My book The Victorian Planning System: Practice, Problems and Prospects is now available from Federation Press.
My book Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs is out now through Palgrave Macmillan.
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Tag Archives: science fiction
Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)
Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction, thirty years after Blade Runner, would be a big deal on its own. That he has returned with a revisitation of the universe of his other science fiction classic, Alien, makes this an even more enticing prospect. Yet there’s a reason the trailers have soft-pedalled the connection to the 1979 film: Prometheus is quite a different film in both intent and execution.
It takes place before Alien, and follows a deep space mission to find a star system that had been depicted in ancient cave paintings. Led by archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the improbably icy project sponsor Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the mission hopes to uncover secrets about Earth’s origins. The team lands on a moon, finds and enters an ancient alien structure, and undertakes an orderly, well organised series of explorations in relative safety things start to go disastrously wrong.
Scott’s original Alien took a very similar opening set-up and turned it into a single-minded exercise in suspense and occasional visceral horror. Prometheus, commendably, is more ambitious. There’s a strong element of Alien-style menace, but Scott also wants to have a try at more thoughtful, idea-driven science-fiction. The film works to some extent on both fronts, but never really gels as a whole: it’s a film more interesting and laudable for what it attempts than what it actually manages.
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
As I suggested back in 2007, when reviewing Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, anyone trying to make an old-school intellectually-driven “hard” science fiction film faces a battle against both familiarity and economics. Familiarity, in that the key works in the genre (2001, Solaris, Silent Running, Dark Star, and so on) have mined so much of the territory available against the genre that it can be hard for newcomers to find new creative territory. And economics, in that those who finance such movies struggle with the constraint that in order to afford the special effects their plots require, they may get pushed to include action and spectacle that is at odds with the more cerebral thrust of their story. Boyle struggled gallantly with both constraints without quite prevailing over them, but now we have Duncan Jones’ Moon to demonstrate decisively that it is still possible to make smart, original science fiction that isn’t intimidated by history.
I haven’t been covering MIFF in quite my usual still-not-very-comprehensive-at-all fashion this year. I am of course tempted to blame a Chinese denial of service attack, but this has actually been due to a deadline on my thesis, with my next chapter due, well, now. I had thought it would be out of the way before MIFF, but no, I’m still plugging away.
My planned schedule has been whittled back to the must-sees: so far that has consisted of Duncan Jones’ Moon and the revival of Richard Lowenstein’s cult classic Dogs in Space, which I saw tonight. I will write up both on here, but as the second sessions for both are sold out I haven’t felt massive urgency. Suffice to say Moon is exceptionally good, and Dogs in Space deserves its reputation, even if it’s hard to make any grand claim for its artistic merit.
WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
Note: this review includes spoilers and my usual rambling ruminations about animation in general.
“There’s something warm and inviting about most animation in just about any classic Disney animated feature, and computers are just never going to pull it off.”
– Thad Komorowski, reviewing WALL-E
Pixar’s WALL-E is a refreshing change of pace. When almost all the productions of their rivals involved a group of animals teaming up and sharing an adventure (a format that even Pixar’s last film, Ratatouille, shared), Pixar have instead gone for a science fiction parable. The result retains their patented sweetness, but gives it a welcome sense of renewal. Pixar’s recent output had been invigorated by the recruitment of the immensely talented Brad Bird, but there was a feeling that Bird’s contribution to The Incredibles and Ratatouille might have been camouflaging a slide in the studio’s work. Certainly Cars, on which Bird did not work, was relatively dull and conventional. WALL-E, however, was written and directed by one of Pixar’s in-house talents, Andrew Stanton (who directed Finding Nemo and co-directed A Bug’s Life), and it shows that there is still a creative spark at Pixar beyond Brad Bird.
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
The popular remembrance of the reception to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is of a generation of hip, pot-addled college students letting the sound and light show wash over them, and then arguing long into the night about the film’s meaning. In 1969 the veteran science fiction writer Harlan Ellison sarcastically complained about acquaintances boring him at 3am with lengthy treatises on the film’s commentary on “the philosophy of the Vedantist movement, and the incredibly brilliant tour de force of Nietzsche-esque subplotting Kubrick pulled off.” Critics’ reviews at the time alternated between those hailing a masterpiece and those deriding the film as a pretentious con.
As much as it would have been fun to have been part of that initial wave of appreciation, looking back it’s hard to see what was so puzzling about 2001. While the film has never quite shaken its reputation for inscrutability, watching it today there’s nothing so mysterious about it. Not only have there been many more genuinely obtuse science fiction films since (starting with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in 1972), but the basic themes and devices of Kubrick’s film have been so absorbed into the genre that they now seem like familiar standards. Yet 2001 hasn’t been reduced by this process: if anything, that increasing comfort with its message and approach has defused the criticism of those who would dismiss it as a pretentious think-piece. And when we no longer characterise it as a giant-budget art film, it’s easier to appreciate its grandeur on its own terms and also to discern its lasting impact on a wider front.
Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
After all the viral marketing and secrecy, it turns out that there’s nothing that secret about Cloverfield. It’s exactly what it looked like in that original teaser trailer: basically, a giant monster terrorising New York, shot on a handycam by affluent yuppies who must run for their lives. The film is structured as an uninterrupted playback of the full contents of a memory card from a digital video camera; after a brief prelude, it starts with a party as these privileged young New Yorkers prepare to farewell their friend Rob with a surprise party. But then (as we saw in the teaser) there’s a blackout, and a distant explosion, and the head of the statue of liberty lands in their street. Cue running, and screaming, and a fair bit of stomping and biting.
Blade Runner (along with Close Encounters) has always been the textbook film demonstrating both the benefits and the pitfalls of preparing revised versions of classic films. The benefits are clear because the Director’s Cut is so clearly a better version. Yet it also illustrated the problems these director’s versions can produce: there are usually compromises involved in making the director’s cut, which may create new problems or shortcomings, and the original cut (which remains historically important and for some might be the preferred version) can fall out of circulation. So for years it was hard to get the original version of Blade Runner; other films, like Close Encounters, Apocalypse Now, Star Wars and Touch of Evil are locked in similar limbo.
When George Lucas created the Star Wars: Special Edition (which soon became Star Wars: The Only Edition) he re-introduced two major deleted scenes into the film. The first was the awful Jabba scene early in the film, and the second was Luke’s reunion with Biggs, his old friend from Tatooine, just before the final battle. While fans mostly dislike the Jabba scene, generally the Biggs scene has been accepted as a good addition to the film. Biggs’ death in the final battle now has a little more weight, and incongruity in the original cut of Luke fighting alongside his friend (or someone with the same name) with no explanation is eliminated.
However, a much longer scene with Biggs was left on the cutting room floor, and it’s easily the most interesting of the various deleted scenes from the Star Wars trilogy.
Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)
Danny Boyle’s Sunshine has a guaranteed cult following already. It’s a seriously intentioned, adult-oriented science fiction film, and these are few and far between. There’s a sector of the nerd audience out there that latches onto any science fiction film that moves even slightly beyond Star Wars style space pyrotechnics; this is a fan base that gets its regular sustenance from literary science fiction but which will eagerly devour the few scraps of “hard” sci-fi that Hollywood gives it. Sunshine, unfortunately, might need this fan base to keep it going. Boyle has made three quarters of a great film, but I suspect those not predisposed to enjoy this genre are going to struggle to forgive its flaws.
I wrote a while back about how much I was looking forward to the new movie of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so I thought it was worth commenting briefly on the ruckus over M.J. Simpson’s review of the film. For those that don’t lurk around the geeky corners of the internet, Simpson – a writer with a pretty impressive CV when it comes to writing about Adams – wrote a long, spoiler-filled review of the film (which you can find here). Previous to this, most of the reviews that had leaked out from preview screenings had been pretty positive: often they said a few things needed to be changed, but even that didn’t seem outrageous given that the whole point of these screenings was to fine-tune the film.