Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Arrival

Arrival

Arrival (2016)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Main Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker


This sci-fi film has roughly the feel of Contact (1997), with a bit of The Tree of Life (2011) thrown in for good measure. Credit goes to the many members of the crew who make this a marvel of technical skill. But the script falls apart in confusion as the film goes on. The central story line involves the arrival of extra-terrestrials to Earth, and the attempts of humans to communicate with the aliens. The protagonist is Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist brought in by the U.S. military. A central plot point involves invocation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a real-life theory that is stretched to absurd lengths in the film. This is precisely where the film fails.  Rather than the grand tradition of using sci-fi scenarios to open space to discuss wholly realistic human social concerns otherwise barred from “respectable” discourse, Arrival reverts to empty deployment of “magical” actions. Actually, from the beginning to roughly the middle of the film, it seems almost that it will be about something that was in Stanisław Lem’s classic sci-fi novel Solaris that was excised from every film version — that humans are unable to comprehend “otherness” (explicitly that of aliens, but implicitly of other humans). But that would seem to be beyond what Hollywood permits, so by the end the plot gets dumbed down to pointless time-travel drivel.

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla

シン・ゴジラ [Shin Godzilla] (2016)

Toho Pictures

Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi

Main Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Yutaka Takenouchi


A reboot of the Gojira/Godzilla franchise, this is really an excellent monster film.  The best parts are about political symbolism. Having watched a number of dumb big-budget Hollywood superhero films recently, I was troubled by how many relied on a frame of a “post-political” society, where all important political decisions are just handed out (down) by unseen technocrats. I thought it would be more interesting to show the deliberations of politicians. Well, Shin Godzilla does exactly that!

The Gojira/Godzilla franchise has shown many different sides of the monster, from an uncontrollable force of destruction, to a helper of humanity, to an object of scientific study. Aspects of this film draw upon some of the ways scientific inquiry was vaunted in the 1990s films. But there is a much more political and serious tone to this film.  Here, the monster is finally defeated by a mostly self-organized team of nerds that works together in parallel with the military to defeat the monster, following much destruction.

The political commentary in the film ranges from traditional franchise concerns about nuclear energy and weapons (Gojira/Godzilla in this film is a sea creature that self-mutates after eating nuclear waste, and is powered by nuclear fission), including the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown, to post WWII pacifism (including Shinzō Abe‘s plan to re-write the Japanese constitution to step away from pacifism), the (real or perceived) subordinate relationship of Japan to U.S. political interests, corporatization and putting profits over people, and more. While the film is sometimes a bit ridiculous — often in a good, campy way, like the wonderfully unrealistic depiction of the monster with bulging eyes and a bulk that still resembles an actor in a rubber monster suit — mostly, this film is expertly delivered. Central to the story is the way it presents existing political institutions as being unable or unwilling to confront current circumstances.  The monster is a symbol of the internal contradictions of Japanese society (and capitalism). It would not be too much to say that this is one of the most Leninist films of its day!

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Scott Derrickson

Main Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen


Another superhero film. Much of the plot is an ersatz version of anarchist writer Ursula K. Le Guin‘s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). But there is plenty of good humor here. Tilda Swinton proves yet again that she is one of the best actors in mainstream cinema. While her character, and others, at first seem to be yet another example of the dubious practice of casting white people in “Asian” roles, the film actually addresses that concern in a satisfactory way. In the end, this film is quite average, maybe *slightly* above-average in a relative sense.  There are certainly worse big-budget superhero movies out there.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice  Captain America: Civil War

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Warner Bros.

Director: Zack Snyder

Main Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg


Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Walt Disney Studios

Director: Joe Russo

Main Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie


Here are two big superhero movies that offer two slightly different takes on very similar subject matter.  They both highlight the eerie similarities of the underlying political assumptions.

So, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (part of the DC Comics universe) turns out to be better than it seems like it would be, which maybe doesn’t say a whole lot. I very nearly stopped watching after a few minutes. It gets better though. Like a number of other big-budget superhero movies of the day, this film is long. Yet it also crams in so many characters (and a few useless Lois Lane and Jonathan Kent scenes scenes) that it still feels a bit rushed. The basic premise is vaguely in line with Alan Moore‘s famous Watchmen comic, asking Juvenal‘s immortal question (from Book II, Satire VI: The Decay of Feminine Virtue): who guards the guards themselves [Quis custodiet ipsos custodes]? The film is at its best when it convincingly puts forward that question. But then it hints at a sequel (deferring complete resolution) and, at most, answers the question in an unsatisfying way. Anyway, Ben Affleck is for the most part completely unlikeable as Batman/Bruce Wayne. That makes him the perfect choice for the role. He brings out the arrogant right-wing vigilante qualities of the character’s recent incarnations well. Henry Cavill is also good as Superman/Clark Kent. His character’s dim-witted engagement with Batman is surprisingly convincing.  Jaime Eisenberg is well-cast as the unlikeable Ayn Rand-worshiping villain Lex Luthor. This film was directed by Zack Snyder (slated to make a new version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) and produced by Steve Mnuchin, now Secretary of the Treasury (!) in the Trump administration.

The essence of this Batman/Superman film’s morality is that it accepts Thomas Hobbes and perhaps also Machiavelli as providing the philosophical foundations for the ideal society.  All the usual critiques of those thinkers could be applied to the film.  Machiavelli, of course, is known for his argument in The Prince that in politics the ends justify the means.  Hobbes was a “social contract” theorist, famous for writing in Leviathan that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  G.D.H. Cole described Hobbes’ theories this way:

“Hobbes . . . regarded the people as agreeing, not simply to form a State, but in one and the same act to invest a certain person or certain persons with the government of it.  He agreed that the people was the final source of all authority, but regarded the people as alienating its Sovereignty by the contract itself and as delegating its powers, wholly and for ever, to the government which its members agreed to set up.  As soon, therefore, as the State is established, the government becomes for Hobbes the Sovereign; there is no further question of popular Sovereignty but only of passive obedience: the people is bound, by the contract, to obey its ruler, no matter whether he governs well or ill.  It has alienated its rights to the Sovereign, who is, therefore, absolute master.”

Hobbes argued that such a State must be formed in order to avoid a situation of civil war and bellum omnium contra omnes (“the war of all against all”).  The film flirts with these concepts, by asking whether Superman, or Batman, or some larger group of superheroes, should be invested with the authority to fight monsters and villains on behalf of society.  Batman is kind of like Hobbes, a defender of “liberal” aristocracy/monarchy against the divine right of kings-type theories.  Machiavelli lurks behind the story in that the superheroes (technocractically) decide amongst themselves what is best for the people.  What is sad about this Hobbesist argument is that it was a political argument made hundreds of years ago!  In other words, the political background for the film’s plot is reactionary by framing the “relevant” political question as being exactly the same as what was debated hundreds of years ago.  Critics of Hobbes (like Rousseau) who argued that democracy should prevail over aristocracy do not even enter the frame of the debate.  Put another way, the film places “relevant” contemporary American political debate in the pre-Revolutionary War era!

Captain America: Civil War (part of the Marvel Comics universe) is also overly long and filled with too many characters.  It does, curiously enough, probably set some kind of record for the action film with the most debates in conference rooms (I kid you not!).  Much like Batman v. Superman, the movie preoccupies itself with the concept of who guards the guards themselves, or, put more bluntly, who governs the superheros (in this case, many are ordinary mortals with access to special military weapons).  While there is a wide array of superheroes here, allocated proportionately along race and gender lines, the main rivalry is between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.).  Stark wants to submit to a United Nations accord that will govern the superheroes’ “Avengers” group.  Captain America refuses.  The characters’ motivations are mostly absurd and implausible.  Iron Man/Stark in particular just comes across as stupid and arrogant.  The character The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is obnoxious, a character designed merely to pander, and a wasted opportunity (to link the character to the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense perhaps?).  Spider Man (Tom Holland) appears, as does Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and they leaven the proceedings in a good way.  There are many fight scenes, some of them a bit formulaic, and the film struggles to plausibly present these when some of the characters have superpowers of a substantially greater magnitude than others. But some are engaging.

All those details aside, there is an important difference from the Batman v Superman film.  Captain America: Civil War is kind of post-political.  On the surface, it appears that the film is “left” of Batman v Superman because it explicitly depicts a role for the United Nations (UN) as a “democratic” body that overcomes the superhero “civil war” that is a “war of all against all” of sorts.  When the UN creates an accord (somehow in secret; that is, without the knowledge of the superheros), the film glosses over the imperialist corruption of the UN, merely referring to the nearly 200 countries that signed on — creating the false impression that all countries are equal in the organization.  The character of the really-existing UN aside, the details of the accord are never actually discussed.  When the Avengers debate it, the political character of the accord is subsumed in the silly, irrelevant interpersonal conflicts, mostly between Captain America and Iron Man.  While the UN accord is supposedly driven by a desire to curb the collateral damage to civilians caused by the Avengers (just as Batman/Bruce Wayne complains about with respect to Superman), who actually governs the Avengers under it (and how they do so) is never really mentioned.  An official simply throws a large stack of paper on a table — the content of the accord is simply some legalistic/technocratic thing that neither the Avengers nor the audience is supposed to be concerned about.  This leads to another important point.  There is curiously no depiction of ordinary civilians as anything more than background props in a few action scenes.  A largely faceless government of technocrats simply decides for the people what is best for them.  Comparisons to the European Union “Troika” institutions (which push “austerity” measures that favor bankers/finance over ordinary workers) might be apropos here.  So, while there are ample opportunities to critique the aristocratic-leaning political philosophy of Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War instead leaves no room for political debate.  To adopt Colin Crouch‘s term, the film depicts a “post-democratic” world (“A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell”).  From another angle, it is also worth noting that the prior Avengers organization could be called a worker self-directed enterprise, and the UN accord an attempt to override worker self-management with a command-and-control top-down hierarchy (under the guise of the putatively “democratic” UN).

What these films (and Watchmen too) offer, just like similar print comics, is a pretty remedial set of political philosophies.  What each excludes from consideration is any sort of governance system in which ordinary people have equal votes and equal power.  All these films are wedded to the idea that some people are better than others, or at least more suited to rule, and therefore everyone has a “proper” place.  Perhaps there is a belief that such an approach goes hand-in-hand with the genre of superhero films, but it doesn’t have to (*ahem*, Trashman, V for Vendetta, and even the original Incal comics or The Dispossessed).  An interesting counterpoint to the sorts of worldviews in these films is Lars von Trier‘s Dogville.  There, a small town (on a stage set up like the popular Thornton Wilder play Our Town) takes in a woman (Nicole Kidman) on the run from gangsters, and the town votes (the woman excluded from voting) to turn her into a quasi-slave.  The film highlights the deficiencies of the brand of “democracy” employed by the town, with a tyranny of the majority abusing its power and the democratic “vote” doing nothing to prevent the majority’s exploitation.

On top of the structural/procedural political aspects of the DC/Marvel universes, and the usual superhero fantasies of overcoming social problems with the actions of no more than a handful of individual actions, there is also the nagging question of framing the sorts of problems that the superheroes address.  That is, the superheroes in these two films don’t fight poverty, environmental destruction (though occasionally superhero media does address this, usually only in passing), financial exploitation (though occasionally other superheroes do), or other “structural violence”.  Instead of addressing the “banality of evil”, superheroes fight discrete, monstrous villains.  But as often as not, the villains are seen as “evil” merely by stepping out of their “proper” place in globalist social hierarchy — thereby framing the very definition of “evil” in such a way as to exclude a conception of society in a universalist, egalitarian way.

Though it almost pains me to say it, the Snyder/Mnuchin film is considerably better than the Captain America one.  Its politics could be questioned, especially from the sort of Rousseauian perspective (that drives Dogville).  But at least it comes closer to making the politics explicit, and does align itself with some kind of political philosophy (mostly Hobbesist).  And, for that matter, the main characters of the Batman v Superman film behave in a more plausible way, on a strictly interpersonal level.  In spite of the film’s story and character bloat, there are also effective scenes, and the “redemption” of the right-wing vigilante Batman character, who actually comes to realize his mistakes and change his outlook on life (even if still imperfectly), is a rare feat on any level in a mainstream film.

Legion

Legion

Legion (2017- )

Fx

Director: various

Main Cast: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder


Here is an example of television living up to some of its potential.  Legion, a flagship “prestige” show made by some of the largest media companies in history, mostly succeeds.

The show has the production values of cinema rather than of most things on television.  The basic sitcom-style show is presented as filmed theater.  Think of the “filmed before a live studio audience” approach.  There are edits and one or more cameras, but the camera is like a “neutral” observer of a space in which actors work through a script.  In contrast, nearly every (season one) episode of Legion has a long slow-motion sequence, a montage of close-ups of inanimate objects, etc. There are many elaborate sets and costumes, and numerous episodes have scenes filmed on location outdoors.  There is also extensive integration of music to help convey meaning/perspective rather than just set a mood — the soundtrack is most impressive.  These are common devices, but they are common to cinema rather than TV.  In fact, most of the series can fairly be called pastiche.  Everything is old, sometimes knowingly old.  But this is not a drawback (copping from They Live is a great idea, for instance).

The cast is excellent.  The characters are good too.  Jemaine Clement as the pretentious wanna-be beatnik is delicious.  Bill Stevens is excellent as the lead, though Aubrey Plaza kind of steals the show in the last half of the first season.  While some of the casting could be called multicultural pandering, it resists such labels — rather than the dubious Commander Chakotay character on Star Trek: Voyager, we have the ass-kicking mutant Kerry Loudermilk (Midthunder).

As to the story, well, it poses some fascinating questions, even if the quasi-resolution of the first season falls back on boring convention.  Much of the show is set in mental hospitals, and relies extensively on scenes involving psychological therapy sessions.  (Fredric Jameson posited such things as being a key part of an American Utopia).  A central question is whether the main character is insane/schizophrenic or a powerful mutant with magical powers.  The way this is presented across the first five episodes is to suggest that the main character’s entire personality is constructed to create a certain appearance to the outside world.  Actually, this parallels a crucial insight of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan!  Personality is an attempt to cover the void of being.  The last few episodes draw away from this, turning instead toward a pagan “endless battle between good and evil” motif.  But even in the last episodes, the show openly acknowledges that the main character being encouraged to reconsider his entire life of memories from the standpoint of being a misunderstood demi-god rather than as a mentally defective wreck might well be manipulative pandering or self-serving empowerment fantasy (or both).

The first season does grind to a halt somewhat in episode six, but picks up again in the last few episodes, only to falter as the series bends over backwards to leave the main plot unresolved to allow for later seasons (though it does this less obnoxiously than The Strain, for instance).  This would have been better conceived as a mini-series than a multi-season series, probably.  But it does deserve credit for being among the more complexly “adult” level comic/superhero/sci-fi productions of its day, even more so than franchise-related films.

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

20th Century Fox

Director: Bryan Singer

Main Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac


Although perhaps not as clear-cut as the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in terms of making the “superhero” the bad guy (a right-wing capitalist vigilante) and the “supervillian” the good guy (an enlightenment-era agent of revolution-from-below), X-Men: Apocalypse follows a similar trajectory.  Apocalypse AKA En Sabah Nur (Isaac) is a powerful ancient mutant who is unearthed in the 1980s and seeks to destroy (mostly capitalist) human civilization.  He starts by safely destroying all of the world’s nuclear weapons (just like star child).  The X-Men gather to defeat him.  The thing is, it is mostly just assumed that the audience should oppose Apocalypse.  This film does not explain why he is bad.  He claims to bring the world peace.  He takes steps in that direction, by getting rid of the nuclear weapons, promoting two women in his “administration,” etc.  Yes, he does destroy a lot of things and kill some people — some of them monstrous.  But should he just be seen as a metaphor for the ancient tradition of Jubilee, the “year of the lord,” in which a (usually new) ruler would annul all personal debts and declare a clean slate?  In that sense, can the X-Men be considered like Obama/Clintonite neoliberals, defending the financial sector from the villagers and their “pitchforks” and the possibility of “old testament justice” (as the disgraced Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner snidely opposed after the 2007 financial crash)?  True, in the film Professor X (McAvoy) pleads for the strong to protect the weak, rather than for the strong to join Apocalypse.  But, it is fair to ask whether the X-Men are really defending the weak, or merely pretending to do so while supporting present-day institutions by which the strong systematically oppress the weak (what is sometimes called “structural violence”).  On top of that, the overall story is a little disjointed in trying to introduce too many characters.  But on the plus side, this film has better dramatic acting than most superhero films, and it does convey emotion in an effective way at times.

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.