23 October 2009

Thoughts on Blomkamp and Banks Movies

I had good news yesterday about a possible Fargo Rock City movie. Now I have some mixed movie news:

(1) The good: Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9, is all set to do another sci-fi flick. He's apparently getting a good chunk of creative freedom and a bigger pile of money. I am eagerly looking forward to his sophomore offering. I didn't write up anything about District 9 after Special Lady Friend and I saw it, perhaps because it had been out in theaters for a long time by the time we went. I really like it though. If we're going to make more sci-fi action movies, we could do way worse than things like this. I may have more to say when it comes out on DVD.

(2) The bad: Iain Banks' short story A Gift From the Culture is being adapted into a movie as well. Now I really love Iain Banks and his Culture stories, but this doesn't strike me as a good idea at all. A Gift from the Culture was — I hate to say this — dull. It could have been set anywhere, anytime. A fugitive getting blackmailed has to choose between his friends and his morals. Good enough, but it didn't give me anything more. I think there's too much opportunity that this one comes out half-baked.

Generally speaking, I don't think the Culture stories will translate well onto the screen:
  • The scale is too epic. (It's been called "not so much wide-screen baroque as Imax baroque.")
  • The setting is too foreign for most audiences. (The sociology, the technology, the economics, it's all really far out even compared to most sci-fi.)
  • They often rely too heavily on non-Hollywood narrative structures. (Use of Weapons makes the narrative structure of Memento seem like a chapter book.)
  • It's difficult for most audience to relate to the non-human and non-humanoid and non-biological characters. (Many of the important characters, the AI "Minds" don't have bodies at all really.)
  • The stories are much more about intrigue than action. (Much of the action that does occur tends to happen on the nano-scale time frames suitable to Strong AIs.)
I love these books, but filming any of them would be a truly epic undertaking. Take something like the effort Peter Jackson put into Lord of the Rings and the effort James Cameron has put into Avatar, combine them, and ramp it up several orders of magnitude, and you could pull off a Culture movie.

If you're going to start making Culture movies or reading Culture books, start with The Player of Games. It's the most accessible Culture novel, perhaps because it's mostly set outside of their civilization. It also has a pretty straight-forward narrative format, though there are some good twists at the end. Do yourself a favor if you read it and push through the first few chapters until the protagonist gets off on his big adventure. Things pick up then.

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