor, quirkiness or personality.

Airframe certainly fits into the cookie-cutter profile that Crichton fans have come to expect. Once again, it deal with a high-technology subject (in this case, passenger airplanes) from a dramatic angle (people are killed during a in-flight accident) using characters freshly recycled from the nineties’ stable of stereotypes. In this case, our heroine is an administrator at Norton Aircraft, the antagonist is a young and irresponsible media “journalist”, the evil overlord is a (grr! grr! kss! kss!) rich and greedy corporate guy, and so on and so forth.

Plotting is strictly by-the-numbers, with unexpected events happening here and there without any justification but that something must happen by this point. (The chase through the airplane hangar is particularly ludicrous.) At least Crichton does not do cliches. His characterization may be familiar, unsubtle and hastily pieced-up, but it stays within the borderlines of the reasonably adept.

It’s fun (?) to note that despite being sold by truckloads to a mass-market audience, Airframe contains considerably more scientific and engineering jargon than most science-fiction novels. In many ways, this is a prototypical techno-thriller. The hook, the process, the gimmicks, the resolution are all technological, and the ultimate cause of the crashes won’t exactly be guessed by the casual reader (as it is too often the tendency while writing this type of fiction.) Airframe at least has a veneer of authenticity, a probable result of considerable time spend researching the subject.

Predictably, Airframe is slick, fun entertainment. Easily readable in a single day (or a single airplane flight, heh-heh-heh) and perfect for beach reading, it again proves why Crichton is at the top of the charts, and deserves to stay there.

Yat goh ho yan [Mr. Nice Guy] (1997)

Yat goh ho yan [Mr. Nice Guy] (1997)

(In theaters, March 1998) What can you say about a Jackie Chan movie? You either like the goofy humor, the incredible real-life stunts, the lousy stories, the insulting sexism and the hammy acting or you don’t. As a confirmed Jackie Chan fan, I can say that it’s one of the most enjoyable movie he’s done, mainly due to a certain lack of repetitiveness that had plagued some of his earlier films. The action is also nicely distributed, with at least four memorable sequences in the movie, including a horse-carriage chase and a construction site fight. The Pepsi-fight is also fun to watch. The ending might be disappointing for martial-arts aficionados, but is a blast if you like monster-truck shows. Better than Operation Condor, if less hilarious. Unpretentious fun, Mr. Nice Guy is exactly what you need to take a 90-minutes brain break.