written by David Steffen
The Ray Bradbury Award isn’t exactly a Nebula, but it keeps company with the Nebulas, voted for by the SFWA members and presented at the same ceremony. Its full name is the “Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation.”
There are six nominees. Three of them I’d already seen by the time the nominees were announced, and I figured it would be fun to rent the other three as well. I love science fiction movies, and a few hours watching a list of the most popular movies is a great use of time.
So here is my opinion of them, rank-ordered by preference.
1. The Cabin in the Woods
When I saw the previews for this movie I didn’t know what to make of it. The vague impression I got was that it was tortureporn, of the same ilk as Saw and Human Centipede. So I didn’t see it theatres. But then I kept getting recommendations for it from people who have similar taste as me. And it got a Ray Bradbury nomination–surely my fellow SF writers would have better taste than to nominate something of that variety, I figured. So I decided to give it a try.
At the beginning, the main thread of the movie may seem familiar, stereotypical even. Five college students go to visit an isolated cabin in the woods for a vacation, each student a different archetype of such movies. A classic horror setup for anything from monsters to serial killers. But there are other scenes interspersed with this main plot that show scenes from what could be a typical dull government office, except that these guys in ties are controlling the events at the cabin in the woods and steering them toward some outcome. In the end it’s all explained and is extremely entertaining.
It’s full of action. It has some gore, but I thought the amount was reasonable considering the content–I trust Whedon to use gore effectively. Personally I found it more often funny or just plain awesome, but rarely scary, but I don’t think the classification of this movie as horror is inaccurate. It is meant specifically as a response to the stereotypes of horror film and there are gory parts and things that might be scary to other people but the way that it was presented put it in a completely different light for me.
2. The Avengers
I saw this one in theaters. I haven’t kept up with all the Marvel movies, but my favorite superheroes are all Marvel and it was such a fun idea to have a movie that takes all the recent big-hit Marvel movies and combines them with all the same actors. I’ve never seen anything put together quite like that, with Iron Man, Thor, Captain America already having their own feature films in their own right.
Although the Avenger Initiative has been canceled before the movie even begins, the group is brought together to counter a threat to the entire world. Thor’s brother Loki is trying to open a portal to another dimension to bring through an army to conquer Earth. The group must come together to try to stop them: Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, all organized by Nick Fury. My concern with the premise is that either just a few of the heroes would get the focus and the rest would be background characters, or they’d spread the attention so thin that you never felt like any character really got their chance to shine. But Whedon (again!) did a superb job balancing the characters in such a short period of time, while leaving me satisfied. Each character got plenty of chances to show their skills (though Hawkeye seems a little ludicrously unpowered in such a group). Each character brought something to the group, both in abilities and in dialog/character. Iron Man got all the best lines, while Captain America was the straight man, Banner was the skeptic, and so on.
Admittedly, much of anticipation was waiting for the next time that Bruce Banner would Hulk out, but that anticipation just made the smashing time all the more fun.
3. The Hunger Games
Heather and I heard the hype about this movie about a year before it came out, and we both read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins–this movie is the first of the three adaptations.
The story follows Katniss Everdeen of District Twelve, one of the twelve districts that is little more than a prison colony of the totalitarian government of Panem, occupying the territory now occupied by the United States. The districts have risen up against the capital before, but the rebellion was crushed. To punish and remind them, every year the capital randomly chooses two tributes (a boy and a girl) under the age of 17 to fight in an arena. These 24 young people are put in a strictly controlled arena with limited resources, and they stay in there until all but one of them are dead–the district of the winner is showered with prizes (mostly extra food). Katniss’s 12-year old younger sister Primrose is the one taken in the random drawing, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is the sole provider for her sister, and she must find a way to survive to keep her sister alive. The game involves not just action, and wilderness survival, but politics as the games are watched by the public and controlled by the government to ensure the audience is satisfied.
I’d recommend the book to anyone. The movie is one of those rare movie adaptations that does its book justice in tone and content, though the book of course contains more of what you see in the movie. Being able to see the opulence of the capital is the best part because that was one of the parts of the book that I was looking forward to seeing the most.
Heather and I watched this one together before the Bradbury nominees were announced based on recommendations from friends.
Time travel is invented 30 years in the future, but it is primarily used by criminals. Other technologies will have progressed by that time, including technology which makes it almost impossible to dispose of a dead body without evidence of it being discovered by the police. So criminal organizations have developed a system using time travel to solve this problem. They hire people from 30 years before (a time before time travel was invented) to act as “loopers”. Their job is to wait at specific places at specific times for murder victims. The victim will come through with a hood over their head and their hands bound behind their back and all the looper has to do is kill the person and dispose of the body. Since neither the forensic technology nor time travel has been invented at this time, it’s much easier to dispose of the body. With each victim is a payout in silver. The looper continues this work, until eventually a victim comes through that looks like any other, and is to be killed in the same way. This victim comes with a gold payout, enough to make a person filthy rich. This victim is the looper from the future time, and the murder of that person “closes the loop”, destroying any chance for the future authorities to interrogate this older person, hence the name. Complicated, but interesting premise, for sure.
The protagonist, Joe, is a looper, but when his golden payout comes through, something goes wrong and his future self escapes. This makes them both fugitives from the criminal organizations that run the system. The young Joe wants only to kill the older Joe so that he can live normally again. Older Joe isn’t so keen on this plan, but he has to try to keep young Joe alive because killing him will make old Joe disappear.
It’s really a sign of the quality of the nominees that this is #4. This movie is great, and I’d highly recommend it. It’s action packed from start to finish. I was skeptical that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would seem plausible as a young Bruce Willis, but they managed to pull it off with the use of some facial prosthetics to change the shape of his face. It looks really real, though it’s disconcerting if you’re used to Joseph’s face from his other acting work. It’s not just a mindless action movie; they did a great job plotting it, putting foreshadowing in place that’s not too blatant but which makes sense in retrospect and the ending resolution totally makes sense while not being too obvious.
5. John Carter
I rented this one after hearing the Nebula nominees.
This is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series starring John Carter, and covers the events in the first book “Princess of Mars”. (Burroughs is also the creator of Tarzan) John Carter is a former Confederate Army captain in the civil war who has decided he doesn’t want to fight wars any longer. Instead he’s taken up a treasure hunt, looking for a cave of gold marked with a spider. While fleeing from both the Confederate army and a band of Apache, John finally finds the cave and in it kills a strange man who threatens him. He takes the man’s medallion which somehow transports him to Barsoom, which is the natives’ name for the planet of Mars. Because he was born on a planet with higher gravity, his body and muscle mass are much more capable here, so he has super strength compared to the natives.
He is taken in by a band of Tharks, a green-skinned tusked four-armed humanoid race, who feed him a drink that gives him the language of the planet. He learns of the war between two of the cities of Barsoom, and is soon drawn into it against his will.
This story is fun, action packed, has good casting, humor, dialog, and special effects. The only reason it goes this far down on the list is that it had less of an emotional attachment to me than some of the others. Maybe someone who had read the original Barsoom books would have more of an attachment. Still, it was a couple hours well spent to watch the film.
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
I think it’s pretty unusual for a Nebula nominee to also have been a film to get a bunch of Oscar buzz. This is one of those. I hadn’t seen it when the nominees came out, but since it also had Oscar buzz it was easier to talk Heather into watching this one with me than some of the others.
The story follows five-year old Hushpuppy and her sick and mean-tempered father Wink who live in a Louisiana community called the Bathtub, cut off from the rest of the world by a levee. A storm is approaching, and many of the residents evacuate, but these two and some others stick to their home turf despite the danger, and despite evacuation orders from the government. The storm comes and floods the area with saltwater, killing everything, but they still don’t want to give up their home.
I really wanted to root for Hushpuppy. She’s got a lot of guts, especially for a kid her age, and you just want her to survive. The reason I didn’t rate this movie higher is that I just don’t understand the motivation to stay on your turf even when it’s obvious that doing so is going to kill you. Even more so when you have a child to care for. Hushpuppy’s narration tries to explain this by talking about how animals survive, ensuring that the toughest of them live on, but I thought this was a weak explanation at best, especially from Wink’s point of view. So, to me, the movie was nothing but a slow and inevitable downfall from a tough life to an impossible life, and I didn’t really think their choice was worth it.