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Posts tagged ‘zombies’

The Remake of Red Dawn Is the Opposite of a Zombie Movie

A still image from the upcoming film Red Dawn (2012)

Here’s a guaranteed recipe for angry comments: I’m going to review a movie that hasn’t been released yet. On your marks, enraged fans!

This fall, we’ll see a remake of the 1984 action movie Red Dawn, about a Soviet occupation of the U.S. Obviously, the Cold War is long over and nobody’s scared of ze Russians anymore, so the update will be recasting the invading force as North Koreans. Please see the chart below:

USSR population circa 1984: approximately 275 million

North Korean population 2012: approximately 24.5 million

You know, typically you want to make a sequel or remake more dramatic. This is a bigger letdown than following The Mighty Ducks 2, where the titular hockey team competes in the Junior Olympics, with The Mighty Ducks 3, where the team plays junior varsity for a prep school.

So why remake this movie in the first place? Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth explains:

“The tone is going to be very intense, very much keeping in mind the post-9/11 world that we’re in. As ‘Red Dawn’ scared the heck out of people in 1984, we feel that the world is kind of already filled with a lot of paranoia and unease, so why not scare the hell out of people again?”

So it’s a horror movie? Huh. I guess I can see the reasoning there. The original combined the fears of a Cold War U.S. with the power fantasy of average people standing up to an outside threat. So the remake taps into the post-9/11 fears of… uh… parachuting enemies troops clearly marked in military fatigues.

Mr. Ellsworth, you can’t just assume something is “post-9/11″ because you wrote it after 2001. And similarly, you can’t assume that something will be scary just because it was scary once. Context is everything. The fears of 2012 are not the same as the fears of 1984. You want this movie to work, you need to update it more than just changing the nationality of the bad dudes.

Consider how popular zombies are at the moment (to steal my list from an earlier post:  The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days LaterResident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies). Why are zombies so appealing, especially right now? As with all things zombie related, it’s best to ask Night of the Living Dead creator George Romero:

I also have always liked the “monster within” idea. I like the zombies being us. Zombies are the blue-collar monsters.

Every single zombie story has two defining features:

  1. The horde. A single zombie is rarely much of a threat. They’re (usually) slow and dumb. The typical threat comes from an incredible number of zombies. The heroes are always outnumbered. It’s them against the world.
  2. The transformation. At least one of the heroes will always be turned into a zombie. The only thing more important to the heroes than surviving is not becoming one of the zombies. And anyone can become a zombie.

Take a look at these two defining features. Then take a look at the sudden explosion of popularity of zombie movies. Then you can start to understand how well Romero’s “monster within” fits in with modern day fears. We’re not in a Cold War anymore. Our fears are no longer about a powerful, heavily armed “other.” Our “post-9/11″ fears are rooted in insidious threats. We’re afraid of the things we take for granted being turned against us. Jet planes were transformed into missiles: that’s the essence of post-9/11 fear. Being invaded isn’t in the national consciousness. Being corrupted is.

That’s what Red Dawn is: the anti-zombie movie. That and a surefire flop.

Amazon Now Making Movies: Promises Original Stories, Instead Gives Us ‘Zombies Vs. Gladiators’

Amazon is launching a film studio. The idea is to make it in the same sort of egalitarian spirit as what they’ve done for self-publishing. Anyone can submit a script and if something really stands out, Amazon will greenlight it. The writer will make a flat salary of $200K if the film is made, but that number triples if the film is decently profitable. Like self-publishing, this promises a revolutionary world without the traditional gatekeepers, where anyone can get any story out to the world without going through the traditional channels, and where content creators can have greater ownership over their works. Of course, also like self-publishing, critics will argue that by making so much content available, there will be no way to truly separate the wheat from the chaff, and the only things that get noticed will be the ones driven by cynical marketing tactics rather than with true creativity.

Well, Amazon decided to prove its critics right by greenlighting a film called Zombies Vs. Gladiators. So I guess I’ll be (indirectly) talking about zombies for the second blog post in a row.

The whole story is equal parts promising and embarrassing. To be honest, I actually like the idea behind Amazon Studios. I really do. Amazon has proven itself capable of gathering and utilizing creative talent, by developing systems where writers truly feel that they are being rewarded for their work. If it worked for books, why not make it work for film? The promise of the Amazon Studios is fantastic. It’s common knowledge that Hollywood is notoriously risk-averse, to such an extent that half-baked ideas will be bought and sometimes even filmed before a script is finished, just so a studio can fill a hole in their release calendar. The best thing about Amazon’s idea is that puts all the weight on the script, at least in theory. That promises more creativity, more risks, and more originality, again, in theory.

That’s why it’s painfully embarrassing that the first widely reported title in pre-production is freaking Zombies Vs. Gladiators. Here’s the premise (in case the three-word title didn’t make it clear enough):

The story follows a gladiator who must stop a zombie infestation in ancient Rome. (Yahoo! News)

Got it? Good. Didn’t want to lose you there.

It’s ludicrous to me Amazon would lead off this new project with such a ridiculous idea. And, to be honest, I’m not even all that opposed to the story, thin as it may be. I can get behind the premise of Spartacus of the Dead (which, for the record, would be a better title). If nothing else, the idea of fighting off the living dead with only ancient weaponry should make for gory fun. My problem is that leading with this project sets such a terrible premise for the whole studio. The movie represents all the worst laziness of Hollywood (relying on proven concepts instead of new ideas, never taking risks) and all the worst laziness of self-publishing (a dumb-as-dirt title, mixing popular genres to boost discoverability) wrapped up into one package.

If nothing else, please, please, please change the title. The last thing the world needs is another movie titled _____ Vs. _____. Has there ever been a good one?

Are Our Fictional Futures Too Bleak?

Screen shot of Fallout 3

Author Neal Stephenson has decided that we all need to stop being so negative. He complains that modern science fiction — books, movies, etc. — is overstuffed with the apocalyptic and the dystopian. He thinks that what the world really needs is an optimistic vision of the future, one that can give the world’s inventors a little inspiration.

And, well, he’s not wrong. The Hunger Games made dystopian novels a hit among the young adult audience. Thanks to games like Fallout and movies like The Book of Eli (or even The Road Warrior, if you want to go further back), pop culture now has an established visual shorthand for a post-nuclear apocalypse. (See the picture above.) The most recent novels from Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road and Never Let Me Go,  took a more “literary” approach to apocalyptic and distopian fiction, respectively. And how many recent sci-fi stories involve the world falling apart because of  zombies (The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Resident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies, just to name a few)?

In fact, there are only two major science fiction universes I can think of that are as positive as Stephenson wants. The first is Star Trek, which has already helped imagine the creation of things like cellphones, flat screens, and bluetooth headsets. The second is Mass Effect, a series of games that are basically the spiritual successor to Star Trek, in that they also imagine a future of more-or-less peaceful interaction between alien races, a UN-like central alliance between powers, and major technological leaps forward (not just in terms of warfare).

If there is a tendency for writers to always lean towards the bleak, I can understand it. After all, everybody loves a scrappy underdog hero. Since science fiction gives its writers the freedom to imagine any universe they want, why not imagine one where the odds are impossibly stacked against the hero? Make the hero face off against an oppressive autocratic government, overpowered alien invaders, swarms of the living dead, or a dying planet. You’ve immediately established the high stakes of this life-or-death universe. You can fill an entire movie or book just following the hero’s fight to survive. Then you can save toppling the government, driving back the aliens, curing the living dead, or rescuing the planet for the sequels.

But I do want to slightly qualify Stephenson’s complaint. I don’t think you necessarily need a bright and shiny vision of the future to help inspire. Inspiration can come from the darkness as well. While McCarthy’s The Road details the day-to-day struggles of a man and his son after an unnamed event has spoiled the planet forever, I actually found the whole thing much less of a downer than, say, Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s surreal and gory tale about bounty hunters on the Mexican border. That’s because The Road was primarily focused on the father-son relationship. That sliver of gentleness and hope, however slight, softened the rest of the story. It’s inspiring in its own way, even if it’s not imagining a bright future.

I think Stephenson’s real complaint isn’t so much the lack of optimism, but the lack of imagination. The problem with a glut of zombie stories isn’t that it’s depressing, it’s that it gets to be tiresome. The story can still be worthwhile if it tries to do something different. World War Z works because it takes a worldwide view, seeing how society (rather than a handful of survivors) responds, adjusts, and contains the outbreak. The book uses the idea of a specific genre as a springboard for bigger ideas. It creates a thought experiment and tries to reason out how society would work through it. Even if the book isn’t imagining futuristic advancements per se, it’s still imagining progress of a kind, theorizing how the world would react to a giant-scale viral outbreak.

That’s probably the most important role of science fiction — asking questions and imagining big. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds had the “big” idea of a powerful and advanced army being wholly unprepared for Earth’s microbial invaders. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot had the “big” idea of establishing a moral code for artificial intelligence. Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale imagines technology that can implant memories, then, with a few clever plot twists, illustrates how impossible it could be to tell fiction from reality. I don’t know if I’d call any of these stories “optimistic,” but I think they still accomplish what Stephenson is asking for.

If that’s what he’s saying, then I’m on board 100%. I fully support allowing science fiction to be as open-ended and freely imaginative as it can be.

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