Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Time Out of Mind


I started reading science fiction just as the New Wave of the sixties and seventies was beginning to ebb and just before the cyberpunks showed up to trash the joint. The hot name in the genre at the time was John Varley, who was being hailed as the second coming of Robert Heinlein. It's easy to see why. Varley wrote a so-called future history, in which many of his short stories were interrelated, and he had a similar penchant for alternate sexual configurations (particularly the routine availability of sex changes). He had Heinlein's gift for extrapolating minutiae, too. And then something curious happened to him. Hollywood came a-calling and it broke him.

Varley's short story, "Air Raid," is a clever piece of time travel fiction, in which a future society of time travelers plucks the victims of airplane crashes out of their planes right before they crash in order to repopulate the world. The world of the time travelers is pretty dire, so polluted that every member of the dwindling human race is a mass of cancers and deformities. The snatch teams are the least mutated and they get the best medical care. Unfortunately for time travelers, if you're not careful with your gear, you can cause paradoxes. It's a nimble short story. It was optioned for films almost immediately. According to the author, this is what happened next:

"We had the first meeting on Millennium in 1979. I ended up writing it six times. There were four different directors, and each time a new director came in I went over the whole thing with him and rewrote it. Each new director had his own ideas, and sometimes you'd gain something from that, but each time something's always lost in the process, so that by the time it went in front of the cameras, a lot of the vision was lost."

Millennium (1989, directed by Michael Anderson), the movie that resulted, was pretty bad. The plot of the film, greatly expanded from the short story, initially follows one Bill Smith, who investigates airplane crashes for the Transportation Safety Administration. In the course of picking through the wreckage of a mid-air collision, he meets the quirky--or downright odd--TSA attendant, Louise Baltimore, with whom he strikes up a relationship. Louise, for her part, is a time traveler, part of a snatch team, who has been sent back to retrieve a piece of lost equipment before it causes a paradox. Unfortunately, she fails, and winds up having to become more involved with Smith than she would have liked. This builds up to a cataclysm in the future where paradox-generated "time quakes" tear the world apart.



Perhaps the most crippling problem with Millennium is that it's badly miscast. Kris Kristofferson is a block of wood, the actor himself losing his looks and poised perilously close to the grizzled characters he would play only a couple of short years later. Cheryl Ladd is a fine TV actress, but she doesn't have the "it" of a movie star. It's not helped that she's given a ridiculous New Wave-ish hairstyle for long stretches of the movie that makes her look like a refugee from MTV. The "used future" the movie presents is intended to look dilapidated, but instead it just looks cheap. It dumbed down the various time travel flourishes and wound up putting expository dialogue into the mouths of absolutely wrong characters. And the wit of Varley's story is gone. This plods from plot point to plot point, and then does it again. This falls into a trap that many time travel stories fall into, in which the events of the story are witnessed from two different vantage points. The key is to add something the next time through, but this film just repeats the same things. Pity.



The film isn't helped at all by the fact that there's an "author's" cut of the screenplay. Varley adapted it as a novel during its long development, and that novel is a blueprint for the way things might have been. Like the author's short stories of the period, it's bristling with throwaway ideas and fun extrapolations. Some of these actually make it into the film--Louise Baltimore's need to smoke constantly, for instance--but it doesn't explain any of them adequately (for the record, she has to smoke constantly because she's adapted to the polluted future and can't tolerate the "clean" air of the past). As a result, these seem like quirks more than ideas, and they tend to strike wrong notes in the absence of any necessity for them. One would think that a director who had made several science fiction films over the course of a long career would have some feel for the genre, but Michael Anderson had a tin ear. Millennium is about as significant a science fiction film as the director's Logan's Run. Like that film, it's the skeleton of a better movie.



No comments: