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230 of 241 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Two reviews in one, April 8, 2008
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This review is from: Flatland: The Movie (DVD)
This review covers both versions of "Flatland" released in 2007, one by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr. with a mostly unknown voice cast, and the other by Jeffrey Travis with some Hollywood big names providing the voices.

The source material for both is the 1884 novella by Edwin A. Abbott, but the approaches of the two films differ radically. The book is a staple of science fiction, and one of the few to address mathematical issues at its core. Being a product of its time, the book is technically naive, and politically incorrect based on current sensibilities.

The Travis film is visually slicker, but significantly shorter, and tackles philosophical issues relative to the passage of time from initial publication. As such, it tampers with the plot to mixed effect. Unlike some others, I have no problem with some of the revisions to the underlying plot since they do help bring some of the book's major issues into somewhat sharper focus. On the other hand, they also add a "feel good" and politically correct sensibility that seems out of place.

The Ehlinger film is much truer to its source material, which is both a strength and a weakness. Given a current perspective, its 19th century depiction of the political and social subjugation of women is a distraction that the Travis film avoids. It's also a longer film and could have been more effective with some of the same plot and editing license employed in the Travis film. Where it does tamper with the plot, some of the decisions are questionable as other reviewers have pointed out.

So which is better? In my opinion, the short answer is the Ehlinger film. Despite its length, political incorrectness, and technical inferiority (the animation of the Travis film is much more sophisticated), it resonates at a technical level to a degree that the Travis film can't match. As a scientist, this means a lot to me. On the other hand, the Travis film resonates on an emotional level that the Ehlinger film can't match. So the answer may be whether you're looking for technical insight or emotional satisfaction.

Most jarring in the Travis film is that, unlike the Ehlinger film, the animators never quite caught on to the implications of a two-dimensional universe. It is filled with objects which are instantly recognizable to us, yet would be clearly impossible or meaningless in the film's reality (e.g. the protagonist's daughter has toys which only make sense to someone with a 3-D perspective, and how does he open his briefcase?). The cover art is an obvious first impression example. The Travis film's characters look more human, but ask yourself how their eyes work. One detail of the book is that looking at a Flatlander from above, all of his internal organs are clearly visible, as they should be. Travis' animators hint at this, but don't meet it head-on. The Ehlinger film's animators may not have had the resources to make as slick a film as Travis', but they obviously gave a great deal of thought to what they were doing (or maybe not, since the necessary designs were all in the book). In short, Travis had the budget, but Ehlinger had the passion for the project - albeit perhaps a bit too much respect for the source to create a truly superior adaptation.

The differences reflect different target audiences, though. The Travis film is an educational short film which was obviously meant to be viewed by classrooms of middle school and high school students. As such, it had to be socially inoffensive while conveying concepts of geometry that would never occur to non-mathematicians. That it includes recognizable names voicing the characters will help it grab a bit more attention - an educational short film for the "X-Files" generation. The Ehlinger film would mostly appeal to people with a college level interest in mathematics, or others who are already familiar with the book.

Neither film is perfect, but I'm giving the Ehlinger film a rating of 4 and the Travis film a rating of 3. Depending on your sensibilities, your conclusion may be exactly opposite of mine, so I hope this review includes enough information to guide you to an informed selection.

Or, like me, you could simply buy both... ;-)
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 20, 2008 9:30:56 AM PDT
Al Treder says:
My thanks to Bob Stout for taking the time to describe the differences between these two movies. Without his insightful comments, I would have blindly accepted the Scientific American glowing review and bought the glossy short one. My interest is at a higher level of mathematics, so I will get the long one.

Posted on Jun 27, 2008 10:53:55 PM PDT
Kevin White says:
Yes, an excellent review!

Posted on Jul 30, 2008 7:43:36 AM PDT
Chuck Biehl says:
While I certainly appreciate the review, as a teacher I much prefer the "Movie" as opposed to the "Film". I thought that the "film's" graphics were great, but the length and the overall story line left me (and especially my students) bored and annoyed.Despite the obious problems with the "movie", as mentioned, it is IMHO much truer to the original story, without the original politics, of course, and served to get the point across without being overbearing.

Posted on Aug 21, 2008 7:52:52 AM PDT
Steve Reina says:
I gave your review a positive vote but I disagree on a couple particulars. First off, I actually liked this film better than the other one. If you're going for technical accuracy, then "real" two dimensional life would probably be most like that portrayed in Dewdney's Plainiverse. (Dewdney apparently spent as much time considering the reality of his world as did the guy who created the Pokeman characters!) Likewise I wasn't troubled by for example the presence of such things as a toy unicorn in a two dimensional world because I thought it was more about putting the ideas of Flatland in the strike zone for public consumption. And by having such notables as Martin Sheen and Michael York involved I thought this project had a better chance for making a real connection with the public at large. The universe inhabited by us -- who've read everything on the Fourth Dimension from Charles Hinton forward -- is sadly but part of a larger community who will only afford themselves one or perhaps two contacts with these very vital concepts.

Posted on Jul 3, 2009 11:55:27 AM PDT
Nice review. I'd add one quibble: I'm not sure that the original book is as politically incorrect as you portray it. I reread it recently and it struck me, particularly in its treatment of women, as social satire. It's so deadpan, though, that modern audiences would probably miss it. (And of course, I might be reading into it my own sensibility...)

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 10, 2010 4:49:41 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 10, 2010 4:50:12 PM PDT
Serai says:
I agree with Richard. After many readings, I also came to the conclusion that the sexist attitudes in the book were in fact a parody of the contemporary views of men towards women, and what convinced me of that was the fact that many readers probably overlook: that the characters are literally two-dimensional. So of course their views are going to be extremely limited and blinkered - how could they not be? I think this was Abbott's sly way of slipping in some quite scathing views on the society of his time while ostensibly telling an intriguing little tale about geometry, mathematics and science. Quite clever.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 15, 2010 12:14:23 PM PDT
J. Travis says:
I appreciate seeing this discussion of Ehlinger's film and my movie. As the director of Flatland The Movie, I can attest to the fact that I believe Abbott's book was being satirical in its depiction of attitudes toward women. My writing team and I struggled with whether to keep the women as lines as in the original book or make the change, and in the end, we decided that 19th century satire would probably not come across appropriately to 21st century audiences; hence our decision to make females into polygons in the adaptation was not motivated by political correctness or any such nonsense, but by a desire to streamline the story and avoid confusion to viewers unfamiliar with the book.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 14, 2011 12:03:08 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 14, 2011 12:06:14 AM PDT
Travis, are you suggesting the DVD of your film lacks a director's commentary? That is, it doesn't even have a production featurette?

Is there a more expensive version with interviews of you, the animators, and other members of the crew?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 23, 2012 7:36:33 AM PST
i prefer the noisy -- and dangerous -- lines, but i understand your reasoning. i thought the whole concept of females as pointy lines was hysterically funny, but i am used to reading 19th century literature and appreciate it. i'm in love with the book, and i think i'll buy the Ehlinger version instead of yours, but i do appreciate your effort in making a film out of a tremendous book.
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