24 June 2009

Exposé - Dracula: The Dark Prince

In the previous article I made a passing reference to the role of marketing in the proliferation of dubious terminology and outright misrepresentation surrounding film. As the cover of Dracula: The Dark Prince demonstrates, however, the practice of misleading the audience extends far deeper than a mere catchphrase. Fortunately, this is one of those occasions where this translates into a positive outcome. Nothing even remotely resembling the red-eyed, many-fanged monstrosity on the cover is featured in the film itself, nor is there any guarantee that the version you encounter will bear the same awkward title. Indeed, my initial encounter with this little-known production occurred under the guise of Vlad the Impaler, which is by far the most accurate reflection of its actual qualities. In addition to these two pseudonyms, it can also apparently be found under the variants Dark Prince: The Legend of Dracula and Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula, the last of which is perhaps the most galling. The reason I burden you with this extraneous information is that, despite the near-total deficiency of good sense displayed on the cover, what lies beneath is a surprisingly competent and engaging film, and it seems a shame that it might be consigned to untimely death solely on the basis of its ghastly exterior.

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia
For those who can recall the prologue from Bram Stoker's Dracula, the major plot points in Dracula: The Dark Prince hold little in the way of surprise. Where the two treatments do greatly diverge is in regard to the focus and interpretation of events concerning the historical Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, known as Dracula during his reign, and given the posthumous appellation of Vlad the Impaler. Beginning in media res, the first scene appears to deliver precisely the sort of Byronic figure that has become synonymous with the name Dracula in the aftermath of the famous Gothic novel by Bram Stoker. With an almost ghoulishly pale complexion, raven-black hair streaming back from a widow's peak, and an ensemble consisting largely of black leather, this is a figure as close to the collective popular idea of Dracula as it is possible to conceive. As we follow his progress through a brief mission of vengeance culminating in an order to impale a vassal prince that has been installed during his absence from the country each moment only seems to verify the preconceptions any modern viewer will inevitably bring to this film. At this point, however, the film immediately halts its forward progress and launches into an extended retrospective, conducted under the guise of an inquisition meant to determine whether the Orthodox church will ratify an earlier endorsement of the repatriated Prince Vlad, or else excommunicate him, thereby denying any hope of regaining the throne. While it may seem contrived, at first, this plot device actually proves to be the single most inspired decision in the film, allowing it to pursue some genuinely insightful avenues on the path to deconstructing our notions surrounding Dracula.

Before the Orthodox inquisition
Having presented a vision of protagonist so in tune to our prejudiced imaginations, the subsequent interrogation serves a double function, not only affording the character a chance to justify his actions to the audience, but also effectively putting our preconceptions on trial. The question of where the legend of Dracula ends and the historical figure begins is presented as being a matter as pertinent in his own time as it is today, and the role played by the council of priests allows Dracula himself to answer our uncertainties. Is it true that he once invited a group of fellow noblemen to a lavish feast, only to denounce and execute them for conspiring in his father's death? Did he actually pursue a policy of strict corporal punishment, condemning thieves and other petty criminals to impalement and other horrific deaths? What rapidly becomes clear, however, is the extent to which wild speculation feeds into the very basis of Dracula's consummate use of dissemination and intimidation to achieve goals beyond what his meagre strength in arms could ever hope to gain. With the superior resources of the papist Hungarian king on one side, and a vast army of Ottoman Turks on the other, the Prince of Wallachia is forced to negotiate a perilous situation whereby his own country is essentially the battleground between these rival superpowers.

Romania, then Wallachia
As we examine his tumultuous history from his distant memories of father Vlad II, through his years as a captive in the Sultan's camp, and then his ongoing efforts to liberate his homeland from foreign influence Dracula offers an elusive commentary, explaining his motivations where doing so will aid his cause, allowing them to remain murky and unresolved where the perpetuation of his legendary status does the same. The result is a surprisingly insightful meditation upon the nature of legends themselves, the circumstances in which they are likely to propagate and grow, and the potential this represents for those who can actively shape their evolution. This is driven home particularly by a number of clever elements that anticipate Dracula's immortal fame as a vampire. These include a suggestion that he dipped his bread in the blood of his victims; an incident that sees a rumour of his death spread throughout the country, resulting in the idea that he had risen anew when the truth was confirmed; a reference to his father having suffered a hereditary sensitivity to light that steadily worsened with age; and, last of all, his excommunication from the Orthodox church. It would have been a mistake to focus too intently upon any one these subtle hints, and thereby write off the Dracula myth as a simple matter of cause and effect, and the film casually puts them out there as little offering to the observant, along with the quiet assertion that these are the details, the minute grains from which all legends sprout. This finally culminates in a short epilogue scene, wherein a spectral Dracula taunts his betrayer with the suggestion that the circumstances of his death have granted him eternal life, a martyred fiend who shall forever inhabit the twin halls of history and infamy.

Tepes - The Impaler
Underlying all these elements is the issue of objective truth. Is it realistic, or indeed even possible, to expect a true portrait of Dracula when so much of the rumour and intrigue surrounding this figure is due to his own program of spreading misinformation? For this reason, any notion that the value of the production should be construed as a direct function of its biographical and historical accuracy should be resisted. It is a simple truth, though generally unacknowledged, that our appraisal of any given film is largely a product of our expectations. As such, those who approach Dracula: The Dark Prince anticipating an epic historical drama in the modern style will be disappointed. There is no doubt that the life of Prince Vlad III of Wallachia would provide a compelling basis for such a treatment, but this production does not attempt to overreach itself in such a way. With only two visual effects shots, all the battles are conveyed off-screen save for a few small skirmishes, aligning film much more with the tradition of historical stage drama, particularly that of the renaissance period with the likes of Marlowe and Shakespeare. Indeed, the influence of renaissance drama as a whole is palpable throughout the film, with the storyline reflecting elements of Hamlet and Tamburlaine the Great in relation to Dracula, while his wife Lidia takes cues from her equivalents in Othello and Macbeth. Precedent has overwhelmingly demonstrated the extent to which good stage drama lends itself to successful translation onto film, but the reverse is only rarely true. Dracula: The Dark Prince is one of those rare exceptions, and those who approach it expecting a lavish stage production are more likely to appreciate its various merits.

Casualties of war

Screen -

Francis Ford Coppola

Perhaps the most faithful adaptation of the novel Dracula, despite some significant deviations of its own. Its relevance here derives from the historical details inserted as a back-story to the Gothic fictional tale, the main points of which essentially summarise the events of Dracula: The Dark Prince.

Ben Chanan

The second  in a three-part series, this documentary delves into contemporary reports of the enigmatic ruler of Wallachia. Through a combination of dramatic recreation and commentary from experts and historians, the reign of Prince Vlad III and his tendency toward extreme forms of punishment are recreated with lavish flair. The story of three monks who displeased the volatile prince is used as a window to his motivations and the world that shaped the man.

Script -

The Prince
Niccolò Machiavelli

A treatise on the nature of politics and governance intended to address the tumultuous period of internecine conflict between various Italian and surrounding principalities during the sixteenth century. At a time when the right to rule and exert political influence was heavily entwined with the concept of divine justice and pre-ordination, Machiavelli was almost unanimously denounced for his suggestion that the manipulation of power should be examined and defined solely in relation to its social reality, disregarding any theological preconceptions of right or wrong behaviour. An amazingly astute and insightful examination of the dynamics of power and social manipulation.

The Complete Plays
Christopher Marlowe

A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Marlowe produced some of the most widely acclaimed tragedies to grace the renaissance theatre. At times less disciplined and more impulsive than the works of his famous peer, these plays nevertheless manage to produce scenes which are as powerful they are unexpected. With their focus on the dispensation of power and its consequences, the plays Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I & II, and Edward the Second have the most immediate relevance.

Sim -

A series of point-and-click adventure games that follow on from the famous novel, with the intention of forming a complete trilogy. While much of the cast and storyline are taken from this fictional premise, there is also a considerable degree of visual influence from the film Bram Stoker's Dracula, in addition to a significant amount of historical information regarding the real Vlad III of Wallachia, his brother Radu, and the political intrigue surrounding their interaction with the Turkish Sultan. As such, the series tends more toward a genuine merging of the two Dracula personae: fictional ghoul and historical warlord.

16 June 2009

Exposition - Reboot the World

When the first pseudo-announcements began to circulate concerning Predators going into pre-production there was a degree of consternation among fans of the existing Predator films. Part of this was simple incredulity that anyone should wish to invest in the project, considering the dubious quality of a script that had been in open circulation for almost fifteen years. On more objective grounds, the greatest field of speculation involved the ambiguous, somewhat conflicting statements being made in regard to the nature of the project as a whole, and its intended relationship with the existing films. The problem, it seemed, stemmed from the possible range of interpretation denoted through the repetitive use of a single term, and that term was 'reboot'.

Was the 1987 classic going to be pressed into the increasingly populous ranks of films slated for a remake? Was it going to retell the story of an elite military rescue team in the jungles of Central America with an extraterrestrial hunter on their tail, or would it follow some new premise, intended to override or somehow erase the existing films? Was it simply going be a new, disconnected episode in an ongoing series, as the second film had been to the first? Subsequent comments would resolve the matter somewhat by including the term 'sequel', among other nebulous qualifications, but this still raises the question of what, if anything, the term 'reboot' actually denotes.

Resumption or replacement?
As with any new medium, the evolution of film and filming techniques during the past century gave rise to a new technical jargon, a large part of which has also migrated into popular usage. In some instances, existing terms have accrued alternate or additional connotations to what they signified prior to the invention of cinema, some examples being 'cut', 'frame', and indeed 'film' itself. Others, like 'slow-motion', 'close-up', and 'freeze-frame', are almost entirely owing to a common familiarity with the technique of film-making. The advent of the DVD format in the past two decades, or perhaps merely coinciding with its introduction, has been the subject of yet another proliferation in film-centric jargon. This time, however, the impetus has largely been driven by marketing concerns. Some of the more prominent examples are terms such as 'director's cut', 'special edition', 'original vision', and 'definitive version', whose actual meaning is difficult to define, owing to a culture of liberal interpretation or outright misuse. 

Even amidst such a pervasive glossary of dubious provenance, the term 'reboot' somehow seems more vacuous and prone to confuse. In this instance, the burden does not seem to rest on the usual field of post-production marketing, however, for I've yet to encounter the term emblazoned in bold type on a DVD case. Indeed, as the Predators example readily attests, use of the term appears to be restricted primarily to the relatively brief period between first announcement and the beginning of actual pre-production, and therefore most likely to spring from the mouths of over-enthusiastic producers and other studio representatives, or else the media outlets reporting on these early scoops. And while identifying the source of this recent phenomenon is a valuable point, it still brings us no closer to understanding what the term actually denotes.

By far the greatest impediment in this pursuit is that there simply doesn't appear to be any consensus, and certainly nothing in the way of consistent application. Aside from the technical definition, the first time I encountered the term 'reboot' was in reference to Batman Begins. In this particular context the insinuation was more or less understood to convey the fact that this instalment was not a sequel or in any way related to the series of four films that began with Batman in 1989 and culminated with Batman & Robin. As such, the provenance of the term presumes some link with its use in the field of computing and electronics, where a 'reboot' is understood to be a means of returning a system or device to a default state, removing any undesirable deviations that may have taken place during its operation. Even at this point the analogy is less than satisfying, while in the wake of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight the situation has continued to deteriorate.

Confusion ensues
What degree of difference, for instance, delineates a reboot from a remake? If a break in narrative continuity is the determining factor, couldn't the 1989 version of Batman be considered a reboot of the earlier production starring Adam West? Is it enough to call something a reboot simply because it reinvigorates a franchise that has long lain dormant? Would that make the recent Battlestar Galactica series a reboot, despite the fact that it maintains a tenuous continuity with the original series? Is it actually possible for a reboot to function as a sequel or prequel as well, and what would that make Caprica? Surely the only justification for a new term entering the lexicon is that it can impart a clear and concise understanding of a concept that current jargon cannot adequately convey. Any addition that is not a step toward efficiency, either in terms of the concept or its communication, is necessarily a step toward redundancy, at best, if not outright confusion.

The very fact that we need to ask these questions suggests that the term 'reboot' utterly fails to satisfy these criteria. Unless industry or the media are prepared to assert a unanimous definition, therefore, there is little ground on which anyone can defend its continued use. If there are adequate terms to describe the different scenarios outlined above, they should be used; if not, then clearly there is a deficiency in the lexicon, which can only be addressed with concise and meaningful candidates. As it stands, the term 'reboot' is patently inadequate for the task.


In a timely reinforcement of the conclusions I reached two years ago, ongoing Predator series producer John Davis recently had this to say in an interview conducted with Collider:
Collider: You started with Predator and I really dug the reboot you did with Robert Rodriguez. How successful was that for the studio in terms of maybe making another one? 
Davis: You know, those Predator movies... Tom Rothman said this to me, “Man, they all seem to make money.” I get a big check every year on my net points off of the original Predator. You know how hard it is to get net points on a studio movie, right? It was hugely profitable. It far exceeded its revenue on DVD than in theaters by three or four times. 
Collider: You’re talking about the original, right?

Davis: Yes. I talked to Arnold about rebooting Predator and doing something in terms of that. I think in terms of right now, it needs to rest for a couple of years.  I can’t see why if we can’t be clever we can’t reinvent it again.

Collider: I actually really dug it. I thought Rodriguez did a great job with it.

Davis: Yeah. It was really fun.

Collider: It was really good. That’s why as a fan I’d love to see another one.

Davis: Yeah. He changed the setting. He put it on another planet.  You have to keep changing the setting.  You have to find a clever way to do it.  If we were going to do it with Arnold; it was like, “Does it make sense to go back and to put him with a young team?” So maybe it’s 20 years later, you have retired, and you are the one person who has survived one of these encounters. Is that a reboot in the fact that you are in it with a group of young guys? Is that a reboot? You just have to figure out a way to reboot it. Rodriguez rebooted it. It’s all in the planet. The sequel to the first one rebooted it. We should’ve had Arnold in the movie. The deal broke down over $250,000, which is a shame.  But it was moved from the jungle to the city. You have to create a freshness about it. When we did Alien vs. Predator we kind of rebooted it because we put the two pieces together.  You just have to give it enough time to come up with a new freshness.
So there you have it: a media representative and an over-enthusiastic producer throwing the term 'reboot' around with such abandon that it's clear that neither has a firm idea of what they, let alone the other means by it. And apparently every iteration in the Predator series has been a reboot, so it isn't even correct to think of it as a series, but rather an ongoing process of reiteration. Once again, I renew my call for this term to be struck from the lexicon.

8 June 2009

Futureshock - Reality in the Terminator Universe

The recent release of Terminator: Salvation – the fourth instalment in the long-running film franchise – has produced a flurry of articles from various professional websites attempting to compile a complete picture of the various time-travelling escapades that have been a central element of this fictional universe from the very beginning. While none of these have been completely free from error, all have done a fairly proficient job of imparting the major points in what has become an increasingly complex web of alternate timelines, circular causalities, and apparent paradoxes. What has consistently undermined the merits of these articles, however, is the underlying grasp of how the series construes the more fundamental nature of reality, which is most apparent when these articles attempt to represent the timeline visually. The following is an attempt to address this deficiency, relying not upon any real scientific understanding of the nature of time or physics, but instead drawing exclusively upon what has been presented within the series itself.

Forget everything you know about the future

Perhaps the greatest inhibiting factor against the appreciation of reality as the Terminator series presents it are the central conceits of that other great time-spanning Hollywood saga, the Back to the Future series. As they stand, the three current instalments in this popular franchise may be good, light-hearted entertainment, but the way they present the various effects of time-travel are largely nonsensical. An obvious example is found in Back to the Future: Part III, where
Marty McFly the protagonist in the series discovers a tombstone commemorating the death of Doc his friend, and inventor of the time machine   in 1885. The remainder of the film chronicles their efforts to find out how this occurred in order to prevent it from happening. One area where the film leaves credibility behind involves a photograph that Marty carries with him, featuring the tombstone, which is used as confirmation that Doc's out-of-timely death does not occur; once the precipitating events are dodged, we see to tombstone miraculously fade out of the image, which means that someone apparently felt the need to photograph a featureless patch of ground. If the tombstone can miraculously fade out of existence, shouldn't the photograph do the same? This is just one of many examples of how the issue of logical causality is glossed over, the most persistent of which is the fact that, no matter what changes occur to the timeline – even to the point where Marty himself is in imminent danger of fading out of existence – somehow the personal recollection of his own past is never altered. The reason I point this out is not to cast aspersions on the Back to the Future films, but to remove this influential depiction of time-travel from our consideration.

“One possible future – from your point of view...”
~ Kyle Reese, The Terminator

Forget about people or objects fading out of existence. Reality in the Terminator universe is not some vast VHS tape that you can record over at various points without erasing the end. The first hint we are given of this comes from the quotation above, which is uttered by Kyle Reese – a soldier sent back from 2029 – in the original film, The Terminator. Particular emphasis should be placed on the term 'possible future' and the implications of 'your point of view'. Together, the suggestion is clearly that the perception of reality from an individual who has lived in a purely linear fashion – in this case the protagonist, Sarah Connor – are fundamentally different from those of an individual who has come back from a point in the future – both Kyle Reese and the T-800 terminator. To the former, the period between 1984 and 2029 is a limitless horizon of potential realisation, to the latter a single, definite sequence of events. As such, while use of the term 'timeline' is not technically incorrect in either case, it does promote a misleading connotation. There certainly is a linear connection between past, present, and future, but this is not to say that the sequence is necessarily conforms to a straight line, nor indeed that there is only one. In fact, in order to adequately portray the complex potential realities demonstrated in the Terminator series, the only viable model would resemble a branching, segmented tree.

Ants, Acorns, and Oak Trees

The key to understanding this conceptual model lies in a rather simple analogy. Imagine that you are an ant standing next to an acorn. You know that this acorn will someday grow into an oak tree – limbs branching out and out, terminating with each individual leaf – but the idea that you would be able to predict precisely where any one, let alone all, of these junctions will occur is extremely unlikely. At this point the acorn seems to contain the potential to assume any one of an endless variety of eventual forms. Not only that, but your actions one way or another may hold the potential to influence its growth, the more so if the entire hive should exert their combined energy in pursuit of a common outcome. This is how the future appears to Sarah Connor, or indeed to all of us, proceeding through time in a steady, forward motion.

Now imagine that you are an ant perched high upon a single leaf in a mature oak tree. The idea that the tree might not have grown to assume its current shape
with every little junction leading up to your current vantage – seems far less uncertain simply because, looking down, you can easily trace a continuous path all the way to the ground. If you had the means of propulsion, could might easily leave this particular extremity behind and travel down past several different junctions with other twigs and branches without ever having to change direction. This is how the past appears to us, but also how the period between 1984 and 2029 appears to Kyle Reese.

This image below represents the fundamental difference between moving forward and backward through time: the left showing the normal, forward progression, the right the inverting effect of time-travel.

Clearly, if you begin at a single fixed point toward the bottom of each model, the further toward the top you progress, the greater the potential divergence between the relative positions. The model on the left affords a greater number of potential avenues on the way to myriad, equally probable destinations, while the one on the right has only one prevailing course, making the route a certainty.

This is the nature of reality in the Terminator universe, and this is the basic conceptual framework upon which the various timetravels within it fundamentally operate. The reality we are privy to throughout the four-film saga is not a straight line, but a single path along a tree that also features infinite other branches sprouting out of an infinite number of junctions along the way. The fact that those, such as Kyle Reese, who hail from a given point in the future can look back upon a single past is the result of an illusion, arising from the fact that their recollection is necessarily oblivious to the other potential realities that could, and do in fact, exist as well.

“The future is not set – there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” 

In effect, each of the first three Terminator films depicts the meeting of one party travelling forward into the realm of indefinite potential futures, and another sent back from one of those potential futures to a definite point in their history, either with the goal of enacting some change or in order to prevent it. An inherent aspect of this process, building upon what we've established so far, is the realisation that no matter how much tampering in the past may be minimised, it is highly improbable that a traveller hailing from one future could ever see precisely that same reality play out again. This is due to the fact that any potential reality is constantly being shaped by the complex universal interactions that are occurring in any given instant. In this respect, any sequence of events and the attempt to incorporate them into a branching model is a gross over-simplification. The model is right, but the sheer frequency, scale, and complexity of everything that goes into shaping the future would be impossible for any depiction to ever adequately convey.

For the sake of demonstration, however, let's imagine there being only two possible outcomes to any significant juncture in how reality may unfold, and that there were only ten such junctures between 1984 and the point from which Kyle Reese is sent back in 2029. Using the inverted tree model, no difficulty is incurred sending him to the correct point in the past. Once he arrives in 1984, however, and resumes the normal progression of everyday life, the ten junctures between then and 2029 now offer no less than 1,024 possible iterations of the future, giving him an objective 1/1024 chance of ever seeing the future, as he knows, it realised in identical form. Subjectively, of course, he could attempt to influence the progression of events in favour of reaching such an outcome, but this would require a detailed knowledge of every juncture and its significance, not to mention the fact that there are many more people who have no interest in aiming for such a future, in addition to a T-800 deployed specifically to make sure it doesn't.

Taking into consideration all the points we've examined thus far, it is now possible to actually map the various divergences in the Terminator timeline.

What you see depicted here is:

  • The path we are privy to throughout all current films, influenced by:
  • The potential future from which Kyle Reese and the T-800 hail.
  • The potential future from which the T-800 and T-1000 hail.
  • The potential future from which the T-850 and T-X hail.
  • The potential futures of which nothing is known.
“You only postponed it. Judgment Day is inevitable.” 

Few lines of dialogue have caused as much contention and consternation amongst fans of the Terminator series as the one above. The ostensible reason for this is that it seems to openly contradict the emphasis on being able to change the future espoused in the first two films. Just as with the differing perceptions between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, however, this apparent fatalism is a matter of perspective. In fact, Terminator 3 has received a lot of unjust condemnation for rules that were established in the first two films, but which it is popularly thought to have broken. Actually there is no such contradiction, with the third instalment merely continuing the monumental change that was depicted in Terminator 2, where Judgement Day was seemingly averted. The eventuality which sees it merely postponed until 2004 is not some immutable force of predestination – which the word 'inevitable' is mistakenly interpreted as meaning – but the actual application of individual free will.

The future is shaped by human endeavour, to the extent that our physical and mental resources allow. It just happens to be the case that a substantial collective will has been unwittingly set to the task of bringing about our destruction during the period between the end of the second film and the beginning of the third.  This only reinforces the fact that it is not only the high-profile time-travelling events of the series that cause deviations in the unfurling of reality, but the  influence of our day-to-day lives; such incursions from the potential futures simply throw the discrepancies between the now and the to-be into the greatest relief. As of the latest instalment, we are aware of at least three alternative futures, represented by each of the time-travelling insurgents from the first three films. and each interaction with with these insurgents actually served to bring about. What we have seen in the present, and now being played out in latest film, is the result of each interaction throwing the timeline into a new juncture, making four distinct courses in total.

Out of these four, the first two alternatives appear to have some degree of congruity, with the same being true of alternative three and the reality we continue to follow throughout, as we see in the various details laid out below:

Alternative 1 – Kyle Reese, T-800
  • John Connor is conceived sometime after 1984
  • Judgement Day occurs in 1997
  • Kyle Reese born c.2004
  • SkyNET is upon the verge of defeat in 2029
  • SkyNET deploys a T-800 to 1984
  • John Connor sends Kyle Reese to 1984
  • Events after 2029 unknown
Alternative 2 – T-800, T-1000
  • John Connor is conceived in 1984
  • Judgement Day occurs in 1997
  • Kyle Reese born c.2004
  • SkyNET is upon the verge of defeat in 2029
  • SkyNET deploys a T-1000 to c.1995
  • John Connor sends a T-800 to c.1995
  • Events after 2029 unknown
Alternative 3 – T-850, T-X
  • John Connor is conceived in 1984
  • Cyberdyne lab is destroyed c.1995
  • Sarah Connor dies from cancer c.1997
  • Judgement Day occurs in 2004
  • Robert/Kate Brewster and others join resistance
  • Kyle Reese born c.2004
  • John Connor and Kate Brewster 'marry' sometime before 2032
  • John Connor terminated c.2032
  • SkyNET deploys a T-X to 2004
  • Kate Connor sends a T-850 to 2004
  • Events after 2032 unknown
Current Timeline – Sarah Connor, John Connor
  • John Connor is conceived in 1984
  • Cyberdyne lab is destroyed c.1995
  • Sarah Connor dies from cancer c.1997
  • Marcus Wright donates his body to science in 2003
  • Robert Brewster and others terminated in 2004
  • Judgement Day occurs in 2004
  • Kate Brewster and remaining others join resistance
  • Kyle Reese born c.2004
  • John Connor and Kate Brewster marry sometime before 2018
  • Marcus Wright emerges as experimental terminator in 2018
  • Events after 2018 currently unknown
“This isn't the future my mother warned me about...” 
~ John Connor, Terminator: Salvation

According to the reality portrayed in the Terminator series, all four of these outcomes are 'real' in the sense that they exist and play out with no objective precedence. The films, on the other hand, obviously place a subjective emphasis on the timeline which follows a particular incarnation of John Connor. This means that, as of Terminator: Salvation, we have a timeline that shares key remnants of at least three other divergent realities. And this is before we even begin to contemplate the myriad small and large deviations to be found in the television series, novels, comics, and videogames.

As Sarah Connor eloquently puts it, while staring along a stretch of dead-straight road ~

“God, you can go crazy thinking about all this.”

1 June 2009

Exposition - The Blame is Afoot

Many of you have doubtless reached the same conclusion I have, which is that the normal processes of common sense and rational thought don't seem to fully apply within the film industry. Matters of individual taste and personal opinion notwithstanding, it is no great challenge to compile an objective catalogue of irrefutable lapses in judgement. This extends from the relatively minute, such as specific dialogue and individual scenes, through matters of increasing magnitude, such as casting decisions and narrative flaws, to the very top, where we cannot help but question the very existence of the project as a whole. Indeed, the film industry has always been rife with instances of questionable judgement, where our natural inclination to wonder precisely what they were thinking yields no rational or satisfying answer. While we might recognise this as an unwelcome truth, however, this should not be taken as grounds to complacently accept it.

The recent release of a trailer for the Guy Ritchie adaptation of Sherlock Holmes presents it as a case-study in precisely this sort of faulty reasoning. And while my ire is perhaps more keen in regard to this particular example, owing to the fact that I am a keen devotee of the original works by Arthur Conan Doyle, I am resolved not to let this article devolve into the pointless nit-picking of a wronged fan. Such an engagement would, in fact, obscure the much deeper and more resounding argument to be made against projects of this nature. In order to reach this point we should begin by looking at how the powers-that-be might conceivably believe that such a project would make good sense in the first place. What this doesn't take into account, however, is the fact that there are, in the broadest terms, two distinctly different incarnations of Sherlock Holmes. For those who have little or no direct knowledge of the character in literature or film, the Holmes archetype is nevertheless such a pervasive figure in popular culture as to leave many unsure whether he is indeed fictional or an actual historical personage. Falling into the opposing category are those with some degree of familiarity with the source material, either gleaned directly from the original literature, or pieced together through the multitude of film and television adaptations, whose level of fidelity varies significantly. To the former group, Sherlock Holmes is a memorable quip and a mental image, while to the latter he is a more rounded character, with a defined personality and other distinctive traits. Both groups with instantly recognise the name, but there is a vast discrepancy in terms of how each will respond to departure from the established material.

With any adaptation there comes a point where straying too far from the source material begins to raise questions about the validity of maintaining any tenuous link at all. A familiar name or two sown throughout an utterly unrecognisable field does not an adaptation make, and in so doing the project is effectively denied an opportunity to stand on its own merits. As a fan of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories I would happily subject myself to The Adventures of Silas Harper: Consulting Detective and Amateur Pugilist Extraordinaire, and probably enjoy it as much as I did the popular resurrection of The Mummy, but not if the project attempts to pass itself off as Sherlock Holmes, with no justification other than for the sake of expedient marketing.An immediate point of attraction for any project dealing with Sherlock Holmes is the instant, albeit vague, recognition carried by the name. As far as fictional celebrities are concerned, the extent to which this particular character has infiltrated the common cultural milieu is almost without parallel, with the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein perhaps coming closest. Mention the name to someone in any setting and you are almost certain to evoke the mental image of a hawkish man in a chequered tan cloak and deerstalker hat, and a misquotation so ubiquitous that I need not even set it down here. In terms of fostering awareness for your project, Sherlock Holmes is a dream come true for any marketing department: it doesn't require a set up or explanation, simply because it commands immediate recognition.

In short, the majority will probably not notice, the purists will resent it, and those who fall somewhere in between will make up their mind based on the individual merits of the film. And this is where we encounter the inherent flaw in this kind of approach, for in employing a figure so widely recognised, it is those to whom the name signifies the most that are also most likely to resent the radical departures. To argue that recognition of the name itself somehow offsets this outcome is a total nonsense. The first Indiana Jones might have easily passed itself off as a 'reinterpretation' or 'modernisation' of the established Allan Quatermain character, in order to bolster the level of recognition inherent in the name. The fact that this wasn't done means that dedicated Quatermain fans are afforded sufficient leeway to approach the film as a simple homage, rather than incur the backlash of being seen as a rival or usurper of the name.

Ultimately, this kind of approach boils down to a rather cynical and blatantly condescending attitude toward the common audience, assuming that people will only give credence to an established name and are therefore incapable of discerning the value of an original premise based on its own merits. Indiana Jones and countless other examples indicate otherwise.