(Video on Demand, June 2015) This hero-on-the-run thriller may not be particularly original, but it’s often on-point when it comes to execution. Largely set in London, Survivor follows an intelligence analyst (Milla Jovovich, ably playing her usual action heroine persona) as she finds herself framed for a terrorist plot. A great use of London locations helps sell the film, along with a decent number of recognizable actors including Pierce Brosnan unusually playing a straight-up villain. The best thing about James McTeigue’s direction is that it generally remains within the realm of the plausible despite the often logic-defying leaps in the plot. This helps explain why the film’s third act, when it abruptly shifts its action to New York, is a let-down: Not only does it break unity-of-setting, but it cranks the tension up to an artificial degree and does so artlessly. After a conventional but well-handled rising of suspense, the last minutes of the film are just conventional. Survivor is still not a bad film, but it could have been handled quite a bit better.
(On DVD, December 2011) If ever you find yourself wondering what sets Jason Statham apart from other actors specializing in action movies, look no further than the extra interest and energy he brings to this otherwise fairly routine police thriller. A pure product of the British film industry, Blitz it technically slick and actually benefits from its London location: Compared to other comparable LA-based crime thrillers, it’s a welcome change of pace to see British policemen at work in a different environment. As far as the plot is concerned, though, it’s the usual psycho-cop-killer routine, with an implausibly super-powered antagonist and policemen unable to counter him. Added spice comes from the subplots; I assume that they reflect material from the eponymous Ken Bruen book on which the film is based. The problem is that subplots that fit within a series book aren’t necessarily fit for transposition within a standalone film. The best/worst example of this concerns a subplot featuring an arresting performance by Zawe Ashton: It’s a great piece of drama that would be integral to a TV series, but it doesn’t fit within the thriller framework of the film itself and, as such, doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. If you don’t know that Blitz is adapted from an ongoing series, you may have trouble figuring out the extent of the characters’ developing relationships. The fall-back position is the vicious police drama as headlined by Statham; never mind the fascistic position taken by the film’s “cop-killer versus killer-cop” attitude (everything can be blamed back to political correctness, as is usually the tendency with films of this sort)… it just seems like the kind of easy ending tacked-on to make everyone feel better. As a film, Blitz isn’t too bad. But it has a few rough edges that Statham’s typical performance can’t completely save.
Blackout: Bantam Spectra, 2010, 491 pages, C$18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-345-51983-2
All Clear: Bantam Spectra, 2010, 640 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-553-80767-7
I had little intention of reading Blackout/All Clear before it was nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards. I quite like Connie Willis as a person (one of my proudest achievements as a panellist at SF conventions was making her laugh at the other end of the table), but I’ve had mixed reactions to her fiction and the sight of a story big enough to run over two thick separate volumes wasn’t reassuring to me after her overlong 2001 novel Passage.
Then it got nominated for the Hugo Awards, as Connie Willis fiction usually is.
But now that I’ve read the diptych, I trust my first instincts more than ever. Another rethread in her “Fire Watch” universe in which innocent time-traveling historians get lost in history due to academic incompetence (and subsequently have terrible things happen to them), Blackout/All Clear showcases the British experience during World War 2. It plays in a sombre key and, judging by its length and scope, is clearly meant to be a major entry in Willis’ bibliography.
The set-up will be familiar to anyone who has read Willis’ 1992 Hugo-Winning Doomsday Book: By 2060, the Oxford History department may have a time machine, but they’re woefully disorganized, can’t seem to get the knack of twentieth-century wireless communication devices, and seem content to let academic incompetence run the show. The rest of the story is just as obvious: When three historians are sent to World War 2 and seem to be prevented from making it back to their rendezvous point to return to 2060, something is afoot. Is it simply coincidence or the fabric of time getting unravelled? Are our protagonists stuck forever in the 1940s or will they find their way back home?
Not to spoil anything, but there are three possible answers to what can happen to misplaced time travelers. They can either come back home the easy way (via time machine), come back home the hard way (which involves a lot of waiting) or they can die. There are three historians. You can guess what’s likely to happen to each of them.
What’s harder to figure out, however, is how or why an established institution like Oxford can’t arrange a time-travel post office somewhere in its vaults for stranded travelers to send messages forward in time. But then again, idiot plotting has often been a staple of Willis’ fiction, and we get a lot of it stretched over the story’s 1,200+ pages. People not communicating essential information to each other; so-called trained historians not knowing basic facts about their era of study; woefully misused technology; fake suspense due to authorial intervention… Blackout/All Clear often shows the not-so-hidden hand of the writer moving her pieces on the chessboard, not out of organic plot development, but out of arbitrary decree. The lengthy result, properly edited, could have been much shorter.
But Willis has clearly researched her subject in detail, and seems determined to make readers suffer for that accumulation of knowledge. The day-to-day details of life in WW2 London are described at length, almost as if Willis couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a Science Fiction novel or a historical one. In light of this over-accumulation of detail, it’s ironic that a number of other online commentators have commented (also at length) about the various inaccuracies in the book. As a Canadian who traveled to London exactly once, I couldn’t make the difference most of the time… but even the colonial bumpkin that I am raised an eyebrow at the mention of the “Jubilee line” [All Clear, p.315], which wasn’t finished until 1979 and named after an event that took place in 1977!
The pacing of both books is glacial, and the suspense in following the characters as they seem to have been stranded in time through the whims of a capricious universe feel increasingly hollow as the plotting rests on a heap of contrivances. One character seemingly dies so many times that by the time the Big Finish finally happens, we feel incredulous, cheated and unsatisfied. The big cosmological question that obsesses our characters about their time-traveling slippage deflates to almost nothing by the end, while the romantic opportunities offered by time-travel and a mismatched couple seem to disappear underneath the rest of the novel’s endless course. There is, to be fair, a good novel buried somewhere in Blackout/All Clear: A short 400-pages novel, ruthlessly edited to actually focus on something. Willis, alas, has now escaped most editing rigor. While I can’t say that I disliked Blackout/All Clear that much, I did feel as if it was purposefully wasting my time.
[August 2011: Well huh: Blackout/All Clear won this year’s Hugo Award for best Novel.]
Fawcett, 1998 re-edition of 1997 original, 1126 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-449-00263-2
I went through much of James Michener’s back-catalogue a long time ago, but no one else since then has managed to re-create the kind of sweeping epic stories for which he was known. In novels like Chesapeake, Michener told the story of geographical areas over centuries and generations of the same families. Places may have been the subject of his books, but the families were his characters and the impact of seeing stories unfold over decades could be profound.
So when I announced my plans to go spend a few days in London, I gladly accepted a recommendation to read Edward Rutherfurd’s brick-sized London. I could spend my time on City-bound public transportation reading about the place I was exploring. It made perfect sense: after all, one of my most useful travel tips is “bring the heaviest, densest paperback you can find”.
London certainly weighs in on the heavy side: At more than 1100 dense pages, the paperback has a heft that hints at the history contained therein. Describing London from 54 BC to 1997, Rutherfurd’s novel begins with maps of the city, and a chart of character names that extends over two thousand years and nearly a dozen families. The stage is set for an epic.
What we get is more akin to 20 short stories (some of them longer than others) taking place over London’s eventful history. The families often become more important characters than members of any particular generation, as the haughty and dishonest Silversleeves battle it out with the long-time citizen Doggets, the tenacious Bulls or the swashbuckling Barnickels. Every fifty pages or so, the narrative stops and another one begins… sometimes years, sometimes centuries after the previous one. As London grows around the families, we get a sense of the development of the city, learn a few factoids and are enlightened about the reasons things are so. It all reaches a climax of sorts during World War Two’s Blitz, as a millennia-old treasure comes back to haunt the descendants of those who lost it.
As a fictional tribute to a world-class city, there’s no denying that London meets its goals: It’s a grand-scale epic in the old meaning of the term. More than a hundred characters throughout London’s lengthy history often lead us back to the chart of who’s who in the chronology. The amount of historical research that has crafted the novel is astonishing and convincing at once. It’s an amazing achievement, and yet it could have been just a bit better.
Referring to Michener is useful, in that Michener understood that families became characters in their own right, and through generations, enjoyed dramatic arcs that paid off at the climax of the book. While Rutherfurd does make use of that principle to create a narrative that spans the short stories of each era (such as the strange and sometimes frustrating changes in fortune for the Doggetts), his family fortunes don’t always unfold in dramatically rewarding fashion, and that’s part of why he doesn’t quite manage to make the ending of the novel resonate as much as it could have. The Silversleeves, perfect antagonists as they are, essentially disappear from the book’s last third and their sudden reappearance isn’t entirely satisfying. London’s overall dramatic arc isn’t as gripping as it could have been, and a number of loose threads could have been tightened far more efficiently.
Then there’s the heaviness of Rutherfurd’s prose which may be off-putting to readers who aren’t used to lengthy historical epics. I will blame planes, trains and busses for not reading every single sentence carefully; nonetheless, few will be faulted for reading chunks of the book diagonally, trying to get to the next fascinating part: London isn’t always interesting, as you would expect from a loose assembly of twenty short stories.
All of this being said, I still keep a very fond memory of reading London on the plane landing at Heathrow, in the Tube, and on the train bringing me back to London from Brighton and (later) Paris. It tickled my neurons pleasantly to be stuck in a feedback loop where I would read about the sights I was about to see, or just did see, and gain just a bit of extra context by picturing the events of the book taking place around me. In one amusing case of reality/fiction feedback, I ended up mystified by “Petty France Street” for a few hours until the novel explained why it was named so. If there’s a better way of reading London, I can’t imagine it.
(In theatres, December 2009) It had to happen sooner or later: a retelling of Sherlock Holmes (suspiciously absent from the big screen since 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes) in the mode of the action thriller. No, it’s not even trying to be an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: This Sherlock Holmes knows how to fight, has abandoned deerstalker hat restraint for debonair nonchalance and enjoys the company of a hot ex-girlfriend. Pre-made for slash fiction writers, explosion connoisseurs and steampunk enthusiasts, Sherlock Holmes has little to say about its character, and a lot about modern blockbuster filmmaking. It generally works, despite Scooby-doo plotting and inconsistent use of dramatic devices. At least we’re spared an origin story, as the story picks up well into Holmes’ career. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be channelling Tony Stark with an irresistibly arrogant portrait of a super-genius (it works because he’s charmingly roguish rather than super-nerdy) while Jude Law does his job as the level-headed foil. Rachel McAdams, for some reason, always look better in historical movies (must be costumes), while Mark Strong turns in another performance as the bad guy. Director Guy Richie reigns in some of his usual tricks but manages to deliver a satisfying action film. Only the sound seems a bit soft (the mumbling doesn’t help): viewers without an ear for soft English accents may want to wait for DVD subtitles or sit closer to the screen. The CGI-enhanced portrait of 1880s London is suitably grimy, mechanical and interesting. Sherlock Holmes may be a travesty of the original stories and a by-the-number mainstream thriller, but it’s pretty good as such. Bring on the sequel, and let’s see Holmes square off against Moriarty.