Fascinating premise, bland results
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A coworker and I were just talking about nuclear war, and she brought up the film Blast From The Past. I remembered thinking that the premise for that movie (Christopher Walken and his pregnant wife, Sissy Spacek, lock themselves in a nuclear bunker for 35 years thinking a nuclear holocaust has happened in Los Angeles; 35 years later, their now-grown son, Brendan Fraser, emerges from their 1960s time-capsule underground home to the Los Angeles of the ’90s) was ripe with interesting philosophical issues to explore, but the actual movie was a pretty standard (and boring) romantic comedy. It got me wondering: what art do you think had a fascinating premise, executed with bland results? —Frank Kasell
This is the No. 2 thing Scott Tobias and I argue about (second only to the merits or lack thereof of Tropical Malady), but the description above describes to a T my reaction to Defending Your Life, Albert Brooks’ film in which he dies, goes to the afterlife, and is put on trial as a coward, forced to relive his decisions and see how his life was dominated by fear. While there, he meets and falls for saintly, heroic Meryl Streep, who’s clearly destined to move on to the next world while he’s reincarnated back to Earth to try to live a better life. The story fascinates me, but to this day, I find the execution baffling: Brooks plays his character as a limp fish who either slackly sits by while his public defender mounts limp defenses for inexcusable behavior, or occasionally offers flaccid excuses of his own. He’s wussy and unlikeable, which is much of the point of the story, but it left me without any interest in the outcome of his story, and unable to buy into the supposedly uplifting ending. The whole film is slow and clumsy and overstretched, with no sense that Brooks has any interest in his life or the defense thereof. It’s one of the few films out there that I’d actually like to see remade with a more modern sensibility and sense of pacing.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Bridalplasty. I’ll admit that even while I, like the rest of the country, was saying “What?! This show is the epitome of all that is wrong with everything today,” I was kinda looking forward to seeing it. I guess I thought it would be like Bridezillas on acid. (And I love Bridezillas.) I mean, the show combined the worst of all reality-show worlds, so it had to be kind of horribly fascinating, right? Wrong. That show was so boring, because it didn’t have the balls to be something like Tool Academy, where the point was to enjoy hating all the assholes. No, they had to throw some sincerity in there and ruin everything. What a waste. Oh well, at least those ladies got to inject chemicals into their faces.
I feel like this happens with many, many science-fiction movies, so I’ll just answer with the latest one I happened to watch during a drunken stumble through Netflix Instant: Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, is about a society in which pretty much everybody goes about their daily business through a robotic, umm, surrogate, while the user sits at home and directs his/her ’bot. That means nobody ever gets killed or hurt, and you can do whatever you want all the time. The potentially interesting part of that story to me would be the human resistance—those people who don’t want to live their lives through robot bodies. But in the movie, those characters are stupid and broadly drawn—just like everything else in the movie, really.
It’d be hard to imagine a more explosive or promising premise for a reality show than Black. White., which was produced through Ice Cube’s Cubevision production company. The idea was to explore our racial divide by having a white family masquerade (not particularly convincingly) as a black family and vice versa, through the magic of makeup. Alas, casting is everything on reality shows, and the hopelessly confused patriarch of the Caucasians couldn’t have been a bigger goober, or more confused in his conception of black culture. I cringed deep and hard when he “performed” a homemade, ambiguously racist rap about being a middle-aged man who speaks proper English and always wears a belt, unlike those perplexing African-Americans with their baggy pants and hippety-hop jive talking slang. But mostly, the show was just gimmicky and dull. And being boring is an unforgivable crime when it comes to reality television.
I don’t normally read romance novels, but a friend recommended The Time Traveler’s Wife, and since I’d heard that a Doctor Who plotline borrowed from it, I decided to give it a shot. Writing a story that doubles and triples over itself is tricky, so kudos to Audrey Niffenegger on what seems like the most difficult part of the premise. But it’s actually the romance angle that fails horribly. The many scenes of middle-aged Henry spending time with his wife-to-be during her childhood are painfully creepy. He tells the little girl that when she grows up, she’ll like certain foods, so she does—and it’s hard not to wonder if she eventually falls in love with him for the same reason. Readers are supposed to think the pair ends up together because of destiny, and not what appears to be pedophilic grooming, a romance-killer if there ever was one. I think there’s still a good, heartwarming, time-travel-focused romance story to be written—maybe my own expanded-universe Doctor/River Song novel.
As far as trash TV goes, Steven Seagal: Lawman should’ve been a lay-up. Though he was actually reasonably charming in the stretch from, say, Above The Law to Under Siege, Seagal increasingly became a (literally) bloated self-parody. Theoretically, that should’ve made for an eminently watchable show where a clueless Seagal runs around New Orleans, playing a cop once more, but this time, a thoroughly mild-mannered one. The best part of the show is when fans recognize Seagal and stop caring about their potentially imminent arrest; it’s always a surprisingly sweet moment. But the show can never get it together enough to make it look like Seagal is doing much more than being shepherded around New Orleans by officers who look after him and try to make it seem like he knows what he’s doing, which makes for awfully dull viewing.
I’m no Smashing Pumpkins fanatic—I’ve had a totally ambivalent attitude toward the band since picking up Gish on the recommendation of a friend way back when, an opinion that’s fluctuated over the years more times than I can count. My lingering, rubbernecking fascination with Billy Corgan’s rollercoaster of a career hit an all-time high, though, when he announced Zwan. Dave Pajo from Slint? Matt Sweeney from Chavez? Paz from A Perfect Circle? That supergroup lineup was as inscrutable as it was enticing to me. The concept fired on all cylinders—even if those cylinders didn’t seem to fit in the same engine. Turns out, that was totally the case. When Zwan’s first and only album, 2003’s Mary Star Of The Sea, was released, it underwhelmed beyond my wildest expectations. Not only does Corgan sound constipated with his own Corgan-ness, that cast of otherwise amazing musicians just phones it in. Not that I can blame them. If I were ever drafted to play in a band with Billy Corgan (which, at the rate he’s going, is a curse every musician in American will wind up briefly suffering by the year 2024), I’d seriously consider shooting off a finger.
I’ll say it. I still think FlashForward coulda been great. One of the themes that works better on television than in almost any other medium is the idea that there’s a certain destined fate for all of us, something we can’t outrun. Series as diverse as Lost, The Wire, and Mad Men have used variations on this idea to increase the momentum of their plots and the depth of their characters. So a whole series based around the idea that everyone on Earth sees their own future and becomes terrified at the idea of what might be… There were a variety of ways to go with this material. The creators could have made a fairly normal science-fiction series that focused on people who simply felt despair at what their future held. (The Wikipedia plot summary of the original novel says that one of the characters kills himself after he sees that he’ll never be a successful writer, and that’s much more interesting than anything the TV series came up with.) They could have made an anthology series where people’s visions of the future spurred them on to any number of interesting pursuits, a series where an episode could be action-packed or romantic or comedic, depending on the flash-forwarders of the week. Or they could have even embraced something that was in the series itself already, which was the idea of a gigantic conspiracy that aims to make the world black out and see the future, causing untold death and destruction, because they know something even worse is coming, something they want to figure out a way to avert. Instead, the series we got was a muddled mess, trying every single one of these approaches here and there, but mostly just settling for telling bland cop stories and having Joseph Fiennes shout “BECAUSE I WAS LOADED.”
This may seem obvious, but the Star Wars prequels come to mind as one of the greatest failures of an interesting premise. The prequels were supposed to expand the Star Wars universe, delving deeper into the mythology and origins of our favorite characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and, most importantly, Darth Vader. The rise of one of film’s greatest villains should have been a dark cinematic journey. Instead, Vader was reduced to a little kid exclaiming “Yippee!” while the Force was explained via the absurd concept of Midi-chlorians, both far more egregious than making Greedo shoot first. From the yawn-inducing, bureaucratic opening crawl of The Phantom Menace—taxation, trade federation, and blockades?—we knew something was up. And while most of the visual effects were spectacular, the dialogue was painful, further hindered by wooden acting that plagued all three films, preventing audiences from emotionally connecting to any of the characters. Lucas’ over-dependence on CGI also added to the superficiality of the films: the backgrounds never seemed real, and characters like Yoda were reduced to cartoons. The next two entries, Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith, improved upon the first, but given how bad Phantom Menace was, besting it wasn’t a tall order. And while all three films had their moments and some great action sequences, the trilogy was beyond redemption. No matter what defense prequel-apologists may come up with, all arguments are rendered moot by one name: Jar Jar Binks. Meesa gonna cringe.