Saturday, January 16, 2016

Rodney Dangerfield and the Galactic Overmind

Back to School: written by Rodney Dangerfield, Rich Eustis, Harold Ramis, PJ Torokvei, William Porter, Steven Kampmann, Dennis Snee, and Greg Fields; directed by Alan Metter; starring Rodney Dangerfield (Thornton Melon), Sally Kellerman (Dr. Turner), Burt Young (Lou), Keith Gordon (Jason Melon), Robert Downey Jr. (Derek Lutz), and Ned Beatty (Dean Martin) (1986): Rodney Dangerfield's star turn here made this a box-office success. It's a surprisingly sweet-hearted comedy, utterly improbable and probably somewhat perplexing from a woman's standpoint (why is Dangerfield's character so attractive to women?). 

Ignore the boilerplate Hollywood sexism, though, and one can derive a lot of enjoyment out of the one-liners, the improbable situations, the physical comedy, the bizarre comic stylings of supporting actors such as Robert Downey Jr. and Sam Kinison, Dangerfield's pop-eyed charm, and Dangerfield's surprisingly moving reading of Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." As Dangerfield's son, Keith Gordon does a nicer version of his damned nerd in Christine; a very young Terry Farrell, 8 years away from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, plays his love interest. Recommended.

Galaxy Quest (1999): written by David Howard and Robert Gordon; directed by Dean Parisot; starring Tim Allen (Jason Nesmith), Sigourney Weaver (Gwen DeMarco), Alan Rickman (Alexander Dane), Tony Shaloub (Fred Kwan), Sam Rockwell (Guy Fleegman), Daryl Mitchell (Tommy Webber), and Enrico Colantoni (Mathesar): The best Star Trek movie that isn't a Star Trek movie ever made. Galaxy Quest runs with an idea that's actually been a staple of fan fiction since fan fiction came into existence in the 1970's because of Star Trek's devoted fans. What if the Star Trek actors found themselves on the real Enterprise on a real mission? 

In this case, the show is Galaxy Quest, an early 1980's sf show that riffs on both the original Trek and the Next Generation. The plot's enough of a romp that I won't spoil any of it. The actors are all terrific. Tim Allen is great as the self-absorbed but ultimately good-hearted William Shatner stand-in, Alan Rickman kills as a classically trained British actor forever typecast as Allen's logical second-in-command, and Sigourney Weaver gets a lot of laughs out of a character whose sole job on the original show was to repeat what the computer said (shades of 'Hailing frequencies open, Captain'). The marvelous Enrico Colantoni (Person of Interest, Flashpoint) appears here in a rare comic role as the leader of the aliens who seek the help of the Galaxy Quest crew. 

The visual effects are both superb and often hilarious, and the movie itself has a genuine affection for all things nerdy and geeky and science fictiony. Sam Rockwell supplies a sort of semi-hysterical running commentary on the action throughout as a former Redshirt who gets pulled into the action, while Tony Shaloub plays this show's version of Scotty as a blissed-out pothead. Highly recommended.

Childhood's End (2015): adapted by Matthew Graham from the 1951 novel by Arthur C. Clarke; directed by Nick Hurran; starring Mike Vogel (Ricky Stormgren), Osy Ikhile (Milo), Daisy Betts (Ellie Stormgren), and Charles Dance (Karellen): This SyFy Network miniseries does a far better job than most theatrical releases at adapting a classic science-fiction novel. Its problems, though, are all self-inflicted. 

Changes made to the original add melodrama and angst at the cost of the intellectual aspects of the production. Indeed, at no point does the miniseries explicitly state several things that are crucial to understanding Arthur C. Clarke's unblinking look at one of the possible paths human evolution might take. If you've seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, then be aware you're in the same territory of thought as that work from Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. 

Mike Vogel does his best as a central character who has been Americanized, ruralized, and inserted into all three parts of the miniseries: the novel, also divided into three parts, takes place over several hundred years while the main action of the miniseries occupies about 20 years, with one 85-year time jump near the end that is also in the novel. Only one individual character, the alien Karellen from the race humanity knows as the Overlords, appears in all three of the parts of the novel.

For the most part, this is better science fiction than, say, The Martian (which I really liked). Childhood's End deals with gigantic concepts and Sublime abysses of time and space, and it doesn't change the novel's stunner of an ending. The melodrama, though, doesn't add anything to the narrative. More importantly, having several characters other than the alien Overlord Karellen (beautifully voiced by Charles Dance) appear throughout the narrative cuts against the novel's emphasis on humanity as a collective protagonist over the course of the novel's events, and not a collection of individuals. Recommended.

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