Category Archives: sf

Stalker (Сталкер) (1979)

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic, brooding and grindingly slow SF film from 1979 is a favorite among artsy film connoisseurs and tastemakers, but the praise that has been heaped upon it needs to be taken with several grains of salt. Stalker is indeed a masterfully made film, and as far as I can tell, is a fairly explicit metaphor for the crushing despair of life under socialism. It is also an extended exploration of the nihilistic mindset that gave birth to one of the most repressive regimes in the 20th century. Criterion has just released a newly remastered blu-ray, so the world can now enjoy its bleak splendor as never before. That said, I don’t know that it will appeal to anyone beyond the hardcore cinephile set due to its grim aesthetics, cerebral artiness and glacial tempo.

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Since the storyline of Stalker is fairly straightforward on the surface, the allure of the film lies in attempting to peel back the layers of metaphor and symbolism. Tarkovsky’s work invites painstaking analysis because his film lives mostly in the realm of abstraction and semiotics. Considering that Stalker alone has inspired reams of film school exegeses and an entire book which deconstructs every minute detail, it has gained a reputation of being a puzzle of infinite depth.  Despite having a reputation which verges on a near mystical reverence, I think the film is quite possibly much more straightforward than prevailing opinion suggests.

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First and foremost, the film cannot be disassociated from socialist context in which it was created. This was, after all, a Mosfilm production, and by default, a work of art made by people living under a socialist dictatorship. Art was tightly controlled under the Soviets, so no filmmaker could make anything that was too explicitly critical of the regime. Making a ponderously slow film which buries its editorial under abstractions but still lends itself to a multiplicity of subjective interpretations was perhaps the only way to attempt to say anything that wasn’t boilerplate party propaganda.

Writer: While I am digging for the truth, so much happens to it that instead of discovering the truth I dig up a heap of, pardon… I’d better not name it.

The degree to which Tarkovsky’s aesthetic was a purely organic phenomenon in contrast to the extent that it was an adaptation to the confines of Party diktats are questions which must be considered. Stalker poses questions about the nature and role of art, and the fact that this film’s emotional spectrum ranges from sadness to suffering certainly tells us something about how art was affected by the psychological strictures imposed by socialist rule. I propose that the SF premise merely provided the necessary metaphorical pretext for the underlying editorial.  Since absolute fealty to socialist orthodoxy and groupthink was a way of life, telling the truth in a direct way was a counter-revolutionary act all by itself. In this film’s case, the ponderous pace and desolate tone was likely Tarkovsky’s way of pulling you deeply into the experience of life through Soviet eyes.

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Based loosely on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 book, Roadside Picnic, Stalker tells the story of three men who enter a quarantined area called the Zone. The Zone was declared off limits to the public as a result of some unknown incident that may have been paranormal in nature or simply an industrial accident. The big attraction of entering the Zone is the presumed existence of the Room; a place where all wishes can be granted. Two of the men, known only as the Writer and the Professor, enlist the services of the titular Stalker to navigate the Zone and lead them to the Room. Theoretically, this sounds like it could be a premise for a SF action thriller, but the film has more in common with existential theatre like Waiting for Godot or No Exit than anything in the conventional SF cinematic canon. Needless to say, the film is completely devoid of aliens, space travel, futuristic technology or any of the features we normally associate with cinema that calls itself science fiction.

The broad themes are spelled out very clearly in the first part of the film albeit in a somewhat oblique manner. As the film opens, we’re taken into the bedroom of the Stalker over the course of roughly nine dialogue-free minutes as he awakens next to his wife and disabled child. While dressing and preparing for the day, his distressed wife joins him in the kitchen and warns him that he risks returning to his old ways and being sent back to jail. Right away, Tarkovsky is revealing an important fact of life in the Soviet Union: the USSR was essentially an open air prison camp. Socialism had criminalized freedom itself, and the citizens had become complicit in their own enslavement.

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We discover in the subsequent scene that the Stalker is being enlisted to guide two other men into the Zone to find the Room. Since the Room was a place where one’s deepest wishes could be fulfilled, the Room could be viewed as a metaphor for hope, redemption, and the attainment of human dreams. In a word, freedom. No one can reach the Room without first passing through the heavily guarded perimeter of the Zone. The Zone is both an explicit metaphor for the Soviet state as well as the psychological confinement it engendered. The State had outlawed freedom, so the Stalker’s willingness to defy the State and lead others through the Zone is what makes him an outlaw. Naturally, his wife is fearful of caring for their disabled daughter without him, so she implores him not to go.

Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

Tarkovsky seems to have a view of humanity that alternates between nihilism and idealism, but tilts heavily towards the former. In one of Stalker’s monologues, he describes the Zone as an entity whose malevolence is both triggered by the appearance of people and a reflection of man’s nature.

Stalker: The Zone is a very complicated system of traps, and they’re all deadly. I don’t know what’s going on here in the absence of people, but the moment someone shows up, everything comes into motion. Old traps disappear and new ones emerge. Safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it’s hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. It may even seem capricious. But it is what we’ve made it with our condition. It happened that people had to stop halfway and go back. Some of them even died on the very threshold of the room. But everything that’s going on here depends not on the Zone, but on us!

The Stalker eventually meets the Writer and his glamorous girlfriend at the waterfront. Stalker rudely dismisses the woman as he and the Writer climb into a car to meet the Professor. Both the Writer and the Professor are quite possibly archetypes for the artistic and academic intelligentsia who have largely been conscribed to the role of being apologists for the State. The rudeness and disdain the Stalker exhibits towards his girlfriend is easily understood when examined in this light. After a contentious rendezvous with the Professor which symbolized internecine Party squabbling, the two men reveal their motivations for undertaking this treacherous journey. The Writer wishes to recover his lost inspiration while the Professor claims pure scientific curiosity. Since the arts had been completely subordinated to service of state propaganda, it makes perfect sense that the Writer would take such a dangerous risk in order to have a taste of genuine inspiration that has been so badly thwarted by demands for ideological conformity.  The Professor’s scientific curiosity is perhaps a jab at the misplaced faith that socialist society had placed in scientism.  A Room which grants your deepest wish is already an idea that lives beyond science.  Bringing a scientific mentality to such a phenomenon is misguided at best. Their desire to reach the Room was by itself an act of faith, and by extension, Tarkovsky’s affirmation of the necessity for such leaps of faith.

Upon arriving in the Zone, the color palette switches from lifeless, desaturated browns and greys to actual color. Once they had traversed past the boundaries of allowable thought, the color and vibrancy of life was accessible to them. Despite the landscape of ruin and desolation that lay before the trio, they managed to marvel at beauty. Once again, Tarkovsky reveals his cynicism towards humanity by having the Stalker note that the beauty was the product of the absence of other people.

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The Writer’s ideological convictions are challenged as they travel deeper into the Zone. As an archetype for the artistic class, Tarkovsky lays bare the psychological schism that Marxism created amongst the creatives in one of the film’s few moments of dry levity.

Writer: My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?

Marxism had supplanted any notion of higher morality and placed the locus of virtue squarely within the hands of the State. Subsequently, the Writer’s desire to see vegetarianism win over was merely a metaphor for the political orthodoxy he’d been trained to uphold. He views his desire for meat as bourgeois false consciousness. Ultimately, he’s conflicted because his sense of Self had been disrupted by venturing beyond the ideological boundaries that were protected and enforced by the Zone.

When the three men reach the Room, they become suspicious of one another’s motivations. The Professor produces a nuclear bomb and threatens to detonate it because he doesn’t want the power of the Room to fall into the wrong hands. Conflict ensues and recriminations are exchanged. After some tortured confessions, the Professor disassembles the bomb and the scene grinds to a halt in a cloud of defeat and resignation. I suggest that Tarkovsky is saying something about how deeply uncomfortable and distrustful Russians were with the idea of freedom. So much so that they constructed their own ideological panopticon.

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Upon returning from the Zone, the Stalker is reunited with his wife and child. In one of the monologues delivered by Stalker’s wife, Tarkovsky is attempting to access something truly primeval within the Russian soul. Some kind of deep sadness which insists that happiness can only emerge unless there is sorrow. Yet it is a sorrow leavened ever so slightly with a tiny granule of hope. Who knows exactly from where this emanates, but it does perhaps offer an additional cultural insight into the psychological legacy of the Russian people on which Marxism so hungrily feasted.

Stalker’s Wife: You know, Mama was very opposed to it. You’ve probably already guessed, that he’s one of God’s fools. Everyone around here used to laugh at him. He was such a wretched muddler. Mama used to say: “he’s a stalker, a marked man, an eternal jailbird. Remember the kind of children stalkers have.” I didn’t even argue. I knew all about it, that he was a marked man, a jailbird. I knew about the kids. Only what could I do? I was sure I’d be happy with him. I knew there’d be a lot of sorrow, but I’d rather know bitter-sweet happiness, than a grey, uneventful life. Perhaps I invented all this later. But when he come up to me and said: “Come with me”, I went. And I’ve never regretted it. Never. There was a lot of grief, and fear, and pain, but I’ve never regretted it, nor envied anyone. It’s just fate. It’s life, it’s us. And if there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn’t be better, it would be worse. Because then there’d be no happiness, either. And there’d be no hope.

The resolution of the film reveals the Stalker’s daughter moving three glasses using what is apparently telekinetic power as a snatch of “Ode to Joy” surfaces. It’s enigmatic, but I believe this is the glimmer of hope that Tarkovsky is offering. Monkey represents a new generation which possesses abilities that were unimaginable to their forebears: the ability to cultivate and express joy. An ability so powerful it can only be represented as a paranormal psychic power.

Aesthetically, the film leverages the decrepit and dilapidated architecture of the USSR to create a post-apocalyptic vibe that’s easily among the bleakest natural settings committed to film.  The Zone was inspired by the 1957 Chelyabinsk incident which was both the first major nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl and third largest in history. Ever dedicated to the purity of his vision, Tarkovsky filmed the Zone at an abandoned Estonian power plant which quite possibly hastened his own demise along with two other members of the film crew resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals.

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I suspect that a large part of the allure of Tarkovsky and Stalker in particular is that it represents a manifestation of the great Holy Grail sought by artists across the world throughout the ages: a pure artistic expression unsullied by the taint of capitalistic profit seeking. Stalker is very much a film made with painstaking attention to the most minute details. Almost nothing that makes it into the frame seems left to chance. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a film that people will actually want to watch.

Stalker is a film which elicits admiration more than enjoyment. As much as I am tempted to get lost in the labyrinth of symbolic possibility that so enraptures the cinephiles, I see this as a pretty explicit manifestation of the Russian pysche’s very fragile grasp at humanity desperately laboring under the weight of emotional and physical devastation wrought by 60 years of iron fisted subjugation and state enforced social engineering. Since this is a work of art which leans very heavily on symbolism, people will extract a meaning from it which confirms their own bias and disposition. Predictably, the progressive media in America has heaped praise on it because they see it as antidote to Trumpism and a rallying cry for socialism itself. The fact that a film that’s this unremittingly dreary and downcast is perceived as some kind of rallying cry for socialism just goes to show how deeply this ideology warps the psyche and possesses the will of the individual.  If anything, Stalker should be taken as a dire warning of the inhospitable future that awaits should we allow this ideology to hollow out what remains of our souls.

Stalker is indeed a work of Serious Art® and I completely understand the cult of devotion it has inspired. Like all good works of high modernism, it contains the possibility of extracting multitudes of meaning. However, I genuinely don’t think Tarkovsky intended this film to be another occasion for endless academic navel gazing or a self-centered circle jerk for the intelligentsia. Tarkovsky was making an earnest attempt to tell the truth of the Russian experience by using a SF premise as a metaphysical allegory. John Semley’s dumb Salon piece praises the film for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the plodding pace feels radical in contrast to the engineered dopamine rushes we get from contemporary cinema, but it’s because the film conveys a deep sense of despair. Being boring is not an aesthetic virtue that is inherently good. Good art encompasses the entirety of the human experience, but most importantly, it has intention and should actually connect with its audience. Would Stalker have been funded on the free market? Probably not. Grim meditations on the human experience don’t make for big ticket sales. Especially if they’re the product of life under socialist rule. I’m deeply sympathetic to artistic expression which challenges norms and defies expectations. Most people do not share this belief, and as a result, won’t bother watching Stalker. And that’s fine. No one is required to consume art which evokes boredom and despair. In the end, that is perhaps that is the true legacy of the film. Just as millions died chasing the abstraction that Marxism represented, few will heed the subtle warning buried under Tarkovsky’s abstractions.

Stalker: Are you awake? You were talking recently about the meaning… of our… life… unselfishness of art… Let’s take music… It’s really least of all connected; to say the truth, if it is connected at all, then in an idealess way, mechanically, with an empty sound… Without… without associations… Nonetheless the music miraculously penetrates into the very soul! What is resonating in us in answer to the harmonized noise? And turns it for us into the source of great delight… And unites us, and shakes us? What is its purpose? And, above all, for whom? You will say: for nothing, and… and for nobody, just so. Unselfish. Though it’s not so… perhaps… For everything, in the end, has its own meaning… Both the meaning and the cause…

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Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Since we’re living in the Age of the Reboot and the number of films made from existing properties outpaces the number made from original scripts, some important questions need to be answered.  To what degree does the artist’s or author’s original intention matter when doing a remake? Given that every writer tells a story using a specific set of characters, themes and ideas to make a general point, can a remake which repurposes those ideas to conform to contemporary sensibilities legitimately call itself by the work’s original name? At what point do those themes and ideas become so different, that the reboot has become a different story altogether? Where is the line between respectful homage and outright sacrilege? Most importantly, at what point do the thematic reinventions have a deleterious effect? I don’t have definitive answers to all of these questions, but GITS 2017 certainly has me inclined to believe that the law of diminishing dramatic returns holds true more often than not when it comes to these reboots. This is not to say that GITS 2017 is a complete disaster because the deviations from GITS 1995 are indeed handled very cleverly.  However, this does mean that the various changeups don’t add up to a better final product even when accounting for the ramped up production values.

The broad strokes of GITS 2017 are basically the same as GITS 1995, but the changes to those original themes alter the overall message of the film in significant ways. Scarlett Johansson plays The Major, and in contrast to GITS 1995, the film is setting up an entirely different dramatic conflict by emphasizing how she was created and by whom.

In the future, the line between human and machine is disappearing. Advancements in the technology allow humans to enhance themselves with cybernetic parts. Hanka robotics, funded by the government, is developing a military operative that will blur the line even further. By transplanting a human brain into a fully synthetic body, they will combine the strongest attributes of human and robot.

This isn’t a departure from the basic premise of the original, but it marks a distinct shift in emphasis. Where the original was positing the idea of a fully sentient digital being, GITS 2017 is giving us a variation on Robocop.  Instead of OCP, we have Hanka robotics which has contracted with the government to build a cyborg super soldier.  The opening of the film shows us a fatally injured Mira Killian being carted into an operating room in which her brain is ultimately salvaged and inserted into her cybernetic shell.  There are flashes of some violent fiery trauma which may or may not be flashbacks to the incident which left her fatally injured.

 

 

Upon being fully regenerated into her new cybernetic shell, the CEO of Hanka and her designer Dr. Ouelet have a debate over her future assignment. CEO Cutter wants her assigned to the elite anti-terrorism unit, Section 9, while Dr. Ouelet insists that Mira isn’t ready for that kind of duty. This is one of the points of departure from the original and where the film goes off the rails a bit. As Dr. Ouelet, Juliette Binoche is presumably an elite robotics engineer working for the most prestigious robotics company and instead of treating her like a professional doing the job she was hired to do, the film has her projecting maternal attachment to her new creation.  So not only is the film trying to get feminist booster points by having a female character in a STEM role, they portray her exercising her female biological instincts on her cybernetic newborn. Way to smash gender stereotypes, folks.

While I’m generally cool with suspension of disbelief in SF, I can’t help but to nitpick the scientific premise they’re putting forward since Rupert Sanders and company have chosen to make the Major’s creation story the center of gravity. Hanka is presumably a sophisticated and well resourced for-profit robotics company. Albeit one that’s in bed with the government.  They want to build a super soldier by taking the human mind of a young woman with no combat experience whatsoever and place her in a cybernetic shell.  So Hanka believes that Mira’s human reflexes, spatial recognition, muscle memory, emotional disposition, neurological and biological proclivities will be a sufficient foundation for a super soldier once outfitted with a cybernetic shell. It made sense in Robocop because Murphy was a cop in the first place. I know this is SF and everything, but good SF generally starts with at least a generally plausible scientific premise and extrapolates.  This is saying that the all of the attributes which are either biologically hardwired or psychologically imprinted into the young female mind are simultaneously the most valuable attributes for a cyborg super soldier and can be sublimated once paired with cybernetic musculature. Alrighty then.

In the scene following Mira’s cybernetic birth, the film tips its hand by more explicitly revealing the film’s progressive editorial in what is otherwise a visually stunning reinvention of the original opening. Now operating as the fully functional cyborg super cop she was designed to be, the Major scans a meeting taking place between a Hanka executive and the African ambassador. Instead of a generic foreign diplomat negotiating a Megatech programmer defection, they give us a Hanka executive making a pitch to an African politician. Cuz multiculturalism and shit or something. Against the orders of Section 9 leader, Aramaki, the Major dons her invisibility cloak and storms the room just as a geisha-bots begin attacking the Hanka executive. Right before the Major shoots the hacked geisha-bot, it utters a warning: “Commit to the will of Hanka and be destroyed.” Where GITS 1995 left us to puzzle out the Puppet Master’s ultimate motivations, this one is telling us that this new mind hacker has it in for Hanka.  The big, bad corporation. Imagine my surprise. 

The Major and her multicultural team of Section 9 cyborgs spend the remainder of the film trying to identify the new mind hacker, Kuze.  At the same time, the Major becomes increasingly curious about her past since her flashbacks become more vivid and frequent. 

The film is making an important point about the nature of memory and the structure of human cognition, but it’s approaching the topic from a Marxist angle. By giving the Major a false memory which sharpened her killing instincts, the film is saying she had, in effect, committed to the will of the bourgeoisie. Which, in this case, was the Hanka corporation. Naturally, the false memory portrayed her as an immigrant whose parents were killed by terrorists because, after all, you need to gin up that antipathy towards terrorists artificially.  To the film’s credit, the writers portrayed the Major’s natural genetic memory as the force which compelled her to discover her birth mother and know her own story more fully.  As it turns out, her ghost belonged to Motoko Kusanagi, a young Japanese radical who campaigned against cybernetic enhancements.  So Hanka figures it can fulfill the ghost requirements of its super soldier program by culling the ranks of anti-cyber-enhancement dissidents. Alrighty then.

Like many other Hollywood films, it’s trying to have it both ways by making Cutter and Hanka the bad guys. Cutter is yet another two-dimensional cardboard cutout who is all calculating menace and cartoonish malevolence.  He also happens to be….you’ll never believe it….a white male. It’s as though there’s an overriding narrative.  

Kuze threatens to destroy those who “commit to the will of Hanka”, but Hanka contracts with the government. Whose will is truly being carried out here? Section 9 is clearly some kind of special forces/homeland security unit which needed an elite cyborg and Hanka delivered. Again, one detects the distinct whiff of an agenda. 

Of course, there are some pretty obvious sops to PC sensibilities.  The film takes place in future Japan, and naturally, multicultural harmony and gender equality reign supreme. Besides the addition of another female cyborg to the Section 9 roster, the team speaks to Aramaki in English while he speaks to them in Japanese. This doesn’t make any goddamn sense, people. Also, if the Major’s ghost was Japanese, why is she speaking English? As long as there are nation states, there will be a dominant culture and language that will be upheld. The Japanese have proven themselves pretty protective of their culture and language. There’s no way Section 9 is multilingual. Sorry. 

The film emphasizes the Major’s sentience by having her verbally consent to the administration of a serum or being jacked into a digital network. It’s an interesting twist and it reminds us that the Major is still human, but once again, the aroma of a certain highly politicized issue wafts about this piece of the story.  One could certainly extend the question of consent to a wide variety of federal policies, but I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers had in mind.

The look of the film is spectacular, and it takes the arthouse cyberpunk noir of the original to another level. This is another take on the hybrid of squalid urban sprawl and holographic commercial overstimulation that we’ve been getting since Blade Runner. ScarJo has been raked over the coals for a number of aspects of this role, but she and the rest of the cast are enjoyable enough. The complaints of “whitewashing” from the #SocialJustice crowd are painfully stupid and tiresome given that these jackasses tend to be the most vocal cheerleaders for immigration and multiculturalism. 

Since both GITS films have addressed very specifically the role of memory in determining selfhood, I can’t help but to think that what Sanders and company have done here is exactly analogous to what Hanka did to the Major. By rewriting the story, they want to hack the minds of the public and implant a new memory of GITS that will supersede the memory of the original. At some level, all of this remixing of the past is saying that there is no sanctity to a any artist’s original vision. Everything must be tailored to the prevailing political winds. 

While I found it enjoyable enough, I still came away thinking that this remake failed to add anything new to the original and ultimately detracted from themes and ideas that were more provocative and original.  By insisting that all films conform to progressive orthodoxy, films are increasingly taking on an aura of bland globalist cosmopolitanism.  Where the original asked you to contemplate the nature of selfhood, the transmission of genetic memory, speciation and the possibility of a post-human being, this film ends up rehashing ideas that were already explored in films like Total Recall, Robocop, and Minority Report. The Major is haunted by her past, but only achieves peace after discovering the truth of who she was and from where she came. Ultimately, the film is affirming the importance of familial and cultural bonds while simultaneously affirming that one can only fulfill the process of individuation through self-discovery. Contrary to the claims of contemporary social scientists and gender “scholars”, the human being does not come into the world as a blank slate. Every person possesses an a priori cognitive structure through which the experiences of the world occur. The process of defining selfhood requires that one distinguish between whether you are the author of your own existence or a player in a drama that’s been written for you. While I can acknowledge that this is the common thread that binds the films together, I don’t know that this film is Ghost in the Shell. Or if it’s a different ghost in the shell of its predecessor. 

The Major: You are not defined by your past, but for your actions…

Damnation Alley (1977)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jack Smight’s adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel, Damnation Alley, is an unsung classic of post-apocalyptic SF. Following the precedent set by the similarly themed television show, Ark II, Damnation Alley is the story of a group of WWIII nuclear holocaust survivors traversing the radioactive wastelands of a blasted out America in search of the remnants of humanity. Yes, its cheeseball B-movie reputation is not without some validity, but I maintain that its virtues outweigh its demerits. Post-apocalyptic SF is roughly analogous to the Western. In other words, a post-flood Biblical allegory. How do you rebuild civilization after all has been destroyed? 

Laying out the prototype for his role as Colonel Hannibal Smith in The A-Team, George Peppard is pitch perfect as grizzled hard ass, Major Eugene Denton. Jan-Michael Vincent plays his subordinate, Tanner, who’s just a little too uppity for Denton. Rounding out the cast of heroes are Paul Winfield as Keegan, a young Jackie Earle Haley as Billy and token female, Dominique Sanda as Jackie. The film opens at a nuclear missile facility at which our two main heroes are stationed as missile combat officers. What begins as a training exercise ends up as a Defcon 1 scramble to fire defensive strikes at an incoming volley of warheads from the other side of the globe. The spectre of nuclear war was a theme found throughout lots of film and television made throughout the Cold War era, but there’s something genuinely harrowing about the nuclear cataclysm in Damnation Alley.  In a scene that surely provided the inspiration for the arcade game, Missile Command, the commanding officers listen in stunned silence as the technical officer reads off the names of American cities while we watch blips of the electronic map signal each warhead strike. A montage of actual mushroom cloud atomic explosions follows as most life on earth is extinguished. 

After the conflict, the globe is an irradiated hellscape and natural weather patterns have been disrupted as a consequence of the bombing.  Using techniques that made SF films from the 70’s so great, color filters and effects transform the skies into a roiling cauldron of psychedelic radiation and are accompanied by ominous analog synth howls. A short text frame sets up the appropriate vibe.

The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.

After surviving yet another catastrophe resulting from a porno mag that caught fire next to some explosive materials, our heroes set out to find what remains of civilization in the other star of the film, the Landmaster. Designed as a fully functional all-terrain military vehicle, the Landmaster is a glorious 12-wheel feat of vehicular badassery.  Most people probably consider the Mad Max films ground zero for futuristic car porn, but Damnation Alley clearly set the precedent. The various location shots of the Landmaster barreling through the canyons and desert plains of American southwest are indeed pretty righteous. 

In contrast to just about anything made today, this vision of post-apocalyptic earth retains a remarkable amount of civility, respect for military order, and concern for the welfare of the one woman and teenage boy. There is some heartwarming paternalism exhibited by both Peppard and Vincent towards the young Haley. Even the run-in with hillbilly mutants is remarkably civil. For all the pedants bemoaning the lack of realism, it’s important to bear in mind that this was made during a time when traditional heroic archetypes and acts of patriarchal chivalry were still considered worthy of canonization in cinema. It’s not the story that Zelazny told, but it’s worthwhile on its own terms.

There are, of course, some rather delightful post-apocalyptic thrills, too. Overgrown scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, and radioactive dust storms are among the travails that our band of heroes must overcome.  And no SF action movie would be complete without a few lines of pure hardboiled tough guy grit. Naturally, that honor belongs to Peppard’s Denton.

Maj. Eugene Denton: There are areas of radiation we couldn’t get through. It’s not a matter of wrong turns though – “Damnation Alley” is a hundred miles wide a lot of the way. 

Tanner: “Damnation Alley?” Who named it that? 

Maj. Eugene Denton: I did.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, but the signal that indicates that they’ve reached civilization is the sweet sound of jazz-rock pumping through the radio transmitter. Hallelujah!

Damnation Alley is a piece of post-apocalyptic SF that you just don’t see anymore; an optimistic view of humanity and its ability to reclaim civilization. As the genre progressed over the years since the release of the film, one sees an increasingly despairing and cynical view of humanity. One could say these were more realistic visions of human nature, but people sometimes forget that an occasional uplifting ending gives people a sense of hope and an ideal to which to aspire. Cynicism is the norm.  Affirming positive values is a lot harder than it is to sit back and sneer at pollyanna idealism.

Despite being paired with another personal favorite from that year, Wizards, Damnation Alley tanked. Not only was the film a commercial flop, but Zelazny apparently hated it. Not even the tidal wave of Star Wars’ popularity was sufficient to boost its prospects.  It won’t do anything for you if you have no taste for this kind of film in the first place, but if post-apocalyptic SF is in your wheelhouse at all, the trip down Damnation Alley is worth taking. 

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Since the Hollywood reboot of the 1995 classic is likely to disappoint, I revisited the original to see how it holds up. Unsurprisingly, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii more than earns its spot in the pantheon of SF classics with its highly plausible technological speculations, dazzling visuals as well as its political and philosophical commentary.

GITS was an early cinematic entry into the what was, at the time, a new subgenre of SF dubbed cyberpunk.  With the advent of the home computer connected to a vast global information superhighway, SF writers turned their attention to previously unimagined futurescapes of mass surveillance, cybercriminal underworlds, technocratic corporatism, information trafficking, and cybernetic engineering. By weaving all these elements together, GITS established itself as an influential example of the genre. Add in some government deep state machinations, immigration terrorism and globalism, and the themes only accumulate strength and relevance. 

Despite the absence of alien civilizations and interstellar travel, one of the main ideas in cyberpunk which connects it to the broader legacy of SF is the exploration of the idea of artificial intelligence. This is the central idea in GITS, and Major Motoko Kusanagi’s quest to uncover the identity of Puppet Master is simultaneously a quest to attain that which defines humanity in the end. 

Like William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, GITS is a high tech crime/espionage thriller which delves into some meaty questions pertaining to race, biological diversity, genetic memories and the nature of consciousness itself. The film opens by delineating the broad conflict between the globalist elites building a vast, decentralized network of technocratic control versus the proles who still claim selfhood through nationalism and racial identity. 

In the near future – corporate networks reach out to the stars. Electrons and light flow throughout the universe. The advance of computerisation, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.

The film centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi; a cyborg who works in Section 9 and is pursuing a cyber-hacker called the Puppet Master. She possesses a human consciousness, a “ghost”, but her body (i.e. “shell”) is fully cybernetic. The Puppet Master has the ability to hack human brains and overwrite their memories and identity. She and her supercyborg partner, Batoh, are charged with finding the Puppet Master.

The opening scene sets up the intrigue. Major Kusanagi is monitoring a set of diplomats in a hotel room discussing Project 2501 with a programmer.  The Section 6 police force moves into place to storm the room. One of the diplomats claims immunity as the cops enter the room and the bullets start flying. The head of Section 6 announces that it’s illegal to take programmers out of the country just as an invisible attacker from outside the hotel room takes out the foreign diplomat in a rather gruesome manner. The programmer is denied asylum and the diplomat is taken out by the Major without a trail. Two different police agencies working from different ends of the legal spectrum to quash corporate espionage and thwart emigration.  

It’s handled very subtly, but Japan’s tight control of immigration and sense of national identity is very clearly spelled out. After the Major dispatched the diplomat, the Japanese Prime Minister expresses his gratitude to Section 9 leader, Aramaki, that the programmer’s attempt at defection was handled without going through standard bureaucratic channels. He goes on to explain that the he’d love to deport the recently deposed leader of the Gavel Republic if he had a good political excuse. In addition to the references to Section 9’s ongoing crackdowns on immigration terrorists, these pieces of the story strongly suggest that this future Japan is still maintaining a relatively homogeneous population and national identity. Based on what I’ve read about the reboot, this theme has been inverted to serve the globalist mantras around multiculturalism. 

The real philosophical meat of the movie revolves around the true identity of the Puppet Master and Major Kusanagi’s existential ruminations over her own fate. What defines the essence of selfhood? Identitarians tend to claim immutable characteristics like skin pigmentation, racial heritage, genitalia and sexual preferences. Not far behind are religious tradition and national or regional identity. Peel away those labels and then you’re left with ideals and abstractions like belief, pride, and morality.

Section 6 Department Chief Nakamura: Nonsense! There’s no proof at all that you are a living, thinking life form! 

Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?

More specifically, it addresses the extent to which intergenerational memory defines selfhood and ensures the propagation of genetics.

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

GITS is posing questions pertaining to the nature of man found throughout the SF canon since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are humans just a bag of chemicals and organic tissue guided by laws of determinism? Or is the human capacity for thought a unique phenomenon? Are we caretakers and guardians of generations of genetic memory which are passed through procreation and family tradition? Can man become God by replicating life itself through technology?  

Speciation is defined as the evolutionary process by which new genetic lines are created. Since the Puppet Master can only replicate its own code, the only way it can truly live on is by reproducing with another being. After a climactic battle scene, the Major and the Puppet Master conjoin their consciousness to produce a new post-human species merging human and digital being.  

The features which distinguish SF as a genre are the usage of far reaching technological and imaginative speculation to ask the deepest philosophical questions pertaining to the individual and the State. It is a genre that has appealed to our highest ideals and given us some of the most dire warnings.  The fact that GITS has been given the Hollywood reboot treatment is an indication of the strength of the original vision.  

Major Motoko Kusanagi: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station

If you have a taste for horror, fantasy, science fiction or just some virtuosic off-the-chain weirdness, pick up this book immediately.  Mr. Miéville has described his work as “new weird” and though it’s kind of dumb, I suppose it’ll have to do. What he’s doing feels new and original even if the influences are clearly evident. This is a next level genre mashup.

Squalid, gothic urban hellscape?  Check. Avian, insectoid and cactus humanoids? Yup. Bio-engineered mutants? Uh huh. A ghastly crime lord which would make Lovecraft squirm? Yes. A band of heroes embroiled in a tale of political intrigue trying to stave off apocalyptic doom? Got it. Dream eating moths which defecate psychotropic dung? Of course. Gonzo physics, chemistry, artificial intelligence, magic and some crazy shit about crisis energy? Sure. A dimension hopping spider which spews opaque riddle poems? Covered. Sentient mechagod which animates itself with junk from a scrapyard and speaks through a rotting corpse avatar? Got that too. Enough gruesome carnage to satisfy a rabid gorehound? Oh yeah.

Miéville’s imagination and storytelling gifts are dazzling. Perdido Street Station is overflowing with strange, vividly rendered characters and ideas. It’s the kind of material you could imagine being adapted for Heavy Metal. The cinematic detail Miéville brings to the world of Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon deserves special mention. The city is a character in and of itself and Mr. Miéville has succeeded in creating a fantasy cityscape which is simultaneously grand and squalid. 

Thematically, this book is essentially a meditation on choices and the impact our choices have on others. To a certain degree, it is also about the pursuit of individuality and the price you pay for that pursuit. Mr. Miéville’s politics are hamfisted, naïve, and cartoonish, but I’m not going to withhold my recommendation because it is such a flat out tour de force. Miéville is a self-professed Marxist, and he always manages to find ways to portray entrepreneurs and the pursuit of profit as morally degenerate. It’s dumb and predictable, but his novels are so good, it shouldn’t be a deterrence.

Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood’s End

The classic status of Childhood’s End is well deserved because of its provocative ideas, but is not without a few glaring shortcomings. For all his attempts to bring scientific rigor and realism to the possibility of a visitation from an advanced civilization, the book requires a fair amount of disbelief suspension. Like 2001, Clarke uses this novel to present another vision of SF spirituality and human transcendence. 

The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to the arrival of a highly advanced alien civilization which aids humanity in eliminating war, poverty, illiteracy, and crime without resorting to violence or coercion.  Sounds cool, huh? Clarke doesn’t fill in too many details about how this is achieved and it’s fairly apparent that he doesn’t dwell on it for the sole purpose of moving the narrative forward. Since this is Arthur C. Clarke and he does really try to present scientifically plausible SF, this is exactly where I got hung up.  

The Overlords apparently facilitate this quantum leap in technological progress, but the book seems to sidestep the necessity of the entire planet freely choosing to mobilize for all of this global development. Where’s the incentive? Where’s the capital coming from? And how did communism survive? He uses the advent of this would-be Utopia to pose the question of what comes next after you’ve solved the problems of humanity. Do we become complacent slugs? Apparently, we do. With so much automated production and readily accessible plenitude, we lose our initiative.

This prompts a collection of artists to start a colony dedicated to creative arts because all this ready made life is BULLSHIT, man!

Kudos to Clarke for recognizing the ceaseless striving of artists, but it feels a tad too self-congratulatory. Artists aren’t the only ones who continually strive to better themselves. What about everyone else? 

All of this is prelude to the main point of the book; that Overlords were only here to help facilitate the next phase of humanity’s evolution. Our destiny lays in abandoning our corporeal bodies and merging with a mass consciousness that transcends time and space. It’s cool and heady stuff, but the whole idea comes across like SF, hippie-spiritual communism. Who really wants that? 

Oh, and the whole bit about the devil in religious texts? It’s just a reverse time loop, man. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Quibbles aside, it’s a fun read and Clarke channels a vision that is beautiful and majestic in its scale.

It’s also worth reading because this book has provided direct or indirect inspiration for shows like V and Earth: Final Conflict as well as books like Contact.  It’s a pretty big deal in the SF canon.

Dark City (1998)

Alex Proyas’ 1998 masterpiece, Dark City, may draw easy comparisons to The Matrix, but it deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. Both films deal with the idea that there is a deeper reality beyond material appearances as well as the possibility that there are malevolent forces actively shaping your perception. Both films also give you a protagonist who cracks the code of the reality with his own powers which threatens the controlled order of the world he inhabits. While The Matrix was ultimately a story of the Chosen One who liberates the huddled remains of humanity, Dark City is a story of a man who discovers that the essence of his humanity that could not be controlled made him stronger than his captors. 

Playing the role of John Murdoch, Rufus Sewell awakens in a bathtub suffering from amnesia. To his dismay, he discovers a woman brutally murdered lying on the floor of his bedroom. Fleeing the scene in a panic after receiving a phone call from a mysterious Doctor Schreber, he barely escapes discovery from a trio of ghoulish looking beings known as The Strangers. When the clock strikes midnight, the entire city stops and all its inhabitants fall into a state of hypnosis except Murdoch. This state of hypnosis is induced by The Strangers using a psychokinetic power called “tuning” which allows them to reshape the city and the lives of its inhabitants. Pursued simultaneously by Inspector Frank Bumstead under suspicion of multiple murders, Murdoch is able to escape the clutches of The Strangers by tapping into his own ability to tune. Murdoch tries to recover his memories by reaching out to his torch singer wife, Emma. Murdoch’s ability to tune threatens the control The Strangers exert on the citizens of Dark City.  He seeks to return to Shell Beach, the beachside town he believes to be his home, and unravel the mystery of Dark City before The Strangers catch up with him. 

Dark City belongs to a venerable tradition of SF films which explores the essence of identity, free will versus determinism, the effect of time and memory, and the value of our connection to the past. Given the escalating tensions in neuroscience over the role of biological factors and the nature of consciousness itself, Dark City’s emphasis on the latter theme places it a notch above The Matrix. Through tuning, The Strangers possess the ability to shape time and space, but they imprint people with stolen memories in order to discover what makes humans tick. The Strangers’ mentality can be viewed as a classic representation of collectivist materialism. With Doctor Schreber’s coerced assistance, they distill human experience into chemical combinations. Despite their apparent superiority, The Strangers cling doggedly to the belief that by continuously reshaping the physical, social, and even biochemical conditions, they can mold humanity to fit their desired ends. 

The Strangers’ manipulations of reality also serve as a metaphor for the myriad ways in which globalists, social scientists, and technocrats have intervened in human affairs in the present world. Ultimately, the film is an affirmation of the existence of a sovereign individual consciousness and the ability to exercise free will, but it shows you how difficult it is to develop an awareness of Self. Not only does Murdoch struggle to recover his connection to his own past, he must work equally hard to rip away the veil of deception that has been carefully constructed all around him.

Dr. Schreber: I call them the Strangers. They abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it… is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day, a man might be an inspector. The next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history… even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we, in fact, more than the sum of our memories?

The Strangers are one of the most chilling representations of an alien dictatorship I’ve seen on film. They share a collective consciousness, but they have no individuality. It is a society of abject servitude to the hive mind. They possess advanced scientific knowledge, but they’re so imprisoned by scientific thinking, they’re completely insensitive to the ways they’re destroying the lives of their subjects. Morality and ethics are absent from their existence. 

In contrast to the messianic nature of Neo and his quest in The Matrix, Murdoch’s heroism is purely the result of his desire to attain meaning and discover the truth of reality. By asserting his individuality and claiming ownership of his own thoughts, it had a ripple effect in the other characters. He instinctively knows that the love he shared with his wife and his connection to Shell Beach were the only things that gave his life meaning and purpose. 

Stylistically, Dark City is a visual tour de force. The film effortlessly updates Metropolis‘ German expressionism with a lush 90’s gothic film noir chic. The overall color palette is suffused with black and other dark tones, but it is not devoid of rich, vivid colors. Visual, stylistic, and thematic references to its forebears abound. Vertigo, Blade Runner, City of Lost Children, Total Recall, and The Crow can all be detected within Dark City’s DNA. 

Dark City is a film which borrows very liberally from other films, but stands alone on its own terms. We continue debate the acquisition of truth amidst a sea of self-interested media elites, the extent to which we’re influenced by our past positively or negatively, the consequences of the endless parade of would-be social scientists peddling postmodern abstraction as policy, what role neuroscience plays in shaping happiness, and what quantum mechanics suggests about human consciousness. Dark City’s themes speak to each of these issues, and its relevance has grown in proportion. Not only does it stand very tall in the SF cinematic canon, but in the annals of all film. 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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Before Rogue One, I had resigned myself to the reality that a new Star Wars film isn’t going to rock my world quite like it did in 1977.  How could any new entry possibly match that experience? Star Wars certainly wouldn’t have become the global phenomenon it is without having some thematic heft and adult appeal, but it has always aimed to pluck the heartstrings of youth.  To say that Star Wars transformed my youthful dreams and angst into a two hour symphony of pure cinematic magic which moved me to the core of my being at that time in my life is an understatement. Though my story is hardly unique in the vast universe of SW fandom, my love affair with the original series was indeed profound and deep.  When Luke stares into Tatooine’s twin sunset and the music swells to a crescendo, the yearning for something greater was palpable. When Luke tells Obi-Wan that he wants to go to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force, I felt that shit. Anyone who doesn’t understand that these scenes all by themselves formed the core of Star Wars’ primal and transcendent appeal doesn’t really get Star Wars in the first place. Sure, the lightsaber duels, battles and starships were awesome, but at a very basic level, Luke’s quest was my quest. This seemingly effortless fusion of the universal and the personal was the truly great feat of cinematic sorcery that George Lucas conjured.

I’m never going to be that kid again, but that kid in me simply hoped that the new gatekeepers of the SW legacy are going to remember that for all of the cinematic and visual effect innovations that have been the hallmarks of the series, what really made these films tick is that they gave you characters in which you wanted to believe. Star Wars gave you friendships and bonds in which you were deeply invested.  It gave you characters whose motivations and foibles were sufficiently fleshed out that when the chips were down, you knew that each character was putting himself to the test and that made the ultimate triumphs all the more satisfying.

While the prequels failed miserably in this task, The Force Awakens also suffered from similar deficiencies in character development. It was enjoyable enough, but every character was paper thin. There was no real backstory to the characters and subsequently, no dramatic arc. These problems were only compounded by the stink of SJW agenda fulfillment permeating every frameFrom the could-be-gay bromance of Finn and Poe to the cartoonish emotional instability (translation: toxic masculinity/male fragility) of Kylo Ren to the impossible Mary Sue-like competence of Rey, The Force Awakens had the unmistakable aura of a PC feminist/SJW checklist.

Despite this string of disappointments, I still came to Rogue One with genuine optimism.  I didn’t care that Jyn Erso was very likely going to be another outrageous female power fantasy designed to flatter the egos of feminists and bolster a now deeply clichéd Girl Power/inverted stereotype hero narrative. I didn’t care that writers Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta were pandering to the SJW, multi-culti, Fight The Power progressive mindset when they tweeted out some moronic nonsense about the Empire being a “white supremacist organization.” I didn’t care that Disney demanded reshoots after Gareth Edwards presented his first cut of the film. Just give me some characters in which to believe and cheer.  Give me a little bit of human drama to complement Gareth Edwards’ epic vision.  I wasn’t worried about the eye candy or the mayhem. I just wanted to care about the people involved.  I just wanted to have a small taste of that yearning to go to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force all over again, or in this case, root for the Rebel Alliance to dismantle the evil dominion of the Empire.  Surely, a new Star Wars film could deliver this modest goal to my adult self and I believed that Gareth Edwards was up to that task.

If this is also your new hope for Rogue One, I can firmly attest that this film is absolutely the droid you’re looking for. Rogue One is hands down the most successful Star Wars film since the Original Trilogy and the most genuinely satisfying Star Wars film I’ve seen since 1977. I still can’t believe how genuinely good this motherfucker is. It’s the Star Wars film you didn’t know you wanted, but now that it’s here, you can’t live without it. It also succeeds in achieving a goal that eluded The Force Awakens by referencing the original series and mythology while presenting something completely contemporary and fresh.

Rogue One is the story of a team of rebels who manage to abscond with the plans of the Death Star which find their way back into the hands of the Rebel Alliance and Princess Leia. What’s remarkable is how effectively the film builds a compelling story around what amounts to a couple sentences of opening crawl in Episode IV.  Since there’s no real Jedi quest, the film is able to be a full on war/espionage story set in the SW universe at the height of tensions between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. It comes across like a lighter version of The Dirty Dozen with a post-Battlestar Galactica grit to it and to my great astonishment, it’s a mix that works brilliantly.  I believe it marks a distinct tonal shift away from the pop space opera vibe of the other canonical films, but this choice has given the series the new lease on life that has eluded every other post-OT installment.  It is indeed a war film and it packs a visceral punch that is unmatched in the series.

I was concerned about the character development in this film since this has been the great Achilles Heel of every new installment in the series up to this point. While you don’t necessarily know a whole lot about any one of them, you learn enough to be invested.  As Jyn Erso, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I believed in Felicity Jones’ transformation into a rebel leader and her bond with both her father Galen and the militant Rebel who raised her, Saw Gerrera. The scenes between her and Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso are genuinely sweet and give the film the emotional core that made the original films sing. Once again, we’re presented with a SW protagonist who had been snatched away from her birth parents and raised by a surrogate who happened to be a radical extremist within the Rebel Alliance.  Subsequently, it’s not impossible to believe that she would be proficient with firearms and have the mental and physical fortitude necessary for combat.  The Strong Womyn archetype who’s smarter and stronger than her male counterparts has become very commonplace in action and SF films for many years, and I was concerned that we were going to be given another variation on Rey. Thankfully, everything about Jyn’s development and the proficiency she exhibits was consistent with what we were presented.  Although when it came to Jyn’s tepid attempt at channeling Henry V, I have to agree with CNET’s Ashlee Clark Thompson that it invoked “Girl, I guess so” more than it summoned the spine of steel one would need to face certain death at the hands of the Empire.

The remaining characters were surprisingly compelling despite how little we actually knew about them.  Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor draws you in through his confessions of the losses he faced at the hands of the Empire as well as the moral compromises he’s made in service of the Alliance. Nothing is really known about the origin of the friendship between Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, but their affection for one another is never in doubt and when they meet their tragic end, it has more emotional weight than expected. Bodhi Rook’s defection from the Empire roughly mirrors Finn’s from TFA, but is remarkably more interesting and believable because unlike Finn, he was merely a pilot for the Empire and one could imagine him being persuaded to the cause of the Alliance by Galen Erso.  The big standout of the film is actually Alan Tudyk’s voice characterization of Imperial droid, K-2SO. He brings some welcome comic counterpoint to the film’s grim tone and his lines are genuinely laugh out loud funny.

On the Imperial side, Ben Mendelsohn brings a sufficiently nasty sneering menace to his role as Director Orson Krennic.  And yes, Rogue One marks the welcome return of the greatest Sith of them all and one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, Lord Vader. Vader’s appearance in the film is limited to two excellent scenes, and only serve to remind you that neither Kylo Ren or young, tortured Anakin has managed to scale the heights of sheer Dark Side terror that Vader can summon in one line of dialogue or just by entering a room.

Perhaps being unshackled by the weight of the Skywalker mythology really freed up some creative energies, but Gareth Edwards deserves a vigorous round of applause for the feat of world building he has pulled off here.  The film is filled with both new and old worlds that have that grimy, used future vibe of the OT as well as numerous classic vehicles and images.  Mostly, Gareth Edwards managed to convey a sense of scale that even surpasses Lucas’ original vision at certain times.  The Empire has never seemed more massive and imposing on screen as it does in Rogue One. The data storage facility at Scarif is what you’d imagine Qatar to be like had it been developed by the Empire.  Jedha and Jedha City are equally impressive with obvious connections to Arabic citadels and architecture. Edwards even gives us Vader’s palace at Mustafar as a dark monument to the disfigurement he suffered at the hands of his former Jedi mentor.

My biggest gripe with Rogue One is the facile message and the refusal to confront the inherently political content at its center in an honest and meaningful way. The entire message of the film can be summed up as Be Hopeful, Listen and Believe (especially if it’s a womyn), and Down with the Space Nazis. Sure, it’s a Disney property now, it’s unrealistic of me to expect them to make anyone think too hard and Lucas’ message was arguably just as superficial, but when Disney’s Bob Iger says there are “no political statements” in Rogue One, I’m calling bullshit.  Of course Star Wars is political!  It’s about fucking WAR fer chrissakes, people!  It’s about the struggle of liberty versus tyranny. There is nothing more inherently political than war or armed revolution. War is the business of the nation state. Revolutions organize themselves around a political philosophy. The Rebel Alliance were the just remnants of the Old Republic who want to preserve peace and justice by restoring “democracy”.  The films never spell out exactly what the Alliance’s political ideals or principles are beyond “democracy” or “hope”, but the Rebels do aspire to reclaim the seat of power in their own right.  Presumably, they’re just going to be better at it than the Empire.
The politics of Star Wars have long been a subject of debate throughout the geekosphere, but I suggest that’s because people want to be able to connect it more immediately into the world of the present and their own political worldview. Disney and Lucas undoubtedly tried to keep the political content as neutral as possible so that one could view the films though one’s own ideological lens, but it still leaves me wanting a bit more. The film presents a very easily digestible Manichean dichotomy: Rebels are Good and Imperials are Bad.  This simplistic dualism doesn’t allow you to wrap your mind around which mechanisms of political policy the Empire exploited or the propaganda they deployed in order to accumulate such massive centralized political power in the first place. Edwards’ world contained mountains of untapped thematic potential.  If there was an Imperial Labor Camp on Wobani, it stands to reason that this is where dissidents and thought criminals were sent, and subsequently, it was a missed opportunity to introduce the propagandists for the Alliance.  Furthermore, there had to be segments of the galaxy that were pro-Empire and totally pro-Death Star. It was fundamentally a government program and by extension, a boon for lots of industrial interests throughout the galaxy.

Unfortunately, the political content doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you inspect it closely, and more often than not, reaffirms a lot of dopey leftist clichés.  How did the Confederacy of Indepent Systems, essentially the UKIP of the Republic, get to be the bad guys simply for embracing secession and opposing the excessive taxation and bureaucratic palsy of the Republic? That sounds pretty American and like the real rebels to me. And why is the Galactic Empire called a fascist regime?  They weren’t promoting a racially pure ethno-state nor could they promote a unitary galactic identity.  If anything, they were Space Communists, not Nazis.

As good as it is, I can’t help but wonder what Gareth Edwards presented to Disney executives initially.  It’s a little ironic that a film franchise that cashes in on a sentiment of rebellion is ultimately subordinate to the aesthetic mandates of its corporate, Imperial overlords.

But don’t let any of this hyper-analysis deter you if you have even the slightest misgivings.  Rogue One is the best thing to happen to the franchise since Luke Skywalker first brandished a lightsaber.  Who knows if it is a harbinger of Episode VIII or if it remains a solitary bright light in a dying franchise?  Regardless, Gareth Edwards has given us something that all of us OT OG’s have long awaited: a Star Wars film that’s actually fucking good. Enjoy it while it’s here. 

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

If you garnered any enjoyment from the first Independence Day or if you’re in the mood for a state of the art alien invasion film with some really enjoyable performances, you could do a lot worse than Resurgence.  The film succeeds because it gives you exactly what it promises: a band of heroes who join together to save human civilization from another extraterrestrial threat of extermination. Of course, the threat is twice as bad as before.  

The story picks up 20 years after the events of the first film and rejoins us with most of the original characters. Several young characters are added to the mix in order to fill the void left by the absence of Will Smith. All of the countries have banded together to rebuild civilization after being nearly vaporized by aliens the first time around. Thanks to harvested alien technology, the United States have built a global super state with a futuristic, alien-grade military defense apparatus that extends from the earth to the moon.  

This film has been described in various reviews as an appeal to nationalism and patriotism, but it’s more than that. It’s really War of the Worlds repurposed as a multicultural, globalist fantasy and a Keynesian wet dream. This film is yet another variation on the fantasy of a gleaming, futuristic, techno-utopia that can be achieved through abject servitude to the State and cradle to grave militarism. The previous alien invasion may have nearly wiped out civilization, but it provided the ultimate opportunity to enact the biggest economic stimulus ever! It’s quite literally Paul Krugman’s prescription for economic prosperity writ large.  

Familial bonds are largely non-existent for the younger characters, but when they are introduced, they exist mostly within the hierarchy of the State. Vivica Fox returns as Jasmine Hiller who is both mother of Jessie Usher’s Dylan Hiller and some kind of high ranking government official.  She lasts long enough to convey maternal pride in her top gun military progeny and die a tragic death amidst the alien devastation.
The technology is so advanced, that one can only imagine that the Platonist social engineers were finally given free reign to build a society of super soldiers whose only devotion is to the State. Naturally, it’s a multicultural paradise with total gender equality.  Every race and culture gets along harmoniously, the women are every bit as capable as the men in every pursuit, and when the chips are down, humanity joins hands to fend off extinction one more time. Even the African communist militants seem like really cool guys. 

But enough of all this analysis.  What about the UFOs and worldwide demolition? Independence Day made its mark by giving us massive alien ships with devastating weapons, and just as one would hope, Resurgence doubles down on the massiveness.  The film wants to overwhelm you with its scale, and it more than delivers. The alien mothership is so big, it plants itself on the surface of the earth like a giant hubcap.  

When it comes to defeating the aliens, the film settles for yet another variation on what has become a completely shopworn cliché: destroy the leader and the minions lose their agency.  Sadly, the human alliance doesn’t differ from the aliens in this respect.  All of the forces rally and are emboldened to fight upon hearing President Whitmore’s grizzled but rousing call to arms.  

Though I doubt it was the filmmakers’ intention, I propose that this film was also a stealth commentary on modern feminism. Everyone will undoubtedly find it so empowering and progressive that Sela Ward plays the current president and gives the command to initiate the attack on the alien vessel, but that’s a side show. The alien civilization is essentially a matriarchy that resembles a highly advanced insect colony with a queen who controls and directs the worker soldiers. Once the queen is killed, all the subordinate aliens lose their will to fight. If an advanced civilization capable of enormous and highly coordinated feats of starship construction, weapons systems development, and intergalactic invasion and occupation is ruled by a woman and all of the subordinate workers are so emasculated that they’re forced to dedicate the entirety of their existence to a never-ending pursuit of intergalactic conquest, that doesn’t speak too highly of life under matriarchy.  

Ultimately, the film is supremely entertaining. It knows that its first job is to be a rousing blockbuster alien invasion movie and it succeeds wildly at this task. But every major Hollywood film exists to transmit progressive editorial of one form or another, and Independence Day: Resurgence is certainly no exception. 

Kurt Vonnegut: Harrison Bergeron

If you were to compile a list of works of speculative fiction whose predictions of the future were truly prescient, it would have to include Kurt Vonnegut’s short story masterpiece, Harrison BergeronI am hard pressed to think of any work which so perfectly captures the pathological mentality of the modern day social justice warrior so perfectly and traces out the ramifications of this mentality if it were made into public policy. Sadly, it’s a process which seems well underway.  
Vonnegut manages to build his dystopian world in one elegant paragraph: 

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

With this single paragraph, he places us in a nightmare future where the crusade for equality of outcomes has been pursued to its fullest conclusion. In this not-too-distant future, the US Constitution contains over 200 amendments, people have lost the distinction between positive and negative rights, and perverted its original intent beyond all recognition. The ideas of equality before the law, individual rights and equality of opportunity preserved by a Constitutionally limited State have been completely supplanted by an all-consuming obsession with equal results which can only be attained by destroying uniqueness, individualism and humanity itself. Equality is, of course, enforced by a government bureaucrat, United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Anyone who possesses a quality, attribute or skill that might set him or her apart from everyone else must be handicapped in order to preserve equality of outcomes. The intelligent receive a mental implant which short circuits their ability to think. The attractive are forced to hide their beauty behind masks. The physically able are forced to carry sacks of lead balls padlocked to their bodies. Those with beautiful voices are given speech impediments. And so on. 

The action centers around George and Hazel Bergeron as they watch their son, Harrison, commit the highest act of sedition possible after escaping prison at age fourteen.  Harrison sheds his handicaps and dazzles the world by dancing a ballet on live television before the world. 

One need only to look at any of the social justice jihads being carried out on campuses and in the media to discover that Vonnegut was on to something.  The decades-long feminist outrage against “patriarchal beauty standards” has culminated in the so-called “body positivity” movement which not only destroys the one objective standard present in modeling, but seemingly seeks to reprogram manhood to be attracted to overweight women. The politics of grievance have reached an apex with the never-ending quest to name and shame anyone with “privilege”. Genetic and biological traits now supersede individual rights or merit and are sufficient grounds for legislative redress or special administrative dispensation by today’s social justice jihadists. Perhaps the most pernicious of all the social justice crusades is the pursuit of gender neutrality by those who insist that gender segregation in sports somehow reinforces “harmful” gender stereotypes.  And let’s not forget the deathless claim of a wage gap between men and women which is shamelessly flogged by the political and media establishment despite being debunked several times over. 

Meanwhile, different versions of the United States Handicapper General get created in college campuses and different levels of federal and local government throughout the country. 

What other outcome is possible from this mad pursuit of “equality” if not the anesthetized, institutionalized mediocrity and servitude portrayed in Harrison Bergeron?  As Paul Gottfried and many others have argued, this therapeutic agenda being administered by the democratic priesthood and their lackeys seeks nothing more than to debilitate the population and pave the path to socialist serfdom.  The only equality one can reasonably expect to uphold as an ideal is equality of opportunity. Once you seek equality of results, you destroy the foundation of liberty upon which any possibility for real achievement rests. Speculative fiction of this nature is meant to serve as a warning against the realities of the present. The signs of the nightmare world Vonnegut portrayed are everywhere. Here’s to everyone discovering their own inner Harrison.