Books: Roadside Picnic [spoilers]
Movies: Edge of Tomorrow [spoilers]
TV: Great Teacher Onizuka (live-action, 1999) [season 1]
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky [spoilers]
This is the 1971 Russian sci-fi novel about a town that was visited by unseen aliens -- aliens who left behind a "Zone" of dangerous, supernatural artifacts -- and one of the 'stalkers' who break into that Zone to procure them.
One thing to keep in mind throughout: this is Russian sci-fi. An American treatment of this concept would basically be "hey the hero will get a magical thingy and use it to beat up the bad guys yay". This is not that. Instead, it uses sci-fi as a way to show just how bleak and incomprehensible the universe can be.
I'd argue, in fact, that the book's "big reveal" is one scientist's lengthy speech *about* the Zone, explaining what I said above: that it was likely an alien race just stopping by and leaving a bunch of trash. So they managed to write an alien first-contact story that makes humanity look both technologically backwards and not worth interacting with.
And our point of view is not some suave, Indiana-Jones-esque artifact thief. Redrick is basically a thug who pursues a mortally dangerous and illegal line of work just to scrape by, and he's a very small cog in a very large system. He only knows (and hates) his immediate superiors at the Zone lab, and he only knows (and hates) his fence for the goods that he steals. The political and economic systems that envelop the town are as incomprehensible as the mysterious infinite batteries scattered in the Zone. Everything in the town of Harmont feels oppressively cruel and unknowable.
The book does have some of the most riveting action sequences I've seen in *any* medium for months. The Zone is terrifying, both in its creepy unnaturalness -- its complete emptiness; the strange, blackened foliage; the occasional perfectly-preserved vehicle nestled among the ruins -- and in the dangers of the area. The authors do a beautiful job of showing, not telling, you about, say, the random spots of hyperpowered, compressive gravitation, or the slime that turns everything it touches into slime, or the strange genetic deformities that show up when anyone who visits the Zone has children. Watching Redrick have to work at the top of his game just to lead a couple of scientists safely through the Zone is nail-bitingly tense.
I'm not sure the plot of the story really adds up to anything. Redrick finds out about a mysterious wish-granting object; he goes after it; end of story. But I would argue that the book is less about plot than about tone. It's not *about* the story of what Redrick does, so much as it's about this world of desperate thieves, stymied scientists, and frightening mutants, and a universe where an impassive, incomprehesible alien race can just leave this mess on earth and move on. It's almost like a real plot -- "our hero does <x> and <y> and <z> and then 'wins'!" -- would be at cross-purposes to what the book is about.
Harmont is not a town where you win. It's a town where the Zone wins. You could argue that the closing paragraphs, where Redrick refuses to say what he wants from the artifact, is a way of acknowledging this. If Redrick wanted something for himself, the world would just find a way to beat him back town.
To be clear, this is a good book, and well worth your valuable time. For the world-building alone, it's worth the read. And it's okay that it depicts a sad world -- not all sci-fi has to be perky.
Edge of Tomorrow
This is the 2014 sci-fi actioner where a mysterious alien technology forces a soldier, played by Tom Cruise, to relive the same fatal day over and over again. (N.B.: I actually watched this fairly late into my flight to Japan, so I don't have the clearest memories of or opinions about the film.)
The usual joke about this movie is that "watching Tom Cruise die a violent death over and over again is goddamn delightful". And that's true, yes, but it points to a larger truth: the first act of this "Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers" pastische is a pretty delightful action comedy. For starters, it's just wonderful to watch Tom Cruise play "William Cage" as an ass -- and a specific, recognizable kind of ass, that "smarmy narcissist from marketing" type that we've all run into in one workplace or another. I've seen Tom Cruise play so many bland, determined heroes that I forget he can *do* work like Collateral, where he loses some of the flat, heroic likeability and takes on something more specific and interesting.
Watching Cage flail when first deployed to the front lines -- and then slowly, confusedly piece together the basic rules of his scenario -- is really funny, and relatable in a way that most action movies aren't. And watching Cage gradually learn how to game this seemingly-impossible scenario is fascinating and fun, as the character finds clever (and increasingly productive) ways to get out of his death sentence. By the time Cage jumps from his formation and, for reasons *we* perfectly understand, fatally throws himself under a passing truck, we're well into a whimsical black comedy. And the twist that he discovers someone *else* who's been through this nightmare is a wonderful development, leading to new hijinks where he tries to explain quickly and efficiently what's going on and, again, a whole bunch more infuriating deaths.
The disappointment, for me, comes at the midway point of the movie, where they transition from the first half -- an inventive action comedy with a quirky, delightfully-unlikeable lead -- to the second half -- a boring, traditional "kill all aliens" sci-fi action movie. (Think Starship Troopers but without the irony.) It's not an instant transition -- the first half shows some signs of what's to come, and the second half, especially early on, has some remaining flickers of originality. But gradually, inexorably, it goes from a movie I haven't seen before to a movie I have seen before.
The worst of it is, we lose the Cage we met at the start of the movie. Apparently they take "Cage learns to be a better person" as "Cage turns into an average Tom Cruise action hero". Apparently everything that made Cage distinctive was a character flaw that needed to be thoroughly sanded off, so we'd like the guy.
Also, the 'rules of magic' for the universe got really complicated. If you remember your Blockbuster Screenplay 101, towards the end of the action film we need to heighten the stakes, pump up the action and spectacle, end with a physical confrontation between our hero and the bad guy, and basically settle everything by figuring out which dude punches harder, with the coup de grâce coming from some clever, spur-of-the-moment decision from our hero. So in order to make that happen, they have to slap on more 'rules of magic': okay, there's a specific circumstance where the day-repetition stops, to ratchet up the stakes; there's a specific über bad guy that's the only thing they have to kill; okay, and let's just have Cage have visions about where it is; and those visions, um, aren't fool-proof, so we can pad out the story with an 'uh-oh, our
princess is in another castle alien overlord is in another building; and that when they kill the bad guy, it ratchets everything back to before the start of the repeating day. Because reasons.
And note that this means that, in the endgame, it doesn't feel like the good guys win (and all survive) because they come up with a very clever plan, or because they have particular skills or virtues that win the day -- instead, the screenwriters bolt on enough additional, last-minute rules to how magic works that they're allowed to win almost by luck and accident.
Anyway, Edge of Tomorrow finishes by following the well-worn path of a Standard Action Movie. And I understand *why* it did that -- in a way it had spent all its "novelty capital" on that inventive, almost-whimsical first half, and now it had to settle down and behave itself if it wanted any shot at recouping its budget -- but that doesn't make it any less disappointing. They even forced a last-minute kiss between Cage and Rita that felt 100% right for a Standard Action Movie, but very off for these particular characters. Even just giving them a bit of surprise -- a tentative, "oh, hey, are we kissing?" feeling -- would have been humanizing, and would have respected how the relationship's trajectory hadn't really been particularly aiming for that moment.
Let me be clear -- I liked the movie, and I liked it a lot, and I don't think that's just the airline sleep deprivation talking. It was just frustrating seeing a movie that was that inventive and witty start to get staid and predictable. I complain because this was a good movie that fumbled being great.
Great Teacher Onizuka (live-action, 1998) [1x01-1x04]
This is the Japanese drama about an ex-gang member who takes on a new career as a high-school teacher.
This is the first show in ages that I've deliberately bailed on. I soldiered through the first four episodes, and it's just not impressive, nor is it showing signs of building up to something better. It's an at-best okay high-school show.
I can itemize the ways it's unimpressive, but there's not much joy in that. Great Teacher Onizuka isn't some infuriating US production that's wasting vast resources on something bloated, and safe, and vaguely misogynistic. Nope, it's just a little Japanese show that's doing its best, trying to tell positive stories about youth in an engaging way.
So I'll try and move quickly.
First: basic production values. The show looks like a hastily-shot soap opera or reality show. They occasionally try a crane or dolly shot (points for effort), but generally it's flatly lit (and lit the same way for every scene), with very very normal close-up/close-up/master editing rhythms. They have, I think, four or five "generic pop/rock" music cues that get recycled... endlessly. You could say that "oh, it was just the late 90s, TV was younger then", but then you realize that this production actually overlapped with Freaks and Geeks, which was idiosyncratic and cinematic -- it was possible, at this point in history, for a high-school show to look and sound amazing. But maybe that was only possible back then in the US.
So it looks cheap, and it looks like they're not doing much on the screen with the meager budget they've got.
Maybe the writing makes up for it?
I'll say that the writing solidly hits its target. It's trying to tell simple, self-contained stories where the heroic teacher uses surprising and unconventional methods to turn his students' lives around. And it does that. There's a class of dozens of 'problem students', and that means they can have dozens of 'student of the week' episodes, using mostly the same standing sets for the school. They even dip their toe into serialization, with the teacher gradually winning over students and with certain students service as "big bads", ringleaders of the class's machinations against the hero.
It's basically what most TV dramas aimed for in the 70s and 80s, and maybe the early 90s. And it's possible to tell good stories in that format -- The X-Files had plenty of "non-arc" episodes that were just procedurals about "Mulder and Scully investigate <x>", and many, many of those were phenomenal. Even now, there are dozens and dozens of competent network procedurals where a new case is discovered and solved within the hour.
But that simple, self-contained format doesn't do the writers any favors. Yes, it makes it familiar and easy to watch, but in this case, it means that the structure is very very rote. Ah, this is the point where the student is introduced. This is where the first attempt to help them fails. This is where the admins threaten to fire Onizuka. This is where the last attempt works. Now there's a happy denouement. Just four episodes in, it's so simple and unchallenging that it starts to resist one's attention.
Oh, and regarding the "fire Onizuka" thing -- yes, in pretty much every episode, the story plays like they might fire Onizuka from the school. Yes, even though it's not the end of the series, and even though the show is *about* Onizuka working at the school. Like I always say, this is "schmuck bait", and it never creates any *credible* sense of danger. For that matter, after a while, we don't believe anything bad will happen to any of the students he's helping, either. And at that point, audience engagement is pretty much dead, and the show, if it's going to entertain, has to do so on other merits.
But still, the show has its merits. The performances are strong enough, and the actors charismatic enough, to give the show a certain amount of 'hang out' charm. And it's an interesting window into Japanese society, albeit Japanese society in the late 90s. And again, it delivers very solidly on the limited goals that it has.
The problem is, it's just blandly competent. In a TV world where so many things are novel, and engaging, and dazzlingly executed, I just can't make time for that.
For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising. When not exercising, I'm checking out Master of None, reading Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, and listening to an audiocourse about climate change. I also have some backlogged items to catch up on: Roadside Picnic, Jessica Jones, and Howl's Moving Castle.
 This is exactly how I'd summarize The Lost Room, an American miniseries about a hotel room in which a mysterious accident imbued every item in the room with mysterious powers.
 I'd also describe eastern European sci-fi this way, just so I can include Stanislaw Lem in this broad characterization.
 This description does sound pretty sneering and pejorative, I suppose, but I don't mean it like that: Die Hard is one of my favorite movies, and it follows this pretty much to the letter.
 Side note: if you clearly establish a few simple 'rules of magic' at the start of a story, that's great. If you start slapping on more rules towards the middle and end, it always feels like cheating.
 It seems like, on the whole, movie kisses are kind of stupidly homogeneous. It feels analogous to movie combat, where the way a character fights should express character, but it seems like most combat looks the same.
 This is a cruel comparison, since Bill Pope, AKA "the DP on The Matrix", DP'd the Freaks and Geeks pilot, but I think it still stands.
 ... though that window does afford a view of an upsetting amount of institutional sexism. Plus, the world of the show is surprisingly cool with teachers wanting to have sex with high-school girls -- they're willing to play sex-farce story beats around that, instead of being alarmed or upset by it.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none