Meh Fetishism

Seeing three exhibitions in one day was a mistake, but two were about to end and the third was next door to the first so I booked slots for Their Mortal Remains and Into the Unknown and shouted at the Science Museum website for not having the complete list of tickets. I allowed about two hours for the first — not enough as it happens — and booked at five for the the Barbican, which would give me an hour to do Robots and an hour to get across London.

I reckoned without the Victoria and Albert Museum’s crappy signage — it would be helpful to know the toilet is on a staircase and not easier accessed — and the Science Museum’s layout — the main lifts are out of action and you have to navigate around the block from lift B to the exhibition (not that lift B is obviously signed from what I assume are Lifts A and none of them have labels).

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The Ape with No Name

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

The original Planet of the Apes franchise is a good example of the way in which sf film moved from radical to conservative between the late 1960s and late 1970s. Whilst the original Pierre Boulle novel presumably needs to be read in terms of French political history and colonialism, or in terms of class, the films seemed to offer an allegory for America in the civil rights era, with the apes standing in for whites, African Americans and Jews. Certainly we have the spectacle of Charlton Heston, old Moses and Ben Hur, and fellow white astronauts being subjected to the slave experience. As a sequel gave way to prequels, the films seemed to become more anxious about the politics (and there is something frankly racist about the allegory).

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Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

I’ve tried to make this film review spoiler free, so I’ve been a little circumspect about some of its incipits. I am of course familiar with the Ted Chiang story, but I’m not here considering what has been changed between the two versions.

The last three films I have seen at the cinema have been sf — Passengers was predictably pants and I’m still processing Rogue One. It is one of Gareth Edward’s earlier films, Monsters (2010) that is most relevant here though, in which the US-Mexican border has been “infected” by sublime, incomprehensible aliens and the US is at war. Arrival’s heptapod aliens owe a debt to Edwards’s, as well as, perhaps Spielberg’s “Martians” in his War of the Worlds (2005). Aliens have arrived at twelve seemingly random if strategic points all over the world (which recalled Simak’s Visitors for me, but it must appear elsewhere) in giant, apparently rugby-ball shaped, ships. The race is on to find out why they are here and, more to the point, how we can exploit them. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), hero linguist, is called in to help decode the alien language, alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is there for less clear reasons.

The film opens with what appears to be a sidetrack — the birth, life and death of Louise’s daughter. This made me rather nervous — that precursor film Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) features a female protagonist with a dead father, and a tragic loss is an easy character motivation. There’s a certain amount of frustration to the camera angles — odd zones of focus and unfocus, characters offframe or not quite heard, so that we don’t quite get to see what’s going on. There are also a series of shots that for me recall Tarkovsky, although probably Nostalgia (1983) or The Sacrifice (1986) rather than Solaris (1972), although thematically that is in the mix too. In retrospect, it turns out, Villeneuve is playing fair with us but he has a helluva get out of jail free card. But I was a little distracted by the photo that Banks doesn’t have on her desk.

Of course, the bulk of the film is taken up with Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to communicate with the aliens, whom the latter names Abbott and Costello. This is odd, since neither of the heptopod duo engage in slapstick or banter, and it seems a very odd fashioned reference. Why not Laurel and Hardy? Ren and Stimpy? Cannon and Ball? Banks makes progress when she uses a whiteboard and when she recalls her daughter learning to read with picture books. We have a child’s garden of linguistics, as she explains her thinking to Weber (Forrest Whitaker), her military handler. The aliens, who haven’t seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), communicate in mandala-like ink blots, characters that seem to be entire sentences rather than symbolic representations of phonemes. Time clearly passes, and you might think they get their Rosetta Stone moment rather too quickly, as Banks begins to forge a relationship with Abbott.

By then there’s a ticking clock — even though we are focused on the American translations the film never forgets that aliens don’t just invade London or New York. The Chinese and the Russians seem the quickest to get to the point of being militaristic, and risks making the film look like old fashioned Cold War propaganda. Banks has to solve the puzzle before the nuke from orbit option is exercised. And it is elements in the US military that she has to fear as much as overseas forces. We teeter on the edge of action adventure when the film is much more interested in sublime tableaux.

The film, largely, trusts us. As the prologue alerts us, we should distrust beginnings, middles and ends, and there is no character who properly sits down and tells us the bigger story that is unfolding. To my taste, there are three missteps: an insert of a post-encounter documentary (which refers to Banks as Louise), the Doctor Who tell-not-show tactic of news bulletins to narrate the story and a line of dialogue that is absolutely predictable and vomit-inducing from the mouth of a major character. But we’re sneakily told what non zero sum games and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is, even if I’m not convinced that being immersed in a society where people only speak a foreign-to-you language is the same as thought being constructed by language. But pay attention or you’ve missed the key to the film. (There’s an early exchange between Banks and Weber, where she asks him to ask a question of another expert. The answer, “a desire for more cows”, presumably meaningful, is lost in the noise.)

Adams, low key, understandably nervous, is utterly convincing throughout. Renner looks somewhat bemused, presumably aware that his job is to be eye candy. Whitaker balances a difficult mix of potential threat and kindly go between. Meanwhile, almost every thing you take to be an idiot move has got a pay off. I don’t think that Solaris is that bad a model to bear in mind, stylistically and thematically. Put Stalker (1979) in the mix, too. This is sf for grown ups rather than frustrated teens, handling its big central idea much better than Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). It almost demands that you watch it again on a loop.

Villeneuve is set to film the sequel to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). As directors of utterly pointless sequels go, the signs are good.

What we want is Watney’s

Andy Weir, The Martian (2011)

So there are exceptions — the Watership Downs and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Clenchers — which get rejected by dozens of publishers and then become bestsellers. And there’s the self-published which become bestsellers when they’ve gone mainstream. One has to admire Andy Weir for his success — which seems to have been ordained even before we learned that Ridley Scott was going to get his mitts on the manuscript.

Lots of books get optioned.

Some writers live on this — hoping the bloody film never gets made.

This time it did, but I haven’t seen it yet.

So, we have an astronaut, Matt Watney, on the red barrel planet, who gets separated from the rest of his crew in a sandstorm and is left behind. Or, since he’s telling us the story in the first person, possibly he’d nipped for a slash behind the yurt and got distracted. Anyhow.

Because he’s never read Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About Too…, he decides to Rebuild Civilisation by planting potatoes and keeping going until NASA can send a rescue mission. He sits there and does all the calculation in a sort of rivet-counting engineer in Heart of Darkness way, but we have not sense of jeopardy because it’s in the first person and it would be really naff to suddenly switch viewpoints and add This is the last of the tapes we found and Watney’s body was found buried under the sand. On wonders a little about the balance of amino acids he’s going to get with rations and potatoes, and surely the lunacy induced by just eating potatoes is higher than the lunacy of being on your own for four hundred days or being forced to watch nothing but seventies reruns and listening to disco.

Oh yes, yet another sf novel where the protagonist know no culture produced after the date of the novel being written.

There’s a certain kind of purity that comes from a tight focus on a single character.

…and then the action suddenly switches to Earth and NASA and what they want to do with it. They begin to anticipate what Watney will do and how rescue him, and set a new deadline for him to survive to. There are convenient other spaceships around to borrow and presumably extra rations for the rescue team and at least now we have a sense of jeopardy because we don’t know what Watney’s up to…

… only we do cut back to him and we aren’t really allowed to think he’s dead for more than half a page. At least once we get to the third person — and sometimes we see Watney from the third person and in italics if I recall correctly, so there is hope that he might die after all. At any point it could all go horribly Pete Tong.

It reminded me of two earlier novels — but not the exoticism of Barsoom or the nostalgia of The Silver Locusts or the ontology of Martian Time-Slip or the social richness of Red/Green/Blue Mars. Rather it took me back to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which confuses pedantry with verisimilitude, and Ben Bova’s Voyagers, which has that international glossiness. Every one is competent, there are no real antagonists except the universe itself.

You might argue there are no people.

Hmmm.

It’s a long time since I saw Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but I suspect that was a lot more fun. But this is that reasonable novel that does its job and yes, does keep you reading. But I’ll forget it within the week.