Galaxy Quest (1999)
Director: Dean Parisot
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 Le Guin 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.
Link to an article about Star Trek by Matthew Yglesias:
Bonus link: Chaos on the Bridge
The third bestselling book in the United States in the Nineteenth Century, Looking Backward is a novel about Julian West, a wealthy man living in Nineteenth Century Boston, falling into a trance for more than a century and waking up in a socialist utopian society in the year 2000. The book is mostly a series of monologues in which the characters describe the new society. There is a terrible romance subplot tacked on. Basically, the writing is dreadful, taken on its own. But this book captured the imagination of America as it industrialized. The economist Thorstein Veblen cited this book as a key influence, and you might say that most of Veblen’s academic career was focused on establishing genuine economic theories that would move real-life society toward the utopian one outlined in Looking Backward. Critiques of Bellamy’s vision are that while he presents a compelling economic utopia, he falls short of describing gender equality, for instance. Still, as a description of a democratic society that fulfills the sort of ideals Jean-Jacques Rousseau outlined during the Enlightenment, this is one of the most positive. This isn’t written as an attack on anybody, really, but as a description of how things could be so much better. It aims to convince by showing the benefits of a non-capitalist economic system. Bellamy also wrote a sequel Equality (1897).
Ender’s Game (2013)
Director: Gavin Hood
What a piece of garbage. This film (based on the book by Orson Scott Card) tries far too hard to incorporate teen and pre-teen appeal, aping Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Troll Twins of Underbridge Academy. The plot is stupid and the characters implausible. There are many pseudo-intelligent plot devices that are not even a fraction as intelligent as the filmmakers apparently think them to be. The main character Ender (Asa Butterfield) is closely scrutinized by military superiors who see potential in him. Yet they go so far as to extrapolate the future of humanity from a five-minute schoolhouse incident in which Ender gets into a fight. The pop psychology is laid on very thick. It might have been tolerable if it had any sort of connection to legitimate psychology. It doesn’t. Again and again, nothing really adds up. Why are there a total of four adults in the international military that is trying to save the Earth from aliens? And why are children, and only children, necessary to their plans? None of that is explained. The main character is portrayed like some kind of savant of sorts–recalling Herman Hesse‘s Magister Ludi [AKA The Glass Bead Game]. But there is little attempt at Hesse’s sense of irony. The film gets a little better at the end, when it tries to find a moral center. But the ending winds up being much the same as Starship Troopers (1997). Skip this.
In Time (2011)
20th Century Fox
Director: Andrew Niccol
Main Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy
Yeah, so the name Justin Timberlake may be more synonymous with a “dick in a box” than cinematic acting prowess, but he proves an adequate choice for the lead in Andrew Niccol’s dystopian sci-fi thriller In Time. Will Salas (Timberlake) is a lowly nobody working in some factory in a futuristic ghetto. There is no “money” as such, but “time” instead. People have a “clock” in their arm that counts backward. When it reaches zero, they die. But so long as they have time, they stay the same age indefinitely. All adults are about 25 years old. Buying coffee or taking the bus? Time is taken away. Payment for a day’s work? Time is added. You simply hold your arm to an electronic reader, or grip another person’s arm in what appears like a slightly aggressive secret handshake. Residents of the ghetto in which Salas lives seem to all have no more than a few days or hours of time, always in a state of desperation. And this is definitely a ghetto. Well, a “time zone” the characters call it. Increasingly steep tolls are required to pass from the ghetto into other time zones.
It isn’t much of a plot spoiler to say that the movie hinges on Salas’ personal awakening, after coming into possession a large amount of time, in which he realizes that there is nothing “wrong” with the economy that has nothing for the residents of the ghettos. Rather, the rich have devised a system to separate themselves from the others based on the unequal distribution of time. Police called “timekeepers,” among them Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), are the hard-boiled enforcers of the order. Yes, there has to be a romantic sub-plot, so Salas meets up with Sylvia Weiss (Amanda Seyfried), whose father runs the largest “time lending” chain–an outfit much like a payday loan business making loans at extortionate rates. One then wonders if there will be a happy ending or not.
The plot captures bits of the German childrens’ book Momo oder Die seltsame Geschichte von den Zeit-Dieben und von dem Kind, das den Menschen die gestohlene Zeit zurückbrachte (1973) by Michael Ende (better known to American audiences as the author of Die Unendliche Geschichte [The Never-Ending Story] (1981)), which dealt with Men in Grey from a Timesaving Bank, and the short film The Price of Life (1987), in which characters die when a time account runs to zero and the rich are practically immortal. The modern telling, though, also takes cues from the sort of high-finance intrigue that propelled The International (2009) and anticipates the grim and heartless social class conflict central to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013). The central conceit of using “time” in place of “money” serves a useful role in highlighting how money is really a representation of social power, a unit of measure that expresses the holder’s claim on social wealth, or, society’s quasi-moral indebtedness to its holder. This is normally the sort of stuff that one gets from reading rather dry, academic non-fiction books–and there indeed are quite a few that provide copious theoretical support for the film’s conceit.
Niccol made a name for himself with Gattaca (1997), another sci-fi thriller with comparable ambitions to portray a quest for justice in a repressive class-based society. He’s a skilled practitioner, able to manage the pacing of a movie that draws most of its audience in with action sequences while still managing to hold together a coherent plot. Viewers are asked to suspend disbelief that humans can have their mortality regulated entirely by technology, but not in the small parts of the movie. You must accept that a person can drop dead if the clock in his or her arm runs out of time, but you are not forced to accept violations of the laws of physics for the sake of “action” when the fists and bullets start to fly nor to accept characters whose behavior shifts erratically. Like a high school science teacher clamoring to “make science fun” enough that a little learning might happen, the objective is to do the action and romance stuff well enough to find a few moments in which to present the moral and economic premise of the film . Quite unlike, say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Batman movie, which delivers a reactionary and anti-democratic message that “the system” must be preserved despite its flaws (necessary or simply inevitable and unavoidable), In Time suggests that piecemeal tokens don’t work (like when Salas gifts an alcoholic friend too much time) but that large scale mass mobilization of the poor can correct the inequities of a system established by the rich for their differential advantage. It’s an old message. Leo Tolstoy makes the same argument in the final chapter of his The Kingdom of God is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life (1894), for instance, and Gandhi put the idea into practice. But if you miss the final moments of this film you might miss that message somewhat, and think instead that a kind of James Bond figure can dash in and make the difference by himself.
Matt Damon has made something of a career making movies like this. Timberlake and Seyfried less so. Cillian Murphy makes a good choice for his role as the anguished and vaguely morally troubled cop. One can’t forget the casting difficulties for a script that calls for a society of people who appear to be about 25-30 years old but have lived decades (or more) longer!
This one is a good bit of entertainment. It has a more solid sense of purpose than most hollywood sci-fi. But in the mold with so much current cinema, the dystopian element predominates over the utopian. Audiences are mostly in a mood today to relate to a story about recognizing a corrupt system and bringing it down. It might take more time before the happy stories of what comes next can be told effectively.
Twentieth Century Fox
Director: John Boorman
Main Cast: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton
The strangeness. The red diaper. The moustache and goatee drawn on with marker. Surely, if you’ve read any other review of John Boorman’s Zardoz, or even seen the movie, these things are all common currency. Despite that critical debris, or maybe even because of it, there is cause to look at little deeper and further. Surely, this is an unusual movie. But it’s also not as unprecedented as many reviewers claim. It was unusual mostly by the standards of Hollywood businessmen. And who should care for those standards?
Zardoz primarily concerns itself with a dystopian future as in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but fueled by the sort of elite/destitute class conflict that drives Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, as well as the psychological escapades populating Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo or The Holy Mountain. Yet, here, the emphasis is on a unique sci-fi setting, one that recalls the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Silent Running. But, really, the greatest influences seem to come from literature. There is a healthy dose of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (incorporated approvingly), a touch of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and something of an attempt to rebut the sort of thinking that inhabited Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. There is a bizarre endorsement of violence as essential to human character, but seemingly in line with a Rousseauian pessimism about civil society representing a decay from the nobility of primitive culture. There is something wrong, flawed, in this. As an attempt at something meaningful, though, it’s intriguing.