Thursday 15 November 2012

The Reason I Don't Particularly Care For The Asylum

I discussed this company once before, but The Asylum's latest scheme has moved me to briefly comment.

See, this could be just another mockbuster: a shameless, trite, creatively barren facsimile of a blockbuster film which will undoubtedly gain promotion - whether it be through honest confusion by the well-meaning but less knowledgeable, or the kitsch appeal which lures aficionados of camp as a pile of refuse draws clouds of flies* - and thus can be safely savaged or ignored.

But this film aims to be something more... and I feel like such a tremendous hypocrite, because this makes it even worse.

The synopsis doesn't bode well, sounding like yet another example of the films, books, games or media which looked at Middle-earth as the entirety of fantasy possibilities rather than one of many:

In an age long ago, the last village of clever, peace-loving Hobbits is attacked and enslaved by the Java Men, komodo-worshiping, dragon-riding cannibals. Now the young Hobbit Goben, along with his father and sister, must seek help from the "giants" (human hunters) to find the Javas' lair and rescue the last surviving Hobbits, Goben's mother among them. In their quest to destroy the Javas, the heroic partnership of humans and Hobbits will transform both species forever.

So far, so Willow. But the trailer reveals a whole new dimension:


So we see that while the story is pretty standard generic fare, the setting and cast are not. For our lantern-jawed heroic type playing the role of Aragorn, Gandalf or Mad Martigan, we get Christopher "Indeed" Judge. Our capable warrior-woman is portrayed by Bai Ling. Our pseudo-Bilbo, Goben, is played by newcomer Sun Korng. Our diminutive hero Tek Tek is played by... this chap.

Neither on IMDB nor The Asylum's own website is the actor's name mentioned.

It should be obvious now that the setting and cast of the film are pretty far removed from Eriador: instead, Age of the Hobbits takes place in prehistoric Indonesia, during an age where multiple species of man flourished: the diminutive Homo floresiensis, the mid-sized Homo erectus, and the tall Homo sapiens. The bare bones of the story thus can be seen as somewhat of a (pre-)historical fantasy, with the "Hobbits" obviously being played by floresiensis. Certainly that's how The Asylum attempted to defend themselves from litigation-happy Saul Zaentz:

"Age of the Hobbits is about the real-life human subspecies, Homo Floresiensis, discovered in 2003 in Indonesia, which have been uniformly referred to as 'Hobbits' in the scientific community," a rep for The Asylum told THR in a statement when the legal dispute first erupted. "As such, the use of the term 'Hobbits' is protected under the legal doctrines of nominal and traditional fair use. Indeed, a simple Google search of Hobbits and archaeology reveals dozens of articles containing the term "Hobbit(s)" in the title."
Unfortunately for The Asylum, the courts probably won't be sympathetic to their case: The Hobbit in Southampton may have the generosity of Stephen Fry and Ian McKellan to back them up, but I doubt anyone will leap to Age of the Hobbit's defence.

You may be wondering why I have a particular problem with this film as opposed to, say, Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies, or American Warships** - at least those films aren't exactly based on stellar material. Making a film about prehistoric Flores sounds incredibly cool: you have multiple tribes of humans interacting like in all those anachronistic cavemen movies you adore, the promise of beasties and fantasy wonder, and Christopher Judge! How can you hate something that sounds so interesting?

 You know, how about Christopher Judge as Imaro? Probably a bit old now, but you never know...

Precisely that: this story is too interesting to be wasted by The Asylum.

I grew up on films like 1 Million B.C., When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, and The Land That Time Forgot, yet the tiny precocious pedant in me always thought that a film about real prehistoric humans, without dinosaur co-stars and the constant doom that seemed to befall their fledgeling society, would make a really good film. Regrettably, I never got to see or read The Clan of the Cave Bear and Quest for Fire until later, but a more historically sound adventure that doesn't rely on dinosaurs, extinction or the like as crutches is an untapped genre in film given the possibilities. Sadly, aside from a few worthy attempts (and 10,000 BC) all that prehistoric humanity seems to offer cinema at large is fantasy adventure, anachronistic comedy, and Roger Corman films.

Though in retrospect, it's understandable they didn't go with a more palaeontologically informed visualisation of Homo floresiensis. Would've been awesome, though.

It's infuriating, because out of all the time periods and locations of the time before records, prehistoric Indonesia offers some incredible opportunities for stories. This is a land where gargantuan lizards may have hunted miniature elephants, huge birds stalked the landscape, small humanoids with the knowledge to use tools and fire hunted monstrous rats, comparative giants competed with them for food and resources, with the looming doom of Toba hanging over the landscape. Flores boasts a number of unique endemic species, and those are just the ones we know about. The island has its own ancient mysteries: evidence of a race of intelligent tool-users older than floresiensis, erectus, sapiens, even neanderthalenis has been found. It even has a sunken land.

It would be so easy to have fun with this. What if floresiensis used the dwarf Stegodons not only for sustenance, but as beasts of burden - even mounts? Elephants and man have a long history in Thailand reaching back for thousands of years, and human interactivity with dogs and cattle is even longer: it isn't too far outside the realm of possibility, at least for the purposes of a prehistoric fantasy. Erectus must have seemed like giants to floresiensis - or ogres, if they were hostile - so floresiensis riding small elephants into battle against the giant erectus would be evening up the odds.  There's no fossil evidence for sapiens presence in Flores in this time period, but that doesn't preclude an exceedingly rare visitor - perhaps a marooned Austronesian mariner - or a rare and as-yet undiscovered wandering tribe.

Why stop there? Why not bring in the fauna, folkore and mythology of surrounding Indonesia? You could bring in the prehistoric origins of Gunung Padang and other megalithic mysteries. If you want to bring a fantasy element - floresiensis has already been linked to Ebu gogo and Orang pendek -  there's always creatures like the Jenglot, Kuntilanak, or the ungodly Leyak. And you don't have to guess what I think you could do with Meganthropus.

 This scene right out of a Ray Harryhausen movie could have happened in Flores.

But even if you consider we have lots of caveman movies already, well, there's the observation that this brings a much-needed dash of colour to the fantasy genre. One great thing about the 1982 Conan the Barbarian was the diversity of the cast, and how Milius' rag-tag, ad-hoc prehistoric age made the presence of James Earl Jones, Mako and Gerry Lopez entirely fitting and much appreciated in a landscape with a dearth of meaningful minority characters. As I said in a (surprisingly) positive post about The Legend of Conan:

It’s a common criticism of modern fantasy cinema that the cast is full of white Europeans: this presumably stems from the innumerable spawn of The Lord of the Rings who only imitated the surface elements rather than the mythic grandeur, as well as following in the traditionally white male geek community which fostered Dungeons & Dragon and its ilk. The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates of the Caribbean, even Harry Potter are overwhelmingly – if not exclusively – white. The respective fantasies have fairly good reasons for it (The Lord of the Rings is set in a fantastical north-eastern Europe, Narnia is a mirror-analogy to Christian mythology in Britain, Harry Potter is set in modern Britain, which has a much greater white majority than other western countries, etc) but explanation for why there are so few black, Asian or Hispanic characters of consequence in one setting doesn’t excuse the fact that there are so few fantasy settings which buck that trend – especially since Hollywood has a history of actively whitewashing such settings. Look at Earthsea, a setting which was explicitly non-white-European, which was populated with blonde blue-eyed white actors: look at Amazons, which was originally going to be based on Charles Saunders’ Dossouye story “Agbewe’s Sword” until he learned that his black warrior-women would be cast with white actors; look at The Last Airbender, where the casting of white actors as quintessentially Asian roles led to the formation of a website tackling this controversy.

This film boasts minority actors in most of the lead roles: The Hobbit, being based on Tolkien's novel, has none. This film is set in a practically untapped period and location which would be ripe for exploration: The Hobbit draws from a long and proud tradition dating back to Morris, McDonald, Mallory and beyond which has been mined mercilessly in literature and cinema for decades - centuries, even. Age of the Hobbits is one of the comparatively few fantasy films made in recent years which eschews the bland Fantasy Europe milieu, and populates the cast with a variety of ethnoi. It isn't a question of fighting prejudice or bias - I leave that battle to others - it's simply a question of bringing more fascinating cultures to the limelight, encouraging variety and mixing things up. Inclusion, not exclusion. Obviously there are plenty of fantasy/adventure films made in foreign countries which do draw from their own cultures, and are usually wildly successful in their own right, but the crossover from world cinema to success in the western world is still rare.

I guess what I'm saying is this: Age of the Hobbits is, in all likelihood, a squandering of possibilities that it did not deserve in the first place. It could have started with the best of intentions, for all I know: it could be based on some inspired, excited young creator eager to tell a story about Homo floresiensis, only to have it all roped in with the cynical modus operandi of The Asylum. And for all the goodwill it could garner from its diverse cast and unusual setting, it still has a dull-as-ditchwater story that we've seen in far too many fantasy films and stories of late, and thrown in a dragon for good measure, because it's that kind of film. Because it isn't as if there were relatives of the largest lizard on the fossil record found in the vicinity of floresiensis or anything...

 This scene right out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn could also have happened in Flores.

And given the fact that it's amazing any films get made, not least terrible ones, it saddens me that people who clearly have the resources to actually get a film made and put out on DVD don't bother to go to the effort of making something good for anything other than snide commentary with your friends.

* Not that I'm making judgements or condemnations of any kind. After all, some of my best friends are flies.

**The answers are "Because this film cast an actor that actually looks like Abraham Lincoln" and "CARL WEATHERS playing a character called General McKraken" respectively.


  1. Hero of the Federation15 November 2012 at 23:41

    Everyone fights. No one quits.

  2. Agree 100%. It's such a waste - and to think of how much can be achieved these days even with the tiniest of budgets. One of my favourite science fiction movies, Monsters, was made for a very small budget and is both breathtakingly beautiful and deeply moving.

    1. I still haven't seen Monsters yet, but from what I've heard it's quite divisive, which is usually a good sign (some of my favourite films are very divisive).

  3. I for one would prefer a proper "Quest for Fire with Homo floresiensis" to the Hobbit movies we're getting.

    1. I mean jeez, it isn't as if the Sci-Fi channel's doing anything worthwhile these days...

  4. Come on, Al. This is the Asylum we're talking about. What else would you expect? It's like criticizing a child for not using three point perspective in a drawing of his house. It's like criticizing a Yorkie Bar for not being a chocolate truffle.

    It's like criticizing the internet for not being cohesive.

    1. It's precisely because I don't expect more from the Asylum that bothers me about this project: not that the film is horrible, but that they're wasting a cool idea. There's no way something like Sharknado or Sharktopus is going to be anything other than cheesy schlock, but I think there's a good idea in there - but nothing's going to happen with it, because it's the Asylum.

  5. Based on what those involved are saying in this article on "The Cambodia Daily", it seems that this is just another cash grab. And the mystery man is "Chein Choeun, 28, who plays the role of the Tak-Tek, a mustached Hobbit."

  6. I would ask only that you consider reserving judgment of the motion picture itself until seeing it (though I will say I appreciate your reasoned and caring concerns as expressed outside of condemning the film due to dislike of the source studio). The people of Cambodia who gave their hearts, soul and sweat to the effort both behind and in front of the lens deserve a chance to prove that, whatever its flaws, there is a story with heart and soul and caring in it. I can speak for those of us who strived to make it a better story and film than it likely might otherwise have been... we did our best with 15 days and limited resources. Yes, there are a million things given a bigger budget and scope we would love to have done. It wasn't in the cards this time but perhaps as a route to future, more epic opportunities this film could serve as a guidepost. I hope folks will enjoy the effort for the simple caring story and sympathetic characters it has. Joseph J. Lawson, Director

    1. Well Joseph, I'm flattered you took the time to come on the blog and say this! Given my past experience with the 2011 Conan film, I know all too well how many people work tirelessly to get a film made, and so I don't doubt the crew of "Age of the Hobbits" worked hard, yourself included, since it's a wonder *any* films get made at all. Best of luck with your future endeavours!

    2. It's really hilarious to observe that filmmakers cannot stand criticism and either send plants or simply post under their real name, spilling tears all over the place on blogs, playing the victimization game.
      Didn't you notice, Al that this is happening more and more as time passes by?

      Hey guys, first of all: buy yourself a worthy scenario. Pay some worthy and trained actors and above all you need talent to orchestrate all this together and make it stand up. Who cares if the people were willing to play in the flick: first of all did you PAY them correctly, huh?? It's easy to lay the shit on Al, but before pretending to be some white knight defending the poor people of Cambodia, it would be wise to treat them correctly and not send them back home after a day of filming with a poor old dollar bill in hand.

      Just by watching the trailer and the movie poster, anyone with the smallest spark of wisdom will understand that this botched syfy reject of a movie supposed to showcase homo floriensis is just a pile of rubbish.

      Also , Joseph Lawson, it wasn't really wise to name that movie " age of hobbits" when you damn well know it will suffer the comparison with the movie that's really going to show some hobbits called "The Hobbit".

    3. Take That: At least I have the courage to state my name and TAKE the critiques (which, were they for the finished FILM and not the studio or title, I will gladly look forward to hearing pro and con). I do not spill tears nor play the victim, I simply stand up for what I know and believe. Partly it's to remind people to judge the film for itself, not the studio or the title (something which, BTW, I had no control over being simply the director). FWIW, I did not "shit on Al" and in fact do consider his a reasoned critique about why he does not like the studio. His is an informed discussion and I actually appreciate it or would not have weighed in. My reasoning is to simply speak for the film alone and discussion of its merits. Separately, your discussion of Cambodian pay is not germaine to the issue and ill-reasoned at best because unless you've been there or know the value of a dollar in that country, you don't know whether what we paid is good or not. You can surmise, intimate or conjecture but you're reasoning suspects we went there to rip someone off. In fact, I believe we paid a fair if not larger than fair wage to our actors, enough for some to live for up to a year on (more than I could here with what I was paid, FWIW). Lastly, your judgment of the trailer is your own and you are welcome to it. I'm sure there are some who would disagree and that is their prerogative as well. Your judgments of their "wisdom" might be suspect in some eyes. BTW, the very definition of wisdom is to know when you are qualified to speak about something and proud enough to say it with your own name attached. I see you are neither. Until you have the courage to do so, I suspect you are simply trolling and will have no further reason to debate with you. Joseph J. Lawson, PROUD Director of a wonderful crew of actors, filmmakers and Cambodians willing to at least try to entertain with the modest means granted them.

    4. Taranaich: You're welcome. I understand about the Conan film and would offer only this: The tragedy is not that WE may fail to entertain with a 15 day shoot/low budget/two month post including 1 month of VFX time... it's that THEY spent millions of dollars and did not achieve their goal (possibly either). That the new Conan did not have any heart is what I will most regret. Ah, that we could get the Barry Windsor Smith style adaptation of Red Nails into production... Anywho, thanks for the well wish and here's to the day I DO have a hundred million to make look like 500 million. :-) Joe

    5. Take that: Okay, so one more thought. My personal title for the film is "Age of Fire and Stone". Perhaps close your eyes for the short time any title appears on screen, imagine my title in its place and watch the rest of the movie accordingly. Would you have been otherwise entertained and see the heart and care in the characters? Take a watch of the actual film and get back to us on that thought. If you still don't like it then, fair enough, I respect that. I LOVE to hear an INFORMED opinion, even if it's one opposed to mine. And if you DO like it, even a little, I'd greatly respect your having the courage to admit it. Not that you need any of our approval, of course, just sayin'. Joe

  7. it is shooting in Cambodia? this could be very good for the normalization of the country

    1. Franciso: I was a great fan of David Lean films growing up and fulfilled a lifelong dream getting to do this film in a land largely unseen by western... or at least, American... eyes except for the overused though beautiful Angkor Wat. We shot south around Kampot... the Bokor National Forest and Kampot Trach karst formation... and I hope MORE filmmakers... even tourists... will take the time to appreciate not only the beauty of the land but that of its people. If this film helps even some small amount in that regard then I will be doubly proud of what we did in our short experience there. The people of Cambodia I met and worked with were truly some of the most wonderful caring souls. The tears I spilled on leaving that wonderful group of little people actors were genuine and heartfelt. Joseph J. Lawson

  8. ....Once more into the breach, my friend...


    " Conan creator Robert E. Howard was indisputably a racist, but he had surprisingly enlightened views on women. But he was still a nutcase."

    Two links in that piece of text: The enlightened views on women links to a piece by yourself, the racist bit goes elsewhere... I think that the hoary old chestnut of being a nutcase will emit groans...


    1. Argh. Well, I think you handled that well enough yourself, Remco. I posted a comment on that other link, but sadly it ended the conversation rather than fostered more reasonable stuff. Ah well.

  9. This trailer has at least one merit: it cheered me up as I was preparing for a night of work on my presentation of floresiensis' australopithecine features. Yay!