After finishing Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, I poked around the interior of my Kindle for a new book. I have a habit of picking things up while they’re on sale, and then never reading them. Well, one of those books sitting in my queue was Blackcollar by Timothy Zahn.
A chapter or two in, I was hooked. Timothy Zahn is a special writer. The following would be a compliment for all writers, but I hope that if he ever were to read this that he’d take it in the spirit it was given: his books tend to be cinematic. They’re high-intensity, fast-paced, and suspenseful to the very end. I think in many ways, though it hasn’t happened yet, they lend themselves to being adapted into the movie form.
Blackcollar is more like that than most. The story is set decades after Earth and its colonies were conquered by an alien race. The Blackcollars were an elite group of soldiers, subjected to drugs that slowed aging, enhanced reflexes, and greatly increased resistance to torture. They’ve been biding their time, waiting for a moment to strike back against the invaders. That moment comes at the start of this story.
As I was reading the book, I was imagining what that might look like, and who I would pick to direct this movie. A single scene gave me a rather radical idea for who the director should be.
Now, this might not be the first person who comes to mind when you think about a person who should be directing, when it comes down to it, a science fiction military movie.
However, I think there’s a couple of natural synergies between his style and the story in Blackcollar.
First, the Blackcollars are so much better at combat than everyone else, that it takes on a comical tone even when it has deadly consequences.
For example, in one scene the protagonist, traveling with three other Blackcollars, suggest that they take on a group of four unaware men together. The leader instead decides to send just one man, while the other three will try to pick a lock.
By the time the protagonist finishes his objection, the man who was sent away is back, holding the key to the lock they’re trying to pick. The protagonist looks over his shoulder and sees the four men slumped over, unconscious or dead.
Isn’t that a scene you can see being choreographed with a couple of Anderson’s famous camera pans for maximum comedic effect?
Second, the characters in this book are the broken people that Anderson loves to explore. Maybe they’re not as broken as many of his characters, but fact remains that it’s been thirty years since they last fought the invaders. Even with anti-aging drugs, they’ve lost a step. They’re out of practice, and they’re up against impossible odds.
You might say that there’s a chance that everything they’re going to do has a large chance of being ultimately futile. And I think situations like that are what makes Wes Anderson loves to live. He puts his characters in situations where they can’t win and watches them struggle against the sides of the fishtank.
Those blocks tend to be more mental than physical in his movies, but hey, it’s a chance to grow as a filmmaker.
Third, Anderson loves incompetent bad guys. The villains in Zahn’s novel are well-written and aren’t exactly incompetent, but the Blackcollars are playing chess while the bad guys are still learning checkers. There’s a ton of opportunities for comedic effect here.
Furthermore, the bad guys aren’t the invaders, per se. Instead, they’re the human collaborators, or “collies,” as they’re termed by the resistance fighters. The Blackcollars don’t hate them, instead, they see them more as an obstacle that must be overcome in order to reach their ultimate goal.
I think there are some parallels in some of Anderson’s movies.
In The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the main character, a fox, angers local farmers by stealing from them, not because he wanted to harm them, but because he has a compulsion to steal.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the main character Gustave runs afoul of a dead woman’s family, not due to malice towards them on his part, but because his own sense of entitlement leads him to make a number of questionable decisions.
There’s even a somewhat naïve protagonist who could narrate the whole thing.
So, now that I think I’ve given you a pretty good case for why Wes Anderson should direct Blackcollar, I want to take a moment and give you some reasons why it might not work.
First, Wes Anderson turns everything into slapstick.
Blackcollar is a covert, special operations story, which doesn’t naturally lend itself to the generally low-stakes, lighthearted nature that Anderson’s movies so frequently have. Even when they’re dealing with heavy stuff, they do so irreverently. I’m not saying that a Blackcollar movie would need to be dark, but its an open question as to whether Anderson can address the conflict behind the story in a way that gives it enough weight to feel real.
Second, so much of what works in Anderson’s movies is based on interpersonal relationships and mind-blowingly-good acting. Blackcollar probably wouldn’t lend itself to those sorts of moments or performances. Though, I would like to see Bill Murray as the aging, agitated commander of the Blackcollars.
So, maybe this is one of those situations where the material is just far enough from what a director has already done that there’s no guarantee of success. However, that’s the sort of gray area that allows for growth as an artist. Sure, Wes Anderson could keep churning out critically-acclaimed movies, but maybe he’d like to direct a summer blockbuster for once. Who knows?
And, maybe such a movie would be a hot dumpster fire. But if we didn’t want to take any risks, we’d hire Stephen Spielberg to direct and have John Williams write the music. They don’t always make great movies, but they hardly ever make bad ones.
Where’s the fun in that?
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