Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Media Reviews: December 2018

Portals and Space Travel

The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Directed by Eli Roth
Produced by DreamWorks, Amblin Entertainment, Mythology Entertainment
September 21, 2018

The House with a Clock in Its wallsThe old-school Universal and Amblin logos at the start of The House with a Clock in Its Walls set the tone of the film straight off—retro. Anachronistic. It makes me wonder a bit who the target audience is—children, who won’t recognize those logos unless they were raised on a steady diet of ’70s and ’80s kid SF&F; or their parents, who were. The film itself is set in the ’50s. It’s supposed to feel like a throwback, I think.

Based on a novel by John Bellairs, this is the story of Lewis, whose parents have just died. We meet him on the bus, traveling to his Uncle Jonathan, who will be caring for him now. In typical kid-story fashion, Jonathan is enthusiastic and kind but he has no experience with children. He’s also a warlock, and his house is filled with dangers and wonders. Lewis is fascinated, learns a little bit of magic himself in the course of trying to get along in his new situation. And then ends up raising from the dead the evil magician who previously occupied the house, and secretly hid within its walls a clockwork device that will bring about the end of the world. Now Lewis, Jonathan, and Jonathan’s neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman have to save the world.

This is the kind of movie I mainly go to see for the cast: an impeccable Cate Blanchett as Mrs. Zimmerman, and Jack Black as Jonathan. As usual, Black succeeds best when he is at his least Jack Black-like and decides to actually act. The heart of the film—the relationship between these three heroes, the friendship between Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman, both of them trying to connect to this traumatized young kid, all of them coming together to help each other—is good and pure, a story about families and grief and being true to oneself and finding one’s own magic. A bit heavy-handed but honest.

The effects are wondrous, particularly the sound effects—the thunking of the doomsday clock, which doesn’t sound much like a typical clock, or a heartbeat, which would have been easy shorthand; this sound is its own thing and permeates the film at just the right moments to build tension. That sound may be my favorite part of the movie. This is kid scary rather than actually scary, a visual spectacle with lurking dread rather than in-your-face shocks. Which might be why I was astonished to see that this is directed by Eli Roth, who made his name with the Hostel torture-porn films. Has he recently reproduced and suddenly realized he hasn’t made any movies he can safely show his children?

The film is too long and the pacing is off. In a subplot, Lewis tries to make friends with local tough-kid Tarby, a hilariously pint-sized ’50s greaser who I just never believed in. If there’s a joke, the movie will tell it two or three or four times. It’s predictable. But then, I suspect I’m not really the target audience after all. Someone who hasn’t spent forty years with this kind of story might not think so.

I will give the movie this: It has made me reconsider the whole idea of portal fantasy. Technically, this isn’t a portal fantasy. It’s a haunted house story, a sorcerer’s apprentice story, it fits into all kinds of clearly established genres of kid fantasy that aren’t portal fantasy. But when we first meet Lewis, he’s traveling to a new world: a world without his parents in it, and everything is new and strange and scary. This is portal fantasy, with death and grief as the portal. There is no more terrible doorway into another world than losing one’s parents as a child. This leads me to the rather jarring thought: In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the portal isn’t the wardrobe, but the War. The fantasy there really begins when the Pevensie children leave London and enter a completely different world they have no experience with. They’d never have entered the second portal without having passed through the first. (The House with a Clock in Its Walls also has a World War II connection—the adult characters all trace their wartime experiences as the thing that brought them to this point.)

Technically, yes, portal fantasy is about magical doorways that carry the characters from our world into an entirely different world. But I’m quite certain that Lewis, sitting on that bus, felt like he was traveling into a world that wasn’t real. How often in these stories does death and trauma open a space that brings the fantastical into these characters’ lives? The space between life and death is a threshold, and fantasy thrives on thresholds. Maybe portal fantasy doesn’t just send characters to other worlds, but lets other worlds seep into ours as well. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a decent film that I don’t regret going to see, but it won’t live through the ages. Still, I’ll always be grateful to it for giving me that bit of insight.

First Man
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Studios, Temple Hill Productions, Amblin Entertainment
October 12, 2018

First ManI love that the science fiction community embraces films that, technically speaking, are not science fiction, but rather historical dramas about the space program. Obviously, anything involving space in any way, shape, or form automatically falls under the purview of people who love science fiction. In fact, in 1970, “News Coverage of Apollo 11” won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The Right Stuff was nominated for the award in 1984, Apollo 13 in 1996, and Hidden Figures in 2017. Don’t be surprised if First Man, a historical drama based on the biography of Neil Armstrong by James R. Hansen, makes it onto the ballot for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation next year, despite being a mixed bag.

First Man is primarily about the subjective experience of being Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on ground that isn’t Earth. A good chunk of the film focuses on Ryan Gosling’s face, us watching Neil watch whatever he’s experiencing. Another good chunk of the film sets the camera as Neil’s eyes, seeing what he sees. The film is at its best when it puts us in his place during his most iconic moments, showing us the technical and visceral details of the Gemini 8 mission, the lunar module’s approach to the lunar surface, and so on. Watching from eye level as his foot makes that first step in the regolith, and even better, looking back up the ladder to the lunar module, was a view I’d never thought to imagine before.

These scenes are worth the price of admission, but there’s a lot of other stuff to wade through to get there.

Like most biopics, there isn’t a plot to speak of; rather, this presents the major events that made Armstrong a historical figure. What we look for in these films are insights. The insight here is the degree to which the death of Armstrong’s toddler daughter Karen in 1962 affected him, and the idea that this introverted, undemonstrative, yet deeply feeling and hyper-competent man was the best person to occupy that historic role as first person on the moon. Karen’s death seems to give Armstrong a powerful perspective on the grief and loss that follow him through the space program, through the death of friends in aircraft accidents and the horror of the Apollo 1 disaster. The film also suggests that the lunar voyage helped him reconcile with Karen’s death in a way he hadn’t been able to before.

I think a movie about the subjective experience of being Neil Armstrong is a fine idea, but this film can’t resist indulging in the cliché tropes of its context. So it also spends a lot of time with Janet Armstrong, because movies like this always show us the personal lives of the stoic and long-suffering wives. I’m glad they do—growing up with an Air Force pilot father during the Cold War, I have some small idea of what these families went through. But this is familiar ground covered better by other movies. When we get to the Apollo 11 launch, we get exactly the same inspiring shot of the Saturn V rocket slipping up past the gantry, and that same familiar shot of the cylindrical rocket housing tumbling away against the backdrop of a receding Earth that we always, always get in every super-earnest film, dramatic or documentary, about the Apollo program. When the film isn’t focused on Armstrong, it feels derivative.

First Man is trying to do too much, I think, being intensely personal on the one hand but also trying to portray the whole enormous sweep of the times and the space program. It seems to self-consciously want to slot itself right between The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. It begins where The Right Stuff leaves off, with a test flight in the desert—Armstrong in the X-15, in one of the film’s most spectacular sequences, giving us a jarring pilot’s eye view of traveling to the edge of space—and Chuck Yeager himself standing there after the landing suggesting that Armstrong doesn’t have the Right Stuff. It ends right after his return from the Apollo 11 mission, setting us up for the adventure of Apollo 13, which begins with a recap of Apollo 1 and the dangers of space travel. First Man spends a huge amount of time on Apollo 1 and almost seems to set up that callback in the next film.

Intimate biopic or historical epic, whatever the film is, it takes a long time getting there, and I think I felt its length (two hours and twenty minutes) most during the Apollo 1 sequence. This is the problem with historical dramas—we know what happens. The film takes us inside the capsule, and then spends an excruciating amount of time there, just waiting for that spark we know is coming. The film builds up a friendship between Neil and Janet and Apollo 1 casualty Ed White and his wife Pat, just to be sure we feel the emotional punch all the more. But in a movie about the subjective experience of being Neil Armstrong, the most important part of that whole sequence is, of course, the look on Neil’s face when he’s on the phone with Deke Slayton, telling him what happened. The rest feels manipulative, maybe even exploitative.

The film’s strength is also the reason science fiction fans love these movies: space, and the intense and loving depiction of the technology that gets people there. I’m fascinated that a couple of sequences seem directly inspired by science fiction movies. The boarding of the Gemini 8 capsule is framed almost exactly like the scene in Contact when Elli boards her craft, right down to the weird vibrations in the gantry, the subtle humming sound effects, the white-coated technicians waiting solemnly, and so on. During the Eagle’s descent to the lunar surface, we’re watching Neil’s face, with the view he watches reflected in his helmet’s faceplate. We’ve seen similar framing through the whole movie, but in this scene the multi-colored lights of the module’s control panel are reflected back, and it looks very much like the image of Dave Bowman during his surreal last flight in 2001: A Space Odyssey. These similarities are so pointed that they seem intentional, but it might also be parallel development—all these films were heavily influenced by the actual space program, it makes sense they should make use of the same images and emotional resonances.

I wish First Man had focused more on the things science fiction fans love about these films: the spacecraft, the tech, and the experience of being a thinking, feeling human in these extraordinary situations, because the sequences where Armstrong is actually doing his job are riveting. The Apollo 11 landing becomes a work of art, trading in the familiar epic sweep of the event for an intense view of one man connecting with the bleakest of landscapes, because his own quiet disposition makes that connection possible. On the other hand, the standard, predictable angst surrounding it all—likely intended to humanize the man and the situation, ironically enough—feels rote and forced. Sign me up for First Man: The Space Nerd Edit.

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s latest novels include the post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. She wrote the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, along with several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, and upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at carrievaughn.com.