Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ten Movies with Turn-of-the-Millenium Angst

In a cultural moment when the wheels feel like they’re coming off it can be instructive to look back at other moments of particular uncertainty. What did our worries say about us on the cusp of the turn of this century? Given the current sense of crisis the disembodied threats of not quite twenty years ago may seem quaint. But that was not some remote generation we cannot inspect. That was us. What was on our minds, and what lessons if any can we draw?

The turn of the millennium led to a palpable angst in movies, often manifested in terms of unstable reality and/or visions of the end of the world. Movies were asking the big questions: Who are we? What’s the point of it all? And could it be we are all just battery-packs for a lot of aliens looking to power their microwave ovens from high-maintenance primates floating in goo?

All ten of these films show a sense of unease about the future which they express by imagining our lives and reality as porous, fake, insidious or merely in flux. Points of uncertainty include, aliens: outsiders that mean us harm, nuclear holocaust: the violent nadir of technology and politics, artificial intelligence: a sense that we might be inventing our own slave masters, and media: television, video, and computers seen to be warping and consuming our sense of self. (In as much as a rupturing id has crawled from the pits of reality television and social media to the top of government this last one was perhaps the most prescient.) It was The Millennium, no one knew what to expect but everyone was nervous. CONTINUE TO FULL LIST

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Persistence and Hope in Science Fiction Films Pt. 11 (Interstellar)

Interstellar is a film that feels enormous. Its reach across narrative time and distance is immense, as are its conceptual set pieces. It extrapolates our present culture into a near future where a war has reduced the population and a blight has made food scarce. We learn that an alien power has opened a wormhole accessible from earth into a distant galaxy with possibly hospitable worlds. The plot is concerned with the attempt to find another home world and save the human species.

Interstellar’s central thesis is similar to that of Tomorrowland: the necessity of continued innovation and the importance of ingenuity and hope. But whereas Tomorrowland builds an adventure movie fa├žade around blunt repetitive statements and old advertising copy, Interstellar presents stunningly realized conceptions of cutting edge science and envelopes us in a world where the stakes feel real. Even though it could stand to dial down the solemnity in a few key spots.

Much of the tone and method behind Interstellar is in the direct lineage of Kubrick’s 2001, which is surprising for a successful post-millennial blockbuster. Nolan’s ingenuity in set building and visual effects owes more to the practical genius of a Kubrick than the tech obsessions of a James Cameron. And he has clearly learned pacing lessons, how to communicate scale of space and time through long takes and wide composition, from 2001. 

But thankfully he has also brought his own genius for action and high-energy payoff. There are no scenes like Nolan action scenes. Even in his weakest films a viewer leaves having seen things they would likely never have imagined. A planet of water on the cusp of a black hole with tidal forces causing waves the size mountain ranges, a planet of ice where clouds shatter like glass when hit, a wormhole rendered as a translucent planetoid sphere, the passage of a man through a black hole, and a trans dimensional chamber of infinitely recursive space time: even if the film doesn’t connect with you as entertainment it’s always worth seeing what Christopher Nolan and company imagine.

Interstellar’s attitude toward people is pretty broadly positive. Even the characters it shows as standing in the way of progress are motivated either by love or a survival instinct warning them against unnecessary risk. There are no real villains or brutes in Interstellar. There are the misguided, the frightened, and the selfish but all are sympathetic in some degree.

The main division in Interstellar is not between good and evil but courage and reserve, vision and fear. Even when, as in Tomorrowland, the plucky intelligent schoolgirl is reprimanded for questioning her school lessons, her teachers are not painted as glowering menaces but as sincere individuals trying to do the right thing. It’s a point on which Interstellar is far less cynical than Tomorrowland.  Interstellar manages to imply that people are good, and not just a herd of beasts from which arises the occasional golden child.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Persistence and Hope in Science Fiction Films Pt. 10 (Tomorrowland)

Optimism without the veil of context or the risk of interpretation, Tomorrowland is not so much optimistic Science Fiction as it is science fictiony optimism. If Her resembles those old World’s Fair showcase films, Tomorrowland is the fantasy of a child who never accepted that they were just highly produced advertisements, someone who as an adult probably chokes up during Windows product-launch commercials.
The film imagines a world in which the 1964 New York World’s Fair was actually the launch of a trans-dimensional recruitment effort for “Tomorrowland,” an idealized techno-showcase world of unimpeded research and development. It is a shining and soaring Jetsons meets Roger Dean applied sciences paradise that is recruiting “dreamers.”
The film has plot holes large enough to move you between dimensions but it is also chock full of spectacular visual invention and kinetically exciting action sequences that may well make you laugh with happy disbelief. For the purposes of the plot it turns out that mankind’s spiral toward war, death, and environmental destruction is the result of an unintentionally malevolent technology and not an inherent problem with people themselves.
Tomorrowland is preachy but not turgid. It maintains a quick enough pace to shake off the grandiose speeches and moments of cloying innocence on the part of the film’s heroine. What it risks however, by coming at the topic of optimistic futurism so bluntly, making it the headline instead of the message, is discrediting the topic by reducing its arguments to trite platitudes. Someone arguing against apocalypticism might now be met by an eye roll and the words, “Oh, you mean like in Tomorrowland?” And this hypothetical opponent will feel like they’ve scored a rhetorical point without addressing the subject because they were able to tie the opposing view with a Disney movie.
Tomorrowland also shows an elemental misunderstanding of the sources of cynicism and those of possible solutions when it shows the main character crushed beneath the dire predictions she hears in school, ignored when she asks how to fix it all. Education is not the enemy. A clear and honest accounting of the problems would be a miraculous outcome in current education. Religious doom merchants, greedy film producers, and 24-hour news producers should have replaced the montage of the dire and negative high school teachers. Education is a potential wellspring of solutions and no one should quietly accept a broadside against it from a slickly produced summer action movie, no matter how fervently cloaked in the postures of optimism.

For all its blunt force optimism about the future in general, Tomorrowland is basically cynical about people. The happy ending it presents us is one in which the best are separated to perform their function in Tomorrowland and the masses are left to mill about like mindless beasts waiting to be driven either toward or away from the precipice of oblivion.


Friday, May 13, 2016

Persistence and Hope in Science Fiction Films Pt. 9 (Super 8)

The simple power of people being people should not be underestimated. People feeling lonely, showing love, receiving sympathy, experiencing joy: The greatest argument in favor of humanity’s future is its resonance as human. Super 8 is stylistically a love letter to Steven Spielberg, from its setting in late seventies Middle America to its construction of shots in three dimensions, building information and plot along every perceivable axis. It also resonates with the Spielberg oeuvre in its building and treatment of richly humane characters whose depth and nuance we learn through how they relate to each other in the face of catastrophe.
It tells the story of a small east coast town in the late seventies where an Air Force transport train derails and something seemingly sinister escapes. The main characters are a group of kids who spend every spare moment making a zombie movie. One of them has lost his mother to an accident at a local factory as the movie opens. As the movie progresses he becomes friends with the daughter of the man many blame for his mother’s death.

The film’s status as Science Fiction rests on the nature of what was in the derailed train. Its essential optimism rests not on a vision of the future but in its focus on characters searching for sympathy and the strength to move forward in the face of tragedy.

Its main characters are children, symbolic of the future, and what’s more these are profoundly intelligent, inventive, yet engagingly flawed children. They represent the best in humanity and in the end overcome a broad science fiction terror through empathy and courage. Super 8 shows us a universe larger and more frightening than we are apt to consider on a daily basis but one that is also amenable to human ingenuity, sympathy, and understanding. As far as Super 8 is concerned being a good person counts for a lot.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Persistence and Hope in Science Fiction Films Pt. 8 (Wall-E)

Pixar have built their reputation on subtly subverting our assumptions about character building and story construction. Whether they are detailing the existential crisis of a boy’s collection of toys, commenting on energy policy by means of blue collar closet monsters, or telling the story of lifelong love in the few minutes before getting down to the real business of tying balloons to a house so as to float to South America, they reliably swerve where most movies would keep straight.
2008’s science fiction parable Wall-E takes place on an Earth that was eventually consolidated and run by a giant Wal-Mart style corporation, which seems a perfectly rational extrapolation of certain characteristics within our cultural trajectory. A few hundred years before the opening of the film the planet was abandoned as uninhabitable due to pollution. Humans boarded life sustaining space ships and a fleet of robots were left behind to do clean up.
Somewhere along the way the robots all shut down accept for one who persists in his function of collecting, compacting, and stacking trash. A program he supplements with the collecting of objects motivated by a consciousness driven curiosity. All of this information is communicated in the first few minutes of the film in what could be grandly described as a virtuosic cinematic aria.

The grace, economy, and effectiveness with which the elements of the story are put into place without seeming turgid or didactic but instead arising from the action and environment, naturally as we move through and marvel at it, is an example of the finest kind of large scale film making. The first section of the film represents some of the most visually original and staggeringly capable film making I've ever seen. The confidence and seeming ease with which Pixar build the enormous and strange and then populate it with sympathetic beings perhaps reached its height in the first half hour of Wall-E.

It is easy to say that humanity dooms its self with its irresponsible use of the planet. And it is in fact said often enough that many people just give up because they feel unequal to the problem or wish to spite those they see as trying to affect their behavior. What makes Wall-E unique in this cacophony of warnings and prognostications is that it takes that trajectory as certain and instead of seeing doom it sees a story. It takes the worst-case scenario as its starting point and finds the humor and beauty that might well follow after. If it bails out with a slightly cheap happy ending through vague convenience it has at least built a large and sympathetic enough world that a generous viewer may well remember the first thirty-minutes and forgive the last five.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Persistence and Hope in Science Fiction Films Pt. 7 (Her)

Spike Jonze’s Her is all about people. It is about their feelings, relationships, and what it is that makes love, love.  It is set in the future but uses that notoriously negative conceit as a tool to unburden its self of the mundane things that often make life difficult and get in the way of people worrying about their relationships.

It takes place in a near future that only has middle class first-world imperfections like loneliness, ennui, and job-dissatisfaction. It wears its optimism so obtrusively that when the plot’s main motivator is introduced, a self-aware life-assist operating system that integrates seamlessly with both humans and its network; there is no one in the film who worries about privacy or the pervasiveness of technology. The world within Her is so ideal it is not only post-strife it is post-luddite, a world of uniform early adopters. It very closely resembles the promotional films presented by G.E. and Monsanto at world’s fairs from the 1950s through the 1960s. “The World of Tomorrow!”

The film is delicately handled by its director, and one can perhaps forgive its unquestioning optimism thanks to its rich character portraits and its inversion of technophobia, suggesting our creations might just break our hearts instead of wiping us out. But its unflinching techno boosterism makes it feel like a cell phone commercial at times and its resolute blindness to whole swathes of the human condition in favor of middle class navel gazing makes it hard to ride all the way through without squirming at least once or twice.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Persistence and Hope in Science Fiction Films Pt. 6 (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

Humor is often seen as a defense mechanism of the terminally negative. Whimsy however is a much more rare and assertively positive attribute. While humor takes a narrow slice of reality and subverts it for comic effect, whimsy takes on the whole sweep of existence and chooses to treat it as merely absurd and benign, rather than malevolent, despite all evidence to the contrary.
It is possible to suppose that the British invented this point of view as a culturally relevant option and not just a sign of madness. What cultural item before Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy showed such lucid distaste for both structure and a world motivated by discernible sense? This mode of self-righteous joshing, ultimately canonized in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, that could only have arisen from self-aware colonialists who felt they had flown so high that all that was left was to recognize the absurdity of existence. These stories take the view that the materials of everyday life and perception can be handled like pastry dough, roughly pounded and shaped into light confectionery, edifying and delightful, yet resolutely empty of nutrition. Add to this tradition Douglas Adams.

A simple synopsis of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy might mistakenly peg it as cynical. The Earth is destroyed by an intergalactic bureaucracy. A human survives only to be buffeted about an enormous, indifferent, and absurd universe seemingly intent on driving him out of his mind. But to actually dig in and move about within the story reveals a view of existence as being richly various and exquisitely fun.
The film version necessarily streamlined much of Douglas Adams’s story and introduced some convenient plot devices so that the film could keep [barely] under two hours and not balloon beyond containment. It was always a pleasure of the books that any minor item might well be expounded upon for pages in utterly mad and maddening detail, only narrowly swerving back into stream with the plot after a slew of satiric and/or nonsensical punch lines. This quality long made the idea of a movie version  seem impossible. The film, ultimately made in 2005, manages to import the breathless pace of Adams’s sense of invention and brings terrific visualization to creatures like Vogons and conceits like the super computer Deep Thought.

The film is as light an entertainment as can be imagined and it even manages to wring a pat love story out of the unwieldy interpersonal webbing of the books. But hidden beneath the books’ heaping up of wry invention and the movie’s single-minded stream lining of the plot is a story of the blessed insignificance of humans, of a universe big enough to move around in, and fun enough to really enjoy if you have the chance.