Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

I had an sci-fi coffee-table art book when I was a kid. It was photorealistic drawings of non-existing things, like flyings cities and whatnot. When I saw this documentary about Chesley Bonestell, I thought, “I wonder if that’s the guy who did that book?” Turns out it’s not, by a country mile. (I still don’t know who did my book. Looks a little like McQuarrie—except it’s not Star Wars—but I couldn’t find it online anywhere and I don’t recall it being in my library.)

Paprika next!

Mining the distant moon of Curry Powder.

Bonestell made his bones on “hard” science-fiction: Realistic (per the science of the time) landscapes of the surface of the moon and mars and, famously, Titan. And now we have a documentary about him, which is good because he led a life with some interesting high points and ended up being very influential in the field of speculative art, let’s call it.

Bonestell was born in San Francisco in 1888 and pursued art as teen, providing little drawings for magazines, and making his first painting of Saturn after visiting a local laboratory in 1905. In 1906 San Francisco got hit by the old shake-n-bake, with a magnitude 7.9 (approximately) quake followed by the whole damn city burning to the ground, including Bonestell’s artwork. Later in life, Bonestell would do a lot of apocalyptic stuff that the movie speculates was informed by this early experience.

The first part of the movie is a little weak as far as that goes. There’s a lot of “Chesley might have…” and similar weasel-words that let you know the filmmakers are just making stuff up. It’s not out of whole cloth but it does set my teeth on edge a bit, because I’m always thinking “Or he might NOT have…” I also tend to be suspicious of “Well, I talked to Chesley on the phone 30 years ago and…” which makes up another part of the interviews.


Tragically, the moon is not nearly as dramatic. And nary a cat woman to be found.

Anyway, the facts as reported are that Chesley’s dad was leery of the bohemian lifestyle artists in SF led back in 1906 and sent him off to be an architect. He dropped out of architect school soon, however, because he was more into art and less into math. Not long after, though, he went back into architecture apparently inspired by the devastation and rebuilding that would have to be done in San Francisco, and ended up contributing to some famous buildings both there and in New York City—most notably, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Chrysler building.

He gained national attention in 1944 for a series of paintings he made for Life magazine, depicting Saturn as seen from the surface of Titan. This led to a career in space art, which in turn led to a career in Hollywood matte painting and technical consultancy. The space art is interesting, however, because it’s very much part of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. That era of Science Fiction was primarily concerned with keeping Man from blowing himself up by presenting visions of a future that could be and that would be, culminating in a book co-written by Chesley called Conquest of Space.

Now, realistically, if today we look at the ’50s and we look at space, we could’ve told all those guys they were never gonna make it. Space is too big. Too hostile. And you need a computer the size of an 18-wheeler to calculate the square root of four. Today, realistically, we have a much better shot in terms of computing power, manufacturing power and sheer wealth.

And yet.

They were the ones that believed they could do it, and they were the ones that actually did do it, with the 1969 moon landing. There’s a lesson here not expressed by this documentary, which is not just that Bonestell’s vision of space and the clarity of that vision (shared and expressed by all kinds of artists and writers), combined with the confidence of the time made something impossible happen. (And I still believe that the moon landing, while it did happen, was basically impossible.)

Pooh-pooh artists at your own peril. The subsequent 50 years of, well, Gerald Goode put it best: “Maybe there’s a downside to the constant drumbeat of apocalyptic defeatism.”

That's where I hide my porn.

All the worlds are yours, save Europa.

Anyway, cool stuff followed Conquest of Space and some of his mattes still survive. He did mattes for Destination MoonWhen Worlds Collide and consulted on War of the Worlds. His mattes were used and/or re-used in some classic bad cinema, such as house favorite Cat Women Of The Moon. And he painted metric tonnes of space art, mostly realistic but some not because money is money and sometimes money wants a winged space worm for the cover of “Wow! Space!” magazine, or whatever.

You get the idea, in other words, that Bonestell was a professional. He had an artistic vision but he was about making good product that people wanted to consume. Some of the interviews have the artist ascendant, which are of course the most charming parts.

Special Effects legend Douglas Trumbull is interviewed—the movie and/or he really wants you to know he’s also a director, but his most famous films are the cult classic Silent Running and Natalie Wood’s last film, Brainstorm, whereas he did the special effects on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and he talks about an early job he had for 2001: A Space Odyssey. He had figured out the moon would be smooth, and he made a large model of it, climbed up on a ladder and dropped rocks and things on to it. Kubrick said, basically, “Nah, we’re going with Bonestell’s look” and Trumbull still seems a little prickly about the fact that it’s the one aspect of 2001 that isn’t realistic.

In a recorded interview after the moon landing, Bonestell seemed pretty disgusted with the moon being so artistically boring. I’m guessing Titan isn’t going to map that closely, either, once we get a real look at it.

And it may have been.

You could totally see this being the cover for “R is for Rocket” or “Have Space Suit—Will Travel”.

The doc falls apart a little at the end, doing what The Boy describes as “Jesus 2.0”, where the filmmakers feel compelled to go beyond ordinary imagination and ascribe to their subjects things that aren’t really there. Bonestell was an agnostic and, as far as was described here, a materialist, but this takes on spiritual dimensions in the minds of others here. And he got some things right, we now know, and the movie harps on this while stating just as plainly (while somehow downplaying) all the things he got wrong. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

On the three point scale:

  1. It’s a worthy subject matter. Bonestell hit some interesting touchstones in his life and his vision of alien worlds was important to generations.
  2. The presentation is…it’s pretty meh. The interviews are mostly good, some of the graphic work is nice, but the scene transitions make it feel like this was made for the History channel. Needlessly cheap, IOW.
  3. There’s not really a slant, except for the one we expect from someone who makes a movie about a person. It’s not a hagiography, except the ending attempts to elevate an interesting life into a divine one.

On that last point, it turns out that Bonestell was pals with Werner von Braun, and this is simply a factor of Bonestell being interested in space travel and (former Nazi) von Braun being the expert in rockets. The movie doesn’t go into depth much beyond that, and I’m fine with that. I was okay with The Wind Rises, too, of course, so your mileage may vary. Bonestell’s very ’50s-style rockets were accurate to von Braun’s designs and precisely the right dimensions, which is cool.

The Boy and I liked it!

But this is cool.

Titan’s not gonna look anything like this, you realize.


I’m going to have to ramp up a whole bunch before actually getting to the actual review. I had zero interest in seeing Joker. Actually, I had less than zero interest. Let’s go to the “tale of the tape” as the boxing announcers say. Here are all the minuses (for me, YMMV):

  • Comic book superhero movie
  • Villain superhero movie
  • DCEU movie
  • Awful, awful trailers
  • “Gritty reboot”
  • Origin story
  • “Not actually a superhero movie”
  • Joaquin Phoenix
  • Not Caesar Romero
  • References Taxi Driver/King of Comedy
  • Critically acclaimed (at first)
  • Fountain of memes
OK, it was a TV show for the most part but still.

Nicholson? Oscar nom. Ledger? Oscar. Romero? NOTHING. HOLLYWOOD HATES CUBANS!

I’ve been done with superhero movies more-or-less for about 10 years (paternal requirements notwithstanding), the DCEU has just been a crushing disappointment (I was a DC kid), the Joker has a great backstory already (he was a ruthless villain, The Red Hood, who fell into a vat of chemicals when fleeing the Batman, turning his criminal mind into an insanely criminal mind), the trailers were basically just LOUD with this one-word-at-a-time-style for a way too long tagline (PUT. ON. A. HAPPY. FACE.) and everything about this movie says to me “Why? Why? Why would anyone go see this?”

And then something amazing happened! That is to say, I went to see it. (A few morons requested it, and I’m nothing if not easily influenced.)

And? I still don’t know why (almost) anyone would go see it. Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s actually a very good film. It’s well constructed. The creators really cared about it, that is very, very apparent. And they knew their stuff: Besides the aforementioned Scorsese pictures, this film pays its respects to a lot of great cinema without being slavishly derivative of any of them. Joaquin Phoenix delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen him put up. (Usually I find him a little cringe-worthy or at least off-putting.) But he does a fine, sensitive job here portraying a madman who just keeps getting crazier.

Mental stability is orthogonal to comedy.

TBF, he’s not any less sane than your average stand-up comedian.

So, I can totally see why a Joaquin Phoenix fan (there must be some) would go see it. But I can’t explain the $850M box-office. This is a movie that, had it not been titled Joker, would’ve ended up next to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on the Last Blockbuster’s “scary movie” aisle. It’s a movie that verges on misery porn, so ground down is its protagonist.

It has so little to do with the comic book character, the only really iffy parts were those that tried to tie it in to the Batman universe. A young Bruce Wayne is in the film which, if you do the math, means 30-year-old Batman is beating up a 65-year-old man. (Joaquin is probably supposed to be younger, however.) The Thomas Wayne character has no bearing on the one known to Batman fans—or even someone who read a couple of comics as a kid.

Wayne is kind of a bully and definitely a douchebag—a little Trump-esque, perhaps? Later, when a mob dressed as clowns is protesting—I dunno, society?—as represented by Thomas Wayne, I thought I saw a brief glimpse of a sign that said “RESIST”.

Thankfully, one of the things this movie does really well is avoid politics, though. If you decided that Wayne was Trump, well, that would mean that the clown mobs destroying everything are Hillary supporters, and their hero is a literal paranoid schizophrenic. (Say, maybe this does map!) Not just politics, though, the movie avoids anything like an easily verbalized allegory for some current social outrage. Arthur (the Joker) definitely gets the short end of the stick at every turn, but so do a lot of people in $CURRENTYEAR.

Especially if $CURRENTYEAR is 1981, which it is if we go by the fashions, the cars and the Excalibur and Zorro, The Gay Blade double-feature. (Apparently this is established by other DCEU movies as well.) But consider, if you will, that we have to go back nearly 40 years to find a suitable dystopia for creating the Joker. As the kids are saying, “1989 Joker, throw him into a vat of chemicals. 2019 Joker, throw him into…society.”

Or it would have outsold "Deep Throat".

This was the only anachronism I could find. 1) Thong underwear wasn’t popular until the late ’80s; 2) Phoebe Cates was never in a porno.

Anyway, the whole story arc is that of crazy-man Arthur who lives with his mother and takes a beating from the world, and one day kills some people who are beating on him. From this, he finds himself slowly empowered to—well, mostly to kill more people. At times it looks like his life is turning around, but nah, he just kills more people with less provocation. In the end he creates chaos in Gotham and ultimately creates the environment for the Batman. But without that last part, you’re talking any number of indie art house flicks about losers, which mostly vanish into obscurity.

As Joe Bob Briggs notes, Halloween was hardly the first great slasher, but it was the first one that didn’t look like it had been made by someone who might actually be a slasher. Joker is kind of like the Henry you can take respectable people to see.

The acting is good, with nice bits from supporting player Zazie Beetz as the single mom who shows some interest in Arthur, and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother. De Niro is not at all convincing as a late night talk show host, though I can see where he’s trying to ape Carson. (And the overall recreation of “The Tonight Show” is uncanny.) But face it: This is the Joaquin Phoenix show, and he does a great job.

Well-shot, slick, mostly well-paced, though the misery bogs things down a bit in the second act. Good use of music. Didn’t have the gawdawful color-coding that most movies have these days, and captured the feel of a gritty ’70s color palette without actually being that ugly. I guess I enjoyed it. I found much to admire, at least. And at #7 at the domestic box office, it’s the only top 10 film I’ve seen this year (until it’s crowded out by holiday releases that I won’t see).

But I still don’t know who I’d recommend it to.

And, hey, I'm a clown, too!

Clowns to the left of me. Jokers to the right.

Zombieland: Double Tap

Well, it’s been ten years and we’ve remade/sequelized everything else, let’s do a sequel to [*rolls dice*throws darts*sacrifices chicken to Baal*] Zombieland!

Which, hey, why not? It’s been a pretty good ten years for everyone, except maybe Jesse Eisenberg. I mean, I guess he got to be Lex Luthor but I think he’s now the most hated Lex Luthor in history, and not in a good way. But I don’t really know. Everyone’s back, though. Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and grown-up Abigail Breslin reprise their roles.


I think those torches were in the original movie, too, so, nice callback.

When our movie opens, Columbus (Eisenberg) and Wichita (Stone) are shacked up in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House while Tallahassee (Harrelson) is being Tallahassee and Little Rock (Breslin) is lamenting her romantic options, which are zero. Columbus proposes to Wichita, freaking her out, so she takes off with Little Rock in Tallahassee’s souped-up zombie car, leaving Columbus to mope while Tallahassee tells him to snap out of it, and that the girls are never coming back.

When you have to type them all out, you quickly realize how unwieldy this “call people by their home city” thing really is.

And so Columbus ends up meeting Madison in a mall. Now, Madison, played by Zoey Deutch is the best new addition to the Zombieland family. There are certain roles that are difficult for most actresses to pull off. Like “bitch”. It’s not just acting bitchy—almost any actress (any woman, amirite guys?) can do that. To be a great movie bitch, you have to be antagonistic and compelling and somehow even likable, or you just end up with an unwatchable cringey mess.

But Madison’s character is bubbly and superficially attractive while being appallingly shallow—and yet still likable. And Deutch manages to pull this off as the girl who’s hung out in a mall freezer for years to stay alive, but has lost not a sparkle of her glittery persona throughout the apocalypse. She jumps Columbus—of course just in time for Wichita to come back.

And she's prettier here, too.

This picture of Deutch is not from the movie, but here she looks a lot like Isla Fisher—who is also very good at being “challenging but appealing”.

Seems that Little Rock ditched her for a smelly hippie and there’s a horde of really nasty zombies (T-900s, I think they call them, because this movie is nothing if not culturally aware), so now the foursome have to venture out to rescue her.

This is not a movie that’s going to surprise you much. There are some twists, but they’re pretty transparent. There’s a cute bit where Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch play analogues of Harrelson and Eisenberg. Rosario Dawson is in this, and is far more convincingly attracted to Harrelson than she is to a certain Presidential candidate. Avan Jogia, as Berkeley, plays the hippie who woos away Little Rock by singing Dylan and “Freebird”.

Douchebag is probably a little easier for most guys to play.

The character you’re basically supposed to want to see get eaten.

The whole movie mocks the smelly peace-loving hippies, who in disarming themselves have left themselves open to a major assault by the newer, badder zombies. It has been pointed out that Hollywood is particularly unconvincing about their gun control position, since the theme of maybe most action films is, “Sometimes you need a gun.” But it’s not really a political movie. It’s fun, light, fairly brainless, and reminiscent of both the previous movie and director Ruben Fleischer’s other work (besides the last Zombieland, see Gangster Squad and Venom) which all seem to carry the message of no-real-message-just-sit-back-and-have-fun.

Worth a watch, if you liked the first one—oh, and you’re not squeamish. Though it’s not as gory as I recall the first one being, it still has its moments.

Nice stinger with Bill Murray. Oh, and another nice bit, riffing on Uber which was not a thing 10 years ago.

And I notice now that I have no pictures of the zombies or any zombie attacks and there aren’t a lot of them on the web. I may be wrong but I think the zombie thing is finally over (after 20 years, holy crap!) and it’s just an incidental part of this post-apocalyptic film series now.

Zombie apocalypses make people horny.

Emma Stone can’t believe you thought “you were on a break”.