Category Archives: Science Fiction

T2 4k 3D: Crunching The Terminator’s Numbers

Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived in cinemas in the summer of 1991. Its main competitor was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner (remember him?). I went to see T2 twice at the cinema back then. By the time of the second viewing, I was watching the Soviet Union collapse live on TV news. (There was nervous laughter in the cinema when John Connor said the line about the Russians: “Aren’t they our friends now?”) The film dealt with Cold War fears. Looking at it again in 2017, it was difficult not to think of the current North Korean standoff as images of nuclear destruction flashed up on the screen repeatedly. So, the film’s themes are still relevant.

Just as the film is about time travel, so the film itself now functions like a time machine, taking us back to a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest movie star on the planet. That’s not the case now. He’s been replaced by a bunch of anonymous superheroes who dominate the box office (James Cameron was an early champion of CGI effects and T2 was the first film to use them extensively and effectively. You could argue that it created the tools necessary to bring all these comic book universes to life. Other films like Jurassic Park (1993) and The Mask (1994) consolidated the wow factor of CGI and proved it was here to stay. It reached its creative nadir with George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels which were like expensive cartoons.) Since Arnold’s return from politics, he seems to have lost that cocky charisma of old and looks bored and weary in movies now. He has also struggled to find decent vehicles to star in. Only Escape Plan with pal Sylvester Stallone hinted at a possible new direction for Mr. Schwarzenegger when he got a chance to speak German in a movie for the first time.

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Terminator 2 has none of those problems. Arnold is in his 90s prime and the film has been impressively upgraded to 4k and 3D by Jim Cameron.

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Terminator creator James Cameron

Knowing his technical expertise and perfectionist nature, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill restoration and it isn’t. The sound is incredible with thunderous gunfire and explosions (my ears are still ringing the morning after) and Brad Fiedel’s score gains a new lease of life in the mix. Glaring continuity errors have been corrected by Cameron with great subtlety. Some of the in-camera effects have dated, particularly the puppetry effects but Cameron has wisely allowed them to remain so as not to alter the heart of the film. It is a film from 1991 after all and he clearly didn’t want to get into endless nit-picking of his former work like Mr Lucas did with the Star Wars special editions (Greedo shot first, anyone?).

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Robert Patrick as the T-1000

Cameron got the casting spot-on too. Robert Patrick is a fantastic villain as the liquid metal T-1000. (Cameron didn’t have the money or the CGI to introduce this character in the first Terminator in 1984 and his inclusion makes this sequel one of the best.) Patrick’s wiry physicality and short stature give a David-and-Goliath look to his epic confrontations with the hulking Schwarzenegger.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger with a young Edward Furlong

Edward Furlong in his first film role is a revelation as the troubled, thieving tearaway John Connor. (A big difference from the Messianic future leader we’d heard so much about in the first movie.) His genial interplay with Schwarzenegger is the heart of this movie. Sadly, Furlong got into drugs and missed out on the third Terminator movie because of it and his absence from the series, along with Jim Cameron and Linda Hamilton, was a huge loss (some would say the series has never recovered from that.)

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The Dream Team: Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Eddie Furlong

T2 is at its weakest when it strains for significance, some of it coming across as cloying and the ticking of emotional boxes (Titanic struggled with some of the same issues). Some of the sequences are derivative, particularly the Cyberdyne building sequence which is clearly influenced by Die Hard. Still, Cameron is able to rise above his influences to create something memorable.

If your only reference point for the Terminator franchise is the woeful mess that was Terminator Genisys, I suggest you see Terminator 2 4k 3D on the big screen while you can. It still feels remarkably fresh and original (not hard in a time of comic book movie overload and lazy remakes). The humour hasn’t dated either with the audience laughing throughout at the gentle puncturing of Arnold’s tough image (it’s funnier than any of Schwarzenegger’s so-called comedies.)

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Cameron is hoping to re-release Aliens in 4k 3D, his other “best sequel ever made” and that would be most welcome from what I’ve seen here. He’s also returning to the Terminator franchise to produce a new trilogy of films starring Schwarzenegger (hopefully with Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong back in the mix too to reunite the dream team). Shooting begins on the new movie in early 2018 with the director of Deadpool at the helm. He’ll be back, oh yes, he’ll be back.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

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Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

The Weird and Wonderful World of Richard Matheson

The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”

After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.

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“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.

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It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.

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The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.

He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.

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His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”

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“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.

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The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.

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In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.

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His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.

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Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.

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He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”

Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”

His daughter and two sons also became writers.

Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.

I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.

(“The Vorbing”, my vampire novel inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is available here)
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Star Wars – Empire Under Construction

Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.

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With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)

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Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)

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Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.

Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:

Hero – Luke Skywalker

Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.

Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids

Princess – Leia

Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.

Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.

For me, the structure is this;

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Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers

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Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968)
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Han Solo and Luke Skywalker similarly dressed as the enemy in the Death Star

Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)

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Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.

       

Imagination Vs Technology – The Writer’s 21st-Century Faustian Pact?

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Imaginary things take time to write. Fantasy and horror and, to a lesser extent, science fiction can be among the toughest genres to write as they are works of pure imagination. Science fiction can be slightly researched and current trends can be followed to their logical conclusion. Educated guesses can be made as to what direction science will go in. Fantasy and horror mostly comprise world-building from scratch and, depending on the writer, the concepts can take time to generate.

Added to that, readers want new product yesterday. They’ve become ultra-impatient in the internet age. Some of them even refuse to read the first book in a series as they are unable to wait for the other books to be written and published. “Am I going to have to wait years for you to finish your Vorbing trilogy? I’m an impatient bitch,” one of my readers helpfully explained to me.

In their book, The Neuroscience of Clinical Psychiatry: The Pathophysiology of Behavior and Mental Illness, Edmund S. Higgins and Mark S. George note: “People who can delay gratification and control their impulses appear to achieve more in the long run. Attention and impulsivity are opposite sides of the same coin.” This is especially true of all those internet babies who have grown up in the technological age. So the internet is a bit like Brexit; we don’t know what the full implications of its arrival are yet.

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The web has its advantages. It’s a phenomenal communication tool. Twitter has definitely made me think faster and streamline messages better, that is certain. As a way of quickly disseminating a message or a product worldwide immediately, the web takes some beating. The net is like a giant synthetic brain our thought patterns are connected to (a strength and a weakness that can be exploited). There are concerns over privacy and who is doing what with our data and those worries will only increase as time goes on.

Back to the writing. This awareness of the disintegration of attention spans has unquestionably changed both the method and style I employ when writing books. I started writing my first book when the internet was in its infancy. I was able to remain in the world I had created all day interacting with my characters. I was totally immersed in it and wouldn’t notice hours passing. Now social media, that great thief of time, eats up chunks of my day without me noticing hours passing. I mostly interact online with people I don’t know instead of my characters. I’m totally immersed in the internet. Writing is done now in feverish bursts to meet my daily word count so I can get back online. Experience has enabled me to do much more in less time though. I no longer need to spend all day going down blind alleys trying to find myself creatively. So perhaps there is no damage done there.

There are writers who have given up social media for a month to get books out there. I’d be concerned about losing half my hard-earned followers. You can’t expect people to continue following you if you’re offline for weeks. Especially if you’re a self-published writer dependent on social media to market your books. It appears to be a 21st-century Faustian pact with the web.

Then there is the pace of the novel itself. I am only too aware that if you fail to hold the attention of your readers, social media is tickling their ears non-stop to woo them away. So they’re dealing with getting their electronic fix too (especially if they’re consuming your book on an e-reader or smartphone app that’s connected to the internet and the ejector seat button for your novel is half an inch away). The pacing of a novel has to match the online frenzy going on out there or you’re toast. Then again, if the flour is going rotten to begin with, maybe the quality of the toast isn’t so important these days. We shall see.

So the internet has rewired our brains, changed our expectations and how books are written, edited, sold and read (or not as the case may be). What form will books take in 2026? 2036? 2066? Will we be taking downloads directly into our brains as in a William Gibson cyberpunk novel? I have a saying: “The possible is just the impossible that we’ve come to accept.” It will happen.

My novel “The Vorbing” is available here

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

“You Can Quote Me On That” – The wise ramblings of Stewart Stafford (Slideshow)

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Close Encounters of the Terrifying Kind

Many things scare us. When it comes to stories, whether it’s books or movies, we’re being manipulated into being afraid. So it helps to have many levels of sell. There’s the obvious thing we’re scared of like alien creatures or zombies. Then there’s the subliminal things that may not register at first.

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I saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind when I was six years old. I didn’t understand a lot of it like the significance of the missing Bermuda Triangle Flight 19 reappearing in the desert 32 years after vanishing.

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I also found the Richard Dreyfuss character’s peculiar behaviour confusing. Today, being an adult who has lived through a global recession, I understand exactly the pressures the Dreyfuss character was under.

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There were many scenes I found scary. The obvious scare was the little blond boy being abducted from his room by aliens as his screaming mother loses her grip on him (tapping into every child’s nightmare of being taken away from their mother). The scene that really scared me though was when Richard Dreyfuss gets in the shower with his clothes on and slides to the ground crying.

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His son sees it and calls him a cry baby. That really made me worry for the protagonist and his family. In a film full of fantastic visuals and scares, it grounded the film beautifully in harsh realism. It was tapping into the other childhood fear that the father, the head of the family, would lose control of himself and the family’s future. So Close Encounters has its visual scares (the aliens) and its psychological kicker (fear of the unknown).

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Zombies also have a surface fear and a more profound one playing under the decaying skin on display. The packs of ravenous zombies are frightening (one newspaper branded the zombie the official fantasy creature of the recession!). What is more frightening however is the fear of the unknown they represent. In a zombie apocalypse, everything you know is changing; you don’t know why it’s changing, you don’t know what it’s changing into and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just like Close Encounters, zombie movies regress us to a state of infantile powerlessness (which is perhaps why monsters in movies are usually huge with big teeth, the same way our parents appeared to us when we were toothless babies.)

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The best writers know how to layer in subtext to give deeper meaning to what was once B-movie material. It is perhaps one reason why fantasy and science fiction movies are now being nominated for and winning Academy Awards in all the major categories, something that was once unheard of and is a refreshing change.

(To read more of my writing on a similar subject click here)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

David Bowie – Anonymous Icon

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just in the right place to do something exciting.”

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David Bowie was all wrong for the 1960s for many reasons. Firstly, he tried to fit in with whatever trend was happening at the time. He hadn’t found his own look or voice yet. We’re all guilty of mimicking our influences until we find ourselves. (Some of Bowie’s 60s output has been compared to The Who. During the recording of Under Pressure with Queen in 1981, Brian May played a take and said it sounded like The Who. Sixties Bowie might have been pleased with the comparison but not the Bowie of 1981. He frowned and said to Brian May: “Well, it won’t sound like The Who by the time we’ve finished with it.” He was not an imitator anymore but an innovator pushing for perfection.)

David Bowie had been ignored in the 1960s. He had been trying since he was 15 in 1962 to break into music with various bands, images and sounds. He’d been a mod, an acoustic hippy and even tried putting out novelty records like The Laughing Gnome. After seven years, he had only managed one hit right at the tail-end of the decade in September 1969 with Space Oddity (he’d never be allowed that much time in today’s music business and the world would miss out on a spectacular talent). For nearly three years after that, nothing he tried worked.

The late sixties were all about Flower Power and everyone being one with each other and the Earth. Bowie, with his unusual eyes, was about the opposite – the outsider.

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Bowie wasn’t going to be ignored again and decided on a new strategy for the 1970s. He would push his outsider look about as far as it could go to become the gender-bending extraterrestrial messiah Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s. Whereas Elvis was himself, Bowie would play a character to become a superstar, an interesting twist on what The King had started. It was influenced by the androgynous look of Little Richard in the 50s and Bowie was a huge fan of that.

“It’s always time to question what has become standard and established,” he said.

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David Bowie wasn’t going to follow the crowd and try to fit in anymore. He was going to use shock tactics and press everyone’s buttons. He was going to wear a dress and publicly state that he was gay despite being married to Angie (the gay thing is no big deal these days, back then the impact of such a statement was seismic. Many Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson denied they were gay in interviews until the end as they were afraid it would ruin their careers. As Bowie didn’t really have a career at the time, it had the reverse effect and was the making of him).

Bowie was clever enough to figure out that there are two ways to get your message out there; advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). He was going to make the press work for him by tossing them eye-opening quotes and posing for provocative pictures to make them do the work of drumming up interest in his career with headlines. While wearing dresses didn’t give him the breakthrough he craved, it gave him his first unique image and people started to remember him. Bowie was moving in the right direction.

To give an example of how brave David Bowie was, he decided to walk around TEXAS wearing A DRESS in the early 70s! A guy called him a fag and pointed a loaded gun at his head. Did it phase Bowie? Nope, on the contrary, it proved his shock tactics were working. He was getting noticed at last. He wasn’t following another trend, he was setting his own. Bowie would do exactly what he wanted in the 1970s and nobody was going to stop him and they didn’t. He was about to take things even further and really push the boundaries of what was acceptable.

Bowie Fellatio 2

On June 17th 1972, Bowie performed mock fellatio on guitarist Mick Ronson at a show in Oxford. Bowie’s manager Tony De Fries took Mick Rock’s photo and had it made into a full-page advert in music paper Melody Maker. There were repercussions and paint was thrown on the front door of the house in Hull where Mick Ronson’s parents lived. Paint was also thrown on the car he’d bought them. Ronson left the tour but was persuaded to return. If Bowie was going to suffer for his art, so were those around him.

Bowie-Ronson-Starman-TOTP

On July 6th 1972, David Bowie appeared in what would be a life-changing performance of Starman on the now-defunct Top of the Pops. During his spot, guitarist Mick Ronson joined him to harmonise and Bowie draped his arm around him in a limp-wristed fashion. Bowie knew exactly what he was doing. A young Boy George remembered his grandmother saying “oh, he’s a poofter!” when she saw Bowie make that gesture and similar statements were uttered in homes all over Britain. Of course, anything parents didn’t like was automatically what kids were going to get into and they flocked to Bowie in their droves as new fans (concert audiences began to grow noticeably after this). It was a masterstroke. In a Stardust flash, David Bowie was a star after a decade of trying. Such was the power of television then. It had made Elvis a star in the 50s, saved his career with the ’68 Comeback Special and did the same for Bowie in 1972.

Bowie Eyepatch

The Ziggy Stardust image was such a hit, Bowie said “I thought I might as well take Ziggy out to interviews as well. Why leave him on the stage? Why not complete the canvas? Looking back it was completely absurd. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in a physical sense, but definitely in a mental sense.”

While Bowie appeared to be telling all his most intimate secrets to the world, what he was really doing was projecting a fake image of himself and revealing nothing. In later years, long after he stopped playing characters, he retained that air of mystery even up until his death (especially after his enforced retirement following a minor heart attack on stage in 2004).

Bowie Finger
Check the finger, Paparazzi!

 

It’s something he has in common with Freddie Mercury, both men hid in plain sight for decades. When you look at the information they left behind about themselves, it seems to tell you a lot but doesn’t. They showed but didn’t tell and perfected the politician’s art of doublespeak. That is why the public remain fascinated with them and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens

“It is a time of sacrifice…good and bad.”

This is the first sequel in the Star Wars franchise in 32 years. A long time ago in an era far, far away.

The First Order, the new Empire, is set up awfully fast in The Force Awakens. The last time we saw the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, it was defeated and destroyed. Here, somehow, it is at full strength again and even has Star Destroyers and a battle station that dwarfs the Death Star. I think the writers have missed an opportunity to show The First Order as underdog fanatics plotting to overthrow the New Republic in a patient build-up. But nope, we get one line that they have risen from the ashes of the Empire and, that’s it, they’re back, just like that.

The writing is shorn of George Lucas’s interest in diplomacy. For all his flaws, Lucas always grounded the Star Wars movies in a political context. He was very interested in how the states he had created operated. Granted, in the prequels there was far too much talky politics that bogged the movies down in clunky exposition (taxation anyone?). The new script sacrifices depth for pace, humour and a lightness of touch that is reminiscent of A New Hope. The pulling back from full-on CGI aids the realism too.

Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back returns as co- writer here, but The Force Awakens is nowhere near as good as that masterpiece. There were so many great lines in the original trilogy “The force will be with you…always,” “I am your Father” and “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Some of them are repeated in The Force Awakens but there is nothing new to challenge the old lines. That is a pity. (In the age of the instantaneous internet, could the “I am your father” moment be kept secret now? I doubt it. I accidentally saw a major spoiler for The Force Awakens while typing in a hashtag on Twitter.)

Michael Arndt gives lectures on the original trilogy and wrote the first draft of The Force Awakens script. Perhaps he’s great at analysing why Star Wars works but not so great at creating something new. The script is okay, nothing more (there is a nice riff on the father/son theme that runs through every Star Wars movie and Han Solo finally accepting The Force as being true is a nice payoff to his “hokey religion” dismissal in 1977).

Harrison Ford brings weary charisma and some much-needed gravitas to the film in reprising his old scoundrel Han Solo. He’s given some better lines and more to do than in Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but, just as in that film, the older stars are shoved aside in favour of the newcomers who aren’t that interesting.

Carrie Fisher looks like she’s been at the Botox. The only parts of her face she can move are her lips and even that’s a struggle. It doesn’t look like her and it is a shock seeing her as a shrunken old woman.

We know Daisy Ridley is miscast in the lead role. We know because J.J. Abrams told her on set that her acting was “wooden.” If you’ve cast someone that can’t act in the lead role of the biggest franchise in film history, you’ve hired the wrong person. Ms Ridley compensates by overacting horribly, shouting every line with her eyes as wide as possible. She runs (a lot) and cries (a lot). Apart from that, the jury is still out on her. Then again, Star Wars has a history of not-great acting, so she’s probably keeping up a great tradition.

Muhammad Ali-lookalike, John Boyega, took some criticism in early reviews, but I actually thought he had good comic timing, the audience liked him and he even struck up a buddy rapport with old grumpy pants himself, Harrison Ford. Let’s hope we see more of him in the sequels and spin-offs, he’s the best of the new breed.

John Williams returns to score the picture and it’s okay, nothing as unforgettable as Vader’s Theme from Empire. Darth Vader himself is, for me, the greatest villain in movie history and he is sorely missed. Vader choked people to death by breaking their necks if they defied him. Whereas new baddie Kylo Ren takes his frustration out by incinerating inanimate objects with his lightsaber to keep the rating kiddie-friendly. There’s also some predictable PC casting. Everything that was white and male before now has to be rebooted as female, ethnic and/or LGBT (we’re getting an all-female Ghostbusters reboot and possibly a black James Bond in the future.)

The Force Awakens isn’t as good as I thought it was going to be and I doubt it will stand up to repeat reviewing as the original trilogy did but it is perhaps the best that can be expected now George Lucas has bailed out on his film company. It will no doubt break box office records. No film could probably live up to the hype anyway. It is good to have Star Wars back in whatever form it’s in (I think I know the big plot twist in the next movie too but I won’t spoil it for you, dear reader.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved. (Star Wars ©Lucasfilm Ltd)

 

Back To Black: From Exterminator to Ex-Terminator?

The-Terminator-Poster

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the movie “The Terminator.” Even though it had been made in 1984, I didn’t catch up with it until October 1986. My parents had gone out for the night to my cousin’s 21st birthday party and I was left alone to watch whatever I wanted (a new and thrilling experience for a teenage boy!). They had also gone out the previous Friday and I’d rented a double bill of Bruce Lee movies (inspired by the early Jean Claude Van Damme movie “No Retreat, No Surrender” where Bruce Lee returns from the dead to teach a young guy how to overcome the evil Muscles from Brussels.)

This time I decided to choose a movie I’d had my eye on for a while. I had seen the phonebook-sized VHS cover with the word Schwarzenegger on it. I didn’t know who Schwarzenegger was, but the name sounded foreign, unpronounceable and vaguely threatening. He also looked cool in his shades, leather jacket and with his gun raised up by his face. I had no idea who James Cameron was either (I didn’t particularly notice or care about movie credits then). I think I’d gotten it mixed up in my head with a film called “The Exterminator” that my friends had told me about in school. They said something about The Exterminator putting a gangster in a mincing machine and teenage boys love a bit of cartoon gore like that. So, after school, I cycled over on my Raleigh racing bike and booked “The Terminator” before anyone else could.

As soon as my parents went out, I popped the cassette into our suitcase-sized Blaupunkt video recorder. I had no idea of the unique quality of the movie I was about to watch. From the moment the future war sequence appeared on the screen, I knew I was watching something really different. Then this legend appeared:

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.
Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.
It would be fought here, in our present.

Tonight…

I was spellbound. After the eerie opening images of Skynet’s probes and flying Hunter Killers (the precursors of today’s drones?) prowling the rubble of a skull-covered WMD-flattened city (the nuclear nightmare of every kid who grew up from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, including myself), there was now the promise of something even more exciting. How good was this movie going to get?

After the ominous Terminator theme tune by Brad Fiedel, we get to the time-travellers who in arrive in Los Angeles circa 1984. James Cameron, like John Carpenter before him, proves himself to be a master of atmosphere (indeed, the music for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and “The Terminator” are very similar in parts and both movies deal with killer robots masquerading as humans). Both directors know how to use silence and shadows and even humour before hitting the audience with big shocks. The Terminator does ape the noirish photography, electronic soundtrack and editing techniques (Mark Goldblatt also edited Halloween II three years previously) of the Halloween series which was probably a clever move by Cameron as they were hugely popular at the box office then.

I was thrilled by Michael Biehn’s theft of a pair of Nike running boots as, believe it or not; I was wearing an identical pair of them as I watched this movie. I had bought them when I was on holiday with my family during the summer of 1986 and they served me well. The similarity in our footwear convinced me that this was a movie for me!

To cut a long story short, I was completely hooked from start to finish on the movie. I didn’t want it to end. But end it did and I turned over to watch one of those naughty “Red Triangle” movies they were screening on Channel 4 at the time. This one turned out to be Japanese.

Two months later, I went to see “Aliens” with my brother after he came home from America. (30,000 people emigrated from Ireland in 1986; my brother was one of them). So I suddenly got a double dose of James Cameron’s first movies all at once.

James Cameron, wanted “The Terminator” to be a film “that a twelve-year-old would think was the most rad picture he’d ever seen,” but also one “that a forty-five-year-old Stanford English professor would think had some sort of socio-political significance between the lines.” I can understand both perspectives looking at the film now and remembering my teenage experience of it that Friday night.

Terminator_2_poster

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as happened with the edgy protagonists in the Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon franchises, the Terminator character is softened greatly. He becomes a family-friendly, wisecracking father figure and is no longer the ruthless, casually homicidal character he was in the first film. The character and the sequel lost the intense, nihilistic feel of the original by letting the audience off the hook through comic relief. The end of the world doesn’t seem so terrifying if you’re laughing at it. It coincided with Schwarzenegger’s initial forays into politics and his association with the Kennedy family through his marriage to Maria Shriver and campaigning for President George Bush Sr. So it could have been an overt attempt by Arnold to exercise his star power and reboot his image. There is also the possibility that the studio and/or James Cameron wanted to tone down the violence to get a lower age rating for the movie to make more money and that it did (The Terminator got an 18 certificate age rating in the UK, Terminator 2 got a 15).

I’m looking forward to seeing Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, whenever he brings out a movie you’re going to sit up and take notice. He’s hired the writers of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to help him with the “Avatar” sequel scripts and they’re talented scribes. It should be interesting to see what they come up with. The fourth sequel to Cameron’s The Terminator, “Terminator Genisys” is coming out in summer 2015. (Schwarzenegger’s movies since his comeback after politics haven’t been great. Escape Plan with his pal Stallone is easily his best post-Governor movie and performance. The rest have been forgettable and Arnold looks tired and bored in them with no sign of his old charisma or one-liners.) The Terminator has undergone another image change for “Terminator Genisys” to reflect where Arnold is now and his android assassin will have grey hair in the new film. Yes, will people take to a granddaddy cybernetic organism? We shall see.

Grey Arnold

So Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, like The Terminator, will be back, if separately. Let’s hope they can reach the levels that they did with their unforgettable first collaboration. If not, we can always time travel to the original again any time we want by putting it on our TVs. Arnold’s not an ex-Terminator yet.

Terminator-Genisys-4

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.