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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 25, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Mimzy, Hugo Cabret, lawsuit

The Last Mimzy is a good kids' movie that might have been something better. It's worth seeing; kids will enjoy it and adults will cringe only now and then.

If you haven't seen it, and you think you might, then you should probably stop reading my review right here. Because I'm going to be quite careless about giving away plot points.

Though I must also say that I don't think it will make all that much difference. As my wife pointed out, the movie would have been much better if the audience had known what was going on, and what was at stake.

It begins pretentiously, with a bunch of children sitting in a field of flowers, listening to their teacher tell them a story telepathically -- the concept is that the rest of the movie consists of the images she pushes into their minds. Ho hum.

Soon enough, though, we get past that and into the real story, in which two kids, a gifted girl and her mechanically talented older brother -- ages about 6 and 8 -- discover some toys on the shore of their family's beach house on an island in the Seattle area.

The toys were sent from a bleak future, where they are hoping to get samples of undamaged human DNA so they can remake their own bodies and save the human race from destruction by the pollutants that have corrupted them. (We'll pretend that this plot point wasn't stolen from John Varley's brilliant time-travel story "Air Raid" [1977, writing as Herb Boehm].)

The "toys" teach the kids and magnify their natural abilities until they are able to built a time travel device to send some of the little girl's DNA into the future to save the world. As a result, the children of the future are telepathic and can fly, plus everybody's nice and spends a lot of time in meadows filled with flowers but devoid of bees.

I'm being sarcastic, and I shouldn't be. While you're watching the movie, it holds your attention and you want to find out what the toys are going to do to the kids.

But once your brain reengages at the end (or even, occasionally, during the movie), it is appallingly dumb. For instance, if these people in the future have the ability to send objects into the past, and those objects can train human brains to have incredible powers, why can't they just fix their own DNA? I mean, we can already fiddle with DNA now.

And if they can create toys that will manipulate the children so they become telepathic and the little girl can fly, surely they can tweak their own genes.

Furthermore, their plan seems unbelievably luck-dependant. It's only by chance that the little girl's tears fall on the toy rabbit called Mimzy; what if she hadn't cried? Then the bunny would have come back without that DNA, and the project would have failed.

(And how much good DNA can you get from tears on a stuffed animal? My guess would be: none. But what do I know? The movie makes a big deal of the tears, so we are surely meant to think this was the source of the DNA sample that saved the world.)

More to the point, why send toys at all? Why not send a clear message written in a language they knew would be understood in the target era? For instance, if we were sending an object back to ancient Akkad, wouldn't we put in a message written in cuneiform with clear instructions telling them what we want them to do?

This is also tied in with a lot of mystical references to ancient Indian mandalas, a connection that is never remotely explained.

But we're used to sci-fi movies thinking we're unbelievably stupid -- how else would Star Wars have gotten away with "the Force" for all these years?

What I don't get is why they thought we'd believe that Homeland Security would act the way these guys do. Oh, of course we get the standard Hollywood political point when the guy seizing the family is asked about a warrant and he says that the Patriot Act means he doesn't need one. Yeah yeah yeah.

What makes it laughable is at the end, when the guys from Homeland Security watch these kids transmit a stuffed rabbit through a fantastic time-tunnel. (There's a lame last-minute complication when the girl accidentally gets caught in the time-bubble and her brother has to sneak in and grab her foot, adding just enough weight that she falls out. Unlucky, and then lucky, but ... so what?)

When all of this is done, the government guy says, Well, I guess we'll let you go now, because the danger is over.

What? What?

In the real world, there's no way they'd let these people go. These kids just sent a bunny through time! They still have all the pieces of the machinery except the bunny -- they still have the kids -- and these guys think they can let them go?

We might have bought it if the writers had taken just a few moments to have the government guy turn to his underlings and say, "Any of you think you can report what you just saw and still keep your jobs? This didn't happen. We came out on a false tip. We found nothing with this family. They are completely innocent."

But we're used to gross unbelievability in our movies. And it's a kids' movie -- kids don't know how the world works, so they aren't going to have most of these quibbles. If I left logic holes like this in a written science fiction story, I'd be laughed out of the field; but this is screen sci-fi, not print sci-fi, so it can be idiotic and still make money.

The real problem, for me, is that in the end, I didn't much care. And I didn't care because the there were no characters in the core story. The parents were well-characterized; the science teacher and his girlfriend were good comic characters. But the future scientist and the two kids -- the ones who actually drive the plot -- were not made into anything resembling characters.

And that's entirely the writers' fault.

Bruce Joel Rubin is the first screenwriter credited. He has a remarkable track record. His Deep Impact was the good asteroid movie back in 1998; he has written arty, personal films like Jacob's Ladder and My Life, and also commercial films like the Stuart Little sequel. Most of all, he wrote the classic Ghost from 1990. (I hope that his in-development picture Into the Light is not a sequel).

But he was not the only writer involved. Toby Emmerich shares screenplay credit, though all but one of his previous and in-the-works credits are as Executive Producer or, earlier on, Executive in Charge of Music. The one exception is his credit as the sole writer on Frequency, the lovely Dennis Quaid time-travel movie from 2000 -- and that's enough.

Story-by credit is shared by James V. Hart, who is one of four who share blame for 2005's sad Sahara (more below); but he also has credits for Tuck Everlasting, Contact, and Hook. Here's where we may have our problem -- because these are all movies notable for the utter void where characters ought to be.

The story-by credit often goes to writers who created a draft of the screenplay that was tossed out, but which is still part of the path of development. In fact, the first adaptation of this movie might have been done by the person with the last story-by credit, Carol Skilken, whose first-ever screen credit this is. I'm only guessing, but I suspect it was Skilken who first developed the project and shopped it around Hollywood and was fired the moment a studio picked it up.

Why am I searching for blame for a movie that is actually pretty good? Or at least good enough?

I don't even know for sure that it could have had better characters. The original short story, "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett, is a classic of science fiction -- but it comes from an era of sci-fi writing when characterization was irrelevant.

It was an idea-driven story -- and the idea was one that would not make a good movie without sharp changes. In Padgett's story, the magical toys the children find are sent into the past by a scientist performing his own time-travel experiments, who used toys that his children were finished with.

He wasn't saving the world. He had no purpose. And the toys were randomly chosen. They meant nothing. That's the point.

But that can't be the point of a movie -- too much time is invested by the audience to have the movie's meaning be nothing but a bit of irony. So the writers had to invent a deeper meaning -- not a philosophical one, but some reason why the events of the story would matter in the real world.

And because it's sci-fi, and therefore heroic, it can't be personal; the kids have to be saving the world. (The main exceptions to this rule are Charlie Kaufman's brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich.)

Here's where I suspect James V. Hart's contribution was dominant, because this is typical of the scripts of such character-poor movies as his Sahara, Tuck Everlasting, Contact, and the execrable Hook. Not that Hart was the cause of the characters' emptiness, but he certainly did nothing to fill them up.

Rubin, on the other hand, provided surprisingly rich characterization in movies that would ordinarily not have attempted it: Deep Impact and Stuart Little 2 come to mind.

So I suspect that the reason the parents and the science teacher and his girlfriend in The Last Mimzy are actually entertaining and believable is that Rubin worked on turning them into something. And the reason the kids remain empty ciphers is that nobody thought there was anything wrong with them and therefore there was no reason to fix them up.

But there was something wrong with the way the kids' parts were written. The actress playing little Emma was only a fair child actress (her lines sounded read and memorized, not natural, but she was cute and sweet); however, Chris O'Neil, who played her older brother, is an excellent child actor, and could have brought off a strong character if anyone had bothered to write one for him.

Instead the script left them as generic, out-of-the-box, no-name children. And that was the writers' fault.

It became obvious that the children were just stick figures when we saw them with close relationships with their parents -- but when they find these toys, without any real discussion or motive they decide not to say, "Hey, Mom, look at this cool stuff we found!" Even when things get weird and scary, they still conceal it from their parents.

There is simply no reason not to tell; and if it's the toys themselves making them keep it a secret, there's no reason for the people from the future to stop them from telling.

The kids behave in a way that directly contradicts their relationship with their parents -- and with each other. They're simply doing what the writers arbitrarily decided they must do.

Not that the adult characters were spot on; the science teacher and his "fiancee" were horribly miswritten for a family movie. They were used for comic relief, but most of the comedy was over the heads of children, and when we first met them, their relationship (and the humor in it) were far too sexual to be appropriate for a movie that children were meant to see.

Fortunately, that section is quickly over and nothing like that happens again. But it was a misstep -- and if my guess about who wrote what is right, that's probably to be laid at Rubin's door. Nobody's perfect. (Though somebody should have said, "Remember whom this movie is for. Tone it down.")

So the movie is a good one, worth seeing -- my 12-year-old liked it a lot, and I enjoyed the whole thing (with only a few winces). What am I complaining about?

I'm not, really. I'm just pointing out that writing a movie is very, very hard. So many things can go wrong -- and even if you have a good script, lots of things can be damaged or destroyed by decisions made after the script has left the writers' hands.

For instance, they might cast Matthew McConaughey in it, which is pretty much the kiss of death for any movie, since he is to acting as plastic flowers are to flowers -- he's taking up a space normally occupied by an actor, and he's pretty in an actorish way, but there's nothing in the vase that resembles life. (But here I am talking about Sahara again, and that's for later.)

Still, it's frustrating to see missed opportunities, and that's what we had in The Last Mimsy. It was good enough for the moment, but ... it could have been powerful. It could have been excellent.

*

At Barnes & Noble a couple of days ago I saw on prominent display a thick book called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick.

When I picked it up, I quickly realized that most of the book consists of black-and-white illustrations. Not a surprise -- Selznick is best known as an illustrator (The Doll People, Frindle, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins), though he has also written (and illustrated) his own books -- The Houdini Box and The Boy of a Thousand Faces.

The story is quite an engaging one. Hugo Cabret is an orphan who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s, where he secretly continues the work of his vanished uncle, who tended all the station's clocks. But because Hugo doesn't know how to cash his uncle's paychecks, he is forced to steal food.

Meanwhile, though, he is also trying to repair and rebuild an automaton his late father had been working on -- a machine inside a mannequin that will, when correctly assembled, make the mannequin's hand inscribe something on paper.

A toyseller in the station catches him stealing, and takes from him the notebook with all his father's drawings of how the finished automaton ought to work; but the toyseller's goddaughter tries to help him get the notebook back.

The story is suspenseful and charming, and if it depends a bit too much on coincidence, well, that's the way stories sometimes go. It turns out that one of the characters is based (loosely) on a real-life French filmmaker. But it's the boy in the station walls that we care about, and his story is well told.

I had expected that much of the story would be told through the many illustrations. Instead, the art is used mostly to convey the setting and mood; as often as not, the pictures take us from one place to another, while almost all the cause-and-effect storytelling is done with the words.

No matter -- it makes for some good chase scenes!

Because the book is so thick, the price is set at about $23 -- steep for a children's book. And as a children's picture book it is hard to work with, since you can't easily hold up a book this thick and show it. Instead, it's most easily read sitting on a table, where others can look over your shoulder at the illustrations and then sit back down to listen as you read it aloud.

Or, of course, a kid could read it alone (though it would rest awfully heavily on a child's chest in bed at night).

Is the story good enough to be worth the price? For me it was. It has a haunted, dreamy feeling. You don't want to pay this much for a forgettable book, but I think this story is memorable -- and worth remembering.

It's also fun to see this experiment in storytelling technique -- a reenvisioning of the relative proportions of text and illustration. I hope every YA and school library in the country gets a copy -- their patrons would enjoy the book, and I'd like it to make enough money that the experiment will be repeated.

Maybe we'll even get a productive new paradigm of storytelling out of it -- something between a comic book and a picture book.

*

And now the lawsuit over the movie Sahara.

According to Entertainment Weekly, author Clive Cussler filed suit against the production company Crusader Entertainment over the film version of his novel Sahara even before the movie came out.

Since the movie flopped badly, grossing barely a third of its absurdly overblown budget, one can only guess at why the suit hasn't been dropped -- it must surely be more a matter of ego or personal pique than money.

As I look through Internet Movie Database, however, I can't figure out why Crusader Entertainment would be involved. They produced Joshua and Where the Red Fern Grows, among others, and distributed Ray and Swimming Upstream, but nowhere in their credits is Sahara. And nowhere in the credits of Sahara can you find Crusader Entertainment.

But I don't actually care about that. What matters to me is the sad-but-amusing spectacle of an author actually suing a Hollywood production company for what they did to his movie.

Hadn't he seen any movies and compared them to the original books before he signed the deal? On the contrary -- he had already had bad movies made from his books before.

As a novelist who has also been down the road with Hollywood production companies and with studios, I am baffled by the whole lawsuit. Apparently Clive Cussler believed that when his contract said he would get final script approval, he would get it.

But it was their money, not his. Why would he even want final script approval?

Did he go through the years of work to learn how to write screenplays? It's harder than writing novels, and far more things can go wrong -- did he think that because he wrote the novel he would have any clue about how to turn it into a story that would work on film?

And if he didn't want to do the work and take the time to learn how to write good screenplays, why did he think he could, as a novelist, recognize a good screenplay when he saw one? There are precious few people who make movies for a living who know how to recognize a good screenplay!

There are good reasons for a novelist to sue a production company. For instance, if the movie is a hit, and the novelist is supposed to get a percentage of profits, but the creative accounting at the studio keeps "proving" that the movie has never made a profit (and will never make one), then you sic your lawyer on them.

But when a $200 million budget is at stake, and the author doesn't know squat about screenplays, the production company and the studio would have to be morons to let him actually control the storyline. Once you sign on the dotted line, the project is out of your control and completely in the control of the ones with the money.

And the ones with the money weren't the producers! It was the studio executives. They always have the final say, because they're the ones who write the checks -- and they're the ones who lose their jobs if they write too many of them on a picture that tanks.

Here's the irony of it all: The script was actually astonishingly faithful to the book, considering the genre. I don't think Cussler has anything to complain about.

And as the producers' lawyers set about trying to bad-mouth Cussler and paint him as a racist, sexist pig who ruined the picture and lied about how many books he had sold, it would be good for them to remember, too: Sahara wasn't a bad movie because of Cussler.

It was a bad movie because it was a ludicrous project to film in the first place. Who cares about a Confederate ironclad filled with gold that sailed up the Niger and got caught in a sandstorm which somehow lifted it up a hundred feet above the highest level the river had reached in the past thousand years?

Cussler's readers expect a certain kind of thing from him, and he delivered it. But the overlap between what his readers expect and what moviegoers expect is nearly zero.

Besides, they put Matthew Maconaughey in the lead, which is the equivalent of putting the budget of the film in a really big toilet and pushing the lever. Since when do you stake a budget that size on an actor who has never proven himself to be anything remotely like a box-office draw?

I'm also amused at the fact that the producers are all exercised over the fact that Cussler's claim to have sold more than 100 million copies of his books was a "lie."

Come on, children. How could people with Hollywood careers get sucked in by hype?

Can't you do elementary math? How many books has Cussler written? How many languages have they been translated into? And even if he actually sold 100 million books, once that's divided among many, many titles, in many languages, it's probably only a few million per book.

And what makes you think they'll all go to the movies?

You can't make a movie counting on readers to pay for enough movie tickets to make back your budget.

Readers are a tiny percentage of the public. Only the Harry Potter books and Gone with the Wind had such wide sales that they could guarantee the success of a movie that was faithfully based on them. In all of film history, they're the only ones.

The rest of the time, the producers are supposed to make sure they come up with a script for a movie that will appeal to people far beyond the readership of the novel. And any plot summary of Sahara should have told intelligent movie people (and there are many of them) that this movie had no chance of doing serious box office.

So Cussler was an idiot to think he could control a huge-budget movie he wasn't paying for, regardless of the contract; and the producers and studio were idiots to think this storyline could drive a huge-budget movie, regardless of how many books were sold.

It's a lawsuit among idiots, with a flop movie to prove it. Why they didn't just give it up and go home and lick their wounds, I'll never know.


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