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: 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!