Film

This 'Child' Should Have Stayed in Space

MARTIAN CHILD (dir. Menno Meyjes)

Some stories don’t need reforming. They are fine just as they are. When openly gay writer David Gerrold decided to adopt a foster child with deep emotional problems, the challenges he faced -- both personal and social -- were immense. Yet he dealt with the situation as only an experienced science fiction author could. He created a game between himself and his new son, using the ‘stranger in a strange land’ concept to make a connection that seemed impossible before. Since his fledging days with the original Star Trek series, the speculative has allowed Gerrold to envision a world free from the prejudices he often experienced. It’s a part of who he is. Oddly enough, the big screen translation of his autobiographical novella, Martian Child, is missing any mention of Gerrold’s lifestyle. Instead, we get a hokey, homogenized look at a hot button issue, marred by a mediocre approach to parent/child challenges.

After the death of his beloved wife, a successful sci-fi author named David finds himself in a major funk. It’s been a couple years, but he remains locked in a spiral of depression that has produced a bad case of writer’s block. Problem is, his pushy agent has promised their publisher a sequel to his recent bestseller. Adding fuel to his ‘feel bad’ fire, a local adoption agency is calling, wondering if he’s still interested in the adoption he had planned with his late partner. After a series of psychological slides, David meets Dennis, an odd little boy who believes he’s from Mars. Hiding in a box to avoid the sun, the child states, matter of factly, that he is on a mission to study humans and must complete it before being called ‘home’. David is initially taken aback. He’s sure he can’t handle such an unusual and needy kid. But as they begin to bond, the scribe realizes that Dennis is the perfect boy for him. He too felt like an outcast when he was young, and while the ersatz ET may be taking it to an extreme, David feels a solid, loving bond. Now he has to show the rest of the world the same.

Maudlin, mawkish, and slightly misunderstood itself, Martian Child is the perfect example of good intentions wrapped in Hollywood-lite logistics. It gives John Cusack a role that fits his pleasant if perplexed persona expertly, a supporting cast that sets off his performance well, and an unusual narrative conceit -- a kid who thinks he’s an alien -- to make its rather obvious points. As a foster child, shuttled from home to home like an easily returnable catalog item, little Dennis has every right to feel displaced and disconnected. But by using such an extreme illustration of this concept, the movie sets itself up to fail. Unless the boy is really from another planet, which itself reeks of narrative desperation, you end up with a clichéd conceit that’s predictable from the moment we see him onscreen. It will require extra smart writing and superbly skilled direction to make this potentially implosive mix work. Sadly, Menno Meyjes and his pair of novice scribes can’t deliver on said challenge.

There are moments when this movie feels like an underage version of Rain Man, Dennis driven in 15 different directions by the made-up mandates in his head. This is especially true of the mandatory custody hearing where, in order to stay with David, our anxious little boy simple regurgitates maxims his wannabe dad delivered several scenes before. We’re supposed to find it clever. In fact, it’s slightly distressing. If Dennis is only capable of communicating via the rote repetition of things he barely understands, what is going to happen if he’s never fully “cured”. Martian Child really never takes a stand on the kid’s obvious psychological issues. It merely treats them as a slightly unsavory eccentricity and leaves it at that. Even worse, David is an enabler of the worst kind, caring more for love substitute than the object of said affection. It’s only when he ‘accidentally’ kisses costar Amanda Peet that we recognize he may actually try to help the boy.

Dennis does remain the film’s main pitfall. Precociousness, by its very nature, is equally ingratiating and aggravating. There’s simply a very fine line between bewitching and beating on the brat, so you have to be careful how you approach said subject. Child actor Bobby Coleman plays his interplanetary prodigy in a lilting, feather light whisper that’s supposed to suggest fragility, but really reads as scarred and scared. With a face full of sunblock and ruby red lips jutting out from behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, he’s a pre-teen Roger Smith impersonator. His highly unusual quirks -- taking photos of people, collecting artifacts from their lives (otherwise known as stealing), and fretting to the point of breakdown over idle events -- aren’t really endearing. In fact, the way he holds onto them can be downright disturbing. The boy has clearly lost his grip on reality, and yet Martian Child finds this cutesy. If anything, it’s cloying.

Cusack comes across much better, if equally deprived. Substituting grief for homosexuality is a ruse that’s almost unforgiveable. In fact, it removes a crucial theme about tolerance that could have been effectively explored. Since the whole film is really focused on learning to love someone despite their implied social flaws, divesting the story of such subject matter smacks of PC thuggery. Even worse, it excises a mandatory parallel between Dennis and his Dad. Whose separation from the real world is more understandable -- a grieving man (two years and counting) or a gay man? One is three hanky manipulation. The other is a Red State rallying cry. By failing to have the nerve to address Gerrold’s preference, Martian Child makes a calculated artistic decision. It’s possible the filmmakers didn’t want to cloud the connection between parent and child by mucking things up with sexuality. An enlightened viewer can’t help but view the choice in less than noble terms.

Of course, this isn’t the only problem the production faced. Martian Child is one of those ‘on the shelf’ specials that went through massive reshoots when the ending tested less than positively. Even then, it took almost another year before the movie made it into theaters. Clearly, the focus groups were less than impressed with the results. If you don’t mind your family drama on the decidedly ‘melo’ side, if you couldn’t care less about the real story behind this superbly saccharine schmaltz, if all you require of your entertainment is simply sketched characters, a formulaic set of obstacles, and a good cry at the end, then this film clearly delivers. Those wanting insight into the issues facing adoptive parents, especially when dealing with emotionally damaged juveniles, need to look elsewhere. This isn’t Child of Rage after all -- something the movie itself makes us well aware of.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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