Back to the Moon, Homer J. Hickam

Island, 1999, 494 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-23538-3

There are thrillers and then there are superthrillers.

Thrillers are usually adequate beach reading, stories of evil conspiracies, military skirmishes or criminal affairs. They feature ordinary characters, plot puppets moved by an author writing as fast as he can to ship off the manuscript to his editor and make up payments on his mortgage. Thrillers are entertaining, but not much more; most of them will be undistinguishable only a few weeks after closing the last page. Thrillers abound on the shelves of your local bookstore; just pick’em up and you get instant entertainment.

Superthrillers, on the other hand, are another thing entirely. They are, most noticeably, bigger. Bigger in terms of scope and ambition, not necessarily in terms of stakes or length. They go to fascinating places we’ve never seen before, display prodigious amounts of well-integrated details, involve original gadgets and ideas, feature Cool Scenes and end on a succession of ever-more exciting thrills. Super-thrillers are thrillers that are a magnitude over and above what we can expect from a normal thriller. And Back to the Moon fits this description perfectly.

Oh, it doesn’t start that way. The first hundred pages are fun but oddly reminiscent of other thrillers, as it looks like terrorists are getting ready to take over a shuttle flight. The fun starts when things go wrong and the “terrorists” explain their mission and their motives.

Like other superthrillers, Back to the Moon takes risks that might doom it to failure. It uses Cold War weaponry hidden at an unlikely place, a last-minute revelation, a secret conspiracy to control nations and reckless opponents willing to combine unlimited means with inexistent morals to stop the protagonist. Not all of these work perfectly (one last-minute revelation smacks of desperation; the secret conspiracy seems stolen from the X-Files) but they do bring extra interest to a novel that already have more than enough to sustain a quick read.

When Back to the Moon works, it works extremely well. The various battles keep on getting better and better, the power alliances keep shifting and reforming in every-threatening configurations, the hardware is ingenious, the technical details are convincing without being overwhelming and the characters are well-defined. In fact, the novel even manages to create an impressive sentimental moment three-quarter way through. It had been a long while since I’ve had a lump in my throat while reading a thriller.

This confessed, it must be said that Return to the Moon will work best on an readership of space nuts, technical enthusiasts and science-fiction fans. The same audience that loved the film OCTOBER SKY (itself a dramatization of Hickam’s teenhood autobiography Rocket Boys) will respond most favorably to the novel’s none-too-subtle pro-space propaganda.

But keeping aside the thematic goals of the novel, Return to the Moon delivers the goods in terms of entertainment. Readers lucky enough to get a copy of this book will turn the pages faster and faster as the action heats up. Homer J. Hickam vaults within the ranks of the best thriller writers with his first novel, and his next is eagerly awaited.

Cecil B. Demented (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cecil B. Demented</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, December 2000) Very uneven satire of the Hollywood movie industry. Though John Waters is revered for his irreverence, Cecil B. Demented seems more like a half-hearted routine satire than a definitive statement on the industry. The best part of the film, aside from some great lines (“Patch Adams doesn’t deserve a director’s cut! It’s long enough as it is!”) is the endearingly kooky troupe of guerrilla filmmakers characters. They promise a much stronger film than what is ultimately presented here, as their innate interest is trampled by a script that simply goes through the motions. The low production values often show and hamper some scenes. The conclusion feels forced and somewhat immature. Film buffs, needless to say, will get much more out of the film than the “average moviegoers” that Cecil B. Demented is lambasting. Worth a rental whenever you’re at the video store and can’t stomach yet another syrupy Hollywood product.

Cast Away (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cast Away</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, December 2000) The middle section of this film is nearly an actor’s dream: to be featured alone, without co-stars, for nearly an hour. It’s a testament to the talents of Tom Hanks that Cast Away is able to do so without boring the audience. It is the film’s biggest asset, but unfortunately almost its only one. The beginning of the film is snappy enough (pausing only to establish the required scenes of romantic interest), followed by a pretty good airplane crash: as always, Robert Zemeckis is a competent technician and knows how to film complex setups like these. The island sequence is far more interesting than expected, even though it’s regrettable that the evolution of the character is simply glossed over by a title card. The third act of the film is by far the most unsatisfying, with a rushed conclusion that can’t avoid its built-in limitations and doesn’t go much further than the obvious. Audiences with room-temperature IQ will have recognized the film’s final shot from the tell-all trailer anyway. Cast Away remains a good enough film and a splendid actor showcase, but it never really exploits its theme to the fullest.

Best In Show (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Best In Show</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, December 2000) Mock documentary about dog, shows and owners. It takes time to heat up, as the characters and their dogs are all introduced one after another and we warm up to their various eccentricities. The film finally reaches his peak with the arrival of Fred Willard as a loud-mouthed sports commentator hilariously stuck describing the workings of a dog show to an unfamiliar audience. The overall plot is easy to guess, what with arrogance being punished and the little guys overcoming all tribulations, but in no way does this take away from the overall fun of Best In Show, one of the overlooked gems of the year.

Almost Famous (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Almost Famous</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, December 2000) Cameron Crowe strikes me as a writer/director with interesting things to say, but not always as successful in actually delivering a coherent finished product. Jerry Maguire seemed to invent plot difficulties in thin air and if Almost Famous is a more accomplished film, it does seems forced at times. (That it is “based on a true story” is a feeble defense for structural flaws. If you’re going to invent Stillwater, it would have been justified to boost the dramatic content of their struggles, who here appear rather underwhelming.) This being said, Almost Famous is a tremendously enjoyable film, which will undoubtedly work wonders on members of the generation depicted in the film. Younger viewers won’t feel as concerned. Some funny scenes, some poignant moments and some astute lines (destined to be quoted for years to come; “You do not make friends with the rock stars.”) all mix up, as with Jerry Maguire, to deliver a film that will please many different audiences at the risk of feeling somewhat unfocused itself.

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2002) I’m not sure if it’s because of the 35 minutes of extra footage, my own more reasonable expectations or the great commentary track, but Untitled (the “bootleg” director’s cut of Almost Famous) seems far more compelling than the original film. In many ways, this is a film best seen at home rather than in theaters; not only does in now clock at 160+ minutes, but it is far moodier and closer to its characters, which might play better in a small context. Acting credits are excellent across the board, especially with Kate Hudson, whose performance seems more remarkable here than in the shorter cut. The DVD edition offers several extras, the most unique being the long (ten minutes) “Stairway to Heaven” deleted scene which requires you to play along. Also included is a short “Stillwater” audio CD as well as a wonderful audio commentary with not only director Cameron Crowe (whose loosely adapted teenage years formed the nucleus for the film), but also his mother, who proves to be as formidable a character as Frances McDormand’s film depiction. What else can I say, besides strongly recommending it?

Fatal Terrain, Dale Brown

Putnam, 1997, 448 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14241-X

When do you say enough is enough?

When do you start giving up on formerly-good authors, despite repeated substandard works, an overall feel of staleness and, frankly, a lack of fun in their latest novels? What’s “giving them another chance”; buying in used bookshops, tracking down cheap paperback copies, loaning at the library?

Dale Brown drove me to these questions with Fatal Terrain, the limp follow-up to Shadows of Steel, an already lifeless military thriller several notches below his earlier efforts. As Brown desperately tried to interest me in Chinese politics, I felt more fascinated by the mechanisms driving a formerly exciting author to mediocre output than with the actual plot of the novel.

So here is, in a few easy steps according to the Dale Brown corpus, how to become a has-been author.

One: Start your career with a few good books. That’s essential to become a disappointment, otherwise you’re just a mediocre author who keeps on churning trash. Dale Brown started his career with gripping high-concept novels such as Silver Tower, Hammerheads and what probably remains his career high, Day of the Cheetah. Good fun, fast reads, good characters. At that point, the sky wasn’t even the limit for Brown.

Two: Settle in a routine. If you managed to invent a few original gadgets and characters, just keep re-using them until you’ve squeezed out all interest, and then keep using them some more. Brown had an fascinating gadget in his first novel; a high-tech, refurbished B-52 capable of almost all military feats. (A natural wish for an ex-B-52 crewmember like Brown) While its use was integral to Flight of the Old Dog and justified in Night of the Hawk, it became ridiculous to see Brown apply his “magic toy” over and over again in his latest novels. Snap out of it, Dale, and that also stands for the characters you so lovingly fleshed out in the first novels: Now that the readers know everything about them, stop propping them up one more time whether it’s credible or not.

Three: Try to adjust your universe to fit the real-world. This works especially well if your earlier novels are wildly implausible. In Day of the Cheetah, a Soviet traitor pilot hijacks a thought-driven experimental plane and flies it to a Central-America country that is subsequently bombed by the Americans… in 1996. That’s fine when your novel dates from 1988, but not as fine when your latest novel maintains that it all happened, while trying to integrate increasingly realistic real-world elements in the plotline… The Brownverse should diverge, not converge with the real world. (Also see the latest works of Tom Clancy for a further example.)

Four: Downgrade your writing and make it less interesting and far more verbose while ignoring sustained plotting. Whereas Brown’s earlier novels were snappy, exciting, well-paced entertainment, his latest novels seem built around two or three key action scenes each requiring dozens of pages of laborious setup. Whereas his earlier novels moved quickly to the action, his latest are dogged down with useless techno-speak in an unconvincing effort to add more realism. It’s not only tedious, it’s exasperating.

Five: Stick with one plot, book after book. So… hmm… American interests are threatened and foreign forces led by evil generals attack and all hope is lost until one lone high-tech plane comes in and bombs them all away! Sounded good for Flight of the Old Dog. Sounded increasingly worse for Skymasters, Chains of Command, Shadows of Steel and now his latest.

Fatal Terrain is the culmination of these threads, a limp “thriller” that spends too much time setting up and justifying battles than actually describing them. Only a significant character point and one neat concept (the underground airfields) save the book from total failure. As it is, the only thing driving me to read Brown’s subsequent book, The Tin Man, is the promise that it’s based on something totally different. Hey, wish me luck.