Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Real American Hero

    In 2013, after a year of delays to reshoot and add in 3D effects, the sequel to 2009's G.I.JOE: The Rise of Cobra was finally released. It was entitled G.I.JOE: Retaliation.
    It was originally slated for a June 2012 release but pushed back into the following spring instead. The rumor at the time was that some of the film executives had seen the finished product and decided it needed a bit of fixing and also that since 3D was such a big deal now, it could use with that addition as well. (The delay came after the initial trailers had already been put out to theaters and the toys were well into production by Hasbro, the company that owns the property. After the delay, several stores put the toys out anyway since they had the stock in-hand).
    The post production 3D conversion rumor appears to have been a fact while the re-shoot rumors may or may not be true (I’ve never actually seen anyone connected with the film confirm they really happened. All I saw was fan sites stating it like a fact). Regardless, the film was delayed by nine months.
    The film is an interesting project all on its own. Numerous articles cite the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, as stating that he wanted it to be a stand-alone film and/or soft reboot. Several fans disliked the first movie since it deviated some from the established concept, making the Joes an international force and having more James Bond like elements rather then militaristic ones.
    When watching the film, it’s clear the film is a sequel to The Rise of Cobra. Cobra Commander and Destro are prisoners of the Joes; Storm Shadow returns from the dead; Zartan is still impersonating the President... Duke is the same actor; Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s back history employs much of the same footage from ROC.
    And yet it clearly isn’t.
    Now, the Joes are an American Special Forces unit. Only “One man can give that order” (to kill the Joes), which is in reference to the U.S. President. Cobra Commander has an established hierarchy in place for Cobra when he returns from imprisonment (Firefly tells him, “Welcome back, Commander”, implying that he was already waiting not just hired new). Also, Zartan lead Storm Shadow down the path of servitude to Cobra when he was young (which would be odd if Cobra didn’t even exist yet).
    The film is full of contradictions. Much of the second film is thematically more in-tune with what Joe fans want to see (Cobra Commander looks right; Storm Shadow changes sides; both sides have cool futuristic tanks; Firefly has a similar costume to his 80s incarnation; Zartan’s powers work more like the ARAH comic, etc.) But in many places the story decisions imply it should be a reboot while others imply it is a sequel.
    It seems likely Chu went into the project with a clear vision to make a reboot film, ignoring the first one completely as he’d stated in earlier interviews. But then somebody, most likely Hasbro, decided to the two films had to connect for continuity (for obvious marketing reasons). Perhaps they reasoned viewers would be confused how and if the films related. Recall the two Ghost Rider movies–both star Nicholas Cage as the titular character but are intended to be separate films. Also, the Ang Lee Hulk film and Louis Letierre’s The Incredible Hulk were originally intended to be a series but the latter film was made into a reboot instead.
    I can understand their logic here and agree with the decision. To write-off the first movie is silly. No, not everyone liked it (judging by the fanboy vitriol online) but I don’t think it was that bad of a film actually (different then what was expected, yes, but not necessary bad per se). To throw away the first film makes it worthless in a sense and for the casual viewer (i.e. most people) it would be confusing. What if Paramount chose to the bundle two films together later? What if Hasbro wanted to re-use some of the first film’s toys? Also, it was only a few years in-between the two films (contrast this with Superman Returns–a film that came out nearly twenty years after Superman IV. Now there’s a film that never should’ve tried to connect with its predecessors and needed to be standalone).
    In-story, it’s hard to rationalize the contradictions. I suppose Zartan could’ve been in a position to poison Storm Shadow’s perspective and did so with the idea of using him in the future–which he did when Cobra was eventually formed. Perhaps the U.S. conceived of the idea of the Joe team and after the ROC debacle, downsized it back to a U.S.-only operation. Or perhaps there are other Joe style teams in other parts of the world? This would account for why we never got a clear explanation where most of the first movie’s cast was. Maybe the Cobra organization was fully formed before Cobra Commander went to prison and Destro was duped into believing it was all his plan all along? Maybe they needed his monetary and/or technical resources long enough to subvert them for Rex’s personal army (aka Cobra).
    In the end, I like both of the films for different reasons. Both are at least decent films about our favorite soldier heroes. Retaliation has more familiar RAH elements but I think ROC might have a slightly stronger story overall (that is, a better thought out or composed plot while Retaliation felt a bit weak in places).
    Chu is coming back for the third outing apparently. Truth be told, I’d rather have a new director come onboard and see what new take they bring to it all. Keep it different from film to film and allow those differences to add some new flavor to each story.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Setting the Course...

    Every story starts with the kernel of the idea. From the kernel comes the firm idea, then an outline then a rough draft and so on.
    In the realm of television, the rough draft is often manifest in the form of the Pilot episode. Sometimes the story materializes fully in its final form. Other times, it has elements that are later smoothed out–a different actor or a concept missing (or conversely, a concept or extraneous character removed).
    Pilots are designed to show television executives at the various networks what the show will be. Psychic detective solves crimes? Check. Space western? Check. Promiscuous bachelor gets into wacky hijinks with his inept brother? Check. But often times what the executives see in the beginning is not what we end up with. Sometimes this is a good thing. Other times, not so much.            
    When I think back on the nineties, two shows spring to mind immediately:
    Sliders, a show about a guy who develops a device that can travel between alternate universes. Together with his Professor, a girl he likes and a washed up lounge singer, he travels from world to world, each one variations on the world he knows. The show went several seasons, each worse then the last before finally being canceled.
    The pilot is noticeably better then the rest of the series. The concept is intriguing; the budget seems slightly higher then the rest of the show (it was always somewhat-low budget but the pilot was better looking. Let us not mention the Sci-Fi Channel episodes later on, which seemed awful looking even up against the earlier FOX episodes).
    Sadly the show never quite lived up to the potential of the pilot. The show had some good episodes, granted, but the budget hampered a lot of what could’ve been accomplished (or at least that’s what I view as the problem. Too many episodes happen in the exact same locale, involving many of the same background characters).
    Another story with an excellent pilot was Roswell. The pilot was about a teenaged girl finding the boy of her dreams. The only problem? He was a super powered alien.
    In the case of Roswell, I think the producers didn’t really know where to go with it. The first season was about the three alien characters (Max, Isabelle, Michael) finding their way in human society and evading secret government forces out to capture them. Season two was more contrived–an alien princess (Tess) came to retrieve the main alien character, Max; used her mind-manipulating powers to kill their friend Alex off and tricked Max into loving her. Season three went off in yet another direction so stupid I had trouble remembering it (I looked it up on Wikipedia finally). If the show had stayed a bit more grounded, focused on Max and Liz’s relationship more and gone less dumb-soap-opera it might’ve remained around longer then it did.
    Another, more recent example is the Knight Rider reboot. The pilot was decent (not fantastic but certainly serviceable) and a good set-up but the series producers (who were different then the movie pilot’s ones) apparently didn’t know how to take the idea seriously and made it goofy, focusing on girls in bikinis, bad storytelling and absurdity such as a car that can transform into a truck–while somebody is driving it no less. By the time they tried to fix what was wrong it was far too later. Viewers had long since tuned out. The original show had been cheesy too–but it was sincere 80s cheese, not intentionally stupid but more a product of its time.

    Even more recently, Almost Human and Intelligence had excellent pilots. Almost Human was starting to really bore me for a while there but later in the first season got more interesting again by picking up on lingering story threads (it’s still a bit too early to tell but it might have avoided the trap).
    Intelligence set up a great idea for a running storyline in the first episode–only to resolve  in the second one! Despite this, it’s had some interesting stories come along so it too might have avoided the trap. Or it might devolve eventually into monotony. Time will tell. 
    It’s hard to say why one show debuts and survives while another goes off the rails. Generally, a lack of direction can take it off course. The producers of the show having no idea where they really want to go with it after birthing it–or just plain having nothing to say after bothering to grab our attention in the first place. Sometimes production issues can affect it too–I am certain Sliders low budget caused it to fail to live up to its true potential.
    It’s great when a story debuts strong and only gets better from there. But oft times, a concept starts strong, giving it a hundred and ten percent right out of the gate only to sputter out not long thereafter. But I guess they can’t all be successful all the time, right?
    Such is life...