A.i.

We finally got to watching A.i.: Artificial Intelligence. We’re probably the last people alive who haven’t seen it, so I trust you will allow me the indulgence of a few spoilers in the course of my criticism.

Let’s start with the big issue: the movie has the most egregious deus ex machina ending I have seen in years of movie-watching. It’s so hideous that it could be used as the canonical example when educating future generations of movie makers in what not to do. Apparently the ending was part of the Kubrick script for the movie, but Spielberg gave it that final saccharine twist. I’d like to think that Kubrick would have seen sense and removed the whole thing, like he did the original pie fight ending to Dr Strangelove.

A.i. is supposedly some kind of tribute or homage to Kubrick…but of course, the problem is it’s hard to pick two directors whose styles are as dissimilar as Kubrick and Spielberg, unless you start talking about (say) Errol Morris and John Waters.

Visually, there’s really nothing Kubrick to see. The fight with the bike gangs is a frenetic MTV cut-up, rather than a sequence of smooth menacing tracking shots. Even when David finds rows of boxed Davids, and Spielberg finally tries to use a Kubrick-style tracking shot for effect, he keeps the camera too high and the result is merely tedious. In fact, it brought to mind the groundbreaking camera work of Ed Wood, as lovingly recreated by Tim Burton.

Perhaps the worst thing, though, is that Spielberg just can’t seem to avoid the temptation to try and make every single story into a kid-friendly movie. Thus a male robot prostitute suddenly takes David to visit the cartoon head of Albert Einstein, voiced by Robin Williams, which we’re told is conveniently situated in the middle of the biggest red light district on earth. No, that’s not the noise of Stanley Kubrick spinning in his grave, it’s just the whirling pulleys as my suspended disbelief comes crashing to the ground.

In the original script, the mother’s an alcoholic, and the robot kid inadvertently feeds her problem when he keeps making her Bloody Marys just the way she likes them, in a futile attempt to get her to love him. Yeah, that would have worked. What doesn’t work is making mom a nice mug of coffee. Not even if you whirl the coffee containers around in an inexplicable fashion in the middle of the shot. But problem drinking is an Adult Situation, so we can’t have that in a Spielberg movie.

Yes, it’s a fairy tale, but I’m old enough to remember that fairy tales used to have wicked witches and evil monsters in. C’mon, Mr Spielberg, I know you can do better.

Review: Battlefield Earth

We just found the time to watch Battlefield Earth. As I mentioned a while back, this movie is allegedly worse than Xanadu, which I had rated as the absolute worst movie I’ve ever watched. So, how does Battlefield Earth compare? Well…

The first thing to note about the movie is that the entire thing is shot in tilt-o-vision. Every single scene has the camera at an odd angle. Not just slightly, either—we’re talking 30 or even 45 degrees. The only rational explanation I can come up with is that they were unable to find enough people willing to work on a Scientology-backed movie, and ended up employing a cameraman with one leg.

If you think about the process of moviemaking, you’ll realize that there’s a major problem with shooting at odd angles: it makes it really difficult to edit the material seamlessly. As a result, what you get in Battlefield Earth is a funhouse maze of cuts. One moment John Travolta is sloping to the left; we cut for a reaction shot, and when we cut back he’s sloping to the right.

Once you get into a fight scene, of course, you’re continually trying to work out what the hell is going on—are they going to leap on the enemy from above, or are they hiding at ground level? Can the guards see them or is that piece of machinery in the corner of one of the shots supposed to be hiding them? Just working out the geometry of what’s supposed to be happening is taxing. Perhaps that’s just as well, because it’s the only mental stimulation you’re likely to get.

Sometimes the effect of the sloping is just comical—like in the opening scene, where it seems as if the primitive humans are so regressed that when they put up a tent on a hillside, they drive the poles in perpendicular to the ground; or later on, when John Travolta bangs his head on a piece of scenery getting up, but it looks as if he slid down into it.

The fascinating thing is that at some point, someone must have sat and watched the early rushes and thought “Hey, this is great, yeah, let’s do the entire movie like this.” They spent enough money to make the special effects look good, but somehow couldn’t find the cash for a tripod.

Another thing that apparently seemed like a good idea, is that every time something exciting happens the movie goes into slow motion. Gunshots, explosions, individual punches in a fistfight, people jumping off stuff—all slowed down. It’s like watching the movie with an eight year old kid playing with the remote control. Yes, I found slow motion fascinating, back in 1980 or so.

The acting? Oh, the acting is competent enough. I mean, this is sci-fi, so you can overlook the Shakespearean scenery-chewing whenever an old human guy talks about Our Great Heritage. Everyone even manages to act with bits of string dangling from their noses, because that’s what someone in props decided the breathing masks ought to look like.

Anyone can make a crappy movie by putting crappy actors in it. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Start with an award-winning screenplay; hire Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves and Ethan Hawke; drop them into the mix, and watch them work their magic. What impresses about Battlefield Earth is that they’ve made a film where everything else is awful, but the acting’s not bad.

Let’s talk plot.

Again, this is sci-fi, so we’re not expecting perfection, but a little attention to plausibility would have been appreciated. OK, so mankind was enslaved by an alien race who wiped out all our defenses in just seven minutes, it’s now the year 3000, and the remaining men and women live as scattered nomadic tribes in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. I can buy that. What I can’t buy is an alien race advanced enough to have teleportation technology, who still communicate by carving their messages into cast metal plates.

These aliens are smart enough to travel across intergalactic space—but dumb enough to give a spaceship to a bunch of humans who have already tried to escape several times, set them down in the middle of nowhere, and leave them alone for two weeks to mine gold. They have advanced surveying sensors which can locate gold seams in the unpromising geology of North America, and they know all about our history, but somehow they missed the fact that Fort Knox was sitting there filled with gold the whole time—oh, and the dying human guards conveniently left all the safe doors open too.

The humans find a military flight simulator that’s still in perfect working order after a thousand years, and the electricity’s still on too. Yeah, right. The non-literate humans use the flight simulator to learn how to fly a Harrier jump jet in combat conditions, in only seven days. Mmm-hmm. And then they find an entire fleet of armed and working Harrier jets, also totally undamaged by an alien invasion followed by a thousand years of neglect.

A giant glass habitation dome has a bomb detonated on its framework. Every single pane of glass shatters, yet somehow all the shards stay in place. Then a hero flies a hoverplane into it, and the entire thing explodes. Ohh-kay.

I’m not trying to be picky, I just really see a few minor implausibilities. Well, let’s be honest, huge gaping plot holes. It is, as more charitable reviewers have said, “a little unbelievable“, like a 50s sci-fi B-movie is a little unbelievable. Unfortunately, L.Ron wrote the book in the 1980s, and it’s a safe bet that Travolta did his best to make sure the great man’s masterpiece was translated to the movie screen with plot intact.

But all that aside… Is it worse than Xanadu? Well, yes and no. Xanadu has plenty of moments where I found myself cringeing with embarassment for everyone on the screen. However, Battlefield Earth impresses with its constant level of awfulness. It avoids being bad in all the easy ways, yet sustains a steady wretchedness for almost two hours. It’s an amazing achievement, and I wish the MST3K team were still around to give it the review it really deserves.

Battlefield Earth vs Xanadu

The SciFi Channel is showing Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 starring John Travolta, and the ReplayTV is recording it. Normally I don’t watch TV-broadcast movies, but in this case I’m prepared to make an exception, because the only reason I want to watch Battlefield Earth is to see if it’s truly as awful as almost every single reviewer says it is.

If you believe IMDB, Battlefield Earth rates 2.4 out of 10. The worst movie I have ever seen in my entire life is Xanadu, and the IMDB voters give that 4.3 out of 10.

Xanadu is a musical about Greek gods returning to California and opening a magical disco roller rink. It has a lead actor who cannot even begin to act, for whom this was his finest hour. It has special effects which would have be charming if they were filmed in Super-8 by Mike Jittlov, but are just jarringly cheap and unconvincing in something that was supposed to be a major motion picture. It is so awful it make me cringe with embarrassment for the people who appeared in it; it forever soiled my enjoyment of a couple of perfectly good ELO songs.

So, can Battlefield Earth be significantly more awful than that? I’m very skeptical. I will, of course, post an update when I get around to watching it.

Three obsessive audio edits

The movie South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is a work of genius, and probably one of the best musicals ever. It also works well as audio. I’ve ripped the DVD and edited it into MP3s, with all the songs separated from the linking dialog, so we can either listen to the whole thing or just the music. I did something similar editing to MiniDisc a year or two ago, and we rather unwisely listened to it while traveling to Montreal, resulting in “Blame Canada” being in my head the whole time.

Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was originally supposed to have a different ending. Oldfield and Vivian Stanshall had gone to the pub one night and staggered back to The Manor paralytically drunk. They set up microphones, and Oldfield proceeded to stomp around the rooms playing the Sailor’s Hornpipe on guitar while Stanshall gave an eccentric drunken guided tour of the building. Richard Branson felt that this was a bit strange to be part of his record label’s first release, and it was replaced with the rather dull synthesizer performance of the Hornpipe that most Tubular Bells fans are familiar with. However, the original ending was released on Boxed, and I like it far better than the official one… so I extracted it from there and re-edited it back into the latest 20 bit remastered edition of Tubular Bells.

Another movie masterpiece is Koyaanisqatsi. Unfortunately, the soundtrack CDs only ever include the Philip Glass bits, and usually in abbreviated form. The wonderful ambient linking sections and the final musique concrete tape assembly are skipped. So again, it was time to rip the DVD…

Suture

Spent the afternoon writing code for the new secret screensaver project. Got the first demo working, and sent it off.

Watched Suture. It was as good as I remembered it being, oblique in its messages, with a central conceit that’s so brilliant yet so simple that you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. Be warned, though—you won’t like it half as much as I do if you’re not obsessive about cinematography and sound design. For full effect, don’t read anything about it before watching it…