Saturday, 15 August 2009

Beyond the Death of Silver Screen Space Operas


Contents:
1. Back to the Future Moon
2. Dystopia Blues
3. Other (space) Sci-fi Worthy of the Title
4. Back into Deep Space, TV and Further Discussions

== Back to the Future Moon ==

During a Facebook message thread, started (1.5 months ago!) on the topic of the new movie "Moon" (as yet still unseen by myself): I was whinging about the implausibility of of the setting and it's possible efficacy as pro human space-flight propaganda (when I consider any question of such pursuits moot). We started discussing a (potentially) similar movie and the genre in general. The following is a quote from one of my good friend's comments (my reply turned into this blog entry):

"I also thought Sunshine was a disappointment, but mostly because of the way the climax of the film declined into teen-slasher territory. Its important for sci-fi to be realistic enough to suspend disbelief, but I think any film ultimately has to make compromises with the story. That the idea of jump-starting the sun is preposterous to me doesn't make the film less interesting. Like all such films its about the journey rather then the destination."

I absolutely agree that it's entirely valid to have a major violation of reality (and any subsequent deviations that directly stem from that) in a movie (TV series or book), in order to explore another (entirely unrelated) topic.

My gripe is that no, so called, “sci-fi” films set in space have actual been about sci-fi since the early 70s, when there was a slew of them: “2001 a Space Odyssey”, Solaris, “Silent Running”, etc. Since then space has been used solely as an alternative backdrop for movies that I think belong more predominantly to other genres:
- Action blockbuster (Independence Day, Armageddon)
- Fantasy adventure romp (Star Wars, Fifth Element)
- Horror (Event Horizon, Alien)
- Western (Firefly/Serenity)
- Psychological Thriller (Sunshine)
- Comedy (HHGTTG, Space Balls, Mars Attacks)

Remakes don't count! (e.g. War of the Worlds, Solaris, The Day the Earth Stood Still). The only exception I can currently think of is the 1997 film "Contact" (and that's based on a novel from 1985). [I dug up some more possible exceptions later: see below]

One might argue that culture has moved on from the moon landings era obsession with space travel (hence no market for traditional space sci-fi). That is part of it. But I don't think it's a case of maturing beyond unrealistic fantasies: interplanetary human colonisation and encounters with unimaginatively biological aliens (inexplicably intent on genocide). Space just went out of fashion. The movie industry is fixated on recirculating the same old ideas, albeit with updated technobabble and stunning visual effects. But a lack of innovation by Hollywood is not limited to this specific genre, for sure.

Remakes are the most obvious aspect of this. Then there are tributes to the heyday of the genre: "Moon" appears to be one, but seeing as no cinemas within 25 miles of me deigned to show it, I haven't found out yet. This cinematic commission might seem a little odd given it's critical acclaim and coincidence with the 40th anniversary of the moon landings. One can only assume the film's distributors weren't on good enough terms with most cinema chains. Or the easy money to be made, by devoting 3 screens entirely to Harry Potter, outweighed any desire to provide choice to customers. (and 'the industry' wonders why there's so much pirating)

[Above: Mark Kermode reviews Moon.]

The remaining class of Features, are only ostensibly original; where there should be some solid concepts, there is just the watered down echoing of dependable old favourites. A near universal bias towards a certain area of the sci-fi 'idea space'.


== Dystopia Blues ==

The most immutable theme is the Orwellian Dystopia. So much is planted firmly at the foot of films like "THX 1138" and "Fahrenheit 451"; it's a genre of it's own: Blade Runner, Escape from New York, Demolition Man, Gattaca, Equilibrium, Minority Report, Aeon flux, Children of Men, The Island....

Much of the general public seems to have unconsciously accepted technological advance as synonymous with a gloomy, dystopian future. Any, self proclaimed, fictional utopia is *always* shown to be flawed and dystopian, probably a fascist dictatorship too.

I would go as far as to blame this (in part) for the new romanticism permeating our culture: a rosy fantasy vision of the past; the perceived superiority of organic food, and the false environmentalism of living off your own land, for examples. Somewhat reminiscent of the revival of mysticism in pre-Hitler Germany (and other countries): a backlash to the impersonal horrors of industrialism and WW1.

Maybe, if films had been pushing the frontiers of sci-fi, in the process depicting *some* instances where progress provides mostly boons to society, there would be more for people to be positive about in the mid-distant future.

Keanu (i.e. devil's advocate): "u couldn't have a story line where nothing goes wrong and everyone's happy: it'd be boring!"

Obviously I'm not suggesting that; there is drama and strife aplenty in my favourite sci-fi novels, that also harbour pro-progress sentiments. OK, so I'd be expecting a lot for a major film company to bank-roll a feature based in or around Vinge's Technological Singularity (for the moment at least). Even if they went with one of Stross's books, those leave human kind (as we know it) sidelined into unfavourable positions, because of a Singularity. Besides he was only first published this millennium: far too avant-guard for popularisation! It seems there's a 20-30 year period before hard sci-fi ideas can be de-classified for widespread media consumption. Ironic, given that they're generally outdated within 10-15 years, these days.

However, Iain M. Bank's has been writing stories set in his "Culture" universe since 1987. In many ways they're pretty damn bleak: often, most of the main characters get killed off just before they might have reach a happy end. But there is an ever present, positive leitmotif: the galactic civilisation of "The Culture" itself. An unmistakable utopia, where an anarchy of super-intelligent, yet emotional, machine minds (embodied in space ships and entire planets) altruistically cater for a race of near-humans. Because of their near god-like control of matter, it's trivial to provide for the humans' every whim, however lavish by today's standards. The tribulations come in dealing with other, less advanced civilisations, and characters there-in.

I would be overcome with joy (caring not of being proven wrong) if a film were based on the substance and spirit of any of those novels. I think it would easily make sufficiently compelling viewing for a contemporary audience too, with: action, violence, plenty of scope for overblown use of CGI, prolific sex and drugs. However, because the latter two aspects are presented as entirely acceptable, without any drawbacks, I expect this vista would be considered, by our current 'powers that be', too liberal to be shown to the general public. Not that there's any political bias in our media of course.

Perhaps that is part of the problem: an (implicit) conspiracy not to show people how good they could have it, to prevent dissatisfaction with their continuous drudgery in the pursuit of material possessions. “Nothing is perfect” or comes for free!? (not even the 'best things in life'!) Anything that equips imaginations, highlighting society's blind spot to alternatives to the current monetary system, would be a most dangerous heracy. [But more on that when I finish distilling my thoughts on Douglas Rushkoff's "Life Inc." into a blog entry.]


== Other (Space) Sci-fi Worthy of the Title ==

+ Deep Impact - A glaring exception to my earlier moan. Although it had a near identical plot to Armageddon, it is it's total antithesis. This is a sci-fi movie with good science throughout! Even the name of the nuclear pulse propulsion spacecraft, used to rendezvous with the comet, is a reference to the real world “Project Orion”, abandoned in 1963 because of the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Also, although nuclear bombs are used to blow apart the comet (twice), the result is a much more realistic semi-fail, with an epic tidal wave wiping out much of America (and presumably other parts of the world too; I never said it wasn't US-centric). Released in the same summer as Armageddon (1998) it somehow opened more strongly at the box office. Armageddon did end up grossing more worldwide ($555M vs $349M), but then it cost twice as much to make. So not a total fail for science there.

+ Spielberg has an unparalleled track record here, with: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, E.T. and A.I.. If he manages not to totally eviscerate the live action remake of “Ghost in the Shell” (1995), my all time favourite film, then he may move even further up my list of favourite Directors. Perhaps then the original, and “Stand Alone Complex” series too, might reach beyond anime fans watching “Adult Swim”. We'll have to wait until 2011 to find out though (22 years after the cutting-edge manga).

[Above: "Tank Wins" by Me; Composition from parts of the end of G.I.T.S.]

A.I. (and E.T.) was (were) largely designed for lacrimation (i.e. 'weapies'), but they had undeniably high conceptual production values. A.I. was somewhat of an epic tale of a robot boy, with a strong message that artificial beings can be every bit as human as ourself. Unfortunately most people I know had fallen asleep by the end, which is the most interesting part (from a futurist's POV): he is dug up and revived by advanced aliens, who are actually told to be the descendent of machines, if one pays attention. Naturally, I'm not keen on the ultimate ending: apparently it's impossible to turn 'Pinocchio' into a "real boy", so he gets 1 "perfect" day with his mommy before dying. OK, it made me cry a little (more from the sentiment of the little robot teddy bear than anything else, mind), but it's still an utter pile of religiousisational gash!: why *not* be able to turn him into a biological boy? He was clearly within a simulation during his perfect day; why not persist there, walk off into the sunset, live and grow with other sentient simulations (of other 'revivers', play on survivors)? Buying into the singularity thing (Tiplerian or otherwise) might be too much, but getting that close to it and then turning around and producing the usual line of: all life is finite, death is the natural order, we should just enjoy the rare good moments and be satisfied....: Bah!!!!

+ Matrix - (including Reloaded), though again I had high hopes for the conclusion of this arc that were brutally murdered by Revolutions: you expect us to believe that after swiftly dispatching humans, the super-advanced, conscious programs of the machine world had just sat and twiddled their thumbs for thousands of years?!!... Even if they had been inexplicably confined to the surface of this one planet, with the capability of simulating an entire world, would they not also have simulated a plethora of other worlds/ecologies/levels and types of intelligence??!! If it's too difficult to visualise these, at least give us a hint they, or something interesting exists...

+ Terminator - up to T2 only, which was largely an action shooter with some brilliant chase sequences. It also largely responsible for founding public expection of human extermination by future A.I.. But at least it raised awareness, and the sucessively advanced terminator robots imply perpetual progess beyond the influence of human creativity.

+ Titan AE - though animated and puerile (and the "pure energy" beings posses no features of such) it has a genesis device spaceship that is kind cool in a retro/steam-punk kind of way.

+ Vanilla Sky (remake of the Spanish original, "Open Your Eyes", featuring the same lead actress) - very impressed that this turned out to be set in a simulation, with Tom Cruise having been resurrected from cryogenic storage. Disappointed there wasn't any hint of events outside the simulation, but was to be expected.

+ Minority report - hmm, kind of; though clearly a distopia, it had a few pieces of hard science-futurism in.


== Back into Deep Space, TV and Further Discussions ==

+ Surprisingly, Star Wars Episodes 2 and 3 largely met my standards. Although action heavy, dark themes replaced whimsical swashbuckling, and there was even a brief nod to the conspicuous lack of (trans)human level AI in their universe. [previously blogged]

+ Star Trek - As the films go, the first, "Star Trek the Motion Picture", is clearly high concept sci-fi that happens to use the established characters from the fictional universe. Because of it's lack of profitability and critical reception, Gene Roddenberry lost creative control of the sequels, probably why their priorities appear to have been turned around: action adventure in a space setting.

If there is a missing link that bridges between the space sci-fi of the 70s and the new millennium, it would undoubtedly be the "Star Trek, the Next Generation" franchise (including most of “Voyager” and the earlier “Deep Space 9” series). Perhaps an episodic structure, and lower costs made this the ideal vestal for space-fiction proper. In my late teens I rejected Star Trek, to an extent, cringing that my earlier self had accumulated the Star Trek fact files in a search for further inspiration/answers to the future. Of course, as a profit extending item of merchandise for hardcore, geek fans, they contained no such revelations. Also, I became painfully aware of how deeply uncool Star Trek appreciation was, thanks largely to a high school peer nicknamed "Trekky". Getting into bona fide sci-fi novels, such as A.C. Clarke's “2001” quadrilogy (that I read in reverse order), also helped foster disdain for the Star Trek universe.

From an even greater retrospective height, I can appreciate the value of the Star Trek series; they introduced me to a plethora of sci-fi, philosophy and psychology concepts. They may even be significantly responsible for shaping my world view and interests in science and technology that took me to degree level studies. I only regret that kids (like me) growing up in the 00s won't have had access, to such a good stepping stone, into sci-fi literature and beyond. Contemporary 'sci-fi' series have gone the way of the space-opera movie: concentrating on drama, character development and TV-soap style story arcs, while focusing on contemporary or nostalgic issues and replacing any humanist philosophy with Hollywood style Christianity.

The TV section of the Wikipedia article on Sci-fi confirms and clarifies my view. The 90s were actually somewhat of a hay-day for good sci-fi TV with: "Babylon 5", "SeaQuest DSV" and even "Red Dwarf" (though primarily comedy) and "The Outer Limits" (despite close similarities to "Goose Bumps"; a child oriented horror mini-novel series). There were some inspirational episodes of the X-files too (even if we never did conclusively discover the "Truth... Out There"). The one episode I most strongly remember enjoying (involving a human having been uploaded to the internet) turns out to have been written by William Gibson (the Godfather of cyberpunk novels). However, that episode, "Kill Switch" (series 5), and his latter collaboration, "First Person Shooter" (series 7), were among the last ever examples of Sci-fi authors working with TV production. It is no wonder that science (particularly physics) graduates are in such steep decline. I hope the current (3rd rate) sci-fi, and reruns of shows from the glory days, are enough to inspire *some* of our next generation into sci/tech related vocations.

[Edit 2014-10-21 - Minor corrections and kermode video fixed.]

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