Friday, 29 June 2012
Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, is a book with a fantastic premise. At the age of sixteen, you go from being an Ugly to a Pretty, designed to be as pleasing to the eye as possible. Tally Youngblood has been left alone, however, being the last of her friends to turn sixteen. She soon befriends a girl called Shay, however, who shares the same birthday. There's a problem: Shay doesn't want to become Pretty, and when she runs away Tally is given a pretty vicious choice. Betray her friend or lose her future.
This is not as great a novel as it is a premise. It's certainly and enjoyable read that does have a lot going for it, but the most prevalent thing about this novel is that it could be better. The prose is somewhat microcosmic in this sense. Westerfeld writes with a smooth and engaging style that is highly readable, but his prose lacks anything that makes it memorable or evocative. It would be easy to dismiss criticisms of Westerfeld's prose on the back of the YA classification, sure, but good writing doesn't necessarily need to be too difficult for an age in which children have been taught classic novels in school for a good number of years already. Westerfeld's writing is above average admittedly, but that's always somewhat backhanded as compliments go.
The world is well thought out and what we get to see of it is highly engaging. From the more overt things that make up the world to the smaller details that seem to reflect a society based on conformity and aesthetic beauty, there's more thought here than the one-note dystopian future. Westerfeld routes the reader's experience of the world firmly in Tally's viewpoint - inevitably this leads to a fairly small, closed view of the world. As much as this helps keep the onus on the characters, it does detract from the setting and society in a book that is, in theory, about the society.
If we stop talking about the themes and start talking about the characters, Uglies becomes a lot better a book for it. Tally is a lovely girl and an eminently relateable one, and it's a great credit that Westerfeld makes her so whilst pushing her in directions that, at times, even going so far as to almost become an anti-hero of sorts. That she retains personality whilst being actively shaped by her environment is exactly the right way to characterise her, and gives her a real depth and legitimacy.
To a great extent, the ensuing plot is more melodrama than anything else. Much of the cast outside our heroine aren't as well utilised as they could be - again, there's a lot more potential than there is end product. Nonetheless, highly-readable prose, great imagination and interesting characterisation make this a worthy read. If it's not worth reading to see the central concept at work, then it is worth reading to be involved with an interesting and well-paced character story.
Overall, Uglies is a solid and enjoyable story that will, hopefully, be the awkward growing pains of a series that can evolve to be legitimately fantastic.
Saturday, 16 June 2012
The Alien franchise is that of strange variations and odd sequel choices. The first was an incredibly simple and effective space horror, perhaps the most definitive example. The second built on the great concepts of the first and re-appropriated them for a military sci-fi, a straight out action blockbuster. So far, so good.
Then things got weird. Alien 3 was a flawed psychological thriller with heavy religious overtones. Alien Resurrection was an attempt to recapture the feel of an action sci-fi but filmed and acted like a black comedy. Both were attempts to recapture elements of past films and executed in a way that was incredibly strange, and both were critical failures.
(Not seen either Alien vs Predator, so not really qualified to talk about them.)
As the newest part of this franchise, Prometheus offers an approach that is, once again, distinct from it's predecessors. This time, however, the differences in genre is not so extreme as it had been previously: Prometheus, as suggested by the title, is a sci-fi based around exploration and discovery.
Two scientists discover cave painting that resemble other carvings from ancient civilisations spread out through history. Each of them contains reference to a configuration of planets that is unique to one particular part of the galaxy. One of those planets has conditions that are required to support life. Unable to turn down the promise of potentially coming across aliens, an expedition is sent to investigate.
The movie takes it's time to establish characters and make sure they all have relateable motivations. In execution, however, this is not done in particularly well. In one early scene the Evil Corporation Guy, played by Charlize Theron, tells the scientist couple that they are to only observe and not to approach if there are any aliens. Just observe and report back. This is a smart move, surely, since they are walking in blind to the unknown. Surely having as much information and letting people prepared best for the encounter make the first approach? But no, our protagonists, Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) huff and puff with entitled notions of them "deserving" to be the ones that do so and there's the sneaking suspicion that the film wants us to agree with them.
Whilst the attempts to inject all of the characters with personality and motivations is appreciated, it's not particularly successful. There's a few undercooked subplots, and characters that are better in concept than execution. The notable exception is David the android (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) who remains an enigmatic and ambiguous figure throughout. Whilst Shaw starts off as unconvincing as the rest of them, she seems to genuinely change and develop as the story progresses, becoming a genuine and interesting character as the story progresses.
On top of unconvincing characters, the films suffers from a real lack of subtlety. The almost tourette-ish need to tell the audience exactly what is happening in case the audience have lapsed into temporary blindness. Dialogue stumbles along, awkwardly attempting to convey character and plot details whilst seeming very much like dialogue. Worse, it often feels the need to spell out it's themes to you. The character spend much of the movie talking about answers and asking questions, but the movie doesn't just not have the answers: it never really has much to say about all the questions. It spends its time raising philosophical points which don't tie into the movie well and not doing very much with them.
As flawed as it is, there is no denying that the production values are amazing. If nothing else, the film is amazing looking. Breathtaking scenery and great set design really helps build the world. More than any of the other Alien films, too, this film is about the world that surrounds the mythos. The strange things the find, the alien world, the spaceship - visually, this film is a real treat and to a great extent this really props up the weaker elements.
Tonally, it's unable to properly strike a balance. Some of the earliest moments of horror come across as nigh-comedic, which is definitely unintended. There's a scene or two that seemed as if it were thrown in just to keep the movie's later scenes from being too jarring, but the whole plot can never find a good way to reconcile the two. The result is neither the horror nor the more philosophical and exploratory aspects of the film are ever that effective.
Despite it's array of flaws and the fact that there isn't necessarily all that much about the film that really works, I found myself getting further drawn into the story. As characters died and imaginative concept after imaginative concept was thrown into the mix, my appreciation rose. They may not have been executed to their fullest potential, but a lot of the film's ideas are genuinely compelling. There's an ambition here that pulled me in, and although many critics find fault with the later section of the movie, it was there that piece really grew on myself.
Due to my reluctance to go into spoilers, it's difficult to talk about where the movie really comes good. Later sections in the movie make it clear that answers are not going to be offered, and it seems to really be on better ground with what the movie is about. Prometheus is probably the Alien sequel that reinvents the franchise the least, perhaps ironically, but it offers up an interesting and complex and ambitious piece of fiction. It's imaginative and it's ambitious; at the end of the day, Prometheus is a film that is far better than it's flaws should really allow it to be.