Category: Classic Science Fiction

We Love You, Spider

We Love You, Spider

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Fans and friends of Hugo-winning science fiction writer Spider Robinson were saddened by the news that his daughter Terri died earlier this week after a brave fight with breast cancer. The tragedy is all the greater coming four years after the death of Spider’s beloved wife and frequent co-author Jeanne from a rare form of biliary duct cancer. Robinson has long been one of SF’s most beloved figures, not just for his terrific novels and short stories but for being a delightful presence as a speaker and filk singer at conventions, and even among those of us who have also gone through the tremendous loss of loved ones, it is hard for us to conceive what it must be like to lose the two most important people in your life so soon and so close together.

Spider was one of numerous science fiction and fantasy writers who I first learned about through Canada’s legendary interview program Prisoners of Gravity, a beloved and very much ahead-of-its-time show that helped expose viewers to both up-and-coming and veteran authors, and handled issues and subjects with a mixture of sophisticated intelligence and flip humor (er, humour, we’re talking Canada here). Among the other authors I was introduced to through the show were Robert Sawyer, Neal Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, but Spider always stood out, not just for his striking appearance (think a tall, long-haired Steve Buscemi in a straw hat), but his folksy demeanor and storytelling ability, and-this has always been important to his fans-a sense of humour that was ribald yet intelligent, biting yet gentle. This guy, I thought to myself, is an author to seek out. In short order I bought or took out and read many of his books: Stardance, written in collaboration with his Jeanne, Time Pressure, Mindkiller, Telempath, the collections Melancholy Elephants and User Friendly and of course, the Callahan’s Cross-Time Saloon Series. Oh, my cup runneth over!

But before all of those, I read “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” This was Robinson’s full-throated defense of Robert A. Heinlein, originally delivered as a speech at the 1980 Boston Science Fiction Convention and reprinted in 1992 in the Heinlein tribute book Requiem, edited by Yoji Kondo (along with “Robert,” his more personal reminiscence of his friendship with the man who made him a science fiction fan and inspired him to be a writer). Despite being a self-professed liberal lamb, Robinson enthusiastically  set aflame every straw man argument and criticism made against Heinlein with the cackling glee of Margaret Hamilton, and it’s even more satisfying to read them today in this era of self-righteous Social Justice Carrie Nations decrying Heinlein (often without even bothering to read a single one of his books) for not meeting their Production Code regarding political and social correctness.

Now here’s where the story gets personal. I had read Robinson’s essay during a break from summer school English class, when my teacher told us that for bonus marks, we could write a letter to an author of our choice (living or dead; you could write to Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams if you liked). I was one of two students to do so (the other student chose William S. Burroughs) and decided to write a letter to Robinson, specifically, a reply to “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” I forget exactly what I wrote about, but it was good enough to get an A+ and after sitting down and looking at it for a while, I said to myself “You know what? This is also good enough to send.” So I did. Two months or so later…there came a letter with the return address of Tottering-on-the-Brink, British Columbia. Never heard of that place, who sent this? Well, it turns out Spider Robinson had also thought the letter was good enough…for a reply! And what impressed me the most is that, as my father told me, “he wrote to you as an adult” not a teenager, much less a student. It was an act of kindness and respect I will never forget, as well as a learning moment in how to approach people.

What can us, Spider’s fans, provide other than heartfelt messages of consolation during this tragic time? In “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” Spider said that if you truly want to honor Heinlein’s memory, you should give blood, as much as you can, and that’s what you should do as well. Cancer patients are always need of transfusions due to the side effects of chemotherapy, and some need them more than others due to the type of cancer and how it affects the body and the production of blood cells. If you haven’t signed up to be a bone marrow donor, do so; if you aren’t eligible to be one, get as many people as you know who are to sign up for the registry. If you plan to have kids, also plan to have the umbilical cord donated for stem cell therapy. Donate to local cancer charities, and participate in walks, runs, and other sporting events to raise funds or sponsor those who are participating. Do everything you can to be a friend and a helping hand…even to people who have no clue you exist. Be the sort of good man Spider Robinson was to me more than twenty years ago.

And never lose your sense of humour.

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson

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Writers of hard science fiction, that most rigorously realistic of the genre’s subdivisions, pride themselves on their unwavering commitment to scientific accuracy and adherence to the known laws and facts of the physical universe in their stories, yet they find themselves making a necessary exception for one of the most significant of all its invariants. Since the Theory of Special Relativity has established that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, which has only been further buttressed by experiment and observation, the practitioners of hard science are forced to bend their own principles slightly whenever their stories go beyond our own Solar System. Fortunately, the Great Einstein giveth as much as he taketh away, and the many fascinating predictions and outcomes of both Special and General Relativity have provided the “loopholes” many writers are looking for in trying to explain how their characters can traverse such great distances. In some instances, the stories are specifically about faster-than-light travel itself; the brand-new Christopher Nolan film INTERSTELLAR follows a well-worn path to the stars that science fiction writers have traveled many times before, attempting to explain how FTL or the “warp drive” in terms that are consistent with current scientific knowledge, and using it as a platform for both the stories and themes. The movie has its own pedigree in real-world science as well, being based on a story idea by noted cosmologist Kip Thorne, whose textbook Gravitation, written in collaboration with John Archibald Weaver and Charles Meisner, is cited by friends of mine in the know as the definitive book on the subject . Hopefully, the movie will also pique interest in the written word, getting curious viewers to search out the classic science fiction stories that already grappled with the premise of faster-than-light travel from as solidly scientific and rigorously rational a perspective as possible. With that, we will begin a three-part look at some of the finest works of dealing with the premise in hard science fiction, and what they have to say about the treatment of science and the physical universe in science fiction: Poul Anderson‘s novel Tau Zero, Gregory Benford‘s short story “Relativistic Effects,” and the selected short stories that make up Charles Sheffield’s collection One Man’s Universe.

POUL ANDERSON AND TAU ZERO

It is rather unfortunate that there is only one legitimate film adaptation of Poul Anderson’s novels, and it is a terrible one at that: a truly awful “comedic” German adaptation of his exciting novel The High Crusade. Even so, Anderson, who wrote prolifically at what were usually very high levels of literary quality in as wide a variety of science fiction and fantasy as is possible, has seemingly made his own small mark on science fiction film: when James Cameron’s blockbuster AVATAR was released, many noticed its similarities to Anderson’s celebrated novella “Call Me Joe” (but not his novel The Avatar), something I had myself noticed a few years earlier when Cameron’s project was still in Development Hell and a draft of the screenplay was floating around the Internet. Cameron is not the only filmmaker who seems to have borrowed from Anderson: David Twohy’s PITCH BLACK is quite reminiscent of Anderson’s Fire Time, and the aliens of GALAXY QUEST who take every statement literally seem descended from the Hoka! Anderson created with Gordon Dickson. Fans of both BABYLON 5 and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE should read the stories in Anderson’s Technic History series, to see where the writers for those shows may have learned how to depict the politics of a spacefaring mercantile culture (for that matter, G’Kar is exactly how I imagined Anderson’s Merseians as resembling). Finally, Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR owes a considerable debt to Anderson’s Tau Zero, possibly the Grand Master’s finest book. The cover of my Gollancz copy features a blurb by James Blish hailing it as “the ultimate hard science fiction novel.” While there are other legitimate contenders to that title (Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Gregory Benford’s Timescape among them), I can’t think of another novel that from a purely thematic perspective best exemplifies this particular subgenre. Poul Anderson is usually not thought of as being primarily a hard science fiction writer because he wrote in so many other different genres and sub-genres, but he was one of science fiction’s premiere “world-builders,” writing some of the key essays on how to create scientifically credible alien worlds and planets, and was a master of the “puzzle story,” a variant of the mystery or detective story (which Anderson also wrote prolifically) in which the solution lies in the scientific method. Anderson’s proficiency in these areas as well as in prose writing in general helped produce one of the most masterful works in the genre. Even if one is to argue over whether it is the “definitive” hard science fiction novel, it is the one I would try to introduce to a novice reader to get them interested in the subgenre, and appreciate it as one of literary merit.

The initial premise of the novel is not unlike that of the excellent, underrated Czech science fiction film Ikarie Xb-1 (released in an edited form in North America as Voyage to the End of the Universe), depicting the human drama between members of a space journey to settle the planet located in the star system Beta Virginis. Anderson’s world-building skills are not used this time in the construction of the planet of destination but the vessel of voyage, and this is as much a feat of physics as it is of engineering. As with Thomas Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” (which is itself frequently cited as the definitive hard science fiction short story), the action may take in the confines of a single spaceship but the actual drama takes place against the backdrop of the entire universe, whose laws and limits help define both the outcome of the story and the actions of the characters. The setting is the spaceship Leonora Christina, another tip of the hat to Anderson’s Danish ancestry that recurs throughout his fiction. The real Leonora Christina was a 17th-Century countess, the daughter of the King of Denmark, who spent two decades in solitary confinement as punishment by the royal family for the supposed crimes of her Dutch husband (who was executed), during which time she wrote a celebrated autobiography and became a Danish folk hero, a symbol of stoicism and endurance in the face of long-lasting hardship. Time, and history, seemingly stood still for the real Leonora Christina in the walls of her dungeon cell during her imprisonment, who gave up her freedom for love, just as those who voluntarily sign up for the space journey will find that time will slow down and they will lose touch with hundreds of years of human history once they have completed their journey. Under the leadership of Constable Charles Reymont, a crew of 50, of equal numbers men and women from all races and nationalities, and consisting of highly trained scientists, engineers and other experts, tries to deal with both technical and interpersonal crises when the ship accidentally collides with a nebula on its way out. This unexpected change of course forces the crew to adapt to a new change in its mission as well, and it turns out that there is something even more profound than just the survival of the ship’s crew at stake.

To be excessively pedantic, the Leonora Christina is not really a warp drive, as it does not go faster than light, just 99% of it. The ship is a Brussard Ramjet, a popular spacefaring vessel in science fiction of the period, that continually scoops interstellar hydrogen and other free atoms to fuel the ion engines that propel it outwards through the void. According to the mass-energy equivalence principle that everyone knows by its mathematical shorthand, as the ship continues to gather mass to accelerate itself, it nears the tau zero of the title, where its velocity will finally equal the speed of light. Now, it goes without saying that the Brussard Ramjet itself will likely remain an improbability, if not outright impossibility; as Larry Niven explains in his essay “Bigger Than Worlds” (published in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind) it involves certain absolutes, such as an infinite fuel supply in all directions and 100% efficiency to work properly. But its importance in Tau Zero is as an illustration of the process of how the universe functions, and the evolution of our perception of its workings. We move upward from the classical Newtonian-Maxwellian model to the Einsteinian, first through the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction that bridged classical mechanics with special relativity, and as both the ship and the storyline accelerate in momentum, the wider notions of general relativity (which Einstein formulated by applying his ideas in special relativity to accelerated frames of reference) enter the narrative as well.

In addition to his Scandinavian background, the Pennsylvania-born, Texas-raised, University of Minnesota-educated Anderson also draws proudly and profoundly from his American heritage as well. If you are wondering how you can successfully write a so-called “Space Western” that successfully works as science fiction, then Tau Zero is the book to read. The vivid prose seems to owe much to the classic Western novels of Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer and Zane Grey, and story itself is not like those of such films as STAGECOACH and RED RIVER, about the travails and conflicts of those settling The Open Frontier, and the hero Reymont (not an American but a native of Earth’s Antarctic colonies, strengthening at once that he is a Citizen of the World and a Child of Pioneers) could very well have been played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Joel McCrea. The publication of Tau Zero was regarded by many, according to David Pringle in The 100 Best Science Fiction Novels, as a repudiation of the “New Wave” movement in science fiction, and the “First Salvo” by science fiction’s “Old Guard” in maintaining its traditional literary values. By staying firm to the crisp, straightforward writing style that the genre had long been known for and providing a storyline that is a heir to the pioneering tradition in American literature, Anderson offers an effective counter to the excesses of the New Wave, although this does not mean he avoids literary flourishes. The passages used to explain the novel’s science not only avoid the dryness usually (and more often than not, incorrectly) associated with the hard science sub-genre but sometimes rise to the level of poetic vividness, approaching the language used by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles and other stories to impress the reader with that elementary Sense of Wonder regarding both the majesty of the cosmos. A frequent error made even by those who consider themselves fans of the genre is that hard science fiction is defined by the amount of scientific detail accumulated in the plot, and the degree to which the author explains the science behind it. A good hard SF story may do so but it can also be a fatal mistake, if the writer forgets to provide a compelling story or characters, or if the detail is ruined by one or more errors. Hard science fiction instead focuses on scientific realism, and finds a way to integrate the details and explanation in a non-obtrusive way, without letting them interfere with the essential elements of any good story. Truly great hard science fiction goes beyond escapist entertainment and makes science itself a theme for further thought and discussion. Possibly because of his right-of-center politics or his old-fashioned writing style, likely both, the masterful thematic profundity of Tau Zero and other Anderson works when it comes to the relationship between science and both societies and individuals has remained unexplored.

A friend has cited Tau Zero as having inspired him to become a physicist, with his motto being “the universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be.” This adage not only summarizes the prevailing world-view of hard SF, but Anderson’s own personal and political beliefs as well. Anderson considered himself to be a Libertarian politically, but much of his fiction and essays also display a deep and abiding cultural conservatism, in the sense that he was concerned with the preservation of both historical memory and those institutions and values key to the healthy development of civilization: science, reason, free enterprise and a sense of duty and chivalry. One of the first generation of science fiction writers to have grown up with the original printing of Campbell’s Astounding and its stable of authors, he was also one of those most directly influenced by the writing of Robert A. Heinlein. Like Heinlein, Anderson started out on the Centre-Left, (his early stories “Un-Man and “Sam Hall” are deft satires of McCarthyism and the John Birch mentality), but started moving rightward as the Fifties themselves moved onwards. Tau Zero, like many of Anderson’s later novels (from Orion Will Rise to A Harvest of Stars as well as the novella “Goat Song”) is not only pro-science but pro-civilization, standing directly against the leftist politics and deep cultural pessimism of the New Wave as well as the irrationalism and anti-science attitudes of New Age thinking, which had also lamentably infiltrated the SF community (Anderson was NATIONAL REVIEW’s science fiction critic during this time and he wrote a particularly damning critique of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods for the magazine the same year Tau Zero was published). Just as the laws of science are the same regardless of their frame of reference, so are the laws of human nature; certain rules of political economy and social decorum must continued to be maintained in this Brave New World, in contrast to the “revolutionary” sexual and social attitudes that were supposedly sweeping the country and whose depiction had become commonplace in the genre. Despite the fact that his multinational dramatis personae lives under a world government dominated by Sweden, American-style liberal democracy and free-market economics have ultimately won out (a possibly satirical touch, given the way so much of the American intelligentsia was infatuated with Swedish-style socialism and pacifism at the time), and it is strongly suggested that this is a positive means of maintaining a balance of power in this brave new world, just as the spaceship tries to maintain physical balance itself through the journey. The New Wave movement in science fiction was deeply rooted in revolutionary political and social movements of the time, that sought to “break down barriers” and reform the culture along the lines of Utopian thinking. Early on in Tau Zero, there is the suggestion that the crew of the Leonora Christina will attempt a new community based on free love but the circumstances of their journey as well as of human nature itself prevents it from emerging. At the end, the ship survives the end of this universe and enters a new one through a second Big Bang, but it is strongly implied that the laws of this new universe will be no different than those of the last, just as the the ship’s crew will not only re-perpetuate the human race in this Brave New Universe, but re-establish civilization and the laws that keep it stable and functioning. The universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be. And it will continue to be so, onwards, to the end of time.

Interview: Godzilla Fan and Writer Armand Vaquer

Interview: Godzilla Fan and Writer Armand Vaquer

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With the new Godzilla film scorching up the box office and also proving to be a surprising critical hit as well, we thought this was a good time to consult an expert in the field. Armand Vaquer, author of The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan, has long been a fan of Godzilla and other Japanese giant monsters, and has been active in G-fandom for years. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his time in fandom and shed some light on an often-misunderstood genre and fan subculture.

 

1.Thanks for granting us this interview Armand! Tell us a little first about your own history with Godzilla and your involvement with Japanese fantastic film fandom.
Well, the first time I saw Godzilla was in 1962 when Los Angeles station KHJ-TV Channel 9 ran “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” one afternoon. I was playing outside on our front porch with a friend and his mother yelled from across the fence that Godzilla was coming on television. So he ran off. My mom was standing at the door and I asked her what Godzilla was and she told me that he’s a big dinosaur. That interested me, so I went in and watched it and was hooked. Then, a year later, several friends and I were taken by my parents to see “King Kong vs. Godzilla” at the theater. Funny thing, a few years before she died, my mom told me that they took me to the drive-in to see “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” when I was two years old (that would be 1956). I have no memory of that.
I wrote for G-Fan magazine for nine years, mainly about landmarks and locations used in the movies. I also worked on different projects such as “Godzilla Week” in 2000, wrote Rick Dee’s narrative for the Godzilla float at the 2004 Hollywood Christmas Parade and the History of Godzilla speech for Johnny Grant for the Walk of Fame Dedication. The last two were at the request of Toho. I also organized the “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” plaque at the former location of the studio where Raymond Burr was filmed. It is now an elementary school and the plaque is at the main entrance.
2.The term kaiju (like “steampunk”) gets frequently misinterpreted by those who are aware of the genre but unfamiliar with it; it frequently gets stretched and distorted to refer to any sort of giant monster film regardless of country of origin or any live-action science fiction film or TV show from Japan. For the benefit of our readers, can you explain the kaiju genre to them and how it should be distinguished from the broader genre of tokusatsu?
Well, tokusatsu generally means live-action special effects films of different genres shown on television or theatrically, including kaiju and super-heroes originating from Japan. Kaiju means literally strange creature. Daikaiju just means big strange creature.
3.You’re also the author of The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan. Tell us a little about this book, and how readers should use it.
The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide To Japan is a travel guide tailored to fans of kaiju movies (Godzilla, Gamera, etc.) to provide information on the locations and landmarks used in the movies and where they are, how to get there and what other attractions are nearby of interest. There’s some Ultraman places of interest as well in the book. Where available, I also included some accommodation places. It can be used either as a reference book on what locations and landmarks were used and what movies they appeared in. It is available in print form or as an ebook at Amazon’s Kindle Store. I will be publishing a revised second edition sometime next year. Work has already begun on it.
Many people have written to me that they found it very useful when they were on vacation in Japan.

ArmandTravelGuide
4. Our readers will undoubtedly be very interested to read about your lifelong political work as well; you’ve had quite a fascinating career! Have there been any interesting moments where your political and fan work coincided?
I was on three California national convention delegations for Ronald Reagan (1976, 1980 and 1984) and an area chairman for the Reagan campaigns. My political work tapered off when I got married and when my daughter was born. But the political contacts I have came in handy in getting the “Godzilla Week” and “Godzilla Month” proclamations through the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through. I’ve known Supervisor Michael Antonovich since the 1970s and worked with him on the proclamations. He’s a big fanboy himself, so it was easy to get his help.
I worked as a field representative to Assemblyman Paul T. Bannai, the first Japanese-American to be elected to the state legislature in California, back in the 1970s. Working with him and the Japanese community in the Gardena area was useful in learning how to work with Japanese people. I also learned press work while working for Bannai, which also came in handy in later years.

5. We’ll wrap up by asking you what are your future writing plans, and what sort of future do you see for Godzilla here in the Americas after the critical and commercial success of the new film? And thank you once again!
At present, I am just writing for my blog, Armand’s Rancho Del Cielo and contributing to Monster Island News and working on an updated The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide To Japan.

It appears that Godzilla is a hit and plans are in progress for a sequel. I am guessing that Godzilla as a franchise in America will last about 2-3 movies, provided they don’t muck it up. If they have engaging stories, interesting monster foes for Godzilla to fight and great special effects, the franchise should last several movies. Why not? This may also spur Toho to get back into the kaiju game again. But I think the days of suitmation may be over, or more limited in Japan. Toho demolished their Big Pool during the past ten years, so they will probably go the CGI route.
I think they should let Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. carry the “Godzilla ball” for now and concentrate on reviving their other monsters such as Rodan and Mothra with a combination of models, suits and CGI. Or come up with new monster characters.

Thanks Armand! You can check out Armand’s Rancho Del Cielo for informative updates on Godzilla fandom, California politics, and more, and order The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan from his website or at Amazon Kindle!

 

Futurism and Modernism in Conflict: How Science Fiction Saved the Future

(Quick note: These examples of futurism are provided to give a brief overview of the types of works which reached across from literature to film and are not meant to represent a full accounting of the hundreds of authors and stories that informed the futurist movement between the two wars)

  

     In his seminal work Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins develops a thesis that World War I is responsible for any number of the modern world ills; from the coarsening of public artistic performance to the emergence of Fascism and in particular the horrors of Nazism. This paper will seek to counter some of Eksteins’s contentions and present a secondary analysis of the cultural climate that grew out of the First World War. Alongside the modernist movement there was a second cultural trend that grew out of the First World War. This trend transcended the modernist penchant for nihilism and sought to put a positive and progressive face on the future. Out of this cultural movement grew much of our modern world, our technology, and our modern idea of human equality. The most important thing this cultural trend brought about is how Western society looks at the future. This was a futurist movement; one in which depictions of the future, while not always perfect, were certainly wreathed with hope. This hopeful and powerful message was almost universally accompanied by an open-minded and progressive social and political message. One in which mankind transcends its childhood and the petty bickering that brought about the Great War. This movement predicted man would inherit the stars if only he embraced his fellow man.

      Eksteins laments the rise of the Nazis and the modernist movement believing the ideas of the modernists “in striving for freedoms… have acquired the power of ultimate destruction”[1]. Eksteins’s view of the world is based on a pessimistic belief that modernism had infected all aspects of society’s cultural and social life blood. This modernism would be the foundation for the changes brought about by the war and lead ultimately to the extremes of fascism. The modernist movement was art meant to challenge traditional morals and free man from the constraints of the prior age. This movement sought to replace the old conservative beliefs utterly even if it meant revolution or even war. The rise to power of Hitler brought about a new wave of modernist thought; one that sought to murder tradition and reform society in his image.  It was a movement that lacked a moral compass and those who embraced it saw themselves above the morals of any age.  Hitler would ride this wave of modernism from the Rites of Spring into the Reichstag and bring with him artistic as well as cultural nihilism. “Nazism was a headlong plunge into the future.”[2] Hitler sought to create a new world and a man of the future. A human being divorced from morals owing allegiance only to the nation. This was the culmination of the modernist idea, a man of tomorrow- the nihilistic superman.

      Where modernism invaded the elite levels of society turning the art world upside down and creating spectacle out of art, and monsters out of men, the futurist movement invaded the more pedestrian levels of society.  The penny dreadful gave way to the pulp novel and anthology industry of the early 1920’s. The futurists were just finding their footing after the war. They found a home in the lurid covers of the pulp magazines displacing the aging Gothic horror stories with tales of ray guns and heroes like Buck Rogers.  These new pulp writers rejected both the conservative ethos of the past and the nihilistic ethos of modernism. Instead they embraced a new moral philosophy. This futurist philosophy envisions a different kind of superman than the modernists. The futurist Overman was a moral paragon. He believed in equality not just between men and women, but between the races. He would assert that there was only one race and that was the human race. These new writers wrote about overcoming the short falls of mankind through the application of his intellect. The futurist movement was even embedding itself in the old guard of science fiction writers. H.G Wells’ tone of writing changed dramatically after the war. Moving away from tales that depicted the morose and dark end of the human race or an island full of subhuman monsters that hinted at the base animal nature of man himself, Wells moved into more upbeat and dramatic stories like The Shape of Things to Come in which the future while at times bleak still holds hope for mankind. This different type of science fiction begins to see the light of day at the movies as well. A host of movies with futurist themes begin to crop up targeted at the middle and lower classes. These movies captured the imagination of the people who viewed them and often changed the way the average person thought about how the future would unfold. The culmination of the futurist movement would be a hope and optimism about man’s future.

     Wells lays out an outline for the futurist movement in the introduction of The Shape of Things to Come. Here he discusses the fact that the world must come to grips with its own power and that the time has come for the world to look at itself as one community of men rather than separate countries. “Steam power, oil power, electric power, the railway, the steamship, the aeroplane, transmission by wire and aerial transmission followed each other very rapidly. They knit together the human species as it had never been knit before.”[3] The very essence of futurism is the idea that the human race is an innovative and technologically advanced people who must stand together and stride forward together into the future. Of course this is a very Utopian idea and even Wells realized it would be an idea that could only be accomplished through an application of force which as a pacifist he abhorred. Thus The Shape of Things to Come becomes a treatise on the application of kindly force. This idea of the force for good that protected civilization against the enemies of tolerance and fellowship became almost ubiquitous in futurist literature and informs such modern genre staples as Star Trek’s Federation.

 

     Even before Wells had a chance to write The Shape of Things to Come the ideas of futurism were infecting the pulp literary scene. Anthony “Buck” Rogers (as he was called in the novel) premiered in 1928 in a pulp publication called Armageddon 2419 AD.  This novel by Francis Phillip Nowlan would be an unwitting blue print for the ideas of futurism. It contains all the tropes associated with the movement. It not only had rayguns, flying packs, and rockets, but it also included social commentary. Social commentary would be the staple that bound together the entire futurist movement. Anthony Rogers was also a new type of man. The character had been a soldier in the Great War. He had become an engineer upon coming home and had been thrust into the future because of an accident in a mine. He was a fish out of water. A character who was used to examine and comment on the social and political customs of the future with little or no reason given for why he was doing this. From his perspective we learn about the future and how that future was different from our own time. This is an important part of the futurist model in the early years and this trope would recur time and again as a descriptive methodology.

 

  The women in Nowlan’s novel particularly Wilma Derring are the equals of any man[4]. This was not just a rehash of the “New Woman” feminist from the Victorian period. Wilma Derring and women in the pulps often not only broke stereotypes they were in fact the heroes. Looking at the pulp novel covers one may think these women are little more than damsels who were in need of saving. That was advertising what the reader discovered inside was often an entirely different story.  In his book Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965, Eric Leif Davin contends that in the 1920s and 1930s women writers in particularly feminists often wrote for the pulp science fiction market and brought in very active and powerful female characters. “In their stories we find women as social reformers, abolishing war, and transforming government and society.”[5] This speaks to both the influence of women in the early futurist movement and the power of their ideology which is a polar opposite of that of modernism. While the contributions of these early female authors would be forgotten and even written out of the history of science fiction during the more conservative 1950s their contribution and humanizing of the genre early on gave the futurist movement a more socially conscious foundation. Strong female characters would persist in the literature of the movement even if they were not translated into visual depictions on the pulp covers or in the movies. 

 

      Besides the feminist overtones these novels also introduced the common science fiction trope of the authoritarian and fascist government that had to be overthrown by the heroes. This could be viewed as a direct assault against the nihilism of the modernist movement. Hitler could have easily fit into the role of any of the dictator type characters that had become a common pulp science fiction trope by the 1930s.  Ming the Merciless who was Flash Gordon’s nemesis was particularly prophetic. While Ming could be seen as a very direct allusion to the “Yellow Menace” his appearance and attitude is much more in keeping with Hitler and Nazism. These villains began to take on even more Nazi like traits in the science fiction serials as the run up to the Second World War began. Wells’s novel The Shape of Things to Come would be translated into film in 1936. It too would prophetically predict the atrocities of men like Hitler, warning the viewer that “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”[6]. 

   Besides the social aspects of the futurist movement, which are important, the main thrust of the movement is the attempt to envision the future. Technological advancements and how these achievements would revolutionize the future is the main aspect which sets it apart from the other social and cultural movements. We know that the plups made everything from rockets to ray guns popular, but it was often the small things that made the most impact on the audiences. Small innovations first visualized from reading about them or seeing them in movies would entrance the public. If in a year or two after seeing or reading about these innovations they were suddenly part of real life the audience became more willing to suspend their disbelief and believe that futurism really did hold the key to the future. Little known today the movie Transatlantic Tunnel featured a host of time saving and entertaining futuristic devices that were merely background props, but would soon become reality. Released in 1935 the movie depicts the building of a railway tunnel under the Atlantic between Great Britain and the United States. The movie features innovation that was unheard of in 1935. Video phones, pocket sized radio phones, live feed global television etc are all seen in the film as a common and unremarkable part of the future[7].  The movie is grounded in such a way that it plays out not as some futuristic epic, but as a time just a few years into the future. The clothing and the sets are familiar to the viewer. These inventions are treated as inevitable eventualities not fantastic creations of an unreachable and unknowable distant future. This is the allure of futurism and this is how it took hold in the minds of average people. They expected the world to conform to this new model. This model allowed the creation of today’s world a world in which progress is inevitable. Futurism provided the modern world with that expectation of the newer better model of ever invention just around the corner.

  
       The futurist movement was not a movement that attracted as much attention as the modernist movement. It was a movement outside of the society elites and spoke directly to the middle class. It crept along quietly infecting the masses with ideas of ray guns, rockets, cell phones, and computers. It was a movement that spoke to the future and offered to people ways to look at society in new and innovative ways. Here was a secret almost furtive movement that became an avalanche. The Futurist movement slowly fulfilled its promises with one technological innovation after another. A man transported in time from 1880 to 1940, a mere 60 years, would barely have been able to fathom the technological changes. These changes were heralded not by the modernists, but by the futurists.  Middle class kids who grew up on Buck Rogers’s pulps and H.G. Wells novels in the 1920s and 1930s became engineers and scientists who made their childhood dreams into reality. The same kids who went to the movies to watch Metropolis and The Transatlantic Tunnel would create technological wonders that rivaled anything they watched on the movie screen. 

These same kids would grow up and face off with the modernist ideology of Hitler and Nazis. World War Two would be the climax in a struggle not just for territory or political power it would be ultimately a struggle between two competing philosophies. These philosophies could not exist in harmony. They were natural enemies in a struggle to tame the future. Modernism rejected the past, but sought to remake the future in a cacophony of violence and disruption. Futurism also sought to throw off the conservative past, but sought a future of progress both technologically and socially. Futurism did not wish to throw away morality it sought a new morality one more humane than what had gone before. This did not mean that the futurist idealist would not fight to protect the future they envisioned. Wells had laid the ground work in The Shape of Things to Come. The future was worth fighting for and it was the futurist movement, born out of the conflict of the First World War, that provided the inspiration for the machines that would eventually end the Second World War, and begin the modern age.

  

End Notes

 

 

1. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000),14.

2 . ibid, 303.

3.  H.G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come (London: Gollancz, 2011), 22.

4. Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon–2419 A.D. (Project Gutenburg.Urbana:University of Illinios, 2010), http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/32530/pg32530.txt (accessed November 30, 2013).

5.Eric Leif Davin, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 234.

6.  Things to Come, Directed by William Cameron Menzies, 1936 (Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 2001), DVD.

7.  Transatlantic Tunnel, Directed by Maurice Elvey, 1935 (Hollywood, Calif: PRS Productions. 2009), DVD.

 

THE OUTER LIMITS: A Fifty Year Tribute

THE OUTER LIMITS: A Fifty Year Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ender’s Game: Why You Should Not Boycott This Movie

Ender’s Game: Why You Should Not Boycott This Movie

I was having a conversation at lunch with a friend about his plans to boycott the Ender’s Game movie.

My first thought was why do I care if an older, white, and religious man dislikes gay marriage, or even gays? My own father doesn’t like gays and certainly disapproves of gay marriage. I still show up at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fourth of July even though I disagree with his stance on that issue. I certainly have more reason to boycott these events then I do anything dealing with Orson Scott Card.  It isn’t as if Card is a politician who has power to change laws, neither is his movie actively promoting an anti-gay agenda…

 

When I replied to my friend that I was planning to see the movie anyway because I don’t care if Card has an opinion contrary to my own. My friend answered by saying , “Because Card is a famous person his beliefs can sway public opinion. That makes seeing this movie wrong.”

OK, I understand his point. Does that mean I need to boycott everyone famous I disagree with if they speak openly about their beliefs?  I find Mark Zuckerberg’s politics disgusting, but I still use Facebook. I find Jim Carrey’s beliefs about  guns disquieting, but I will still go see Kickass 2. Do I have an obligation to boycott people because they have opinions I don’t agree with and who are famous? I think the right answer is that … I should argue my own beliefs in public if I have a chance, even publicly challenge Card when possible. Go out of my way to make my own opinions as public as his, but boycott? No. If I boycotted everyone I disagree with I would never get to see another movie, or read another book again.  No-one shares my opinions 100% of the time or even close to 100%, everyone has an opinion someone else wants to boycott. We live in a marketplace of ideas. Ideas should be in as much of a laissez-faire environment as we can make it that is the beauty of freedom of expression.

On the other hand, I would boycott any movie or book Orson Scott Card writes if it preaches that gays are part of a demonic conspiracy to destroy America….Yes. Here is the level that meets the boycott criteria. Direct and open preaching of something I find reprehensible. I would not pay money to encourage that sort of behavior so by default I would be boycotting it. However, I don’t recall  anything of that sort in Ender’s Game. Also, as far as I know Card is not using the money he makes from the movie to prevent gay marriage or to make being gay illegal. That might be another valid reason to boycott.  In the same vein if someone on the Left makes a movie advocating socialism, I will boycott something like that because they are directly supporting in that work something I find to be ethically wrong.

If Ender’s Game is as faithful to the book as I have heard, then boycotting it will harm the future of science fiction at the movies. Do you want to continue seeing movies that totally change the premise of an author’s work? Remember…..Starship Troopers. I think we need to step back and realize that not everyone is going to share your opinions, and that it is alright to eat food at their restaurant, watch their movies, or even read their books when they don’t.

Card himself has weighed in on this controversy. I think it is a sufficient explanation  of his position and one I can live with.

“Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot.  The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”

Orson Scott Card

 

The Europa Report: The Future on two fronts

After seeing the Europa Report (I thought it was a fantastic film), I believe we are seeing the future on two fronts.

The SciFi Front:

This film was an indie project. It was well written and acted. The special affects was neat and showed how hard space travel can be.  It show one thing and it showed that  good SciFi can be good without warp speed, aliens and shooting people up.

Traditional SciFi can be boring. How much shoot em up types can you show? How many actors with plastic foreheads can people tolerate?

What the Europa shows that with a good story, a show or movie like The Europa Report can succeed.

The Space Exploration Front:

On the space exploration front, I believe that deep space exploration will not be done by Governments, but by private industry.  With budgets bursting around the world, space exploration will not be a priority.  Private industry will take up the slack.  It will happen when they do it themselves or by forming partnerships with different companies or with various Governments.

Will it be good or bad who knows.

The Real Thing: An Intellectual Defense of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World

The Real Thing: An Intellectual Defense of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World

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If you were to survey most of the reviews on the Internet, you probably wouldn’t realize that The Thing From Another World has not only long been considered to be a classic, but is one of the most important science fiction films ever made. And if you’re using the Internet exclusively as a resource, that’s part of the whole problem. Although even the very best science fiction films of the Fifties have had to struggle against unfair blanket criticisms and mischaracterizations, the case of The Thing from Another World is especially tragic, as not only is it a landmark film in the genre, it was one of the few science fiction films to attain a high degree of acclaim and respectability from mainstream critics and fans alike. Whereas it used to routinely be on the top of all-time best lists in the genre, it now rarely does so; instead it has become the object of sneering derision and contempt by genre snobs who are upset that it’s not exactly like the original novella and by amateur armchair critics who have an ignorant and uninformed bias against older films in general and older science fiction films in specific. A portent of this shift in perspective came when the film’s 50th anniversary rolled around in 2001, an occasion that should have merited a special edition DVD; instead, it received a bare-bones release, which is inexcusable considering the DVD was released by Warner Brothers (the film was originally released by RKO), which is well known for giving its classic films library the deluxe treatment. That this oversight was not rectified for the film’s 60th anniversary only further compounds the injustice being done to a film of such recognized historical and artistic importance, that it had previously been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

 

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Ironically, much of this decline in reputation stems from a tribute paid by some of the film’s greatest admirers. Like many other science fiction films of the era it was remade in the 1980s, and the reputation of John Carpenter’s The Thing has since gone from being merely gross to grossly overrated. Thanks to a combination of nostalgia, the baffling cult for director John Carpenter, and the contemporary attitude that views special effects and shock value as being more important than story and intellectual content, it may now be the most overrated science fiction film of all time. The attitude of fanboys across the Internet appears to be that this is one movie that is completely above criticism and is to be regarded as sacrosanct, and that one is obliged to share this opinion if one wishes to retain one’s credentials as either a science fiction or horror fan. Not satisfied with merely rescuing the reputation of “their” movie, they have also engaged in a spiteful campaign of denouncement against the 1951 film, waged on blogs, message boards, and review sites, not just aimed at diminishing its reputation but defaming its champions. When defending the original film, I have been personally attacked and told that I am not a “true” science fiction fan for preferring it, ostensibly because a “true” fan would only prefer that adaptation which hews more closely to the original premise in the source material for both films, John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” Almost invariably, during these discussions, it becomes clear that either the Carpenter/Campbell adherent has obviously not seen the original movie at all or are basing their judgments on a single viewing many ages ago, riddled as they are with factual inaccuracies about the film and featuring the same tired, unsupported talking points, repeated over and over again without a single original thought provided.

  I will not, however, concentrate on comparing the two movies. For one thing, too much has already been written about the 1982 film; one of the most annoying habits of its cultists is the way they seemingly insist on making the movie the subject of every piece of film commentary on the Internet, and try to shoe in the most strained or ludicrous comparisons simply as an excuse to mention it. More importantly, I am far more interested in praising than burying, and so my primary focus will be in the defense of the original 1951 film, and in addressing the major criticisms that have been levelled at it over the years. As shall be seen, most of these are wrongheaded in nature, borne out of either misinterpretation or ignorance. The major controversy over the film, for many years, was over whether it was directed by the name on screen, Christian Nyby, or its producer Howard Hawks; it has now been well established that Hawks was not just the director of the film but supervised the entire creative process of the film closely to its completion. With the knowledge that one of the greatest American directors of all time is responsible for the film, it’s possible to provide a defense of the film based on its artistic merits in order to demolish other controversies swirling around it, which have to do with its qualities both as a film and as a work of science fiction.

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The most controversial change, one which science fiction fans have debated for years, is the elimination of the Protean, shape-changing nature of the alien in the original novella. Literary purists, of course, abound everywhere and tend to be extremely sensitive whenever a cinematic adaptation fails to be literally faithful to the letter of a particularly beloved or acclaimed literary work. In the realm of science fiction, The Thing from Another World is hardly alone in setting off purist hackles. To use two more examples, the film version of Starship Troopers is notorious for angering Heinlein fans by turning a thoughtful and profound social and psychological mediation on the role of military duty in society into a gory, cartoonish action film, and George Pal’s adaptation of Charles Finney’s The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao has been criticized for watering down the dark and sardonic portrait of humanity into a family-friendly fantasy film. But maintaining that a film adaptation must be completely faithful to its source material, and that it’s otherwise worthless if it fails to be so, is a thoroughly unrealistic assumption that belies a cultural and cinematic illiteracy. What a good adaptation should try to do is be at least as good as its source material, and I repeat, at the very least. Ideally, it should also improve upon it in the transition to a new format. On these grounds, The Thing From Another World ranks with Casablanca, The Godfather, Jaws and The Treasure of Sierra Madre as examples of film adaptations that are superior to their source material. Furthermore, along with Blade Runner, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes and not least of all, 2001: a Space Odyssey, it demonstrates that an outstanding science fiction film can be made from a highly loose adaptation as well.

Those attacking the 1951 film for deviating too much from the original story are being not just hypercritical then,  but hypocritical; the same denunciation only gets launched against works such as Starship Troopers and Dune which were not only widely read by a mass audience but had massive cult followings surrounding them or their authors.  This hypocrisy is further evident by the way younger film buffs often list the remake of The Thing alongside those of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Fly (1986) as a trio of re-toolings of 1950s science fiction films that are allegedly superior to the original while repeating that fidelity to the original is one of the reasons to prefer the Carpenter film (why not call it John W. Campbell’s The Thing instead, then?). Yet not only are the original film versions of The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers much closer to their original source material than their subsequent remakes, they’re arguably even more faithful than Carpenter’s film is to Campbell’s novella! Even more disingenuous is the way some of these same people will praise Paul Verhoeven specifically for being unfaithful to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers by choosing to “satirize” the material instead of filming a respectful adaptation! Regardless of genre, what ultimately matters is if an adaptation works as a movie, no matter how loose the treatment. The notorious 1995 film of The Scarlet Letter wasn’t a bad movie because of its ill-advised “modernization” of the film’s themes; it’s a bad movie because it was badly done on most levels. On the other hand, the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights (adapted by the team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who also wrote many of Howard Hawks’ greatest films is a great movie in spite of covering only the first half of the book and making significant alterations to both the plot and characters.

As it should be evident by now, when you translate a story from one medium to another, accommodations and modifications must be made, and this is something the more uninformed and obsessive members of the fan community never seem to learn. These criticisms of The Thing From Another World, which have dogged it since its original release, are among the first manifestations of the so-called “fanboy attitude” which has become all the more obvious in our Internet era, where comic book movies have become their own genre and regularly incite vitriol from fans who grow upset at the slightest deviation or artistic liberty taken with “their” books. A common thread with these discontents is the insistence that film adaptations must be made for the original audience or fanbase for a book instead of taking the broader public into account, a suicidal move for any film production.  The attacks on The Thing from Another World by certain members of the science fiction community are particularly revealing of their insularity and how out of touch they can sometimes be with outside concerns and realities (granted, this is true of the members of any fan movement that grows too obsessed and inward-looking).  The reverence accorded to John W. Campbell at the time, for his role as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction in which he discovered and mentored many of the great science fiction writers and helped push the genre towards literary maturity, was certainly a reason why hostility was so high; note that The Day the Earth Stood Still was itself a very loose adaptation of a story by Campbell’s predecessor at Astounding, Harry Bates, yet it has received almost none of the same criticism (except for dropping the story’s famous final line).

As for the changes made to nature of the alien, one must take into account that this was the first science fiction film to take the notion of extraterrestrial life seriously, and was being made not primarily for science fiction fans, but for the mass audience which was largely unfamiliar with written science fiction, much less the variations of alien biology that science fiction writers had already explored. Despite being derided for the abandonment of the shapeshifting motif, it was the right movie at precisely the right moment to introduce the wider public to what science fiction fans had been reading for the past twenty years. The alien not only did not need to retain its metamorphic nature, but to have done so would have been a distraction, too eccentric for an audience not yet familiar with the notion of extraterrestrial life. Subsequent films, beginning with Jack Arnold’s outstanding 1953 film It Came From Outer Space, would run with the idea, but nearly every science fiction film making use of the premise of alien possession or physical assimilation of human bodies, even those of such quality as both the 1956 and 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has run into narrative or logical roadblocks and loopholes that are more easily avoided in the prose fiction format.

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It is now known that at least one point early in production, Hawks did consider using the shape-changing aspect before discarding it, wisely so given the reasons given above, as well as the technical limits of the era and the budgetary limits afforded him. Those who claim it could have been done easily are frankly uninformed of the great difficulties involved in film production in any given period. The early drafts of the script also describe an alien very close to that featured in the novella, albeit taller, blue-skinned, with three red eyes, a sucker mouth, and a Medusa-like tangle of writhing tendrils for hair. Add a third eye to Star Trek‘s Salt Vampire, and you’ll have a good idea as to what the original script’s Thing looked like. Obviously, a much simpler creature was chosen; it turned out that in order to have it interact properly with actors, they needed to go with the man-in-suit-and-makeup route. This is a plain fact numerous later films would find out as well, much to the consternation of science fiction writers who point out the unlikelihood of humanoid beings evolving elsewhere. Ignorant and uninformed temporal snobs have condemned the film for featuring a humanoid “lumbering monster,” although curiously, the humanoid aliens of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, etc. don’t seem to provoke similar reactions from them, for the most part (nor do they seem to mind the “lumbering monsters” of all of today’s unimaginative and lookalike zombie movies, all of which owe at least a partial debt to The Thing From Another World, given that George Romero has credited the film as an influence on Night of the Living Dead ). Moreover, special effects technology had not advanced to the point where the sort of on-screen transformations demanded by the original story were possible, and even if they had been attempted, the multiple special effects and make-up jobs on different actors would have pushed the budget and schedule beyond the realm of economic viability. The sort of time-lapse effects that had transformed Lon Chaney into The Wolf Man, or the tricks with colored filters that turned Frederic March into Mr. Hyde were hardly up to the task, and even the late Ray Harryhausen, in his autobiography An Animated Life, claims he had offered them his services, although the obvious expenses involved in using stop-motion resulted in his getting brushed off early on in production.

One also wonders how many of those condemning the film for being an overly loose adaptation of its source material have actually bothered to read the original novella or indeed, to actually watch the original film. Although outwardly having seemingly little to do with “Who Goes There,” The Thing From Another World is more accurately described as an expansion of the first act of Campbell’s novella; nearly every aspect of the novella that reappears in the film is to be found in the first five chapters. It is during this act that the alien is retrieved, thawed, rampages through the Antarctic base, and is finally dispatched when it’s simultaneously torn apart by dogs and fried in an improvised electrical trap. Even such aspects of the film as the arguments over what to do with the frozen body of The Thing, the rapid clicking of the Geiger counter signaling its approach, and the suggestion that it can read minds are to be found in these first few chapters. What you won’t find is the shape-changing aspect that the fanboys hype as the whole raison d’etre for the entire story, and the absence of which supposedly makes the movie worthless. It is only during Chapter Six that we learn after the fact that the creature had been transforming itself during its fight with the dogs in the midst of a long-winded discourse on its physiology and biochemistry, making for some decidedly sloppy storytelling. The entire novella, in fact, suffers from severe deficiencies throughout: flimsy characterization, flat and unrealistic dialog, and the aforementioned sloppy story construction, as well as a simplistic three-act structure that results in a disjointed narrative where both the pedantic and the over-abbreviated mix uneasily. The 1982 film not only carried over many of those weaknesses, but wound up bungling the remaining strengths in the name of shock value and story expediency. Although parts are admittedly reasonably suspenseful, much of the lasting reputation of “Who Goes There” rests on that of Campbell’s as an editor (where he had no equal) and the central concept itself. Sad to say, but Campbell was much better at conceiving story ideas and assisting other writers than he was at writing himself; even his best works (this one and “Twilight”) are highly flawed, heavy on description and exposition, and dependent on the momentum of their ideas while being feather-light on characterization and narrative.

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Those same areas where “Who Goes There” is deficient in, The Thing From Another World excels at. Despite the criticisms leveled against it by purists, the screenplay of The Thing From Another World is considerably better written than its source material. Thanks to the formidable team of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, the characters are realistic and vividly drawn and their conflicts, motivations and personalities form the crux of the drama and the thrust of the narrative. The dialog, as one would expect of a Hawks film, is rich, snappy and if not exactly realistic, fulfills our expectations of how great dialog should sound like. The story keeps running non-stop with barely a moment’s breath, and while the film has its share of technical explanations, it never stoops to long-winded discourse. It’s surprising that seemingly no film scholar has made a study comparing Howard Hawks and Joss Whedon, because everything fans consider original to Whedon can be found in the Hawks canon, and nowhere is it more obvious than in this film: an emphasis on ensemble casts instead of leads; a running theme on the need for teamwork and cooperation in the face of adversity that results in a focus on group dynamics and conflict as a source of drama; strong female characters that wind up taking dominant positions in male-dominated organizations; swiftly choreographed action scenes, and of course, sparkling, witty dialogue delivered in a fast, overlapping style. Beyond the script and direction, the film also features marvelous performances by the entire cast (my personal favorites being those by Dewey Martin as the enthusiastic and ingenious crew chief, and John Dierkes as the physically and intellectually imposing Dr. Chapman), outstanding cinematography by Russell Harlan, and a chilling score by the versatile Dmitri Tiomkin. It’s no wonder then that the film has not only been beloved not just by a generation of science fiction fans, but revered by film critics and cinema buffs who are not necessarily themselves fans of the genre. Any film which is able to cross several different spheres of fandom and artistic interest to gain not just an avid following, but critical respectability must be doing something right.

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While The Thing From Another World is not just good but great film making, and on that level, an improvement on its source material, is it good science fiction? This is where the discussion gets particularly controversial, and even more interesting. Some have opined that the elimination of the shape-changing element also robbed the film of its credibility as science fiction, but such assertions belies not just a wrong-headed attitude toward assessing the genre but a profound ignorance of it as well. A novel premise is not enough to make something good science fiction; it’s the execution of the premise that counts. When someone sneers at the “intellectual carrot” of The Thing From Another World while pointing to the shape-changer in the novella as an example of what constitutes “good” science fiction, you can rest assured you’re dealing with the sort of attitude Kurt Vonnegut satirized with his character of Kilgore Trout, where a bad writer gains a fervent following amongst simple-minded and unsophisticated fans due to his wildly imaginative ideas. If they dislike the vegetable alien of The Thing, do they feel the same about those in Day of the Triffids and At the Mountains of Madness, to say nothing of Zhann from Farscape or Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy? In his collection Before the Golden Age, Isaac Asimov calls the film “financially successful but science-fictionally contemptible,” yet in the same volume, he rhapsodizes over how he was scared by the humanoid plant monsters conceived by Murray Leinster for his story “Proxima Centauri” and how they seemed like such an earth-shattering concept to him. So apparently, this snobbish attitude towards the film has little to do with its actual merits, and everything to do with its not being exactly like the original story (or not being the Carpenter film).

As indicated by its name, science fiction should deal in some way with science itself, but good science fiction is not about ideas per se, but science’s relationship with individuals and societies, and its speculations need a firm ground in scientific reality. On these grounds, the film version of the story more than passes the test. The Thing From Another World is the thinking person’s monster movie, the first film to seriously contemplate the nature of extraterrestrial life, and it remains one of the most intelligent and adult treatments of the subject matter. On the surface, the reduction of the original alien to an intelligent humanoid plant seems base and simplistic, but such a simplification made it more approachable to viewers in 1951, and further allowed the film makers to explain the possibilities of extraterrestrial life to members of the audience unfamiliar with the concept. The script uses the same elements of analogy and induction that Darwin used in The Origin of Species to make the idea of intelligent life evolving elsewhere in the universe seem credible and believable. It first draws an analogy from the biology of its titular alien to plant life found on Earth, making comparisons to carnivorous plants, as well as drawing on then-current speculation about the possibility of communication between plant life, and then extrapolates from this to create a scenario about another planet where intelligent life evolved from vegetation instead of from animals. One of my greatest annoyances regarding criticisms of The Thing From Another World come from those who literally consider the alien to be a giant carrot based on a single line that was not only obviously intended as a joke (had it been in a Joss Whedon film, they would have considered it the pinnacle of wit), but in a sequence that makes it clear that the alien is not literally to be regarded as a walking vegetable, but that it has its closest Earthly equivalent to terrestrial plant life. Hawks and his writers had been responsible for both some of the greatest comedies and some of the finest dramas Hollywood had produced up to that time; they not only knew what was funny and what wasn’t, but when it was appropriate to interject humor into a drama. They also understood that when writing science fiction for the screen, you can’t have characters go at length explaining the technical background for your story without sacrificing dramatic effectiveness in the process. The type of lengthy discourse on alien biology in Campbell’s story, if translated word for word on film, would stop the movie dead. Good science fiction writing tries to find a way to capture the “shop talk” of actual scientists, as it would of any class of working professional, as a means of almost invisibly making the science understandable, and keeping it firmly grounded in realism (the best example of this technique for the screen probably being Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain, scripted by Nelson Giddings).

 

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Another major annoyance comes from the other major controversy swirling around the film, that it is somehow “anti-science” on the basis of the Carrington character. According to some critics, the film posits an ideological dichotomy between science and the military, rather like that in Robert Wise’s The Day Earth Stood Still from the same year; more often than not, they negatively compare the Hawks-Nyby film, where the scientist Carrington stubbornly tries to protect the obviously dangerous alien from destruction, to the Wise film, where nationalism and militarism, particularly the American variety, are openly attacked and Michael Rennie’s benevolent visitor finds a kindred spirit in Sam Jaffee’s gentleman physicist. What they may really be objecting to is not an unrealistic portrayal of scientists in the film, but one that is too realistic. Carrington had his real-life counterparts in the likes of Linus Pauling, whose commitment to pacifism resulted in blindness to the very real dangers presented by communism and the atrocities it perpetrated, or even outright traitors such as physicist Klaus Fuchs who sold nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union out of ideological zeal. Additionally, critics always seem to conveniently forget the positive depiction of the other scientists in the film, particularly John Dierkes’ heroic Professor Chapman, who almost immediately allies himself with Hendry and his men once the facts are made obvious to him, and Professor Voorhees, who starts out apolitical on the issue but soon sides with Hendry and Chapman as well. They may be viewed as standing in for such patriotic scientists as Vannevar Bush, who re-oriented American science policy after the war by linking it with national defense, and Robert A. Millikan, the Nobel Prize-winning conservative Republican physicist who bucked much of his party by being a strong anti-isolationist and advocating early entry into World War II.

Furthermore, the scientists in The Thing From Another World are regarded as equals to the military, both by the film and the characters themselves; they are every bit as brave and resourceful as the soldiers themselves, who in turn are in awe of their knowledge and expertise and realize that they have an immense responsibility in protecting the nation’s most valuable citizens at this remote base.  Certainly, the scientists in The Thing From Another World fare much better in their depictions than not just the one-dimensional antisocial malcontents in Carpenter’s remake, but than the lone scientist character in Ridley Scott’s Alien, who turns out to not only be the film’s true villain (or rather, a proxy for the actual bad guys), but not even human! Both scientific and military cultures work closely side by side in Hawks’ film, and ultimately with each other once they reach common consensus among most of their members (even Carrington winds up siding with the military top brass, when it opposes Hendry’s actions), and demonstrate a respect for each other’s work and abilities. Lying between these two worlds is my personal favorite character in the movie, the crew chief played by Dewey Martin, who enthusiastically makes use of the latest technology (radar and Geiger counters) and plays a pivotal role in building the trap that destroys the monster. The supposed ideological dichotomy between the forces of science and reason and those entrusted with defending and protecting the country is shown to be a false one in the film, as much as it is in real life.

 

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The Thing From Another World is not only not anti-science in specific, it is not anti-intellectual in general, as its critics also claim. As Jacques Rivette has noted, a running motif through Hawks’s film oeuvre is the celebration of pragmatic intelligence, where educated professionals must use their intellectual skills in confrontation with the external world (like Frank Capra, Hawks had an engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology), and try to make sense of it. Some of his other films also featured intellectuals or academics as main characters, often times in a group or institutional setting: zoologist Cary Grant who works at a museum in Bringing Up Baby, Gary Cooper and his fellow encyclopedia researchers, who all live together in a single home in Ball of Fire, and chemist Cary Grant again, at the university in Monkey Business, Hawks’ only other foray into science fiction. Characters also reveal their own hidden intellectual talents underneath a veneer of seeming normality or simplicity, even vulgarity, as do Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Although Margaret Sheridan from The Thing From Another World may fall in this category as well, the male characters in The Thing From Another World also reveal a heretofore unrevealed intelligence, that becomes more apparent once they work in concert with other highly-trained and skilled specialists towards their common goal.

 What makes this film particularly pertinent to the Hawks canon is this emphasis on group intelligence and teamwork, the pooling of intellectual skills and abilities to finish a task or goal upon which their survival hinges. Although Kenneth Tobey’s Pat Hendry is the nominal hero, he finds himself reliant on the rest of his men, as well as the scientists on the base, to stop the menace before him. Carrington, meanwhile, symbolizes not the dangers of intelligence but those of hubris, not realizing that in a time of crisis, he must cooperate with those he considers “below” him. For all his extolling of pure reason, Carrington, like many other such real-life individuals (as well as fictional characters up to and including Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory), is incapable of being reasoned with by or cooperating with his fellow man, although he expects to be able to do so with the alien creature who has already killed his colleagues (again, the allegory of the “useful idiot” who despises his own country but thinks of the Soviet Union as a great utopia rears itself)! The failure to cooperate, or inability to reason, is regularly punished in the Hawksian universe. The criminal gang in Scarface: The Shame of a Nation falls apart because of the collective stupidity of its members, particularly titular gang boss Paul Muni, whereas in Red River, the stubbornness of John Wayne’s character and refusal to face facts threatens the survival of a cattle drive.

Another blind spot in criticisms of The Thing From Another World is that they focus exclusively on Carrington’s failures, and not those of the military, whose individual and collective errors are what results in the creature’s thaw and impedes its capture, and whose higher command actually instructs to preserve the alien when individual lives are at stake (an idea which would be revived in both Alien and its sequel Aliens). Nor is Carrington a completely unsympathetic figure; Andrew Sarris has described the prototypical Hawksian hero as a “learned man concerned with the quest for knowledge…subjected to the inhuman excesses of the modern world” and this makes Carrington the perfect definition of a tragic hero in the Hawks lexicon. He is someone who cannot grasp that in this particular situation and environment, he must adapt to and confront these “inhuman excesses” instead of working against those who fight them, and put aside his quest of knowledge, even temporarily, so that the battle must be won. In many ways, this is in itself reflective of the tragedy of the contemporary intelligentsia, resisting social and economic realities in the name of high-minded ideology, with often tragic results for themselves and the rest of the world.

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We have in The Thing From Another World perhaps the best example of this thematic motif of “pragmatic intelligence” that Rivette identifies as running throughout Hawks’s work, and it is a shame that he ventured only once again into science fiction (and this time, for purely comedic purposes), as it is a theme that particularly invites a science-fictional treatment. While it may be regrettable that Hawks only turned his talents twice to the cinema of the fantastic, it is perhaps not coincidental that when he did so, it was in the field of science fiction, a genre as dependent on story realism and logic as Hawks’ own brand of cinema. As Rivette himself notes, the Hawksian universe is one of rigid laws whose inhabitants must learn to navigate through rational means; logical thought in this universe, according to Rivette, “is not some cold intellectual activity but proof that the body is a coherent whole, harmoniously following the consequences of an action out of loyalty to itself.” But as Rivette further notes, The Thing From Another World turns this universe upside down: “the mask is finally off: in the confined grip of the universe, some men of science are at grips with a creature worse than inhuman…and their efforts are directed toward fitting it into the logical framework of human knowledge.”

The conclusion we can draw from Rivette’s assessment is provocative. Every character in The Thing From Another World, regardless of their occupation or level of education must ultimately learn how to think like a scientist in order to survive. Since this creature does exist in this universe, it must follow its laws, and it must be possible to place it in the aforementioned “framework of human knowledge.” To defeat it, one cannot rely on muscle, but on intellect, and the application of the scientific method, as the team finds out, investigating the nature of the enemy, finding out through trial and error what its strengths and weakness are, what can and cannot kill it, and ultimately applying scientific knowledge to a final feat of engineering (such as in the case of The Manhattan Project itself) that will allow for a decisive victory. Although the film is certainly right-of-center in its implicit politics (Hawks, Nyby, and co-writer Lederer were all prominent Hollywood Republicans), it ultimately defends science and reason, both as the weapons of defense and tools of survival needed to win this Cold War.

Despite its shoddy DVD presentation, the current owners of The Thing From Another World have nonetheless made it readily available through regular airings on Turner Classic Movies, seemingly the only channel with integrity, where it is the frequent favorite of guest programmers (including John Carpenter, of course) who rhapsodize over the impact it had on them as children. It has even more to offer for the intelligent adult viewer who demands that their science fiction be thought-provoking as well as entertaining; they will find a witty, exciting and frightening thriller awaiting for them, one that stands up not just to multiple viewings, but multiple readings as well. Hopefully, someday, one of the few truly great science fiction films will receive the deluxe home video presentation that it richly deserves.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Di Fate, Vincent (2012). “It Crept Out of Bob’s Basement.” In Filmfax no.129.

 

 

Hardy, Phil (1984) The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (1st edition).

 

 

Harryhausen, Ray and Dalton, Tony (2003). Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life.

 

 

McCarthy, Todd (2000). Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.

 

 

Newsom, Ted (2000) “Retrospect: The Thing From Another World.” In SPFX no.9

 

 

Rivette, Jacques (1972) “The Genius of Howard Hawks.” In Focus on Howard Hawks, (Joseph McBride, Ed.), pp. 70-77.

 

 

Sarris, Andrew (1972). “The World of Howard Hawks.” In Focus on Howard Hawks, (Joseph McBride, Ed.), pp. 35-64

 

 

 

Interview: Dave Sindelar of Fantastic Film Musings and Ramblings

Interview: Dave Sindelar of Fantastic Film Musings and Ramblings

There are numerous film review sites on the Internet specializing in science fiction and fantasy cinema, but few are as ambitious or as comprehensive as that of Dave Sindelar. For more than a decade now, he has been watching one movie a day in the science fiction, horror or fantasy genre, accumulating more than four thousand reviews in the process, from the very first years of the cinema (date of release of the oldest film: 1895) to the early 1980s, from all around the world. The sheer breadth of films covered and the comprehensiveness in the coverage of the full range of fantastic cinema make his site, Fantastic Films Musings and Ramblings, a must for any film buff or science fiction fan. Dave kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his project for The Freehold.

1. Thanks for granting us this interview Dave! You explain to us how this project got started on the Musings and Ramblings website but explain to us a little about your own interest in film and how it led to the Movie of the Day project.

Two things led to my interest in film – monsters and lists. As a kid, I was always fascinated by monsters and I loved looking at pictures of them. This is what led me to start watching my local creature feature (called CREATURE FEATURE) which had the advantage of airing late enough of Saturday nights that no one else wanted the TV at those times. I’d have to say that as a kid, the only movies that really caught my attention were monster movies and comedies.

Yet, as I grew, my tastes started to widen somewhat. Here’s where my fascination of lists came into play. I loved books that consisted of long lists of movies, and ended up amassing several of them as I grew. One of my favorite things to do was make sub-lists of those lists, and try to see the movies; I remember attempts at trying to see all of the four-star movies in the Maltin guide, as well as to watch every movie in Danny Peary’s GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC. As might be expected, these early attempts eventually ran out of steam.

It was twelve years ago that I began toying with the idea of the project in question. The big factor that had come into play was the Internet. Up to that time, there were big limitations as to undertaking the project, as I had a much more limited income and was at the mercy of what they were willing to show on TV or stock at my local video store. It was only after spending some time on the internet that it occurred to me that a whole new world had opened up, and that a project of this magnitude didn’t seem quite as impossible.

Still, this project might have fallen through if it hadn’t been for one other thing; about five months into it, I began posting my Movie of the Day listings on the board at Sinister Cinema. All of the sudden, it was no longer a private project, but a public one, and it was my awareness of that difference that made me commit to it on a level that I hadn’t done previously.

2. When you began the Movie of the Day project, DVD was in the process of overtaking VHS as the main means of watching movies at home, and there has since been another major revolution in the rise of streaming movies on the Internet. Tell us some more about how these have affected your project.

The impact of DVD over VHS was pretty important in a couple of major points. The first is storage. When I began the project, I already had a massive VHS collection, partially from purchase and partially from having recorded movies off of TV. Trying to maintain and update this collection was proving to be more and more difficult, mainly because of the bulk and the difficulty of storage. With DVD, I was able to reduce the bulk of the collection tremendously.

Another impact of DVD was the rise of bulk purchasing. Just for example, I have quite a few DVD megapacks from Mill Creek. These sets contain 50 movies that can fit in a space just a little bit larger than a single VHS cassette, and cost low enough that you’re only paying about fifty cents a movie. Since my project involves trying to watch as much as possible from certain genres, they prove a quick way to amass a good collection with minimum outlay and fitting into a smaller area.

The rise of streaming video is just beginning to make a real impact on the project; I can watch movies for a fraction of the price without concerns of personal storage at all. I still haven’t fully incorporated streaming into my project, but I’m very sure that as my project moves forward into the future, I’m going to end up watching more and more movies this way than any other. I also think it’s making a greater volume of movies available to the average viewer, and this makes it more likely that I’ll be able to find some otherwise inaccessible films.

3. How do you approach each movie as you review them, and what is your writing process like?

First of all, I called the site “Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings” for a reason; though much of what I write could be classified as reviews, I don’t see them being tied exclusively to that approach. If I see my write-ups as serving a purpose, it is as a snapshot of the viewing experience I had, and as opportunities to bounce my wit (such as it is) off of that experience.

What I basically try to do is give a certain minimum of information about the movie, and I try to give only the bare bones of a plot description. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m reading a write-up of a movie, the plot description is the part I’m most likely to skip. If I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to know. And if I have, I don’t need to know.

Then I do quick scan of my mind to see what feelings I have about the viewing, and I try to encapsulate that, with certain thoughts as to the reasons I feel the way I do (which, to be fair, may not be the fault of the movie itself). I don’t back away from the quirks of the experience; sometimes my reaction has a lot to do with factors that wouldn’t come into play if I watched it another time, and I’d rather acknowledge those factors if I can.

I try to be compact. Since I’m not keen on writing a novella about every movie I see (I don’t have the time or the inclination), I try to get to the heart of the matter quickly. If the movie is bad and I’m feeling playful, I may resort to one of my “ten thoughts on…” write-ups. If I feel like probing deeper, I will; for example, my viewing of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT inspired a fairly lengthy (for me) analysis of the movie; it’s what the movie left me feeling I wanted to do.

One point I always try to cover is what it’s genre qualifications are. Sometimes, it’s obvious, and in that case, I may skip it. If not, I try to cover it, if for no other reason than to find out why someone classified it as genre, and as an exploration of just which elements play into genre classification.

Of course, some movies don’t inspire me much at all in the writing department, for some reason. This is especially true if I’m watching a two or three-minute silent short with no real story. So I trot off what I can and move on to the next one.

4. You regularly update your Movies of the Day on the Classic Horror Film Board and one of the highlights of that page is your Essentials List of recommended movies. How does your list differ from other similar “must-see” lists and what do you think it provides for the curious viewer?

As far as the Essentials list goes, it was an attempt to emulate what Danny Peary was doing in “Guide for the Film Fanatic”. That guide never pretended to list the best movies ever made; it was more interested in providing a wide of some of the most interesting movies ever made, and some bad movies are more interesting than some good ones. I wanted to give a strong sampling of the best, but I also wanted to represent sub-genres that are often neglected (like the Italian Sword and Sandal movies), highlight some bad films that make for interesting viewing, provide examples of the work of some of the famously bad directors (how can you really comment on the work of Jerry Warren or Larry Buchanan if you haven’t seen any of them?), add some movies that are historically significant, have strong cult followings, or are personal favorites that I feel are unjustly obscure.

I wanted to feel that if someone watched all of the movies on the list, they’d emerge with a solid grounding in the fairly wide world of fantastic cinema. There are movies on the list I don’t like (and some I loathe), but none I think make for worthless viewing experiences. It all depends on how you approach them. At the very least, I hope the list isn’t boring.


5. Out of all the movies you’ve seen, what have been the most pleasant surprises and alternately, what have been the most crushing disappointments?

Pleasant surprises abound. Anytime I encounter a movie that I’ve not heard anything about and discover that it’s excellent goes on this list. Before I saw them, I knew nothing about AN INSPECTOR CALLS, THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1948) or THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER, just to name three that pop into mind immediately.

As for crushing disappointments, these are more difficult. My most memorable crushing disappointments occurred before the project started; for example, ARNOLD was one of those movies I’d been excited about, since it sounded like something I’d love, but I was extremely disappointed on my first viewing of it.

However, some movies did indeed disappoint me. I was hoping I would like ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW more than I did. I was expecting a lot more from THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL. SILENT RUNNING was one I harbored some hope for and was fairly appalled at the final result.

Yet, I do think I can point to one disappointment that sticks in my mind strongly, even though it was a movie I was already familiar with. When I viewed the 1956 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (a movie that I do recognize as one of the classics of the genre), I sadly realized that the movie no longer held any appeal for me. Sitting through it proved a chore, and I’ve come to realize that the movie simply doesn’t resonate with me anymore. This was perhaps the saddest revelation I’ve encountered on the whole project.

6. Finally, although you’ve reviewed over four thousand movies in more than twelve years time, there’s still several classics or historically important films you have yet to watch for your project. Which ones are you most looking forward to finally catching?

I think I can say that I’ve covered almost all of the really important genre films up to the early seventies at this point, Probably the earliest significant film that I haven’t covered so far would be THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and I know there are several others from the seventies (CARRIE, to pick one off of the top of my head) that I have yet to deal with. Of course, many of these I’ve already seen; I just haven’t done so for this project, so I already know in advance what I’m dealing with. If you’d asked me that question a year ago, I would have probably opted for DAWN OF THE DEAD as the one I was most curious about seeing, but that finally popped up last year. From the seventies, I’m probably most curious about PHANTASM at this point; it sounds intriguingly weird and rather original.

From the eighties, I’m probably most looking forward to checking out THE EVIL DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR, both of which I’ve heard quite a lot about. On another level, the movie I’m most looking forward to reviewing is FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, which I’ve seen several times but haven’t covered yet. I can practically guarantee I’m going to have at least ten thoughts about that one. [Addendum: The Evil Dead and Frankenstein Island have both since been reviewed]

Thanks again Dave! Be sure to check out the Musings and Ramblings website, and if you’re ever in Omaha, be sure to check the schedule at the Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre; Dave may very well be performing in their next play!

The Jeffersonian Rocketship: Heinlein’s American Ethos in Destination Moon

The Jeffersonian Rocketship: Heinlein’s American Ethos in Destination Moon

848aWith today’s review of Destination Moon, we begin a three-part look at three of the most important science fiction movies of the 1950s, films that have had an immense impact on  genre cinema since their release, and are also united by their conservative political leanings, either explicitly stated or in the form of subtextual undercurrents. And just to make it clear, the approach I take to film criticism is one of strict formalism; in other words, I do not care a wit as to what the politics expressed in a film are, or the politics of the artists involved are, as long as the final product is good. Unfortunately, such an approach is not shared by many left-leaning critics who feel it is their imperative to knock a film either down a peg or several notches for not adhering to their progressive ideology, or reflecting attitudes of the day that seem regrettable in hindsight, while in turn ridiculously overpraising any movie that does conform to leftist bromides. These reviews are an attempt to redress that imbalance, and provide intellectual criticism of fantastic cinema that is politically provocative while avoiding demagoguery.

 

Produced by George Pal and directed by Irving Pichel, Destination Moon is usually regarded as the movie that instigated the SF movie boom of the 1950s, although it wasn’t first, having been beaten to the punch by the cheaply-made (and quite awful) Rocketship X-M, the same year. Moreover, the two major SF films from the following year, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World, would both prove to be just as if not more influential over the coming decade as well as those to come. As Bill Warren has noted in his outstanding book on 50s science fiction movies, Keep Watching the Skies! , it’s very easy to overrate or underrate the film, both in terms of quality and influence. The name of Robert A. Heinlein on the script means that many literary SF fans will overrate it, and still others will underrate it, given his polarizing nature among the science fiction community. The explicit pro-capitalist message of the film means, of course, that many of those on the left will unfairly excoriate it while an equal number of those on the right will praise it somewhat more than they should. Sensible viewers across the political spectrum, however, will try to evaluate fairly based on whether or not it succeeds as a movie and how successfully it manages to get its message across, whether the viewer agrees with it or not, and from that perspective, one may cautiously consider Destination Moon a success.

 

When you try to look at it with an unbiased eye as possible, Destination Moon is a good film, not a great one, but still consistently intelligent and interesting in its ideas even if it doesn’t quite manage to maintain that consistency in its execution. With a single exception, the acting is fine, the seeming lack of energy or enthusiasm among its capable and well-seasoned cast is more due to the failure of the script to provide adequate characterization than any fault in the performances. Although Irving Pichel had a more memorable career as an actor than as a director, and the film does suffer some problems in pacing, he does manage to direct the space and moon scenes with a genuine sense of wonder. The film’s greatest flaw is that it suffers from a very obvious three-act play structure, and each act is progressively weaker and less interesting than the next, when they should develop and grow stronger. Certainly, the first act is the most interesting as a reflection of not just the political thought of the day, but Heinlein’s own political thought, and that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.

 

The film opens with the disastrous testing of a government rocket. Scientist Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) suspects sabotage, given that four years of research and evaluation meant that the test should have been flawless, but as General Thayer (Tom Powers), who initiated and guided the project solemnly, tells him, they won’t have a chance to find out. “Things like this mean military cuts, boy. Research is going back to the laboratories.” Nonplussed, Cargraves simply replies that he is as well. We then cut to industrialist Jim Barnes (John Archer) returning to his civilian job at his self-owned eponymous aircraft company. When General Thayer drops in for a visit, he wastes no time getting to the point: It is absolutely essential that the United States not just get to space first, but be the first to land on the Moon, whether it be by atomic or chemical-fueled rockets. At first, Barnes displays the expected skepticism: “I’m just a plane manufacturer, not the Department of Defense. The answer’s no. N-O no.” But he suddenly shows interest when Thayer describes the new atomic engine Cargraves has been working on. When he asks why the government hasn’t tried to take it over, Thayer gives him a straight answer, and it is here that the main political message of the film is most forcefully expressed: “It’s peacetime Jim. The government isn’t making that kind of appropriations. When it needs the rocket one of these days, and it’s not ready, then government will do the job. And they’ll turn to you, to private industry, to do it! Government always does that when it gets in a jam, it has to! This time, I figured we might be ready for the government. Preparedness…isn’t all military Jim.” The problem, as Thayer sees it, isn’t the lack of money, but the lack of brains, a need to pool research and resources to meet the challenge. “But combined American industry, sparked by Jim Barnes,” he says “could put America on the Moon within a year.”

 

A successful pitch is made at a gathering of potential financial backers, with the aid of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon explaining the physics of rocketry (which clearly influenced David Koepp and Steven Spielberg when they used a “Mr. DNA” cartoon the explain the genetic engineering of Jurassic Park). Once Thayer establishes that the first nation to make a foothold on the Moon will be the first to be able to use it for military purposes, all arguments are settled, and the attending parties agree to finance the construction of the ship and the planned expedition. The ensuing montage of research and manufacturing, leading to the construction of the completed rocket, is halted when a predictably pesky fly lands in the ointment: the government announces it is blocking the scheduled rocket launch on grounds of safety concerns. They sneak by this simply advancing the rocket launch ahead of schedule. When their radio operator is felled by a bout of appendicitis, mechanic Sweeney (Dick Wesson), who has already been trained in the use of the equipment, is hurriedly assigned as his replacement. Even after the launch, not all goes smoothly, as mishaps both during the voyage and after the landing threaten both the success of the mission and the lives of the crew.

 

You may have noticed that the plot synopsis of the film concentrates mainly on the first act and that each subsequent act gets less and less discussion and description. This is not accidental; even though the first act of the film is relatively brief, it’s also the most interesting, and it’s also the section that’s the most decidedly Heinleinesque, featuring dialogue and themes redolent of Heinlein’s previous stories. It’s fascinating to watch the interactions between scientist-engineer Cargraves, industrialist-entrepreneur Barnes and military veteran Thayer, who together represent the classical Heinlein Trivium of Science and Technology, Business and Industry and The Armed Forces, whose collaborative efforts are not only necessary for a Moon mission, but for the survival of civilization (a similar message is made in the even more classic The Thing from Another World where the military and science must overcome differences to work together to save the world from a common menace-in this case, a deadly space alien). Of course, conservatives and libertarians will likely appreciate the film’s ideas and approaches more than most left-of-center audience members, but even they will still hopefully enjoy the fact that this is the rare science fiction film to even engage in such provocative discussions. Destination Moon is one of the most avowedly pro-capitalist films ever made, remarkable for its optimistic view of the eventual triumph of the American Way of science and industry at a time when the national mood, still shaken by the Atomic Bomb, tended towards skepticism on the issue. Government is viewed not as a collaborator in Destination Moon but as a roadblock to technological and entrepreneurial progress; the best thing it can do to help the Space Race is get out of the way and let the Big Brains and Hard Workers do what they must to get the job done. Nor can even “The People” be trusted as shown when public protests over the alleged safety of the rockets threaten the program; one is reminded of the protests over the Cassini-Huygens space probe which threatened an invaluable scientific research project but fortunately failed. Although a collaborative effort, the success of the Moon project is shown to ultimately depends on the individual initiative and efforts of its members, and rigid collectivism is depicted as a roadblock to progress.

 

Additionally, Destination Moon takes the Jeffersonian or Whig stance of viewing the free market and other American institutions as intimately bound to science and technology. Ten years before Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address warning of the supposed emergence of the “military-industrial-science complex,” Destination Moon postulates such a convergence as a not entirely undesirable outcome of social and economic evolution. As Barnes tells the gathered businessmen, “To stay in business, we have to build this ship.” His words are certain to send shivers down the spines of both advocates of an entrepreneurial approach to space exploration and ideological purists lamenting the intrusion of the free market into the same, for completely different reasons. When someone interrupts to ask why the government doesn’t take charge of such an important and expensive project, he explains: “The vast amount of brains, talent, skills and research facilities necessary for this project are not found in the government. Nor can they be mobilized by the government in peacetime without fatal delay. Only American industry can do this job, and American industry must get to work now, like it did in the last War.” When someone points out that government footed the bill for World War II (part of Heinlein’s genius lay not only in letting views opposing his own a fair hearing, but in demonstrating those instances when they were equally sensible), Barnes replies “And they’ll foot this bill too, if we’re successful!” The argument it makes for the free market taking initiative in space exploration is not only an eloquent one, but seems to reverberate even stronger in these days of massive NASA cutbacks. Today’s Republican party might do well to study the rhetoric of this film to see how they might win back the votes of the nation’s scientists and technical professionals.

 

Ironically, although it helped to instigate the science fiction boom of the Fifties, Destination Moon’s most notable descendants aren’t science fiction at all. Both The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) may be dramatizations of real-life events but they owe as much if not more to Destination Moon as any science fiction film that has followed. The Right Stuff, needless to say, does a far better job of depicting the details and nuances of the real-life drama and politics of the actual Space Program in its three-hour running time (and I admit to a bias here, as it is one of my all time favorite films), but Destination Moon still manages to do a fascinating job at portraying the inner dynamics of a potential space science research team (as did Arthur C. Clarke’s underrated novel Prelude to Space). In Apollo 13, which starred real-life Heinlein fan Tom Hanks, much of the suspense and drama comes not from the question of “will they make it home?”-we already know the answer-but watching the intellectual drama of technical problem-solving unfold, and seeing sparks fly as friction develops between extremely bright people in a highly tense, life-threatening situation with the entire world watching. A similar drama takes place in Destination Moon; in both movies, some of the most thrilling scenes come not from watching the heroes drift about helplessly in the void, but carefully whittling out math problems with the use of a side rule and comparing their results. The crises in Destination Moon are not solved through brute force but rationalism and resourcefulness, and in both films, these are traits that shown to be not just human virtues, but American values, ones which Heinlein extolled throughout his work, particularly his juvenile novels.

 

Even if one wishes the three primary characters in Destination Moon were better developed, they still have distinct and recognizable personalities that make them appealingly human; this is another characteristic of Heinlein’s writing that likely managed to survive the studio’s subsequent revisions. Unfortunately, we have that fourth character to worry about, and it is here that the rockets start to sputter. Seemingly intended as an everyman persona whom audiences would supposedly identify with when the need for a technical explanation arose, the cliched character of Sweeney instead winds up being abrasive, even insulting at times. Depicted as a stereotypical blue-collar Brooklynite obsessed with beer, baseball and hot dogs, Sweeney is played by Dick Wesson, who hailed from Boston, not Brooklyn, and sounds like it. As a result, he comes off as Milton Berle doing a bad imitation of Humphrey Bogart, and although it’s more the fault of the script, he’s a character that most audience members will react negatively towards instead of viewing as sympathetic. I suspect most New Yorkers will find this character as endearing as most Southerners find their similarly condescending depictions throughout much of the media.

 

The other three actors, John Archer (father of actress Amy Archer), Tom Powers (forever immortalized as Barbara Stanwyck’s ill-fated husband in Double Indemnity) and Warner Anderson fare much better in their parts, especially considering the conditions under which they laboured. Of course, they have the advantage of also having more likeable and interesting characters, and despite the criticism levied against the film for their lack of dimension, there’s more depth to them than one might realize. It is clear at the gathering of investors, for instance, that Barnes has more scientifically pure motivations for embarking on this venture than providing another notch on his financial portfolio. “I want to do this because it’s never been done. It’s research. It’s pioneering! What’s the Moon, another North Pole?” One wonders if he was Richard Branson’s hero growing up. Cargraves is one of the most realistic early scientist characters on the screen outside of biopics; he’s a family man at heart who has the most reluctance to go up on this mission, because it means leaving behind his wife (fifth-billed Erin O’Connor, who has about two minutes of screen time) and kids who he barely gets to see enough of as is. Most fascinating of all is General Thayer, the Prime Mover behind the Moon project. He’s the most clearly Heinlenesque of all the characters in the film, the archetypical “Old Man” who turns up as a motif throughout Heinlein’s stories who encourages competent individuals to turn their intellectual talents to tasks and achievements which will have long-lasting social good. At times, his semi-poetic musings are reminiscent of Rhysling, the bard of “The Green Hills of Earth.” It’s easy to understand why Cargraves and Barnes insist that he be one of those allowed to return to Earth even though he reasonably insists that as the oldest he should be left behind; it’s his soaring rhetoric that convinced them to go to the Moon in the first place and will convince others to return. Powers gives by far the best performance in the film; he plays his part with dignity but without pretension, so that his character comes off as inspiring and reasonable in his motives instead of strident or overbearing.

 

Once we get to the Moon itself, we start to see where the contributions of Heinlein ended, and those of other writers began. It’s not that the subsequent two acts are badly written in any way, but they are far less interesting given that the provocative political drama of the first act all but disappears for the rest of the movie. The astronauts actually do very little of dramatic interest during their trip, other than the soon-to-be cliched scene of a mid-flight crisis where one character starts to drift away helplessly while trying to repair a carelessly-greased radio antenna (it’s not surprising to find out this was one of the movies Arthur C. Clarke screened for Stanley Kubrick while they were writing 2001: A Space Odyssey), and even less once they reach the moon, besides the overlong climax where they find they don’t have enough fuel left and must lighten the load if they are to ever get home. Although the sets and backdrops are primitive by today’s standards, Chesley Bonestall’s matte paintings have lost none of their Sense of Wonder and the Moon landing itself is hauntingly photographed by Lionel Lindon (who would later win an Oscar for Around the World in Eighty Days and whose other genre credits include Pal’s Conquest of Space, The Black Scorpion, and episodes of Thriller and Night Gallery). There’s even some effective stop-motion animation used in the scenes of the astronauts walking on the exterior of the ship. Pal would make up for the lack of garish spectacle in this film with his subsequent films When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and continue over the next two decades to produce some of the most memorable films in the science fiction and fantasy genres.

 

For the most part, scholarly analysis of Destination Moon has, like much writing on science fiction cinema of the 1950s, focused on the Cold War background of the film. With the recent shift in the space industry from public to private investment, it’s time for a reassessment of the film’s relevance to current events, as well as its other often-overlooked virtues. In spite of numerous flaws, the film is intelligent enough and assertive enough in conveying its message to merit serious attention from thoughtful audience members, and may also serve as a useful starting point for discussion on the roles both government and private enterprise have to play in the next step in The Space Age.