A Consistent Complaint

07 August 2009 · 1 comment

For five years during the mid-1990s, a science fiction television called Babylon 5 ran in syndication for in major U.S. television markets. I remember reading about its production in Starlog magazine several months before the two-hour movie debut. I was excited. Though a dedicated Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, I was eager to see more science fiction on television.

The debut of Babylon 5 came, and I thought it showed glimmers of promise. It had an interesting premise. It was undone, however, by stiff acting and an even stiffer script.

Still, when the actual run of the show began several months (a year?) later, I watched it. I really wanted to like it. I never did. The stiff acting only got stiffer, and the scripts were terrible. The dialogue was so wooden you could build a table from it. Everything was overwrought. I stuck with the show for 2-1/2 years before finally giving up.

Changeling

Recently, Kris and I watched a film called Changeling, which was produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. I didn’t know much about the film going in, but had the vague impression it was supposed to be good. If I recall correctly, it was nominated for several Academy Awards.

Changeling takes place in 1928 Los Angeles, California. It tells the story of Christine Collins, whose son Walter disappears one March afternoon. Walter is one of several L.A.-area children who have vanished, and the film explores the difficulties Christine has in discovering what happened to him. One of the film’s themes is the corrupt nature of the city’s police department.

There is an interesting story here. The broad outlines are interesting, but they’re smothered beneath overwrought acting and wooden dialogue. (You can see where this is going.) The movie is riddled with internal inconsistencies and details that ring Not Quite True. But mostly it’s an exercise in excessive melodrama.

“This film is awful,” I told Kris midway through.

“I know it,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re watching this.”

But we stuck with it, all 2 hours and 22 minutes. “Won’t this ever end?” Kris asked at one point.

Finally, the credits rolled. And as they did, I burst into a maniacal laugh (the laugh Kris hates so much).

“What?” she asked. “What’s so funny?”

“The writer,” I said, choking back tears. “J. Michael Straczynski! I should have known.”

J. Michael Straczynski

Straczynski was the writer and creative force beyond Babylon 5, that wooden science fiction show from the mid-1990s. (He’s also written a number of comic books, all of which are equally bad.) If I had realized he was the writer of Changeling, I would have been able to recognize his touches throughout. So heavy-handed! Characters with no apparent motives! Dialogue so wooden that you could build a table from it!

I realize that Straczynski has many fans. I grant that this may be one of those cases where everybody likes something — Mad Men, Neil Gaiman, cream cheese — and I’m just somehow unable to “get” it. That’s fine.

But it amused me to no end that the things I hated in Changeling were the same things I hated in Babylon 5. At least I’m consistent about my dislike of Straczynski’s work.

Footnote: For a decidedly different take on this film, check out Michael Rawdon’s review.

1 Michael Rawdon August 7, 2009 at 13:47

Hm. As you may know, I think Babylon 5 is the best SF TV series I’ve ever seen. Only the original Star Trek comes close. It’s interesting that you gave up on B5 right when I think it produced the best single season of SF television ever (the third).

As a writer he certainly has his flaws. I don’t see how his dialogue is as bad as some say it is, although he does have a tendency to have awkward set-ups for a clever line, peculiar non-sequiturs to get in a clever line, and overly dramatic pronouncements. Perhaps my standards for SF television are just that low: I would say that SF TV is as a genre considerably less advanced than written science fiction of the 1950s, and science fiction stories of that era were often riddled with terrible dialogue (Asimov and Heinlein being two prime offenders; indeed, Asimov’s dialogue has all of Straczynski’s flaws magnified considerably).

Changeling is “is riddled with internal inconsistencies and details that ring Not Quite True”? That’s odd, since the film seems to be fairly closely based on real events, and I don’t know what you’re referring to. “Characters with no apparent motives”? I don’t get this one, either. Everyone’s motives seemed pretty clear to me; if anything, the film was too heavy-handed (another common problem with Straczynski’s writing, although one which appeals to a quirk in my particular tastes – I like a certain amount of melodrama).

In any event, at least it wasn’t The Phantom Menace. :-)

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