Flashforward: the Excellence that “Knowing” could have been

flashforward Watch Flashforward, Episode One

Robert Sawyer’s Flashforward has been made into an ABC miniseries. It is a masterpiece. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how faithful the series is to the original book, but the book won an Aurora Award.

The premise is that everyone blacks out at the same moment for 2 min and 17 seconds. In that time, they glimpse their futures. When they return to the present, mass chaos has already happened. Planes fell from the sky, cars crashed, trains derailed. People died, lots of people died. Everyone had blacked out, so no one was in control of all those vehicles.

The main characters, and there are several, include two FBI agents, a surgeon, a man who lost a daughter in Afghanistan, a doctor about to commit suicide, and several others. The series will be about them either trying to avoid their futures, or trying to get to them, depending on what they saw.

Oddly enough, the date they jump to, April 29, 2010, will be the season finale of the show–and at that moment you get to see if they reenact their futures or not.

Obviously, I don’t know how they can carry this through after that episode…BUT, I’m thoroughly pleased with watching till they get there. After this first episode I know that we have a great team of writers involved.

Now, this is what “Knowing” should have been. In my original review of “Knowing” I talked about how the movie, though predicting disasters, left very few for the main characters to experience, and I was troubled by the fact that it seemed the directors had determined that no one could change anything, so why bother.  That movie dripped with errant theology and left no doubt that everything was predetermined.  I don’t mind that fate or God may be a part of my life, but free-will is a human trait,and makes movies much more palatable.  To see someone struggle against their fate, to see them try.  It is what makes those who are given two weeks to live all the more heroic for skydiving or organizing a political rally.  How we react to what seems to be inevitable–THAT is interesting.

Already, I can tell that the show has set up five or six different beliefs about pre-determinism.  Some believe God gave them a gift, others that He gave them a punishment.  Some want to avoid the future, some to run to it.  For some it predicted a horrible mistake they will make.  

“Knowing” passed up all opportunities for real drama with real people, skidded ahead with bad dialogue and coincidence, to an ending which tried to justify the movie.  

Flashforward is like Mozart taking hold of the Salieri “Knowing” and actually making a great movie out of it.  Yes, I know, Knowing only had two hours…but still, this series is good solid writing.

1.  The characters are individuals, who walk onto the scene with their own problems, their own pasts.  They are well drawn and WHAT they do will determine the plot, not what others do.  Now that the big blackout is done, the characters guide the series.  They will push things forward accidentally or on purpose to meet up to April 29th.  They will determine their plots!

2.  Great dialogue, great stuff that isn’t about “the plot”— that Dimitri has to dance at his wedding to “Islands in the Stream.”  That the chief of the FBI has to lie about his vision because he’s embarrassed.  

3.  The plot starts with the action.  I can imagine this series beginning without the crash first.  But who would have waited the whole episode to have the blackout?  Nope, have the crash first, back up, and then take it slow.  Maybe this is just the difference between TV and reading….but I think starting as fast as you can into the action gets people involved with you.  I noticed in Robert’s book, first chapter, that he has a description of each character first…but within a page, he gets to the blackout.  He knows the blackout is a great hook, and that everything of importance happens afterwards.  

4.  I like the music in this series, already, the building, the back and forth between plots so quickly so that you know they are happening simultaneously–the music and this choice to flash around gives you a sense that everything is tied together.  In some sense it is like a trailer—when the trailer starts shuffling between images so fast that you get excited: all trailers seem to end this way these days.  The director took the music and that shuffling sequence to build suspense.  

I hope Robert Sawyer makes a huge amount of cash from this.  This is brilliant stuff.  And I’m glad to see a Canadian Science Fiction Writer land such an opportunity.  I hope they do more interviews with Robert Sawyer in the States.  

Well, I will keep watching the series.  I’ve already become a HUGE fan.

Knowing: People Stuck in a Plot (a movie review)

knowing4Having just seen Knowing, the film starring Nicholas Cage as a man who’s been given a sheet of numbers predicting every accident that will happen, I’m having a hard time with Ebert’s review. Ebert gave it four stars. I would give it two.

It is a movie about whether events in life are random or predetermined and wants to be a movie about what you would do if you knew the end of the world was happening.

If you want to see the answer to that, go watch Deep Impact–a better film.

Knowing doesn’t uncover the “end of the world” plot until late in the movie. This movie is about  whether all events are preordained.  And should a coded sheet of these events fall into our hands–does it  indicate that higher forces are communicating with mankind–revealing these accidents?  But alas, it’s not to actually change them.  The list is stuck in a vault for fifty years. What’s the point of revealing numbers only to hide them away? Nicholas Cage would have us believe it is to give those numbers to his son, fifty years later. For what reason–there is no reason. Since Cage cannot do anything to affect or change the events, the paper communicates nothing but “proof” that someone knew what would happen.

Knowing is saddled with a predetermined plot too. The characters only talk about the plot; when they arrive in a scene, they say only what needs to be said to move the plot along, which I always find hard to believe.  When the sister enters the movie, her reason to be there is to tell us that Cage is estranged from the family, to establish that he is running from religion, to emphasize that the family is worried. The writers even realize that there is no real interaction in this scene because they have her tell Cage that he didn’t even ask “how are you? How’s your week been?” before telling her to leave. The characters know it is an awkward scene. All of the scenes are like this–leaping from plot point to plot point.

The revelation that the numbers are actually dates is so unnatural as to be funny.  It doesn’t happen because he actually strives to figure them out–he is drunk, it’s an “accident.” This plot is so much about determinism that it tries to get away with unbelievable coincidence. The author can always say–“Well, that was my point!” But that’s just bad writing. If you need coincidence that badly, then your characters are just puppets.

Cage is a morose father, drinking himself into a stupor every night. He’s supposed to be a MIT astrophysicist. Man, where did they get this classroom? That’s MIT?? It’s small. Only twenty students are there, most look around high school age. It’s supposedly his first lecture of the year–it’s completely philosophical, cosmological, lasts for ten minutes or less, with brilliant students who repeat back knowledge to the professor, and then our brilliant professor blanks when he’s talking about whether the world is random or not, and dismisses class. I never believed him as a professor. And I didn’t believe that was MIT, or any other university.

The worst foreshadowing happens here–when he takes up the models of planets and talks about them.

SPOILER: Cage is supposed to have worked on solar flares, was an expert in the field–but he doesn’t work on them now? He doesn’t mention this fact till the end of the film, when it becomes important. But one would suspect that the scientists who have already discovered that a major solar flare is coming would want to consult with the man who has solar flare knowledge.

This movie is full of Christian references to the inevitability of mankind’s destruction. You are sledgehammered over the head with it at times. Cage as prodigal son, makes the predictable return to his pastor/father. There’s even a convenient Christian message scrawled on a van in the last sequence–so that during watching destruction you might make a decision. The kids are taken in a “rapture” which makes angels look like a$$holes because they wouldn’t take Cage with them and save him too, or anyone else in those huge ships of theirs.

Take away the thin veil of science fiction and this is mere theology. Down to the “new adam and eve” and “tree of life” in the last frame… a very tired science fiction ending (we’ve seen it so much that On Spec and other sci-fi magazines reject all stories with “adam and eve” endings). Those people left behind are riotous and murderous, not many shown as kind; as destruction swoops down, you are made to think we are all sinners, murderous thieves. The writers have stacked the deck–giving us no choice on how to read the plot. Nobody really has a believable choice.  That may be honest theology, or philosophy–but it doesn’t make a good movie.