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The Day The Earth Stood Still
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Twilight
March 01, 2007

Flatland

The inhabitants of a two-dimensional world struggle to grasp higher geometries—amid wars, political purges and religious persecution
Flatland
Directed by Ladd Ehlinger Jr.
Screenplay by Tom Whalen
Flatland Productions Inc.
100 mins.
MSRP: $20
By Paul Di Filippo
In 2004, independent filmmaker Ladd Ehlinger Jr. conceived the notion of turning that masterpiece of Victorian SF, Edwin Abbott's Flatland (1884), into a full-length animated feature. The subsequent project took three years, but with the help of screenwriter Tom Whalen, composer Mark Slater and producer Karen Guelfo, along with a host of computer-rendering whizzes, the story of Mr. A. Square and his quest for knowledge has finally hit the small screen.
Ehlinger manages to retain the Victorian satire on pomposity and cultural blindness while updating it to modern conditions.
 
We initially become familiar with the daily life of A. Square, convention-obeying householder and lawyer, as he instructs his son, A. Hexagon, in the rudiments of sensory education peculiar to a 2-D environment—which of course is all that exists! But the story soon opens out to a larger societal territory, as A. Square goes about his current professional task: defending a "Chromatist" rebel, one who believes that color should play some part in self-identity. (We also get to see doings at the high political levels of President Circle and his various senators.) When his client commits suicide, Mr. Square is naturally upset. This affliction perhaps predisposes him to an odd dream: He imagines Lineland, a world of only one dimension, and has a frustrating conversation with its inhabitants.

After awaking the next morning, A. Square experiences death and rebellion before the day is over, narrowly escaping with his life. He finally locks himself up safely at home. But is he truly safe? How does a circular "priest" suddenly materialize behind his inviolate walls? And why is this priest claiming to be a "sphere" from a higher dimension? After some intellectual wrangling, A. Square is bodily yanked from Flatland and brought into the world of A. Sphere. Here he discovers that the shallow political wranglings of his own world are mirrored among the higher dimensions, and that a war in 3-D threatens his world as well.

Characters and landscapes with depth
Given its geometric constraints, how does one prevent an animated version of this seminal, beloved novel from looking like a very long game of Pac-Man? That's the central question any savvy viewer must have in his head when first hearing of such a project. It seems to me that there are three essential things that need to be done to succeed, in perhaps decreasing order of relevance:

1) Do excellent design work on the characters and their world.
2) Preserve the wit and allegory of the original.
3) Add any tonally consistent updates to the story that will highlight its continued relevance.

I'm happy to report here that Ladd Ehlinger and company have kept their eyes on the ball in all three areas, and thus have created an outstanding translation of this important book to another medium. This film entertains, enlightens and educates.

First off, their graphical interpretation of the characters and worlds of Abbott's book are sophisticated, beautiful and easily graspable. The range of motions exhibited by the inhabitants of Flatland are simultaneously alien and human. Their voices are endearing, even the piercing "peace cries" of the females. Emotions are conveyed through subtle postures and eyeball movements. Sometimes, looking down from above the maze made up of A. Square's city and home, along with the whirring insides of the creatures, is akin to racing down the dreamlike circuits of some imaginary computer.

Nor is this attention to detail neglected in the 3-D world. We've all gotten used to CGI and 3-D modeling, but the design of the characters in A. Sphere's realm is still clever and fresh. In this part of the story, I'm reminded of the world from the underappreciated film Robots (2005). And while Ehlinger's software and methods might not be Hollywood's state of the art, he gets very professional results. Inventive "camera angles" and lighting play their part as well, as does a fine musical score. (I particularly liked the salsa-type tune that accompanies our first flying encounter with the 3-D world.)

Regarding points two and three in my outline above: Ehlinger manages to retain the Victorian satire on pomposity and cultural blindness while updating it to modern conditions. And the most central trope—that of conceptual breakthrough—is brilliantly handled.

About the one complaint I have is that some of the on-screen narrative delivered through "textovers" gets a bit heavy-handed at times. Ehlinger should trust that modern audiences, used to such mind-benders as The Matrix (1999), will be happy to accompany him on his glorious mathematical mystery tour without hand-holding.

As a red-blooded New Englander, I had to laugh at the 3-D senator who sounds just like Ted Kennedy. Or is that Mayor Quimby? —Paul