What to Marvel at

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Marvel media (movies and TV) are something Serdar and I discuss a great deal because they influence modern culture and modern creators.  They’re unavoidable culturally, commercially, and in influence on the media being developed now.  Unfortunately, I think Marvel productions are leading people to the wrong conclusions.

Is this going to lead to me bashing the films?  No, because most Marvel media are good and many are great!

What would you find in a typical Marvel production?  Near-universally excellent casting, some of which cultivates or recognizes considerable talent.  Direction, productions, and effects deliver breathtaking action and heart-touching moments.  Scripts may not be award-winning, but they are clear, well-paced, and often surprise with genre analysis and interesting twists as Serdar notes.

If you want to be entertained and maybe get a bit more?  Marvel delivers.

The problem I have with Marvel is that it’s omnipresence has a warping effect.  Everyone is trying to do extended universes – which is nice in small doses but boring when everyone does it.  Once a rare subject to cover, superheroes are everywhere – and I like superhero stuff.  Marvel did well, but now everyone is doing Marvel, and there’s a sameness to it all – an unsustainable one in my opinion.

Success breeds imitation, and I’ve had enough imitation thanks.  To add to all of this, imitating what Marvel did – quite well – misses the major lessons of how Marvel made this work.

The secret of Marvel is valuing competence.

The lesson to take from Marvel is not to imitate what they make, it’s to look at how they consistently deliver solid, entertaining productions.  Analyze the effective and surprising casting.  Note how the films and shows pace themselves.  Examine the use of genres and genre-bending (especially as superhero stories are essentially meta-genres).  Learn from the media, not the overarching gigantic media machine.

Trying to imitate Marvel will only produce imitation without the foundation – and it probably won’t work unless you have money to throw at your efforts.  Instead, you can look to the foundation to find out how to build your own thing.

Besides, there’s only so much room for the same thing.

Steven Savage

Dogs In Space: Dogs With Something To Say

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

A good piece of fiction is alive.  It has a personality, a sense of being, and like any living creature, it surprises you.  Those living fictions are the ones that reach us and make an impression, often one that surprises us.

This is why I’m reviewing Dogs in Space.  Not the 1980’s slice-of-life band move.  I’m reviewing the Y7 Netflix series literally about dogs traveling in space to find a new planet for humans.  Truth in advertising indeed.

In Dogs in Space, humanity sends genetically uplifted dogs into space to find a replacement for our used-up Earth.  The story focuses on excitable be-thumbed Corgi named Garbage, captain to an equally eccentric crew of explorers.  Many episodes parody or refer to classic SF tropes, ranging from mildly amusing to laugh-out-loud funny and clever.  The pinnacle of these call-outs sees most of the cast turned into puppies and the adorable chaos that genetically enhanced puppies can get into.

Entertaining enough, but these shenanigans take place in a continuing plot and established world.  Our canine heroes are just a few of the crew of the giant mothership M-BARK, which boasts an entire city of evolved dogs.  Discoveries reveal a larger universe, from powerful aliens aware of Earth to Garbage and company finding another uplifted dog sent on an earlier mission.  There’s a living world inside the colorful and cute cartoon tale – one that could easily spawn a game or spinoffs.

Such a detailed world raises troubling questions, and the show is happy to follow these troublesome threads.  Each uplifted dog has an owner they pine to return to – but are humans manipulating them?  Are humans really worth saving, considering what we did to Earth?  Like any good fiction, Dogs in Space will surprise you and make you think – and throws in some surprises.

Dogs in Space holds a funhouse mirror up to SF, but sometimes it holds a mirror up to you and me – while keeping it’s Y7 rating.

This is why it deserved a review because it’s a fun little show that is well done.  I’m sure that many of us would enjoy a Y7 show (if only with our kids or young siblings) that had dogs making fun of SF tropes.  Instead, the show goes all the way to creating something alive, something good that makes an impression.

I can’t say it’s as good as the Netflix CGI He-Man.  The former is a masterclass in redoing a property and good, concise writing and pacing.  Dogs in Space is more a good example of bringing an idea to life, even with a few clunky or breezed-over bits.

Plus Dogs in Space has adorable dogs doing everything from piloting robots to pulling heists on alien space stations.  It’s just much more than that, its a piece of fiction that comes alive, and that warrants a review.

Steven Savage

Dune 2021: Incomparable By Choice

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Having seen the 2021 Dune movie by Denis Villeneuve, I’m not going to compare it to other takes or other films. Let’s talk about it on its own first.

Dune 2021 quickly introduces us to the world of the far future through the viewpoint of an initially nameless inhabitant of the titular planet (Chani, played by Zendaya). Through her angry eyes, we learn of Dune’s exploitation as its sands hold the drug known as Spice. Under the oppressive hand of the noble-in-title-only family of the Harkonnens, the natives watch their world exploited. When the Harkonnens suddenly leave, the natives assume they will have only a change of oppressors.

Suddenly, our view switches to the planet of Caladan, home of house Artredes, appointed to rule Dune by sudden and suspicious Imperial Decree. Our viewpoint is now that of Paul (Timothée Chalamet), an understandably moody young noble. Paul is caught up in political machinations, his need for an identity, and his mother’s involvement in a mysterious, mystical sisterhood, the Bene Gesserit. Despite wealth and power (possibly precognitive power) Paul is a pawn in many other games.

Chalamet’s Paul was where I truly began to appreciate the human-centric approach to Dune. We’ve all known Pauls, talented and well-meaning people enmeshed in obligations and demands that threatened to strangle their own identities. Less poetically, Paul is that slightly moody and awkward teenager whose moodiness is entirely understandable.

The film slowly and gradually moves onto the larger plots of intrigues and backstabbing, of visions and manufactured messiahs. For those somehow unfamiliar with the story, it would spoil the tale. For those familiar with the story, it is useless to summarize them. I would rather spend space describing how the film is done.

Theatrical is the word I finally used to describe the Dune of 2021. As grand as the world and the effects may be, the film stays focused on the characters. It is a tale of intimacy among sweeping planetscapes and galactic machinations. There is grandeur and impressive effects a-plenty, but these are backdrops to the characters because it is their story.

The moments I remember the most are the personal ones over special effects. Paul yelling in frustration over what people have tried to make him. The enduring bravery of Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) as he faces danger. The stoic yet fracturing expressions of Jessica Artredes (Rebecca Ferguson) as she navigates political and emotional minefields. Even battles with nameless troops have an impact because of well-chosen effects and shots that make the deaths and pain seem real.

The cast is universally excellent and embraces their roles appropriately but also with dignity. It would take little effort for me to praise each actor, but I prefer you experience the film for itself. I easily imagined this cast could have been filmed in front of paintings and still done a fine job.

Now, with a review comparing Dune 2021 to nothing else, let me now compare it to things.

First, I refuse to compare it to Lynch’s Dune or the Syfy television series. Each was made under different conditions, at different times, with different goals.  Dune is a challenging property to make anyway, and I feel all have their virtues and visions. This film is a vision as well.

It is also a vision that breaks every Holywood rule of the last few decades to deliver that vision. It hasn’t been cut or refined to fit assumptions and marketing calculations. There is no “save the cat” here to fit convenient audience expectations. No one holds your hand as a guide on the byzantine backstory; one has to pay attention. Finally, it’s two and a half hours long, and it’s only part one.

I’d put Dune 2021 up there with such things as Kwaidan and Silent Running. To see it is to experience a vision of what was wanted, a consistent, personal take on the story. It may not be an easy experience, but like Paul, you get farther when you seek a vision and follow it through pain and fire to something greater.

Did I enjoy Dune 2021? No, I experienced it, and that is a need all too rarely satisfied.

Steven Savage