Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum

February 2007
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

by Kathi Maio

In a Dark and Rainy City of Lights

THIS should probably be a very embarrassing confession, but I am awfully foggy about the differences between comic books and graphic novels. Oh, I understand that there are few similarities between say, the latest fictional Archie adventure to hit the newsstand and the hardbound memoirs of Marjane Satrapi. (Just as wholesome Riverdale is a far cry and half a world away from revolutionary Tehran.) But there are plenty of instances where the differences between the various drawn-and-written literary forms are much harder to distinguish. And if you throw in Asian (now morphing internationally) manga, it becomes even more baffling.

The film industry doesn't always know what to call this stuff, either. But they know that they want to exploit the material, the themes, and even the looks of graphic fiction and autobiography.

The most jealously courted and most often produced screen adaptations still come from the comic book tradition of the superhero. There have been scores of these movies. And it has been interesting to see popular culture Zeitgeist reflected in the ever-changing portrayal of old standbys like Batman and Superman over the decades. It is also interesting to see how very different more recent "superhero" creations—like Mike Mignola's Hellboy, who made it onto the big screen in an under-viewed but quite good adaptation written and directed by Guillermo del Toro—are from the older and more cleanly heroic tights-wearing wonders.

Feature-length adaptations of comic books have (despite the technical FX challenges) primarily consisted of live-action moviemaking. And even the less cartoonish graphic fiction and memoirs of authors like Daniel Clowes (see Terry Zwigoff's wonderful film version of Ghost World from 2001) and Harvey Pekar (see Berman and Pulcini's equally fabulous adaptation of American Splendor from 2003) have almost entirely relied on live-action photography.

Sensitive direction combined with the complex performances of talented actors (like Ghost World's Thora Birch and American Splendor's Paul Giamatti) add real depth to minimalist drawn and inked storytelling, allowing a coming-of-age dramedy like Ghost World or a dyspeptic wallow-in-middle-age dramedy like American Splendor to work well as motion pictures, and not just simply as comic book adaptations.

However, when a film consists of photographing living actors as they populate a set director's physical environment, then for good or ill, the vivid, vital, and sometimes harsh impact of the original graphic work is essentially lost. In one sense, it doesn't matter that Spidey and Ghost World's Enid began as drawn figures, because the film adaptations they live in retain no real connection to their illustrated (you call it comic book, I call it graphic novel) source material.

In the last couple of years, as amazing advances have been made in the field of computer and video FX, some filmmakers have accepted the challenge to create a movie that retains a real graphic novel sensibility while still fully utilizing the nuanced performances of live actors.

The most successful to date is Robert Rodriguez's 2005 hyper-violent noir Sin City (co-helmed by Frank Miller, the man who created the original comics). I don't want to talk about it at length, since it is not really sf or fantasy. But I want to take a minute to acknowledge the brilliant job Mr. Rodriguez (Spy Kids) did in fully utilizing the voice, body, and facial performances of a first-rate cast (including Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, and an astonishingly good Mickey Rourke), while still washing out almost all of their flesh tones and almost all of the varied colors in their digitally created and/or CGI-enhanced sets.

This noir world is one of black, white, and gray—with just an occasional splash of color. We may momentarily see the blue of a young woman's eye, the red satin of a prostitute's heart-shaped bed, or the putrid yellow flesh of a living-dead pedophilic serial killer. But in most scenes, we see black, white, and gray. This truly is a graphic novel come to life, and as such is incredibly well done. Beautiful, even. If only the story weren't so gruesomely and extravagantly violent.

To say that the content of Sin City is not really my taste is an understatement of huge proportions. And yet I could not take my gaze off the screen as I watched it. The intersecting comic book plots worked, and the stereotyped tough guy and whore heroes were oddly affecting characters. The film even boasts touches of wonderfully ghoulish humor (notably in Rourke's man-beast avenger's joie de assassinat and the cautionary commentary provided by a corpse played by Benicio Del Toro).

Sin City melds the graphic novel and the live-action film in a way that honors the strengths of both. I wish I could say the same for a more recent feature from France called Renaissance.

A dystopic crime procedural set in Paris in 2054, Renaissance was created by filming live actors using a mocap (motion capture) process similar to that used in 2004's woeful kiddie flick Polar Express, and then superimposing the actors onto an imagined futuristic multi-level Parisian landscape, all while converting color and texture into a stark, striking black and white "animated" movie.

As an experiment in marrying motion to a very painterly b&w two-tone storyboard, Renaissance is a breathtaking achievement. Sadly, as a full-length film with an involving plot and compelling characters, it fails completely.

Director Christian Volckman and producer Aton Soumache, working with a young technical wizard named Marc Miance (who was in turn working with scores of techies and animators on 300 workstations and 200 render servers provided by IBM), set about to push 3D animation forward. This they did. But it is clear after just a few minutes of Renaissance that the creative team behind the movie were so hung up on the visual wow factor, that they lost sight of the fact that they were trying to tell a story, too.

The screenplay by Mathieu Delaporte, Alexandre de la Patellière, Patrick Raynal, and Jean-Bernard Pouy, is an amalgam of every Hollywood noir movie French film students ever pored over, plus bits and pieces of Metropolis, Blade Runner, and countless other sf movies. Unfortunately, the end result has little cohesion, and even less character development.

To be fair, part of the problem is probably lost-in-translation syndrome. From what I can tell, the motion-captured actors ended up altered into graphic characters that were later voiced by yet another set of actors. On top of that, the secondary French voice actors have been replaced (in the U.S. release from Miramax) with mostly British actors like Daniel Craig, Romola Garai, Catherine McCormack, Ian Holm, and Jonathan Pryce.

Combine the issue of twice-removed acting with the nuance-killing, slightly abstracting (not to mention distracting) black and white animation technique used, and you begin to wonder whether a film like this is simply a no-win proposition. Perhaps it isn't simply the fault of an inept director and his writers—the people we are trained to blame—that this work leaves a final impression of being dull, flat, and never quite fleshed out. The flesh here is, after all, merely expanses of white with splashes of black to complete the picture.

Maybe the dazzling visual conceit that will inspire potential viewers to seek out this film is the very thing that dooms it to failure.

But no, that's letting the folks behind this movie off way too easy. There were solvable problems in Renaissance that were just not addressed by the filmmakers. And most of these issues stem from the trite storyline. The setup is hackneyed, but not completely without promise. A hard-bitten police detective named Karas is assigned the case of a missing young female scientist named Ilona Tasuiev. The company she works for, a monolithic power called Avalon, wants her back, pronto. It seems that her latest research might be on the verge of discovering the secret to eternal life.

The billboards for the company, touting its slogan of "Health, Beauty, Longevity" are repeatedly shown throughout the movie. And we quickly get a sense that the corporation is not above thuggery and even murder. But we never learn what the company is really about, or what it means to the lives of Parisians. Does Avalon have the populace in thrall? What does it sell them? Who are the Parisians of 2054—specifically the ones, like the missing Ilona's older sister, Bislane, who people the sketchy plot and interact with Karas?

The movie makes no attempt to answer any of these questions. And I was surprised to read in the production notes for the film that in 2054 Paris "the borders have been sealed." If this fact is presented or discussed in any way in the film, then I guess I must have dozed off. Which is possible.

The film is a great opportunity completely squandered. Renaissance could have given us a real alternative and a refreshingly European view of the future. I would have welcomed that. Hollywood has a tendency to see the future (dystopic or not) as completely American. So much so that American sf disaster films have a penchant for blowing Paris to smithereens just for fun. (Shades of "the big one" Randy Newman advised us to drop on Paree more than thirty years back.)

Renaissance needed to go past its basic, banal mystery plot to explore the future society it supposedly has created for us. It should have also set aside its Gallic ennui long enough to enliven its characters with a bit of personality, and perhaps even a soupçon of wit. And, at the very least, it should have pondered the philosophical issues that would greet the scientific discovery of eternal life.

There is one character in the film who is actually the embodiment of this immortality research, but the film never even lets him speak to us…or to any of the characters, for that matter. A silent, wizened Yoda of a character wandering menacingly (pathetically?) through some of the final scenes, he is just another blown character opportunity in the sketchy plot of a very, very disappointing film.

To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to

Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted by:
SF Site spot art