Strange Days (1995)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Strange Days</strong> (1995)

(Second Viewing, on DVD, June 2009): You would think that a 1995 film re-casting 1992 racial tensions in then-future 1999 Los Angeles would be irremediably dated fifteen years later. But nothing could be farther from the truth: For once thing, the story (co-written by James Cameron) is a savvy exploration of a seductive SF concept that hasn’t aged a wrinkle since then. For another, Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional direction keeps things moving both in and out of frame: there’s a terrific visual density to what’s happening on-screen, and the subjective camera moments are still brutally effective. But even the dated aspects of the film still pack a punch, as they now appear to have taken place in an alternate reality where police brutality and memory recording have flourished even as the Internet hasn’t taken off. (History of Science students are free to sketch how one explains the other.) But it’s really the characters that keep the whole thing together: Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as a romantic hustler, while Angela Basset’s seldom been better than she is here, all smooth cheekbones, high attitude and shiny dreadlocks. The pacing is a bit slow (how many times do we need to see Lenny pine away for Faith?) and the ending isn’t as snappy as it should have been, but Strange Days is still amazingly peppy for a film with such an explicit expiration date. It measures up against the best SF films of the nineties, and that’s already saying something. The DVD has a smattering of extras (most notably a few good deleted scenes, a twenty-minute audio commentary and a teaser trailer that I could still quote fifteen years later), but this is a film overdue for a special edition treatment.

Millennium (1989)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Millennium</strong> (1989)

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): Fans of SF author John Varley often point at this film to explain his silence throughout the late eighties. Varley himself has plenty to say about it (see his short story collection The John Varley Reader for the details), but the result is a pretty poor film. Oh, it starts out well: Despite some unconvincing special effects and moments, the first half-hour creates an effective mystery, and there are a few spectacular scenes detailing the aftermath of a plane crash. Kris Kristofferson isn’t too bad as the lead, although he (like most of the actors surrounding him) look like they have escaped straight from the seventies. But then there’s a time-traveling sequence that, like too many time-traveling sequences, falls in love with the cleverness of showing everything twice when once was dull enough. The result stops the film dead for about twenty minutes, a loss from which it never completely recovers. The film gets worse and worse as it nears its end: despite a few flashes of interest, the film suffers from a disjointed third act that breaks dramatic unity with a few plot jumps weeks ahead before settling for a perfunctory future sequence and a consciously trippy epilogue. Trust me: You’d be better off reading Varley’s 1983 eponymous “novelization” (ie; what he wanted to do, untainted by outside forces) for the better experience. The DVD has a lame “alternate ending” that is suitably hidden deep in the menu system, a few unenlightening production notes, and nothing else.

Akira (1988)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Akira</strong> (1988)

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): The world has changed a lot in thirty years, especially in the field of geek entertainment, as so it’s no surprise if Akira doesn’t seem so fresh or eye-popping after three decades of CGI, geek-friendly properties and ever-more-convincing disaster movies. Then there’s the Japanese origins of the film and the adaptation of the story from a much longer manga, both of which don’t help untangle the messy and counter-intuitive story. Still, the amount of imagination on display is awe-inspiring, and there’s no denying that the film still measures up favorably to its contemporaries. While I’ve never been a big fan of some of the back-story (and the end Kaneda/Tetsuo screaming match always makes me giggle for “Canada/Tostitos!” values of immature amusement), the film itself still held my attention throughout, even through the sometimes-lagging pacing and the excessive gore. It’s an important piece of Science Fiction cinema for reference value alone, although viewers coming back to it after a while may find out that they remember scenes and visual images rather than particular plot points.

Millennium, John Varley

<em class="BookTitle">Millennium</em>, John Varley

Berkley, 1983 (SFBC reprint), 214 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN ???

With my ever-growing stack of books to read, I don’t often re-visit thing I have already read. But an idle viewing of the much-maligned Millennium on DVD left me wondering once again about what, exactly, John Varley had in mind before the movie industry made mincemeat out of his concept.

The essential back-story of the saga goes like this: After causing quite a stir in written Science Fiction circles at the end of the seventies, Varley went to Hollywood to work on movies. His written output during those years slowed down considerably, and the only tangible result of those years is his screenwriter credit on the 1989 film Millennium. There’s a dearth of documentation regarding the film’s troubled production (If Varley talks about it briefly in his 2004 retrospective The John Varley Reader, corroborating documentation is difficult to find on the web), but it’s no accident if this 1989 film looks as if it’s been shot years earlier. The finished movie reportedly languished in studio vaults for years until it was finally released. Varley started work on the script in 1979, and his “novelization” (credited to MGM/UA) came out in 1983, and ended up nominated for that year’s Hugo Awards.

At its best, the film plays like a fine science-fiction thrillers set in the early eighties. The first half-hour is intriguing, but everything quickly cheapens once the central mystery is explained. Millennium then gets bogged down in a redundant temporal loop (we really don’t need to see the middle when we know the end) and becomes increasingly inept at portraying the future sequences that are supposed to be the showpieces of the film. The end result is frustrating: there are a bunch of great ideas in the whole mess (the premise itself, about time-traveling operatives snatching away passengers of doomed flights, is the kind of idea that gets into your brain and then never goes away, especially for frequent flyers), but the execution becomes increasingly disjoint, all the way to a ridiculous amount of mystic yadda-yadda by the closing seconds of the film.

The book, unsurprisingly, is much better. At a pleasantly-short 214 pages, it moves quickly and keeps the strengths of the film while adding the rest of Varley’s original vision for the concept. Alternately told by the two main characters of the story in first-person “testimonies”, Millennium first reassures readers by giving them an early-eighties inside look at air crash investigations, with all of the procedural details and jargon-laden knowledge that presupposes. But the book’s most-improved aspect is in depicting the time traveler’s perspective on the events. The film’s unconvincing supermodel actress becomes a tough and uncompromising operative with her own distasteful habits, and her narration show how much of the character was watered-down for the big screen.

Not having to worry about a production budget, Varley is able to add all the depth and credibility that the story requires. Amazingly, the plot points of both versions of the story are largely similar: Varley, on the other hand, doesn’t play silly temporal games with his audience (when he does, it feels natural) and is able to give some sorely-needed background justification. He doesn’t try to tie the characters together more than strictly needed (the epilogue even suggests how unreliable the testimonies are) and is able to speak knowledgeably to his genre-hardened readers: all chapter titles are taken from previous time-travel stories.

Of course, it’s written with Varley’s usual verve. I had fond memories of the book, and revisiting it only underscored how good Varley could be even in delivering a run-of-the-mill SF thriller. It’s not just an illuminating look at how mishandled adaptations can keep the bones of a story and still mess up everything else: Millennium is a truly good SF novel, one that still has a lot of charm and value as an increasingly-historical context. (Which bolsters my contention that Back to the Future aside, the most interesting time-travel stories are ones where the future intrudes on a present, not ones where the present revisits the past.) Happily, I see from Amazon that Millennium is still in print; give it a try –it’s better than most novels published these days.