As part of his Nerd Curious series, in which he goes back and explores artifacts of culture he missed in his youth, my friend and the AV Club’s television editor Todd VanDerWerff took a deep dive into Ray Bradbury’s short stories and emerges with what I think is one of the best summaries of what makes Bradbury’s work distinct, the element of nostalgia and emotional irrationality in decision-making, even in science fiction where we’re supposed to be enhanced–or at least, where rationality is supposed to rule:
In The Martian Chronicles, as happens so often in Bradbury’s work, people don’t look at the destruction of their world and run as far as they can from the mushroom clouds or the astronauts bearing chicken pox. Instead, they run toward them, trying in vain to preserve something that’s already gone. The Earthlings who have settled Mars decide to go back to Earth after nuclear war erupts there. That seems a very curious decision—wouldn’t those who had escaped such destruction by virtue of being so very far away count themselves lucky?—until it is situated in the context of Bradbury’s bibliography. The characters are haunted by memories of a past they can’t ever shake. In that context, their actions make perfect sense. They aren’t driven by practical sense; they’re driven by emotional sense, until both worlds are mostly dead and barren, a handful of survivors of two species straggling out a life on the margins.
I didn’t write about the dumbest, most sexist thing about Star Trek Into Darkness, because there were a lot of discussions of drones and extrajudicial killing to talk about, and because sometimes a lady gets exhausted of pointing out, yet again, that you know that thing you did you think is clever? Actually, it’s pervy. But Star Trek Into Darkness does indeed have one of those moments, when scientist Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), in the course of explaining her father’s secret photon torpedo program to Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), inexplicably starts changing into a jumpsuit she needs to wear down to a planetoid to open up one of said weapons. Why she needs to do this right now rather than in three minutes, when the U.S.S. Enterprise has apparently decided to hang around Klingon space for a while anyway, or why she needs to wear a special jumpsuit down to a planet where the air is apparently completely breathable, is unclear.
But what does happen is this: she tells Kirk to look away when she changes, and because he’s Jim Kirk, and apparently desperately needs to try to convince everyone that he’s heterosexual at every possible moment, he looks anyway. Instead of him getting slapped, the camera decides to collaborate in Kirk’s absolute need to see his colleague in her kit, and shoots her from an angle that suggests it’s hovering slightly below her genitals, giving the audience a nice long look at Marcus in her black silk underwear and nothing else, because while apparently we’ll leave poverty in the present, Victoria’s Secret is forever.
All of this is a long way of getting to what Star Trek Into Darkness writer Damon Lindelof told MTV reporter Josh Horowitz when the latter asked why Carol Marcus had to get undressed:
Why is Alice Eve in her underwear, gratuitously and unnecessarily, without any real effort made as to why in God’s name she would undress in that circumstance? Well there’s a very good answer for that. But I’m not telling you what it is. Because… uh… MYSTERY?
It’s this kind of thing that always makes me want to curl up under my desk with the dragon’s egg and Ron Swanson bobblehead on it and rock back and forth for a while.
Because if you’re one of the many wonderful people who consumes or works in genre fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, and wishes that those genres could escape their second-class status because of the work they do to explore big issues and to create great characters, Lindelof is not helping. First, he’s reaffirming every stereotype in the world about geeks who are more likely to see a grown woman get undressed on screen than in the flesh, and who get all cranky and entitled about their need to said fictional characters take off their clothes, story, character, agency, and reciprocity be hanged.
And in a way, I resent Lindelof’s “Because… uh… MYSTERY?” even more than his refusal to seriously engage the question of why he and his fellow writers made that choice, because it shows such a rank contempt for the very things that make science fiction and fantasy so powerful: the ability to build new worlds and new rules. Lindelof and Star Trek Into Darkness director J.J. Abrams have long been known as people who prioritize mystery and grandeur over coherent systems or rules of the universes in which they work, and it’s made them very, very successful. But it’s also what makes their ascension in genres where the rules of the universes in which stories operate are a lot of what make those universes interesting, and how characters navigate those restrictions a major engine of character development so irritating. I’m absolutely down for defending the first-class status of genre fiction that boldly goes where no or few stories have gone before. But if you think that working science fiction and fantasy relieves you of your obligations to coherent plotting and character behavior, or if it’s an engine to deliver free naked ladies, then you can stay in your mom’s basement, and off my bandwagon.
Lindelof has apologized, as is de riguer. But I’m actually more exhausted than heartened by the idea that “What I’m saying is I hear you, I take responsibility and will be more mindful in the future.” Because for serious, Lindelof is a 40-year-old man working not just in an industry that has constant discussions of the way its creators and products handle gender, but in a set of genres where those discussions have been particularly sharp, and reached particularly high levels. If he hasn’t heard these conversations and absorbed these ideas before, then I’m curious what he was listening to instead. When respect for gender–and genre–start showing up more clearly in Lindelof’s work, and that of his collaborators, maybe I’ll feel a little less exhausted.
From the first teaser ABC has released for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the show about the humans who work with the superheros Marvel is telling stories about in its feature films, like the Iron Man series and the forthcoming The Avengers 2, it’s clear the network wants you to know two things about its new drama. First, there’s a lot of punching people in the face, which makes sense, given that the characters are regular human beings rather than superpowered ones, and Marvel’s profits aside, it would be extremely expensive to do the kind of special effects that mark the action in the movies for the small screen every week.
Second, Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), one of the best creations of the franchise, who showed up as a dorky but insistent civil servant in Iron Man, taking on the thankless job of tracking down emerging superheroes, and who was thought to have been killed by super-villain Loki in The Avengers is actually alive and in charge. Simply from a character development perspective, putting Coulson at the heart of the show is a good sign. He was a really terrific original addition to the superhuman universe, a patient, surprisingly funny, likable liaison to a strange new world, and it’ll be good to see him get to wrangle S.H.I.E.L.D. agents without needing to put up with the whims of a Tony Stark or live under the shadow of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (the scenery-chomping Samuel L. Jackson). Maybe there will be some subtlety amidst the punchings:
But as enthusiasm for this project kicks off, it’s also worth looking at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a story about corporate interdependence. ABC, which has substantially built its brand on shows that appeal to women, like the nighttime soaps Revenge and Nashville, has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on its roster because it and Marvel have the same parent company in Disney. One of the logical main characters in the show should have been Maria Hill, Fury’s subordinate, and a S.H.I.E.L.D. with a rich backstory in Marvel comics who was played by Cobie Smulders in The Avengers. Especially given some of the scenes of Hill disagreeing with actions made by her superiors that were cut from The Avengers, it would have been particularly interesting to see Hill have a larger role in the show, and potentially to see her pursue those rifts between herself and Fury, and her doubts about her own actions in the battle against an alien invasion that was the centerpiece of that movie. But Smulders isn’t available because CBS renewed How I Met Your Mother, the hit romcom sitcom that she’s has starred in since 2005, even though this was expected to be the last season of that show. In other words, this may be a show that a lot of us are excited to get. But it’s not necessarily the show that would have been made in perfectly independent conditions, for a partner network that has experience with action, and with the real freedom to integrate characters from the Marvel universe.
As a fan of near-future science fiction, I’m eager to see Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which looks like it’s going to be as much a psychological drama as a science fiction movie:
It’s very easy to skip forward into a fully-established brave (or not-so-brave) new world, to 2161 when Starfleet Academy is up and running, for Rick Grimes to wake up in the hospital after the zombie apocalypse has already run its course, for Katniss to live in a District 12 that treats whatever cataclysm that dramatically reduced the human population of the United States and brought it under the dictatorial authority of the Capitol as an even that’s distant beyond memory.
But so much of the really interesting science fiction, particularly of the last few years, has been set at inflection points instead, rather than in the world those seminal moments produced. Max Brooks’ World War Z was a fascinating and refreshing spin on zombie apocalypse not because his zombies were fast or slow or some hybrid thereof, but because it was about people improvising, and learning, and making terrible sacrifices and awful mistakes to respond to a phenomenon that challenges everything they knew about the world. District 9 had the good sense to imagine the social consequences of an alien invasion, and to suggest that human unity in response to the revelation that there was life on other planets could make us seem as ugly as the giant insects marooned in Johannesburg. And Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is about a moment when we could have careened on over into a plague-scarred wasteland, but yanked ourselves back from the bring by discipline and chance instead.
Gravity may not be even that futuristic, though Cuaron’s work on Children of Men makes me hope he’s doing at least some world-building here. But however far away from our own time its set, it’s exciting to see a science fiction that isn’t set in a world where we’ve established full control of the stars, and where the future retains some of that bigness and risk.
Late yesterday, we finally got our first look at the long-awaited movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s novel about the child soldiers trained to fight in a war against alien invaders. The movie looks visually impressive, and there’s no denying the appeal of its cast, which includes Asa Butterfield as potential military genius Ender Wiggin, Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff, the administrator of the Battle School in which Ender is enrolled, Haileen Steinfeld as Petra Arkanian, one of Ender’s classmates, Viola Davis as Major Gwen Anderson, one of Graff’s colleagues, Abigail Breslin as Ender’s sister Valentine, and Ben Kingsley as Ender’s teacher Mazer Rackham. But the trailer also leaves out five key elements of Card’s novel—and the decision to exclude them in favor of action sequences gives a sense of what kind of movie Summit Entertainment wants us to think Ender’s Game will be:
1. Peter Wiggin: Ender’s sadistic older brother, Peter was the first of three attempts to breed a perfect general from the Wiggin family. Because Peter was too aggressive, and Valentine too empathetic, Ender’s family was allowed to have him as a third child in defiance of the United States’ population laws. Peter viciously bullied Ender while the two of them were growing up, and after went to Battle School, enlisted Valentine in a scheme to gain political power through an early form of blogging. He’s a painful illustration of the price of greatness, and one of the key people through whom Ender’s Game explores international politics in the wake of alien attacks.
2. The Fantasy Game: We see the children in Battle School playing with powerful simulations on computers, but we don’t get a glimpse of one of the novel’s most interesting devices: a video game that’s personally tailored to each student’s experience, and that Battle School uses to monitor their mental health.
3. Alai and Bean: Two of Ender’s best friends at Battle School are Alai, a talented Muslim student, and Bean, a younger boy who comes under Ender’s command as he rises through the ranks of students. Alai, who begins as Ender’s equal, is a reminder of how the drive for excellence can alienate even your closest friends. And Bean is an illustration of how to bring out the excellence in someone else.
4. Bernard: And just as we’re missing Ender’s friends, the trailer doesn’t show us Ender’s greatest human enemy at Battle School, a French student named Bernard. There’s no question that the advertising for Ender’s Game has to outline the main conflict between humans and the Buggers, the pejorative name for the alien invaders. But it’s losing a lot of Card’s point if the movie forgets that the conflicts between humans are just as important as space opera.
5. The Net: Much of Ender’s Game is set at Battle School, but the story back on Earth, where Peter and Valentine become powerful political commentators on the Net, Card’s version of the Internet, is equally important. The Cold War between the United States and its allies and the countries aligned under the Warsaw Pact has an enormous influence on Battle School’s commanders and the way they push Ender and pace his training. And Peter and Valentine’s very different feelings about the influence they accrue offers an important contrast to Ender’s command of his troops far away in space.
Now, I assume most of these elements will appear in the finished film that we’re going to get in November. Peter, Alai, Bean, and Bernard all are in the cast list. Major Anderson is the character who oversees the Fantasy Game. But given that much of the power of Ender’s Game comes from the fact that the war on the Buggers takes a surprising turn, and the question of whether humanity wins or loses it becomes much less important than issues of psychology and ethics. I understand why Summit feels more confident selling audiences who aren’t familiar with Card’s work on a major space war than on a meditation on empathy. But I hope that the film itself stays true to the best, most penetrating aspects of Card’s work, and the trailers are as much of a bait and switch as the one Ender’s subjected to throughout the novel.
It’s not quite as aggressively science fictional as her phenomenal video about a droid auction-slash-rock-concert for “Many Moons,” which she released more than four years ago, but the video for Janelle Monae’s excellent collaboration with Erykah Badu “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a reminder of just how important her contributions to science fiction—as well as to music—have been since she broke out onto the national scene:
Monae is hardly the first musician to situate her musical persona in science fiction. Psychadelia gave us Jefferson Starship. George Clinton has a long and deep engagement with spaceship iconography and science fiction more broadly. On “Roses,” a caustic anti-love song with no other particularly science fictional elements from his The Love Below album, Andre 3000 entreated the woman being addressed in the track to “come back down to Mars.” When you read music as narrative fiction, locations beyond Earth and times far removed from ours are common settings. But in a few short years, and across multiple songs and videos, Monae has created a particularly coherent universe full of robots sold as luxury goods to decadent, exceedingly well-dressed droids and rebels, institutions that house revolutionary figures, some of whom can walk through walls, and electrifying musical performances.
And the coherence of her music video universe isn’t the only thing striking about Monae’s ouvre, or that marks her as a science fictional thinker. As I wrote on Wednesday, Hollywood tends to portray technology and our loss of control of it—or misuse of it—as a major factor in the creation of radically altered future. Monae’s music videos frequently operate from the premise that cultural tools are at least as powerful as technical or physical ones.
In the video for “Many Moons,” Cindi Mayweather, an android who Monae presents as an alter ego, gives an electrifying performance at an auction of extraordinarily expensive androids. Her music, which makes reference to a wide range of social and political issues, is initially treated as dance music for frenzied, regimented revelers. But when her performance literally shorts her out, what was intended as a classy backdrop to an ugly transaction disrupts it. The musician becomes an activist through her passionate dedication to her performance. In the introduction to “Q.U.E.E.N.” a voiceover explains that visitors are at a museum where revolutionaries who disrupted society with music have been archived for public consumption. They’re resurrected by a record snuck into the facility, which frees Monae’s character to ask questions that begin in the personal, like “Am I a freak for dancing around? / Am I a freak for getting down?” and move to the political: “I asked a question like this / ‘Are we a lost generation of our people?’ / Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal. / She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel. / So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal? / They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, / But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.”
Monae isn’t the only person with the idea that cultural power can create dramatic inflection points in the evolution of the future. Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From The Goon Squad culminates in a concert by an artist who begins the book as an extraordinarily broken man and reemerges as a children’s musician. The concert starts as a marketing gig for one of the characters in the novel, but it turns into an astonishing experience that united two generations, one similar to the Millenials, and the one that followed, who have embraced digital communication but rejected drug use and tattoos. It’s an amazing conclusion to the novel in part because it’s strikingly different from much of what we see in science fiction in a number of ways: it’s set in the near-future instead of far off, it’s hopeful instead of apocalyptic, and it’s collective and artistic instead of individual and technological.
To a certain extent, the place where Egan ends is the one from which Monae blasts off. Given Monae’s extraordinarily precise sense of visual style, the concepts she’s pulled together and expressed with directors with a range of visual styles, and the way her lyrics would fit in larger narrative settings, I’d love to see what planet she’d land on if she had the opportunity to tell stories over 120 minutes instead of six of them.
At CinemaCon today, Disney revealed plans to release new Star Wars films each summer beginning in 2015. The plan isn’t to go Episode VII, VIII, IX in three years but, rather, to run spinoff films in-between the major “episode releases” every two or three years. This is consistent with earlier reports of plans for spinoff movies, plus reports that the next trilogy will pick up after 1983′s Return of the Jedi. Disney’s announcement meshes the two together rather definitively.
In a way, I’m even more interested in what the spinoffs might look like than about the new trilogy. It’s a setup that creates more space for creative storytelling within the Star Wars universe, while still keeping the core space opera going under the—if nothing else—predictable leadership of J.J. Abrams. I don’t know that Disney will ever be comfortable getting this experimental, but there’s so much room for playing with visual styles, kinds of stories, and pairings of directors and subject material. Why tie Ben Affleck, for example, to the core trilogy movies when he could take his experience with Boston cop movies and apply it to a movie about the Corellian Security Force? Why not reunite Jessica Chastain and Kathryn Bigelow for an austere lady-Jedi movie—or even cast Chastain as Mara Jade? How about hiring Guillermo del Toro to do all of the monster design for the franchise going forward and letting him play with some stories about non-human main characters? Disney’s going to make an absolute fortune out of these movies. I’d like to see fans communicate to them as clearly and as loudly as possible, and as early in the process as we can, that we’d be excited to see the Star Wars franchise innovate if it’s going to flood the zone, rather than stay stagnant.
This post discusses plot points from the movie Upstream Color.
Shane Carruth movies, for all that he’s directed only two of them, Primer and this year’s Upstream Color, seem perfectly designed for the internet age: dense, mysterious, and designed to be collaboratively decoded. But I’ve been thinking about Upstream Color since I saw it SXSW last month and had a reaction to it that was so strong and personal that I had to sit with it for a while. And I’ve decided that the best way to watch this wildly romantic movie about two deeply damaged people who come to love each other is emotionally rather than rationally, to accept its profound strangenesses rather than to try to understand them.
Those strangenesses are considerable. The movie begins when Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young film producer, is abducted and drugged with what appears to be a worm, outside of a bar. The man who has captured her procedes to order her to empty her bank accounts, to sign over her house, to drink glasses of water, and to copy over pages from Walden, and then to abandon her to face the loss of her job, her financial security, and large parts of her memory alone—though not before an enormous worm has been extracted from her body and implanted in a rather cheerful-looking pig. The people who are intervening in Kris’ life are extraordinarily strange, and the things they’re doing to her are stranger. But their strangeness is precisely what makes them powerful figures—they’re specters of ineffable forces like loss, mental illness, and isolation who suggest a sinister plan to the universe rather than the randomness of fate.
Kris might have struggled to reclaim control of her life on her own, but Upstream Color is more than a simple narrative of vengeance and female empowerment. As she comes back to herself after having been attacked, Kris’ recovery doesn’t happen in isolation: she meets Jeff (Carruth), and she’s forced to reckon with someone who is more willing to trust her and to invest in her than she is in herself.
What makes the courtship and growth of the relationship between Kris and Jeff so powerful is the extent to which Carruth has used extraordinarily strange circumstances as a frame for emotional realities that more conventional movies prefer to obscure. When Jeff spots Kris on the train they both ride to work, she’s initially diffident, understanding herself—not without reason, given that she appears to have spontaneously destroyed her own life—as far too damaged to be a worthy romantic prospect. When he asks for her phone number, she tells him only to call her for professional reasons: she has started working at a small print shop after being fired from her job as a film editor after her inexplicable absence. “I’m not going to call for signage, though,” Jeff warns her. “I don’t need any signage.” That he might want her for herself is almost impossible for Kris to comprehend, and she avoids him. But Jeff pursues her anyway in a display of curiosity and budding ardor that Carruth carefully calibrates to seem eager, but not overpowering. “I can’t do this every day,” Jeff finally tells Kris after she’s ducked a number of his calls, and revealing that he’s shuffling his schedule to talk to her. “It makes me late for work. You’re four trains behind me.” Read more
Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is one of my favorite science fiction movies of the last five years, and his follow-up, Elysium, is probably the movie I’m most looking forward to this year, and I’m glad to see that the first trailer for it doesn’t contain any signs I should contain my enthusiasm:
One of the things that I think the best dystopian fiction gets at is the idea that technological advancements will not be distributed equitably or universally, and in fact, that technology may be used to provide an escape hatch for the most privileged people in society. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the anti-aging treatment that’s developed by Mars’ first settlers goes to the wealthiest people, who are often associated with multi-national corporations, first, while the much larger and poorer segments of the population are denied it. In Alaya Dawn Johnson’s excellent young adult novel The Summer Prince, the main characters live in a society that’s physically stratified, the most powerful living on the highest levels of an enclosed dwelling, and the least on the lowest levels, which are most affected by both sewage and the results of agricultural production. This was something that actually struck me particularly strongly on my trip, which was my first experience with resort travel, a system that, from your pickup at the airport by a preassigned shuttle, to the huge gates you pass through on the way to your actual hotel, is designed to make sure you have as little contact with the actual country you’re visiting as possible.
Given that Blomkamp was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and that his family migrated to Vancouver to get away from South Africa’s extremely high crime rates, it makes sense that he’s particularly attuned both to physical separate by class and race, and the possibility of exit from a system that seems to have failed. It was that awareness that make District 9, in which a stalled alien spaceship united black and white South Africans, who joined together to ghettoize the lost extraterrestrials in a township system like the one that was once used to restrict the movement of black South Africans, such a smart and moving piece of science fiction. In that movie, someone went from the privileged side of the divide to the underprivileged one and discovered that he couldn’t go back again, that there are strict rules for who you have to be to live in a comparative paradise. It looks like Elysium is flipping that divide in having Matt Damon crash the gates of a heaven near to earth, surprising the residents of that gated community with his capacity to get inside. I can’t wait to see what happens when he gets there.
This Saturday at 9PM, BBC America debuts its second original series, Orphan Black. A science fiction thriller, Orphan Black follows a young woman named Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), who is returning home after ten months away to try to reclaim custody of her daughter, who is being raised by Sarah’s own foster mother, when she witnesses another young woman, Beth, commit suicide at a train station. If that wasn’t unsettling enough, the other woman shares Sarah’s face. And as Sarah, desperate for cash, appropriates the dead woman’s identity, apartment—and as it turns out, the police department review she’s under for an unjustified shooting of a civilian—she learns that she doesn’t just have a twin: there are a disturbing number of other women wearing Sarah’s face.
I spoke to Maslany about the challenge of playing multiple characters in a single show, how viewers relate to unsympathetic female characters, and how science fiction depicts the near future and handles class. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
In Orphan Black, you’ve got a core role playing Sarah, but you have to portray a number of other women as well. Was that one of the things that drew you to the series?
Absolutely…They’re all compelling, they’re all complex, they’re all very different. Sarah was definitely my entry point into the series. What fascianted me about her so much was her extreme flaws that were right out there, her behavior that was completely immoral and self-absorbed, always defending herself. What’s fascinating to me is she’s got that beautiful heart as well. She completely wants to be a mother to her daughter, and every part of her upbringing is saying she can’t do that, and she’s not worthy of that. It’s a really nice tension to play. And to get into all the other characters, each has a different worldview, and that’s how I approached them. How do they see the world? Is it a fearful place? is it fascinating? Do they love people?
Was part of the appeal the opportunity to build audience sympathy for an unlikeable female character? Men get to be anti-heroes far more often.
Yeah, that’s what I love about it. I think, for me, it was unlike any character I’d seen on screeen, any female character especially. She’s not immediately likable. She’s not good or bad. She’s very much an animal of impulse and instinct, of self-preservation and survival. People can relate to that. There’s something glamorous abou people on Breaking Bad or whatever, because I think it tapes into the darker parts of ourselves that we don’t get to experience on a day to day basis, or that society tells us is bad. And I think that’s what’s so compelling about Sarah. We’re all so flawed. we’re all like that. We’re all bad people sometime. It’s a matter of circumstance, it’s a matter of our rsesponse to the world and what it’s told us about who we can be and who we are. She’s really grown up in a world of hostility and violence. I’m happy that she gets to be the protagonist, that her action saren’t condemned. Read more