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Flatland
Reviewed by Joe Crowe, © 2007

Format: Movie
By:   Ladd P. Ehlinger Jr.
Genre:   Science fiction
Review Date:   April 11, 2007
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Flatland is a novel by Edwin A. Abbott published in 1884. All the characters are geometric shapes. It contains an entire world created using the rules of geometry. It's required geek reading.

I only just now heard of it. I was never good at math.

The Flatland movie is full-length computer animation, but there are no talking forest rodents and no celebrity voices. I've never seen such a thing before.

A regular guy is wrapped up in courtroom intrigue, with assassination and sedition. Then a visitor reveals there's more to the universe than he ever imagined. Telling his universe that, though, is kind of a problem.

The concept in Abbott's story does the best thing that science fiction does: It creates a new thing. The story's plot is not new, but the setting is.

Flatland is a two-dimensional plane. The protagonist A Square is a square. The number of a person's sides is how high you are in the social strata: Hexagons are the ruling class, triangles are thugs. No one has a concept of up and down. The Flatlanders don't call their land Flatland, because they don't know anything but flatness.

When A Sphere materializes, Square is torn between seeing him as a messiah and a heretic. He has to go to Spaceland, the three-dimensional realm, to understand.

The concepts take some explaining. Voiceless narration boxes interrupt most of the action early on. They're kind of smart-assy, and I have no quarrel with that. It's a much better method than filling up dialogue with explication. This is the right call, but it gets a little out of hand. For example:

Something happens. Then a narration card pops up:

PAY ATTENTION NOW. THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER.

That plot point comes up later. Then the card on screen says:

Card on screen: YOU WERE PAYING ATTENTION, RIGHT?

Luckily, once the movie really gets rolling the cards go away. And when A Sphere explains three dimensions to A Square, his voice is all British, so it's OK.

There are some fun guest-star like voice spots: One guy sounds like Reverend Jim from Taxi. The best one is an assassination made hilarious because a victim sounds like the cartoon cat Snagglepuss.

The look of the entire film is intricate. The colors are gorgeous. It takes a few minutes, but once you get into it, you really see the personality in the shapes. Flatland's version of Stormtroopers are triangles. They are only that, three-sided objects. But a legion of them looks just as menacing.

The first half of the movie is in Flatland. It looks like a Pac-Man maze. When the 3-D sphere appeared, it was stunning because I'd gotten so swept into the 2-D.

The three-dimensional look of Spaceland is just as excellently created. When A Square returns to Flatland, the phantasmagoric twists and turns of the surroundings are awe-striking.

This is not the same movie as Flatland, a completely separate adaptation. Both versions are insightful tellings of the story. But this one isn't that one.

I'm about 125 years behind the curve on the original book. Rick Klaw tells me it's required reading in math and philosophy courses at the University of Texas.

The movie site includes the full text of the novel. Here is the rare, and somewhat pricey, first U.S. edition. There is a Flatland role-playing game by Marcus L. Rowland.

Flatland is science fiction at its scienciest. It has amazing stuff to look at, and to wrap your noggin around. You have to see it. It's a trippy brain-fest.

RevolutionSF editor Joe Crowe knows that one is the loneliest number.

 
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