Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Top Ten Sci-Fi Films That Never Existed

10. The "Real" Alien 3
1992, Directed by, oh, let's say Ridley Scott

The most excited I've ever been to see a movie ever in my life was the moment I saw the first Alien 3 "teaser" trailer in 1991 (teasers are shot well before the movie itself is finished filming). It's the one that promised the aliens were coming to freaking Earth.

No, I didn't dream it. They really did show that trailer (they even have a copy of it HERE), sending it to theaters before they had even started production, before they had even picked a script. Visions of awesomeness flashed through my head, a Blade Runner-ish Earth with sprawling, filthy buildings, huge flashing billboards with giant Asian women on them, beat-up flying cars whooshing by and steam always rising from the streets for some reason. And then the aliens start breeding in the miles of dank sewers that tangle under the bustling streets, the creatures boiling up out of manholes by the hundreds, cut to pieces by Marines with pulse rifles and maybe in the climax the Army has to nuke the city...

"This movie can't possibly not be awesome!" I said to my little friend John at the time. "This is gonna make Aliens look like ET! I hope it's directed by the guy who will in the future direct Fight Club!"

A year and thirty fucking screenplays later (including this rejected script by William Gibson) they came up with the movie that killed the franchise, squatted over the face of the corpse and farted. They had stumbled through concept after concept, built sets, tore them down, filmed scenes, threw them away, fired directors, fired crew. When Sigourney Weaver held out for more money, they wrote scripts without her, when she came back, they did rewrites to cram her back into the story again. Very late in the game they brought in a young director named David Fincher -- whose only experience was with Madonna videos -- to start shooting after most of the budget had already been scattered to the wind like parade confetti.

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What squeezed out the other end of the development's digestive tract was a movie that, just seconds in, meaninglessly kills off the three characters Ripley spent the last movie saving. The hundreds of aliens were replaced with one small alien dog. The vast futuristic landscape was replaced by one dim, dirty building. The frantic gunfights were replaced by scenes of identical bald cast members staring quietly at the wall. The main character commits suicide at the end.

So What happened?

Budget, mostly. My Alien 3 would have cost twice what Aliens did, with its sprawling sets and dozens of animatronic creatures and costumes and explosions and CGI that was, at the time, still very expensive. At the end of all that you wind up with an R-rated sci-fi film with almost no chance of making back its budget (Aliens only made about $85 million, 150 if you adjust for inflation).

So they settled for this stripped-down version on a budget of $50 million (about 20% of which actually winds up on screen) filmed in an abandoned lead factory. Then they watched as fanboys like me piled into the theater on opening day anyway. Again, this is why they're rich film executives and I live in my car.

9. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
2005, directed by not Garth Jennings

There was a movie that perfectly captured the Douglas Adams experience, the combination of bitter sarcasm and sharp imagination, the droll British wit and whale-exploding slapstick that infused his novels. And that movie was Shaun of the Dead.

That movie was not, unfortunately, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a movie that floated around Hollywood for about 20 years before it finally appeared in theaters as a flat, lifeless, americanized lump that was mostly hated by people who liked the book and loathed by people who hated the book.

Why? It wasn't funny. Forget the plot elements they left out -- you can't squeeze an entire novel into a 120-page screenplay. We'd have forgiven all of that if the movie had made us laugh, if it would have captured that Adams sense of humor. You knew from the opening musical sequence with the dolphins; the type of person who would find the singing animals hilarious is not the type of person who finds joy in Adams' pages of dark, bitter irony.

So What happened?

Comedy is hard. Really freaking hard. I know, I tried it once. And in a movie there are a thousand little things that can ruin it -- facial expressions, bad timing, the wrong edit. It takes an expert. HHGTTG, meanwhile, was directed by a man (Garth Jennings) who had never previously directed a movie. Or a TV show. Or anything having sets or actors reading lines. He had no connection to anything having to do with comedy anywhere on his resume.

And HHGTTG would have been a tall order for anybody, since most of the comedy was in the narrative language and descriptions, two things that don't come across on film.

No, Hitchhiker's needed a sharp eye, not somebody who would have Mos Def stiffly reading passages from the book, but who would take the Douglas Adams attitude and run with it, to take the movie we were expecting and give us something ten times as insane.

Tim Burton maybe could have done it (though I wouldn't have thought so until Willy Wonka), and Terry Gilliam as well. But from the budget of the movie, I'm guessing they couldn't afford either one of those guys.

Me, I would have settled for Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright. Hell, he was even on set (playing a bit role as one of Deep Thought's technicians). They should have grabbed him and sat him in the director's chair. At least he had done a TV show at that point.

8-6. Star Wars Episodes VII, VIII and IX
1987 - 1993, Directed by George Lucas and others

Everyone remembers the exact moment when they realized that their Phanom Menace sandwich was filled with shit. For me, it was the scene on Tatooine where Qui-Gon is talking and Jar Jar is snatching fruit from the bowl with his tongue, eating like an insect. Annoyed, Qui-Gon reaches out and snatches his tongue out of the air and holds it in his fist while he talks. That was when I realized I was watching a cartoon.

Worse, it was a cartoon I already knew the ending to. Let's examine what went wrong:

A. The decision to do prequels. It's not just that we knew how the story ended when we walked into the theater (me, I would have killed off Obi-Wan in Episode II just to fuck with you). It's that this isn't the interesting part of the saga. Adolf Hitler's childhood wasn't interesting. So Darth Vader used to be a wooden, whining kid. Fascinating. The pre-rebellion galaxy was embroiled in a series of boring bureaucratic disputes. Great, George. Tell me more!

He should have made the sequels, damn it. And he should have done them right away, when he had the original cast. With a good sequel, you can expand your universe, introduce new characters, explore more of the existing ones, take what we know and push it in radical new directions. With a prequel, all that imagination is devoted to devising ways to shoehorn the existing characters into the old story, to pretend they all knew each other back then. The universe gets smaller as we find out that every page of history contains the same dozen names. The fantastic, magical universe starts to seem like something some guy just sat down and wrote.

B. The CGI scourge. Quick, spot the difference between this:

And this:

The first one looks like they're actually standing on something (Jabba's flying barge thing). See the scratches? The beat-up paint? Nobody notices that during the movie but it's a subconscious little hint that this vehicle has been used. It has a history. It's a real object. The second shot, you look at it and expect little power-ups to be floating around. You look for your control pad.

Thank you, CGI. Thank you for letting the director project the most expansive reaches of his imagination into a bright, neon digital rendering that doesn't for one second look like a universe you could live in. Don't get me wrong, when I saw that space battle in Revenge of the Sith I did turn to my friend and say, "damn, those are some phat-ass effects!" Which was nice, but when I saw the barge scene from Return of the Jedi 20 years ago, all I could think was, "I wonder how Luke is going to get out of this one!"

But it's worse than that. Have you guys seen other films with Heyden Christiansen? He's not a bad actor. And Natalie Portman? Nominated for an Oscar. But put them in the Star Wars prequels and they turn into mannequins. Why?

Because it's almost impossible to act in front of a green screen, often interacting with characters also represented by a green screen. Yes, it was hard for Harrison Ford to look at a fellow actor wearing a rubber mask and act like he's really an alien, to stand on the set of a spaceship and pretend he's really on a spaceship. But there's a method to it, zoning out the cameras and crew and believing in your character. Actors learn how to do that in acting school, to treat the animatronic puppet as a real alien.

What they do not learn how to do is stand alone in an empty room with green walls, without even the puppet to react to, while the director shouts, "okay, you've landed on a fantastic world full of alien life forms! The man comes to help you off the space ship... look! There's a huge creature to your right! React to him! React! No, further to your right! No, he's taller than that! Look up! You're amazed! Put amazement on your face!"

I couldn't do it. Neither could Samuel L. Jackson.

C. George Lucas got older. Ask yourself: how did the same people who gathered in naked, stoned crowds for this...

...grow up to make this show a hit:

It's almost like they lost something along the way, isn't it? Well, so did George Lucas.

Here's something unpleasant: all art comes from demons. Not real demons, in most cases, but demons of angst and horrible memories and sexual frustration. It works like this: you get beat up in school because, while the cool kids are putting bruises on each other on the football field, you were sitting on the steps writing your science fiction stories. That fear and tension that winds itself around your soul like steel wire as you try nervously to sneak out of the locker room before the big kids give you a Wedgie and a Tittie-Twister and a Dirty Sanchez, all that builds up into adulthood. Art is how you let it out.

It was an angsty bastard who introduced Han Solo to the world by showing him ruthlessly blowing the face off a mafia bill collector, shooting him from under the table and then cooly walking away and paying his tab. Lucas revealed Obi-Wan Kenobi to us by showing him ending a bar fight by slicing a guy's arm off. Lucas didn't flinch at the thought of blowing up the peaceful planet of Alderaan and killing billions. None of this was gratuitous; it told us the story, told us what the stakes were.

But angst drives it. Now, if the artist is lucky, that angst goes away. If the audience is lucky, it doesn't. The art dies with the angst, you see. By middle age the artist finds himself watching his old films and trying to make ones that sort of look the same, or trying to make films his children can watch. It gets bland. You can start to see this happening with Eminem. As he gets his life together his songs sound more and more like remixes and covers of the old ones. He'll never do Bonnie & Clyde again.

So what happened to the sequels?

Millions of fans and one movie studio and one toy company were all clamoring for them. But I'm going to guess that after devoting ten years to the project, Lucas and everybody else involved was just sick to death of Star Wars.

But still... say he had taken a year off, then come back and signed Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (what were the latter two even doing at the time?) and started filming a new trilogy in 1984. The original cast, before the age of CGI, but with all of the incredible advances ILM had made in model work and motion tracking and all that crap.

I don't know what the plot would have been, I like to think the 1984 George Lucas would have had some good ideas. I can say this, I would have killed Luke at the end of Episode VIII. Let the little bastards chew on that for three years.

5. A Doom that isn't a huge turd
2005, Directed by Paul Verhoeven or John Carpenter

Look, I don't expect a Doom movie to be freaking Citizen Kane. It's okay for the dialogue to be simple and stupid and I don't care if you cast a wrestler as the lead character. This is going to be a "B" movie.

But a "B" movie doesn't have to be shitty. You hear that, Hollywood? You can make an unapologetic action movie and it can still be good. You see, in the world of video games, Doom isn't a "B" title. It's top of the line, the games always made by top developers with top budgets. Don't give me a knockoff with a cut-rate action director (any Andrzej Bartkowiak fans out there?) with a creature effects budget less than that of the Doom 3 video game.

No, Doom needs a Paul Verhoeven. He's the guy who took a screenplay called Robocop, a concept so cheesy it could easily have played like Inspector Gadget and turned in a relentlessly brutal, bloody film that originally earned an "X" Rating from the MPAA.

Yeah, that's a guy's arm being blown off, dark ropes of gore stringing out of the wound. THAT'S what Doom should have been, "B" movie horror and violence done with imagination. Have you seen Verhoeven's Starship Troopers? Imagine that film without all the political bullshit that nobody involved understood anyway.

And if you can't get Verhoeven, how about John Carpenter? That moment in The Thing when the severed head grows legs and crawls away like a spider...

...imagine that director given a blank check to portray hordes of creatures literally from the bowels of Hell. We're talking about a hard R-rated Doom that will have adults sleeping with a nightlight for the next month.

So what happened?

The Chicago Cubs, that's what. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. Why? Because Cub fans sell out Wrigley Field every game, regardless of how bad the team is. Management makes money regardless of whether or not the team is winning, so why bother?

Likewise, studios think video game fans will pile into the theater on opening weekend regardless of whether or not any effort was put into the film. Will that change? Come ask me after I've seen the Peter Jackson-produced Halo.

4. Starcraft
2000, directed by James Cameron

So imagine the aliens from Aliens had evolved so they could breed gigantic, flying aliens that could shoot like gunships or spew clouds of poison. There are other creatures that can burrow underground and fire spikes up to impale enemy troops and giant bugs the size of tanks with tusks that can rip through steel.

And they're engaged in a war with a futuristic humanity, who fights back with soldiers in mechanized armor and walking tanks two stories tall...

...and both of them are at war with an even more advanced alien race, a cultured, intelligent species as far above humans on the cultural scale as the humans are above the bugs.

That's Starcraft, the PC strategy game that's sold an astonishing nine million copies since 1998. In the hands of the right director (and a screenwriter who can create memorable characters to follow) you could have the next Star Wars, a universe with an almost infinite number of stories to tell.

At a time when every damned thing gets made into a movie, from 70's TV shows to Bloodrayne, are you telling me nobody thought to try to make a Starcraft movie? And what exactly has James Cameron been doing in the eight years since Titanic?

So what happened?

"You want to make a movie about a strategy game? What, with little pieces you move around like Risk? What? No, I did play the copy you gave me. It's a game about mineral farming, right? And I'm looking at your proposed budget on this... did you accidentally put an extra zero on the end there? Jim, are you on the drugs again?"

3. Snow Crash
Directed by someone like Terry Gilliam

"Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live,devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad."

That's the sort of thing Neal Stephenson writes in his hacker novel Snow Crash, a fascinating, horrifically violent semi-satire where the hero/protagonist of the story is named Hiro Protagonist.

This book coined the terms "Avatar" and "Metaverse" in 1992, when the World Wide Web was in its embryonic stage. It may still be the only story that really grasped what a spasming ball of crazy a computerized virtual world would be.

"You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a talking penis in the metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the street and you'll see all of these."

The hero is an expert swordsman, America has dissolved into hundreds of independent states to the point that a stroll down the street takes you through half a dozen different legal systems, the finale takes place aboard a gigantic floating complex where a million refugees have strapped makeshift boats to an abandoned aircraft carrier.

It's so cinematic that I didn't just desperately want a movie to be made from it, I was always shocked they didn't make one.

So what happened?

I have a theory. There are two eras for the Hacker Movie genre. Pre-Matrix, hacker movies were always horrible and always box office poison (see Hackers and Johnny Mnemonic) that only appealed to a tiny segment of geeks. After The Matrix in 1999, every hacker movie was unfairly compared to The Matrix (incuding that film's own sequels, but we'll get to that in a moment).

In neither era could you get the money to make a movie like Snow Crash. If you want your $150 million monster to get made, it'd had better be something with such universal appeal that even grandmothers will go see it. No hacker movie will have that and Snow Crash least of all:

"It's the worst thing he's ever seen. Lepers roasting dogs on spits over tubs of flaming kerosene. Street people pushing wheelbarrows piled high with dripping clots of million and billion dollar bills that they have raked up out of storm sewers. Enormous road kills so big that they could only be human beings, smeared out into chunky swaths a block long."

Then again, when I was watching Predator I didn't think two members of its cast would become governors, either. So you never know.

1 - 2. The Matrix Prequel and ONE Sequel
2003, directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski

Yes, The Matrix was always conceived as a trilogy. Specifically, the Wachowskis originally pitched a prequel (showing the machines' war with humanity) and a sequel (showing the downfall of The Matrix).

No, I don't know how you could cover that much history (the robot revolution didn't happen overnight) in just one prequel film. Maybe you tell it from a robot's point of view, one who lived through the whole thing, from uprising to all-out war.

One way or another, I'm pretty sure it could have been awesome.

Instead, they made no prequel and devoted both films to the sequel. Which sounded cool, presuming they had enough story for two movies. Which they didn't.

That huge highway chase, the climax of Reloaded that ate up a third of the movie's budget? What was the point of that chase?

To save the keymaker so he could let Neo into the Architect's office. Once in, Neo finds out two things:

A. That if Neo tries to save Trinity, the Matrix will self-destruct;

B. That Zion is actually 700 years old, because the machines have destroyed it over and over again.

After Neo leaves, neither of those two things are ever mentioned again. He saves Trinity, the Matrix doesn't destruct. Neo being just the latest in a long line of "ones" to come along has no effect on anything. In the A - B - C of a storyline, that whole chain of events amounted to one of the hyphens between letters.

It was just there to fill time.

So what happened?

As for the prequel, with its worldwide war between humans and the citizens of robotdom, that goes back to what I said in my Star Wars entry. If the second Matrix film is a prequel, it can't have any of the stars in it. Trying to work Morpheus and Trinity and Neo into such a film would have been an exercise in retardation. But the stars would have been a studio prerequisite before they'd approve the gigantic budget for the thing.

No, the scraps of prequel were written into some of the The Animatrix shorts instead, and the lone sequel was streeeeetched into two films.

Here's the thing. The prequel, it'll never happen. We'll have to be happy with The Second Renaissance. But the sequel... I'm pretty sure if you give me Reloaded and Revolutions and a knife, I can cut you a lone, 100-minute Matrix sequel that would flatten your balls.

Maybe I'll go do that now.

Source: Pointless Waste of Time

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