This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. First up: the 1987 anime feature film The Wings of Honnêamise.
In the 1980s and 90s, effects-centered films and television shows occupied specific niches. In film, an effects-heavy movie like Ghostbusters or Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a summer tentpole release designed to reel in teen audiences of repeat viewers; while a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its $2.5 million an episode budget, was a risky experiment in capitalizing on 1960s nostalgia.
Today, most movies rely heavily on VFX, many of those effects invisible. Greenscreen sets and set extensions, digital makeup, and post-production fixes for on-set mistakes are just a few applications of digital technology used in films and TV shows that the average viewer might think had no effects whatsoever.
But audiences still want “effects-heavy” films, from The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies at the turn of the millennium to the Iron Man films and Avatar today. And for the first time in TV history, shows from Firefly and Battlestar Galactica to V and Human Target are recreating the experience of effects-heavy, action-oriented movies on the small screen.
Two factors have led to this renaissance in effects-driven entertainment. First, technological advances have made it cheaper and cheaper to create top-quality effects. And second, those same advances have made it possible to realistically render visions that were never possible before. Today’s VFX artists can create worlds that just ten years ago producers would have said could only be represented with traditional animation. Rumor said James Cameron abandoned his Spider-Man film project because he was dissatisfied with the realism of the character’s CG web-slinging. Can you imagine the director of Avatar having such a concern today?
But how can science fiction filmmakers best take advantage of this new artistic freedom? Some recent films have impressed with their ability to create amazing sci-fi realms and alternate worlds – The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, I Am Legend, Watchmen, 2009’s Star Trek. Others have been less successful, despite the potential of their source material. The skill and creativity of the VFX artists and technicians is not in question. World creation is a specific variety of visual art; and even the most talented VFX artists can’t create an amazing, immersive experience unless that imaginary world is original, vibrant and complete.
There is a large number of existing science fiction properties that could give film and television creators all the material they need to produce visual epics of a type as yet unseen on screen. The Internet is full of lists of sci-fi classics that would make great movies – this list concentrates solely on properties that would provide the most inspiration to VFX artists. Character and plot are secondary (but not irrelevant) considerations. These are ideas for films that would engender in today’s jaded audiences the same kind of excitement we experienced when a Star Wars or a Raiders of the Lost Ark first premiered.
Over the next few weeks, I will cover my top ten choices, from number 10 through number one. Of course, I must be familiar with a book, comic or other property in order to write about it. Originally I considered both sci-fi and fantasy; but in the end, my top ten choices were all sci-fi. If you have any favorites I missed, please talk about them in the comments.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (dir. Yamaga Hiroyuki, 1987)
Back when Wings of Honnêamise first hit the US anime fan circuit, when we sat in dark basement rooms watching unsubbed anime while poring over fan translation printouts off of Usenet, few American otaku thought the film was any good. I was one of a tiny minority who agreed with the Japanese critics, that it was one of the best movies of the year, and perhaps the best anime feature yet made.
Today, when you can buy manga at Barnes & Noble and Naruto is a household word, Wings of Honnêamise is almost forgotten except among anime aficionados, many of whom lament the film’s lack of giant transforming robots and sex-obsessed middle-schoolers. The US DVD release in 2000 (upon which I relied to provide screenshots) was made from a terrible print; get the 2007 Blu-ray version and watch this film. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Wings of Honnêamise takes place on a parallel Earth where modern technology and global culture began in the East rather than the West, in an alternative version of Japan and Southeast Asia. The hero, Shiro (based on actor Treat Williams), is part of his nation’s unheralded, underfunded and comically deadly space program, which exists only as a ploy to lure another, alternate-Western nation into a war. Shiro falls for a pretty religious zealot named Riquinni (based on Tatum O’Neal), and in an effort to impress her, volunteers to be the first man in space.
Unlike many Asian and European films, Wings of Honnêamise adheres to a three-act structure; but its mood is unusually flat, which may be what put off American audiences. The characters, especially the two leads, are so thoroughly crushed by the pointlessness of their lives that even their epiphanies feel listless. And Shiro’s violent attempt to consummate his relationship with Riquinni does not play as well with Western audiences as it did in Japan.
But all this moodiness and moral malaise pays off at the climax, when Shiro’s dangerous and soul-changing flight into orbit (imagine if Apollo 11 had launched during a full-on Soviet invasion of Kennedy Space Center) successfully ignites in the viewer all the hope and excitement for the future we felt back when America’s space program really meant something.
Wings of Honnêamise makes this list because of its justifiably famous and influential (in anime) production design. When brand-new production company Gainax (later the creators of the immensely popular Neon Genesis Evangelion) decided to make an alternate-reality film, they really dedicated themselves to an alternate reality, with an impressively obsessive attention to detail not seen since Blade Runner. And while Ridley Scott was limited by budgetary and practical constraints, the artists at Gainax were hindered only by their imaginations.
Everything in the world of the film – the architecture, technology, costumes, calligraphy, urban design, food, utensils, doorknobs, windowsills, every single incidental detail – is carefully crafted as part of a unified, original cultural continuum that is inspired by, but different from, East Asian culture. (The alternate-Western culture, worked out with far less effort, is humorously based in medieval European iconography, like a modern society evolving directly out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.) The vehicles – automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, and a few that are harder to categorize – are different, yet familiar. The aircraft fly “backward,” with their propellers on the rear instead of the nose; but they seem to conform to the same laws of aeronautics as on our world.
Assuming the events in Wings take place at a point in its world’s history roughly contemporaneous with our Yuri Gagarin, and it seems they do, then many aspects of that world’s technology are a few decades behind ours, but not all. Yet their machines are not cross-decade Steampunk chimera like the parody technology of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; the devices are consistent, both internally and with each other, and seem to make sense, having developed out of the same technological and scientific tradition.
Some science fiction films make the mistake of portraying technology that is too consistent. Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and you might believe that all technology in that distant future year was produced by a single designer working for a single company. The archaic computers, inverted telephones, and beautifully-crafted train ticket dispensers of the nation of Honnêamise seem related, but not the same; they come from the same culture, but not the same place within that culture. The viewer doesn’t necessarily notice this, unless they obsessively examine the film as I have, but it registers in the back of the brain as realism. All the puzzle-pieces fit together, seamlessly; and as in The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, they create a strong sense of a single, genuine reality that beckons to the viewer, who wants to leap through the screen and explore.
Interestingly, director Yamaga eschews wide vistas and establishing shots; the details of Honnêamise are presented through medium shots, and in the background of two-shots. The world of Wings of Honnêamise is a real world of real people, so we learn about it through the experience of those people. Not only is the sense of reality heightened, but viewer’s lizard brain screams out zoom out! Back up! I want to see!
When Wings of Honnêamise was released in the 1980s, it was impossible to shoot it in live action; Roger Ebert basically said as much in his review of the film. The cost of the costumes, sets and backlot stages, miniatures, special effects, and the countless props, would have been absurdly prohibitive; as it was, Wings was one of the most expensive animated features made to date. But today? With virtual sets and greenscreen set extensions? The success of a live-action remake would be measured not in budgetary considerations, but in the artistic freedom, courage and devotion of the filmmakers and artists.
Next: Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)
See a set of Wings of Honnêamise screencaps and production art on Flickr.