A Science Fictional Year: Earth to Echo

I’m pretty sure that, “The 80s and the 90s consistently made the best movies, especially, but not limited to, family movies, and if you disagree shut up because you’re wrong,” is a statement of science. It goes: 1. Newton’s laws of gravitation; 2. The laws of thermodynamics; 3. General relativity; 4. If you don’t like 80s and 90s movies, shut up because you’re dumb and have no friends.  I don’t even know if I could count all the movies I’ve done on this list so far (and that are yet to come) that come from the roughly ’79-’94 range that are amazing.

It’s something about the time period: digital effects were non-existent or so primitive that the film’s practical effects had to be on their A game, and if digital was involved at all, its presence was very limited and there to patch up the cosmetics; the story writing hadn’t yet become jaded and people were still trying to evoke genuine emotional reactions through AAA movies. Plus, there is an unboundedness to those movies as studios haven’t yet come upon the idea that there were magic ideas that would make millions of dollars appear. Because very few rules had yet to be established, they were more inclined to take on risky and unknown projects.

And what made family movies of this time period so meaningful and endearing is that they actually respected kids. It’s hard to place exactly, but kids were frequently extending beyond their reach going places adults were too afraid, jaded, or dumb to go themselves. They constantly put themselves in danger — real danger — that might mean even their death.

So when I saw Earth to Echo, the thing I was least prepared for was how earnest its story is. Yes, on one level it’s the story of three friends who find an alien on their last night together in the same town, but really it reflects what it’s like growing up: how unfair it is to have powers bigger than yourself impinge on your freedom forcing you to do things that, even in your admitted ignorance, you sense as short sighted and unnecessary. It reflects the heightened importance EVERYTHING carries because it’s the first time it’s happened to you, and you don’t know if it will happen again. And kids are crappy sometimes. It neither deifies nor villainizes them. They can be self-sacrificing (like when Munch is taken by a strange adult), but they can also be cowards (like when Tuck refuses to help save Alex from an arcade’s security guard). I admit to tearing up at least once.

On a technical level the movie shines. A few scenes feature CG that looks a little squishy, but there were times when I wasn’t sure if it was a CG alien on the desk, or a puppet. And it’s a “found footage” movie, which is usually the kiss of garbage, but it was utilized in a way to actually further the story and inflate the world rather than as an excuse for terrible camera work.

The best part, though, is how the movie shows your life can instantly become elevated above the lives of those around you if you’re willing and open for the right moment. In a world in which adults were willing to believe appearances and do as told, a group of kids were receptive to a moment of transcendence and change the course of lives and (inferrably) history. But that acts as footnote to the fact that this moment of transcendence allows the four friends to overcome their enforced isolation from each other. And it’s so touching.

Pretty much the most adorable group of protagonists to protagonize.

From what I can tell, the movie didn’t get much traction: it didn’t cost much to make, but 3 times not much is still a third the budget of Avatar. It’s a little disheartening to see the only kid’s movie not made out of hot steaming garbage (since Harry Potter) pass by unnoticed. It’s on Netflix, and worth your time.

All images belong to Relativity Media.

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.