Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Seek the original: Anonymous Rex

90% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original! What did the author write? Let's examine an idea based on Eric Garcia's Anonymous Rex series. A few years ago the Sci-fi channel tried to adapt it into a series. It got as far as the pilot episode, and of course, there were changes.

For some reason, the movie is not based on Anonymous Rex, by Eric Garcia, but rather its prequel. Why the filmmakers chose to name it after the first book is a mystery. So to discuss the movie compared to the book, I have to discuss both Anonymous Rex because it contains the majority of the world-building, and its prequel.

Anonymous Rex
by Eric Garcia

Dinosaurs never went extinct. They went into hiding, and now they live among us in human disguises.

You have to believe a concept like this because the book makes it undeniably logical. It treats the idea so seriously, yet it maintains such a lighthearted and sarcastic tone you can’t help but buy into it. The mental image of dinosaurs stepping into and out of elaborate latex human costumes is almost impossible to imagine, which makes the whole idea even better.

But wait, there’s a story going on, too. It’s almost irrelevant, as the whole book could ride on the world-building Eric Garcia does, but it’s equally mind-blowing. It starts with Vincent Rubio, a velociraptor private investigator still reeling from the death of his partner. He is the typical private eye archetype (almost a stereotype, but way more likable): falling behind on bills, no girlfriend, in bad need of money, reduced to snapping racy pictures of cheating husbands to buy the Chinese takeout that’s now spoiling in his bare refrigerator.

Then he gets assigned a case of arson, which quickly balloons into a massive conspiracy. Not only is this case about more than just a fire, it involves why his partner was killed. The mystery takes effort to figure out, but once I did it was a satisfying read.

And the sex is great, too. Sex scenes between dinosaurs wearing human costumes. It is laughably absurd, but Garcia makes it so believable you can’t help but take it seriously. This is an ideal blend of world-building and storytelling.


Casual Rex
by Eric Garcia

This is a prequel to the first book. Vincent’s partner, Ernie, is still alive, and the case they’re assigned to is pretty simple: find some missing dinosaur and bring him home to mommy.

The case uncovers a conspiracy that takes them to a private island where dinosaurs can lounge around without their human disguises. It puts on the appearance of a cult of a back-to-basics retreat for dinosaurs. A calm place wherein everyone can hang their human guises on a hook and be dinosaurs at last.

Until someone dies. Now Vincent and Ernie are suspicious and get down to doing what they do best: snoop. They discover this is not a just a group of dinosaurs who want to recover a lost heritage like any harmless new age group. There is a rebellion at hand, and it has the power to affect the whole world.

Although the mystery this time is not as mind blowing as in the first book because we’ve seen cults like this before in other movies, TV shows and books, but the delightful humor, absurdly believable world-building and memorable characters kept me turning the pages. It’s a good follow-up, though not a great one.

Compare that to…





Anonymous Rex (2004)
starring Sam Trammell and Daniel Baldwin

It’s not based on the book, it only vaguely resembles the idea of a cult of dinosaurs who want to shed their human disguises and revolt against the human race.

Honestly I can't remember what the movie is about. It vaguely resembles the plot of Casual Rex, but that's it. Much like Flashforward, only one or two bones of the story's skeleton remain. The book and movie have so little in common it's pointless to compare the two.

It was so long ago i saw it I don't remember anything about what the movie was. All I can remember is everything the movie was not. The books left a much deeper impression on me. When I reviewed the movie on Amazon, all I could do was rant its lack of budget. The only reason it sucked was because of budget, and that's essentially what I'm going to do here, too. Everything that's bad about the movie is bad because the production team didn't have the money to do better.

This is a made-for-TV movie. Well, that's how it's packaged on the DVD (now out of print). it's actually the pilot episode of a TV series that wasn't picked up by the Sci-fi channel. You know what that means: LOW BUDGET!

As described in the books, the CGI required to make these dinosaurs come to life (like stepping into and out of latex human disguises) would be incredibly complicated and expensive. It’s barely imaginable when reading the books, think of the difficulty making it believable in a movie! So the filmmakers took the expected shortcut by changing the latex guises to digital holograms. This way they only had to make CGI dino-heads and paste them on top of the actor’s bodies. It’s very cheap, but somewhat forgivable.

We only get to see Vincent’s dinosaur head for a grand total of 10 seconds spread out over the course of the whole movie and he doesn’t even look like a raptor! He’s a generic reptile-like-thingy with a stubby snout. Is that supposed to be a dinosaur?! It doesn’t help the premise, it undermines it! Furthermore, Ernie’s head and claws are both seen once (3 seconds each). Altogether, there are only three dinosaur heads in the whole movie standing in for the entire sub-population.

It's corny. It reminds me of Star Trek. I love Trek, but my one gripe with the franchise is how often the aliens take on human form, especially in the original series. A typical encounter will be like this: “Yes, we *are* aliens. In our natural forms we are multi-limbed and have three heads, but for reasons NOT related to show budget whatsoever we have taken on human form and you should revere us anyway!” The entire Anonymous Rex movie comes across this way, too.

The movie is very dark and humorless, unlike the books which are light and full of sarcastic wit. The movie keeps everything in the dark so what few special effects it has don't look so absurd when seen. It changes the whole story's atmosphere. It’s more like an episode of Law and Order than anything Eric Garcia wrote: emotionless, just-the-facts, and contrived.

The 90-minute slot was not enough time to build a unique world, tell a mind-blowing mystery, and add depth to the characters at the same time. You'd think if the filmmakers weren't going to show us the dinos they'd at least make the mystery engaging, right?

There is barely any mystery. Our private-eyes are faced with a question and then in the next scene they answer it. No buildup or suspense. The mystery and the solution to it are spelled out (not presented) before the first hour. Cultists are snatching dinosaurs, turning them feral and building an army to lead a revolution against mankind. Without the dinosaurs it’s a generic detective story. The story is so cramped it has no weight.

At the same time the movie tries to show some kind of character depth in Vincent. He yearns to rip his disguise off and be a raptor in the open. This is the exact opposite of the Vincent in the book. It's an interesting angle, but it’s glazed over so quickly there's nothing to digest. There's so little time to build his character, or give weight to the events. The story in the movie feels passive because it goes by so quick.

The book has dinosaurs out of their disguises, walking around, getting into bloody fights, talking to each other as dinosaurs, even having sex as dinosaurs! There are mansions, a private island, huge crowds of dinosaurs. The climax of the book is big. Very big. Absurdly big and tongue-and-cheek hilarious as the crowd of celebrity look-alike cross-dressers storms in and fights the cultists.

The movie? It had the budget for three dinosaur heads (20 seconds total), two hands (5 seconds), flickering holographic disguises, two unused rubber suits made to look like the actors, half a dilophosaurus in a darkened room, and Young Vincent (8 seconds). Everybody is in human form, but remember they're dinosaurs. You'll never see them as dinosaurs, but they really are. Right...

It all builds to the movie’s climax: Vincent takes five seconds to decide *not* to open the door that would release the feral dinosaurs on the city. Oh, the suspense... That was it?! That was the end?! That was final confrontation?! I know the TV pilot couldn't go as far as the book did, but I had hoped for something better.

The movie is pedestrian, cheap, stiff and humorless compared to the story Eric Garcia wrote. All the changes to the story were the result of low budget. There was a commercial for Gatorade in the mid-90s that showed more raptor than this (and it actually looked like a raptor). This is a movie! Why make it if you’re not going to show us anything?!

[EDIT: Here's that commercial I was talking about. Thank you, Youtube. I'm convinced it had more budget than Anonymous Rex.

]

Why couldn’t it have been a real movie with an actual budget and with more time to put some depth into the characters so it didn’t come across as the first episode of yet another generic TV crime series? That’s all this is. “Anonymous Rex” could’ve been special, but because of budget it got downsized to a “Law and Order” clone.

Skip the movie. Read the books. All of them. Here, I'll even throw in a review of the third book in the series:


Hot and Sweaty Rex
by Eric Garcia

If the first two books were comedies with tragic elements, then this is a tragedy with comic elements. It picks up a couple years after Anonymous Rex left off, and there is the feeling that the series has moved up a notch, and that Vincent has matured. He had to after everything he’s been through.

This time he gets involved in the dinosaur mafia, and ends up working for both sides of two warring families, one of whom happens to be an old friend of his.

The back story involved is delivered in two, hard-to-swallow chapters right in the middle of the action, but once I got through them the pace picked right back up. The mystery rivals that of the first book, and the spider web of betrayal is overwhelming. I wouldn’t blame him for going back to basil after this because this case gets personal.

He’s not just investigating something that happened to his partner (as in book 1), or his partner’s ex-wife’s brother (as in book 2). This is about Vincent, and it’s painful for him to confront the mistakes of his past and be denied chance after chance to make up for them. It’s also painful for readers who know and care about him.

The wiseass cynicism gradually fades from the narration, and this creates the feeling that something in Vincent changes--maybe even dies as a result of what happens at the end. It hurt me as much as it hurt him. For his sake, I hope he recovers with his humor in tact. Hell, I hope I recover!

Hollywood is still limited by budget but books can do anything. The DVD is out of print. It will vanish into obscurity, but the books will live on!

2 comments:

  1. I'm going to have to re-read these sometime after I finish the NBAS books.

    ReplyDelete