Kamandi Challenge no. 2

Cover by Neal Adams and Tim Shinn

Cover by Neal Adams and Tim Shinn

“Nuclear Roar!”
Story and Words:
Peter J. Tomasi
Artist: Neal Adams
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Letterer: Clem Robbins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

At the end of last month’s “K–is for ‘Kill’!”, King Caesar had triumphantly returned from battle with a “god” that he planned to awaken in order to add its power to that of the Tiger Empire. Only Kamandi, claimed as a “pet” by Prince Tuftan and guarded by Dr. Canus, recognized the “god” as a nuclear missile, left over from the times before the Great Disaster. As Caesar activated the missile’s computer system, it began a countdown, with Kamandi certain that the ancient device was going to blow up the entire city and everyone in it.

As this month’s continuation, “Nuclear Roar!”, begins, Kamandi struggles against his captor, attempting to reason with the tigers and halt the countdown, or escape, only to be put in his place. The last few seconds tick away, but instead of detonating, the missile opens a hatch, from which emerges a gorilla commando, guns blazing! “A giant ape hiding inside an old nuclear missile like it was a Trojan horse!” Kamandi exclaims, accurately summing up the situation. Indeed, the gorillas were able to track their inside man to the tigers’ hidden city, and a wave of gorilla soldiers begin invading.

kamandichallenge2-gorilla

In the confusion, Kamandi escapes and heads back to the Museum of War seen last issue. There, the jackdaw guards that confronted him before are even more bloodthirsty, with one in particular sensing Kamandi’s presence and promising to shred him with his talons, among other graphic threats. After struggling against the jackdaw using the stockpiled weapons, Kamandi comes across a mysterious high-tech chair. Warned away from it, he naturally sits down in it out of spite, just in time for Prince Tuftan and Dr. Canus to arrive and try to pull him out of it (like many of the relics of the past, it is considered sacred, despite–or because of–the tigers’ inability to understand it).

Somehow Kamandi activates the chair, and he, Tuftan, and Canus are teleported a great distance: all the way to the ruins of San Diego, in fact, far outside the Tiger Empire. Canus, frightened, recognizes the place as the site of a “wild human reserve,” but before he can explain what that means to Kamandi, he and Tuftan are struck by robotic “Manhunters” who attempt to capture Kamandi. In a last-ditch effort to escape, even if it means death, Kamandi leaps from the ledge upon which he stands, into the unknown. To be continued . . .

I can’t say I was crazy about “Nuclear Roar!” After the fluid, expressive art of Dale Eaglesham last issue, Neal Adams’ treatment of the same characters looks stiff and, dare I say it, ugly. Adams is of course a giant in the comics world for his work on Batman, but in recent years his style has become stiff and over-rendered, with an emphasis on goggle-eyed, open-mouthed expressions of shock. It’s . . . distinctive, I’ll admit, but not something I care much for. Combined with Peter J. Tomasi’s dialogue (“Your new god’s a mushroom cloud, idiots!” is a typical bon mot), this chapter is functional but not very subtle as storytelling.

kamandichallenge2-kamandi

The biggest development in the ongoing serial is getting the threesome of Kamandi, Tuftan, and Canus out of Tiger City and into a dangerous, remote area that can jumpstart the quest/journey elements central to most of Kamandi’s previous adventures, and will presumably force the three main characters to work together. As yet, we haven’t seen anything to indicate that they will be uneasy allies, much less friends, but I appreciate that the friendship angle is being given time to develop organically: for all of Kamandi’s pugnacious bluntness in Kirby’s original saga, he typically made friends quickly. One of the opportunities of revisiting or retelling this story is in decompressing and smoothing out some of the original story beats, or at least exploring them from a different angle. Or, who knows? Maybe they’ll all kill each other in this version of the story. But somehow I doubt it.

There are some nice touches, however, as well as more clues about the world Kamandi has been dropped into. We don’t learn any more about his search for his parents, but it is mentioned again, just to make sure we (and the next team to take over the story) don’t forget about it. I also got a good laugh out of the reveal of the gorilla hiding inside the missile: if you’re not going for subtlety, then this kind of audacious broad stroke is a good alternative, and saving it for a three-quarter page splash after a page turn maximized the element of surprise.

kamandichallenge2-batarang

There’s also the jackdaw guard who uses what are unmistakably explosive Batarangs against Kamandi during their fight in the Museum: this is obviously a tip of the hat to the artist’s most famous work, but could it be more? In Jack Kirby’s original series, it was established that Superman was a real person in the past, connecting Earth A.D. to DC’s mainstream continuity as an “alternate future.” In Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen’s prologue “The Rules” from issue no. 1, we see a glimpse of Superman and Batman posters on the wall of Kamandi’s bedroom; by itself that doesn’t prove anything, but the connection to other heroes’ continuity remains a tantalizing possibility. Maybe the Batarangs in the Museum were actually the Batman’s, salvaged from one of King Caesar’s excursions into a future Gotham City?

What about the Manhunters who confront our heroes in San Diego? These appear identical to the Manhunters who preceded the Green Lantern Corps as an interplanetary police force in past DC comics, even referencing their catch phrase “No man escapes the Manhunters,” but what their role here is remains to be seen.

kamandichallenge2-teleport-detail

Finally, the most overtly meta moment in the chapter is the full-page illustration of the group in mid-teleportation. In addition to the dramatic image of Kamandi, seated in the chair and struggling to hold onto Tuftan and Canus, there are cameos of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman; Gorilla Grodd; the Sandman’s mask; a Mother Box; and most intriguingly, a stack of comic books. And they’re not just any comics: visible covers include Kamandi no. 1, an issue of Kirby’s New Gods, DiDio and Giffen’s New 52 OMAC, an issue of Green Lantern and Green Arrow (another landmark Neal Adams series), and Legion of Superheroes. Fragments of narration or speech dot the panel as well. In the spirit of an ongoing comics jam, these could be inside jokes, referring to some of the creators’ other work, or they could be clues to the mysteries of Kamandi’s parentage and destiny: depending on how future writers pick up on them, they could go either way.

Short Fiction: “Frontier Bride”

frontierbride1

Persephone was alone, surrounded by the vast emptiness of space, its flyby of Neptune years in its past. The ship’s sole inhabitant, Commander Leslie, was likewise alone–Commander, she thought again, such a funny name for a passenger who did everything from piloting the craft to emptying the head–but she wouldn’t be for long. According to the ship’s computer, it was mid-February, but the calendar had no meaning out here. It was the sight of her destination, growing larger and larger as she approached, that filled her with excitement.

Leslie turned on the comms as the dazzling geological formation known as the Heart filled the viewscreen. The metallic claws she used to manipulate the controls were only one of many modifications she had made to her body for this trip: the things we do for those we love, she reflected.

“This is Persephone. I’m one hour from landing. Conditions clear.” She tried and failed to keep the emotion out of her voice; it was hard to be separated from her beloved for so long, but now technology shortened those distances. After nearly ten years–and an entire lifetime before that–there was only one hour left. By the time Mission Control heard her message, hours from now, she would be a citizen of a new world.

Even through the increased body fat that gave Leslie a swollen, grub-like appearance, and the armored exoskeleton grafted over it, the cold on Pluto’s surface was incredible: even nitrogen turned into ice here. Through layers of swaddling and filtration she drew her first breath with her extra lungs, a second pair colonized by methane-eating bacteria. It was blissful.

On the horizon, the Sun was only a pale dot, not much larger than the stars. It was everything she’d hoped for. Finally she was overcome: she sank on her armored knees to the icy surface and caressed her beloved, so long distant. “I’m here,” she cooed. Her hot breath steamed away instantaneously as she kissed the frozen ground.

“You’ll always be a planet to me,” she murmured.

The Bangers n’ Mash Show Announces 2016 Phantom Awards

. . . and I got to come along for the ride! The Bangers n’ Mash Show, a podcast run by Zack Clopton and John Collis, gives out its Phantom Awards for achievements in science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, including the usual categories like Best Picture but also including a genre-specific Best Monster/Creature/Madman/etc. For their most recent awards, I (and some of my colleagues from the Dissolve diaspora) had the opportunity to record introductions for a few of the nominees. You can find the show on YouTube (where it’s like a podcast, but with a broad range of pictures you can look at while you listen–maybe they should call it a “broadcast,” eh?) or watch the embedded video:

If you read my overview of 2016 films, my comments may sound familiar, but I enjoyed hearing what my fellow Dissolvers had to say, and perhaps, like me, you’ll come away with some recommendations for films that weren’t on your radar. Thanks to Zack and John for the chance to participate, and thanks to all you readers for listening!

Kamandi Challenge no. 1

Cover B by Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish

Cover B by Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish

“The Rules”
Story and Art: Dan DiDio, Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish
Colors: Hi-Fi
Lettering: Clem Robins
Editor: Brittany Holzherr

Kamandi Challenge no. 1 begins with a prologue: an ordinary teenage boy (as yet unnamed) is running late for school, gently encouraged by his grandmother. The set-up is classic, reminiscent of Peter Parker and his Aunt May, or any number of fairy tales. Threading his way through an idyllic small town after missing the bus, the boy encounters similarly benevolent townsfolk (including a couple named after Kamandi creator and “king of comics” Jack Kirby, and his longtime inker Mike Royer), all of whom know him and are watching out for him. Their solicitous treatment turns out to be more than mere small-town friendliness, however, when a piece of the sky cracks off and falls to the ground: the boy’s home is actually an enclosed dome, a Truman Show-style simulation of a normal life, and that shelter has finally been pierced by his (unknown, at least to him) enemies.

kc1-02

The friends and neighbors who so recently were encouraging him to get to school are suddenly armed and ready to fight off the threat; they are, in fact, robots, programmed solely to protect the boy! Attacked by one of the invaders, the boy is horrified to come face to face with a humanoid, talking rat. There is so much about the outside world that he did not suspect! At home, “grandmother” shoves him into a mysterious glowing chamber, a sort of stasis capsule, before fighting off the intruders with one final explosion. In his artificial sleep, the boy receives more instruction, including an order to “remember Command D”–not, apparently, the name of the bunker in which he was raised, as in the original Kamandi stories, but perhaps a code or protocol.

After an indeterminate time in suspended animation (but long enough for the boy’s hair to grow long), the chamber is opened and the boy is reawakened by manlike tigers, scouts for the Tiger Empire ruled by King Caesar. The tigers assume that the phrase the boy keeps muttering, “Command D,” is his name, and thus Kamandi is christened, a new name for a new world. Taken for a savage animal, Kamandi is thrown in a paddy wagon and driven to Tiger City where he will fight in Caesar’s gladiatorial arena. His protests are interpreted as the unintelligent parroting of a wild beast who has learned to imitate speech–everyone knows “animals” can’t talk. Thrust into the arena, Kamandi is pitted against “Tiny,” a giant, Kong-like gorilla.

kc1-03

On that cliffhanger the prologue ends, with Kamandi (and the reader) given a crash course in the premise of the series, both its story (Kamandi is referred to as “the last boy on earth” a couple of times, and one of the robot guardians insists that he is to be protected as if the fate of the world depends on it; and we get an introduction to the upside-down “animals ruling over humans” formula that was also essential to the series) and the test of the creators’ inventive powers: “What’s the matter, boy? Afraid of a little challenge?” one of the tigers jeers Kamandi as he throws him into the arena. Those might as well be Dan DiDio’s words to the next team to pick up the story: get him out of this, if you can, guys.

Dan DiDio is both the architect of this series and current Co-Publisher of DC Comics, so his influence is felt far beyond the stories on which he has writing credits, but I personally associate him with the New 52 version of OMAC that he and artist Keith Giffen collaborated on in 2011. OMAC, the “One-Man Army Corps,” was another creation of Jack Kirby’s, and the liberties “The Rules” takes with Kamandi’s origin story has some similarities to the way DiDio and Giffen expanded on OMAC, with an emphasis on mysterious conspiracies and secret identities, not to mention all those robots. Visually, Giffen and Koblish are in similar territory, with an updated Kirby-by-way-of-Kubert style that makes for a good introduction to this new version of the character.

DiDio writes in an afterword to Kamandi Challenge no. 1 that one of the rules of the series is that not only is each writer-artist team to end their chapter on a cliffhanger, leaving it for the next team to resolve, but they must write a note indicating how they would have continued their story, to be included in the letters page. As an example, he states that he would have resolved the cliffhanger at the end of “The Rules” by having Kamandi trick Tiny into throwing him into the audience of the arena, where he would meet and befriend Prince Tuftan. In addition to the window this opens into the writers’ creative process, I imagine it also guarantees that the cliffhangers play fair: there has to be some way out for our heroes. (I also like the implicit invitation to play along: “Can you solve it before they do?” a blurb on the cover asks.)

“K–is for ‘Kill’!”
Writer: Dan Abnett
Artist: Dale Eaglesham
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Lettering: Clem Robbins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

kc1-04

In the next chapter, Tiny attacks Kamandi; the tiger people in the stands cheer on the fighters and assume that the puny human will be no match for the champion ape. Instead of tricking Tiny into throwing him into the stands, as DiDio had suggested, Kamandi lures Tiny into an electrified wall surrounding the arena, knocking him out and proving himself more clever than the tigers had originally thought. Suddenly the “wild animal” has value, and Prince Tuftan turns Kamandi over to Dr. Canus, a humanoid dog, for training as a full-time gladiator.

Canus at first assumes that Kamandi’s speech is just parroting, as before, but he is soon shocked to realize that Kamandi is intelligent and can fully understand him. Kamandi tries to remember his home, but is only able to recall the dreams from his long sleep (a montage of images suggests that his “dream” consisted of events from the original Kamandi series), and the mission his “grandmother” gave him: “find your parents, save the world.”

To Canus, however, Kamandi is still an animal and the boy is kept on a leash as he is shown around the tigers’ city. Kamandi and Canus witness the return of King Caesar, back from a victorious campaign against the leopards, and bearing with him military weapons taken as the spoils of war, including a giant missile. Kamandi breaks away from Canus and investigates the forbidden Hall of War, an enormous stockpile of weapons from the old, human world. (Is the eye-shaped insignia seen above the Hall entrance and elsewhere a reference to OMAC’s Brother Eye, a seed for later writers to pick up on, or just coincidence?) Attacked by flying jackdaw guards, Kamandi almost escapes but is recaptured by Canus, who emphasizes that he’ll pay with his own life if Kamandi escapes on his watch.

They return to the main square to witness King Caesar attempting to “awaken” the recovered nuclear missile, taking it for a god of the ancients. Kamandi recognizes the missile for what it is and tries to warn the tigers about the danger it poses, but he is too late: King Caesar has armed the warhead and set it on a countdown for detonation! Unless Kamandi can halt the countdown, he–and everyone else–has only five minutes to live!

“K–is for ‘Kill’!” (gotta love comic book titles) continues the remix spirit of “The Rules,” hitting the beats of the original classic stories but combining elements in different ways in the interest of telling a new story: “Tiny,” introduced in “The Rules,” appeared in the original series (Kamandi no. 7, where the similarity to King Kong was both more explicit and more tragic); likewise, in the original series Kamandi’s first stop after escaping his bunker was the Tiger Empire, where he was forced to fight as a gladiator (the orange and blue tunic he wears in this chapter is a nod to his costume in that episode), and Dr. Canus was one of the first friends he made in the post-human world.

kamandi_07

In “K–is for ‘Kill’!,” Canus is more skeptical of Kamandi than in the original stories, and the political realities of the Tiger Empire are more explicitly drawn: not only does Canus’ life depend on serving Caesar, he openly admires Caesar’s strength and has wholeheartedly adopted the tigers’ martial ethos. “War is our way of life and our salvation,” he tells Kamandi. Elsewhere it is made clear that the arena serves to keep the people occupied and happy, and that Prince Tuftan, who runs the city in his father’s frequent absence, is eager to prove himself.

This chapter also highlights the series’ similarities (never far from the surface) to the Planet of the Apes movies: examining Kamandi’s backpack, Canus asks, “Why would an animal have books?”, echoing Charlton Heston’s famous question, “Doctor, would an ape make a human doll that talks?” King Caesar’s attempt to commune with the godlike nuclear missile (an element present in Kirby’s original) echoes the underground cult in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Of course, the motifs of captivity, barbarism ascendant, and the worship of ancient weapons and relics are common in post-apocalyptic stories, so this observation is intended in the spirit of comparison rather than criticism: Prince Tuftan’s assumption that Kamandi simply stole his books illustrates just how far down the evolutionary ladder humanity has fallen, especially for a first-time reader who is exploring Kamandi’s world alongside him.

Finally, Dale Eaglesham’s art in this chapter is particularly appropriate, capturing the classic sense of adventure and exoticism like an old-school Sunday comic strip. Tiger City is a richly-realized environment, full of stone temples, statues, and walkways, thick with vines and palms. The characters, including the animals, are expressively rendered and fluid in a way that’s not very Kirby-like at all but is quite beautiful; it’s a great fit for the material.

Introducing the Kamandi Challenge!

kamandi-challenge-special

I’ve written before about my interest in Kamandi, “The Last Boy on Earth,” the futuristic adventure series Jack Kirby created for DC Comics in 1972. So when I learned about DC’s upcoming Kamandi Challenge, described as a “round-robin, no-holds-barred storytelling extravaganza told in 12 issues,” with a separate writer/artist team picking up the thread in each installment, I knew I would be adding it to my pull list at my local comics store (shout-out to Prairie Dog Comics in Wichita). The book will apparently be more than just a showcase for talent: running up to the 100th anniversary of Kirby’s birth (1917-1994), the teams are invited to make things tough for those who follow them: “Each issue will end with an unimaginable cliffhanger, and it’s up to the next creative team to resolve it before creating their own. It’s a challenge worthy of ‘The King’ himself!” They already had me at “Kamandi,” but when cliffhangers are involved, how could I resist?

kamandi

To recap, Kamandi (named for “Command D,” the military bunker in which he was raised by his grandfather) is the last ordinary human in a post-apocalyptic world that has been taken over by intelligent animals: not just apes, but tigers, dogs, reptiles, and more. Other humans have been reduced to nonverbal animalism or have developed mutant powers themselves. Monstrous creatures roam the earth, and new animal societies have developed in the ruins of the old world, patterned on the Romans, pirates, or Chicago gangsters. Kirby had been tinkering with Kamandi as a concept for several years (his original idea was to be a newspaper strip called “Kamandi of the Caves”), but the final version owes a clear debt to the popular Planet of the Apes movies while remaining pure Kirby. It’s a set-up ripe for adventure and wonder, and after Kirby’s run on the original series it continued to inspire comics creators (not to mention the influence it had on cartoons such as Thundarr the Barbarian, for which Kirby contributed concepts and designs, and more recently Adventure Time).

kamandi-canus

Perhaps to prime the pump for the upcoming series and get new readers caught up on the character and his setting, DC released the Kamandi Challenge Special this week, reprinting the double-sized Kamandi no. 32 (which included a reprint of the series’ first issue) from 1975 and including a pair of “lost” stories. Other than a full-page ad for the Kamandi Challenge, there’s no editorial hand-holding, and even the first issue, which introduces Kamandi and sets his feet on the path of adventure, is printed after the story from Kamandi no. 32, which begins in the middle of the action (just as it was in the original double issue–the reprint is always the backup in such cases). I guess they assume that fans can look up all the context on the internet, or perhaps the real audience is fans like me who’ve ready everything at least once already.

kamandi_32

Of most interest is a pair of stories that were intended for Kamandi nos. 60 and 61, but which were abandoned when Kamandi was a victim of the “DC Implosion,” when rising production costs and a slump in sales led to DC management cutting a third of the publisher’s titles without warning. Finished but unused stories from all the cancelled titles were printed in-house in ashcan editions (low-quality, low-circulation black and white copies); in addition to piecemeal reprints, scans of those stories have circulated online for years, but this is the first time the Kamandi stories have seen print in an official publication.

I’m not sure what a new reader will make of these “rediscovered” stories, to be honest: Kirby had left the book he created some time before its cancellation, leaving it in other writers’ and artists’ hands. In typical Kirby fashion, he had breathlessly filled his issues with ideas and characters, leaving many loose threads and never dwelling on any one idea for longer than a few issues. Writers who followed (including Gerry Conway, Dennis O’Neil, and Jack C. Harris) introduced some ideas of their own, but also revisited and fleshed out many of Kirby’s original concepts, using Kirby’s map of “Earth After Disaster” (also included in the Special) and tying the continuity together (for example identifying Kamandi’s grandfather as OMAC, the “One Man Army Corps,” another orphaned Kirby creation) while crafting some longer, less episodic arcs.

kamandimap

The “new” stories form the end of one of those arcs, the quest of Kamandi and his friends to help stranded space alien Pyra (the final form of the energy being encountered in the first story reprinted in the Special) power up her spaceship by opening a “vortex” in a mysterious giant energy field in Australia, guarded by the “Kangarat Murder Club.” Kamandi, sucked into the Vortex by a mysterious voice, witnesses the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, and comes to understand that there are many versions of himself living different lives, including some in worlds that did not suffer the “Great Disaster.”

kamandi-pyra

Given a choice, Kamandi ultimately decides that he owes a duty to his friends, still in danger; before coming back, however, he is picked up by servants of the Sandman, the master of dreams, who mistake him for the Sandman’s friend Jed. (You see, Jed is one of the many alternate lives that Kamandi could have lived, had circumstances been different.) Kamandi’s encounter with the Sandman mostly serves to tee up an unused Kirby Sandman story in which Jed enlists the Sandman’s aid in proving to a miser that Santa Claus is real (this involves a trip through dreamland to the North Pole and a battle with a band of “Seal Men” who are unhappy about the Christmas presents they’ve received in the past). No, it doesn’t fit very well in the (admittedly fantastical) world of Kamandi, but the reprint was mostly to buy time as Harris and company geared up to take the book in a new direction, with Kamandi traveling into space and having yet more bizarre encounters. It was never to be. Nevertheless, it isn’t every day that a story sees the light of day (officially) nearly forty years after it was first meant to run.

kamandi-santa

In any case, this is all preamble: the real action starts next week, with the release of Kamandi Challenge no. 1, written by Dan DiDio and Dan Abnett with art by Dale Eaglesham, Keith Giffen, and Scott Koblish. I’m so excited, I’ve decided to accept this challenge: I’m going to review and discuss each issue as it comes out. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll join me.

Remake, Revisited

tarkin

A couple of years ago, writing about the 2004 sci-fi adventure film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I commented on the use of repurposed footage of Sir Laurence Olivier, long dead, to represent the film’s villain, Doctor Totenkopf:

At least since 1997, when scenes of the late Fred Astaire from Easter Parade and Royal Wedding were digitally modified to show him dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner for a series of commercials, it’s been possible to change the context of an actor’s appearance using the same technology that can put Jude Law in an airplane when he’s actually on a sound stage. The Dirt Devil ads, although licensed by Astaire’s widow, were controversial, and raised questions that have still not been settled: who owns an actor’s image, and are there limits to the uses to which it can be put? More importantly, does legal ownership give someone the right to tinker with a classic film? The battle lines are not always clearly drawn, as colorizing enthusiast Ted Turner became the patron of a classic movie channel that is widely respected for its thoughtful presentation of all kinds of film, and George Lucas, who spoke out against colorization in the 1980s, has defended his right to modify his own Star Wars movies because they’re “his” films.

I’m less offended by the use of Olivier’s image in Sky Captain than by Astaire in the Dirt Devil ads–or by the use of Audrey Hepburn’s image in Dove chocolate commercials just this year–of course: however pulpy it may be, Sky Captain is a work of art, not a commercial. But it is worth noting how far we have come, that such things are not only possible but routine. Connie Willis, in her 1995 novel Remake, depicted a future Hollywood dominated by digital effects, in which hardly any new movies were made, but instead older ones were remade by computer with digital copies of past stars (Back to the Future remade with River Phoenix, for example). We’re not quite to that point, but it hardly seems like science fiction, does it?

Some things have changed since I wrote those words: George Lucas, whom I referenced as the bad guy in ongoing debates about the legacy of his Star Wars films, sold Lucasfilm and his right to tinker with the franchise in 2012, and since then new owner Disney has begun a slate of new Star Wars films. The march of technological progress has also continued, and at the end of last year we saw a full-fledged digital recreation of actor Peter Cushing (dead since 1994) in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One, reprising Cushing’s role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original 1977 film. Although the filmmakers had their reasons to undertake this effort and appear to have not taken it lightly, I found it garish and disturbing; even a completely undetectable CGI job would raise questions.

Repurposed footage, as in Sky Captain, is one thing: in addition to the CGI Cushing, Rogue One also inserted unused footage of pilots in X-Wing cockpits from Star Wars‘ Death Star battle for its own climactic dogfight (again, Rogue One takes place immediately before A New Hope, so this was just one of many threads meant to connect the two stories). Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, but that didn’t bother me at all, and in fact I found it a clever touch (longtime readers will recall my love of stock footage and my general wonder at the magic of editing, though).

I should clarify that I’m not against computers, either: I love music created on synthesizers, and I enjoy computer-generated animation. I also respect that CGI has made practical filmmaking easier in many cases where the casual viewer wouldn’t even suspect that stray wires or other intrusions have been seamlessly erased.

But I think part of what I love about the art of film is its rearrangement of a tangible reality: I’ve written before about my love of animation for its ability to create a wholly new world through the illusion of movement, but even filmed live action involves quite a bit of assemblage–of cuts, of effects, of performances–in all but the most extreme cases of fly-on-the-wall documentary and avant-garde cinema. The end result is not exactly a mirror held up to the real world but a mosaic in which many facets of it are reflected, an arrangement of fragments that make up a whole picture.

In theory, the current digital toolbox is just an extension of all the image-making that has come before, but in reality it has its limits, and its frequent use as a cost-cutting measure is dispiriting. It’s all so literal: particularly in the case of Rogue One, there’s no real need to include Grand Moff Tarkin except for the desire to position this story right before Star Wars. In addition, it’s somewhat insulting in its implication that viewers wouldn’t accept a different actor in the role. I enjoyed Rogue One, I really did, but my enthusiasm flagged at the very end when it became clear just how closely it was meant to dovetail with the original Star Wars. I felt the same way at the end of Episode III, when George Lucas felt compelled to leave nothing unsaid, dumping information that was already (or would be, depending on the order in which one viewed the saga) revealed elegantly in the original trilogy. Both cases are typical, though, of a tendency to fill in any and all gaps in pop culture mythology, bowing to perceived demands from fans to reveal every detail, even when leaving something to viewers’ imaginations could have a greater impact.

The issue became more than academic in December with the sudden, tragic death of Carrie Fisher, who of course played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy and who had returned to her iconic role in the new trilogy that began with 2015’s Episode VII. (As it happens, computer imagery had also been used for a brief appearance of “young Leia” at the end of Rogue One.) Reportedly, Fisher had already filmed her scenes for Episode VIII, but her death puts her role in the last film of the trilogy in doubt. Disney issued a statement to calm speculation last week, assuring fans that they had no plans to create a digital Leia for Episode IX. Is the difference simply that Cushing has been dead long enough that no one is likely to be outraged by his digital doppelganger? Is it “too soon” to do the same with Fisher? In fact, isn’t the cyber-Cushing atypical precisely because he’s been gone for so long? In recent years, digital imagery of this sort has largely been used to make up for the loss of a star during filming (most notably Paul Walker in Furious 7). It’s likely that Fisher, aware of the direction technology is headed, had explicit directions in her will regarding the use of her image, but it’s also true that Leia is a more significant character than Tarkin, and she was expected to carry both more scenes and more dramatic moments. There are still practical limitations on how seamlessly an actor can be recreated digitally.

The Star Wars films have always been showcases for the latest in special effects. If Cushing’s appearance in Rogue One was meant to be a test case for a new technology, it wasn’t reassuring, for either this audience member or (I imagine) living actors who now not only have to compete against each other, but against their predecessors.

R.I.P. Peter Cushing, 1913-1994

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016

My 2016 in Film, Part Two: New Discoveries

telephonebook1

As I mentioned yesterday, I was more diligent this year in keeping track of my film viewing than I’ve been in recent years, allowing me to provide a more detailed retrospective of older films I watched. The non-2016 films listed below are listed in chronological order without ranking; they’re movies that thrilled me, sparked my imagination, or filled in gaps in my historical awareness. All are recommended, for curiosity value if nothing else.

justimagine

Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
This movie came to my attention as the source of several futuristic cityscapes inserted as background shots in the 1939 Buck Rogers serial. It’s a fascinating production in its own right, and a time capsule of 1930’s ideas about both science fiction and pre-Code musical comedy. New York in the far-off year 1980(!) is a gleaming mass of skyscrapers bound together by orderly lanes of sky traffic, but scientific progress has commanded a high price in individuality and freedom: people have numbers rather than names, and marriages are chosen by the state for optimal matches (the plot centers on the unapproved romance between J-21 and LN-18, a young Maureen O’Sullivan); married couples have children by selecting them from a sort of vending machine; food and drink are taken in pill form; and the planet Mars is full of beautiful, savage women given to elaborate dance routines. The comedy of 1930 is mostly personified by the “Svedish” accent shtick of El Brendel, who plays a man of 1930 revived by science. It’s all corny as hell, but endearingly so, and with its visual flair and brisk, busy plot, it’s worth seeing for fans of retro-futurism and Hollywood musicals alike.

bedelia

Bedelia (Lance Comfort, 1946)
Margaret Lockwood plays the title character, a recently remarried widow; during her honeymoon in Monte Carlo, her bland new husband strikes up a chance encounter with a painter who appears to know too much about her. When they return to England, the painter follows. As the mystery of Bedelia’s past (and the death of her first husband) emerges, her web of secrets threatens to come unraveled. The resulting film is a mixture of noirish suspense and doomed romance.

alligatorpeople

The Alligator People (Roy Del Ruth, 1959)
If Tennessee Williams wrote a monster movie, it might come out something like The Alligator People, a Southern Gothic tragedy of secrets and mad science. Lon Chaney Jr. as a crazy, gator-obsessed swamp rat is the icing on the cake.

telephonebook2

The Telephone Book (Nelson Lyon, 1971)
The strange odyssey of a young woman determined to track down the man who transported her with an obscene phone call, The Telephone Book is a surprisingly sweet portrayal of a time and place–the sexual revolution in New York City in the early 1970s–that are usually depicted in sleazier terms. Alice (Sarah Kennedy) is both naïve and alluring to the colorful characters she meets along the way, but once she finds the right “John Smith” (Norman Rose), he takes over the story with his commanding monologues, seducing the audience the same way he seduces the women (“I have over thirty regular clients,” he says) he calls. In writer-director Nelson Lyon’s vision, obscene phone calls aren’t just about sexual release, they are an implicit critique of a repressed society, but the film is too wrapped in layers of irony to present such a pat solution without complication. Intercut with “confessions” from reformed obscene callers and the doctors and police who deal with them, The Telephone Book is thrillingly visual for a film about talking, showing off a pop art sensibility that gripped me from the beginning. With its deadpan humor and emphasis on the power of words, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was one of Steve Martin’s favorite films.

possession

Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Sam Neill has the honor of appearing on both yesterday’s and today’s lists. Is Possession a movie about mental illness? Divorce? Nuclear war? All of the above? What the hell can you even say about this movie? It must be seen.

return2oz

Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
Unlike many of the movies listed here, I was aware of this movie and even remember when it was released, but for one reason or another (its reputation as a flop, or that it was too dark for its intended audience) I didn’t get around to it until this year. All the reasons not to watch it back then make it all the more interesting now, and in addition to its mixture of whimsy and dread (in many ways more faithful to L. Frank Baum’s creations than the 1939 classic), I was pleased to discover a forgotten trove of lavish production and practical effects at their pre-CGI 1980s peak.

split1989

Split (Chris Shaw, 1989)
At first, Starker (Timothy Dwight) appears to be just another homeless crackpot wandering the streets of Los Angeles, but it soon becomes clear that he’s a man of many disguises, secreting extra clothes in dumpsters around the city and taking on new personalities as he hides out in a diner and crashes an art gallery opening. His elaborate routines prevent an omnipresent surveillance network from tracking him: paranoid fantasy, or chilling glimpse of a future that was right around the corner in 1989? Featuring then-cutting edge computer graphics and a “handmade” (i.e., low budget) production style, Split is a quintessential cult film, proto-cyberpunk closer to A Scanner Darkly than Blade Runner.

howlsmovingcastle

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
I was able to see several Studio Ghibli films for the first time this year thanks to a film series at Wichita’s Palace Theatre (other first-time views included My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Princess Mononoke). Perhaps I’m choosing to highlight Howl’s Moving Castle above the rest simply because it doesn’t seem to be quite as well-loved as those others (all of which were great, of course). As lumpy as it is, its mixture of European fairy-tale fantasy (it’s based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones) and Japanese anime style makes it unique.

exit

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
A spiritual descendant of Orson Welles’ meta-documentary F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop begins with compulsive filmmaker Thierry Guetta’s quest to document and participate in the exploding street art scene in Paris and other cities. The first half of the film introduces a cast of daring cat burglar-like graffitists who go to great lengths to place their artwork on the sides of buildings, on streets and sidewalks, and on billboards, usually under cover of night, and the more inaccessible the better. Once Guetta is introduced to the elusive Banksy, the film takes a strange turn as Banksy takes over editing the project and Guetta assumes the name “Mr. Brainwash,” setting up his own ridiculously large art show. Whether the whole thing was a scheme for Guetta to cash in on the hot street art trend from the beginning, or (as some have claimed) a put-on designed to expose the hollowness of the art world, the film itself is as daring and exciting as the wall-climbing provocateurs who inspired it.

jimilazer

Lazer Us: The Legend of Jimi Lazer (Mann Munoz, 2013)
An odd mash-up of contemporary Christian film and rock-and-roll mythologizing, Lazer Us tells the story of Jimi Lazer, a would-be star who made a deal with the devil to become famous but walked away from it all and essentially disappeared. Now, twenty-seven years later, he has returned to set things right, reuniting the scattered members of his band and rescuing a mysterious young woman (named Zmoothie, in keeping with the film’s square idea of rock culture) from the same fate. The film is essentially a parable building on the “crossroads” legend like The Soldier’s Tale or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but throws in references to The Red Shoes, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Johnny Cash, and the “27 club,” not to mention the Biblical figure whose name is suggested by the awkward title. Edgy and “in your face” but ultimately safe, I have no idea whether this movie will lead young rockers to Jesus, but it’s worth seeing on its own quirky merits.