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by David J. Skal

ONCE UPON A STORYBOARD


FIRST, a little personal backstory on a new film that's all about backstory. Once upon a monster-kid childhood, swirling with inexorable curses, haunted castles, and high-collared capes, Walt Disney's Maleficent prefigured, whetted and abetted my lifelong obsession with Dracula. I was seven years old in 1959, and none of the monsters I so far had encountered—Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, and King Kong—personified undiluted evil. They all had mitigating, humanizing issues. They wanted love and acceptance. But then I met the devilish Miss M., the real star of Sleeping Beauty, the incomparable diva of dark fantasy, and, unquestionably for me, Dracula's rightful mother.

The brilliant Disney animator Marc Davis created Maleficent almost out of thin air. In the tellings of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, the evil fairy (or "wise woman" in Grimm), is barely a character at all, just a throwaway device pulled in to cast a curse on the king's newborn daughter, and never seen again. The part was fleshed out as a drag role in Victorian Christmas pantomimes (a young Henry Irving played it, with elaborate make-up, as "Venoma") and most fully realized in the first Disney film. Like the vain monarch in Snow White and the wicked stepmother in Cinderella (with additional coloration from Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter and Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca), Maleficent emerged as the most imperious drag queen this side of hell, and remains a treasured icon for gay men, at least those of a certain age.

The original Maleficent went through a protracted development sturm und drang, and she emerged triumphant. In the earliest concepts, she was an old hag, then revised as an attractive sorceress with wavering space-age antennae, sort of The Wasp Woman meets My Favorite Martian. The tentative, budding protuberances eventually swelled into those wondrous curling horns we know and love today. It's only recently come to light that Maila "Vampira" Nurmi, the pioneering TV horror hostess, modeled for Disney artists during the final character design process in 1956. She reportedly hated the horns and argued for oversized cat's ears (wisely rejected), but a side-by-side examination of Vampira publicity photos and the finished Maleficent designs indisputably demonstrate Nurmi's influence, especially in the exaggerated Gothic arch of the eyebrows, which simultaneously evoked the ubiquitous boomerang motif of the postwar, pre-Mad Men design zeitgeist.

Many of Disney's most successful recent films have turned on the theme of female empowerment and Maleficent obediently follows the pack, though the nature of the character's power is significantly subverted. As per one of the film's advance promotional tags, "Evil Is Complicated," so don't go expecting your gay uncle's wicked fairy.

In Maleficent's new backstory, we meet a spunky fairy child with angelic ebony wings. Since she's hardly "malefic" at this point it's not clear from whom or from where such a baggage-heavy name came from. She meets a human boy, Stefan, who wanders into her enchanted forest. He's poor, and dreams of advancement in the castle of his king. As the years pass, the pair fall in love, but when the dying old king declares Maleficent his enemy (she makes a formidable winged warrior when provoked), he offers his throne in exchange for her head. The grown-up Stefan (Sharlto Copley) is possessed by Macbeth-worthy ambition. He gives his old flame the fairyland equivalent of a date-rape drug and brutally amputates her wings, which he offers to the king as proof of her demise, and snags the crown.

If allowing Maleficent to live on, mutilated, is supposed to be a gesture of mercy, it doesn't work. Since Angelina Jolie's last media blitz turned on her painful decision to have an elective double mastectomy, this sequence is especially raw and unsettling. But it completely justifies Maleficent's revenge at the christening of Stefan's daughter Aurora, and she crashes the event with imperious panache. The famous spindle-curse is delivered exactly as in the old film, but there's a major difference. This time, we're rooting for Maleficent.

It's the first of many ironic and entertaining reversals screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) has woven into the story. Though the film takes few real chances (certainly Maleficent would never have been reimagined sympathetically if the mega-hit musical Wicked hadn't tested the revisionist waters first, and given an all-clear), Woolverton and director Robert Stromberg know how to roll out the surprises winningly. We realize we're no longer in Kansas (or its faux-medieval equivalent) when Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), teetering on the verge of her fateful sixteenth birthday, finally coaxes Maleficent out of the shadows to identify the hovering presence that has stalked her from birth. "I know who you are," she says, ominously, before cheerfuly blurting, "You're my fairy godmother!" Jolie's deadpan reaction is priceless, and therein lies a charming, if topsy-turvy tale.

If Maleficent's character is emotionally softened, Jolie's physical command of the part is diamond hard. Finally, here's a fittingly iconic part for an actress better known to most people from the tabloids than her screen roles, and she inhabits an over-the-top assignment with appropriately blazing conviction. Her sharp prosthetic cheekbones (a minimalist tour de force from special effects wizard Rick Baker) actually eliminate the need for the spindle of any spinning wheel—heck, all she'd need to do is goad the girl into slapping her face. (It's mandatory that all reviews of Maleficent contain a lame cheekbone joke, so now you have mine.) As the ascendant king, Copley has little to do except glower and rage, and it would be a welcome change to see this talented actor given a substantial character role far from any green screen or storyboard.

A high point of the Sleeping Beauty story, at least in the Disney versions, is the late appearance of an impressive, fire-breathing dragon. As luck would have it this summer, an atomic-age update on the incendiary creature of ancient legend also makes his own curiously tardy appearance in the trumpeted reboot of Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards. Since we know that this latest installment of a venerable saga—the thirtieth iteration since the Japanese original of 1954—won't dare serve up anything as inadequate and insulting as the iguana-like atrocity Roland Emmerich used to bitch-slap unsuspecting 1998 audiences, this time, as solemnly promised by the full faith and credit of Comic-Con, Godzilla is going to be Godzilla.

So, why wait half the movie to bring him on? Because pampered monster royalty nowadays demand contract riders guaranteeing an extended warm-up act, in this case radiation-eating Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, or MUTOs, which look a bit like giant versions of H. R. Giger's aliens fashioned from origami. Also on the opening bill is Bryan Cranston as another overwrought family man and sci-guy, a la Breaking Bad, with the Walter White similarities extending to his having a son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a role that could easily have gone to Cranston's television son-surrogate, Aaron Paul.

Cranston uncovers the monstrous truth behind a Fukushima-like nuclear plant meltdown, where the real contamination is one of the MUTOs. The Godzilla storyline is not well integrated, or satisfyingly explained. A Japanese scientist played by Ken Watanabe makes solemn mutterings about the mysterious ways of giant monsters, and how all humans can do is trust that the MUTOs' collision with Godzilla has to do with profound ecological score-settling and the restoration of environmental balance. For no good reason, we just need to accept that Godzilla's on our side. Stop asking questions, just eat your popcorn.

The new CGI reptile is technically impressive, but fails badly in the personality department, usually Godzilla's strongest (rubber) suit. Here, the famous thunder-thighs have all their bulk transposed to his neck and trunk like a giant, immobilizing goiter that makes impossible any of the quizzical head-cocking and expressivity that's so much of the traditional Godzilla appeal. Matters are worsened by the insistence on lots of night and shadow—yes, we get it, this is an homage to the first film where everything was dark and depressing, but enough is enough. We can barely see the famous monster's eyes, except for a few fleeting close-ups. I initially wondered why a seasoned motion-capture performer like Andy Serkis wasn't called in to make faces—until I read that, hey, he actually was. Unfortunately, none of the empathetic qualities Serkis managed to bestow on Peter Jackson's King Kong or Gollum even register.

The three cities chosen for destruction are all vacation destinations: Honolulu, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. Product placement for tax credits? Since my one-and-only trip to Honolulu involved being holed up at the Hilton Hawaiian Village during a three-day-long cloudburst, it was with satisfying schadenfreude that I watched other guests at the same resort get splashed and trashed by a monster tsunami—"monster" in both the literal and figurative terms. In the Bay Area, it is, of course, obligatory for Godzilla to tango with the Golden Gate Bridge, first attacked by Ray Harryhausen's giant cephalopod in It Came from Beneath the Sea. Sadly, the visual possibilities of pulverizing the Vegas Strip are pretty much wasted, and we mostly see the aftermath. I really wanted that MUTO from Yucca Mountain to wade through the dancing fountains at the Bellagio, with tourists unable to decide between running or taking snapshots. Frank Sinatra's "My Way" would have been the perfect underscore. In short, a little humor could have gone a long way, especially because steadily accruing humor was integral to the original Toho franchise's longevity. By sticking so relentlessly to the somber 1954 vision, Edwards misses any opportunity to rekindle the audience-involving sense of fun that characterizes the Godzilla mythos as a whole.

Since Godzilla is a cultural reverie, not science class, a certain degree of disbelief suspension is to be expected, but perhaps not as much as this film demands. Even with Godzilla's new, supersized 350-foot height, the water at the Golden Gate is still too deep for him to rear up over the bridge, unless he's a water-walking miracle. Nuclear energy in this movie functions much like fairy dust, some of it with a distinctly Freudian sparkle as one of the MUTOs rubs its glowing reproductive sac with a vibrator-like atomic missile. And wouldn't giant monsters with bottomless appetites for radiation basically be walking neutron bombs? No one would be gawking at property destruction—no one would be left alive. We are told that the live-and-ticking nuclear warhead drifting out of San Francisco Bay is many, many times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It detonates as a quiet background visual, with no apparent shockwave or fallout. And here we might ponder how this Godzilla, unlike the one that transfixed a traumatized Japan after Hiroshima, really has less to do with today's nuclear jitters (almost nonexistent in the polls, even after Fukushima) than it does with the still-unresolved shocks of 9/11. Until that gaping wound in the collective psyche is healed (and don't hold your breath), we can reliably expect to see big buildings in endless crumbling free-fall as a fairly permanent fixture of popular entertainment.

In the end, Godzilla, prematurely christened by cheerful Bay Area television announcers as the King of Monsters (have there been enough monsters around town to establish a hierarchy?), is hailed by San Franciscans for saving their city, even though he didn't exactly tiptoe around their tulips while tangling with the MUTOs. But since the people must all be dying from radiation sickness, perhaps their mental confusion can be forgiven.

As in Maleficent, the 3D process is perfunctory and adds little, except to the price of admission. The movie is dark enough without two more layers of gloom added: first by the glasses, and then by the energy-stingy, daylight-as-twilight subpar projection that makes you wish you had just waited for the DVD or Blu-ray. This film, like countless others these days, will look much better in the normal brightness setting of any home video system.

Meanwhile, expect ticket prices to continue their rise, even as the lights dim ever lower, and only Godzilla's glowing breath and Maleficent's greenish fire remain to illuminate your experience.

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