Month: October 2013

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

gravity1

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has received an exceptional amount of critical acclaim for a science fiction film, more so for any other I can remember since Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.   This may be because, as with Weir’s film, many don’t recognize it as belonging to the genre. Yes, it takes place in outer space, the most familiar setting for the science fiction film, but since it (like the 1969 film Marooned) deals with events that could conceivably and possibly happen in the immediate future, it’s probably not unanimously regarded as such by mainstream critics, who don’t realize that the depiction of possible futures is precisely one of the main goals of science fiction. That may be why I’ve found myself less enthusiastic about the film than so many others after viewing it. As was the case with the wildly overrated Moon (2009), over-familiarity with the genre seems to greatly diminish my ability appreciate what others find to be so novel; on a purely visual and cinematic level, it’s certainly a tremendous achievement on the part of Cuaron and his crew, but on a story level, Gravity is (no pun intended) somewhat of a letdown. Not only will it also be overly familiar to other fans of written science fiction, but those well-versed in its cinematic equivalent will also find themselves recognizing various visual and story motifs. In addition to the aforementioned Marooned, everything from the rescue-with-oxygen-tank scene from Destination Moon to the horrifying image of the burnt-up skull face of a freshly-killed astronaut peering out its helmet in Riders to the Stars (also the consequence of a collision with space debris) seems to echo throughout the film. Even the very premise of the film itself evokes a key scene from a guilty pleasure of mine, the 1954 movie Conquest of Space, which coincidentally featured an appearance from George Clooney’s aunt Rosemary but was considerably less acclaimed, with no less than Forry Ackerman calling it “The Bomb of The Decade”.  This story could just as easily been cut to an hour or half-hour format, and then presented as an episode of the early Sixties show Men Into Space.  To be certain, a quite gripping and involving film has been built from a standard storyline; however, the almost unanimous, at times hyperbolic acclaim the film has been receiving need to be tempered by informed criticism.

Some science fiction fans have compared Gravity‘s storyline to Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “Kaleidoscope,” but it actually bears a closer resemblance to some of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short stories such as “Breaking Strain,” “Summertime on Icarus” and “Transit of Earth,” as well as the vignettes that make up The Other Side of the Sky. In these stories, Clarke tried to credibly and convincingly depict the sort of life-and-death situations future astronauts might encounter “out there,” and they more often than not involved problem-solving based on the application of scientific knowledge and practical engineering. A more important conceptual breakthrough was Clarke’s focus on the personal experience of space exploration: The thoughts and emotional states of astronauts as they work their way through technical crises is a primary concern of these stories, many of which are written in the first person, and the story and presentation of Gravity is very much in this vein. The film is not so much about outer space than it is about the lead character’s experience of it; nearly every directorial choice reminds us that this story is being told from the perspective of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut. Remarkably, the sort of premise most science fiction writers would restrict to the size of a short story or at best, a novelette, is effectively expanded to the length of a feature film, and one of the best aspects of Gravity is the efficiency of the plot, so that it still feels like a short story in terms of time expended. A lesser director than Cuaron would have dwelled endlessly on shots of the empty void or used a succession of quick cuts in a desperate attempt to keep the film moving, but since Cuaron rightfully views both visual effects and the 3-D Imax format as tools for telling his story instead of accessories to spectacle, he uses them to involve us so deeply in it that we don’t notice the passing of time. The opening sequence is especially bravura, as the camera, in a seemingly unbroken five-minute cut, moves across various characters working on the surface of the space station, fully establishing a credible setting and immersing us in such a manner that we fully embrace the illusion of being in a zero-gravity environment. Particularly important to a film where the characters spend nearly the entire duration in free fall, Cuaron is one of the few directors to recognize both the importance and usefulness of camera movement in the 3-D format, and there’s also a thematic significance to his doing do so, as a means of emphasizing their isolation in an environment where movement is free in all three dimensions.

Equally important as Cuaron’s direction in selling the story is the performance of Sandra Bullock in the lead. Some viewers may find the life-and-death situation she finds herself to be in this film to be not unlike that featured in her breakout film Speed, and her astronaut can be seen as a more mature version of her character from the earlier movie. While this time she may only be trying to save her own life instead of a busload of passengers, she faces even greater challenges, not just physical (in Speed, she merely had to pilot a bus linearly across a horizontal plane; this time, she must fully navigate her way through three-dimensional vector space!) but psychological and emotional as well, and she must prove that she has not just fulfilled the survival training expected of her, but what she expects of herself as well. It’s a remarkable, cerebral performance, and Bullock especially handles herself well in those long silent passages where we are only supposed to be able to understand her thoughts and emotions through the subtlest facial expressions or body movements.

It’s a shame then, that so much time is expended on the far less interesting and more poorly handled character played by George Clooney. It’s not entirely his fault, as he’s handed most of the film’s clunker lines and the character as written comes off as overbearing and patronizing, but his performance still comes off as overly smug and phoned-in. Another actor (maybe Gary Sinise or Clive Owen, the star of Cuaron’s Children of Men) might have been able to give the veneer of professionalism without pomposity, but better yet, the character could have been written out entirely, since he’s not really essential to the film. Not only would that have allowed the film to concentrate more fully on Bullock’s character, and charted her development, her survival strategies and inner conflicts,  but it would have eliminated the film’s absolute worst scene. I will not say anything more about it except that the audience I was with first laughed at the stupidity of it before they realized what was happening, and when they did realize it, they collectively groaned that the movie had stooped to not just one of the worst cliches in the business but one of the worst cheats in cinema, one that completely destroyed the illusion of real time the film had built up to that point.

Of course, without the Clooney character, the film would have run even shorter than its ninety-minute running time, and an already swift-moving film would have felt even briefer. Mainstream critics have so fallen over each other in praising the visual audacity and innovations in Cuaron’s film, that they haven’t taken the time to examine the story very closely. As science fiction, it’s very ordinary; it would have been sent into most editor’s slush piles years ago, although it would have certainly worked as a chapter in a larger novel or novella. Even though the film will undoubtedly lose much of its visual impact outside of the 3-D and Imax formats, it should probably be screened in film and science fiction literature classes just to illustrate the difficulties and challenges in making a movie in the genre, and the differences between the cinematic and the literary art forms. A key example of the difficulty can be seen in how the movie tries to compensate for the complete absence of sound in its “exterior” shots. While it is certainly admirable that Cuaron and his crew made this commitment to scientific realism,  composer Steven Price has seemingly tried to compensate for the lack of sound by creating one of the most annoying scores of recent years, punctuating every emotion and movement with overbearing intensity. It’s nonetheless certainly a relief to find a science fiction film that takes its science seriously. What a vast difference over the awful Mission to Mars, which opened with a scene where the illusory “Martian Face” was revealed as an actual sculpted visage and went downhill from there, accumulating a litany of errors and “artistic licenses” (including loud sounds in the empty vacuum of space), hurtling towards an idiotic ending that pandered to the Intelligent Design crowd!

Although Gravity may indicate that film techniques and technology have advanced to the point where cinematic science fiction can finally approximate its print equivalent, I would hesitate before taking it and the recent Europa Report as harbingers of a new dawn of hard science fiction movies. In the late Nineties, I had great expectations for things to come with the likes of The Arrival, Contact, Gattaca and Dark City, only to find the genre sink back into the morass of brain-dead action films. Even as film technology advances, the science fiction cinema’s future will be limited by the stories the filmmakers themselves choose to tell. Gravity is a superior example of filmed science fiction, but it is not the space film to end all space films some claim it is.

 

THE OUTER LIMITS: A Fifty Year Tribute

THE OUTER LIMITS: A Fifty Year Tribute

galaxybeing

The 50th Anniversary of The Outer Limits, one of the finest, most influential and most innovative science fiction TV shows of all time has come and went almost unnoticed by the online science fiction community. It’s a shame, but not surprising, given that much of current fandom has little interest in-and even less respect for- any genre output made before they were born. It’s still pretty appalling to read what they did consider worthy of discussing on September 16 2013. Apparently, io9 thought it was more important to waste the time of its readers with Photoshops of the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation placed into the costumes of the Original Series and a list of the most dysfunctional families in sci-fi. Blastr, meanwhile, instead thought it was more pertinent to share news explaining why there hasn’t been a third Bill and Ted movie. Nice job trying to make us look like discerning and critical cultural consumers, guys.

100daysofthedragon

In the absence of such commemorations, it’s up to us to take up the slack, and not only gladly celebrate the show, but explain why it’s worth celebrating. Although The Twilight Zone preceded it and has justly been celebrated both as one of the finest works of television in any genre as well as the first science fiction program to demonstrate the genre’s potential as outstanding drama, it was actually only partially science fiction. Its main focus was fantasy of a highly realistic bent, not at all a contradiction since it placed its fantastic content within familiar milieus, and placed its focus, first and foremost, on its characters and how they deal with the intrusion of the strange into their everyday lives. The Outer Limits was pure science fiction from the get-go and although it also used the genre as a vehicle for social morality plays the way Serling’s show did, it was even more concerned with imaginative ideas. As the title itself implied, it took broadcast television as far as the limitations of the day allowed. Watching the forty-eight episodes of the show’s original run, it’s astonishing how much imagination and thoughtfulness went into it, and it more than holds its own as an outstanding, superbly written show.

dontopentildoomsday

Complementing the scripts were the unique visuals of the series; not only did it look much more expensive than it actually was, but thanks to the show’s directors (which included Byron Haskin, John Brahm and most prolific of all, Gerd Oswald), and celebrated cinematographer Conrad Hall (a future three-time Oscar winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, and the posthumously awarded Road to Perdition), it had a distinct surreal look, one that would be unique to TV at least until David Lynch made Twin Peaks. The Outer Limits was also an innovator in special effects for television; previously, effects for the small screen suffered due to budgetary and technical limitations but visual effects supervisors Haskin, Gene Warren and Wah Ming Chang found ways to work around them, with still-impressive results.

architectsoffear

Of course, no discussion of The Outer Limits can leave out the show’s monsters and the striking aliens, most of which were created by the great Wah Ming Chang (The Time Machine, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Star Trek). An acclaimed sculptor and painter as well as an effects technician, Chang was gifted with what Byron Haskin called a “wry, weird sense of the strange,” an apt description of the show’s tone as well. While The Outer Limits has somewhat unfairly been called a “monster show,”(several shows have no monster at all) there is no doubt that not only did the show’s monsters help establish its cult, but that it used its menagerie extremely well. Sometimes scary, frequently sympathetic, always imaginatively done, they became its trademark. All the same, The Outer Limits remained firmly rooted in human interest stories; producer Joseph Stefano made it explicitly forbidden for the show’s writers to come up with stories where no human characters were involved or where the non-human characters took precedence over the human ones. Although it was hoped that the monsters would draw in younger viewers, the show’s mature and thoughtful scripts were obviously written with an older, more intellectually and emotionally developed audience in mind.

duplicateman

Among science fiction fans who aren’t necessarily fans of the show, the two most popular episodes of The Outer Limits are undoubtedly those written by Harlan Ellison, “Soldier” and especially “Demon With a Glass Hand,” both of which appeared in the show’s second season. In addition to their excellent scripts, the two episodes are also known for having been the inspiration for The Terminator along with a third episode, “The Man Who Was Never Born.” However, I agree with hardcore devotees of the show who maintain that it was at its very best in its first season, when producer Joseph Stefano, story editor Lou Morheim, and executive producer/creator Leslie Stevens were at the helm. Not only are there at least a dozen episodes from the first season that I easily consider superior to both “Demon” and “Soldier,” they aren’t even my favorite second season episodes. I consider the best episodes of that season those written by second-season story editor Seeleg Lester: “Wolf 359,” a fascinating story of an artificially-created world reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon’s classic short story “Microcosmic God” and the sensitively written two-part episode“The Inheritors,” with Robert Duvall as an FBI agent investigating several secret scientific projects leading to a mysterious, possibly otherworldly goal. I also think a much-underrated episode from the second season is “The Duplicate Man,” adapted by Robert C. Dennis from a short story by Clifford Simak. Although disliked by some for its inferior monster costume, it nonetheless makes excellent use of the cloning premise and its novel futuristic setting and the handling of themes of self-awareness and actualization make it an interesting companion to Blade Runner. Still, if you want to experience The Outer Limits at its creative peak, it’s the first season that’s the best place to start.

borderland

Creator Leslie Stevens, a lifelong science fiction fan bursting with ideas and inventiveness, originally intended a more hard-science vision for the show, and for that reason I am inordinately fond of the three fine episodes he wrote and directed: “The Galaxy Being,” the premiere episode of the show, in which radio operator Cliff Robertson makes first contact with an alien intelligence; “The Borderlands,” a fascinating depiction of a large-scale physics experiment to probe another dimension that makes an interesting counterpoint/companion piece to Richard Matheson’s classic Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost”; and finally, the delightful “Controlled Experiment,” the show’s only outright comedy, featuring wonderful performances by Barry Morse and Carroll O’Connor as Martian scientists investigating human nature. Even the slow-moving, much-maligned “The Production and Decay of Strange Particles” (a wonderful title for physics buffs) isn’t totally without merit in my opinion. These shows are distinguished by their use of advanced but realistic scientific fact and theorizing as the basis for the show’s plots and science fiction elements; dialogue centered around intellectual discussion and technical explanation translated in such a way to avoid dryness or long-windiness; and highly intelligent protagonists involved in complex problem-solving situations (Stevens’ own hobby was advanced math). Of course, the show would soon change course from the direction originally envisaged by Stevens, but the show would still attempt episodes solidly based in scientific and technological speculation, among the best being “The Man With the Power,” starring Donald Pleasance as a beleaguered professor who receives a cybernetic implant granting him uncontrollable powers (the device is a prototype for astronauts to use for asteroid mining) and what is probably my favorite episode, the engrossing political thriller “The Hundred Days of the Dragon,” in which work in cellular malleability by biochemists in Red China is the basis for a plot to replace the American President. That episode featured an early appearance by the great character actor James Hong, and I recently had the honor of having Mr. Hong sign my DVD set. Not only was he delighted to do so-no one had ever asked him to do so before!-but he also told me, with obvious pride of having been part of the show, that he still remembers working on it very well.

zantimisfits

What eventually happened to the show’s direction was that producer Joseph Stefano assumed duties not just as the main writer for the show, but in his role of re-writing most of the scripts written by others, helped to give the show its own distinct grammar of the strange. Stevens specifically asked Stefano to produce the show knowing that with his background in horror and Gothic, he’d be able to make the show commercially appealing while at the same time maintaining high levels of artistic integrity. Stefano more than fulfilled these goals; his episodes are as close to “high art” as televised science fiction has yet to achieve. Although he was by his own admission not a science fiction fan, the same literate approach to the macabre and deep probing of the dark side of the human psyche that he brought to his screenplay for Psycho proved a perfect fit for The Outer Limits. Such classic episodes as the politically charged “Nightmare” (featuring a very young Martin Sheen) where aliens engaged in an interplanetary war with Earth torment their human prisoners by electronically manipulating their minds; the bizarre, surreal “Do Not Open Until Doomsday” in which a grotesque extra-dimensional monster trapped in a box tries to wager a bargain with its human captors that may destroy the world; and of course the exciting and terrifying “The Zanti Misfits,” possibly the show’s most famous episode, where a psychotic Bruce Dern runs afoul of insectile interplanetary criminals exiled to Earth to be destroyed by the “practiced executioners” of human society, feature disturbing psychological undercurrents and belie a pessimistic and complicated attitude towards social issues and human nature, totally contrary to what was being presented on television at the time. As Stefano himself would admit years later, he could only get away with doing so under the guise of science fiction, the same way Rod Serling did on The Twilight Zone. No where is this more evident than in “The Invisibles,” the show’s version of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (although Stefano maintained the similarities were a coincidence): A government agent (played by the great Don Gordon, a terrific, much-underrated actor) infiltrates a subversive cabal consisting of individuals who have been taken over by alien parasites, and uncovers a plot to infect all levels of government. I will not say anymore to ruin the story for anyone who has not seen it, but Stefano effectively uses infection by his alien parasites as a metaphor for thorough corruption not just in government but throughout all levels of society, and the threat such an infection poses to even the most decent individuals.

obit

Of course, Stevens and Stefano, while the most prolific, were not the only important writers for the first season. In particular, both Meyer Dolinsky and Anthony Lawrence produced such outstanding scripts, that they merit special discussion on their own. Dolinsky’s “The Architects of Fear,” the third episode aired, is credited with setting the template for future shows, not just showcasing a striking monster (considered by many to be not just the finest of the show’s bestiary, but to be the best alien costume ever created for television), but using its monstrous elements as the basis for human drama and moral fable instead of merely becoming another scare show. Readers of the Watchmen graphic novel will no doubt be familiar with the story of a scientist (Robert Culp, in the first of three starring performances on the show) who undergoes a radical procedure to transform himself into an alien creature in attempt to unite the warring countries of the world, only to fall tragic victim of unintended consequences. Even more hard-hitting is Dolinsky’s “OBIT,” about an alien plot to demoralize the population of Earth through electronic telescreens that enable the viewers to monitor anyone they wish. Although there are obvious present-day analogies to the Obama administration’s NSA spying and IRS monitoring of political organizations it finds inconvenient, the deeper message of the episode, as conveyed by the Control Voice’s closing narration, suggests that it is even more relevant to the misuse of social media by private citizens, especially when it takes the form of “Anonymous” lynch mobs who mete out vigilante justice regardless of one’s guilt or innocence and monitor the Internet for any speech that does not meet their definition of acceptable standards.

46b7c7bf48e7b47313241824027ec6ff

Anthony Lawrence’s two episodes, in contrast, are among the most lyrically and sensitively written of the entire series. “The Man Who Was Never Born,” starring Martin Landau as a hideously deformed time traveler (but whose mutations have also endowed him with hypnotic abilities that enable him to pass as normal in the present day) who goes back in time to prevent the birth of the man who caused the apocalypse of his future world (sound familiar?) is one of the most beloved Outer Limits episodes, as it takes a surprising romantic turn when Landau falls in love with the mother of his intended victim (Shirley Knight), although it might not be that much of a surprise nowadays thanks to a certain film franchise. It is the among the most beautifully filmed and acted episodes of The Outer Limits, with Landau in particular doing a superb job at delivering Lawrence’s poetic dialogue and portraying a man driven by a desire to right the wrongs of an entire civilization, only to sacrifice not just his only chance at love but his very existence as well. The very underrated “The Children of Spider County” is a similarly moving tale of a misunderstood young man named Ethan, (Lee Kinsolving), abandoned by his father and long feared by his small-town community for his high intelligence and strange powers, who is unjustly accused of murder. When his real father, a crustacean-faced humanoid, turns up to “rescue” him, it’s clear that Ethan has otherworldly origins. As a plea for tolerance and understanding, it manages to avoid the sermonizing and false notes such stories usually wind up hitting, and it also surprises by being a moving tribute to society’s dreamers as well.

sixthfinger

The Outer Limits took full advantage of its hour-long time slot to deal at length with ideas and their impact on individuals and societies, which is something that science fiction does better than any genre. While many of today’s critically acclaimed shows require several story arcs to thoroughly develop their themes and concepts, The Outer Limits and other superior anthology series demonstrated that you can do the same in just under sixty minutes. An outstanding example of this is one of the show’s best and best-remembered shows, “The Sixth Finger,” starring David McCallum as an embittered but ambitious Welsh miner who volunteers for an experiment in evolutionary acceleration that transforms him into a bulbous-headed, super-intelligent “Man of the Future”. While it seems to be on the surface to be just an uncredited adaptation of Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved,” updated to incorporate then-modern knowledge of genetics, screen writer Ellis St. Joseph turned it into a Wellsian mediation on the role of evolution in society and civilization, as well as on personal evolution, and our ability to adapt and grow beyond our set limitations as well our impulsive angers and need for retribution. The core ideas of the teleplay are especially well conveyed by the literally cerebral performance by McCallum, who subtly develops a remarkable character arc as he physically transforms.

chameleon

These are just some of the show’s many outstanding episodes; there are many others that deserve mention as well, but it’s impossible to provide space for all of them. Just to name a few: Robert Duvall, that most versatile of actors, is appropriately cast in the title role of “The Chameleon,” a CIA assassin transformed into an alien in order to infiltrate a crashed spacecraft, in an episode written by Robert Towne (yes, the same) that winds up being a surprising tale of personal transformation that twists around familiar cinematic alien-invasion themes and cliches. Another great actor, Warren Oates, gets his turn to play the monster in the suspenseful “The Mutant,” as a space colonist mutated into a bug-eyed telepath with a lethal touch who terrorizes the other members of his colony, giving what is probably the single most terrifying performance in the entire series. Don Gordon makes his second appearance on the show in the witty and entertaining “Second Chance,” as a member of a group of humans abducted by alien Simon Oakland (in a get-up that makes him look like a cross between Frank Zappa and Farscape‘s D’Argo) on an amusement park ride converted into a spaceship, in another surprisingly thoughtful episode that turns out to be a dramatization of Kant’s Categorical Imperative!

secondchance

Thirty years after its cancellation, The Outer Limits was revived on cable, this time in color and with the benefit of much larger budgets and more elaborate special effects. It wound up lasting much longer than its progenitor but despite producing a number of fine shows itself, there was something missing from it. It was missing more than just the Sense of Wonder that is key to all science fiction and was such an essential part of the original series; it overall lacked the human interest and thematic complexity that had made Stevens and Stefano’s series so compelling. Although handsomely produced and featuring its share of interesting ideas, it wound up being hollow at its core and largely incapable of developing its ideas in a thoughtful or original manner, basically par for the course as far as televised science fiction goes.

mutant

It’s become customary of late during this so-called “New Golden Age of Television” to look down on the shows of yesteryear, regarding them as little more than a prelude to contemporary titans. Such a wrongheaded attitude does a massive disservice to the hard work and efforts of the writers, directors, actors and all the others who labored to provide the best shows they could under the conditions and resources handed to them, and demonstrates an abject ignorance of what constitutes good drama, to say nothing of an unearned and unjustified snobbery. The Outer Limits more than holds its own against any contemporary television show and is arguably still better than any other science fiction show of recent years. For anyone who treasures brilliant writing, and demands that filmed and televised science fiction try to achieve the intellectual ambitions of the print equivalent, it is must-see viewing.