Category: Science Fiction

I LOATHED LUCY

I LOATHED LUCY

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Quick, what does this remind you of? Lucy is a naïve American college student living in Hong Kong, emotionally fragile and seemingly none too bright, who has made the wrong sort of boyfriend, the sort who “innocently” asks you to deliver a briefcase to some fellows who “just happen” to be some big-time Asian drug dealers. And they don’t just take the briefcase, no siree, they brutalize the poor woman before cutting her open and implanting its contents-bags filled with a new synthetic drug based on hormones secreted by pregnant women-into her stomach, with the goal of using her as an unwilling drug mule into the United States. Another beating ruptures one of the bags, causing the drugs to leak and get absorbed into her system. The next time the creeps come to interrogate her, they’re face-to-face with a new woman, as the drugs have not only caused Lucy to undergo a radical personality change, but to enhance everyone of her physical abilities. After giving her captors back what they gave her (and then some) the now intellectually enhanced, emotionally as well as physically resilient Lucy goes on a mission to stop the remaining smugglers and gain the rest of the drug, which she needs to survive and to achieve her full potential. To learn how to do that, she also searches for Dr. Samuel Norman, a neurobiologist (I think; the film never makes his specialty clear) to help understand her powers, which include continually augmenting cognitive and sensory powers and the ability to change her hair and eye color to disguise herself, as well as to adapt herself to any confrontational situation she finds herself in.

Longtime readers of this blog will no doubt have already surmised that yes, what we have here is yet another adaptation of Stanley Weinbaum’s “The Adaptive Ultimate”, albeit uncredited and possibly accidental (far be it for me to fall victim to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that too many other fans succumb to). Alas, Luc Besson’s film is not only not an improvement on the Weinbaum story, it’s not an improvement on the TV adaptations either, and a reminder, as if it is needed, that no matter how slick the production values or eye-boggling the visuals may be, it doesn’t matter if one doesn’t have a decent script. If anything, it’s a textbook example of everything that has gone wrong with SF cinema since the advent of Star Wars, and it’s sad to see so much fine talent and promising ideas squandered on a such an unsatisfying final product. The filmmaker’s consensus over the past thirty years has apparently been that science fiction can only be smuggled into cinemas under the guise of the action film, and that the more special effects, the better. Maybe they are right; it is after all, not only what sells best to the general public, but attracts the attention of fanboys and -girls who eat this sort of product up uncritically without realizing that it has been done before, and better, not just by an older generation of filmmakers but by the writers of classic science fiction stories that have been cannibalized for inspiration.

Nearly every other review of Lucy has already mentioned that the notion that we only use five or ten percent of our brain that the movie uses as a story springboard and is repeatedly hammered home in the film’s trailer is a complete myth (although the other glaring scientific errors, particularly the film’s misreading of the process of evolution as teleological instead of mechanistic, have managed to avoid their scrutiny). Nonetheless, it’s quite an appropriate myth for this film to rely on, for here is a prime example of a movie that fails completely to utilize potentially intelligent and thought-provoking material to their full capacity. In addition to the Weinbaum story, science fiction fans will also be reminded of Greg Bear’s Blood Music (information theory and biological computation plays an important role late in the film) and the works of Olaf Stapledon, especially towards the end.. and I emphasize, towards the end. When Lucy is at the point of achieving her full biological potential and explains what she now knows and understands with her enhanced perceptual and cognitive abilities, it’s a potentially fascinating but all-too brief moment, and we’re too numbed by the hour and a half of violence and banality that has preceded it to really care. Throughout the film I wanted to know, what is this character really undergoing? What does it really feel like to undergo this radical process of neurological and physiological transformation? Apart from a phone conversation Lucy has with her mother in which she starts telling her about all the memories that are flooding back to her since her birth, down to the last detail, we frustratingly remain distant from this potentially intriguing character, and cannot get involved with either her or her situation. In its place we get plenty of action and fight scenes that are extremely bloody and brutal but never exciting or suspenseful; because Lucy becomes seemingly invincible so early on in the movie, the outcome of every such scene is never in doubt. In fact, our purported heroine winds up being so cold-blooded and indiscriminate in her killings that it becomes difficult to generate any sympathy for her at all.

The performances from the leads don’t help, which is rather shocking considering how reliable these actors usually are. Scarlett Johansson has become something of a regular in science fiction cinema of late, and although I did not see either Her or Under the Skin, I am told she was excellent in both. Unfortunately, this is one of the very few weak performances I’ve seen from her. Although exuding confidence, Johansson in unconvincing in her attempts to convey the emotional and psychological metamorphosis that she is supposed to be undergoing, and fails to generate much sympathy for her plight. I had mentioned earlier in my review of the Science Fiction Theater adaptation of “The Adaptive Ultimate” that one of the strengths of that episode was the excellent performance of Joan Vohs, who despite the great physical and personality changes her character underwent nonetheless convinced us completely she was still the same person. Johansson, on the other hand, seems to transform into a completely different person than the one we initially see at the beginning of the film, with too abrupt a transition and no shadings present. One moment she’s an ordinary, quite dull woman, make-up free and blubbering with fear, shedding more tears than the audience for The Fault in Our Stars in the neighboring auditorium, the next moment she has metamorphosed into the kick-ass-but-gorgeous chick that has become such a genre cliché, distinguished from the rest of the pack by her Buster Keaton-style stony-faced look and hushed-tone delivery that’s apparently supposed to convey higher intelligence. Johansson’s Lucy remains a cipher, someone who we are frustratingly incapable of connecting with, possibly because the actress herself failed to connect with the character. Morgan Freeman meanwhile seems weary as Dr. Norman, as if he is tired of being continually handed these Authoritative Voices of Authentic Wisdom parts that seem Xeroxed specifically for him. And he probably is; years before he achieved global stardom and acclaim, he was already complaining that he was being handed too many “good guy” parts despite his villainous turn in Street Smart (and his superb performance as a vile sadistic pimp in that sleeper is absolutely blood-chilling). The other performances are literally disposable, just there to move the plot along or to add to the film’s body count.

While the actors are more underwhelming than they usually are, the direction by Luc Besson is, as almost always is the case with him, way overdone. I did enjoy his The Fifth Element, which was a Nouvelle Vague French science fiction comic come to life; it may have been a mess, but it was an imaginative and entertaining one, and Besson’s style was appropriate to that particular brand of speculative fiction. With a premise such as that featured in Lucy, one expects a more subtle and thoughtful handling of the material than what Besson is known for; it’s bad enough to see it get dumbed down into a typical action film, but Besson also seemingly tries to compensate for the loss of intelligent material by hammering away all remaining subtlety in what remains. I’m reminded of Charly, the film adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ classic novel Flowers for Algernon, in which both the immensely touching original story and Cliff Robertson’s beautifully conceived performance are almost buried by wrong-headed, stylistically faddish directorial impositions. Besson over-directs everything, not just the numerous action scenes (the best being a car chase in the middle of Paris) but the more quiet scenes that are supposed to help develop the characters or give us a chance to contemplate the film’s ideas. There are warning signs early on in Lucy’s opening conversation with her boyfriend that things are going to be rough sledding: when he remarks that Lucy was also the name of the first woman, there’s a quick cut to a shot of an Australopithecus woman. When he hands her the drugs, the scene is intercut with a shot of a white lab rat approaching some cheese in a trap. Is your head hurting from the sledgehammer blows yet? Wait until Freeman delivers his lecture. His ruminations on evolution are accompanied by swiftly-edited nature montages in the style of Koyannisqatsi, with one sequence of animal-copulation garnering much unintentional chuckles from the audience. When Besson needs to show us that Lucy can now read Chinese, he doesn’t merely superimpose English letters over Chinese words, or even just have her simply glance and let us read Johansson’s expression so that we simply and subtly now know that she now understands their meaning. No the Chinese letters have to fly off the screen, and morph into English, because we’re too stupid to get it otherwise. It’s somewhat more effective when Lucy is able to witness the processes of chlorophyll action in a nearby tree or when she hugs her friend, and immediately diagnoses a heretofore undetected malady, but when she’s able to see the electromagnetic lines of force emanating from cellphones, perceiving each individual waveband in a different color, it looks like a glossy commercial (“Can You See Me Now?”), and it’s utterly ludicrous when she’s able to reach out and physically touch them (note: “lines of force” are a mathematical object, not something tangible).

90% of all science fiction is crud, or so said Theodore Sturgeon all those years ago. That’s another percentage estimate which is doubtful; movies like Lucy suggest it’s even higher.

Dissecting Divergent

Dissecting Divergent

 

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Entertaining yet not quite fulfilling, intelligent but underdeveloped, and having provoked an extremely broad range of critical reaction without any clear consensus, Divergent certainly lives up to its title in terms of both its internal contradictions and audience reception. It’s enjoyable enough to merit a viewing and it provides an intriguing fictional society and setting that feels genuinely lived-in. Additionally, the social factions that form the crux of the story’s plot and themes are quite interesting in the way they represent contemporary social and ideological divisions as well as moral virtues. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the individual characters in the film, however likeable some of the actors playing them are, and the movie leaves too many questions about its themes and setting frustratingly unanswered. Hopefully, these will be addressed in the inevitable sequels; as it is, many of the repetitive action scenes and fight sequences could have been pared down to provide some much-needed exposition and to explore the underdeveloped but promising themes.

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Although Divergent‘s core premise of contemporary ideologies and occupational groups having become biologically distinct in the future may seem novel to viewers and readers unfamiliar with the history of science fiction, the film, like last year’s Elysium, is just playing with themes first introduced by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. Unfortunately, like too many other fictional dystopias that also bear massive debts to that particular novel, including such films as Logan’s Run and Zardoz, it seemingly has not learned one of the most important lessons taught by Wells: explaining how a fictional future world came to be, and how the social and biological distinctions between its groups emerged. At least in George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the hows and whys of a society’s emergence as well as its contradictions and implausibilities were easily hand-waved away because what was important was the author’s allegorical concerns and their intent of projecting and amplifying modern-day socio-political trends. The makers of Divergent don’t seem concerned with such questions, and we go hungry trying to figure them out. We never learn what exactly was the disaster that isolated Chicago from the rest of the world, or how this particular caste system arose. Clearly it has not been in genetic isolation long enough to have evolved naturally, but if the society was genetically engineered, who did it and why? Presumably, the Erudites or their ancestors had a hand in it, but then why didn’t they put themselves in a leadership position in the first place? Why go to the trouble of engineering a race (although contemporary notions of race and ethnicity are irrelevant in this future) as potentially dangerous as the Dauntless? And most pressing of all, why would a community as supposedly intelligent as the Erudites come up with a scheme for seizing control as needlessly complicated and open to failure as that in the film, one which is even more senseless when you consider the destructive effects it would have on such a hermeneutically-sealed community? I have been lent the first book in the series, and hopefully, these questions of mine will be answered as I read through it.

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Despite the inevitable comparisons to the Hunger Games series and other works of “young adult” fiction that frequently are given a “privileged” position above the science fiction shelves in bookstores and libraries, I was reminded much more of Robert A. Heinlein while watching the film. Not only are there obvious echoes of Heinlein’s own juvenile novels, but of such key works as Beyond This Horizon, “Gulf,” and even Orphans of the Sky. Oddly enough, I was also reminded of “The Roads Must Roll,” with its critiques of functionalism and over-specialization. Heinlein’s famous dictum that “specialization is for insects” is certainly applicable to this movie, since the film criticizes the notion that people can easily be set into neat categories based on their social or cognitive competence, and champions not just individuals like Tris who try to rise above such attempts at pigeonholing, but views well-roundness as a virtue in of itself. Each faction is shown to have a certain flaw that comes as a result of over-specialization, Candors are blunt to the point of often being insulting, Erudites tend to be intrusive in their search for knowledge, and the Abnegation conceal the truth. The Dauntless, of course, tend to be overly violent as a consequence of their lack of fear. Ideally, the film seems to be saying, an individual should strive towards all the best virtues represented by each faction while playing down the flaws, not only so that they will be able to achieve universal competence, but learn how to treat people properly and be truly civilized. As one character says (and I paraphrase from memory) “I want to be brave, selfless, intelligent and honest and kind.” In addition to the critique of social categorization, the contrast between the mental traits of the factions sets up interesting possibilities to explore the nature of openness and secrecy in both social and interpersonal relationships, but these possibilities frustratingly go nowhere. The filmmakers could have learned well from Heinlein how to properly balance both thoughtfulness and entertainment, as the potentially fascinating themes dissipate in the last third in the morass of action and fight scenes. Heinlein also provided readers with similar action and excitement, of course, but it was never at the expense of the story’s themes or overall intelligence, and those who insist that good science fiction follow such rules will not be pleased with the direction the movie takes.

 

Some reviewers have regarded Divergent strictly from perceived allegorical elements, as being a commentary on high school cliques and social pressures. This would make the film essentially a reversal of the 1976 cult classic Massacre at Central High, itself a political allegory that used high schools and their students to comment on the nature of political violence and ideological conflict, and there are some surprising similarities. In Rene Daalder’s film (a personal favorite of mine), a trio of fearless bullies dominate their high school through the abusive use of their physical superiority and spend their leisure time indulging in such daredevil pursuits as hang gliding, high diving, and surfing. It’s much like a society where the Dauntless have the upper hand. The students they bully and lord over also, oddly enough, have parallels to the factions in Divergent, representing as they do different social types and political ideologies: there are elitist intellectuals, impoverished agrarians, the voiceless oppressed , even the equivalent of Candors in the form of Robert Carradine’s bohemian anarchist, the school’s only voice of honest political dissidence, who speaks out against the bullying in the form of graffiti on the walls and lockers. A Divergent arrives in the form of rebellious, working-class hero David (Derrel Maury) who stirs up trouble by encouraging the other students to stand up for themselves and fight back. When the bullies retaliate by crippling him, he then turns to full-blown murder, killing each of the thugs to fulfill his dreams of social liberation. But the newly-liberated students prove to be just as bad as those before them, intent on creating new systems of oppression based on their own ideologies, which sets the disillusioned David off on a second murder spree. It’s a fascinating, very well done film, one which is open to multiple readings and interpretations (like several others, I regard it as an allegory for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power) and it is well worth one’s time.

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The makers of Divergent would have done well to have watched Daalder’s film as well if there was indeed allegorical intent at work, as the potentially fascinating themes and representations in their movie wind up being buried or swept aside by in favor of the cliches and conventions of the action film. Although Massacre at Central High,  successfully delivers all the violence promised in its title, it is never gratuitous but always done in the name of thematic relevance. Every death has emotional impact, no matter how unsympathetic the character, since the film went to the trouble of developing them beyond their symbolic value. This helps hit home the film’s messages about the stupidity of using violence to solve social problems, and that you can’t stop a bully by becoming an even bigger bully. In the film version of Divergent at least, the characters fail to get developed beyond their being representatives of various factions, and even at that, the fact that the factions themselves are insufficiently developed other than the Dauntless and the Abnegation (in particular, the Amity practically disappear from the film after the prologue). On the other hand, for an example of a contemporary filmmaker who understands very well how to make a cinematic allegory, Christopher Nolan has done an outstanding job of doing so with the Dark Knight trilogy.

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Although I’ve made my own criticisms, some of the other negative comments directed against the film have struck me as unfair and more revealing of the prejudices of the reviewers themselves than the actual film. Some have assailed the film as being anti-intellectual, even outright anti-science, for casting the Erudites as the main bad guys, making much of author Veronica Roth’s Christian beliefs (not unlike the Mormon-phobia that frequently accompanies critiques of Stephenie Meyer) in doing so. It’s an argument I don’t buy, since not only is it unclear if all or just some of the Erudites are in on the conspiracy, but the other factions are also shown to be just as flawed, especially when other members of Dauntless emerge as cold-blooded killers. In particular, both Jai Courtney’s Eric and Miles Teller’s Peter are shown to be thoroughly nasty and cruel individuals who are impossible to like, and it’s equally impossible to sympathize with the “might makes right” attitude they espouse. If anything, the film is trying to be critical not of intelligence or even ambition itself, but the impulsive desire to control others, as well as monomania as a social pathology. Still others have made much of how Kate Winslet’s coldly-calculating, power-hungry villain has seemingly been made up to look like Hillary Clinton. While the physical resemblances may be a coincidence, when it comes to the personality similarities, well, the truth sometimes hurts.

 

Shailene Woodley had previously co-starred with fellow Divergent cast member Miles Teller in one of 2013’s best films, The Spectacular Now.  In that winning little sleeper, her adolescent science fiction fan develops a romantic relationship with Teller’s booze-swilling young slacker-in-training, gradually coaxing him into maturity. Her character in that film would have likely enjoyed the book Divergent and maybe even might have liked the film adaptation, but two-thirds of the way through, she would have probably wished she was reading something by Wells or Heinlein instead.

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 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: Silent Film Historian Steve Joyce

Interview: Silent Film Historian Steve Joyce

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If you’ve been around the Internet long enough, you quickly learn that every genre and era of the cinema has its fans, and if you’re curious enough to read up on them, you learn to appreciate just why they have gained their adherents. For those curious about fantastic cinema of the silent era, an indispensable new book, American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929, provides what is not just to date the most comprehensive collection of original reviews of American films of this particular genre and time period, but a fascinating journey into the film-making and -watching culture of a century ago. Four authors, John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella, Steve Joyce and Harry H. Long, along with researcher and archivist Bill Chase, undertook this massive project, and they were recently rewarded for their efforts with an Honorable Mention from the Rondo Awards, chosen by the on-line community of classic horror fans worldwide. We spoke with co-author Steve Joyce about the book and science fiction films of the silent era in general.

1. Thanks granting us this interview, Steve! In the preface to the book, you and your fellow authors discuss your own personal relationships with fantastic films of the silent era, and how you grew interested in them. While science fiction and horror films of every decade of the sound era enjoy fan followings of their own, they all consist largely of people who grew up with them either during the time they were first released to theaters, or distributed to television. How did your own fascination with the genre films of the silent era develop, and do you find that most other fans come upon their interest in a similar way?

Thank you, Andrew. I’m flattered and honored that you approached me to do this. It was a pleasure working with John, Henry, Harry and Bill who all brought their own unique perspectives and backgrounds to the table.

I watched my fair share of 50s sci fi growing up but not a whole lot more than the average kid. So, no, I’d have to say that my interests didn’t quite develop like many of my fellow Baby Boomers. While most of today’s long-time diehards seem to have had their awareness in vintage genre movies aroused by Forest J. Ackerman and the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, I was blithely passing Famous Monsters by on my merry way over to the comic book rack.

My fondness for comics gradually gave way to the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., then “juvenile” s. f. novels and finally to the more “serious” stuff by Heinlein, Wells, Ellison, Dick, Silverberg, Bester, Brunner and others. As I think about it, I suppose exploring “what came before” always tickled my fancy. When I found out about Tom Swift, Senior and all of those Golden Age superheroes, well, both events were just about the coolest thing back then. Really only once vhs – and its associated instant availability – came into vogue did I finally shift genre gears media-wise. That was kicked off by a viewing of Metropolis back in the 80s.

By the way, I find one thing kind of amazing. Even though about 80% of all silents are lost – the viewer of today probably can see as much or more in practical terms than the actual theatergoers of last century’s first few decades ever managed. Showings came into town and left. That was it; there was almost always no second chance. Somehow, over the last 25 odd years, I’ve managed to amass at least some digital footage from close to 150 silent films that could be arguably classified science fiction and all viewable on a whim. You might say that we’re living in the second golden age of silent film.

2. When I interviewed our mutual friend David Sindelar, we discussed how the advent of both the Internet and DVD had changed both viewing habits and access to movies. Today, movies that were once just footnotes in the Don Willis, Walt Lee or Phil Hardy books can be easily accessed on YouTube, and companies such as Kino have put out DVDs of silent classics, as fully restored as they will ever be, at their normal speed and in close to pristine condition. How else have advances in technology improved the silent film viewing experience?

Indeed! Dave and I often swapped tapes way back when. We both still might have video boxes that by rights should’ve long ago qualified for frequent flyer miles! These days we’d more than likely exchange via Rapidshare. So, cyber-networking with like-minded aficionados is a great way to track down the more obscure titles. Plus, via software downloaded to their home p.c., more and more enterprising enthusiasts are willing and able to add title card translations and/or music to their movie computer files. Both are, needless to say, important aspects when it comes to silents.

To take the conversation slightly off point, the internet also provides some incredible tools to recreate a lost film’s “experience”… if not literally, in the mind’s eye. AbeBooks, Alibris and other online used book suppliers yield some nice (and often pleasantly inexpensive) source novels, plays and the like. Every day, new vintage newspapers and film trade journals go online and with them an abundance of plot summaries, reviews, cast listings, etc. Rare stills and lobby cards can be had with a few Ebay clicks (and only with sufficient bankroll, unfortunately). A visit to the Library of Congress website begins the fairly easy process of obtaining copyright records. The list goes on and on.

3. Although you and your co-authors focus specifically on American fantastic film of the silent era, much of the great and innovative work was done in Europe. How did American films differ from their European cousins and conversely, how did they influence each other?

Let’s start off with one caveat. Russian films essentially need to be put off to the side insofar as one major distinction; they generally came with heavy-handed Soviet messages placed into just about everything.

Beyond that, both American and European features were culturally significant in their own way. We can only talk in generalizations, but with that stipulated, American genre films struck the more mainstream pop culture chord in their methods be it in plot, dialogue or whatever. They even dabbled in the schlock of 3D and offered name-that-film contests. On the other hand, the Europeans leaned toward achieving, for lack of better phraseology, a higher art form or “culture” with a capital “C”, if you will. To defend the American approach a bit, it might be considered more genuinely representative of everyday life and the typical person walking down the street.

Pictures from the States tended to aim for the spectacular while the Europeans usually looked wherever they could for subtlety and finesse. Even Metropolis – visual spectacle that it was – gave us the delicate scenes where Maria roams the catacombs’ shadows and the well-framed and executed Moloch Machine sequence. In the book’s entry on Cecile B. DeMille’s The Road to Yesterday – a time travel fantasy akin to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – we briefly touched on one particularly key scene and compared it to a similar one in Germany’s Hands of Orlac. DeMille’s goal was to induce awe by replicating a believably looking train wreck. In contrast, Robert Weine leveraged the skill of his crew to present Orlac’s accident as an eerily lit montage via the locomotive’s front headlight.

Film was a more international animal back then by its very nature. It was a simple matter to translate a few title cards, splice them in anew and send prints all over the world. I get a big perverse kick out of one anecdote concerning The Battle Cry of Peace which we also cover. It’s a pre-WWI alternate history picture preaching preparedness against a Ruritanian (read German) invasion. Long story short, the Germans got hold of a print and changed it into their own propaganda piece!

Naturally, a migration of talent took place between both continents and, thus, there was cross-pollination; but, the mute nature of cinema years ago made it especially easy for actors to move back and forth. Two genre luminaries that come immediately to mind are Conrad Veidt and Paul Wegener; and, if I can take a moment here, I’d like to announce an upcoming book covering Wegener’s fantastika by my friends and colleagues, John Soister and Henry Nicolella. They’ve let me preview the manuscript and it’s awesome.

4. Science fiction film, as a genre, existed well before it was named or defined as such. In fact, the coining of the term by Hugo Gernsback coincides with the beginning of the sound era in film. How did the early precursors of science fiction literature influence the development of its cinematic counterpart and conversely, did the cinema have any affect on development of the written genre?

Believe it or not, by sheer coincidence, I recently stumbled across a passage by one William Wilson defining “Science-Fiction” back in 1851! There’s always something that “came before”! But yes, Gernsback popularized the term and this is an excellent question.

Basically, there’s always been a strong interaction between science fiction literature and film. Let’s start right from the get go with George Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. Clearly, Melies lifted the space gun from Verne and the Selenites from Wells. He even went farther than that. In select exhibitions of his short film, a narrative crafted by Melies would be read out loud. In that narrative, Melies gave his astronauts such names as “Alcofrisbas” (in tribute to Alcofrisbas Nasier a.k.a. Francois Rabelais, a 16th century fantasy writer), “Micromegas” (after a space-travelling character of Voltaire’s), “Omega” (likely in homage to any number of 19th century last man on earth novels), etc. The Father of Science Fiction Film definitely was well versed in the genesis of his genre…even if he didn’t exactly know it by name!

Of course, A Trip to the Moon was fraught with light-hearted trick effects and most of the sci fi shorts of the remainder of the decade played merely for amusement and comedy as well. Films like L’Homme Invisible (1909) and Melies’ own 200,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1907) scarcely followed the plots of their sources. Maybe the first s.f. films to seriously zero in on their written brethren were the trio of films by the Brit, Walter Booth: Aerial Torpedo (1908), Aerial Submarine (1910) and Aerial Anarchists (1911). All three channeled the ideas put forth in Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist, Verne’s Master of the World and Wells’ War in the Air. Oh, an aerial torpedo is better known these days as a guided missile by the way.

Once the teens rolled around, quite a number of heavy hitting s.f. stories began getting (more or less) faithful treatment…several more than once. To name just some there’s First Men in the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916 style) and Mysterious Island, Frankenstein, Connecticut Yankee, The Lost World, Renard’s The Hands of Orlac and Gaston (“Phantom of the Opera”) Leroux’s Balaoo. Maybe the king of them all is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In my opinion, I don’t think anyone will ever completely determine how many silent adaptations of that particular title were made; but, including burlesques, the count is somewhere around 20 with a whopping 6 in 1920 alone. Even some really putrid potboilers made it to the moving picture screen. Fair warning: don’t ever try to read The Diamond From the Sky!

I’d say the flow in the other direction was not nearly as pronounced….or maybe it’s just plain harder to determine. Sure, there were occasional movie tie-in fictionalizations in Moving Picture Stories Magazine and other publications … and I don’t know how to classify some of Thea Von Harbou’s output … but, speaking in broad terms, there were more quality films made from quality literature than visa versa. That’s pretty much still the case today. What did typically happen is that both forms – again like today – concurrently (give or take) picked up on the scientific trends and speculation of the time. This led to examination of such themes as evolution, death rays (o.k., they were hoaxes but the hoaxes were real), the “monkey gland” and Steinach methods of rejuvenation (a lot of people got taken in there too), futuristic warfare, artificial diamond manufacturing (believe it or not, once a biggie), the problems and solutions concerning trans-oceanic travel, outer space journeys, visitors from other planets, television, radio and wireless based just about anything you could imagine, mechanical men before the term “robot” was even invented, and so on and so on.

5. Much has been written about how social concerns and anxieties of the 1950s and 1970s heavily weighed upon the science fiction films of those eras. Did the social and political climate of the 1910s and 1920s exert a similar effect upon the science fiction films of that era, or did the films mostly shy away from overt or even implicit social commentary in favor of escapism?

Well, there was more censorship back then implying some film-makers were trying to push the envelope. Often viewers in one state would see slightly less footage than in a neighboring one due to some local official’s ready scissors. It was easy enough to cut out offending frames without worrying about dialogue on a soundtrack and those offences many times depended merely upon the individual sensibilities of a select few. I’ve seen a copy of the New York censorship records of the silent version of the British import, High Treason and the handling of its pacifistic viewpoint was considered almost obscene, as I remember.

When you mention the 1950s, I think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers capturing the air of paranoia of the day. Similarly, there was a cycle of rejuvenation films in the 20s that very much captured the hoped-for youthful exuberance of those roaring days. Clara Bow, the It Girl herself, played a flapper in one of them. Likewise, after the Great War, the fantasy of reincarnation definitely tapped into the mass sadness caused by the loss of loved ones.

Speaking of the war, before the U.S. ever entered it, there was a rash of alternate history preparedness / cautionary tales; we already discussed Battle Cry of Peace but there were others too. On the flip side, Thomas Ince’s Civilization was a pacifist statement hoping to avoid further bloodshed. Things were polarized, to say the least.

Even going back to the one and two reelers, women’s suffrage was another topic sometimes addressed; these attempts usually involved one variation or the other of a female controlled world and were handled with satirical humor…. I don’t imagine many of the lady folk were too happy with that. The Last Man on Earth is a feature that we covered with that very theme and tone.

Darwinism pushed even more buttons back then than it does now. I recall researching a silly little 1919 exploitation of the subject called A Scream in the Night. One reviewer really got himself into quite the uproar over it.


6. Despite much notable and innovative work, there wouldn’t really be a science fiction boom until the 1950s, and although the genre and its idioms were a frequent subject for the film serials (more often than not, adapted from comics), there wasn’t much in the way of science fiction features being produced in America during the 1930s and 1940s. What accounts for this drop-off, right when the genre was starting to take off in the pulps?

Tough one, actually. I don’t think that the 40s yielded anything that should legitimately be placed on anyone’s top 100 list after you, maybe, get past Dr. Cyclops (1940). The whole decade seemed to have a lot less creativity and most of it can be discounted easily enough because of the impact and aftermath of WW II.

When it comes to the 30s, things get more dicey. Let’s look at economics first. The pulps were – by their very definition – just about the cheapest form of entertainment to produce; so, in theory, that would account for part of the difference. Yet paradoxically, during the Great Depression when money was tightest, people flocked to the theaters to forget their troubles. So – pretty much – there goes that idea.

The 30s also brought in the talkies and, with it, growing pains. I think it’s fair to speculate that had some impact. If you look at foreign product, the studios initially fought through the new-found language barrier by producing multilingual science fiction releases such as Der/Le (and Transatlantic) Tunnel, Gold/L’or, three different language versions of Brigette Helm in Atlantis and 3 others adapting Curt Siodmak’s FP-1. For some reason, American studios passed on that strategy. Perhaps the inability to find polyglot actors held them back. Or perhaps they felt – at least, in the beginning – that sound technology was lacking and hiding microphones in the proverbial “potted plants” didn’t quite jibe with the special effects required.

Then too, every genre suffers from ups and downs and horror films were then on the rise. Many of the film titles that roll off the tongue from that era were more a Science Fiction / Horror combo than anything: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, The Invisible Man, King Kong. I’d have to dig down deep and come up with a couple of little-known gems, Men Must Fight and Deluge, as the best pure representatives of 30s American science fiction on film. And…let’s just forget about Just Imagine, shall we?

7. Actually, I kind of liked Just Imagine. Read into that what you will! 🙂 Finally, although our readers may be familiar with such films as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or George Melies Une Voyage Dans La Lune, what are some of the other silent science fiction films you think are especially worthy of rediscovery and you’d recommend to someone just starting to venture into this wonderful cinematic world?

Andrew, you just opened up Pandora’s Box! My compulsions force me to give a long-winded three-tiered response since I’m keeping my fingers crossed that once enticed, many will want to delve further. Here goes…

(1) Films available on easily obtainable quality DVDs:

– you couldn’t go wrong with any of Fritz Lang’s silent fantastic films but for pure Science Fiction there’s Woman in the Moon. Insist on getting the complete version.
– It’s also hard to go wrong with checking out more by Melies. Voyage a Travers l’Impossible, and Conquête du pôle are in the tradition of Le Voyage dans la lune. La Photographie Electique a Distance is a personal favorite. They might be a good start.
– Conrad Veidt in Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac)
– Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
– Rene Clair’s Paris Qui Dort
Le joueur d’échecs a.k.a. The Chess Player is marginal s.f. but such a delightful film on many levels.
Himmelskibet (1916) is an interesting early look at space travel as well as being quite the message movie. You can only get it from the Danish Film Institute in European DVD format. They do ship to the States and it does have English subs. It comes packaged with another Danish s.f. silent called Verdens undergang (a.k.a. The End of the World).
Aelita, Queen of Mars: more foreign space travel…this time from Russia and with a propaganda flavor as well as a bevy of Martian robots.
– I’ve always found Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea just a little bit ponderous but others might disagree. The underwater cinematography is groundbreaking.
– Last but not least, one of the all-but-complete restorations of The Lost World is absolutely essential.
Go for either the David Shepard Image DVD or the George Eastman House version that comes as an added bonus to the Irwin Allen take on the story.

That should provide a solid sampling. Shorts are – except for Melies – excluded since they’re generally sprinkled on compilations and it would be expensive to pursue them that way. In any event, a lot of them pop-up online.

(2) Worthwhile films available in lesser quality via grey-market DVD vendors, thru the trade grapevine or online:

L’uomo Meccanica (a.k.a. The Mechanical Man) and Saturnino Farandola, although now extant in fragments only, are totally zany fun. Abel Gance’s complete La Fin du Monde is a visual masterpiece and deserving of the effort to locate it…but, unlike the vastly inferior Americanized truncation is not really silent. If you ask me, Algol and L’Inhumaine are very under-appreciated and also worth the effort. Mysterious Island has mysteriously never officially been released in video form but it’s out there too. We’ve already mentioned High Treason

As for the shorts, two come to mind for historical significance: The X-Ray Fiend from 1897 might just be the true first cinematic science fiction and Aerial Torpedo as we already talked about (look for this second one under its various names). Edison’s Frankenstein has some nice touches. Or how about Gance again and La Folie du Docteur Tube? Anything from Segundo de Chomón’s s.f. oeuvre would round things out.

(3)Films that should be available!

There are still reels and reels of film sitting in archives that have yet to see the light of day. The complete Exploits of Elaine, a serial starring the famed Pearl White and featuring ominously destructive infra-red rays, a gizmo to revive the dead, a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like villain and full of pseudo-scientific gadgetry, is all a vintage sci fi geek could ask for…and yet it still eludes the masses! And …that’s despite the film’s status on the National Film Registry. “Elaine” is just one example. Perhaps readers of these words will one day join us in clamoring for it and other films like it to be released from captivity.

Anyway, now’s the time to stumble back down off of the soap box and thank you again for your interest. Stay well, Andrew…

Will do Steve! In the meantime, you can purchase American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 at Amazon or preview it at Google!

The Admirable Crichton: One of the Most Influential and Unknown Stories of Science Fiction History

The Admirable Crichton: One of the Most Influential and Unknown Stories of Science Fiction History

robots_crichton2The name Crichton pops up in science fiction over and over again. From the irritable know it all robot in Buck Rogers, to the robot butler in Red Dwarf, and again as the lone human surrounded by a universe of aliens in Farscape. Why are all these characters named Crichton and what do they all have in common?

In 1902 J.M. Barrie (yes the same J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan) penned a short comedy about a butler named Crichton modeled on the real life Scotsman James Crichton who was himself a genius in several disciplines at once (a polymath). In the play Crichton is shipwrecked on a desert island with his employers and quickly proves more capable than those who would profess to be his betters. He is so capable that he becomes the leader of the group of castaways. His knowledge is also so complete and efficient that he turns the desert island into a small self-sufficient colony. On being discovered by the outside world Crichton once again returns to the life of a butler and those whom he saved on the island take credit for everything that Crichton accomplished.

The play itself is in no way science fiction and does not have the fantasy elements of Barrie’s other works. The purpose of the play was to serve as a critique of British society and the class system. Barrie wanted to show that the lower classes could be, and quite possibly were, more level headed and capable of ingenuity than the vaulted upper crust. Barrie had also considered ending the play with Crichton marrying the daughter of his employers. That ending would have stretched even his ability to poke fun at the stifling class system and it was not used for fear of causing an uproar. Little did Barrie know that he would be creating a literary meme that has popped up over and over again in both literature and film. This play has reached  across the entire panoply of literature and it has often found a fertile home for itself in science fiction. It is a perfect match for a genre in which ideas of class, and race are often explored in a fictional milieu.

This site probably owes its name to the meme Barrie created. The Freehold was named after Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold. In Farnham’s Freehold the African American servant Joseph not only prove himself the equal to his employers he goes on to save them time and again throughout the novel. Heinlein’s novel shares many characteristics with the Barrie play and while there is no overt proof that the two are linked, such as the name Crichton, Heinlein often utilized classical literary references in his work.

The most obvious references to The Admirable Crichton all occur in television serial science fiction. The Crichton robot in Buck Rogers, the Kryten robot in Red Dwarf, and the human character in Farscape were all named after the lead character of Barrie’s play and all have one or more traits of that character. In all three of these shows Crichton acts as a repository of knowledge and information.

Crichton in the Buck Rogers serial is the least like the Crichton from the play but still retains certain aspects of the character. This Crichton considers himself above his human masters. Refusing to acknowledge that such lowly beings could have created him. While he retains the knowledge of the play’s title character, and his ability to save the crew from certain death from time to time, this Crichton lacks any amount of humility and serves only because he is programmed to do so.

The other two Crichtons are much more in line with Barrie’s creation. The Kryten robot in Red Dwarf is the closest. He is a mechanical butler who has been shipwrecked, has vast amounts of knowledge, and who saves the crew of the Dwarf with his ingenuity. Kryten is far more capable than anyone else on the crew and is only held back by his programming from becoming the defacto leader. He is also constantly encouraged by his fellow crew mate Lister to act beyond this programming. It is very likely the fact that this show is British that it comes so close to the original idea. The idea of class struggle has become a common trope on British television.

The latest version  of Crichton comes in the form of John Crichton of the television show Farscape. At first glance this version does not seem to match the Barrie play. John Crichton is a scientist, and an astronaut. He does not seem to meet the classic idea of the servant who finds himself preforming above the abilities of his betters. However, once you scratch the surface it comes closer philosophically to the original play than either of the other two television iterations. The best example of this is the episode “Crackers Don’t Matter”.


In this episode the show explores the idea that all the aliens consider themselves superior to John Crichton. It is constantly reenforced on the show that Crichton is a barbarian from a technologically primitive society. The reality of the situation is that, while Crichton may not have the luxury of coming from a society with advanced technology, he is willing to learn how that technology works. His alien adversaries and friends take this technology for granted and don’t understand the first thing about how it actually functions. Crichton soon understands their technology better than the aliens and uses this knowledge to his advantage.  John Crichton stranded millions of light years from home turns the tables on those who profess to be his betters. An exploration of class, race, and culture that rivals and even surpasses Barrie’s original work.

Interview: Author Robert J. Sawyer.

Interview: Author Robert J. Sawyer.

There was once a time when Robert Sawyer could merely be considered Canada’s leading science fiction author, but those days are long past. Now, with a Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell award under his belt, among other awards and a host of best-selling novels, one of which was adapted into an acclaimed TV series, FlashForward, it’s safe to say he’s one of the world’s leading science fiction authors. In addition to FlashForward, his other novels include End of an Era, Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, the Hominids Trilogy, and the WWW trilogy. His most recent novel is Triggers and his next novel, Red Planet Blues, hits the shelves March 26.

1. First off, congratulations on Red Planet Blues! This new novel is a bit of departure for you in that it’s a hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett-style mystery as well as science fiction. Tell us a little about the kinship you feel exists between both genres, and what you think is the criteria for a good genre hybrid?

It’s always bothered me that science fiction and fantasy are often shelved together, given that they’re antithetical genres. Science fiction is about things that plausibly might happen; fantasy is about things that never could happen. But science fiction and mystery both celebrate rational thinking, and both require the reader to pick up clues as he or she goes along—in mystery, obviously, to solve the crime, and in science fiction to figure out the milieu of the story. The two genres are a natural pairing.

For a hybrid to work, it has to succeed separately within each genre. Red Planet Blues is a science-fiction novel about the discovery of fossils on Mars, and the stampede of prospectors hoping to get rich off them; it’s also a novel about uploaded consciousness and practical immortality. On that basis alone, it’s a successful science fiction story, and I’ll point out that the first ten chapters of Red Planet Blues were previously published as the novella “Identity Theft”—and that novella was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and won Spain’s top science-fiction award. So, clearly, it works as science fiction.

But Red Planet Blues is also a story of missing persons, murder, and decades-old mysteries, all being solved by an honest-to-goodness hardboiled detective. I immersed myself in Hammett and Chandler while writing the book—and I’ve earned my mystery chops: back in 1993, I won Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for best crime story of the year, and my previous SF/mystery hybrid, Illegal Alien, was named the best Canadian mystery of its year by the mystery-fiction reviewer for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.

2. Red Planet Blues is also one of your many novels to draw upon paleontology, anthropology, and archaeology as the sources of extrapolation. There are other science fiction writers who have delved into these fields for inspiration, most notably Chad Oliver and Ursula K. Le Guin, but you’re one of the few identifiable hard science fiction writers to have done so. What is it about these fields that intrigues you so much, and has provided a fertile ground for your story ideas?

From Kindergarten up until my last year of high school, I intended to become a vertebrate paleontologist; I planned to devote my life to that area of study. Oh, I also wanted to write science fiction, but that always seemed an impractical dream. But when I turned 18, I decided I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t at least take a stab at being a writer, and fortunately that worked out. But the beauty of paleontology is that we’re dealing with truly alien lifeforms—look at some of the critters from the Cambrian explosion, for instance.

And as a science-fiction writer, I’m always wondering about alternative possibilities: why did we survive and the Neanderthals die out (the basis for my Hugo Award-winning Hominids and its sequels); what if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct (my Far-Seer and its sequels); what if there had been intelligent life on Mars 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous (my novel End of an Era); and, now, what if Mars had had its own equivalent of the Cambrian explosion deep in its past? I don’t regret not becoming a paleontologist; I’ve become good friends with several over the years, and I usually get the behind-the-scenes tour when I visit a museum. But that’s another reality, too: the one in which I spent my life hunting fossils.

3. One of the aspects of your novels I personally find most fascinating is that you focus on the institutional as well as social dimensions of science. You’ve drawn your own experience as a journalist in order to conduct ethnographic research to help you on this level: at TRIUMF for FlashForward, and at Sudbury’s Neutrino Observatory for the Hominids trilogy, and more recently, you were writer in residence at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatchewan. What is your typical research process like, and how much of it typically winds up in the finished novel?

Both my parents were academics, so I grew up in a university setting, and saw that in a way most people never do; it certainly informed my understanding of how academics think and what the work is really like. I love visiting labs, and although I’m always fascinated by whatever cutting-edge research is going on, I’m really looking for the telling human details: what the lunch room is like, what magazines people are reading, how scientists talk to each other, talk to administrators, talk to support staff, and talk to the public.

And, I have to say, this has led to some of the coolest experiences of my life. Certainly, going down two kilometres below the surface of the Earth to visit the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was absolutely amazing, and getting to actually go into the Apollo-era Mission Control Center in Houston—sit in the chairs, push the buttons, and so on—is something I’ll never forget.

4. You’ve used your novels to advance a number of political positions that can safely be called liberal-progressive, but as the busy and fervent discussions on your Facebook page demonstrate, you also enjoy a fan base that ranges all across the political spectrum. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, regardless of their political views, on trying to convey a political message while retaining an ideologically diverse audience?

The science-fiction audience is the best audience in the world. They are thinkers. They love ideas—and they love arguing about them. So my advice is: don’t pussyfoot; say what you believe with clarity, and let people respond. The strength of the field has always been that: works in dialog with each other—the classic example is Robert Heinlein’s jingoism in Starship Troopers contrasting with Joe Haldeman’s pacifism in The Forever War. We read both those classics to this day because they pull no punches. A namby-pamby book is forgotten as soon as it’s published.

5. The TV series adaptation of FlashForward, although sadly short-lived, remains much beloved among its fans; however some fans of the book felt that it should have been more faithful to the novel. As someone who writes regularly on the relationships between print science fiction and its film and television stepchildren, what is your criteria for a good adaptation?

I loved the FlashForward TV series. I signed off on all the major changes before I’d sold the TV rights to ABC; I knew exactly what Brannon Braga and David Goyer intended to do in the pilot, and I thought they pulled it off magnificently. And remember, I was consultant on every episode and I wrote the nineteenth episode, Course Correction.

The novel I wrote might well have made an excellent movie, but it had to be opened up and changed to make it work as a TV series. My bachelor’s degree is in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson University, the top broadcasting program in Canada; the business of making television has been a great interest of mine for decades. In fact, I’d go so far as to say The Making of Star Trek—the 1968 book by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry that was the first-ever “Making of” book—was, for me, the single most influential nonfiction book I’ve read.

My favourite movies are all very liberal adaptations: Dr. Strangelove from Peter George’s very serious novel Red Alert; Casablanca from a tepid play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s; Planet of the Apes, which, in movie form was about the dangers of nuclear war and a satire on race relations, from Pierre Boulle’s very different novel La Planète de Singe, which was a satire on academic stuffiness; 2001: A Space Odyssey from Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories “The Sentinel” and “Encounter at Dawn.” So, I’ve always understood, and appreciated, what scriptwriters bring to the source material. Right now, as it happens, I’m working on a commissioned screenplay adaptation of my recent novel Triggers. It’s a fascinating exercise re-envisioning the work for film instead of print, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

(We’d like to dedicate this interview to Gerry Anderson, who made our imaginations soar).

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.

The Poet as Prophet: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as Post-Apocalyptic Speculative Fiction

The Poet as Prophet: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as Post-Apocalyptic Speculative Fiction

T.S. Eliot

 

There are so many distinct levels in The Waste Land that this short essay will not even begin to touch the surface of the work. The Waste Land goes beyond simple poetry and reaches into story telling in a way that is both poetic, prose, and song all at once and with many voices telling many stories that coalesce into one single overarching narrative. The Waste Land tells the story of a world that has lost it’s innocence and spirituality. Moving from prophetic warnings  of utter desolation, to a world of barbarism and war. The spirits of  dead warriors return to the desolate destroyed city of London seeking to speak to the living. It is a poem of the loss of spiritual and physical reality. It can also be seen as one of the finest examples of post-apocalyptic literature.

To understand Eliot’s work in terms of speculative fiction we must look at his influences as a poet.  In many ways Eliot builds on the legacy of Mathew Arnold. Arnold’s poetry is considered in some corners the first of the modern poets. His work delved into classical Greek and Roman ideas putting them into a Victorian and early modern. His work combined these classic elements with more fantastical  ad dark elements creating such works as The Forsaken Mermaid and Dover Beach. Dover Beach with its dark prophetic themes and apocalyptic nature could almost be a  prequel to Eliot’s later work. The poem’s theme even inspired Ray Bradbury and appears in his novel Fahrenheit 451.

Arnold, who died in the same year Eliot was born, is seen generally as one of the progenitors of Eliot, but Eliot adamantly disagreed, “[W]hile Mr. Eliot assumes the same general position as Arnold in criticism; he will own no connection with him.” (Loring 479). Eliot admitted no connection between their work but he stated that he understood “deeply” what Arnold was saying as a poet. Arnold stressed in his poetry that man should look inward for meaning between nature and spirituality. His work is introspective and contemplative. Arnold considered himself the concluding poet of his own age the last of the romantics. Eliot seems to have picked up the torch where Arnold dropped it, building on Arnold’s dark romanticism and creating a modernist approach from it. Eliot’s approach was to seek out the introspective nature of man and draw it out. For example we can look at the second section of  “The Waste Land”. Here Eliot seems to be trying to draw out that inner contemplative world into the open. “What are you thinking of? What Thinking? What?” (Di Yanni 458). This drawing out of the inner world is especially evident in the section of the poem which describes the prophetic tarot reading. Eliot exposes the innermost self to the world transcending the romantic poetry of Arnold and the Victorian period. He creates a new canvas for poetry and uses that to explore a dark future.

Another author and thinker upon whom Eliot drew inspiration is  Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was particularly important when looking at ideas of metaphysical and physical balance in Eliot’s poem. Where Matthew Arnold was introspective and contemplating of self in his poetry, Whiteheads work concentrated on the conflict between the physical world and on the spiritual world. Whitehead was a philosopher rather than a poet, a contemporary of Eliot. His work was highly influential in Eliot’s day and may have helped solidify the spiritual and scientific aspects of Eliot’s work. Whitehead also pioneered a philosophy that postulated the world must give up science and embrace spirituality. Whitehead stated that we must find, “an end of the dominance of scientism and materialistic naturalism, and the beginning of the re-construction of a livable and believable world out of the fragments” (Waggoneer 101). This was also the theme that Eliot was attempting to explore in The Waste Land. Mankind had embraced physics and science and with that emphasis on the material world he has lost his soul. These same themes can be found throughout modern post-apocalyptic literature. David Brin for instance expresses almost the exact same sentiment at the beginning of The PostMan.

      The Waste Land is a multi-layered narrative that defies easy classification. Is it a poem about a spiritual wasting away of the human spirit, or is it about the wasting away of our physical existence, or could it be both at once? I believe that it is both and neither. I think it defies those simple classifications and is a creature all on its own. It transcends the inner contemplative work of Arnold and embraces the ideas of the new modern “god” and new metaphysical reality envisioned by Whitehead. Here is a poem that is truly modern in scope and essence. The Waste Land exposes the duality of modern man set adrift in a world beset by the physical on one side and seeking meaning in the metaphysical on another.  In embracing this duality Eliot uses it to speculate on the fate of man. He asks the question have we lost our souls while embracing science and materialism? Questions like these are at the very heart of speculative fiction. Eliot gives mankind a choice, he must find a balance between the spiritual and the scientific or forever be lost in the apocalyptic wasteland.

Works Cited

 

 

DiYanni, Robert. Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions. New York: McGraw Hill, 1994. Print.

Hyatt Howe Waggoner. T. S. Eliot and the Hollow Men American Literature , Vol. 15, No. 2 (May, 1943), pp. 101-126. JSTOR. Web.

M. L. S. Loring. T.S. Eliot on Mathew Arnold, The Sewanee Review Vol. 43, No. 4 , pp. 479-488. December 3, 2012. JSTOR. Web.