Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Future is Passe

A Facebook friend recently made me aware, through his status update, of a milestone about to pass unfulfilled. With only one day left in the year 2010 it would appear that we are NOT going to "make contact" as promised in the movie "2010: The Year We Make Contact" (1984). This realization made me think of other science-fiction movies that failed to predict the future before their settings became part of the past instead of the future.

Science-fiction tends to be speculative, and that's a good thing. It doesn't really try to "predict" the future, per se--just use the genre to tell a story that may or may not seem feasible in the real world. The "fiction" part of science-fiction allows for most any setting and plot lines the author/film-makers can imagine. The time frame can be any period in the past, present or future. The "science" aspect of science fiction frequently (but not always) tends to cause the setting to be in the future. Time travel stories/movies are a notable example. Usually the time machine apparatus is invented in the future ("The Terminator" (1984)), or the present ("Back to the Future" (1985)), and the protagonists of the story can then travel to any point in the past or future ("Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1989)...).

Now, when a science-fiction story is set in the future, the author/film-makers can choose between a couple of different ways to express when the action is taking place. The first method is to simply describe it as "the future", "the near future", or the futuristic setting can simply be implied by the story itself without needing to state it outright. What makes this method effective is that no matter when the story is read (or the movie watched), it will always be taking place in "the future". The other method is to explicitly state the time that the story is taking place in. This gives a sense of just how far into the future the story is unfolding and gives a sense of relativity to the reader's/viewer's own refernce point in time. This is perfectly fine with a newly published book or a recently released movie, but poses a problem when reading older books or watching older movies. What was "the future" in the story might actually be "the past" by the time someone reads/watches it. With the possible exception of Nostradamus and other future predictors, no one really knows what the future is going to bring. This is what makes science-fiction such an interesting and wide-open genre. One can speculate any kind of future that one can imagine and make an interesting story out of it. Of course, when the time of that story actually comes to pass, the "predictions" made in a future-based story will almost always not reflect the present world's reality.

There are many examples of this paradox, and more are happening all the time. I haven't done any exhaustive research on this topic, but here are a few examples that come to mind from my own movie-watching experience. "2010: The Year We Make Contact" is a very topical example, because 2010 is about to expire with no contact (that I'm aware of) with a higher intelligence from "out there". Jupiter has not collapsed in on itself, and it's going to have to do it pretty quickly if it wants to beat Dick Clark ringing in 2011. Of course "2010" was the sequel to the better known "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). Both of these movies were based on Arthur C. Clarke books. As of tomorrow, the dates of both movies will be in the past. Clarke DID write two more books in his series, "2061: Odyssey Three" and "3001: The Final Odyssey". There's still quite a while before the book set in 2061 becomes dated, and 3001 is definitely going to be safe for some time.

Big Brother was watching us in the George Orwell novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and a couple movies based on that novel. 1984 probably seemed pretty far in the future when Orwell wrote the book in 1949, but obviously it is now pretty far in the past. My interest in science-fiction really solidified in the early 1980s so I remember hearing about the movie version that was released in 1984. I have never read the book or seen the movies (though I probably should), but am somewhat familiar with the whole "Big Brother is watching" theme. While 1984 came and went without Orwell's dystopian predictions coming true, the idea of "Big Brother" really has become part of our collective conscience. Whenever there's fear of loss of personal freedom or privacy because of corrupt government, identity theft, internet security issues, and the like we tend to hear something about "Big Brother".

The "Terminator" franchise is based on time travel, so some of its problems with time catching up with it can be explained away, but when you get right down to it, Skynet was supposed to become self-aware in August of 1997. It wasn't long after this date that the computers declare war on humanity. This date can be adjusted as the series continues by saying that the heroics of the good guys in the movies (TV show, comics...) caused a delay in when Skynet finally went online. Now that's science-fiction at work! The original time traveling in "The Terminator" occurred when characters were sent back to 1984 from the year 2029, so there's still a little while before that becomes dated.

Another 1980s-based time travel series of movies is coming close to a time of reckoning itself. "Back to the Future" (1985) is pretty safe. In that movie, Doc Brown invents a time machine in the present (1985) and Marty McFly travels 30 years in the past to 1955. No problems there. But in the first sequel to the movie, "Back to the Future Part II" (1989), Marty and Doc Brown travel into the future. How far in the future? All the way to the year 2015. As of tomorrow, 2015 will only be four years off.

TV shows aren't exempt from these time problems either. I first started watching the original "Twilight Zone" (1959-64) back in the early 1980s, when the show was already 20 to 25 years old. I remember at least a couple episodes that took place in the 1980s. It was interesting to hear that (seeing as how I was actually living in the 1980s), but it obviously broke the mood of a story that was supposed to be taking place in the not-too-distant future instead of the present.

"Space: 1999" came out in the mid-1970s, so the year 1999 was pretty far away at the time. Of course, the show (as well as Prince's song "1999") is now more than a decade out of date. It is now almost twelve years after the show was set, and (last I knew) the Moon is still very much in orbit around the Earth. The whole millennium era (1999, 2000, 2001) has always been a tantalizing setting for science-fiction stories. The simple change of century and the simple amazing-ness of imagining a year called "Two Thousand" instead of "Nineteen-Whatever" just seem made for sci-fi. Well, at least it SEEMED like an appropriate setting for stories filmed or written many years before the actual year 2000. Strangely enough, the real world had a very sci-fi-esque potential problem as we actually approached the millennium--the Y2K Bug. That turned out to be nothing much, but had the potential of being a very effective science-fiction story come to life. A world that had allowed itself to become so dependent on computers and technology (cell phones, satellites, the internet...) suddenly finds itself plunged into a new Dark Age when all that technology suddenly and completely stops working.

The TV show "Lost in Space" premiered in 1965. The story was set in the year 1997. I'm sure 1997 seemed quite distant in 1965, but of course now it's even more dated than "Space: 1999". When they made a movie out of the show in 1998, they adjusted the setting to 2058. That ought to keep reality from catching up to the movie...for a while at least.

I suppose the next date to be concerned with is 2012. Not only does the ancient Mayan calendar predict that the world will end in 2012, Hollywood recently gave us a movie about the world ending in that year called..."2012" (2009). I haven't watched that Ronald Emmerich-directed, John Cusack-starring special effects bonanza, but probably should before 2012--just in case the world ends and I don't get a chance to watch it later. While I understand why the film-makers chose to name this movie after the year 2012, they could have easily avoided the problem of having an outdated premise in a couple years by using a title more like 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow". While I didn't find that one to be a very good movie, it does have an almost perfect, foolproof science-fiction name. The day after tomorrow indicates something in the VERY near future, yet it's a date which will never actually arrive in reality. The day after tomorrow will ALWAYS be in the future!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Horror That Is "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer"

As a kid, I always loved watching the animated Holiday specials around Christmas (as well as other holidays throughout the year). These shows were truly special, in that, they were only aired on television once a year and they would pre-empt regular programming. If you weren't able to be in front of your TV at the right time you'd not only miss the show, but you'd have to wait for a whole year for another opportunity. Nowadays they seem to run many of these shows more than one time during the Holiday season. And, once they became available on VHS, and later on DVD, the "special" aspect of the programs was really lost. They're still great shows of course, just not the events they used to be.

While there were many great Christmas shows, it's pretty easy to pick my two favorites: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965) and "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1964). It's impossible to place them in order of first place and second place. I suppose they're both tied for first in my opinion. One thing that set "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" apart from all the other specials was the fact that it was the only one that not only entertained me and put a bunch of catchy Christmas tunes in my head, but also scared the crap out of me! Yes, I admit that I was afraid of this show as a kid. Well, not the entire show itself, but one specific character...The Abominable Snow Monster of the North.

I was fascinated by all kinds of "unsolved mysteries" as a kid (and still am today for that matter). UFOs, ghosts, The Loch Ness Monster, the statues of Easter Island, spontaneous human combustion and the possibility of "ancient astronauts" guiding the Incas and Aztecs were among the things that interested me. Basically anything that might have been covered in the Alan Landsberg produced, Leonard Nimoy hosted show "In Search of..." was fair game. However, one mystery rose above all others for me. That was the mystery of Big Hairy Monsters (BHMs), such as Bigfoot, Sasquatch and The Abominable Snowman (Yeti). The idea that such creatures had been reported for centuries and could actually exist in our world (where monsters supposedly DON'T exist) was at once fascinating and terrifying to me.

The Abominable Snowman had been a mythical creature for hundreds of years in the Himalayas, but really entered the psyche of the western world in the 1950s when people began trying to scale Mount Everest. In 1951 Eric Shipton photographed giant footprints in the snow made by the Yeti. Then, in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary also reported seeing similar footprints. The Abominable Snowman became enough of a part of popular culture that a slew of movies about it were released in the mid- to late-1950s. "The Snow Creature" (1954), "Man beast" (1956), "The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas" (1957) and "Half Human" (1958) (an American re-working of the 1955 Japanese movie "Beast Man Snow Man", directed by Ishiro Honda of "Godzilla" fame) are some examples of how pervasive the idea of The Abominable Snowman was at the time. Apparently there was still enough interest in the creature in 1964 to cause the makers of "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" to add The Abominable Snow Monster of the North into the cast of the show.

I love the story of "Rudolph". While some of the messages of how you should be true to yourself and how people shouldn't deem others "misfits" just because they're a little different may have gone over my head when I was young, I still enjoyed the whole story. The only problem was that the Snow Monster would periodically show up to terrify me. My main defense against this horror was to pull the blanket I was wrapped up in over my eyes and watching the scary scenes through the little spaces in the material. Exactly how I thought this would save me I'm not sure. Maybe I just figured that the monster wouldn't be able to see me. While this might seem like a bit of an extreme reaction to an animated holiday special I have read and heard about others who were similarly petrified by the experience. In fact, one of my best friends confided in me that he had also employed the blanket defense against the fearsome creature.

For the most part "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" unfolds as a typical animated Holiday special. It, of course, tells the familiar tale of Rudolph that is well-known from the song. The story is fleshed out by the additions of Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist instead of a toymaker, the Island of Misfit Toys, and the gold and silver seeking prospector Yukon Cornelius. Not too far into the story we get our first, unexpected glimpse of The Abominble Snow Monster of the North as Donner and Rudolph hide from the creature, who walks past them, leaving giant footprints in the snow. Sam the Snowman (the Burl Ives-voiced narrator of the show) says of the monster: "He's mean! He's nasty! And he hates everything to do with Christmas!" We only see the creature's legs and hear its fierce roaring in this scene, but it's obvious that it's something to be feared.

The monster isn't heard from again for a while. We kind of forget about it as we learn just how much Rudolph and his new friend Hermey don't fit into their respective environments. Eventually they decide to run away together to get away from everyone who insists they're misfits (freaks, non-comformists, odd balls...). Not too long after they leave Rudolph's nose attracts Abominable's attention and we see his face for the first time as he peeks over the mountains. As Sam the Snowman says: "Like I said, the outside world is up to its ears in danger."

I think that, as a kid, I was heartened by the fact that Sam the Snowman (the narrator of the story) was so frightened by the monster's appearance, that even he had to hide behind his umbrella--shaking like a leaf. This made me feel a bit better about hiding behind my trusty blanket.

We get another reprieve from the monster for a bit as we meet Yukon Cornelius, and Burl Ives sings "Silver and Gold". But it's not long after the misfits and Yukon set out together that the Abominable Snow Monster (or the "Bumble", as Yukon call it) really starts chasing them in earnest. It's almost a half-hour into the show and we've only seen the creature three times, but the way they space it out is very effective. The first time we only see its legs. The second time it is peeking over the mountain tops. And this time we see its giant, pointy teeth for the first time as it pursues our heroes.

The monster returns to the background for a while (but is always on everyone's mind thanks to Rudolph's danged shiny nose) as the main characters meet the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys. But Rudolph strikes out on his own so as to not endanger his new friends. Sam lets us know that the Abominable Snow Monster was always just one step behind Rudolph (wonder what exactly it was that the creature had against that shiny nose?). Rudolph eventually finds that his parents and girlfriend, Clarice, have been captured by the Snow Monster and are being kept in its cave. Rudolph tries to save them just as the monster is about to make a venison snack out of Clarice, but is knocked unconscious by the raging beast.

One of the best lines in the whole show comes when when the Snow Monster is standing menacingly over the four reindeer and Clarice tearfully exclaims: "Oh, why doesn't he get it over with?". Finally, Yukon and Hermey rescue the reindeer and render the monster harmless by pulling out its teeth. At this point it is what Yukon calls "a mighty humble Bumble", and ceases to be the frightful presence that it had been up to that point in the show.

Yukon and the Snow Monster disappear when they fall off a cliff, but they return at the end of the show. They show up at Santa's castle and we learn that Yukon has reformed the Bumble into a docile, friendly critter who only wants a job placing stars on top of Christmas trees--without even needing a step-ladder. Despite having the knowledge of the Abominable Snow Monster's ultimate, cuddly fate at the end of the program, I would still have to cower behind the blanket when it made it's first appearance during the following year's airing of "Rudolph".

The years have passed. I'm now a father myself. My daughter is now very familiar with the story of "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" herself. I made a point of showing it to her when she was two or three years old. It was very exciting to see her finding the Abominable Snow Monster frightening like I did when I was little. I could recapture a bit of the feeling of the past by watching her experience the joys and terrors of the show for the first time. And, wouldn't you know, she even had to hide behind her own blanket when the creature would make an appearance! I finally broke down and bought "Rudolph" on DVD last year. Possibly as a result of repeated viewings beyond the once-annual airing on TV, she has already grown out of most of her fear of Abominable at the age of only five years old. I don't know exactly when I stopped hiding behind my blanket, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't until I was quite a bit older than five.

Here's my Little Monster enjoying "Rudolph" back in 2008 (age 3)

And here she is hiding from the Snow Monster, just like her dear old Monster Dad!

Thank you Rankin and Bass!


As a bit of an epilogue, it's worth noting that Billie Mae Richards, the voice of Rudolph, just recently died on September 10, 2010.