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.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) – The Ambivalence of the Metallic Sublime

Michael Bay is a director whose career can best be described as a heroic fall from competence.

Bay cut his directorial teeth by producing the sort of ‘documentaries’ that allow bands and soft-core pornographers alike to bootstrap unconnected short-form material (such as music videos and photo shoots) into something that can be sold either as a DVD or a VHS. Having learned how to please the eye and how to link together completely unrelated sequences, Bay naturally made the step up to producing action movies.

While Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996) were never going to win Cannes, they do stand as incontrovertible proof that Michael Bay knows how to make a film. Both films are well paced and feature some memorable dialogue delivered by casts only too aware that they are present only as human ballast designed to humanise what would otherwise be nothing more than a succession of fire-fights, chase sequences and expensive-looking explosions. Looking back over Bad Boys and The Rock, Bay’s talent for spectacle is only too evident: abandoned prisons and airfields are shot with the same impossible glamour that you find in the photo-shoots of glossy magazines. Characters in Bay’s early films do not walk, they glide and their cars do not so much accelerate as explode into the world with energy so absurd as to be joyous. There are some who would have Bay return to these sorts of films and it is easy to see why… much of what we think of when we sneer the words ‘a Michael Bay’ film are not present in either The Rock or Bad Boys, but the potential is there. Oh such potential…

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