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DVD Review: Flatland – The Film

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This year has seen the release of two films based upon Edwin Abbott Abbott’s great 1884 novella Flatland: A Romance Of Many Dimensions. One calls itself Flatland: The Movie, and is a half hour-long animated educational film featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Michael York, while the other is a lower-budgeted 99-minute long film called Flatland: The Film, directed by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr. This is an independent animated feature that has many good points, but just as many bad points.

Neither film is the first adaptation nor re-envisioning of Abbott’s brilliant Victorian era satire. The book itself has spawned literary sequels like Dutch writer Dionys Burger’s 1965 novel Sphereland, and Ian Stewart’s 2001 novel Flatterland. The latter book has also inspired a forthcoming film, while the original Flatland has had, before these two latest attempts, two previous incarnations – a 1965 cartoon narrated by Dudley Moore and a 1982 short film by mathematician Michelle Emmer. The very concept of a Flatlandlike world was also used by astronomer Carl Sagan in an episode of his 1980 PBS television series Cosmos.

This version of the tale tries the most to update the film to a modern audience, and that is its chief failing. The original tale was called a Romance, and this updating removes that very concept from the story. While it follows much of the novella’s narrative – in describing the way Flatland works (although the original’s King is replaced by a President – who oddly still wears a crown), it departs severely from the original at its most crucial moment, once A Square is visited by A Sphere from Spaceland.

In this version, instead of a mystical guide, along the line of the Three Ghosts Of Christmas from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, A Sphere is CEO of Messiah, Inc. Okay… if the mere mention of that plot point has you rolling your eyes, you are not alone. And the attempts at satire only go downhill from there.

Instead of Sphere’s lifting up of Square into Spaceland being a religious experience, in this film it merely serves as a ‘wow’ moment used to lead into some cheap gags, jokes, and a display of Ehlinger’s animative chops. The story dissolves. Then there is some cheap and rather predictable satire of consumerism and the current Iraq War, which will severely date the film in coming years, as well as a not so funny portrayal of a Spaceland Senator Cube who sounds very much like Ted Kennedy.

In the novella, the satire, while based in Victoriana, dealt more specifically with human foibles grafted onto the polygons of Flatland. Here, the polygons of Flatland and the solids of Spaceland are almost total caricatures – such as the gay sounding Flatland Senator who leads the dissenting Chromatist movement, and who is assassinated by President Circle’s henchmen.

The film is best when sticking to the book’s original points – like Chromatism as a way to individuate, and Square’s ability to eventually believe in more than three dimensions, while Sphere cannot, thus showing that the solid’s seeming superiority to the polygon was based not in any immanent superiority, but a greater range of knowledge. Once that is equalized — by Square’s appearance in Spaceland — he soon expands his mind well past that of any of the solids.

From online clips, and descriptions, the shorter film version of the book seems more faithful to the original, in narrative, and also more convincing in terms of look. The animation seems better, and, yes, not as ‘cheap.’ The animation in Ehlinger’s film smacks of too-'90s video game phoniness, especially in comparison to the visuals that The Movie offers.

For some reason Ehlinger also feels a need to display the innards of the polygons of Flatland. Yes, a thing from another dimension might be able to see them, but all it does is add distracting pulsations to the animation. Given his independent low budget, it seems Ehlinger is trying to gild his lily, to show his limitations were not as bad as one might infer – especially in places where the screenplay fails. The major failings of the film thus fall squarely on screenwriter Tom Whalen, for violating one of the oldest rules in film adaptation: Never change a story that’s great by too much!

The musical score, by Mark Slater, is sometimes apt – as in a whimsical salsa-like number once Sphere takes Square to Spaceland, but at other times it’s a mess. The same goes for the early overuse of annoying and condescending (not humorous) inter-title cards that tell us when ‘important’ moments are about to occur.

This is why a good screenplay is so essential. Whalen’s is too scattershot to leave a lasting effect. Instead, the jabs at racism, extremism, political purges, corporatism, bureaucracy, and other ills, are rather ineffectual, especially compared with the novella. Also, killing off A Sphere in the Spaceland War seems pointless, and departs too much from the original.

Finally, the ending is not only different from the novella, but muddled. In the film, A Square and his family try to flee to the Northern portion of Flatland, where Chromatism is accepted, but he is detained when the Northern Armies strike. He then loses his eye, which becomes a part — or container — of Pointland, not unlike a dream he had of Pointland, or the earlier one he has of Lineland. It’s a nonsensical ending that tries too hard for the relevance of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is especially inapt because much of the film before it descends into an easy didacticism wholly antithetical to Kubrick’s great film.

The DVD comes with an autographed thank you from Ehlinger, but the disk itself has only the film and a brief trailer. Even though the film is low budget, couldn’t Ehlinger have included a commentary by himself and others? It would have at least made the DVD, if not the film, worth a bit more, on a level of interest. In this day and age, not doing so is a bit of a ripoff – small budget or not.

On a real world note, the slim case DVD package the DVD comes in also has a bad holder for the disk. The disk is far too small and the disk cannot stay in its holder. While a worthwhile effort, Flatland: The Film takes on too much, misses where the book succeeds, and its ending is just bad.

But, Ehlinger does show a flair and unique style. If he continues in animation, here’s hoping his next film is about the same quantum leap up from this one that Spaceland is from Flatland. If it is, then we’ll have a film truly worth all the praise this one has gotten.

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About Dan Schneider

  • Flatlander

    Wow! I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the film! And trust me, Flatland: The Movie is the real deal. I saw it at MathFest in San Jose earlier this month and it was fantastic. 500 mathematicians were enthralled. It changes a few things from the book too but you get used to it and they help make the story work while preserving Abbott’s thoughts on dimensions. Right now you can only buy the educational site license version, but the home edition DVD comes out this fall, FYI.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    I’m very confused. Isn’t Flatland a neighborhood in Brooklyn? I grew up in Brooklyn and could swear we talked about Flatland every now and again…

  • I’ll try to check out the Movie some time, but even the trailer was more professional that the Film’s.

    Ruvy. It’s FLATBUSH, not Flatland.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    You’re talking to a Brooklyn boy with a map and magnetite in his head – there was not a Flatlands neighborhood, but there is a Flatlands Avenue. And I grew up in a sub-section of Flatbush in the days when we still heard nasty stories about the Flatbush Water Company…

  • Spacelander

    How curious that a reviewer in Austin, Texas, the originating home town of the competing “Movie”, should be negative about “The Film.” I take this with a grain of three-dimensional salt.

  • Spacelander:

    Conspiracies are grand, aren’t they?

  • 3DorDie

    I notice you didn’t have much to say about ‘The Movie’. I didn’t like the movie as much as the film. The Movie shows Flatlanders riding in vehicles (severe departure from the book). And, the Movie characters appear to be 2D moving in 3D space (severe departure from the whole idea of 2D space). Females promoted to polygonhood (another departure from the book). For the amount of time you spend haranguing The Films departures from the original, The Movie is a worse offender. And, what do you mean that ‘the disc is far to small’? All DVDs are the same size. I enjoyed The Film immensely. I found The Movie to be disturbing. So what, The Movie has a bunch of has-been actors. I’m in it for the story. In that respect, The Film delivered far beyond The Movie. I also find it interesting that this seems to be the first current release you have ever reviewed. I’m inclined to agree with Spacelander’s conspiracy theory. I think that you have severely damaged your credibility as a reviewer.

  • Mike_Mike_Mike

    DorDie, This is a review of ‘Flatland: The Film,’ NOT ‘Flatland: The Movie.’

    The reviewer also “didn’t have much to say” about ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ in this review, because, alas, this is a review of ‘Flatland: The Film’ and not ‘The Bourne Ultimatum.’

    I mean I guess he could be like you and just make up things about it and claim to have seen it based solely on the few clips available on YouTube, but instead he actually reviewed the film he said he was going to review. Sheesh. What nerve!

    And since when is Martin Sheen washed up?

  • This is a message from Ladd, the filmmaker behind Flatland the Film:

    In regards to the comment made by Spacelander and 3DorDie: while I appreciate fans and satisfied customers of Flatland the Film for their support, I ask everyone to please constrain from being aggressive towards reviews and comments made by individuals who do not share your taste in film… the multi-verse is, after all, multi-dimensional.

    I am happy to acknowledge the existence of the Movie, which caters to a different audience entirely and thus should not be seen as competition to Flatland the Film, rather as an opportunity to entice an even broader range of people into reading the novel.

    Having read Mr. Schneider’s review I do, however, want to clarify that the voice of Senator Chromatistes was meant to sound like Ed Wynn the character actor, not a “gay person.” I can not agree that homosexuality has a certain sound, or that the film was in any way attempting to caricature homosexuality.

    Thank you everyone! Here’s hoping that “The Movie” does well in its home release.

    Ladd Ehlinger Jr.

  • 3DorDie

    Mike, I understand that this is a review of Flatland The Film. However, Dan mentions The Movie in the review and compares the two throughout. It is from that reference point that I made the comments that I did. Secondly, what makes you think that I haven’t seen The Movie? And last, I feel like Martin Sheen hasn’t done anything worthwhile since Apocalypse Now, with the possible exceptions of some appearances in Babylon 5 and some of his work in West Wing. These are just my opinions.

  • 1) I’ve no connection to either film, but love the novella. Sphereland, the novel by Burger, is also a pallid imitation of the original novella. But, I have no connection to the Dutchman.

    2) I only mention the Movie because the Film’s website does, and most reviews compare them because of their similarities. This is not the first time that two films w similar subject matter came out very close in time.

    3) I write, ‘From online clips, and descriptions, the shorter film version of the book seems more faithful to the original, in narrative, and also more convincing in terms of look.’ Thus, there is no attempt by me to claim I saw the other film- but enough to compare the animation (which is superior if the trailers of the movie are to be believed), and what I have read of that film’s fidelity to the novella vis-a-vis the film’s.

    4) As for 3D space. The film opens with the very representation of #D space, as A Sphere and A Hexagon look at each other and see a line. This is explained in the novella as Flatland having microscopic 3Dnes, although undetected by its creatures.

    5) As for Sen. Chromatistes sounding like Ed Wynn. Well, given his flaming colorations and high pitched fey voice, and his wimpy demeanor, it’s a bit disingenuous to try to state that this wasn’t an attempt to portray a gay character- for the good or ill. La Cage Aux Folles would be proud.

    6) I do not compare the films throughout, merely in a single paragraph.

    7) Like almost all films that miss the mark, this film’s undoing is the screenplay. As I stated, you do not mess too much w a classic, and the updates to this film will date it far more than the original book has dated it.

    The point is that a review has to be based on intellectual objectivity, not emotional outbursts, which to many readers and responders easily fall into. But, it is a worthy start and I hope Ehlinger keeps going, because there are too many Shreks and Cars and other CGI crap out there.