Or, the Modern Frankenstein

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

By design or accident, the Alien Tetralogy became interesting because each film had its own auteur or its own genre — Alien offered haunted house in space (and an uncanny double of the slasher), Aliens was a ‘Nam movie, Alien3 was a prison movie and Alien: Resurrection was. It simply was. So Ridley Scott decides he wants to go back and produce a new film in the Alien universe and make it a prequel — except for some reason it leaves the A-word off the title.

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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).

Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

I’ve tried to make this film review spoiler free, so I’ve been a little circumspect about some of its incipits. I am of course familiar with the Ted Chiang story, but I’m not here considering what has been changed between the two versions.

The last three films I have seen at the cinema have been sf — Passengers was predictably pants and I’m still processing Rogue One. It is one of Gareth Edward’s earlier films, Monsters (2010) that is most relevant here though, in which the US-Mexican border has been “infected” by sublime, incomprehensible aliens and the US is at war. Arrival’s heptapod aliens owe a debt to Edwards’s, as well as, perhaps Spielberg’s “Martians” in his War of the Worlds (2005). Aliens have arrived at twelve seemingly random if strategic points all over the world (which recalled Simak’s Visitors for me, but it must appear elsewhere) in giant, apparently rugby-ball shaped, ships. The race is on to find out why they are here and, more to the point, how we can exploit them. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), hero linguist, is called in to help decode the alien language, alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is there for less clear reasons.

The film opens with what appears to be a sidetrack — the birth, life and death of Louise’s daughter. This made me rather nervous — that precursor film Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) features a female protagonist with a dead father, and a tragic loss is an easy character motivation. There’s a certain amount of frustration to the camera angles — odd zones of focus and unfocus, characters offframe or not quite heard, so that we don’t quite get to see what’s going on. There are also a series of shots that for me recall Tarkovsky, although probably Nostalgia (1983) or The Sacrifice (1986) rather than Solaris (1972), although thematically that is in the mix too. In retrospect, it turns out, Villeneuve is playing fair with us but he has a helluva get out of jail free card. But I was a little distracted by the photo that Banks doesn’t have on her desk.

Of course, the bulk of the film is taken up with Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to communicate with the aliens, whom the latter names Abbott and Costello. This is odd, since neither of the heptopod duo engage in slapstick or banter, and it seems a very odd fashioned reference. Why not Laurel and Hardy? Ren and Stimpy? Cannon and Ball? Banks makes progress when she uses a whiteboard and when she recalls her daughter learning to read with picture books. We have a child’s garden of linguistics, as she explains her thinking to Weber (Forrest Whitaker), her military handler. The aliens, who haven’t seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), communicate in mandala-like ink blots, characters that seem to be entire sentences rather than symbolic representations of phonemes. Time clearly passes, and you might think they get their Rosetta Stone moment rather too quickly, as Banks begins to forge a relationship with Abbott.

By then there’s a ticking clock — even though we are focused on the American translations the film never forgets that aliens don’t just invade London or New York. The Chinese and the Russians seem the quickest to get to the point of being militaristic, and risks making the film look like old fashioned Cold War propaganda. Banks has to solve the puzzle before the nuke from orbit option is exercised. And it is elements in the US military that she has to fear as much as overseas forces. We teeter on the edge of action adventure when the film is much more interested in sublime tableaux.

The film, largely, trusts us. As the prologue alerts us, we should distrust beginnings, middles and ends, and there is no character who properly sits down and tells us the bigger story that is unfolding. To my taste, there are three missteps: an insert of a post-encounter documentary (which refers to Banks as Louise), the Doctor Who tell-not-show tactic of news bulletins to narrate the story and a line of dialogue that is absolutely predictable and vomit-inducing from the mouth of a major character. But we’re sneakily told what non zero sum games and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is, even if I’m not convinced that being immersed in a society where people only speak a foreign-to-you language is the same as thought being constructed by language. But pay attention or you’ve missed the key to the film. (There’s an early exchange between Banks and Weber, where she asks him to ask a question of another expert. The answer, “a desire for more cows”, presumably meaningful, is lost in the noise.)

Adams, low key, understandably nervous, is utterly convincing throughout. Renner looks somewhat bemused, presumably aware that his job is to be eye candy. Whitaker balances a difficult mix of potential threat and kindly go between. Meanwhile, almost every thing you take to be an idiot move has got a pay off. I don’t think that Solaris is that bad a model to bear in mind, stylistically and thematically. Put Stalker (1979) in the mix, too. This is sf for grown ups rather than frustrated teens, handling its big central idea much better than Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). It almost demands that you watch it again on a loop.

Villeneuve is set to film the sequel to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). As directors of utterly pointless sequels go, the signs are good.

Stockholm from Home

Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

I have a memory of being taught by an alleged ex-nun who, when she was teaching film, apparently kept reaching for “it was all a dream”. Psycho, for example, didn’t happen, but was dreamt, presumably by Marion Crane in the hotel before Loomis arrived and before she stole the money and drove to a motel. Passengers could well be a dream — it certainly comes across as wish fulfilment.

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How to Suppress #94

Back in the day I wrote a chapter on postmodernism and science fiction for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Space, as always, was tight, and as I recall, my focus was on the three key thinkers who characterise postmodern theory — for better or worse Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson and Jean-François Lyotard. I certainly knew about Meaghan Morris’s The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism (1988) and Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985) but it looks like neither get a mention. It might have been I assume one or other would be in a chapter on gender or feminism, but that’s no excuse.

More problematic — and I’m not going to go and check — is that all my fictional examples were by male authors.

The editors did not notice, but someone did:

Butler fails to mention even one science fiction text author by a woman or even one female literary theorist. How to suppress women’s writing? Butler’s article supplies an egregious answer. (Barr 153)

Yes, bang to rights.

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Moby Duck

Moby Dick (Trey Stokes, 2010)

Curiously the DVD has a trailer for another version of Moby-Dick, with Danny Glover and … dragons. I want.

In this version we have Captain Ahab (Barry Bostwick) as one of two survivors of an attack by an incredibly huge white whale on a submarine in Soviet waters in 1969. Ahab has stolen, or at least acquired, a nuclear sub and kidnaps the leading whale expert to try and track the behemoth down. He has a tape of the whale he wants her to play to call it into a position where they can kill it.

So the whale goes all bat-shit and attacks tourist boats and a cruise liner until a fight with the USS Essex and a showdown with the Pequod. Ahab rants hilariously, as the other characters exchange looks of disbelief, perhaps at his madness, perhaps at the dialogue. Derek Scott as the whale expert’s assistant manages to steal the film from beneath their noses.

Oh yes, this is bad, but in a way that Jupiter Ascending can only aspire to.

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.