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On a Bunch of 2009 SF films

I’ve been sorting through random files on my netbook, and just discovered a half-written post on District 9, which I never finished and never posted. (The post sucked, so it’s good I didn’t get around to putting it online, but still…) Having just seen Avatar a few weeks ago, and The Box just a few days ago, and Moon and the Korean vampire flick Thirst a long time ago, I thought I’d put up my opinion on all of them (and a few more that come to mind), as they’re the last few SF films I’ve seen (aside from the Trek reboot, which I think I discussed elsewhere on this blog).

But first of all, I should contextualize this discussion of SF films with my general opinion of SF films. A snippet from the paper (about the Technological Singularity) that I just delivered at a conference in St. Louis last November:

…it is difficult to disagree that since the 1960s, not only has “media SF” (film, TV, and other forms) come to dominate in terms of popular consumption, but it has also transformed the the way the genre operates, so that it has become “less markedly ‘a literature of ideas’ and… increasingly dominated by an imagistic aesthetic” (Roberts, 264).The net result is that fewer people are dependent on genre SF for the kinds of (to use Darko Suvin’s terminology, “cognitively estranging”) experiences that once could be had only in the page of SF books and magazines; those who do choose to indulge tend overwhelmingly (and most publicly) to consume visual media SF. The biggest SF magazines have been experiencing a decline in readership for years now, a fact that has been both widely documented and discussed. Indeed, SF authors have long been imagining a future devoid of SF: the absence of SF novels (and SF fans, and SF authors, and SF movies) within most futuristic SF novels surely hints at (minimally, an unconscious) awareness of this phenomenon. In terms of literary SF, the Singularity may well be a metafictional representation of various anxieties about the oft-foretold death of SF, a simulacrum not of the fate of humanity, but rather of the fate of literary SF being swallowed up by a real present turned so SFnal that nobody needs SF books — or those who write them — anymore.

At this point, the urge to up the ante is almost irresistible, given the exponential-curve, all-extremes-at-once nature of the Singularity itself. Turning back to Vinge, who specifies the opacity of the future as having first struck “hard-SF” authors — those authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, and [Vernor Vinge], among whom scientific plausibility of futuristic extrapolation has always been of prime importance — one further suspicion is unavoidable. The image erupts in one’s mind of these grand elderly gentlemen of hard SF (and yes, most of them are male), authors known to have performed pages and pages of calculations in the course of researching a story, and more often than not have had hard-science backgrounds of one type or another, standing in the middle of a WorldCon somewhere in the mid-80s, in the mid-90s, or even today, surrounded by fans dressed in Klingon and Storm Trooper costumes, decked out in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Superman T-shirts and gleefully quoting lines from Battlestar Galactica, Soylent Green, and The Matrix. For whatever the merits of SF media, more often than not it is, as scientists like Mike Brotherton have amply demonstrated, the product of an entertainment establishment both scientifically and philosophically illiterate.

Yup, I came out and said it: I think media SF is the product of an entertainment establishment that is, more often than not, scientifically and philosophically illiterate. Am I calling your favorite SF movie stupid? Not necessarily. Some films ask interesting questions. Blade Runner says little in a realistic sense about robotics or AI, but it is nonetheless a smarter film than Sunshine, and The Matrix manages passably interesting dramatization of virtuality and virtual experience despite the scientific plausibility being, well, laughable (as Mike Brotherton discusses some of that here) and the philosophy being, well, about the level of your average daily newspaper’s reading level. My point is that Hollywood itself is relativelty dumb, so it’s much harder to bring something intelligent and interesting out of Hollywood.

(One wonders whether the average audience member of a Star Trek film has bothered to think about what a “dilithium crystal” might be? Why is it that fake-sounding technobabble is somehow considered better than real science terminology, given most people can’t tell what is what anyway?)

Which means when I see SF films — Hollywood or otherwise — I usually have pretty low expectations. For the record, I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, loved the first Matrix film despite the scientific idiocy, and don’t see it as hypocritical to still hold the above: that in terms of science, media SF tends to be sadly, embarrassingly illiterate, for no good reason at all. It’s laziness. And this annoys me, and always sends me back to literary SF, which is where the real smart stuff is almost always being done.

Okay, so:

Moon was a film I remember finding somewhat disappointing, though I enjoyed the company with whom I saw it in Austin this past summer. Basically, I wish the West would get over cloning as a cheap horror trope. Cloning isn’t cheap, cannot produce people who are basically the same, and even if it could, aside from shattering a few fondly-held superstitions about the nature of human consciousness (ie. souls) it would have very little effect on the world. Dear Hollywood: check out what Bruce Sterling did with cloning in Distraction, or wrote about it in Tomorrow, Now. Think about the embarrassments, the annoyances, the day-to-day crappiness of being a clone. Or, hell, look at what David Brin did with clones in his Glory Season — problematic as it might be when billed as feminist separatist hard SF, and problematic as the book was for me in general — it does have some coherent things to say about realistic effects of cloning on a society when the technology comes into widespread use.

As for the rest of the story: well, it was better than Sunshine, but I’m concerned about this whole “emo” thing that seems to be taking over a certain branch of cinematic SF (and, for all I know, visual media in general). Scientists who look like rock stars isn’t the only way to go emo, and in Moon there was so much focus on the mood that I have to admit I found myself a little lost at a few points in the movie, and while that may have supposed to have been the point, it was, for me, just distracting.

But basically, I think we need to chill out a little about cloning. Not because monstrosities aren’t possible through the technology, but because they’re not really unique or especially different monstrosities than the kinds we’re already used to in most cases, and because most of them aren’t particularly practicable for a number of reasons.

(Cloning workers isn’t cheaper unless you have some way of literally copying one adult into a bunch of identical adults. That kind of tech, mind you, is potentially interesting, but we don’t know how doable it is.)

Thirst, the Korean vampire film, was a rare treat for me as I almost never get to see Korean movies with subtitles. It was a relatively good vampire flick, doing some things with the trope I don’t think we’d see in a Western vampire movie, like having a priest turn vamp and then have sex with a human girl, whom he has to decide whether to vampirize. Yeah, the whole Catholic-drinking-blood thing is not new, but I am not sure I’ve ever seen a serious film in which a priest turned bloodsucker so prominently.

There were problems with the film, of course — I’m not I’d necessarily agree it’s racist that he got the vamp bug while working as a missionary in Africa, in part because I think the film is secretly, beneath its own skin, about the HIV epidemic in Korea, but also because many places in Africa, like Southeast Asia, have the combined state of development and climate, and enough mysterious wilderness, for new and weird diseases to emerge.

I remember thinking, though, that the priest-vampire, when he went over to the “dark side” and gave up his celibacy and started drinking human blood, that he had kind of only become halfway evil. There’s being careful not to get caught, sure, but… well, perhaps the twistedness is something that would take time to develop. He may have jumped into the pool of depravity headfirst for Korean horror movie standards, but anyone who’s played a campaign of Vampire: The Masquerade (or the later rebranding of that game) is likely to find it was the shallow end of that pool of depravity, where the priest ended up. I can think of more twisted vampiric stuff with half my brain tied behind my back. In any case, I’d love to see some kind of sequel set just three or five years later, where Seoul has a whole underground of vampires running around, all maniacal and, heh, in control. (Then it’d also be allegorical of the political situation in Korea — a vampire-ruled state.)

District 9 is one of those films I had fun watching, but which disappointed me on a few levels. My friend Charles has a pretty long and thoughtful post about it up on his site, to which all I can really say is that, never having visited South Africa, the film didn’t resonate emotionally for me the way it did for him.

So here’s what I thought about District 9: it’s a very clever and quite fun for a somewhat wrongheaded movie, but at least it’s doing something with aliens that we haven’t yet seen in a major SF film. Warts and all, I liked it a whole lot better than Avatar — though more about that later.

Here are the salient points: it’s an alternate history where aliens are subjected to life as refugees, in refugee camps, in Johannesburg after their spaceship arrives hovering over the township. The film is smart in its political allegory, and in some of how it maps out the human reaction to the alien presence: people on the ground, as we see from the start, are horrified by the alien presence, though some make a show of being “humanitarian” towards them. Big businesses do everything they can to profit of them, however possible. And of course, there is a nasty little underworld that surfaces around the “prawns” (as everyone seems to call the aliens) — prawns and gangsters trade weapons for cat-food, and random African gangsters deal in the body parts of prawns which are held to be magical cures for everything from diabetes to AIDS. Nobody wants the prawns around, everyone is horrified by them, and the prawns themselves seemm to dumb to really want better than they have in their squalorous shanty-town, barring only a few exceptions.

The tech the prawns use — um, it doesn’t look like biotech. Most of the guns (apparently including one real one) and other devices of alien origin seem more like, well, plastic or metal toys and gizmos. The functioning of the biotech is, well, unconvincingly magical, to the point where one wishes to remind filmmakers that Arthur C. Clarke didn’t say, “Any sufficiently alien technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For example, how does spaceship biofuel double as an agent of hyper-rapid retroviral bioengineering? Yes, it is ridiculous. But not as ridiculous as what happens when the protagonist becomes half-alien.

Then he hooks up with one of the aliens, and fights to retrieve the rest of the biofuel… so that the alien can fly off for “help.”

Now, I know the movie is set in South Africa. I know the movie is, on some level, an allegory about racism, about Othering, about how we dehumanize others so we can dominate, control, and subjugate them.

But it’s oxymoronic to “dehumanize” that which is not human, like, say, space aliens. It doesn’t make sense. Now, let me be careful here to say what I don’t mean. I’m not saying we should treat any and all nonhumans as lesser to humans. That perception comes from a category error where nonhumans would need to be considered human in order to be considered worthy of humane treatment. (The same category error suggests it’s evil, sexist, or wrong to look at general and fundamental physical differences in the brains of men and women, because sameness is the onlly route to manifest equality.) Should the aliens have rights? Yes. Should there be special rights for all sentient beings? Maybe. Should the aliens be considered human? Obviously not. They aren’t.

And the maudlin sentimentality of the end of the film cloaks a much darker logical conclusion. Think about it: the aliens, when they arrived at Earth, were in a complete state of disarray, for reasons unknown. But, and this is a big but, they were (a) in our cosmic neighborhood, and (b) armed to the… teeth? gills? ah, armed to the antennae! Not with pop guns, but with some pretty serious, frightening weaponry. These critters are built big, strong, and none too gentle, as we see right from their first onscreen interactions with humans.

They’re warriors, they’re on an intergalactic vessel, and they’re here. There are all kinds of human reactions which might make sense in this context: studying the aliens; conducting some kind of treaty with the smartest among them and helping them go the hell away; annihilating them all and covering up the fact they showed up, though it’s cruel, might be sensible depending on how those who come looking might react to a juicy planet of people and critters. (I’m sure humans can be cooked so that they taste just like cat food, after all.)

Sticking them in a concentration camp and toasting their eggs to keep the population down doesn’t seem unbelievable, though it’s not particularly nice. (Neither are the aliens, but that doesn’t make it excusable.)

The problem is, however, that Wikus’ “friendship” with one of the aliens, Christopher Johnson, finally leads to him helping Christopher fly the ship off… home… for help.

Folks, do the math: the aliens were incredibly heavily armed; they’re obviously designed for warfare; they were close enough to Earth to drop in when onboard discipline collapsed. We put ’em in camps and roasted their eggs for a couple of decades, letting thugs butcher some for magical rituals and our besuited thugs use them in weapons and genetics experiments.

When they do come back to help, with more of those battle suits and more of those guns that only they can use, what exactly do you think they’re going to do to humanity? Hmmm? Yes, the logic of the movie, for all its exploration of human evil and human cruelty, explores one last stupid and tragic flaw in Wikus’s problematic white liberal humanism: he has come to think of the aliens as noble savages, and even has gone native among them. This is an old story. But in the old days, the noble savages tended not to have kickass guns and faster-than-light access to potential armies of reinforcements out across the galaxy.

Wikus may be the only native of Earth to survive the return visit.

But despite all that? I liked the film. I liked the graphic cruelty of it, because it forced us to look at exactly the kinds of things we so often leave offscreen. In District 9, we get a full face of man’s inhumanity to prawn and man’s inhumanity to man. If one forces to read the film only allegorically — about racist segregation, dehumanization of people, about the corporatization of military power, about the idea that people of good will can make a difference… well, it’s mostly quite wonderful. There are problems on this level, too, of course: Wikus is realy quite a prick towards the aliens, until he becomes part-alien himself, and the film seems still to hold onto the idea that whatever gets done to free the blacks prawns in South Africa District 9 will have to get done through the heroics of well meaning white liberals humans like Wikus. Where, we may ask, is the Desmond Tutu of the prawns? And why, oh why, is it necessary to metaphorize black South Africans as aliens? Are we that thick-skulled? The fact that SF is only now catching up to the political issues and debates of 1966 — when the real District 6 forced evictions occurred — is sobering and saddening. Still, in a mediascape where SF all too often suggests humanity will somehow uplift itself into a near-utopian tomorrow, somehow, I found it refreshing to see a film that grappled with the fact that humans are, at bottom, a species of mammal with stunning propensity for nastiness.

Well… but for all its problems, the film also has some heart, has something of an uplifting message, indicts a lot of the same forces that need indicting in our world — a big militarycorp honcho and his company’s government partners are prominent antagonists — and I have to say that the film got me emotionally invested. When Wikus and Christopher shot their way into and out of MNU, and fought their way to the ship, I couldn’t help but cheer for them. Underdogs and all that.

2012: this film was absolutely retarded. I find it embarrassing that a society that could produce the technology necessary to create such amazingly vivid images of the world, could also be entertained by such absolutely moronic visions of the world. It’s as if there was an effort made not only to base the thing on retarded science, but also to get every bloody detail wrong. Like, for example: when the hot air from a volcanic eruption bowls you over? You don’t stand up. You’ve been cooked dead in less than a secoond. Game over.

Even more embarrassing is the widespread panic this movie touched off among the masses. All I can say is, 2012 may be a great year to make money off stupid people.Those of you with a month free, why aren’t you writing some shit-worth book on how to survive the coming apocalypse? They’re on all the bestseller stands here in Jakarta! And really: those peoplewho believe the end is going to come are going to blow their savings on much worse anyway, if they don’t buy your book.


There were two films (actually, three) that explored the idea of human minds remote controlling bodies not their own: Surrogates and Citizen Game are the two that are directly comparable, and while both were, I guess, worth the money I paid to see them, for the fun and distraction, I found that Surrogates was a much more compelling look at the psychology and culture of a life by remote control — a life lived under the thrall of interactive autism, body-hating, and isolationism that… wait, are people really like that? Not really. Yes, the film is basically a fairy-tale born from the kind of excessive paranoia and anxieties that older Westerners seem to feel about the Internet and its effect on our culture. Even so, it did do that basic SF thing of taking a trend (however ostensible) and mapping out how it could impact society in the long run, and thereby ended up being more compelling than Citizen Game, which glorified exactly what it castigated, and which, in the end, was really more of an action/investigation film with an SF twist, with a rich and evil mad scientist and all. (Why are the mad scientists never like real-life madmen, such as, say, the unabomber, or people motivated by something other than money and power, like the religious technogenius/fuckup title character in Greg Egan’s “The Moral Virologist”?)

The third film featuring remote-control was James Cameron’s Avatar, which was just as beautiful as it was idiotic and tired. The preview made me expect a Pocahontas-in-Space sort of thing, and, well, that’s what it was. I don’t have much new to contribute to the criticism I’ve seen all over the Net. I’m just going to say that, in aggregate, we get the SF we deserve. Enough people were distracted by the Pretty Pictures and forgot to notice that the plot, characters, and everything else were either so weak or so predictable that the movie was fit only for young children. Hell, I’m pretty much anti-military and I still was wishing the damned commander guy had at least a little motivation beyond, “I’m a military asshole, bomb it all, kill ’em all!” and some implied desire to make up for a long-ago shaming by the Na’vi, or whatever they were called. I spewed more of my hate for the film over at Marvin’s LJ, if you’re interested, though. There was a moment where the pilot character (played by (Check the comments section.) Suffice it to say I found the film, well, bleah.

The Box was a weird little movie, one I wasn’t quite sure what to think of — I actually walked in expecting it to be a horror film, and it was dark, but it was also, undeniably, SF. I’ll probably have to see it again, but for the moment I can say a couple of things: for one, hey, wow, the 70s really are in. I’ve been noticing that for a while, but now it’s so much in full force that films are getting set, not-quite-but-almost-seamlessly, in the 70s. (This makes me nervous, because that means the 80s are next, and the 80s were something of a disaster on all fronts: music, fashion, art: can we skip it and go to, I don’t know, the 40s or the 20s or, hell, the Victorian Era? I promise I’ll get a selection of embroidered waistcoats and wear ’em every day. Hell, I’ll even get a steampunky pocket watch on Etsy or something.)

Finally, my two favorite films from 2009 were the sort of film which, while they’re not really SF, have appealed to almost all of my SF-consuming friends. The first was Up, the first fifteen minutes of which are a kind of Turing Test — if you don’t cry, you’re just not human. I saw it in 3D, and this newfangled 3D stuff is weird, in that normallythe old 3D never worked for me, but this stuff kinda-sorta did. Having one bad eye, I assumed I’d never see 3D, but there it was, in front of me.

The other, and this was good enough I saw it twice in the cinema, was the recent Sherlock Holmes movie directed by Guy Ritchie. Those who prattle on about homoeroticism in the film are, well, if you ask me they’re searching for it,seeing what they want to see. Holmes and Watson are, of course, part of that very curious (not to say “queer!”) culture of their time, of which homosociality was a major part. I don’t know if the distinction between homosexuality and homosociality that exists in my memories is as clear as was traced out in the introduction of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick‘s book Between Men: Literature and Male Homosocial Desire…but I seem to recall some effort distinguishing the two in that introduction. Which, yeah, is probably all I read of the book.

In any case, the Holmes is a joy for a few reasons. One is seeing a Holmes who is basically a mess because of his genius! Yes! Lovely. Holmes as a rough-and-ready street tough, as a dangerously clever trickster, it was a wonderful shift from the boring, Victorian Holmes in that bloody hat always saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” in a way that suggested he’d never so much as gotten a speck of dirt under his fingernails. The casting and performances were excellent, and there is even a little steampunky SFnality there in Holmes’ anticipation of radio, remote control, and wireless communications. Good fun, and while I’m not sure whether this Holmes is closer to, or farther from, Doyle’s original — I will be reading to find out, though — I think he’s a Holmeswell-suited to our era.

A note: many links here  are missing. I’ll try add them later, but this has been languishing long enough.

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