Zathura

Zathura is, essentially, a space version of Jumanji. Both films are about a magical game whose every turn throws its players into a series of fantastical events or challenges based around a certain theme. (With Jumanji it was jungles. Both films are adaptations of books by US childrens’ author Chris Van Allsburg.) In Zathura, once young Danny has wound up the clockwork game and pressed the battered “GO” button, their father’s house is transported into space and subjected to, amongst other things, a robot rampage, attack by Zorgons, and a visit from a passing astronaut.

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It’s plenty of fun. I liked the banter between bickering brothers Danny and Walter (“That’s your robot?” “At least I’ve got a robot”), and the whole thing came close to conjuring that special excitement you feel at a certain age when you see films and totally get lost in some zany little world of pure adventure. (Which happened for me with The Goonies in 1985.)

But it doesn’t really have much substance. Once the game gets going, for a while it just feels like a bunch of disconnected episodes. It only starts to develop a more emotionally meaningful strand with the appearance of the astronaut, whose identity eventually provides a somewhat mind-boggling twist. Also, despite being set in space, the film has a more closed-in feel than Jumanji, because although you get the occasional awe-inspiring shot of an enormous planet or sun, the action is basically limited to the house. There’s quite a funny suspense moment when the older brother, Walter, gets a wish, just after arguing with his brother for the n-th time, but aside from that, once its hour and a half is over — and unless you’re a kid — Zathura doesn’t really linger, aside from a distinct feeling of having just had some fun.

Capote, The Libertine, Munich

capoteCapote — not a full biopic, but a film covering the events surrounding the writing of Capote’s most famous book, the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood — I thought was a bit hypocritical. It’s a well-made film, and Philip Seymour Hoffman does an excellent job of pulling off the role of the diminutive, camp-voiced writer with a lot of self-possession. But the film’s attitude to its main character is to say, “Look at the terrible lengths a man will go to in order to achieve his artistic ends, and think of the human cost” — because he won the trust of the murderers Bill Hickock and Perry Smith, and arranged for new lawyers to get them a second hearing and so on, but as soon as he got what he wanted (their side of the story of the murders they’d committed), he pretty much dropped them and waited for them to be executed so he could have an end to his book. And I’m not saying that this is at all excusable behaviour! But, rather than seeing Capote as a driven man, and thus making his descent into selfishness and isolation a tragedy, the film doesn’t really try to get under his skin at all (except in one scene), and so turns itself into a somewhat censorious morality tale, which is never the most satisfying of approaches. A better one is suggested by that scene where we do get some insight into Capote’s character. He’s talking to the murderer Perry Smith and points out how their childhoods were similar, in that both went through periods of abandonment, and so on, thus pointing out the parallel between the murderers (who mercilessly killed their victims for a small amount of money, then were punished by the death sentence) and Capote (who selfishly used his “victims”, the killers, till he’d got his artistic material, then punished himself with a descent into death by alcoholism.)

Another film about a writer is The Libertine, this time starring Johnny Depp as the notorious seventeenth century writer, the Earl of Rochester. The film starts with an in-your-face monologue from Depp, as Rochester, telling you that soon enough you’ll hate him, which I took to be a film-maker’s gambit that we would, of course, love him as the rogue he is. But as the film went on, I felt increasingly indifferent. Perhaps this was partly because the film wasn’t sure whether it was a tragedy (Rochester’s supposed literary genius, of which I wasn’t convinced, never achieving any sort of fulfilment), romance (with the actress Elizabeth Barry, played by Samantha Morton, who doesn’t really fit the role of ultra-ambitious actress), or straight biopic (Rochester’s horrific decline through syphilis). The real core of the character of Rochester, as presented in the film, is that he was too intelligent not to be cynical about everything, but this wasn’t brought out enough till too near the end (and was too easily conflicted in the scenes where he’s coaching Elizabeth Barry), which is a pity as it would have made much more sense of the earlier parts of the film.

Munich, the third of my recent Amazon DVD rentals, was much more of a success. It’s difficult to discuss such a contentious story — the terroristic revenge-killings that followed the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics — particularly in the current climate, and anyway I don’t want to give the plot away, but the film handles the moral questions in a very human way, bringing out the universal, apolitical side of the situation, and pointing out how responding to violence with violence can only ever result in a spiral into paranoia and yet more violence. A little too long, with the early parts riffing too much on the suspense involved in the Israeli’s determination not to harm anyone but their intended victims, it certainly grew on me by the end.

William Gibson’s Burning Chrome

The narrator of William Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum” is a photographer who, commissioned to snap examples of the sort of futuristic architecture America produced in the thirties and forties, finds himself slipping into a reality where that future actually happened, as he sees an enormous propeller-driven, boomerang-shaped aircraft gliding impossibly against a cityscape of “zeppelin docks and mad neon spires” (something similar to the one brought to life in 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, perhaps).

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It’s fitting Gibson should touch on that thirties/forties dream, because it was the only even vaguely optimistic future the 20th Century produced — till Gibson’s came along in the eighties, that is. By that time we’d long since ceased to believe in the sort of technological utopia promised by those hover-cars and jetpacks of the early SF pulps, but Gibson’s future had the advantage of not being limited by the possibilities of the real world. His idea, cyberspace (which he also referred to as the Matrix), was another reality altogether, a world we could jack ourselves directly into, a landscape of computer data turned into geometric shapes in “Bright primaries, impossibly bright in that transparent void”. A world curiously reminiscent of Disney’s wonderful 1982 film Tron, in fact.

It’s now more than twenty years since Gibson’s cyberspace made its first appearance (in “Burning Chrome”, 1982), and we don’t look much closer to achieving it. Excel might be able to produce nice looking pie-charts of your expense accounts, but it comes nowhere near the “electronic consensus hallucination” of Gibson’s computer reality where we’d exist as bodiless intelligences in a world of pure data.

Gibson’s fiction still feels relevant, though. Not because cyberspace is a possible future (I’m sure jacking your brain directly into a computer is as far off today as it was when Neuromancer first came out). Cyberspace wasn’t really a re-imagining of the future, it was a re-imagining of the imagination itself. It is once-upon-a-time land updated in neon colours, with data instead of gold and computer programs instead of magic spells. It’s just as full of angels, demons, ghosts, animal helpers and monsters as the world of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.

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One image that has really stuck in my head from my (very) early reading was a double-page spread in The Usborne Book of the Future. It had two views presenting two possible futures. One was all dark skies and people in gas-masks, the other was bright sunshine and people with wristwatch TVs. I remember staring at those two images for hours, hoping with all my might that the future I’d live in would be, if not the wristwatch TV one, at least not the dark skies and gas-masks one. Outside of cyberspace, Gibson’s rundown, citified future is much more reminiscent of the darker of those two alternatives, though in this he’s generally acknowledged to have borrowed from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, another powerful exploration of how the future might be, partly inspired by Philip K Dick, but more derived from Scott’s encounters with massive industrial processing plants in contemporary England.

I know this seems to be reducing Gibson’s future to the influence of two films — Blade Runner and Tron — but I love his work too much to leave it at that. His real strength lies not in prediction, but in writing about how people deal with a changing technological culture. In a potentially de-personalising world of mega-corporations (a dystopian nightmare prevalent in late seventies and early-eighties SF films like Rollerball, Alien and Blade Runner), Gibson’s characters use technology to emphasise, not erode, their individuality. He’s often at his best when writing about people whose (usually artistic) talents are only really released by technology, as in, from his story “The Winter Market”: “…you wonder how many thousands, maybe millions, of phenomenal artists have died mute, down the centuries, people who could never have been poets or painters or saxophone players, but who had this stuff inside, these psychic waveforms waiting for the circuitry required to tap in…” His future is a digital bohemia our iPod-equipped world is coming more and more to resemble, even if we don’t get to actually jack into it via cyberspace. (Do white earplugs count?)