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Science Fiction Doesn’t Have To Be Completely Terrible.

Along with Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Children of Men’, Darren Aronofksy’s ‘The Fountain’ and shit, throw Cormac McCarthy’s novel ‘The Road’ in there too, Danny Boyle’s just-released ‘Sunshine’ marks a minor, but not insignificant trend that “returns” to the headier sci-fi concepts of the past to address our rather dire present. This strain of science-fiction/dystopia movies and one book manage to be in-tune with the world around them, actually thought-provoking, and skeptical of recent politics, without becoming reactionary, oh yeah, and really entertaining, which is important.

Just as we rap fans compare pretty much any quality, recent rap to rap of the 90s, a group of recent movies that are quasi-philosophical, and politically-relevant are inevitably compared to 70s movies. The comparison is apt because with the exception of ‘Children of Men’, all of the other works consciously recall the movies of the 60s and 70s “film culture”. No doubt ‘Children of Men’ pulls a great deal from ‘Blade Runner’ among many others, but it has a distinctly contemporary feel, relatively free of overt homage. ‘The Fountain’ is clearly indebted to Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ as well as heady, European sci-fi (and a little ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God’ thrown in). ‘Sunshine’ has the stamp of ‘2001’ all over it as well, as well as Tarkovsky and some John Carpenter and a lot of ‘Alien’.

Even McCarthy’s novel feels more like a 70s movie than a novel. Although the author will continually cite Melville, Faulkner, and the Bible, the stamps of Peckinpah and Peckinpah collaborators courses through the veins of ‘The Road’. L.Q Jones’ ‘A Boy and His Dog’ and ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’ screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer’s novel ‘The Flats’ address nuclear fall-out in strikingly similar ways. Still, there are major differences in approach and ones that mark all four pieces of work as products of this era and not complete throwbacks.

The first is a near reversal of the 70s sci-fi style, where those movies were first, concept, “thinking” pictures with characters taking a backseat to ideas, these recent movies aim for that ideal, but ultimately seem more interested in the people. For me, ‘The Fountain’ is hardly “better” than ‘2001’ but it is a great deal more moving, as the same concepts of life, regeneration, etc. are filtered through real characters (husband and wife) and palpable things (cancer). ‘Children of Men’s plot being rooted around infertility also hits viewers at a gut, emotional level in a way that ‘Blade Runner’s identity-crisis, “who are we?” bullshit just doesn’t. Much of the time in ‘Children of Men’, Cuaron puts his characters in an immediately stressful situation that is upped to a level of tension that feels so immediate we kind of forget the real plot of the movie for a few seconds. Those technically-impressive single-takes are not only technically impressive, they put you in with the characters, so in you empathize with their problems. ‘The Road’ is primarily a story about a father and his son and unconditional love, with the causes and relevance of the nuclear fall-out kinda irrelevant.

‘Sunshine’ too, ends up being more about the people involved than the ideas. Even a sci-fi stoner moment like a dude literally touching the sun feels less important than the crew’s arguments. The group of astronauts is well-observed and rooted in updated clichés, ones that could not fit into the previous century, short of cheap concessions to multiculturalism. The crew of the ship is mostly Asian, along with one Arab, an indie-ish guy, a whiny white girl, a white vengeful prick tough guy, a possible homosexual (Harvey’s supposed to be this whiny, ‘Queer Eye’ gay, right?). The crew resembles the room of an Undergraduate seminar in Biology or something.

My friend John pointed out the point that the Arab crew member Searle, is like one of those smart Arab engineers that also happened to be stoners (Afghani weed is killer). Searle spends large parts of his time on the ship staring into the sun; getting high on the sun. Crew member Cassie, who obviously has the hots for the indie-ish guy played by Cillian Murphy is this sort of liberal arts college scientist. She makes jokes about the excess of “manhood” on board and won’t budge about taking-out a problematic crew member on proud, moral grounds. These are not offensive stereotypes but well-observed although generalized characters and perhaps, archetypes for this new century. The point is, as much as time was spent thinking up these fairly complex characters for a sci-fi allegory as was spent on the logistics and design of space and the quasi-philosophy of the movie.

I see this focus on the human side of big ideas, as a return to emotion and sincerity. It is the up side of the “I” generation, who blog, post on Youtube, have Myspaces and Facebooks, and walk around with iPOD earbuds on; all of this self-consciousness, this unwavering focus on the self, can, sometimes lead to some interest in your fellow man.

The second difference between these recent sci-fi movies and that of the American movies they look back to has to do with the approach to politics. On this site, I spend a lot of time addressing rap’s “conscious” side and how its vapidity equals that of the much-more hated crack rap. Both push complacency to different groups, both rely on nothing much clichés. Whether you’re spouting off about that “white girl” and kitchen utensils or “the people” and the establishment, it makes me yawn. I think of so many older intellectual types and my self-righteous peers bemoaning the fact that no one is political anymore. Does anyone get some immediate form of AIDS everytime they watch some 70s movie and there’s some pointless knock on Nixon or Agnew? It pretty much renders all of Robert Altman’s catalog unwatchable. It’s the same feeling I get when I hear another Bush-bash or mindless wish for “peace”. I think the latest generation can’t drum up the self-righteousness of the hippies because it’s a bad idea, not because of apathy.

These recent science fiction works are obviously in part, a response to post-September 11th, the clusterfuck that is Iraq war and the messy war on terror in the same way that so many 70s movies were about Vietnam and Watergate and general American unrest. There’s one major difference: The obnoxious pride and simple-mindedness of 70s moviemakers is now gone. The current directors are reaching towards science-fiction to express their worst fears because that’s how bad their worst fears are, they extend beyond the reality we live. Also, science-fiction is particularly good with heavy-handed allegory and heavy-handedness is what most politically “conscious” types embrace. But that’s what’s so weird about the movies (and book) I’ve brought up! All of them handle the scare-mongering, the nightmare situations with a great deal more understanding and sympathy.

None of these pieces of art are complaints about the current state of the world, instead they are vaguely instructional in how we can deal with it! Pragmatic instead of idealistic. Realistic instead of utopian. How amazing is that? And people call this generation apathetic! These political movies are about what we do next, not what happens and how it’s totally bullshit that it happened at all.

‘Children of Men’ is equally skeptical of the radicals as it is the corrupt government, both sides are buffoons and it is those few who see above political leanings that try to save the day. ‘The Fountain’ is the straggler of the bunch as it is not political but it has distrust of monomania even for good intentions and an incredibly insightful distrust of science. ‘The Road’ is about how we need to continue on after something totally fucked-up happens. McCarthy obviously avoids the “reason” behind the fall-out as to not point any political fingers. ‘Sunshine’ acknowledges global warming in a subtle way, by being about the Earth getting cold. I might be accused of stretching it a bit, but I can’t help but see the movie as a clever way to address climate problems without being inextricably tied to it. Radical types might call it cowardice, I call it subtlety.

Written by Brandon

August 1st, 2007 at 7:12 pm

Posted in movies

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  1. Fantastic Stuff, do you currently have a flickr profile?

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    10 Jun 12 at 1:32 pm

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    11 Jun 12 at 1:37 am

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