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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 21
Thrill Me!

Taken A couple of years ago I caught the movie Taken at the discount cinema outside of Austin. I paid $1.50 to watch ex-CIA officer Liam Neeson rescue his daughter from white slave traffickers and I can honestly say I got my money's worth, but no more, because I never completely engaged with the material. Part of it was due to the standard movie thriller ridiculousness -- firing guns in small apartments without deafening any of the occupants, or even alerting neighbors -- but more of it had to do with its betrayal of how the best thrillers should work, a point driven home to me after Rogue Male catching a recent performance of John Frankenheimer's classic shocker Seconds. Fun though Taken might have been in its way, the forty-five-year-old exercise in paranoia showed just how outmatched the newer effort was.

The best thrillers traditionally concern ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. They may have specialized knowledge or hobbies (see the narrator of Geoffrey Household's sublime Rogue Male), they may possess specialized skills (see Rambo, sans the John, in David Morrell's brutal but effective First Blood), but on the whole they are regular people who must overcome incredible odds in order to survive. (In this respect, they resemble American naturalists such as Jack London, whose protagonists faced incredible challenges, many of them natural, that were often too great for their own modest abilities.) Law enforcement either cannot or will not believe their circumstances, either because they believe the protagonist to be delusional, or because they believe the protagonist to be the actual danger, or because they themselves are complicit in the conspiracy against the protagonist. The antagonists themselves are often smarter, better equipped, better manned and better funded, which means that the protagonist must learn to outsmart his or her opponents. He must learn that he is better than they. It is something Hitchcock understood when he made The Thirty-Nine StepsThe Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest, and which the first-time director of Taken turns upside down.

Taken's protagonist is ex-CIA. He is better trained than his Armenian antagonists they have more people and more money, but aren't any smarter than your average street thugs, making them little threat. (Indeed, they resemble the Spangled Mob in Ian Fleming's novel Diamonds Are Forever, who has significant manpower but nothing in the way of brains.) This bleeds the film of suspense because it treats the viewer not to an ordinary man overcoming extraordinary odds, but a trained professional picking off second-rate criminals. It's like watching an exterminator kill roaches or a pimply teenager play a video game: mildly amusing, but lacking in any real involvement. A better way to have handled the material would have been to have Kim, Neeson's daughter, once captured, overcome her captors and escape. Instead, actress Maggie Grace spends most of her time staggering through her scenes in a drugged state. By focusing on Neeson's professional, the filmmakers fuel a power fantasy of justifiable homicide.

Seconds If Taken upends the standard thriller format, it retains the thriller's fundamental flaw: nothing actually happens. Neither the world nor the characters that inhabit it change. In the thriller, sabers may rattle, but in the end the protagonist manages to keep the world in the same shape it was before bad people decided to do bad things. It upholds the status quo, keeping the social order instead of transforming it, even if the transformation might be horrifying. 

This is not always the case, and Frankenheimer shows how it can be done.

Change occurs in Seconds. Indeed, its very subject is change. Middle-aged Arthur Hamilton's (played by John Randolph) life has lost meaning despite his successes, but he is given another chance at life through an organization simply known as the "Company," which assists those who have the means in disappearing and creating new lives. And he receives it; after plastic surgery, he is transformed into the artist Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), with a new home and a new identity. And as he tries to adjust, he begins to feel the same level of ennui as before.

Dune Both Taken and Seconds deal with high-concept ideas, but their approaches are vastly different. Taken, with Neeson hunting desperately for his daughter, spins its wheels in an attempt to return the world to normalcy. However, Arthur Hamilton/Tony Wilson does not wish to remove an irritant from his world; he wants to change his own world. In this, Seconds less resembles the paranoid thrillers of its period (and of the 70s) than an extended, more visually absorbing episode of The Twilight Zone.

The Stars My Destination The world of the thriller is rigid, frozen, unchanging. But things change. Things do change, even in what we consider escapist fiction. Think of Frank Herbert's Dune, in which Paul Atreides is left by the Harkonnens to die in the desert. He does not fight to restore the old social order, but instead usurps it, turning Arrakis over to the Fremen. And Gully Foyle in The Stars My Destination does not try to return PyrE to its rightful owners, but instead gives the entire solar system the ability to use PyrE... for their own benefit, or their own destruction. Even the most recent Star Trek movie, by destroying the planet Vulcan and altering the entire series' time stream, changed the very universe on which its initial template was built.

If the very nature of fiction is change, then the thriller could benefit from letting their protagonists change the world, rather than letting it stagnate. It's always frustrating to see a thriller in the multiplex that does not allow its characters to build new worlds, and it's always refreshing to see older thrillers rise to the challenge.

Copyright © 2011 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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