The Ape with No Name

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

The original Planet of the Apes franchise is a good example of the way in which sf film moved from radical to conservative between the late 1960s and late 1970s. Whilst the original Pierre Boulle novel presumably needs to be read in terms of French political history and colonialism, or in terms of class, the films seemed to offer an allegory for America in the civil rights era, with the apes standing in for whites, African Americans and Jews. Certainly we have the spectacle of Charlton Heston, old Moses and Ben Hur, and fellow white astronauts being subjected to the slave experience. As a sequel gave way to prequels, the films seemed to become more anxious about the politics (and there is something frankly racist about the allegory).

Tim Burton revived the series in 2001, with a frankly throwaway film, which restored a version of the original novel’s ending, and just confused the hell out of everyone — adding to my impression that he’s hardly made three decent films since Edward Scissorhands and that Helena Bonham Carter is sufficient reason to skip a movie. It made money, but Fox went a reboot route in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where motion capture and CGI evidently improved on Burton’s make it, but I found the shakeycam somewhat nausea inducing. I skipped out on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and I don’t even know who Dawn was. Now we presumably conclude a trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).

A simian flu seems to have rendered apes intelligent and killed millions of humans or struck them dumb. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is hiding out with other intelligent apes in the woods of the northwest US, trying to build a life, but the military are seeking them out and raid their enclave. The apes are planning a move to the promised land, but there is another raid and Caesar’s wife and eldest son are killed. Caesar sends the apes off, whilst he, with a small party, seeks revenge on Colonel McCullough, the killer.

Oddly, given what is to come, the film begins from the human perspective, following the raid, and we seem to be in Vietnam War movie territory, with the apes as Vietcong or giant Ewoks. McCullough will emerge as a crazed military figure, rather than a sensible defender of humanity, a Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now — although technically that is Cambodia rather than Vietnam. We cannot help but be moved by the death of the apes and the mercy Caesar shows.

But with a shift of viewpoint to the apes, we are in revenge western mode. A small party track the colonel across the mountains, picking up a mute human girl and a talking chimpanzee along the way. The posse evade capture initially, but on discovering that the rest of the apes have been captured and turned into slaves, Caesar has no choice but to enter the military base. The second half of the film is the attempt to rescue the apes before the cavalry arrive and the way Caesar’s revenge pans out.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, the film’s allegory — if indeed it is one — is less than clear. Several Black human characters act as an alibi against such a reading, but the treatment of the apes recalls the treatment of slaves in pre-civil war days. A recent reading of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad inevitably set me down that road, too. At the same time, the appearance of an equivalent to the syphilis-infected blankets recalls the white treatment of the Native American, and the apes seem to have a manifest destiny in their land by the lake. The mute girl, meanwhile, seems to be saying #notallhumans.

Several of the ape characters who have turned traitor are able to redeem themselves and Caesar learns that revenge will not bring closure. Or the dead back to life. We are, again, in western territory, with the itinerant outsider leader being able to save the community but not return to it. John Ford’s movies are clearly part of the palette, but he increasingly brought a mythic ambiguity to his films and John Wayne’s heroics are frequently undercut.

Almost inevitably we turn to Moses, who led his people out of bondage and to the edge of the promised land. But Moses died before he got there, of course. And the suspicion that all but two of the apes we have seen are male may make us question how long this community will survive.

The special effects are faultless — Andy Serkis is Caesar, even more than he was Gollum. The fur looks real and solid, and they are definitely in this landscape rather than seeming superimposed. The other apes convince equally. McCullough, Woody Harrelson who has spent a lifetime not being that guy from Cheers, tends to the gurn and his evil nature is meant to be rendered more complex by a long speech explaining his motivations, which brings the film to an shuddering halt and should have been closer to the end rather than a preview to three or four set piece sequences (like most blockbusters, this is a good half hour too long). I can’t help but feel that he is falling into the trap that so many Bond villains fall into — explaining their scheme rather than killing their antagonist.

But obviously spending so much money on a movie leads to a sense of incoherence, even if it better than any other blockbuster I’ve seen since Rogue One. But that is damning with faint praise.

Blood is Thicker than Water (and as Thick as Two Short Planks)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)

I confess I had a sneaking liking for Guardians of the Galaxy, in part because I went in with no baggage and low expectations — although clearly that’s a contradiction. I quite liked the ironising, which under cut the macho posturing, but I was left with the sense of the displacement of ethnicity onto different coloured aliens and a near absence of women (a green heroine and her blue sister, who apparently was Amy Pond).

Vol. 2 comes with the baggage of the original and the risk of a joke being dragged too thin. It begins mid-caper, with the Guardians protecting batteries for a alien species called the Sovereigns in return for the return of Amy Pond who had previously tried to steal them. Unfortunately Rocket Racoon steals some himself, and they are chased across the galaxy by the Sovereigns, who seem rather weaponised for people who employ mercenaries. The Sovereigns then employ Yondu Udonta, who brought Peter Quill up, to go after them. Quill, meanwhile, is rescued by his father Ego, who turns out to be somewhat of a God and who has created a paradise. Perhaps.

By now, the pattern is established — witty banter between the central heroes punctuated by fights and capers, synchronised to a seventies soundtrack. We reach the diminishing returns pretty early on with the fights, but be reassured that no one will really die that you care for. There is the Unspoken Sexual Tension between Peter and Gamora, and Drax gets a few more lines, and Groot is cute, as baby Groot. A new character is brought in — Mantis, an empath with feelers, oddly Sino-French, but apparently German-Vietnamese in the original comic appearance — and adds a little to the cringe factor.

The casting of as Kurt Russell as Ego is genius — bringing with him the baggage of cult director John Carpenter such as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., The Thing from Another World and Big Trouble in Little China, heroic but seedy, not entirely trustworthy. If you can’t afford Jeff Bridges, Russell’s your man. I could totally believe in him as love ’em and leave ’em immortal, but I definitely didn’t buy the plot gimmick as to why he needed his son. Ah well.

But it is, to some extent, a film about family and the coming together of estranged families, whether or not there is a blood tie. Yondu and Amy, recurring villains from the first film, are, after all, family, and family is family. They can be forgiven remarkably quickly and given a shot of redemption. Perhaps that’s what makes it comedy.

Meanwhile, as the Marvel Universe expands, the cameos and the injokes expand, with seemingly never ending closing credits, more Howard the Duck, too much Stan Lee — who has hardly improved as an actor since Mallrats — and Easter Eggs for future movies.

I can see how if you like this kind of thing you’d love it. I’d even go back for a third dose, but Ego is not the only thing to be indulged.

Start Here:

I intended to write up the episodes of the new series of Doctor Who — and I have finally started doing so, have seen “The Lie of the Land”. There will be plot spoilers, but in this entry I’m trying to avoid bringing stuff I know from later episodes in. This may change. And I may give up.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

“The Pilot” is the name given to the first episode of a TV series, a testing ground to see if it works, and sometimes it is remade before the series is actually transmitted — this happened with Doctor Who in 1963. Steptoe and Son had its origins in a series of Comedy Playhouse with one called “The Proposal”, a neat establishment of the two central characters who were to be trapped together.
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Look On My Prequels, Matey, and Despair

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

It really does worry me that with this and Prometheus I was looking at my phone at the fifty minute mark and was wondering when someone, anyone, was going to die. By now, the Alien template should be established — a small crew, who you’ll never quite be able to distinguish, stumble upon something nasty and are killed one by one until the final girl survives. In the case of the Alien franchise we know there are going to be aliens, but unfortunately they seem to want to delay gratification as long as possible.

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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.

The Short Long History of the Short

Ann-Marie Einhaus (ed) (2016) The Cambridge Companion to the English Short Story (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press)

It’s always good when a piece of work finally appears — I’ve been through research and drafts and edits and proofs and galleys. In here I have a chapter on “The British science fiction short story” (and I mourn my title or subtitle, which was something like “Authors and Editors”).

While the identity of the first sf novel is contested, Brian W. Aldiss’s championing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) provides a useful starting point. Her nested tale of a scientist who fails to take adequate care of his creation cemented an archetype of the genre and demonstrated an ambivalence towards science and technology that characterizes much British sf. Her depiction of the landscapes – of Germany, Britain and the Arctic – also points to an interest in the pastoral and the natural world, under threat from the Industrial Revolution. Her only other sf novel, The Last Man (1826), displays a pessimism and sense of decline that was also to pervade the British form. Shelley’s career was hampered by the politics of her family life; after the death by drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley she had to borrow money from her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, against her son, Percy Florence’s, inheritance. Sonia Hofkosh argues that Shelley ‘recognizes an economics of the marketplace, wherein production and consumption are compelled and constrained by publishers, editors, and readers’. She published in the annuals, ornate gift books that contained vignettes, poetry, accounts of the previous year and engravings. The first annual had been Forget-Me-Not: A Christmas and New Years Present for 1823 (1822), but the Keepsake (1827–1857) was more successful. In Shelley’s ‘Mortal Immortal’ (Keepsake, 1833), protagonist Winzy becomes immortal as he accidentally drinks an alchemist’s potion and then watches his lover Bertha as she ages and dies. It is tempting to read this (like The Last Man) autobiographically, with the dead Percy forever twenty-nine and Mary subject to the ravages of time and economic struggle.

There then seems to be a fifty-year gap: ghost, horror and fantasy short stories, but no sf.

Of course, if I’m wrong, let me know the British sf short stories between 1833 and ‘The Battle of Dorking’ (May 1871) (I mention ‘The Signalman’ (1866)).

I’m hoping the fifty-year gap is 1826-1871, as ‘Mortal Immortal’ pushes the genre boundaries a tad. *koffs*

I take the story up to Nina Allan and Chris Beckett. It is a sprint.

But some good stuff in the collection, including Paul March-Russell on “Writing and publishing the short story”, period pieces on Romantic, Victoria, early twentieth-century, mid twentieth-century and … plus genres such as detective, gothic and microfiction.

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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