NR: The Sci-Fi Ghetto

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It’s painfully predictable that I would comment on the Oscar nominations (find them all here), but I’m going to do it anyway.  My interest, though, is in one particular issue that continues to torture nerds, geeks, otaku of certain colors, and anybody with an interest in fair play.  It’s the aptly named sci-fi ghetto.

This is the stigma associated with science fiction and fantasy works of all kinds that often prevents them from being taken seriously by most critics.  As enlightened critic Andrew Gordon points out, “…certain film genres are read as ‘less fictional’ (Westerns, gangster, and war films) and others as ‘more fictional’ (the musical, horror, and fantasy).” [1] It’s a skewed understanding of fiction and, sadly, a prevalent attitude.  Ursula Le Guin found that, in America, the cultural mindset is “to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful”, which she ties to “our Puritanism”. [2] Many great movies are ignored at the Oscars as a result.  They tend to get technical awards, but Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, etc. are reserved for “higher” movies.  After all, who needs that juvenile, unsophisticated, fast food genre junk?

Oh… Oh, that’s right, okay.

A really good example of the cultural dissonance between what the Oscars deign to honor and what the public actually appreciates is in the case of the 55th Academy Awards, where ‘Gandhi’ beat ‘E.T.’ for Best Picture.  Richard Attenborough, the director of ‘Gandhi’, said “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” [3] By quoting this I am not implying that historical dramas are all “mundane”, but that a movie’s emotional power transcends its trappings.  There’s no reason a sci-fi, fantasy, or (to add a veggie to this stew) an animated film should be disregarded because its subject or narrative style is distinctly different from so-called “less fictional” works.  Either it’s good or it isn’t.

While ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ were given nominations this year, there’s little hope of them winning, for the reasons I gave above.  I’m inclined to believe that ‘The Social Network’ will win for being a topical, up-to-date film, even over other dramas like ‘The King’s Speech’.  I’m not sure that it’s the year’s best picture, but I don’t believe that I’m qualified to make that judgment.  I don’t believe the Academy is either, for that matter.  The difficulty I have with the Academy’s pending decision is that ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’s loss due to critical snobbery is a foregone conclusion.  I’d love to be proven wrong.

Classic Review: Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary:  Silly, heedless, jingoistic and naïve, this classic invasion flick is great throwback fun.

Review:  I grew up on the B’s.  I adored — and still do — the mostly unintentional laughs and geeky excitement conjured up by the sci-fi kitsch of yore, those pictures which defied common sense and budgetary limits with heedless abandon.  My special love was for Toho Ltd.’s ‘Godzilla’ series, but I’d devour anything else.  Recently I’ve had a bit of a B-movie reawakening.  In pursuit of my next cheesy sci-fi meal, I queued up ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers‘ in Netflix on DVD, having admired a creepy edit of the trailer on an overplayed VHS tape in my youth.

Made at the height of UFO hysteria with the substantial plus of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s iconic touch, the film arrived at just the right time, capitalizing on public fears while affirming the official faith in the U.S. Military and science at large.  This was the era when space travel was a wild, exciting frontier that most people didn’t know a lick about and promised variants of the sort of phantom dangers that had terrified explorers sailing off the map centuries before.  Nowadays, it seems the American public has grown terribly cynical about the enterprise, and there isn’t that juvenile mix of fear and enthusiasm that accompanied those tentative steps beyond our sphere.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ totally lacks the cynicism and self-awareness that marks today’s cream-of-the-crop science fiction, in part due to its exploitive nature and otherwise attributable to naiveté.  The film’s attitude, in essence, is: “Gee, aren’t rockets cool?  And America, too, God bless her?  And her fine fighting men and those brilliant scientists!  Why, even the flying saucers are cool, and I kind of pity those poor aliens and their burned-out world.  It’s a shame we have to quickly abandon diplomacy and annihilate the last of their race without visible remorse… Gee, isn’t Joan Taylor pretty?  And those American monuments, too?  But I sure did like seeing them built in miniature and blown up!  Hurray for Hollywood!”  You can see why I love this stuff.

Its many humorous philosophical, narrative, and cinematographical flaws aside, ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ has lots of great little moments.  Harryhausen’s effects are wonderful and fun, setting the standard for Hollywood spaceships and aliens for years to come, and some of his shots are so nice, they show them twice.  The leads do their best with a silly script and, despite not being terribly memorable on their own, keep the movie watchable when there isn’t an expensive effect or stock footage on-screen.  The most hilarious aspect of the film is the black comedy inherit in how the script treats the aliens, who are actually pretty reasonable and sympathetic before they start trying to destroy the world, which, by the way, they promised not to do and explained in detail why it would be monumentally stupid.  The aliens are just there to get blown up, however, and to prove how damned resourceful America is.  The rest of the world doesn’t visibly contribute at all to the effort to, you know, save the world.  They just trust the States, I guess.  Anyway, the aliens are refugees, and sure they try to take the planet, but at least they want to talk about it first.   When they are soundly defeated, Joan Taylor’s character hilariously wonders if they will ever return, even though the aliens made it quite clear they were the last of their entire species.  So despite the massive loss for humanity’s collective conscience (not to mention science), the nameless aliens die en masse, everybody shrugs and goes to the beach.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ is among the very best in B-movie buttered popcorn guilty pleasures.  For the classic sci-fi fan, this is essential viewing.  Bring your savvy friends.

Tron: Legacy

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A successful, slick, satisfying sequel, creatively and thematically progressive.

Review: What good does a cinematic sequel do, besides line filmmaker pockets? A good sequel moves the story forward, finds the meaning in the original’s premise and expounds on it, taking it that one step further that would’ve been too much for the first installment. It should find new extremes. It should dare to alter the status quo.

‘Tron: Legacy’ is a fun and fantastic sequel because it does all of those things.  ‘Tron’ let the CGI cat out of the bag, in terms of world design and action, while its sequel shows us how far that cat can run, and the tiger doesn’t show signs of wearying.  To simply call ‘Tron: Legacy’ a feast for the eyes would be saying too little, but it’s awfully hard to do justice to the extent of cinematographic innovation on show here.  There’s an exhilarating solidity to this world.  The action sequences are full of surprises, which hit hard and fast and demand repeat viewings.  The downside of this level of visual innovation is that it may occasionally be too dizzying for some audience members.  It’s almost too fresh.  ‘Tron: Legacy’ is designed as immersive as possible, and as a result, we share the character’s disorientation with gravity changes, high-speed lightcycle races, and digital dogfights.  It showcases the best of postmodern style while skillfully avoiding problematic techniques like “intensified continuity”, that is, cinematography and editing akin to the ‘Bourne’ pictures.  Like James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’, the camera is free to fly through virtual space and take us anywhere.

The story is surprisingly good, even an improvement on the original ‘Tron’, taking it several natural steps forward.  While ‘Tron’ had the villainous MCP, whose motives were purely power-lust, ‘Tron: Legacy’ has CLU, the mirror image of his creator, who believes so strongly in his purpose — to make the virtual world perfect — that he rebels against his user to this end.  Kevin Flynn’s quest to create the perfect world was a mistake.    Continuing a train of thought from the original, Flynn accidentally creates a new life-form, an aberration in the Grid’s programming called ISOs, and this “perfect imperfection” provokes CLU’s revolt. Humans, Flynn comes to realize, have no idea what perfection really is, and by putting this yoke on his creation he caused his own downfall.  He’s trapped in the digital world and separated from his son.

Sam Flynn, in his father’s absence, grows up just as reckless as Kevin in the original ‘Tron’, and arguably does not share his father’s illusions.  His quest isn’t for perfection, but for the relationship he lost.  A key thematic component is Kevin’s insistence that his beloved son is perfect, despite all moral evidence to the contrary, and this ties into the ISOs; life is beyond logic, beyond control, and beyond measurement.

To CLU, the ISOs are a critical flaw, and so he commits genocide and kills them all, save one rescued by Kevin, a girl named Quorra.  She demonstrates an intense curiosity about the physical world, reading whatever books that Kevin transported into the Grid, hoping one day to see the real sun.  To her, our world is just as awe-inspiring and transformative as the virtual world is to us.  Her character is positively endearing.

Perhaps the only eyebrow-raising story component is the use of the Tron character, who was basically a plot device in the first film and here plays a minor role as CLU’s champion gladiator, having been converted against his will in the coup.  His arc is short, but satisfying still.  The ‘Tron’ series has, ironically, never been about Tron.  It’s Flynn’s movie.

I’d be loathe not to mention the marvelous score by Daft Punk.  Here, listen to this. End of line.

‘Tron: Legacy’ checked all the boxes on my list of things I’d like to see in a ‘Tron’ sequel.  As if I had such a thing.  It’s a satisfying trip that does far more than drill for nostalgia fuel.  It succeeds where most other long-awaited sequels fail, even entries in noted franchises like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Terminator’.  Despite its title, it’s not overly concerned with ‘Tron’s legacy, but rather telling a good story well.

Classic Review: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A flawed masterpiece with an indelible legacy.

Review: It seems that trying to create a sci-fi film with a city as its subject has some sort of curse attached to it. Consider that Fritz Lang’s 1927 ‘Metropolis’, one of the most influential pieces of the genre, as well as its progeny ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Dark City’ all suffered from box office travails, multiple edits and an ensuing effort to restore them to proper form. All have gone on to gain considerable cult success and respect from critics, filmmakers, and genre enthusiasts. ‘Metropolis’ is considered the honored grandfather of all urban (in the literal sense) sci-fi films, but there’s still a necessary effort to restore all the lost footage.  The most complete version is distributed by Kino.  That’s the version I’ve seen, and will now review.

‘Metropolis’ is definitely a landmark film, as I’ve gone out of my way to stress, and it is essential viewing for cinephiles and filmmakers.  Still, it’s a lot more flawed than I expected, and this is not due to the lost footage.  In fact, the restored footage is a mixed blessing, restoring an entire (if unnecessary) subplot and making sense of confusing scenes but also padding it out with superfluity.  Fritz Lang himself expressed dissatisfaction with the film, in fact he called it “silly”, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  The silliness isn’t found in the film’s stylization and actions, though the actors overplay it considerably as was the case with most silent films, but rather its basic philosophy, which though not entirely without merit executes unconvincingly.

‘Metropolis’ portrays what amounts to a city-state where the spoiled ruling class separates from the downtrodden working class by the sheer weight of technology.  However this incredibly (in the real sense, as in not credibly) distinct division came about, we don’t know, and it’s arguably implausible.  Who benefits from the machinery?  As in, who buys things?  Hell, who sells them?  ‘Metropolis’ is, as Lang later suggested, a fairy tale, and worst of all its moral is shoddy, and for a fairy tale that’s a death knell.  “The mediator between the Head and the Hands must be the Heart!”, the moral goes, and it’s easy to understand but only truly works in the film’s incredible world.  The upper, middle, and lower classes of the real world’s societies need much more complex, subtle ethical solutions to their problems.  These issues and more were criticisms at the time of the film’s original release, as well, and even the noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells got in the act.  His own review had some interesting thoughts, but he seemed unreasonable and hostile, possibly due to a lack of the memetic evolution concept.  To say it clearer, he seemed to think he was original, but Lang wasn’t, even though they were both drawing from earlier art.  Still, his review is worth a read.

I’d like to reiterate that the film’s basic idea is not without merit.  In fact, there’s a great deal of rich, evocative imagery that the filmmakers drew from the concept, and this is, of course, its true legacy.  Its centerpiece, the robot clone of Maria, is ironically one of its least mined story elements.  The device, like all machines in ‘Metropolis’, is naturally wicked, and there’s no appreciation for all the interesting things it would imply, even in the film’s pretentious quasi-Biblical theology.  The false Maria is sadly neglected, but the image planted a kernel in cinema that would forever color how we portray robots.  In fact, you could view the film as a seed, a necessary step in changing the face of 20th century science fiction.  All its imagery has stayed with us.  It’s grown up and become fruitful.

I suppose that’s the truly beautiful thing about the world of ideas, that nothing is ever truly lost, it’s only finding new forms and getting demonstrably better.  It’s natural that there are millions of mistakes along the way, even blemishes on classics like ‘Metropolis’.  I wonder how, in a hundred years, our genetic and memetic descendants will interpret our artistic marvels and mistakes?  I wonder, in such a different world, which will be which?

Classic Review: A Clockwork Orange

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Cruel, vulgar, prophetic, ugly, and yet strangely beautiful at the same time.

Review: A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s follow up to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and it is every bit that film’s antithesis. ‘2001’ was fantastic and altruistic; ‘Clockwork’ is gritty and bleak. ‘2001’ shows the human race’s potential, ‘Clockwork’ shows its reality. It’s a study of the ever present savagery and barbarism in our world; a strange, sad film, lacking in any obvious optimism. Thanks to Kubrick’s master craft, though, it’s also one of the best films of its time.

The movie takes place in a totalitarian England. Sort of totalitarian at least. That facet of the narrative isn’t really developed until the last act, but it’s worth mentioning. Anyways, though, this is a despotic world of “ultra-violence”: savage gangs of young men roam the streets at night, beating, robbing, and raping. One of the leaders of these gangs is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the most twisted and despicable of them all. Long before Heath Ledger’s Joker terrorized for the sake of terror, Alex was causing his own self-satisfying chaos. He shows no remorse; laughing as he maims the defenseless, singing as he rapes women, and grinning malevolently as he even abuses his own gang members (“droogs” as they are called in the film). He’s truly an awful, awful human being. And yet, there’s this other side to him.

You see, Alex loves Beethoven. He absolutely adores his music, particularly Beethoven’s 9th symphony (the music of which is used for much of the film’s score) and listens to it frequently. In general, he also has a great appreciation for art. That and he’s a gifted speaker. His voiceover narrations throughout the film are given in Nasdat, an unorthodox English-dialect that is surprisingly eloquent, even as it describes his vulgar pass times. In Alex is a strange paradox: For as absolutely savage as he is, he seems equally cultured.

Eventually the law catches up to Alex and he is sent to prison, where he volunteers for an experimental new treatment for rehabilitating prisoners, a treatment that will cut his sentence short considerably. This turns out very disturbing, as Alex is conditioned to become painfully ill at even the thought of committing violence to others. As an unexpected side effect, he also becomes painfully ill whenever he hears Beethoven’s 9th. As the price of losing his savagery, he has also lost much of his culture. He returns to face a world that’s as cruel as he used to be, only now he cannot defend himself due to his treatment. In a bizarre twist, we find ourselves pitying him as he becomes the victim in life.

At its core, this film is a parable on choice. As a priest directly points out in the film, Alex has been denied free will through his treatment. He is compelled to do good only to avoid pain, not because he sees the evil inherent in his old ways. It’s left him weak and vulnerable and has cost him his humanity. He’s also lost his precious Beethoven in the process, and he no longer speaks in Nasdat as often. Taking away his choice has, in effect, killed the beauty along with the beast.

Kubrick’s message is clear: Those who are incapable of doing real evil are also incapable of doing real good. Free will ultimately means that there will always be evil in this world. It’s sad but it’s true. So long as free will exists there will be war and poverty and violence and rape starvation. But without free will, there is also no beauty, no love, no sacrifice, no charity, and most importantly, no hope. In short, there is no good. Alex’s old life was hateful and ugly, but his new one is something much worse, it is hopeless and despairing. So too are we without free choice.

Lightning struck many times for Stanley Kubrick, but I don’t think it ever did so quite as enigmatically as it did for this film. It’s a wonderfully stylistic picture with a very powerful message, and for this reason it rivals ‘2001’ as his most prolific work. However, this film isn’t for everyone. It’s practically saturated with violence and nudity. It has to be. But for that reason this isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s mature subject matter for mature minds. For those who can handle the intensity, it’s a riveting and stimulating picture that offers a bold message to the viewer. It’s one of the best films Kubrick ever made, and in my opinion, one of the best films of all time. If you think you can handle it, it’s worth your time.

Classic Review: Aliens

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  ‘Alien’ is a popular film that I have issues with, ‘Aliens’ is a popular film that I have no issues with.

Review:  I disliked ‘Alien’ because, despite great design and an interesting story, it was ultimately underwhelming.  It was a box office hit, though, and in 1986 20th Century Fox released a sequel, directed by then-newcomer James Cameron.  Cameron had already proven his worth on the 1984 hit ‘The Terminator’, a surprisingly powerful film that paired heart and depth with adrenaline fueled action.   Cameron would use this same approach to ‘Aliens’, and so it fixes everything wrong with the original ‘Alien’, salvaging and improving the sense of atmosphere, isolation, and terror that people enjoyed from it.  The result is one of the best action, science fiction, and horror movies ever made.

Though this is a three-genre movie, Cameron thankfully avoided the clichés and the tropes of each.   Unlike most space pictures, the future presented here isn’t particularly happy or hopeful.   It has neither the mysticism of ‘Star Wars’ nor the optimism of ‘Star Trek’.   Rather, it goes for that gritty ‘Blade Runner’ feel.  The world is still corporate and capitalist, we still have soldiers and fight wars, and space seems cold and ugly.  It’s a fresher, albeit darker, take on our view of outer space.

Unlike many action films (and, in my opinion, the first ‘Alien’), the characters in ‘Aliens’ are not two-dimensional or stock.  Ellen Ripley, the central character, is one of the best and most complex heroines of recent years.  She is strong, formidable, brave, fierce, and mother-like at the same time.  Most importantly, she seems human and, therefore, relatable.  The intimacy of her character is what draws us into the story and makes it compelling.  The other characters in the film are just as fleshed out, and so it is becomes easier to care about them and feel fear for them.

This does wonders for the sense of horror and terror in the film, as does its pacing and design.  Where as ‘Alien’ was very slow and, at times, even boring, ‘Aliens’ makes effective use of suspense.  People wander into rooms where we know great monsters are hiding, but Cameron allows for time to pass, and thus, for tension to build up before an attack or chase is on.  He doesn’t go for low blow shock-value, such as sudden kills from creatures out-of-nowhere, but rather for legitimate, well-timed terror.

Cameron and co also out-did themselves when it came to design on this picture.  They take the atmosphere from the original film and greatly expound upon it.  The aliens’ look is wonderfully frightening, especially the Alien Queen; the sets are intricate; and the models used are so detailed that it’s impossible to recognize them as such.  Despite being nearly 25 years old, modern CGI would not improve the look or believability of the effects, it’s that good.  James Horner also delivers an electrifying score that has proven so popular that it is still used in movie-trailers to this day.

The filmmakers really pulled out all the stops on ‘Aliens’.  It is an intelligent, suspenseful, and very enjoyable film.  It is the best of the ‘Alien’ franchise as well as a high point in Cameron’s career.  For a well-made and involving picture, check this one out.