Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Curse of the Reverse Rip-Off

I recently watched, for the second time, Disney's somewhat disastrous movie, John Carter. This, if you don't know it, is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel A Princess of Mars, which was published in 1912. As you might imagine, the story does not contain cutting-edge scientific facts about Mars. Nor did it in 1912. But that's not the point, of course - it's just a bit of knockabout fun with some top British actors, as usual, doing service as aliens. (I mean, whaddya want, French aliens?)

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John Carter turned into a disaster for Disney not because it's a bad movie, but because they seem to have made a comprehensive mess of marketing it. You'd think an exciting adventure on a fantasy planet with lots of battles, swords, airships, four-armed green barbarians, alien cities with legs, and other weird stuff wouldn't be too hard to promote. But it was, apparently, and poor old JC bombed. And that made me wonder if part of the problem was simply that the story, with its 'sword and planet' (as opposed to Tolkienesque 'sword and sorcery') theme is problematic because people feel it's already been done too often.

Star Wars is a hybrid of space opera - a proto-science fiction sub-genre that arose directly as a result of Burroughs' influence - with other obvious influences. The actual plot of Star Wars (the first film, technically Part IV: A New Hope) is taken directly from Kurosawa's samurai film The Hidden Fortress, but now the only reason most people know of the Japanese film is because Lucas paid it such sincere homage *cough*. But anyone watching John Carter might have felt that, yes, this is in some way a 'Star Wars rip-off' despite Burroughs obviously getting their first.

This problem of 'seen it already' might affect another sci-fi project taking shape at the moment - an three-part TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 novel Childhood's End. The opening sequence involves big alien spaceships appearing over major cities and sending us the helpful message that a. they're in charge now and b. everything will be fine because they're going to solve the world's problems. Guess what? Things are not that simple.

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Super-powerful aliens flying in and claiming to be our pals is the plot of V, the hit Eighties sf series that was recently remade to no great acclaim. (I tried it - it was dull, a classic instance of unambitious 'by the numbers' writing, direction etc). Will people think 'Oh, this is just ripping off V, I know what'll happen'? If so, they'll be very wrong - it's nothing like V. But perhaps they won't stick around long enough to find out.

That would be a pity, because if there's one thing I'd like to see more of on TV it's adaptations of classic works of sf. There are some good signs, notably The Man in the High Castle, the first two episodes of which live up to expectations. There are so many good books out there, and it would be nice to think of programme makers deciding to go with proven quality rather than this year's (or, more usually, last year's) gimmick. Well, we shall see.

And if you don't know the original V series, it's really cheesy and well worth a watch on YouTube. Oh, and before it was shown nobody believe in Lizard folk running the world. Now millions seem to. Such is the awesome power of televisual cheese...

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