Mar 162019
 

This is a movie whose influence on me is difficult to exaggerate, and I couldn’t say how many times I’ve seen it, even if it’s been out of mind and sight for awhile now. Then yesterday, not feeling well and spending the afternoon playing slug on the couch with the remote, I found myself watching it.

Three things stood out for me. First, the movie is nearly perfectly made. Its success was an achievement not a fluke, and that achievement holds up. Second, Keanu Reeves is so young. The film’s twenty years old now, and the handsome older brother I had watched become “The One” now seems so delicate, inexperienced and fragile that I found myself worrying for him in a way I never had before as the danger grew. I’m getting old.

Finally, I could see in a way I hadn’t before the roughness of these early digitally worked images. The breaks in the illusion were usually subtle, but still, the color work and digital avatars kept standing out as … primitive or drawn. Seeing this film so soon after Dracula I wondered how much my attention to the distinction between collage and illusion there had been rooted in the experience of encountering a historical object rather than a different medium.

Feb 032019
 

Despite the guns the women are carrying, this is quiet science fiction and reminded me of Arrival. As in that other movie, the framing here is military and the threat of violence looms, but here as in Arrival, violence is framed as failure rather than as a challenge to be overcome with stronger, more effective violence. Understanding the Other is the goal and jumping to conclusions—from fear, from greed, from paranoia—is the real danger. Part of the film’s power is that I’m not sure the story ends badly: transformation is life, no? The future?

In terms of its use of locations and the integration between the narrative and place, the film reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979): both films rely on ordinary but ruined landscapes that offer few signs of the fantastic yet are recast by the narrative as menacing. The resulting tension manifests as a deep sense of dread organized around a basic confusion: is the danger of the scene objectively there in the world or is it all in the characters’ heads? Now there is obviously real danger here—a crocodile with shark teeth, a bear with a woman’s voice, a snake thing crawling beneath a man’s skin— but overall “the Shimmer” is banal space with strange plants. Yet not since The Shining have I found topiary so horrifying.

The movie is beautiful—even those topiary—and it wears its aesthetic and narrative influences on its sleeve. Alien looms large, especially in the darkest moments of body horror, but the horror evoked by certain famous news photographs is clearly a reference as well.

Ultimately, the film was a surprise and evoked the same reaction as I watched the credits as Passengers: why did none of the marketing or reviews give me a clue as to how good this movie would be? And again, I found myself wondering if we’ve lost our ability to imagine science fiction or fantasy films that are not action-adventure movies?

More personally, I love seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh perform and Tessa Thompson is becoming one of my favorite stars. So this movie was a treat.

Jan 292019
 

A familiar classic that I watched on the fly the other night. It’s a Cold War paranoid fantasy perfect in both its conception and execution. This is not news.

What caught my attention throughout the film was—unexpectedly and disorientingly—Dana Wynter’s costumes, which are just great. She enters the movie in a beautiful sleeveless confection with a bodice that reminded me of tissue paper stuffed into a gift bag.

Why is she wearing this fancy affair mid-afternoon in this sleepy California town? But then she slips on the matching shrug jacket and everything makes sense. What had seemed like a provocation becomes a smart and snappy ensemble perfect for slipping into and out of this store and then that one. And there are so very many errands to run. Wynter however has the look of someone ready to tackle and to conquer her to-do list. With this much spunk, it’s no wonder Kevin McCarthy looks at her the way he does.

The least interesting of her dresses was a classic black number with gloves and a fur stole that she wore for the souper manqué in the second act. It’s beautiful but depressingly appropriate. Still, watching her walk away from a fresh martini to stare anxiously at a budding (haha) human form made me wish my sleepy Quebec town had a fancy restaurant so that the Beav and I could drop in for elegant nights out.

Scene from the 1956 movie Invasion of The Body Snatchers, starrring (L-R) King Donovan, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Carolyn Jones is in the background. (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Later Wynter wears a sweater tucked into a belted skirt, a look introduced to me by Olivia Newton-John singing “Summer Nights” in Grease. I fell in love with it then and have never recovered. Wynter considers this an outfit made for running from emotionless alien mobs. Excepting the heels and the hose, perhaps it is.

Wynter’s best outfit appears only briefly early on, and for reasons I cannot fathom, the Internet doesn’t care enough to have produced a single still of the scene. McCarthy has stayed the night and when he gets up Wynter is making breakfast in the kitchen. She cracks eggs at the stove for an omelette as they talk and is wearing a cowboy shirt tucked into high waisted jeans. It is pure butch play, casually done with cool disregard. The scene lasts only a minute but was the high point of my screening. If I can figure out how to pull a still from the iTunes movie I’ve purchased, I’ll post it. But for now, the outfit will remain undocumented. Alas.

Jan 132019
 

One of the books in this series showed up in a “best of” list on Ars Technica and it looked interesting enough that I ordered the first in the series. It showed up recently but I’ve been busy and it sat on my desk untouched.

Then today, after a long six days of work with another starting up again tomorrow, I saw it and decided to give it a whirl. Ten pages in, I’d already laughed out loud hard enough to get choked and have to get some water.

The set-up is simple: Murderbot is shy and doesn’t like being around people because they get awkward and that makes him awkward and sorting through the layers just isn’t worth it because ultimately he doesn’t much care about their problems. He’s downloaded hundreds of hours of shows and he’d just like to watch them in peace. Unfortunately he’s got to go through the motions and do his job, otherwise someone’s going to figure out he’s hacked his governor module and is a free agent.

So these humans he’s with on this mission? They wind up in trouble on a faraway planet and they aren’t terrible and he kinda likes them. So he helps them survive the murderous plots of a rival survey group, and they in turn wind up helping him.

The whole thing was light funny and more-or-less perfect for a quick read on a lazy Sunday by the fire. On a more serious note, the few glimpses we have of the the mysterious larger context dominated by the Company and the rest of the economic and political powers gives plenty of hints that this is a story happening in the world that Google and Facebook built: a capitalistic panopticon become simply “the way things are.”

Sep 122018
 

This movie is so much better than Prometheus, and, as my brother said to me over the summer, it makes that earlier movie appear better in retrospect than it was at the time. This is fairly hesitant praise though and begs the question, what’s the problem with these new Alien movies? My thought is that they suffer from real confusion about their subject and their narrative obligations.

The most obvious of these obligations is that Aliens movies are about the xenomorph chasing humans in a labyrinth. The first two films and the director’s cut of the third stick to this subject and excel by offering variations on it. The second increases the numbers of monsters and people. The third explores the perversity which leads some people to empathize with a monster. The three later films, however, all stumble in their attempt to vary or enlarge that basic principle.

Alien Resurrection is, in a sense, the most confused and the most honest about its problems. Its representation of the xenomorphs approaches parody, which I read as an implicit, perhaps unknowing acknowledgement of the limits of the series’s basic monsters-in-a-maze premise. It gasps for air in an ultimately failed effort to develop story material from the veneration of Ripley and the ongoing ambivalence toward the inhuman android looming over each of the previous films.

Prometheus jettisons all of this in favor of origins and creation mythology. It aims to take a series based on a sci-fi revision of the dark house movie and turn it into “cinematic universe.” It is, in other words, what an Aliens movie looks like in the age of three (and counting) Spider-man reboots and The Avengers.

To the extent Alien: Covenant surpasses its predecessor—and it does—it surpasses it by overtly returning to the narrative touchstones of Alien and Aliens, repeating the iconic moments of those films as a narrative collage, as if these moments were established paroles in a generic discours. Ultimately though, I don’t think the film cares much about these moments or even its xenomorphs. The face huggers and chest-bursting and the slobbering, metallic beasts are more-or-less instances of the film pandering. What seems genuinely to interest the film but what it is too timid to embrace as its subject are the dangers posed by an uncanny and out-of-control synthetic intelligence, a motif found in every Aliens film since the first but that here seems to beg to be exploited as primary material.

It seems clear to me that in Covenant the true threat, the true parasite, is artificial intelligence lodged in an android body. This threat is a legitimate source of felt horror in our contemporary moment. The Aliens movies offer a vehicle for representing and exploiting it. But this latest film doesn’t do so, choosing instead to place its narrative chips on new stagings of familiar scares.

So as the credits roll, I feel relief. Finally, a real Aliens movie. Yet I also feel genuine disappointment because in this film, the true monster only shows—what?… itself?… himself?… the uncertain status of the artificial is part of its monstrosity, and it is this monstrous anti-humanity that seduces and captivates. Yet it reveals itself in only two or three scenes. So I walk away from the movie wishing that it had been different than it was and better.

Apr 142018
 

A marriage comedy set in a world in which witches and future tech are at war with each other.

The lovers are kept apart in their youth by parents and counselors, all of them people with agendas. When they are older and have settled into their separate world views, they are kept apart by their mutual incomprehension and learned distrust. When in the final scenes, they come together, their totems—a magical tree, a powerful social network—merge, saving the world.

Apr 092018
 

The poster image for this season is awkward, unattractive, and confused.

I look at it and all I see is that ominous, grasping hand attached to a blank mask surrounded by fire. Call me a coward, but that pretty clearly reads as “RUN! Monster coming!”, no? But when I saw it in wide format versions, I realized this isn’t some faceless thing crawling toward me and reaching out to grab me. It is someone clinging to a ship in space, trying to save themselves. All images are ambiguous, but this one is divided against itself in the worst possible way.

That said, the image actually works pretty well as a representation of the second season of The Expanse because the episodes themselves are pretty confused about what they’re up to.

If I’m generous, the first season’s slow-crawl through less than half of the book it was adapting (and its many pointless changes to the plot) surely threw the second season off-balance. To keep going, the second season needed to pick up the pace and move through a book and a half of material. It also had to push the narrative back in line with its multi-volume source. That’s a big task, and it was rough going.

Actually, I struggled to get through it, quitting for several months after watching only the first half of the season. Eventually I started back and then quit again after a few boring wandering episodes mid-season. Only recently did I watch the last four.

Here’s the odd thing though: the fact that the story does get on track and that it seems to be settling into a steady pace in those last episodes has left me unexpectedly (but mildly) optimistic about what’s to come. (And I do like watching Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper and Shohreh Aghdashloo.)

Still I’m not jumping in right away on the third season. Despite my enthusiasm for Leviathan’s Wake, I found Caliban’s War dull and repetitive. I haven’t read the third book yet and I probably won’t watch the third season until I do, which might take me awhile. For now, it’s deep in the reading pile with a lot of better books sitting on top of it.

Feb 242018
 

I stumbled across the name of this book and its author in the opening anecdote of a magazine article a couple months ago. I’d never heard of either, but the odd context of the reference made me curious. So I stopped by Indigo the next time I was downtown and, after some confusion over which name was used to file the book—Cixin or Liu—found a copy.

The book was wildly disorienting because I know nothing about Chinese history that can’t be captured in the broadest of strokes. The footnotes saved me in this regard. By the same token, character interactions are clearly stylized here but they are done in a manner different from what I’m used to. The differences weren’t enormous and I adapted, but they were enough initially to make it quite hard to peg characters down. I don’t know enough to say what precisely these differences amount to. I am conscious of difference, but is it a product of a) my cultural distance, b) an unexpected generic variation, c) a purposeful narrative choice, d) the translation, or e) some combination of these? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the book is tightly constructed. Without generating much tension or suspense and without giving the impression of holding back secrets, the plot slowly, methodically unfolds piece-by-piece until in the end everything is backwards and inside out compared to what it was on page one, and this despite the fact that in fundamental ways, nothing has changed except the state of my understanding. I’ve learned what happened before page one—like in a mystery—and that knowledge makes all the difference. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling.

Jan 072017
 

Aliens arrive at twelve different sites on Earth. They are unavoidably menacing—their ships hover impossibly over land and sea, they manipulate gravity, and they look like slow–moving giant facehuggers—but nothing they do is hostile. Two scholars, one a linguist, one a physicist, have to figure out how to communicate with them while also keeping various militaries from blowing things up.

This isn’t an action film. Violence threatens, but when it happens, it happens off-screen, structuring the story as a deadline or countdown. Camera movements are slow, the shots composed. Both are independent and consistently meaningful channels of information, a feature of sophisticated communication explicitly celebrated in the dialogue. Bracing thoughtfulness is the dominant tone of the narrative. The dominant activities are listening, studying, and remembering.

Despite the aliens, their technology and the narrative’s mind–bending approach to time, the focus of the film is squarely on two educated people’s efforts to solve cooperatively an unabashedly intellectual problem. Their antagonists are the uneducated and thoughtless people around them who are driven by suspicion, anger, and fear and who are urged on by a hysterical and irresponsible media. These people cut off possibilities for cooperation, prefer violence to patience, and, whether committing suicide, looting, sabotaging, or inciting or threatening others, consistently act badly.

The fantasy of this science fiction is that humane intelligence wins out in the end, a triumph that manifests not as spoils but as a book about translation, a learned work offering help to those wishing to understand the thoughts and ideas of Others in their own words.

Jan 052017
 

This novel was frustratingly close to a do-over of Leviathan Wakes. Yes there was variation—a different world in the Belt, an introduction to life on Earth, new characters—but it was still a fake war providing cover for a rogue experiment involving the protomolocule.

What saved it for me was Avasarala and the most unexpected last–page surprise I’ve read in a long time.

I have the third book and will get to it eventually, but I’m less enthusiastic than I was after finishing the first volume.