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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 5, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Ghost Protocol, His Majesty's Dragon

With all the silliness of Tom Cruise's celebrity and the publicity surrounding his boutique version of religion (which is no more absurd than, say, Jane Fonda's or Janeane Garafolo's or Emma Thompson's beliefs about politics), it's easy to overlook the fact that Cruise is a superb actor in the American mode.

The American mode of acting: You don't disappear into the role; you bend the role to use your own traits and quirks; you always play yourself.

Playing himself, Tom Cruise is believable, compelling, charming, smart, and so charismatic that he owns the screen just by appearing on it.

So casting him as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movie series was the single most important thing that the producers did. (Like casting Matt Damon in the title role in the Bourne movies.)

So now we have the fourth Mission: Impossible movie, Ghost Protocol. (I have no memory at all of the third.) The premise is that staple of spy movies: The disavowed agents who nevertheless bravely do their duty, knowing that if they fail, they will be branded as traitors -- and maybe if they succeed, too.

So yes, we're in cliche country, but there are only so many things you can do with spy movies, anyway. If you're doing James Bond flicks, you create outlandish villains and encourage them to steal the picture. Or you go all bleak and despairing and ironic, like John LeCarré books and movies.

Or you get really smart writers -- producer J.J. Abrams assembled a team from his Alias TV series, Josh Applebaum and André Nemec -- and a great director, Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille), and then let them thank their lucky stars that they inherited an actor like Tom Cruise to work with.

But Cruise isn't alone. After coming up with a brilliant cast, Bird and the producers came up with a really great ensemble of not-so-well-known actors to flesh out the A-Team -- Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton -- and then you go to town.

Here's what they achieved: Nonstop action that always made sense and always mattered. And, after a couple of hours of wishing you hadn't drunk so much soda pop because you are not leaving the theater for any reason, we are given a final two minutes that are the opposite of the annoying, pretentious ending of Inception.

In those final two minutes, a deep character motivation that has been referred to throughout the movie is suddenly stood on its head and we catch a glimpse of something deep and beautiful and fine -- the kind of thing that elevates the movie out of its genre and makes it more than a mere entertainment.

It's the kind of moment that Stephen Spielberg, for instance, has never even aspired to put into his movies. Spielberg knows how to play the strings of our hearts, but he has never known how to make it mean anything. Brad Bird, on the other hand, and J.J. Abrams, too, have a much deeper understanding of story -- not just how to make a good one, but what it's for.

So sure, go see Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol for the sheer fun of it. Let the depth of it come as a pleasant bonus.

*

A week ago, during a late-night channel-flipping insomnia session, I happened across an HBO presentation of a movie I had never heard of, called Never Let Me Go.

I admit I started watching it only because I saw the face of Carey Mulligan, a brilliant and beautiful actress I first saw on the brilliant Dr. Who episode entitled "Blink."

Mulligan had also played the nearly-invisible Kitty Bennet in the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice (2005); it was interesting that as I kept watching Never Let Me Go, Keira Knightley also turned up as a major character.

Then I recognized Andrew Garfield, who played the most likeable character in The Social Network, Eduardo Saverin, and I thought: Three of my favorite actors in a movie I never heard of! It must be really old.

No. Never Let Me Go came out in 2010. But somehow it ran completely under the radar. With a cast like that, it didn't even make ten million dollars worldwide? Why? Was it a bad movie? If so, why would Keira Knightley have been in it?

What I saw, that night, coming into the film in the middle, intrigued me enough that I set my TiVo to record a later showing. And last night, during another bout of insomnia, I watched the whole thing from the beginning.

I learned two things: Never Let Me Go is a quiet, slow, beautiful movie; and I know why it wasn't a hit and never could have been.

In a kind of alternate history, transplanting human organs has become the primary means of "curing" otherwise fatal diseases. There's such a demand for organs that people are cloned and the resulting babies are raised to adulthood in special schools until they are mature and the organs can be harvested.

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the brilliant (but also ponderously slow) Remains of the Day, wrote a book focusing on the children who had been created for no other reason than to reach adulthood and be operated on to take their vital organs.

Because he's Kazuo Ishiguro, he created beautiful, tragic characters who suffer their fate with very little complaint, dreaming of and wishing for redemption from their fate, but doing very little to bring it about.

In other words, they are exactly like the characters in Remains of the Day. That's not a bad thing at all -- both films are equally moving. Ishiguro is now officially the Poet of Passive People.

The problem is the Ishiguro, though a brilliant novelist, made the same mistake that most literary fictioneers make when they tread into the territory of science fiction.

Like Gore Vidal and Margaret Atwood, Ishiguro did not realize (or did not care) that science fiction writers had already planted and reaped many dozens of novels that fully explored every aspect of the future that he was inventing.

Also, the best science fiction writers are good at thinking through the ramifications, both scientific and social, of things like cloning and organ transplants, so that plausibility is respected.

The result is that if you read and learn from the best sci-fi writers, you can avoid making absurd mistakes that destroy believability or make your writing needlessly tedious or quotidian.

But, like Vidal and Atwood, it apparently didn't cross Ishiguro's mind to learn anything from the science fiction writers who had already written his story many times over.

This is because literary writers have been encouraged to treat science fiction with contempt. This makes as much sense as automobile makers deciding to whip up a design for an airplane, without ever looking at the designs of any existing airplanes, because they already know how to create "vehicles" and those airplane makers have nothing to teach them.

Here's why Never Let Me Go never really caught on, despite the brilliant casting and the beautiful writing: It was dumb.

Dumb dumb dumb.

First, there's no plausible way that you're going to have human beings raised as children and then killed for their organs. Our species is communitarian and protective of children. Even abortion of fetuses remains bitterly controversial today; but there is no controversy about the idea of children who have actually learned to walk and talk being killed for their body parts. There is no human society that could tolerate it for long.

This is not to say humans could never be cloned and grown for their organs. But here's how it would have to be done. In utero (or in vitro), the fetuses would have to be largely debrained. All higher brain functions would have to be removed so that the clones could never walk or speak.

Once that had been done to them, then there would be far less moral objection to harvesting them, because there would be no "quality of life" and there are always people willing to kill the helpless or useless -- you know, like those aborted fetuses. There is nothing so monstrous that humans can't do it -- but you would have to find a way to dehumanize the victims so that the general public could tolerate it.

Hitler showed the way, and Planned Parenthood and other abortion advocates have made a science of it. Killing people is easy, once you've defined them as non-people.

The trouble is that Ishiguro does not do this. Instead, these clones are raised as children, taught to read and write, given teachers, and allowed to have day trips and junkets to visit the outside world. They are even trained in how to comport themselves in social situations in the outside world.

Yeah, right. Hitler's death camps allowed the inmates to take daytrips into the countryside too ... didn't they? Oh, wait. No, they didn't. Because they would have escaped.

That's the deep unbelievability of this movie. Nobody tries to escape. Nobody on the outside is trying to help them escape. One teacher "rebels" by telling the children what awaits them, but the only result is that she is fired. The children do absolutely nothing at all.

They just accept their role.

This is Ishiguro's fundamental premise about human behavior, apparently -- the complete acceptance of social roles. That story may fly in England or even in Europe as a whole, and in Japan as well, but it seems utterly laughable to Americans.

And the truth is, it's laughable in those other places, too. While most people might lack the spunk to rebel against the social order, there are always some people who do. Even in the most repressive regimes in the world -- North Korea, Burma, Syria, Iran, Nigeria, Zimbabwe -- there are people who resist. There are people who rebel. There are people who flee.

But not in Ishiguro's universe. We accept the butler in Remains of the Day, but we see him as an exception, a man pathologically devoted to duty as the expense of his own life.

In Never Let Me Go, however, we are expected to believe that hundreds and hundreds of children, raised to be heart and liver and lung and kidney and eye donors, never even think of running away.

Ultimately, this passivity in the face of the unbearable subverts even the beautiful writing and powerful acting, making the characters either unbelievable or impossible to care about. Ultimately, the audience ends up thinking, Do something, you morons!

Get in the car and keep on driving! Hide in the woods and survive on nuts and berries! Or at least rebel by killing yourselves in circumstances where your organs can't be harvested, so your oppressors can't profit from their inhuman treatment of you.

Also, the science is ludicrously bad. In the years since transplanting became common, we've learned that transplants cure nothing. While they prolong some lives, they are not solutions for most human ailments.

Nothing is gained from harvesting one organ at a time, leaving the donors alive after two or three operations. Organs are only useful if they come from otherwise strong, healthy donors. Weakening the donors through multiple operations is just stupid. If such an implausible situation could exist, there would be one operation that took everything usable, and that's it.

In the end, the movie breaks your heart -- but it also requires you to switch off your brain. It works only as a parable; it says nothing about the real world.

Add to this the absolutely glacial pace of the movie -- how long do we have to watch a car move through the unchanging scenery or a person sit with the same contemplative expression before we start saying, Move it along, please! -- and it's almost a miracle the film made ten million.

While confessing that I occasionally used the fast-forward button to skim through the endless scenes of nothingness (and two sex scenes that went on long after we had gotten the point), I did see and hear everything in the movie, and I was not tempted to stop watching.

For those with the patience to endure the pace and the forbearance to overlook the stupidity, this beautiful movie is well worth watching.

But here's the thing that shocked me most, when I did a little research to prepare to write this review: Ishiguro's novel was not published in the 1980s, when transplanting was still new; he was not guessing about the future.

The novel was published in 2005, when it was already obvious that nothing in this story could possibly happen, and when sci-fi writers had already plowed, planted, harvested, burned the stubble, and harrowed the soil in this little field.

Ishiguro did not have to write an ignorant book. He chose to. And the filmmakers were utterly faithful to his ignorance. Pardon my sigh.

*

I don't even pick up dragon books any more.

No, I don't hate dragon novels the way I hate vampire novels. It's not an active aversion. It's simply that most writers of dragon novels expect us to care about dragons, and I don't. Don't hate 'em, just don't think they're cool.

But I still read good ones -- where the writer earns the dragon by creating something fresh and truthful out of the dragon tradition.

For instance, what Robin Hobb did with dragons in Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny (the Liveship Traders series) was utterly original and brilliant and ... well, let's just say that you're a long, long way into the series before you even know you're reading a dragon story.

James Maxey is much more forthright in his Dragon Age novels (Bitterwood, Dragonforge, Dragonseed) -- but he, too, makes dragons that stand on their own.

But when some friends recommended another series of dragon books, I have to say that my first response was to keep a smile on my face and try to hide the way my eyes were glazing over.

Then they explained a little more about the Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik, and I was hooked.

I wasn't hooked on dragons. I was hooked on something else entirely.

The beloved Horatio Hornblower novels and the much admired Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books are set in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Both of them thrive on immersing the reader in the nautical life. By they time you're through reading them all, you feel as if you could captain a sailing ship.

This is, of course, pure illusion, like the way people who watched years of E.R. felt as if they could perform emergency surgeries or at least be useful in emergency triage. Or the way readers of James Clavell's Shogun felt as if they could speak Japanese by the end.

Here's what Novik has set out to do in the Temeraire novels: Imagine that the Napoleonic wars took place in a version of history that differed in only one way: Flying dragons existed and were fully used as the air force on both sides.

In the first book, His Majesty's Dragon, a ship captain named Laurence captures a French frigate, only to discover that the ship was carrying a dragon's egg that is ready to hatch.

Novik's version of dragonlore includes the rule that dragons are born with knowledge of the human language that was used near the egg, and the hatchling immediately imprints on a nearby human and becomes the devoted and loyal friend of that human, whether he or she deserves that loyalty or not.

The trouble is that if you are the human a dragon bonds with, that's it -- you have a career change, because the dragon is an essential component of the air force and you have become an essential component of the dragon.

When Laurence inadvertently becomes bonded with the hatchling, Temeraire, he is torn away from his career in the British navy and is forced into the air force, which follows a very different system of warfare and discipline. How Laurence, a master of one kind of warfare, learns to adapt to another makes for a fascinating read.

But the novels would not work if Novik had not done such a superb job of adapting dragons into an air force. For they aren't just sent up into the sky to fight it out with each other. Instead, the dragons, which are divided into many different breeds with a variety of sizes and capabilities, are harnessed and loaded like war elephants, and carry a fighting crew up into the air.

The crew attach themselves to the harnesses with carabiners, to prevent falling. While in the air, they fire projectiles at other dragons, drop bombs on ships or land targets, and protect and give medical attention to the dragon they're riding.

Meanwhile, the dragons themselves have a wide range of intelligence. Temeraire turns out to be of an exceptionally intelligent breed, so that he and Laurence have fascinating conversations and Temeraire quickly outstrips Laurence's learning in fields far beyond his training.

Indeed, Laurence finds himself reading books to Temeraire (it's hard for a dragon's talons to turn the pages) that he himself does not understand. And their friendship, their conversation, their loyalty to each other make them a much more interesting pair than the often tedious Aubrey and Maturin of the Patrick O'Brian sea novels.

In short, after many years in which I despaired of finding novels as pleasing as C.S. Forester's Hornblower books, or Rafael Sabatini's intelligent swashbuckling Captain Blood and Scaramouche, I am happy to report that Novik may very well make devoted fans of many a dragon-skeptic like myself.

So far I have read only the first book and about a third of the second, but it is obvious that from these beginnings that Novik is a smart, thorough writer with an eye for character and a witty voice. The stories are inventive and I feel immersed in a world as real as in the stories of Forester and O'Brian.

The difference is that Forester and O'Brian could research nautical life in that period, while Novik had to invent the manner of life and work and war in the English air force in the early 1800s.


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