Browsed by
Category: Science Fiction

Enjoying the Streaming Age of Video

Enjoying the Streaming Age of Video

The rest of the family is on vacation at Knoebels this week. I would have joined them, but I couldn’t afford to take the time off; not with another vacation coming up in July. So instead I will work, and at the end of the day get back to binge-watching The OA on Netflix.

If you subscribe to streaming video, which you probably do, and if you live in a family, which you might, then you are familiar with the following pattern. If you start to binge-watch a show with a certain subset of the people in your family, then you can’t continue to watch episodes until all the people in that particular group are together again. So you end up with one show that you watch with one family member, a different one to watch with another family member, and a third show that you watch when all three of you are together.

And then you have series to watch when you are alone, or everyone else is busy. For me, it’s been The OA, an imaginative and drawn-out sci-fi/fantasy thriller. It has a little bit in common with the mini-series Maniac – what is it with Millennials and shows about being experimented on? It’s basically a genre – fantastical sci-fi where Millennials are tested, evaluated, rated, categorized – going all the way back to Harry Potter. Is this really how they’ve felt their whole lives?

Another kind of show you might have is one with short episodes to watch while enjoying a meal. The convenience of the streaming format really shines in this context; you’re home from work, you’re eating dinner, you want a 20 minute episode to watch, and there’s practically an endless supply of them available. For me lately, assuming it’s just me, the show I’ve been watching at dinner has been Rick and Morty. The girl has no interest at all in it, and the boys have seen all the episodes multiple times already.

That show is on Hulu. Yes, I pay for both Hulu and Netflix, and then of course there is Amazon Prime. I’m amazed that I am able to keep up as well as I do with which show is on which service. Even paying for all three still costs less than cable. And there are no ads. Who wouldn’t cut the cord?

Finally, there is another mode of binge-watching which you might have experienced – re-watching a series with someone who hasn’t seen it so you can enjoy their reactions to it. I remember how much fun it was to re-binge-watch (that’s a word now) Stranger Things with my mom and sisters during a weekend visit – just because they hadn’t seen it yet. And the girl and I have binge-watched old TV shows from her childhood that I missed – Dark Shadows for example. And I do mean the 1960s version – another awesome thing about the streaming era is how much old film and TV is available.

All of this just goes to show that I watch too much TV. I watch it like I’m running out of time, but as the girl reminds me, there is no way I will watch it all before I die. But I will try at least to watch all the sci-fi. 😀

,

Sci-fi Has the Best Anachronisms

Sci-fi Has the Best Anachronisms

I’m re-reading one of my old sci fi books that was published in 1972. There is this xeno-anthropoligist on another planet that was colonized by Earth, and he is looking for the original humanoid lifeforms that were supposedly on the planet but no one has seen for a few generations. But what’s great is that when he is inventorying his equipment as he sets out on his expedition, he includes tape recorders. And film for his camera.

Because the author did not predict that neither tape nor film would be used any more in the near future, long before humans ever colonize another planet. Assuming we ever do, though I suppose I shouldn’t make any assumptions there. Who knows what technological change awaits us, and how different our world will be decades to come? After all, no one predicted the ubiquitous smart phone, at least not in the form that it exists today.

Science fiction ends up with these fun kinds of anachronisms because of its efforts to extrapolate the unknown future from the known present. It ends up overconfident about some trends, and misses others completely. My favorite anachronism from sci-fi is from the movie A.I. which is set in a future after the ocean levels rise. In a scene where the main characters fly into the submerged city of Manhattan, the World Trade Center twin towers are visible, jutting out of the water.

Because the film was released just before the destruction of the twin towers. That’s something that actually happened, though the oceans have been slow to rise up to the point of submerging our coastal skylines, if they ever do. There is even something of a double anachronism in this depiction, in that the short story on which the film is based was published before the twin towers were raised, and so would not have been a part of the story originally. They appear in the movie as a strangely out of time anomaly.

For more ruminations on this, check out this older blog post of mine. Meanwhile, I will keep re-reading my old sci-fi books, and enjoying the anachronistic details. Which honestly are incidental, since sci-fi is really about humanity confronting itself, trying to understand its place in time.

Heros and Villains by the Generation

Heros and Villains by the Generation

One aspect of this era is the wild success of the franchise films based off of the works of two prominent American comics publishers – Marvel and DC.

There is something quintessentially American about the superhero genre. It tells stories where empowered, self-motivated individuals – what all Americans are in theory – strive to better society while struggling with profound ethical dilemmas.  The stories indulge a form of escapism where the intractable problems of the world are conceivably solvable – given fantastical powers and abilities. Why is it so hard to bring peace and stability to the far-flung regions of the planet? Well obviously we simply lack sufficiently advanced technology.

At their worst these movies are trite and tedious, with the same formula repeated ad nauseam. At their best they are rich allegories about power and responsibility, or intriguing character studies. The modern wave of blockbusters has enjoyed tremendous box office success, and love them or hate them, you can’t deny they are a hallmark of our time.

Because I always like to see the generational angle, I decided to catalog the generation and sex of the directors and principal actors in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe films to date. Actually, only up to how far I’ve seen the films because I didn’t want my research to reveal any spoilers. But that’s close to all films to date.

So here is a summary of what I discovered.

The franchises have been a bonanza for Gen-X men, who comprise the majority of directors, and of actors portraying either superheros or supervillains. Gen-X men dominate as directors, with a few Boomer men joining their ranks, along with one Gen-X woman (the director of Wonder Woman) and one Millennial man (the director of Black Panther).

Gen-X men play a majority of the superheros, though a significant number of Millennials share that role. The iconic Gen-X example is surely Robert Downey Jr. as reckless playboy Tony Stark (Iron Man), who is a foil for dutiful Millennial Chris Evans (technically a Gen-X cusper) as Captain America. A conflict between the two characters is even a major element of the MCU story arc. And DCEU has its own Gen-X/Millennial pair of frenemies – the brooding Ben Affleck as Batman versus the self-assured Henry Cavill as Superman.

GenX men are less dominant as supervillains, because Boomer men have found a niche there. Many of the villains are egotistical and power-hungry Boomer men – James Spader as Ultron, Kurt Russell as literally a character called Ego. Their machinations are always being thwarted by younger heroes – an allegory about our times, I suppose. But Boomer men have also found a niche in supporting roles, paternal and self-sacrificing – like Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent or Michael Booker as Yondu.

Boomer and Gen-X women have benefited much less from the superhero film phenomenon. There are very few roles for Gen-X women, despite such prominent stars as Gwynneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Boomer women are similarly underrepresented – the only notable example I could identify was Glenn Close in a supporting role.

With Millennials you see the most gender diversity – there are almost as many female Millennial superheros as male. But with the exception of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, no female superhero has her own movie – a fact not lost on critics. There is a female Millennial villain – Cara Delevingne as Enchantress, and there are two if you count Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

The Guardians of the Galaxy movies have the most gender diverse cast – including the only Gen-X female superhero – Zoe Saldana as Gamora. Thus it is ironic that writer/director James Gunn was hashtag metoo’d out of the franchise.

A final note: only one actor from the Silent generation appears in the MCU or DCEU – Anthony Hopkins as Odin.

In conclusion, the modern wave of superhero movies can be seen as the wish-fulfillment of Gen-X men, who are so prominent in their making. Presumably many of the men of that generation grew up consuming the comics and the earlier movies and television shows made around them. Boomer men, who overshadowed Gen-X growing up, get to be villains or supporting characters. Millennials, meanwhile, are along for the ride, with many Millennial women asserting themselves as equals, as the girl power generation has been preparing to do their whole lives.

Assuming the superhero craze lasts for very much longer, can we expect the Millennial generation to slowly take it over, putting an end to the male dominance that characterizes the franchises today? Or will Gen-Xers maintain their control, until the genre is out of touch with the times? I’m always hearing people say they are tired of these movies, yet there doesn’t seem to be an end to them in sight. And personally I’m excited as any fan about the upcoming releases.

The Original Sci-Fi Show

The Original Sci-Fi Show

We’ve been watching Star Trek: The Original Series on Netflix and I am impressed by what a good show it is, really standing the test of time. This is despite the fact that by today’s standards the plot development is slow and the acting melodramatic. On the other hand, the characters are well defined and engaging, and the stories are interesting.

It’s really the superlative writing that makes the show, bringing in the talents of some of the great science fiction writers of its time. As I watch the episodes, I see how Star Trek was the fountain from which all future sci-fi television sprung. There really didn’t need to be any more sci-fi TV after that; it’s all just the same stories again and again. Not that I’m saying there shouldn’t be any more – I am someone who laments when I can’t find any more high-quality sci-fi left to watch on three different streaming services.

Star Trek: The Original Series comes from another age, an expansive era when America was confident and proud. It deals unapologetically with issues of empire and civilization, has faith in the benefits of technologically progress, and projects a future where gender is still strictly defined and the white guys are comfortably in charge. Later versions of the franchise (there are at least six) tracked the changing social mood, and I’m hoping that once we’ve watched all the episodes, I can convince the family to pick up with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Things to Come – A Prescient Look At The Future

Things to Come – A Prescient Look At The Future

I recently watched H.G. WellsThings to Come (available on Amazon prime video) and discovered that it tells the tale of a saeculum from Crisis through to the next Awakening, but with a stretched out timeline. It also has early examples of a lot of film tropes.

By saeculum, I mean the social cycle as defined in Strauss and Howe generational theory, which you can learn more about here.

[MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The movie was made in 1936, and its story starts in that year, as the Crisis Era looms. There are rumors of war, making it contemporaneously relevant. There is a bit of a friendly discussion between two characters of the likelihood of war and the nature of progress.

The U.S. uses “peace gas” to end the most recent Crisis Era war.

Then the war comes, and rages for three decades and more. Civilization is ruined, the war is unresolved yet in 1970, and the film has now introduced the post-apocalyptic genre, complete with a plague that turns people into zombie-like creatures. The plague is eradicated, and peace comes at last when a benevolent scientifically advanced alliance deploys a super-weapon – sleeping gas, which they call “the gas of peace.”

Next an expansionist High Era begins, and we get a montage of civilizational development, taking us to a sci-fi world that fits the conventional mid-twentieth century vision of the future. Everything is shiny and sterile, and people dress in styles reminiscent of classical Greece and Rome.

It’s now 2036, and the hubristic future civilization is preparing to send the first humans into lunar orbit, using the method commonly envisaged before the rocket age – a space gun. But the Awakening Era has begun, which is a time of spiritual upheaval and of questioning the current regime. A firebrand preacher arises, denounces the lunar project and stirs up the masses against it. The launch happens anyway and the movie ends with more philosophical ruminations on progress.

So the movie covers a half-saeculum, spread out over a century. It’s as though H.G. Wells understood the saeculum, if not its generation-length timing. It’s impressive that he got two predictions correct – the use of a super weapon to end the Big War, and the fact that the next Awakening begins at the same time as the first manned missions to the moon.

It’s a good film, well worth the hour and a half viewing time. The version on Amazon is colorized and restored, which I think helps to make it more watchable.

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Science fiction often portrays a vision of a not-too-distant future, but a vision colored by the familiar elements and trends in thought of its own time. My favorite observation about the future as shown on the sci-fi screen is that hairstyles are going to be the same as whatever they were at the time the movie or TV show was made.  When watching an older movie about the near future it’s always fun to see where they got it wrong when that future finally rolls around.

Blade Runner, released in 1982, is set in Los Angeles in 2019. Not the real 2019, of course, but an alternate one where the technology looks like it did in the 1970s and the atmosphere is like a 1940s noir film. It’s a wonderful movie, dark and moody, well written and well acted, and featuring a gorgeous Vangelis soundtrack.

I understand that the point of it is the story and the imaginative vision and that it’s silly to compare it to our time period. Nonetheless, I will. Here are some out of date elements in the scenery, compared to the real 2019:

  • Big honking CRT monitors
  • Neon signs
  • Everyone is smoking in public

Of course, how could the people of 1982 predict that by 2019 smoking would be banished from public spaces (at least where I live; maybe it’s different in L.A.)? And that there would be LEDs, and flat screens, and the one thing that absolutely no pre-2007 sci-fi ever anticipates – smartphones?

To be fair, Blade Runner does get a couple of future technologies right:

  • Voice recognition software
  • Video calls

And then there are the predicted technologies that it might have been natural to assume would be coming in our future, but that our pathetic civilization has yet to achieve:

  • Flying cars
  • Off-world colonies
  • And – oh yeah – Replicants!

It always strikes me how optimistic mid-twentieth century conceptions of the future of space travel are. Back then, it hadn’t been that long since the first orbital launches, and the U.S. space program was still prestigious. But what, no moon colony by 1999? No manned mission to Jupiter in 2001? Well, at least it’s not too late to get that warp drive invented, even if we do have to wait for some time traveler assistance.

As for the artificially created humans, well, they are the crux of the story of Blade Runner, and a sci-fi obsession going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But their presence in the story is not a realistic extrapolation of technological progress.  The closest thing we have to replicants today is artificial hamburgers. Our real world robots are dumb machines, and our real world ‘AI’ is the power of  the Internet to collect and process vast amounts of data.

So I went to see Blade Runner 2049, and first I will report that it is just as good as the original. It has the same feeling of ominous wonder created through beautiful visual effects and an atmospheric soundtrack. It manages to take advantage of the 30+ years of advancement in film special effects (in the real world timeline, I mean) without detracting from suspenseful and meaningful storytelling. If you like science fiction movies in general and Blade Runner specifically then you will love this film.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that it is set in the same timeline as Blade Runner 2019, so there absolutely is no point in waiting until real 2049 to verify its predictions. In the movie’s version of 2049, there are still replicants, and off-world colonies, which is where you’d rather live, because Earth is still a mess, although the color palette of its dreary desolation has been updated a bit.

The 1970s look and feel of much of the technology is still there, which is neat, but here are some additions that reflect modern awareness:

  • Drones
  • Self-piloting flying cars
  • Touchscreens!
  • What if instead of growing a replicant, you programmed a virtual person into a computer, you could call it something else…

I will finish with some thoughts on the subject of artificial intelligence, which is huge in sci-fi film these days, in tandem with news feeds about the growth of the AI industry (which in the real world is building advanced information processing algorithms, not sentient beings).

In the original Frankenstein story, the monster confronts his maker, seeking acceptance, and the scientist creator laments that he has unleashed a destructive force. Both themes are prevalent in subsequent science fiction retellings, reflecting humanity’s yearning to understand its purpose in the universe, and fear that its technological progress has unmoored it from its origins. With Blade Runner (either one) you get all this, along with modern forebodings about overpopulation, ecological catastrophe, wealth inequality, and unbridled corporate power, artfully crafted to satisfy your need for continued myth-making.

Shin Godzilla: A Movie for Our Times

Shin Godzilla: A Movie for Our Times

I wanted to share my thoughts about a remarkable film: the latest Godzilla flick from Toho, called Shin Godzilla, or Godzilla Resurgence, directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. It is a disaster movie, inspired to a great degree by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake (fourth most powerful on record) and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster, which ravaged north-eastern Japan. The movie has turned out to be immensely popular, winning many awards and grossing more than any other Toho Godzilla film.

The original 1954 Godzilla was a reaction to Japan’s World War II experience, particularly the annihilation of her cities by the U.S.’s nuclear-bombing missions. Godzilla was an incarnation of U.S. military power, and Japan was reliving the trauma of her defeat by America in the movie and its sequels. With this new version, the giant monster has become an incarnation of the fury of nature herself, and the film highlights the fragility of civilization and the complications faced by modern governments dealing with disaster in an age of massive urbanization and instant communication.

As such it is a tale of humanity entering the 21st century, leaving behind an earlier age and its wars and legacies, and facing new dangers and difficulties. Natural disasters loom large in an era of climate change and rapid population growth, with coastal megacities – where the bulk of humanity resides – being especially vulnerable. The destruction wrought by the latest form of Godzilla on the screen could be the destruction caused by Japan’s great earthquake, or that caused by the hurricanes which have wrecked the Gulf Coast of America in recent years.

This astonishing and heart-rending video much more compellingly makes the same point:

The key concept for survival in the 21st century threat environment is resilience, and in Godzilla Resurgence the bureaucratically hidebound government lacks this quality. This leads to shake ups in the power structure and a shift in focus from the aged officials to a team of creative young scientists and a savvy young diplomat who makes a deal with the U.S. government. With the risk of saying too much, I’ll just add that this final plot element brings back the specter of nuclear attack.

A final note about the film is to credit its brilliant score, by composer Shirō Sagisu. The music is haunting and powerful, and though difficult to make out under the orchestral instrumentation, on many of the tracks there are stirring vocals. One can easily imagine these lyrics over any of the scenes of horror and destruction that fill contemporary news feeds.

In the United States this movie was not widely distributed in theaters. I was lucky to have the chance to see it twice on the big screen. But you can get it on disc through your usual outlets and I highly recommend it if you like monster movies, or disaster movies, or movies that are relevant to our times.

Enjoying an old TV show – Smallville

Enjoying an old TV show – Smallville

I’m up in PA for a bit and the boy wants to watch as much Smallville as we can get in while I am here. He says it’s his favorite Superman story because Clark Kent is not overpowered compared to his adversaries. The girl mostly likes it because Tom Welling is such a cutie, but she’s so exhausted from her work days that she usually falls asleep during the episodes anyway.

I like the way it neatly bridges the transition from the Gen-X youth era, as exemplified by a similar TV series, into the Millennial youth era. The other series to which I refer is (you may have guessed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which like Smallville has a superpowered chief protagonist who attends high school in a town where weird things happen. In Buffy the preternatural events occur because of a gate to Hell, whereas in Smallville they are because of a meteor impact. In both shows the main characters depend on as well as protect a cadre of loyal peers, and there is ample high school relationship drama.

What’s neat is that the characters in Buffy are from the class of 1999, the last Gen-Xer high school class, while the characters in Smallville are part of the first wave of Millennial high school grads. Granted, Clark Kent is portrayed by a Gen-Xer (Tom Welling was born in 1977), but the supporting cast of friends and love interests are almost all first wave Millennials. Overall the characters seem more well-adjusted, more outgoing and less angst-ridden than the characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Smallville characters with emotional issues who exhibit antisocial behavior turn out to be the episode’s bad guy and often meet unfortunate ends.

You can really see the contrast in the families of the main characters. Buffy has a fraught relationship with her single mother, who is usually too busy to be involved with her daughter’s life and doesn’t even realize she is a Vampire-slayer until later in the series (sorry for the spoiler). But Clark’s Mom and Dad are together, invested in helping him with his powers and fully present in every episode. The Kents are a quintessentially American midwestern family, corny and endearingly wholesome.

I’ve heard that the series changes format and gets darker in later seasons; so far I’ve only seen Season One episodes. For now we’re enjoying what feels to me like part of the early 2000s television coming of age of the Millennial generation. I guess Glee could be next…

 

Saw the Live Action Ghost in the Shell…

Saw the Live Action Ghost in the Shell…

I enjoyed the live action Ghost in the Shell, with the caveat that I am easy to please when it comes to science fiction movies, and also movies starring Scarlett Johansson.

Overall the movie felt flat, with a plodding script, and little suspense, though it did get more interesting in the second half. Visually it was cluttered – practically littered with CGI – and with a conventional action movie score, it simply failed to capture the moody atmosphere of the original anime.

Really, none of Ghost in the Shell reboots, neither the subsequent animated films and series, nor this live version, compare to the original. With its stark, clean visual design, its savvy exposition, and its brilliant score, it stands out as one of the best thrillers ever produced. I don’t even like the “version 2.0” remaster with updated animation as much as the 1995 release.

But taken for what it is, this latest reboot is a passable sci-fi action flick. It does recreate some of the iconic scenes from the anime, which is fun to see. Its story modifies, but parallels, that of the original film, which is fine – the earlier reboots already played with the characters and plots. Like the original, it explores themes of identity, and the classic sci-fi trope of defining humanity in a machine age. In case you didn’t know, “Ghost” = soul and “Shell” = body.

Since I always look for the generational angle, I’d say there is a meaningful difference in what the major (that’s the main character – she’s a law enforcement officer) finds in her quest for identity. The 1995 Generation X major discovers freedom and possibility, whereas the 2017 Millennial major discovers belonging and purpose. The final scenes in the two films tell it all.

Finally, I will add that I dread a future of giant advertising holograms on every other street corner.

Don’t Make Me into a Pod-Person!

Don’t Make Me into a Pod-Person!

One of my many preoccupations is re-reading old sci-fi books from a modest collection I have. Just because it was there I picked up this one by Fritz Leiber:

This turns out to be a short novel where some guy somewhere in the 20th century discovers that he is the only actually sentient human in a world where everyone else is robotically going through the motions of life. Whenever I encounter this theme, as in The Stepford Wives, or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (they are plant-clone beings who act like robots), I assume I am reading a parable about the human yearning to break free from the shackles of social conformity. After all, science fiction has replaced the old mythmaking as our collective way of exploring and expressing the human psyche.

The fear of being just another pod-person is understandable. We easily fall into patterns, and time sweeps us all too speedily down the course of our lives. We don’t want to look back and feel that life has passed us by, hence the constant rush to have new, authentic experiences.

Scientists call our patterns “behavioral conditioning,” the biological equivalent of programming, and there is even an experiment in which neuroscientists can predict our decisions before we make them (or are aware that we have made them), putting the whole notion of free will into question. But fear not – deep within us is the wellspring of creativity, the true source of freedom, which lets us overcome our conditioning. It requires effort and awareness, but it can be done. Because we are not actually robots, we just act like them a lot of the time.

Back to the book; another fun thing about it is that it has a cigarette ad in the middle of it:

It’s a 1972 edition, and I guess that was a thing then. Advertisers: the ultimate puppet-masters!

I will end this post with a link to a bizarre and brilliant song along the same theme. The lyrics are on the same page as the video to help you follow along.