Sunday, August 05, 2007

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales: Voices in the Dark

Over the past year, I watched and reviewed all the filmed material in the Babylon 5 universe. It was a pretty long journey that sadly ended on the down note of the awfully mediocre Legend of the Rangers movie. But, luckily that wasn’t the end of the universe, it returns to life in the form of a new direct to DVD movie.

Having watched the whole series over the past eight months, I have a different relationship to this film than most long time fans do. I’ve only been without these characters for a few months, I’m happy to see them again, but it’s not like I’ve been waiting years. Still, it’s been a couple of months, and it’s awesome to be back on the station. On the DVD, JMS says this is the first time since the series he’s done something that really felt like Babylon 5, and I’d agree with that. While this isn’t the world’s most exciting story, it puts you back in that place and leaves us with the hopes of more stories from this universe.

The film opens with one of the emotional high points of the series, the destruction of the station, accompanied by one of Christopher Franke’s most beautiful music cues. This was there to set the time, the last time we saw the station it was being destroyed, but there were moments before that. Going to such a heavy moment brings you right back into things, and the credits which jump through all the major characters in the series continues that reimmersion.

After a snappy opening sequence, we segue into what’s essentially a one act play with a marginal connection to the B5 universe. It made little sense to me that Lochley would be one of the characters chosen for the first episode of the Lost Tales series. This episode doesn’t delve too deeply into the character, probably because there’s not too much to delve into. So, this episode just uses her as an audience surrogate in a story that I’d assume JMS just wanted to tell, and decided to fit into this B5 project.

As a standalone tale, it’s marginally successful. The concepts are interesting and the visual style is more interesting than most of what we’ve seen on the series, but it’s limited by the fact that the vast majority of the film is three people in a room talking. About halfway through, I was checking my watch, annoyed that half of the new B5 project would just consist of his random standalone story. Like a lot of JMS’s weaker material, there’s some interesting philosophical concepts here, but it doesn’t particularly work as a film. For one, we’ve seen exorcisms so many times, the basic structure isn’t that interesting.

The bigger issue is the way he undermines the moral conundrum he’s come up with by presenting a heretofore unseen third path. The beauty of a show like 24 is that they’d put the characters in a situation that apparently had no outs, then force them to actually go through with one of the morally compromising alternatives. In both halves of this piece, the characters get themselves in a tough situation, but wind up finding an easy solution. This happened on a lot on the series and Crusade as well. To give the characters such an easy way out renders the philosophical inquiry essentially meaningless on an emotional level, and that leaves this as just an intellectual exercise.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot to like. The acting was generally solid and the constantly rotating camera was much more dynamic than the static composition of the series. Some shots reminded me of Irreversible, and there are few higher conflicts that you can pay a cinematographer.

The other thing I really liked was the reimagining of traditional religion for an era where mankind is in the stars. It fits in really well with the final moments of the series chronologically, where man leaves Earth behind to head out to the stars. With it, comes the destruction of the old demons who have held us back through the years. That millions years in the future sequence was one of my favorite moments in the entire series, and the thematic culmination of the entire shadow war plot, so it’s nice to return. However, it wasn’t quite enough to make this piece work.

However, much like Chungking Express, which used a similar split narrative, by the time you reach the end, the first half is a distant memory, what lingers is the more accessible, more successful second half. In this case, it feels kind of like the first time I watched Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. You have to sit through a half hour prelude to get to what you’re really watching the movie for, and much like the first appearance of that Twin Peaks sign, seeing Sheridan again is a relief. His half of the film isn’t up there with the best of the series, but it totally satisfies what I wanted from this project, putting you back in the universe and through this small story, we receive a glimpse into the state of the world as a whole.

Like the Lochley piece, the Sheridan story feels more like a play than a film. There are so few characters, we get no sense of B5 as a bustling port, like we did in the series. It seems a bit absurd that both Sheridan and Prince Vintari would have no security force whatsoever. But, you just have to accept that and move on. I don’t really mind the starkness of the set, it gave things an ominous feel. You’re focused more on the characters and less on clutter in the background.

The high point of this segment was definitely the scenes with Sheridan and Galen. Galen, despite having appeared in only seven episodes or so, is one of the most charismatic characters in the B5 universe. Much like Londo, his moral ambiguity makes him more interesting to watch than someone like Franklin or Ivanova, who almost always did the right thing. He has some real anger here, and presents a pretty ominous vision of the future. I thought the stuff with the future New York was fantastic, though I do think there’d be more contemporary buildings around, even 200 years in the future. But, maybe there were some in there and I missed them.

The film raises an interesting moral question, though again gets around by giving Sheridan an easy way out. Yes, we still have the possibility of Vintari bombing New York, but the implication at the end is that Sheridan and Delenn will teach him another way to be. It was pretty tense in the ships, but I didn’t feel like Sheridan would really kill him, and if he was going to kill him, doing it in such an obvious way doesn’t make much sense. That would lead me to believe that it was Galen’s goal all along to get Sheridan to take him in, but he moves in mysterious ways, and had to make Sheridan come to the conclusion on his own. So, much like the Vorlons, his logic works in a way that will create the best plot. Convenient, that. While I love a lot of what JMS does, he just makes it too easy on his characters a lot of the time.

But, those issues aside, this section worked wonderfully as an inserted piece of continuity. I loved realizing that Vintari was Cartagia’s son, particularly the fact they didn’t outright say it. Every viewer would take a minute to realize and then things would click into place. And, along with that, there were a lot of great nods to the other characters who didn’t appear, particularly the Franklin and G’Kar lines. I’m glad Londo was mentioned a lot, the implication seemed to be that he’d be part of the next Lost Tale, he’s the character I’d really love to see. He and G’Kar are the only characters who were spared from the easy outs JMS gave to everyone else. Everyone else got a happy ending, Londo just got fucked.

Watching this segment made me ponder what the whole series would have been like if it was made with today’s standard of visual effects. These effects looked fantastic, seeing the Centauri attack on Narn or some of the Shadow War battles with these effects would have been amazing. Even with the lacking 90s effects, those scenes were incredibly emotional, but they don’t come close to matching what we see here. Throughout, this is a more visually inventive and aesthetically satisfying take on B5. It’s moodier and more interesting to look at. People hailed this film for feeling like B5, and while that’s true, it has a completely different, much better visual style. Still, I wish we had gotten more visual indulgence and less scenes of people just talking.

But, ultimately the film satisfied its mission. It was great to catch up with these characters, and I think this format works much better than a series to continue the universe. The main story is through, but in the echoes we can find out more about the characters and how they lived. It’s the same principle as the Six Feet Under closing sequence, we don’t need to see everyday of these peoples’ lives, but it’s nice to check in every once in a while and find out what happened to them. The ending of this piece and the ancillary material certainly implies that we’ll be seeing more Lost Tales, and I’m looking forward to them.


Colin Blair said...

I hope that WB puts up the money some day to upgrade the special effects for the original series. Maybe for the HD release. I definitly got the sense that this edition of Lost Tales was the "safe" one that would prove the market and prove the production techniques.

Patrick said...

I imagine it'd be pretty pricey to upgrade the whole show, but that thought definitely ran through my head watching this movie. But, if Star Trek can do it forty years after the show aired, anything's possible.

And, I'd definitely agree that this was a safe demo run. JMS said that he didn't use the alien characters to save on makeup and scrapped the third Garibaldi story because it was too effects heavy. I'd hope good sales prompt WB to invest a little more, and that having such a low budget work succeed doesn't make them think that they can slap the B5 name on anything and move copies.