So, I saw DOCTOR STRANGE today. Some thoughts, Storify-ed from Twitter, and then more below.
So, I saw DOCTOR STRANGE today. Some thoughts, Storify-ed from Twitter, and then more below.
A few cool things happened over this last week, so I’ve assembled them here for public consumption:
This is going to get deep into Spoilers, friends. See the movie, then read this post. If you’ve generally agreed with my reviews, than just go see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and come back to read this post after.
The film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s geek-tastic Scott Pilgrim comic series hit the big screens last week…to unimpressive monetary results, bringing in just over $10 million, 5th place behind 1) The Expendables 2) Eat, Pray, Love 3) The Other Guys and 4) Inception.
Its rating is in the high 80%s, higher than all of the movies which beat it monetarily (except Inception). It has tons of geek appeal. So why did it “bomb”?
Here’s the thing — it’s very particular geek appeal.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is for people who (preferably) share several or more of the following traits:
Moreso than possibly any movie in recent memory, the very celluloid upon which the Scott Pilgrim movie is filmed is comprised of Geekdom. Geekiness was like oxygen. The film is densely coded with visual and auditory references to geek culture, from comics to video games, but also to sitcoms and with commentary on the romantic comedy genre. It starts with a chiptune version of the Universal theme as the screen shows a slowly turning old-school video game graphics rendering of the Universal globe. The opening credit sequence is rife with visual allusions to video games and comics.
If these references go over your head, Scott Pilgrim may not be for you. It’s easy to position as a representative narrative for Generation Y (or Generation X, depending on who you ask), which also leads into another point that some have raised. Why, though, do some reviewers find it necessary to rag on the target demographic of a film that they (the reviewer) ostensibly didn’t understand or enjoy?
See, for example, this NPR story, which links to a number of the negative review (more of the film’s target audience than the film itself): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129150813
Did you read that story? Ok.
So what we have here is a movie that is really most effective for a narrow demographic, and somehow that makes it a bad movie. Do reviewers pan a romantic comedy when it doesn’t try to appeal to people outside the ‘chick flick’ audience? Or rag on an action movie when it fails to transcend its genre and compete for an Best Picture Oscar?
What about Scott Pilgrim is it that attracted such rancor in reviews? Is it the same thing that lead to the film’s mediocre box office performance? i09.com’s Cyriaque Lamar gives several reasons in this article: http://io9.com/5613417/scott-pilgrim-vs-the-lamentable-weekend-gross-++-what-happened
But I don’t know if I think those reasons quite add up.
Some may call Scott Pilgrim’s “failure” a referendum on geek culture, heralding the end of the Age of the Geek. I’m more inclined to point at the fact that the film uses a great deal of medium and genre emulation in its cinematography, as the film at turns replicates comic books, video games, the fighter genre of games, sitcoms and the indie drama/comedy. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World leaps nimbly between those styles and referents, and for a viewer conversant with the Recommended Reading/Viewing/Playing, it works. I’ve never laughed so continually or so un-selfconsciously at a film in quite a long time.
This wasn’t a film where geek culture was being re-packaged for the majority, like the X-Men films or Iron Man or Spider-Man films. In these cases, a character and/or story well-known in the geek community is re-told and re-purposed for a general audience, adapting it to be more understandable, with a smoothed-out backstory less laden with decades of continuity. While Scott Pilgrim was adapted and streamlined for the screen, it was still (for me) very much a geeky movie for geeks, and never apologized for it.
It’s also important to discuss the Hipster aspect of the film. Pilgrim of the movie is less actively a geek than he is in the comics, and instead comes off as in no small part a slacker hipster kid — he has little life ambition, plays in a band, but isn’t any good at it, and only shows agency and energy when it comes to Ramona and then his fight scenes. There are a number of places where Hipster culture and Geek culture overlap, which I find amusing since for me, at their hearts, Geekiness and Hipsterness are antithetical.
In my evaluation, Geekdom is at its core a culture of geniune enthusiasm. You “geek out” about something when your enthusiasm shows to a degree which may be seen as excessive to some.
By contrast, Hipsterness for me is about irony — it’s about taking an attitude/position towards something. Hipsters associate with cultural materials or behaviors, but they do so to comment on them in a kind of Bertold Brecht way — Hipsters drink PBR because of its blue-collar associations, made ironic by the fact that most Hipsters come from decidely white-collar backgrounds — Hipsters listen to music and then take a ‘been there done that’ attitude to it.
Not being engaged in Hipster culture, my ideas about it are nowhere as developed as my thoughts on geek culture — but it’s worth the time to talk a bit about Hipsters for Scott Pilgrim, due to the associations on the part of both the film and the source comic (which delves deeply into the Toronto scenester world).
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World combines Romantic Comedy, Battle of the Bands, Fighting Game and Coming-of-Age tropes and tale-types, positing a world where young men and women have troubled romantic and personal histories as they fumble around trying to learn how to be themselves, but despite that complication, the world can be made simple by the application of the video game logic — Scott Pilgrim can bring his video game experience to bear and literalize the metaphor of “dealing with baggage from your S.O.’s exes” by fighting them in sequence. Scott Pilgrim literalizes several more metaphors of romance/baggage, from the ex who can still “Get into your head” (the chip) to being your own worst enemy (Nega-Scott!).
Some have discussed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as a musical, but instead of singing, the characters fight — they still have soundtracks that convey the emotions of the scene, but express themselves and resolve conflicts via juggles and 64-hit combos and leveling up rather than in singing.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will likely even out or turn a profit, given the chance that it will develop a strong record of DVD sales and home-release viewing.
If you read this blog, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is probably for you. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and plan to see it at least once more in theatres, delving deeper into the thickly-laid references.
Dreamworks’ latest offering is one of their best.
How to Train Your Dragon focuses on the story of a Viking named Hiccup, who is scrawny, clumsy, and not at all possessimg the traditional Viking virtues of strength, battle-lust and a horn-laden hat (we can see here that this movie’s traditional viking is one of the Looney Toons tradition).
Hiccup is instead, an engineer, and a smith’s apprentice. He yearns to impress the lovely Astrid, a fierce young lady Viking. His clumsiness and odd sensibilities instead make him both a laughing stock and somewhat of a menace to his village.
This is a problem because his village is already plagued by dragons. In this world, there are dozens of varieties of dragons, from fat and ponderous pests to the fierce Nightmare and the seldom-seen and never-killed Night Fury.
Hiccup disobeys orders and runs out in the middle of a raid, deploying his latest invention, a net-throwing device. He manages to hit and bring down a Night Fury, but no one believes him.
Hiccup later finds the Fury, but cannot bring himself to kill the dragon, discovering that it is as terrified of him as he is of it.
Instead, the two begin a friendship. The night fury’s tail was maimed in the raid, so it is incapable of escaping the mountain lake glade where it crashed. Hiccup designs a prostetic wing-fan for the dragon, whom he names Toothless.
Hiccup is enroled in dragon training by his father (the Viking chief Stoic the Stout, voiced by Gerard “Sparta!!!” Butler. Hiccup uses the knowledge gained about dragons from Toothless to excell to the amazement of all.
Later on, Hiccup must choose between his dream of being a might warrior and his friendship with Toothless. The film ends in a great action sequence and finishes up with a good lesson and a cute conclusion.
Aside from positing dragons as not the bad guys, there isn’t a great deal of originality in the film, but it doesn’t matter. The characters are likable and relatable, the dragon species neatly distinguished, and the story confidently told. It’s accessible for kids but compelling enough for an adult audience. It’s as delightful as Kung-Fu Panda, if not a gut-bustingly funny for lack of Jack Black.
An early favorite for one of the best films of the year and a likely best Animated Feature contender, How to Train Your Dragon is great for all ages and very much worth seeing in theatres. The 3D is used somewhat sparingly, mostly for dragon action, and decently done, though I’d say not essential for enjoying the film.
Up in the Air (adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn) focuses on Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), a man who travels for business for more than ¾ of the year and is most at home when he is flying. The mundanity and stress of air travel doesn’t get to Ryan Bingham. Due to the fact that he has nearly every loyalty perk available at the Hilton, Hertz, and American Airlines, traveling to him is a delight, where he is constantly greeted by name and shown the best of treatment. He makes single-serving friends on flights, seamlessly crashes other people’s parties at hotel conference suites and moves through the world with great efficiency, completely unfettered by attachments or permanency. He is developing a reputation as a motivational speaker with his program “What’s in your backpack?,” which teaches that material possessions are just ballast, and that the emotional connections with people are just another kind of ballast, tying us down in one place and grounding us with emotional inertia.
That is, until two women come into his life and provoke him to question his way in life. The first, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is a fellow unfettered traveler. They flirt by arguing the relative merits of various car rental companies, boast about their elite statuses and frequent flier miles. They tumble into bed before both flying off their separate ways in the morning, making plans to meet again with the same pragmatic efficiency that dominates their business life. The other woman who upsets Ryan’s status quo is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young Cornell grad who is a new hire for Ryan’s firm, promising to revolutionize the business. Ryan’s constant travel is in service of a company that is hired to downsize employees and offer assistance in career transition. What this really means is that Ryan comes in to fire people so that cowardly or compassionate bosses don’t have to do it. Ryan Bingham (and the people at his company) are the psychopomps of late capitalist downsizing, acting as 21st century Hermes to the souls of the recently terminated. In an economy tearing itself to shreds following the crash of 08, Ryan’s company is up while the rest of the country and much of the world is down.
In one of several powerful moves, writer-director Jason Reitman (of Juno and Thank You For Smoking) uses non-actors in the roles of most of the downsized employees. He brings in real people who have faced losing their jobs and captures their reactions, their emotions, their heartfelt pleas and desperate stories, stories that resonate with great strength. Most everyone in the USA knows someone who has lost their job when they couldn’t afford it, and this helps make the film almost painfully timely. Production on Up in the Air began before the wall street and housing crash, before the unemployment rate climbed above 10%, but because of that timing, Up in the Air has become one of the touchstone films for the contemporary US job climate.
Natalie comes in to CTC (Bingham’s company) with a Glocalization approach – make the global local. She puts forward a system where instead of flying “transition specialists” like Ryan from city to city to personally oversee the downsizing, the company can perform their duties via web-conferencing from their home office in Omaha. This threatens to destroy Ryan’s frequent-flier-mile-chasing, rollerback suitcase lifestyle. Ryan objects, and is tasked with showing Natalie the ropes. He provides prejudiced but effective advice on efficiency in travel, as well as sharing his love of flying. He teaches her how travel has a way of making all places one place. Kendrick’s Natalie is a very contained, restrained, buttoned up young professional woman, a woman that wants career mobility but also the comforts of a traditional family life with an ideal husband whose qualities she enumerates with the matter-of-factness of a technician naming off features in a designer computer. She contains emotion well, which makes it all the more striking when her Cornell-taught professional walls come crashing down.
Much of the film rides on the back of the three leads. Clooney and Farmiga find a comfortable intimacy for their characters as two people used to being alone in a crowd find themselves becoming a team and falling in love. Keener’s Natalie comes to be a surrogate daughter to Ryan, as she challenges his worldview while learning from it and coming to see that the world does not care for her five, ten, and fifteen year bullet-point life plans. Vera Farmiga is effortlessly sexy as Ryan’s match and opposite. One of Alex’s best lines, to Ryan, asks him to think of her as him, but with a vagina. Farmiga effortlessly oozes sensuality and maturity, in contrast with her junior co-star Keener (though as Retiman says in the commentary, they are playing the same woman at two points in her life, 23 and 38-ish). Clooney is of course the central figure, as we begin and end with his story. Clooney’s signature charm serves very well in making Ryan Bingham a likable character instead of an insufferable entitled hermit. Ryan is believable as the right man to help people through what for many is one of the worst days of their lives.
As a “transition specialist,” Ryan is an artist, rolling with people’s various reactions to getting fired sometimes with strength as needed, sometimes with compassion and encouragement. He is not their friend, he is not their enemy. He is their guide in the journey from their old job to their new life. Much as the people at Hilton, Hertz and American Airlines make Ryan’s journey smooth, he works to make the journey of the recently-terminated a bit more tolerable.
The film maintains tone well, has a strong style and point-of-view showing the world of travel through Ryan’s eyes at first and then letting realism creep in as Ryan comes to depend on people more and make himself vulnerable. The ending is a calculated question that each viewer must answer to themselves. It is a film that is easily read as provoking thoughts in the viewer such as “what is important in my life?
Extra features include a commentary with Director/Writer Reitman as well as Director of Photography Eric Steelberg and First Assistant Director Jason Blumfeld. They discuss the casting, the actor’s performances, the pressures of their multi-location set, as well as editing and lighting and other appropriate matters for crew-end commentary. The commentary is insightful, but not particularly remarkable as film commentaries go, with most material coming from Reitman himself, talking about his previous films and how they helped lead into Up in the Air. In addition, there is a featurette about Shadowplay, the company which did the opening credits sequence for this and Reitman’s other two films, as well as deleted scenes and trailers.
One of the sequences in the deleted scenes shows Ryan buying a condo in Omaha (instead of a rented one-bedroom) and nesting there, making a home for himself where previously, home had been the sky and the apartment was just the layover spot between trips. It shows Ryan putting down roots and putting effort into a localized life – he goes running in the neighborhood instead of on a treadmill, shops for groceries, and tastes the life that he had shunned before. I believe that this sequence’s omission in the film does the theatrical release a disservice, even though I understand Reitman’s commentary about why it was cut (he wanted to minimize the delay between two critical scenes, with Ryan & Alex at the wedding and then in Chicago). However, as is, the ending of the film felt incomplete to me in a way that proved disappointing. Ryan’s arc at the end of the film felt more complete when I mentally integrated the Omaha sequence into the film.
On the personal level, this film resonated with me a lot. I mean a lot a lot. I work as a traveling salesman, so I do a fair amount of flying, and a great deal of driving for work and staying in identical hotel rooms far away from the woman I love and my friends back home. In Ryan I can see the elite status fliers that I see pass me in line, I see reflections of my boss and my boss’s boss, men who travel for a living, and have spent many years growing expert and comfortable with living out of suitcases and garment bags. The isolation that the film clearly shows (first as irrelevant to Ryan, then deeply felt as the film goes on) is very real to me and I imagine to anyone who has to spend a reasonable or unreasonable number of nights each year away from home, sleeping in a foreign bed in a place that is not “home.” Bingham has a good lesson to teach in the way he makes all places one place, collapsing the world into a string of experiences and moving confidently through the world of travel.
At the end of the day, I have to agree with what he says towards the end of the movie. “If you think about it. Your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life. Were you alone?…Life’s better with company. Everybody needs a co-pilot.”
Up in the Air is a brilliantly acted, stylish film that is highly topical and timely, emotionally resonant, and critically adored (with Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild and Academy Award nominations among others). It’s a good view for fans of subtle comedy, mature romance, and anyone who’s ever been fired, had to fire someone, or spent too many hours on flights, in airports, and away from the ones they love.
Look, more arguing about SF television! This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross. I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando. Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting. I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.
I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.
Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process. For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):
Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.
The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:
“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects […] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”
So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid. One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts. The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.
Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important. All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.
Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories. But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coming back to the point: I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting. For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power. And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.
However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right. There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family. Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change. I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.
I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs. It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.
Now for the details. Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies. Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds. But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists! In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront. Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).
More examples. Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival. For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy. I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts. But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do. When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.
I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological. I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like. I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories. Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.
To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue. I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one. But I would say this to those executives:
You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make. Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups. Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention. Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more. Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.
One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different. I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals. And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy). And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts. Lots of them.
Have you read that? No? Go back and check it out. Take a walk or go sparring to work out your righteous fury, then come back to read.
The essay in question is both 1) infuriating and 2) about genre fiction and society. Which makes it a great topic for a blog post! The essay is one of the writings from The Spearhead, a group blog designed to focus on men’s issues and men’s voices (as response to a perceived ‘cultural gap’ that has ignored men’s voices). While I agree that part of the ‘let’s all be equal’ agenda must include an analysis of how cultural forces shape men’s perception of the world and define masculinity in a way that is exploitative of men and teaches exploitation of women — I don’t think the Spearhead writers and I agree on the nature of the problem with men’s status in society or how to address it.
The essay starts out with a bang:
“Science fiction is a very male form of fiction. Considerably more men than women are interested in reading and watching science fiction. This is no surprise. Science fiction traditionally is about men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc. Many men working in the fields of science, engineering, and technology have cited science fiction (such as the original Star Trek) for inspiring them when they were boys to establish careers in these fields.”
This particular essay focuses on a limited definition of what ‘science fiction’ means, in a Golden Age Asimov kind of fashion, where characters were as flat as the paper they were printed on, little more than mouthpieces for expositing and resolving scientific issues. Now don’t get me wrong — there’s some great idea work in Golden Age SF — it’s that era that helped develop SF as the Literature of Ideas. But the genre has developed since then, it has become larger and (to me, more relevant and sophisticated. We’ve gotten Alfred Bester and Thomas Disch, Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney and Connie Willis.
To begin with, the essay relies upon versions of masculinity that are unsurprisingly as old and outmoded as the SF they rely on. For “Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech” — masculinity, like SF is about “men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.” The author references scientists who speak about being inspired by SF to move into their disciplines. Of course I agree that science fiction is instrumental in inspiring and encouraging scientific development.
On the other hand, it’s as if there have never been any female engineers or scientists who have never been inspired by science fiction. And in other news, all men smoke cigars and drink scotch at work with expertly coiffed hair while wearing fedoras and the only power women have is influencing men through their sexuality while working as secretaries. No wait, that’s Mad Men.
The author talks about the name change of SciFi as part of a feminizing trend, following the 1998 changeover when Bonnie Hammer assumed control of the channel and began courting female readers. The 2000s era Battlestar Galactica is positioned as one of the culprits of a feminizing Sci-Fi channel, since the character of Starbuck was changed into a woman. Strangely, it’s Starbuck the woman who is also Starbuck the cigar-smoking, hard drinking, sleeps with anything that moves. That part is not mentioned in the essay — instead the author points to an essay by original Starbuck Dirk Benedict, bemoaning the “un-imagining” of Battlestar Galactica.
Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech also talks about the shift in programming towards fantasy and away from science fiction, because “women are more interested in the supernatural and the paranormal than men are.” Is this supposed to be a biological pre-disposition? The author then complains about the increasing presence of gay characters on the channel (as a death knell post-name change) — and how that means that it well be less about men doing things. Does the set of ‘men’ exclude homosexual men in this case?
The author then cites Marvin Minsky, an AI researcher at MIT. Minsky gives his distinction between general fiction and science fiction as such: “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.” This is a notably reductive definition to be sure, specious at best. Where does 1984 fit in there? Winston Smith ‘gets into problems and screws his life up,’ among many others. This depiction of science fiction as the only fiction with ‘real importance’ is an insular isolationist stance that fails to acknowledge that powerful, historically-relevant literature can occur without spaceships or advanced physics. I like my SF and think it’s had important effects, but it’s not the only game in town, for sure.
“The War on Science Fiction and Marvin Minsky” is representative of the perspective of someone within the world of SF fandom, a part that exists and continues to proceed despite the fact that the mainstream has moved away from them. Analog Science Fiction and Fact is often noted as the home of this mode of SF, and the magazine continues as it has for decades, admirable for its continuity. I think we need the scientifically rigorous aspect of speculative fiction, the part that refuses to use handwavium to solve its problems just to get to the point and instead interrogates the ways that the possible could become reality. Hard SF may not be for me, but it’s an important part of the genre.
A lack of hard science doesn’t automatically make a science fiction story into melodrama. And I certainly don’t think that either scientific rigor or the science fiction genre is or should be part-and-parcel with outdated gender norms, homophobia and misogyny.
This is going to be two reviews: The one without spoilers and the one with.
I first started seeing material for Pandorum late last year, where it looked like a film in the space horror tradition. The previews also suggested the possibility of a Big Action Movie element as well.
Pandorum is a German/American production directed by Christian Alvart and written by Travis Malloy. It stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster as crewmen on the Elysium, a long-term colony ship bound for Tanis, the only habitable planet identified by a humanity on the edge of annihilation — in the 24th century with a population of 24-ish billion people. Their memories return to them only in chunks after extended hyper-sleep, heightening the initial tension as they discover the power is comprimised and the proper rotation of crew is very very off.
The film maintains tension quite nicely, parceling out information in chunks. Though there is some “As You Know Bob,” it’s more like “As You Should Remember, Bob” with the two leads reminding one another about things drawing from their fuzzy memories. The title, Pandorum, comes from the term given to extended-space-travel sickness. Remember one of the theories about Reavers (from Firefly), how they were people who traveled too deep into the nothing and it consumed them? Kinda like that. There are creepy monster people doing creepy monster people stuff. There’s some fighting, but it stays as more of a horror/thriller than an action movie most of the time.
The film was very freaky, and notably original in several places. Yes, it seems apparent that Alvart and Malloy are familiar with films like the Alien Series, Event Horizon, and the like. Many critics whose reviews are collated at Rotten Tomatoes calls this being ‘derivative,’ but for me that just means Pandorum is a continuation of the discussion that is the Space SF-horror genre.
Go see this movie if you missed Event Horizon in the theatres and then discovered it years later to great enjoyment. Go see this if Alien took your breath away with Ridley sneaking through the corridors of the Nostromo hoping to never see that black-glossy carapace again. See it if the idea of a psycho-thriller-slash-horror-movie-with-some-action appeals to you. Chances are this is going to bomb in the box office and then sell well over several years in DVD/Blu-Ray, but if any of the above sounds appealing, do yourself a favor and see it in theatres.
And now the spoilers (as in stuff that’s farther than 15 minutes into the film and not given away by trailers).
District 9 was advertised widely on SF sites such as i09.com. I’ve been excited about this film since the first previews, promising an apartheid metaphor SF film with a distinct setting. Good sociological SF is hard to find, and to be commended when it shows up.
I expected a Sociological SF film in a fictional documentary style and got something else.
There will be spoilers needed to actually talk about the meaty bits of this movie.
The film I was expecting to see lasted about 20 minutes into the actual film, and then it turned into something else. Those 20 minutes, it was a fictional documentary about the history of the aliens’ arrival and the current forced relocation to the concentration camp/refugee camp far from Johannesburg. This first 20-ish minute film was a slow burn, captivating and disgusting, showing prejudice and exploitation.
The film takes a turn that to me was unexpected, with Wikus Van De Merwe infected by the black liquid and beginning to transform into one of the aliens. The second 20 minutes, I was expecting a contagion/virus storyline, with the aliens creating a bio-weapon to strike at humanity.
But District 9 was not that movie, either. It became an action-ish film with Wikus fighting his way out and into MNU, learning to empathize with the aliens after having been casually and cruelly bigoted. It turned out to be a redemption story with tons of exploding people rather than a subtle sociological study of bigotry and xenophobia, with a constant apartheid metaphor. The apartheid metaphor in District 9 was really just centered on that first 20 minutes, and once the infection/transformation got going, the metaphor went away.
The film left a lot of questions unanswered. These are things that you could interpolate or extrapolate on, and I will do so below.
Things like — why did Christopher Johnson (the lead alien) only have one helper/ally within the alien population? Are all the other aliens too addicted to cat food? They show the rampant addiction, akin to depictions of “Firewater” for American Indians, where the aliens trade priceless military technology for 100 cans of cat food after asking for 10,000. The documentary has Wikus (I believe) talking about the aliens being members of the worker caste, lacking independence, but that’s just a human perspective.
Christopher said it took 20 years go gather enough liquid/fuel to power the command ship — did he only have a handful of helpers the whole time? Did the rest of his cell get evicted without incident/off-screen? If Christopher was a member of a leader/overcaste, why didn’t he have more followers/subordinates? We see precious little interaction between Christopher and any other aliens save his son (and his green helper who is killed), which makes these questions impossible to answer in-narrative.
Why did the aliens get stuck here in the first place? The command module fell out shortly after arrival, but if it’s what was buried and what Christopher and son used at the end, where are the rest of the command staff/caste? The aliens were depicted as almost completely without agency barring our protagonist aliens, save for the ‘feral pack’ attack at the end and the aliens’ various desperate grabs for cat food.
It was hard to like Wikus during the film. I was able to empathize, but Wikus was too unlikable in the beginning, too callous and bigoted. Yes, he was just a person with a loving wife and dedication to his job, but still. I think it was the gleeful description of the popping of the alien eggs, the ordering of a flamethrower to incinerate an entire hatchery that did it for me. After that, I could root for him, but really only in context of helping the aliens. The ending with Alien!Wikus making the metal flower was touching, however. And they’re clearly set up to do a District 10 film, with Christopher’s return, the healing of Wikus, etc.
Let’s talk for a moment about the action and effects. The alien mecha was super-cool looking, and I think this film wins for most humans exploded on screen during 2009. We’re supposed to accept that Wikus’s modified DNA allows him to intuitively control the mecha, which allows the cool action sequence.
My main beef with the film comes down to this: Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden says that in a story, you get one ‘Gimmie,’ one thing where you can say ‘In this setting, Something Works Differently’. If you tell your story well, and parcel new information out properly, you can earn the audience’s trust and get more ‘gimmie’s.
I think that for me, District 9 asked for more gimmies than it earned. It left far more things unsaid and unexplained that I would have liked, and not even in a way that is okay to leave unsaid (like Cloverfield‘s lingering questions about the monster).
I’m very glad to have seen the film, I enjoyed it once I got on board with the story it was actually trying to tell, but I think it may have missed the chance to be a better film when it turned into an action film. This may also come from the same impulse that will have me write my Anthropologists! In! Space! novel.
Final verdict — go see it, but know that it’s a SF action film with a slow burn start and a strong sociological undercurrent. It’s more akin to Children of Men than I had originally imagined. Hopefully, if you go into the film armed with a firmer sense of what to expect, or with no expectations whatsoever, you can enjoy it for its merits.
After a long hiatus, the Star Trek franchise returns with the J.J. Abrams-directed re-launch film, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
Following a Ultimates-kind of model (Marvel’s re-imagining re-launch of classic Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men), the new film takes the chance to re-introduce the classic characters of the original series in a way that allows for new growth and storytelling less bound by decades of continuity.
Star Trek is commonly known for its sociological SF slant, but this film is a pure character study. We follow James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) through their pre-histories and their paths through youth into adulthood and the foundation of their friendship. Pine succeeds in capturing the swagger and cunning of Kirk without hamming it up too much, and Quinto’s Spock excels at displaying the conflict between his Vulcan and Human sides. Each member of the cast had the chance to shine in their area, but were also depicted as vulnerable and imperfect.
The design aesthetic for the new Star Trek is the love child of Apple and the new Battlestar Galactica. It’s shiny on top and gritty on the bottom, combining the dirty functionality with the pristine shine. The future is not white-washed or sterile, but it does have the shine of optimism. The graphics were breathtaking, re-capturing the ‘Sense of Wonder’ mode of SF visuals which has been so central to the genre’s cultural impact.
Eric Bana’s Nero is a singularly driven villain who, along with Spock, ties together the plot twists that give us the new continuity. Nero may not go down as one of the franchise’s best villains, but he was compelling in his own right.
The pacing was tight, with slow moments spaced out here and there to give moments for character notes, but the majority of the film was an unrelenting roller coaster ride.
Star Trek is an exciting, accessible, fast-paced character-heavy film that requires no substantial knowledge of the franchise to enjoy, but is clearly a part and doing homage to the long-established Star Trek universe. Critical acclaim and likely box-office success mean that a sequel following the same continuity is very likely, and may also provide support for a new Star Trek television series. Heroes producer and Pushing Daisies creator Brian Fuller has already expressed strong interest in helming such a property, and with the ending of Battlestar Galactica, the role of ‘Best SF show on TV’ is open for competition once more.
Final verdict: Go see it. See it if you’re a Trekker, a casual fan, a SF aficionado, or if you just want a fun two hour ride of a film.