We don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good article!
Each year one of the highlights of the World Science Fiction Convention is the collection of film previews and presentations from the studios showing what their upcoming product will be. The presentations at this year's World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim were considerably better than it has been in previous years. In recent years the film presentations at Worldcons have become mostly just strings of trailers with little discussion. The presentation at Winnipeg two years ago had, if I remember correctly, only one real talk and that was for the film Judge Dredd. That presentation seemed to concentrate on what kind of guns were in the film. The representatives of the film company wanted everybody to know just what sort of firepower they would be seeing in the film. It struck me at the time that the people who were paying these people to come and talk to science fiction fans were the ones who needed to exercise their fire power. The presentations at L.A.con III were somewhat more like they used to be with more actual filmmakers rather than publicity people coming. Whether this reflects a genuine turnaround in attitudes or if it is merely a consequence of the convention being so near the seat of the film industry is unclear.
The presentations were spread over two days and I could attend only parts. I came in at the tail end of the Star Wars presentation but picked up the gist. Apparently Lucasfilm have invested another $10,000,000 on each of the three Star Wars films to renovate and revamp the films. Essentially they are following the experiment Columbia did with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, creating three "Special Editions" of the now classic science fantasy films in the trilogy. John Williams is writing new music, and several scenes are being enhanced. How does one enhance a scene already shot? The sort of thing that is being done is to add special effects. Mos Eisley spaceport will have new animals and aliens added. Jabba the Hut will appear in the first film. I am not sure where the money is going, and as much as I liked aspects of the trilogy it is hard to be enthusiastic about what is being done. There was a time when there was one version of a film and once you plunked down your admission fee that was the version you saw. There was no special edition of Gone With the Wind that could be seen for a separate admission fee. As far as I am concerned I have seen the best version of Star Wars. It was called Star Wars, not Star Wars: Chapter 4, A New Hope. I saw it in 1977. Three times. I might pay to see it again on the wide screen, but I would prefer that what I see is what I saw in 1977, not some specially jazzed-up version.
Men in Black is being made by Columbia Pictures and Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, for a release of June 6, 1997. The film is based on a comic book by the same name, and I was assured by someone behind me in the audience that it was a "fun" comic. The concept seems to be doing for fun a lot of what the upcoming TV series Dark Skies will be doing in a more serious and, yes, darker style. The Men in Black are super-secret team of government agents whose mission is to keep secret the news that we really have been invaded from outer space. In fact, there are many species of aliens in disguise living among us. The film stars Will Smith (no longer as intent on whipping ET's ass), Tommy Lee Jones, and Linda Fiorentino. The incomparable Rick Baker is creating a wide variety of creatures. I hope he has more up his sleeve than we have seen in the presentation. There the aliens were all variations on creepy- crawly earth animals, all crossed with humans. He has things that are like alligator-people, worm-people, and bug-people. The film definitely seems to have a whimsical air, but it certainly looks like it will be a quick throwaway entertainment. It is hard to get too excited right now about the idea that I will have two hours of possible fun next June.
Donotopia by Jim Gurney, released 1992, was a picture book about a fairy tale land where dinosaurs live together with-and in happy subjugation to-humans. There is not a whole lot of story to the book and what story there is to be filmed with live-action and digitized dinosaurs. Someone in the audience asked how the filmmakers plan to tell much of a story in such a conflict-less land as Donotopia. Any drama has to bring conflict to utopia. The dinosaurs are to be brought to life by much the same digital techniques as were used in Jurassic Park, though we are assured, much more advanced. A tape shown of a head of a dinosaur did seem very flexible but showed much more human emotion than would be realistic. This almost looks like what you would have for a live-action version of The Land Before Time. You get to see the emotions of the dinosaurs and to see them ridden by the children, all very cute no doubt. Not all of the special effects were so impressive, however. There was a scene of a city at the top of a waterfall. The waterfall was recognizable by shape as Niagara Falls and the city on the top was very obviously a matte painting. Someone in the audience asked if the human roles had yet been cast. No. Another asked if there would be pterodactyls. Apparently the production of Jurassic Park had problems doing a realistic-looking pterodactyl. The presenter promised a "dynamic pterodactyl." Frankly, I do not know what was so bad about the pterodactyl in the original King Kong, currently sixty-three years old. In so many ways the original King Kong proves repeatedly that it deserves its status as a "classic." There was no comment on what was actually the expected release date; the presenter would say only that it would be this century.
Tristar had a presentation for their Starship Troopers, to be released July 4, 1997. The presentation started with what was called a "bug test," a short, noisy film that Paul Verhoeven used to sell the concept of the film to Tristar. The scene they shot showed a soldier being pursued by two giant bug-like creatures something like eight or nine feet long. He kills one by emptying a machine gun into it, but the other gets him and stings him to death, then gives a bellow in most un-bug-like fashion. The audience seemed to like it quite a bit, but frankly I just did not think that it looked like the bugs were in the same scene as the human. It is the same problem that early stop-motion animation films had mixing images of humans and the animated creatures. For some reason they just do not look like they are really in the same scene. There was just something about the way it moved that did not look very realistic. Nevertheless we were told that the film would have "the next quantum leap in special effects." (For those who are unfamiliar with the particle physics, a quantum leap is the smallest possible leap, sort of the lowest common denominator of all possible energy leaps. It was an admission of surprising candor on the part of a presenter who would no doubt be surprised that he even made such an admission.)
In any case the presenter claimed that great care was being taken with the effects including having a main spaceship model eighteen feet long. However, to save some money the power-suits of the novel will not be used and there will be no "skinnies" in this version. (I have forgotten what skinnies are, and will probably not be reminded when I see the film.) Nevertheless this is said to be "one of the major science fiction films of 20th century." It will be an epic, with many locations (four or five different planets), lots of special effects, and everything with the possible exception of intelligence. Oh, yes, there was some disappointment that at least the initial release would be in 35mm, not 70mm. Most of the people in the cast will be familiar but from TV rather than other films. Casper Van Dien of series Freshman Dorm and Dangerous Women is cast as Johnny Rico. Indeed, the only names in the cast I recognized are Michael Ironside (usually a pretty good villain) and Clancy Brown (of Highlander, The Bride, and The Shawshank Redemption).
Of course the fans wanted to know was how close would the film be to the novel by Robert Heinlein. The original story is very much a tract for Heinlein's political point of view. It took four drafts of the script before the filmmakers thought they were ready to shoot. Supposedly Verhoeven has maintained the essence of Heinlein's right- wing political philosophy. Virginia Heinlein is said to "generally like the script." Not surprisingly for a film with a built-in right-wing philosophy, Basil Poledouris is doing the music. I am not sure why, but films scored by Poledouris seem to frequently have themes of nationalism and patriotism. Also the script will call for a lot of fire power. (One day FedEx did not deliver bullets needed for that day's shooting and Verhoeven complained "how can you make a film without bullets?" This is not the kind of question that instills me with a lot of confidence that I really want to see this film.) Computer graphics will be used extensively to show attacks of immense swarms of insect-like aliens. The film will visually open up the society and architecture of the bugs, and there will be many types of bugs.
That was the end of that presentation but in a room of about 1500 people less than 50 got up to leave. There were rumors of better than 1000 people outside wanting to get in for the next presentation, so there must have been a lot of people who were disappointed. It seems the next presentation was for the new darling of the science fiction community, Babylon 5. J. Michael Straczynski was going to be present to talk about his series. I had more or less decided myself that the next time that Straczynski showed up to an event I attended I would try to lead a standing ovation for him. I was a little late getting to my feet and had to join a standing ovation already in progress. I have to admit that I myself think that Babylon 5 is the best piece of science fiction drama that I can remember seeing. It certainly is difficult for me to think of any filmed story of higher quality. In large part that is because it is one long five-year story that develops in major ways every episode. That makes it certainly the most complex story that I have seen dramatized. It was hard to attend L.A.con III without realizing that Babylon 5 is popular with the fans in major ways. I never saw even Star Trek get such adulation. It may have at some point, but I was not there. I have never seen a World Science Fiction event other than the Masquerade and the Hugo Awards attract so high a proportion of the convention. The rumor is that Straczynski's presentation actually drew more people than the Hugos. More than a quarter of convention showed up and some estimates were closer to half. Straczynski was just beaming. He said "I told them. I said my people would come."
Straczynski's presentation was more entertaining than informative, however. In spite of the popularity of the series with the real fans, Straczynski is still having to bargain with Warner Brothers to get the series renewed a year at a time. He went on to say that in the upcoming episodes we would be going to Centauri Prime a lot, to Narn, and to Earth. One thing he promises by the end of the current season (in hiatus with five more episodes to show) you will know what Shadows want. (If you do not follow the series, just ignore this.) Asked "Will the PsiCorps get involved in war against Shadows?" he said probably not. Straczynski was asked if Talia will be back, and he said no. He wanted to have a screening of the remaining five episodes of the third season at the convention and Warner Brothers was originally amenable. But when they heard that there would be better than 2000 fans to see the episodes they made sounds he thought only a pterodactyl could make and told him no. What he did have for the audience was two extended music and video sequences and two reels of bloopers. One of the reels of bloopers gave some clues as to what plot was coming up. Though it if told more than that we would find out more about the Shadows, I didn't catch it. What he did suggest is that TNT might get some Babylon 5 movies. They might expand on the Mimbari War or what is happening on other worlds while the main story is unfolding but would not be crucial to the main story-line. A similar approach is taken with the Babylon 5 comic books. People who watch the weekly program will still get all of the main plot line.
Warner Brothers had a presentation that led off with Space Jam, which sounded like it had real possibilities-- mostly possibilities for being the most ridiculous idea I can remember for a film. The plot has Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan playing basketball to save the world from evil cartoon aliens. The film tries to hit more bases than Naughty Demon Ninja (no kidding, a real title!). Space Jam combines animation and live-action in what appears to be a dumbed-down version of Frederic Brown's "Arena." Many members of the NBA play themselves (and I still would have no idea who they are). Just why aliens would choose basketball as the test of humans is one of the many unanswered and uninteresting questions about the plot. In any case Warner recognizes the popularity of science fiction, cartoon characters, and basketball and have combined them in mixture that sounds about as potent as crab meat and hot fudge.
Stephen King's The Shining, already made as a film by no less a talent than Stanley Kubrick, will be re-made for TV as a six-hour mini-series.
At the time Kubrick made his version there was some critical acclaim for the film. My personal survey of viewers of the film said that there was a very high correlation between people who had not read the book and people who liked the film. That works both ways. It means if you have not read the book, it is probably a pretty good film. If you have read the book you will very likely be disappointed in the film. In my view, what went wrong with the Kubrick film was a mistaken strategy. Kubrick said that the wanted to make a really original horror film, so he carefully avoided seeing other horror films to avoid being influenced by them. In most genres, that would work; in horror it was a big mistake. Kubrick decided on what scared him and brought that to the screen. What he never realized is that he had latched onto Standard Archetypal Nightmare #4: the implacable stalker. Yes, that is a big part of the novel in any case, but he toned down the horror ideas and most of what was really creative about the novel. He concentrated on the central nightmare, which unfortunately The Shining had in common with the Friday the 13th films, the Halloween films, and endless slasher-at-the-pajama-party opuses. The film will be shot in the very hotel that inspired the original novel by Stephen King.
The new version is a six-hour mini-series to star Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay, with the same director, Mike Garris, and much of the same production as The Stand. Weber seems to be best known for the TV show Wings though I know him as the title character in Jeffrey and Jonathan Harker from Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Weber may well be a good choice, but I have some reservations on De Mornay's acting talent.
The presentation had Garris and Weber present talking about the upcoming film. Garris was very respectful of Kubrick but said that he did not like that Kubrick told his own story rather than what was in the King novel. He thinks he can do a better job by sticking much closer to the novel. (Responding to a question he said the film will have the topiary, one of the nicer horror touches from the book, and one that Kubrick dropped.) It was said that ABC, for whom the film is being made, is anxious to get several more King projects, but King is saying that he wants to wait and see how well they do The Shining. That means that ABC is pressuring Garris to be accurate to the book and make the kind of film that King would like. It may be just hype, but it makes a nice story and could be an optimistic sign. Asked about his career, Garris said he does not want to be typecast as making King films and little else. A similar question had Weber saying that he was trained as serious actor and would like to go back to Broadway. In the meantime he was looking for different roles from what he has done before, and certainly Jack Torrance from The Shining would stretch him in new directions. (He did a good impression of Jack Nicholson as well as one of Sean Connery to the delight of the audience.) Weber did say that the theater does not pay well and he has mouths to feed. Garris says that the six-hour format gives him the opportunity for a slow ramp-up, and he is not looking for tension jumps but for a serious horror film.
The next presentation was for the new Superman animated TV series with filmmakers Paul Dini and Alan Burnett. Probably by the time this article is published the show will have already premiered. The series is perhaps trading off of the popularity of the current animated Batman series, but the artwork seemed inferior. Perhaps it is only that the dark images of Batman come across better in the simple art style than do those of Superman. The title hero is drawn very simply with a silly-looking big square jaw. His voice is not what we are used to and it somewhat higher than other actors playing the role. The square jaw seems to call for a deeper voice than we get. After a pilot, the series will play on Saturday mornings at 10AM. Part of the presentation was to show a segment of the pilot episode. I cannot say I was greatly impressed. One thing that bothered me was that here was the famous Superman and thugs were wasting their bullets shooting at him. A great deal of the clip we saw was just this pointless shooting. When I got a chance I asked why they would be so stupid and was told that supposedly the thugs did not know Superman who had been recently revealed to the world. (So whatever happened to the Superboy part of the story? Perhaps that is a parallel universe.) Even so the thugs were very slow to realize that their bullets were not having any effect on the Man of Steel. I asked if as the series progressed at least villains would realize that shooting guns at Superman was pointless and they said that the villains would definitely get smarter as the show progressed. In this reframing the characters are somewhat different than they were in the days I read the comic. Superman is more vulnerable than he has been traditionally, Lex Luthor is a captain of industry, with two-thirds of Metropolis working for him whether they know it or not. The case of voices includes George Dzundza as Perry White and Dana Delaney as Lois Lane. Batman will be included in the stories and will be done with the same voices as in the Batman animated series.
There was just a quick word that there would be a new Superman feature film coming about the death of Superman.
There were more teasers than real information about Batman and Robin and Mars Attacks. For the Batman film, it will be directed by Joel Schumacher, who directed Batman Forever. It seems to have a lot spent on the cast. George Clooney will be the third Batman in a series of four films so far. Chris O'Donnell returns as Robin. Arnold Schwarzenegger is Mr. Freeze, Alicia Silverstone is Batgirl, Uma Thurman is Poison Ivy. Excitement unbounded. Mars Attacks will do for laughs what Independence Day tried to do seriously. It has a bigger cast than Batman including Jack Nicholson, Rod Steiger, Joe Don Baker, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, and Sylvia Sidney. The director is Tim Burton.
There was a presentation on a new projected TV series called Dark Skies. There are some TV pilots that are interesting but not very polished. That was certainly true of Babylon 5's pilot. This one was just about the opposite. It has one really interesting idea and the rest is predictable action series. The presenters brought with them what was basically the pilot for the series, but we were warned that it would be heavily revised before airing. The concept is that in 1961 a young man comes to Washington DC to work as a government functionary. Things do not go quite as planned. Against his will he is pulled onto a super-secret government team investigating an alien invasion that has already taken place. The result is a lot like The Invaders meets The X-Files. What makes Dark Skies seem interesting is that is written like a literary "secret history." That is, it is full of historic events that should be in most of the viewers' memories, but the major events of the last four decades of the century all take on new meaning in the light of the knowledge that there are aliens among us. The most interesting aspect is that the series will actually converge on its own present. The final episode will be December 31, 1999 and take place on December 31, 1999. This secret history of the recent past may make the series more of a winner than might otherwise seem.
To what am I looking forward after the film presentations? It is hard to tell but Starship Troopers looks like it could be good. On TV Dark Skies and The Shining look like they deserve a chance. However, Babylon 5 is certainly the front-runner as most promising, but that is based more on the series' track record. It has gotten better each season and there is no sign of a turnaround. Space Jam is at the other end of the spectrum as the least impressive, and I think it would have to win Oscars before I would be interested in seeing it. I do not think there is much chance of that.