Sunday, February 22, 2009

Saturday Night is Sci Fi Channel Night

Last time, I posted about Friday night sci fi goodness. For the most part, Dollhouse has been okay. A little slow the first episode, but the second was action-packed. It gave us some interesting background on the facility and a nice hint of what’ll be going on with Echo. I’m not seeing a lot of the Joss Whedon snappy dialogue I’d expected, but it pops up here and there. For example: “We have a situation. The kind you need to shoot at.” BSG is, well, BSG. Great human drama in the depths of space. Anyone beside me want to smack Saul? Yeah, I get the whole thing about Ellen, but still. He was an ass. And while Terminator hasn’t been the best I’ve seen I can wait for the big POW I’m sure will occur. Besides, my girl crush on Lena Headey and my love/fear of Shirley Manson as Catherine Weaver compels me to watch.

On to the flip side of being a sci fi fan.

One of my family’s (okay, one of MY) favorite activities is to watch the Sci Fi Channel’s original movies. It’s not because they are nuggets of science fiction brilliance. In fact, it’s for the complete opposite reason. Now, before I get blasted for admitting I mock these movies, let me just say that I love them for what they are. I know they are lower budget films. I know that the special effects required to make the average movie-watcher go “oooh….ahhh….” aren’t there. Funky CGI? Check. Guy in bad makeup and hairy suit? Check. And I’m more than half sure the cast and crew making these films are doing so with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. How could they not be? They’ve read the script, right?

So let’s break down a bit of the typical Sci Fi Channel original movie formula.

Plot: Generally, there is some beastie out to eat the humans and the human must somehow stop it. Simple, and it allows for gobs of action, blood, and mayhem. Beasties range from genetically altered snakes (ex: Anaconda and its sequels. Yes, I said sequels.), to mythological beings (ex: Wyvern, Hydra, Yeti, Abominable {tho it was more Sasquatch-y, but maybe they were playing word games. Oooh, how clever!}), to aliens (ex: Alien v. Hunter, Alien Lockdown, Alien Siege). No matter the creature, they are never vegetarians and there will be a number of humans with weapons trying to survive long enough to kill it. There is often a secondary plot running through the movie, usually involving the angst of the main character in some way.

Characters: You almost always know from the get-go who will live and who will die in an sf movie. If there is only one female character, she will usually live. If there’s more than one, the younger, prettier one lives. Hey, I don’t like it either, being not so young and pretty myself, but this is how the formula works. The hero is usually the guy the heroine likes, if not at the beginning then by half way through the movie. And yay on the Sci Fi Channel, because much of the time the hero isn’t the guy with the broadest shoulders and largest guns. It’s the computer geek or the biology professor who figures out how to thwart the beast in question. And there are times when the hero/heroine roles are “reversed” and it’s the woman who does the saving. There seems to be more gender equality in sf than in most genres, so for that alone I commend them.

How do you know who will be killed in a sf movie? It’s the operative who announces this is their last mission before they retire to the family farm in Iowa or wherever. It’s the soldier who, in the quiet moments before battle, pulls out the worn, creased picture of his wife and/or child. It’s the overzealous jerk who is gung-ho and wanting to just shoot everything but ends up being the one to rush the beast, sacrificing themselves so the others can escape. Though sometimes, this one gets a pass.

Usually one or more of the characters does something completely stupid, jeopardizing themselves and/or the rest of the group. This ticks me off and they are the first ones I like to see eaten. If they aren’t eaten, they’d better damn well have some kind of “Oh, I’ve been such an ass my whole life” revelation by the end. Even then, more often than not, I’d rather see them being eaten.

I don’t expect spectacular acting (sometimes my 8 year old telling me her tummy hurts and she just can’t go to school on the day of a test is more believable). Most of the movies use a cast of unknowns, and often the writer is also in the film. He may even be director and coffee guy. It comes with the lower budget territory. Let’s just say I admire these actors for their efforts.

But here’s something that has stunned me: the number of well known actors who have starred in more than a few of these movies. And I’m not talking about movies made years ago when they were first getting their resumes filled out. Rise, about vampires, stars Lucy Liu (yes, that Lucy Liu) and Michael Chiklis (you know, from “The Shield” on FX, played The Thing on Fantastic Four). It was filmed in 2007. There are other Sci Fi Channel movies where I recognize actors from stints on TV or from smaller movie roles. They aren’t making millions per film like Brad or Angie, but seem to be in a fair number of productions. So what on earth possesses them to take roles in a film like Rise or Wyvern or Anaconda? Did the producer have incriminating photos? Were they just in it for the fun? Certainly not to be recognized during awards season.

Films set in Alaska hold a special place for us. Most recently we watched Wyvern, about a dragon-like creature freed from a glacier, and another about South American killer ants that took up residence underground near an Alaska volcano. We enjoy them because of the way Alaska is depicted. They don’t insult the people here (though filmmakers, please keep in mind not ALL Alaskans wear fur all the time, decorate with moose antlers, and tote their 30-06’s to town to do grocery shopping) but we like spotting the mistakes they make. For example, in the one about the killer ants, it showed one of those green road signs telling you how far it is to the next town. They had the fictional town listed at 4 miles and Nome at 287, or some such. The problem: There is no road to Nome that is 287 miles long. But I guess Nome was recognizable and remote enough to give the viewer the sense of where they were and how far from “civilization” the action was set. Sure. Also, the surrounding area almost always looks suspiciously like the west coast of Canada, all green and full of trees, when it's supposed to be set in the northern part of Alaska, which is tundra and not so green or tree-filled.

Once in a while I am pleasantly surprised by a film on this network. Last week, we watched Splinter. In the previews it promised to be scary and gruesome, like most Sci Fi Channel fare. I was ready to get all mocky but I enjoyed it for the most part. The beastie was determined to eat the humans it had cornered, and the hero and heroine were pretty much established from the opening, so it followed the formula. But the acting was decent and the characters behaved with some intelligence. OK, the disembodied hand reminded me of a demented Thing from “The Addams Family” but I said I was surprised at the quality, not stunned into calling the Academy Awards committee to demand it be nominated.

As goofy as I find most of the Sci Fi Channel’s movies, I’ll still watch them. And during commercial breaks they often put on Sci Fi Channel tips like “If you open the door to another dimension, be sure to know how to close it again.” Or, “If it walks quietly, it probably eats noisily.” Or, “If the thing living under your porch ate the dog, it’s probably not the cat.”

Those alone are worth the price of my cable bill.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Friday Night Sci Fi Goodness

The advantage of living in a small, relatively uneventful town is that I don't feel terribly guilty about watching TV. Sure there are events scheduled throughout the year, friends to hang with and outdoor activities to do (ha!), but for the most part my family and I stick around the house. This means interacting with them, of course, which I do, but it also means I can set aside evening time for my favorite shows. And tomorrow night, I will hit the Trifecta of Sci Fi Television Viewing! Break out the popcorn and soda-pop! I'm so excited, I think I just peed a little.

Friday (2/13) marks the mid season return of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles as well as Joss Whedon's return to television with his new series Dollhouse, both on Fox.

Despite its less than rave reviews, I have enjoyed Terminator since it began last year. It's tough for a television series to carry the burden of being the offspring of a successful movie franchise, but I feel this one has managed nicely. Scary robot dudes trying to enslave humanity? Check. Time-traveling soldiers trying to protect their future leader? Check. Lena Heady and Summer Glau as two of the most kick-ass women on network TV? Check and check. The premise of the movies is maintained without losing the high-octane action, but the slower pace of a television series allows fabulous characterization. For example, for the first season and then some, Sarah Connor (Heady) is continually "on". She has to protect her son no matter what and does so with the ferocity of a mother lion. As I watched, I kept thinking, this woman is going to blow. It didn't happen right away, and I'm glad she was shown as such a strong person. Events kept pushing and pushing at Sarah, and she held tough, as she needed to. Until she started beating the "dead" robot's chip. The buildup and eventual display of her frustration added to the character. Did she realize her fierceness kept her and her son apart emotionally? Can she and John have a normal(ish) mother-son relationship? At the same time, they still have some Skynet baddies to overthrow. Geez, raising a teen is tough enough without having someone out to kill him.

Speaking of humanity, Cameron (Glau) is a machine who displays glimmers of humanity now and then. I think this is a nice reflection of Sarah's situation. It'll be interesting to see how that plays into future episodes.

After Terminator is the premiere of Dollhouse. I have heard little more than it's premise, which sounds cool, and I also like Eliza Dushku (Echo, in Dollhouse, Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, and Tru in Tru Calling). And Joss Whedon? Well, he is a god as far as I'm concerned. The man writes perfect snickerdoodle dialogue: snappy and golden. I watch Firefly and Serenity over and over again mostly for the dialogue. I would give an arm to write half as well as he does. So I have high hopes for Dollhouse. I'm sure I won't be disappointed.

Battlestar Galactica is also on Friday night. I'm late coming to this series and need to rent the previous seasons to complete the goodness, but I am totally hooked and greatly disappointed it will end in a few weeks. The ride had been short but phenomenal. Unfortunately, BSG and Dollhouse are on at the same time. We'll have to decide who gets watched and who gets recorded. It will be a difficult decision. But no worries, whichever is recorded will be seen immediately following the other. Of that there is no doubt. ETA: Dollhouse and BSG are not on at the same time afterall. Yay! But I had to pick up DD #2 at a friend's and missed the first 15 minutes of Dollhouse :( I'm sure I can find it on Hulu or the Fox site.

So how can I justify three hours of endless television viewing where I all but ban my kids from the room (They are welcome to watch if they sit and watch, not come in the middle and ask me what's going on) and make the poor dogs wait until everything is over before letting them out to pee? Research. No, really. What these three shows have in common are strong female characters and amazing premises. When I write, I want my characters to be like these women, I want my story lines to grab the reader and not let go. So while it may look like I'm mindlessly gazing at the screen, I'm actually learning characterization and plotting from some spec fiction masters of today.

What does the buckets of popcorn and other junk food goodness I consume have to do with that? Nothing. Oh, I mean...A girl has to keep her strength up, right?

Next time I'll go into my family's (okay, mine, actually) favorite Saturday evening entertainment: Sci Fi Channel original movies. Let's just say the expectations for those shows are a little...lower.

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