Author: A.A. Kidd

Movie Review: Marjorie Prime

A most welcome trend of late has been the rise of the “art-house” science fiction film, and although such movies have been with us for a long time (nearly every French New Wave director made at least one science fiction film), the success of Shane Carruth’s Primer in 2004 has really spurred their production ever since. Typically, such movies are independently-made, often from outside the United States, and are aimed specifically at a usually older film-going demographic that prefers movies that take their time to reveal themselves and do so mostly through dialogue instead of action. Marjorie Prime is one of the best recent movies of this type, ably demonstrating the ability of genre cinema to craft stories as sophisticated and character-driven as its written equivalent.

In the near future, Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, makes use of an innovative technology to keep the memory of her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm) alive, a hologram AI that replicates his physical likeness perfectly. But the “Prime” program requires that the user generate the hologram’s identity through mutual discussion, and with Marjorie’s memories and conversational skills disintegrating, Walter Prime’s remains incomplete. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) resents the intrusion of the holographic stranger into the family dynamic; as she laments, her mother treats the artificial intelligence better and with more compassion and respect than she did her own daughter, although she doesn’t seem to notice that she herself is replicating her mother’s possessive and insensitive behavior. Tess’s husband Jon (Tim Robbins) is more sympathetic towards her mother’s plight, and tries to assist in filling in for Walter the gaps that Marjorie can’t close. When Marjorie finally dies, Tess continues the cycle when she purchases a hologram of her mother (the “Marjorie Prime” of the title) to come to terms with both her grief and anger, a cycle that, it is clear, will continue down the family line.

Although based on a play, the movie shares some thematic affinities with Michael Almereyda’s earlier science fiction screenplays for Steve DeJarnatt’s cult item Cherry 2000 and Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World. Like DeJarnatt’s film, it is about artificial simulacra being used by people unable to have the intimate relationships they yearn for, and it shares with the Wenders movie the premise of the invention of a sophisticated electronic recording format to preserve memories, in both instances it being our impressions of individuals and events and not their actual representation. In all three movies, a new technology designed specifically to cure loneliness and repair heartbreak instead has the unintended consequence of compelling its users to further isolate themselves emotionally from others. This also brings to mind some of Theodore Sturgeon’s most personal and heartfelt stories, such as “Slow Sculpture” and especially “When You Care, When You Love,” also about a woman trying to restore life to her deceased lover through replication technology (cloning, in this case). If the film’s themes are most reminiscent of Sturgeon, then the execution brings to mind Alfred Bester’s method of storytelling; many in the audience said afterwards they found the film’s strange dialogue patterns more puzzling or disconcerting than effective, although of course their effectiveness lies in precisely in the way they discomfit the viewer. The jagged dialogue exchanges between human characters and holograms is actually more reflective of how people actually talk in conversation than most movie dialogue, which is driven instead by our expectations of what constitutes an ideal conservation. The vocalized pauses and awkward exchanges suggest that our conversations with artificial intelligence will ultimately be not that much different than those with people nowadays…even those we love.

A movie such as this is driven not just by the dialogue itself but by its delivery, and fortunately the cast is for the most part more than up to the challenge. I was fortunate enough to catch a special screening where Lois Smith herself was in attendance, and she invests the role with the same thoughtfulness and sensitivity that has characterized her other work throughout her brilliant career. Just as Marjorie must take steps in recreate her husband fully, Smith reveals the character to us gradually and in bits and pieces, reflecting not just the slow loss of her own cognitive abilities but her active struggle to hold on to her own identity as well as her memories of others. Even though Smith has surprisingly little screen time, she nonetheless appropriately succeeds in leaving an indelible imprint and her character’s presence is felt even when absent; it’s no wonder there has been Oscar talk for her performance. Smith is ably supported by the excellent performances of both Geena Davis and especially Tim Robbins. In my review of Arrival, I mentioned my Whitaker-Robbins rule, which maintains that any science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can’t be any good. Twice now within this year, that law has been broken. Although Robbins gave the worst performances of his career in Howard the Duck and Mission to Mars, he gives one of his finest in this particular science fiction film, probably his best work since his Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River. The sole weak performance is by Jon Hamm, who uses the same boring monotone delivery he used in The Congress. Although his mechanical performance may seem appropriate for the hologram Walter, he also throws in exaggerated facial expressions that are more annoying than effective, and it also doesn’t help that Hamm humanizes his delivery only slightly in flashbacks to the “real” Walter.

The movie has other flaws. Despite the relatively short running time, it moves quite slowly and feels longer than it actually is. Both the three-act structure and limited sets and locations make its stage origins obvious, and Almereyda’s direction doesn’t always help us to forget this. And as mentioned earlier, some people I have spoken to have said that the unusual dialogue patterns were too confusing and disconcerting, but I regard this not as a flaw but as a device to establish the film’s science fiction premise and credentials. There is very little visually to define this as a typical science fiction film, no futuristic sets  or obvious special effects, but as when reading a story in the genre, we pick up that it belongs to it by paying attention to what the characters say. Marjorie Prime is the type of movie more likely to appeal to science fiction readers than those fans who are primarily spectators.

We Can Still Learn From Vern

Vernon Ehlers – candidate photo

Former Michigan Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers, the first PhD physicist in the House of Representatives and the only one so far from the Republican party, died on August 15 at the age of eighty-three. His tenure in Congress (from 1993 to 2010) capped off a most impressive career as a scientist (specializing in studies of the nuclei of alkaline and post-transition metals), educator and science adviser to Gerald Ford while the future President held the same Congressional seat that Ehlers would later occupy. While in office, Ehlers continually brought his scientific expertise to bear on a variety of issues and functions: he wrote-up the most significant study and proclamation on the American scientific research program since Vannevar Bush, helped to wire Congress to the Internet, and was a reliable go-to information source for Republicans and Democrats alike on issues ranging from global warming to nuclear weapons control. He never forgot his constituency in Grand Rapids either, and was responsible for legislation that helped clean up the Great Lakes and control the influx of Asian carp and other invasive species into the ecosystem. Even when the partisan divide in Congress threatened to become a chasm, the soft-spoken Ehlers remained a role model for his colleagues, the epitome of civil dialogue and ethical speech. Someone who is at once both a gentleman and a gentle man is a rare creature indeed, and we need more politicians with both the professional attitude and professional expertise Ehlers embodied.

Initial reports of Ehlers’s passing did not list a cause of death, but later articles indicated he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That’s an especially tragic way to go for someone known for his great intellect, but even before then, I suspected he had died from a broken heart as a result of seeing what had happened to the Republican party. Not because the party had moved too far to the right. Nearly all the obituaries called him a moderate and true, he didn’t always vote along party lines, but that’s to be expected when one follows the scientific method in politics as well as at work. He was a deeply Midwestern brand of conservative that tends towards moderate views anyways and some of his more notable breaks with his party (such as his votes for the DREAM act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) probably derived more from his committed Christian faith that encouraged tolerance and compassion. Nor was it the election of Donald Trump and the new incivility that he represents; after all, he was one of Newt Gingrich’s greatest allies while the then-Speaker of the House was being (unfairly) vilified as an incendiary bomb thrower by the media. I suspect instead that he was heartbroken from how the Republican party has seemingly lost its way on science.

It is not surprising that Ehlers worked so closely with Gingrich when one considers that Newt was one of science’s greatest champions in the House, and also frequently went against the supposed party line on environmental issues. Unfortunately since the retirement of both Ehlers and Gingrich from the House, the Republican party has not found someone to replace them, either a professional PhD scientist or someone demonstrably scientifically literate who will work to inform and educate both members of the party and those on the other side of the political aisle. It is a tragedy then that the Republican party has not only ceded science to the Left, but have permitted it to weaponize the rhetoric of science against them, as embodied in the so-called “March for Science”. Alas, the marchers had a valid point: too many Republicans (including the current Commander-in-Chief) have taken what can fairly be called anti-science positions, either in refusing to concede verified scientific facts and take expert advice seriously (the most obvious examples being the embrace of creationism and the knee-jerk rejection of the consensus view on global warming) or in efforts to slash basic scientific research from the budget despite the obvious benefits and payoffs (A recent article on The Federalist has tried to argue otherwise, but I did not find it persuasive. You are only able to read this on the Internet thanks to public investment in high-energy physics). It is a sad commentary on where we are now that someone can be sneeringly designated a “RINO” simply for acknowledging that both evolution and global warming are true and asserting that public policy needs to be based on scientific fact. Worse yet, our leading science popularizers seem intent on exacerbating this problem; instead of working to persuade and inform, they rely on personal attack and ridicule to further dissuade those they need to reach out to the most. How can they claim that “Science is for Everyone” when they aim to exclude at least a third of the public?

Is there a Republican scientist (more specifically, a Republican physicist) out there who will continue Ehlers’s legacy of both defending science as a public speaker and by serving in office with equal effectiveness? The most obvious heir to Ehler’s throne would be Illinois State Representative Mike Fortner. He is not only a first-rate physicist (as a member of the DZero team at Fermilab, he helped to discover the top quark and continued to be an important collaborator on major experiments even while in office) but has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most civil and congenial politicians in the state. Like Ehlers, he is known to have an overall conservative voting record but to also cross party lines occasionally (most significantly being one of a handful of Republicans to vote to override governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of an income tax increase), and is also a hawk on environmental issues, so much so that he has become the rare Republican to be endorsed by the Sierra Club. Furthermore, he has gained a degree of national attention for his work on fair redistricting, using his scientific knowledge and training to help solve complex political problems. Unfortunately, he has just announced his retirement from his State seat at the end of this term, and has not given any indication of plans to run for national office. Further out west, Arizona’s Ruth McClung very nearly became the first woman physicist in Congress (and a genuine rocket scientist, at that!) when she ran in 2010, but has similarly not yet made the decision to run again. That’s a genuine shame as McClung, a Tea Party activist who was just twenty-eight years old when she ran for office, would have not just brought considerable expertise to discussions of such issues as national defense and space research but served as an obvious role model on many different levels.

But it is in California that we see the remarkable phenomenon of not one but two scientists taking a prominent role in the Republican Party and in keeping the conservative movement alive in what has very nearly become a one-party state. Charles Munger Jr. is of course the son of the famous philanthropist but has also had a distinguished career as a physicist at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory where he was part of the team that figured out how to produce the first lab-made antimatter atoms. He has also been one of the most visible figures in the state Republican party, funding campaigns for viable candidates and ballot propositions to stem the rapid tide of “progressive” legislation in the state. One of his closest allies is Sam Blakeslee, a former geophysicist and state senator who is now director of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic State University. However they have also remained dedicated to state and local-level politics instead of trying to engage with conservatives all across the country. Clearly, a national figure within the Republican party who will help to both defend science from ill-thought out attacks from misguided compatriots as well as to explain basic scientific facts to them has yet to emerge, yet is especially-desperately-needed at this time.

A week after Ehlers’s death, The Detroit News published a moving editorial on how voters and politicians of both parties can learn from Ehlers’s example if they really want to to “return civility and reasoned governing” to the political process. Republican politicians and conservative voters can especially learn from his example by making the effort to be as scientifically literate and informed as possible. In particular, conservative scientists need to speak up, and make their voices heard in political debate, not just to increase the diversity of voices but to specifically provide a voice that can reduce misconceptions and misrepresentations from all sides. Additionally, those who have taken up the task of communicating science can also learn from Ehlers on how to address and engage politically and socially conservative audiences, and to learn to listen to their concerns as much as they hope they will listen to their advice. If they are genuinely concerned about science in this country and actually want to see policies based on facts and evidence instead of mere rhetoric, then they will have to make a sincere effort to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle. All the same, it is up to the Republican party itself as well as unaffiliated conservatives and libertarians to learn to listen more carefully to scientists and be more receptive to the concerns of the scientific community. As Jon Huntsman has long maintained, the last thing they should do is let themselves be seen as the anti-science party.

When Genres Collide (Part One)

When Genres Collide (Part One)

gog-westerns

I was apparently one of the very few science fiction fans who wasn’t blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly being less impressed than those who voted it Best Dramatic Presentation for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2015.  I wasn’t bored when I saw it in a theater, but it went in one eye and out the other, and at the time, I figured it was because it all too obviously followed the same story structure as The Avengers:  a gang of ragtag but super-powerful and/or talented misfits are gathered together to keep a super-powerful MacGuffin from falling into the hands of a super-powerful would-be conqueror, but must learn to get along with each other and overcome their differences after a crushing defeat so they can achieve a final victory.  When I saw it again on television, I unfortunately was bored, and not just because of the feeling that Marvel was merely putting its characters through a series of repetitive mechanical motions had been further reinforced by the mediocre Age of Ultron. It became clear on this second viewing that Guardians of the Galaxy was a fake science fiction film. Although some hardcore science fiction fans don’t consider the comic book movie as properly belonging to the genre in the first place, what I mean by this is that it is a movie that didn’t need to be told as science fiction, since so much of it is obviously lifted from other genres. Like too many other supposed science fiction movies and TV shows of the past forty or thirty years, GotG shamelessly borrows characters and plot elements from Westerns and war movies alike, and also pilfers the crime genre as well, specifically the heist and prison film subgenres.  You can take the same basic plot, characters and devices (minus their alien attributes, of course), and transplant them to 1930s New York City, or 1870s Texas with little difficulty or change.

alien-nation-642x362hidden

The notion of the “fake science fiction film” is one  I first encountered in the critiques of Eighties science fiction film made by Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, among others, attacking Hollywood’s tendency to take hoary old cliches and devices from outside genres, and thinking that simply placing them in outer space or the future they could sell them as science fiction to an ignorant public.  Specifically, they both attacked Star Wars as a prime example of a fake science fiction film (today’s fanboys would no doubt be aghast at them and verbally tar and feather them the same way they do Neil DeGrasse Tyson). However, as far as I know, it was given its proper name by the late SF film historian John Brosnan in his excellent book The Primal Screen, and who provided a very simple way to determine whether something was “fake” or “real” science fiction: can the story still support itself after you remove of the science fiction aspects? If yes, it’s fake; if the answer is no, that removal of the science fiction elements also removes crucial parts of the storyline, then it is genuine science fiction. As an example, Brosnan compared Alien Nation (1988) and The Hidden (1987), which are outwardly similar as “cop buddy” films where one of the police officers happens to be an alien, but actually very different in that one is fake science fiction whereas the other is real science fiction. Alien Nation didn’t need to have one of its officers be an alien since the movie proves to be no different than Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Red Heat or any of the other “buddy” films that glutted the box office in the Eighties. Mandy Pantikin’s cauliflower-headed alien could just as well come from any real-life country, and the storyline would not need to be altered a bit. The Hidden, on the other hand, is completely dependent on its central science fiction premise for it to work as not just a movie but as a thriller, being very similar to Hal Clement’s Needle in its basic plot about an alien criminal able to insinuate itself into and take control of host bodies. Another example of a fake science fiction film cited by Brosnan is Predator (1987), which is normally thought of as being a blatant attempt to combine Aliens (1986) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) with some of The Terminator (1984) thrown in for good measure. However, it’s really just another iteration of Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game, which was itself made into a superb motion picture in 1932 and copied many times since. When you get down to it, the alien predator is really no different from Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter or any other variation of Count Zaroff that has come down the pike in nearly a century of homages and rip-offs.

Obviously, a good genre hybrid needs to satisfy the requirements and criteria of a good story in both of the genres it derives from in order to be considered successful, but it also needs to go beyond this, and find a way to get these separate and often disparate generic criteria to work together and play off one another without compromising either. Too many attempts at genre hybridization unfortunately merely try to mash together cliches or re-stage familiar storylines but when done properly, it can result in not just a satisfying story, but one that illuminates the relationships between its parent genres. Let’s now look at some examples to see how it can be done right; we’ll begin with hybrids of the Western genre this week, since as unlikely as it sounds, they’ve been among the most common, or at the very least, the most visible.

The Western

 

The_steam_man_of_the_prairies_(1868)_big

 

This is probably the most familiar of all genres to be fused with science fiction, namely because it has long been the most contentious. From almost the very beginning, serious science fiction fans and writers have exasperatedly tried to explain to novice writers  that you simply can’t take the conventions of the Western, transplant them to outer space or the far future, and call the results science fiction. In fact, the very term “space opera” was originally a term of derision, comparing the more juvenile pulps to “horse operas,” itself  a derisive description for the formulaic “B” Westerns that were a major part of the film industry from the Twenties through the Forties and was later applied to “dime store” Western novels as well. When Galaxy magazine was launched in 1950 with the intent of providing a consistent source of high-quality socially relevant SF, it made it clear in a back-page editorial that it would not allow hack writers to lazily attempt to quasi-plagiarize stories by Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour and then pretend they could be published alongside Jack Williamson and Clifford Simak. As a result, “Bat Durston” has become a pejorative term among SF fans to describe stories and books (especially poorly-written ones) and sometimes even authors that demonstrate a complete lack of awareness of this very basic fact.

 

GalaxyOct50rearcover

 

Although the Bat Durston story is now extremely rare in written SF, and the term itself has become much less commonly used, it has ironically done more to increase the public’s awareness of the genre’s existence than anything else. Both Star Trek and Star Wars qualify as Bat Durstons, as they were pitched specifically as “Space Westerns,” with Star Trek even going by the working title of “Wagon Train to the Stars.” One reason it’s no longer considered an insult for a story to be called a “Space Western” is that so many beloved media franchises (as opposed to literary ones) have embraced the term wholeheartedly. Of course, I am speaking specifically here of not just Star Wars and Star Trek, but Firefly, possibly the most blatant attempt to disguise a Western as science fiction since the 1981 movie Outland or possibly even 1969’s Moon Zero Two. Whereas forty or thirty years earlier it would have been rejected by many in mainstream fandom as a typical Hollywood misunderstanding of what science fiction really is, it is now used as a litmus test in some quarters to determine one’s credentials as a “hardcore geek,” an attitude I decidedly do not embrace myself. Long before Joss Whedon started making a fool of himself on Twitter, he didn’t impress me with the way he paraded his ignorance of the science fiction genre when hyping Firefly in interviews at the time of its premiere. That the show managed to succeed at all as science fiction is due likely to showrunner Tim Minear, the Gene L. Coon to Whedon’s Roddenberry. Minear has demonstrated a considerable knowledge of science fiction in both its written and filmed formats, and was most likely responsible for such concessions to scientific realism as the lack of sound in space scenes, or having all planets visited being products of terraforming to explain why no life support gear was necessary. He was also likely responsible for the show’s libertarian slant; although Whedon has since gone guano de murcielago crazy with far-left politics, Minear is an admitted moderate conservative with libertarian leanings. For this reason, I’m especially disappointed that his planned adaptation of Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress has never gotten off the ground.

APlanetForTexans

 

An even more overt libertarian message is laid out in the 1957 novel A Planet for Texans by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, which would belatedly win a Prometheus Award forty-two years later, but more importantly to the subject of this essay, it’s one of the best examples of how to merge to conventions of the Western genre into a science fiction storyline while remaining good science fiction. In fact, it’s not a Western at all: despite taking place on the planet “New Texas” where gigantic cattle-like beasts roam, characters dress in stereotypical cowboy garb, and the type of frontier lawlessness depicted in the likes of Shane and My Darling Clementine runs rampant (this is a world where citizens have the right to assassinate politicians if they feel their freedoms are being infringed), it’s pure science fiction, albeit nowhere near being hard science fiction. If anything, it can be read as a satiric inversion of the Bat Durston story, where six-shooters and Stetsons replace ray guns and bubble helmets instead of the other way around. It is also a serious attempt at trying to depict what a pure libertarian society would look like, making it approachable to the reader by drawing a direct analogy to the most lawless era in American history, before antitrust laws put an end to “robber-baron” industrial monopolies, and despite being sympathetic to such a society also questions the practicality and morality of such a system, ultimately concluding that a civilizing influence is necessary to achieve justice and order in a truly free society.

brynner-westworld

Both Michael Crichton’s film Westworld and the current series based on it are also similarly not actual Westerns but straight-up science fiction using one genre to comment on another. The movie specifically adopted certain Western cliches and conventions (not tropes, dammit!) to comment on the distorted and sanitized view of American history that winds up getting commodified and sold as entertainment (also a theme that recurs in Crichton’s similarly-plotted novel Jurassic Park, only instead it comments on how entertainment franchises sell romantic vision of nature and wildlife in the name of profit), using science fiction conceits as rhetorical vehicle to get this message across. The artificial landscapes in both the movie and TV show don’t just replicate a distorted view of history, but serve as mirrors for our own selves and ask us to reflect about the role we play in this distortion. In the movie, we identify very closely with the characters played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, who like us movie audience members, willingly partake in a fantasy of the American past sold not just as entertainment but as the “real” West (the presence of similar theme park sections devoted to Ancient Rome and Medieval England also strongly suggest that Crichton is commenting on the misguided romanticizing and commodification of world history as a whole). The new series has seemingly reversed this scenario by making the robots the main characters and the human guests the antagonists, but it shares the same concerns and makes an even deeper critique on not just our compliance but complicity with the misrepresentation of history in the name of entertainment. This time, the robots serve as stand-ins for those who lived in the actual past and are helpless to have their true stories told properly. Whereas Westworld the movie comes out of the revisionist Western movement in the American cinema at the time that attacked romantic notions of the Old West, Westworld the TV series comes out of the television tradition of Deadwood, which aimed to provide as gritty and raw depiction of the past as possible (a goal which hasn’t been limited to Westerns, as Boardwalk Empire is also very much part of this agenda of new realism and deglamorization in televised historical drama as well).

phantomempire

So far, all the examples we have discussed aren’t really hybrids; they’re just science fiction stories with Western trappings. The reasons why they don’t qualify as true Westerns is quite simple: whereas science fiction is among the most wide-ranging of genres across  time and space, the Western is the among the most limited.  Like a number of other types of historical fiction from around the world-the Chinese wuxia story,  the German Heimat story, the Italian peplum, the Japanese jideigeki – it is a genre limited to a certain country or region during a specific period of time. Its closest relative is the very similar gaucho literature of South America, and like it and the other nationally-specific literatures mentioned would probably be considered a subgenre of historical fiction had it not become such a prolific and popular genre, not just in North America but all around the world.  It’s not surprising then that it is difficult to write a story that’s a genuine hybrid of both science fiction and Western that satisfies the demands of both genres, making use of the idioms, themes and premises that can be shared in a mutually satisfactory manner. But as Lisa Joy, one of the showrunners of the recent Westworld series has noted, the Western and science fiction share one major thing in common, a mutual preoccupation with the notion of frontiers. Writer Andrew Liptak has noted that many of the great early practitioners of Space Opera-Smith, Burroughs and especially Jack Williamson-grew up in or worked for a time in the American West when it was still an open frontier and that the pioneer mentality thoroughly permeates their stories. One of the papers I wrote in film class in fact centered on this similarity, specifically through an analysis of the first Toy Story film (stay with me, here), arguing that Buzz and Woody were stand-ins for respectively, the science fiction and Western genres. Not only do the two genres (competing for the attention of a young audience) share a frontier mythology, but both genres have been criticized for it, one for extolling a mythic, overly-romanticized view of the past, the other for a simplistic and one-dimensional vision of the future. Crichton’s Westworld is in fact a critique of not only the Western’s approach to the frontier theme, presenting it as downright dangerous when conflated with the complexities of the real world, but with its pessimistic attitude towards human and technological failure, critiques science fiction’s approach to the same frontier theme as well, and the TV series continues with this double-sided, Janus-faced critique of our tendency to overly romanticize the past and future alike.

Ross_Martin_Robert_Conrad_Wild_Wild_West_1965

So is a successful hybrid of the Western and science fiction genres really possible? Why yes, of course!  In fact, one of the best-ever TV shows made in either genre was such a hybrid. No, not Star Trek or Firefly, but The Wild Wild West, which was not only a clever variation on the TV horse operas of the period, but worked brilliantly as science fiction as well. Featuring both fantastic science fiction gadgetry (time machines, robots, and the other infernal machinery employed by the show’s rogue gallery) as well as plausible devices that were nonetheless decidedly out-of-place (any of the spy gadgetry used by Robert Conrad and Ross Martin) in a period Western setting, the show slyly commented on how the hi-tech spy thrillers that were all the rage at the time were just descendants of the Western adventures of years past. It thus commented on our fascination with technology the way only science fiction can, exaggerating it to reflect on contemporary trends and obsessions, as well as more subversively commenting on how all television Westerns are in fact also imaginative fictions that are just as fanciful as it was. In fact, along with Blade Runner and Tron, it’s one of the few instances where a media offshoot has directly influenced SF literature, as it had a marked impact on the later Steampunk subgenre and fandom. Such Steampunk novels as Joe R. Lansdale’s Zeppelins West and Michael Resnick’s The Buntline Special are direct descendants of the show, with the type of technology and storylines imagined by Jules Verne placed in the American West imagined by Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour. Of course, the show had its own antecedents, going all the way back to 1868 with proto-science fiction dime novels such as The Steam Man of the Prairies, and the very infrequent instances where a B Western included science fiction elements, such as Tim McCoy’s The Ghost Patrol in which the bad guys use a death ray to down mail planes and most famously Gene Autry’s serial The Phantom Empire in which a futuristic city lies beneath the Earth’s surface, just under the hero’s ranch.

NGHTFTHCTB1990

What these early films had in common is that they were usually marketed not as SF at all but as typical “oaters,” no different from the usual, more mundane stories and movies (scroll up yonder for The Phantom Empire lobby card). As fantastic as the SF gadgetry was, it was usually subordinate to the Western elements, and easier to swallow than the aliens and space journeys of the SF pulps and serials.  One can be a fan of both genres, but one’s expectations are different from when one picks up a Western and one picks up an SF book. An alternate history story featuring advanced technology for the period such as Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South can be sold in either genre, as while it depicts a past that never was, it is nonetheless one that is plausible and conceivably could have been possible. When aliens or other examples of sheer speculation are introduced, that’s when the story is necessarily sold as science fiction, as we have completely exited the realm of the conceivably possible. Writing a good story about an alien encounter in the Old West comes with its own set of difficulties due to the need to balance the fantastic premise with the gritty and solidly realistic setting and treatment expected of a Western. The results are usually awkward when the approach is heavy-handed, as the 2011 movie Cowboys and Aliens demonstrated, but when treated lightly, as with Howard Waldrop’s delightful novelette Night of the Cooters or the bizarre but lovable Mexican musical comedy film Ship of Monsters, they can also be highly entertaining. At least one great Golden Age author, Theodore Sturgeon, turned to the American West (old and modern) so often, that an anthology of his SF stories in this setting, Sturgeon’s West, was published in 1973. Considering that not just the premise of aliens but the theme of alienation itself were ever-present in Sturgeon’s work, it seems only natural that he would choose it as a setting; with its sparse populace and foreboding landscape, it was an appropriate locale for the stories of loss, loneliness and escape that he was famous for.

thunderhorse

Finally, I cannot end this discussion without mentioning my favorite product of this particular hybridization, the “Cowboy and Dinosaurs” story. It’s rather a natural outgrowth, considering that the American and Canadian West have provided some of the richest Mesozoic fossil troves in the world. The history of paleontology is in fact intertwined with the history of both country’s regions, as the fossil hunts of the mid-late 19th Century helped to drive their economic growth and cultural development and contributed to the mythology of the region, as demonstrated by the enduring interest in the infamous Cope-Marsh rivalry. It’s quite appropriate then that when W.J.T. Mitchell wrote The Last Dinosaur Book, a study of the iconicity of dinosaurs in American culture, the cover illustration depicted an Alamosaurus fighting off a pack of dino-rustlers that originally had been made for Sharon Farber’s “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi” when it was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.  Of course, other science fiction writers have been unable to resist the idea, including two of the authors we’ve already mentioned, Harry Turtledove with “The Green Buffalo” and Howard Waldrop with “Green Brother,” as well as Brett Davis’s novels Bone Wars and its sequel Two Tiny Claws. But the premise has perhaps been made most familiar through such movies as The Valley of Gwangi and The Beast of Hollow Mountain, both based on stories originally written by Willis O’Brien.

And what of other genres, you ask? Well, in our next installment we’ll look at how science fiction has been combined with genre closest to it…and it’s probably not the genre you were expecting.

 

Movie Review: Arrival

Movie Review: Arrival

arrival_1

 

WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD

There’s a point early on in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival  where a team of scientists and soldiers, entering the alien vessel for the first time, hike through a tunnel until they reach  the seeming end of it. One character tosses a Glo-Stick up in the air….and it continues to fall upwards. It is at this point that we realize we have entered, to quote Walter Pidgeon’s Professor Morbius in Forbidden Planet (like Amy Adam’s character, a professor of languages ), a completely new set of scientific values. Villeneuve’s film may seem on the surface to be just another alien-first-contact movie but it’s actually something much more interesting and unique. It’s a true rarity, a film adaptation of a quite recent, highly-acclaimed science fiction short story that manages to do its source material justice. While not the masterpiece some are hailing it as being, it’s still a triumph on the part of its director and cast that stands with Interstellar as one of the best and most thought-provoking big-budget science fiction films of the past decade.

The film is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning short story “The Story of Your Life” (1998), and while it belongs to the tradition of such classics as Murray Leinster’s “First Contact” and especially H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual” which also deal with characters trying to learn alien languages and systems of communication, it’s also kin to Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao and Ian Watson’s The Embedding and The Martian Inca. Like those novels, Chiang’s story is about how language  determines our thinking and perceptions, both individually and socially, and draws upon the Whorf-Sapir model of linguistics (long since discredited but still obviously irresistible to authors) for inspiration.  It also belongs to a special subset of science fiction stories that have been  called “lateral thinking” tales. In this particular variation of the science fiction “puzzle” story, the solution is found not primarily through the use of the scientific method or application of scientific knowledge as it is in the typical hard science story, but by thinking outside the box, finding means outside conventional logic or reasoning that are not immediately obvious to the characters or the reader. This type of story was popularized by A.E. Van Vogt (The World of Null-A and “A Can of Paint”)  and Henry Kuttner (“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and The Fairy Chessmen) during the heyday of Astounding Science Fiction, and remains popular to this day in written SF, although less so with its cinematic equivalent (a notable exception being  Vincenzo Natali’s Cube). Chiang’s story is very much along the lines of more recent variations on the lateral thinking tale such as Greg Bear’s “Tangents” and Charles Sheffield’s “Georgia On My Mind” (which also intersperses the protagonist’s memories of a deceased loved one within the main storyline), where the lateral thinking process is not merely a plot device, but has a profound influence on the development of the characters themselves, and with the author’s own writing style.

Both the short story and the film adaptation center around the experiences of the lead character, Dr. Louise Banks, in trying to decipher the language of the Heptapods, the first intelligent extraterrestrial species to make contact with Earth. In Chiang’s original story, this investigative process is interspersed with the main character’s seeming reminiscences of her daughter’s birth, life, and tragic early death, disconcertingly made in the future tense as if in anticipation of the inevitable, and as if she was addressing her daughter herself. We learn in the end that in discovering how the Heptapod’s system of thought and communication is structurally based on Fermat’s Principle of Least Action in Optics (that a beam of light or any other form of electromagnetic wave will traverse two points through the shortest distance possible), Dr. Banks has not only been able to learn their language but has had her own cognitive sense of time affected as well: the “memories” of her daughter are really flash-forwards (as in the Robert Sawyer novel and subsequent TV adaptation of the same name) she has been experiencing during her studies. Chiang provides a solution to the sort of quandary put forth by Terry Carr in his classic short story “The Dance of the Changer and the Three,” which suggests that the alien psyche will forever be inaccessible to human minds: Chiang proposes that modifications in our own cognitive architecture will enable communication and mutual understanding between us and the alien.  Moreover, such cognitive modifications will also assist us in coming to terms with our own relationships and limitations, a similar outcome to another Robert Sawyer novel, Factoring Humanity.

As may be expected, there are some significant changes made in expanding Chiang’s story to meet the needs of a nearly two-hour long feature film. One of the most important is that the heptapods do not have the two distinct spoken and written languages as in the original story, but instead are given a single language based on inky circular patterns they emit from their tentacles. Restricting the aliens to the use of visual representation both allows for a more cinematic treatment of the story’s ideas and helps to simplify the depiction of the translation process. It also, strangely enough, makes them less alien, and more like earth’s own highly intelligent cephalopods- octopi, squid and cuttlefish- who also communicate through visual cues, in their case color and pattern changes on the surface of their body (see Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Shining Ones” which anticipated many findings about this fascinating behavior).  Yet they remain tantalizingly alien thanks to Villeneuve’s direction, which keeps us at arm’s length from the creatures and instead makes us part of the puzzle the human characters have before them. Villeneuve’s technique of cutting away between wide shots of the aliens and tight close-ups of Adams and Renner places no doubt where he thinks the film’s emphasis should be, and quite correctly, as even in science fiction, the characters need to take precedence. Some have criticized Villeneuve’s for being too low-key in his approach and deliberate in his pacing, as well as for the film’s visual scheme. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young have deliberately shot the film in a washed-out tone heavy on shades of gray and deep blue, and even the aliens themselves (who closely resemble the descriptions in Chiang’s story, albeit larger and without the ring of eyes) are mostly featureless entities, being  elephant-hide covered crosses between the aliens featured in Dagora, the Space Monster and Gamera Vs. Viras who are usually obscured by the  thick fog of their own atmosphere.  I disagree with those who have considered this particular directorial choice to be a flaw;  by intentionally drawing back stylistically, Villeneuve is able to better convey the clinical detachment of the main character and successfully build the film towards her final revelations. Whereas most movies about first contact are about the immense and immediate shock and awe of learning we are not alone, Arrival is about the awkward moment after the first meeting when mistakes are made and conversation and empathy develop. If it sounds like I’m talking more about relationships between people than first contact with an alien race, it’s because the movie draws upon these similarities as well.

arrival_2

Inevitably, comparisons have been made between Villeneuve’s film and both  Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the story has even deeper cinematic roots, owing a lot to such early films as The Thing From Another World (disputes between the military and scientists, as well between scientists themselves, on how to approach the alien), The Man From Planet X (the use of geometry to communicate with extraterrestrials) and especially It Came From Outer Space, the first movie to feature non-humanoid aliens and being specifically about how miscommunication and misunderstanding result in fear and apprehension.  Arrival perhaps owes even more to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass television serials and their subsequent film adaptations, for their sober, intelligent, decidedly low-key treatment of its themes and premise as well for its ideas themselves. Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is also a likely thematic influence, dealing as it does with the inability of humans to fully understand alien ways of thinking, and drawing connections between the main protagonist’s drive to understand and the personal tragedy and failed relationships in his/her life (Tarkovsky’s film has also been similarly criticized for its slowness and obscurity).  The use of flash-forwards also brings to mind the elliptical editing of Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, probably the saddest of all alien visitation movies. At least Arrival offers some hope in the midst of its sadness, whereas the Roeg film ends on an unremittingly despairing and pessimistic note; certainly, Villeneuve and Chiang offer a more optimistic perspective on not just human nature than Roeg and Tevis (contrast the way aliens are treated by Earth scientists in both films!), but on the consequences of first contact for all parties involved.

Of course, no film is perfect, and there are some minor flaws in Arrival. For this viewer, the biggest disappointment is that the physics aspect of the short story which provided it with a solid hard-science basis has been largely marginalized despite the fact that the character of the physicist itself has been expanded. In his afterword to the story’s publication in the collection of the same name, Chiang states that it developed specifically out of his fascination with principles of least action in physics,  so the minimization of this facet of the story is particularly ironic. Forrest Whitaker’s military man remains woefully underdeveloped, although this is the first movie I’ve seen to break with the Whitaker-Robbins Rule (a heuristic I came up with years ago: no science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can be any good).  Although the film takes the bold move of criticizing both the dictatorial socialist governments of China and Venezuela, the finale seems to be yet another instance of studios bending over not to offend the PRC censors.  Lastly, the title is not just generic and unimaginative, but is almost identical to that of the excellent, much-underrated The Arrival from twenty years ago, which will likely cause confusion along the lines of the 2005 and 1995 films both named Crash.

These are minor quibbles with what is nonetheless one of the most intellectually stimulating and provocative science fiction film to come from a major studio of late. It has already engaged critics into thoughtful analyses (one of the most interesting being Kyle Smith’s interpretation of the film as a pro-life allegory ) and will undoubtedly be the subject of many an academic paper in years to come, maybe even a volume or two dedicated to the movie itself. And it certainly allays any fears about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel currently being directed by Villeneuve.

 

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

a-pictorial-history-of-science-fiction

First Fandom closed its doors for good last week with the passing of David A. Kyle at the age of ninety-six.  Kyle had been a part of science fiction fandom from the very beginning, as a member of New York’s Futurians, and was one of its ablest historians for half a century. In particular, Kyle’s 1976 book A Pictorial History of Science Fiction had a massive influence on my own development as a science fiction fan. Purchasing the generously-sized book for just three dollars at a used bookstore with the money given to me for my thirteenth birthday, it helped to encourage me to not just read even more of the genre, but to read as much about it as well. Through Kyle’s chronicling of the history of science fiction and the people involved in its development, I learned to respect the writers, artists and fans alike who helped to build it up, and became more determined than ever to know more about what had come before me. Clearly, there was more to this field than just the few prominent authors I had read or movies I had seen, and it had a rich legacy that deserved to not just be preserved, but explored and enjoyed. It also helped make me a fan of science fiction art as well. As the title inferred, Kyle’s book was richly illustrated with artwork in the genre from its ancestral beginnings to the then-present, from  Édouard Riou’s woodcuts for the original Jules Verne books, to Frank R. Paul and other great artists of the pulp magazine to then-modern masters such as Frank Kelly Freas and Ed Emshwiller.  My younger self would spend hours poring over these marvelous pictures; I was particularly entranced by Paul’s futuristic cities and technological wonders for the Gernsback magazines (Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, etc.) and Emshwiller’s humorous depictions of alien life for Galaxy.

Of course, Kyle’s book wasn’t perfect; for one thing, like many other fans of his generation, he was rather contemptuous of most science fiction movies made up to that time, to the point of not considering them “actual” science fiction but corruptions of the genre, and gave less space to discussing them than a truly thorough history should have done. He also perhaps overstated the importance of Hugo Gernsback to the growth of the field; although he was an important figure in not just naming science fiction but in defining the genre and establishing a publishing outlet for it through Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted entirely to SF, he was less important as a creative force, not just in comparison to John W. Campbell (Astounding)  but Harold Gold (Galaxy) and Anthony Boucher (Fantasy and Science Fiction) as well. Still, you have to remember the context that Kyle was writing in: at the time, there was a new guard emerging that sought to not just redefine science fiction but the social culture built around it (sound familiar?), and First Fandom’s interests and tastes were considered anathema to it. In particular, Gernsback came under savage attack as not just as an inferior writer, but was declared the absolute worst thing to have ever happened to science fiction, as Brian Aldiss did in his popular book Billion Year Spree, at the time erroneously considered by many to be the definitive critical history of the genre. It would only be expected to have Kyle and others of his generation to try to provide a sensible counterweight to such overwrought attacks on not just Gernsback but all those others who helped build up the genre and whose legacy and reputations were in danger of being torn down or ignored. Further to his credit, he also refused to submit to the snobbishness of many other fans of the era towards comic books, recognizing their importance and singling out Marvel Comics and its editor-in-chief, “the remarkable Stan Lee” (Kyle’s words) for praise. As Kyle noted, not only was comics fandom an outgrowth of SF fandom, but so were superhero comics themselves:  Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had met through Midwestern fandom, and two other members of New York’s First Fandom, Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, would inaugurate the Silver Age of Comics when they revitalized DC’s superhero line with a heavy emphasis on SF-inspired treatments and storylines. For that matter, some of the earliest science fiction fans had been introduced to the genre through Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.  Kyle reprinted some of their strips for the book, as well as Britain’s Dan Dare and even one of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo strips as well, to demonstrate the parallel evolution and convergence of science fiction with the comics. The main criteria that Kyle established for judging whether something was good science fiction or not was both knowledge of science and knowledge of science fiction itself, its history and tradition. This historical and formalist approach to the aesthetic evaluation of the genre is one that has stuck with me, and one that I continue to use as an adult nearly thirty years later.

It is telling how much fandom has evolved and transformed in the forty years since Kyle’s book was written. At the time of its initial publication, there was a strong tripartite division between fans of written science fiction, fans of science fiction film and television, and comic book fans. It was more usual for someone to be a fan of one, but not the others, occasionally a fan of two, very rarely all three. It was generally acknowledged, however, that a “true fan” was someone who embraced the written word, illustrated or not. Moreover, there was strong distinction between science fiction and fantasy, and the boundary between them was rigidly enforced; one could be a fan of both, but it was understood that SF was SF and fantasy was fantasy, and never the twain shall meet. Flash-forward ten or twenty years later, the points of demarcation between science fiction and fantasy fandom were starting to weaken, as evidenced when the SFWA renamed itself the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, although not without some protest from purists. By this time, a significant number of science fiction readers and writers had emerged who had first become fans through movies and television, and it was becoming increasingly rare to find someone who was exclusively a fan of written science fiction. First came those who had grown up with science fiction movies and TV shows of the Fifties as well as Famous Monsters of Filmland, the pet project of Forrest J. Ackerman (to whom Kyle had dedicated The Pictorial History of Science Fiction). Among these fans were such major writers as Dan Simmons, Greg Bear and Howard Waldrop as well as artists such as Vincent Di Fate and Bob Eggleton, and they helped to re-evaluate the reputation of the science fiction films of the era that had been underrated by Kyle and others. Later came those who became fans through Star Trek and Star Wars, but it was more common for someone that had become a fan through them to be primarily or even only interested in movies and television, and this trend continued as the genre grew in mass popularity. Comic book fandom had massively expanded as well, but it was still very much separate from SF fandom. Moreover, a fourth fandom, dedicated to games and gaming, had emerged as well. Now, in the present day, the situation has almost completely reversed itself with TV and movies overwhelmingly dominating SF fandom to an almost suffocating degree. One is expected, even obliged, to be a fan of them to be considered a “true” fan in some circles, but it is no longer considered necessary to be a science fiction reader to be a fan, a circumstance which would have been inconceivable a generation ago. Furthermore, not only are science fiction and fantasy fandom now completely intertwined with most conventions and publications not making a distinction between either genre, but so are science fiction and comic book fandom, and there are probably now more self-declared science fiction fans who read comic books than they do prose science fiction. The gaming subculture has also become even more important to fandom thanks to personal computing and the Internet; ironically, one can probably find more real, hard science fiction being written for such games than in most recent books published and sold under the science fiction banner.

Throughout all this time, Kyle remained a stalwart defender of science fiction’s original values, attending and speaking at conventions to the very end, even starting his own Facebook page where he kept his memories of First Fandom alive. As I have stated before, we have a responsibility to continue the legacy of David Kyle and and all the others who built the foundations of both science fiction and its associated fandom. We must never forget that it is the written word that comes first, that the genre has a rich history that long precedes us and that current favorites, no matter how fervent their followings, owe a heavy debt to the originators of the field.

Trop de Trompes de Tropes (or, say “trope” one more time….)

Trop de Trompes de Tropes (or, say “trope” one more time….)

thestupiditburns

 

Every time someone misuses the word trope (which is approximately 99.999 percent of the time when it’s used on the Internet), I get ….really upset. Call it blind rage, call it a flash of insanity, but even though Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” immediately starts playing in my head, what I really want to do is subject said person to the same mutilations Al wants to subject to himself in his song “One More Minute.” I want to slam their laptops down on their knuckles so hard that their fingers start twitching like spastic hog-nose snakes, and then repeatedly whack them over their head with it while yelling “IDIOT! IDIOT!” in my best Norwegian death-metal voice.

 

In other words, I really don’t like it when it happens.

 

Settle down. It’s only a word.

 

Tell that to a biologist whenever someone mixes up genus and species, to an astronomer when someone confuses galaxy and solar system, or to a chemist when someone says atom when what they meant to say is molecule. For that matter, ask any scientist in any field not to get worked up when laypeople demonstrate they don’t know the difference between theory and hypothesis. To get excessively recursive, definitions are by definition an attempt  to provide an exact meaning for a word, term or phrase that will eliminate confusion in speech. The word trope has been very useful to people studying literature, language and rhetoric because until recently, it did stand for something very precise. You see, a trope isn’t just any recurring cliche, idiom, or motif; it’s one that helps turn a literal representation into a figurative one (hence its derivation from the Latin word meaning “to turn”), particularly (as outlined by Kenneth Burke) metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. It’s not a coincidence that the same people who have decided to make the word “trope” stand for any frequently recurring cultural object are those who continually confuse the words literally and figuratively, or who don’t care that Alanis Morissette popularized the misuse of the word ironic, because if it has a good beat and you can sing along with it so screechingly that you annoy everyone else in the coffee shop, who cares?

 

That’s right, I don’t care. The meaning of words always changes, and besides, the new definition is in the dictionary…

 

So what? The dictionary routinely includes the incorrect and improper definitions of words, or rather, the vulgar definition of a word.  Many dictionaries now regularly include a definition for “ain’t,” but that doesn’t make its usage acceptable either. And here’s something you don’t seem to realize: the continual incorrect use of the word trope popularized by a silly pop-culture website has not only sanctioned a new incorrect definition, but it has been stretched so far that it now almost means anything the speaker wants it to be. For instance, because the original use of the word meme by Richard Dawkins now has been co-opted to describe pictures of cats wielding machine guns and videos of people water-skiing into lifebuoys, people now use “trope” instead as a substitute.  I hate to say it, but Anita Sarkeesian seems to be one of the few people left who actually knows what the word “trope” means and how to use it, because her research is based on how certain imagery and characterizations in computer games allegedly carry with them a loaded, figurative meaning beyond their literal representation. (There, you forced me to say something nice about Anita Sarkeesian. Are you happy now?)

 

No. Tell us how to properly use the word, wise guy.

 

I will. First, to illustrate what a trope truly is, here’s a classic picture by Matisse.

CkDfQXAUgAE0tRK.jpg large

As the writing says this is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. Likewise, this picture is not a trope, even though you’ve seen it repeatedly, and read countless references to it. But when does a pipe, or rather, the representation of a pipe become more than just a pipe, but an honest-to-goodness trope? Well, take a look at these photographs here:

 

pipeeinsteinpiperussellpipejungpipeoppie

 

I presume you already know who the first person is, but the other three are also renowned intellectual figures of the Twentieth Century. Yet even if you didn’t recognize their faces, , you probably said to yourself “hey, all those guys must be really smart because they’re smoking pipes.” That’s because the pipe itself has become a trope, an actual honest-to goodness trope, as it serves as a form of  visual metonymy, a defining characteristic establishing that someone is highly educated and/or who pursues intellectual inquiry, as well as a metaphor for intelligence itself. Most of the tobacco-addicted academics I know prefer cigarettes, and Sigmund Freud himself preferred cigars; it was in fact his response to the misuse of psychoanalysis “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” that inspired Matisse’s painting in the first place. Yet we still have in our mind the notion that academics prefer pipes, or the image in our head of Sigmund Freud smoking a pipe instead of a cigar, because a pipe has been rendered this particular figurative force. In two science fiction spoofs with cult followings, the big-budget Mars Attacks! and the lesser-known indie film Top of the Food Chain, the characters played respectively by Pierce Bronsnan and Campbell Scott are supposed to be parodies of the “Richard Carlson role” in the science fiction films of the Fifties. Even audience members who have never seen a movie of the era will instantly recognize that the characters are satirizing a certain antiquated image of the intellectual because they continually have oversized pipes in their mouths. The aforementioned Richard Carlson role is a just a cliche but the use of the pipe itself to identify the character as a cliche is a trope. See the difference?

But a pipe can be more than just one kind of trope. Who’s the first person who pops into your head when you hear the word “pipe?” Chances are, it’s Sherlock Holmes, because one of English literature’s most famous characters is associated with a number of a particular visual cues: a spyglass, an English deerstalker’s hat and of course, a corncob pipe. The pipe, the hat and the spyglass are all tropes, being examples of synecdoche, since they are all parts representing a whole, specific figure in our mind. It doesn’t matter that in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Holmes neither wore a deerstalker nor carried a spyglass, and that he not only usually smoked cigars or cigarettes, but when he did smoke from a pipe, they were cheap clay or cherrywood ones. All an actor has to do just stick a corncob pipe in his mouth along with one or more of the other accoutrements and presto!  We instantly recognize him as Sherlock Holmes.

holmesrathboneholmeswotnerholmesbrett

holmescushingholmesleeholmesnimoy

 

Now lets move on to the proper use of the word trope in science fiction itself. H.G. Wells introduced in his novel War of the Worlds the new trope of the alien invasion story. Not the notion of an alien invasion itself; that’s a premise which over time has become a convention. What makes it a trope is that under Wells, the alien invasion became a metaphor, specifically an allegory for British imperialism. The trope of irony comes into play as well, since it’s Britain getting invaded by aliens instead of being the alien invaders themselves this time around, and it’s the the would-be colonists that wind up being felled by disease instead of the native peoples of Earth. We can now see how the notion of tropes, when used properly, are powerful objects because of how they work together to get a writer’s point across; in this case the use of irony helps to support the use of metaphor or allegory. Since then, there have been many variations of this particular alien invasion trope, most famously in the way alien invaders in Fifties science fiction films stood in for communism, but also consider how such works as Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” invert them by making us humans the malign invaders but retaining the allegory for Western colonialism (and you thought Avatar was so original). In the example of Fifties science fiction movies, the trope is modified while retaining the basic conventions of the alien invasion story originated by Wells, whereas in the Russell and LeGuin stories the premise is inverted (again, the use of irony as a trope)  while retaining the Wellsian trope of alien invasion as a stand-in for imperialism and colonialism. There are other cliches and motifs associated with the alien-invasion premise, but not all of them are tropes as well, since not all of them stand for anything else beyond their literal depiction.

Hold it. You said that the “Richard Carlson role” is just a cliche, but isn’t it a trope as well?

See, you are learning! As my own rhetoric professor, Bernard L. Brock (who introduced me to Burkean theory and the notion of tropes in the first place) was fond of saying, “yes and no.” The role itself is just a cliche or stereotype, but it’s the term “Richard Carlson role” that’s the trope, specifically yet another form of metonymy.  You simply need to say that “Hugh Marlowe (or Arthur Franz or Jeff Morrow or John Agar) has the Richard Carlson role” and fans of Fifties science fiction films will instantly know that the actor is not just playing the lead, but is playing the role of a heroic scientist. You can also say “Gloria Talbott in the Beverly Garland role,” “Marshall Thompson in the Kenneth Tobey role,” “Mara Corday in the Joan Weldon role,” “Whit Bissell in the Morris Ankrum role,” and so on, and this same community of fans will again instantly know what you’re talking about because a particular actor or actress is cast in a certain role that another performer has become associated with. It’s much the same way Trekkies used the term “Red Shirt” to define a walk-on role whose character doesn’t survive past the halfway mark in their first and only appearance on the show, and that term has since been used to denote other expendable bit parts, regardless of the color of their garments or regardless of the show they’re on. So if someone were to say that “the cast of Game of Thrones is made up entirely of Red Shirts,” you’d immediately grasp that they meant that every character on the show is expendable. It’s not the role that’s the trope, but the use of words to describe it, as they have moved beyond a character literally having a red shirt to figuratively having one (and they may be literally covered in red by the time the show is over, but that’s another matter altogether). Beyond the obvious, what additionally annoys me about the  TV Tropes website (yeah, I had to mention it by name eventually) is that the people who originated it may have indeed had at least an inkling of what the word “trope” really meant, and possibly had intended for people realize that the tropes were not the various recurring elements in popular culture themselves, but the usages of language to create an identifiable shorthand at recognizing them.

(And another pet peeve of mine I need to address. You may have scratched the side of your head when I mentioned the Richard Carlson role, but when I explained that it’s the role of the heroic scientist in Fifties science fiction film, you probably then slapped it in recognition and said “Oh! You meant the Russell Johnson role!” If you did, you really should punch yourself twice on both sides of your skull, because no, it is not what I meant at all. Russell Johnson was indeed a regular in the genre films of the decade, but he rarely played a scientist, and never played a lead! Instead, the “Russell Johnson role” denotes supporting parts as telephone linesmen, radio operators, and the like. Somehow, people got his movie roles mixed up with the character of The Professor he played on Gilligan’s Island).

OK, I think I get it now. But what do you expect us to say in place of “trope” instead?

There’s already an umbrella word for motifs, conventions and recurring themes and premises in fiction and rhetoric that don’t necessarily have a figurative meaning: it’s topos or in plural form, topoi.  What’s even more annoying about the misuse of the word “trope” is that there was an already-existing perfect term used to describe and classify literary and rhetorical devices, but now that word has also become practically useless in common conversation as the result of another word’s exaptation  to cover what it used to define.  So you see, when you misuse one word, there’s a domino effect on the rest of the vocabulary. Sure, topos and topoi are awkward-sounding words and it’s easy to forget which one is plural and which one is singular, but if you can master the English language with all its messiness, contradictions and already too many words as is, I’m certain you can get used to it.  Better yet, use the specific words to describe particular topoi, the ones you are undoubtedly all already familiar with: cliche, stereotype, archetype, convention, motif, idiom and even just plain old theme and premise.

There has to be more to this than just the misuse of the English language. Really now, why is it such a big deal?

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, my degrees are in communication studies with a concentration in rhetoric, so I get very frustrated at poorly thought-out and uninformed attempts at armchair criticism. It’s gotten to the point that the continual overuse and misuse of the word “trope” means that outside of academic papers by people in the field, it’s a good indicator that the person using the word knows next to nothing about what they’re talking about. They apparently think if they just say the word “trope” repeatedly it will somehow make them look smarter and seem knowledgeable about the topic at hand. It doesn’t; it only drives home that you haven’t taken the time to properly research it and need to rely on buzzwords in order to puff yourself up.  In other words, it becomes just another form of sophistry. This particular misuse of the word has also encouraged a lazy and simple-minded approach to observing and studying culture. Just pointing at something and shouting “Trope!” does not constitute valid cultural criticism, yet that is what now passes for it nowadays on the Internet. Worse yet, it has started to infect professional criticism as well, although in doing so, it helps one distinguish the good critics from the hacks. And that’s a shame, because the notion of tropes and topoi have been useful tools for many years in the study of literature and rhetoric, as well as in film and media studies. They help us to understand how genres originate and evolve, and how words and language serve as a means of persuasion and identification.

OK, I get it now. I won’t say something is a trope again unless I’m absolutely sure it actually is one.

Good. Don’t let me down.

Are you sure “The Russell Johnson Role” doesn’t constitute a true tro-

DIE

 

machinegunkitty

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar Enters The Space Age

Oscar Enters The Space Age

the-martian-nimages-01

There were some surprising science fiction nods among the major Oscar nominations this year. Despite complaints about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS not getting a nomination for Best Picture (and in my opinion, it didn’t really deserve one), both MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE MARTIAN managed to secure Best Picture nominations.   I only caught the last fifteen minutes of FURY ROAD on cable, so I can’t really judge it beyond that,  but THE MARTIAN while not perfect, was one of the better movies in a mediocre year, and so I have no problem with its nomination. Ridley Scott unfortunately didn’t get nominated for Best Director, which likely punctures (sorry) the film’s chances of winning the top prize, but Matt Damon received a well-earned Best Actor nomination, and Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andrew Weir’s novel was nominated in the Best Screenplay category. The best science fiction film of the year, EX MACHINA, didn’t get nominated for Best Picture but I was pleasantly surprised to see it nominated for Best Original Screenplay, along with Pixar’s fantasy INSIDE OUT. (My choice for the year’s best film, ME, EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, didn’t get any nominations at all, alas).

district9.410

Granted, the writing has been on the wall for over a decade now, and you could say the wall actually broke in 2003, when THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING won the Best Picture Award. Although genre films had been nominated in this category going all the way back to LOST HORIZON in 1937, this finally broke more than seventy-five years of aversion to giving the main trophy to films that (other than musicals) adhered to strict realism in content and approach. The following year, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND became the first science fiction film to win a Best Screenwriting Oscar. Then in 2009, when the Academy expanded its list of nominated films from five to ten (a return to lengthy nominee lists of the 1930s), two science fiction films popped up in the Best Picture nominations, AVATAR and DISTRICT 9. It was certainly not the first time a science fiction film had been nominated in this category, but it was the first time more than one film in the genre had made the final ballot, a remarkable event that just a decade or so earlier would have been unimaginable.

DOCTOR-DOLITTLE

I was as surprised as many fans were, but unlike many of them, I didn’t share the delight that the Oscars were “finally” recognizing science fiction films as Best Picture contenders. For one thing, I didn’t think that either film was good enough to be a contender for Best Picture. AVATAR probably would have nominated even if the Academy had still limited its selections to five films as it was a tremendous box office smash and critical hit, but as has been the case with all of James Cameron’s films, the script rarely, if ever, managed  to attain the same level of accomplishment as the direction and special effects, being extremely shallow, cliched and obvious. DISTRICT 9 is a better film, a more intelligent and original one and it certainly works better as good science fiction even if it is far less extravagant, but its intelligent touches are also unfortunately undermined by occasional illogicities, particularly those involving the same idiotic Big Evil Corporation cliches that undermined not just AVATAR but MOON, which had been the most acclaimed science fiction film of 2009 (and which I previously discussed at the bottom of this page). I would have expected MOON to be a more likely nominee for Best Picture; as it is, DISTRICT 9 is a good example of what I call a “Pink Snail,” after the the Academy’s “WTF?” moment when it nominated the gawdawful Rex Harrison-Richard Fleischer film version of DOCTOR DOOLITTLE for Best Picture in 1967, alongside the likes of BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE and that year’s Best Picture Winner, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. If that wasn’t unbelievable enough, try wrapping your brains around this: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was not nominated for Best Picture the following year.

12107980_1106160282770089_1751290197546699090_n

Actually, if you read up on the history of the public reception of the film, it becomes more clear why it wasn’t nominated: as chronicled by Jerome Agel in his outstanding 1970 book The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, far from being universally acclaimed, reviews for 2001 were actually quite divided and although many viewers loved it, an equal number hated it and a still equal number seemed undecided on how to approach it. Even the science fiction community was split over it and down to this day, the movie will start arguments between those who consider it a masterpiece and those who think otherwise (for the record, I am one of those who consider it a masterpiece). The Academy didn’t neglect Stanley Kubrick in any case, as not only was he nominated for Best Director, but he won an Oscar for the Special Effects that he personally supervised (a reminder when the question of Kubrick ever winning an Academy Award ever turns up at a trivia contest). Three years later, Kubrick would be nominated for Best Director again for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and although this film proved even more controversial for its graphic sex and violence, it did manage to garner a Best Picture nomination, as would STAR WARS in 1977 and E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL in 1982. However, no science fiction film has won the Best Film trophy as of yet, a fact which has done nothing to calm the  knee-jerk accusations of elitism and snobbery within the Academy by certain corners of fandom.

cdn.indiewire.psdops.com

The truth of the matter is, however much credibility there is to accusations of impulsive nose-turning among certain Academy members over its nearly century-old history when it comes to science fiction, fantasy and horror, it is equally true that too many fans are guilty of close-mindedness to films outside their favorite genres.  Yes, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY  is one of the greatest films of all time, and I agree with those who consider it both the best science fiction film ever made and the best movie of 1968, but OLIVER! also happens to be one of the great screen musicals.  ANNIE HALL is a better film than STAR WARS, GANDHI is almost or at least as good as both E.T. and BLADE RUNNER, and so on. While saying so may anger cultural illiterates (such as your typical contributor to Cracked.com), this just happens to be the case.  I didn’t see 12 YEARS A SLAVE so I can’t judge whether or not it was better than GRAVITY, but just going by word of mouth, that does seem to be the case as well. INCEPTION very nearly came close to deserving the Best Picture Oscar in 2010…but it was only the second-best film that year, after the deserving Best Picture winner, THE KING’S SPEECH. We shouldn’t expect that a film should be nominated for, much less awarded Best Picture, simply because we think that the Academy has an obligation to honor and respect our own personal tastes and interests, or to try to fulfill-dare I say it?-a quota system in which a movie is honored simply for being the best film of the year in its particular genre.

king kong 1933

We don’t even have to look at the recent past for examples of this. Turning back the clock further, let’s look at the longest stretch of Oscar nominations, from August 1932 through all of 1933, after which the Academy Awards restricted its nominations to a single year. Of course, the most popular movie of 1933 remains KING KONG, and whether you consider it to be horror, fantasy or science fiction (and I do consider it to be science fiction), many film lovers, including myself, would certainly chose it over the fine but long-forgotten CAVALCADE as the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year, as did Danny Peary in his book Alternate Oscars. I hesitate to say majority-plurality, maybe-because, as Peary further notes, there were four other great films that went unnominated that year, DINNER AT EIGHT, DUCK SOUP (very likely the second-most popular film of the year), QUEEN CHRISTINA, and TROUBLE IN PARADISE. With the exception of the third film, which was probably left out because it premiered on New Year’s Eve of 1933 leaving in doubt whether or not it was eligible, all those other films were comedies, a genre that regularly gets snubbed to this day by the Academy, so it’s not just science fiction and fantasy that gets ignored. Those five are in addition to the classic films already nominated: 42nd STREET (probably the third most popular film of the year), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, LADY FOR A DAY, LITTLE WOMEN, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY THE VIII and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM THE CHAIN GANG (my choice for the best movie among the nominated films), marking this eighteen-month period as one of the greatest ever in Hollywood history. Even among horror fans, KING KONG encounters competition from such classics as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (my favorite horror film of all time) THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and another Merian C. Cooper-Ernest B. Schoedsack production, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.

lead_large

I do hope a science fiction film wins a Best Picture Oscar someday. I do hope it wins because it is genuinely the very best movie of the year, that it is not merely a good film but a great one, that it is great science fiction as well as a great film, and that all its merits are decided on the basis of its artistic quality, not out of noise and pressure to finally hand the trophy over to a movie of its genre. It would be extremely dismaying if current trends and movements in both SF fandom and attempts to reform the Oscar voting process should converge at some point and make the first science fiction film to win Best Picture an illegitimate victory.

 

In Memoriam: David G. Hartwell

In Memoriam: David G. Hartwell

51MAE1QTT7L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

You only have one chance to make a good first impression on someone. I hope I did so the first and only time I ever met David Hartwell; I know he made a good impression on me. It was at the 2013 conference at McMaster University in honor of Robert Sawyer; I was presenting a paper there and David was one of the guests. After Robert’s keynote address, I had the chance to meet David, as well Robert Charles Wilson and Élisabeth Vonarburg. I remember chatting with one of the Roberts, maybe both of them, along with some other guests when he walked up to our little circle with a drink in his hand and a big smile on his face. I had never seen a photo of him, but seeing his name tag sent a shudder of recognition as I realized that one of science fiction’s finest living editors had just strolled up to me. Semi-nervously, I extended my hand. “Mr. Hartwell, it’s a pleasure to meet you, thanks for coming! The Ascent of Wonder is one of my favorite anthologies!” He shook my hand vigorously and sincerely responded “Thank you, that’s very kind of you!”

The first and now I know, only time. I’m glad it was a chance to let him know how important he was to me and many others as an editor and anthologist. That is how he made a first impression on me, long before I met this gracious gentleman that September afternoon. He and Gardner Dozois carried on the tradition begun by Judith Merril and Terry Carr of providing competing annual anthologies of the year’s best science fiction; if a story was selected by both editors, it was usually a good sign of exceptionally high quality. Furthermore, together with his wife Kathryn Cramer, Hartwell edited both the aforementioned The Ascent of Wonder and The Hard SF Renaissance, which together provide the definitive survey of the subgenre of hard science fiction, that is very much core to the genre as a whole. While I have a few quibbles about some of their selections, whether it’s because I question whether or not they constitute hard science fiction or because of their overall quality, both books are essential not just as story compilations but for the discussion and thematic analysis provided by the editors (and by Gregory Benford in the introduction). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

By a sad coincidence, I had met Hartwell just one day after the death of one of my closest friends. She had helped to mentor me as a writer and scholar, and through the example of her own kindness and resilience, had encouraged me to be a better person as well. In the days after learning about her passing, as I sadly scanned the Internet for news about her, I learned I was far from alone, that there were so many others who she had helped and had been touched by her in just the same way. Those who had David Hartwell for an editor must have also known what that felt like.

 

THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME

THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME

Originally, I didn’t plan to follow up my list of Underrated Science Fiction Films with a list of those I consider the most overrated. First of all, such a list would frankly come off as self-trolling if not done right, an attempt to gain page hits by tempting potential visitors with a subtle “come see how much this will enrage you, and if it doesn’t, share it with friends who will be.” Secondly, there’s a not so subtle implication in such essays that there’s something wrong with those who already enjoy these movies (or books or shows or whatnot), instead of simply chalking up any disagreements to mere differences in taste.

But then I thought about how much fun I’d have writing it…

I have nonetheless decided to play fair in compiling this list. Roughly one-third of the movies are ones that I myself have personally overrated as both a viewer and fan. The others are not necessarily movies I have personally disliked, but ones which I have found myself in conflict with the “consensus” view of critics andfandom, and my personal relationship with their champions has as much shaped my decision to include them on this list as my opinion of the films themselves has as well. My favorite film criticism has usually followed the lead of Pauline Kael in explaining how the writer’s personal relationship with the movies in general has influenced their attitude towards a specific film and whose writings also display their larger kinship with the community of film audiences. Similarly, when writing about science fiction or any other genre, I feel that your own relationship with it and its community of fans and practitioners be integrated into your writings as well.

Finally, if you’re wondering why STARSHIP TROOPERS isn’t listed….why beat a dead horse? Let’s move on…

 

1. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still_1951

The first lesson to be learned is that not only can a good movie be overrated, so can a genuinely great one. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is a certified classic, one of the “Big Six” of Fifties science fiction, and the one that usually makes all-time greatest film lists. In fact, of late it has become the only science fiction film of the decade to regularly appear on them. Yet it’s the one I’m least likely to watch when I’m in the mood for a science fiction film; I not only find the other films more satisfying, but find that they hold up more to repeat viewings. So why is it so much more popular than the other Fifties classics? Politics no doubt plays a part; better than any movie other than GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, it best epitomizes the attitude of liberal fascism that so many progressives sincerely adhere to with unwitting and unquestioning fervor (they don’t seem to notice that the heavy-handed Christian symbolism means that it can just as easily be interpreted as a religious fundamentalist fantasy as well, in which the people of Earth, in denying the word of the allegorical Son of God, are forced to live under the threat of a robotic Archangel of Death). Then there is the fact that unlike THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, both of which were considered its superior for many years, it did not receive a remake until recently, and it’s unlikely that film will replace it in the fan consciousness, at least for the time being. But the biggest reason seems to be that it is more likely to be shown in film classes than any other Fifties science fiction film; as a result, it is more widely seen by younger viewers than than the rest of the decade’s genre output and also winds up being treated more seriously than others.

 

2. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

20_MILLION_MILES_TO_EARTH_30x40_British_Quad

Like most fans of classic science fiction film, I adore the brilliant animated artistry of Ray Harryhausen; unfortunately, that doesn’t take away from the sad fact that as entertaining as most of his feature films are, the quality of the scripts rarely were on the same level as Harryhausen’s special effects. His color and widescreen films, most of them in the fantasy genre, are his most successful in this regard. Unfortunately, with the exception of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, none of his black-and-white science fiction films of the 1950s really had a good screenplay. EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS has a truly awful script and that for IT CAME BENEATH THE SEA is pretty boring, but the screenplay for 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is simply mediocre. I nonetheless include it in this list because out of all of Harryhausen’s movies, it’s the one that I personally have tended to overrate the most. Harryhausen’s terrific special effects and animation of the Ymir as well as the generally effective direction by Nathan Juran have often lead me to overlook and forget all the glaring flaws: the clunky dialogue, the by-then cliched and stock characters who are a lot less animated than Harryhausen’s creations, a storyline over-reliant on coincidence and contrivance, and worst of all, the presence of an annoying and obnoxious child added simply to pander to the juveniles who by then constituted the majority of the audience for science fiction movies. The best I can say about this miserable brat (who, like the equally annoying tyke in THE BLACK SCORPION, is an offensive ethnic stereotype that winds up being responsible for people dying as a result of his selfishness) is that he disappears early in the film, although if there were any real justice, he would become Ymir chow.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that while the story borrows heavily from KING KONG and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, with the Ymir even resembling a cross between those two iconic movie monsters, it fails at the very basic task at generating pathos for its own creation, something that those other movies succeeded so well at. Sure Kong and the Gill Man killed people and committed other horrible acts, but we came to sympathize and even identify with them, because they came off as living creatures with their own reasons for existing, and their actions could be understood as similar to that of any wild beast that is mistreated and abused. With the Ymir, we’re in awe of the special effects, yet it never gets developed as a character beyond that. Consequently, we have no sympathy for it or any real feeling at all by the film’s end.

 

3. PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

plan-9-from-outer-space-1959

Yes, you heard me, the alleged “Worst Movie of All Time” is overrated. How can a film with such a reputation possibly be over-praised by any measure? First of all, it’s not really the worst movie of all time, not by a long shot. Although any given movie by Andy Milligan (my choice for the worst director of all time), H.G. Lewis or Jerry Warren is far worse than anything by Ed Wood, knowledgeable film buffs and scholars have stated the true worst films of all time are to be found among the roadshow and exploitation films of the Thirties and Forties. It’s not the worst movie Wood made (that would be JAIL BAIT), the worst movie starring Bela Lugosi (as anyone who has seen the appropriately-titled MURDER BY TELEVISION will attest) or the worst collaboration between the two (the way ahead of its time transgenderism plea GLEN OR GLENDA is even worse, although I don’t know if the Social Justice Police will allow anyone to discuss how bad it is anymore). It’s not even the worst Tor Johnson movie; that “honor” goes to THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, which some consider to be the worst science fiction film of all time. Personally, I think it’s a three-way tie between MONSTER A GO-GO, THE CREEPING TERROR and ESCAPE FROM GALAXY THREE in the worst science fiction film sweepstakes.

As should be made clear by now, PLAN 9’s reputation, like those of TROLL 2 and THE ROOM, is really based on its being the most entertainingly bad movie, one that is so ineptly made, written and acted that it becomes a fascinating viewing experience, yet is never so boring or unpleasant that it becomes unwatchable (which can’t be said about, say, any given Italian cannibal film). Yet even when considered as a “good-bad” movie, PLAN 9 falls flat. Unlike its camp followers, I don’t find it particularly amusing or even funny (except for one scene where all these arms pop out of a bus to point up at the flying saucers supposedly flying overhead), and I instead just watch it with a vague and muted disinterest. If any lesson is to be learned here, it’s that if you’re going to call a movie one of the worst of all time, you need to be sincere about it and not simply follow the wisdom of crowds.

 

4. ALPHAVILLE

Alphaville_1965

Not too long ago, an Internet poll was taken of the best science fiction and fantasy novels, and the top science fiction title (second overall) was THE HITCH-HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. It seems inconceivable that so many serious science fiction fans would have rated such a slight satire above the likes of DUNE, THE TIME MACHINE or CHILDHOOD’S END…until you saw that the poll was sponsored by National Public Radio. It should only be expected that the typical NPR listener would select a title reflective of a mentality that sees itself as being “above” the genre yet also thinks it knows it better than its readers and is entitled to tell them what is really good for them. A similar attitude also explains the popularity of Jean-Luc Godard’s ALPHAVILLE among the same political and cultural mindset. Like the Douglas Adams book, it’s a favorite among those who not only don’t really like the genre, but look down on it as “low” culture. Needless to say, this wrongheaded attitude has only helped to inflate the reputation of a movie that is mostly dull and didactic, and also happens to be poor science fiction, doing little with the “mad computer takes over the city” cliche other than use it as an excuse for Godard’s usual soapboxing. It is, in fact, anti-science fiction, not just an attempt to subvert a genre its director evidently thinks he can handle better than its American practitioners, but is outright hostile to science itself, and on that level, it is deplorable. Unlike many other science fiction fans, I have no problems with art-house cinema; I feel that one’s cultural life is all the poorer if one doesn’t take in a wide range of movies as well as books. However, I don’t think just because a movie has pretensions to higher art that it necessarily qualifies as such, and I certainly feel that way about much of Godard’s oeuvre. At least it was made before he started boring us with tiresome Marxist polemics, and became the cinematic equivalent of the Facebook friend you have no choice to put on ignore because he keeps cluttering your timeline with idiotic political memes.

 

5. SILENT RUNNING

Silent_running

Basically, this is the Al Gore of science fiction movies: if you’re already down with its environmental message you’ll think it’s brilliant, but if you actually know something about the topics it addresses, you’ll be unable to ignore all its factual errors and lapses in logic as well as its overall extremism, and be all too aware of just how profoundly stupid it really is. It has provoked great divisions and disputes among fans and critics over its actual quality, and I admit to having been torn over the film myself. On the one hand, it’s certainly sincerely made, I greatly admire the superb performance by Bruce Dern, and it’s well directed by special effects master Douglas Trumbull who of course provides some beautiful visuals. On the other hand, nearly all its virtues are sunken by the utter idiocy of the script, which is a textbook example of bad science fiction writing at work. It is as scientifically preposterous as ARMAGEDDON or THE CORE, and worse yet, much of the plot is driven by the need for its lead character to not just be obsessed beyond the point of reason but to be a complete scientific illiterate. No matter how well made the movie is, or how sincere the message or how many people agree with it, it ultimately doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t work as science fiction, it doesn’t work as anything. Not only does it wind up trivializing a serious issue that deserves a more scientifically  serious and well-informed treatment, it unintentionally sabotages any goodwill for its message as well as its lead character through its own sense of self-righteousness. As was the case with 2004’s THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, the film’s supporters seem to think all the bad science is acceptable as long as it’s done in favor of “educating” the public on environmental issues, and it’s pretty scary that they’re willing to excuse Dern’s character committing murder and theft in order to preserve the world’s last remaining forests. Most disheartening of all is that some people will dismiss out of hand the importance of environmental conservation and preservation specifically because of the extreme rhetoric embodied by the film.

Incidentally, if you were hoping AVATAR or WALL-E would make the list, you can easily substitute either of them for this film, as many of the same arguments apply.

 

6. FLASH GORDON

FB062FlashGordon

If you know who Sam Jones is but not who Buster Crabbe is, I kind of want to slap your grandparents. And if you were one of those people whining “stop ruining my childhood!” when they announced yet another film reboot of Alex Raymond’s classic science fiction comic strip, I really want to slap you. Yeah, I’m a Queen fan, but come on now! Dino De Laurentiis may have had sincere intentions in trying to produce a feature-length version of the comic strip, given that it is regarded as high art in much of Europe, and interest in it had revived with George Lucas admitting it was one of the main inspirations for STAR WARS. Unfortunately, he had to once again hire Lorenzo Semple, who was known to actively hate science fiction and fantasy, especially when he was assigned to write them. The “camp” attitude worked well enough when Semple wrote the BATMAN TV series , but was completely inappropriate to the big-budget film adaptation of FLASH GORDON. Not only were the comic strips played straight, so were the original serials, and George Lucas to his credit recognized that what made them work was that they took not just themselves but their audiences seriously as well. Not so with Semple’s script; as with his KING KONG screenplay, it drips with contempt not just for its original source material and the genre as a whole, but for the very audience it plays for. Yet like so many other awful films from the Eighties, it has somehow gained a massive cult following among supposed grown-ups who still remember watching it as children and are still uncritically enamored of it. There’s some kind of progressive devolution of cultural literacy here: The original comic strips inspired Ray Bradbury and other great science fiction writers, and the serials inspired George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to direct their own science fiction and adventure films that as planned, would be both great entertainment and lasting art. The 1980 FLASH GORDON film seems to have primarily influenced today’s makers of “blockbuster” entertainment who regard pre-existing stories as “products” and “properties” whose value is based on their net worth and who think catchy visuals can indeed compensate for bad writing, direction and acting.

 

7. JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING

John-Carpenter-The-Thing-movie-poster

You saw this one coming, didn’t you? I’ve already made the claim that this is the most overrated science fiction film of all time, and I see no reason to revise that judgment. As I have said before, this is a strictly personal list, and given that the original THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is one of my very favorite films of any genre, I of course resent the way the over-hyped popularity of the 1982 rehash has diminished the original classic’s status as one of the great science fiction films. But even if I weren’t such a fan of the original, it wouldn’t change the fact that the later film’s rabid fans are are not just among the most uncritically-minded but the most obnoxious and annoying in cinemadom. They are so absolutely and ridiculously obsessed with “their” movie that they insist that all commentary on the Internet be reduced to to mindless praise of it, and will make the most inane attempt to squeeze in even a mention of the film. “This movie is set in a remote, cold snowy area-it’s just like John Carpenter’s THE THING!” “Those Twilight Zone episodes aren’t as good as John Carpenter’s THE THING.” “So ZELIG is Woody Allen’s version of THE THING?” Enough already! Worse yet, they will not tolerate even the mildest criticism of the movie, regarding it as something sacred that is not to be blasphemed. Prepare yourself for a barrage of personal attacks if you find the slightest fault with it, or don’t consider it to be a masterpiece, or state that you prefer another movie over it for whatever reason…especially if you dare assert that you prefer the original 1951 film.

As for my opinion of the movie itself: three times I let all the hyperbolic praise and gushing convince me my initial assessment might have been wrong and to give it another try, and each time my opinion of it only worsened. The film starts off well enough, but soon degenerates, like its creature, into an implausible and inconsistent mess. My biggest problem is that none of the characters are remotely interesting or likable, and neither the dialogue nor the performances (with the exception of Wilford Brimley, who hated the film and the experience of working on it) do anything to elevate them beyond two-dimensional stereotypes. Kurt Russell may physically look like the hero of the novella but they made a big mistake in turning him into an asshole helicopter pilot instead of someone intelligent and identifiable. The character and performance are clearly based on Cary Grant’s in another Howard Hawks classic, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, but Grant’s pilot was stationed in South America, so it made sense for him to wear a sombrero. What’s the excuse for Russell’s to wear one in the Antarctic, except to make himself seem like an even bigger douchebag than he already is? While the novella and the 1951 film followed the rules of good science fiction, this one starts playing Calvinball with the science fiction aspects midway through. It’s especially annoying that some characters seem to know that they have become the creature and others don’t, and that the alien’s behavior and transformations depend more on shock effect than on whether or not they make sense. This refusal to follow proper story logic especially hurts the blood test scene; in the original story, a blood serum test on rabbits establishes that the test may work, but in the movie, the suggestion of one of the scientists is all they go by. In the novella it’s well established that MacReady is a meteorologist with some medical training, giving him sufficient knowledge of both the human body and the scientific method in order to undertake the task, but how does the film’s MacReady know enough to be sure? He’s just an asshole helicopter pilot! It is not surprising really that the film has such extreme popularity, because it appeals to the most uncritical attitudes among the fan bases for both genres. The film sadly represents the most obvious downward trends in both science fiction and horror where story has been compromised, in the name of special-effects spectacle with the former and gory gross-out scenes with the latter.

 

8. JURASSIC PARK

600full-jurassic-park-poster

Believe me, it pains me as much as you to see this listed here. I’ve loved dinosaurs since I’ve been able to read, and so I naturally got totally caught up in the hype surrounding the movie before its premiere. When I first saw it in a full theater, I was naturally wowed by the incredible special effects, and thoroughly entertained…yet even then, I noticed something was missing. At the time, my major disappointment was that the massive Mesozoic menagerie of the novel had been drastically cut down to just six different types of dinosaur, but watching it again in its IMAX 3-D re-release two years ago (the very same theater, only this time I was the only person there) I realized that the film’s problems went deeper than that. What really hurts the film is that dinosaurs are for the most part not used well at all. Michael Crichton’s original novel had a subtle message to go along with the thrills, critiquing the way we transform wildlife into entertainment in the form of zoos, safaris and the like, and the film adaptation winds up ironically confirming this thesis. Crichton’s dinosaurs were depicted as the real animals they actually were, behaving the way they did because their instincts were still ingrained in them even after they were revived millions of years later. The dinosaurs produced by Spielberg and his film crew are convincing and formidable, yet their realism is compromised by the need to turn the predatory ones into the same sort of monsters dinosaurs have been portrayed as before in popular culture.  The tyrannosaurus behaves no differently than any other in earlier films even if it is better executed, and the velociraptors meanwhile are made to be more intelligent than they actually were; they may have been as smart as living crocodilians or some species of bird but ascribing to them a level of intelligence equivalent to that of crows or ravens is too much of an exaggeration. Worst of all is the dilophosaurus; having it spit venom is one thing, but the frill only makes it look silly. Not only is there no evidence for them ever having one, it doesn’t even make evolutionary sense when they already had display crests. On top of that, its appearance is redundant; they should have removed it and made its scene the one that introduced the velociraptors, or better yet, deleted Wayne Knight’s character altogether, given that he’s the worst part of the entire movie.

Which brings me to my second problem, the flimsy characters. In some ways, the movie improves upon the book by switching the ages of the two children (the girl in the book is even more annoying than the kid from 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH), and both the characters of Hammond and more importantly Ian Malcolm (my favorite in the entire book, although I think it would have been more interesting if Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neil had switched roles) are allowed to live to the end, but it also reduces all the adult characters by at least one dimension. None of the characters compare to those in such other Spielberg films as JAWS, ET, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or for that matter, the characters played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin in Crichton’s very similar film WESTWORLD. As a thought experiment, try taking some of the characters in the movies I’ve mentioned and imagine them in JURASSIC PARK, and you’ll agree that it could have been even better, and more deserving of the appellation of “classic.”

 

9. INDEPENDENCE DAY

Independence-Day_3

The very fact that a movie this stupid and crassly commercial is now considered a “classic” by some is a sad comment on the erosion of aesthetic standards in both fandom and the general public. I’m hesitant to even call it a movie; I remember very clearly the ridiculously huge advertising campaign for the film, and and am more inclined to call it a scam, the cinematic equivalent of a “Cash for Gold” store. It’s a rip-off in every sense of the word; not only does it steal shamelessly from the science fiction films of the Fifties (making it even more frustrating when you consider that the same people who drool over movies like this are the same who sneer at older science fiction films), but it also borrows from one of the worst-ever trends in big-budget film making, the “disaster” film made in the 1970s by Irwin Allen and others, painful reminders that such vulgar wastes of money are not a recent development but have always been a part of the film industry. And yes, I have a more personal reason for disliking it. In addition to being a derivative copy of other, much better movies, it also shamelessly exploited one of the most embarrassing fads of the 1990s, the revival of the UFO obsession and interest in alien sightings spurred by the success of THE X-FILES. That show never pretended to be anything other than well-written entertainment, but Roland Emmerich has made a career out of exploiting pseudoscience in the name of cynical moneymaking. In addition to this film’s use of the Roswell craze, Emmerich’s earlier STARGATE was based in the idiotic “Chariots of the Gods” and “Alien Astronauts” tomfoolery that now dominates so-called “reality” networks, and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW was based on a novel by Whitley Streiber, a name that alone turns the BS detector up to eleven. Worst of all was 2012 which not only exploited the “Mayan Calendar” and other doomsday stupidity but featured the absolute worst misuse of science of any big-budget film in recent memory; yes neutrinos undergo oscillations and flavor-changing, but no, they do not “mutate”. Emmerich’s entire oeuvre is a pox on the genre, based on an appeal to the lowest common denominator and in complete contempt of the public’s intelligence.

 

10. MOON

Moon_(2008)_film_poster

By now, you’ve probably figured out that I’m something of a contrarian curmudgeon, who is more critical of some of the most popular films in the genre than most other fans. It’s not so much that I dislike something just because it’s popular; it’s more the case that if there’s tremendous critical or fan hype surrounding a film, I’m more likely to be skeptical and keep my expectations low. When I finally get around to watching it, I’m more inclined to view it with a more critical eye than I normally would, so that I can form my own independent opinion of it. It’s rare that the hype itself actually actively annoys me, but that was the case with this movie. Every critic raving over MOON seemed not just to hail it as “the smartest sci-fi movie ever” which was hyperbolic enough itself, but then they would proceed to demonstrate their profound ignorance of the genre when they seemed to think that this was the exception rather than the rule for science fiction, or that it was somehow breaking new ground with its storyline. Clearly, most of them were not actual readers of science fiction and allowed their perceptions of the genre to be totally based on all the action films using its trappings. It also didn’t help that director Duncan Jones came off as less than humble in interviews, acting as if he thought he knew the genre better than all its other fans and practitioners, when he actually demonstrated a shallow understanding of the genre and its history. The low point in my expectations came when Jones provided a list of his five “must-see” science fiction films to Empire magazine, and listed the awful OUTLAND among them. Worse yet, he took a cheap shot at FORBIDDEN PLANET (and Fifties science fiction films as a whole) in the article, and the fact that he would dismiss one of the most cerebral and intelligent of all science fiction films while recommending one of the worst ever big-budget films in the genre did not sit well with me.

I nonetheless tried to put these feelings aside when I finally got around to watching the film when it appeared on cable TV. I found the movie to be merely good, not great and certainly not the masterpiece people were falling over for. In particular, it seemed that people mistook Sam Rockwell giving two good performances in a technically demanding role as being equivalent to a great one; his performance came nowhere near Jeremy Irons’ superb dual performance in DEAD RINGERS or even Boris Karloff’s in THE BLACK ROOM. I could understand nonetheless how someone who has never actually picked up a science fiction book or seen a movie made before STAR WARS might think it a revolutionary achievement, but for this lifelong reader and viewer of science fiction, it was a letdown. The political subtext in the film that some regarded as a sign of its intelligence is not just simplistic, but has been hammered over and over again in science fiction literature and film alike; the movie isn’t saying anything original about the ethics of biotechnology or the way Big Evil Corporations treat individual consciences that wasn’t already said more effectively in BLADE RUNNER, only with clones replacing androids.  It is in fact a highly derivative film, and I found myself distracted early on by Jones’ insistence on pushing his homages so unsubtly, particularly when Rockwell started doting on his plants like Bruce Dern in SILENT RUNNING. Before I had seen the film I thought maybe Jones had read the Algis Budrys novel Rogue Moon (something I also felt after watching his follow-up film, SOURCE CODE), but I realized when I finally watched that it was actually Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth done in reverse. In that novel, the protagonist (named Duncan!) departs from his family-owned hydrogen extraction base on Titan and arrives on Earth to be cloned in order to continue his mining operations; it is revealed later that his “family” consists of a succession of clones of which he is merely the next generation. Clarke was pilloried by science fiction critics and fans for misunderstanding the nature of cloning, and MOON repeats these very same errors, but this time, the critics didn’t notice or care. It seems a shame that Jones would make such a big deal over how he tried to get the engineering details of mining Helium-3 from the moon correct, when he couldn’t make a similar effort to get the science of cloning right as well, even though it’s far more important to the storyline. For that matter, the ever-annoying sound-in-a-vacuum also helped to negate the film’s pretensions to being hard science fiction. In the final judgement, it’s a movie I wish I could like more, but I instead found myself somewhat let down by, something that happens all too often.