REVIEW – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

TDoSFilmJuice have my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a film that rivals Iron Man 2 and Man of Steel for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

Peter Jackson is a terrible loss to the special effects profession and a terrible addition to that of professional film direction. Right from the start, his films have been filled with technical excellence and entirely devoid of artistic merit. The flaw in Jackson’s approach to direction is most evident when you consider his adaptations of existing works:Regardless of whether we are talking about Lord of the Rings, King Kong or The Lovely Bones, the involvement of Peter Jackson means that the resulting film will invariably be worse than the source material.

  • King Kong took a very simple and elegant story and expanded it into a 187 minute-long monstrosity in which the elegance and drama of the original were entirely lost.
  • Lord of the Rings bent over backwards to put as much of the books on screen as possible but whenever Jackson was called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations were invariably less interesting and more prosaic than those of conventional understanding.
  • The Lovely Bones made the most of Jackson’s mastery of visual effects to create an impressive vision of the afterlife but Jackson’s interpretation of the book mislaid the original horror and settled instead for a jarring combination of brutal violence and horrific sentimentality.

Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit is plagued by these exact same mistakes:

  • A short children’s book has been expanded into three over-long films thanks to tedious CGI action sequences that unbalance the plot and submerge the original drama.
  • Every time that Jackson is called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations tend to be less interesting, more prosaic and prone to moving the film into the realm of fantasy cliche.
  • Having decided to transform a whimsical children’s story into a portentous epic, Jackson struggles with tone and so veers between horrific violence, grinding sentimentality and childish comedy.

My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug focuses on two particular areas: The paucity of the writing and the intense ugliness of the visuals.

Of the writing I say:

Given that The Desolation of Smaug contains much less of The Hobbit than its predecessor, the joins between source and additional materials are far less noticeable. However, while this frees us from the first film’s bizarre tone changes, it does mean that the film comes to be dominated by an array of characters and sub-plots who owe a good deal less to Tolkien’s brilliance than they do to Peter Jackson’s fondness for fantasy clichés. The additional plotlines are not only thin and crippled with incredibly cheesy dialogue, they also feature a grand total of three lank-haired white dudes with soulful eyes, tragic backgrounds and a need for redemption when even one would have been too many. With so many unconnected characters and plotlines to follow, the film haemorrhages thematic focus and dramatic energy and so keeps relying on orc attacks to jump-start the plot and keep things moving.

Of the look of the film I say:

The root of the problem lies in the first film’s revelation that traditional sets, effects and make-up tend to look absolutely terrible when shot at 48 frames-per-second. In an effort to stop his film from looking like something shot between takes with an old-fashioned camcorder, Jackson has taken to replacing sets and actors with CGI backgrounds and figures. When a scene cannot be done entirely in CGI, Jackson limits himself to superimposing CGI over the sets and actors in an effort to make them look less real and so provide a more even distribution of unreality. What this means in practice is that all the actors wind up with enormous bulbous noses but at least it doesn’t look like they’re being interviewed on the set. The real problem occurs when Jackson switches entirely to CGI and creates the kinds of figures and landscapes that only exist in videogames. Lacking the weight and reality of actors and practical effects, the CGI character bounce around the screen in a manner all to reminiscent of the Legolas sequences in the original trilogy and the monster fights in Jackson’s laughable remake of King Kong. Taken on their own and in small doses, these digital inserts are technically impressive and reasonably well choreographed but, taken in the context of an extremely long film where they are allowed to continue for upwards of twenty minutes, their cartoonish lack of realism rapidly devolves from unintentionally funny to downright excruciating.

The reason why I consider The Desolation of Smaug to be one of the worst films ever made is that I believe in grading on a curve: Whenever people talking about the WORST. FILM. EVAH. their minds turn to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll despite the fact that both men were operating with comparatively small budgets and incredibly tiny pools of talent. How many great technicians and actors would answer the call if Uwe Boll approached them about working on his latest adaptation of a shitty video game? Now how many actors and technicians would answer the call if Peter Jackson asked them to fly to New Zealand and work on an incredibly expensive production of much-beloved and hugely successful books? Works like The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 2 and The Man of Steel operate with virtually unlimited budgets, unlimited good will and immediate access to the best writers, actors and technicians operating in contemporary cinema. To take all of those resources and turn them into a tedious mess like Desolation of Smaug is not only an obscene waste of money, it is also a sign of true directorial incompetence.

REVIEW – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

hungame2A little while ago, the editor of Videovista approached me to review the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games novel Catching Fire. I had read the first two books in the Hunger Games series and reviewed the first one in a mood of profound ambivalence that carried me through into the first film. In short, I liked the way the book captured Katniss’s reactions to the world but I found both the world itself and everything that happened in said world to be somewhat tedious… hence my decision to interpret the books as a sort of psychological fantasia in which the emotional touchstones of teenaged life are recreated using the language of dystopian science fiction. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really survive the decision to adapt the books but drop the internal monologues. However, rather than simply being honest and describing Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a typically dull and expensive-looking Hollywood epic, I decided to work through some of my feelings about The Hunger Games, Young Adult Fiction and Hollywood Blockbusters in an essay that runs to over 4,000 words.

On psychological fantasias:

This is why President Snow is little more than a vaguely threatening beard: Collins is drawing on a particular set of cultural images to create an image of patriarchal authority that will be comprehensible to her intended audience. Though not a particularly common approach to writing, this transition from psychological realism to metaphorical fantasy is fairly common in psychological thrillers as well as T.H. White’s children’s novel The Sword And The Stone (1938), where Arthurian knights sit around drinking port and discussing Eton because even though neither of those things actually exist in the world of the novel, the words ‘port’ and ‘Eton’ serve as placeholders for a drink, and a training establishment, with a comparable set of emotional and cultural resonances.

On the incompetence of the film’s direction:

As with the opening act, a savvy director might have played up the paranoia underpinning these scenes and turned them into simmering pots of tension that occasionally explode into violence, but Lawrence follows Ross in choosing to focus on the melodrama thereby depriving the film of any sense of lingering danger or tension so that, when the angry baboons and poisonous clouds do turn up, they appear more comical than harrowing. There is one particularly wonderful scene where Katniss’ group meets up with some other tributes and decides to make peace. Noting that they appear to be covered in sticky brown liquid, Katniss asks what happened and one of the female tribute rolls her eyes and talks about blood falling from the sky in the same tone of voice that one might talk about a ruined wedding reception or barbecue; a damp squib indeed.

On adults reading books aimed at children:

The reason that people respond to works like The Hunger Games is the same reason they cower in the shadow of their parents and feel empowered by mass-market therapy sessions written for a teen demographic: we are subject to a culture that encourages us to view ourselves as creatures that are as passive and as powerless as children. Works like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight benefit from this cultural mood as much as they contribute to it.

An interesting corollary to some of the ideas I explore in the essay is something written by Adam “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven” Roberts who ponders the question of why Young Adult fiction has become obsessed with Victorian imagery. I think that Adam reaches some of the same conclusions that I do but expresses them in a manner that is both more erudite and sympathetic to the materials in question. Another interesting corollary is Julianne Ross’s piece in the Atlantic which asks “Must Every YA Action Heroine Be Petite?” in which she ambles down objectivisation avenue and stumbles across a far more interesting truth:

But this is the same double standard that we’ve been subjected to again and again; just as women are expected to be sexual but not slutty, pure but not prudish, heroines should be strong but not buff. Powerful, yet still delicate enough to be cradled by their male love interests. Mature enough to lead those around them, yet so small that people confuse them with innocent little girls.

I don’t think this aesthetic has as much to do with sexual objectification as it does with the fact that Young Adult fiction is partly about allowing grown-up readers to escape into worlds dominated by melodramatic treatments of banal coming-of-age stories. Indeed, as I explain in the review, The Hunger Games is all about Katniss gaining access to the rooms in which grown-ups have grown-up conversations. Her rebellion against President Snow has less to do with real-world politics than it does with standing up to Daddy. I am not a fan of escapist fiction but I have a particular contempt for escapist fiction that presents banal teenage rebellion as something worthy of book, film and song. Stories like The Hunger Games shrink the horizons of our minds to the point where the banal seems heroic and the heroic seems impossible. Give it another ten years and adults will be reading books that make them feel empowered about the fact that they are potty trained.

 

REVIEW – Ender’s Game (2013)

endsgameVideovista has my review of Gavin Hood’s cinematic adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sinister science fiction novel Ender’s Game.

Quite possibly the single most commercially successful science fiction novel of all time, Ender’s Game tells the story of a gifted child who is groomed, recruited and trained to become the military commander who will defend Earth against an imminent and unavoidable attack by a race of inscrutable ant-like aliens known as the Formics (the novel’s ambiguously homophobic term ‘buggers’ having been dropped from the film due to the negative press surrounding Card’s activities as an anti-LGBT spokesperson and activist). Having now watched the film and re-read the novel, I am struck by the fact that Ender’s Game sits rather uncomfortably between two different stools:

On the one hand, the story (originally published as a novella in Analog) is a throwback to the golden age of science fiction where genocidal space captains were not seen as particularly problematic characters. This aspect of the novel sits squarely in the foreground and is obvious from the fact that much of the novel’s enduring appeal lies in the fact that it is one enormous Geek power fantasy about a super-smart kid who beats the shit out of his bullies, gets all the cool friends and saves the day despite being misunderstood and persecuted.

On the other hand, the story is painfully aware of the literary turn of 1960s science fiction and so tries to reflect the fact that you can no longer get away with writing a novel about a genocidal space commander without acknowledging the fact that genocide is bad (Mm’kay?) and that characters need to be well-rounded individuals with internal conflicts to resolve. This aspect of the novel is evident not only in Ender’s undirected and largely uncritical angst but also in the way that the book tries to have its cake and eat it too by building towards a climactic battle only to then suggest that climactic battles aren’t necessarily a good idea.

The tension between these sets of literary values not only explains why the more recent Ender’s Shadow (a retelling of the book from the perspective of Ender’s psychopathic and entirely angst-free sidekick Bean) is a far superior novel, it also explains why Ender’s Game is such a deeply problematic work of fiction. Had Ender’s Game embraced its golden age roots and been about a heroic kiddy space captain then it would have been nothing more than your standard piece of reactionary escapist SF fluff and had Ender’s Game been about the morally problematic aspects of military service then it would have been a pretty good revisionist MilSF novel comparable to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. However, by trying to write within two politically incompatible literary traditions, Card effectively wound up creating a novel that emphasises all the worst aspects of traditional science fiction.

I don’t like the politics of Ender’s Game and I don’t like the politics of this film:

The problem is not that Ender’s Game is a power fantasy wrapped in a persecution complex and fired into the faces of unsuspecting children, the problem is that this film sends a message that the only rational and intelligent response to feelings of alienation, betrayal and confusion is to conform to the demands of the institutions that caused those negative feelings in the first place. Ender’s Game is not content with telling us that there is no alternative to a life of selfish brutality, it goes out of its way to present that life as sane, heroic and oh so very clever. Gavin Hood’s film is well made and elegant to look at, as beautiful as a $110 million advert for fascism could ever hope to be.

I’m not the first person to have this reaction:

  • Elaine Radford wrote an essay entitled “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman” in which she points out a number of moral and biographical similarities between the two genocides.
  • John Kessel wrote an essay entitled “Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention and Morality” in which he points out the problematic nature of Card’s moral system.

But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else point out that the book is not only fascistic but also incredibly derivative as it is essentially a re-skinning of Tom Godwin’s short story “The Cold Equations”. I outline the similarities between the two texts at some length in my review but the similarities are even more striking when you read the original “Ender’s Game” novelette, which was published in 1977 in the same magazine that originally published “The Cold Equations”.

PS Not long after uploading this, I came across a recent Cory Doctorow column from Locus magazine that essentially makes the exact same point about the artificiality of TINA and how Godwin creates a particular moral scenario and then expunges all blame and concepts of moral responsibility by willfully confusing the political laws governing the pilot’s society with the laws of nature. Given that it’s written by Cory Doctorow, the piece is significantly better written than mine and makes the connection I somehow missed with the concept of moral hazard:

The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.

Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.

He then goes on to talk about the moral horrors of a Robert Heinlein story and I am reminded, yet again of that author’s toxic influence on the history of science fiction.

REVIEW – Upstream Color (2013)

Upstream-Color-PosterFilmJuice have my review of Seth Carruth’s art house SF film Upstream Color, which came out this week on DVD and Blu-ray. I loved the film but it also made me intensely aware of the limitations of certain styles of cinematic storytelling.

At the heart of Upstream Color is a very conventional relationship movie: Two fragile people struggling to overcome life-threatening traumas meet on public transport and immediately recognise themselves in each other. Initially quite tentative, the two fragile people orbit around each other; feeling the attraction but afraid of getting too close lest they get sucked in. When the pair do eventually commit to each other they connect on such a profound level that the lines where one person stops and another person begins begin to blur. Whose memories are these? Whose emotions are these? Am I me? Are you me? Told in a way that emphasises visual storytelling over verbal exposition, Upstream Color looks and feels very much like the type of film that European art house cinema has been churning out for the last fifty years. World cinema is a very different cinematic tradition to that of Hollywood but the techniques and themes favoured by that tradition mean that Carruth can quite easily pick up their tools and tell yet another story about alienated people undergoing the ambivalent process of change associated with love and the construction of a couple’s subjectivity. This cinematic vocabulary is a mature system and Carruth is a talented-enough director to use those tools to tell a really effective if ultimately unchallenging relationship story. However, Upstream Color is a lot more besides…

Halfway through watching the film, I pointed out on Twitter that Upstream Color felt a lot like someone using an iPad to make scrambled eggs. What I meant by this was that while the core story was really quite mundane and unadventurous, Carruth tells his story using one of the richest and most complex metaphorical infrastructures in recent cinematic history. Yes, this film is all about empathy and Carruth uses an explicitly Science Fictional device to explore how empathy can open us up to good as well as bad experiences, Carruth’s device is actually a lot more complex than a traditional relationship drama would require. Indeed, while Buffy the Vampire Slayer trod similar ground by making Buffy temporarily telepathic, Carruth cracks the egg of human relationships with the genre equivalent of a sledgehammer. A worm that, when consumed, puts people in state of such psychological vulnerability that someone can effectively clean out their bank account, destroy their life and order them to forget the whole thing. Even more conceptually lavish, Carruth explores the life-cycle of these worms and how, once removed from a human host, they allow people who understand the technology to ‘check in’ and watch the people that were once infected. Frankly, there are enough ideas and story-hooks in these worms to support and entire film festival but Carruth only really begins to exploit the thematic potential of his device at the end of the film:

Aware that his genre tropes can probably handle a lot more than a simple relationship story, Carruth devotes the final act to pushing the limits of his metaphorical infrastructure and so we are treated to an absolutely beautiful sequence in which the life-cycle of the worms is revealed and a further sequence in which Jeff and Kris confront their shared trauma and tentatively begin edging towards a less isolated way of living. Carruth handles both of these expansions quite well but the combination of oblique storytelling techniques and limited space means that much of their thematic and dramatic potential must remain untapped. Indeed, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life spends over two hours wrestling with ideas far less substantial than the ones that Carruth rushes through in less than ten minutes!

In an age when both art house and mainstream directors are making films based on tired and insubstantial ideas, it is both refreshing and slightly overwhelming to encounter a film that could easily have been a trilogy or a series. Upstream Color is not just an incredibly beautiful and well-told story, it is a film so full of ideas and thematic resonances that it is almost too frustrating to watch. Sitting through Upstream Color I was struck by the extent to which art house cinematic techniques struggle to convey new types of information. Watch enough art house films about alienated people trying to get their lives back on track and those techniques are incredibly effective at conveying mood and theme but ask those techniques to explore the psychic fallout of discovering that you are only one of hundreds of people who have been secretly observed by shadowy figures and those techniques begin to struggle. Upstream Color could have been about the NSA and Google dismantling privacy, it could have been about post-traumatic stress or it could have been about the psychic fallout from being involved in a mass event like a terrorist atrocity or a religious cult. It could have been about any of these things and yet the film ended too soon.

Five Intelligent Science Fiction Films

children-of-menFilmJuice have just published my latest feature. In honour of the British release of Cloud Atlas, here is my list of five literary science fiction films.

These types of feature are really quite formulaic, the list post is a staple of most major websites and I do little to subvert the format. However, while many such lists seem content to list anything that isn’t a disaster movie or an action film, I’ve attempted to select films on the basis of their vision and relevance. Somewhat unsurprisingly, I end the piece by singing hosannas to the glory of Curaon’s Children of Men:

Cuaron’s Children of Men takes place in a future Britain where the sudden and inexplicable sterility of the population has resulted in an even greater form of cultural blockage than the one we are currently experiencing. Without young people to stir things up and challenge orthodoxies, Britain has retreated into a bitter nostalgic conservatism where branded coffee shops sit beside cages full of foreign refugees and pleasant middle-class people withdraw into artfully decaying farm houses filled with relics of their long-abandoned ‘politicised’ youth. Even when The Revolution finally comes, it feels like a mass-market greatest hits album: Masked Islamic gunmen parading their martyred dead West Bank Style, under-equipped paramilitaries firing through the windows of abandoned schools Sarajevo Style, futuristic soldiers standing around impoverished suburbs Baghdad Style: Now That’s What I Call A Revolution! Volume 666.

People interested in this sense of cultural blockage might also be interested in my piece about the Cowardice, Laziness and Irony of literary science fiction and Mark Fisher’s eternally brilliant book Capitalist Realism.

REVIEW: Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis (1984)

FilmJuice have my review of Giorgio Moroder’s eighties remix of Fritz Lang’s immortal Metropolis.

Lang’s Metropolis is a science fiction fairy tale dealing in class warfare, economic collapse and the power of compromise and understanding to deliver a world that is at the very least tolerable to all. Grounded in the cinematic techniques developed by German Expressionism to increase the bandwidth of silent film and unlock new depths of emotional complexity, the film is two and a half hours of directorial brilliance. However, though the original cut of the film has now been recovered, there were decades during which people believed it would never be seen again. Given that Metropolis is not only a beautiful but also an intensely important film, it was perhaps unavoidable that attempts to restore it would stir up strong feelings. In fact, the debate over what should be done with the Metropolis fragments rapidly coalesced into a bitter confrontation between those who wanted the original film left as it was and those who wanted the meddle with the footage in the hopes of recapturing some dim afterglow of Lang’s genius. Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis is not only the best known and most interventionist of the alternate edits of Metropolis, it was also the most widely seen version of the film as the ‘hip’ scoring by eighties pop stars combined with the short running time ensured that copies of the film flew in and out of video rental stores throughout the eighties and nineties. Now that the original cut of the film has been recovered, it is tempting to simply consign Moroder’s edit to the bin and move on but this cut has historical merit on its own.

Moroder’s Metropolis is a short and punchy affair that feels very much like an extended trailer for original version of the film. Moroder solves the narrative problems of the various re-cuts by stripping out much of the dialogue and drama in order to focus upon the big cinematic set pieces and emotional moments. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this results in a film that bubbles with the same hysterical energy and visual spectacle as the Michael Bay Transformers movies. However, rather than leaving his characters to scream and flail about like Shia LaBoeuf, Moroder attempts to fill in the emotional gaps by scoring the film with a series of somewhat heavy-handed eighties power ballads performed by the likes of Bonnie Tyler, Freddy Mercury and Pat Benatar. Moroder also colourises the film in an attempt to convey changes of mood which, though obvious from the context of Lang’s longer film, struggle to emerge from the mangled cinematic vocabulary of the truncated versions.

Watching this film, I couldn’t help but wonder what other alternate edits of classic films are out there… the film is being re-released today by Masters of Cinema in a limited edition steel shell thingy. Release of the standard edition is coming later this year according to the Brazilian river place.

REVIEW – Total Recall (1990)

FilmJuice have my review of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. The review is of the freshly released and genuinely fantastic Blu-ray release of the film and it ties in quite nicely with this recent piece I also wrote for FilmJuice about the films of Paul Verhoeven.

The first thing that struck me about this film was how violent and sexually explicit it is by the standards of contemporary big budget filmmaking. Indeed, the likes of Michael Bay will frequently include women draped decoratively across motorbikes or ascending stairs but the actual sexual content of their films is practically non-existent. The reason for this is two-fold: A) These big budget films have absolutely immense budgets and in order to maximise their profitability, they need to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Hence the death of the ’18’ rated action film that dominated much of my childhood. B) The target demographic for most contemporary action films is teenaged boys whose sexual experience is usually limited to ogling and giggling… so whenever Bay has an actress bend over but not actually have sex with anyone, he is attempting to position his film in the sexual universe of horny teenaged boys. Compared to contemporary action films, Total Recall comes across as not only quite explicit but also quite surprisingly adult… particularly strange is the weird sexual energy that fizzes between the characters of Schwarzenegger and Stone as they beat each other up and pretend to be married:

One particularly wonderful element of the film is the relationship between Schwarzenegger’s violently bulging everyman and Sharon Stone’s pouting secret agent. Indeed, Stone plays the roll of a woman who is either a loving wife to Schwarzenegger or deep-cover operative assigned to keep him under surveillance lest his secret identity as a Martian freedom fighter begin to reassert itself. Rather than pitting these two personae against each other and musing as to which is the ‘real’ one, Verhoeven simply runs them together meaning that Stone’s character comes across as a lovingly traitorous wife who wants to kill her husband and have sex with him, quite possibly at the same time. Victims of actual domestic abuse might squirm as Schwarzenegger and Stone flit between flirting and kicking each other across the room but Verhoeven fully embraces the tension and presents it almost as a form of sadomasochistic play. Tellingly, when Schwarzenegger decides that he can no longer trust his wife, Stone’s character makes one last attempt to win him over by offering to let him tie her up. Verhoeven’s bizarre sexualisation of domestic abuse is both intensely unsettling and utterly compelling.

Total Recall is an excellent film and this Blu-ray edition does it proud.  Definitely worth revisiting and re-appraising.

REVIEW – Wasted on the Young (2010)

THE ZONE has my review of an interesting Australian film by first-time director Ben C. Lucas. Wasted on the Young is stylishly shot high school mystery in very much the same tradition as Rian Johnson’s Brick. Aside from the intriguing plot and the deliciously chilly cinematography, what really grabbed me about this film was its attempt to get inside the head of contemporary teenagers whose every move is recorded by CCTV cameras and whose every thought is captured by social media:

 As William Gibson’s recent writings have suggested, there was a point when society changed and certain ideas ceased to be science fictional. Yesterday’s cyberpunk futurism is today’s kitchen sink realism. Similarly, many old realist touchstones appear to be little more than genre affectations tainted by reactionary nostalgia. We no longer live in a world where women can afford to be bored doctor’s wives. Virginia Wolfe once described George Elliott’s Middlemarch as one of the few British novels written for adults but when read today, the book appears about as realistic as a quest to destroy a magical ring. By borrowing elements from the hard-boiled and cyberpunk genres while simultaneously downplaying the fictional character of these elements, Lucas is attempting to capture what it feels like to grow up in a world with its own set of realist touchstones and its own set of worries and concerns.

Watching it I was reminded not only of the more recent works by William Gibson but also the short stories of Tim Maughan (some of which I reviewed a little while back). What unites these works is a realisation that, rather than simply adding to an already existing world, the internet and social media are changing the world by sculpting how young people learn to see and react to the world. Literary theorists have spent the last 100 years bemoaning the fact that we are now modern and as such have severed our ties to the gods of our forefathers. Similarly, transhumanists spend much of their time banging a drum for the change that will come with the arrival of the Singularity. The more I read and the more I think about today’s youth, the more I realise that there is no great Death of Pan or Birth of the Singularity… there’s just some old fucks dying and some young fucks taking their place. Society is in constant evolution and social media is one particular area of genetic drift. In 10 years (let alone 100), people will wander what it was like to live without the internet and so any work of art that does not engage with the social changes created by the internet must be seen as little more than a side-show.

Gibson’s decision to re-position himself as a mainstream writer rather than a genre writer is the product of two forms of change: Firstly, society has changed to the point where science-fictional ideas are now realistic ideas. Secondly, Gibson needed to leave genre because genre has no interest in writing about the world that we are currently making for ourselves. Wasted on the Young is yet more evidence that science fiction has run its course as both a literary tradition and a sub-culture as it is easily as cyberpunky as any of Gibson’s recent novels and yet it presents these scientific and social ideas as nothing more than grindingly mundane realism.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – Arrested Arrested Development

Reboots are predicated upon the idea that franchises have natural lifespans. The cycle begins with a single luminous idea that is transformed into a film, a book, a game or a TV series.  The brilliance of the idea is such that its chosen media vehicle becomes a huge success.  Desperate to cash-in on the success of that idea, its owners will then sanction the creation of sequels, prequels, spin-offs and media tie-ins that make them a lot of money whilst devaluing the original idea thanks to over-exploitation, over-familiarity and the corrosive inertia of too many bad decisions.  Down on its luck, the franchise then lies dormant until people either forget the bad decisions or a new idea reinvigorates the old one allowing the franchise to be re-launched, re-imagined or re-booted.

In 1968, Pierre Boulle’s 1963 science fiction novel gave birth to a surprisingly thoughtful and visually striking film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Planet of the Apes was such a success that it went on to spawn four cinematic sequels and a short-lived TV series, by which time the idea was well and truly played out (for a great overview of the original films, check out Matt Singer’s piece here).  Mindful that TV repeats and home video cinephilia had transformed these old films into objects of cult veneration, studio executives hired Tim Burton to helm a ‘re-imagining’ of the original franchise.  However, far from re-invigorating the franchise, Burton’s under-written chase picture only served to bury it beneath an avalanche of sneers and titters rendered all the more toxic by that Simpsons episode. Planet of the Apes!  What a stupid idea for a movie!

Fast-forward ten years and trailers for a new Planet of the Apes movie began to appear in theatres and websites.  The trailers for Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes featured lots of CGI and a gorilla attacking a helicopter. When I first saw this trailer in a cinema, people laughed. However, far from being risible, Wyatt’s finished film is nothing short of a triumph. A delicious surprise given its recent cinematic antecedents, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most effective and thought-provoking Hollywood films to appear this year.

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REVIEW – Super 8 (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of J.J. Abrams’ Super 8.

The film is intended as an homage to the sorts of family action adventure movies that Spielberg used to dominate the cinematic landscape in the 1980s.  Think ET and Goonies. As I explain in the review, the film adopts the traditional Hollywood template of having two distinct narratives that interweave and feed off of each other.  Traditionally, in these types of films, one narrative is very mundane and all about kids growing up, while the other is more fantastical. These two plot lines then intersect in such a way that the fantastical elements of the film help the kids to confront issues in their everyday life such as divorce, the death of a parent or simply growing up.  Knowing a good template when he sees one, Abrams uses the same trick in Super 8 but, because this is a J.J. Abrams film, he tries to add a postmodern flourish to the film by making it all about a bunch of kids running away from aliens whilst trying to make a film:

Unfortunately, while all of these themes and narratives work superbly on their own, they never quite manage to link up and feed into each other meaning that Super 8 is never more than the sum of its parts. The failure of the film’s various subplots to connect with each other is particularly noticeable in the film’s conclusion when what should have been a moment of heart-rending reconciliation falls completely flat because all of the journeys undertaken by the characters were undertaken alone.

Though unlikely to prove as memorable as any of the films from the 80s genre boom, Super 8 is nonetheless an entertaining soufflet of a film that contains some real spectacle and some real heart.