Monthly Archives: August 2007

The Invasion (2007)

(In theaters, August 2007) By now, “pod people” is such a well-known expression that any film attempting another treatment of the subject has to do better than just going through the motions in order to keep our attention. Alas, this fourth cinematic take on the story since 1953 is as bland as its title: the first half hour is particularly annoying as the filmmakers seem happy to re-invent the wheel all over again, seemingly unaware that we’ve seen all of this before. Things improve slightly once the invasion properly gets underway: The film shows effective signs of post-production desperation (by inter-cutting a number of cause-and-effect scenes together, for instance), ending with a series of meaningless action scenes that work well at waking up the viewers in time for the end credits. Otherwise, well, it’s full generic mode as the film lurches from one plot point to another. Occasional projectile vomiting may be good for a laugh or two, but there’s little else to enjoy here. Even the actors seem determined to out-dull the emotionless aliens. Thematically, perhaps the most intriguing thing about this twenty-first century take on the basic premise is a muted wistfulness for the simplicity of the “being alien” solution. Yet that theme is better expressed in one late line (“For better of for worse, we’re human again”) than an entire scene around a dinner table. “You won’t feel a thing,” promise the aliens, “you’ll wake up as if nothing had happened.” For the viewers of the film, that’s only too true.

Burden of Proof, John G. Hemry

Ace, 2004, 293 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01147-0

I really enjoy being surprised by some books, and Burden of Proof is an unusual kind of surprise: A book that shouldn’t work, but does so far better than anyone could suspect. Who could expect such an enjoyable book from a surprise-free plot, a blandly heroic protagonist, superfluous SF elements and a exposition-heavy prose style?

The lineage of the novel might have been a clue. John G. Hemry’s Burden of Proof is, after all, the second book in a series after the satisfying A Just Determination, which did similar wonders with just about the same elements. Together, the series charts the career of Paul Sinclair, junior commissioned officer in a 2100-era United States space navy. As Sinclair is tasked with shipboard judiciary duties, you can see how the series has the feel of a hybrid between legal drama, military procedural fiction and nuts-n-bolts science fiction. A number of on-line references to this series call it “JAG in space”, and while I’m not sure it’s the series’ official title, it certainly fits the plot.

The first book succeeded despite a number of elements that should have worked against it. Its earnest prose style and likable characters did much to shore up the clumsiness of some passages and the predictable nature of the plot. Those flaws and qualities are also in Burden of Proof, where they’re joined by another growing problem: self-conscious repetition.

Because structurally, A Just Determination and Burden of Proof are like twin brothers. Both see Sinclair as he progresses through the ranks, assists a captain’s mast session, witness an incident and volunteers for unpleasant court martial duties. The events are different (the accidental shooting of civilians in the first book; a shipboard accident in the second), but the formula stays the same. Even the characters comment that it’s just bad luck to be involved in two court martial procedures in such a short amount of time.

And through it all, the tone also remains the same. Hemry is not interested in juiced-up Hollywood drama, daredevil characters or extraordinary threats. His series is about people doing their jobs, and doing their best to operate within the system. Paul Sinclair tries really hard to follow the rules; it’s just bad luck that people around him can’t seem to do the same. There is a basic verisimilitude to this series that is comforting no matter how pedestrian it seems: who needs alien invasions, doomsday weapons and vast space battles when a court martial for gross dereliction of duty can be so thrilling? I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: This series should reach far more than the usual military-SF crowd in how it portrays military personnel as real people faced with real problems. Even more so here than in A Just Determination, the enemy that most directly threatens Sinclair is not another country, but the incompetents on his own ship.

Take away the almost-useless SF window-dressing, and you’ve got a tale that could be published as straight-up military fiction. The “space navy” is the sugar pill required to sell this book to SF audiences, but it holds together surprisingly well without it. Whether it’s an advantage or not is still unclear to me at this point, but I can certainly testify that the book as a whole is utterly pleasant to read regardless of genre. Despite the linear plot, the cheap twists (including an investigating officer with a huge conflict of interest) and the repeated overuse of Sinclair’s internal monologue, Burden of Proof is a smooth piece of fiction. Far smoother than anyone would expect given all of the elements running against it. And yet, despite my growing conviction that this series is going to run its concept into the ground, I’m on board for at least the next two volumes in the series.

We’ll see if the trend continues, or even improves.

[September 2007: I wasn’t so fond of Rule of Evidence, the third volume in the series, which really seemed to recycle everything all over again to little effect. Once again, the lack of basic monitoring equipment puts all characters in trouble, and good old Paul Sinclair has to rescue the situation. It’s still very readable, but the ritualized plot structure starts to grate.]

[October 2007: Interestingly enough, the fourth volume, Against all Enemies, is a neat wrap-up to this first phase of Paul Sinclair’s career as he leaves the USS Michaelson at the end of his tour of duty. The plot isn’t necessarily less of a formula, but there’s a real sense of growth and evolution here, in addition to the series’ usual strengths. There may or may not be any further volumes in the series (sales will determine that), but any fifth volume will likely be very different from the first four. In the meantime, the series as a whole is an interesting hybrid of legal/military/SF thriller, and it’s worth a look even given the third-volume ennui.]

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

(In theaters, August 2007) This third instalment in this relatively more realistic action/espionage series is, all things considered, both more exciting and more interesting that either of the previous instalments. Sure, it’s repetitive and shameless in how it allows Bourne to be an invulnerable superhero. Sure, Paul Greengrass’s constantly moving-and-cutting technique often leeches coherency out of his action sequences. Sure, the plot has more holes than it can comfortably sustain. But there’s a real relevance to the issues discussed here for the third time: We’re asked to face the extent at which we must pursue victory, and the means necessary to do so. What happens when an indifferent system allows bad apples to gain power? For all of its cynicism and “realism”, this trilogy concludes on an odd note of optimism, as it shows that individual people can take a stand and make a difference. But that’s really icing on the cake, because the most distinctive appeal of The Bourne Ultimatum is in its three big action sequences in London, Tangier and New York. The plot is really an excuse to get from one to the other, and all three of them are very different. The London sequence is a nightmare of surveillance technology used indiscriminately; Tangier takes us to the confusing chaos of the third world; while New York is Bourne smash-em-up in America’s front yard. Even the frustration of the constantly moving camera can’t shake the competent thrills of these three sequences. It may have taken a while, but I’ve finally seen a Bourne movie I could enjoy.

Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2007) More action, more comedy, more snazzy visuals! This second helping of Axel Foley has the added bonus of Tony Scott at the helm, some fair action sequences and a number of intriguing visuals (though Scott would more than top himself later on), but the self-awareness of the cast and crew often gets annoying: Eddie Murphy’s fast-talking riffs can deaden the film fast, and the improvised dialogue between the actors has a loose quality that’s perceptibly less interesting than scripted dialogue would be. Though the plot still doesn’t make much sense twenty years later, the rest of the film is good enough to be seen again.

A Darkness More Than Night, Michael Connelly

Warner, 2001, 470 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-66790-0

At first glance, A Darkness More Than Night looks like a piece of stunt writing, the kind of concept that afflicts writers in mid-career as they consolidate their back list and purchase a beach house: A glorious novel facing off one protagonist against another! Harry Bosch vs Terry McCaleb! A detective extravaganza, a criminal spectacle, now available for C$10.99!

Fortunately, there’s a lot more to it than simply a grand face-off between Connelly’s protagonists. A Darkness More Than Night ends up being one of the best examinations of Harry Bosch so far, as seen by a third party who also has our sympathies.

Terry McCaleb is, of course, the star of Blood Work, a previous Connelly novel that has also become a well-known film miscasting Clint Eastwood in the title role. (The written McCaleb may be a fragile heart transplant recipient, but he’s in his mid-forties at best.) As A Darkness More Than Night begins, his retirement is interrupted by an odd request from an old ex-colleague: Could he take a look at a bizarre unsolved case? Just a look, he’s promised, just his initial impressions…

Of course, it’s never so simple. McCaleb may be retired, but the instincts that made of him such a superb criminal profiler haven’t gone away, and tracking down the mysteries of the murder end up being one of his biggest thrills in years. Alas, all the clues soon point to a certain Harry Bosch, currently in the news as the star prosecution witness of a high-profile murder trial…

Soon enough, McCaleb and Bosch trade chapters in this two-ring circus of a crime novel. Has Bosch finally flipped out and killed a particularly troublesome criminal? Will McCaleb defy his wife, the police hierarchy and even the reader’s wishes in getting to the end of the case? As with most Connelly stories, there are less coincidences here than it may appear at first glance, and the pleasure of the novel isn’t in figuring out if Bosch did it at much as seeing Connelly tell the real story.

The big innovation here, of course, is seeing Bosch through the eyes of another character. McCaleb is more intelligent than Bosch, but not as smart. The two detectives have different styles, and using McCaleb’s power of intellectual detection against a street-savvy character like Bosch can provide illumination for both. Bosch, seen from the outside, is a far scarier man than we’re used to. We know enough about his past that the idea of him killing a suspect isn’t so far-fetched… and Connelly does his best to play on this ambiguity. McCaleb’s character also emerges from the novel as a stronger, more interesting character. Untied from the plot mechanics of Blood Work, he ends up being a formidable investigator on his own.

But as it happens, A Darkness More Than Night is more than the union of Blood Works with the rest of the Bosch story line: it ends up tying together all of the Connelly oeuvre so far: Connelly faithfuls will be rewarded by a secondary role for The Poet‘s Jack McEvoy and by a repeated wink to Void Moon‘s Thelma Kibble. The Connollyverse is in full formation, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see all of those characters work together again at some point.

As usual, all of the qualities of Connelly’s fiction are to be found here: limpid prose, sympathetic characters, exceptional details, an excellent sense of Los Angeles’ fun-house perceptions and a twisty accumulation of revelations and counter-revelations.

After the slight side-step of Void Moon, it’s good to see Connelly tackle another full-blown police procedural with such style and panache. The idea of using a character to investigate another proves to be a very clever idea and a triumphant return to form for Connelly. Meanwhile, my Michael Connelly Reading project continues, and there’s still not a bad book in the series so far.