Deep Outside SFFH - Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

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Welcome to our third issue! Outside: Speculative & Dark Fiction is a Web-only magazine of short Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

Outside In: Review - reviews of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror books and movies.
A.L. Sirois reviews the novel Wicked, as well as the recent Science Fiction film Pleasantville and last summer's "blockbuster" Armageddon.

Wicked is a, how-you-say, revisionist work. In the manner of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists Of Avalon, it gives new a spin to its main character, here Elphaba, the green-skinned putative Wicked Witch of the West.
     The Oz presented in this book is a Nazi-like regime ruled by a Wizard who tolerates no dissent. Those who oppose him often disappear, taken in the night by his secret police or murdered outright as an object lesson to others. Yet this is the Oz we know from Baum's books, cut off from the rest of the world, inhabited by talking animals and magical creatures like Jack Pumpkinhead, spherical clockwork robots ("ticktock machines") and a Victorian level of technology. But you'd have to interlard L. Frank Baum with considerable doses of Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick to get the flavor of this remarkable first novel's masterful prose and tone.
     The hinterlands of Oz retain somewhat more autonomy than does the Emerald City. It's here that Elphaba is born to an itinerant Munchkin family, causing them much consternation with her green skin and sharp, pointed baby teeth.
     Drawn into the political turmoil surrounding the denial of basic rights to Oz's magical talking Animals (the capital letter is used to distinguish between talking and non-talking species, so that we have Horses and horses), Elphaba and her college roommate, ditzy Valley Girl Galinda, find themselves on opposing sides, manipulated by the Svengali-like mistress of their dormatory, who bends them to her will through spells.
     Both Elphaba and Glinda (as she has come to be called) know they are pawns in a larger game but are helpless to break free of the roles into which they have been cast by the rigid society around them.
     Really, this is an astonishing novel, part fantasy, part psychological study, part cautionary tale, part political thriller. We know how she dies, of course, but as the book nears its end we're so sympathetic to Elphaba that it's with a mounting sense of dread that we watch as Dorothy and her friends (peripheral characters who appear only briefly at the beginning and end of the book) draw ever nearer to the Witch's stronghold in the West. And when Elphaba is drenched with the water that kills her, the immense sense of grief and tragedy is almost overwhelming. This is slightly undermined by the hurried feeling of the final chapter, but the book has such overall impact that Maguire can be forgiven if he couldn't quite figure out how to wrap things up.
     This review can't give more than the ghost of a hint of the richness and variety of this novel, which really requires no previous exposure to Oz (although one or two subtle, delicious jokes at the expense of the Paramount film would pass by unnoticed). It was the best book I read in 1998.

Pleasantville is a deceptive film. On its surface, it's not a new idea: nerdy teen David (Tobey Maguire - who was remarkable in Ang Lee's superb film The Ice Storm) and his hot-to-trot sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are zapped into a 1950's black-and-white TV situation comedy. Something similar was done a few years back in Stay Tuned (1992 - whose only saving graces were some Chuck Jones animation and an entertaining performance by Jeffrey Jones as the Devil), and Wes Craven's Shocker. But those films were no-brainer adventure stories. (Anyone familiar with Mitch Pileggi's restrained turn as Mulder's boss, Skinner, in TV's The X-Files ought to give Shocker a quick view for his scenery-chewing performance as a lunatic killer. Ten minutes ought to do it.) Pleasantville is a far more satisfying work and more ambitious despite its relatively low-key approach.
     This is in part due to an outstanding ensemble cast including Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen (also of The Ice Storm), Don Knotts and William Macy (Fargo).
     Jennifer has a date with a hot guy who's coming over to watch an MTV concert - but David has plans to watch the 24-hour "Pleasantville" marathon. The show, "Pleasantville," bears a strong resemblance to "Father Knows Best." When David and Jennifer arrive, they replace the teen children (Bud and Mary Sue). David and Jennifer don't look like their counterparts, but no one seems to notice. David, who knows the show backwards and forwards, slips right into his role but Jennifer is horrified by a colorless world where the bathrooms don't even have toilets in them and sex is unknown.
     Not heeding David's warning that they must not do anything to alter the self-contained world of Pleasantville, Jennifer seduces Mary Sue's boyfriend (who, having an erection, is afraid that there is something wrong with him).
     With that, spots of color begin seeping into Pleasantville.
     Before you know it, some of the people are becoming "colored." The black and white folks eventually clash with the coloreds. It's a good joke, and Ross is wise enough not to beat us over the head with it.
     The film is surprisingly subtle for the most part. The innocent Pleasantville begin to learn about sex, which generally leads to some sort of "awakening" on their part. This might easily have been played for smarmy laughs, like There's Something About Mary, but Ross is better than that, essentially equating sex with enlightenment. Although there isn't much about God per se in this movie, it does emphasize the importance of contrast or duality in the act of creation. The movie certainly works on the level of pure entertainment, but it has a clear spiritual, artistic and intellectual subtext rare in mass-market, commercial releases.
     One of the most moving scenes occurs when Jeff Daniels's character, a soda-jerk who enjoys decorating the windows of his store for the holidays, is exposed to art for the first time when David brings him a book of painting reproductions). It's amusing to see Daniels riffing on a role very much like the one he played in The Purple Rose Of Cairo - a one-dimensional character who gradually becomes a real person. But this time Daniels gets to stretch it a bit further - we watch as he becomes aware of color, abstract expression, and the pure passion of painting. He begins to display his paintings - including nudes - in the window of his shop; and this, more than anything else, triggers the subversion of the black and white establishment by the newly liberated and self-aware colored people.
     In its way, Pleasantville has some very though-provoking things to say about art and the role of the artist in society.
     Among the "blockbuster" high-concept films of 1998, Pleasantville stands out as a movie with less obvious pretense and better direction than The Truman Show, itself no slouch of a film, and far more intellectual content than Titanic. It was the best first-run film I've seen this year.

I certainly can't say that about Armageddon, which plays out like a Roger Corman quickie padded to grandiose proportions by many millions of dollars and a first-draft script hacked out by Tex Avery and Terry Gilliam. (Come to think of it, a movie like that might actually be pretty good!)
     Armageddon's very wackiness works in its favor, making it the most satisfying of the summer "blockbusters." (By the way, that term originated during WWII and was used to describe certain types of explosives used in the European theatre. This problematic association of "explosives" with "theatre" has somehow come to mean a big, awe-inspiring movie - but a blockbuster is a really just a big bomb!)
     And that's what Armageddon's plot centers on. An asteroid or a meteor or a comet or whatever the hell it is (it really doesn't matter, either) is headed for Earth and someone has to blow the stupid thing up. So the movie is a bomb wrapped in a bomb inside a bomb.
     Bruce Willis, as a digger of oil wells, is assigned the task of training a crew of malcontents, ready them for the job, and somehow get them back to Earth. It ain't gonna happen - but we knew that. The only question is, who lives and who dies? But by the film's end, you won't really care one way or the other.
     Nobody seems able to coax a good performance out of Willis except Terry Gilliam (hmm - the second time this review has taken his name in vain), which is to say that his performance in this film is typical. As impassive as the rocks through which he drills, Willis serves no purpose here other that as a scaffold for perspiration. His self-sacrifice at the end is obvious button-pushing sentimentality that fails to engage the audience.
     Fortunately, the movie presents several appealing comic turns that go a long way toward salvaging it. Steve Buscemi does most of the work. He's an excellent actor, and although he isn't exactly challenged here, he gets some of the film's best lines. Peter Stormare's performance as the Russian cosmonaut rescued from a failing, motor home-like MIR (the film's best and most believable action sequence), is also very enjoyable if a little one-dimensional. All of which leads me to the point I really want to make: Armageddon's script has, buried amid its stupidities, some of the biggest and best deliberate laughs of any disaster film I've ever seen. The crowd in the theatre the night I saw the film broke up at least three times, and not because of any unintentional gaffes on the part of actors or script.
     My favorite joke involved the naming of the oncoming rock, but it's so funny that I don't want to spoil it for you. After all, there's little enough of value to Armageddon. The special effects are garish and, except for the impact scenes in NYC and Paris, not particularly interesting, and the plot itself has more holes in it than those cities, post-destruction.
     The space sequences prove that Bay and Bruckheimer, like most Hollywood types, slept through their physics classes and played too many video games. In fact, Armageddon's space shuttle-like craft maneuver through (impossibly) tightly packed space debris exactly like a sprite in a video game. I bet that video games inspire more than half the action sequences in today's films. Even sillier, the ships' engines are seemingly at top acceleration the entire time, because the burn is continuous. Where'd they store all that reaction mass, in the payload bay?
     But one shouldn't use a university education to critique a comic book. Bottom line: Armageddon is fun to see for the surprisingly witty touches to the script. Otherwise, it's pretty much of a waste of time unless you just can't resist Bruce Willis in a quasi-action role. Or unless you can't get enough noise in space.


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