Scifi films are bullshit

Sorry to harp on about films - i'll write some stuff about music soon, i promise - but I've watched a slew of rubbish - well, to be fair, merely flawed - scifi films recently. WELL LET ME EXPAND UPON THAT.

I was going to write just about Splice, but I just watched Monsters and, thinking back to other recent films, like Sunshine, there's definitely something going wrong here. spoilers ahead!

All these films seem to be half good. I'll start with Splice, which I watched in a strangely, thematically, appropriate double bill with Fishtank.

The premise of Splice - sidestepping the actual 'science' - is Frankenstein, but with a happy couple instead of a weird student doctor. Two co-habiting gene splicers decide to push the technology to the limits and throw some human genes into the mix. Of course, it's all the stupid woman's idea, but never mind that, what they create is a growing-too-quickly mutant girl, surprisingly human. As the plot unfolds, we learn that the woman of the pair had a difficult relationship with her mother - possible case of neglect and/or emotional abuse - and while initially loving of the creature, begins to play out her parent. The man starts off sceptical - in fact, tries to kill it several times - but soon warms and admits he loves the weird little thing. Up to this point, I loved this film. It was dealing with nature and nurture in an interesting way, it was dealing with a mother-daughter relationship (which is rare as hen's teeth in the father-son-obsessed mainstream cinema world, see Inception below), and it was dealing with the ethics of letting things get too far.

And then it all went Woody Allen, when the man shags his, let's face it, adopted daughter (being seduced by her does not let him off the hook). And then, after it dies, it inexplicably comes back to life as a man and rapes the woman, it's mother. What this says about the writer/director of the film's view of the world, I'm not too sure - possibly that all men want to kill all other men, and all women want to sex all men. The Long-Suffering Girlfriend pointed out how unpleasant it was that men get to be seduced while women get raped. The film was great until the sex got in there; I'm not saying there shouldn't be films about sexual abuse and it's consequences, and you should definitely watch Fishtank for evidence. But Splice started off with a great story, then threw it out the window in order to make space for some alien sex scenes. Is Xenopaedophilia a word? It is now, thanks to Splice.

Then we come to Monsters, which is like heart of darkness but with no characters. It owes most, absolutely and definitely, to Stalker; a perilous journey across an alien-infected zone, on a budget so low that real ruins are substituted in for sets and the beauty of nature is explored and the influence of the aliens is felt obliquely and in the periphery. The main difference is that while Stalker felt like three philosophy students walking slowly across the landscape, Monsters feels like two gap-year dickheads. The conceit of the film is great, I don't argue with the vision, the style, or the use of limited budget to achieve something personal.

But she's a drip, he's just any bloke. There's no charisma between them, such that the ending where they kiss feels like a surprise. oh and there's the father-son bullshit again. It feels quite a lot like jurassic park, partly because of the scenery and the threat from massive things, but mainly because the couple have the sexual charisma of the children in that film (I MEAN NONE). A lot is made of the improvised dialogue, bringing comparisons to Mike Leigh, but while Mike Leigh joints have dialogue and scenarios that have erupted from weeks of intense character study, the dialogue in Monsters feels genuinely just improvised, in the way that they couldn't think of anything interesting to say. They just amble about like blankly yawning wildebeest. Or, as I said above, students on their gap years, with inexplicably long-lasting hairspray.

Sunshine could have been great, I was really enjoying the way that the creators had wreaked enough drama out of these people just doing their misson; up until the point where it turned into a slasher film for some reason. Actually, I got a lot more out of the film with Brian Cox's commentary track, as he explained how the sun was driving them mad, and what happened to the other captain could have happened to them, but I just lost interest in the film and missed what happened at the end (despite it being on in the room), and it's a pretty clear failing of the finished film when you need the commentary track to enjoy it.

Splice and Sunshine both have great ideas, but squander them in a lazy attempt to attract attention through (sex and) violence. Monsters justifies it's brief moments of horror (spoiler: it's called monsters), but it's failings are more to do with the actors, or perhaps the director's misguided approach to improvised acting.

Positive note: cest scifi film i've seen for a long time, then, is Skeletons. you'll love it.

I just want to mention Inception briefly here, as it is a sci-fi, and was quite good. However, it stakes the need even more clearly for a reverse Bechdel Test: one that tests for father son relationships in films (the other all-time great father-son film is National Treasure). Here's a breif outline to give you the flavour:

The Protagonist (di Caprio) of the film is estranged from his son. The protagonist followed in his father (Caine)'s footsteps into the dream-hacking industry, which apparently they teach at university.
The target of the film is also estranged from his father, and works in the family business. The plot of the film is to plant an idea into the target's head, that he wants to start his own business; they do this by convincing the target that his father secretly loved him, despite the tough charade.
The protaganist succeeds, therefore uniting him with his own father, and his son, and putting the target's mind at ease about his father's death.

It's like Noland thought, i've got this idea for a really big clever expensive film, but the only way i'll convince anyone in hollywood to make it is if I put hyper father son relationships into it - at least three should do it.

There are two women in the film.
They speak to each other.
About a man. ("the whole conversation is about how mal needs cobb in her life to feel whole. and that few seconds is basically the only female-to-female conversation in the ENTIRE movie. i'd call this one a pretty clear fail.")

Sample questions for father-son test:
Does the son follow in the footsteps of his father's career?
Is the father estranged from his son?
Is the father too busy to see the son?
Is there a phonecall between the father and son on the son's birthday?
Is the relationship resolved in the course of the movie?
does the father die?

i'd love to see this test implemented.


Hellboy 2 features

So one of my favourite films is 'the dark crystal', and another of my favourite films is 'the world of the dark crystal'.

I strongly suggest you watch the whole thing:

The hour-long documentary details the two years of preproduction on the film, from earliest concepts all the way through to the filming. One of the reasons I loved it so much is it seems like a forgotten world of actual things made of actual stuff. It seemed like the very height of technology, as what they were doing was inevitably going to be superseded by the computer graphics that were just around the corner. I didn't know of any films that had a more intricate construction, and for the same reason that I love The Thing, from the same year: This, for me, was the peak of a brief period in cinema where the technology existed to create genuinely different, and realistic-looking, creatures, which could then just be filmed. The same year, Tron came out, a film that relished in unrealism, but that started a trend that fantasy films would be easier to realise on computers, which we are now seeing the fruits of. Later years presented Return of the Jedi (mostly people in suits and stop motion animation), Ghostbusters, Gremlins, even Labyrinth, but none of these for me match the achievements of The Dark Crystal.

"Do you remember the material world? Actual things?" said Stewart Lee in his recent run on the bbc. He was satirising observational comedy and nostalgia, but what was great about these films is that they were real things, put in front of the camera. The Thing was such an achievement: an explicit rejection of 'man in a suit' monster films. The techniques employed to create something that just could not exist in reality, but had to be created for the camera, are staggering. Watching the making of these two movies in 2011 is heart-rending. I maintain that all films are animations, and by using actors, puppets, drawings, computers or whatever, what matters is how you feel when you watch the flick-book. But I love the art and the industry that surrounds a physically grounded film. More recently Coraline broke my heart, with the incredible and round-about efforts that went into making the film.

I'm so glad that Guillermo del Toro has shown me to be wrong.

Watching the making of Hellboy 2 - there's 11 hours of bonus materials on the 4-disc hellboy boxset - gives me as much of a thrill as the films mentioned above, but more, because it proves that actual skills are still in use.

Hellboy definitely owes a huge debt to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (as well as to 'The Wizard of Oz' in its 'three weird things and a girl learning life lessons' themes, and the troll market is reminiscent of the mos eisley cantina in star wars), in terms of the needless detail of its worlds, the look of some of its inhabitants (the elves not only look like gelfings, they look like they're made out of wood), and the variety of labours needed to be performed to bring it to life. But del Toro is doing this in the 21st Century, with competition from computer graphics and budgetary constraints, because he knows that the best way to get something to look real is to actually make it. Look at the wink character in this back-stage footage:

It looks just as good as in the film. And its not that del Toro doesn't use CGI; he just uses it when necessary, or to enhance the already-elaborate techniques employed in the making of the film. Plus, it's a massive improvement on the first film, which felt clich├ęd and generic, and repetitive, whereas The Golden Army feels like an amazing and fresh work of imagination. I suppose that's the main thing.

Take the last scene of the film; I was amazed to discover they actually built that rotating set, and got an olympic gymnast in to do those real leaps that the elf prince does. Dangerous stuff. It just feels like a counterblast to (especially) George W Lucas and his incessant star wars fiddling, which employs CGI in it's laziest, worst aspects. I just wonder what del Toro has left sitting in The Hobbit, and vice versa.


Antikythera Furthermore

Upon re-reading my recent post on the mechanism, I'm reminded of this:

Everything in the heavens is here, moving as the heavens move. This is how to know when... Suns, moons, stars. Yes, the angle of eternity.

Aughra's Orrery in The Dark Crystal is exactly what I described, a device for modelling the heavens and thus knowing what was going to be happening on earth. So that's probably what I was thinking of.


Our Hypothesis is Yes

Much of the music I'm listening to at the moment - and I'm listening to a phenomenal amount, which is a post in itself - has roots in two people: Euros Childs, previously of Gorky's, now out on his own and also out of Jonny; and the more recent find Mat Reznik out of Astrohenge and Necro Deathmort. And a couple of wednesdays ago, both Jonny and Deathmort were playing the same night. Torn as I was, I ended up spending the evening comforting an all-broked-up friend, so at least I was spared the decision.

Elsewhere this mix just gives a flavour of what i'm listening to atm. There's another in the works that will probably be quite similar.


So this is pretty

We love the antikythera mechanism at grilly towers. It's quite an obsession, since it allows us to rewrite supposed history as to what was invented when, quite a feat for a single find. Hence, it's been incredibly well studied.

I think there's something missing from the analysis though. That is, the mindset of the people who would have used it. I love the device because it's so state-of-the-art; it feels so modern and functional, entirely analogues to modern palm-top computers.

Now, I'm wandering outside the boundries of science here; this is speculation, but I think it's interesting speculation.

The mechanism is, basically, as far as we can work out, a computational calendar. It shows the eclipses, the phases of the moon, the position of the sun, and (possibly, at least according to some authors) the position of the planets, at any given date of the future, just by turning a small handle. It's a model of the skies.

This is no mean feat, for a culture that believed the state of the skies accurately reflected the state of the world. This isn't just a calendar for the fun of it; no-one would design and build such a complicated mechanism just for that.

I think that the mechanism is a fortune-telling device. Knowing the positions of the heavens at any given date in the future would tell you everything you needed to know about it.
If you were arranging a festival, you could look at your mechanism and it would tell you what a good day was, when the gods would be looking favourably on you. When would be a good day to set sail. When would your fortunes change. Of course, it does not interpret anything, which is up to the owner of the device, but you've got the raw data.

And it augments the fortune-teller's art with solid technology. We all talk about our 'offboard memory' now, but this was over 2000 years ago. Think about how much power knowing the future would give the owner. And how much they would want to be the sole owner of that power. Is it a surprise we've only found one of these?