BOOK REVIEW: "The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made" by David Hughes (2001)

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Man, what a crappy book.

Several people pointed this scrap heap out to me since it was first published, and I just instinctively knew it would suck, so I passed on their recommendations, and eventually I forgot about it. More recently I stumbled across it again, and, for some reason or another, my Early Warning Crap Detection System wasn't working, so I ordered it, and was promptly told by Miguel Cielo that, "Hey, that's the book I recommended to you three years ago!"

Even still, it's no one's fault but my own. I mean, hell, the title says "Sci-Fi" and not "Science Fiction" or "SF"—that shows right there that the book is aimed at lowbrows: People who still like Star Trek, folks who think Superman is serious Science Fiction, those who loved the first Matrix because of all the smash-smash-bang-bang, but who just didn't get the second one. I should have seen this coming, but I was manic or something, and, well, there you have it.

Despite the fact that this book was already far out of date by the time I read it, the premise of this book is admittedly intriguing: There are any number of Science Fiction films that have died somewhere between being 'Green Lit' by the Studio and their release dates. Reasons for getting 'ankled' (As the studios call it) vary, sometimes the budget expands so large that it blots out the sun, sometimes the big star attached to the picture bails, sometimes the studio goes bankrupt, and sometimes the project just reveals itself to be crap. There are lots of different reasons, but the last one is not to be understated: sometimes the project just reveals itself to be crap.

In the late 80s and the pre-DVD 90s it was sort of trendy to bitch and moan about what the studio does to films and the people who make them, to use "They Censored my Great Statement" as your battle cry. It didn't matter if the movie you set out to make was a live-action version of the Care Bears movie staring Julia Roberts, but the bottom line is that if things didn't go exactly the way the director or whomever wanted, if there was the least bit of interference from the studio, then they start griping about how they had this huge artistic vision of how the Care Bears were relevant to every human being who ever lived, and, 'how dare those bean-counting bastards insist I cut out the scene where Roberts is making out with Sandra Bullock on a bed composed entirely of writhing snakes, those inartistic idiots!'

Thanks to DVD extras, however, we have an insight into the cut scenes in movies, and the 'they censored me' thing rings a bit less true than it did when I was a pretentious undergrad. I mean, yeah, they do cut things to comply with ratings, or simple gutslessness, but the overwhelming number of things that get cut get cut simply because they aren't very good, or slow down the movie, or what have you. It's a form of quality control: Studios are in the business of making money, and, surprisingly, they do actually know how to do that—they know what'll play and what won't. They have experience. Mistakes are made, but, generally speaking, if the studio insists on cutting out a 12 minute sequence where the Terminator abruptly stops killing people, then goes and picks daffodils for a bit, acts out the 'dead parrot' sketch with John Cleese (in a hypothetical Un-credited Cameo) then goes back to killing people, well, probably the studio is right to do so. Mistakes are made, but, more often than not, the studio is right!

So part of what is frustrating about this book is the implicit idea that the studio is always wrong. That's just naive and kind of pointlessly antagonistic, and displays a lack of knowledge of the whole film-making process. But, then I remind myself, the book said "Sci-Fi" on the cover, not "Science Fiction" and I remember I'm a fool for ever taking it seriously to begin with. It's so inherently low-rent that it doesn't even seem to realize how low rent it is.

The book chronicles the travails of various un-made movies: Alfred Bester's pretty good novel, "The Stars My Destination"; Arthur C. Clarke's overrated, "Childhood's End"; Star Trek; Spielberg's aborted "Night Skies"; "The Tourist"; Frank Herbert's seminal "Dune"; a couple David Lynch SF films; various "Alien" sequels including "Aliens Vs. Predator"; "Spider Man"; "Terminator 3"; "Avatar"; a remake of Omega Man; the excellent Comic book "The Watchmen"; the considerably more successful comic book, "The Fantastic Four"; yet another comic book, "The Silver Surfer"; yet even still more comic books in the form of "Superman"; a big-screen version of "The Six Million Dollar Man"; Douglas Adam's "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy"; a live-action "Thunderbirds" movie; "Supernova"; and "The Island of Dr. Moreau."

This brings us to another couple of key problems with the book: it's allegedly about Science Fiction movies, right? Well, "Skiffy" movies, anyway, right? Yet five of the 20 movies mentioned above—one quarter—are Comic Book films, and Aliens Vs. Predator is based on a comic book crossover, even though both sides of that franchise started out as movies originally. Look, I don't care if Superman really is Kal'El from the planet Krypton (Sorry to spoil that for those of you who didn't already know), super hero comics are not serious Science Fiction. "Well, if'n Superman is an alien…" Ok, fine, Supes is an alien, so what? Every movie or story with an alien in them is not automatically an SF story for the same reason that every movie with a horse in it is not automatically a Western! Superman has more in common with Greek mythology than it does SF. Super hero films are their own genre, they're on the fringes of SF, I'll allow, and in cases like "Watchmen," they come more fully into the fold, but come on!

Another key problem is this: Dune was made! Twice! The Island of Dr. Moreau was made, three times! There have been eleven Star Trek movies! There have been five Superman movies! There have been four Alien films. By the author's own admission, "The Fantastic Four" actually was made, although it never got released. It's really hard to seriously maintain that these movies were "Never Made," as the title purports. "Ah," you say, "But these movies were made after the book was written." True. I'll give him that.

Am I being too literal? Perhaps, but I was hoping this book would be full of all kinds of never-made gems, like, I dunno, maybe a long-lost sequel to Forbidden Planet. We get none of that. All these are recent films, and a large portion of them actually got made, so why are they taking up space in a poorly-written book about films that never got made? Maybe I'm beating a dead horse here, but I hardly see how "The Island of Dr. Moreau" - a novel that has been made into very bad movies on three separate occasions—counts as either a "Great" movie or a movie that was "never made."

Another key problem with this book is that a lot of these projects don't look all that great. "The Tourist," for instance, reads like a singularly un-funny version of "Men in Black" at best, and a particularly boring retread of "The Liquid Sky" at worst. None of the treatments for "Thunderbirds" appear to have been worth a crap, and the movie that did finally get made bears out the impression that the concept was muddleheaded from the getgo. I've read the scripts—several of 'em—for "Superman Lives", the aborted Nicholas Cage/Tim Burton film, and, frankly, there's a reason the studio got cold feet: the story just wasn't any good. The two David Lynch films discussed, "Ronnie Rocket" and "One Saliva Bubble" were every bit as incoherent as "Eraserhead," and if you're part of the Lynch cult, you may feel cheated that they were never made, but I think Lynch did better making "The Elephant Man" instead. Like I said, there's a reason these projects get ankled: they're crap.

Finally, we come to the key problem of exactly what constitutes 'a great movie that never got made.' I would propose that to qualify, the movie must have actually been in pre-production at some point. In other words, money must have been spent, actors retained, sets designed and so on. In a number of cases in this book, that's no the case: Take, for instance, "Star Trek: Planet of Titans." This was a script written by Gene Roddenberry and submitted to Paramount in 1974, and, by all accounts, it was utter crap. At no point was Paramount ever even remotely interested in making this movie. Does that make it a 'great movie never made?' I don't think so, I think it's more like a 'crappy movie never optioned.' Or what about Star Trek: Starfleet Academy? This one got a bit further in 1989, but not much. The gist was that it was Kirk, Spock, and McCoy's first adventure, when they were all at the academy. The Big Three were to be played by look-alikes (Leaving aside for the moment the fact that McCoy was at least a decade older than Kirk, and must have been a very remedial student indeed) The concept—it's unclear if a real script was ever completed—was popular with the studio, but it was very unpopular with the Trek actors, who didn't like the idea of being replaced by younger stars at the time (Obviously at least one has since changed his mind), and it was equally unpopular with the fans, and so after a few months of development, Paramount decided to make Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country instead. A wise choice all around.

Wanna talk about something other than Trek? Ok—Kevin Smith did write a script for a big-screen "Six Million Dollar Man", but it was evidently greeted with a resounding yawn all around, and that was the end of that project. Lynche's "One Saliva Bubble" never appears to have gotten past the 'I'm thinking of making a movie' stage.

The author's writing style is adequate, excepting for the chapter about the Hitchhiker's Guide, in which he cloyingly attempts to write in the style of Douglas Adams. Mercifully, James Joyce never wrote an SF book that was optioned by the studios, and so we're spared the author's attempt to ape his style as well. Some of the writing appears hampered in an oddly unclear way, which makes me suspect the Author was getting his info largely from press releases and magazine stories, and not so much from actual interviews with the people concerned. It's not flat-out bad—excepting the Hitchhiker's chapter—but there's nothing to recommend it.

So is the book completely without merit? No. Close, but no. The insights on how Spielbergs' "Night Skies" metamorphosized into "ET" was interesting. Alejandro Jodorowski's ludicrously over-the-top kitchen sink attempt to make Dune (Salvador Dali was signed on to play Emperor Shadam IV!) was entertainingly manic, though I already knew most of that stuff from other sources. Ridley Scott's utterly useless remake of "Omega Man" did have a very interesting and stylistic first act, despite being an utterly useless remake none the less. The wackiness surrounding the production of the utterly useless Val Kilmer/Marlon Brando remake of "Dr. Moreau" was actually pretty entertaining, though, as I've already pointed out, it's technically outside this book's mandate. But why is a book about movies that never got made taking time to talk about a movie that was actually made before the book ever even went to press?

Still, I learned stuff: I learned that you really don't want Kevin Smith writing your movie, since he can only write Kevin Smith movies, which aren't really very good to begin with, and this is a sure-fire way to get your movie ankled. I learned that Jon Peters is insane, and if he produces your movie, and it somehow manages to get a release date, it will be very bad. I learned that Stephen Spielberg can actually be a jerk. I learned that people who have their projects killed by the studio tend to go to work on other projects that get killed by the studio, and tend to work with each other again and again and again—the losers! I learned that a book composed exclusively of frustrated writers arguing about who's draft of a script was better - even if the crappy movie never got made—is not exactly compelling reading. And finally, most importantly, I re-learned the old aphorism that "90% of everything is crap."

And as for the 10% of Science fiction—excuse me, "Sci-fi"—that isn't crap, well, 90% of that is crap, too.

So, in essence, my review is this: In a book purporting to be about "The Greatest Sci Fi Movies Never Made," none of the movies the book details appear to be particularly "Great", a quarter of them are not even remotely "Sci Fi", and a sizeable portion don't appear to have ever really even been seriously considered for being made into movies. Add to this the inexplicably bizarre observation that at least four of the movies in this book actually got made long before the book was published and you end up with—well, a crappy book.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

All things being equal, probably not. There's some very minor sniping at us in the Lynch section, not enough to really get your dander up over, but seeing as there's little else in here to cause one to look beyond such minor slights in the first place...well...let's say no.

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