Monthly Archives: January 2013

Headhunters: A Headhunter Gets His Head Hunted

I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in Scandinavia, but they seem to have cornered the market on well-made, gritty thrillers. Adapted from a novel by Jo Nesbø, HeadhuntersHodejegerne in the native Norwegian, is directed by Morten Tyldum, and stars Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Synnøve Macody Lund. Involving the world of high-class art theft, professional headhunting, and a former military tracker, Headhunters is a taut, visceral thriller from beginning to end.

Roger Brown (Hennie) works in the recruitment business, he makes and breaks careers on a daily basis. He is married to Diana (Lund), a tall, blonde, and beautiful art dealer. Roger’s insecurity over his height has led him to take on an interesting part-time job: high-class art thief. Using his legitimate job as means to gain candidates for his thefts, he uses the extra earnings to lavish his wife with expensive gifts, and pay for an extravagant house he wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau) is a former military tracker, and an ideal candidate for the position Brown is currently contracted to make his recommendation for, and he also just so happens to be the owner of an extremely valuable piece of artwork that could finance the lifestyle Brown has been accustomed to providing his wife indefinitely. Naturally, things go wrong, and Brown finds himself being hunted by Greve across Norway, as Brown begins to realize that he was just a pawn in some bigger scheme.

This is a poster...in Norwegian

This is a poster…in Norwegian

Brown is a bit of a weasel. He makes his living wheeling and dealing people’s livelihoods, while robbing them of their valuables on the side. His insecurity has caused him to be an emotionally unavailable husband, and led him into an affair with a woman he treats with a surprising terseness. The first mention of anything more than sex between him and his mistress leads to a quick and decisive breaking off of their arrangement. Brown is the type of man who is able to talk someone into giving him what he wants before they even realize he has asked for something. Brown also possesses no small measure of cunning, thinking his way out of the predicaments he finds himself in and willing to do just about anything to do so. Hennie is able to make Brown a likable protagonist though, and you can’t help but root for him as he struggles to keep away from the force of nature that is Greve.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known for playing Jaime Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones, infuses Clas Greve with a sort of amiable malice. Greve is a broken man, we learn almost nothing about him, but it is clear something happened to drain him of all empathy and remorse. A scene in a locker room with Brown shows him with a back filled with lash-marks, and he only mentions that it happened in Bolivia. As Greve hunts Brown, he does so in a determined, brutal manner, with no regard for collateral damage or the lives he takes along the way. Greve the businessman is someone not to be trifled with, Greve the tracker is someone to be feared. Coster-Waldau is excellent and makes for a great, intimidating villain.

He is not a tall man.

He is not a tall man.

Synnøve Macody Lund as Diana is the sort of blonde actress Alfred Hitchcock used to salivate over, except for the fact that she is warm, not icy. Diana is a trophy wife, and Brown sees her as the greatest symbol of his validity as a professional, and, more importantly, his masculinity. Brown deeply cares for his wife, but his insecurities have caused him to be withholding and emotionally unavailable. Diana wants a child, Brown cringes at the thought. Lund plays her role well, being suitably desirable and supportive, but she disappears for a long stretch during the middle of the film and her role is thin.

The film has very tightly written screenplay, there is nary a scene in the film that does not contribute something into the overarching plot. The film is a bit grisly, and there is more than a little blood, but none of the violence felt forced and none was it was unrealistic, contrived perhaps, but not unrealistic. The plotting is a bit shaky, and the method by which all of the subplots were resolved would probably fall apart if someone at it too intensely, but that is not a huge issue. The film never allows the audience the time to ponder the plot, it is so tightly constructed that the tension never stops building until the climax.

It is an impressive glower.

It is an impressive glower.

Headhunters remembered to include an element absolutely necessary to a properly thrilling thriller: a suitable score. The score may not be a musical masterpiece, but it manages to keep the film tense from beginning to end, which is very important in this type of film. The film is, in many ways, reminiscent of the thriller genre prior to its becoming bogged down with the Hollywood system. The film is chock full of thrills, but they don’t spring from contrivances of the plot: they develop naturally from character development and interaction. The thrills are visceral, and they are also earned. It has fallen into cliché to say that old school is better than new school, but in this instance the adage rings true.

 Headhunters, or Hodejegerne for any Norwegians out there, is a tightly written, well-acted thriller that derives its suspense from character, rather than from special effects and explosions. It may not do anything new with the form, and the resolution may be a bit too neatly wrapped up, but just about everything the film does, it does extremely well. It is a worthy addition to the critically acclaimed, gritty thrillers Scandinavia has been releasing lately, and is well worth the watch.

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This Is 40: This Is Pretty Mediocre

Judd Apatow clearly has a flair for making especially perceptive comedies, despite his sense of humor being more phallic than is the norm, so it is quite a shame that This Is 40 is such a big disappointment, considering the writer/director’s fairly impressive repertoire. Sporting an excellent ensemble cast led by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, This Is 40 nearly collapses under the weight of all of its supporting characters and the subplots they add to the mix. Albert Brooks, Jon Lithgow, Megan Fox, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham, and Charlyne Yi also star in this spin-off to Knocked Up.

Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are turning forty, and the spark in their marriage has long since fizzled: he needs Viagra to have sex, and she doesn’t want to anyways. The couple have each run into money troubles at their respective places of business, Debbie’s boutique is missing thousands of dollars and she suspects sexy employee Desi (Megan Fox) to be the culprit. Pete’s independent record label is struggling after a slew of passion projects that fail to yield a profit, the most recent being a comeback album for Graham Parker & the Rumour. Problems with their two daughters, and their two fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow) strain their marriage, while their monetary troubles threaten to shatter it.

That's moment when you realize a change is in order.

That’s moment when you realize a change is in order.

Rudd and Mann are each fantastic in their roles as insufferable jackasses. Their work in the film is subtle and comedic, but the characters they portray are impossible to like, and that makes the film considerably more difficult to enjoy. Rudd is usually all charm, even when he is playing less likable characters, but Pete is downright unpleasant. The pairing of Pete and Debbie has spawned two daughters, one of whom just started menstruating and is enthralled with Lost, while the other likes annoying her big sister. The two children are played by the daughters of Apatow and Mann (who are married in the real world) and are surprisingly competent considering the obvious nepotism.

The supporting cast is solid and sporadically humorous. Jason Segel, reprising his role from Knocked Up, plays a personal trainer who always looks like he is trying to seduce somebody, and he is good, but not onscreen often. Megan Fox is surprisingly funny as boutique employee Desi, even if much of her role involves shots of her in her underwear or a bikini, and the character is not used in a stereotypical tempt-the-husband plot-line, which was surprising, and refreshing. Chris O’Dowd and Lena Dunham play Pete’s employees at the record label, and neither is given, well, anything to do, but they are serviceable. Melissa McCarthy plays a nightmarish mother that gets the biggest laugh in the film in her scene with Pete and Debbie in the principal’s office of their daughter’s school.

He forgot Sarah Marshall.

He forgot Sarah Marshall.

Albert Brooks plays Pete’s father, a curtain salesman who relies on Pete to support him and his five-year-old triplets, despite his knowledge of Pete’s monetary issues. John Lithgow portrays Debbie’s father, a successful spinal surgeon that left when Debbie was a child and gets around to seeing his daughter once every seven years or so. Both of these actors are very funny in their roles, and are probably given the strongest character arcs of the supporting cast, but even they can’t stop this bloated ship from sinking.

The cast is excellent, each actor is solid and funny, but there are just too many of them. The dozen or so side-characters, each with side-plots of their own, inflates the run-time and tends to derail any momentum developed in the main plot. This movie is one-hundred-and-thirty minutes long, and at least half an hour should have been shaved off of that. Apatow was in obvious need of someone to go over his script judiciously with a black marker to trim the fat, and at least a few of the subplots could have, and should have, been cut entirely from the finished product. It isn’t even that they were bad, it’s that they were just unnecessary and their presence slowed the pacing down to a crawl, which hindered the final product.

They let them eat cake.

They let them eat cake.

Like any Apatow production, profanity is prevalent and unavoidable in this film. I am not someone with an issue hearing profanity, and it takes a lot more than most films can offer before I am the slightest bit offended. In This Is 40, the profanity does not offend me, but it is definitely overdone. In previous Judd Apatow directorial efforts, the primary interactions seen on-screen were groups of rowdy single guys, where the “colorful” language is natural, if a bit exaggerated. In This Is 40, the primary interactions are between a husband and wife, employer and employee, parent and child, etc. It seems more forced, and any element that seems forced and unnatural becomes a distraction very quickly. That isn’t to say it isn’t used to great effect a time or two in the film, like the previously mentioned scene in the principal’s office, but Apatow needs to take a more subtle approach, at least in this facet of his directorial style.

This is a comedy film with a premise that lends itself to a more dramatic approach. Apatow’s previous effort, Funny People, was a dramatic film that happened to be funny; This Is 40 is a comedic film that happens to be dramatic. The difference may seem marginal, and maybe it is, but the film never quite seemed to accept the fact that its premise should enter into some very dark places. By the end of the film, very few of the ongoing plot-lines have been resolved in a satisfying manner, if at all (there were just too many characters), and the ending of the film is too neat considering the status of the characters and how their conflicts had yet to be resolved. Apatow tried to do too much, and ended up doing too little.

This Is 40 is a fairly standard Judd Apatow feature, though also easily his weakest, but an inflated cast and aimless direction cause the final product to be decidedly mediocre. Despite this, there are definitely some very funny moments and the entire cast does strong work, particularly Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in the lead roles, if only their characters were actually worth rooting for.

Firefly, a Rewatch: Episode 1, “Serenity”

I have decided to watch Firefly again for the umpteenth time and to also write about my thoughts on all fourteen episodes and the film in blog-form. I chose Firefly for this experiment in consistent blogging (I will be aiming for one episode write-up a week) for one reason: it is short. If I get bored or frustrated, my obligation will be minimal, whereas shows that actually received proper runs, would require a more arduous undertaking on my part. I also really like Firefly and I have learned that one way to get a nerd, like myself, excited is to talk about it, so I hope that you, my very modest readership, will enjoy hearing my pretty standard opinions on this space-western staple.

The first episode (chronologically, not in terms of the date it aired) of Firefly is titled “Serenity” and is the setup episode for both the series’ premise and its characters; so the logic behind Fox airing this episode last continues to mystify. The episode is double length, and around half of that time is spent meeting all of the characters and defining their roles and relationships, while the other half involves a typical Firefly plot: do a job, get screwed, and adapt. This episode is both directed and written by series creator Joss Whedon, best known at this time for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and more recently known for writing and directing The Avengers.

Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) was a war hero on the losing side of the war against the Alliance, the governmental body that rules the system of terraformed planets and moons that humanity has come to inhabit. His ship, named Serenity after a bloody battle in which he fought, houses himself and his crew, a band of people with both pasts and skill-sets not conducive to stable living. Salvaging and smuggling, they live paycheck to paycheck while travelling from planet to planet, and all the while they attempt to stay off the radar of the Alliance.

This is a picture of the cast.

This is a picture of the cast.

His crew includes Zoe (Gina Torres), a fellow soldier as his second in command. Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the Serenity‘s pilot, and is also the husband of Zoe. Jayne Cobb (Alan Baldwin, a non-Baldwin-Brother Baldwin) is a mercenary that provides the ship the extra muscle it so often needs. Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is a young woman and genius mechanic that keeps the ship flying when it reasonably should not. One of the passenger shuttles is occupied by Inara (Morena Baccarin), a companion (essentially, a very high-class courtesan) that left the comfort of her home planet to see the universe.

This initial episode sees the Serenity gain three new residents: Shepherd Book, Simon Tam, and his sister River. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) is a religious man and a pacifist, but possesses a mysterious past that was more than likely quite violent. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) was a young trauma surgeon with a promising future until he abandoned his home and fortune to rescue his younger sister River (Summer Glau), a prodigious intellect cruelly experimented on by the alliance. Each of these three comes to accept the ship as a sanctuary, if not a home, despite contentious relationships with the captain.

The main plot involves the crew trying to unload salvaged goods (nutrient-rich food) before the Alliance catches up with them. After dealing with Badger (Mark Sheppard), a gang-leader, the crew must deal with Patience, a woman whose last dealings with the crew ended with Mal being shot. The crew also chooses to take on passengers for both the cash and the implied legitimacy. But an encounter with Reavers, men turned mad and vicious in the vast emptiness of space, and the presence of an Alliance mole threaten their safety and their payday.

It is common courtesy to look at someone while you kill them.

It is common courtesy to look at someone while you kill them.

“Serenity” accomplishes everything a pilot should, it establishes the character’s motivations and relationships with each other, and it sets up an ongoing arc involving River and just what the Alliance was doing to her. The two cases of frustrating sexual tension in Firefly are also introduced in this episode, with Kaylee developing a crush on Simon, and the smoldering looks between Mal and Inara when they weren’t at each other’s throats. Unlike many pilots, “Serenity” chose to develop its characters through conversation rather than to introduce them with wiz-bang action sequences (though there are a couple of those as well), this is especially true in the cases of Mal, Inara, Simon, and Shepherd Book.

This is one of my favorite episodes of the short-lived series, primarily because of the interactions between the characters and the fact that the extended running time means that none of the characters play a minor role, which is inevitable with a typical running time of forty minutes. Whedon is known mainly for his dialogue, and his skills are on full display here, but what he is even better at is creating a cast of interesting characters that seem well-developed from the moment they are on the screen. There is a reason he was chosen to helm The Avengers: the man knows how to work an ensemble. He gets good performances out of all of his actors, particularly Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, and Morena Baccarin.

The episode has one legitimately surprising moment, and a few twists that are easy enough to see coming, even if that surprising moment is pulled straight from a space-western anime called Outlaw Star (it isn’t bad, but Firefly is better). But the fact that this episode isn’t chock-full of surprises is fine, as this episode is all about setting up the characters and the primary arc of the show, plus the action scenes are done well enough that their outcomes don’t need to shock (or awe).

This is the Serenity.

This is the Serenity.

This is the most western heavy space-western I have ever seen (Trigun comes the closest), and I like it. The big shootout near the end literally has people using horses as cover, and if that doesn’t indicate a western, I don’t know what does. Many of the characters also fit rather neatly into common archetypes of the genre: Mal is the former soldier looking for a cause, Inara is the hooker with a heart of gold, Book is the preacher with a violent past, and it goes on. The flavoring of the English language with Mandarin words and phrases works well in establishing the world these characters live in, and doesn’t seem that unnatural given where our world is currently heading; it’s also a clever way of giving the show’s dialogue its own unique feel.

The special effects are excellent and hold up well, this episode even won an Emmy for them, especially for a decade old television episode. One aspect I really appreciated with this show is that when something is shown in space, there is not any noise. There is no sound in a vacuum, so I love it when something demonstrates that without the pew-pews and the vroom-vrooms so common in most space-set science-fiction (cough Star wars cough).

“Serenity” is a good episode and, while it may lack the innovative nature of some of the other episodes, it is a great introduction to Firefly and its world. The fact that every character in the ensemble received adequate screen-time and gets some development differentiates this from most television pilots. I definitely enjoyed it again, even on my fifth (or so) watch of the episode. Return next week for my review of episode 2.

Robot & Frank: Dementia, Heists, and Frank Langella

Robot & Frank is a film of little consequence and, seemingly, of little ambition: few have seen it, few will see it, and it will end up as a footnote in the careers of its superb cast comprised of Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Sisto, and, oh yeah, Frank Langella. I have something of a soft spot for films of little consequence, and there is a lot to like, and a lot to be disappointed in, about first-time director Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank: the relative plausibility of its science-fiction elements, the assured and understated direction, and, oh yeah, Frank Langella.

In the near future, a former cat burglar named Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone while dementia slowly, but noticeably, sets in. Frank makes routine trips to the library to pick up non-digital books, and also to flirt with the comely librarian (Susan Sarandon). His son Hunter, an accomplished attorney and family man, makes weekly, and increasingly frustrating, visits to see his stubborn father before he finally buys him a robotic companion and helper (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), a career philanthropist, makes short video-calls to her father from Turkmenistan. Frank’s determined stance against keeping the robot gradually softens as he realizes that the stimulating activities the robot forces him to partake in don’t necessarily have to be legal.

This is a poster.

This is a poster.

Robot & Frank is a simple film and it is content to be the film that it is, and not the film that it could have been. The film runs a tight eighty minutes and leaves itself little room for contemplation within its premise. Robot & Frank never delves into the relationship of Frank and the unnamed robot, at least not with any sort of depth. Frank is struggling to keep in control of his mind as he sees the past slipping away from him, while this robot he has bonded with (befriended isn’t quite the right word) keeps reminding him that he himself is just metal and programming and is perfectly content to maintain his current memory, or have it wiped should that benefit Frank. Frank’s desperation to see more than just an appliance in his partner-in-crime is tragic, potentially fascinating, and essentially glossed over.

Frank Langella’s performance is subtle, realistic, and just plain fantastic. This is Langella’s best performance since 2008’s Frost/Nixon and would be at least in the conversation for awards if it weren’t such a damnably small film. Langella plays Frank without fanfare or big speeches, he is a man trying to keep his mind from drifting away through the common methods of grit teeth and vehement denial. The extra spring in his step while he plots a heist is subtle but noticeable, the stone-faced manner in which he speaks to law enforcement is barely noticeable, but its there and it works. This is a quiet film, and Langella gives a quiet, affecting performance. He makes the film.

He's practicing picking locks. We all need our hobbies.

He’s practicing picking locks. We all need our hobbies.

The rest of the cast is competent in their limited roles. James Marsden’s Hunter is suitably frustrated by his father and his brow is almost never not furrowed, but the film is too short to allow for any real character arc there, aside from his mounting frustration. Liv Tyler as Frank’s daughter Madison is not onscreen enough for the audience to get a true impression other than that she has a breathy voice and that she is the sort of career-do-gooder people love to hate behind their backs, except for me (um, yeah). Sarandon continues to carve herself a niche as the distinguished love interest of distinguished (and) aging actors, and she’s doing it rather well, but there is just no substance to the role.

Peter Sarsgaard voices the titular robot, and he possesses a voice suitable for playing one of our future overlords. Comparisons to HAL 3000 are inevitable, but a better comparison is to the computer in Moon voiced by Kevin Spacey. In both of those films the technologically advanced companions of the lead possess a sort of detached helpfulness, and not a detached maliciousness. Sarsgaard is good as the robot, as he is in everything, and his conversations with Frank are amusing, but tinged with a sadness held by Frank, and projected onto the five-foot-or-so helper in front of him.

I can't say I love the wallpaper.

I can’t say I love the wallpaper.

Director Jake Schreier is surprisingly comfortable behind the camera in his feature length debut, and is, thankfully, willing to let the action occur without showy direction on his part. The film is good, if a bit shallow, and it definitely shows promise for future offerings from the first-time director. Though, I have to hope that he shows more ambition in his next undertaking, Robot & Frank is too comfortable being a well-made quirky indie, which it is, but those are a dime a dozen. Schreier avoids the typical first-time director pitfalls of trying to do too much, but he goes the other way and tries to do too little.

The futuristic touches the film has – the phones, the computer screens, the robots – are grounded enough that they are realistic extensions of our current technology, but they are also immediately distinguishable as not currently existing (except for maybe in prototype). The robot itself seemed a bit too dexterous given its block-like appearance, but that is a minor quibble with the otherwise well-handled science-fiction element in the film.

Robot & Frank is a decent film, but it takes its clever premise and does just enough with it to stretch out to feature length, when it should have spent more time delving into its concept. In the end, however, the film is worth seeing solely for the performance of Frank Langella, who carries the film on his shoulders and elevates a thin story to heights it wouldn’t have been able to reach without him.

Why I Love Fantasy

This week I had a conversation in which I defended a book I have never read because the primary criticism I heard leveled against it was simply that “it has magic.” My response was, equally simply, “what’s wrong with magic?” The magical and the fantastic has long been seen unfairly, in the minds of some “serious” readers, as fundamentally lesser works or as lacking in basic literary merit. I have to ask, though, what are The Odyssey and The Tempest if not works of fantasy?

I read a lot. I watch a lot of movies and I’ve seen what is probably more than my fair share of television, and I tend to read a decent amount of comics, or graphic novels for those too afraid to admit that they like them. In my countless hours of “study”, I have come to some conclusions about what makes a work valid or consequential. A work is never important simply because of its subject matter. Never. A fantasy novel involving elves and dwarves can have more to say about the human condition than one about an impoverished family trying to make ends meet; a graphic novel set after a zombie apocalypse may delve more deeply into the psychology of what makes us human than a tome about the relationship of Freud and Jung. Everything comes down to the quality of the writing and the believability of the characters and their interactions within the constraints of their settings.

A few days ago I finished reading an epic fantasy trilogy by David Anthony Durham called AcaciaAcacia is a work in which magic and dragons and non-human intelligent races appear; some of the characters flirt with apotheosis, and others achieve immortality. At its core, however, Acacia is a work that is about the compromises men (and women) make, and the consequences those compromises bring. I have read several works, academic and literary, about slavery, in the United States, in Rome, and elsewhere, but I have honestly never read anything that pondered the implications and the psychology of slavery, of both the slaves and the slavers, as deeply as the Acacia trilogy. The only work that even comes close is Howard Fast’s excellent Spartacus, but the Acacia trilogy literally spends hundreds of pages with slaves struggling towards freedom, and the slavers struggling towards justification.

The city works on multiple levels, much like the story. For that bad pun, I apologize, but I don't regret.

The city works on multiple levels, much like the story. For that bad pun, I apologize, but I don’t regret.

An argument oft-repeated regarding why works of fiction set on our world, using the rules of the universe as we understand them, are more likely to hold relevance, is that characters in a fantasy setting are more difficult to relate to if the events in the story they inhabit can’t actually happen. That is an argument that I can fully understand while simultaneously disagreeing with wholeheartedly. For example, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods gets what makes the modern man tick more thoroughly than any other contemporary novel I can think of, and most of the major characters in that novel are literally divine. On the other hand, your typical bodice-ripping romance novel is no more reflective on the human condition than the paper it is printed on.

Thus far, I have written about why works of fantasy are not inferior to their less unrealistic cousins, but I have yet to discuss why I have such an adoration for the genre. If I had to describe the appeal of fantasy in one word, it would be this one: vastness. Fantasy, and hard science-fiction for that matter, possesses a potential for the vast that most works of fiction simply can’t rival. This is certainly not without exceptions, for example the more major works of Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, and James Michener. But the best works of epic fantasy tend to be of a scale most authors don’t approach in more ways than just sheer page length.

The works of J.R.R. Tolkien set in Middle Earth, most notably The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, create a world that has been imagined from the ground up. The characters have genealogies, the races have their own unique languages, and the world has a history. Many fantasy epics, especially Tolkien’s tome, transcend the typical limitations of fiction into something more mythic. The best known works of fantasy have become something more than just books, they are shared secular mythologies. While mythologies of the past have been far from forgotten, their relevance in today’s world has certainly diminished. The trope of the rightful king returning to reclaim his throne is less associated with Horus, and it’s more associated with Aragorn. The dragon needing to be slain is not faced down by Beowulf, it is faced by Bilbo and his primarily dwarven companions. Additionally, what are the Marvel and DC Comics universes if not mythologies for the modern age?

J.R.R. Tolkien, keeping it classy

J.R.R. Tolkien, keeping it classy

Fantasy as a genre certainly has a decent amount of clichés, and many works are arguably just retreads of those that have preceded it (and anyone claiming that’s unique to fantasy is delusional), but that certainly doesn’t mean that they are interchangeable. I can’t count how many Dark Lords you’ll find while browsing the fantasy section of a bookstore (Sauron, Voldemort, Morgoth, Galbatorix, the Dark One, Emperor Palpatine, etc.), but that does not indicate that they are all identical. In the case of the Harry Potter series of novels, Lord Voldemort is merely a fallen man, someone twisted by his own desires and shortcomings. While in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is something much more ancient, more primordial, and is truly more of a conceptual evil rather than the human threat that is Voldemort.

Fantasy series will frequently have similar, at least superficially, protagonists. Typically males, but not always, a year or two away from adulthood, generally they have been orphaned or at least have lost one parent, eventually they will gain a sage mentor, etc. It is true, yes, that these tropes are frequently obvious, but they are not necessarily indicative of characters similarities to one another. How alike are Jon Snow and Harry Potter? Or Rand al’Thor and Ged? Or Paul Atreides and Lyra Belacqua? Every character in every work can be matched to an archetype, without exception, but that does not mean that they can’t differentiate themselves from the pack.

One aspect of fantasy (and also science-fiction, somewhat) that is unique to the genre is the word that spurred on this tirade/plea/faux-diatribe: magic. Magic is a word that makes some people squeal with delight and others scoff in derision, and I will be one of those people scoffing if something in real life is described as magical, but when it comes to books or movies, I’m all for it. Magic in fantasy isn’t sunshine and sparkles and impossibly colorful flowers: it’s physics. In The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire or The Lord of the Rings, magic is part of the makeup of that reality. Harry Potter’s life doesn’t become easier when he discovers he’s a wizard, that’s when his life becomes complicated and dangerous.

Winter is Coming

Winter is Coming

Systems of magic vary from work to work, from the clearly defined (except for when it isn’t) pseudo-normality of the Harry Potter series, to the vaguer, more rare and religiously tinged systems in A Song of Ice and Fire. All magic-systems are not identical, for example Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series incorporates a system where some people have the innate ability to use certain metals as fuel for superhuman abilities, and there is no wizardry to be found. Even in something like   the comic-books featuring the X-Men, the mutant gene is really just their system of magic (and I know that Marvel comics are loaded with actual magic, so sit down Dr. Strange, your film will come), despite its more scientific explanation in-universe.

I have often heard people claim that writers of fantasy (or science-fiction) are just not as good as the authors of “real” novels. This is, simply, preposterous. It would be impossible to convince me that writers like Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe are not among the best wordsmiths of the twentieth century. Or that authors of “real” novels can craft a work as complex, comprehensive, and gut-churning as the multi-tiered narrative that is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Fantasy authors can write, never think otherwise.

Fantasy is a genre intimately tied to the beginnings of literature, and art in general, so the stigma that tends to keep many people from taking fantasy seriously is, in my mind, both illogical and unfair. I am not saying that everyone has to like fantasy, and I am not claiming that fantasy is better than other types of fiction, because I know that isn’t true, but there is one other thing that I know for sure: fantasy certainly isn’t worse.

Dredd: Dredd and Loving It

Karl Urban will need his own wing at Comic-Con before long: Eomer in The Lord of the Rings, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in Star Trek, and now Judge Dredd in Dredd and its potential (but unlikely) sequels. Dredd is an adaptation of the popular comics about Judge Dredd and his moral absolutism. The film is directed by Pete Travis and stars Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, and Domhnall Gleeson.

In the future, there exists a mega-metropolis (megatropolis?) called Mega-City One; housing a population of eight-hundred-million, the city is rampant with crime, with only the Judges to keep the peace. The Judges act as judge, jury, and executioner. Morally absolute and answerable only to themselves, the Judges strive to eliminate crime at the source and act as a deterrent for prospective criminals.

Judge Dredd has been chosen to test a potential new Judge, Cassandra Anderson. Anderson is special case, she has telepathic abilities far greater than most psychics. Dredd and Anderson follow up on a reported triple-homicide at “Peach Trees”, a slum tower with two-hundred levels under the control of Ma-Ma, a vicious drug lord. Stumbling upon secrets regarding a new drug called “Slo-Mo” (it has the effect its name would suggest), the Judge and the Judge-to-be must fight their way to the top floor in order to deliver judgement and to save their own lives.

They issued their judgement on that door.

They issued their judgement on that door.

If you are expecting something profound in this film, don’t. This is a good old fashioned action film and it makes no pretensions of being anything else, and unlike that atrocious Judge Dredd from 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone, Dredd is actually pretty damn good. The two films are also completely unrelated, so be thankful for that. In a lot of ways the film mimics its lead character, it knows exactly what it is: brutal, efficient, and assured.

Judge Dredd doesn’t grow as a person, he doesn’t gain a new perspective on life, he doesn’t even gain a spunky young female sidekick, at least, not really. Dredd is the most frightening thing in the world: a moral absolutist. Completely confident that what he is doing is right, though its doubtful that he cares, Dredd is a shell of a man, I don’t know what made him the way he is, and I don’t know that I want to (I actually very much do, for your information). Karl Urban plays Dredd with the commitment that he seems to give in every role, and he becomes Dredd. Urban does not give Dredd an emotional arc, and it would be a disservice to the character to do so, he doesn’t remove the helmet, he barely even changes his facial expression. That commitment sells the character, and his selling the character allows the film to work.

That chin is surprisingly emotive.

That chin is surprisingly emotive.

Cassandra Anderson is young and untested, with abilities that could make her a particularly effective, and by that I mean lethal, Judge. Occupying a world of grey, rather than Dredd’s black and white, Anderson is faced with what it means to be a Judge and the restrictions, and also the freedoms, that being a Judge comes with. Dredd is more Anderson’s story than it is Dredd’s, he is already an absolute, this is the story of her becoming one. Olivia Thirlby does strong work as Anderson, wisely playing her as someone not caught between two ways of life, but rather as someone finally learning how to pull the trigger. This is a far cry from her breakout performance in Juno, and she handles it well.

Lena Headey, of Game of Thrones fame, portrays Ma-Ma, a former prostitute turned ruthlessly effective drug lord, and addict. Ma-Ma is not a particularly original or well fleshed out villain. Sporting scars, some wild hair, and dry, cracking lips, Ma-Ma is believably brutal, but is very much just a reason to see the reason criminals dread Dredd (sorry). Headey is solid, and anyone who has watched Game of Thrones knows that she can be enjoyably malicious, but the character just isn’t there, and it is easily the most glaring weakness the film possesses.

Slo-Mo, not even once.

Slo-Mo, not even once.

The special effects are quite good in Dredd, bombastic, but not outlandish, they work well throughout. They might overdo it a bit with the slow motion sequences, but it isn’t distracting. The world of Mega-City One is very well realized, and is a future I could imagine happening, if not in terms of society, then certainly in terms of technology and architecture. “Peach Trees” is futuristic, but also squalid and dirty, much like the Los Angeles in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Unexpectedly, considering the unapologetic nature of the film, the science-fiction elements are subtle and grounded (excepting the scenes when people are thrown off balconies to their deaths, but I’m only mentioning that for the sake of a pun), which is a welcome thing in a genre all too often known for indulging in something worse than the outlandish: the implausible, but Dredd is plausible, at least to  the extent it needs to be.

The action is just plain fun, it is loud and fiery, but possesses, or more accurately, Dredd possesses, a certain cold efficiency that differentiates Dredd from many films in the genre. Dredd doesn’t want to go out in a blaze of glory, or win some woman’s heart with his stunningly accurate shooting, he wants to end criminals quickly and efficiently, and he calculates and weighs his options to that effect. The guns the Judges’ possess are interesting, they only fire for their specific Judge and they are capable of shooting a plethora of different types of ammunition. Basically, people die in several different ways and I like that, sicko that I am.

Dredd is certainly not a film of great import, or revolutionary in any way shape or form, but I have to wonder, who the hell cares? I can be as pretentious as the next guy, I mean, I saw Shame in theaters (great film, not for the feint of heart, probably wouldn’t watch it again), but I can also fully appreciate Dredd for what it is: a rollicking good time. Dredd did not do well at the box office (I blame society), and while that doesn’t effect the film’s quality, it does hamstring any possibility for a sequel, which I admittedly would like to see. So I have to say, it would probably be worth your time to watch it if you’re into this kind of thing. I mean, Karl Urban wants you to, and considering he becomes Judge Dredd, it is probably a good idea to acquiesce to his wishes: he is the law.

Five Adaptations of Science-Fiction and Fantasy Classics that Failed to Launch Franchises

Literary works have long been mined for their cinematic potential, which has resulted in some of the greatest films of all time, and also some of the most disappointing. Works of science-fiction and fantasy have frequently seen adaptations hit the big screen, and all too often they fail to be the critical or commercial successes that their source material should warrant. In the case of works a part of a series, the initial film’s lack of success tends to prevent subsequent works from being adapted  for the screen. The following five films never got the sequels that they were so obviously meant to lead into, and in at least a couple of these cases, it may have been a good thing.

I like the moons.

I like the moons.

Dune

I know that my previous post was about Dune (read it here), but the film most certainly belongs on this list and, in some ways, it probably (okay, definitely) inspired it as well. Dune is one the cornerstones that modern science-fiction is built upon. Vast in its scope with a thoroughly detailed world, Frank Herbert’s novel remains as interesting today as it did (almost) fifty years ago when it was first published. Dune spawned five sequels by Herbert that span thousands of years worth of story and remains as the best deconstruction of the “messiah” archetype ever written.

The 1984 David Lynch directed adaptation is an admirable attempt to translate the world to the screen, but the complexity of the story and the raw amount of time needed to properly set up the characters and their motivations (why won’t Sting stop smirking? To find out, read the book.) hamstrung the production from the start. With a sizable cast led by Kyle MacLachlan, the film suffered from uneven pacing, eighties-style CGI, and a running time of less than six hours (I am not advocating six-hour features, I am just implying the amount of time necessary to adapt the story). The film’s greatest failing is the lack of addressing the fundamental ambiguity that the primary character embodies: what happens when the hero has won? Despite this, I can’t help but to enjoy Dune for the big ball of good intentions and missed opportunities that it is and would have welcomed an adaptation of Dune Messiah (if I had been alive at this point, that is).

Ian McKellen, ladies and gentlemen.

Ian McKellen, ladies and gentlemen.

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is adapted from Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the United States), the first novel of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. His Dark Materials is a recent work, published between 1995 and 2000, but its influence and importance is undeniable. The books were heavily influenced by John Milton and his epic poem Paradise Lost and function as something of a counterargument to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Also, in my mind, any books that are banned as much as these ones have been are definitely worth reading. The novels center around Lyra, a precocious girl of twelve years that gets embroiled in a war between man and god, and religion and secularism. Along with her daemon (an animal familiar that everyone in her world possesses), she starts on a journey involving gypsies, armored polar bears, and a mysterious substance known as dust.

His Dark Materials is a fascinating series that tackles big questions and delves into interesting theories and philosophies (was original sin a good thing? are there Earths parallel to our own?), but the film The Golden Compass sidesteps many of these issues to create something easier to understand, not nearly as controversial, and naught but a hollow shell of the story it was adapted from. Directed by Chris Weitz, the film boasts a fantastic cast of primarily British thespians who all do good work, and has some stellar special effects (Ian McKellen makes for one regal polar bear), but the philosophical and questioning undertones have been all but completely eliminated to create a by-the-book (not literally) fantasy adaptation. It under-performed at the box office and never had a sequel green-lit, and that may be a good thing.

That android is portrayed by Alan Rickman.

That android is portrayed by Alan Rickman.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a work that takes absurdity to levels that Lewis Carroll never reached (and that is saying something), the five-part trilogy (you read that correctly) by Douglas Adams has become legendary for its wacky humor and endless ability to be referenced (42! Towels! Vogons!). Released in 2005 and directed by Garth Jennings, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a cast led by Martin Freeman (currently Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit films) as Arthur Dent, the bathrobed and British hero. Released to moderate success both commercially and critically, the film never managed to strike enough of a cord to warrant a sequel, no matter how many heads Sam Rockwell had.

The film sees Arthur Dent hitching a ride on a spaceship along with his best friend, who just so happens to be an alien, just as the earth is being destroyed. One of only two humans left alive in the universe, he embarks on an intergalactic journey to discover the answer to life, the universe, and everything (it isn’t what you would expect). The film is fun and captures the feel of the novel quite well, though some of the humor is lost in the translation to the big screen. I also feel that the reveal about the mice lacks something (the mice are key). The Restaurant at the End of the Universe was never put into production and here we remain.

We've all been there. Am I right?

We’ve all been there. Am I right?

John Carter

The most recent film on the list and the one based on the oldest novel, John Carter had the scope, it had the spectacle, it had the impossibly pretty cast, but it did not have the box office, or anything resembling competent marketing, or even a good title. Adapted from the first Barsoom novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of MarsJohn Carter stars Taylor Kitsch in the first of two abysmal box office showings of his in 2012 (at least this isn’t Battleship) as the titular John Carter (of Mars), with a large supporting cast including Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris (the said princess of Mars) and Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkus.

John Carter is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it was not terrible, and it definitely had the potential to reach a wide audience…if anyone had known what it was about (how hard would it have been to add “of Mars” to the title?). Based on the novel that essentially invented the space western (without Burroughs there wouldn’t be Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Cowboy Bebop, or, god forbid, Firefly), John Carter is a missed opportunity for what could have been the start of a very enjoyable franchise. John Carter is a former confederate soldier that gets transported to Mars, only to discover he can jump really far and is super strong (oh yeah, and no Superman and what he led to. Seriously, look it up) and inevitably get caught up in the strife between the various types of Martians. He also falls in love with a princess. It is very silly, but in the very fun way movies can do so well. John Carter could have done well, but it didn’t and that is quite a shame.

Yeah, Gandalf is pretty cool.

Yeah, Gandalf is pretty cool.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

No, not that one. The first film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was this 1978 animated effort by Ralph Bakshi, a controversial underground animator (his film Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to achieve an X rating). Covering the first half (or so) of the story in the novels, it ends with the Battle of Helm’s Deep (the end battle of The Two Towers), and never received a part two. The film received mixed reviews from critics but was commercially successful (a gross of over thirty million on a four million dollar budget). This adaptation of Tolkien’s tome is also less friendly to the uninitiated than Peter Jackson’s trilogy, but is a clear influence on the later films.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one the first films to make use of rotoscoping, or animating over live-action footage (Richard Linklater is a more recent proponent of the style). The use of this technique created a grounded look to the film (for the most part), even amid the craziness. The film is no masterpiece, but it stands on its own and is a worthy, if inferior, counterpart to the Peter Jackson trilogy. It is worth seeing for any fans of either Middle-Earth or animation. I would have liked to see Bakshi finish his adaptation, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Dune: A Film I Just Can’t Bring Myself To Hate

Dune is a science-fiction staple, a fantastic work of unparalleled scope and ambition that was handled with both skill and an attention to detail that created an immersive and eerily plausible world. I am referring, of course, to the novel written by Frank Herbert that was published in 1964 that launched a successful series of novels, David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of said novel is…something else. Lynch’s large cast includes a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart, Sting, Francesca Annis, Max von Sydow, Virginia Madsen, Jose Ferrer, and many others, with Kyle MacLachlan before his career Twin-Peaked (I am too young to be making that lame joke.) as the hero Paul Atreides.

In the distant future space can be folded onto itself, allowing for instantaneous travel across light years and galaxies, the source of this ability is the spice melange. The universe is ruled by the emperor, while great houses underneath him possess massive amounts of wealth and armies of their own. The two greatest of these houses are the House Atreides and the House Harkonnen, who have been mortal enemies for generations. To curtail the threat of the increasingly popular Duke Leto Atreides, the emperor makes a deal with the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen to eliminate the Atreides while keeping his own hands clean. The plan begins by sending the Atreides to the desert planet of Arrakis, the only planet where the vital spice melange can be found and where no rain ever falls (there are also gigantic sandworms thousands of meters in length).

That awkward moment when Patrick Stewart watches Sting knife fight.

That awkward moment when Patrick Stewart watches Sting knife fight.

Leto’s son by his Bene Gesserit (a sisterhood who have been attempting to breed a super-being for centuries by controlling the couplings of the noble houses) concubine is Paul, the gifted, and skillful, heir to the house. Paul has been trained since birth by exceptional people in matters academic, political, and martial. Plagued by prophetic dreams, Paul may be the prophesied Kwisatz Haderach the Bene Gesserit have been hoping for, but he is a generation early, and not their’s to control. Paul eventually finds himself with the Fremen in the deep desert of Arrakis and, taking on the name Muad’Dib, he vows revenge on the Harkonnens and the emperor. His journey may transform him into not just the empire’s messiah, but also its reckoning.

Sorry for the long synopsis, but Dune is complicated, and it is really a work that is better suited to a television format like Game of Thrones, but this is what we have. The film is around two hours and fifteen minutes, but the setup of all of the characters, the setting, and the plot takes nearly an hour and a half to transpire, and that is bad. The slow, methodical pace early in the film changes on a dime into something much more fast-paced, with key moments (his romance with Chani, for example) being glossed over entirely with naught but brief flashes to show the developments. I recently found out that Alejandro Jodorowsky had intended to direct an adaptation over ten hours long (with a cast including Orson Welles and Salvador Dali) that was never made, which is very disappointing, even if the sentiment is a few decades too late.

The cast is uniformly competent, with not much to be said about them either negative or positive. Francesca Annis and Jurgen Prochnow are suitably regal as the Duke Leto and his Lady Jessica, but neither is given an abundance of material to work with and neither leaves much of a lasting impression. Patrick Stewart is fun to see in a role before got beamed up to greener pastures (way too many lame references today, I apologize), but once again, he doesn’t have much to do. Sting, in what was almost definitely stunt casting, does well as Feyd Rautha, the scion of House Harkonnen, but then again all he really had to do was to smirk menacingly. Sean Young portrays Chani, Paul’s Fremen lover, and is good in the hollow role (most of the roles in the film are), but lacks the screen presence she possessed in Blade Runner.

The extended exposure to spice turns the eyes blue.

The extended exposure to spice turns the eyes blue.

Kenneth McMillan chews the scenery as the corpulent, diseased, and vicious Baron Harkonnen. The Baron is the primary villain of the film, or at least the most overtly villainous character in that he essentially just floats around killing people or plotting to kill more people while leering sexually at his nephew Feyd Rautha. In one scene the Baron pulls out a slave’s heart plug (pull it out, the guy bleeds to death) in order to rape him as he dies. The Baron has been a character accused of being a negative homosexual stereotype, which is fair, but he is also so far past the line of believability that is hard to see him as anything other than a caricature.

And now we get to Paul. Kyle MacLachlan is good in the role, but the script’s corny writing at times does him no favors. Early on he embodies the casual arrogance of youth that Paul possesses, as he does the sternness he demonstrates later in the film. But certain elements, the magnetism and the brilliance for example, are just not there, though I suspect the script is at fault for those omissions. Paul is a truly fascinating character, if only for the implications. He is essentially a super-powered being that had gotten to that point through years of work and force of will, not some lab accident. Paul in the novel, prior to even leaving his home for the dunes of Arrakis, was on his way towards being a force to be reckoned with. Paul in the film is essentially a god, and not just someone seen as one (a fine, but very important line). In fact, a fitting subtitle for the film would be “The Apotheosis of Paul Atreides.”

That is a lot of sand. Just saying.

That is a lot of sand. Just saying.

The special effects are very…eighties. The sets and the makeup are excellent, the people are weary, the boils are pussy (get your mind out of the gutter), and the buildings looked lived in. The personal shields seen on occasion are not excellent, they are distracting and awkward, and obviously done well before the heyday of CGI. The sandworms are huge and not totally ridiculous looking, which should be considered a success given the time period. The world built by Lynch and his crew is detailed and vast, and it also never felt like I was watching a built set, though I am admittedly biased given by knowledge of the Dune-world well before I had ever seen the film. The music, done by Toto (seriously), flits between being pretty good, to distractingly similar to the Star Wars score, then finally, to the cliche dated so-obviously-from-the-eighties scoring. For the most part it is okay, but when it is bad, it is terrible.

Dune is a film that I will never be able to call good, but I cannot help but to enjoy myself when I watch it. The novel is a classic and is a definite must-read for anyone even a little bit into science-fiction, but this film adaptation falters in terms of the complexity and, more importantly, the moral ambiguity. I can’t in good conscience recommend the film unless one has previously read the novel, but for those who have, David Lynch’s Dune is something to be enjoyed, resented, and function as all the fuel needed in the endless the book is always better debates (the book is always better). I intellectually despise this film, but I have seen it at least four times. The spice must flow.

Berserk, Volume 2: Just a Mere Mortal

The second volume of Berserk, the ongoing manga series by writer and illustrator Kentaro Miura builds upon the dark and gory atmosphere of the first volume (written about by me here) and moves along the plot-lines begun in the aforementioned previous volume. The two chapters present in this volume were originally collected in 1991 in Japanese, while the English translation is published by Dark Horse Manga.

Guts and his arm/crossbow. This is also a cover.

Guts and his arm/crossbow. This is also a cover.

The volume opens where the last left off, with Guts and Puck being led to a hideout by a terribly scarred man who was sworn to take his revenge on the demonic count in charge of the city. Guts sees this setback turn into an opportunity upon seeing a behelit, a living key that allows him access to the God Hand, or those whom he seeks to destroy. The behelit was formerly the property of the Count until it was stolen by the broken man before them as he had escaped from his tormentors. Guts kills many more people and eventually comes face to face with the regenerative count, while Puck ends up in the possession of Theresia, the Count’s daughter, who has been caged within the finery of her bedroom by her father. The two chapters in this volume are titled “The Guardians of Desire, Part 2” and “The Guardians of Desire, Part 3.”

The character of Guts is not fleshed out much more in this volume aside from the implication that he has survived what it is impossible for a mortal to survive and that he may know more about the demonic element in the story than anyone that is not actually demonic. Guts continues to be terse and, arguably, cruel towards Puck, but there appears to be something of a bond developing between the two, even if it is only the nature of this type of story that is telling me so. Guts once again demonstrates his prodigious ability with the sword, to the point where he matches a super-powered demon blow for blow and defeats him. We learn a little bit more about what makes Guts tick, particularly in regards to people who do not fight their own battles, but his past thus far remains a cipher  Guts continues to be interesting as a character, but hopefully details about him aside from how awesome he is with a sword will be revealed soon.

He may be overcompensating.

I couldn’t find a picture from this volume online, so I reused this one.

Puck the elf continues to be simultaneously intrigued and disappointed by Guts, yet slowly begins to understand his attitude more after viewing the hellish and violent world he lives in day in and day out. Puck also becomes a more proactive character rather than just insisting that Guts be proactive for him: in this volume when he takes it upon himself to try to save someone from the Count, even if that doesn’t turn out so well for either of them. The change in Puck’s demeanor is predictable, but welcome character development, considering he could (still) easily end up being the character to act as Guts’ conscience without actually taking any action through volition of his own.

The art done by Kentaro Miura continues to be stellar, though some of the splash pages when Guts is fighting some monster or other tend to be a bit hectic and overcrowded, though they are not confusing story-wise. His Guts is hulking but not to the unrealistic degree certain comic characters can be drawn. His Puck is minuscule, youthful (at least appearance-wise), and very expressive, which is good when the character is a fraction of the size of the other figures he shares panel space with.

The setting is still reminiscent of a European influenced medieval world, with monsters and such added in, but this volume spends more time focusing on the fantasy elements than the initial one. The dark and foreboding atmosphere is consistent from the last volume, with an even greater sense of menace behind the scenes with Guts seemingly getting ever closer to the enigmatic “God Hand” that he seeks for what is seemingly revenge, but could potentially be something else.

This volume picks up where the last one left us, and leaves us on a significantly more frustrating cliffhanger, but the writing and art remain strong and Berserk has continued to be a worthwhile read. The premise is still frustratingly vague (what is this “God Hand”? Just who is Guts?) but the setting and atmosphere are intriguing and the characters continue to develop interestingly and naturally, if a bit slowly. At any rate, read Berserk if you like a solid medieval epic fantasy or just some fun action involving a gigantic sword.

Saga, Volume 1: A Horned, Winged, and Hazel-Eyed Infant…in Space

Saga is an ongoing comic by acclaimed writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples that premiered in March of 2012. And it also may just be the space opera I have been waiting for since I first read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and thought to myself, “why can’t this be in space?” Joking aside (that series is fine just the way it is), Saga has the feel of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings without the scruples that prevented Lucas and Tolkien from acknowledging sex and the grislier aspects of life.

This first trade paperback covers this first six issues and what seems to be the first complete story arc of the series. The series opens with Marko and Alana’s child being born, quite literally, under fire. Marko and Alana are each members of (humanoid) species that have been warring for centuries and have a deep-seeded resentment towards one another. The war has long since been outsourced to other planets and other species in the galaxy, but Marko and Alana are each soldiers. Marko was a prisoner of war and Alana was one of his guards, they then fell in love and fled from both of their peoples. Determined to forge a life for themselves and their new child, the new parents are desperate to flee the war-torn world they are trapped on and see the galaxy, that is if they can avoid the freelancers (bounty-hunters/assassins) and a prince of the Robot Empire (humanoids with television heads) that are hot on their trail and out for blood.

Marko and Alana are like Romeo and Juliet without all of the delusions about life, they have both seen and dealt out death in spades and they are hardened to it. Marko, with horns on his head and an ability to wield magic, is a warrior that has chosen to give up violence and live his life peacefully. It is ambiguous what instigated Marko’s change of heart, but it led him to the woman he would later marry and bear his child (he turned himself in as a “conscientious objector”).  A character chasing after the lovers describes him simply as a “force of nature” after seeing the damage he has done. Marko only unsheathes his sword once throughout the initial six issues, but the implication was quite clear: Marko is terrifying.

Alana was a bit of a screw-up before and after being drafted into the army, with low test scores and reputation for promiscuity she was sent to a brutal backwater planet where she met Marko. Possessing an abrasive personality and an impulsive streak, Alana, wings and all, proudly raises her middle finger to the world and runs off with her horned husband and new daughter. Alana, while hardened to life much like Marko, is more blusterous and less brutal than her husband. In the previously referenced incident when Marko unsheathes his sword, Alana, who had earlier been strongly predisposed towards violence, watches as he takes down multiple armed men swiftly, efficiently, and, surprisingly, passionately.

Ah, young love.

Ah, young love.

Prince Robot IV, a member of the royal family of the Robot Kingdom, which has been contracted by the home planet of Alana, Landfall, is our pair of fugitive spouses’ chief pursuer. Humanoid with a small television for a head, he has recently returned from a tour in the trenches, where he survived but was not successful, to his wife, only to be tasked with hunting down our pair of protagonists at all costs by his father. Mentally scarred from his time in the war, the prince possesses something of a violent streak, but is of ambiguous competence.

The Will is a bounty hunter hired by Wreath, the home moon of Marko, to kill the couple and bring back their hybrid child alive. The Will possesses a flexible moral code but certainly has one, and may be a more dangerous enemy for the duo than the robot prince. The Will’s partner is a creature known as the Lying Cat, a feline with the ability to determine the truthfulness of what is said. A colleague, and maybe more, of The Will’s is The Stalk, an arachnid-like bounty hunter with a fearsome reputation for bounty-hunting that she certainly lives up to.

The Will and the Lying Cat ominously staring into the distance.

The Will and the Lying Cat ominously staring into the distance.

Saga employs a considerable amount of narration done by Marko and Alana’s child, Hazel, from the future where she is still alive. This technique works well in that it allows for Vaughan to elicit an emotional connection early on in the story to this infant and not have her become the plot device newborns tend to be all too often. Hazel seems poised to take on the role of the character involved in, but not the cause of, sweeping world-changing events. She seems to be less like Luke Skywalker and more like Ben-Hur (which I just found out they are remaking, but that’s fuel for another discussion).

The scope of Saga is vast enough to make my epic fantasy loving, space opera adoring, comic-book reading hair follicles stand on end with excitement. Obvious comparisons include works like Star WarsThe Lord of the RingsA Song of Ice and Fire, or even Dune (let the spice flow), but Saga is shaping up to be its own beast, which is truly how it should be when it comes to ambitious projects. There also seems to be potential for intriguing political commentary given that the endless war between the two races has taken the idea of subcontracting to its natural, and extreme conclusion.

Look! Magic!

Look! Magic!

Saga is a work that doesn’t shy away from the “dirtier” aspects of life. Characters curse and characters fornicate, and at no point does that seem unnatural. Prince Robot and his wife are introduced mid-copulation and it isn’t something unbecoming, its life. Vaughan’s willingness to address the subject is embraced (wrong term?) by artist Fiona Staples, who draws realistic bodies (both male and female) and whose nudes actually possess genitalia (if I was a southern belle  would be fanning myself vigorously right now).

The artwork of Fiona Staples is one of Saga‘s greatest strengths and an ideal match for this vast, fantastical setting. Her characters are expressive and grounded in reality, yet far from out of place when something outlandish appears, like a specter and soon-to-be babysitter or spider-like assassin. Staples’ landscapes are vivid and suitably epic for this space opera, and her interiors are detailed enough to make a wooden spaceship seem natural.

Saga is cinematic and bold, and despite the obvious inspirations of better known works, stands firmly on its own two feet. I don’t know, I could just be a sucker for an ambitious science-fantasy epic, but to me, Saga is something potentially very special and is certainly a comic-book that is not to be missed by fans of either space-operas or Brian K. Vaughan.