But Not As We Know It

Life (Daniel Espinosa, 2017)

A year, maybe two years, ago there was viral footage of an octopus sliding around the deck of a ship and eventually escaping through a teeny weeny hole. Cute.

That wasn’t the only moment of déjà vu that I had watching this sf-horror hybrid — most obviously its DNA is infused with Ridley Didley’s Alien, with an alien inadvertantly being brought back on board a spaceship and killing the crew one by one until we’re left with the final girl. On a purely CGI level, you might well be able to make the case that the effects have improved in forty years and I do confess that the tension is satisfactorarily cranked up in the final third, but we will forget about this film before the next Star Wars release.

What was I writing about?

There is also no denying that there is an impressive single continuous take at the opening as we are introduced to a pleasingly international crew on the International Space Station, moving in and out of space and connecting corridors and so forth in a seeming cry of fuck you, Gravity, I can do this too. But this is presumably relatively easy in the motion capture and digital era — imagine what Hitchcock could do with Rope now.

So there’s a probe which has a soil sample (sans potatoes) from Mars that is going to be analysed on the ISS what with quaranteen and all, only it’s approaching too fast and is likely to collide with the ship or the astronaut playing catch. For the sake of the plot, the probe is snagged and, for the sake of no nausea, continuity editing is reestablished.

Ship’s biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) locates a cute little monocell critter, apparently dormant, so he plays around with the atmosphere in the lab vitrine and gives it some ECT and it yawns and says hello daddy. Before you can say that’s not a bleeding obvious subtext, school children have decided that the alien will be christened Alien McAlienface — sorry, no, Calvin. I mean, it’s not as if the crew is going to be divided into the damned and the elect, is it? I may have hallucinated a character saying “I have a bad feeling about this”, but Calvin is pissed at the electronic probing and fights back and escapes. It can squeeze through the tiniest spaces.

And so, eventually, we get a body count and the kind of random disaster plotting that has been played with most recently in The Martian and Passengers — being knocked out of stable orbit, using up too much fuel, losing radio contact with Earth… And having carefully established that each cell can do the same thing as all the other cells, it rapidly becomes apparent that there is more than one Calvin. And fewer crew.

There are further attempts at the Deep and Meaningful — one character is reading The Interpretation of Dreams (“Can you say, ‘Monster from the Id’*”) and a copy of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon is produced as a present for an astronaut who has just become a father (and that presumably has significance if you’ve read it).l

But the film cannot really recover from the sense that the characters are so shallow and lack sufficient back story to really make you care. There are some pretty deaths, and you do kind of root for the characters, but not with any enthusiasm. And even the almost obligatory genre ending can’t really redeem it.

* Anachronistic joke, obviously, as Interpretation is 1899, 1900, and The Ego and the Id (1923).

My Heart Belongs To Dada

May contain spoilers

The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

I was seven when Star Wars came out – and I’d swear it had the subtitle then, but I suspect it was a couple of months into the run. I’d not seen The Searchers, The Dam Busters, Hidden Fortress or even Triumph of the Will, so it felt original. I’d probably seen Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, and at some point the Glen A Larson version showed up. I would have seen The Wizard of Oz, but didn’t make the link to Star Wars, but both were modern fairy tales and I knew them, albeit via panto and Disney and Ladybird Books. There was a novelisation, apparently by Lucas, which suggested earlier segments. I didn’t yet know The Lord of the Rings.

There was a space race of blockbusters — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire Strikes Back, Superman — and at some point there was Star Trek the movie, nicknamed The Slow Motion Picture or The Motion Sickness and boy was it dull. But we saw the gang coming together for One More Mission and there’s that extraordinary ten minute sequence when Kirk and Scottie check out the old girl on the big screen. Talk about your male gaze.

And years passed and puberty hit and Empire was clearly the best of the three and the three prequels happened. Oddly the BBC paid me a lot of money to write something about sf for their website and to review the novelisation. I went into The Phantom Menace knowing the plot. But then (spoilers) we knew the ending — Little Orphan Annie Kin is going to go wrong. The poster told us. There were call backs — more westerns, an attack like the one on the Death Star, but only C3PO, R2D2 and x to link us to the trilogy. There was Obi Wan Kenobi, but in an odd non-Guinness style by Ewan McGregor. The prequels were pants.

And years passed and that seemed to be that — although there was an odd Star Trek reboot that felt more like Star Wars, and director J.J. Abrams clearly preferred that franchise.

And then Disney bought Lucas (not Lucas Entertainment) in a no-brained multi billion deal that would pay in terms of merchandising alone, even without a third trilogy and spin offs. Our friend would be back.

So what happens next? Well, Han and Leia retire to the suburbs and Uncle Luke bounces their kids above his knee. Although Han did turn into seventies dad in the original.

Well, Abrams only has one one thing to do — to not kill the golden goose. Because, frankly, the magic bean counters at Gold Mouse Central will have calculated that the deal is repaid by merchandising alone — and endless iterations in Lego.

So we shake the magic eight ball of plot and we find an orphan with exceptional abilities, the finest pilot in the galaxy, a cute robot, a wise cracking sidekick, the finest pilot in the galaxy and a new evil man in black to recreate the original plot, and bring back the older versions of the old gang. This is somewhere between fan service and prick tease — we know from the poster that Han, Leia, R2D2, C3PO, Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon are back, and can make a few shrewd deductions about Skywalker’s absence from the poster but Hamill’s name on it. There’s a balance to be struck between delayed gratification and seeing what we want.

In a sense the original films were reruns — variations on Buck Rogers and the Flash Gordon Lucas had wanted to make. Both the later films in the trilogy and then the later we-shall-not-speak-of-it trilogy ape that, albeit with diminishing returns. The secret plans of The Death Star (which presumably are on file at the local council offices) are the secret map to Luke, entrusted to the faintly double entendred BB8, the cat to R2D2’s puppy, and inevitably this ends up on the not Tattooine desert planet which is home to this film’s orphan du jour, the kick ass Rey. BB8 is antenna in hand with ex-stormtrooper Finn, whose conversion to the light side is as easily and convincingly accomplished as Annie Kin’s was to the dark.

Incidentally, the crapness of this generation of storm troopers — shuffling embarrassedly out of shot at one point — could be used as a racist argument against diversity… Ooops.

And through such frail travelling coincidences we assemble the old team and the old set pieces — scavengers, trips across deserts, scrap dealers, strangulation by the Force, a cantina, hologram chess… Fan service. Give us what we want.

A character is killed off. Oh yes — although apparently the director was so enamoured with the actor that he is completely unexpectedly brought back. Because the thing we know about popular culture — I’m looking at you, Doctor Who — is that death is simply a matter of contractual obligations. But then, death didn’t slow Ben or Yoda down. So that death that comes later is clearly a wrench but there are two more films to play out.

And so we come to the new Big Bad, so evil he has to kill someone à la Vader, Kylo Ren, who hero worships a Vader he plainly doesn’t know. He appears to have a helmet fetish, which cramps in his impossibly bouffant hair style. Incidentally, his looks seem to be be more like an Alan Rickman than his putative father, suggesting his mother has the same kind of morals as Annie Kin’s mother with her “I got knocked up by the Force” cover story. This is a man, nay a boy, with anger management issues, who would throw his toys out of the pram with or without the Force, as witnessed in his really stupid light sabre attacks on consoles. Quite what the even Bigger Bad, Gollum Snope, sees in him remains a mystery.

It turns out that all the films are about relationships between fathers and sons — from Annie Kin’s anonymous trick to Darth Emo’s petulance. If we compare it to perhaps the only other multi-chaptered, anachronous saga — Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays — we can see how the quasi-patricide of Richard II by Henry IV is still playing out in the relations of (spoilers) Hal and Falstaff and even Henry VI. We have divided good and evil fathers, fathers who can’t measure up, sons who can’t measure up (and as far as I recall, the spoiler of Luke-I-am-your-father, supposedly not known about when Star Wars was filmed and Leigh Brackett’s contribution to the saga, was there in the comic book adaptation released before Empire). Annie Kin’s missing father (and thus under developed superego if you buy Freud) is played out in Darth Emo’s over compensation.

But fathers are there to be obeyed. Well, the good ones.

When Star Wars was released in the late 1970s we had had a run of adult themed, grown up sf movies and were desperately in search of heroes in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate disillusionments. It made us children again — even those of us who were children. Arguably, Lucas and then Spielberg infantilised the sf genre with their fort da sagas. Again, again! And made shit loads of money. Fathers and sons, sons and fathers (but Indy was the dog).

The Force Awakens is a cosy old set of clothes and slippers and presses the buttons expertly. The question the remaining two films will have to answer is the nature of mothers and sons, but more importantly daughters and mothers. It is to be hoped that Rey gets to stay kick ass, rather than face the domestication Leia endured from agent to slave.

What we want is Watney’s

Andy Weir, The Martian (2011)

So there are exceptions — the Watership Downs and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Clenchers — which get rejected by dozens of publishers and then become bestsellers. And there’s the self-published which become bestsellers when they’ve gone mainstream. One has to admire Andy Weir for his success — which seems to have been ordained even before we learned that Ridley Scott was going to get his mitts on the manuscript.

Lots of books get optioned.

Some writers live on this — hoping the bloody film never gets made.

This time it did, but I haven’t seen it yet.

So, we have an astronaut, Matt Watney, on the red barrel planet, who gets separated from the rest of his crew in a sandstorm and is left behind. Or, since he’s telling us the story in the first person, possibly he’d nipped for a slash behind the yurt and got distracted. Anyhow.

Because he’s never read Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About Too…, he decides to Rebuild Civilisation by planting potatoes and keeping going until NASA can send a rescue mission. He sits there and does all the calculation in a sort of rivet-counting engineer in Heart of Darkness way, but we have not sense of jeopardy because it’s in the first person and it would be really naff to suddenly switch viewpoints and add This is the last of the tapes we found and Watney’s body was found buried under the sand. On wonders a little about the balance of amino acids he’s going to get with rations and potatoes, and surely the lunacy induced by just eating potatoes is higher than the lunacy of being on your own for four hundred days or being forced to watch nothing but seventies reruns and listening to disco.

Oh yes, yet another sf novel where the protagonist know no culture produced after the date of the novel being written.

There’s a certain kind of purity that comes from a tight focus on a single character.

…and then the action suddenly switches to Earth and NASA and what they want to do with it. They begin to anticipate what Watney will do and how rescue him, and set a new deadline for him to survive to. There are convenient other spaceships around to borrow and presumably extra rations for the rescue team and at least now we have a sense of jeopardy because we don’t know what Watney’s up to…

… only we do cut back to him and we aren’t really allowed to think he’s dead for more than half a page. At least once we get to the third person — and sometimes we see Watney from the third person and in italics if I recall correctly, so there is hope that he might die after all. At any point it could all go horribly Pete Tong.

It reminded me of two earlier novels — but not the exoticism of Barsoom or the nostalgia of The Silver Locusts or the ontology of Martian Time-Slip or the social richness of Red/Green/Blue Mars. Rather it took me back to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which confuses pedantry with verisimilitude, and Ben Bova’s Voyagers, which has that international glossiness. Every one is competent, there are no real antagonists except the universe itself.

You might argue there are no people.

Hmmm.

It’s a long time since I saw Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but I suspect that was a lot more fun. But this is that reasonable novel that does its job and yes, does keep you reading. But I’ll forget it within the week.