Sunday 23 September 2018

A Big Year In Small-Budget Cinema

Part 2 of 2 on Best Dramatic Presentation 2019. Part 1 is at this link

With only a quarter of 2018 ahead of us, we feel confident with the claim that this year has been quietly terrific for dramatic presentations. 

While run-of-the-mill sci-fi action-adventures like Avengers, Jurassic Park and Ready Player One
Sorry To Bother You is exactly the type
of science fiction movie that the world
needs right now. Smart, relevant,
irreverent and timely.
(Image via
may have topped the box office charts, there have been many spectacular smaller releases that have shown how smart scripts and thoughtful directing mean more than massive budgets.

Worth The Bother

Almost certainly at the top of our ballots this year will be Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry To Bother You. The movie is a richly comedic fantasy about labour organizing, capital overreach, systemic racism, code switching, and the silent complicity society forces on well-intentioned individuals.

While the science fiction and fantasy elements of Sorry To Bother You are not front-and-centre in the movie’s advertising campaigns, they are integral to the plot and are part of what makes the movie work so well. Interestingly, most reviews of the movie have honoured Riley’s request to abstain from spoiling the – completely bonkers – third act in which the science fictional elements come to a head (literally and figuratively).

There’s so much to love in this movie – superb casting, smart set decoration, believable relationship tensions, laugh-out-loud humour. Balanced on a razor’s edge of surrealism and believability for much of the movie, there are details in the background and subtexts to explore on repeat viewings. Riley even works in a delicious subversion of Kylie Jenner’s infamous Pepsi-at-a-protest commercial.

Sorry To Bother You offers an intellectual richness that is worth mining. But don’t take our word for it. This film received significant praise from relatively prominent writers and critics including Evan Narcisse, Tanaritive Due, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. We hope that Hugo nominators will take the time to see it at least once, despite the fact that is was only ever released on 1,050 screens across North America (fewer than a quarter the number of screens that movies like MI:6 and The Meg were released on), and earned a modest $16 million (less than half as much as Sherlock Gnomes did).

Area X

Another excellent sci-fi movie that largely flew under the radar was Annihilation, based on Jeff
Annihilation is visually arresting, moody
and evocative.
(Image via
VanderMeer’s book of the same name. Although it was a flop in the box office in April, earning back just $43 million of its $45 million production budget, Annihilation is an elegant and movingly weird movie about loss, both of loved ones and one’s self.

With deep intellectual debts to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, Annihilation concerns a scouting party sent into a ‘zone’ that has been rendered uninhabitable through unknowable alien forces. As the protagonists delve deeper into this zone – known as the Shimmer – they are confronted by their own unreliable memories as well as visually arresting mutated biology.

Moody and evocative, Annihilation makes the most of its desolate setting, allowing tensions to rise gradually as the Shimmer takes its toll on the psyches of the protagonists. Special effects, while omnipresent in this movie, are well thought out and rarely over-the top.

While Annihilation did not connect with mainstream audiences, neither did director Alex Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, which did make it onto the Hugo shortlist. We hope this bodes well for Annihilation – especially considering the number of people who nominated Vandermeer’s last novel for a Hugo.

Endlessly Entertaining

The most obscure movie that is likely to make our Hugo nomination ballots is Justin Benson’s indie
How did a movie as good as The Endless
get made on such a small budget?
Turns out the trick is to start with
a really good script.
(Image via
horror flick The Endless. It’s understandable if you haven’t seen it, given that it was released on a total of 20 screens in April. Despite the fact that it earned a paltry $272,020 at the box office, it has been consistently praised by critics for effective storytelling, gripping drama, and artistic sensibility.

The film tells a story about a pair of brothers who decide to revisit the compound of a cult they fled from ten years earlier. While one of the brothers is drawn in by the positive elements of the community, the other recognizes that there is something dark and foreboding under the surface.

The supernatural elements — and allusions to Lovecraftian mythology — are introduced slowly and subtly and effectively, offering an interesting paralel for the lives the brothers had led since escaping to the ‘real world.’ Writer-director Justin Benson also alludes to the nearly universal human drive to avoid self-destructive patterns and build a better life.

Lovecraft is notoriously difficult to bring to the cinema, but Benson has a deft touch and never overplays his hand. It might even be that the low budget allowed him to build tension instead of relying on special effects.

Giant Heart

Based on Joe Kelly’s award-winning comic book of the same name, I Kill Giants had all the makings
I Kill Giants has an all-star pedigree
but ended up on Netflix before you
ever heard about it.
(Image via
of a blockbuster movie: big-name movie star Zoe Saldana, an Academy Award-winner in the director’s chair, flashy special effects. But somehow, it was released with almost no promotion on a handful of screens, earned a measly $183,754, and ended up in the Netflix back catalogue before anyone noticed.

That’s possibly because nobody understood quite what to make of this ponderous and surreal movie about children’s imaginations, about how we deal with trauma, about dealing with bullies, and about asserting one’s place in the world.

I Kill Giants is the sort of movie that will appeal more to Worldcon attendees than it would to the general public, as it is generally fannish in a way that mainstream science fiction films are not. The main character — a withdrawn kid with a big imagination who struggles to fit in — seems like the sort of person who would seek out fandom. Conveying this character’s rich inner life would be a challenge for any actor, but 14-year-old Madison Wolfe pulls it off admirably.

Although slow, the movie is compelling. The visuals are stunning and the meticulous planning of some of the shots will make cinephiles pause the movie to revel in the framing, the design, and the special effects.

Top Prospect

For its sheer science fictional scope and vision, Prospect belongs on our Hugo nominating ballots, even if few people have heard of it.

The movie — based on a short film from 2014 — offers viewers an engaging parable about greed and survival.

Directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl use a forest moon as a backdrop for a story about a prospector and his daughter trying to strike it rich. The pacing is excellent, the dialogue is taut, and the tension builds as you realize that one man’s foolishness and greed might spell disaster for everyone.

It’s a character-driven movie that is held together by a terrific performance by Sophie Thatcher,
A critical darling of the festival circuit,
Prospect might be getting a wider
release this November. Make a point
of seeing it — you won't be disappointed.
(Image via
playing the prospector’s daughter. The subtropical rainforests of the pacific northwest have never looked as alien to me as they did in Prospect.

Given how difficult it will be for most Hugo nominators to see Prospect this year, I hope that its eligibility might be held over an additional year, as they did for Predestination a few years back. This is a movie that deserves a wider audience.

In most other years, we might have considered nominating ultraviolent cyborg revenge-fantasy Upgrade, but we just don’t have room on the ballot this year.

The movie hit cinemas this summer, and grossed slightly less than $16 million. It’s a linear narrative about a mechanic who is paralyzed during an attack that claims the life of his wife. When new technology gives him the ability to walk again, he goes on a bloody rampage in pursuit of the people who killed his wife.

Such a premise could easily have produced banal Death Wish-style trash, somehow Upgrade ends up being something smarter and more engaging. Director Leigh Wannell, who’s mostly known for writing several installments of the Saw and Insidious franchizes, uses her knowledge of gore and blood effectively. There’s a sense of body horror about what has happened to the protagonist, and some interesting surveillance aspects to the future the movie depicts.

Looking back over the past 20 years of science fiction movies, there have been few as fecund as 2018. There are only a limited number of spots on a Hugo nominating ballot, and this is a year where it will be very difficult to winnow the movie choices down to just five.

We would urge Hugo voters to seek out some of the less obvious choices, and join us in celebrating works that could use more exposure.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

In Thrall Of The Blockbuster

Part 1 of 2 on Best Dramatic Presentation 2019. Part 2 is at this link.
Infinity War is emblematic of a trend
 in which mediocre movies with big
budgets get a lot of attention from
Hugo nominators. Please don't include
it on your ballot.
(Image via

We have started to think of the last decade as the “Marvel-movie era” of science fiction filmmaking, partly because the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form shortlist has shown a significant bias towards high-budget, effects-driven productions… aka blockbusters.

Over the past ten years or so, the average budget of a movie that makes the Hugo shortlist is in excess of $140 million — and during that time, only three movies with budgets smaller than $20 million have been on the Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form ballot.1

Coming in with a relatively minuscule budget of $4.5 million, Get Out is the cheapest Hugo-shortlisted film since before the Dramatic Presentation category was split into short-form and long-form. It would be hard, however, to describe Get Out as anything other than a blockbuster, as it was produced by Universal Studios, was released on 2,713 screens, and grossed of more than $175 million.

Year over year, the average budget of Hugo-shortlisted movies has been trending upwards, outpacing inflation by about 10 per cent over the past decade. That may have to do in part with the blockbusterization of movies in general, but it might also indicate that when it comes to the Dramatic Presentation - Long Form category, Hugo voters are trend followers not trend leaders.

The Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form ballot in 2014 is a case in point, with the average production cost amongst the finalists at $107 million. This may be the lowest-average of the decade, but the smallest-budgeted movie to make the shortlist was the winning movie Looper, a $30-million film starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt.

That same year, the $180-million budget The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — which Slate
Would you like an insufferable
number of dwarves? The Hobbit:
An Unexpected Journey
will give
you that.
(Image via
Magazine praised as an “exercise in deliberately inflicted tedium” — was also on the Dramatic Presentation Long Form shortlist. It would be hard to argue that The Hobbit stands the test of time better or was more worthy of inclusion on the Hugo shortlist than contemporaneous lower-budget movies like Robot and Frank (budget $2.5 million), Chronicle (budget $12 million), or Dredd (budget $30 million). This was a wasted opportunity, in that even shortlisting any one of those excellent movies might have helped it reach the wider audience it deserved, while putting The Hobbit on the shortlist made Hugo members look like followers.

Over the past decade, there have of course been many excellent big-budget blockbuster movies that have been included on the ballot — Fury Road and Interstellar come to mind. But in general, it seems that there is a overly strong correlation between the size of a marketing campaign and a presence on the Hugo ballot.

This bias towards the big-budget wide releases is understandable — these are the movies that are most accessible to the average Hugo Award voter. Robot and Frank was released in 2012, but unless you attended a festival screening or an arthouse cinema, you wouldn’t have been able to see it until the middle of 2013 when it became available for digital download. In short, the movie became easily available to Hugo nominators after the deadline to nominate had passed.

But despite accessibility obstacles, I would argue that we (as Hugo nominators) should attempt to explore genre movies more widely than simply what is being advertised at the multiplex. Last night, a few members of this book club watched the new independent horror-fantasy movie Mandy, and while it is unlikely to make our 2019 ballots, it was worth the effort. Thanks to the Internet, it is actually easier than ever before to watch smaller-budget movies with more diverse voices.

Those who attend the Hugo Awards ceremonies will know that the award for Best Dramatic
The team from Edge of Tomorrow were
at the 2015 Hugo Awards, and they were
totally awesome.
(Image via Olav Rokne)   
Presentation - Long Form is usually presented to an empty podium. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the production team behind Edge Of Tomorrow cared enough about being on the 2015 Hugo shortlist to actually attended the ceremony. If you care about the award you will make an effort to attend the ceremony (note earlier comments about the size of movie budgets).

We would argue that the three most deserving Hugo Award finalists in this category during the Marvel-movie era have been the ones with the smallest budgets — Looper, Moon, Ex Machina and Arrival. These are the ‘real’ science fiction movies, made for people who think about, love, and appreciate the genre.

The tendency of Hugo Award nominators to seemingly shortlist works because they are already financially successful might be an unfortunate reality for a passive society of consumers, but we like to think that Hugo members can do better. Get Out there and find innovative, interesting science fiction cinema.

Next week, we’ll share our thoughts about some of the sci-fi cinema gems we’d love to see on the Hugo ballot in 2019.
  1. This calculation does not include METAtropolis, since it is not a movie. Likewise, the calculation does not include any TV series. 

Friday 14 September 2018

Showcasing the strength of Mexicanx Science Fiction

Post by Book Club member Kateryna Barnes. The reviewer received a copy of the anthology as a gift from the creators. 

In a time where the American government separates and imprisons migrant families, hearing from
The anthology includes a wide range of
perspectives and tones.
(Image via Fireside Magazine
those who live and engage with the Mexico-US borderlands on a personal level couldn’t be more relevant.

Fresh off the presses in time for WorldCon76, the Mexicanx Initiative’s bilingual anthology Una Realidad más Amplia: Historias desde la Periferia Bicultural/A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins celebrates the diversity of Mexicanx writers who create science fiction, fantasy and horror. Born of a Kickstarter project, the book includes twelve short stories and one comic in both Spanish and English, with an ebook version on the way. 

Considering Mexico’s rich collection of cultures, folklores and history, there’s plenty of room for imagination. As such, demonstrating the variety of the creators was the goal of the anthology, one that it achieves resoundingly. Diversity of creators (be it gender, age, Mexican or American), writing styles, perspectives, moods, themes, story length and genres are on display in this collection. Clocking under 100 pages, readers are invited into worlds that range from superhero comedies to alternate realities to monsters and zombies to psychological horror. 

While each contribution is a worthy read, some of the standouts include:
Members of the Mexicanx Initiative
at Worldcon 76
(Photo by Kateryna Barnes) 
  • David BowlesAztlán Liberated–– a quick-paced, doomsday sci-fi story that feels like a scene from an action flick 
  • Julia RiosA Truth Universally Acknowledged–– an introspective alternate reality exploration into the “what ifs” of human relationships 
  • Raquel Castro’s Ring a Ring o’ Roses–– What happens when a young girl gets a pet zombie for her birthday? She brings it to school, of course! 
  • Alberto Chimal’s It All Makes Sense Here–– There be monsters here...or are there? 
  • Gabriela Damián Miravete’s Music and Petals–– Psychological horror meets family secrets in a short story that’ll make you want to avoid your basement for the foreseeable future 
  • Andrea Chapela’s Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots–– an imaginative look at childhood grief in a near future

As a microcosm of The Mexicanx Initiative, the anthology shows the strength of this aspect of the global science fiction and fantasy community. Considering editor Libia Brenda’s experience in editing magazines, fanzines and books, it’s fair to suggest that Una Realidad más Amplia: Historias desde la Periferia Bicultural/A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins could help earn her a place on a future Hugo Award ballot in the Best Editor (Short Form) category*, and some of the contributions should also be considered for the Short Story category. 

The strength of this work also begs the question: when will Mexico get the chance to host a WorldCon? That’s a convention I’d like to attend.

*Editor's note: a previous version of this blog post erroneously implied that Brenda might already be eligible for a Hugo. We regret this error. 

Sunday 2 September 2018

Hollywood has a mixed history adapting Hugo-shortlisted works

Last week, Apple announced that it has greenlit a high-budget TV series based on Isaac Asimov’s
For us, this series of covers
is one of the best works based
on the Foundation novels.
(Image via 
Foundation novels.

Should this announcement be greeted with trepidation or enthusiasm? After all, Hollywood has a long and storied history of screwing up adaptations of Hugo-shortlisted works.

By our count, there are 15 movies, eight television series, and two standalone television episodes based on Hugo-Award-winning textual works. There are an additional five television series and 14 movies based on textual works that were shortlisted, but did not win the Hugo Award. (The list we’ve compiled is here. It was woefully incomplete when this article was written, and has been updated significantly over the past two years.)

These dramatic presentations are at best a mixed bag and few have aged well. While a handful of adaptations of Hugo winners have themselves been shortlisted for a Hugo Award, no movie or television show based on a Hugo winner has itself won a Hugo for dramatic presentation.

The earliest of these adaptations is “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon,” an episode of The United States Steel Hour that aired in February of 1961, based on Daniel Keyes’ 1958 Hugo-winning short story Flowers For Algernon. The episode is actually well-made for the time, hews closely to the original work, and keeps the emotional core of the story (though it adds a happy ending). It was on the shortlist in 1962.

Flowers For Algernon is probably the Hugo-winning work that has been adapted most often. On top
Even Mick Jagger can't make the
costumes in Freejack look cool.
(Image via
of various stage productions, there were four movies including one that won an Academy Award, a Tony-nominated musical, and a video game. Several of these adaptations — such as the 1968 movie Charly — seem to have been produced with an understanding of what made the original resonate with audiences.

But for every decent Flowers For Algernon adaptation, there’s a Bicentennial Man: The Movie.

One of Asimov’s robot stories, Bicentennial Man won best Novella in 1977, and in 1999 was turned into a maudlin Robin Williams vehicle complete with Celine Dion soundtrack. Unfortunately the film ignored Asimov’s meditations on whether or not mortality makes us human, and on what rights a sentient non-human might have. The film is largely a failure.

There’s 1997’s Freejack (based on Robert Sheckley’s 1959 shortlisted novel Immortality, Inc.), and Kevin Costner’s The Postman. There’s the 2013 adaptation of Ender’s Game. There’s Millennium, based on John Varley’s shortlisted novel of the same name. This is not a list that fills one with confidence about Hollywood’s ability to adapt great works of science fiction.
At least Bicentennial Man was a more
faithful adaptation than I, Robot.
(Image via 

It could be that the Hugo-shortlisted works that have worked best as adaptations (Slaughterhouse Five, American Gods, Arrival as examples) are the ones that are smaller in scope and focus on personal stories of self-discovery. The great works of science fiction that are more epic in scope – Dune, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Three-Body Problem – have often been Hollywoodized into mindless action-adventure works, stripped of what made them great.

Which brings us back to Isaac Asimov’s most epic work: Foundation. Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Series in 1966. Winner of a Best Novel Hugo in 1984. Winner of a Retro Hugo for best short story at the most recent Worldcon. This is a work that has enduring value to the science fiction community. It continues to draw in new readers from outside the community and is credited by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman with inspiring his career. If ever there was a work that deserved a faithful and respectful adaptation, this is it.

But Foundation presents at least one major challenge for screenwriters: selecting a focal point. Producers can choose to focus on the classic trilogy or on the novels that were published later. The main stories (the original trilogy) tell a cohesive story but use an ever-changing cast of characters. More recent Foundation novels offer a cohesive cast of characters, but tell a story that is unlikely to engage the typical Hollywood consumer. Both options seem to have their quandaries.

The quality of an adaptation matters because a mediocre – or wildly divergent – film adaptation
A surprising number of people know our genre primarily
through Hollywood's adaptations of the classic works.
Mediocre adaptations make it easier  for non-fans
to dismiss the great works of science fiction.
(Image via Facebook)
can undermine the cultural value of a great work. For example, some fans of the movie Starship Troopers are unaware that it is based on a novel, while others believe it’s loosely adapted from Ender’s Game. When speaking to everyday non-fans about the work Bicentennial Man, how many of them are likely to believe that it’s actually an excellent novella, given that they’re probably familiar with the Robin Williams movie?

Those concerns aside, there is some room for hope with the adaptation of Foundation. Of the Hugo-winning or shortlisted works that were adapted into a TV series in the past decade, several have arguably lived up to the original works — American Gods, Game of Thrones, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell come to mind as examples of this. It is possible that television is a better medium for science fiction adaptations than cinematic releases.

We are cautiously hopeful for Foundation: The TV Series and will attempt to judge it as it comes. We are also hopeful that irrational exuberance about the prospect doesn’t get in the way of seeing the series for what it is.