Comic Book Reviews 10-29-14

Review Scale:

The mythical A+: Classic comic book material. Belongs next to your copy of The Notebook and The Joy of Cooking.

A: Would definitely recommend to all comic book readers. Even more so to fans of the genre or characters

B: Enjoyable read. Fans of the genre or characters will especially like.

C: Non-essential read. Can be enjoyable for fans of the genre or characters, but likely for only one or two events in the books.

D: Unenjoyable book. Read at your own risk. Might find satisfaction if major flaws are overlooked.

F: Please don’t buy this book. Donate your money to a local comic book writer’s workshop instead to inspire future generations to write something better than this trash.

 

Pick of the Week:

black science 10 potw

Black Science #10 – A

What’s cooler than a laser beam spitting, flying hippo-dragon cruising into the horizon of multiple setting suns against the backdrop of the most geologically unfathomable mountain range you’ve ever seen?!  If you somehow have an answer for that, you sure as Hell better tell me in the comments section below, because I can’t think of anything!  Thanks again Matteo Scalera for making love to my eyes.  The events in Black Science are building up to something dimension shattering – literally.  Though it appears the formula is repeating itself, I’ve got a feeling that Remender is just leading us on.  I wouldn’t be surprised if in the Dimensionauts’ next jump this crazy adventure gets turned up another notch.  If nothing else, we’ll at least get to see the laser-ninja shaman in action again! – Taylor

Other Reviews: 

Dark Horse:

Alien: Fire & Stone #2 – B

I’m surprised.  The Fire & Stone storyline is already 6 issues deep and in each new release the plot deepens and new elements continue to pop up.  Each issue has left me on the edge of my seat and slack jawed.  I said it last time and I’ll say it this time:  The Fire & Stone story is possibly the best interwoven multi-titled comic arch I’ve ever read.  Each story element is solid in delivery.  The characters are engaging, the intrigue and creepy factor are out of this world, there are twists galore, and… just… everything is great!  There is plenty of this story left to tell and so many questions left to answer.  It makes me so happy to know that this thrill ride isn’t even halfway over. – Taylor

DC/Vertigo:

Earth 2: World’s End #4 – B-

This issue finally kind of settled down and focused on two groups of heroes, giving little time to what else is going on. I appreciated this, as this series was starting to get a bit jumbled. We’re introduced to a new character and get to see Apokolips and his crew. I still have no idea why we’re getting Dick Grayson’s story as nothing really seems to be happening there. One thing I have learned in the last week is that the World’s End story is going to have huge implications for the Futures End story happening on normal Earth. I know, I know, I probably should have known this, but, I didn’t…this also explains a lot about why it has been so spastic until now. That being said, this series is definitely more enjoyable than most Futures End stories and hopefully it will bring something fresh to what has become very stale. – Cody

Wonder Woman #35 – C-

The epic finale of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman 35-issue arc is the least epic finale that I could have hoped for. Over the past three years, Wonder Woman has rewrote Diana’s lore as a bastard child of Zeus himself. She has transformed into the Goddess of War, slugged it out with the other gods and faced off with Zeus’ First Born. So it’s extremely disappointed that such a well-told and carefully-crafted could come to such a screeching halt. It’s hastily wrapped up and the overall message is convoluted with just a few pages in this issue. It in no ways taints my memory of the 34 issues that preceded it, but I’m not heart-broken that we get an all new creative team starting next month. – Sherif

Sinestro #6 – D

On its own, this month’s issue of Sinestro is pretty good.  Sinestro and his fear mongering Corps. are still ruthless and very entertaining to watch in battle.  The pencil and ink-work is still on point.  Sinestro is still crazy powerful and super scary.  The thing that killed it for me this month is the thing I dislike most about comic books – abrupt and total change in plot.  I see this more often with the major publishers and with superhero characters.  Story lines from other comic books work their way into “related” titles and (for me) it only serves as a major buzz kill and disappointment.  What happened to Sinestro’s frozen brethren?  Who is this lamely named warrior Goddess and where did she come from?  Is Hal Jordan still pouting on that rock after getting his ass handed to him?  I was really feeling Sinestro thus far, but I have hard time forgiving such grandiose inconsistencies. – Taylor

IDW Comics:

Cartoon Network Super Secret Crisis War #5 – B+

This series has continued to amaze me every week in how well they mix these character together and have them work so well. This week we see things finally moving forward for the good guys as the bad guys are not getting along and it seems to be breaking them apart. They are about to blow up one of the characters worlds which isn’t revealed until the end, but will the heroes be able to save this earth and all the other universes earths? Will any bad guys actually help the heroes? Well, in great Saturday morning cartoon fashion, we wont find out until the exciting conclusion next month but we get an idea of what may happen. This series is filled with nostalgia and nerdy humor for those who watched any of these shows and offers us more material from franchises we loved which we felt we may never see again. – Jacob

Image Comics:

Saga #24 – A-

(A) In all my years, I don’t think I have ever heard the phrase “stick it in my spinneret.” Saga continues to push the boundaries and introduce new and fantastical elements to an already complex and multi-faceted story. There has not been one moment where I’ve said to myself, “This is just like…” Dream team Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples introduce several new characters in this issue, as well as reacquaint us with several more, reminding us just how deep this story can be. Saga is a one-of-a-kind adventure that will have you laughing, gasping and losing yourself in, issue after issue. – Sherif

(B) Flip to page 17 of this month’s issue of Saga… Got that image burned into your brain?  Good!  Let this now everlasting burn be your eternal reminder of how great this series is.  Contemporary media based entertainment nowadays much too frequently lacks originality and genuine creativity.  Stepping outside the realm of comic books for just a second, think of the last 3 movies you went to see.  I’m willing to bet my Saga collection that at least one of those movies was a sequel, remake, or a “based-on” work.  Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples are the antithesis to this notion.  The story these two creative geniuses have put together rival any story (comic book or otherwise) I’ve experienced in the last 3 years – maybe more.  I can’t urge strongly enough to those who haven’t been following this series the pure enjoyment and gratification waiting for you in Saga.  If you appreciate originality as much as I do, then I command you to read Saga! – Taylor

Rasputin #1 – B

The use of red wine though the first panels is captivating and manipulates the eye to only look at what it wants you to look at. Red, overall, is used through the book to highlight certain moments in different way. Always, in one way or another a life force, the imagery holds fast. The is stark dialogue ramps up the emotional weight of the story. The images are rather jarring and have an intense punch to the gut. Much of the dialogue in the bubbles are replaced with images, such as, a skull in the dialogue bubble instead of words. The effect is haunting. I have always been utterly fascinated by Rasputin and glad someone is taking a crack at his story. If you like the occult and Rasputin like me, you’ll enjoy this book. – Jené

Roche Limit #2 – B

I love how this story goes back and forth between the scientist who set up this new world and the development of the story. Its one part existential crises, one part murder mystery. Cosmic and myopic in the same breath. And yet, both stories are the same and play off one another a sort of cosmic tapestry where all actions and reaction interplay with one another. One person story affects the larger level of the reality. I dig. Also, it’s just pretty, I get lost in the artwork still sometimes forsaking the story. Little less annoyed with the logistics of the story compared to the last book. It’s rounding out and I’m pulled in such a way I wish I had several books to binge read instead of the slow serial reveal. – Jené

Cutter #4 – F

Well, the Cutter miniseries has come to end and may I just say, thank god for that – what a cliché, unoriginal and overall unwelcome storyline. The conclusion in issue #4 offered literally nothing of interest and I kind of hate myself for reading it. What I’m sure was intended to be a shocking ending is extremely played out and I can think of at least three things off the top of my head that offer the same twist of a family member out for revenge for their victimized loved one (Prom Night, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, basically every movie…) I feel bad being so harsh, but honestly the Cutter series felt way too drawn out (in only four issues, mind you), completely unoriginal and frankly boring. The characters were weak and easily forgettable and the writing felt phoned in. I’m not sure writers Robert Napton and Seamus Kevin Fahey even gave a shit what happened by the end of it. As a reader, I sure didn’t. Cutter felt lazy and like it was written by people that know nothing about horror and the conclusion of the story only confirmed that for me. Oh, and what I can only assume was supposed to be a “deep” final panel can kiss my ass. I get it, the cycle continues as long as there are people who are too weak to stand up for what’s right. Your social commentary isn’t scary and it only makes me hate you more. Overall, Cutter was worth avoiding, and a huge disappointment. – Keriann

Marvel:

Death of Wolverine: Deadpool & Captain America #1 – A-

Personally a Deadpool and Captain America team-up sounds wonderful, but then you add that it is the old Steve Rogers and it makes for the best thing to come out of the Death of Wolverine storyline and off shoots yet. In this we see Deadpool and Steve Rogers teaming up to collect any DNA of Logan/Wolverine so that nobody can clone him or use it for evil purposes. Although the underlying story is about this we actually get quite a good character study of both Deadpool and Captain America in this, showcasing sides of them only Wolverine had seen and helped them with. The ending of it had me a bit worried as to what will happen next, as I am sure any reader will understand and don’t want to give too much away, but I have a feeling it will all work itself out. Although the typical Deadpool humor is still there (seeing Steve Rogers respond to each joke Deadpool makes on whether he got the reference or not was quite funny) but we get a more drama heavy book here but with that we get a story that finally offers us something worthwhile in this never-ending Death of Wolverine saga. – Jacob

Death of Wolverine: The Logan Legacy #3 – C-

This week The Logan Legacy covers Sabretooth and his story about Wolverine, and oh, what a completely messed up story it is. Not much has come from the Death of Wolverine event that has been outstanding, even though I have enjoyed it all, but this does not change that as even though it is a entertaining story, it is one that ultimately seemed way off course and mostly just an avenue to show Sabretooth killing lots of people. This issue definitely gives you an idea in how fucked up Sabretooth really is as we see what he did right after Wolverines death and it was not very nice at all. The next issue is going to cover Lady Deathstrike and I have always felt she was one of Wolverine’s best villains, so hopefully we can get a worthwhile story from her and not be a rather unmeaningful story like the last two have been. – Jacob

Deathlok #1 – C-

As first issues goes, this book really isn’t all that impressive or captivating. Hays is living a double live as a secret operative and a single father. That was all that was really established in this book besides a lot of fighting bad guys that seem more like civilian casualties. Deathlok is being used to some nefarious ends he’s unaware of, or so it appears. Everyone needs some fluff in their life, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Still, I am curious about how the story will play out and the relationship between him and his daughter. At the moment the story is more action plot than character development. – Jené

All-New X-Men #33 – D

Between DC and Marvel, there is just too much “alternate universe” crap going on. Here, some mysterious all-powerful mutant girl got flustered, sneezed, and sent everybody to a different universe. Okay, where are the hidden cameras? Joke’s over guys… While the prospect of these guys ending up in different universes is intriguing, and the humor is on-point as per usual, I just can’t see this storyline being unique enough to wade through the whole thing for. Each issue keeps getting shorter, but it doesn’t help me stay interested. Best to just wait for this arc to end before jumping on the bandwagon. – Sherif

Axis: Revolutions #1 – F

I’m sorry folks, but this book did absolutely nothing for me. The first half was just some morality story as told by Spider-Man (ugh…) and the rest featured Doctor Strange (UGH….); all of the magic talk made him sound ridiculous and reminded me of Ron Burgundy on more than one occasion. Save your time! – Cody

 

Oni Press:

Ciudad #1 – D

What do you get when you take Denzel Washington from Man On Fire and Russell Crowe from Proof Of Life, mix them together and throw the character into the chaos of the drug-infested streets of modern day Mexico? Ciudad is what you get! Just in case the previously listed movies draw an involuntary “WTF?” from your lips, Ciudad’s main character is an extractor. A man with James Bond-like skills paid to return the kidnapped to freedom from those wicked and evil enough to attempt to ransom them off. Are you salivating yet? I wasn’t but, different strokes for different folks, right?! The first thing that grabbed me when I opened Ciudad was the art, which is, sad to say, downright poor. From it’s quality to it’s color (Ciudad is completely black and white) it’s leaves you with that lackluster feeling that only bad CGI in a B movie can engender. This is an issue that could have really benefited from color, and that’s not to say that there aren’t some panels that are breath taking (cause a few are magnificent), but the art as a whole takes away from the book. There’s nearly no character development, and what little there is leaves you wanting. Like a twinkie without the cream you’re wondering, where’s the filling? I will say, the action is well done. The language used is very immersive and the action keeps you engaged with brutal yet instinctive violence. It’s just not enough. Ciudad reminds me of Steven Segal. There’s not a lot of substance, and it’s not much to look at, but it can kick some ass from time to time. So open an issue if you’re feeling froggy but like the crime congested streets in Ciudad, enter at your own risk. – Zach

 

Funniest Panel:

Death of Wolverine: Deadpool & Captain America #1 funny panel
Death of Wolverine: Deadpool & Captain America #1

 

Panel with the Most Awesomeness:

Wonder Woman #35 Awesome panel
Wonder Woman #35

 

That about wraps it up for our reviews this week! Look for next week’s previews coming soon. Any comic books you didn’t see reviewed that you want reviewed? Any grades you didn’t agree on? Let us know in the comments!

All images taken from ComiXology app and the credit for them goes to the respective publishers; thanks to IDW Comics, image Comics, Dark Horse, Boom! Studios, Oni Press, Dynamite Entertainment, DC and Marvel for putting out great books.

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…

 

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)