Tuesday, August 08, 2006

'Damnation Alley' vs. Done Very Badly

The Book: By Roger Zelazny (1968; *** of 5)
The Movie: Starring George Peppard, Jan Michael Vincent (1977; * of 5)

About the only two things the book and movie versions of Damnation Alley agree on are these: (1) The main character, Tanner, is on a life-threatening journey across a hostile, bizarre post-apocalypse America in an specially-built armored vehicle and (2)the skies are regularly colored by weird, almost hallucinogenic aurora storms. Otherwise, they might as well be about two very different stories.

I don't remember if Zelazny's name was mentioned in the movie credits, but if I were him, I wouldn't have had anything to do with it. It's that bad; that far off the book's plotline. The ONLY thing warranting even one star was the atmospheric effects -- the acting is horrible, the characters have no personality, their journey is pointless, the various encounters are implausible. Hell, even their route cross-country doesn't make sense: Why would someone traveling from California to Albany divert to Detroit... when the early scenes specifically state Detroit's gone?

In the film, Tanner is this half-assed, wanna-be biker who quit the military after the war because he saw no point in staying in. The bike just exists to show how "cool" he is ... and he rides it at every stop, regardless of the fact that many of them would still be glowing with radiation. The film, however, has almost no reference to radiation at all. Instead of being a sever challenge, the journey is essentially a lark undertaken solely for selfish reasons -- Tanner and other military folks go 3000+ miles to check out a recorded, repeating signal in Albany that isn't saying anything, and would be impossible given the atmospheric disturbances. (In the film, the events happen about 2 years after the war.)

The real Tanner has a first name that says a lot about him: Hell. He's a REAL (stereotyped) biker -- the "last Hell's Angel," leader of a rapacious gang who terrorized struggling California communities until he got caught. He's been in jail a few times, killed several people, smuggled things to other surviving communities, and is finally given an ultimatum: Take plague serum to Boston (NOT Albany) or rot his remaining years in prison.

There's no radio -- just a radiation-sick Bostonian messenger who struggles into Los Angeles pleading for help. In Zelazny's vision, California knows Boston still exists, and believes it might be the only other organized nation left on the continent. As it turns out, at least two other places are still organized, Salt Lake City (which, in the movie, is occupied solely by carnivorous cockroaches; the filmmakers clearly didn't have the skill to portray the complexity of interaction with a living community) and Albuquerque, and others are populated but essentially lack government. These events take place at least a generation after the war -- Tanner was born afterward, and is somewhere in his 20s. It might be longer; Tanner encounters an insane scientist on his journey who remembers the war and the anti-science pogroms afterward; he could be in his 50s. (This character, one of Zelazny's more interesting side characters, doesn't exist in the film.)

Zelazny gives us scenes of life in Boston -- it's a real place, with real people (the almost hopeless mayor, the greedy businessman, the teen lovers, cops hunting down looters, all struggling under the threat of extinction by plague). That's unlike the movie's Albany, which is a complete fantasy, a religious heavenly escape from reality. It is the fundamentalist end-all-be-all salvation as a selfish goal rather than the book's salvation as something people give to each other to help them through tough times.

In both versions, there are huge animals marauding across the landscape. The movie depicts them with exceptionally bad special effects -- it's so obvious they've spliced images of scorpions into a set background, for example. The book's beast are more variable -- huge bats, scorpions, snakes, Gila monsters, etc. But they are no more plausible: Evolution doesn't work that way. Radiation-induced mutations MIGHT create extra-large lifeforms, but only in very small numbers, not hordes. A far more likely probability would be a much LESS fecund landscape, smaller creatures, deformities that harmed their ability to adapt, etc. Zelazny's story is really a nightmare that happens to have an apocalyptic setting, not a survival novel. But he gives the character a palpable humanity -- flawed, but not entirely evil.

The movie plot also makes no sense. In the beginning, text says the war "knocked earth off it's axis," and at one point a character claims "if it comes back, everything could go back to normal." That's complete bullshit, not just very bad, lame pseudo-scifi. Of course, in the film, the latter happens at the end -- a deux ex machina where the hero rides into the sunlight over a green landscape. The book has no such nonsense -- Hell Tanner's success doesn't change the world; the sky is still full of garbage & electromagnetic storms. It doesn't even change him that much -- Boston erects a statue in his honor, and he's "the most likely suspect" in its graffiti defacement.

All it does it save some lives.

Oh, and one personally quirky thing I liked about the book (and disliked the film for completely omitting it) was that Tanner used Mass. Route 9 for the last leg of his journey. As a kid, I LIVED on that road. At one point, about age 4, the cops even had to take me home because I was "directing traffic" in the middle of it :-).

I'm not sure what Zelazny saw as a target at 90 mi from Boston, though -- that's in the middle of the rural Berkshires. The nearest town of any size is Pittsfield, and that's not worth nuking. The nearest probable target is Westover Air Base in Chicopee, about 60 miles from Boston, but that's not on Rte 9. (He has several scenes of Tanner avoiding radioactive craters that aren't near any plausible target.)

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