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).

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.

Spoilers will follow. Continue reading →

I See Dead London

“Disfigured Myth: The Destruction of London in Postmillennial SF Film”, Foundation 122, pp. 122-32.

There is a moment in Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire (2002) when the hero, Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale), climbs a wall from a river and gazes across at a semi-destroyed Palace of Westminster and says, ‘Well, this town’s gone to Hell.’ It is not the only landmark to have survived several decades of destruction: Tower Bridge has also made it through. This article explores the symbolism and meaning of such landmarks, drawing upon the ideas of Charles Peirce, Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud, within a number of recent British science fiction films: Reign of Fire, 28 Days Later (2002) and its 2007 sequel, and Children of Men (2006). To already indicate the instability of a British identity that these films work to prop up, only 28 Days Later is a fully British production whereas the others are co-productions. The director of Reign of Fire is American, of 28 Weeks Later Spanish, and of Children of Men Mexican, but they all feature a British-born star (although the protagonist of 28 Days Later is Irish-born).

This is a version of the paper “London Death Drives” I gave at the Worldcon in August 2014, fleshed out and theory-enriched. It strikes me that there are a couple more films that could also be included here (I watched Doomsday (2008) and Flood, but neither quite fitted in the word count) and I’m sure I’ll return to British sf film soon.

May be we are set in our ways — I note here I am still in the Freudian paradigm with the uncanny and the death instinct — but note also the importance of Tom Shippey’s chapter, “The Fall of America in Science Fiction”, in Tom Shippey, ed. Fictional Space, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell for The English Association, 1990), pp. 104–32. That Shippey collection was some of the first serious sf criticism I read and it influences me more than I usuallly realise.

Out Damned Scott

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

I hate this. I really hate this. I really don’t have the words to begin to describe how much I hate this. I mean, everyone else loved The Martian.

For a decade or so, I’ve wrestled with two dilemmas:

a) is Tony Scott a better director than his brother?
b) is Ben Affleck a better actor than his old mucker Matt Damon?

I’d think I’d have it resolved and that it was Tony and Ben and then I’d see a film directed by Tony or Ben and suspect I was wrong. I realise that Tony died in tragic circumstances and his oeuvre is complete, but he gave us The Hunger and (the best Tarantino film) True Romance. On the other hand, Ridley has two genuine masterpieces: Alien and Legend (not, obviously, to be confused with the recent remake). Tony rarely seemed to hint that his films were anything more than vacuous tosh (although with an African American protagonist surprisingly often), whereas Ridley seems to try for the Meaningful and miss, whilst white washing all too often.

Then there’s Matt and Ben. Meh. I’m a fan of Kevin Smith films. What can I say?

Everyone else has done the jokes already — if you want a character who gets left behind and needs to be rescued, Damon’s your man. You’d think he’d get the message. So, as in the book, Matt Watney (Watt Damon), has been left behind in a sandstorm on Mars and begins to work out how he can survive until the next mission survives. There’s rather more of the crew than there is in the book, softening us up so we actually care when one of them dies.

And then, otherwise, there’s a fidelity to the book. Damon might strike you as being more buff than normal, but that allows for the malnutrition of later sequences and film is much better at given you a tabula rasa onto whom the audience can project emotions than a book in which the author has to tell you what they are thinking. The mission log can be used to justify voiceover, but it isn’t overwhelming.

The fidelity is a problem. Just as it is a bit of a wrench when we cut away from Watney to Earth for the first time, so it is here. The parallel editing is surprisingly clunky as characters wonder “I wonder what he is up to right now?” or “Do you think he’ll work this out?” out loud. For a Ridley film, the cast is surprisingly more multiethnic than of late, although there are a couple of whitewashing. And there’s also, spoilers, some additional sequences at the end to Get All Meaningful. To turn it into a recruitment ad for NASA.

And somehow Damon can pull that odd combination of nothing-special and resourceful man. The NASA team balance that concern and bureaucracy. This is a film — like the book — where the only enemies are the cold equations. The lone astrogating genius perhaps needed to have his performance dialed back a bit, and I was uncomfortably reminded of the Random Pot Smoking Rastafarian in Thelma and Louise. There’s a geeky Lord of the Rings reference in the novel which gets repeated here, with added nuance that Sean Bean is in the scene.

And of course, we know that Sean Bean has to be killed off. It’s what he does well.

So, unbelievably, and I hate this, Scott has produced a reasonable film. I think Moon and Gravity pull off similar situations of isolation with more aplomb, and there are similar moments of massive disbelief suspension, but this might be the first non-crap Scott film since well… well… his Hovis ads.

I’ll Buy That For A Dollar

RoboCop 3 (Ted Dekker, 1993)

The third film of a franchise comes with low expectations – by then none of the original cast are in it, or the protagonist faces an evil double, or everything is shot in 3D, or the original premise is junked. Diminishing returns doesn’t come into it.

Yet RoboCop 3 is better than it has any right to be. RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) was the director’s now trademark hyper violent satire on the corporate world, in which an almost fatally wounded cop (Alex Murphy (Peter Weller)) is made into a cyborg and forced to fight crime. He/it is the property of OCP (Omni Consumer Products) who clearly have an eye on the privatisation of the state for profit. In the sequel – directed by Irvin Kershner who directed the best (and second) instalment of a certain other trilogy – OCP are foreclosing on Detroit for non-payment. Detroit, by then, is a criminal warzone, by OCP envisaging a new gleamy city, which they will fund and profit from.

That city is still the Promised Land in the third film, but Detroit residents are being evicted supposedly to make way for the development. Functions of the state are clearly privatised and outsourced, with a new villain in the shape of Paul McDaggett (John Castle) and a new CEO in the shape of Rip Torn from The Larry Sanders Show. The Detroit police become increasingly wary of McDaggett’s plans, as rebels fight back in Old Detroit. When RoboCop’s (now Robert Burke) partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) is killed – she really ought to wear that armour she has – he sides with them against OCP, erasing the fourth directive which should prevent such things. OCP, meanwhile, are facing financial ruin and a corporate takeover from Japan. Head office send in an agent, Otomo (Bruce Locke), to try and reassert control.

It is satisfying if ironic, of course, to see the skewering of a corporation in a Hollywood movie – although of course Orion went belly up in 1999. One character tells us “There is no silver lining, only corporate scumbags who want to line their pockets” and McDaggett snarls at the CEO “If you’re just now figuring out the line between big business and war is a little blurry, then you’re further over the hill than they say you are.” OCP’s ownership of people and land is reasserted again and again – memories are property, ideas are property. The media colludes in corporate brainwashing.

Detroit was, of course, the powerhouse of the American economy, the centre of the car industry – and it is telling that RoboCop is compared to a Chevy when he needs repairs. It appears that, albeit for a brief period, the tension lines of race could be ignored in the face of working class solidarity in industrial capitalism. But outsourcing and rationalisation led to the almost complete destruction of the industry and Detroit was indeed to declare bankruptcy. African American ghettoes surrounded by declining white suburbs was the result. Motown moved to Hollywood.

The trilogy has a range of African American characters, albeit their race is not commented on at all – Johnson (Felton Perry) is a Vice President throughout, surviving when many others don’t, a visible success story. Sgt Warren Reed (Robert DoQui) is the grizzled police sergeant, who becomes the moral heart of the film. Meanwhile, the new character Bertha (C. C. H. Pounder) is a smart and charismatic leader of the rebels. (There’s another character, a pimp (Ron Leggett), who feels rather more stereotypical of Hollywood film, an echo of the mayor from the second film and a criminal from the first.)

Age has not been kind to some of the special effects – whilst the stop motion animation of the police robot was always clearly a model, flying RoboCop is clearly blue screened in. Alongside the ultraviolence and a rather awkward use of the word “slag”, we also have a child protagonist, Nikko (Remy Ryan), of mixed ethnicity and, surprisingly, less cute than you’d fear. She is a computer genius – echoes of from Lex (“Oh – a UNIX!”) Murphy Jurassic Park. Indeed, RoboCop’s feminist credentials are stronger than Jurassic World.

Of course, what doesn’t sit well is the final climactic shoot out which leaves the Detroit Police as heroes. We are clearly meant to punch the air: “It’s time to show how real cops kick ass”. But news stories about the police have been problematic of late. Here, the Repressive State Apparatus wins out over corporatism – and that is perhaps a hollow victory for the citizen.

Meanwhile, the CEO of OCP – an anagram of COP, of course, even if I kept hearing it as OCD – has visions of corporate rebirth: “I realize that it looks bad but, I mean, maybe our plans were overambitious. Let’s start a skoshy bit smaller. Let’s gentrify this neighbourhood, build strip malls, fast food chains, lots of popular entertainment. Whadda you think?”

Regeneration as land grab. Still so familiar.

Inheritance Rites

TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

tronSo, I accidentally saw TRON: Legacy.

I’d planned to watch it, but I wanted to rewatch TRON (Steven Lisberger, 1982) first, but it turned out that the bar code was slapped across the word Legacy in a somewhat misleading manner.

So I’m coming to this without having seen TRON since 1999 or 2000, whenever it is I wrote the Pocket Essentials Cyberpunk volume.

There will be spoilers.

Continue reading →

Bigger, Faster, Louder, Better

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

You know precisely what you’re going to get.

You have the big sexy project that some people are wary about.

You have the ambivalent capitalist who may cut corners.

You have the amoral scientist.

You have the maverick expert.

You have the jeopardy parcel.

You have the people you want gotted, gotted.

You have the bloody obvious sequel hook (which they’ll probably ignore).

So, these kids’ parents are getting divorced for reasons that aren’t readily apparent and so whilst ma and pa lawyer up, dinosaur-obsessive (he’ll have to grow up) and emo-boy (he’ll have to lighten up) are sent to Jurassic World, run by Aunty Spinster who never seems to answer her phone (she needs to learn about motherhood).

Jurassic World, a sequel to Jurassic Park — yanno where so many people died — needs a new dinosaur to beef up visitor numbers and be bigger, faster, louder and better than the last one — yanno just like sequels in movie franchises. Meta. You remember the merchandising room in Jurassic Park (1993)? Just like that kind of meta. And comic-relief  technician/geek Lowery Cruthers (Jake Johnson) wears a Jurassic Park/Jurassic Park t-shirt. (He’s also told to take it off, because what kind of crazy tattooed scientist dude would wear an offensive shirt when there might be press around).

So, to get the bigger, faster etc dino they call in the fiendish Dr Wu (srsly) to miss up the DNA of Indominus rex, a name daft enough that at least the characters have the grace to laugh at. Rather late in the day, they’ve wondered if the walls surrounding it are high enough, although What Could Possibly Go Wrong? They’ve called in maverick expert (Chris Pratt — you know he’ll be a maverick because he lives in a trailer/cabin and tinkers with motorbikes) who warns them Things Could Go Wrong and we think Of Course They Can, Otherwise There’s No Movie.

It’s not clear whether he’s employed on another part of the island by the same company or he’s employed elsewhere or quite what we’re meant to think of his West African friend Barry (Omar Sy). The film’s not big on backgrounds.

So stuff goes wrong and they start closing down the park, only the Jeopardy Kids are still out there, at precisely the point where Rex is hovering. Small world. Big Jeopardy. They also get to find the original Jurassic Park and — well, I kept thinking, this world is smaller, faster, louder, worse, because the geography seems rather tight. I suspect we have a cut scene, too, as Emo asks Baby if he still has those matches even though we haven’t already seen them.

Oh there’s some neat stuff with velociraptors and a few jokes with feet being bird feet not dino feet and the T Rex is saved … but the final stand off is a rabbit out of a hat. Aunt Spinster is very odd — robot eyes at start (business woman out of depth?),  awkward at doing the Unresolved Sexual Tension, does a weird transform into action heroine thing without ditching the high heels, does — for once — grab the bloody gun. Aside from all the dinosaurs (presumably) she’s pretty well the only woman in the film — there’s tearful techy girl and divorcing ma, but that’s about it. Oh, no, I forgot, there’s her clueless PA.

There’s something going on too about not being quite qualified to drive though — John Hammond substitute Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) hasn’t quite learned to fly his helicopter, Emo boy hasn’t quite passed his driving test? If we’re being meta, we might consider we have a tentpole movie (which Legendary Pictures clearly need after their recent box office duds Seventh Son and Blackhat) being directed by someone who has only been low budget before. I suspect, however, all the real work is done in special effects and second units.

And I haven’t even gotten to say WTF about evil military guy Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) who figures the dinosaurs have military value, just like the Company in the Alien franchise. Let’s take off and nuke them from orbit.

ETA: this is pretty sharp on the attitude of the film to women: