Monday, February 23, 2015

Bill, The Galactic Hero (Movie 2014) review

I read Harry Harrison's anti-war science fiction novel Bill, the Galactic Hero as a kid. I was probably 13 or 14 and it was the funniest book I ever read in my life. Every paragraph had a zinger that left me giggling. It was so funny that I read it multiple times and ended up knowing huge tracts of it by heart. When I wrote fanfiction, if a planet-wide city came up  - in Star Wars, that would be Coruscant - I would write Harrison's Helior, because he was so obviously correct about how a city that covered an entire planet in buildings would work, and also because it was all so funny.

Harrison, who had written the book to satirize how awful the American army's selection and induction process and their prosecution of wars were, might even have been non-plussed at how much I enjoyed it. It's supposed to be funny but bitter. Some of the humor was adult, and over the next few years, I'd learn something dirty, link it back to something in Bill, the Galactic Hero and start laughing all over again.

Recently, Alex Cox directed a student film made by the Film Studies and Theatre & Dance Departments of the University of Colorado at Boulder. It came out late last year and is available in full free on Vimeo at this address.

Spoilers. The film follows the book exactly. I'd say 98% of the dialogue is straight from the book, and the screenwriter (Alex Cox himself) resisted the temptation to write in some Big Bad antagonist or otherwise fuck with the neat storyline of the book.

Bill (who never realized that sex was the cause of it all - forgive me, I could write out the entire book here if I don't stop myself) is a farmboy who would have been at the other end of the furrow he was plowing if not distracted by an attractive girl. Unfortunately for him, he is at the road end of the farm when the military recruitment parade comes past. He stops to gawk, is offered a (drugged) foamy one to drink, is bamboozled into trying on a uniform, and a hypno-coil in his new boot heel activates, forcing him to sign a contract. His mother, with his baby brother in her arms, catches up with him and pleads for him to be released as she needs him to look after the farm - to no avail.

Bill goes through basic training at the hands of the sadistic Deathwish Drang, but he's protected from the very worst duties by his comrade Eager Beager, who volunteers for latrine duty and the ever-present boot-polishing chores. Eventually, he's shipped out (and so is Deathwish, much to her surprise) and given a menial job on a starship. The starship is crippled in its first battle with the alien enemy, and a dazed Bill wanders into the gun room, jiggles a gun controller with moderate curiosity and is surprised when it tells him he's locked onto a target and should fire. He fires the gun; the space-shell hits its target and demoralizes the enemy fleet. An injured officer who has been watching nominates him for a space medal.

Bill travels to capital planet Helior to meet the Emperor and get his medal. He does so, but loses his copy of the plan of the gigantic city. Losing his plan is punishable by death, even assuming he can ever find his way back through the city to his debarkation point. He wanders to the lowest level, where disillusioned garbage men pick through the trash and wonder what the hell to do with it. (There's nowhere for it to go, since the entire city is built up.) He's given a job working for the sanitation engineers. In the book, Bill hits on a clever solution, but in the movie he's still wondering what to do when he's unwillingly recruited by an anarchist revolutionary and a government secret agent counter-revolutionary more or less simultaneously. He barely extricates himself from that mess when he's recognized as an AWOL soldier and court-martialed.

On the prison planet, he's expected to fight the alien enemy, the Chingers, hand to hand. (It was an especially funny day when I discovered what this harmless word in English means to my Mexican neighbors - BtGH kept on giving the laughs twenty years after I first read it.) Here he meets Eager Beager again. It turns out he was an enemy spy.

It's well known to the prisoners that the only way off planet is in a coffin, but Bill eventually finds someone who admits that the army has a shortage of replacement feet. Bill shoots his own foot off, and is airlifted to the hospital. The book and movie end with him recruiting a farmboy to the military, after which his mother runs up to him and begs him not to take him. It's his own little brother. He tells his brother to fall in, and off the new soldiers go.

It's a nice, solid 90 minutes long - the perfect length for a film, I always find - and the cinematographer is to be congratulated for getting great shots (in black and white) in some very extreme situations, from deserts (as battleground planets ) to industrial interiors (as in hundreds of storeys below the metal sheeting that coats Helior). It recasts two male superior officers as women, which works very well in the modern day (BtGH was first published in 1966). Given how much Deathwish Drang scared me in the book, it's a tribute to the director and to actor Devon Wycoff that the befanged drill sergeant was so effectively scary in the movie.

The beginning and end, the scenes at the road near Bill's farm, are animated in a bright and funny fashion. It's a shame that the rest of the movie is live, as, although it's reasonably well shot, it doesn't quite live up to the perkiness and zaniness of the cartoon.

Although I liked the movie, there's a couple of downsides that I have to mention. First, it isn't very funny. Like my synopsis above, there's something about abstracting the plot bones that leaves the laughs behind. It may be that film-student-aged people can get the humor from the dry dialogue, but I couldn't, even though I was waiting for, and hearing, every punchline. The film's anti-war message remains intact, however.

The second problem is more fundamental. Someone made the decision to have all the characters in space suits, visors down. Whether they're on a space ship, on a desert planet or at the very base level of the city of Helior, they all have masks on. This means you can't read their lips and their voices are muffled by their visors and masks. Young actors, with their tendency to mumble and as yet without well-developed body language, are a poor choice for a masquerade.

On the plus side, the theme song is by Iggy Pop, here sounding exactly like Frank Zappa.

All in all, I think there's an argument that Verhoeven made the best possible Bill, the Galactic Hero, simply by filming Heinlein's Starship Troopers in full-on Sarcasto-vision. The Alex Cox true-to-the-book version comes a close second.

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