Saturday, June 27, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 7

Back with what may just be the most ambitious fan film to date: Lord of the Rings: The Hunt for Gollum courtesy of Chris Bouchard and Independent Online Cinema.

If we can agree that emulation is at least part of the agenda when making fan films, it stands to reason that the bigger the source material, the harder it'll be for low-budget fan work to reach even an approximation of that level. Rob Caves' "Hidden Frontier" universe used a lot of CGI and green-screen to resemble "Star Trek", visually if not ideologically, though the extent of its success is entirely debatable (as are most aspects of this particular field: YMMV is practically the First Commandment).

"The Hunt for Gollum" sets its sights much higher, as it's based on Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which remains (in my opinion) one of the most impressive cinematic spectacles in recent history. This 40-minute fan film is set during a specific ellipsis in "The Fellowship of the Ring", when Gandalf returns to the Shire for the last time and tells Frodo that Gollum - the only other person who knew the location of the Ring - was captured by Sauron's forces.

Bouchard is working with two sources here: Jackson and Tolkien (specifically Tolkien's appendices to "Lord of the Rings"). The plot of the film is dictated by the appendices, wherein Gollum escapes Mordor only to be captured by Aragorn and imprisoned by the Elves (followed by a second escape). Visually, though, it's very much derived from the Jackson films: the Orcs have Cockney accents, Adrian Webster has that whole Grimy Badass look down pat as Aragorn, and there's considerable emphasis placed on the lovely natural setting.

But there are a few problems here, primarily to do with Gollum. Lacking the resources to sustain a prolonged CGI depiction of Gollum, Bouchard uses a combination of extreme long-shots and keeping Gollum in Aragorn's sack for most of the film, screaming and howling and babbling to himself. To be honest? It's not the most creative solution. Sure, realistically speaking it'd be a bit much to expect competition with New Line Cinema, and yet I can't help thinking that it diminishes Gollum's presence. I'm also fairly certain that some split-second shots in "The Hunt for Gollum" were cut-and-pasted from "Fellowship of the Ring", though I wouldn't swear on it.

I suppose the question that came to mind when I saw this was "Why?" There's no shortage of "side-stories" to tell in Middle-Earth - why choose to fill in a blank that, on the whole, isn't that interesting? Aragorn hunts down Gollum, kills some Orcs, catches Gollum and brings him to the Elves, and that's about it. Given that the stylistic/visual recreation is spot-on, I guess I would've preferred a story with a bit more meat to it.

Still, I have to fall back on a phrase that's probably becoming familiar if you've been following this column: there's something to be said for ambition. As Carlos Pedraza once pointed out during a discussion of "Hidden Frontier", there's a case to be made that fan films are in a state of "reciprocal evolution" - creators learn from their peers' mistakes and successes, and thanks to the medium of the Internet it's a lot quicker and a lot easier than Hollywood's learning curve. Pedraza attributed at least part of James Cawley's success with "Phase II" to the earlier presence of "Hidden Frontier", specifically the fact that there was a popular rough template that could be (and needed to be) adapted and refined for better results. And if "The Hunt for Gollum" represents a new starting point for future Tolkien fan-creators... well, they could do a lot worse.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: "Star Wars - Death Star" by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

I have to admit to being a bit skeptical when this novel came out - at first glance, it seemed like one of those "Untold Tale" types that suffer from either too many or too few continuity plugs, and which ultimately overcomplicate the original story to the point where you're really better off without it.

But Michael Reaves and Steve Perry have actually done quite a good job here by exploiting a legitimate gap in the narrative: the Death Star is already complete and operational when "A New Hope" begins, so the novel starts with the station still under construction and runs all the way through to the Battle of Yavin.

What makes this book so interesting is the fact that it omits the Rebel perspective entirely, and only occasionally focuses on familiar faces like Vader or Tarkin. Instead, Reaves and Perry assemble a cast of no less than nine protagonists, all original characters whose separate plotlines intertwine while staying just outside the scope of the film's main events. Sometimes they even influence those events in subtle ways - for example, the attempt to rescue Princess Leia succeeds in part because librarian Atour Riten secretly overrides the security locks on the detention center elevators.

This sort of thing isn't revisionism per se, but it's still an attention to minutiae that probably wouldn't justify an entire novel. However, as it turns out, the book's not really about the Death Star at all. Which is fortunate given that you probably know what happened to it. Rather, it's about a group of people either in service to the Empire or indifferent towards it, their exposure to the true monstrosity of Palpatine and his servants, and their response. Reaves and Perry stress that none of our protagonists think the Empire will ever use the Death Star (theoretically, its mere existence is enough to end the war) but of course, they're proven wrong. And in the aftermath of Alderaan's destruction - finally given due gravitas - the various clusters of characters start to come together and form a conspiracy. And while they're not the most profound bunch, our heroes are sympathetic enough that I became invested in their stories, which is more than I can say for about ninety percent of the Expanded Universe's population.

"Death Star" is a welcome alternative to the traditional depiction of the Empire as a faceless, anonymous hive-mind mass represented by singular villains like Vader or the Emperor; there have been "street-level" stories about the Empire before, but the perspective was always from the outside, someone who was victimized by Imperial aggression. This may actually be the first story in over thirty years that humanizes the Empire. And that's no small feat indeed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

VGM: Great Indeed

OverClocked Remix recently posted a vocal mix of Final Fantasy IX's "Rose of May", by katethegreat19 (AKA Kate Covington). The name is appropriate: it's a very impressive arrangement, as Covington has an excellent voice and her Celtic-esque style fits the song perfectly. Turns out she's done quite a few covers from the "Final Fantasy" series, all worth listening to:

Suteki da ne
Aeris' Theme
You're Not Alone
Hymn of the Fayth
Melodies of Life
The Place I'll Return To Someday