Do the Right Thing

Voting the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
(From Proper Boskonian 40, April 1997)

by Bob Devney

If you're thinking about the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in the science fiction/fantasy field for 1996, it seems to me your choices break down into three groups.

There are the Obvious choices. The Interesting choices. And the totally Insane choices.

You have a few months to think about them all. Then (if you're a fully paid up member, supporting or attending, of this year's world science fiction convention, LoneStarCon 2) you can make your picks and send your ballot off to San Antonio, enjoying the privilege of being among the small group of what, several hundred people? who decide this best-known of SF awards.

Normally, given my lazy, crazy, twisted character, I'd be drawn to the last category like vampires to a bloodbank. But frankly I only have space and time here for about three full-fledged reviews. So for once I think I'll seek the sacred middle ground.

Therefore, let's talk about your three most Interesting choices this year. Afterwards we'll briefly consider the others.

When we're done, it should be pretty clear to you what my choice would be. And perhaps I'll have affected your own thoughts about which way to vote.

I hope so. Since as someone who hasn't purchased a membership I'm not eligible to vote myself.

What, you thought I was kidding about the lazy, crazy, twisted part?


Low Spirits

The Frighteners takes its grim spirit from Beetlejuice and Death Becomes Her, its demons from Ghost and Candyman, its hero's winning trick from Flatliners, and its underlying air of desperation from High Spirits.

It's got a solid cast, first-rate directing (by Mick Jackson, who did the much more serious Heavenly Creatures), world-class special effects, and a script with a number of good ideas and lines studded throughout. Despite the laundry list above, some of the latter are even original. That it doesn't all add up to more may be the most frightening thing of all.

Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, who's not exactly on the stairway to heaven.

He's a busted-out ghostbuster and medium in a small town who lives in a half-renovated dump and tries to slip bereaved family members his business card at funerals. Bannister once was a rising young architect, who one day had some sort of tragic accident. Ever since, he actually can see ghosts.

But he uses this gift only for a shabby con game. His usual ploy is to assign ghostly confederates to cause mischief. Then get himself hired to root them out.

Despite his practiced patter and Fox's practiced ease with this kind of smoothie role, Bannister's heart doesn't really seem to be in it. As one of his ghostly gang comments, "Death ain't no way to make a living."

What brings Bannister back to life are a woman - Trini Alvarado as a young doctor who soon (conveniently) becomes a widow woman - and a worthy opponent. Unusually large numbers of townspeople are dying of freak heart attacks, and it soon seems to Bannister that an unusually evil ghost/demon named The Collector of Souls is behind it all. And a little further behind it all, events may connect with a mass murderer who went on a killing spree up at the old sanitarium and was executed years ago. Said sanitarium being unoccupied now - except by the haggy old widow (Julianna McCarthy) of the former director, plus her half-zombied grown-up daughter (Dee Wallace Stone), who as a teenager was somehow linked to the killer.

There's lots more plot to go around, and plenty of characters as well. To mention just two:

The local cemetery is run by a kind of ghostly drill instructor, embodied - well, maybe that's not the right word - by Full Metal Jacket's R. Lee Ermey. My favorite of his lines: "There's a piece of dirt up here with your name on it, Bannister!"

Jeffrey Combs is the other standout in the supporting cast, as FBI guy Milton Dammers. He's the agent to whom the Bureau seemingly assigns all their deeply twisted paranoid occult serial killer cases. Presumably on the theory that it takes one to know one. When Combs shoves the heroine into his car, crabs around to the driver's door, and menaces her with a frightening crimson object he whirls from under his coat, it takes you a long terrified moment until you realize the object is merely the world's reddest, most evil-looking hemorrhoid ring seat cushion.

On the score of logic and internal consistency, while The Frighteners doesn't go as low as Independence Day, things are still disappointingly loose. The interaction between the spirit world and the physical one seems especially ill-defined. In fact, downright contradictory.

Ghosts can walk through doors and walls. Except when they get stuck. Or when they just bulge out the wallpaper like latex, in a marvelous-looking, much-used, but completely nonsensical effect. (Your wallpaper would just shred, wouldn't it? Kids, don't try this at home. My home, anyway.] And when you hit a ghost your blows pass harmlessly through. Except when Michael J. Fox gives one a sharp backward elbow-jab that sends it reeling.

I see that NESFAns Dave and Claire Anderson and George Flynn all were taken enough with the film to put it forward for Hugo consideration. On the other hand, the public seemed to find little joy in it. The critics ditto. In fact, though Roger Ebert admired the special effects, the bottom line of his piece goes like this: "Last year, I reviewed a nine-hour documentary about the lives of Mongolian yak herdsmen, and I would rather see it again than sit through The Frighteners."

I liked it better than that. If nothing else, the end credits send you out with that great final song, "Don't Fear the Reaper," which I've now been humming for 3 days. Got to like a movie that keeps you thinking about it.

However: The Frighteners as a Hugo-caliber piece?

I've got grave reservations ...

But then, don't we all?


Danson Fairly Swiftly

Watching the Ted Danson TV miniseries version of Gulliver's Travels, the word that comes to mind, unfortunately, is "worthy." When it might have been "wow!"

The film is fairly faithful to the 1726 satire by Jonathan Swift. Unlike the case in less ambitious media versions, Dr. Gulliver actually visits all four of his imaginary places: Lilliput, home of little people. Brobdingnag, home of big people. Laputa, home of people too smart for their own good. And Houyhnhnmland, home of smart, civilized horses (the Houyhnhnms) plus people who are real yahoos (the Yahoos).

Also to its credit, this version retains Swift's satirical emphasis. Its bitter focus swiftly dances around, scorching all abusers of human reason. Including rulers, generals, doctors, academics, junkmen, farmers, dwarves, men, women, children, and so on.

You know, all us yahoos.

Plus you get well-done scenes of all the familiar wonders. Life looked at from both sizes now. A flying island. Talking horses. And most famous and disturbing of all, a giant tied down and held helpless by a hundred little men.

This fidelity was aided by the two-part TV miniseries format. That gives it 4 hours and 18 minutes of elbow room, more than many people will sit still for in a theater. (I saw it as a two-videotape set.) But unusually for TV, this Gulliver's got a $28 million budget. Which allows a first-quality cast plus boffo special effects and production values.

It's perhaps the only Gulliver's I've seen where you can actually believe he's big, he's small, hey, that horse is talking pretty good sense ...

Nevertheless, it's a good film not a great one. The trouble may come from two causes.

The script sets the entire story of his adventures as flashbacks within a frame tale that shows Gulliver returned from 9 years of exile. Like Odysseus or a Vietnam vet, finding his marriage shattered and his home at risk, he's overcome for a time by madness. Insisting on the reality of the fantastic worlds he's seen gets him shipped posthaste to perhaps the worst destination in all his travels: an English madhouse.

Star Ted Danson does a creditable job with these scenes, as with the entire movie. (I somehow didn't mind this 18th-century Englishman's mid-American accent. Although heavens knows wot our Brit and Aussie friends will say.) But the madness just goes on too long, scene after scene.

You start wishing the Laputans would, like, discover lithium early and for god's sake give Gulliver some.

My second problem with this movie: it isn't The Adventures of Baron Münchausen. Terry Gilliam's underrated 1989 extravaganza covers similar material - 18th-century man tests and unsettles the Age of Reason with stories of fantastic adventures. But Münchausen had a great director with a great visual imagination.

This Gulliver's has merely a good director, Charles Sturridge of Brideshead Revisited fame. He does have one inspired visual motif here, signaling a flashback by having it intrude into the frame story. So, for example, poor Gulliver is languishing in his madhouse cell - and suddenly a 3-foot-long hornet crawls up his back. (There's an image that'll stay with me for a while.) This transits us neatly into the middle of the battle against the giant insects on the dinner table back in Brobdingnag.

However, the imagination of Sturridge and the creative crew from Jim Henson Productions just isn't as wild, dark, and grand as it would take to make a movie masterpiece of this material.

No reflection on the stellar cast. The lovely Mary Steenburgen plays Gulliver's long-suffering but faithful wife; their convincing love story adds fresh warmth and humanity to somewhat soften Swift's colder vision as the film goes along. Supporting players include Peter O'Toole as king of Lilliput, whose first words on seeing Gulliver are "Well you weren't exaggerating. He's a whopper!" Plus James Fox, Alfre Woodard, Ned Beatty, Omar Sharif, Edward Woodward, Kristin Scott Thomas - and Sir John Geilgud as the scientist bent on extracting sunlight from cucumbers.

There's still plenty here to entertain an SF fan. And the film's ending manages some real grandeur, with a pure science fictional sensawunda feel. Let's conclude with its last lines, delivered by Gulliver in voice-over as the camera swirls back and up, showing he and his wife walking free over the hills in a magnificent English landscape:

"I have lost eight years of my life.

"And yet, and yet, the moments I have had. The marvels I have witnessed. The wonderful truths I have seen.

"You see, when night falls, and you close your eyes to sleep and dream - I have seen the things that you can only dream about.

"I have been there ... I was lost at sea for a long time, but I have been there. Oh yes ... all the way, and back."


Howard's End

Let's invent a new category to consider for awards, or just to help us think about certain films.

Call it, however absurdly, the nonfiction science fiction movie. It would be a film with SF elements or interest that is nevertheless factual in content. Last year's example: Apollo 13.

This time, let's consider The Whole Wide World.

This independent film is based on a memoir by retired schoolteacher Novalyne Price Ellis. Published in 1988 when the author was 76 years old, it's the story of her romance in the mid-1930s with a young man in a small Texas town, Cross Plains.

The title derives from that young man's self-description as "the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world." He was Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, and other heroic fantasy icons.

This movie about one episode in his life strikes me, on a small scale and wholly on its own terms, as a perfect little gem of film-making and an American original.

As brilliantly embodied by Vincent D'Onofrio, Bob Howard is big-boned, not unhandsome, soft-spoken, endearing in a bumbling kind of way. He's introduced to an attractive young schoolteacher (Renee Zellweger as Novalyne Price). Feisty, determined Price draws a bead on him under her flapper hat with a shrewd cowgirl squint, and keeps smiling at Howard with the prettiest mouth east of Abilene. Their first meeting goes well.

But she finds it vexingly hard to arrange a second. Howard's mother is the smothering type, stonewalling all his phone calls. (Except one about some other writer named Lovecraft.)

Novalyne persists. Pretty soon Bob is back, swinging his big arms around, talking louder now. Taking her for long rides at night out into the country in his convertible. He quotes poetry. Tells her about writing. Gives her daring French novels.

No less than he, she seems a little bigger than the small-town milieu in which we find her. They both keep doing the best thing a movie character can do: surprising you.

In one café tryst, he's scornful about the realism of a women's-magazine story she's trying to write. Hurt, she lashes back. "Well, I haven't seen any barbarian swordsmen, or beautiful Amazon women, or giant snakes frolicking around the streets of Cross Plains lately!"

Howard gives us the key to his character with one reply in his soft Texas voice.

"Well, I have ...

"You better look a little closer next time."

They quarrel, make up, quarrel. Time passes. He's got his writing and his mother; both consume him. Things do not end well.

Perhaps I'm just starved for a film about a writer, and one in our genre at that. Or simply gaga over Zellweger, a really attractive, fresh, direct presence (this is her first film; she stole Jerry Maguire from Tom Cruise for her second). But this movie succeeds on all sorts of levels: as an unusual study of a real relationship ... a tender love story ... a fascinating character sketch ... an authentic period piece ... and a portrait of the artist(s).

For instance, it's famously difficult to show a writer writing and make it interesting. The filmmakers do so beautifully here.

Howard sometimes composed his stories aloud. So we see him at twilight in his room, bellowing out lines of purple magnificence, hunched over the keyboard in a summoning trance. And they orchestrate these scenes with terrific Conan music. Deep, restless chords rise and fall ominously, fraught with dark power.

The moviemakers also take care to show Howard in his place. There's an unforgettable scene where we witness the lovers' most passionate kiss. It's set in a specifically Texan landscape of rugged bluffs and wild woods, rough ridges and shining river waters. From Howard's viewpoint as he gazes across the land, we see the pioneer promise of the frontier years in this country - overlain with his Hyborian Age of blood and magic.

With a look, we know that in Robert Howard's eyes these times are one.

I said "lovers" above; not strictly accurate, perhaps. Remember, these were nice young unmarried people in a more restrained age. But is there sexual tension or romantic tenderness here? Certainly. On the river bluff. In the look on Novalyne's face. At the typewriter keyboard. And in a mostly silent scene where Howard washes the body of his adored, dying mother.

I knew something about Howard's own end going in - one dimly remembered sentence of fact, perhaps. The movie puts a much different feeling behind that reality, without altering its dark essentials.

That's one of its chief fascinations, of course. The Whole Wide World is a true story.

Again, you could also make the case that it's a science fiction movie, or at least a fantasy. Beyond just dealing with a writer from our crowd. There are genuinely a few moments when you are shown one thing - and you see something else. Shown a Texas river valley ... and see Cimmeria. Shown an overgrown farmboy shouting at his typewriter ... and see the soul of the artist, wrestling in joy and torment with his barbaric craft.

I may lose most of you with what I must say next. But as Howard proclaimed, "the road I walk, I walk alone."

Grant that this IS a science fiction movie. Then if you're really trying to pick SF's best dramatic presentation of 1996, Babylon 5 isn't even in the same solar system with the eccentric little planet that is The Whole Wide World

By now, you may have guessed where my vote would go. Or haven't you a clue in the whole wide world?

Let's examine a few other possibilities below.

After that, it's up to you, your conscience, and whether you have a shred of independent freethinking in your entire being.

Or are you just going to sheepishly vote for something that isn't a great science fiction masterpiece but plays one on TV?




Independence Day

This straightforward invaders-from-space, special-effects-happy SF flick made more money than any other movie released in the United States in 1996.

But feeling good about that would be like the American Society of Demolition Engineers voting Timothy McVeigh its Blockbuster Award for Special Achievement in Explosive Publicity.

Independence Day is very exciting. Almost everybody leaves the movie pumped up and happy. But if you're a science fiction fan, the bad feelings quickly come flooding in. You don't have to be some killjoy scientific accuracy anal case. The movie has a load of horrendous scientific, technical, even common-sense howlers that any bright 15-year-old fan could have caught in 15 minutes.

Obviously, the moviemakers just don't care. (For confirmation, see their previous work, Stargate. Same sloppy story.)

Don't vote for a movie that just doesn't get it. Got that?

Star Trek: First Contact

Well, it was better than many other Star Trek movies. All of which should have been subtitled The Search for Kirk's Talent.

Obviously, there's an installed base of Trek fanatics out there who will probably vote for this. But I guess I just haven't been quite assimilated yet by the Bore ... sorry, Borg.

Babylon 5

Have only seen a few episodes, and wasn't really all that impressed. So join the long list of people who want to disown me for this character flaw. Starting with my sister Liz. And my Hugo-nomination-veteran friend Michael Burstein, who a little birdie told me helped engineer a sinister fanworld conspiracy last year to sweep in some Babylon 5 thing. Apparently had something to do with San Juan Capistrano - wasn't it "The Coming of Swallows"?

Listen, I know this whole article is a lost cause and what's going to win this year will probably be a B5 episode entitled something like "Severed Creams" or "Za Dum Dum" or "Shadow Prancing" or "Wart without End" or "Innertubes and Expectorations."

But I've got to make the attempt to get you to do the right thing. If it's the last thing I do in the whole wide world.




You've already heard about my top three picks in this category. A few others:

The Arrival

My comment when I saw this cinematic take on a theme of The Aliens Already Among Us: "Finally, Charlie Sheen in the role he was BORN to play: a brilliant radio astronomer ..."

Actually, it's a solid SF flick with a fairly intelligent script, good performances (including, fairly amazingly, Charlie's), a few laughs (mostly intentional), and fine direction and atmosphere. Excellent scorpions-in-the-bed scene especially.

It doesn't quite make my cut for the Most Interesting top three. But you wouldn't be actually crazy to vote for it, if you didn't like my choices.

Mars Attacks

Memo to Tim Burton, creator of the sublime fantasy classic Edward Scissorhands and the also pretty damn wonderful Batman:

The trouble with making a loving tribute to bad 1950s SF flicks is that if you're not careful you might end up with something that feels a lot like a bad 1950s SF flick with superb production values.

Like this.

Sorry, Tim.

Sincerely, Bob.

Escape From L.A.

A vote for this would obviously be a thinly disguised Life Achievement Award for director John Carpenter to thank him for terrific films like The Thing and Escape from New York, not for this lightly warmed-over treatment of Snake Pliskin's midlife crisis. Let's leave that sort of thing to the Oscars.

Third Rock From the Sun (Episode Whatever)

You don't know one person who's mentioned this show in terms of a Hugo?

I have two comments: 1) Why? Isn't comedy eligible? Then how come you voted for Back to the Future, The Princess Bride, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which won for 1986, 1988, and 1989 respectively?

And 2) Now you do.





Didn't see it. Hear that Sean Connery has a great dragony delivery - think his voice coach had him doing scales? Wish Dennis Quaid would find a hit role that suits his considerable talents.

Don't see how this has a prayer.

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet

OK, so it's got a ghost.

By this inclusive logic, why not vote for Trainspotting because it's got a fantasy scene wherein a guy dives into a toilet and comes out underwater? Or Mission: Impossible because you don't think a helicopter could actually do that with a train? Or Baywatch because the actresses defy localized gravity?


John Travolta plays an ordinary guy who may have had a UFO experience and suddenly turns smarter than Isaac Asimov.

Not to give anything away, but the ending indicates that there isn't a science fiction explanation after all. Although the explanation they do give is so spacey that maybe this counts as at least a fantasy.

Still, to win, this movie would have to be touched by an angel.


John Travolta plays an angel. Say, you don't suppose ... ?

Nah. At best, the Vincent Barbarino/Vincent Vega fan clubs would just split the vote.

The Island of Dr. Moreau

OK, this one was so bad that it must be you just love absolutely anything Marlon Brando or Val Kilmer are in. Or you're a direct descendent of H. G. Wells and want more income for the estate. Or you think David Thewlis has a face that just begs for somebody to smash it in and you want the movie to win so you can go to the Hugo ceremonies in San Antonio and by some bizarre chance he shows up and you get the sick chance to wipe that incredibly annoying smirk off personally.

Hey, maybe you're onto something with that last one ...


Breaking the Waves

This sensitive story of a touched young Scottish woman and the sexually self-sacrificing things she does out of love for her crippled, crazy Scandinavian husband off a North Sea oil rig would be a truly insane selection on my part. Since I didn't see it.

It's spoken of by many critics and discerning movie fans as one of the best movies of the year. Not obvious to me what its SF element is. But after my special pleading for The Whole Wide World, who am I to complain about a little weakness in that department?