Month: October 2001

Lunar Descent, Allen Steele

Ace, 1991, 325 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-50485-X

All too often, catching up on an author’s entire oeuvre is an exercise akin to completing a puzzle. You’ll read the most available/important/distinctive works first, then work your way to, eventually, the rest of the picture. Whenever you do complete your work, though, you might find out that the smaller pieces illuminate something unexpected in the panorama.

So it was that I began to read Allen Steele with his ninth book, and gradually worked my way to the rest of them in time. With Lunar Descent, Steele’s third novel, I finally put in the missing puzzle piece, and it all forms an interesting portrait.

Orbital Decay was about a semi-rebellion among workers building a space station. Clarke County, Space was about a semi-rebellion among residents of a space station. Lunar Descent… is about a semi-rebellion among workers on the moon. Okay, so the details differ (Clarke County, Space isn’t about the rebellion, though it happens shortly after in the same timeline and Lunar Descent is about a strike action), but at this stage we’re merely playing with words. Suffice to say that some recurring themes do figure pro-eminently in Steele’s fiction.

The style, too, has similarities. Most of his novel are built around straight-ahead prose supplemented by other forms of writing; interviews, oral testimonies, media articles, etc…

Both of the above similarities, make sense when you know about Steele’s background as an investigative journalist before he started writing SF full-time. It’s no accident if he’s one of the most liberal SF writers in the business. His blue-collar characters like to have chemically-influenced fun, disrespect authority and do the job their pointy-haired managers have assigned them.

The protagonists of Lunar Descent are no exception. Our “moondogs” are the few, the brave, the proud men and women mining ore on the moon for the Solar Power Satellite projects back on Earth Orbit. Think about those hard-workin’ oil rig personnel and you’ll have a fair idea of their mindset. Sure, they get high and mean from time to time, but -wink, wink- work hard, play hard, right?

Apparently, the evil corporate villains of Steele’s fiction don’t think so, and before long they tighten the screws on operations, replacing half the personnel, finding a wholly unsuitable station manager, clamping down on “non-essential” imports and generally doing everything in their power to be completely unlikable. Boo! Hiss! Fight da power!

So our guys strike, and unfortunately, their evil managers declare their SPS work crucial to national economic indicators, and send in the space marines to quell the rebellion. So it’s exoskeleton-boosted marines against weaponless marines. Who will win? Well, yeah, but not in the way you’d expect, fortunately.

All and all, even though we’d seen this before, Lunar Descent is a success because of its likable characters, the vivid description of life in a workplace 300,000 kilometers away, the snappy writing and the good humor with which Steele nails down the essential details. Some stuff doesn’t ring true (why is it, for instance, that characters born in the 80s or 90s will always be fascinated by the same classic-rock enjoyed by the author? Hmm.) and Steele’s usual biases make the action predictable at times, but no matter; here’s another solid hard-SF book well worth your time and money. Lunar Descent is what the SF mid-list is all about.

First Contract, Greg Costikyan

Tor, 2000, 287 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54549-4

You would think that more than a hundred years after H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Science-Fiction would have managed to come up with every single imaginable twist on the “First Alien Contact” scenario. And yet here’s First Contract, a refreshing take on the subject that will make you smile in amusement even as it describes the complete economic collapse of Earth.

The hook is simple: Aliens descend on Earth, say “hi!” and propose a small trade; a copy of the galactic encyclopedia in return for the low-low price of, say, Jupiter. Before anyone can scream out “REMEMBER MANHATTAN!”, the deal is done and humans are stuck with a set of UN-controlled data files that no one can figure out. Meanwhile, aliens set up shop on the planet and destroy most of our industries by offering better products. The resulting economic catastrophe makes the depression of the Thirties look like a trifle.

I won’t pretend that this type of scenario has never been explored before in SF (who knows what might have been published in “Analog”, not to mention Costikyan’s own seed novella, “Sales Reps From the Stars”), but it’s certainly not a common spin, and the style with which it’s explored deserves mention.

In many ways, this is a novel that should have been published by Baen Books. The glorification of market forces, the deep and thorough knowledge of economic drivers, the quasi-encyclopedic knowledge of past historical precedent all bring to mind the usual Baen potboiler. But no, surprise, this is a Tor book… Jim Baen must be kicking himself.

The story takes the form of a narrative by Johnson Mukerjii, initially a hard-working high-tech CEO whose business, marriage and life are irremediably destroyed by the aliens. Before long, he’s huddled underneath a bridge, plotting his revenge. Mukerjii makes a perfect narrator, his lively wit illuminating the dry exposition passages he must dish out throughout the story. Hey, it works; expect to know a lot more about stock markets, financial statements and trade shows by the end of First Contract. Heck, the novel will even make you understand how third-world countries have to behave in light of rich-nations imperialism.

It’s worth repeating that even though the novel deals with heavy-duty economic SF theory, it’s never dull or difficult; Costikyan vulgarizes quite well, and if the novel isn’t all hilariously funny, it’ll leave a quasi-permanent grin on your face while you’re reading it. Which isn’t as straining as you might think; you’ll probably end up reading this book in a single sitting.

Dig a bit deeper and, of course, you’ll find here a deep and knowing satire on corporatism and the new feudalism. Or is it? Costikyan understands his subject so well that it can play both ways. Certainly the last few pages of the book take the Wal-Mart philosophy of retail (and supply) to its logical galactic extreme… and if that’s not satire, well, I’m ready to send back my SF-Critic’s license.

It helps, of course, that the book is a throwback to the plucky-humans-über-alles philosophy of so much golden-age SF. Despite being technologically pounded, economically colonized and spiritually destroyed, humanity -through our stalwart hero- finds a way to make a good deal. We haven’t conquered back the universe by the last page, but it’s obvious that we’re on our way and it’s only a matter of time. Say what you want about self-image and wish-fulfillment, but that type of attitude usually earns a bonus point or two in my ratings.

I wasn’t so taken by the last two pages, which seem a lot like a gratuitous extra spin than a knock-out ending. (Cut it, and the true ending sentence is much funnier. You better believe they’d ship on time.)

But taken as a whole, First Contract ranks as one of the best SF novels of 2000, a unique blend of big business and alien invasion. Cleverly imagined, compulsively readable and constantly amusing, this is a book that should please a wide array of readers. Don’t miss it.

Die Hard [Nothing Lasts Forever], Roderick Thorp

Ivy, 1979 (1988 reprint), 232 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-8401-0229-5

You remember DIE HARD? Bruce Willis stuck in a skyscraper with terrorists? Alan Rickman as the bad guy with a weird European accent? “Yippey-Ka-Yay”? The hero throwing himself down the roof with a fire hose attached to his waist? Exploding helicopter? Glass shards embedded in foot? “I now have a machine-gun, ho-ho-ho?” One of the best action movies ever?

Of course you remember DIE HARD. Everyone does. It’s a bona-fide modern film classic. It’s worth viewing every Christmas.

But what you probably don’t remember is that the film is based upon a novel, Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever. And what you really don’t know is how much the film improves upon the book.

Oh, it’s obvious that the two works are connected. In both cases, one lone man dispatches a busload of terrorists inside a high-rise building. The various action beats of the film are generally original to the screenplay, though the same general locations (elevator shaft, executive suite, roof) are used. The dramatic arc is identical, gradually mowing down through enemy ranks up to the final mano-a-mano showdown. But even with similar premises, the differences can be dramatic.

Most significantly, the protagonist of Nothing Lasts Forever is nothing like Bruce Willis. Joe Leland (not John McClane) is a sixty-something man, an ex-New York detective with a clouded past, a wrong-man-condemned affair presumably stemming from a previous novel. He’s divorced, slightly bitter and not really prone to wisecracks. The author doesn’t wait a long time before using his alter-ego to fulfill deep wishes; barely twenty-five pages in the novel, Leland’s get a date with a woman nearly half his age. Creepier: the damsel-in-distress in the novel is the daughter of the protagonist rather than his wife.

Where it gets interesting, though, is in the tone shift from novel to screenplay. Whereas the book is dark and nasty, the film is joyful and uplifting. Antagonist-wise, we go from political terrorists to high-tech robbers. Thorp intended to write a “serious” thriller; Screenwriter Stephen de Souza, coached by producer Joel Silver, obviously meant to sketch a mass-market blockbuster. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conclusion of the novel, in which not only does Leland learns that his daughter is up to no good (P.207-208: “’Klaxon Oil has promised to supply the Chilean fascist regime with arms… Your daughter is one of the principals in this illegal transfer of weapons.”) but she actually dies, dragged outside the skyscraper’s 32nd floor by the corpse of the lead terrorist as he’s shot by the protagonist. Talk about a downer!

But outside the obvious cheer of DIE HARD’s revised ending, the clean mechanics of the film contrasted to the often-muddled structure of the book clearly illustrate what a good cinematographic adaptation should be. The temporal unity of the action is tightened: The film ends at dawn while the novel drags on until nearly eleven AM. The film squeezes in an early ironic confrontation between hero and villain. Comparing both versions, the film comes out as a leaner, more focused work, a pure thrill machine unburdened by any higher aspiration, yet more effective because it doesn’t dwell on whatever issues bugged the novelist. Compare and contrast Leland’s internal monologue about women in positions of authority versus DIE HARD’s elegant watch symbolism and you’ll see for yourself.

That’s not even touching upon the things that film can do better than prose. While the jumping-off-roof, breaking-window, being-dragged-by-falling-hose scene is in both the book and the novel, the written version seems limp and lacking in energy compared to the taut filmed sequence.

In the end, Nothing lasts Forever is an average novel turned in a superior film, a book more interesting as an origin piece than a work by itself. Worth a look for fans of the film who want to understand why it’s so good.

Zoolander (2001)

Zoolander (2001)

(In theaters, October 2001) Some comedies act a lot like mirrors, reflecting to us our own attitudes toward the film. If, say, you expect Zoolander to be dumb, well, it will be. If you expect it to be clever, it’ll be clever. It’s one of those stupid comedies by clever people, so deeper levels of comedy are available if ever the surface slapstick isn’t for you. As a spoof of the modeling world, it certainly reaches its target with the character of vacuous Derek Zoolander. Ben Stiller is as good as always as an actor and his directing skills are adequate for the job. A ton of cameos complete the fun, the best one of the bunch probably being David Bowie (Tam-tam-tadam-tam!) There are a few lengthier moments in the second half as the plot dynamics are advanced. (Of course, the best laughs come in the throwaway pieces in the first half.) Not a memorable film, but one that’ll lift your spirits on a depressing day. As long as you allow it to do so.

Training Day (2001)

Training Day (2001)

(In theaters, October 2001) Ironically enough, this film about the corruption of a young police officer is also gradually perverted by the stupid plot mechanics of Hollywood thrillers. Unfortunately, unlike the protagonist this film gets no redemption by the end. Oh, it starts promisingly enough: Our clean-cut hero (Ethan Hawke) is happy as a puppy to join the drug-enforcement unit of a renowned officer, but his first day on the job proves to be much harder than he expected. For one thing, officer Alonzo (magnificently played against type by Denzel Washington) isn’t one for protocol or slavish admiration. For another, well, he seems as violent and ruthless as the criminals he’s fighting. By the time he tricks our stalwart law-enforcement representative in smoking PCP-laced pot, we’re deep in issues of justice versus law and the means required to enforce whatever ends are sought. It’s fascinating stuff, filmed in dirty gritty style. “Are you a wolf or a sheep?” taunts bad-dude Washington as the audience is willing to follow him wherever he wants to go. Alas, the film teeters too long between the two choices, and the inevitable conclusion mishandles everything. The fate of the protagonist, for instance, depends on a jaw-dropping coincidence, the type of thing that must either be foreshadowed hours in advance or simply re-written past the first draft. Then we go on to an unbelievable pair of confrontations. Finally, bad-guy Russians swoop on the film like plot devices and neatly tie up a dangling ending, because audiences would rather see the sheep win. Terribly unsatisfying, but the film is still worth a look if only to see Denzel Washington give a textbook-worthy charismatic bad-guy performance.

Siu Nin Wong Fei Hung Chi: Tit Ma Lau [Iron Monkey] (1993)

Siu Nin Wong Fei Hung Chi: Tit Ma Lau [Iron Monkey] (1993)

(In theaters, October 2001) Martial Arts fans better stand up and cheer for Iron Monkey, one of the most impressive action film I’ve seen so far. The story is simple but not quite simplistic, with characters you can like and a handful of cool scenes that aren’t about fighting. (Watch for the flying paper dance and a cooking demonstration.) Iron Monkey is a contender with Fist Of Legend and Drunken Master II as a kung-fu must-see: while its ratio of set-pieces might be lower, it’s a better-paced film with a good distribution of fights. The end fight alone is an anthology piece, with three fighters balanced on bamboo poles atop a lake of burning fuel, with all the expected complications. It’s a blast, as is most of the film with its often-unsubtle humor. Good great fun, worth picking up on DVD.

(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) Goodness, I so do love this film. Action-packed without being excessively violent, sustained without being repetitive, this martial arts film stands as one of the best entries of its genre. The American re-release of the film presents better editing, good sub-titling and a cleaned-up image. As for the story itself, well, it’s a mix of comedy and action, of painless historical drama and underdog philosophy. Simple but not stupid, Iron Monkey is truly unleashed during its fantastic action sequences, which manage to be distinct and frequently awe-inspiring. Don’t miss two non-violent demonstrations of martial arts. It’s an enormously sympathetic film, certainly one of the best Hong Kong martial arts film. Don’t miss it.

The Score (2001)

The Score (2001)

(In theaters, October 2001) As a French-Canadian, it’s always a lot of fun to see Hollywood in Montréal and Montréal in Hollywood. After The Jackal and The Whole Nine Yard, here’s The Score, which uses the city to its best potential yet. No Bruce Willis in sight, but the star-power of the film is stellar: Ed Norton, Robert de Niro and Marlon Brando, collectively representing the best actors of three generations. Excited? Don’t be. For one thing, Marlon Brando is an undistinguishable wreck though the whole film. For another, there’s scarcely anything to do during the whole script for the two remaining superstars: The Score is built around a heist, but only one heist. It’s all depressingly linear: Whatever small twists and counter-twists the film possesses can be seen coming well in advance (or simply by watching the trailer) Heck, Angela Basset has, what, only five minutes of screen-time? Oh, the scenery is nice, what with de Niro walking through the City and most actors uttering a French line or two. Some technical details are interesting. But that’s pretty much it. The rest of the film is an exercise in waiting until the end.

(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2002) I wasn’t overly impressed when I saw The Score in theaters, and I’m still not convinced after seeing the special-edition DVD. While it’s not a stupid film, it’s a curiously uninvolving one; despite the considerable acting talent assembled here, (De Niro, Norton, Brando, Bassett) there are no standout performances nor any particularly noteworthy moments. The plot is depressingly linear and without surprises. Montréal stars. The director’s commentary is more concerned about good cinematography, location anecdotes and ad-lib acting than telling us why the film falls so flat. The rest of the DVD is standard material, except for an interesting continuous shot of three ad-libbed takes by Marlon Brando. It’s a satisfactory rental, but not much more.

Legally Blonde (2001)

Legally Blonde (2001)

(In theaters, October 2001) The concept is comedic gold (a California ditz applies herself to become a successful Harvard law student… and succeeds), the trailer makes it appear as if it’s got potential and yet the film is curiously tepid. While the blonde protagonist is supposed to be misunderstood and smart (ie; can do anything if she works at it), there’s scarcely more than a hint of cleverness in her actions. She essentially remains a bubblehead throughout, as her supposed intellectual capacity is never equalled by emotional maturity. A trifle, you’ll say, and yet it’s emblematic of a script that tries to have it multiple ways without really facing any consequence. There is, for instance, a gratuitous sexual harassment subplot that doesn’t quite seem to fit. That’s not even mentioning the legal simplicities that will make you scream “objection!” at the screen. (I do mean this literally.) Oh, it’s a pleasant film all right. It just never does anything more with the concept. Like its protagonist, it’s a superficial motion picture that might hint at greater potential but never really convinces. Non-threatening. The kind of film you rent to show to the whole family, if only because no one is likely to be offended by it.

Girls on Film, Clare Bundy, Lise Carrigg, Sibyl Goldman and Andrea Pyros

Harper Perennial, 1999, 227 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-06-095310-1

The popular stereotype of an accomplished movie critic usually revolves around a monocle-wearing, pipe-smoking intellectual with an European accent who goes bonkers for three-hour-long subtitled Iranian films about a broken cup of tea. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got drooling brain-damaged teens who thought BATTLEFIELD EARTH was “a lot of fun”. Surely there must be a middle ground, a place where intelligent, unpretentious movie lovers can come together.

Girls on Film is a book for those people who aren’t afraid to like both independent films and Hollywood blockbusters, people who love both Woody Allen and John Woo, people who see film as a media with the duty to inform, move and above all entertain. The “Girls” of the title are ex-college friends, at the time of publication editors/reviewers of a popular film website. The book isn’t a compendium of web-published material (“You won’t find any of this on the Web site!” claims the back cover) but a self-contained, strongly-structured film guide that will make you rush out to the nearest video store.

The hook of the book (“Gee whiz! Young women can talk about movies too!”) is actually a misdirection: Even if, yes, the authors unabashedly present themselves as, well, girls writing about movies, the potential public of the guide is much larger than the 18-34 female demographics. They’re so knowledgeable and -more importantly- enthusiastic about their subject that their passion becomes universal. It helps, of course, that they focus on almost all areas of cinema, not simply what you’d expect from “flick chicks”. (Their discussion about how to be a film snob at parties is a pure hoot.)

The structure of the book is simplicity itself: Eight sections about different types of movies, each section being composed of an introduction, four essays about the genre (by each of the girls) and a must-see list of 25 typical movies, accompanied by various side-bars. So we get sections such as Dramas, Comedies, Indies, Romance, Horror, Tearjerkers, Coming-of-Age and Blockbuster movies chapters. The eight top-25 listings alone will make you want to carry this book to the video store with you: There’s enough intriguing material there for a few weekend’s worth of classic rentals. There is -alas!- no index, so if you want to track down why HEATHERS affected Andrea’s early love life, you’ll have to re-read part of the book. Or not, given the strong organization of the sections.

A book of this type depends a lot on the personalities of the people writing it. Fortunately, the “girls”, as a group, more than adequately create a distinct atmosphere about their preferences; witty, unpretentious yet with a solid vigor that doesn’t trivialize their efforts whatever the subject discussed. It’s a shame that the different authors themselves aren’t more distinctive, but that’s not as much of a flaw as you’d expect—it’s a lot like listening to a good band; you don’t complain that the bassist should be more distinctive… In any case, all of them sound like your best down-to-earth friends. You’d love to go see a movie -any movie- with these four. They’re not always “right” (duh!), but they argue so well… Laugh-aloud stuff at times. The cartoon illustrations are great.

Easy to read and even easier to love, Girls on Film is one movie reviewing book you’ll pick up again from time to time to get recommendations, or simply for the fun of reading a few page again. Accurately targeted at a large segment of the population and not simply “at the girls”, this is a book worth tracking down in used bookstores.

[November 2001: Regrettably, a late-2001 web check reveals that the original site has been bought and closed by a bigger company. The girls have split up, one of them going all the way west to become a media journalist. The remaining ones have created another site to re-create the feel, but said site hadn’t been updated in six months… A shame, really.]

The Last Of The Mohicans (1992)

The Last Of The Mohicans (1992)

(On DVD, October 2001) Sometimes, you don’t know what you’re missing until you see it. In this case, it’s a colonial-time grand adventure starring bigger-than-life protagonists, deliciously evil antagonists and miles of lush green forest. Granted, the film takes a while to revv up, but it’s obvious from the onset that this is going to be a beautiful piece of work. Indeed, looking at the large-scale war set-pieces, it’s worth remembering that this was made at a time where CGI extensions weren’t available. Some shots will take your breath away the old-fashioned way, from a mirror-perfect bridge crossing to a deliciously choreographed ambush rising-crane-view. The film really becomes compelling during its last half-hour, with splendid fight sequences that truly showcase the green environment of the action and the actors themselves. Wes Studi gets particular points for a great evil character that will completely make you forget about Mystery Men‘s “Sphinx”. The first-generation “Director’s Cut” DVD has no extras worth mentioning.

The Last Castle (2001)

The Last Castle (2001)

(In theaters, October 2001) There’s nothing wrong with a good old “guy movie” once in a while. As long as you remember not to peer too closely at character motivation, logic or philosophical underpinnings. The Last Castle is set in a military prison filled with hard-edged convicts. In comes rockin’ Robert Redford (showing fully well why he deserved superstar status for so long), who sets out to give respect back to this assorted bunch of murderers, drug traffickers and rapists. Rah-rah-rah! This, of course, doesn’t sit very well with overbearing prison warden James Gandolfini, who immediately sets out to participate in a pissing match with our protagonist. It’s all a bit juvenile, but if you’re swept along with the absorbing script, it won’t matter a lot. Nor will the magically appearing weapons (a frickin’ trebuchet? How did they build that secretly?) or the plot contrivances, such as when a small fight conveniently sucks all guards out of a cafeteria. It all builds to a chest-thumping climax in which duty, honor, patriotism and blowing stuff all come to a meaningful end. (There’s one amazing action shot.) It’s sort of like The Shawshank Redemption with an exploding helicopter. I might sound snide and sarcastic, but I really liked the film as is, though the various emotional levels bothered me more and more once I had the chance to think about them. In any case, The Last Castle is a decent prison flick, a worthwhile rental whenever you want a guys’ movie night.

Joy Ride (2001)

Joy Ride (2001)

(In theaters, October 2001) “Teen thrillers” are, nowadays, little more than marketing exercises, usually casting young stars from TV shows in order to service an unimaginative script helmed by a barely-competent director. The clearance shelves of every video store are filled with the results: I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, The In Crowd, Antitrust, etc… In this context comes Joy Ride, a teen thriller that’s not without similarities with other members of the breed, but that at least manages to be better than average. Not a lot of that quality comes from the acting, though: Paul Walker is fine but bland and Leelee Sobieski looks cute but bored, though Steve Zahn continues to excel in otherwise average roles (see Out Of Sight, etc.) The first half of Joy Ride is strictly routine, as two idiot teens make a mistake and pay for it. The fun begins as the tale twists slightly and then some more; nothing to make the jaded viewer scream out “Genius!”, but enough to keep the tension going effectively. That tension, carefully milked by a director who knows what he’s doing, is ultimately what keeps the film from sliding into silliness as the going-ons get progressively more unlikely. Once again, the unseen antagonist proves to be nearly-omniscient and quasi-omnipotent against all common sense. There’s not much identification with the characters, but at least the film succeeds in keeping our interest. As suggested previously, that alone places it as an above-average teen thriller.

Ghost World (2001)

Ghost World (2001)

(In theaters, October 2001) It is a false dichotomy to separate art and entertainment, but it’s true to say that a very personal work of art can work very well on some people and not at all on others. That’s the case with Ghost World, a film of unarguable artistic ambition that simply didn’t appeal too much to me, much like Rushmore or American Beauty. It’s not a bad film per se, but I found myself strangely unaffected by it all. At some point, I really thought the film has something to say about how cheap cynicism is nothing but artificial detachment—but that might be a case of imposing my own pet peeves on another work. Suffice to say that I’m neither a teenage girl not a middle-aged geek (yet), so any appeal a relationship between these two archetypes might have didn’t reach me. The non-conclusive nature of the ending also bothered my neat Cartesian mind. While some individual scenes are hilarious (the cinema stint, for instance), the rest of the film is more uncomfortable than interesting. At least Thora Birch’s performance is less annoying than in Dungeons & Dragons.

From Hell (2001)

From Hell (2001)

(In theaters, October 2001) It’s obvious early on that this won’t be simply a forgettable slasher film: For one thing, it focuses on a historically-accurate representation of the grisly “Jack the Ripper” murders of 1888. For another, the visual polish of the production with its blood-red skies, suggestive violence and gritty realism takes it a full step above the cookie-cutter approach taken by so many horror films. Alas, the film tricks us into paying attention only to betray its initial promise by a ho-hum story hampered by several annoying details. Johnny Depp, for instance, is rather good as inspector Abberline, but he doesn’t achieve anything spectacular with it. It’s a Chocolat impact with a Sleepy Hollow character; he’s easily upstaged by Robbie Coltrane. (But then again, Coltrane does that to everyone). Heather Graham is pretty, too flawlessly pretty compared to the other prostitutes in the film. The film shows obvious signs of adaptation difficulties: The psychic visions of Abberline are entirely superfluous, and the signature line of the film (“Some will say I gave rise to the twentieth century”) makes no sense if you don’t know about the original graphic novel. It doesn’t help, either, that the suspect is obvious early on and that the final “twist” is painfully drawn-out. A shame, really, because the rest is pretty good. You won’t confuse the directing style with Tim Burton’s because Burton is far more polished, but it’s distinctive nonetheless. An interesting rental, especially if you’re interested in Ripper lore.

Ghosts of the Titanic, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 2000, 339 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-72472-3

Now that the TITANIC movie has come and gone on big screens, VHS and DVD, it seems as if everyone’s an expert on the subject, citing diagrams and expert advice on exactly how the Big Ship sank. In the wake of the film’s boffo success (biggest moneymaker ever, anyone?), shelves of books on the subject were ransacked by new catastrophe enthusiasts.

One of those books was Charles Pellegrino’s Her name, Titanic. Faithful readers of these reviews may remember that I’ve been a Pellegrino enthusiast for some time, hence this review. Ghosts of the Titanic is a sequel of sort to Her Name, Titanic, but don’t worry if, like me, you haven’t read the first volume; the sequel is mostly self-supporting.

Some knowledge of the Titanic disaster is essential, though, as Pellegrino wastes no time explaining the basics. (This being said, one of the book’s highlights is the illustrated timeline of events running from page 176 to 195.) In some ways, this is a post-TITANIC book, immediately accessible if you’ve seen the film. James Cameron even wrote the foreword.

And what Pellegrino says is really “what the movie left out”: An examination of the current state of the wreck, the likely composition of the iceberg, the fire that had been raging deep in the ship’s structure during the whole trip. Pellegrino tells us stories that couldn’t fit in the three-hour movie, such as the efforts to keep the electricity running and Colonel Gracie’s narrow escape.

Using new testimonies, computer models and scientific evidence (some of which he himself collected during his visits to the wreck), Pellegrino uncovers yet more details about the events of April 14, 1912. One of his most fascinating findings is the fate of the Grand Stairway: Contemporary examinations of the wreck have so far failed to find it—leading James Cameron to theorize that the massive wooden structure could have ripped free of the sinking wreck and floated to the surface. A finding, ironically enough, supported by his experiences while filming TITANIC, as the Stairway replica started to rip itself from the set once submerged.

This anecdote, like many others, shows Pellegrino’s knack for finding the most astonishing things in places we wouldn’t expect. Coincidentally or not, his misfortune for being in a weird place at a weird time also pops up with alarming frequency and spine-chilling effects. (Here he describes missing TWA flight 800, and being cured of a fatal disease in extremis by one of his friends. I’m still waiting to hear more details about the nuclear device “accidental energetic disassembly” he survived, briefly mentioned here once again.)

All throughout Ghosts of the Titanic, Pellegrino exhibits a heart-wrenching sensitivity that will put a lump in your throat. It’s not easy to publish a book on this subject without somehow coming across as an opportunistic fellow, but Pellegrino’s mourning feels genuine and the result is a book that never seems exploitative.

Pellegrino’s polymath familiarity with widely divergent fields of study also gives him a unique expertise to slip in and out of the strict subject of the book. Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book is Chapter 5, when he examines “rusticles”, iron structures formed by the bacteria slowly eating the tons of metal in the wreck. Not only does he conclude that the Titanic will eventually disappear (there goes the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Ghosts of the Grand Banks!), but he also describes how the rusticles structures are evolving internal circulation systems… from unicellular organisms! As the ultimate kicker, he suggests that new medical research stemming from the study of rusticles might eventually save more lives that were claimed by the Titanic tragedy.

In short, Ghosts of the Titanic is another success for Pellegrino, another savvy mix of science fact and good heart-felt writing. Give it a try if you’re interested in the author or the subject matter. If you don’t think you’ve had enough of that subject yet, Pellegrino promises us, in the epilogue, that Ghosts of the Titanic is the second volume in a trilogy he expects to complete in 2010-2012. Given what he managed to tell us this time around, I can’t wait.