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Movie Musings: Remembering “American Graffiti,” 45 years later

For a young George Lucas in the early 1970’s, things were looking pretty rough.

At the University of Southern California, he had gained notoriety for daring to be different, and winning numerous accolades for his dystopian short film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. However, his attempts to build his film career were met with much resistance.

The translation of his short-subject into the feature-length THX-1138, was reviled by a number of critics, let alone the studio (Warner Brothers) that distributed it. The studio also showed it’s power over Lucas, when they edited the film against his wishes, sowing the seeds for his distrust in the Hollywood studio system.

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George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Following THX, George’s friend Francis Ford Coppola felt that he should try to make something he dubbed, “warm and fuzzy.”

This led to George looking back on his teen years in the early 1960’s. He had been enthralled by cars at that time, and when he later learned how cars figured into ‘the mating rituals of teenagers’ in those days, he decided to make his film about the ‘cruising culture’ in Northern California.

At first, Lucas shied away from writing the story himself. He attempted to have his friends Bill Hyuck and Gloria Katz write it, but they were busy with a personal project of their own. Once he had secured financing, he recruited another friend to write it.

Unfortunately, the script that was turned in went against what Lucas wanted. In the end, George was forced to write it himself.

After being rejected by a number of studios, Lucas did another rewrite, and got some interest from Universal Studios. Once the deal was made, Lucas called on Bill and Gloria (who had finished their personal project by this time), to do some additional rewrites.

The studio also requested Lucas get ‘a name’ to associate with the film. Given that he was going to not be casting any big-name actors, George asked his friend Coppola to sign on as a producer.

This worked to his advantage, as The Godfather had become a hit, and the studio could use the pull of Coppola’s name in the film’s advertising.

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Daring to be Different

Throughout his filmmaking career, George Lucas has often had a very maverick sense of filmmaking. From his days at USC Film School to his production of THX-1138, his sensibilities were often seen as ‘out there’ by a number of people.

Even with something as simple as rock and roll and vehicular nostalgia for the early 60’s, George’s production of Graffiti would be very unconventional.

One would assume that a 1960’s era film about teenagers would be more akin to the beach movies of yesteryear. However, George had more in mind than just another Frankie-and-Annette ripoff.

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L to R: Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) John Milner (Paul Le Mat), Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams), Steve Bolander (Ron Howard)

His film would be more in the vein of a documentary, as if George and his film crew just decided to follow these kids into the hot August night, and see what they got themselves into.

The production was also open to interpretation by the actors. The script was largely seen as an outline, and Lucas would often give his actors free rein to change a line or two, or just improvise.

Some of the actors admitted they were surprised at times, when George would keep filming some scenes over and over again. This led to some of the actors either flubbing lines, or doing unexpected things. Those ended up seeming more ‘natural,’ and oftentimes ended up in the final cut.

There was also the intertwining of four different storylines throughout the film. At the time, the studio said audiences would be confused by this, and that you could only tell one story. Naturally, Lucas’ documentary-style ideas quashed this thinking, and he did it his way.

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Music and Sound

Most notable about the film, is it’s wall-to-wall music soundtrack. A majority of the film’s $750,000 budget went to securing the rights to the 41 original songs that were woven throughout the film.

What some who saw the film never realize, is the ‘”world-izing” the sound team did to the music tracks.

Some of the music sounds like it’s coming from the car speakers, while other times, the music can be altered slightly to draw you into a particularly emotional scene.

Because of the budget constraints, this left little money for any orchestral music. To solve this dilemma, sound effects were layered in to help keep some non-musical scenes from just going silent.

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The Ending Explains the Film

One wouldn’t think of it today, but the film’s ending at the time was considered somewhat controversial.

As Curt’s plane takes wing for the east coast, we see the yearbook pictures of the four guys…and find that not everything ended up happily for them all.

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The studio and several of George’s friends felt this ‘destroyed’ the film, but George claimed it ‘put the whole thing in perspective.’

Graffiti was George’s anthropological ode to “a simpler time.” In his mind, that hot August night in 1962 that these kids shared in, was probably one of the last major nights of their lives, before the rest of the decade overtook them.

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Surprise Hit

Even with a number of successful test-screenings, the head of the studio informed George that the film was a wreck, and some wondered if they should just edit the film and air it as a TV-movie-of-the-week.

The studio was also unsure about the title. The word “graffiti” wasn’t widely-known, and some people felt that the public would think it was “a film about feet.”

It looked like another strike in Lucas’ film career, until Francis Coppola defended his friend, and claimed he was willing to purchase the film back from Universal.

The studio finally relented, and on August 3rd, 1973, American Graffiti was released, and became one of the year’s most profitable films.

It’s overall theatrical gross of $115 million, made it one of the most profitable films at the time given it’s very low production budget.

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The Thematics of George Lucas

If you watch enough films by a director, you soon start to notice patterns in what they make.

Many probably didn’t see it at the time, but if one looks at Lucas’ filmography these days, the themes begin to show up:

Man’s relationship to technologyThis theme manifests itself in several forms. The most obvious is the cruising culture of the film, where we see the kids in it socialize through the late-night driving around their hometown.

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Wolfman Jack as himself.

It’s also notable in relation to all the kids listening to radio DJ Wolfman Jack. The majority of the film’s teens have never met Wolfman, and yet they are totally enthralled by his antics, connecting with a person who is little more than a disembodied voice coming in through their car radios.

EscapeIn the film, Dreyfuss’ character named Curt, returns with Ron Howard’s character to their hometown after a year in college, but is having second-thoughts about going back.

For Curt, the night becomes one where he reminisces about the past, is enticed by a blonde in a white T-Bird, and questions whether he should stay in his hometown.

Much like Obi-Wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker advice, Curt finds his words-of-wisdom from Wolfman Jack himself.

In the end, Curt heads back to college, and eventually moves to Canada, where he becomes a writer.

The theme of ‘escape’ is prevalent in almost all of Lucas’ films.

  • In THX-1138, THX stops taking hs medications, has his eyes opened, and escapes from the film’s underground totalitarian society, into the world above.
  • The first films of Lucas’ Star Wars trilogies, have this play out with both Luke and Anakin Skywalker. They long to escape their environments on Tatooine, and in both cases, a sage-like figure helps them take their first steps (much like Curt after his talk with Wolfman Jack in Graffiti).

Graffiti is also the only film Lucas has done, that almost seems to sidestep the notion of politics (which figure into THX’s totalitarian society, and the Empire’s iron grip over the galaxy in Star Wars).

The closest we get to any form of political mention, happens when Curt is cruising with some girls in their car. One of them happens to be an ex-girlfriend, who tells them about Curt’s dream to one day become a Presidential aide, and shake hands with John F Kennedy.

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The Legacy of Graffiti

Next to his film-series Star Wars, American Graffiti is probably Lucas’s second most well-known film.

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Lucas outside of Mel’s Drive-In on Van Ness Blvd, in San Francisco, CA.

Over the years, many have associated the Mel’s Drive-In chain of restaurants with the film, given it’s prominence as the local hang-out for the film’s teenage crowd. Some even say the film saved the chain from going out of business (sadly, the one at Van Ness Blvd in the film was razed many years ago).

Mel’s also would be featured prominently for several decades in a few of Universal Studios’ theme parks, as both a sit-down restaurant and gift shop.

One of the most notable vehicles in the film, was John Milner’s yellow deuce coupe, which became the film’s unofficial symbol. Some people have often tried to replicate the iconic vehicle, even down to giving their vehicle Milner’s THX-138 license plate (a nod to Lucas’ first film).

Lucas’ hometown of Modesto, California (where he did his cruising before heading off to film school), also immortalized the director and his film.

Along a section of the town’s busy thoroughfares, is George Lucas Plaza. There you’ll find a sculpture of a young teen couple, sitting on the fender of a vintage car.

Since 1998, the town has held an annual American Graffiti Festival, where one can see countless vintage vehicles cruise up-and-down it’s streets. The festival got a huge surprise for the film’s 40th anniversary in 2013, when Lucas accepted their invitation to be the parade’s Grand Marshal.

One thing some don’t know, is that in 1979, Lucas produced a sequel called More American Graffiti.

It was set during the middle of the 60’s, and would have shown what happened to some of the characters from the first film.

However, it became another unnecessary sequel, not even coming close to the first film’s budget (and tone), and left a trail of bad reviews in it’s wake.

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In Conclusion

For some directors, there often comes a film that is seen as insight into who they are. Steven Spielberg did this with E.T., Tim Burton with Edward Scissorhands, and with Lucas, American Graffiti captured a bit of who he was in it’s storytelling, showing who Lucas was with some of it’s characters, and who he had become with it’s pseudo-documentary-style.

It’s far from a perfect film, but it definitely marks an important step in his career. While THX showed his concern over the United States heading towards (or already being in!) an Orwellian dystopia, Graffiti allowed him to try and develop characterization, and show a world both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

It would prove to be a valuable learning tool, when he would get down to working on his film about fast spaceships and laser-swords, a few years later.

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Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ 10 Years Later

Inspired by the Saturday Matinee Serials like Flash Gordon and Commando Cody that he saw as a boy, George Lucas would combine his memories of those shows with mythology and “the hero’s journey,” to create one of the most pop-culturally loved (and loathed) space-adventure series of all time.

Though not much of a storyteller, George was largely a man of ideas, and on a Hawaiian beach with Steven Spielberg in 1977, he shared another serial-inspired idea with his famous friend.

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L to R: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

While Steven had been trying to get the family of Albert Broccoli to allow him to direct a James Bond film, George claimed he had an idea that was “better than Bond.”

Lucas’ concept of an archaeologist/professor intrigued Steven, and the two directors made a pact to do a trilogy of films around the character.

With Harrison Ford cast as the lead, Indiana Jones made his whip-cracking debut in 1981 in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and quickly became a worldwide hit. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom followed in 1984, and while a much darker film than it’s predecessor, it still turned a profit. Five years later, the trilogy was completed, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

However, even though he had created an entertaining action-film trilogy, the public wanted more. Following the release of Crusade, Steven would often be asked, “when are you making another Indiana Jones movie?”

The same was asked of Harrison Ford and George Lucas, and after a reunion with the cast and crew, almost everyone who had been involved seemed okay with doing another film…except Steven.

In a making-of excerpt, Spielberg explained that he was ‘the hold-out,’ and felt the scene of the characters riding off into the sunset at the end of Last Crusade, was a fitting closure to Dr Jones’ story on film.

In the end, Steven was coaxed along by his friends, and after a decade or so of prep-work, Henry Jones Jr, would return to the big-screen.

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Aliens…why’d it have to be aliens?

In the early years of the 21st century, it was commonplace for many to bash filmmaker George Lucas as an out-of-touch creator. His Special Edition releases of The Star Wars Trilogy had brought fans back to theaters, but purists were angered at the changes he had made. The release of the Star Wars prequels from 1999-2005, further cemented fan-hatred, when Lucas seemed unwilling to fulfill the words of what Obi-Wan Kenobi had told Luke Skywalker, in A New Hope.

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L to R: Producers Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas, on the set of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

When it came to Indiana Jones, his adventures of fighting Nazi’s and trekking through strange-and-exotic locales in the first three films, fit into Lucas’ ode to the serials and the time period of the 1930’s. While Indy would weather the years and rarely change his ways, audiences would soon find that the world of the 50’s, was a very different place.

With the defeat of Hitler and the end of WWII, there was now a new war…a Cold War, and it involved the country of Russia. With Crystal Skull‘s 1957 time period, the film attempted to tie together real-life elements, such as the fear of Communism, the Red Scare, as well as the birth of The Atomic Age.

There was also a change in the adventure-film aesthetics. In Lucas’ mind, the concept of 1950’s B-movies, would influence Indy’s 1950’s adventure, much in the same way that the 1930’s serial had done with the first three films.

And, unlike artifacts that were a bit more tangible to the common person in western civilization (such as the Ark of the Covenant or The Holy Grail), the mcguffin for the new film, would be a bit more of an ‘abstract’ object, akin to the Sankara stones from Temple of Doom.

The new item, was a crystal skull, in the shape of an elongated alien’s head, that possessed psychic powers.

Upon hearing his friend’s idea to use aliens in the new film, Spielberg claimed that he was done with alien films, but Lucas was adamant that the new film would work with the alien mcguffin. Over the course of pre-production, it was the one storypoint that he would not compromise on: there would be aliens, end of story..or so he thought.

Finally, Lucas decided that instead of being aliens, the crystal-skulled creatures, would actually be ‘inter-dimensional beings,’ but with an alien appearance. And, while they would travel in flying saucers (another staple of 1950’s B-movies), they wouldn’t travel through space, but through time.

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Poster for Tokyo DisneySeas’ Temple of the Crystal Skull attraction.

Some may assume that Lucas’ concept of crystal skulls in the world of Indy was brand-new, but in fact, they had been thought of as a (non-alien-influenced) mcguffin for Dr Jones, as far back as the early 1990’s.

During that time, Lucas was producing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The television series showed Indy in various time periods of his life, and at one point, a script had been written where Indy went looking for a crystal skull. However, the series was cancelled, and the script was shelved…but the concept was still there.

The story concept would next find new life, when Tokyo Disneyseas (an expansion of Tokyo Disneyland), opened Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull in the fall of 2001.

While the ride’s innards would largely resemble Disneyland‘s Temple of the Forbidden Eye, the deity known as Mara would be replaced by a large, glowing crystal skull, that sent riders on a path to their doom.

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“You Can’t Go Home Again.”

I often recalled as a kid, the characters in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics, referencing this line. Taken from novelist Thomas Wolfe, I feel it best summarizes Lucas’ films where he returns to a familiar subject, after some time has passed.

When it comes the properties Lucas has been associated with over the years, people have very much been enamored with trying to recapture the magic they experienced, seeing those films in their youth. I recall how high the nostalgic factor was when Episode I debuted. Within hours of it’s release, it soon became apparent that George was not just going to shower his viewers with lots and lots of fanservice.

The same could be said when it came to Crystal Skull. However, I can’t help but feel there was a method to ‘the madness.’

Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like many were hoping to walk in and encounter Indiana, as if no time had passed. Lucas isn’t really a sentimental individual, and it feels like the story concept for the film, was to show that Jones had to move on, and find a new group of people to be with in his life.

When we first encounter him, Jones is under suspicion of being in league with the Communists after the Area 51 opening. This puts his teaching career in jeopardy, and, we learn that two of the people in his life have recently died: Marcus Brody, and his father, Henry Jones, Sr.

As the story goes on, we see a new family unit build up around him. From the realization that Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) is his son, to the fact that Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) still harbors feelings for him, and his old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt), needs his help.

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L to R: Indy (Harrison Ford), Harold Oxley (John Hurt), Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf)

By the end of the film, Indy has a new ‘family,’ and we see him marrying Marion.

Some may find this an odd ending, given the old formula of how Jones encountered a new female lead with every film, but that was a younger Indy, and he isn’t quite the ladies man now, as he was in the 1930’s.

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Parallels to Previous Storylines

While many gave Crystal Skull a hard time, screenwriter David Koepp still attempted to retain certain through-lines, that drew parallels to the three previous films.

In Raiders, there was talk about how Hitler was ‘obsessed with the occult,’ which tied into the search for the Ark of the Covenant. In Skull, there is word that Stalin is interested in ‘psychic warfare,’ which ties into the search for the crystal skulls, and attempts to find the lost city of Akator.

The villains also figure into parallels to previous films.

Ever since Raiders, there has come a moment where Indiana usually has to take on a ‘big baddie.’ Whether it be the German mechanic in Raiders, or Colonel Dovchenko in Skull, Indy usually finds himself fighting a losing battle, until he is saved by happenstance, and his foe meets a gruesome demise.

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There is also the continual plotpoint about how the lead villain is searching for something, and once they get their hands on it…it usually leads to their demise (as seen in the screencaps above).

Indiana himself is also open to story parallels.

Almost every film involves him trekking deep into a temple or a darkened cavern. In these situations, it is usually Indy who is the brave one, while he has to contend with a cohort who is freaked out by what they find inside. Whether it be Marion with the snakes in Raiders or Mutt encountering a scorpion in Skull, each darkened space can be counted on to contain some creepy-crawlies.

There also is Indy’s doubt over the ‘mystical nature’ of the artifacts he is looking for. In each film, he starts out just thinking the mysticism surrounding the items is nonsense. Of course, by the end of the film, he has usually changed his tune.

Also by the end of the film, he usually ends up going home empty-handed, but has quite a story to tell.

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Closing Thoughts, and Ideas on Indiana Jones 5

Much like The Phantom Menace, Crystal Skull would clean-up at the worldwide box-office, but it’s ‘imperfections’ have made it the black sheep of the series, causing many to disavow that it ever happened.

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Tweet from the Alamo Drafthouse, about their Crystal Skull celebration/not-celebration.

The most notable one, happened recently when the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema announced they were holding a 10th anniversary party for the opening of Crystal Skull…by showing only the first three films (the equivalent of throwing someone a birthday party, and not inviting the guest-of-honor!).

Looking around online in the past few days, it does appear there are those that feel the same as I do about the film: while not a great film, it is far from the trainwreck many claim it to be…but then again, internet fanbases loves to throw pity-parties.

One of the most ridiculous comments I heard following the release of Crystal Skull, was some fans ‘demanding’ that a fifth film be made to ‘apologize’ for the fourth one.

Rumors persisted that we might still get an Indy 5, notably in regards to The Walt Disney Company acquiring Lucasfilm in 2011 (whose purchase included ownership of both Star Wars and Indiana Jones licenses).

Now, word is that another film is coming to pass, with Harrison Ford once again cracking the whip…but, for the last time. Ford is now in his mid-70’s, and given Indy’s rough-and-tumble penchant for action and stunts, it makes sense this will be his last outing.

Scheduled for a July 2020 release, what the fifth installment will entail has not been revealed. Word is that Lucas declined to be involved with the film’s development, but David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay for Crystal Skull), is currently involved. However, it sounds like the new family Indy found for himself in his previous outing, may not return, and plunge the adventurer into a new area. With Shia Lebeouf having distanced himself from Spielberg, and John Hurt passing away last year, that just leaves Karen Allen, though there’s been no word if she’ll return as “Mrs Jones.”

Some of you might be wondering, where is is there left to explore? Well, given that the filmmakers like to have Indy associated with certain time frames, I have one possible locale: Vietnam.

Given Indy has already dealt with Germans and Russians, I could see him having been cleared of spy charges, and then ends up over in Vietnam in the mid-60’s. Given at the time a lot of young men were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, I could imagine one of them becoming disillusioned, attempting to defect, and following Dr Jones on an adventure into the surrounding jungle territories.

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An interpretation of The Monkey King, by artist Aaron Shepard.

Of course, the big question you may have is, what would Indy be looking for? Why, The Temple of the Monkey King.

Also known as Sun Wukong, the Monkey King is known in a number of different Asian cultures. Resembling a monkey and having supernatural powers, some of the tales revolving around the character, tie into the concepts that the creature or certain items around him, can grant one immortality.

A story involving the Monkey King had been considered for both The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, and given how previous unused story ideas have often been recycled into later stories, I could see this being a good candidate to pay homage to some of the past story ideas Lucas considered.

Of course, some might say it could be a story retread, given the Holy Grail was a relic that promised ‘eternal life,’ but if the story was probably tweaked a bit more beyond what I can imagine, it might make for a fitting end. Plus, given technological leaps these days, one can imagine a motion-captured rendition of the Monkey King, interacting with Indiana Jones (though whether the old-school fans would accept this, is hard to say).

Of course, what you’ve read in the last couple paragraphs is just me speculating. I don’t have actual inside information, just a few ideas of my own. Still, if the Monkey King idea is dusted off, I’ll be interested to see what is done.

Otherwise, we’ll see if Spielberg and Koepp may find another religion-based mcguffin for Jones to go after in a few years.

Movie Review: Ready Player One

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and language

While I had known about Ernie Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One for awhile, it wasn’t until hearing the author’s concept for the book, did I become intrigued: what if Willy Wonka was a video game designer, and he held his Golden Ticket Contest, inside his greatest video game creation?

That led me to seek out the book, and, upon hearing that Steven Spielberg was going to be adapting it, I was pretty much onboard for the bearded one’s latest film.

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In the year 2045, much of the world is in economic ruin. To combat their dreary existences, many people have escaped into the lifelike-yet-fanciful virtual world called The Oasis. Created by legendary gamemaker James Haliday (Mark Rylance), the late genius secretly created a contest within his borderless world…a contest that not only promises massive wealth, but total control of his greatest creation!

The film follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who along with his friends, attempts to solve the riddles and puzzles Haliday left behind.

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Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan)

However, the evil conglomerate known as IOI (Innovative Online Industries), is hoping to turn the free-to-roam world into a pay-to-play empire. Led by the business-minded Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the company will do everything it can, to win.

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While several people I know were fully ensconced in the world that Ernie Cline had written, I will admit his novel didn’t fully grab my attention. With the film’s screenplay however, there has definitely been some fine-tuning. With help from screenwriter Zak Penn (who wrote the story for Last Action Hero), there is a small toning down regarding the video game references, and a bit more given over to the worlds of motion pictures.

For much of the film, Wade Watts (and his avatar known as Parzival), is our guide to this future world. Most of his friends exist within the world of the Oasis, with Wade not really knowing much about them beyond their avatars. I did like the camaraderie developed between Wade and his friend Aech (Lena Waithe), but when it came to Wade ‘crushing’ on a girl named Artemis (Olivia Cooke), the writing felt a bit ‘forced.’

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Artemis (Olivia Cooke)

Unlike her novel’s counterpart, the character of Artemis is given over to being more of a ‘person’ here, and less of a ‘prize.’ Both her human counterpart and avatar are given more time and purpose in helping move the story along, but in regards to fully making her and Wade into a couple, it just didn’t work for me (then again, this could have been Spielberg channeling the ‘meet cute’ romances of 80’s films).

I’ve often believed that when it comes to Spielberg choosing his projects, he does so based on certain world events. Current events definitely feel like the world of 2045 in RP1 is possible: one in which high unemployment and crippling debt are the norm, and the majority of transactions are made digitally, with drones making all of our deliveries.

There are also some topics regarding the ‘disconnect’ many feel even when ‘connected’ through digital means, as well as how protecting your identity can be detrimental to your well-being.

Much like his work with The BFG, Spielberg’s work on RP1 ping-pongs between a virtual world, and a real one. CG character believability has been improving over the years, and for much of the film, I was surprised how focused I was on the motion-captured characters, and stopped looking for ‘bugs in the system.’

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L to R: Sho (Philip Zao), Aech (Lena Waithe), Parzival (Tye Sheridan),  The Caretaker, Artemis (Olivia Cooke), Daito (Win Morisaki)

Of course, one thing that many will be looking forward to, will be the character-heavy scenes within the Oasis. While some references are called out, the film fortunately doesn’t stop for every single little moment, treating most of the licensed cameos, in the same way Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph did. I will admit that I did have some ‘fanboy’ moments watching the film, but knew I had to judge the film on it’s merits, and not just on stuff I recognized.

Story-wise, the film thrusts us into it’s world pretty quickly, before allowing us some time to catch our breath in the second act. It feels like the story starts getting unwieldly in it’s third act, as Spielberg is almost in a mad dash to keep the action going, and resolve a number of plot threads. He almost ends up pulling a Return of the King with all that is going on, which made me pine for the simplicity (and editing) of a George Lucas Star Wars film ending.

While I was also very excited to hear that composer Alan Silvestri was on board, I felt his contributions to the film were sadly overshadowed too often by the 80’s soundtrack that was thrown at us. Even with the full force of the IMAX sound system around me during my screening, the only time Silvestri’s music really stuck out for me, was (sadly) during the closing credits.

Ready Player One overall, feels like it has a hard time finding it’s equilibrium. Spielberg struggles to bring out more of the novel’s cautionary vision of the future to viewers, but ends up sacrificing some of that message in favor of Wade and his friends, striving to ‘save the world’ in their own way.

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Even so, I do wonder if the struggle of the young people in the film, fighting ‘a war for control of the future,’ may in some way inspire the young people in our own reality, who are struggling against forces that seem insurmountable as well.

Final Grade: B

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Movie Musings: Observations about “Titanic,” and it’s deleted scenes

When Titanic was released in December of 1997, I quickly got swept up in the tidal wave of fandom, that soon overwhelmed the world during those next few months.

After perusing through everything from the official movie tie-in book to Cinefex magazine’s coverage of the film’s visual effects, I still hungered for more.

While surfing on the internet at the Public Library after the film came out, I was surprised to find a copy of the original script. It was one of the first film scripts I read, and I was surprised at what was contained within it. While it retained certain elements of the finished film, it revealed a number of unused or cut scenes to me, making my mind imagine what might have been.

TDS-1It wasn’t until the release of Titanic: The Illustrated Screenplay in 1998, that I got a more behind-the-scenes look at what had gone into the film.

The original shooting script in the book contained almost everything I had already read, but included notations regarding some of the scenes and script changes.

I doubted I’d ever see the scenes that the script mentioned, but when Titanic was ported over to a 2-disc DVD in 2005, James Cameron made sure that a number of special features were included…including over an hour’s worth of deleted/cut material!

In going over them, I thought I’d make note of ‘a few’ scenes that were cut, including the alternate ending to the film.

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Taking in the grandeur and history

With so much information about the Titanic at his disposal, one could almost forgive James Cameron for originally trying to cram so much stuff into his film.

Cameron’s camera sometimes lingered in some of the less-considered places, such as the ship’s gymnasium. In one scene, Rose and her family’s tour of the ship would have included a stopover here. There would be a tinge of irony, as the gym’s instructor Thomas McCauley, asked Rose’s mother if she would like to try out the rowing machine.

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“I can’t imagine a skill I should likely need less,” says the woman, little realizing what she would be doing in less than 24 hours.

Another notable scene would have taken us off the ship, as Titanic’s wireless operators get upset at the ice warnings coming from The Californian, and tell the operator to shut up. This would have led to a scene of the Californian’s operator shutting down for the evening, and giving us a view of the ice field near that ship.

There was also word that when the Titanic sent her distress signals, she also used the newly designated SOS signal, that soon afterwards became a standard among sailing vessels. A deleted scene shows the wireless operators using the signal (instead of just the standard CQD signal, as seen in the final film).

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Cameron also filmed (and cut) scenes where Captain Smith and several officers attempted to call back some of the half-filled lifeboats, so they could be filled to capacity (which the actual Smith and his officers attempted to do). However, none of the boats returned (most of the sailors captaining them, fearful that the ship’s suction would drag them down into the icy waters).

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A Fight to the Finish

As the Titanic’s lights flickered off in the darkness, the grand ship began to tear itself in two.

tds-4Notable about this scene, is that we see Cal Hockley’s manservant, Spicer Lovejoy. As his eyes go wide, I’m sure some were surprised to see his face had been bloodied!

Some could probably assume that he may have suffered some trauma trying to just get to where he was on the ship, but the head-wound is actually from a major deleted scene.

Originally, after Jack and Rose escaped from Cal trying to shoot them, they rushed into the first-class dining hall. Out of bullets, and realizing how much water the ship was taking on, Cal gave up the chase.

However, handing the gun he had taken back to Lovejoy, he told his man-servant that the Heart of the Ocean necklace was in Rose’s coat, and that if Lovejoy was able to retrieve it, he’d let him keep it.

What followed was a several minutes long game of cat-and-mouse, as Lovejoy reloaded his gun, and attempted to find the couple. The fight largely took place between Jack and Lovejoy, with the bloody injury coming from Jack shoving the bodyguard’s head through a glass window!

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Jack also ended up getting some payback, from when Lovejoy had punched him in the gut in the master-at-arms’ quarter. “Compliments of the Chippewa Falls Dawson’s,” proclaimed Jack, throwing a punch, and Lovejoy’s taunt back at him.

The scene was one that Cameron liked, but test audiences were lukewarm to it, as it slowed down the film’s overall momentum.

In the final film, Jack and Rose simply rush through the dining hall, and we are left to assume Cal and Lovejoy give up the chase, and return to the upper-decks.

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Cameron’s fictional steerage characters

As Jack and Rose cling to the railing on the stern of the ship, Rose’s eyes alight on a blonde woman next to them. Some time later, as the ship’s stern tilts up to 90 degrees, the frightened woman ends up plummeting to her death (off-camera).

TDS-6What most may not realize, is we’ve actually seen this woman previously. She is Helga Dahl, one of several fictional steerage passengers Cameron created for the film.

Almost as a counter-point to the real-life First Class Passengers and crew Rose interacts with, Cameron gave us a number of fictional Third-Class passengers, to interact with Jack and his friend, Fabrizio. The one that got the most characterization was Tommy Ryan, but many of the others were excised or cut-down as the film production went on.

Helga appears throughout the film (along with her parents), and was originally to have been a love-interest for Fabrizio (the two can be seen dancing together in the steerage party scene). However, during editing, Cameron decided to leave almost all traces of the couple’s growing relationship, on the cutting-room floor.

Another minor group of characters was the Cartmell family, who were most notable for having a little girl named Cora, whom Jack interacted with several times.

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After the Grand Staircase was submerged, Cameron planned to have a scene of the Cartmell’s trying to escape from third class, but stuck behind locked steerage gates, panicking as the waters rose around them.

One can’t help but feel some might have taken offense at the scene which shows the waters rising around Cora, much like some felt Cameron went a bit too far putting Newt in danger, in parts of his film, Aliens.

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The Epiphany of Brock Lovett

One scene I’ve heard people question over the years, is the final one, in which it is revealed that for much of her life, Rose had the Heart of the Ocean necklace in her possession!

This revelation was originally to have tied into the sub-story involving Bill Paxton’s treasure-hunter character, Brock Lovett.

Originally, when Rose told her story to Brock and his crew, the tale would have been told over several days, not what seems a matter of hours in the final cut.

Following the scene of Cal Hockley first giving the necklace to Rose, we would have faded back to the present day. Old Rose mentioned how the necklace felt like a ‘dog collar’ around her neck.

We would also see Lovett’s crew be a bit more ‘detached’ from the tragedy, with Brock’s friend Bodine making a crass joke about Rose’s suicide attempt (“all you had to do was wait two days,” he laughs).

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After Rose is taken away to rest, a ‘ticking clock’ is introduced, where we find that the people funding Brock’s expedition intend to ‘pull-the-plug,’ leading to his desperation to get Rose to tell him as much as she knows.

It doesn’t help that Lizzy overhears Brock’s frustration towards her grandmother, and tells him that even if he is desperate, she isn’t going to put pressure on her elderly relation.

“This is three years of my life going down the drain here,” Brock tells Lizzy (sounding eerily similar to what Cameron must have been feeling!). “I bet everything to find The Heart of the Ocean.”

Lizzy reminds Brock that Rose contacted him with the information, and in a way, he has to ‘play by her rules.’

After Rose finished her story near the end of the film, there was a subtle hint that Brock had somehow understood just what the shipwreck stood for.

“Three years,” he tells Lizzy. “I thought of nothing but Titanic…but I never got it. I never let it in.”

This was where Brock’s story ended on-screen, but in the original ending, Cameron decided to push further with this revelation.

Brock and Lizzy would have seen Rose heading towards the rear of the ship, and sprinted after her, fearful that she was going to throw herself overboard!

However, upon confronting her, Rose would have revealed the necklace in her hand!

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“The hardest part about being so poor, was being so rich,” she tells tells the two. “But everytime I thought about selling it, I thought about Cal, and somehow, I made it without his help.”

Brock attempts to talk Rose out of what she is doing, but she claims her mind is made up. However, she does give into his request to hold it, placing the jeweled portion in his hand.

“You look for treasure in the wrong places, Mr Lovett,” says Rose, sounding as if Jack Dawson is speaking through her, “Only life is priceless…and, ‘making each day count.'”

Brock’s hand closes around the stone, but lets it go (three years and funding be damned!), as Rose pulls it away and tosses it into the Atlantic, causing Brock’s friend Bodine to rush to the ship’s railing, watching the necklace sink into the abyss!

“That really sucks, lady!” he cries out, as Brock just looks at his empty hand…and starts laughing!

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As Bodine storms off, Brock asks Lizzy to dance, and Rose smiles at the two of them.

Looking over the additional bits of subplot and ending, it does get a bit heavy-handed with Rose expounding life-lessons on Brock. While it seems the mission may be a bust, there is also the possibility that the subs could be sent back down to retrieve the necklace once Rose is asleep.

Bill Paxton also had a little fun with the ending, when he reprised his role of Lovett in a 1999 skit on Saturday Night Live. In it, Brock and the crew get upset with Rose, and even her granddaughter lands a few punches, when she finds out her grandmother had a multi-million dollar necklace in her possession, that could have had them set for life!

Paxton also got Cameron to do a fun little cameo at the end of the skit:

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“I’m James Cameron, saying: ‘you’re the King of the World.'”

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It’s hard to believe that at over 3 hours in length, the final cut of Titanic feels pretty ‘tight,’ when one sees all that could have been included.

The acting isn’t perfect in all of Cameron’s films, and some of the deleted scenes reflect this. There’s also a feeling that the story would have started to bore the audience if all of these scenes (and others) were kept in.

Overall, the deleted scenes are interesting to analyze, but none of them really feel like we’re missing out on anything too important.

Movie musings: looking through the first script for Barry Levinson’s “Toys”

When it comes to feature-film directors, many of them have a script or a project, that they desperately long to do.

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Robin Williams and Barry Levinson, on the set of Toys.

For director Barry Levinson, one script that had been on his mind since the start of his career, was Toys. Word was when he began to make the move from television to film, he wanted this film to be his feature debut. However, it’d take over a decade, and numerous attempts, before the film was made and released by Twentieth Century Fox, in 1992.

The film concerned a company called Zevo Toys. It’s founder Kenneth Zevo (Donald O’Connor) passes away, but rather than will the company to his son Leslie (Robin Williams), he requests his brother, General Leland Zevo (Michael Gambon) take over management.

Of course, Leland is not of the same mind as his brother. Soon, the factory’s production begins to shift into making ‘war toys,’ which were never produced when Kenneth was alive. As the world around them begins to shrink and becomes more threatening, Leslie and his sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack), must find a way to restore their father’s legacy.

The film was released around Christmas of 1992, but even with it’s colorful production design, whimsical previews, and Robin Williams as it’s lead, the film failed to even recoup back it’s production budget.

Viewing the film on VHS several years after it was released, I couldn’t help but become curious over the years, and wonder: what was it about Toys that had Levinson signify it as his ‘passion project?’ Was there something in the original scriptment, that had somehow gotten lost in translation?

In July, a trip to California allowed me some time to stop by the Margaret Herrick Library  in Beverly Hills. Owned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it houses a number of scripts, pictures, and other material not often available to the public.

Notable to me for this visit, was perusing through three drafts of Toys they had in their collection. Each script was written in 1979, 1982, and 1992, with writing credits on all three, given to Valerie Curtin (Levinson’s first wife), and Barry himself.

My curiosity piqued, I delved into all three copies of the script, but was most interested in the one dated December 14, 1979. What follows, is a summary of that script.

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Taking place in Connecticut, the story focuses on a company called Panda Man Toys, Inc. It is housed in a “three story, nondescript building sitting isolated in the countryside.”

The company’s founder, Kenneth Presswell, is close to death, and has sent for his Militaristic brother, General Leland Presswell. During their meeting, Kenneth makes clear his intentions to turn the factory over to Leland. The meeting takes a morbid turn, when Kenneth dies right in front of his brother.

The General is given time to consider the offer, and upon deciding to take over, is given a 60% stake in the company. The remaining 40%, is split between Kenneth’s children, Leslie, and Alsatia.

Leslie is identified as being 34 years old, but not ready yet to take over the company (with Kenneth’s assistant Wyeth Owens, claiming he’s ‘sowing some wild oats’). Leslie is somewhat of a prankster like his father, but is a ‘late-bloomer’ when it comes to business.

Alsatia is not given an age, though it is noted that she did not leave grade school until the age of 18. Even so, she is considered a devoted factory worker.

The General quickly makes it clear that he isn’t enamored with the factory’s ways, at one point claiming that money and manpower is being ‘wasted,’ when it could be used to ‘develop new ways to annihilate foreign races.’

Wyeth brings up his misgivings about the General to Leslie, but Leslie just brushes off the concern, figuring that time at the factory, will ‘loosen up’ his uncle’s demeanor.

Visiting his bedridden father (a former 5-star general), Leland tells him about the factory, but the old man shows no interest. However, as he talks about his brother’s company, Leland begins to formulate a plan.

Once he takes charge, the General makes it clear at a board meeting, that he feels the company will not survive, unless they start producing ‘toy weaponry.’ Wyeth claims that Kenneth never had the company make ‘war toys,’ because he was a pacifist.

“I know he was a pacifist,” declares Leland. “That’s why I used to kick the $#!t out of him all the time.”

(This declaration causes Leland to laugh at his ‘joke,’ while everyone else in the room remains silent.)

Talk of industrial espionage hurting the company’s R&D department, has the General send for his son Patrick, who soon starts using some brutal interrogation methods among the staff, to try and weed out the spies.

Leland also brings aboard his secretary, Gwen Tyler. Though she has a very serious demeanor at first, Leslie slowly starts to get her to lighten up, and a romance blossoms between them.

Still concerned with espionage, the General takes Patrick’s advice, and decides to counter-espionage designs from a competitor, named My Toys. Patrick manages to trick Leslie into helping him create a distraction for some guards, by putting on a strange show, seen on the My Toys security cameras. which manages to temporarily distract the guards, and allows them to make off with some of the company’s designs.

Upon hearing what has been done, Wyeth voices his objections to the General, but is ignored. Other projects and departments are then shut down, as the General commandeers the staff to work round-the-clock to produce toys off of the stolen designs.

The General likes most of the designs, but one of them he calls “a little submarine,” he thinks has potential. He soon hatches a plan to make ‘war toys,’ with the money made off of them, used to fund a few of the General’s ‘special projects.’ As work continues, more departments are shut down, and Alsatia even loses her office in the factory.

Soon, Panda Man Toys is producing and selling war toys (tanks, jeeps, paratroopers, etc). With the development continuing on the General’s projects, he soon invites some men from Washington to secretly see the designs for them. However, they are not impressed by his ideas, including his (as one of the men calls it) “submarine with a nose.”

After the General loses his temper and assaults one of the men, Patrick takes him away to calm down. Even with this setback, the General claims he is still going to go ahead with his plans.

One day, Wyeth manages to sneak into the restricted area of the factory. There, he finds men testing miniature war machines, along with video game simulators. However, Wyeth is spotted, and he is chased into a room with a large water tank. Wyeth gets into the water tank to hide, but is then attacked and killed by some underwater toys in the large tank (making the General very happy that they work!).

After Wyeth’s death is labeled an ‘industrial accident,’ Leslie demands Patrick tell him what the General is doing. Patrick attempts to stay loyal to his father, until Gwen tells him how his mother died (the true facts of which the General never told him!).

Patrick then confronts his father, and upon finding out that a nurse he likes also had an affair with his Dad, he finally confesses to Leslie, Alsatia, and Gwen, everything that has been going on. The General’s main goal, is to use video computer technology, to turn kids into ‘super-patriots,’ willing to die for their country without question!

The group then hatches a plan to steal the designs, and stop the General. Alsatia and Gwen are left behind, as Leslie, Patrick, and his surveillance team, attempt to break in.

They are attacked by a number of toys, with several of them dying (one is vaporized by a toy tank’s blast!). The final battle takes place in a miniature village, and it is during the fighting, that the ‘submarine with a nose’ (referred to as “The Guppy”) is unleashed. Of course, the General’s brilliant idea ends up being his downfall, as “the Guppy” kills him.

The final scene shows two tombstones, side-by-side. On them are the following:

Kenneth T Presswell – 1910-1979 – May Joy and Innocence Prevail

Leland H Presswell – 1914-1979 – I Disagree

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It’s never been divulged just how many scripts were written for Toys, but the next draft the library had (dated February 1982), starts to become closer to the 1992 shooting script. Here are a few noted changes:

  • The General’s secretary Gwen Tyler, becomes just another Panda Man employee, whom Leslie slowly falls in love with (becoming the character Robin Wright played in the final film).
  • The 82′ script changes Alsatia from being human, to a robot, whom Kenneth built after Leslie’s mother died when he was younger. Alsatia and Gwen also attempt to stop the General, going along with Leslie and Patrick at the end (the surveillance team Patrick had in the first draft, is dropped).
  • Unlike the 79′ script, the 82′ script has the men from Washington willing to forgive the General for assaulting them, and tell him that NATO has a weapons conference coming up, that he might be interested in getting ready for. This ‘second chance’ mentality, would be dropped in the final script.
  • The 82′ script also jettisons Leslie and Patrick stealing toy designs from a competitor. Instead, the General and Patrick purchase some competitor’s toys from the store, and attempt to build them. One of them that the General attempts to assemble, is a “Sammy the little Submarine” toy. Like the 79′ script, this toy somehow inspires the General to make a ‘killing machine’ based off of it, which the General dubs, “the Sea Swine.” Not much is told about this rendition of the sea swine, except it has two periscope-like eyes that pulsate with an eerie light, and it makes a ‘creature-like sound.’

What is most notable about the original script, is how dark it gets. Kenneth dies right in front of his brother, and his assistant Wyeth, and the General are killed. In the 82′ and 92′ scripts, Kenneth dies (off-screen) on the way to the hospital, and both Wyeth and the General survive.

There is also the fact that the original Panda Man Toys was little more than a non-descript factory building, before becoming a surreal toy factory, located who-knows-where. Plus, at the end of the day, I am still no closer to knowing when the decision was made to change the company name from Panda Man, to Zevo (the Panda Man moniker is still prevalent in the 82′ script).

Plus, there is still the question of just how a toy submarine, evolved to become the semi-alive ‘sea swine’ mentioned in the 82′ and 92′ scripts.

One item I found intriguing about the final scene in the 79′ script, is the difference in ages. I had assumed that Kenneth was the younger brother, and Leland had followed directly in their father’s foosteps. This may have been done to show the wisdom of the older brother, vs the younger, who may have wanted to be seen as acceptable in the eyes of their militaristic father.

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The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that Levinson’s goal with the ‘idea’ for Toys, was to create a ‘surrealist film.’

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Poster for the film, and Rene Magritte’s famous painting, Son of Man.

Surrealism is often the giving of something a dreamlike quality, where the material skirts the line between real, and unreal.

We see that so many times in numerous scenes in the final film. There are many bits inspired by surrealist painter Rene Magritte throughout the film(even the poster of Williams in a bowler hat, appears to be inspired by his works!).

One could even see the decision to put a Militaristic General in charge of a toy factory, definitely being one of several ways the story tries to keep it’s viewer ‘disoriented.’

I think that is Toys’ greatest flaw: Levinson got so into trying to make it surreal, that it probably would have made a better series of paintings (or even a short-subject), than a feature-length film.

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Over the years, when Toys has come up in interviews, Levinson still defends the film. In one interview, he claimed it’s been the one film he has been most criticized about.

Even with many not embracing the film, some can’t deny that it seemed almost prescient. This is notable in the use of small, unmanned planes, meant to get into enemy territory, without having to place a human soldier in danger.

This tied into the thinking of the time that Military budgets were being heavily slashed during peace-time, and there was some intent to keep advancements in weaponry relevant, as well as economical.

Of course, it may also be seen that Toys could be somewhat relevant in our current day-and-age, as we seem to also have a madman intent on turning our world upside-down, as we struggle to find some good in a world, that seems to have gotten darker.

Movie Musings: Do The Terminator and Titanic share similar story DNA?

James Cameron is a good example of how a filmmaker can come from anywhere. Originally working as a truck driver, his viewing of a film called Star Wars, inspired him to pursue a new career path.

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Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, and James Cameron, on the set of The Terminator.

After quitting his job and working on several films for Roger Corman, James eventually crafted his first original film, as a writer/director. The Terminator debuted in 1984, and quickly garnered praise for it’s effects-work, and gritty science-fiction scenario.

In the 30 years since the film’s debut, Cameron’s name not only became elevated in science fiction circles, but at the global box-office, where his last two films took off like gangbusters in 1997, and 2009.

In 1997, Titanic was released, and took off in a way that hadn’t been seen since the days of the early 80’s box-office hits!

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Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and James Cameron, on the set of Titanic.

The film was truly a phenomenon that could not be quantified: a $200 million film whose release was pushed back 5 months to the Winter of 1997 due to editing and effects issues. The numerous delays, made many feel that Cameron’s “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic” story, would surely sink his career.

Of course, as we know now, the rest is history. Titanic managed to ‘stay afloat’ in theaters almost 8 months after it’s debut, and broke attendance and ticket records in almost every country it was released in!

While it isn’t my favorite Cameron film (that distinction still belongs to Terminator 2: Judgment Day), I still can’t help but admire the man’s big-budget attempts to bring his fascination with the ship to life. Willing to build a 90% scale recreation to film on, as well as the mixture of practical and visual effects, to put us aboard the doomed luxury liner, and make us feel for the plight of it’s 2,200 souls.

Watching films over the years, I would sometimes look through most filmmakers’ works, looking for similarities, or reasons why certain subjects would fascinate them. As I was looking through Cameron’s films, I was surprised to note that when thinking through the story of Titanic, I found several story elements, that seemed to borrow from the structure Cameron used on The Terminator.

And so, I thought I’d share some of my findings with the internet.

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A Stranger in a Strange Land

When it comes to the male leads for both Terminator and Titanic, one can see that both Kyle Reese and Jack Dawson, are ‘anomalies’ in the worlds they find themselves in (Kyle in the year 1984, and Jack aboard the Titanic).

Cameron-4The future world Kyle has come from, is one devoid of the luxuries that the average person living in 1984 takes for granted. As a soldier, Reese got by on his wits, struggling to just survive each day, in a world ravaged by the machines. When he gets to 1984 Los Angeles, Michael Biehn portrays him as a man out-of-time, determined to save Sarah Connor, while also dealing with post-traumatic stress, from his time as a soldier.

Jack on the other hand, has lived his life going from place-to-place, with a very bohemian lifestyle. An artist by trade, he does what he can to get by, but still is willing to keep to a basic set of principles.

Both men are also unique, in that they encounter their leading ladies in the midst of life-or-death situations (Sarah about to be killed by a Terminator, and Rose threatening to commit suicide).

Throughout the course of the films, both Kyle and Jack act as cheerleaders to Sarah and Rose, claiming they are more than what they seem. We see both women at one point claim that these men are mistaken, but as the story goes on, we see them breaking out, and even saving their men in several instances.

It is also notable, that both of these men sacrifice themselves so the leading lady can live, and are ‘lost to time’ as the films go on.

Cameron-5In Terminator, Kyle Reese did not exist until after Judgment Day. When the LAPD catch him, there is no record of him on file. During the final battle, Kyle sacrifices his life to try and destroy the T-800. After his body is recovered after the event, he is sealed up in a body bag, and is never heard of again.

In Jack’s case, he came aboard the Titanic along with his friend Fabrizio, with tickets not to their names (both were won in a poker game). After the ship sinks, Jack has Rose get aboard a piece of the ship, so she’ll be out of the freezing waters. However, in his attempt to save her, Jack succumbs to hypothermia.

When Rose let go of his hands, and he sank into the abyss, that was the last anyone saw of Jack Dawson. The only thing that physically exists that proves his existence, is the drawing he did of Rose (that was found in Cal’s safe). Rose even mentions that she has no picture of Jack, whose face only now exists in her memories (of course, the irony is that there actually was a person on the Titanic named Jack Dawson, just not the one that Cameron had Leo portraying).

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Technology will be Your Doom (if you let it)

Most of Cameron’s films have an underlying theme regarding technology, and whether Man can control it, or if that technology may end up destroying it’s creator.

Though there is a definite technological difference between Skynet’s T-800 Terminator, and The White Star Line’s Titanic, they both represent the hubris of man.

Skynet was a fully-automated system integrated into the US Military, as a deterrent to human error, and to safeguard against enemy attacks. However, the artificial intelligence soon deemed all humans to be a threat. The system triggered an attack that lead to a nuclear war, that became known as Judgment Day.

Though the Titanic was not a living entity, her creation could almost be seen in a similar light.

At the time of her creation in the early 20th century, the Titanic was touted by her creators as one of the largest, most luxurious ships of all time, and…she was considered to be unsinkable, at least, according to the press and media (word was the White Star Line never claimed such hubris).

Her double-bottom hull and multiple water-tight compartments were seen as a deterrent to death, their advanced technological breakthroughs deemed a way to keep her passengers safe.

Of course, the claims of how this early 20th century technological marvel was going to revolutionize travel and pretty much plow through whatever Mother Nature threw at her, were rendered moot after she struck an iceberg, and sank on April 14th, 1912.

Both Skynet and the Titanic, were creations meant to show how far mankind had come…and in ways that most could not comprehend, they ended up defying their creators.

Skynet was touted as a program that would not suffer from the errors of humanity, like fatigue or emotions. However, once those in charge soon realized what they had done, it was too late to change course.

The Titanic was touted in a number of publications of the time, as being ‘unsinkable,’ a vessel to stand against God and nature. The push for luxury over safety, also overruled the added safety deterrent, of giving the ship enough lifeboats to handle her massive human capacity, leading to the tragic loss of over 2/3’s of her passengers.

It is also notable that in both films, Skynet and Titanic, are shown within alien-like worlds, ravaged by time.

In Terminator, the world of 2029 is shown torn asunder by nuclear annihilation, and the neverending threat of Skynet’s many war machines, to wipe out the last of mankind.

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In Titanic, we see what became of the great ship’s own Judgement Day, some 85 years after she sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Just like the future world of Terminator, we see once normal imagery made ‘alien’ before our eyes, bathed in a faint blue glow. The ocean, the sinking, and a number of other factors, have twisted the remains of the once-great ship, into something other-worldly, far away from the normalcy of her heyday, in 1912.

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You are more, than what you think you are

Though many decades separate their life-changing stories, Sarah Connor and Rose Dawson have story arcs that are very similar.

When we first meet them, both seem to be stuck in a certain place, seemingly trapped.

Cameron-6Sarah is working as a waitress, and looks to be heading towards a normal suburban lifestyle, that will eventually lead to marriage, and children.

Rose’s family name and fortune have allowed her to become the fiance to a young businessman, in a society and world where her choices seem limited.

Both women find themselves in a precarious situation, when strange men from another world (Jack from the world of Bohemia, Kyle from a war-torn future), end up ‘saving’ their lives, and attempt to make them believe that they can be more than what they think they are.

Kyle tells Sarah of what he was told by John, regarding how she trained him to be a warrior, and was a source of great strength.

Jack’s pep talk is moreso based on what he’s observed regarding Rose. Jack has noticed that Rose seems to have a fire within her, much more than those around her. The upper-class world she is in won’t allow for such ‘outbursts,’ and she’s in danger of that fire burning out.

By the end of their films, both Kyle and Jack have died, and in the wake of their deaths, it is up to the women they championed, to decide if they want to die, or live.

Cameron-7In Terminator, the T-800 is still alive after Kyle is killed. It is up to Sarah to finish the job (and decide if she wants to live or die). Sarah manages to lead the Terminator into a metal press, where it is crushed.

In Titanic, a lifeboat returns to the ship’s debris field, looking for survivors. Upon realizing Jack has died due to hypothermia, Rose almost gives up, but then remembers her promise to Jack. She manages to get the attention of the lifeboat’s crew, and is saved.

In the final minutes of each film, we get a small glimpse of how these encounters changed both of their lives.

Sarah is last seen driving off into an uncertain future, though more confident, and starting a new life, to prepare her unborn son for what is to come.

In the final moments of Titanic, we see Rose asleep(?), with a number of pictures by her bedside. Each of them in a matter of minutes, shows that she seems to have tried to live life to it’s fullest…a life she probably would never have had, if she hadn’t encountered Jack Dawson.

While I have mentioned Terminator as sharing some DNA with Titanic, there is a little of Terminator 2 in the film as well…albeit in a deleted ending.

In his original ending for T2, once the T-800 had been destroyed, the film would cut to 30 years in the future, to a park in Washington D.C. Sarah, now a Grandmother, explains how Judgment Day didn’t happen. The disaster was averted, and John Connor is now a Senator.

In the audio commentary for T2, Cameron claimed that he became fascinated with the idea of seeing a person, at two different stages of their life. However, he felt that the sudden appearance of Hamilton playing Sarah at age 64, was too much of a shock to the system.

In re-evaluating what went wrong, he felt that if he were to sell the illusion of a character at different stages of her life, the character would need to be introduced at their older age, to help ease the viewer into their younger ‘identity.’

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Left: Linda Hamilton, from the alternate ending to Terminator 2; Right: Gloria Stuart as “old Rose,” from Titanic.

Cameron was determined to use this storytelling device post-T2, and made it work 5 years later on Titanic.  While Kate Winslet portrays the younger Rose character and is the film’s ‘lead,’ it is Gloria Stuart who bookends the film, as ‘old Rose’ leads us into her past, and back to the present day.

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While both films do not line up exactly in comparison, it is notable at what I’ve seen in regards to both films, and I have been surprised noone else has really written such a comparison piece. But then, I’m one of those people that is weird enough to do so.

I came back to finish this post, after seeing Titanic’s 20th anniversary release last weekend. The audience was rather small, but seeing it in an HDR setting with an incredible sound system, took me back to those halcyon days of my senior year in high school, sitting in my hometown theater for the first matinee of the film (minus it breaking 15 minutes before the end!).

That re-visit of the film on the big-screen got my mind going, and soon made me think of a few other comparisons one could make regarding Terminator, and Titanic:

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Picture Perfect

I was surprised to realize how in each of the films, an image of Sarah and Rose, are vital to the journey several people undertake in these films.

In The Terminator, it was a picture of Sarah Connor, that pushed Kyle to accept the mission, to go back and protect her.

In Titanic, it is Jack’s drawing of Rose, that brings ‘old Rose’ to the attention of Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), as the image shows her wearing The Heart of the Ocean necklace, the treasure he is seeking within the remains of the ship.

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Search and Destroy

One scene that is most memorable to those who saw The Terminator, is when Arnold’s T-800 massacres a whole police station, in his search for Sarah Connor.

Surprisingly, a similar cat-and-mouse situation (minus the multiple guns and dead bodies) was shot for Titanic, but ended up on the cutting room floor.

After Cal (Billy Zane) chases Jack and Rose down to the flooded First Class Dining Hall, he gives up the chase, due to the rising waters and a lack of bullets in his gun…only to realize that Rose’s coat still has the necklace in it’s pocket!

In the deleted scene, Cal tells Lovejoy (David Warner) that he can have the necklace if he can get it, and the bodyguard reloads his gun, and skulks into the dining hall.

While the cat-and-mouse game in The Terminator helped with the suspense, the same scenario happening amidst the sinking dining hall just didn’t work.

Cameron had hoped the scene would excite the audience, as Jack gets some comeuppance upon Lovejoy. However, while the sight of the familiar setting being eerily submerged charmed Cameron, the added tension just seemed to be too much for the audience, who were already full ensconced by the more pressing matters of the ship sinking.

After a few test-screenings, Cameron removed the dining hall fight altogether, and with it, went any negative comments about the moment!

In the final film, Jack and Rose merely rush through the dining hall, and the audience is left to assume that Cal and Lovejoy returned to the upper-decks, to try and get on a lifeboat.

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I will admit the two films aren’t perfectly similar in their narratives, but as one can glean from the article, it seems that James Cameron likes to reuse some things, if he can find a place for them.

Of course, I do wonder if any other story scenarios will show up in the upcoming Avatar sequels. Cameron’s fascination with deep-sea diving, is said to be a part of the upcoming sequel. I doubt we’ll get any interstellar submersibles, but I’m sure he’ll work on trying to give us some fascinating underwater creations, beneath the waves on Pandora.

Movie Musings: When supporting characters overshadow a film series

Watching a lot of films over the years, I will admit being greatly amazed by some performances.

From Bob Hoskins making me believe a cartoon rabbit was talking to him, to Orson Welles portraying a mult-millionaire searching for the one thing he could never have, some characters just stick in my mind.

And of course, there are many other roles that I and many others saw and enjoyed…months and years before disaster struck.

I speak of those memorable roles that were then over-analyzed by Hollywood, leading them to make terrible decisions.

“Wait a minute,” they thought. “The audience really, REALLY loved this guy…let’s make a sequel, and bring him back! We’ll give the public what they want…but with much, much more of that particular character!”

And by doing so…they ended up pretty much destroying what made certain characters so memorable in the first place!

In going over a number of film series, I decided to list three ‘repeat offenders’ here, where the character’s first appearance was pretty memorable, but somewhere down the line, they ended losing a lot of that charm as they were inserted into sequels over the year.

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The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenneger)

When The Terminator was released in 1984, Arnold’s name and character were plastered across the majority of the film’s marketing material. However, his role was that of a supporting actor, in the story of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) attempting to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), whose unborn child will lead the human resistance to victory in the far-off year, of 2029

The film quickly won writer/director James Cameron acclaim…and the studio asking for a sequel. Upon accepting their request, Cameron chose to take a risk, and not give the audience exactly what they had seen the previous time out.

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“Hasta la vista, baby.”

Lightening the atmosphere a tad, he made T2 more of a continuation of the first film, and turned the deadly Terminator, into a protector of the teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong). Terminator 2: Judgement Day, became one of the most famous sequels of all time, and seemed to cement Arnold as a major fixture in the film series, as well as his character’s place in popular culture.

After T2, the studio wanted more sequels, but Cameron was done. Arnold however, wasn’t. And so, it seemed that the future of the Terminator franchise was to continue on…as a vehicle for Arnold to star in (every other actor was largely expendable!).

The importance of stopping Skynet and the rise of John Connor took a backseat in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, as Arnold appeared as an upgraded T-850, an obsolete model also sent back in time as a protection unit, this time to protect John (Nick Stahl) from the T-X (Kristenna Loken).

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“Talk to the hand.”

Unlike the previous Terminator, this newer Arnold came pre-equipped with secret future information (that he only deemed worthy of giving in small doses), and to act as a way to segue us into the future war that the studios seemed to think we were all waiting to see (screw all that “no fate but what we make” BS!).  Sadly, it just felt like a retread of the last film with Arnold, along with the filmmakers trying terribly to make the Terminator as funny as Cameron did.

When it came to the next film 6 years later, Terminator: Salvation attempted to try and refocus it’s audience’s attention to the plight of John Connor (Christian Bale). It would also be the first Terminator film that did not have Arnold’s name as the ‘marquee name.’

Because Arnold was unavailable, the only trace of him was a scene where Connor encounters the first of the new T-800 models (a combination of a body-double and CG-facial replication). Plus, to make this appearance fit, they maintain that time has been messed up, and the production of the T-800 model cyborgs, are being developed sooner than what we saw in the previous films.

Even with a big marketing push by Warner BrothersSalvation failed to make big bucks, and the attempts to make a new Terminator trilogy with it as the first film, were squelched because of the lackluster performance.

In 2015, a new studio and creative team attempted a ‘soft reboot’ with the release of  Terminator: Genisys, which played out like a fan’s internet-fanfiction/wet-dream when it came to Arnold coming back.

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“It is nice to see you…”

If T3 felt like Arnold was getting more screentime, Genisys seemed to become a veritable “The Arnold Show!” We were treated to several fully-CG recreations of Arnold’s 1984 self. An expanded ‘guardian’ role was given to his character this time, having saved and raised Sarah Connor (this time portrayed by Emilia Clarke), who nicknames him “Pops.” Plus, like in T3, this Terminator possesses specific information. While conveniently having no clue who sent him back in time (“those files have been erased.”), but seems to know when the T-800 will arrive at the Griffith Park Observatory, AND where Kyle Reese can be found some time later!

Some may find it odd that I’m critical of just the non-Cameron sequels. In truth, I felt that Cameron’s take on the material (he is the creator after all), allowed Arnold to have a somewhat important role in the story, while also giving the ‘human’ characters a chance to shine.

Sadly, after 30 years, Arnold’s character has become so ‘hardwired’ into the DNA of the Terminator series, that it seems that if someone were to try and do a full ‘system-restart,’ noone would come out.

Once upon a time, The Terminator was a fascinating and memorable character to me, but as he stands now, he’s become little more than “a relic from a deleted timeline.”

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Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones)

When I look back on the Men in Black series, it always seemed to me that the studio and filmmakers blew their chance to really make this film-series interesting. And it all had to do with one character.

With the first film, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), introduced Agent J (Will Smith) and the audience, to the secret world of the Men in Black, and the constant, end-of-the-world crises they struggled to contain.

However, while K was one of MIB’s best agents, he had originally been reluctantly drafted into the organization. The story goes that K as a young man, ended up taking a wrong turn on a desolate country road, where he encountered some MIB agents and an alien. Rather than be de-neuralyzed of the incident, K ended up becoming a MIB agent.

TooMuch-4K left his ordinary life (and a girl he loved) behind, but secretly (at least according to the first film anyways), he longed to return to normalcy.

At the end of the first film, it seemed he had gotten his wish. Agent J had proven himself, and K allowed his partner to de-neuralyze him. Our final image of K showed him in a tabloid headline (left), having come out of a coma, and being reunited with his lost love.

It looked like Agent J was going to be alright. We’d get to see him interact with more agents within the organization, and be off on more adventures, taking on the role of his former mentor.

HA!! THINK AGAIN!!!

Sadly, Agent K was denied his happy ending in the sequels, by being brought back into the agency. With MIB2, K became ‘the most important man on Earth,’ when it was revealed that he had important information on something called, “The Light of Zartha.”

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“Somethin’ I can do for you, slick?”

The writers also got rid of K’s pining for the girl of his dreams, claiming he could not break free of his fascination with the stars above. And so, his wife left him, and he became a Postal employee until Agent J recovered him.

Plus, upon locating the Light of Zartha (aka Laura Vasquez, played by Rosario Dawson), K expounds a number of information on her, also noting ‘how beautiful’ her mother was…planting the thought in our heads that K may not have been fully committed to his lost love as the first film was…?

But, the filmmakers couldn’t stop there!

10 years later, MIB3 once again made K to be ‘the key to the story,’ when Boris the Animal killed him in the past, clearing the way for a massive alien invasion (in our time?), which sent J back in time to save his partner as a young man (played by Josh Brolin).

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A young Agent K (Josh Brolin) & Agent O (Alice Eve)

Oh, and it also turns out that in this film, Kay continues to love putting his hand in numerous cookie jars, as we find out he had affections for co-worker, Agent O (played by Emma Thompson, and Alice Eve).

Sure tarnishes that story subplot we saw in the first film, doesn’t it?

For having such potential to be a great Pandora’s box of alien mystery and creature effects, the writers and filmmakers really ruined a potentially good thing when it came to the developing this series!

Agent K was a fun foil to Agent J in the first film, making it seem like we were largely being primed for some more fascinating stories in future installments (we could only imagine what K discovered on his own over the years, what new things would J find out?). One could easily imagine Agent J being the new top-agent at MIB, and training new rookies to combat new alien threats in future films.

Sadly, that kind of hopeful enthusiasm I had was not to be, and the series just seemed ‘bored’ by the time the third film came out. Tommy Lee Jones got off easy in that sequel, collecting his paycheck for probably 7 minutes of screentime, as Brolin played opposite Smith for most of the film.

It was such a pity to see a film series that could have gotten wholly creative with it’s adventures, just seemed content to just give us minor variations on a theme, with the same duo.

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Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)

In the history of the Walt Disney Studios’ live-action entertainment division, Captain Jack Sparrow is probably it’s most famous male character ever.

As portrayed by Johnny Depp, the slippery-yet-questionable pirate rogue, charmed many upon his debut in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean film, making it a breakout hit that summer, and netting Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Naturally, when a sequel was announced, many hoped for more of Jack, and they got it…boy, did they get it!

toomuch-5While Jack may have simply cared to just get back command of his ship (The Black Pearl) in the first film, the sequels ended up thrusting him into crazier, and even more super-natural stories. Pretty soon, Jack was set upon by Davy Jones, hunted by a Kraken, went to Purgatory, considers living forever, and then, goes searching for the Fountain of Youth.

All marketing for the sequels easily threw Jack Sparrow front-and-center. Unlike his role in the first Pirates film however, the storylines to it’s sequels, just made us less interested in the characters around Jack, and tried to convince us that his character was wholly likable, and deserving of the most screen-time.

This to me, was where the sequels all fall short.

In the first Pirates film, Jack was a bit like a fly, flitting from ear-to-ear, keeping everyone on their toes in the whirlwind story of trading companies, young love, and cursed pirates on the high seas.

toomuch-6The sequels (naturally) resolved that little formality, and suddenly, Jack Sparrow was the guy that everyone wanted a piece of! Suddenly, it was all about saving him, or him having the key to something or other. It often feels so blatant in how Jack is made the center of the film’s universe (much like what was done with Agent K in Men in Black).

Personally, I wish they could have done with Jack Sparrow, what the filmmakers of the Mad Max films did. In those films, Max usually just happens to stumble upon a situation by chance, and is swept up in a new adventure. Sure, Mad Max: Fury Road had Max’s name and him along for the ride, but much like Jack in the first Pirates film, he became an integral part of a pretty large, and wild adventure.

But in the Pirates world, as things stand now, it feels like all roads lead to Captain Jack. Even the latest sequel coming out (Dead Men Tell No Tales), Jack is once again a man being pursued by outside forces, this time a rage-filled captain (portrayed by Javier Bardem), whom Jack chanced upon years ago, and was responsible for the captain’s death. It seems Jack can’t just chance to run across trouble…trouble has to almost always, find him!

Of course, given his penchance for luck, I’m betting if there is another Pirates film, they’ll reveal that Jack is really part-alien, and he’ll take to space in a Treasure Planet-style adventure, with shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in.

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I will admit, there were a number of other characters I could have included on this list, but I sought to whittle them down to three that had quite a track record.

Other contenders included the likes of Mater from the Cars series, Mystique from the current run of X-Men films, and after last weekend, David from the current Alien prequel series Ridley Scott is directing.

However, given how long these three film series have run (and spanned some 10-30 years!), they seemed the best examples of how an interesting character, can be worn down by more information, and bad sequels.

I’m sure many of you reading this can think of some other characters that I can’t even think of right now. Feel free to leave a comment, and share your thoughts on some other characters whom sequels ruined regarding mystery, and mystique.