The Dish (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Dish</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, July 2001) Little-seen Australian comedy well worth tracking down for a pleasant diversion. Taking place in 1969, during the first mission to the Moon, it concerns the efforts of a few technicians to keep the Moon-Earth relay open despite difficulties. Given that said link (the title “Dish”) is in a little Australian community, you can expect a quasi-nostalgic portrait of a small town. It may not sound like much fun, but it’s actually quite charming. There’s even some material for deeper reflection about the importance of creating cultural mementoes for later generations, but only if you like to overanalyze your films. The biggest flaw of The Dish is that it’s based on a true story, and as such has to contend with structural difficulties. (For instance, that the film’s most dramatic moment comes maybe halfway through, after which we’re almost left wondering “what else?”). The conclusion is weaker than it should; there was ample room for a what-happened-next epilogue, but unfortunately we’re left wondering. Still, a good film for everyone, and a unexpected treat for space-nuts in particular.

Chocolat (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Chocolat</strong> (2000)

(In theaters, July 2001) It’s a shame that films are limited to sight and sound (with the occasional bass-driven tactile vibration) when seeing food, but hey—hearing my dieting female companion coo in envy at every single chocolate shot of the film almost made up for it. The initial structure of the film will be instantly familiar; an uptight community gradually liberated by an outsider. (In this case, a chocolatière -the wonderful Juliette Binoche- deftly stuffing our prudish cast with sinful chocolate). Strong symbolism, and it’s hard to see where you could go wrong with it. But it does, as soon as a second outsider comes in (Johnny Depp, with a good performance in a useless role) and mucks up what had been up to then a relatively clear narration. Blame it on the original novel if you must, but a large part of the film’s appeal simply runs on empty whenever Depp’s character is around. The other big flaw of the film is its very deliberate nature, where even the tragedies are carefully metered out in portions designed to thrill without offending anyone. You could say that the film feels designed for Oscar, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong. Still, once you get past that, the film still feels delicious in a completely non-challenging way. It reinforces liberal thinking, makes you hungry and won’t offend anyone: Follow it up by a trip to the ice cream parlor and you have an instant great date.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">But I’m a Cheerleader</strong> (1999)

(On VHS, July 2001) It’s not because it’s a lesbian teen romance that it’s necessarily more interesting! While the initial potential of the film is interesting enough (a girl with lesbian tendencies is sent to a “rehabilitation camp”), the treatment is hampered not only by a low budget, but also a low imagination. The true satiric potential of the premise is barely scratched, almost as if everyone was afraid to really push the limits of the idea. While the romance between the two leads (a cute Natasha Lyonne and the ever-wonderful Clea Duvall) is very sweet, it definitely sucks energy from the comedy and the result is not only harmless, but a bit boring too. The cast of characters at the camp should have been a limitless reservoir of comedy, but instead the caricatures are too broad and too lazy to be interesting. (While the girls aren’t all necessarily butch, all the guys are clichéd gay stereotypes that are immediately recognizable as real film characters, not real characters.) There are a few inspired moments (the “gay underground railroad”) but the rest isn’t nearly as interesting as it should have been. Very quickly, I can see two ways in which the film could have been improved: A> with a re-write by Kevin Smith (heresy!), or B> as a full-blown hard-core porn film. In the meantime, well, it’s a disappointment. Don’t be surprised if the end leaves a considerable number of threads untied.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bullets Over Broadway</strong> (1994)

(On TV, July 2001) The Mob and showbusiness intersect in this Woody Allen film set in the New York of the swingin’ twenties. As usual for an Allen film, the cast is stellar and the story is slight, but amusing. While initially predictable, the film takes a pleasantly surprising course in the last third. Don’t worry; there’s a happy ending. Nothing special to report; once again, Woody Allen defeats my intention to write more than a few lines about his films.

Along Came A Spider (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Along Came A Spider</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, July 2001) Yet another of those thrillers that don’t really make sense if you give it more than a moment’s thought, Along Came A Spider works better as a way to feature Morgan Freeman and/or string along a series of suspense sequences. Though the film tries to sell you a super-criminal mastermind, the end effect is under-whelming and doesn’t possess an aura of reality. The final twist is a pure cheat, once again making no sense if you watch the film a second time. Not bad while you’re watching it, but it might leave a sour aftertaste.

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Artificial Intelligence: AI</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, July 2001) The traditional fault of filmed science-fiction is the preponderance of visuals versus content, of gosh-wow over serious extrapolation. A.I. is a useful lesson in the lesser-known danger of going too far in another direction and ending up with a pretentious snoozefest. To put it simply, the nonhuman thing has been done already. From Star Trek’s Data to TV’s Alf (with countless other examples), I think we’ve seen every conceivable modern interpretation of the Outsider/Pinnochio myth. We didn’t really need another one, and needed even less a film that boldly went where every other SF writer has gone before. Thematic failure compounded by an overabundance of stupid non-questions (“Can humans love objects?” Well, try taking my teddy bear away from me and you’ll die.) and contrived non-questions (“Well, we’ll grant you your biggest wish, but babble-babble-babble it’ll only be for a day. Sorry. Nature of the universe. Sucks, doesn’t it?”) It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t all done in an entertaining fashion, but no… Stock up on caffeine before starting the film, because otherwise it’s a straight trip to sleepyland. It’s a shame -and a telling impression- that I wanted a film about the Teddy and Gigolo Joe secondary characters rather than the one I ended up seeing. It really doesn’t help that the film ends fifteen minutes after its logical ending, with a grating end sequence that it awful in all sort of different ways, but most egregiously by telling you what’s going to happen, and then spending ten minutes doing exactly that. And notice how I haven’t yet said anything about the manipulative sentimentalism of the production. Much has been said about this Spielberg/Kubrick “collaboration”, but in the end, Spielberg on Kubrick is like pouring a ton of sugar on a concrete slab. Interesting concept, but not an intrinsically entertaining experience.

‘A’ gai wak [Jackie Chan’s Project A] (1983)

<strong class="MovieTitle">‘A’ gai wak</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Jackie Chan’s Project A</strong>] (1983)

(On VHS, July 2001) Admittedly a relatively early Jackie Chan effort (considering his breakout Police Story as the baseline), with a nagging lack of technical polish and often-simplistic dialogue. The historical focus of the tale, centered in 19th century Hong Kong, doesn’t help at making things comfortable for the western viewer. Of course, that doesn’t matter very much once the fights start. As usual, there’s a lot to enjoy here, from a barroom brawl to an original bicycle sequence to a good final assault. Ends somewhat abruptly.

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, Peter F. Hamilton

Warner Aspect, 1997-2000, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

A Second Chance at Eden, 1997, 420 pages
The Reality Dysfunction, Part 1: Emergence
, 1996, 586 pages
The Reality Dysfunction, Part 2: Expansion
, 1996, 572 pages
The Neutronium Alchemist, Part 1: Conflict
, 580 pages
The Neutronium Alchemist, Part 2: Consolidation
, 596 pages
The Naked God, Part 1: Flight
, 2000, 778 pages
The Naked God, Part 2: Faith
, 2000, 778 pages

Six books. 4000+ pages. A cast of hundreds. Techno-jargon. The Dead coming back to life. Oh no, the Night’s Dawn trilogy isn’t for sissies. Even reasonably fast readers such as myself basically have to plan ahead for a month’s worth of reading time in order to get through it all. Is it all worth it? Absolutely.

I mean, let’s face it: In its quest for literary legitimacy and critical consideration, Science-Fiction has indeed become a more respectable literature with poignant characters, enjoyable prose and complex plotting. Unfortunately, along the way we seemed to lose the very thing that had initially attracted us to the genre: Big ideas, high adventure and stakes that made the galaxy look small. Sure, pulp SF space opera was fast, cheap and out of literary control, but at least it was a blast. Why wouldn’t it be possible to use the new facets of SF and stuff them with some of that old space-opera fun?

I’m not sure if that’s what Peter F. Hamilton intended when he sat down to write the Night’s Dawn trilogy, but the woozy cozy feeling of grandiose fun is what I’m keeping in mind after completing the trilogy. The sheer bulk of the work makes it a reading experience unlike any other.

It begins laboriously, of course. You can’t just rush into a brand-new interstellar universe in a hapzard fashion, and Hamilton is careful in establishing the various threads of the story. Be careful, however, in assuming that initially important characters will remain so. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable scenes in the whole trilogy is seeing one sympathetic but over-abused character simply say “That’s it! I did my job and now I quit!” then disappear from the rest of the story.

In a relatively short time (that would only be 600 pages, mind you), the fascinating framework of Hamilton’s universe and the most important characters are established. That’s crucial, given that these very same characters form the bulk of the Night Dawn trilogy’s continued appeal. Whether we’re with our stalwart hero Joshua Calvert, our innocent rich girl Louise Kavanagh, our delightful Lord of Ruin, our detestable antagonist Quinn Dexter or most of the rest of the hundred-plus dramatis personae, Hamilton makes us care for most of them. (With exceptions; however hard I tried, I couldn’t get interested in any of the Hippie-Possessed characters or the Valisk habitat.) In any case, don’t be worried about the size of the cast; they’re introduced in a very organic fashion, sometime so smoothly that you only later realize how important some bit-players eventually become.

Indeed, it’s hard not to be impressed by how smoothly Hamilton sets up his various players, whether he’s introducing characters or explaining the political complexities between the various empires that interact in his universe. Some of the best moments in the trilogy are in fact alliances shifts and other spectaculars that depend almost exclusively on the various forces that Hamilton himself sets up. We’re not talking chamber drama; we’re talking massive space battles, planets disappearing, the dead returning to life and stars exploding.

Sounds juvenile? Don’t be so sure. While pulp space-opera often read like the scribblings of a bright overenthusiastic teenager, Hamilton comes to the genre with an approach that benefits from decades of increasing genre maturity. He brings to the story a sheen of complexity and sophistication, both technical and emotional: The systems he describes are all-too fallible and interdependent, the psychology of the characters is multi-layered and never quite predictable. (Though the caricatural pure evil of Quinn Dexter does get tiresome after a while) This is a space-opera from the nineties, and the easy simplistic solutions of earlier decades don’t work. (Well, shouldn’t work: The conclusion of the trilogy is deus ex machina, but not unsatisfying so. There is considerable progress made on all fronts by this point in the story, and the characters are allowed to resolve their conflicts by themselves.)

You can’t expect a 4000+ pages story to be simple, and indeed the plotting can get hilariously convoluted at times, though never quite unbelievable. Such a large story-space allows Hamilton to cover a lot of thematic ground, so don’t be surprised to go from horror to romance to action to contemplation in a short time. Surprisingly enough, Hamilton is able to juggle all the balls at once and seldom strikes a false note.

Best of all for a series of this size is the impression that it’s compulsively readable. Not only are characters compelling in themselves, but Hamilton has polished his prose until it can be read seamlessly, and with enough repeating information to keep everyone up-to-date even though they’re not paying enough attention. It’s bad enough to split a series in six thick books; it would be unbearable to make the reader fight his way through it.

But no fighting here; once the initial volume is read, the rest is smooth sailing, with occasional pauses for whooping when the heroes make another nick-of-time escape. Indeed, Hamilton’s Confederation is like an onion whose layers a peeled away as we progress in the story. Human and alien historical conspiracies are revealed even as a full intergalactic war is in full progress and the very metaphysical nature of the universe is explained. It’s a heady trip, well worth the investment. (Though I’m still not sure that all the pieces -with a particular emphasis on the “ghosts”- fit together.)

Two other books form a loose addition to the Night’s Dawn Trilogy. While I haven’t yet bought The Confederation Handbook, a “non-fiction” look at the universe created by Hamilton for the series (too expensive in British import), I can give a marginal recommendation to his related short story collection A Second Chance at Eden. Bringing together seven stories set before the start of the trilogy, A Second Chance at Eden helps to flesh out some events mentioned as background in the other six books. Most notable are the title novella, a murder mystery incidentally describing the events leading up to the foundation of Edenism, and “Escape Route”, which features Joshua Calvert’s father in an unrelated but enjoyable “empty alien ship” adventure. (That last novella is hilariously spoiled in The Naked God). I also liked “Sonnie’s Edge” and “The Lives and Loves of Tiarella Rosa”, but couldn’t muster any interest for the other three stories. Your mileage may vary. You may read the collection before starting the trilogy, though be warned that the trilogy is generally easier to read.

Being someone who naturally avoids long series, I was unaware of how deeply you could invest yourself in a multi-volume
story. How the various character threads cross each other in delightful coincidences. How you could really get to care about them through countless adventures. How deeply you could establish a universe. How just darn good it is to lose myself in a story for weeks at a time, rather than read in a day or two and throw back the book on my shelves. A great feeling, and I didn’t even have to pick up a fat fantasy trilogy.

In short, the Night’s Dawn trilogy gets a strong seal of approval from the offices of this reviewer, through an unbeatable combination of readability, imagination, complexity, respect for the audience and some wonderful characters. Sure, it’ll take a while before you’re done reading, but trust me. It’s all worth it.