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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Filtering by Tag: Entertainment

Marmaduke and Other Box-Office Dogs

John Rennie

The scathing review of the movie Marmaduke on begins by describing it as "so self-evidently bad that slamming it would be tautological," and then it just gets nasty. (The justification for reviewing Marmaduke on a science fiction site? "A sentient Great Dane who holds his family hostage falls well within the boundaries of speculative fiction — it's more or less like Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, but without the semen farming.") But never mind that. More intriguing was the link to a page on Box Office Mojo listing the fifty "Worst Wide Openings" since 1982.
I'm not sure what strikes me as most remarkable about this list. Obviously, it consists entirely of films that did awful business; even so, I don't think I'd ever imagined just how badly some of them had done. For example, if I think of science fiction films starring Eddie Murphy that did abysmally, The Adventures of Pluto Nash first leaps to mind. But that's not even on this list. Instead, Meet Dave—you remember, the one with Murphy playing an Eddie Murphy-shaped spaceship full of little people?—lands at number three: it opened with $5.2 million in 3,011 theaters and ultimately grossed only $11.8 million. Those are slit-your-wrist awful numbers.
On the other hand... when you consider that these are the worst movie openings in 30 years, what shocks me (as a complete outsider to the movie biz) is just how much money most of these films made. No doubt most of them did lose money—probably great buckets of money. But it also seems as though if producers can manage to get a film into 3,000 theaters for its opening weekend, they are almost guaranteed to open with $10 million and to gross at least $35 million.
Again, those are clearly not earnings sufficient to offset gigantic losses. But what seems more amazing? That even something like The Bad News Bears remake could earn about $33 million? Or that Battlefield Earth couldn't even bring in $22 million?

Posted via email from Rennie's Other Last Nerve

Seafood Sampler

John Rennie

Much to my surprise, the Walt Disney Company has released a film that is chock full of fish, not one of which talks or sings. Strictly speaking, Disneynature, an independent Disney label based in France, is the outfit responsible for Oceans, which opened in celebration of Earth Day. (Here's the film's official site, but warning: brace for flashy multimedia overload.) And strictly strictly speaking, this is actually the English international release of Océans, which debuted in France last year.

As you might expect, the cinematography is spectacular, especially during the film's first hour. (It's probably equally good during the last third, but there may be limits to just how much gorgeous underwater imagery the human brain can absorb without growing scales.) In contrast, the informational content connected to all that beauty is disappointingly low. The narrative carries viewers from ocean to ocean, pole to equator, surface to sea bottom; the individual moments seem to link together at least loosely but there's no clear sense of a master plan or theme guiding it. Pierce Brosnan's narration works so hard to be lyrical that all the earnestness starts to grate, and the writing lets its attitude of wonder overrun any genuine curiosity about the subject.

Scientific American's Steve Mirsky and I both emerged from a preview screening of Oceans last month with the same thought: the film should really be called Ocean Life. Almost the entire running time is occupied with showing fish, whales, sharks, jellies, coral, diatoms, crabs, cetaceans, anemones, kelp—living stuff. But aside from some beauty shots of angry waves breaking over rocks, seascapes under different temperaments of sky, icebergs calving into the sea and so on, the film shows almost no interest in nonbiological matters of oceanography. If you want to know more about currents, seafloor spreading, the chemistry or even the origins of seawater... make your own movie.

The cynic in me also couldn't help but wonder about some other things:

  • Can one really watch rocket launches from the shores of the Galapagos Islands? The film seems to imply as much, showing Galapagos marine iguanas crawling across rocks while a rocket takes off in the distance? I genuinely don't know, and perhaps there is an equatorial floating launch platform that has held that position.
  • Oceans has extraordinary sequences that show, for example, schools of small fish attracting schools of larger ones, which in turn draw flocks of seabirds, and then shoals of sharks. It's a brilliant, bloody frenzy. Did the photographers simply get amazingly lucky about documenting this event from start to finish? Did they know how enough to improve their chances somehow? Or did they somehow make it happen? I gather that the filmmakers behind these new Disneynature productions take exceptional journalistic integrity in compiling their footage honestly, and I would want that to be true. Still, given the long record of fakery in wildlife documentaries described in this Audubon magazine article by Ted Williams, I do have to wonder.

All in all, Oceans is worth seeing as eye candy and as a gorgeous enticement to learn more about its subject, but I can't help but wish that Disney had included a few talking fish. They might have answered some questions that the filmmakers didn't.

Halo is in the Eye of the Beholder

John Rennie

Sure, not that anyone asked, but I'm happy to be the last person in the digiverse to voice an opinion on something that every sentient lifeform in the galaxy with a joystick and a keyboard has already exhausted: what's all this, then, about Roger Ebert saying video games can't be art?

After all, my perspective on this burning controversy is strikingly important because, in addition to having awful taste in art (beautiful! moving! inspiring!), I have played video games less than almost anyone in my generation who isn't Amish. Fact! Having learned as a young man that I lacked the hand-eye coordination to master the intricacies of Pac-Man and Pong, I decided to sit out a couple of decades worth of arcade action. And because I've mostly owned Macs since the early 1990s, my handiest hardware was outside the gaming mainstream. And because I'm fairly sure gaming consoles crawl around your home at night and suck the dreams out of your sleeping brain, I don't have one of those, either. I am an enormous amount of fun to be around.

Anyway, as someone too ignorant about the state of games to discuss their artistic achievements or lack thereof, I am sorry that the eternally awesome Ebert decided to ignite this particular conversation in these terms. Arguments about whether XXX is or isn't Art inevitably turn into wrestling matches over definitions of art or "good" art vs. "bad." The problem with those definitions isn't that they hinge on subjective judgments. It's that they almost always invest the definition in the artistic object itself. The value of art (whatever it is) emerges from the intentions of the artist and the audience's responses to the artwork, and how those two correspond. Hissing over whether something is really art or whether it's simply good or bad is uninformative. By far, the more interesting approach is to skip the labeling and to concentrate instead on how the artwork does or doesn't achieve certain ends.

For example, to say that Thomas Kinkade is not an artist is meaningless except as shorthand to others who share your tastes. By any reasonable, impartial definition, Kinkade is an artist. But he's also a stylistically bland, kitschy sentimentalist whose choice of landscape subjects is all text and no subtext; his landscapes always look like they are waiting to be peopled by a van full of sad clowns and teens from a Christian youth ministry.

You may feel differently (and of course, if you do, you are dead wrong). Yet a disagreement on those terms is far more enlightening about what we each think than any is-it-or-ain't-it-art spat.

Ebert speaks his mind on why he thinks video games fail as art, so he is at least going far past the simple name-calling. I have no idea of whether he's right in his evaluation of video games to date. On the face of it, though, I can't help but think that writing off the potential reach of an entire medium's artistic achievement for the foreseeable future is rash. A big part of his argument seems to be that the interactivity and gameplay aspects of video games compromise their ability to function as art, but I don't see a really convincing argument of why that should be the case based on principles, just examples of failed games. I'd hate to bet against what games might do down the line. But on the other hand, Ebert might well be entirely right in his dispassionate assessment of how games stand to date.

Then again, maybe that's a judgment that ought to come from somebody who ever played Donkey Kong.