Edition 9: Blockbuster by Rik Hoskin
I’m sure all of us, at one time or another, have considered the permeating influence of the film industry on our world, beyond entertainment. We usually conclude that it is profound, and as far back as the great propaganda machines of the ‘inter-war’ years in the last century. Rik Hoskin provides us with a fresh insight. GH
The sky was a rainbow mosaic above the two combatants. It shimmered with the haze of oily pollutants as thick, black smoke belched from the numerous, anthill-like structures that dotted the barren landscape. They faced each other across the chasm between two of the pollution-spewing towers, their energy lances engaged, their force shields powered up. The fate of the very galaxy depended, Matt knew, on the outcome of this, their final battle. The greatest warriors of the two most powerful religions would clash for one last, decisive time, and finally Matt would learn which philosophy would govern forevermore: the White Path of morality, or the sinister Black Path, with its evil ways of destruction and oppression.
With a swelling of sound and fury, the skies broke with flashes of light, the deep rumbling of thunder shaking the witnesses to the depths of their stomachs. The two combatants leapt, inhumanly high, lances raised. And, in mid-air, ball lightning electrifying the atmosphere around them, they met.
And the screen went black and the spell was broken as the lights slowly came back up in the screening room of the Howard Studios ranch. Several members of the press who had been invited to this conference broke into a smattering of applause. At the front of the room, director Benjamin Howard offered an embarrassed smile.
Matt watched from the back of the small auditorium, where he had snuck in to catch this press conference during a coffee break.
At twenty-five, Matt had worked for a variety of movie effects houses before being recruited by Howard’s effects department a month ago. Benjamin Howard was the reason Matt had pursued a career in special effects—his Galactic Game sequence had defined science fiction to a whole generation of movie goers and, twenty years on, the director was finally releasing the last segment in the whole vast saga.
When he was younger, Matt had had Galactic Game toys, Galactic Game pyjamas, Galactic Game wallpaper and a Galactic Game bedspread. He had spent hours of his childhood piloting the Starship Epsilon as Captain Jacob Nova in his mind’s eye, his faithful dog Scratch doubling for trusty alien co-pilot Howwwl as they brought the White Path to the outer reaches of the galaxy. His brother, Tom, invariably fulfilled the role of Dark Priest Skultox, either with an official, battery-lit Galactic Game energy lance or with a dead branch from the garden. Nineteen years on, Matt was staring across the room at the man who had created that amazing adventure over five spectacular films.
In his laid-back manner, Howard explained about the clip they had just watched from the forthcoming sixth film. “Everything you saw there was generated on computer. Well, except for the actors, of course.”
When the Galactic Game cycle had begun, faithful co-pilot Howwwl had been a sophisticated hand puppet, with additional animatronics to add facial expressions. These days, shots featuring an older, grander Howwwl were produced solely on the vast banks of computers, the designs based on that twenty year old puppet.
“We can create whole, otherworldly environments which can totally interact with the actors,” Howard concluded. “It’s a very exciting time to be a story teller in this medium. Believe me, with this technology there are no limits.”
Matt nodded in agreement at the back of the room. The really impressive stuff is the stuff you don’t even notice, he knew. The way the lights played in the actors’ eyes, the way their hair caught in the howling alien wind—that was digital effects work at its best.
On the podium, Howard’s producer, Frankie Barchester, tapped his microphone to ensure he had everyone’s attention. “We hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen. Before we close this conference, Ben has a special announcement to make concerning his next project.”
Next project? Matt thought. Wow! What’s next?
“I’ll just remind you,” Barchester continued, “that all information from this conference is to stay embargoed for 48 hours to allow our international branches to catch up. Thanks, guys.”
The lights dimmed once more and a low note faded from the nothingness. The screen remained dark, but the familiar hum of the Starship Epsilon’s engines droned from right to left. Then four words, written in the familiar font of his old bed sheets, faded in from the blackness.
Galactic Game: Chapter Seven
The audience erupted into applause as the lights were brought back up, and Ben Howard blushed.
When the applause finally abated, Howard leaned to his microphone again and spoke. “I enjoyed making the last film so much,” he explained, “I figured I’d get back in the director’s chair just one last time and do one more trilogy.”
Matt felt light-headed. Did he just say “trilogy”? Another freaking trilogy? Oh, this is too much!
“Although we don’t have a chapter title yet,” Howard said, “we estimate the filming will be done by Christmas. It will be another eighteen months in post after that. So, mark your calendars, people!”
Barchester stepped in, shushing the flurry of questions while Howard took another sip from his glass. “We’ve prepared a press pack with preliminary details, including some new spaceship and character designs. Can I remind you that this information is embargoed for 48 hours? Anyone who breaks that won’t get invited to the premiere!” The audience laughed before shuffling towards the exit door at the rear of the screening room.
Matt couldn’t believe it. Another three Galactic Game movies. Between the ages of five and twelve he had come home from school every day and played with his burgeoning collection of Galactic Game figurines. Every day, without fail. And here he was, in the middle of Howard Studios when another series of films was announced. He might even be working on them in a few weeks’ time, just as soon as his department finished up the effects work on that dinosaur documentary. He grabbed a press pack as he left the room with the reporters, flicking through its contents with shaking hands.
The press pack was four pages, a simple sheet of glossy card, folded down the centre. The front page featured the same logo he had just seen on the screen, and he read the words again. When his eyes scanned over the words ’Chapter Seven‘ he felt a shiver down his spine. “Get a grip, Matt,” he muttered as he unfolded the presentation, a stream of reporters passing him as they headed for the courtesy bus by the exit doors. Inside were three illustrations.
One was the familiar, needle-shaped Starship Epsilon, with new port windows and some new camouflaged paintwork. Immediately, Matt’s mind raced with ideas as to why Jacob Nova would need to camouflage his ship—did the Black Path triumph in Chapter Six leaving the galaxy’s heroes in despair? Did they all have to go underground, working once more as terrorist cells like they had in Chapters Two and Three?
Next to the familiar starship was a rough pen and ink sketch of a robot, with the words ’Assassin Bot‘ written in capital letters beside it. That could be the major bad guy for the next film, Matt realised, but it could just as easily be some minor character who appeared in one scene when the monks of the White Path despatched it with a single slash of energy lance. He remembered getting excited over a new robot design he’d seen for Chapter Two back when he was seven, spending hours dreaming up what possible adventures the octopus-like bot would have with our heroes, only to discover it appeared serving behind a card table for precisely three seconds of screen time when the film reached his local theatre.
Finally, an alien creature with a weirdly shaped head appeared in profile, the photo-like work of some 3D computer artist, standing against a background of a burning city. The alien’s head reminded Matt of a banana. The alien was tagged with a label marking him—her?—with the designation ’Dark Priest Ulohoy‘. Wow. Imagine what Tom would say if he saw this guy—a hell of a lot scarier than the old Priest Skultox he’d played in their childhood games, that was for sure.
Seeing all this stuff, Matt realised, made him a kid all over again. You know what Tom would think if he did see Dark Priest Ulohoy or the assassin bot or the new paint job on the Epsilon? He’d think: So what? I’m an accountant with an eight-month-old daughter and my kid brother is telling me about some stupid film we liked when I was nine. That’s what Tom would think.
Still, it’d be a blast to tell him before the news was all over the press, wouldn’t it? They had that 48 hour embargo on this information. It could be their little secret for the next two days.
Walking back to his office suite, Matt pulled his mobile phone from his pocket to text his brother. Two words appeared on screen: Network search. Great. Much as he loved working at the Howard place the cell phone reception was terrible. Going to have to wait until I go home, he realised, crestfallen.
No. This wouldn’t wait, he told himself. The fate of the galaxy (well, a galaxy) depended on this text, and the fate of the gorgeous Baroness Hart (actress Sheryl Gilmour, whose career had been less-than-stellar since leaving the Galactic Game after the conclusion of the first trilogy, and who now hosted one of those dreadful daytime chat shows where she played agony aunt to trailer trash couples with drug problems). The best thing, Matt decided as he hummed the Baroness’ theme to himself, was to head upstairs and see if he could get a signal from higher ground.
The upstairs corridor reminded Matt of the kind of hotel in those 1940s films where the down-at-heel detective was employed by some rich ’dame‘ who tried to put the kibosh on him in the third act having successfully seduced him in the second. The lights were delicate and subtle, the rug thick and patterned.
Matt strode past the bank of elevators, eyes locked on the cell phone’s display. Three bars lit. A solid signal, at last.
He typed quickly:
Hey tom. Howard’s making Gal Game films 7-9! Just seen awesome bot and priest design. Top secret info!
The ’top secret‘ bit had been more about Matt’s ego than any concern over what he thought his brother might do with this information, but he added it anyway, not really sure how else to end the message. ’Call me tonight‘ seemed redundant—if Tom was excited he’d call anyway.
As he made to send the message, Matt spotted a figure exiting a side room at the end of the corridor. The figure was dressed in an expensive suit and there was something familiar about him. Matt drew back, hunkering into a doorway as he watched. Was that Charles D. Bowman, the President of the United States of America? It wasn’t that unlikely—who knew who came to visit at the upper levels of Howard Studios? What struck Matt as odd was that President Bowman was entirely and utterly alone. No presidential aids. No bodyguards. No Howard Studio staff members accompanying him. No one. Just the President of the United States walking towards him in the otherwise empty corridor.
The President walked towards the bank of elevators. As Bowman stepped into the shadowy portion between the delicate lighting, he seemed almost to disappear from sight. Matt blinked, but the President was no longer there. I’ve been staring at the computer too long, he figured.
Matt wondered what he should do next. Well, okay, he should head back to his desk. Instead, he walked up the corridor, stopping at the door where Bowman had emerged. It was open four inches. That was strange—Matt was certain Bowman had pulled the door to.
Matt peeked through the gap. Inside was a mock-up of the President’s office, the one from where he gave all those speeches when he appeared on television.
Matt stepped inside to get a closer look. Light streamed in through the window behind the President’s desk, looking out across the White House lawn. It was a window that couldn’t be there, Matt knew—behind it was the corridor wall. The resolution was admirable—wispy white clouds rolling across the sky in real time, grass blades catching the breeze. So real he felt as though he could step out into it.
The desk was spread with papers over the blotter, a telephone, fountain pen, desk calendar on today’s date.
Two feet in front of the desk was a wall containing a single, circular lens. The glass plate was moulded into the wall itself, like a blister. Whatever they were filming here someone had gone to a lot of effort to make it look real.
Matt’s heart skipped a beat when a cleaning woman entered from the door to the left. He’d assumed the door was fake, like everything else. He blurted an apology, but the woman didn’t seem to notice him. Probably doesn’t speak English. Then her duster went through his arm and Matt realised she was an illusion.
He looked up to the ceiling, searching for the projector that must surely be generating the cleaning woman, but he couldn’t see it. Maybe it was coming from that big lens?
Matt stepped backwards into the corridor, watching the holographic projection of the cleaning woman in awe, until his foot met something behind him. He turned to find himself face-to-face with Benjamin Howard. “M-M-Mister Howard,” he blurted, “I’m terribly sorry. Please excuse me.”
Every employee of Howard Studios knew the rules. Nobody speaks to Mister Howard without an appointment. Nobody visits Mister Howard without an invitation. Nobody has anything to do with Mister Howard unless they are specifically instructed to. Matt’s stomach sank as he stood before Benjamin Howard, having broken all three rules in less than two seconds. To cap it off, he dropped the press pack for Chapter Seven.
Howard smiled at him, that boyish twinkle in his eye that Matt knew so well from documentary interviews. “Matthew Gregory, isn’t it?”
He knows my name, Matt thought, shock and wonder hitting him with like a one-two punch. Matt nodded, unable to vocalise a response.
“I like what you’re doing with the dinosaur skin downstairs,” Howard told him. “I think we made a good decision in employing you.”
“Y-you do?” Matt asked incredulously.
Howard wrapped a brotherly arm around Matt’s shoulder, walking him further down the corridor. “Two first names. Matthew Gregory. I like that. Let me show you something, Matt.”
As they walked down the corridor, Howard asked genially, “Did you see Bowman?”
Matt nodded, unable to avoid admitting it now he had been caught.
“Quite a piece of work, isn’t he?” Howard continued. “Bit of a jackass but, then, that’s what the public like. Makes them feel superior if their President is a bumbler. They figure that they can trust that sort of guy.” He looked at Matt again, and Matt nodded noncommittally, unsure how to respond. “Did you vote for Chuck Bowman? You don’t mind my asking, do you?”
“Of course not,” Matt said. “I actually didn’t vote. I was out of the country on a shoot at the time and I screwed up on the postal voting deadline.”
“Shame,” Howard shook his head. “I liked the other guy, too. We did some good work there. What was his name? Perry? Perlman? Something like that. I think I would have voted for him.”
“It was Perks,” Matt recalled. “Brian Perks.”
“Perks,” Howard repeated ponderously. “Bad name for a President. Should have rapped R and D on the knuckles over that.”
They reached a set of wooden double doors and Benjamin Howard opened them and strode through. Matt followed, and saw that the room beyond was vast and brightly lit, with clinical white surfaces. Technicians with colour coded IDs worked at computer terminals and operated unfathomable technology.
Howard smiled reassuringly at Matt’s surprised expression. “It can be a little overwhelming the first time you come up here,” he told Matt. “Do you remember JFK, Matt?”
Matt apologised needlessly. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t born then.”
“I liked Kennedy,” Howard continued. “He was a great design. Very charismatic, very popular. We did a lot of work here to get him just right. Little touches, subtle stuff to make him appealing.” Howard sighed wistfully. “He proved too good to be true. We misjudged what the public wanted and he became a liability.”
Matt felt as though he was in a dream. There was information here, but he couldn’t make sense of it.
“All those theories about where the shooter was that day in Dallas,” Howard said, index finger pointing outwards. “There was no shooter. We switched off the program, made it look like he’d been shot. It was all just pixels. But, you know all about that, of course.”
Matt looked at Howard in disbelief. “Are you trying to tell me that you…programmed John F. Kennedy? That he wasn’t real? That he was a special effect created in this room?”
Howard shook his head and laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Matt.” Matt let out a breath he hadn’t been aware he had been holding, relief flooding through him. It lasted less than a second until Howard continued. “We were based over in Texas back then, though the room was pretty similar.” He pointed to the ceiling. “Nicer roof beams. Oak, I think.”
“JFK taught us something,” Howard continued. “Nobody wants their leaders to be perfect. It’s easy to deceive the eyes—you’ve seen the Galactic Game films, you know we can create whole alien worlds like that—” he snapped his fingers. “Deceiving people’s minds takes subtlety. These days we make the Presidents dumb. B-movie actors, jazz musicians. People trust them more; believe in them.”
Matt thought about Charles D. Bowman. His antics on that fishing trip where he’d been splashed by the wash his yacht generated. The time on the golf course where he’d knocked his hat off with a vigorous swing of the driver. Clips that were replayed again and again on the news programmes. Was Howard telling him that all of that was faked? “Do you control the government, Mister Howard?” he asked, shocked by the directness of his own question.
Howard laughed, that merry boyish smile reappearing on his face. “Among other things,” he agreed with a wink. “Let me show you something.”
Matt followed him. Benjamin Howard, director of the greatest space adventure in the history of cinema, was also controlling the American government, and had been doing so for at least 40 years. It sounded outlandish.
“But you make movies,” Matt said. “Great movies. I love your movies. So…why?”
Howard halted at a computer terminal and looked back at him with a smile. “I get bored easily. All this technology and no one really appreciates it. Even I want to show off a little, sometimes. Besides, it’s good advertising—reminds people we’re still here.”
Matt watched Howard work a computer terminal. A projector whirred to life atop the terminal, producing the three-dimensional figure of a man, life-sized, in the room before them. The man wore tatty baseball boots, dusty Levi jeans, a checked shirt, open at the neck. His sleeves were rolled up revealing dark hair on tanned arms. His face was tanned too with dark hair and beard with some streaks of ginger running through it. He had hazel eyes, full of intelligence and compassion.
Matt took a step closer to the projection, amazed by its clarity, and suddenly realised that President Bowman hadn’t disappeared from his view between lights in the corridor—he had ‘winked out’, projector turned off, program shut down. The bearded man waited before him.
“He’s very impressive,” Matt admitted.
“Touch him,” Howard encouraged.
Tentatively, Matt reached out his right hand, prepared for it to go through the illusion. He almost leapt when the tips of his fingers touched something solid where the projection stood; solid and warm, radiating body heat.
“Tactile CGI,” the movie director explained.
Matt stepped away from the projection, watching its eyes blink, the subtle rise and fall of its chest. “What’s he for?”
“Special order from the Vatican,” Howard explained. “He’s based on our old designs, physically exactly the same as the old production, but I’ll admit we threw in a few tricks to keep the animators interested. The Vatican had some concerns over the costs, tight as they are, so we negotiated a couple of sponsorship deals on their behalf.”
Howard gestured to the projection before them. “You’ll note that he’ll be wearing Levis as His brand of choice throughout the Second Coming, and He’ll be very picky about which bottled water He turns into wine.” Howard looked back to Matt, smiling that boyish grin of his. “We expect them to be big sellers throughout the Christmas period.”
Rik Hoskin is a science fiction novelist and comic strip writer based in London, England. Under the pen name of ‘James Axler’, he has been the primary writer on the Outlanders book series since 2008 and has contributed several volumes to its sister series, Deathlands. His current comic strip work includes Star Wars and Doctor Who Adventures for the UK and Europe.