A Story Out of Time and Place and the Escape Hatch of Fantasy: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) — Retro Nostalgia

With the monumental success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (dir. Chris Columbus; 2001), Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring (dir. Peter Jackson; 2001), and their immediate sequels, Hollywood perhaps hoped to capitalize on the epic fantasy feel of Tolkien's narrative and the young adult/children's audience that so fervently devoured the Harry Potter books.  Naturally, they turned to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

If I'm honest, I'm quite a fan of the Narnia films even as I'm critical of their structure.  There's something deliciously joyous about portal fantasies wherein children are whisked away to save the world, hanging out with talking beavers and every fantasy creature under the sun.  Narnia was wish fulfillment for me in so many ways.  Adventure?  Check.  Epic scale?  Check.  Kids becoming greater than themselves?  Check.  It is a deeply hopeful series of films (and novels -- though I suppose The Last Battle might be perceived as rather "doomsday-ish" today).  Sometimes, one needs a little optimistic, no?  The first of these films, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (dir. Andrew Adamson; 2005), is perhaps the strongest as a narrative, but it also has its problems.  Granted, these are problems which make more sense in a certain perspective, even if they don't quite work in film.
The first of these problems is fairly easy to critique.  If you've seen the film, you'll know that Peter and the rest of the Pevensies somehow miraculously learn military tactics, swordfighting, horseback riding, bow shooting, and other combat-relevant skills in a matter of minutes.  In the film, this is assumed to occur in a handful of days; the White Witch and her army, after all, are merely hours from the location of the Narnian army.  Throughout the film, the sense of time is skewed, partly because, as we learn, Narnia runs on a different clock from our own (a year on Earth is decades on Narnia) and partly because time is not strictly relevant in this world.  The first film doesn't address this latter point all that well, to be honest, though you can sort of follow the logic after repeat viewings.  Regardless, the longer the film runs, the more its sense of time deviates from the measured pace of the opening scenes, wherein the Pevensies survive a Nazi bombing of London, are sent off to the countryside by train, and spend a considerable amount of time trying to being normal kids whilst living in a country at war.  The deeper into the fantasy world we go, the less time (and, by necessity, space) become relevant features for the narrative.

Additionally, the film's logic of time is intricately bound up in its treatment of space.  That Aslan can run vast distances in mere hours at what is a remarkably quick pace for a very large lion (as indicated by the development of the battle between the Narnians and the White Witch's army) suggests either that the film has no sense of time or that the world of Narnia is not nearly as big as we assumed.  The latter seems the more accurate interpretation in the sense that our interpretation of space is necessarily an Earthen one, a problem which the Pevensies are or become, as with time, deeply disinterested.  Once they become embedded in the conflict of Narnia, in fact, the temporal and spatial skewing is more pronounced, such that by the end of the film, neither is particularly stable.  And this all hinges on the entire series' underlying Christian allegory:  if Aslan is literally God, then it follows that his access to and understanding of time and space in Narnia is not like ours at all, and thus anyone operating under his influence would not be bound by the restrictions of space and time either.  Once the Pevensies meet Aslan and become part of his "world," time and space lose their Earthen focus.  They are meaningless distinctions.
None of this quite excuses the film's somewhat rushed epic narrative or the series' propensity for deus ex machina antics.  But understanding why the narrative is structured in such a manner that time and space just don't make a lot of sense gives us, I think, a better understanding of the film's narrative of child heroes.  Unlike The Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia is absolutely embedded in a child's fantasy, albeit a Christian-influenced one.  That fantasy, like a bedtime story, never adheres to novel-length conceptions of time; such stories rush to the conclusion because they are not about the "grand narrative," but about the immediate gratification of the child's fantasy, whether via the characters within the story world or the actual children (or, in my case, adults who miss certain qualities of childhood).

In fact, this may be the thing that makes me love these films so much.  They are, in a sense, free from the constraints of serious storytelling, opting instead for metaphor, blatant allegory, and absolute heroic fantasy mediated through the child.  I watch the films in this series and can't help but become immersed in a world where heroes still exist and can be drug out of the depths of cowardice or made from the spark hiding beneath childhood insecurity.  They're so much about doing good because it is good, and being rewarded for that deed.  Even as an atheist, I can appreciate this sensation, because however realistic one wishes to be, there will always need to be an escape hatch for life, even if it just comes in the form of a children's fantasy movie.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is my escape hatch.


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Retro Nostalgia: Equilibrium (2002) and the Paradox of Emotion

If you blinked back in 2002, you might have missed this lesser known Christian Bale vehicle featuring stylish gun kata and deliberate and sometimes excessive homages to George Orwell's 1984 (particularly the 1984 adaptation starring John Hurt).  Indeed, one could describe Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium as Orwell on drugs.  

Here, Orwellian propaganda is apparent in the frequent appearance of Father (Sean Pertwee) "teaching" the masses about the dangers of "feeling" and the need to relinquish that human quality for a stable society.  The gesture is reinforced from the start by a veritable lecture, rife with images of human violence, in which Father reminds us that the people of this future have barely survived World War Three, and that humanity cannot survive another such war.  We must not feel if the world is to survive, it seems; and so we must voluntarily purge emotion by taking injections of Prozium.  On one level, this is hardly an irrational prospect, it would seem.  
Once we realize how this system operates, however, it's clear that we're no longer dealing with a voluntary system where we all sacrifice for the preservation of the whole:  this future is maintained by a brutal police force which kills "sense-offenders" and burns anything from humanity's past -- ironically, they are called Clerics.  It is the Orwellian and Bradburian "gamble" and fascistic "justice" married together.  That nobody notices the contradiction suggests that Prozium is more than a mere mood inhibitor -- something the film doesn't quite explore.

As such, the overarching narrative is a deliberate façade:  not only is the prospect of removing emotion via injection simply absurd, but it is also definitively false.  As to be expected, those who control the system are not immune to emotional outburst.  Dupont (Angus Macfadyen), the voice of Father, doesn't bother hiding his emotions, frequently raising his voice and emoting in obvious fashion.  That he turns out to be Father in the end -- and a hypocrite who does not take Prozium himself -- reinforces the emotive nature of Father, who at no point appears to be a totally non-feeling being; it likewise reinforces the underlying contradictions of the world.  As Derrida might say:  the true rogue State is the one which defines the rogue by rules that it does not follow itself.  Other characters offer similar reinforcement, such as Cleric Brandt (Taye Diggs) who smirks, smiles, and nearly laughs on a number of occasions.  Indeed, it's a wonder he was not burned to ashes much sooner in the film given how often he emotes.
Though these elements may be flaws on the part of the director, I think they also reveal a more sinister form of dystopian control at the heart of Equilibrium.  As becomes apparent by the conclusion of the film, humanity cannot help but feel because it is necessarily a desiring "machine."  For John Preston (Christian Bale) to choose to cease his doses of Prozium, he must desire the activity.  To father children, he must desire it.  For this society to function, it must function on some level by the desire of those within it.  Prozium is just the smoke screen through which an ideology of absurdist non-emotion can be reinforced.  What makes the future of Equilibrium so troubling is not that humanity has been forced to give up part of what makes us "human," but that humanity has been tricked into believing that this is possible and desirable, whether by force or by coercion.

Additionally, the film's apparent contradictions add to the sinister nature of the world as a whole.  If Father is a "sense-offender" like everyone else, then what is on the surface a binary of non-feelers vs. sense-offenders proves to be a more complicated triangle in which the non-feelers (mythic though they technically are) are mere pawns in a brutal game of violent oppression.  Equilibrium is a film about control of the human self, yes, but it is more accurately a film about controlling knowledge and expression.  Ultimately, emotion is just the avenue through which the powers-that-be justify the right to control what is otherwise uncontrollable, and to do so in such a way that emotion is necessarily implicated in everyday action.  This society isn't a non-feeling society; it is a contemptuous society which purports to have given up its emotions while actively desiring the suppression of what many would argue is naturally human.

Though a flawed film, Equilibrium should make us pause and consider how emotion can be mobilized as a mechanism of control.  And it should make us wonder if that action is any less disconcerting or immoral than a purely open-faced fascistic enterprise.

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Retro Nostalgia: Silent Running (1972; dir. Douglas Trumbull) and the Heroism of Environmental Madness

Undoubtedly, the 1970s was one of the most important decades for environmental issues.  At the start of the decade, the environmentalist movement had become so influential that the United States government felt compelled to amend the Clean Air Act (in 1970) and the Water Pollution Control Act (1972).  This action expanded the scope of the law and gave the government greater enforcement capabilities.  Not long after, the Environmental Protection Agency was born.  

It should come as no surprise, then, that David Trumbull's Silent Running (1972) appeared in this era.  Praised for its visual effects, Silent Running tells the story of Lowell, one of four crew members aboard the Valley Forge, a commercial spaceship carrying several massive biodomes which house some of the last remaining natural wildlife known to man.  Earth, it turns out, is not so much barren as artificial; its people consume processed cubes of nutrients, and the Earth's surface is devoid of forests or other natural environments.  When the crew of the Valley Forge receive orders to detach the domes and destroy them, Lowell, the lone environmental idealist, murders his crewmates and conspires to flee with the remaining dome and a trio of clunky robots.
Silent Running most certainly has a lot to say about environmentalism, but what I found most fascinating about the narrative were its attempts to grapple with the question of Lowell's sanity.  From the start of the film, Lowell is portrayed as the outsider -- the one weirdo who eats naturally grown foods, who believes in the forestry project, and who finds life back on Earth utterly horrifying.   In one of the most pivotal moments in the film, he rants at his crewmates after they tease him for eating a cantaloupe.  In that speech, he reminds us that Earth is polluted and synthetic:  its temperatures are controlled all across the globe, its food is drawn from processors, and its new generations are growing up without natural environments to appreciate.  This moment strikes at the core of the film.  For Lowell, life in the domes, as artificial as they are, represents a life that might be on Earth; he's an idealist of the highest order because he exists in a reality where these domes are, ironically enough, the only natural environments left for humanity.  

That Lowell strikes out on his own near the middle of the film is not insignificant.  For much of the film, Lowell's outsider status is not just a simple difference of opinion -- an environmentalist versus the contented.  His outsider status is a division of humanity.  His crewmates are the faces of a "new" humanity who have discarded an evolutionary relationship to the natural world in exchange for an intellectual relationship with product.  Lowell is the "old" face, the humanity which appreciates the natural world, not just because of its splendor but because being human means being connected to the natural.  When Lowell does kill his crewmates -- one he kills with his bare hands; the other two he kills after detaching a dome with them inside and then destroying it -- it is an act of madness, desperation, and separation.  Lowell's sanity should be drawn into question at this point, not just because he commits murder, but because by doing so, he is severing his ties to his own species.  But is he actually mad, or is there something else at work here?
From my own perspective, I do not view Lowell as having succumbed to madness.  In fact, I think there's something heroic in what he does to save the natural environment, even if his heroism has no connection to a human worldview -- without human recognition, how can he be seen as an actual hero?  Lowell doesn't simply run away.  He creates an elaborate plot to convince the other dome ships that the Valley Forge has malfunctioned, sending the ship careening into the rings of Saturn, which the corporation believes will destroy the ship.  It's unclear whether Lowell knows he will die beforehand; the ambiguity is later closed off by Lowell's suicide (we'll come to that in a minute).  What is clear is that Lowell knows that nothing he can do with words will save the Valley Forge or its last remaining dome from American Airlines (the corporation which owns the dome ships -- no joke).  His crewmates never accept his rhetoric, and he knows that he has an even worse chance trying to convince a corporation to save the domes when there is no desire for their existence back home on Earth.  Lowell has no choice.  If he's to save Earth's natural world, he has to make the heroic sacrifice:  sever his ties with humanity and flee.  We're asked to weigh this against the sacrifice of a few human lives.
As you might have guessed, this doesn't quite work.  A search party eventually finds Lowell and the Valley Forge, and Lowell must once more make a decision:  allow the dome to be captured and destroyed or do something extreme.  His solution:  leave one of the robots to tend to the forest, shoot the dome off into deep space, and then use the remaining nukes to destroy himself and the Valley Forge.  This scene appears to be foregrounded by the ambiguity I mentioned earlier.  Here, there is no ambiguity left:  Lowell sacrifices himself to protect the dome.  But his sacrifice also means relinquishing to the inner turmoil he has felt since the start of the movie:  that he is no longer part of the human race.  

Lowell's anti-humanity (or rejection of a new humanity, if you will) is also enhanced by the conclusion's compelling duality:
  1. The human race as we know it is extinct.
  2. The salvation of the natural environment must come from the intervention of humanity and its machines.
In the concluding shots, we're shown images of Dewey (the name Lowell gives one of his robots) tending to the forest.  These moments disentangle the paradox of the domes -- a natural environment reborn from an unnatural one -- by creating a fully self-contained biodome with its own natural environmental "system."  No human intervention.  No intervention at all.  Dewey becomes the God of the new Eden, and humanity becomes something else -- artificial, removed, sterile.  Thus, Silent Running reverses the evolutionary development of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Humanity will not evolve and return to Earth with the power of change; humanity's creations will take that power to the cosmos, never to return.

It's a pretty intense message for a film that in so many ways shouldn't have worked.  Yet it remains, for obvious reasons, a classic.

Now it's your turn.  What did you think of Silent Running?

Note:  Silent Running makes little effort to explain how the biodomes work as self-sustaining entities.  They just do.


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Retro Nostalgia: Aliens (1986) and Ripley’s Maternities (Some Rambly Thoughts)

(What follows are some random thoughts I had while re-watching James Cameron's Aliens.  I'd love to open up a nice discussion about the film, so feel free to leave a comment agreeing/disagreeing with or adding to my argument(s).)

I've always loved the relationship between Ripley and Hicks.  Obviously, it's implied that there's a significant romantic link between them, but the film makes light of it through jokes, in part so the very real problem -- survival in the face of certain death -- never falls prey to the romantic narrative underneath.  And there's also a sense -- for me, anyway -- that Ripley and Hicks don't
actually have to develop a romantic relationship for there to be something between them.
A lot of people also read Aliens as a narrative about maternity.  I've started to think about the narrative as a metaphor for unexpected parenthood (and child mortality), too.  If you think about it, the first chunk of the film focuses on Ripley's return to the world; one of the reveals is the death of her child, whose death she cannot prevent.  While an inaccurate metaphor for infant mortality or some equally naturalistic death of one's child, these sections of the film seem remarkably like a story about a parent dealing with the death of a child.  In this interpretation, Burke takes the form of a father (I can't think of a single mention of the biological father of Ripley's daughter, so I assume one of the two is out of the picture -- probably Ripley, which is unusual in the real world).  Since Burke represents Ripley for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who seem to be the ones in control of everything, he also acts as a kind of father figure in the remotest sense.  Her relationship with him, as such, is strained by his link to the Company and to her past (i.e., the death of her child, etc.).  I also think there's something profoundly disturbing to read into Burke's actions near the end of the film, in which he tries to infect/impregnate Newt and Ripley with xenomorphs (a rape and child abuse metaphor?).

The other maternity narrative is one we've all probably heard before:  Ripley's "adoption" of Newt.  I think of Newt not necessarily as the adopted child in a traditional sense, but more as a discovery of a child you didn't know you had.  Ripley jumps into the role of mother figure quite naturally (she is technically a mother, after all), but she also seems to acknowledge the distance between them.  These two elements suggest to me that Newt is supposed to take the place of an unexpected child.  But I'll admit that this idea is not as thought out as I would like.
I won't suggest that Aliens is a perfect film from a feminist perspective, but it's hard to imagine it as anything else.  Every aspect of the narrative involves questions about the place of women in worlds that for so long have been the domain of men.  After all, in 1986, women didn't serve in combat positions in the U.S.  In Aliens, they do (even Ripley, though she sort of gets roped into it).  Women are shown doing a lot of things our culture likes to tell them they can't do.  They can have children and work jobs "meant for men."  They can serve in the military, use weapons or heavy machinery, fly complicated aircraft, fight for themselves, and on and on and on.  True, most of the women die in this movie, but so do most of the men.  This is one of the reasons why I love this movie.  It doesn't pander to a masculine audience in the same way as other SF action movies.  Ripley isn't eye candy here.  She doesn't run around bending over so you can see her toned abs or the curves of her breasts or her toosh or whatever (not that she's not physically attractive, mind, but most of the characters in this movie end up covered in filth and wounds; the whole Megan-Fox-bends-over-a-car-so-we-can-stare-and-her-tumtum wouldn't make any sense in that context).  If anything, what makes Ripley such an attractive character is the fact that she is a character.  And, honestly, I think she's probably the greatest female protagonist in all of science fiction.

But maybe I'm stretching with that last statement...


Note:  I may return to this film for the Retro Nostalgia feature.  Keep an eye out for that.

Retro Nostalgia: Contact (1997) and Conflating Faith and Science and Its Hopeful Ethos

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Carl Sagan's popularization of science will recall his profound optimism, both with humanity's scientific endeavors and its almost desperate need to strive for "more."  I think it's fair to say that he imagined science as humanity's great thrust to greatness -- to controlling itself and its environment.  After all, he famously said that "[imagination] will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere."  And while he was not a religious man, he didn't fear suggesting that science could provide a spiritual vision of the world:

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
Sagan's optimism, understandably, bleeds through the narrative of the film adaptation of Contact (1997) (how could it not?).  Ellie's father, Ted (David Morse), for example, answers his young daughter's (Jena Malone) question about life in the universe by cleverly playing the "it's too damned big of a universe" card -- he suggests that if there isn't anyone else out there, then all that space is wasted.  Adult Ellie (Jodie Foster) eventually relays these lines to preacher/religious popularist Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who also repeats them to the world after Ellie's return from her mission and the media firestorm of the perceived failure of the project (not to mention Ellie's implication that faith in her story is necessary).
What's fascinating about the film (and, I suspect, the book, which I have not read) is its refusal to shy away from implying that this optimism will ultimately form the basis for a faith argument for science.  In the end, it is that unison of religion and science which offers one of Sagan's most optimistic visions:  namely, that science and religion could ever unify in an increasingly hostile political environment. Palmer and Ellie are themselves stand-ins for these respective fields, suggesting that the romantic conclusion of their narrative must be deferred too, lest faith be rested from the audience on all counts.  Sagan must have been quite hopeful for the future of science to have imagined a world where the greatest religious "threat" to science is an attractive religious guru who can see the writing on the wall.  Hence why the last line in the above quote is so crucial:  "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."  Contact is essentially Sagan's spiritual mind at work, imagining all the possibilities of the science and spiritual realms coming together for the same united purpose:  seeking some deeper truth about the universe -- science on the natural questions; spirituality on the questions about understanding our place in a suddenly crowded universe.  Sadly, if Contact had been written in the late 2000s, Sagan might have seemed naive.
Perhaps that's actually a good thing.  When people called for more optimistic SF in 2009-2010 (resulting in Vries' Shine Anthology), they must have had Contact on the mind, if not in actuality, then in spirit.  Contact is a film that strives to find the positive in a world bloated with bureaucracy, religious terrorists, and fear (it is also a largely male world we are presented, with some exceptions).  The government wants to control everything, the vain scientists want to use Ellie's discovery to further their own careers, even at the expense of others, the people at large cower or clamber in supplication before things they do not yet understand, and, finally, the religious extremists, seeing this great moment as a threat to their authority, want to destroy the entire project, even if that means preventing humanity's next great leap forward.

Ellie's almost desperate need to remain involved, to discover whatever is "on the other side," to leap into the darkness and bring back answers, holds her up in this storm.  She won't participate in the politics or the glory of discovery; she only wants to discover, to know, to understand.  Unlike the people around her, with the exception, perhaps, of Palmer and a handful of minor characters, Ellie has only one desire:  to use this momentous occasion to understand humanity's place in the universe.  It's her optimistic view of the world that I find so pleasant.  She truly believes in the mission, not because it will bring her material wealth in the future, but because taking the leap of faith by building and using the machine will actually advance human knowledge.  She is the idealized scientist (the film actually offers a foil to this idealized image; he dies -- not insignificantly).
But whereas Ellie's journey to discover "the answers" proves successful, the world at large is left in the dark. The aliens, descended from a collective who occasionally reach out to new species as those species reach the next stage in their technological evolution, prevent anything but 17 minutes of static from being recorded during Ellie's trip.  In a final nerve wracking scene, Ellie must defend herself against a verbal onslaught by the government, almost as if in a mirror of McCarthyism.  The irony?  For a government so encumbered with religious thought, they cannot accept her meek request that everyone has to take what she says on faith (she doesn't put things in those exact words, but that has to do with her apprehension over faith).  It's not made clear whether the government does take her seriously, or if they see this as an opportunity to attack her and the billionaire financial backer who made the project possible.
Regardless, the fusion of science and faith in those final moments reminds us that the divide between the spiritual and scientific realms is anything but absolute.  Rather, conflating the two can provide the necessary impetus for growth that humanity needs.  In this case, that growth is the desire to continue reaching out, stretching our little fingers just a little further to join our brethren in the sky.  In a way, this film is as much about science and faith as it is about the American space program.  Neil Degrasse Tyson is noted for discussing something related to this:  the dreams of a nation.  He reminds us that the Soviet Union's space program became the driving force for America's stretch to the heavens, and that once we realized that our "enemies" weren't going to make it to the moon, we stopped stretching.  In the variations of his quotes about dreams, I prefer this one (taken from the video at the bottom of the page):  "Nobody's dreaming about tomorrow anymore. The most powerful agency on the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it needs to do, and that's making dreams come true."

Unlike the shock factor of Sputnik, which, as Tyson suggests (and many other NASA historians), galvanized the U.S. space program, Contact suggests that the next driving force for human exploration into space could be the knowledge and faith that we're not alone.  Rather than falling into the trap of violence (as Stephen Hawking would many years later), Sagan presents that next stage as familial.  By taking that next leap, we will join the brotherhood/sisterhood of species and become part of something greater than ourselves.  We no longer have to fear loneliness, pointlessness, or the terror of the void.  That, I think, is the most optimistic message of the entire film.  And I think we should embrace it.

Retro Nostalgia: Gattaca (1997) and Framing the Multivalent Ethical Dilemma

Before Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) begins in earnest, we are compelled to think about its underlying ethical dilemma:  is a meritocratic system based on (mostly pre-selected) genetic variables justified, even if that means denying some people equal access simply because their genes say there is something wrong with them?  If you have seen the film, then you know how the story ends -- the genetic "weakling" succeeds at doing the impossible, throwing into question the very notion that one's genetics are an absolute determination of one's potential.  Thus, one possible side question is:  without the aforementioned meritocratic system, would Vincent/Jerome have fought so hard to succeed?  Questions like this are why films like Gattaca, The Truman Show, The Minority Report and, to a lesser extent, District 9, Logan's Run, and
Soylent Green (just to name a few) are such profound models of ethical problems put in action.
Gattaca is one of the few films that does so directly, offering the following William Gaylin quote in first the few moments: "I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother wants us to."  It is difficult to tell whether the film is a direct response to Gaylin's belief, a partial acceptance of the principle, or a violent refutation.  I am, however, partial to violence.  Gaylin's quote is put in place without context, almost as if to tell us that this is a future we very well might see -- and soon -- not because it is "happening now," but because we will give in to Mother Nature's demand.  The natural progression for an intelligent, technology-oriented species such as ourselves is to tamper with what makes us "us."  In one sense, you might think of Gattaca as Andrew Niccol's answer to that notion:  yes, we might do it, but the ramifications will create an underclass marked (just like with race or gender) by factors beyond their control. The moral quagmire, however, makes race and gender look relatively tame.*
Unlike most (if not all) arguments about race or gender, there is a logic behind Gattaca's worldview.  There are no real, scientific differences between Caucasian, African, Asian, and so on -- at least, not differences that matter in a meritocratic sense.  But the opposite is true for Vincent/Jerome; he is, in fact, a genetic "weakling," containing within him flaws that limit his lifespan and his cognitive/physical abilities.  A world where such information is freely available, as it is in Gattaca, has two main options:  it can discard all other subjective factors for selection, or it can shift to the only seemingly objective standard by which to judge people's capabilities -- genetics.  It's a purely logical system, when you get right down to it, and that, in a sense, is what makes Gattaca a more disturbing dystopia than more violent, direct incarnations.
But underneath this is another important factor:  choice.  William Gaylin's quote suggests that we'll tamper because that's what nature wants, implying that genetic augmentation and genetic meritocracies are natural progressions for human civilization.  Yet doing so will mean punishing people for their parents' behavior.  Vincent/Jerome, as a "god child" (someone born with natural "chance"), is not a participant in his creation; thus, all the disadvantages his genetics offer are ones he could not change even if he wanted to.  The dilemma, as such, is yet another question:  if ability is mostly determined by one's genetics, and many jobs require a great deal of natural ability, do we relegate entire segments of the population to menial labor in order to increase "productivity" despite the fact that many of those people had no hand in their own creation?  And is doing so the best course of action for this society?
Yes, it is (says Gattaca in my mind).  And we're not supposed to feel particularly good about that prospect, in part because most of us recognize the terrifyingly logical discrimination at the heart of the film.  In the end, Gattaca wants us to reject this entire idea, to throw our chips in with Vincent/Jerome -- after all, he does exceed his genetically-determined potential.  But Vincent/Jerome is the exception that proves the rule.  There is no way to know if his success will shatter the perceptions of his world, though it is possible to read the various events in the final moments of the film as leading to that conclusion.  However, I tend to see the end as confirmation:  Vincent's/Jerome's success isn't public, and, therefore, whatever change he might represent for this genetic meritocracy can never be fulfilled.  We will tamper with Mother Nature, yes, but we will also have to accept and adapt to its vulgar consequences.

(Can you tell I'm a not terribly optimistic about genetic testing?)


*When I say "tame," I am referring to the concept's logic, not to the historical treatment of groups based on race or gender.  From a conceptual point of view, race and gender, for the most part, are illogical.  We know this only because we live in a world where the vast majority of us agree that having different skin or gender does not mean that you are, by default, inferior to another group.  The only way to maintain that belief in any pure sense is to intentionally maintain paradoxes in one's mind -- I think these paradoxes are what compels some to violence, since the psyche cannot keep contradictory ideas afloat if such ideas are connected to identity construction.

Retro Nostalgia: Metropolis (1927) and the Torment of Humanity’s Dreams

I've often wondered if there is something unique about the "serious" science fiction of the first 30 years on the 20th century (i.e., non-pulp work).  Surely critics more familiar with the era can attest to this with some degree of authority, but since I do not have that experience, I must speak from what little authority I have as a reader and a relatively new teacher of SF/F literature.

From this limited perspective, Fritz Lang's remarkable 1927 film, Metropolis, resembles visionary works such as E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1908) and Karel Capuk's R.U.R. (1920), each drawing in no small part from earlier SF writings, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) or the lesser known Copellia by Arthur Saint-Leon (among others).  The machinic imagination of mankind, in a sense, has always been a part of SF's consciousness, right from the earliest "true" SF novel, Frankenstein, to the most important (stylistically and philosophically) productions of the era traditionally know as the "Pulp Era" -- a more accurate label would be "The Formative Era."*

It is this machinic consciousness that I think defines the era's most serious ventures in science fiction -- serious is defined here as not written exclusively for entertainment purposes (see the works I've already mentioned as examples).  For Metropolis, there is a deeply political motive behind the machinic elements:  1) the mechanization-of-man critique of the industrial revolution (imagined by Lang through the brilliant shots of bodies in perpetual motion while maintaining the "machine"); 2) the terror of the Other as imagined through the Machine Man (in this case, there is a third possible interpretation, which takes into account the film's overtly religious imagery and the mythological allusions surrounding the feminized machine "monster").  Plenty of film critics have talked about these issues already, so there's no point covering them in detail here if I have nothing new to add.  However, so much of the important fictions of the era are so deeply concerned with the development of man in relation to his/her technology that it's impossible to ignore the issue when discussing a film like Metropolis.
In a sense, I think of Metropolis as what E.M. Forster might have written if he had turned "The Machine Stops" into a full novel, or, perhaps more accurately, the combination of Jack London's political dystopia The Iron Heel (which I discussed here) and E.M. Forster's technological consciousness.  Lang's film does not shy away from the profound terror that the marriage of religion (broadly speaking), politics, and industrialization (might have) produce(d) -- bodies worn down, bit by bit, until there are no bodies left to move the machine (thus, the machine "stops"); class systems split between laborious dystopias (the under "world") and glorious utopias (the great city of Metropolis itself);** the religious iconography of the broken utopian dream (all hail the machine) and the socialist revolutionary (she is our savior from evil, for she brings us messages from the heart, not from the machine); and the groundbreaking imagination of Lang himself, who made Metropolis into a reminder that utopia has a cost.

No wonder, then, that these writers (Lang, Forster, and London, in particular) were never utopians, but realists who could not fathom the future without the immense, distressing struggle to shatter the machinic nature of man.  Metropolis, as an example, cannot help but tear down the foundations of the Industrial Revolution's grand dreams by stripping mankind of its humanity, literally and figuratively.
On the literal front, Rotwang (the mad scientist) creates the Machine Man, steals the likeness of Maria (the virginal "heroine), and turns the machine into the perfect, sadistic "human" anti-revolutionary, determined to destroy the entire system.  The theme is well known in science fiction circles:  the inhuman is always already a threat to humanity's "sovereignty."  Thus, the Machine Man's destructive tendencies are simply a transplanted fear of the mechanization of man embodied in the distressed/ing "heart" of Metropolis.  That Rotwange creates the Machine Man (and steals Maria's likeness) for his own ends (revenge) is not insignificant.  For a society that imagines itself as "utopian," it cannot control the irrational core of humanity:  emotion.
On the figurative front, Lang's repetition of mechanical choreographed "dances" suggest that adhering the machine's "whims" (or, rather, to humanity's desire to simplify the labor of life) is sacrificing the fluidity of the human subject.  Thus, we are presented with men rocking back and forth in stiff, "perfect" motions, turning dials as if part of a giant clock, where each individual is a gear that must move at just the right pace to keep the entire system running. Quite literally, a segment of Metropolis' people have sacrificed their humanity during their 10-hour work day to become the gears of a machine.  Unlike the Machine in Forster's short story, Lang's machine is laid bare.  We cannot unsee the machinic degradation of humanity, just as Freder (the "hero" of sorts) cannot unsee the lies told to him by his father (Metropolis is perfect; the workers are OK in their position and there is nothing wrong with the world as it is -- enjoy your life, my son).***

That these sorts of narratives appear frequently in the two or three decades after the turn of the century (20th, rather) seems somewhat expected, if only because we have the gift of retrospection.  The Industrial Revolution (the 1st and 2nd, really, since there were two distinct "moments") promised a "new" world (a frontier, if you will).  Lang is just one of many who apparently didn't see the "good" in the "new."  What he saw, if Metropolis is any indication, was the death of the human as an autonomous subject.  It shouldn't surprise us, then, that the same arguments are being had about the digital technologies of "tomorrow."  Is our increasingly digital (read "networked") culture yet another threat to human sovereignty, or will we weather this just like we did the Industrial Revolution?  Let's wait and see who tries to be the next Fritz Lang...


*The first 20-30 years of the 1900s were instrumental in the creation of SF as an actual genre.  Many critics include Frankenstein as SF only because it fits part of the "mold" developed by writers, editors, and publishers during the Pulp Era.  In truth, it is not SF in the generic sense, but rather in the sense of a literary history.

**Ursual K. Le Guin would play with this idea in her incredible short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" many decades later.  There are also elements of this theme in Logan's Run (the film, which I wrote about here) and many other great works from the Golden Age to the New Wave and on.

***I'm imagining dialogue that does not exist in Metropolis here.

Retro Nostalgia: Mars Attacks (1996) and Its Detached Timestamp

Long-time viewers of science fiction film will likely recognize Tim Burton's homage to 50s/60s SF cinema.  How could they not?  From the narrative undertones of the Cold War's nuclear fears to its borrowing and twisting of the narrative structure of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds and its 1953 adaptation, which helped solidify a developing SF cinematic aesthetic (the Orson Welles radio drama certainly stuck Wells' terrifying tale of alien invasion in the public consciousness beforehand), the film is in every way a mockery of the 50s and 60s.*  But it's not simply the politics or the narrative that make the 1996 alien invasion comedy Mars Attacks! an amusing bedfellow of or foil to the 1950s (and 60s).  Rather, its visuals are an at times direct parody/assault on the material and social logic of the era, despite having no clear temporal placement of its own -- after all, the film is neither set in the 1950s, nor the 1990s, and instead
merges or maps the span of historical time over itself (a palimpsest).
Part of the reason I am mashing the 50s and 60s together here is because Mars Attacks! is never fixed to a specific decade.  It is, in a sense, trapped in the limbo of transition between two cultures we like to think as distinct, but which bleed into one another.  The Beehive (B-52) hairstyle, after all, didn't gain popular momentum until the 60s, despite existing as early as 1954.  There are times when the film veers a hard right into 60s territory (most notably through cars and the flashy fashion of Vegas that conjures images of a somewhat neutered, caricatured Hunter S. Thompson), but it frequently bounces back, merging the two periods -- both understandably important to SF cinema -- into one incoherent mishmash.  I'll refer to this as the 50s Transition to save space (roughly the late 50s to the early 60s).

A primary example of this assault on 50s Transition culture is the aptly named Martian Girl played by Lisa Marie (seen in the above image).  Her swaying, robotic walking style, her absurd hair style (a greatly exaggerated B-52), and her eye-catching pointed breasts are all digs on the visual culture of the 1950s Transition.  She is at once a clone of the era and a play on the sex symbol of the era:  Marilyn Monroe (minus the hair).
Or, perhaps, a mix of Monroe and another female icon of the time:  Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany's.
The exaggeration of the Martian Girl's features -- to the point of perfect exaggeration, even -- seems, in my mind, to make light of the hyper-commercialized culture that arose at the turn of the century and solidified after WW2, one which hyper-sexualized certain "ideal" forms of women, fashion, etc. (or, to put it another way, created a specific set of images for the era that were hyper-sexualized).  After all, she is, in every way, a "perfect" 50s Transition girl.  Except that she isn't.  She's a grotesque perfection that draws attention to the fact that she isn't real.  Her features are too perfect.  Too exaggerated.  Blame it on the aliens for translating their own genetic monoculture onto our own.

Much of the film's fashion aesthetics draw upon the transitional era, almost to comedic effect, sometimes by exaggeration and sometimes by simply cloning things that already existed.  Some of this is deliberate.  Annette Bening, for example, modeled her performance as Barbara Land on Ann Margret from Viva Las Vegas.  The resemblance is clear.  This shouldn't surprise us, of course, because the mish mash was intended by the writers and Burton himself, who imagined Mars Attacks! as an homage to 50s scifi flicks, with a heavy dose of mockery.  Whether they intended to critique the culture of the 50s Transition is hard to say.  I like to think this was an unintended consequence of transplanting a cultural period into a different cinematic paradigm.  Rather than stare with nostalgic eyes at a bygone era, we are compelled to think about what made the 50s Transition fascinating and thankfully dead at the same time.

I could probably say more about this topic, but I won't.  That would require tracing all the ways Mars Attacks! explores 50s SF and the 50s Transition period (as mockery, parody, or direct homage).  Maybe for another time!


*The 1953 adaptation of War of the Worlds was nominated for three Academy Awards and has since been included in the Library of Congress catalogue.

Retro Nostalgia: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the Hero Scientist, and the Possible Utopia(?)

There's something truly nostalgic about SF narratives that make the scientist the hero.  There aren't a lot of those narratives left, if we're honest.  Characters use science, sure, but they are rarely the creators of science, or its purveyors.  But not the old school SF movies.  Oh no.  In a lot of those stories, scientists are front and center.  They're occasionally the bad guy, but they're always the ones figuring things out, discovering the new and amazing things about the world.  Even in Forbidden Planet, in which the main scientist is, for all intensive purposes, the villain (well, not really -- his id is the villain), the romanticism of science and the scientist is crucial to the plot.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) falls into the positive variety of these pro-scientist films.  Most of us know the story, primarily because it was recently remade into what I can only describe as a film without any substance:  an alien named Klaatu appears on Earth, which terrifies the hairless ape creatures; Klaatu desperately tried to make humanity listen to him, but in the end, he's forced to use the threat of annihilation to, we hope, bring humanity in line -- for self-
preservation of course.  Throughout this somewhat dystopian plot -- aliens telling us we have to shape up or die is hardly utopian, after all -- we are gifted with several reminders that the scientists are the true "rational" ones on Earth (hang in there -- I'll critique this later).  There are two perfectly solid examples of this, which I'll approach in semi-chronological order.
First, there's Dr. Barnhardt, who is effectively the "most intelligent man" in the continental United States (or, at the very least, the smartest man in D.C.).  When Klaatu first seeks his help, he discovers the Dr. working on a complicated math equation on a chalkboard -- perhaps one of the most common cliches of science given to us by movies (Indiana Jones, anyone?) -- the purpose of which is never explained.  But the reason Klaatu wants Barnhardt's help is because the regular folks haven't exactly been forthcoming.  Let's face it, when your first day on Earth is spent getting shot by a bunch of trigger happy young men riding on tanks, and then shoved into a hospital and kept there against your will, followed by a long-winded explanation that your puny little alien brain -- which managed to get you 250,000,000 miles across space -- can't possibly comprehend human politics...well, you'd probably skip town and seek out someone who just has to be rational.  And Dr. Barnhardt, it turns out, is supremely rational.  He not only has science smarts -- though not nearly as much as Klaatu, with all his math magic -- but he also recognizes the utter stupidity of provoking an alien race into using violence as a communication method.  

When violence, trickery, imprisonment, and rampant fear-mongering (hooray yellow journalism) are the societal response to your presence, it makes a lot of sense to respond in kind.  But Dr. Barnhardt desperately wants to avoid that.  He convinces Klaatu that perhaps a non-violent demonstration would look better and then proceeds to set up a meeting between Mr. Alien and a bunch of unnamed, but certainly important scientists.  In other words, the only ones who actually take Klaatu seriously as someone genuinely interested in Earth's well being are scientists.  The military just wants to shove Klaatu under the watchful eyes of unsophisticated, disinterested guards and subject him to nationalistic politics; the scientists want to help Klaatu make his point.  Oh, and since I haven't mentioned it yet, you really can't avoid the 1951 political message here.  By 1951, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were the only countries actively testing nuclear weapons, though certainly not the only ones working on them.  The rise of atomic/nuclear weapons so concerned the world that it led to the Cold War (which you all already know) and to Oppenheimer (who worked on the Manhattan Project) declaring the invention of the atomic bomb a grave mistake:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
Ironically, Klaatu's race literally became the destroyer of worlds (he's our second science example, actually).  By the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu has no choice but to warn humanity that if they continue on this destructive, nuclear path, they will compel his species to neutralize (annihilate) the Earth for the benefit of everyone else.  But in his final speech, he also tells us one crucial fact:  science has provided the resolution to the natural inclination towards violence among intelligent life (I interpret his words to suggest that there are other intelligent species out there).  Thus, Gort, the "monstrous machine" of the story, is little more than the product of scientists to curb violent tendencies -- there are many like it that sit around as a giant deterrent against poor behavior, which has somehow created a peaceful society that is both supremely powerful and disinterested in violence except when the equilibrium of their society is threatened.  So much for that narrative about nuclear weapons, right?  After all, if the reason behind nuclear armament is to deter your enemy from attacking you, then Gort is little more than a giant, walking robotic nuke (minus the radiation).
If we're honest, this is all a remarkably utopian view of the scientist.  So many novels and films have tried to imagine utopian societies and failed miserably, either intentionally or because utopias simply don't work.  But is there something inherently dystopian about creating your own self-"cleaning" agent?  If Gort is a society's solution to preventing violence and progressing forward (and it works), then I can't help leaning towards the utopian, if only because minor sacrifices in freedoms are outweighed by the security of the peaceful progression of a society.  And The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn't hesitate to remind us that Klaatu's people have improved just about everything about themselves:  they can travel great distances in little time; they can heal at an alarming rate; they are immeasurably smart (by human standards); they have created astonishing technologies (by human standards); and they have increased their average lifespan to 130 years (I honestly think this is pathetically low, but I suppose when half your young people were dying in war, 130 sounded really good in 1951).  Those sound like good things, if you ask me.  I'd much rather cure diseases that spend an eternity blowing people to smithereens.

Yet, I can't feeling uncomfortable about, well, feeling comfortable with Klaatu's people.  To draw on my American heritage, I find myself conflicted by the sacrifices necessary to achieve a society governed by robotic overlords.  After all, it's not exactly clear how Gort functions as a semi-intelligent machine.  What are his criteria for "violence"?  Can he evolve to account for changes in destructive behavior?  With all the discussion we're having about bullying these days, it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that Gort would have to adapt to account for emotionally destructive methods too.  I don't know if that's stretching too far.  But there's no indication that Gort actually adapts.  Klaatu only tells us that Gort responds to violence, not mean behavior.  Thus, the fundamental problem with the future proposed by Klaatu for humanity is its universality.  Or, to put it in another way:  it is rigid and uncompromising.  Klaatu's people have chosen a set of moral standards for behavior that cannot account for the complexities of actual society.  Many religious texts do the same thing; religions have had to respond to a progressing society by reconsidering how to re-frame various religious teachings (slavery in the Bible or, more recently, racism in Mormon teachings).  In that sense, The Day the Earth Stood Still really does fall into the tradition of impossible utopias that expose their own flaws.  Klaatu's people are a dream one moment, and a nightmare the next.  There is no such thing as a static culture, after all.

Retro Nostalgia: Forbidden Planet (1956) and Romancing the Science

I have never seen Forbidden Planet.  It's one of those films that SF enthusiasts say you have to see, but I have never made the time to do so.  Until now...

As a first time viewer of a now-50+-year-old movie, I find it necessary to offer a number of concessions:  1) I cannot expect the visuals to meet contemporary standards of "realism" (limited budgets + limited technology); 2) I cannot expect characters to develop in ways that are anything but consistent with a 1950s cultural milieu; and 3) I must accept pseudoscience.  That's more or less how I came into the film.  After all, if you watch Forbidden Planet, you'll become aware of the limitations of the cinematic medium during the 50s, the rampant, almost "rapey" sexism that was all too common during the "glory days," and the laughable nonsense that passed for "science" then (and still passes for "science" today).

And yet, for such a campy film, Forbidden Planet does something that only the best SF films do:  eloquently visualizes and explores the science of a future world, even if, upon further inspection, much of that science is impossible, unexplained, or downright false (it was the 50s, after all).  The
opening scenes, for example, imagine a future in which FTL is possible, but not in the fanciful and convenient way of Star Wars, which wouldn't appear for another 20 years.  Rather, the crew reminds us of two important things:  traveling to other stars takes an extraordinary amount of time and deceleration is not a "cakewalk."  Navigators must set the deceleration process on a "timer" and climb into the anti-gravity pods to wait the process out.  Nothing is every quite explained.  How do the pods work?  Why do they turn strange colors and "disappear"?  We just don't know.
The film is littered with these moments, from explanations about the alien technology to incredible closeups of the navigation systems of the reconnaissance ship, etc.  Moments like these serve to rationalize the irrational things to come -- in the case of Forbidden Planet, we are meant to accept that one's "id" is capable of manifesting as an unstoppable, invisible monster (provided one's mind has been manipulated by alien technologies).  They are also what one might call "scientific excess," the necessity of which is readily apparent:  what I've already suggested (so we can rationalize the irrational) and to establish the science fiction frame (this is not our world; it is a future world).
This is not unusual in science fiction film.  I cannot speak for the wide range of SF film leading up to the release of Forbidden Planet in 1956, since that period is hardly my forte.  However, many classic SF films have gone to almost masturbatory levels to establish scene/setting through scientific excess.  2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968) provided us with two extraordinary sequences inside massive, moving sets, the object of which was to mimic for the audience how artificial gravity (and stasis pods, for that matter) might work on a visual level.  The scenes are beautiful, if not a tad dated, and perform exactly the same function as the opening minutes of Forbidden Planet (we're meant to accept the unexplained monoliths and the Starchild).  Alien (1979) and parts of Aliens (1986) are similarly focused on the technological mechanics of the future.  The former contains no dialogue until nearly 6 minutes into the film, instead focusing on a) the computational abilities of the Nostromo (which haven't aged well), and b) the long process of waking from stasis.  Aliens reverses this imagery by showing the decrepit condition of the Nostromo's escape shuttle, which salvage crews must cut into before they can extricate the sole survivor of the previous film -- a person nobody was expecting to find anyway.  Rather than focusing on how technology has "advanced," the sequence focuses on how the very technology that made the previous film possible has remained static in time, providing the necessary jolt of reality that Ripley will need to reach the next stage as a hero.  The result?  We're drawn into the world so we can more easily take that leap of faith when the seemingly impossible alien(s) show up.
Contemporary SF films no longer do this.  There are exceptions, of course, but almost all SF films these days focus on setting, vague definitions of character, or imagery.  While technology exists in these films, it is often backdrop, not scene-starter.  The characters interact with the new world, but they are disconnected from it -- disengaged, if you will.  Even the latest Star Trek film tossed aside the pseudoscientific jargon that made the franchise the subject of many linguistic jokes; Abrams opted for a flashier, more "agile" narrative in what I can only assume was an attempt to breathe (or bleed) new life into the franchise.

I'm not sure why this trend apparently died off.  Budgetary reasons?  Were audiences disinterested in the extraordinary details many SF writers/directors put into their work because of pacing concerns?  Your guess is probably as good as mine (unless you're an SF film scholar and have answers).  One thing is for certain:  it's a fascinating and illuminating SF trend.  Perhaps we'll get something like it again one day...