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2014 Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) - Bela Lugosi's Dead, Jim
July 7th, 2014
12:15 am
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2014 Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

General notes:

  • Major spoilers for everything on the ballot!
  • Reviews in order of reading/watching.

My current ranking is:

  1. Gravity
  2. Frozen
  3. Pacific Rim
  4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  5. No award
  6. Iron Man 3

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

It’s a while since I saw this, so this review is necessarily a bit thinner than the rest.

This is the adaption of the second book of a very readable trilogy, which in some ways suffers from the need to get from the essentially complete story of the first book to the starting point of the third. Specifically it has been criticised as essentially a respin of the first, and this is fair up to a point - Katniss and Peeta have to go back into the arena, very much reprising the first film.

However it’s a fundamental fact about the dystopic Panem that it keeps on applying essentially the same mechanisms of control and oppression and will continue to do so until someone forces it to stop. Moreover this episode does shed a much wider light on the Panem’s specific pathologies, and gradually brings the plot to overthrow them into view. It adds up: the plotters are targeting the highest-profile and most pointlessly cruel institution of the Capitol’s regime, which has produced a viable symbol of resistance, so of course the story must be the continued evolution of that symbol inside the institution.

I don’t remember much more to say about it! It’s a perfectly good film and I’ll be watching the sequels, though it didn’t leap out as an obvious choice for best SF film of the year.


Iron Man 3

Iron Man was a perfectly serviceable Batman-lite superhero movie, and Iron Man 2 a touch on the predictable side, although just about rescued by Sam Rockwell.

The start is unpromisingly ridden with cliché: he’s overworking, he’s screwing up his relationship (perhaps putting it at risk of a handsome business rival); and there’s a cartoonish¹ superterrorist causing trouble.

 ¹ forgivable for an adaptation of a comic book, of course.

Still, the film quickly finds its feet and gets Tony into a fight, taking out a helicopter by the relatively novel expedient of lobbing a piano at it. It resolves the usual superhero-film trap (viz. how do you have an interesting plot when the hero can defeat anyone and anything?) by separating him from his suit, and makes his playboy-superhero character traits (which can be a trifle irritating) serve him well in picking up allies as he goes.

In the finale we discover that:

  • His suits work pretty much as well when empty as when occupied...
  • ...but they are subject to conservation of ninjutsu.
  • Pepper Potts can survive being fridged.

This final point seriously undermines the film, to my mind. Not only is his love interest killed off to motivate him; not only does she fail to stay dead; but none of this is even particularly surprising.

Could it be the best SF&F dramatic presentation of the last year? I really hope not.


Pacific Rim

The premise is straightforward: giant monsters (Kaiju) threaten the world with destruction, on a scale that can only be considered localised when the context is giant monsters, humanity’s response is naturally giant robots (Jaegers), despite the widespread availability of nuclear weaponry.

The Jaegers require two mind-melded pilots to drive. This is used to drive a bit of character background, but otherwise seems to serve as little more than a device to buddy people up.

A pair of rather caricatured researchers advance the understanding of the Kaiju and associated plot minutiae, though their only really engaging scene is Charlie Day’s encounter with Ron Perlman’s over-the-top black marketeer. But there’s no tension around these characters: they uniquely possess information at one point but despite incomprehensibly neglecting the use of telecommunications to transmit it, the interval before they tell the people who need to know is so short that one suspects an intervening challenge or two must have been left on the editing-room floor.

The framing is a bit hard to justify - the world’s governments not only abandoning their best available response to an existential threat but maintaining this policy in the place of their alternative plan demonstrably failing.

The non-anglophone Jaeger pilots are badly underused - they do their bit in the fights but their involvement in character and plot development in the downtime periods is actually zero, as far as I can remember. To some extent the same is true of Max Martini as Herc Hansen, though the situation isn’t quite as parlous in that case.

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi do a solid job as heroes, and Idris Elba makes a fine commander. The fight scenes are highly entertaining, with massive destruction and a wide variety of telegenic weaponry deployed by the Jaegers. In contrast to IM3 (above), sacrifice represents something beyond a means to an end.

There’s a lot of criticism above, but this perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s an undeniably an enjoyable film, starting from a good concept and implemented well.


Gravity

The films opens with a space shuttle mission working on the Hubble Space Telescope, astronauts and mission control bantering as they work. There is not much time dedicated to setup though: very shortly the shuttle is bombarded with a debris of an ill-considered experiment, killing most of the crew and leaving one survivor adrift in space. The bulk of the film concerns her rescue by the other survivor and their subsequent attempts to stay alive and find a means to return to earth.

This is an effects-heavy film, and they’re done well. The initial destruction scene is tense and gripping (I originally saw it in a trailer but it is so initial to the film that it didn’t really spoil it for me). While later analogous scenes can’t really top it - to an even slightly knowing viewer there is much less room for uncertainty about their outcome - they certainly don’t disappoint.

The film is scored effectively, with the persistent and intense rhythms used in the destruction sequences in particular making an impression that I don’t think any of the films listed above managed.

There are certainly nods to the physics. Once actually trying to hold on to fast moving objects the astronauts are bounced and swung around in ways that didn’t seem implausible (at least to me!) The orbital mechanics I was less convinced by - play something like Osmos for a bit and you’ll learn that reaching a distant object is a bit harder than pointing yourself at a straight at it and turning on the motor.

Much of the film is simply talking while waiting for something to happen. It’s a strength of the film, though one that requires a couple of devices to maintain after the death of Clooney (as the captain); Bullock has to make chance radio contact with fisherman, and later hallucinate Clooney’s return, to maintain it.

It’s an excellent film, and a candidate for first place in my ballot.


Frozen

The only nominee with ducks, so I naturally was biased in favour quite early.

Elsa is the heir to the throne of a pre-industrial polity, Anna is her younger sister. As a child Elsa turns out to have ice-based magical powers and is therefore isolated from Anna (and, less relevantly, everyone else) by their parents, who then die.

The story picks up at the end of the extended period of isolation, with Elsa due to be crowed Queen. Neighbouring potentates turn up in the hope of trade agreements, marriage alliances, etc. When Anna falls for the dashing Prince Hans, Elsa reacts extremely badly, fleeing to the mountains and bringing about a local ice age.

Anna’s plan is to track down Elsa and persuade her to fix things and return. She’s assisted in this by: Kristoff, an ice vendor; Sven, his reindeer; Olaf, an animate snowman created by Elsa’s magic; and a tribe of trolls. Separately Hans and others, who see Elsa as a major threat, attempt to track her down; eventually they imprison her, but not before she’s seriously injured Anna. Ultimately the act of love required to save Anna turns out not to be a kiss from Hans (who turns out to be a bad ‘un) or Kristoff (who is late, despite his best efforts) but Anna’s own sacrifice of herself to save Elsa. Everyone ends happily ever after, excepting the greedy and treacherous.

The animation is of the quality you’d hope for from a film made last year, and the songs fit in naturally. It undermines a few fairy tale clichés, which is undeniably refreshing but hardly innovative (Shrek was taking potshots at the genre more than a decade ago and that’s only the first one I thought of). Anna is an engaging character; Elsa on the other hand seems more driven by her (undeniably rotten) situation than her character. Olaf combines comedy sidekick with the constant possibility of tragedy, not something that can really be said to give him depth as such but that is nevertheless an effective device. (He also takes “just a minute” literally, which appeals to my prejudices.)

It’s a fun film, and you’d have to have been living under a rock to have failed to notice how incredibly popular it’s been, something that’s certainly justified. Up there with the best of them.

(N has been singing Let It Go for weeks and I doubt she’ll stop any time soon l-)

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