Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Goosebumps "Say Cheese and Die"

Due to the presence of Ryan Gosling eating veal in this episode, the NewtCave would like to officially abstain from taking any stance on Mormons, veal, or People Magazine's 2011 choice for "Sexiest Man Alive."

However, the NewtCave would like to take an official stance on The Notebook: It wasn’t very good.

And now I'll do something beyond swiping at low-hanging fruit.
No themes this time, despite the fact that I added that to the header, and there's a very simple reason for that.

This episode doesn't explore the philosophical or moral implications of the camera, despite the fact that this episode is 100% about the camera.

You might say, "Well duh, Newt, it's Goosebumps. Why are you expecting anything more than scary monsters?" I would then point you to episodes like "Night of the Living Dummy 2," or "The Haunted Mask."

Of course, not every Goosebumps episode needs to be a psychological thriller. But what's the point of being high-concept if you don't do anything with that concept?

And yes, this episode is high concept.

High concept stories are basically focused around a core idea; most times, one that can be summed up snappily.

A former rebel army captain leads a ragtag team of cowboy smugglers... in space.

Bam. Firefly.

A dog that plays basketball well enough to end up on a high school basketball team.

Bam. Air Bud.

Some kids find a camera that predicts the future.

Bam. This episode.

...As well as an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, but not the one that had Ryan Gosling.

I wonder if somewhere on the internet, AYAotD fans and Goosebumps fans are locked in debate over the superior Ryan gosling episode.
The reason Are You Afraid of the Dark? had a similar episode is because both episodes were based on an episode of The Twilight Zone called "A Most Unusual Camera."

And the original episode is a great example of the story possibilities here. By using a camera that tells the future, some thieves find a way to bet on horse races and make bank. As per the rules of Twilight Zone episodes, the thieves fought over the camera, which then led to their karmic demises... exactly as the camera predicted.

Look at that episode description. Greed, ethics, ironic deaths.

Heck, look at the episode of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show that used this basic premise, "Honey, You Won't Believe What Happens Next!," where Wayne Szalinski invents glasses that can see the future because... reasons. He sees a buttload of bad things, and the big peril of the episode comes along in the form of trying to change the terrible future that the glasses predict.

See that? See that part where I talk about changing the future? That's the main characters attempting to do something.

In this episode, Greg basically wanders along as he keeps taking pictures, resulting in a bunch of bad things happening until he rips up the pictures, undoing Shari's disappearance, and returns the camera.

That's it. Our hero is a moron who keeps taking pictures with an evil camera.

True, he's not 100% sure that it's evil when he takes most of the pictures, but why did he ever decide to take it out of his house after the picture of the wrecked car? That should have been a red flag!

This episode is just a series of unfortunate events. And at least those books had plots; they weren't literally just a series of unfortunate events, as this episode is.

Greg never actually tries to tell any adults about the camera. (This being Goosebumps, they wouldn't believe him, but some effort would have been nice to see.) He half-heartedly attempts to destroy it. And he won't. Stop. Taking. Pictures.

The thing that this episode, and by extension the original book, doesn't understand about stories where somebody has been given knowledge regarding a bad future (the Final Destination films, the Back to the Future series, "The Angels Take Manhattan," the first season of Heroes, et cetera) is that all the drama, all the excitement, all the mystery... it's all about the protagonist trying to change a horrible future they know is coming.

It's not merely the fact that bad things are happening that makes these stories interesting, because after about the second time the camera predicts something, the novelty wears off. It's a camera that predicts the future. We get it.

If there's a bad future, the protagonist has to try and fight fate. That's where the actual story is.

To be fair, "A Most Unusual Camera" didn't really deal with this, simply because the camera's prediction of the characters' deaths came at the very end to provide the twist ending. And the episode itself was a character study, showing what the protagonists would do with such power.

But can you imagine if, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly simply said "Argh! I can't believe I've undone my whole life!," kicked the DeLorean (somehow powering up the flux capacitor), drove back to 1985, and the plot just sorted itself out?

Does that seem like a cop out? Because that's basically what happens here. In a fit of frustration, Greg rips up the pictures, and the evil camera has been defeated.

He doesn't overcome any obstacles, he doesn't learn a lesson (apart from "Don't mess with evil cameras"), and he certainly doesn't grow as a character.

In the end, both this episode and the book its based on are just a reference to The Twilight Zone, devoid of any further exploration of the core idea. Does the camera cause misfortune? Or simply show misfortune that was already going to happen? Should anyone have such power? Can it be harnessed for good?

Who knows? Go read Death Note if you're looking for an examination of what having such power can do to someone. I've heard good things about it.

...Okay, even I'll admit I've probably spent a bit too long illustrating the issue with this plot.

Greg Banks (Ryan Gosling)
Ryan Gosling is a fine actor, even at this young age. But for some odd reason, his performance reminds me of John Travolta and I don't know why.

...I really wish I had more to say, but the character doesn't undergo enough personal growth. I could always make another cheap swipe at Ryan Gosling's film career, but that would merely be a band-aid masking the fact that Greg has nothing to do in the story than take evil pictures until the plot says he decides to return the camera.

Bird (Akiva David)
Yet another quirky best friend, but not one of the more memorable ones. Still, I have to admire the modicum of common sense he has when refusing to deal with the evil camera.

Shari Walker (Renessa Blitz)
She's there because any grouping of Goosebumps protagonists above two must include at least one girl. And to disappear, so that Greg can inadvertently harm a friend while still being able to talk to Bird about it.

You might remember the actress as Janet from The Magic School Bus, so you can add her to the list. I'll tell you what, though, I didn't recognize the voice. I must be slipping.

Terry Banks (Caley Wilson)
Plaid. Long hair. Welcome to the 90s, where every older brother wanted to be Kurt Cobain, but didn't know how to play the guitar.

Bullies (Dan Petronijevic and Christian Tessier)
The bullies are only really here to make it seem like there's more to this episode than there is. Sure, they seem like they might get their hands on the camera and use it for evil (before the twist ending, that is), but you could remove them from the story and lose nothing but the rather forgettable twist.

Although I would like to mention that Christian Tessier was also in "The Case of the Curious Camera," which was Are You Afraid of the Dark?'s version of the evil camera plot.

Spidey (Richard McMillan)
Meh. He's moderately creepy, but is only there to exposit and creep on Greg from a tree. And really, creeping on Greg amounts to nothing. Definitely one of the weaker characters in Goosebumps's pantheon of mad and/or angry scientists.

Not much to criticize in the way of special effects, so let's talk about the design of that camera. I don't like it. For one simple reason. It doesn't look like a camera. And honestly, it wouldn't be so frustrating if some characters didn't immediately recognize it as a camera.

What do those nacelles do, anyway?
Barking Dogs: 0
Although stock cat sounds do show up.

Child Grabbing: 1

Foliage POV Cam: 0
But Spidey did creep from behind a tree. 

Red Paint: 0

X-Files Shout-Out: 0

Final Thoughts
An interesting idea, turned into an okay story, turned into a thin script, turned into a bland episode. Its primary contribution to history will be as an answer to the question "What was the fifth thing Ryan Gosling was ever in?" And since more people will be asking "What was the first thing Ryan Gosling was ever in?" we can rest assured that Are You Afraid of the Dark?'s "The Tale of Station 109.1" is the overall winner in Ryan Gosling's brief. children's horror career.

Yes, even over PSI Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal.

...Look it up.

Next time, time travel, magic, an executioner, and political intrigue. Well... you know. Political intrigue in its most interesting form. By which I mean assassination.
See you then!

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