So the news came out that the Half Life movie directed by Quentin Tarantino is destined to join the list of the greatest science fiction movies that were never actually filmed. It has damned good company ...
The most excited I've ever been about a movie was the moment I saw the first Alien 3 "teaser" trailer in 1991 (Teasers are shot well before the movie itself is finished filming.). It's the one that promised the aliens were coming to freaking Earth.
Visions of awesomeness flashed through my head, a Blade Runner-ish Earth with sprawling, filthy buildings, huge, flashing billboards with giant Asian women on them, eat-up flying cars whooshing by and steam always rising from the streets for some reason. Then, the aliens start breeding in the sewers until the creatures come boiling up out of manholes by the hundreds, to be cut to pieces by Marines with pulse rifles and maybe in the climax, the Army has to nuke the city ...
"This movie can't possibly not be awesome!" I said to my little friend John at the time. "This is gonna make Aliens look like ET! I hope it's directed by the guy who will in the future direct Fight Club!"
A year and 30 fucking screenplays later (including this rejected script by William Gibson), they came up with the movie that killed the franchise, then squatted over the face of the corpse and farted.
They had stumbled through concept after concept, built sets, torn them down, filmed scenes, thrown them away, fired directors and fired crew. When Sigourney Weaver held out for more money, they wrote scripts without her, when she came back, they did rewrites to cram her back into the story. Very late in the game, they brought in a young director named David Fincher--whose only experience was with Madonna videos--to start shooting after most of the budget had already been scattered to the wind like parade confetti.
What squeezed out the other end of the development's digestive tract was a movie that, just seconds in, meaninglessly kills off the three characters Ripley spent the last film saving. The hundreds of aliens were replaced with one small alien dog.
The vast, futuristic landscape was replaced by one dim, dirty building. The frantic gunfights were replaced by scenes of identical, bald cast members staring quietly at the wall. The main character commits suicide at the end.
So what happened?
Budget, mostly. My Alien 3 would have cost twice what Aliens did, with its sprawling sets and swarms of animatronic creatures (remember CGI effects were new and still very expensive in 1991). At the end of all that I'd have an R-rated sci-fi film with almost no chance of making back its budget (Aliens only made about $85 million, $150 million if you adjust for inflation).
So, they settled for this stripped-down version on a budget of $50 million, filmed in an abandoned lead factory. Then, they watched as fanboys like me piled into the theater on opening day anyway.
This is why they're rich film executives, and I live in my car.
There was a movie recently that perfectly captured the Douglas Adams experience, the combination of bitter, droll British wit and whale-exploding slapstick that made his novels great. That movie was Shaun of the Dead.
That movie was not, unfortunately, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a film that floated around Hollywood for about 20 years before it finally appeared in theaters as a flat, lifeless, Americanized lump that was mostly hated by people who liked the book and loathed by people who hated the book.
Why? It wasn't funny. Forget the plot elements left out--you can't squeeze an entire novel into a 120-page screenplay. We'd have forgiven all of that if the movie had made us laugh. But, you knew from the opening musical sequence with the dolphins that things had gone awry. The type of person who would find the singing animals hilarious is not the type who would be on board with Adams' relentless, dark humor.
So what happened?
Comedy is hard. Really freaking hard. I know, I tried it, once. And, in a movie there are 1,000 little things that can ruin it--facial expressions, bad timing, the wrong edit. It takes an expert to do it right. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, meanwhile, was directed by a man (Garth Jennings) who had never previously directed a movie. Or, a TV show. Or, anything having sets or actors reading lines. He had no connection to anything having to do with comedy anywhere on his resume.
Hitchhiker's would have been a tall order for anybody, since most of the comedy was in the narrative language and descriptions, two things that don't come across on film.
No, this project needed a sharp eye, not somebody who would have Mos Def stiffly parroting passages from the book. It needed someone who would take the Douglas Adams attitude and run with it and take the movie we were expecting and give us something 10 times as insane.
Tim Burton maybe could have done it (though I wouldn't have thought so until Willy Wonka), and Terry Gilliam as well. But from the budget of the movie, I'm guessing they couldn't afford either one of those guys.
Me, I would have settled for Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright. Hell, he was even on set (playing a bit role as one of Deep Thought's technicians). They should have grabbed him and sat him in the director's chair. At least he had a TV show on his resume.