Surviving a Science Fictional Year: Snowpiercer

Before I talk about the movie, I need to say that I feel the direction of the blog is changing. When I first started (and for, like, 2 months I did this), the goal was to watch a movie every day. My thought was, “Hey, as a stay at home dad (or a SAHD), this isn’t a problem.” False. It is very problem, such impossible. Wow. I’ve had to scale back my expectations of what I assumed was possible, hence the once a month gig that it is now.

The second is my analysis of the transcendent in science fiction. That’s still the goal, but I’m noticing that my assumption of the “transcendent” often translates to “interpreting everything as a Gnostic parable” (for example, see the second half of my Snowpiercer jam), which might be just fine. Not always – for example, the direction my Terminator analyses went surprised me – but frequently I think you’ll be getting a crash course in what gnosticism looks like via the movies I watch. Ergo, I think I’m going to continue calling it the Science Fictional Year despite the content having changed so drastically for continuity’s sake.

Without further adieu, enjoy. Or don’t. I’m not your boss.

(Click below for Snowpiercer as political allegory)

A Science Fictional Year: Lonely Sci-Fi.

Gravity (2013) • Solaris (1972) • Solaris (2002) • The Fountain (2006) • Sunshine (2007) • Moon (2009)

This sub-genre of sci-fi that isn’t actually a genre, but which I like to think of as Lonely Sci-Fi, is one of my favorites. Harkening back to Alien, being alone in space forces you to contemplate. The vastness of space becomes a metaphor for the vastness of internal space, and for most people, they’re equally dark, terrifying, and unexplored. Similarly, space instantly confronts us with mortality. Like ancient sailors and their fear of the ocean and their belief that gods and hell lie at its floor, or most recent mythologies have trimmed the “s” off gods, and he (almost certainly he) lives somewhere out there, frighteningly beyond knowable space. As such, all these movies are about death and mortality: how you face death, who pushes you to it, and if it’s worth it.

The first movie I saw in this group was Gravity. I actually struggle if this is science fiction. I actually don’t think this movie is sci-fi. It involves scientists, for sure, and it is a story, and they’re in space, but I don’t think this movie is science fiction. This is one of those movies that makes us realize that we do live in the future: every item in it is now common place. Thanks to this, I know there are currently six people in space. That’s four more people than are currently in my house, which makes being in space a relatively common event now. We’ve even had our fair share of space accidents. That means that every element of this movie already exists and therefore can’t be science fiction, especially if we (try desperately to) use my definition in which science has some role to play in urging the plot forward, and science pushes the characters toward some moment of transcendence.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t cool to see astronauts being heroic, because it is.

As I contemplate this not actually being science fiction, it’s difficult then to also see what, if any, transcendent message it has. In fact, the movie is, blatantly, about pushing toward the terrestrial and getting away from space. Everything from the characters talking about Earth based trauma, jobs, music, and what they plan to do when they get back de-transcendentalizes this movie.

Scroll down for page 2.

Surviving A Science Fictional Year: Family Sci-Fi

Short Circuit (1986)Short Circuit 2 (1988)E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)Batteries Not Included (1987)Flight of The Navigator (1986)

 

Of all my posts so far, I feel like this one has the most tenuous link between the films reviewed. But when I made my list, I had the distinct idea that these belonged together. Short Circuit and it’s sequel are obvious, but the others– less so.

So let’s start with Johnny Five. I have no reference for how many times I watched Short Circuit as a kid. I know I would show it to any new friends I made, and it was one of my comfort movies along with a handful of others. I remember seeing Johnny Five and not being quite sure to what extent he wasn’t real, but wishing I could meet him.

Because one of my favorite things to do (if you haven’t noticed) is interpret movies through a gnostic lens, I couldn’t help but see a sort of gnostic (Buddhist might be more accurate) bent to this story. The first few minutes is Johnny’s own creation story: we see circuit boards assembled, processors soldered, hardware molded, shaved, tinkered and installed. Johnny’s Eden, or life in innocence, is brute matter. No will, no awareness, no choice; a literal machine who “just runs programs” and Newton and Ben will frequently remind us. His fall from grace happens to be curiosity and choice, not too dissimilar from the Bible’s own creation story. His awakening is even a literal lightning bolt to the head, a fairly obvious reference to our own notion of a brain storm. It also has the connotation of divine intervention: Zeus’ and Thor’s lightning bolts, but the Bible is rife with examples of God controlling the weather.

 

Someday, if we’re lucky.

In terms of Buddhism (Tibetan, specifically), there’s the idea of Kundalini, or the serpent which sits, coiled, at the base of your spine. By uncoiling the serpent and allowing it exit through the top of your skull, you achieve enlightenment. Johnny Five’s enlightenment seems to have taken the shape of a reverse Kundalini.

Throughout the movie, and this is a unifying feature of all five of these movies, Johnny is portrayed as being very childlike, which makes sense given that he’s a three (five?) days old at the end of the movie. But there’s also a Buddhist approach to his childlikeness. In Buddhism, again, there’s the notion that, at birth, a person still retains total knowledge from their brief contact with Nirvana during the death and rebirth cycle. They, however unfortunately, have no ability to communicate this total knowledge as their meat body is too poorly equipped for this. Even worse is that as a person begins to accumulate knowledge from within the world, they begin to forget their contact with enlightenment.

Johnny forgets all his material knowledge, but retains his ability to read and process. In that way, he isn’t very Buddhist, but he becomes Buddhist with his instant and intense respect of life. There’s very much the idea that the first to achieve enlightenment has the purist scope of the world with how opposed he is to killing, even expressing crippling guilt when accidentally smashing a grasshopper.

But then the second movie, Short Circuit 2… ugh. My first note I wrote is, “fucking terrible music,” because the music is the worst possible 80’s nonsense you can imagine.

I suppose if you wanted to continue with the Buddhist analysis, this is the story of Johnny’s corruption: he helps more than one person make a fortune, and ends the movie covered in gold, which could possibly be a symbol of his de-Buddhafication.

But it can’t, because it’s a garbage movie made by garbage people.

The resolution of the movie is baffling. The, apparent, greatest achievement is Johnny being recognized as a citizen though he himself never expressed such a desire: he was just tired of being treated like a machine. But as a resolution, this fails to be satisfying.

It’s fascinating to me how hungry humans are for state approval. I suppose since we live in states, it’s an almost impossible thing to avoid, but a state’s declaration amounts to little more than the loudest kid on the playground announcing that they’re cool. A state’s declaration has no actual bearing on the objective reality of a thing: Johnny Five either is or is not a living being, and being given a certificate that says one or the other doesn’t make that objective reality any deeper (or not).

Dumb. Disappointing. Dumb, dumb.

In fact, I have to run with this Buddhist interpretation for, like, two more minutes to make my life feel like less of a colossal waste for having watched this movie.

Adherence or infatuation with how a state moves might possibly be, in Buddhist and Gnostic terms, the epitome of the fall from the heavenly state. Buddhism has been described by some of its adherence as “perfect present mindedness,” pure dedication to this moment as it presents itself, worrying for no hypothetical or abstract moment. What else is a state’s movement but nothing but hypothetical and abstract movement? Getting into law reveals a complex organ of definitions and concepts that have no life outside of that organ. Even worse, as citizens in a state, when we vote on something, even if it’s for an expanded right, we’re voting on limiting our own potential as potential seeking beings. In Gnostic terms, we’re gods giving up our own godhood for no great return. In Buddhist terms, we’re voluntarily sacrificing our own presentness for a quagmire of future abstraction. Perhaps Johnny Five covered in gold is the best possible representation of trading our own enlightenment for state sponsored baubles.

For E.T., click Page 2!

Surviving A Science Fictional Year: The Terminators

The Terminator (1984) • Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) • Terminator Salvation (2009)

 

I only ever saw the first Terminator movie once, when I was five or six. It scared the crap out of me (as a lot of the movies on my list seem to have a habit of doing, except for Predator, oddly enough). As a kid, I remember not having a firm grasp on the difference between actors and the characters they play. I knew, obviously, that movies weren’t portraying real events, but that (to some extent) the actors were having genuine experiences. It’s a difficult concept to track and lacks internal logic: evidence of it as the idea of a five year-old mind. But if you can humor the me of 1988, the moment where the T-1 is performing self-surgery, my brain interpreted that as the moment where the real life Arnold Schwarzenegger (his name is in Google’s dictionary. Weird.) was discovering that he, the actor, was in fact a robot. What terrified me more than this nonsense-relization was that he seemed to be so unfazed by this realization. As such, I never saw it again and it was crystallized in my mind as one of the scariest things possible.

Fast forward twenty years later and, with my views on James Cameron having so drastically shifted, I was concerned the movies (the first and second, the second of which was a long time favorite) wouldn’t be any good any more. I was glad to find that was not the case and the movies largely continued to hold up. I did find that for my purposes, however, the first one was a little philosophically empty and, therefore, difficult to deal with.

My initial thoughts were regarding the fear that machines will somehow spring to life and make the annihilation of human life its primary concern. Going back to What Technology Wants, the book by Kevin Kelly from my previous post, it is argued that the world of technology (or the technium as he coins it) is the seventh kingdom in the animal world. This sort of stuff makes you feel like a madman to discuss in polite company, but if you read his book (you should), he makes a compelling argument. Kelly discusses in his book how, like prior kingdoms, the technium is rising on the backs of mammals. He also argues that, like has yet to happen in real life, no new life form appears with the express desire of eliminating a prior life form. He acknowledges that sometimes it happens as an unfortunate side effect – such as with ice age humans and the evidence that they hunted the mammoth to extinction, or with the cyanobacteria annihilation of many anaerobic species – but for a species to make a willful attempt at annihilation of an entire other species or kingdom would be unthinkable.

Related is Roko’s Basilisk, which briefly summed is the idea that a hypothetical all-knowing machine might decide to punish those that didn’t help create it and reward those that helped it greatly. Though I think science fiction movies have yet to really explore this notion: machines are here to punish us for our sins.

And this is where the second one comes in. The first movie is a tightly told horror story, and it should be appreciated for the serious way in which it approaches a concept that, with any lesser candor, would be goofy (oh hai Terminator 3). But the second one informs us what these movies are really about: Judgment Day.

The new face of God.

For some of us, Judgment Day has been separated from its ominous roots, making it a judgment day, but the phrase and the idea is strictly a religious one. It’s the day Jesus comes back to judge the works of humanity (spoiler alert: we are found wanting) and takes up the ones who have earned favor. This reflects Roko’s Basilisk in a way where “hypothetical all-knowing machine” is replaced with “hypothetical all-knowing man-deity,” and “punishes those that didn’t help create it” is replaced with “punishes those that don’t believe.”

The problem in the world of The Terminator is that these aren’t simply events that happen, something that occurs and the fallout of which must be dealt. Judgment Day is specific punishment. This is where Kevin Kelly’s (perhaps unprovable) assertion runs aground: whether or not machines become aware and assume a state of benevolence doesn’t matter because we as humans feel like we deserve punishment. It’s perhaps our own guilt coming through these movies than any kind of rational fear. Fearing bears when one is slathered in beef jerky in the woods is a rational fear, but fearing that robots would like to murder us because our phones are getting fancier is not.

The first two Terminator movies are, I think, probably Cameron’s best. The philosophy is the most tightly contained, and the running times least insufferable. And it’s perhaps thanks in part to that fear he was trying to voice: robots probably won’t rise up, but we deserve it for our sins. Numerous sins we knowingly continue to perpetrate: sins of cruelty against each other; sins of exploitation against our resources; sins of abuse against our environment; the sin of refusing to acknowledge other creatures’ right to life. These movies aren’t, perhaps, expressing a fear, but a desire we fearfully crave: the desire of the guilty to be punished and the relief that comes after penance. The problem, however, is who will punish us when god is dead? Cameron tells us that it will be the thing most like god (second to God himself, and a little higher than ourselves perhaps), the thing that is everywhere on the planet at once, has near omnipotent knowledge, and, if hundreds of years of philosophers are correct, a child of our own creation like god.

 

Stick around (by which I mean click the page 2 button) for parts three and four.

A Science Fictional Year: Matrix Inspired

Dark City (1998) • Cypher (2002) • Thirteenth Floor (1999) • Yesterday Was A Lie (2008)

I mentioned, briefly, in my discussion on The Matrix about old technology having some kind of magic effect: some ability inherent to the pre-Pentium world (Pentium being an arbitrary significator of technological progress here) to transport or contain its users elsewhere. Which is, of course, counter intuitive. Occulus Rift’s ability to transport someone to a theoretical world is at least twenty times greater than the VHS for Beverly Hills Cop, but somehow our cultural mythos seems to have a different opinion. These outmoded technological artifacts, perhaps because of their undeniable connection with the past, seem more capable of taking an individual into altered states. The movies I picked (with one exception) borrow from the past, or a conglomeration of past and present, to portray a world that you should not believe. And I say they’re Matrix inspired, though really, it’s a case of whatever was in the drinking water.

In Kevin Kelly’s (incredible) book What Technology Wants, in the chapter titled “Convergence”, he discusses evolution’s tendency (and technology’s tendency by extension) to have synchronic developments. For example, the human eye and the squid eye are identical despite millions of years evolution and several phylum, chordata, what have you, separating us. I know this seems like a non sequitur (which is why you should stop everything and read his book right now), but he coins the phrase “steamboat time” to indicate a convergence of technological development. In it, he discusses how five unrelated people in unrelated parts of the world all simultaneously invented the steamboat engine with, as far as we can tell now and then, no communication amongst the individuals. This prompted Mark Twain to write, “When it’s steamboat time, you steam,” to describe the sudden proliferation. Another example would be two totally different men inventing calculus at roughly the exact same moment. Right down to Newton accusing Lebniz of plagiarism. All this to say: whatever water The Matrix was drinking, it contained some steamboat time.

Dark City‘s conceit is of slug like aliens that pilot our dead to perform psychological experiments on us in a shifting environment, with false memories and personalities implanted in our minds. My favorite line (which I will repeat with full dead-eyed eye contact if confronted with a question I can’t answer) was, “We control your dead.” Creepy.

In terms of the steamboat time, all these movies take place in dream like worlds, with dream like cinematography, and slightly off-putting color palettes. All these worlds are meant to only make us comfortable enough to not question their truthiness (except maybe Cypher‘s world). They encourage a Matrix-style paranoia (which really traces back to the crystallized perfection of The X-Files) and distrust of the people who say, “Hey pal. You can trust me! I’m a regular human like you! I mean, ‘I’m a human just like you’!” Trust only your self, and only if you’re under thirty (as of this year, I can’t even trust myself any longer).

Dark City has the structure of a dream: you have the feeling that you’re the only person who’s even vaguely aware enough to know what’s really happening. Or perhaps the only person who has a hope of figuring it out. The geography shifts even as you get a fragile grip on it, and the whole time you have in mind a vague but compellingly necessary goal. For the hero, John Murdoch, that goal is Shell Beach, and like a dream, it’s a location that doesn’t exist yet; it’s a part of everyone’s shared and implicit knowledge. John has to fight against even the implicit reasoning of his nonsensical dream space.

Like our steamboat time in the real world, Dark City experiences its own surge of super necessary steamboat time in the form of John’s emergent telekinetic powers, which allow him to fight the slugs (who control the dead), transcend everyone’s crappy eternal night, and fashion the paradise of Shell Beach which he (and the city) so desperately needs.

Fascinating is that the world of the dream is never fully abandoned. John and his co-inhabitants still live in the floating experimental and isolated world of Dark City. Just one now has the ability to manipulate the machines of the invaders to manipulate the dream. Transcendence becomes building paradise within the dream.

Click on page 2 below to check out Thirteenth Floor and Cypher.

 

A Science Fictional Year: The Matrix Anthology

The Matrix (1999) • Matrix Reloaded (2003) • Matrix Revolutions (2003) • The Animatrix (2003)

The Matrix Anthology moves in three distinct phases as a series. The first movie has a much more gnostic bent, and while it’s true of elements of the series in total, the first movie adheres much more strictly. Next, the two central sequels incorporate a lot of Hinduism. The third weaves between those and is often neither of those.

One of the things you can put under the “learned facts” about me is my love of gnosticism. When my students would ask, “What religion are you?” I said, “Two thousand years ago: gnostic. Now? Who knows.”

In short, those that don’t know of gnosticism, it’s a branch of early Christianity (some argue a mystery cult predating Christianity, but I think that assertion is less verifiable) that believes that the God as portrayed in The Bible – Old Testament specifically – is actually just a god: one of many. This god they call the Demiurge, which means half-creator. They may also call him the Blind God. This god, though one of many, believes himself to be the sole god and creator. He structures a safe little dome universe around himself safe from the greater reality of the actual universe, and the actual unknowable creator. Here he makes his own rules, and he makes physical matter – an affront to the universe at large. This god proclaims himself a god of love, but it’s very conditional: it’s love given only at the cost of the obedience of rules either incomprehensible (i.e. the penalty of death before the reality of death as concept) or incompatible (do not murder or rape unless I tell you to).

For the Gnostics, if you fast forward some amount of time, you arrive at the personage of Jesus, a man who was inhabited with a renegade spirit known as the Kristos from the larger universe. This renegade spirit imbued him with special insights and gifts and his mission became to allow every human being the ability to connect to this same extra-universal source and see the Demiurge-who-cavorts-as-Yahweh as the fake he is as well as seeing this world as a mirage designed to keep us preoccupied and manageable. Salvation comes through special knowledge (gnosis being a Greek word for knowledge), and that knowledge comes from inside as opposed to external revelation. To that end, it’s possible, and argued, that according to Gnostics, any exceptionally visionary person is in contact with the Kristos including, possibly, people such as Siddartha, Muhammad, possibly Moses or Zoroaster.

One danger, of course, is just taking the people you like and saying, “Well, they’re in touch with the Kristos,” thus transforming what is most likely a matter of opinion into a matter of religious fact.

There are greater subtleties and complexities, and those might get expounded as I pontificate, but this is the broad stroke. And like any other religion, gnosticism has taken many forms and there are varieties and schisms as different as modern Christianity. What I have outlined here is, roughly, the approach I wish to take in thinking about The Matrix.

I hadn’t seen these movies in probably a decade. Since the release of the third one I would have to guess. I forgot how utterly cool every single second of the first one was. Somehow, it’s able to reach through the TV and make you salivate after the presentation of fashion, motion, attitude, and philosophy in every frame. And somehow the first one genuinely manages those things in nearly every scene.

Very philosophy. Such cool.

Obviously, with Gnosticism as the outline, The Matrix is the quintessential fake reality. But it shows how impossible it is to actually tell reality from surreality, and how or why someone should or could even care. Our Kristos is Neo who, much like the probable physical Jesus (assuming he’s historical fact), is fairly unremarkable. He simply has the sneaking suspicion that something is slightly off with his reality. And he’s just anti-authority enough to see it through to the end. Even now, how much this movie hates “the man” moves me.

Neo moves through the film at the urging of Morpheus, the lord of dreams, who pushes him to the absolute limit of the dream so that he can’t help but fall out of it. In true Gnostic fashion, his transformation to messiah-hood depends entirely upon self-revelation. Unlike what has become mainstream Christianity, no one can give these revelations to him. Others can bring him to the brink of his limitations, but the ultimate burden of transcendence is his.

Typical to gnosticism are the Archons: these are semi-divine beings created by the Demiurge to oversee the enforcement of his will on the material plane. In The Matrix, these are obviously the agents, and their actions and movement call to mind images of demon possession. And this is where the 90’s message “don’t trust anybody” comes into play, a message that should still be as relevant as it ever was; a message that should be tattooed on all our knuckles: anyone at any moment can turn on you, can shift from civilian to world destroying Archon. Perhaps this is the metaphor of the Gnostics who feared systematic and repeated extermination at the hands of the loving god and his early Pauline Christians.

The movie ends with Neo finally getting to see the world for what it is, and on one level, it’s a shitty burnt out flying submarine hiding in the tunnel of a shitty burnt out world; on the other it’s incomprehensible scrolling text. FINALLY it’s at this point that Neo comes to the realization that violence can only serve a very limited function, and in order to undo the work of the Demiurge, he has to drastically change his tactics. He neutralizes (OR DOES HE!?) the existence of a single Archon by merging with him. We see this as him literally jumping into the body of Agent Smith.

Before I leave the first Matrix, I noticed all the old technology. Old technology, I would hypothesize, has started to carry a mythological existence for generations X, Y, and millennials. At least that’s my hypothesis. The world of The Matrix is rooted in green-on-black text whether it’s Neo’s own amateur hacking or Dozer monitoring his crew’s progress via monitors. Meanwhile, the world of the Nebuchadnezzar and the machine cities looks reasonably futuristic in that it exceeds what we’re capable of now, and while nothing is holographic or excessively futuristic, there are touch screens galore. In the world of The Matrix, cell phones seem rare, payphones are common, and DOS seems to be the dominant system. I think by the time this movie came out, it had been a full five years since I had to seriously wrestle with DOS, and my family had just upgraded to the incredible Windows 98 (and some of us currently writing prefer 98 to this Windows 8 garbage). Several horror movies (The Ring, VHS) center around obsolete technology, and now I have to keep my eyes open more carefully as I feel like I’ve seen other representations of outdated-technology-as-oracle.

Click page 2 below to read about the sequels.

A Science Fictional Year: The Alien Anthology

Alien (1979) • Aliens (1986) • Alien³ (1992) • Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Out of the gate, I’ve never seen Alien. Don’t let that fool you: I love Alien in its various comic book forms. I have two or three graphic novels, as well as both of the Alien Vs. Predator omnibuses published by Dark Horse Comics on my shelf. I love the designs, the brutality, its fearlessness in being ghoulish, but somehow they still say things about the nature of being human, of being a woman, of the absolutely terrifying possibilities hidden within the feminine. Yet, it never wanders into sexism or misogyny (a word I do my hardest to spell correctly the first time, every time, but have to right-click that red squiggly) as far as I can tell. Alien is one of those iconic movies that gets so parodied and commented upon that, at a certain point, you’re not sure if it’s worth carving out the two hours  to see (though I’m sure I’ve ingested more Alien stuff than the average fan of the movies): you’ve heard so much about it that you can relate the movie’s every plot point, and is there anything that can be added to the experience? The few times someone brings the movie up in conversation and someone asks, “Have you seen it?” I feel like Homer from The Simpsons defending the symbolism in his offensive float in “Faith Off,” in that no amount of explaining won’t fix it because the problem isn’t the explanation.

 

From Giphy, from The Simpsons. The internet refuses to acknowledge the scene I’m talking about. This is the closest I could get to his float.

 

But Alien was something special, and I regret not having seen it earlier. The thing that struck me most was how the film nearly perfectly mimics the arc of an anxiety attack. I’m curious if anyone else who has anxiety has experienced this while watching the movie. As far as I’m concerned, you can learn something of what it’s like to have an anxiety attack just by watching this movie. Even in the opening shots of the movie, there’s the implication of unease coming.

Be sure to click page 2 to read more…

A Science Fictional Year: Avatar, John Carter, Prometheus

I chose these three significantly different movies for some pretty similar reasons. My primary reason was that all three were touted as something special or standout by their studios: Avatar was some kind of revelation of cinematic technology; Prometheus was to be a new benchmark in dramatic sci-fi storytelling; John Carter was to signal some bold new creative direction for Disney. Also, these three are probably the biggest sci-fi movies that have come out for some time previous to their release in that all three were big on world building. This is a similarity I hadn’t really noticed until after I watched them. The fact that big revolutionary science fiction seems to be a grand venture in world building seems to indicate something about the nature of transcendence: we go from being rote experiencers of the world to integral makers. The thing that is bound by the experiences determined for it is not yet transcendent, or the more we can fashion our realities the more ascendent we become.

Avatar (2009)

I watched Avatar first, so we’ll start there.

Cards on the table: I don’t like Avatar. It’s as big and dumb and spectacle driven as the reputation of a blockbuster would indicate. And this is the world’s blockblusterest movie in that it’s made two billion dollars worldwide and is the world’s most expensive movie with estimates somewhere between 237 and 310 million, with an additional 150 million in marketing dollars. Taking those numbers (after marketing, this movie nearly cost half a billion dollars to make) in context with my assumption in my first post about movies having something to say, you’d expect a half billion dollar revelation. But… not.

Before anything else, I’m impressed with how well the CGI looks five years later. There are moments where the Na’vi look almost human, and the movie never veers into the uncanny valley. Though: a lot of the native animals have that weird sheen common to 1998 PSX cutscenes. And there were some times in which I felt like things were floating above the ground as opposed to moving across it. District 9’s prawns are the only other thing in the world of CGI I can think of that holds up like this.

I saw the movie on opening night with my best friend, in 3D (what a waste of an attempt at innovation), with little knowledge about the movie, only knowing for sure that I was bummed out by the seemingly oversimple cat-alien designs. I mean, come on: it’s too easy. Want an alien? Oh, it’s totally an anthropomorphic human thing. Bam, you got your alien. The best part of the night being, before the start of the movie, periodically putting on my 3D glasses and staring dumbstruck at another part of the theater and remarking, “Whoa! It’s like I’m really sitting in a theater! It’s like I’m really sitting next to people!” There might be a reason I don’t get asked to see many movies in theaters.

The story is obvious: Fern Gully and Pocahontas get married and have a Dances With Wolves story, but in space. And this is where I get confused about why it cost half of a billion dollars to tell me this message (knowing full well it cost that to animate the CGI). It’s oddly colonialist even in its anti-colonialism and trades transcendence for the mostly mundane. It really is a movie of opportunity not taken. If this movie were made with the actors behind the cat sex-aliens, it would be loudly proclaimed as racist. Of the human cast, all but two are white. Of the entire Na’vi race, only four get speaking parts, of those four, three are black, and one is native Indian. With that in mind, this becomes a movie about a white guy who is so good at going native, that he out natives the natives. And good thing too, because without the white guy, they would have all died. He is so talented at being native, that he’s able to tame the giant flying lizard that evades and overpowers everyone else.

I could easily spend a college essay’s worth complaining about the things that get under my skin about this movie: the choice of unobtainium naming (yes, I know it’s a thing scientists say, but not trillion dollar corporations that have to sell shit to investors); the Snidley Whiplashness of the mining company contrasted to the painful Dudley Dooright scientists (Hitler had scientists too); how the world, while pretty, seems like a world that’s just meant to be pretty and not functional; the alien sex scene whose sexiness is proportionate to how needed it was (i.e. not); how this movie isn’t considered a cartoon; how it looks like everyone member of the Na’vi looks like they’ve had minor hairlip surgery. How the word Na’vi is an inversion of the word naive complete with an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter.

The biggest bother of this movie, however, is it’s inability to challenge a viewer in even small ways in the midst of a very predictable and probably soothing story. This is, inherently, a movie about literally changing how you see the world. The central conceit is a technology that allows people to leave their God-given body for a lab created body to be able to see the world in a totally novel way. And then this body has the ability to interface its brain with that of another living wholly independent being, and, AND, the dominant life form of this planet has the ability to hook into some kind of world goddess tree. Yet the only way this movie communicates any of this is montage. I don’t know how, exactly, I would recommend James Cameron go about this a different way, but the lack of any substantial difference in presentation makes being a nine foot tall blue cat alien seem no different than being a meathead industrialist in a machine.

I think the easiest method would simply be a first person view. When Jake wakes up in his new body, it becomes as disorienting for the audience as it was for Jake. Apply some fish lens, and his arms seem grotesque and too far away from the central mass. His gangly legs seem to flail in all parts of our peripheral vision as he learns to run, and sometimes we catch distracting glimpses of a tail. It wouldn’t have to be more than a few scenes. Maybe when he merges minds with another animal, for a moment the world takes on a Predator style hue while his mind incorporates the new state of being. And since the world tree is essentially some kind of Buddhist metaphor, the first time his brain hops on in that tribal scene, he experiences a disorienting taste of total enlightenment that shows him the planet from the planet’s biggest brain. And then instead of his goal being to murder the industrialists before they murder him, maybe he’d want to show them this enlightenment and that’d be his motivation, but instead his hand is forced in favor of defense.

Instead we get a big, dumb, obvious action scene that goes on for way too long. Perhaps it’s meta-commentary on what it’s like to be American right now.

click page 2 below to see my thoughts on John Carter…

 

A Science Fictional Year: Back to The Future, Un, Deux, Trois!

This ended up being the first set of movies I am writing about, though through virtually no purposiveness of my own. My wife simply asked about a week ago, “Have you ever watched Back To The Future?” to which I replied, “Do Emmett Brown’s opinions toward changing the space-time continuum constantly fluctuate?” to which she answered: “WHAT?”

I’m pretty sure anyone born after 1980 has seen these movies. And there might not be a “before” date to attach to that. Every infant I know (currently that number is 1) has seen them, and if that trend continues, then everyone’s first exposure to the Back to The Future Chillogy is around nine months of age.

I hadn’t seen these movies in more than a decade, but my impressions from when I was a kid are still crystalline in my memory: time travel is rad, but why go backward? You have to go backward about 64 million years before anything gets interesting. To that end, I remember feeling bored by the first and third, and liking the second best. Plus, the third one was all about trains, and unless that train was going to turn into a robot (then combine with two other trains into an even bigger robot or a pterodactyl) my honest opinion about trains was that they were for people with a “case of the dumbs.” The second one definitely held my interest the most as a kid.

Things change.

With more than twenty years of development since first seeing the first one, it is without a doubt the best: the story’s the tightest, the motivations the clearest, Crispin Glover is the calmest he’s ever been, and Marty McFly’s mom is the weirdest and most eager to bone anyone hit by her father’s car.

For some girls, it’s all about the car… hitting someone.

It’s hard to even say too much more about this movie. It’s pretty fantastic. The only head scratching moment comes when McFly is playing guitar, his dad’s already secured Loraine’s sweet Florence Nighten-begaled heart, but that upsetting ginger guy steps in. Crispin becomes so dejected that he wanders away briefly during which time Marty’s hand starts to fade away. Then his dad comes back and punches the guy right in the mouth and everything’s cool. This moment isn’t that problematic, but it makes you think too hard about the mechanics of something that should be background motivation: if a single moment of doubt caused Marty to waver, shouldn’t he be totally incapacitated by immateriality the second he, and not his father, gets hit by the car? Moreover, since he’s changed the Space Cat Tacobar (or space time continuum), wouldn’t everything continue to be surrounded by an aura of indecision? The members of the photograph winking in and out, features morphing and arranging? If a moment of indecision nearly murders Marty, then he could never actually have a moment’s assurance of his own security in time until he got back. Which then makes you think really hard about whether or not he and his siblings would exist, or in what configuration. His dad has been made way more confident, and they’re obviously wealthier AND he’s a published author. Maybe his newly en-virulent-ened loins decided they couldn’t wait the decade before generating his first child. Maybe they decide to have five children, or maybe they all come out girls. Maybe they decided to move to New York to be closer to his publisher and Marty never met his girlfriend. Then he’d be forced to walk the Earth with the knowledge of a love he could never have. She’d probably be married to Biff Junior, or something equally horrible (though altered-1985 Biff looks pretty prospectless).

And it can go on and on. It’s a minor quibble that I refuse to let ruin an otherwise engaging and contained time travel story (part 2 will obliterate the idea of contained) that simply calls to much attention to something that’s meant to simply be a visual guide of his progress.

I guess the seeds of Doc Brown’s time immutability opinions were sown in the first one when he decides to read the letter anyway and, thankfully, not get shot to hell. Which explains why the last two minutes of the first movie (and first two minutes of the second movie) have him annihilating any sense of time preservation he ever had. Despite the fact that, in one movie, the writers and directors have accomplished more professionally than I might ever in my entire life, I feel like there’d have to be a better reason to travel from the future than Marty’s loser son going to jail.

This makes so much sense now.

Doc Brown’s mind really starts flying off the rails in the first few minutes of the second Back to the Future. Really, the rest of the movie is just a series of complaints: I can think of at least 38 different ways to prevent Marty’s future loser son from breaking the law than going back thirty years earlier to get Marty so he can impersonate his son. The plots in these movies never become incomprehensible, but the second one flirts with that line; namely it opens up with Emmett Brown committing a universe breaking action to solve a pretty small problem. And then things progressively get bananas-er.

“No one calls me chicken” rhymes with “shoehorned.”

Marty wants that almanac so he can gamble his way to riches. I remember as a kid watching this plot line about the almanac and developing the mistaken notion that an almanac was a book that predicted the future. Something about the subtlety of a book written in the past that predicted the future of the past eluded me. Doc Brown forbids it, and Biff (for the only time in three movies) manages to construct a coherent thought with a beginning, middle, and end. And if anyone’s going to be rich, it’s going to be him.

I’m getting too bogged down in story details, but I find it unlikely that Biff could figure out the time machine.

Trashed out 1985 is where my interest starts to wane. I think the problem is that the bone is thrown so far ahead for the audience, that it’s painful waiting for Marty to catch up. It’s also weird how Doc Brown is never around, ever, in the first and second movies. He’s almost like God. But Marty finally figures it out, and it’s off to 1955. Again. This is where the phrase “Back to The Future” is uttered about once per minute. It’s an amusing gag (like in that Family Guy episode) a time or two, but H Montgomery, we get it: it’s the title of the movie.

This part of the movie is also a little insufferable. It suffers from an excess of hijinxism in which the situations get progressively more complex and you simply want Marty to get the book and get out of there. I would have thought a simpler resolution would have been more satisfying since this was simply a CHAIN LINK TO THE THIRD ONE. I didn’t see this in the theaters, but if I had, I imagine that seven year old me would have stood up after seeing that non resolution of an ending (complete with a, “Next time, on Power Rangers” style montage) and shouted, “God dammit!”

But what’s funny, is (apart from the tedium of the third act), it’s pretty enjoyable. It remains optimistic and upbeat and a little wry about itself (though even at six I knew that a holographic Jaws in 2015 – if it existed – would look approximately infinity % better).

And the third one was not that bad. I had it in my head that it was just a trainwreck, but it only ended in one. But I was thoroughly engaged.

But we need to talk about the alternate-alternate-alternate 1985. Why does Marty’s girlfriend remember anything about what happened? For her, none of that ever happened. I found myself very frustrated at that. “Marty, that dream I had was so real.” No it wasn’t. “It was about the future.” “What future?” “About us.” Us what? “You got fired.” In a future that never existed because you’ve lived in this town your whole life and never been in a time machine because you were left on a shitty porch in 19shitty5, which never existed.

It is fascinating to me that, at its worst, the Back to the Future trilogy is still 30 times more coherent and intelligent than the most intelligible Transformers movie, and those movies are a full ten times more expensive. As I continue this project, you’ll find that the 80s and 90s were my favorite time periods for science fiction (and movies, generally). I feel like there’s a ten or fifteen year sweet spot in American film making where filmmakers had really figured out story arc and there was a lot of wild experimentation happening. And the fact that the worst parts of a trilogy can be better than the best parts of some of the most commercially successful contemporary movies really says something about the craft as-was. Apart from time-quibbles (my new band name), these movies are fully engaging. And time-quibbling (first album) is actually part of the fun, and the filmmakers knew it. That’s why he invents/hijacks skateboards in the same way two movies in a row, and Biff and his ancestor both develop close relationships with manure, and my favorite gag of all the films is when Brown starts peeling his face off while telling Marty how he had to wear a face mask so that Marty wouldn’t be shocked by how young he looks compared to his 1985 self. This is a kind of creativity I lament may be lost.

Surviving a Science Fictional Year

Hush Comics would like to introduce new writer J.H. Montgomery to the team.  He comes to us with a new writing series analyzing and reviewing science fiction movies from all eras.  This post is used with permission from the original posting found here.


 

What is science fiction? Anyone with any familiarity with the world of literature will find definitions elusive and fluid: it’s difficult to pin anything, definitively, into any category, and the categories swish over content like wine in the bottom of a glass. Unlike something more definitive like biology or physics herself (though, if you pay attention, physics gets a routine swish-around), the definitions aren’t grounded in something hard and objective. It’s not like classifying a rose in which we can go into nature and pluck a science fiction from a bush and contemplate the boundaries of it like we can with that rose. Instead, it’s much more like a software program being run on the cloud of our shared perceptions, and in that way, not only do our considerations of what make it that thing change, but the thing itself changes. Which means that there isn’t a set definition of the thing I seek to write about. This is also excluding the numerous definitions of constantly spawning subgenres (space opera, cyperpunk, biopunk, steampunk, psychedelic, military, paranoid, and so on).

There are many definitions, the most forgiving of which is, “A story or narrative containing science fictional elements,” which I think is called begging the question in logic classes. Or there’s Robert Heinlein’s five part definition. I think it was Einstein that said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Which is problematic: if Heinlein, one of the most prolific and respected sci-fi authors, can’t simply articulate it, then who can? Which seems to align with the fact that there isn’t a simple or succinct definition anywhere, which must mean that no one really understands it. John Campbell Jr. described science fiction as, “… an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made,” which is pretty good, but a little mechanical. Theodore Sturgeon (Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite, and perhaps one of the unsung heroes of sci-fi as literature) said, “A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content,” which is less mechanical and includes the ingredients of the emotional heft required of any story that wishes to leave its mark. But then instantaneously the problem then becomes, “What about sci-fi stories that take place on alien worlds divorced of any ‘human’ element?” Or if the human is so unrecognizable as human that it’s more easily described as alien. Image’s Prophet series comes to mind as one of the most recent examples.

I can’t remember who said this, or where I read it (I want to say Ray Bradbury, but I cannot verify that), but when writing a paper for my capstone writing class, I encountered a definition that science fiction is the form of literature that extrapolates humanity to inhumane proportions in order to be able to better understand humanity. In order to study a small problem, you sometimes need a large lens.

I like these definitions and where they point. Triangulating, the definitions point to something transcendent or transhuman, which seems to be the ultimate goal of science anyway: overcoming those limitations that make us specifically human. And more recently, within the last two hundred years, our understanding of the human animal (and all animals except those that be dead) is that he’s a transitional form. As a species, we haven’t arrived at our ultimate shape, but we are simply the proto-form of the as-yet formed. Perhaps science fiction is the first science of literature to recognize this idea; it then takes it upon itself to probe both the tops and bottoms, comforts and fears, potential goods and potential evils of transcendence. So, for a more inclusive and exhaustive definition – one that doesn’t require me to add caveats nor invalidates the subgenres yet includes all that interests me – I propose the following:

“Science fiction is a genre which uses current knowledge to speculate about unknown knowledge in an inherently transcendent fashion that seeks to either better define or overcome humanness.”

This definition matches what I feel when I watch the best science fiction: the giddy thrill of new ideas, or the taut anxiety of fresh horror. It also helps to explain why some things that Blockbuster or Barnes and Noble might qualify as science fiction will be suspiciously absent from my list.

What list? Well, for the next year, I plan to watch one science fiction movie a day. Originally the plan was to watch and write about each, but the fear then became that each entry would simply become a summary of the movie with a thumbs up or thumbs down, and that’s something you can get from Rotten Tomatoes. Instead, I want to write about movies in batches: batches of series (for example, The Matrix) or themes (far future, or coexisting with the alien). This will better allow for comparisons and contextualization, which I think is more worthwhile than simple review.

But I do have weaknesses. First up is that I only have roughly 230 movies on my list. To that end, as you read, feel free to make suggestions which I will add (if I don’t have them already) or explain why it can’t be added as the definition mandates.

Another weakness is the cold war and the roughly 18 septillion B movies it spawned. I know that if I wanted to do sci-fi of the 40s and 50s, I would instantly have 365 movies. The problem is that you can only handle the, “Oh no! Aliens! Quick, shoot them in the face! I’m so glad we shot them in the face! Let’s be glad we’re nothing like them/be careful of our similarities with them/be perpetually afraid they might return!” story so much before it becomes white noise. It’s an infantile theme from an infantile time. Yet, I recognize I will have to include at least some if I’m to reach my 365(ish) goal.

The last weakness is the letter of the law versus the intent. The letter of the law is, “A movie a day, write about them in groups,” but the intent is, “sustained and thoughtful writing over the course of an entire year about a specific topic.” To that end, there are several days I plan on taking off (my anniversary, my daughter’s first birthday), but I fear laziness, especially in the face of such a daunting task. I might need some of you to egg my house from time to time.

This should be fun, and I invite participation. It’s why the Good Lord Kabbalah Monster saw fit that blogs have comment sections. I might not always respond or interact, but I will do my best to do both and will, at the very least, read. So please: tell me why I’m wrong or what I overlooked, or what movie I’m forgetting. I’ll post at the end of each batch what’s coming next so that you can tell me what should be included.

This project is, itself, a project of transcendence: through it I will be learning as much about the limits of my own conceptions of what constitutes humanity as well as the boundaries of story.

Stay tuned.

cover art by William Blake (yeah, that William Blake)