Friday, April 29, 2005

Battlestar: Galactica - a thrilling transformation from fromage to homage

For the last few decades, the American entertainment industry has culled a reliable profit by asking, "What would it look like if we lost?" As computer generated imagery improves, each vision becomes more spectacular. If we lost to invading aliens, it would look like Independence Day. If we lost to a meteor, it would look like Deep Impact. If we lost to the weather, it would look like The Day After Tomorrow. In each case, the focus on visual effect is exclusive, while the focus on emotional effect is literally missing-in-action.

If these movies offer us spectacle without emotional engagement, they've at least succeeded at the first level. Television has typically failed at both - until now. The re-vamped (and I do mean "vamped") Battlestar: Galactica has spectacle and engagement in spades, creating in a few deft strokes a compelling portrait of contemporary western civilization brought low by siege. Series writer and producer Ron Moore says he wanted to merge two aesthetics - 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Black Hawk Down - and he succeeds with devastating effect. As for character, this being television, he shows no hesitation in employing emotional short-hand. But by paying reverent attention to "why" details, Galactica invests, and makes it pay off for the viewer.

A great deal of "why" attention is paid to the CGI, which, against the odds, is emotionally compelling stuff on its own. During the heat of the aerial/space battles, the camera is often "confused", seeking out a comprehensive reference point, then zooming in when it's been found. Galactica's sound-crew takes a similar tack: rather than the usual eardrum-shredding bombast of explosions with cymbal-clashing score (a la Lucas and Williams), Galactica has a muffled, underwater sound that conversely amplifies the sense of dislocation and physical threat. And drums are the only musical score - a tactic common to the recent spate of arty Shaolin movies (Crouching Tiger, etc.), but still an effective novelty in space opera.

Similarly, the Galactica "look" seems counterintuitive. Eschewing the usual suburban streamlining (Star Trek's tracksuits and McConsoles), Galactica is crowded with sweaty military grit, and utilizes a technology that is off-puttingly retro: the captain's intercom is a bulky phone, complete with corkscrew phone-cord. The reason for this is given early in the show. That it makes sense is just another pleasant "why" pay-off.

The cast of characters and foibles are standard-issue, and executed with attention paid. As with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the human element would be admittedly thin gruel without the proper meat of an actor with undeniable "presence". STNG had Patrick Stewart, but Galactica is blessed with two heavyweights: Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell - testosterone and estrogen personified. They wage a war of balance with each other, and with an enemy who is cunning, ruthless, sexy and ... confused? The Cylons are ciphers; on the face of it, their motives are inexplicable, but the snippets we get suggest a substantial iceberg of menace lurking beneath.

I've only seen the miniseries DVD, which lays itself out like an all-you-can-eat buffet of entertainment fusion-dishes. I loved it. It sticks to the ribs and provokes unusual thoughts long after it's been consumed, which is above and beyond what you expect from even the best space opera, soap opera, horse opera ... heck, any opera. Highly recommended.

Endnote: the DVD's "bonus material" is slight stuff, but I was amused to see Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict, stars from the original series, chafe at the changes made by Moore & co. Hatch puts on a good face, but Benedict is prickly - he bristles when he's told "the new Starbuck is a girl" (his words). The original series, which only ran one season, was an appalling ball of cheese, difficult to enjoy even for its camp value. At what point did these veteran actors of television drama invest so much love in this ill-conceived, short-lived show? Interviews with their contemporary replacements demonstrate the expected professional zeal for the new project, but you have to wonder whether they'd care at all, should they be told 25 years from now that Galactica was getting yet another make-over.

And appreciation is due to my friend Scott, whose recommendation for the series can be read here.


Tom said...

I was downloading and enjoying the series which was first aired in the UK, before Space/Sci-fi channels got them, and was amazed at the quality of the stories. Compelling (enough) characters, even if Starbuck is a girl - who kicks more ass than Benedict ever did in ANY series! Some of the best sci-fi on tv right now, is the new BSG. I loved how they integrated the old tech from the original series into this one. BTW, the same people who did CGI for Firefly worked on BSG and if you pause and zoom in when Mary McDonnell is waiting for her doctor in the office, you can see the Serenity ship flying by.

In case you didn't notice, I'm also a Firefly fan, and am anxiously awaiting the Serenity movie release later this year.

Whisky Prajer said...

Alright, Tom - I'm starting to get nervous!