Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Writing Prompt (or One Last Go Around with the Admiral)

Sometimes, after you've been spending almost three quarters of a year writing a weekly blog, your mind draws a blank and you're not sure what to write about that week. That's when I think back to my writing class in college and pull out the age old tool of writers everywhere: the writing prompt. It's a time-tested way of getting words down on paper (or screen, in this case).

The prompt: what are the 5 movies that have informed the person you have become today? What about those movies affected your development? Discuss...

1. Star Wars (natch)

Yeah, this was always going to be Star Wars. It is the pinnacle of science fiction film making, and everything after it was downhill from there. Well, not really. But it was a turning point in not only how audiences saw science fiction, but what audiences came to expect from the "summer blockbuster": high action, humor, and lots of explosions. Dialog, story, and plot were almost after-thoughts (and in some instances, they really were). But, soon enough, filmmakers would realize that you couldn't always just wow the audience with flashy visuals. You needed some heart in the story and characters to make the audience car. Lucas was able to make us care about a farm boy from a back-water planet. About a couple of Laurel and Hardy robots. About a princess that was more kick-butt than damsel-in-distress. About a lovable rouge with a shady past and his Wookiee companion. When they failed, we were concerned. When they succeeded, we cheered. And we came back for more (and more, and more).

This was the movie that got me excited for science fiction. It had all of the right elements, in the right ratios, at the right time in my life to burrow its way into my head and take hold of my heart. I've sought out all available background information on the movie, I've followed the universe that Lucas created since the first day I saw it, and whether I like it or not, it is the measure by which I've compared all science fiction since. It made me a fan of science fiction and the processes behind its creation, and I am forever changed because of it.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Even though Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece came out nearly a decade before Star Wars, I did not see it for the first time until I was in high school. This has less to do with the quality of the movie and more to do with the fact that for most of my young life, it was "too old" for me to be concerned with. I'm glad that I was old enough to appreciate it for what it was when I finally did watch it for the first time. Clarke and Kubrick weren't giving us a space opera like the Saturday morning Flash Gordon serials that served as the inspiration for Star Wars. They were giving us a view of the future of the human race in space, with an element of the fantastic added to give us an amazing story. 

While the movie did further my interest in the techniques of miniature model makers and filming, what I credit 2001 with is deepening my interest in classical music. When a movie is being edited, movie makers will often use a temporary soundtrack to establish the timing of scenes. The composer then takes the edited film, strips the temp soundtrack, and begins composing their own. Kubrick used classical pieces from the likes of Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Adam Khachaturian, and György Ligeti for his temp track. The film relies heavily on the score, as there are long sequences where there is little to no dialogue in the film. Kubrick had hired composer Alex North to score the movie. North had worked with Kubrick on both Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove. However, in postproduction, Kubrick decided to abandon North's score in favor of the temp score he had originally used. The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately for Alex North, he did not find out about Kubrick's decision until he saw the premiere of the film. Ouch.

3. Ghostbusters

Growing up, among my many and varied interests, was a keen interest in the paranormal. I was particularly interested in UFOs and cryptids, but I also enjoyed a good ghost story. Of course, this was before the time of "reality" shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures had put paranormal investigation into the public eye, but I did try and catch any episode of Unsolved Mysteries that had something to do with a spook, specter, or ghost.

When Ghostbusters came out, it ticked off a number of boxes in my list of interests: it was about ghosts and paranormal investigation, it had spectacular visual effects, and it had a great cast. But, what I didn't realize until this point is how well comedy could work in a genre film. Most of the time, sci-fi/fantasy comedy was relegated to, or the result of, the B-grade movies that showed up on late-night TV. Ghostbusters showed me that, if done correctly, it could make a truly great genre film. Ivan Reitman, who had done the hilarious military comedy Stripes 3 years prior with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, worked with an amazing cast, including Murray, Ramis, Dan Ackroyd, and Ernie Hudson, to craft a masterful paranormal comedy. It gave me a new appreciation for good comedy, beyond the slap-stick in the sitcoms of the day.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I was not a regular viewer of the original Star Trek growing up, even though reruns were in syndication. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, I do remember seeing it in the theatre. I can say that, while I enjoyed it, it didn't blow me away. The special effects were definitely at the level of Star Wars, which I had seen a year earlier in re-release, but the pacing of the movie was slow. 7-year-old me just couldn't appreciate the level of detail that had gone into the presentation without action on screen. That all changed in 1982 when the sequel came out.

The Wrath of Khan was a direct answer to the critiques of the original film. Creative control was removed from Gene Roddenberry, and Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards wrote a swashbuckling action adventure, with Jame Horner providing similarly action-packed score. The film brought back original series actor Ricardo Montalbán in the titular role he originated in the episode "Space Seed". Between him and Shatner, much scenery is chewed. And, while the effects reused models from the first movie for many scenes, the action set pieces in the Mutara Nebula, in particular, are exciting and gorgeous. And, of course, there's the Genesis Device simulation, which was some of the earliest use of computer graphics in film.  This film proved that Star Trek was able to hold its own against the juggernaut that was Star Wars. While I don't believe I became a true "trekkie" until TNG came out a few year later, it definitely did rekindle my interest in the franchise, and I don't know if I would have cared that much for TNG when it finally arrived without The Wrath of Khan.

5. Flight of the Navigator

This family-friendly sci-fi action adventure film doesn't get as much love as it deservers. Released in 1986 by Disney, it was about a 12-year-old boy, David, who is abducted by an alien ship in 1978, and returned to Earth in 1986, having not aged. As far as David knows at this point, he simply fell down a hill in the forest and hit his head. But he soon realizes that something is wrong when he finds a missing child poster that matches him exactly. He locates his family, who are at the same time elated that he has returned, and mystified that he has not aged a day since they last saw him 8 years ago. During an unlikely bit of plot development, David's brainwaves displayed at the hospital mirror the image of a spaceship that has just crashed in the area and is in the hands of the NASA. A doctor at NASA who has been studying the ship persuades David's parents to allow him to take David and study the connection between him and the ship for 48 hours. Dr. Faraday discovers that David's brain is full of technical information on the ship and star charts beyond what NASA has discovered. They were also able to determine that time dilation explained the fact that David hadn't aged. The doctor breaks his 48-hour promise to David and decides to keep him beyond the 48 hours.

After telepathically communicating with the AI in the ship, and with the help of a lab assistant he befriended (played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker), David escapes to the ship and they take off. The ship AI, whom David refers to as "Max", explains that Max's brain was used in an experiment to see how much information it could hold. He tells David that it was determined the human body was unable to survive the stress of time travel, so they were unable to return him to his original time. As he was returning David to Earth, he hit some power lines, which erased all of his navigational information. Max needs to transfer the navigational information from David's brain in order to get back home.

I won't spoil the rest, because it is a great movie that you should definitely check out. This one really stuck with me, because the main protagonist was only a few years younger than me, so I could really see myself in the character. Any time you can identify on a personal level with the characters that you are watching on-screen, you connect with the movie on another level. This is why Flight of the Navigator is still one of my favorite movies.

Writing prompt finished. I hope everyone enjoyed that little journey. Now, on to this month's comics.

Strip 118/166 - Mostly harmless

We're coming to the end of the time machine's... time. Interestingly enough, it does survive the dinosaur stomp to convey our heroes to their next adventure. In retrospect, I probably should have drawn more of the dinosaur to make it more obvious what happened. It's supposed to be the leg of something like a brontosaurs, but it also resembles an elephant leg, so some confusion could be had. How the cardboard box survives that is beyond me. Because it has to, I guess.

Strip 119/166 -  17th time is a charm, right?

Back for a final appearance in the strip is the Admiral, and his inexplicable need to find and do something unspeakable to Furble. Although it was funny to keep bringing him back only to fail miserably each and every time, it was a major failing in the character that there really wasn't a motivation for his actions. I guess we'll never know, because...

Strip 120/166 - You should never time-travel in a vehicle that isn't time-travel proof

... you should only time-travel in a time-travel-approved ship. Oops.

Strip 121/166 - Apparently the inverse of Moore's Law

I never said that we were completely finished with the gallery strips. They still show up from time to time. Again, Furbulian progress seems to progress backwards. Which only makes sense if you don't think about it too hard. Even then, it's pretty tenuous.

Next week, Pat Sajak!

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