Sunday, August 25, 2013

Seek the Original: Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

95.4% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

Here's one for the Misties out there! Let's start with the movie.





Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1983)
starring Raul Julia

I can't imagine trying to watch this film without Mike and the bots mocking it. What's left to say about it? The Brains said everything that needed to be said in the experiment itself, and if you want more details, Bill Corbett later wrote his thoughts on it.

Aram Fingal's job is to monitor data from a weather computer, but he's bored of it, so he hacks into the system and "scrolls up" movies. His favorite being Casablanca. He's caught, sent to a psychist and ordered to take a "dopple." Apparently in this future, rehabilitation means having your mind installed into an animal.

Something goes wrong, his body is missing, so to preserve his mind he is transferred to the main computer, the HX368. Now Fingal is trapped in the computer system that controls the world. There is no real world to him anymore, so his brain creates reality around him. When he gets bored of it, he starts altering the world to match his favorite movie, so everything ends up looking like a really cheesy version of Morocco.

But all is not simple and easy. As Fingal learns how to influence his environment, he also figures out the computer is not a wonderful thing after all, and he embarks on a quest to hack the HX368 and liberate everyone from the computer's control... and from boring, monotonous data entry work or something, so they can enjoy all the information the emperor has access to... or something. Like Casablanca!

(Side note: we should petition Microsoft to change the name Xbox One to HX368. Much cooler name, and more descriptive of what the system will do!)

The movie is full of outdated computer-babble and special effects that were cheesy even back in the early 80's. It makes me think it was trying to ride on the recent release of Tron, with its pixilated special effects and computer-heavy storyline.

What little story the movie has is barely comprehensible, the forced romance is unconvincing, and any notion that the HX368 is an evil computer, run by an even eviler corporation, is not apparent. What's so evil about these guys? The special effects are a glory to behold because they are so cheap. The first time I saw the film I got a headache the cinematography is so bad.

I will add that Raul Julia's performance as Aram Fingal is forced and amateur. Hard to believe this is the same man who would find success in big Hollywood productions later on. Overshadowed by Fingal's character is Julia's subtle, dignified performance as Rick, from Casablanca. You almost don't notice it because it's surprisingly professional and good.

The movie must be seen to be believed. How does it compare with the original story?


Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
by John Varley

First published in 1976, the short story opens with Mr. Fingal (his first name is never revealed) lying helpless on a table, brain exposed. A class of bratty kids enters the room, and the teacher explains what this procedure is, how it works, and why it works.

Yes, it's still called a "dopple," no, it's not called an "identicube," and no, there is no Casablanca. Fingal is not in trouble for "scrolling up" movies from the mainframe, a forbidden crime in the dystopian future told-but-not-shown in the movie. Instead, Fingal's job is boring, and his error rate on data entry goes up, so he decides to take a dopple in Disneyland, Kenya.

Yup, Disneyland has become a world of doppleing! His memory and personality are copied into an identity cube and then plugged into the skull of an African lioness.

The movie doesn't show or explain what this procedure does for the person, so it comes across as what the hell? The short story makes a better case for it, showing how it affects Fingal and that it is a refreshing break from human society. No boring data entry, no relationships to keep straight, just hunt, kill, sleep. He shares a kill with her, enjoys the feeling of walking on all fours and obeying base instincts. A simple and elegant life. It's still a bit hokey (i.e. is this really what passes for recreation in the future?), but at least it makes sense and there is some method to the madness.

In the movie, Aram only has enough money to dopple into a baboon, probably because the filmmakers couldn't get any stock footage of lionesses. In the story, he can afford a lioness (but not a male lion; Disneyland charges a premium for those), and being in a lion's body, having partial control over her, does Fingal some good. In the movie, it comes across as a horribly contrived way to get him plugged into the mainframe.

Back to the story: Fingal awakens in his own room. A disembodied hand writes on the wall, informing him there's been an accident, his body has been misplaced, and he is inside the computer. An operator, Appollonia Joachim, maintains contact with him to keep him up to date on what's happening outside. His identity cube has been plugged into the main computer while his body is located. The cubes are only designed to last three hours maximum, and they had to transfer him to a more permanent system or he would die.

Longer-lasting memory storage does exist in this world, but it's much more expensive, so it's never used for doppleing. This is not established in the movie, so again, plugging him into the main computer that happens to control THE WHOLE WORLD is contrived.

His mind can't comprehend the world of the computer he inhabits, so it projects a familiar reality on top of it: the ordinary world he knows. So he goes about his routine for months, but various things around him are out of whack. People fade in and out of the background, he can pause reality and replay it. If he wills it, he can make money appear out of nowhere, force people to behave the way he wants, and many other things. Appollonia warns him against too much of this behavior, for he could lose touch with reality. He has to stick with his routine for now.

His job was boring enough, but now he's doing his job knowing it's completely pointless, and he gets even more bored. So he takes the opportunity to learn more about computer systems to hopefully get out of his boring job and do something else. He accesses real college-level education material and absorbs it.

As he learns how computers work, he starts to see the world for what it really is. He sees electrons whizzing by, circuits in the floor, wires under people's skin. Appollonia is there, communicating to him through notes and other paranormal signs to keep him grounded in reality, and feed him external stimuli so he doesn't go insane. (Also because any tinkering he does can affect mainframe operations.)

This is the reason the operator character has to maintain contact with Fingal at all times. It's not explained in the movie, but it makes sense here. With Fingal's perception of his world so fragile, he needs someone to remind him to ignore the stuff that could drive him insane.

It takes more than a year to find his body, and in that time Fingal uses his time in the computer wisely, to improve himself. Then on graduation day, Appollonia takes him back to reality, he's reunited with his physical body, and it turns out only six hours have passed in the real world.

That's it.

It's a quiet story. There's no Casablanca obsession (thank God!), no mission to overthrow the evil corporation running the world by hacking the main computer from inside it. It's a simple story of a man trapped in a computer, and how he bends reality just enough to change himself for the better, but not so much he loses touch.

There's no forced romance either. Appollonia doesn't love him, although Fingal has feelings for her because from his point of view, she has been his anchor for a solid year. The story hints that maybe a relationship can develop in the future, and it's much more tasteful than the forced, sudden and unfounded romance in the movie.

It's refreshingly absent of outdated and misused computerspeak. I was worried it would be full of it, just like the movie, but it doesn't touch on that at all (aside from the title). It has less to do with computers and more to do with perception of reality, free of the hollywood tropes of technology oppressing the human race. It's also the story of a man, bored of his job, using a rare opportunity to better himself and get out of that job. I can relate...

Varley's story is so quiet and unassuming it's almost a letdown, but it's not bad. I think it would have been filmable as a psychological thriller.

The movie based on it is spectacularly bad, mostly because a lot changed in the adaptation, but not everything, so the parts that were not changed refer to the original story and have no meaning anymore, such as Appollonia delivering the commandments.

In the movie, to drive home the point that Fingal should not try to change too much of the world around him, Appollonia delivers commandments on stone tablets in the form of a beautiful goddess. But it's to warn him to stop hacking the mainframe and trying to take over the HX368.

The story has nothing to do with that. The main computer is not evil. The company that runs it is not some evil entity controlling the world. In the short story, all of this is benign. It presents a world run by technology that is NOT oppressive.

The story explains the reason for this strange deliverance of commandments much better: Fingal himself perceives it that way, and Fingal needs to stay in the boundaries or he will go insane trying to comprehend an external world his mind can't handle. And also, when he tries to perceive the real computer world, he can affect the programs running, which could be dangerous for everyone.

It comes out of nowhere in the movie because Appollonia doesn't give him any boundaries prior, or explain why he needs such boundaries. The story makes this very clear, and the event makes more sense.

I wonder why this story was chosen to adapt for the screen as an "action" film. And why go for the whole Fingal changing the world to look like Casablanca thing? They could have shown Fingal distorting his own reality, people fading into and out of the background, risking insanity as he tries to perceive the computer world just behind the thin walls of his perception. That would've been cool to watch! Why complicate things by having him remake the world into his favorite movie?

The film is fun to watch, but for all the wrong reasons. I'll take the story over the movie any day for serious sci-fi, but for laughs, dopple me into Overdrawn at the Memory Bank with Mike and the bots!

(oh, and the story is also completely friendly to anteaters!)

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