The Website of The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field
Locus Online
Sub Menu contents


Monday, April 5, 2010

Thoroughly Modern Mythology?: A Review of Clash of the Titans

by Gary Westfahl

While the director (Desmond Davis) and screenwriter (Beverley Cross) of the original Clash of the Titans (1981) are duly cited in this remake's closing credits, the name of that film's producer, special effects artist, and true creator, Ray Harryhausen, is strangely absent. This would appear to undermine what science fiction fans would prefer to believe about the origins of this new film: that it was conceived as a loving tribute to that celebrated master of stop-motion animation, best known for a series of memorable fantasy films that began with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and concluded with Clash of the Titans (as opposing to representing yet another case of an idea-deprived, risk-averse Hollywood seizing upon a proven success to churn out a serviceable product that will lure the masses into theatres and generate profits before word of mouth drives them away). However, since there are signs that director Louis Leterrier and writers Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi were actually aware of, and appreciative of, Harryhausen's accomplishments, perhaps the omission of his name was intended as a kindness to a still-living legend who might not wish to be associated with this very different version of his most famous film.

A different version, I must emphasize, not an inferior version; for while it would be easy to complain that this new film represents a shameless trashing of a cherished classic, and while such remakes do exist (cf. The Day the Earth Stood Still [review here]), critics must be wary of a reflexive nostalgia that would blind them to the realities of changing times, and I would rather regard this film as precisely the sort of Clash of the Titans that one would have to produce in the year 2010. Certainly, it is unsurprising to see Harryhausen's crude and laborious stop-motion animation replaced with state-of-the-art, persuasively rendered, computer-generated effects, yet the story which provided the pretext for his extravagant creations, a loose adaptation of the Greek myth of Perseus, also had to be reshaped for a new generation.

Specifically: Harryhausen's films were always low-budget efforts aimed primarily at children, and the way that they characterized the relationship between Greek mortals and their gods in Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) reflects once-common attitudes about the relationship between children and their parents. That is, children may sometimes love their parents, and sometimes hate their parents, but they must always put up with their parents, since they are the ones in charge. Similarly, to Harryhausen's heroes, the gods sometimes seem wise and benevolent, and sometimes seem petty and vindictive, but they can see no way to resist their overwhelming power, clearly conveyed by the recurring conceit of chess pieces representing mortals being moved by gods across a chessboard in Jason and the Argonauts to illustrate how the gods were effortlessly controlling everything the mortals were doing. And the very young viewers of those films could readily accept this notion of distant authority figures firmly dominating lesser beings.

Today, however, if producers are aiming at theatres instead of the direct-to-video market, they must make films for larger audiences, and a typical target is the most frequent filmgoers, teenagers and young adults. Accordingly, Cross's Clash of the Titans has been refashioned as a story about adolescent rebellion against distant authority figures. At the beginning of the film, the citizens of Greece have grown tired of their meddling, oppressive gods and are openly rebelling against them, so that Olympians like Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who somehow depend upon the love and fear of mortals to maintain their immortality, must ponder strategies to regain the respect of their restless subjects; Hades even says that "like children," the mortals "need to be reminded of the order of things." On a personal level, Zeus's son Perseus (Sam Worthington) repeatedly rejects his father's invitation to join the gods and resists using the magical weapons Zeus covertly provides him with because he does not want to "become like" the gods. Of course, the last thing that typical teenagers want to do is to grow up and become like their parents.

This shift in attitudes in reflected in the film's most overt references to Harryhausen's legacy. When Perseus and the soldiers who will accompany him are gathering equipment for their mission, he picks up an exact replica of Bubo, the cute mechanical owl which was Perseus's constant companion in the original Clash of the Titans, a device obviously introduced to amuse very young viewers and hence a device despised by many older viewers. When Perseus asks, "What is this?" the brusque response of veteran soldier Draco (Mads Mikkelson) is "Just leave it," signaling that this, more mature version of the story is not for children. And although we observe in Olympus small statuettes of mortals, including Perseus, which resemble chess pieces, they are never pushed around on a chessboard, since these gods are unable to control their mortals.

This theme of rebellion against authority has a political dimension as well, with the gods portrayed as tyrants correctly being resisted by mortals seeking freedom. Thus, as the first visualization of the human campaign against the gods, Perseus and his adoptive parents, fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite) and wife Marmara (Elizabeth McGovern), watch as the soldiers of Argos defiantly topple an enormous statue of Zeus, precisely mimicking the famous footage of victorious soldiers toppling the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Absolute rulers on Earth — the royalty of Argos — fare no better: when King Kepheus (Michael Regan) and Queen Cassiopeia (Polly Walker) resist Hades's demand that their daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) be sacrificed to the monstrous Kraken to spare their city from destruction, angry citizens take to the streets to successfully demand the sacrifice on the grounds that their princess is "no better than us." And Andromeda herself, properly sensitive to the plight of her subjects (she defiantly asks her parents, "Have you seen what's happening out there? Have you even bothered to look?"), hands out food to suffering peasants and happily agrees to die for them. What is more provocative, and correspondingly more understated, is that this business of battling against one's gods has an anti-religious aspect as well, best conveyed by the unsympathetic zealot Prokopion (Luke Treadaway) who leads the mob that seizes Andromeda and strings her up to be sacrificed, all on the grounds that this is, after all, what the gods want. In its pursuit of big box-office dollars, though, Clash of the Titans cannot dare to openly suggest that, perhaps, contemporary people might also be better off if they decided to stop worshipping their own repressive gods.

Still, in one key respect, the film fully respects traditional hierarchies: as the son of Zeus, Perseus possesses the proper aristocratic pedigree that automatically qualifies him as the world's "savior" (which is what Draco calls him, not entirely sarcastically), so the other, more plebeian warriors gradually defer to his judgment in all matters; and eventually, several of them willingly sacrifice their own lives to help Perseus kill Medusa and emerge as the film's hero, which we are told represents his destiny. It is in the manner that this outsider is implausibly embraced as everyone's messiah, and not simply his habit of flying around on the back of a large winged creature, that Worthington's Perseus resembles his role in another recent film that, as some may vaguely recall, also attracted some criticism for an overreliance on clichéd themes. But clearly, the narrative motif of the undistinguished common man who is revealed to be The Chosen One is much too appealing to abandon in favor of lip service to egalitarian values, and the film definitely never promised any genuine novelty, inasmuch as its first line is "The oldest stories ever told are written in the stars."

The story has been awkwardly updated in another way which undermines the film's emotional impact. In the days before feminism, everyone was comfortable with the notion that men would handle all the heroics, while the role of women was simply to be rescued, or to wait at home for their heroes' return. Thus, the original Clash of the Titans followed Greek mythology in developing a romance between Perseus and the threatened Andromeda, who upon being rescued by her hero was appropriately destined to become his bride. Today, however, heroes must fall in love with women who prove they are just as tough as men by accompanying them and actively participating in the heroics. (Consider, as one example, the smart, capable female guide who replaced more demure predecessors as the romantic interest in the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth [2008] [review here]). But in this case, since the story line required Andromeda to stay at home as the Kraken's intended victim, she could not join Perseus's mission. Hence, while Perseus (spoiler alert!) still rescues Andromeda in the end, they do not fall in love with each other, and he rejects her implicit offer to marry her and become the new king of Argos. Instead, to function as a fittingly liberated object of Perseus's affections, the film introduces a new character, Io (Gemma Atherton), seemingly a name randomly chosen from Greek mythology since her character bears little resemblance to the Greek demigoddess seduced by Zeus. Instead, this Io tells Perseus that she was a mortal who once resisted a god's advances and therefore was punished with the gift of eternal life. No, this doesn't make any sense, as Perseus himself comments, but it does allow an ageless Io to function as Perseus's lifelong protector (a role she assumes for unknown reasons), to guide him during his journeys, and to ultimately replace Andromeda as his lover. The problem is that this desperately contrived character generally seems more motherly than romantic and never manages to develop any genuine relationship with Perseus during their adventures, so that their final pairing is merely a nod toward convention, not a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps there wasn't time for an additional rewrite to better integrate this character into the action.

The script would also have benefited from some revision to address the problem of the film's slow, stumbling start, as Perseus spends too much time as a passive observer of the unfolding story (Io's first words to him are, tellingly, "do nothing") while he resists the idea of becoming a hero (announcing that "I mend nets, not wield a sword"). Can anyone possibly imagine that his reluctance is generating any genuine suspense, that there are actually members of the audience sitting on the edge of their seats and wondering, "Will Perseus embrace his destiny and set out to kill the Kraken, or will he go back to being a humble fisherman?" And unlike the original, this film strangely neglects the interesting characters of the other Olympian gods, whose role here is generally limited to standing around and listening to Zeus and Hades making speeches; for example, one has to be extremely attentive to notice, from his one brief close-up and snippet of dialogue, that the god Hermes is portrayed by Alexander Siddig, Dr. Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). Since the film clearly enjoyed a hefty budget (knowingly referenced by Zeus when he tosses the underworld-bound Perseus a coin and comments, "It's expensive where you're going"), the producers might have spent a few thousand dollars hiring an expert on Greek mythology as a consultant; certainly, one of the most remarkable aspects of the series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) was that its creators actually read and drew upon that rich tradition, and a knowledgeable scholar might have offered these filmmakers a few good ideas to consider. (If nothing else, such a consultant may have suggested that Perseus's new, more adventurous girlfriend would be better named, say, Atalanta instead of Io, or that its new characters, the inhuman Djinn, would be better named Myrmidons.) This film also duplicates the original film's most egregious flaw — a disappointing conclusion — since neither of the Krakens is really as awesome as filmmakers had hoped. (As another similarity to Avatar [2009] [review here], the makers of Clash of the Titans succumbed to the delusion that one renders special effects more impressive by making them appear physically larger; but all objects can be the same size on a silver screen, and I found this film's giant scorpions — one of which actually stumbles while descending a mountain — far more creepy and frightening than its mountainous Kraken.)

On the set (or, more likely, in front of the blue screen), director Laterrier should have worked more with his actors as well. In the case of Sam Worthington, it may reflect the lingering influence of Avatar (though I have no idea which project he actually filmed first), or it may represent an effort to emphasize his character's disinclination to attain godhood, but his Perseus seems too much like an American marine in a World War II movie to be persuasive as an ancient Greek hero. (One wonders if he ad-libbed his most incongruous line, his instructions to comrades as they approached Medusa's temple: "don't look this bitch in the eye.") As for Ralph Fiennes, his Hades is far too stiff and ponderous to be truly menacing, while Gemma Arteron's Io is so vacuous as to render Worthington's affection for her utterly incomprehensible. Yet in contrast to Sir Laurence Olivier, who phoned in his performance of Zeus in the original Clash of the Titans, Liam Neeson demonstrates here that there really are no small parts, only small actors, by taking advantage of his very limited opportunities to make Zeus the only complex and emotionally resonant character in the entire film. Since he will win no awards for his efforts, one hopes at least that, like Olivier, he received a lot of money for his role.

One minor complaint: today, our thoughts about ancient Greece are inexorably linked to images of ruined temples and broken statues; thus, in a manifest effort to convey that their story is set in ancient Greece (and since there is nothing especially Grecian about the film's random mixtures of ethnicities and accents), the filmmakers have filled Clash of the Titans with images of ruined temples and broken statues. During their long journey, Perseus and his cohorts constantly walk past weathered statuary and abandoned ruins, and even Medusa's lair is depicted as a chaotic temple of cracked pillars and shattered stoneware. (In keeping with this theme, this version of Medusa, not content to merely transform people into statues, also enjoys smashing them to pieces after they are petrified, and I have already mentioned the destroyed statue of Zeus that serves as the beginning, and the endpoint, of Perseus's adventures.) The problem is that, at the time of this film's events, all of those statues logically would still be intact, and all of those temples would be inhabited, functional places of worship.

Yet the film's evocative ruins may be serving another, perhaps unintended purpose: to suggest that Clash of the Titans, despite its fitful strivings for modernity, today represents an antique, a story founded on outdated belief systems regarding inborn nobility and righteous struggles against absolute evil that no longer have a place in our contemporary world. At the same time, the ongoing popularity of such narratives — and there can be no doubt that this film will prove tremendously popular — indicates that many people retain a powerful attachment to ideologies and attitudes that they would unhesitatingly reject in real-life situations. However, since much of the entire genre of fantasy illustrates the same point, Clash of the Titans is hardly unique in this respect — and yes, anticipating its success, the filmmakers did leave the door open for a sequel. So, everyone should be prepared for a forthcoming Rehash of the Titans, another very modern, and very old, story.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Written by Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi, based on the 1981 screenplay by Beverley Cross

Starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Mads Mikkelson, Jason Flemyng, Alexa Davalos, Liam Cunningham, Luke Treadaway, Michael Regan, Polly Walker, Pete Postlethwaite, and Elizabeth McGovern

Official Website: Clash of the Titans


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Searching for Tomorrow: A Second Look at FlashForward

by Gary Westfahl

Now that ABC is finally bringing back its new series FlashForward (unseen since last November, it will relaunch on Thursday, March 18), a discussion of its first ten episodes might function as a helpful orientation for new and returning viewers. Such a progress report could have been completed in early December; however, I missed two of the first ten episodes when they first aired and, amidst various distractions, it took me a while to track down all the episodes, rewatch those I had seen, and belatedly watch the unseen episodes. And that observation in itself constitutes a critical commentary on the series; clearly, if I had been utterly fascinated by what I was watching, I never would have allowed myself to miss one minute of a single episode.

As to why I have not been utterly fascinated by FlashForward, in a sense it is puzzling. Certainly, I have no complaints about the overall quality of the acting, writing, and production values, and the series has some distinctive virtues. For example, the character of physicist Simon Campos (Dominic Monaghan) — brilliant, arrogant, caustic, witty, and somehow charmingly childlike — reminds me of actual scientists I have known much more than Hollywood's typical representatives of the profession, and amidst various plot threads all designed to tug at the heartstrings, at least one of them worked for me: the story, featured in "Believe," of physician Bryce Varley (Zachary Knighton), suffering from a terminal disease, and Japanese roboticist Keiko Arahida (Yuko Takeuchi), oppressed by match-making parents and her paternalistic corporation, who discover through their FlashForwards that they are soulmates of sorts and begin searching for each other.

Still, the series finds ways to make itself irritating, one factor being the egregious cynicism that radiates from the entire project. Now, I am not naïve, and I know that every series in the history of television has been created and produced primarily as a way to make money. Yet the series that people remember, the series that people care about — with examples ranging from Star Trek to Seinfeld — always manage to project the impression (truthfully or not) that it wasn't all about the money, that the creators and writers went about their work because they sincerely wanted to convey something of importance to a wide audience. The creators of FlashForward, Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, have not yet been able to project such an impression. Thus, if you ask me what this series is about, there is only one answer I can give: it is about persuading me to watch the next episode.

And this is a shame, since the series did inherit a genuinely interesting idea from the Robert J. Sawyer novel which "inspired" it: how would people and their society be changed if everyone could get a brief glimpse of their probable futures, either twenty years from now (in the novel) or six months from now (in the series)? To date, except for a few portentous comments during occasional calm intervals between the pyrotechnics, the series' answers are all obvious: since the blackouts that were a byproduct of the FlashForwards caused numerous deaths and injuries, the basic phenomenon is perceived as an evil, requiring stalwart FBI agents Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), Demetri Noh (John Cho), Janis Hawk (Christine Woods), and boss Stanford Wedeck (Courtney B. Vance) to track down the perpetrators and prevent them from doing it again. As for the effects of the individual FlashForwards: people who saw pleasant futures are elated and look forward to the future; people who saw unpleasant futures are saddened and desperately want to avoid the future; and people who saw nothing at all, presumably meaning that they are destined to die within the next six months, become deeply depressed or nihilistic. It is extraordinarily difficult to interpret any of these reactions as an insightful revelation about the effects of prophetic visions.

The series is also less than adventurous in the ways that Braga and Goyer are visibly endeavoring to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their convoluted plot while never doing anything that might offend anyone — testifying to their cleverness if not their integrity. It is easy to envision the story conferences that led to particular plot threads: "Okay, we need a way to work the war in Afghanistan into the story while appealing to both pro-war and anti-war viewers." "Wait, I know — let's say Mark Benford's friend and fellow ex-alcoholic Aaron Stark (Bryan O'Byrne) has a beautiful daughter who became a soldier in Afghanistan, and everyone thinks she was killed, but it turns out she is really alive, only she has been on the run, hiding out because she has information about covered-up atrocities committed by members of a Blackwater-like private security unit who will kill her if they think she'll tell anybody what she knows." "Yeah, that'll work." Or consider the character of Joyce Clemente (Barbara Williams), a powerful, capable senator in line to become vice president, or even president — a nod to feminists. But she's a raving bitch whom everyone despises — a nod to misogynists.

In addition, anyone familiar with Sawyer's work will keep noticing how this series both keeps drawing upon, and dumbing down, material from his novel. For one thing, after killing some time and provoking some violence by foregrounding the silly theory that the FlashForwards were caused by malevolent terrorists, the series seemingly is now acknowledging that, as in the novel, they were the inadvertent effect of a physics experiment overseen by noted scientist Lloyd Simcoe (Jack Davenport) and a colleague — Theo Procopides in the novel and Campos in the series. But the writers are unwilling to risk alienating an audience they clearly have little respect for by offering a detailed explanation as to what sort of experiment it was (in the novel, it was the use of a high-energy particle accelerator in an effort to detect the Higgs boson). The novel also describes a young Greek waiter and aspiring writer who is very discouraged when his FlashForward indicates that, twenty years from now, he will still be working as a waiter, proving that his dreams of authorial success are doomed to failure; the resulting depression soon drives him to commit suicide, thereby proving that the FlashForwards are not inevitable and that people's observed futures can be changed. Granted, the series' shift from FlashForwards twenty years in advance to FlashForwards six months in advance made this precise scenario unworkable, since a lack of progress toward becoming a renowned writer in six months would be of no special significance. But there was a broader problem: all people who read science fiction novels probably have at least briefly considered becoming writers themselves and hence could readily sympathize with someone in anguish over the news that their fervent desire for recognition as a talented writer would forever be unfulfilled. However, the Joe Six-Packs who are presumably this series' main target audience might struggle to understand the situation: "So he ain't going be a big-time writer? So what? Maybe he'll win the lottery." Therefore, in the series, FBI agent Al Gough (Lee Thompson Young) commits suicide and thus demonstrates the malleability of the future because, according to his FlashForward, he was destined to accidentally cause the death of a single mother with two sons. Hey, everybody can relate to that.

It is perhaps inevitable, but still disheartening, that the series further disappoints by so regularly falling back upon the tired tropes of television drama: whenever the story seems to be slowing down, mysterious assailants burst upon the scene to provoke a fierce gunfight with the heroic FBI agents, or a dying patient is miraculously saved in the operating room by the masterful efforts of surgeons Olivia Benford (Sonya Walger) and Varley. To be sure, science fiction novels may also feature such incidents, and indeed, Sawyer's Flashforward itself includes a gun battle involving Procopides and a would-be assassin. But Sawyer at least provided a novel backdrop for the action — the corridors of a particle accelerator — instead of the street corners, parking garages, and abandoned warehouses where Mark Benford and company keep encountering their armed assailants. Another minor annoyance is that, reflecting the fact that most people are continually pondering their FlashForwards, the series keeps repeating the same clips of those visions — a defensible device, I suppose, but I am surely not the only person who has figured out that this practice is economically enabling the producers to give ABC 41-minute episodes with only, say, 40 minutes of new footage. Moreover, since seeing the same thing over and over again can get tiresome, I am surely not the only viewer who is now thinking, "if I see Simcoe looking over his shoulder while Olivia calls him 'honey' one more time, I'm going to scream!"

Still, all of these quibbles are secondary to my major issue with the series, which is that, like so many stories crafted for "mainstream" audiences, FlashForward both is, and is not, really science fiction.

Throughout the last century, one can find innumerable adventures not written by science fiction authors, or not published in science fiction venues, which feature some sort of amazing new invention, qualifying them by many definitions as science fiction. Yet the innovation is routinely presented as the work of a single, isolated scientist, who either unknowingly or deliberately causes tremendous harm to society by means of his discovery, and the happy ending is that the scientist is either killed, or volunteers to destroy all of his notes and equipment, so that the knowledge needed to create the invention is forever lost and the status quo is restored. Yet science fiction writers, who understand how science really works, recognize that advances in science are invariably produced by teams of scientists who consider themselves part of a community, that new results will always be shared with other scientists or eventually duplicated by other researchers, and that major discoveries, for better or worse, cannot and never will be erased from human consciousness. Thus, by one argument, a genuine science fiction story will involve not only significant scientific progress, but a civilization permanently altered because of that progress. Sawyer's novel moves in such a direction when the people of Earth, once they learn that their FlashForwards were caused by a physics experiment, do not respond by condemning the scientists as villains, understanding that they had no criminal intent, and after the scientists cautiously suggest that it might be interesting to repeat the experiment, everyone agrees to permit it — as long as precautions are taken this time to avoid deaths or accidents during the blackout period. So, the stage is set for a depiction of a transformed future world in which all citizens periodically receive glimpses of their personal futures — so as to profitably inspire them with images of their coming achievements, to allow them to take certain steps to ensure desirable futures, and to provide opportunities for them to avoid undesirable fates. Yet Sawyer is ultimately unwilling to take his story to that natural denouément: when the vast majority of people see absolutely nothing during their second blackouts, they conclude that the prophecies were a one-time anomaly, and no plans are made for another experiment. (In fact, FlashForwards did happen again, but this time on a much vaster time scale, so that only a few people destined for effective immortality were treated to cosmic visions of unimaginable human advances.)

And, if Sawyer himself cannot bring himself to imagine a society permanently changed by periodic FlashForwards, one can be sure that the producers of this television series will also do nothing of that kind. As noted, the entire phenomenon of the FlashForwards, following the pattern of "mainstream" science fiction, has been universally regarded as a malevolent interruption of society's desirable routine, to be properly investigated and remedied by law enforcement officials, and a major priority that Wedeck announces in the very first episode is to make sure that they never happen again. When Simcoe reveals in the tenth episode that his experiment probably caused the FlashForwards, he is verbally and physically attacked, condemned as a mass murderer by a rabble-rousing television commentator, and violently abducted by mysterious figures, as society displays the attitude toward pioneering scientists long observed in popular culture, dating back to the vicious mobs who traditionally went after Dr. Frankenstein in film adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel. If it indeed turns out that Simcoe's experiment was responsible for the FlashForwards (the series, in attempting to generate suspense in as many ways as possible, has not yet established this unequivocally), one can anticipate a conclusion in which either he and his colleague will be killed, purportedly taking the information needed to create FlashForwards to their graves, or they will contritely burn all their data, smash all their equipment, and promise to never do it again.

And FlashForward is visibly committed to preserving the status quo in another way. As I pointed out during a panel at the 2009 Loscon, the entire series is structured as a mystery, the genre in which a temporary disruption of standard conditions (usually, an unsolved murder) is resolved by a charismatic detective, restoring normalcy, until the detective (if the adventure proves popular) is again confronted with a temporary disruption of standard conditions, which the detective again resolves, and so on and so on as long as the author is able to write such stories and the readers are willing to buy them. The overall structure of this series is similarly clear: whenever one mystery is cleared up, another one is going to be introduced, and so on and so on until either the producers or the viewing public gets bored by it all. And this represents another departure from the typical nature of science fiction, wherein even long series, in print or on television, tend to change and progress over time instead of constantly running in place in the manner of most television series. So it is that, while I will be watching, out of morbid curiosity if nothing else, the series' final first-season episode on or around April 29, 2010 — the date observed in the FlashForwards — I entertain no hopes that all of the mysteries so far generated by the series will be completely resolved at that time — because, as it happens, the producers have admitted from the very start that they will not. For Mark Benford's FlashForward has already shown us that on April 29, he will still be utterly baffled by everything, he will still be vainly trying to put all the pieces together, and he will still be dodging bullets from unknown enemies. The only difference is that, by that time, the whole situation will have driven him to drink. Hey, some viewers will be able to relate to that.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include a collection of essays, Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser; the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature; and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

FlashForward. Television series created and produced by Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, "inspired" by the novel Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer.

Episodes to date: "No More Good Days," September 24, 2009; "White to Play," October 1, 2009; "137 Sekunden," October 8, 2009; "Black Swan," October 15, 2009; "Gimme Some Truth," October 22, 2009; "Scary Monsters and Super Creeps," October 29, 2009; "The Gift," November 5, 2009; "Playing Cards with Coyote," November 12, 2009; "Believe," November 19, 2009; and "A561984," November 30, 2009.

Starring Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Sonya Walger, Zachary Knighton, Jack Davenport, Dominic Monaghan, Peyton List, Brian O'Byrne, Christine Woods, Courtney B. Vance, Ryan Wynott, and Lennon Wynn.

Official Website: - FlashForward


Sunday, December 20, 2009

All Energy Is Borrowed: A Review of Avatar

by Gary Westfahl

All right; the special effects in James Cameron's Avatar are indeed dazzling, and one can regard the film as ground-breaking in demonstrating, more so than any other recent film I know of, that computer animation can not only hold its own against live-action film but might actually replace it. Yes, 500 million dollars invested in the latest technology does enable a filmmaker to make twelve-foot-high, blue-skinned aliens generated through performance capture just as sympathetic and involving as skilled actors filmed in the ordinary fashion. Still, after filmgoers have emotionally experienced those aliens' agonies of defeat and thrills of victory, some will feel compelled to actually think about the story that has enthralled them for almost three hours, and they are the ones who will feel less inclined to celebrate Cameron's achievement.

Prior to the film's release, the internet buzz was that Avatar was a ripoff of Poul Anderson's classic novelette "Call Me Joe" (1957), and admittedly there are some significant similarities: both stories involve paraplegic men who assume mental control of artificially created alien beings designed to survive on harsh alien planets, decide that they prefer being active aliens to being handicapped humans, and eventually choose to be aliens all of the time. But Anderson's novelette took place on Jupiter, not a distant world named Pandora, and featured a newly created sort of intelligent being introduced to an environment without intelligent life, not an enormous humanoid crafted to resemble, and mingle with, members of an indigenous intelligent species. Thus, even if its basic concept is not entirely original, the film does take it in a different direction. Yet the film also recalls Anderson's work in a broader fashion: one of that author's many talents was filling his alien worlds with memorably distinctive flora and fauna, as indicated by one evocative passage from "The Queen of Air and Darkness" (1971): "Blossoms opened, flamboyance on firethorn trees, steel-flowers rising blue from the brok and rainplant that cloaked all hills, shy whiteness of kiss-me-never down in the dales. Flitteries darted among them on iridescent wings; a crownbuck shook his horns and bugled." Here, although the larger, dinosaur-like creatures that inhabit Pandora are mostly things that we have all seen before, Cameron additionally provides his world with many smaller and subtler forms of bizarre alien life — such as tiny purple lizards, floating fluorescent wisps, and spiraling plants that contract into a bulb when touched — that represent precisely the sorts of extraterrestrial life that Anderson might have envisioned and described.

Anderson is not the only science fiction writer that this film brings to mind: its larger-than-life warsuits, manipulated by soldiers inside of them, are reminiscent of predecessors ranging from the fighting suits of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) to those in the Gundam Mobile Suit anime series (1979-1980), and a key subplot, depicting how members of the Pandoran race, the Na'vi, form a lifelong mental bond with large flying creatures that they then ride upon, seems lifted right out of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (1968) and its many sequels. Still, the science fiction story that most closely resembles Avatar has to be Ursula K. Le Guin's novella "The Word for World Is Forest" (1972), another epic about a benevolent race of alien beings who happily inhabit dense forests while living in harmony with nature until they are attacked and slaughtered by invading human soldiers who believe that the only good gook is a dead gook. In sum, recalling the old Hollywood axiom that stealing from one source is plagiarism while stealing from several sources is research, one can say that James Cameron's Avatar is well researched. Or, as Cameron might defend himself, quoting one of his platitude-spouting Na'vi, "All energy is borrowed, and someday you have to give it back."

When you follow in the footsteps of giants, though, you may also replicate their mistakes, and this enormous exercise in borrowing-and-giving-it-back is particularly striking in the ways that it echoes both the virtues of Le Guin's story — a richly developed alien ecosystem and culture — and its major flaw — a one-dimensional portrait of an implacably evil military commander which engenders a one-dimensional and unpersuasive message about saintly savages being oppressed by scientifically advanced warriors. The problematic and uncharacteristic didacticism of her story was recognized by Le Guin herself in the "Afterword" she wrote for its original appearance in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), wherein she complained that in creating the story she had been forced by her muse to "moralize," even though "I am not very fond of moralistic tales." Of course, while Le Guin was writing, the still-raging Vietnam War was very much on her mind, and "The Word for World Is Forest," like Avatar itself, invites consideration as a parable about that conflict. Yet emotions that were appropriate in 1972 can seem anachronistic in 2009, and while one might posit that all filmmakers who matured during the Vietnam War must someday deal with that subject in their work, Cameron is entering the game rather late in his career, which makes his state-of-the-art film seem curiously old-fashioned in one respect. Bluntly, a character like Cameron's Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who calls the natives "roaches" and is eventually observed grinning in glee as he kills yet another alien, might have been acceptable thirty years ago, but he must be regarded today as nothing more than an outdated and offensive stereotype; Vietnam was one thing, but whatever else occurred in Iraq, there were no psychopathic American colonels fiercely dedicated to the genocidal slaughter of its citizens. (And a brief reference to "shock and awe" tactics cannot conceal the fact that this film is all about Vietnam and has nothing to do with the Middle East.) One might posit, perhaps, that this film was intended as Cameron's belated apology for Aliens (1986), a film that appeared to glorify all-out war against beings that didn't look like you — which might explain why he summoned Sigourney Weaver, the chief alien-killer in that film, to here play Dr. Grace Augustine (whose very name announces graciousness and nobility), a compassionate scientist who opposes military action against the aliens on this world.

As another similarity, Le Guin's story, like Avatar, is moralistic about not only the oppression of native peoples, but thoughtless destruction of the environment as well. In this case, the violent elimination of the aliens on Pandora is primarily motivated by a desire to gain access to rich deposits of a valuable gravity-defying metal (and hey, if you want to demonstrate your complete contempt for scientific plausibility, you might as well call this impossible, McGuffin-like substance "unobtainium"). We are told that in the twenty-second century, humans have already despoiled their own planet — "there is no green there" because "they killed their mother" — and Earth is later described as a "dying world." The hoped-for happy ending to Avatar is that the human race might be stopped before they can utterly ruin a second planet. If these environmental concerns seem more contemporary than condemnations of the Vietnam War, they are ultimately just as clichéd, and the best commentary on the merits of this theme is provided by Cameron himself: when the alien-inhabiting Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is first being instructed by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in the wise ways of her people so as to earn acceptance into her tribe, he responds to one of her lectures by thinking, "I hope this tree-hugger crap isn't on the final." Soon, however, Sully has swallowed all of her tree-hugger crap hook, line, and sinker, and knowing that "the wealth of the world is all around us," and that there is a "network of energy that flows through all living things," Sully is properly indignant that the human settlers on Pandora would strive to destroy the Na'vi's sacred tree to do some mining, and he joins his adopted people in resisting their efforts.

If these stale sentiments do not seem as offensive as those in the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still (review here), that may simply reflect the fact that Cameron has placed them in a more intriguing setting and chosen actors more talented than Keanu Reeves to deliver them. What is disturbing is that Avatar marries its argument against ravaging one's environment to an argument against scientific progress itself. The film's position could not be clearer: Living off the land in a forest is good; living in a protective metallic shelter filled with scientific devices is bad. Killing animals with a bow and arrow is good; killing them with machine guns is bad. Riding through the air on the backs of pterodactyl-like creatures is good; riding through the air in futuristic helicopters is bad. Using scientific methods to turn you into an alien is bad; hoping that a magical goddess in a tree can perform the same trick is good. The only value of machinery is that, in a pinch, natives are allowed to temporarily employ guns and grenades in order to destroy the people who brought them and restore the planet's preindustrial tranquility. And this has to represent the ultimate irony of Avatar: James Cameron has spent half a billion dollars on the most advanced technology available in order to argue that we all need to abandon advanced technology and return to the simple lifestyles of ancient Native Americans and other noble savages. Well, if that's the way you feel, Mr. Cameron, why don't you abandon filmmaking and go live with the natives in Papua New Guinea, where you could assist them in staging the rituals that help to make their simple lives so much more satisfying than ours?

Cameron also conspicuously stacks the deck in arguing for the benefits of living naturally: when Sully first enters the Pandoran forest, the film acknowledges that nature is filled with both wonderful and terrible things when Sully is almost killed by two gigantic predators and by smaller dog-like animals. However, once the Na'vi resolve to teach Sully about their idyllic lives and benign philosophy, these dangerous animals completely vanish from sight, the forest is re-envisioned as a lush paradise, and the only perils involve the Pandoran habits of running madly along narrow tree branches and leaping across chasms (which would logically result in most natives dying from fatal falls well before they reached adulthood, but hey, this is a movie, and having them move with more reasonable caution would be much less exciting). Then, just when you have entirely forgotten that this wondrous forest was ever home to horrible monsters, all of them abruptly reappear — because it's revenge-of-nature time, and now they are the good guys since they are trying to kill humans instead of aliens.

A related irony is that the philosophy being espoused in this movie — give up your scientific devices, simplify your lifestyle, find happiness in everything that is natural — was once epitomized in the phrase, "Small is beautiful." Yet in Avatar, more often than not, large is beautiful. As if convinced that audiences would only feel they were getting their money's worth if everything was big, big, big, Cameron has focused his creative energies on one enormous construct after another: huge warplanes, towering fighting suits, twelve-foot-high aliens, monstrous trees, dinosaur wannabes, an immense waterfall, huge floating mountains . . . . After a while, your mind becomes numb, these objects no longer impress, and you long for more of the aforementioned little touches of the outré that were observed earlier in the film. Frankly, Cameron should have spent more time on rainplant and flitteries instead of flying tanks and thundering triceratops. (Yet this tendency toward gigantism may also be a subconscious byproduct of undertaking to make an incredibly expensive film that surely represents one of the most mammoth projects in the history of cinema; indeed, so many people contributed to this production that, for the first time I can recall, the closing credits did not place every name on its own line, but crammed related names together into paragraphs. Clearly, it would have taken much too long to list them all in the usual fashion.)

If there is a theme in Avatar which is not entirely threadbare, it lies in the notion that it will someday not only be possible, but even desirable, to give up one's natural identity and assume an artificial identity. Traditional narratives often argue that people should accept who they really are and should not try to be something they are not, as illustrated by stories like the Twilight Zone episode "The Trade-Ins" (1962) and the film Seconds (1966). But here, Jake Sully comes to reject his real life as a partially paralyzed soldier and embraces a new unreal existence as an athletic alien: mentally returning from one experience in the forest to his human base, he says that "Everything is backwards now. Outside is the real world; back here is the dream." Crafting and inhabiting a dream world, then, is being celebrated, not chastised. It might have been more interesting if Avatar had posited that all of the Na'vi, not just a few agents like Jake Sully, were originally created by human scientists as convenient devices to explore a hostile alien world, although they soon went entirely native and were inspired by the new environment to develop their own distinctive culture and beliefs; this would have made the entire race the embodiment of a human dream and might have made the unlikely pleasures of the Pandorans' lives, and their evident mimicking of the practices of pre-technological humans, a bit more palatable.

In addition, the process of profitably reinventing oneself undoubtedly had personal relevance to James Cameron, since Avatar represents his return to feature film directing after a twelve-year hiatus, and there is evidence that he regarded the task as his own rebirth as a new kind of film director. Prior to being formally accepted as a member of the tribe, Jake comments that "Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn a place among the People." I wasn't keeping track of every single date in the small print at the bottom of Jake's video reports, but I believe that Jake's initiation and second "birthday" was exactly, or almost exactly, the two-hundredth anniversary of Cameron's own birthdate of August 16, 1954. And while I would not be enthusiastic about seeing another film like Avatar, Cameron's record as a director indicates that he rarely chooses to repeat himself, and he may be capable of next producing a film that would blend the technological breakthroughs of this one with a more original and meaningful story — that is, if Avatar is successful enough to earn him another 500 million dollars to play with.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays -- Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell -- the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by James Cameron

Written by James Cameron

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonzo, and Dileep Rao

Official Website: Avatar Official Movie Website

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The End of Civilization and Its Discontents:
A Review of The Road

by Gary Westfahl

Privy to no inside information, I cannot be sure why John Hillcoat's The Road, originally scheduled for release in December, 2008, has been repeatedly held back before finally appearing in late November, 2009 (just in time to ruin the Westfahl family Thanksgiving); certainly, there is no evidence of last-minute rewrites or hastily added scenes in a film that is, for the most part, a remarkably faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. But one factor may have been current events: at a time when the world seemed on the brink of an economic meltdown, executives may have reasoned, filmgoers might not have been in the mood for a depressing vision of the total collapse of global civilization in the near future. Now that the economic news is finally getting a little better, perhaps the producers thought audiences would be more willing to endure two hours of artistically crafted gloom and doom.

Be that as it may, it remains the case that, whether you are feeling poor or prosperous, The Road is a film that stretches the definition of "entertainment": in a world devastated by an unspecified catastrophe, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McGhee) wander through a bleak, lifeless environment desperately searching for food, like other scattered survivors, and the one thing separating the "good guys" from the "bad guys," it seems, is that the good guys are unwilling to resort to cannibalism. The only glimpses of bright color come in the Mortensen character's vivid dreams of a happier past, and there is one — precisely one — line in the film that will provoke laughter (strategically occurring during the film's modestly uplifting concluding scene). Everything else is grim: since no food is available, everyone must constantly wander in search of food and thus become homeless people, so the Mortensen character carries his and his son's belongings in the iconic device of the homeless, a shopping cart; they walk past money and jewelry lying on the ground since such things have no value in a world without food; and with gasoline no longer available, abandoned cars are nothing more than convenient shelters on cold and rainy nights. And this may be another reason why this film was originally planned, and ended up, as an end-of-the-year release: to lure people to a film that so conspicuously fails to match conventional expectations of what audiences like, the most viable strategy may be to launch it during awards season and hope that it garners, say, a few Golden Globe or Academy Award nominations to feature in advertisements.

Readers and filmgoers familiar with science fiction, of course, have visited post-holocaust societies many times in the past, and they will be intrigued by the ways in which this film, and the novel it is based upon, are in dialogue with previous depictions of future worlds driven back to primitivism. Oddly enough, though, the first science fiction film that The Road brought to my mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), obviously not part of the post-holocaust subgenre. But its opening scenes also depicted thin, hungry representatives of humanity whose lives are a constant struggle to find enough food and avoid deadly predators. What saved Moon-Watcher and his tribe from threatened extinction was an alien monolith that taught them how to use tools that could kill animals (and would subsequently help them plant crops) to provide ample food, a boon emphasized in the film's numerous later scenes of people eating healthy meals. Their civilization may have many sources of discontentment, as Sigmund Freud noted, but widespread hunger isn't one of them. What has ruined the lives of the film's father and son is that, in a world without animals or plants, their ability to use tools is no longer helpful in obtaining food — except on rare occasions when a shovel can smash the lock to an underground chamber that might contain an unlooted cache of canned goods to temporarily stave off starvation. Both films, then, share a central point: the basis of human civilization is simply having sufficient food to eat, and when there isn't enough food, a civilization can't be built or maintained. One telling image in the film is the piano, a traditional icon of a frontier becoming civilized in American westerns: in the flashbacks showing the Mortensen character and his late wife (Charlize Theron), who committed suicide rather than carry on the struggle for survival, we see them playing a piano in their house, and the wife is described as an excellent player. Later, while rummaging through yet another house in search of food, the man lifts up a cloth and finds a piano; he stares at it, plays a few measures, and then covers it up again and walks away. Clearly, he is now living in a world that has no place for pianos (which may be why it is also a world where his music-loving wife could no longer bear to keep living).

Other science fiction stories about post-holocaust societies may include similar remnants of a happier, more civilized past — Walter Van Tilburg Clark's "The Portable Phonograph" (1941) also uses music, recorded on a vinyl disk, to represent the beauties that humanity had lost — but reminders of yesterday typically evoke other emotions as well: regret about the folly that drove people to destroy everything they had built, anger at the specific persons responsible for the disaster, and a determination to begin the process of reconstructing their vanished technological society. These stories manifest a desire, in other words, to impose a narrative of progress onto a narrative of apparent regression: mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, and humanity now can again start moving forward toward a glorious future. McCarthy's novel, and this film, have no intimations of this kind. McCarthy refuses to say anything at all about what caused his world to fall apart; the film includes scenes of ongoing earthquakes and firestorms vaguely suggesting that it might have been a purely natural disaster but otherwise is also silent about exactly what happened. Thus, there are no fools or villains to condemn for humanity's sufferings who would logically inspire the hope that wiser, better people could do better in the future. There is in addition no suggestion that anybody is planning, or dreaming about, a restoration of civilization; the Mortensen character abandons the piano and throws away a picture of his wife and his wedding ring, essentially rejecting his and humanity's history as irrelevant to his current situation. When he says to his son, born after the catastrophe, that "You think I come from another world," he also seems to acknowledge that it is a world he can never return to.

The Road might be said, then, to recall George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), a classic novel wherein most of humanity is wiped out and the survivors first prove unable, and eventually unwilling, to rebuild their vanished civilization. Yet Stewart's hero Ish is at least able to gradually assemble a community of like-minded people that evolves into a happy tribe, living off a still-verdant land using primitive tools like a bow and arrow. In contrast, the Mortensen character resolutely refuses to expand his two-person team. A telling moment comes when he and his son encounter an old man (Robert Duvall) who clearly represents a good-hearted soul and a third set of eyes and hands that might have proved useful to the pair of travelers; but instead of inviting him to join their family, the father grudgingly lets him share one meal, at the insistence of his son, and then sends him on his way, probably to die. Thus, the most heartening aspect of the film's conclusion may be that we encounter another small family which is, unlike the father, more than willing to take in additional members and will perhaps continue expanding to become a community like Ish's.

The question then becomes: why is the Mortensen character so unrelentingly hostile to people like the old man and, later, a principled thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) who might have become his helpful companions? One answer would be the issue of severe deprivation, which not only eliminates civilization but may even impel people to resist bonding with others as they fight to keep themselves alive. Ish, after all, found himself in a bountiful world where he never had to miss a meal and hence had no reason to feel competitive when encountering others. So, to explain why the other family was more open to strangers, one might seize upon the film's one sign of a coming revival of life, even though it is not a flourishing green plant (like the one which signaled Earth's rebirth in Wall▪E [review here]) or a soaring eagle, but rather a tiny beetle that flies from an empty tin can up into the sky. True, one might describe this image as a deliberately feeble and far from inspirational indication that the environment might be recovering from disaster, but it does offer modest hope that conditions may be changing so as to again allow people to stop fearing and fighting others and start befriending them.

But there is another possible explanation, one which may have been on the minds of the people who voted to give McCarthy's novel the Pulitzer Prize. Arguably, the Mortensen character is simply acting in the way that increasing numbers of people in contemporary Western society are acting: while perhaps fiercely protective of family members and close friends, they otherwise live solitary and cloistered lives, "cocooning" by themselves and regarding strangers with indifference or hostility. They certainly aren't starving, but they are, one could say, emotionally deprived. Following this line of thinking, then, the dreary, miserable world that the Mortensen character finds himself in is a metaphor for the sad, empty lives that isolated individuals in our own world are now experiencing; and his tragic fate represents a warning to such people that they need to change their ways and start behaving more like the adults in the other family who survive.

The only problem with these interpretations of the story is that all the communities that we do observe in this film are evil: a roving band of gun-toting looters, another band that hunts down and captures a fleeing woman, and a house filled with cannibals and their intended victims. Could it be, then, that the film is actually arguing that staying isolated is beneficial while forming communities is dangerous? If the Mortensen character had indeed invited others to join his little group, would they all have ended up bonding with each other by becoming well-fed cannibals? Are audiences, like the son is initially, supposed to be suspicious of the motives of that other family and see their apparent benevolence as nothing more than a flimsy disguise for their sinister plans? Such ideas seem counterintuitive, to say the least, but it appears possible to argue that, according to the visible logic of this film, individuals or small groups can generally remain good (although they may, like the protagonist, feel compelled to do cruel things in order to survive), whereas larger organizations invariably become wicked, which would make the Mortensen character a role model, not a cautionary tale.

It is also possible, admittedly, to downplay its posited broad arguments about civilization and human behavior and maintain that The Road is a simple story about a father's overpowering love for a son, which compels him to continue his journey and do everything he can to keep his son alive in a world where he would otherwise, like his late wife, prefer to die. However, while this theme is manifestly central to McCarthy's novel, it is the aspect of the film that I find least persuasive, which might account for the fact that, as my wife noted, the whole story is somehow less emotionally involving than one would expect. Despite a remarkable performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the son is not really a believable character; as anyone who has spent time with boys will attest, he is too patient, too stoic, too gosh-darn good to be true. When his father describes him as an "angel" and a "god," it signals that the character is more a symbol of all the values that the father wishes to cling to against all odds than a living, breathing person. Indeed, while I would never say this about the novel, it is possible to imagine the film concluding with a plot twist not unlike those in The Other (1972) or Fight Club (1999), with the boy revealed to be nothing but an illusion created by the father as a device to motivate him to maintain his struggle for survival.

In stark contrast to all of the portentous ideas that might emerge from pondering The Road, there are subtle signs that someone involved in the making of this film had a strange sense of humor, although the references are of a nature that will not immediately amuse filmgoers and thus spoil the film's mood; rather, one has to remember and think about them. Consider: soon after the son gets his father to affirm that they are indeed the "good guys" who are "carrying the fire" of civilized ethics, the son blows out a small torch they were using for illumination, putting out the fire. At one point, for no particular reason, the father takes his son to the house where he grew up and starts pointing out where his family put the Christmas tree and the Christmas stockings; thus, however marginally, The Road can be considered a Christmas film, befitting its holiday season release, even though it is otherwise the complete antithesis of everything associated with that subgenre. Like the novel, the film is deliberately vague about precisely where in America the man and son are traveling south, but in one scene the father shows his son a fragment of a map to indicate their progress toward the coast, and we see that they are approaching a coastal city named Outland. Because I can locate no evidence that such a coastal city actually exists, this may be a reference to Berkeley Breathed's sardonic comic strip about small-town America, Outland (1989-1995), to the 1981 film Outland (a version of High Noon in outer space featuring a lonely hero surrounded by villains), or to the World of Warcraft game's "extradimensional realm" Outland, constructed out of the shattered remains of an orc planet. And buried within the typically interminable credits is a line crediting the film's "Cranes" to one "Ichabod Crane"; and since no one of that name can be found in the Internet Movie Database, this must be a reference to the protagonist of Washington Irving's 1820 story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," another solitary traveler beset by evil forces.

Overall, in both large and small ways, The Road may not be an enjoyable film to watch — it will be quite a while before I will want to see it again — but it is a very pleasurable film to talk about and think about after you have watched it. In the milieu of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, then, it definitely represents the road less traveled.

- -

Please note: a correspondent has pointed out that the credit for "Ichabod Crane" probably actually refers to a company, Ichabod Crane, Inc., which provides films with equipment. — Gary Westfahl

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays -- Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell -- the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by John Hillcoat

Written by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac Mccarthy

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McGhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Charlize Theron

Official Website: The Road - In Theaters November 25

Labels: ,

Monday, August 17, 2009

Inconstant Man, or, Have Birthday Suit, Will Time Travel: A Review of The Time Traveler's Wife

by Gary Westfahl

When a man is sitting in a predominantly female audience and watching a preview of the latest Hugh Grant movie, he has to realize that he does not represent the target audience for the upcoming film. Other clues would include the very title of the film, The Time Traveler's Wife, and the fact that it is based upon a book written by a woman and was adapted for the screen by Bruce Joel Rubin, best known for crafting the ectoplasmic tearjerker Ghost (1990).

Still, all of the husbands and boyfriends who are dragged into theatres by their significant others (including same-sex partners with a fondness for romantic films) will probably find themselves enjoying the film instead of, as is more typical, periodically checking their watches. For Rubin has not only remained faithful to, and efficiently streamlined, Audrey Niffenegger's sprawling novel, but he also, thankfully, has dampened its romance-novel ambience: the wife, Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams), is here less idealized and saintlike in her infinite patience with her wayward spouse, and the husband, Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana), is more grounded than the novel's hapless lost soul in desperate need of a woman's steadfast love and wise nurturing. And although the focus of the film remains the conventional chick-flick scenario — a man and a woman who seem like complete opposites nonetheless fall in love and forge a successful relationship — there is an interesting idea or two lurking in its bowels, for those who care to ferret them out.

The premise of the story is that DeTamble, since childhood, keeps spontaneously leaping forward or backward in time, usually to familiar places during his lifespan, leading to various complications due to his sudden absences at inopportune moments, his stark-naked appearances in the past and future, and his frantic efforts to find clothes and escape capture or violence while he waits to be returned to the present. The novel and film deploy variant gobbledygook to explain all of this as the result of a strange genetic disorder, but it is just as well that their explanatory efforts are minimal, for this is unquestionably a vision of time travel derived not from pondering physicists' equations but from watching Hollywood movies. (For example, Niffenegger's conceit that a time traveler would necessarily arrive naked is obviously lifted from The Terminator [1984] and its sequels.) The novelist's intent, manifestly, was to have DeTamble's time-traveling function as a literalization of the problem that wives habitually confront: seemingly attractive husbands who constantly feel compelled to keep drifting away, physically or mentally, from their virtuous spouses. Thus, one wife I know whose husband regularly vanishes from the family room to work on his computer or watch some wretched science fiction movie can undoubtedly relate to Clare's plight. In this respect, The Time Traveler's Wife recalls another recent movie that employs a man's time-related idiosyncracy as a metaphor for what's wrong with men, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) (review here). (Interestingly, Brad Pitt was originally envisioned as this film's protagonist and earned a credit as an executive producer; perhaps he opted out to avoid successive appearances in overly similar films.)

Since Henry's habits clearly make him an unsuitable husband, and since Clare still marries him despite knowing full well about his egregious flaws, the question to confront is: why do women keep choosing the wrong man, and why do men keep growing up to become the wrong man? Niffenegger's answer would appear to be — bad parenting, which engenders children who make bad choices. That is, after Henry's mother Annette (Michelle Nolden) dies in a car accident witnessed by Henry when he is five, his father Richard (Arliss Howard) becomes a distant, insensitive alcoholic whom he comes to despise, while Clare's mother Lucille (Fiona Reid) is cruel to her daughter, mentally ill, and sometimes suicidal. This is one aspect of the novel that the film softens: Philip is observed drinking his life away in one scene, but he promptly sobers up, shaves, and becomes a nice guy for the duration of the film, and Lucille is barely glimpsed and her issues are never discussed.

These are particular examples of a general pattern in the film that might disappoint readers of Niffenegger's novel, though it may have been unavoidable, given the disparate demands of novels and films. In novels, writers have the time to include and fully develop any number of intriguing secondary characters; in adapting novels as films, screenwriters are often obliged to focus their attention on the protagonists and either eliminate other characters or reduce them to bland figures in the background. So, while the Abshires' African-American servants and Philip's supportive Korean-American landlady Mrs. Kim may have been left out of the film because they seemed too much like racial stereotypes, their presence would have contributed greater diversity to the film's predominantly Anglo-American cast (the only exception being Jane McLean, a Canadian born in the Philippines who plays Clare's friend Charisse). Also absent from the film are Henry's depressed ex-girlfriend Ingrid, her new lesbian girlfriend Celia, and Henry's colleagues at the library where he works, who attribute his habit of vanishing and reappearing naked to compulsive exhibitionism. And the novel's version of Charisse's husband Gomez (Ron Livingston) is a delightful eccentric who makes witty remarks, spouts facetious Marxist rhetoric, moves from his career as a lawyer to an elected position as a city alderman, and is secretly in love with Clare — none of which surfaces in the movie, making the film's Gomez a dishearteningly colorless character.

The truncation and homogenization of Niffenegger's supporting cast may account for another aspect of the film that left me dissatisfied. For filmgoers of a certain age, one of the pleasures of watching contemporary films is seeing stars from their younger days show up in supporting roles; thus, when my wife dragged me into the theatre to watch Four Christmases (2008), I could at least enjoy Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, and Jon Voight effortlessly stealing the spotlight from stars Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon as their dysfunctional parents. Yet in The Time Traveler's Wife, all of the smaller parts are played by actors that most people have never heard of. Were the producers pinching pennies, or were they simply unable to attract more prominent performers to roles that essentially gave them nothing to do?

Other aspects of the novel's texture were lost in translation to film. Niffenegger draws upon her own experience as an art professor to offer interesting specifics about Clare's artworks, which include paper sculpture and kinetic sculpture, and there are details about Henry's job as a librarian in the Special Collections section of the Newberry Library. However, the art produced by the film's Clare is virtually unseen, and there is only one brief scene of Henry in the library. And a recurring source of minor conflicts in the novel is that Henry loves punk rock while Clare prefers more mainstream fare; the film's barely discernible vestiges of this theme are a scene in which Henry's friend Gomez is seen exiting a Pavement concert and the fact that the song played for Henry and Clare's wedding dance is a slow version of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (a peculiar choice, one would think, for a wedding anthem, but the song's relevance to the film's situation cannot be denied, as its lyrics reference lovers "taking different roads" and a man with "timing that flawed" and "failings exposed"). In these changes, Rubin's concern was not so much efficiency as another characteristic difference between novels and films: novelists are regularly encouraged to particularize their characters as much as possible, while screenwriters wish to make their characters broadly appealing. In this case, Rubin might have feared that some filmgoers would be less inclined to like Henry if they were overly aware of his intelligence and capabilities as a research librarian or his unusual musical proclivities.

As another difference between novels and films that works to this film's disadvantage, the experience of reading about something can be utterly unlike the experience of actually watching something. In both novel and film, the adult Henry regularly visits Clare between the ages of six and eighteen to provide friendship and guidance, and in the novel, all of this seems innocent and admirable enough. However, when one actually watches an adult stranger approach an unaccompanied child and start to befriend her, it is bound to be disturbing to modern audiences. This is particularly true in the scene when Henry vanishes on his wedding night, with the wedding ring left on the bed functioning as a telling symbol of the unfaithfulness that his disappearances represent. And where does he go? To visit with Clare as a small child. In his actions, then, Henry expresses a preference for the company of a little girl to the company of an adult sexual partner — which could be said to represent both the lingering immaturity of the typical adult male and something much creepier about his true character.

To explain what might interest viewers of this film who are not enamored of romantic dramas, I must discuss something that might be regarded as a "spoiler": the fact that Henry and Clare eventually have a daughter, Alba (portrayed at the age of five and ten, respectively, by real-life sisters Tatum McCann and Hailey McCann), who inherits her father's ability to travel through time. But even at a young age, Alba seems to be better at time-traveling than her father. For one thing, although the film does not make this explicit, she has apparently figured out how to take her clothes along during temporal journeys, for in contrast to the ill-fitting or incongruous clothes that Henry is often forced to don, the time-traveling Alba always appears to be wearing her own, perfectly-sized clothing. And we are told that she, unlike Henry, is learning how to control when she travels through time and where she goes; for example, she tells Henry that she can stop herself from involuntarily time-traveling by singing, but Henry finds that he cannot use the same trick, telling her that "I can't sing." Finally, while Henry displays no interest in the plight of his younger self until, as an adult, he briefly shows up at the scene of the fatal accident to comfort the young Henry, Alba as a ten-year-old displays preternatural maturity in already going back to see her five-year-old self in order to help her deal with an impending tragedy.

If we accept the time-traveling Henry as an embodiment of the ways that men have typically acted in the past, then, Alba might be regarded as an embodiment of the ways that women will typically act in the future. That is, as women adapt to the freedom of having careers once reserved for men, they will also be free to be wayward, inconstant wives who force patient husbands to endure their periodic absences; yet Alba suggests that they will do so in a manner that is more controlled and more sensitive to their spouses. As the child of Henry and Clare, Alba seems to be developing an approach to time-traveling that combines the stereotypically male restlessness of Henry (which, after all, can be regarded as a virtue as well as a flaw) and the stereotypically female constancy of Clare (which after, all, can be regarded as a flaw as well as a virtue). Thus, it might be worthwhile for either Niffenegger or the film's producers to explore the possibility of a sequel, The Time Traveler's Husband, which would feature the adult Alba coping with her own relationship problems, perhaps with periodic visits from her time-traveling father. (As it happens, Googling turns up an obscure novel with that title, but it appears to be an inconsequential time-travel romance.)

There is another possible direction for a sequel, hinted at in the novel, which is unlikely to interest either Niffenegger or the film's producers. In the novel, Henry's medical consultant Dr. Kendrick (played by Stephen Tobolowsky in the film) discovers the genetic cause of his condition and, by transplanting genes, is able to breed some time-traveling mice. The implication is that other people might naturally share Henry's abnormality or that, through genetic engineering, more and more people might come to possess his abilities. What would it be like, then, to live in a society in which many people are routinely jumping into the past or the future? However, writers with little experience in science fiction will generally prefer to deal with scientific innovations as temporary irruptions in an ultimately maintained status quo, while science fiction writers will, more creatively and realistically, generally seek to explore how scientific innovations will permanently disrupt the status quo. Hence, we observe in this film, as in other films, a time traveler here and a time traveler there, but we rarely if ever observe an entire society of time travelers.

I feel compelled to comment on one minor aspect of the film, unrelated to anything else discussed here, which I found to be utterly stunning. Without saying too much about later scenes in the film, I will note that we briefly see a stag standing in a snowy forest and then running away. It looked completely realistic to me, but buried in the film's credits is an acknowledgment of the company that created the "computer generated stag." That is also why the film's credits lack the standard comment that no animals were harmed in the making of the film — because no animals were used in the making of the film. Truly, we are rapidly approaching the time when advances in computer technology will make both animal and human performers unnecessary. The release of The Time Traveler's Wife was delayed for almost a year because, after shooting the film, Eric Bana shaved his head to appear in Star Trek (2009) (review here), and when some reshooting was deemed necessary, producers had to wait until his hair grew back. In a few years, filmmakers would surely deal with such a problem by creating a computer-generated Bana to appear in the added scenes, or by filming a bald Bana and adding some computer-generated hair.

Granted, some people may be disheartened by the notion that living performers may someday be replaced by computer-generated images, but science marches on, and society marches on, and it is pointless to reject scientific advances and social advances, including the fact that the tropes of science fiction are now being reduced to premises for character-driven romantic dramas. As another way to interpret Henry's situation, it is clear in both novel and film that he mostly travels into his past, instead of the future, suggesting that his problem might be characterized as an unhealthy attachment to the past and an unwillingness to adjust to the realities of the present. To avoid being like Henry, then, men everywhere should happily roll with the flow and allow their wives and significant others to drag them into theatres to see The Time Traveler's Wife — because, at some later moment, they can always, in the manner of their gender, contrive to vanish from sight and obtain some intellectual stimulation from the idea of time travel by reading a science fiction novel.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — and the second edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature.

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin, based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger

Starring Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Arliss Howard, Ron Livingston, Jane McKean, Stephen Tobolowsky, Philip Craig, Michelle Nolden, Fiona Reid, Hailey McCann, and Tatum McCann

Official Website: The Time Traverler's Wife

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Moon for the (Technologically) Misbegotten: A Review of Moon

by Gary Westfahl

First, it must be said, there are definite reasons to celebrate the film Moon. At a time when the surest path to profits in making a film about space travel is to utterly ignore its realities, it is remarkable and heartening that a few filmmakers like writer-director Duncan Jones and writer Nathan Parker are still choosing to make films that actually depict humanity's more probable futures in outer space — such as an outpost on the far side of the Moon manned by a single astronaut who must periodically don his spacesuit and venture outside his base to lumber clumsily across the lethal lunar surface. Their film also is admirably performing one of the traditional functions of science fiction by explaining and promoting an innovative scientific idea: the suggestion, much discussed by space enthusiasts but currently unknown to the general public, that we might someday solve all of our energy problems by mining the helium 3 that is abundant on the Moon and shipping it to Earth to be used in controlled nuclear fusion. To be sure, we currently lack the technology to put this plan into effect, but it remains a legitimate aspiration, and this film like this just might inspire the research which would someday make it all possible, in the manner of Hugo Gernsback's original vision of science fiction as a force that could make the world a better place to live in. Finally, as will be discussed later, Moon has some intriguing points to make about the genuine difficulties astronauts will face when they become true inhabitants of outer space, and not just visitors.

Having said these things, I wish I could proceed to offer a more enthusiastic assessment of Jones's film as a whole; however, while the presumed purpose of the spacesuit film is to startle viewers with the unfamiliar, Moon is, to a large extent, a film that rather quickly moves into quite familiar, even derivative, territory, at least to anyone familiar with science fiction films. That is, it is a film which surprises mostly because of what it contrives to borrow from. (At this time, anyone who has not seen the film, and wishes to remain unaware of precisely how the film develops its premise of a solitary lunar astronaut awaiting the end of his three-year mission, should stop reading this review, because it is impossible to meaningfully discuss the film without revealing its major "spoiler.")

Since writer-director Duncan Jones, as the son of singer-songwriter David Bowie, is presumably not in desperate need of money, one might like to assume that he approached the challenge of writing and directing a science fiction film with only the purest of motives; yet it is possible to characterize Moon as the ultimate exercise in cynical self-aggrandizement. That is, if one seeks to identify the greatest science fiction film ever made, there are only two credible candidates: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the only science fiction film voted by critics as one of the ten greatest films ever made, and Blade Runner (1982), named by a recent poll as the best science fiction film of all time. So, if you want your science fiction film to be a sure-fire success, why not combine those two films? Jones might have pitched Moon to skeptical financiers in precisely those terms: "It's 2001 meets Blade Runner!" Or, "Dave Bowman, instead of being taken away by aliens, discovers he's a replicant!" All right, that isn't exactly what is going on in Jones's film, but it's definitely too close for comfort.

To be more precise: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), believing himself to be an astronaut almost at the end of his lonely three-year mission to oversee the mining and transportation of helium 3 on the far side of the Moon, with a wife and baby daughter eagerly awaiting his return, discovers that he is actually only one in a series of clones of the original Sam Bell — each awakened, implanted with Bell's memories, and put to work for three years before being disposed of and replaced by the next clone. (His employer Lunar Industries, we are rather implausibly told, finds this system more economical than actually sending in human replacements.) I will grant that the way Jones brings him to this revelation is ingenious: after he is injured in an accident outside his compound, his replacement is prematurely awakened, illegally ventures outside to discover his injured predecessor, and brings him back to be healed, thus temporarily providing the station with two Sam Bells to interact and figure out the situation. But the various feelings of shock, rage, and sadness that this revelation brings to both Sam Bells will be evocative only to those who have not watched the replicant Rachael (Sean Young) go through all the same changes in Blade Runner. You mean, all my memories of my past were only transplanted into my brain from the person who actually experienced them? You mean, all my photographs of loved ones are only props provided to sustain the illusion that I am a real human being instead of a persuasive copy? Furthermore, as we observe the first Sam Bell grow weaker and weaker, spit up blood, and literally start falling apart (he spits out a tooth, and we learn from a taped report that an earlier Sam Bell's hair was falling out), it seems obvious that these clones, in the manner of Blade Runner's replicants, are programmed to die in a few years, around the time of their replacement, probably to prevent them from having the wherewithal to raise awkward questions around the time they are purportedly being returned to Earth; yet the film does not make this point explicitly, perhaps fearful of appearing to imitate Ridley Scott's masterpiece too exactly. (It may mean nothing, but it did seem to me that the end credits of Moon included more lawyers than is normally the case, possibly to forestall lawsuits.)

Still, despite these obvious thematic resonances with Blade Runner, Jones's film is primarily haunted by inescapable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the definitive spacesuit film which all successors are required to either emulate or contradict. The most visible similarity is Sam Bell's ubiquitous computer companion whose name, recalling HAL 9000, is GERTY 3000 (voiced by Kevin Spacey), although GERTY does move around more in the manner of the autopilot in Wall▪E (2008). Since "Gerty" (short for Gertrude) is a female name, the original intent undoubtedly was to give this computer a female voice, to contrast with 2001's Douglas Rain, but I suspect that early rushes convinced filmmakers that a male voice was needed to match the moonbase's realistic aura. (Despite forty years of vigorous challenges from feminists, it seems there is a lingering attitude that harsh, forbidding environments, like outer space honestly considered, are most appropriately handled by all-male or mostly-male crews, which remain the norm in spacesuit films, unlike more fanciful adventures which pretend that outer space isn't all that threatening, like Star Trek, where female computer voices fit in just fine.) Like HAL, GERTY initially appears competent and friendly, if at times overly solicitous; in one eerie parallel, while HAL at one point inimically refuses to let Dave Bowman enter his spacecraft, GERTY at one point inimically refuses to let Sam Bell leave his protective compound. And it was absolutely brilliant to replace the red eye of HAL with a yellow smiley face, sometimes altered to express puzzlement, indecisiveness, or sadness. But to be definitively different from its predecessor, Moon has its computer remain a stalwart, devoted servant of Sam Bell to the very end: unlike HAL, who starts murdering his own crew in order to prevent them from shutting him off, GERTY cheerfully volunteers to be turned off and have his memories erased before rebooting in order to benefit his human colleagues. Among other references to Stanley Kubrick's film, there are astronomical scenes of the Earth and the Moon in conjunction (but not the Sun); David Poole jogs around the Discovery and shadowboxes, while Sam Bell runs on a treadmill and hits a punching bag; a fleeting, multi-colored image of the second Sam Bell returning to Earth recalls Dave Bowman's "trip" through the Star Gate; and Sam's picturephone conversation with his "daughter" on Earth, though quite different from Heywood R. Floyd's picturephone conversation with his daughter in 2001, cannot be overlooked.

All this is not to say that Blade Runner and 2001 were the only science fiction films on Duncan Jones's mind; for when the first Sam Bell imagines that a beautiful woman is sitting in his chair, or that a mysterious humanoid figure is standing on the surface of the Moon, one cannot help recalling both adaptations of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (1972, 2002) and incorrectly suspecting that the astronaut may be being influenced by some enigmatic alien presence. And the film's characterization of Lunar Industries as an evil corporation, all too willing to sacrifice the well-being of its employees in search of enhanced profits, is right out of the Alien films; and like those films, Moon concludes with conflicting signals regarding whether the company will be forced to change its ways or allowed to continue with its cruel, exploitative practices.

However, despite all of these conspicuous debts to its distinguished predecessors, one must concede that there is something original, and perhaps prophetic, about this film. We all realize that ongoing improvements in systems of communication are making face-to-face contact less and less necessary, and that in Faith Popcorn's terminology, increasing numbers of people are opting for a lifestyle of "cocooning," spending most of their time isolated in their homes, a trend that might someday lead to the world of C. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909), where individuals spend their entire lives alone in enclosed chambers, connecting with other people only by means of long-distance communication. In particular, since outer space will likely remain for some time the home of only a few scattered inhabitants, this will necessarily become their characteristic lifestyle. What would it be like for one or two people to live for years all by themselves, with other people impacting their consciousness only as voices or televised images? One can argue that Moon is providing both a literal and metaphorical answer to that question. Literally, if there is only one person, that person is likely to go insane (which appears to be occurring to the first Sam Bell in early scenes, and also happens with countless isolated individuals living in space in science fiction stories); if it is two or more people, they are likely to end up engaging in verbal or even physical conflict (as the two Sam Bells at one point struggle over possession of a knife), although a common threat to their existence might lead them to reconcile (which is how the film concludes). Metaphorically, the two Sam Bells can be said to represent the process of adjusting to the experience of "living with yourself": first, there is a "honeymoon" period when everything seems fine (the early scenes in the film); then, as symbolized by the appearance of the second Sam Bell, inner conflicts arise which may induce a sort of paralysis (the second Sam at first seems pointlessly angry and argumentative, while the first Sam seems laid back and resigned to his fate, two natural and contrary ways to respond to an overwhelming dilemma); and you finally resolve your inner conflicts and again become a functional individual (the two Sams finally learn to work as a team to investigate their situation and devise a solution). The film's ultimate answer to the key question that continues to bedevil proponents of space travel — can humans really endure the long years of isolated living that the conquest of space will require? — is very much a mixed message: the first Sam Bell, who disturbingly deteriorates both physically and mentally, epitomizes the grim conclusion of James Gunn's Station in Space (1958) — that living in space will inexorably destroy the human heart and soul; yet the survival of the second Sam Bell, with his physique and wits intact, suggests that humans can rise to the challenge of space. What perhaps tips its scale in favor of pessimism is the fact that Moon, like Wall▪E, is a film that shows people returning to Earth, not venturing further into the cosmos, as its happy ending.

Further, as this discussion should be conveying, Moon represented an enormous challenge for its lead actor, Sam Rockwell, for despite Spacey's voice and brief glimpses of other actors on television screens and in flashbacks, this is effectively a one-man film; a further problem is that most science fiction filmgoers, recalling Rockwell only as the addled Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), may initially struggle to take him seriously, which is probably why he quickly shaves off his beard so as to bear less resemblance to Douglas Adams's intergalactic clown. But Rockwell proves his worth in effecting an unusual but necessary shift in perspective during the course of the film. At first, since we have gotten to know the first Sam Bell, he is our viewpoint character, and the second Sam Bell seems a cold, unwelcome intruder. But the first Sam Bell is doomed to die soon, and a continuing focus on him would thus make the film an unpalatable tragedy. Thus, the film must make the first Sam Bell seem less and less appealing and instead establish the second Sam Bell as the new viewpoint character, since he will survive to provide the film with a moderately uplifting conclusion. With an assist from the makeup department, which makes the first Sam look more and more grotesque, Rockwell's acting skills manage to alter audience sympathies in precisely the desired manner.

The film's other message about life in space is that, in contrast to the stark interiors of 2001: A Space Odyssey, humans will always feel a need to familiarize and personalize their surroundings, to make them as Earthlike as possible. Photographs, a kid's drawing, and a Tennessee Titans poster are stuck on the walls, and Sam Bell uses a marker to draw happy faces on the wall to count the days; he is awakened each morning by an incongruous, old-fashioned alarm clock, and a pair of dice dangle in front of the windshield of his lunar rover; replicating the old childhood prank, Sam has placed a note reading "KICK ME" on GERTY's back; Sam builds a model city and talks to and names the plants he is growing; and as a man starved for female company, he naturally seeks entertainment featuring female characters — ancient reruns of Bewitched (1964-1972) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). There is grim irony in the corny t-shirt he wears in the opening scene — which reads "Wake Me When It's Quitting Time" — since GERTY will literally wake up a new clone when it is time for the old one to quit (and the same t-shirt is observed on one of the old, dead clones) — and in the song that greets him every morning — Chesney Hawkes's "The One and Only" — since he is definitely not the "one and only" Sam Bell. (And might his other favorite song — Katrina and the Waves's "Walking on Sunshine" — represent a subtle dig at another recent spacesuit film, Danny Boyle's Sunshine [2007], which depicted life in space with far less success?)

Whether all of these homey touches would really help an astronaut cope with three years of living alone on the far side of the Moon, of course, remains very much an open question; indeed, many filmgoers may react negatively to this film because it too perfectly replicates the experience of living on the Moon for two hours, oppressively limited to the confines of a single set and the company of a single individual. One eventual value of Moon, then, might be as a test for aspiring astronauts when we are actively recruiting people to stay on the Moon for an extended period of time. If you can watch and enjoy this film without qualifications, that is, you might be an ideal candidate for the job; but if you keep shifting in your seat and checking your watch, you should probably remain on Earth. For Moon might qualify as the most realistic film about the probable experience of living on the Moon ever made — which ironically represents both its greatest artistic virtue, and its greatest artistic flaw.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays: Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell. His forthcoming works include the second edition of his book about space stations in science fiction, Islands in the Sky, and a study of films about space travel.

Directed by Duncan Jones

Written by Duncan Jones (story), Nathan Parker (screenplay)

Starring Sam Rockwell, Dominique McEligott, Kaya Scodelario, Matt Berry, Benedict Wong, Malcolm Stewart, and the voice of Kevin Spacey

Official Website: MOON // A file by Duncan Jones

Labels: ,

© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.