Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue one: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Gareth Edwards

Main Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Alan Tudyk


This movie is complete garbage.  The main characters are, for the most part, completely unsympathetic and the film hardly ever bothers to explain their motivations.  This (long) film mostly fills in the back story for some minor plot points in the original Star Wars films, with maximum emphasis on melodrama.  Just some examples of the absurdities that abound.  The characters need to get some saved electronic data.  In an era of hyperspace transport, this data is saved on magnetic cassette tapes.  Desperately escaping a villain, the protagonists flee to the roof of the storage facility.  Luckily for them there is a cassette player there that is hooked up to a satellite broadcasting antenna.  (It is funnier/campier when in National Treasure Nicholas Cage‘s character needs lemon juice to read “invisible ink” writings, and he opens a refrigerator to find only a large bowl of lemons).  And there is no meaningful explanation of why Forrest Whitaker‘s character is in the film, or does anything that he does.  Is he just around to draw comparisons to Battlefield Earth?  I have read reviews of this film praising the story and such.  Were those critics watching the same film?  Of course, the special effects are expertly crafted.  Big deal.

Aside from how terrible this film is, it might be worth reexamining it from the standpoint of “socialist realism”.  Obviously, this sci-fi epic is not socialist realism.  As science fiction it does not aim for “realism” as such.  And for that matter, the film engages in the well-known Hollywood trope of showing acts of labor only in conjunction with evil (the evil Galactic Empire that is building a space weapon, using some slave labor no less).  So it isn’t socialist either.  But the genre of socialist realism was at bottom about the critique of bureaucracy.  Isn’t that what the larger story arc here is about (if the melodrama is peeled away)?  It is simply really, really bad socialist realism.  Anthropologist David Graeber wrote The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy and said there are no critiques of bureaucracy anymore.  He’s wrong in that respect, as this film shows.  But like actual 20th Century socialist realism, Rogue One approaches the question from the standpoint of the political center-right (and Stalinism), trying to put a happy human face on a bureaucracy that remains exploitative.  After all, looking at the entire Star Wars franchise, isn’t the vaunted Galactic Senate that ruled the Old Republic just a bourgeois center-right representative parliamentary system based on aristocratic privilege?  What good is that?  In other words, wouldn’t the entire Star Wars franchise be more interesting if there was some third group fighting alongside (and against) both the Rebels and the Empire, but fighting to make the fictional universe different/better than anything the Rebels or Empire put forward — like a secular state (not ruled by the Force and the attendant pagan religious cults) stripped of aristocracy, crime syndicates and such, and instead based on egalitarian principles.  Just take the high technology but advance the social structures through Enlightenment principles.  (Even the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation did this, in its own way, by introducing the authoritarian Q Continuum and the hive-mind villains the Borg on opposite political flanks of the liberal Starfleet Federation).  So, the problem with this film is ultimately that it takes itself far too seriously.  Its pretensions spoil what would have been a lot more fun as camp.  Popular fare usually works best when it is campy — the essence of which is naive unpretentiousness.  By bracketing the political background of the story as a struggle between the far-right Empire and the center-right Rebels (plus a few tangential warlords and crime bosses who are just small scale versions of either the Rebels or Empire), it fails to have a serious political grounding — lying by omission, in a way, by ignoring a substantial facet of the political field.  But if the film naively presented the political struggle that way, then it could work, with the naivety suggesting/implying the possibility of the missing political coordinates.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Michael Bay

Main Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Frances McDormand, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley


Basically one long product placement advertisement that, at best, distracts from that agenda with thin and disjointed scenes of meaningless heroism.  One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  Add one more to the tally of Michael Bay’s crimes against humanity.

Oblivion

Oblivion

Oblivion (2013)

Universal Pictures

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Main Cast: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman


The story is really just an amalgamation of plot points from other films: Moon, Total Recall, Independence Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Inception, The Matrix, etc.  But the special effects and technical realization of this movie really outshines all those others.  While the plot may not be ingeniously new, it blends known elements together in a way that is cohesive and effective.  Once the viewer accepts the basic conceits of the science fiction setting, every scene is staged plausibly — there are no scenes that prompt guffaws due to trivial yet implausible details.  At the risk of spoiling a plot twist, the film also takes a surprising matter-of-fact view toward cloning and the social interchangeability of clones.  Reviews of the film were poor.  No surprise, really.  This sort of film, though coming from Hollywood, chafes against what Hollywood prizes.  In other words, it is a better film than Hollywood normally permits, and the plot — derivative or not — has a kind of anti-corporate message that is always officially frowned upon even as Hollywood keeps inserting such messages into various films.  There is also some serious, if under-/unstated, questioning of how contrived and fake certain emotions and social institutions can be.  Tom Cruise is the perfect lead, able to convincingly deliver a role that requires a “useful idiot.”  The rest of roles are well cast too.

Metropolis

Metropolis

Metropolis (1927)

Universum Film A.G.

Director: Fritz Lang

Main Cast: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge


A classic of the silent era.  Epic in proportions yet simple in story, this has influences countless films that followed.  Some (Elysium (2013)) are practically remakes.  The special effects were groundbreaking.  This — along with the likes of Brecht/Weill‘s The Threepenny Opera and Döblin‘s Berlin Alexanderplatz and even Hilferding‘s Finance Capital — represents one of the great achievements of Weimar Germany.

Chris Gilbert – “Why Socialism?” Revisited

Link to an article by Chris Gilbert:

“‘Why Socialism?’ Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Albert Einstein”

A very interesting essay, in line with late-period writings by Walter Benjamin, though what goes unsaid is that much of Einstein‘s views on this point were probably drawn from Thorstein Veblen.  Who would have thought sci-fi movies would be so relevant?

Bonus links: “Inside Einstein’s Mind” and “You Only Live Twice”

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Warner Bros.

Directors: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

Main Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean


Combines the outer-space feudalism of Dune with the dystopian bureaucratic comedy of Brazil (or perhaps The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), plus straight-up sci-fi action like The Fifth Element.  There also is a little bit of Soylent Green and The Matrix in the plot.  Despite clear precedents, the visual themes of the film make an effort to break free of the usual Hollywood ones, and in that the film mostly succeeds.  That isn’t to say this is a wholly successful film.  It is a bit long, and many of the characters are simply one-dimensional placeholders for plot advancement.  The motivations for much of the plot are explored only superficially at best.  More time is spent depicting jet boots and big computer-generated architectural expanses.  At times the film’s critique of capitalism and capitalist-style consumerism is inserted into a plot about a feudalistic society like a square peg in a round hole.  But this doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Still, this one is pretty mediocre at best, even if its good intentions (a vaguely feminist attitude, etc.) carry it a bit further than most boring sci-fi blockbusters.

Stanisław Lem – Solaris

Solaris

Stanisław LemSolaris (MON 1961)


A work of science fiction, yes, but Solaris is also as much about humanity as anything else.  Psychologist Kris Kelvin travels to a space station on the planet Solaris, where strange things have been happening.  The thoughts of the cosmonauts are made corporeal, as “visitors”, by the planet itself.  A kind of pink slime “ocean” covers the planet.  It is sentient.  The ocean is even able to adjust the planet’s orbit between two suns.  A fascinating (and horrifyingly realistic) subplot is the way that Kelvin uncovers a conscious/unconscious plot by scientists to suppress the nature of the planet in published reports, relegating certain information to an Apocrypha and discrediting those whose findings contradict official dogma, with scientists acting like the guardians of religious institutions rather than seekers of knowledge as they profess to be.  The scientists are only able to apply language that is internally consistent, like mathematics, but never explains the mystery of the planet itself.  The planet remains an impenetrable other, its motivations inscrutable and unknown to the scientists.  Is it experimenting on the scientists?  Is it trying to help them?  No one knows. Comparing the novel to Moby Dick, Lem said that he “only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.”  But what dominates the story about scientists who cannot hope to understand the planet Solaris, is that they also fail to understand themselves.  Everything they experience about the planet is filtered through their own, flawed consciousnesses first.  The premise of the book maps directly onto the work of Jacques Lacan, Alain Badiou, and continental philosophy — Lem called the Freudian interpretation “obvious”.   Certainly, one of the greatest of 20th Century Sci-Fi novels.

After Earth

After Earth

After Earth (2013)

Columbia Pictures

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Main Cast: Jaden Smith, Will Smith


Here is a sci-fi film with an interesting core premise, burdened by all the usual plot holes of a typical M. Night Shyamalan feature.  Humanity makes the Earth’s environment essentially uninhabitable, and the planet’s population moves to a new planet called Nova Prime.  Some other alien species tries to remove humans from Nova Prime (for reasons not explained in the film) by attacking them with genetically engineered monsters called Ursa, which relentlessly attack humans by detecting pheromones given off when humans are frightened.  Cypher (Will Smith) is a general in the Nova Prime military, and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.  However, Kitai is troubled by having seen his sister killed by an Ursa.  So, father and son go on a space voyage and an “unexpected” asteroid belt causes the spacecraft to crash land on a planet that turns out to be Earth.  There were only two survivors.  To raise a rescue beacon, they must reach the tail section of the craft that landed some number of miles away from where Cypher and Kitai landed.  But Cypher has broken his legs, so Kitai must make the journal alone. And an Ursa that was being transported in the craft has survived the crash too, and gotten loose.

The story line is fairly typical “son must prove himself to a military father” one.  Those plot holes?  Well, here are a few.  How would an asteroid be unknown and undetected, so close to the human home world?  When Cypher injures his leg, why is he unable to apply a tourniquet, a technology known for millennia?  If the Ursa are practically blind except for their pheromone sense, how are they able to walk about without crashing into things?  And are they also mostly deaf?  Why must the Ursa be fought practically hand-to-hand, rather than using tanks, missiles, robots, and the like?  And with all the new technologies, it strains credibility that the characters are so unfamiliar with it that they are inclined to offer explanations (for the benefit of the film’s audience).

Will Smith’s acting is wooden.  He was always better in comedic roles.  Jaden Smith is terrible, and devoid of acting ability.  So why watch this film?  There are great special effects.  If you can set aside the bizarre forgetfulness when it comes to “ancient” technologies like tourniquets, there are a few interesting concepts, like flexible and holographic computers.

What makes this movie decent, in spite of its flaws, is the psychological basis for the main plot point.  Kitai must overcome his fear of Ursas to accomplish “ghosting”, by overcoming fear and avoiding the release of pheromones to pass by them as if invisible.  The very notion of “ghosting” is ridiculous.  But the idea that you have free will as to how you subjectivize objective experience is a key concept of psychology:

“[M]an is not simply a product of objective circumstances.  We all have this margin of freedom in deciding how we subjectivize these objective circumstances, which will of course determine us.”

Kitai has to decide whether in response to the very real and objective threat of the Ursa whether he subjectivizes that circumstance through fear, or another way.  In one very anthropomorphic scene, too, Kitai is saved by a giant eagle who chooses to protect him from severe cold that occurs every day, who manifests the same phenomenon.  She chooses to protect Kitai after loosing all her babies in an attack by jaguars or some such mutated large cats.  A “protector of the weak” is how she wanted to be seen by others.  So the basic message of this film is a defensible one.

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le GuinThe Dispossessed (Harper & Row 1974)


In the tradition of leftist utopian novels, often there is a tendency to make story and plot secondary to gratuitous description and monologues.  The bestselling Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy epitomizes that tendency.  Ursula Le Guin manages to make The Dispossessed, about a physicist named Shevek who leaves his isolated moon colony of Annares to pursue his research on the main planet Urras, one of the rare ones that fits sympathetic description of the workings of an anarcho-syndicalist society into a story that has merit on its own.

Le Guin is adept at inserting conspicuous phrasings that distinguish the anarchist society of Annares from contemporary language of Earth (acknowledging the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that the structure of a language affects the way speakers conceptualize their world).  Shevek’s daughter says, “you may share in the handkerchief that I use,” instead of “you may borrow my handkerchief.”  Her characters are the sorts that are rarely featured prominently in fiction of any medium: introverted, revolutionary, scientific.  When it comes to character development, she isn’t Tolstoy, but she gets the job done.

As most reviews note, a strength of the book is the critical view Le Guin takes of the anarchist moon colony.  She refuses to make it a place without problems, without fear, without ignorance.  It is a place still burdened by all the failings of humans.  By analogy, the major themes of the book recall Franz Kafka‘s The Trial, from the obscurantist-religious reading, in which Kafka’s protagonist Joseph K. struggles to apply rational logic to a legal system that ultimately is not rational because of its attachment to an irrational power system.  Le Guin does what Joseph K. could not; she replaces all state institutions and laws with a rational system based on a non-hierarchical, stateless society.  But she details how power structures linger, and they are much like those described by Kafka.  The social organization is still subject to individual anxieties, fears, and attempts to consolidate power.  But her main character Shevek engages his own limitations, and challenges himself to overcome them.

Just like tellings of Josef K.‘s story, Shevek goes beyond what his friend Bedap thinks about the unenlightened power structures that have been built up in an anarchist society that had supposedly permanently abolished them all long ago, to realize that there is no guarantee of consistency or meaning in any society, and he breaks the hold of the sustaining myth (the very preconditions of law) of the functioning behind-the-scenes power structures that “really” keep Annares going.  She drives this home by having Shevek’s mother argue — as Bedap’s rhetorical rival — to stop Shevek from communicating with the planet Urras about his physics theories.  Eventually, Shevek breaks the hold that the mother, and the belief that anything external to his mind provides meaning to his existence.

Take the following passage about the presence of police and military hierarchies.  Not only does she convey an awakening and a rising consciousness in Shevek, but she concretely explains how means are inseparably tied to ends in social structures:

“In the afternoon, when he cautiously looked outside, he saw an armored car stationed across the street and two others slewed across the street at the crossing.  That explained the shouts he had been hearing: it would be soldiers giving orders to each other.

“Atro had once explained to him how this was managed, how the sergeants could give the privates orders, how the lieutenants could give the privates and the segeants orders, how the captains . . . and so on and so on up to the generals, who could give everyone else orders and need take them from none, except the commander in chief.  Shevek had listened with incredulous disgust.  ‘You call that organization?’ he had inquired.  ‘You even call that discipline?  But it is neither.  It is a coercive mechanism of extraordinary efficiency — a kind of seventh-millennium steam engine!  With such a rigid and fragile structure what could be done that was worth doing?’  This had given Atro a chance to argue the worth of warfare as the breeder of courage and manliness and the weeder-out of the unfit, but the very line of his argument had forced him to concede the effectiveness of guerrillas, organized from below, self-disciplined.  ‘But that only works when the people think they’re fighting for something of their own — you know, their homes, or for some notion or other,’ the old man had said.  Shevek had dropped the argument.  He now continued it, in the darkening basement among the stacked crates of unlabeled chemicals.  He explained to Atro that he now understood why the army was organized as it was.  It was indeed quite necessary.  No rational form of organization would serve the purpose.  He simply had not understood that the purpose was to enable men with machine guns to kill unarmed men and women easily and in great quantities when told to do so.  Only he could still not see where courage, or manliness, or fitness entered in.”

So, this is a masterful novel, really as good as anything in science fiction.