It happened at the movies… (2)

28 Days Later and Millions – these films couldn’t be much more different in terms of what they’re about, yet they’re so obviously directed by the same person… I missed the former at the cinema due to middling reviews (and probably also the agonised moans of zombie aficionados all over the internet). Then, after I’d already pretty much forgotten about the film, a friend lent it to me on DVD. I didn’t expect much when I popped the disk into the player, but I was very positively surprised to find one of the most atmospheric, effecive, thrilling and beautifully paced films I’d seen that year. Yes, the ending is a mess, but it can’t ruin what the first 75% of the movie has built up. The shots of a deserted London alone deserve to become one of the iconic images of British cinema.

Millions, too, was an unexpected joy. The film is wildly inventive and balances its sentimental elements (that feel truthful and are never overplayed) with a sly sense of humour. It’s on a very short list of Christmas films that don’t make me feel like throwing up my eggnog all over the prezzies. And it’s got two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen on film.

Add to these two cinematic surprises directed by Danny Boyle that I’d seen a marvellous stage adaptation of Alex Garland’s evocative novel The Coma, which you can find a trailer for here. Garland also wrote the script for 28 Days Later, so when I heard that the two of them had teamed up again for Sunshine, a sci-fi movie, I was excited.

After seeing the film at the cinema, I was disappointed. I’d wanted to like, even love, Sunshine, and again, the first 3/4 gave me a lot of material to love. If you submit to its slow buildup of tension, it’s one of the strongest films of a space mission going horribly wrong since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then it attempts to become a metaphysical thriller – but it slips and becomes a somewhat more restrained (but not much better) take on Event Horizon. When I read the script afterward, I realised what they were going for, but unfortunately they didn’t quite manage. On a larger scale, it was 28 Days Later all over, but moer disappointing, since this time I expected something great to begin with.

Still, do the final 30-40 minutes destroy what came before? They almost did on my first viewing; nevertheless, the preceding scenes are what stayed with me. Boyle and Garland succeed at impressing something of the immensity of the sun, and of the astronauts’ task, on us. This isn’t Armageddon or Deep Impact, it’s not heroic Bruce Willis going off to save the world to the strains of Aerosmith. These are normal people who’ve been given a task that, if you think about it too much, will drive you mad.

And while the film’s sort-of-villain verbalises the metaphysical implications less than successfully, the visuals of the dying sun actually convey some of what he says. Staring into the annihilating fires is perhaps the closest you can get to looking at the face of God. It’s interesting, though, that Garland, an atheist, and Boyle, more of a doubtful theist, read their film, and its metaphysical dimension, in completely different ways: the movie is wise not to come down on any one side of the God issue. It just sits there, like the dying sun – and if you stare at it for too long, it may just burn off your face. Now didn’t your mother warn you not to sit too close to the telly?

P.S.: Here’s the film’s international trailer. I do apologise, though, for the criminally overused orchestral piece nicked from Requiem for a Dream. (How anyone can think it’s a good idea to use music from that film to evoke ‘epic-ness’ is beyond me.)

Loose baggy monsters. And they suck out your brain, too.

I used to love reading fantasy and science fiction literature. Or rather, I used to love the idea of sci-fi and fantasy. My parents never got that I enjoyed stories that were out of this world, so to speak. (One of my defining childhood moments: My uncle sends us Star Wars: A New Hope on Betamax tape, taped from Channel 4. We watch it, and I love it. My parents think it’s a waste of time and tape over it the next day. It’s a miracle I didn’t go Michael Myers on them. And by that I mean Halloween Michael Myers, not the “Groovy, baby!” kind.) I loved The Lord of the Rings, Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books.

Randalf the First 

And then I read too much fantasy. I watched too much sci-fi. And so much of it is poorly written, derivative dribble, disposable junk. I was fed up with bearded, grumpy wizards trying very hard not to be Gandalf, I was sick and tired of chosen ones and ancient prophecies and evils sweeping the land. I had enough of names that looked like the deformed offspring of multiple apostrophes and the bottom of the bag of letters at the end of a game of Scrabble.

Randalf the Second

It was Joss Whedon’s Firefly that reinstated my belief in good science-fiction. Neil Gaiman largely did the same for fantasy, but I didn’t like his last couple of books that much – apart from which he tends to write metafiction rather than straight fantasy (whatever that may be). There’s always a self-aware, postmodern twinkle in his authorial eye, it seems.

Yesterday I finished China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. Arguably it’s fantasy, although it’s set in a universe that is closer to our world than to Middle-Earth or the books of Terry Brooks or Robert Jordan. There are no elves, dwarves or dragons (nor thinly veiled copies of them). Magic is a technology, essentially. And New Crobuzon, the monstrous city in which the story takes place, is reminiscent of Victorian London much more than of the pastoral fantasies or the hackneyed medieval towns of your common garden variety of fantasy.

What sets Perdido Street Station apart from those other fantasies is that it feels real. Not epic. Not mythological. Real. It’s fantastic enough to serve as escapist fare, but it’s not the sanitised, Disneyfied kingdom of Far, Far Away. What also sets it apart, and this may surprise some of those who have read it, is the economy of Miéville’s writing. Yes, the book is long – it’s over 800 pages long, in fact – but in the end I felt that no character, no scene, no piece of description didn’t serve a function. So often, bad or mediocre fantasy novels are filled with pages and pages of clumsily handled world creation, which feels like the author trying to show off his or her imagination, more often than not:

“Hey, look at this sentient bird-fish-dinosaur creature I’ve just come up with! And the deities it worships! And the weird, elaborate rituals in which the sentient bird-fish-dinosaur sacrifices his firstborn! And now we’ll never hear anything about them again. Because I’m so inventive, I don’t even have to use my bird-fish-dinosaur for anything else than showing off my imagination!”

Not so in Perdido Street Station. The book is wildly inventive, but everything is there for a reason. Yet the novel feels organic rather than constructed. And I never felt the sort of laziness you get in generic fantasy, namely that the author is simply ticking off all the things the readership wants: Old mentor figure: check. Orphaned hero-to-be: check. Evil lord, comes with his own minions: check. Instead, we have a novel that doesn’t have a clear-cut antagonist. The protagonists aren’t heroes, even if they end up being heroic, more as a way of staying alive than anything else. Some of the novel is genuinely unsettling. And it’s a deeply, densely political world – not the way George Lucas tried to bring in politics in his Star Wars prequels, but infinitely more believably and fascinatingly.

Perdido Street Station 

I don’t want to go on at great length (already having done so, of course), but my suggestion is this: if you used to love fantasy but then grew tired of it, or if you believe that you “outgrew” the genre – give Miéville a try. Check out Perdido Street Street Station. And if you don’t like it, write me… so I can tell you how and why you’re just, like, so wrong.