Friday, July 29, 2011

Floundering: Why Can't American Cinema Get SF Right?

A scene from Never Let Me Go (2010)
If literary science fiction, which I read regularly, tends to be better at bringing ideas and concepts to life than it is at evoking memorable characters, science fiction movies tend to do the opposite. They often deliver strong characterization and vivid protagonists but generally falter at inserting those people into an imagined future or alternate world that functions logically and believably.

Take Never Let Me Go, the highly critically acclaimed 2010 British film based on a dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishjguro. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book, but the film makes no interior sense whatsoever. The movie’s opening crawl indicates that in 1952 breakthrough scientific experiments cured most diseases and by 1967 the average lifespan was over 100 years old. Yet the inhabitants of that different world use the same technology – radios, cassette tapes – in the same time-frames as we do. That’s simply ridiculous considering the remarkable dramatic medical advancements of Never Let Me Go, which we still haven't achieved in 2011. Should they not have matched their medical breakthroughs by equally great leaps in technological know-how, especially because mankind would have been spared the need to find the cure for cancer and other illnesses and thus had more time to innovate in other fields? A world where illness has been largely eradicated by the '50s is one where DVD players and computers would have been common by the '60s and astronauts would likely have landed on Mars by the '80s. To postulate that the England of Never Let Me Go would look and feel the same as our own is nonsense. Similarly, the movie’s revelation that its main characters – SPOILERS FOLLOW – a trio of young people (beautifully acted by Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield and Casey Mulligan) were actually clones that were only being kept alive until their vital organs were needed for transplant to their ageing/dying humans is also illogical. (Director Mark Romanek doesn’t do a good job of springing that news on the viewer, I figured it out pretty early on.) If their world was so cruel as to use them for this purpose – and remember they assumed they were fully human – why give them lives, an education and jobs before yanking it all away from them? It would be far more realistic if their 'world' was just made up of false memoires implanted into their brains while they lay in suspended animation or something along those lines. 

More recently, this year’s Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau also stretched credibility in their scenarios. The latter, based on one of Philip K. Dick's lesser short stories ("Adjustment Team"), speculates that unseen ‘angels’ of a sort manipulate people’s lives, including the couple played by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, and historical events from behind the scenes for reasons both selfish and altruistic. If you are a wayward human, the way you can avoid detection by the angels is to move about when it rains. The angels have trouble following a wayward human in that weather. Newsflash: Earth is 90% water (this was the same stupid thinking in M. Night Shyamalan's idiotic alien invasion movie Signs). Source Code’s main conceit is that a soldier, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, upon dying in Afghanistan, has his memories and personality preserved in an isolation tank, which also contains the partial remains of his body. He is kept ‘alive’ until he is sent back in time until he can prevent a terrorist, who has already detonated a bomb on a commuter train, from blowing up Chicago with a dirty bomb. The catch is he can be inserted into the body and mind of a human being aboard the train but only for eight minutes of the man’s life. So he is sent back though the source code over and over again until he, hopefully, accomplishes his mission. Again, this isn’t believable; both in terms of the short time allowed him each trip, but also because it’s a half-assed way to stop a bad guy. The good acting in both those films and the great performances in Never Let Me Go are wasted due to their ill-conceived and far-fetched plotting.

A scene from Blade Runner (1982)

It’s that rare SF movie – A Clockwork Orange (1971),  A Boy and His Dog (1976), Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), Code 46 (2003) – that convinces us of the veracity of the world they depict, one that actually looks and feels futuristic, significantly altered or unlike anything we’ve  ever seen before. (Blade Runner, for example, also based on a work of Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is narratively slack, though oddly faithful to its source material, and now out of date. Its depopulated and Japanese dominated L.A. of 2019 is obviously not going to happen, but the film’s stunning design – 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Douglas Trumbull was responsible for its unique look – rivets you. If you didn’t know when it was supposed to be taking place, you’d buy into its beautifully detailed world entirely. The science fiction films of the 1950s, the short Golden Age of cinematic SF, are somewhat different. Most of the fine movies of that period, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, didn't so much create new worlds, they were very low budget efforts, but ably depicted ours in a fresh light.)

Two new, and quite terrible, SF movies, Cowboys & Aliens and Another Earth, both of which open today, also commit the sin of being badly drawn ‘worlds,’ but they compound that folly by failing, too, in every other cinematic regard and, in the end, aren’t really that interested in the tropes of the genre at all.

Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Cowboys & Aliens
You can guess that Cowboys & Aliens is going to turn out badly when you see that five writers – including Star Trek’s Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and Lost’s Damon Lindelof – are credited on the final screenplay, and three on the screen story. And further that it's based on a comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. That’s a prime example of too many cooks spoiling the broth, and all the more puzzling because the movie’s premise is so simple – and simplistic. Set in the Old West, thus grafting one genre onto another, the film begins with one man, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), wakening in the desert with no memory of who he is, but with an odd-shaped device strapped to his wrist. Soon enough, he discovers what the object on his arm is for, even as he and a group of men from the nearby town of Absolution find themselves up against a bunch of aliens who have captured their kinfolk. I won’t tell you why the extra-terrestrials are visiting Earth – you can imagine why they’re into kidnapping humans – but suffice it to say, it’s not a particularly well thought or intelligent plot development, nor is the way the battle plays out especially interesting.

Perhaps if director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) wasn't such a pedestrian filmmaker the movie might have at least breathed new life into the Western, the way that The Claim (2000) and Appaloosa (2008) did in recent years, but Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t even feel authentic as a Western not to mention as SF. Favreau displays no directorial sense of place, doesn’t know how to create tension and can’t make his movie come alive. Worse, the screenplay somehow forgets what’s it actually about in terms of the enemy the humans are up against. After an initial comment about the E.T.s possibly being ‘demons,' an idea dismissed by the local preacher (Clancy Brown), it's never brought up again, with the result that the bad guys, other than looking non-human, are treated exactly the way any bad guy, from Indians in the Westerns of the past to the villains of all hues in today’s crop of oaters, have fared on film. The movie is set in 1873 Arizona, 25 years before H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds so the nonchalance of how Lonergan and his pals get used to what they’re fighting doesn’t parse. The rest of the film is a hodgepodge of overacting performers (Harrison Ford as the town’s rich villain; Paul Dano as his obnoxious son) and underwritten characters: Keith Carradine as the towns' sheriff, Olivia Wilde as a mysterious woman who comes upon the scene, and Craig, a generally dull actor but saddled here with a carbon copy squinty eyed, laconic creation that the likes of Robert Mitchum perfected many years before. Only Sam Rockwell as an intellectual saloon keeper who learns to toughen up manages to display some acting chops, but his character is a bit less meagre than the others.

Oh, it also has a dog and a plucky kid, one who bonds with Ford’s character, courtesy no doubt of the film’s executive producer, one Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, who can boast of several successful or at least compelling forays into SF (E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) ought to be more careful of where he affixes his name. After tying himself to this noisy, empty movie and the hopelessly derivative (of his own oeuvre) Super 8 earlier this summer, he’s in great danger of diluting his brand and his reputation.

Another Earth
Thankfully, he isn’t connected with Another Earth, one of the dumbest SF movies I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of dumb SF movies). Contrasted to Cowboys & Aliens, which is at least competently put together, Another Earth also looks like shit, a trait that most American independent films seem to share. I guess if they’re too glossy, they’re somehow not genuine enough.

The film’s premise is what its title promises. In 2006, another planet that looks just like our own suddenly appears in the sky, perfectly visible to those of us on Earth. Promptly christened Earth 2, it seems to be a planet exactly like our own, down to identical individuals living out identical lives and situations (the exact plot of a British SF movie, 1969's Journey To the Far Side of the Sun). Okay, in print that idea has often worked, but this movie isn’t smart enough to iron out these niggling details that can’t help but irritate any discerning film-goer. Where did this planet come from and why wasn’t it visible before 2006? Did it utilize a Romulan cloaking device to render itself invisible? Does it possess some secret engine which enabled it to fly across the galaxy? How come it’s taken four years for anyone on our Earth to figure out how to communicate with anyone on Earth 2? And why are only commercial interests able to put the bucks together to launch a manned mission to land on Earth 2? If this had taken place in a future where government austerity has meant that only rich individuals, à la Richard Branson, can afford to go into space, that concept could have worked, but to set it in our present, 2010 to be exact, when NASA’s Shuttle program still existed and when the International Space Station still orbits the Earth, is another example of not thinking SF concepts through so that they make sense.

 Brit Marling and William Mapother
The rest of the movie, sleepily directed by first-time feature filmmaker Mike Cahill, revolves around a young woman Rhoda Williams (an opaque Brit Marling, who co-wrote the film with Cahill), who, while driving drunk one night, causes the death of the pregnant wife and son of composer John Burroughs (an underwhelming William Mapother). When she gets out of jail (as a minor at the time of the accident would she have been sent to a regular prison?), she decides to find Burroughs, who’s come out of a coma somewhat damaged, and eventually, out of guilt, becomes involved with him. As that’s the main concern of the film – the bits about Earth 2 pop up periodically, likely to remind us, in case we’ve forgotten, that there’s another planet shadowing our own – the SF aspect of Another Earth seems more like window dressing, even an after thought. The movie’s metaphysical musings, about what it means to find our ‘duplicate’ and what happens if you possibly discover a world where you may not have made the same mistakes – presuming Earth 2 deviates from our own at all – are nothing more than pretentious babble, the aural equivalent to the visual nonsense of Stanley Kubrick’s vastly overrated SF movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Echoing the stylistic motif of the shot-on-video The Blair Witch Project (1999) is also dubious; that’s one lousy movie no one should ever reference. Slow as molasses, hesitating to move too dramatically lest the audience wakes up, and populated by annoying monosyllabic individuals, it’s redolent of everything bad that afflicts American independent cinema. It’s only in its trashing of SF and its intellectual bent that it shares anything with its polar Hollywood opposite. Another Earth and Cowboys & Aliens meet where imaginative science fiction ends, par for the course in that country’s cinema.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto . On Monday August 15 at the Carlton Cinemas at 7pm, Shlomo appears at the Toronto Film Society to introduce The Lost Moment (1947) and Raffles (1930). For details see

1 comment:

  1. That was a good and simple take on what makes science fiction, without jumping into the many sub-genres, science fiction that's hard or soft, or definitions of sci-fi. It's simply the believability of the story, through its setting.

    Glad to see you share my thoughts on 2001 and Golden Age of science fiction.