How Brienne of Tarth Saved “Game of Thrones”

game-of-thrones-brienneI’ve been following the insanely popular—yet excruciatingly brutal—Game of Thrones for several seasons now. I must confess, partly because I don’t own or watch TV, that I am a little behind. I’m currently watching Season Four, while still metaphorically shaking in the violent wake of the shocking and brutal Red Wedding episode of Season Three. As the Internet buzz revealed, this was an extremely difficult show to watch for everyone. What was the purpose of its graphical brutality? Who needs to see that level of violence? I am reminded of an introductory scene in the show in which character John Snow counsels his little brother Bran to not avert his eyes when his father executes a deserter, by chopping off his head—an act that foreshadows his own decapitation later in the series. It is as though the producers of the show are counselling us in the same way as they subject us to grisly scene after grisly scene. Many cheap and gratuitous, as far as I am concerned.

The Red Wedding scene, in which several beloved characters are brutally slaughtered set into play a new set of rules for audience engagement: that of total distrust. Distrust in the storytellers (primarily in the producers of the show, whose scripts, I’m told, have deviated from the novels in some important ways). Distrust that creates an uneasy tension. Distrust that precipitates a panicked wish for clairvoyance. This is because we have no concept of fairness in the story; yet we’ve so invested in the characters. That is the storyteller’s worst act of cruelty: to hold us hostage to the characters. The rules of fair play in story have been broken. We’re stuck in a kind of free fall, desperately hoping that our beloved characters will make it through the night intact, if not unscathed. And when they don’t, its like watching our children die, as we stand powerless by.

Good fiction—as opposed to reality—tells a purposeful story. A story with fictional characters, who play a purposeful role. All good stories make a promise in the beginning; a promise they keep in the end. They create a covenant with their audience to participate in a fulfilling journey. This doesn’t have to mean a happy ending, but it does include meaning and fulfillment—even if only for its audience. And that must involve victory of sorts—and hope—whether it is through redemption, acceptance, enlightenment, or some change that gives us “more”—not less; something that allows us to prevail alongside.

If I feel that I am simply witnessing a cesspool of meaningless chaos and brutality, dominated by ruthless and insane people, in which heroes are equally powerless victims as they are true agents of change—with no rhyme or reason to tell the difference—then I must ask myself the question: why am I watching this? What does this story mean to me? I start to feel like a misanthropic voyeur, as perverse as Joffrey or Littlefinger as I watch people get tortured, flayed alive, dismembered, and worse… with no recourse. This is NOT entertainment and it certainly isn’t of any value to me. For such an offence to the senses to have value, there must be an element of—or at least a grain of hope of—prevailing and movement.

By Season Three end, both the series and I are feeling a little tired. And for good reason; most of the characters—the women particularly—are trapped in an incessant pattern of simple endurance. That seems to be all they are able to do: endure. Certainly they manage to act and create within their limited sphere of influence; but mostly to colour their position, not change it. So, we endure alongside; and we can endure only so much.

Then enter Brienne of Tarth. Also known as Maid of Truth.

And with her, a breath of much needed fresh air.brienne of tarth-close

When Brienne was first introduced in “What is Dead May Never Die” in Season Two, she brought with her the anachronistic romanticism of a true knight. We first see her besting favored champion Ser Loras Tyrell (Knight of Flowers) in a tournament. When she presents herself to King Renly Baratheon and removes her helm, the crowd hushes in surprise. To his offer of prize, Brienne requests a place in his Kingsguard, which he gladly grants, despite her gender and lack of formal stature as a knight.

Brienne is the iconic knight of the chivalric sagas: noble, virtuous, compassionate and brave. Singularly honest and loyal. So much so that her contemporaries deride her as simple, naïve and stupid. As though embracing such virtues is outmoded, foolish and weak. That she is a woman—albeit tall, ungainly and considered unfeminine—makes her virtues all the more powerful and refreshing.

BrienneoftarthWhen King Renly is assassinated, Brienne swears fealty to Catelyn Stark and becomes her sworn sword. Catelyn charges Brienne to return her captive Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing to exchange him for her two daughters held hostage there. Their journey provides some of the best scenes of the TV series and some of the most fulfilling interactions. Throughout Jaime’s insufferable taunts about her appearance and likely dismal history with the opposite sex, Brienne remains stoically silent. Except when she speaks:

“All my life men like you’ve sneered at me, and all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”—Brienne to Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones

Essayist Brent Hartinger suggests that Brienne’s character is a well-written departure from fantasy novels where the main characters are commonly “the slender… average-heighted, the conventionally abled and traditionally gendered.”

Essayist Caroline Spector describes Brienne as a “study in heartbreaking contradictions. She embraces the romantic ideals of her culture, both emotionally and through her actions, but is continually betrayed by the real world simply because she cannot turn herself into the woman the Westerosi legends tell her she should be.”

By upholding her ideals of integrity, Brienne refuses to conform to the established cultural expectations. Her very nature—from physique to comportment to idealism—defies the notion in Westeros that women are to be taken or coerced, and meant to endure their lot; not be agents of their own change. Spector describes Brienne as a woman who has “taken for herself most of the attributes of male power.” She embodies “how women who dare to take male power for their own are judged and treated not only in Westeros but in all conventionally patriarchal societies.”brienne-jaime-GoT

The journey of Brienne and Jaime is a fine tale of initial antagonism, discovery, surprising tenderness and ultimate friendship, based on honour and mutual respect. Throughout, Brienne defends and encourages a flagging Jaime and he, in turn, saves her on several occasions, culminating in his return to rescue her from a brutal death in the bearpit.

What makes “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”—or any other scene in which Brienne and Jaime appear—so pleasing? We witness in the interactions between them an evolution in character, great opportunities for learning and redemption, and finally the development of an iconic friendship based on respect and equality—something normally reserved for individuals of the same sex—that neither had previously enjoyed. Like two souls missing something, each is a gift to the other. And though delivered differently, it is the same for both: honour, self-respect and faith in humanity. And neither is the same for their interaction.

brienne-jaime-swords“The bathhouse had been thick with the steam rising off the water, and Jaime had come walking through that mist naked as his name day, looking half a corpse and half a god.”—George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

Brienne is the catalyst hero. She gives us hope. She gives us hope to save the world. She does this through her influence on others. By shear strength of her genuine goodness, Brienne transforms, challenges, and supports. She is über-strong, yet vulnerable; which Jaime recognizes and appreciates as something truly beautiful. The reason he returns to save her in the bear pit.

“I am grateful, but… you were well away. Why come back?”

A dozen quips came to mind, each crueler than the one before, but Jaime only shrugged. “I dreamed of you,” he said.—George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

Jaime slides back to his scoundrel-self once returned safely to King’s Landing and out of Brienne’s sphere of influence—and beneath the shadow of his overbearing father. He is a chameleon, a shape shifter, who struggles to lift himself out from the shadow of his soulless father. Despite some continued reprehensible behavior (particularly to do with his sister, with whom he had formed a perverse relationship), Brienne’s light of honour appears to burn inside him in some form. His actions—tasking her to find and secure Sansa’s safety and giving her his own sword—maintains their honour-bond. When he gives her his longsword, forged of Valyrian steel, he asks her to name it; showing the cooperative respect between the two. She chooses the name Oathkeeper, fulfilling again her role in their story.

In fact, Brienne’s story follows a more traditionally male narrative. Her quest is to save the beautiful maiden (Sansa), but not to marry her or benefit from the quest; it is simply to secure her safety. Feminist writer Rihannon tells us that this is a storyline that “the mother, the young girl and the shieldmaiden are all given equal weight and worth…She uses her strength and her skill to respect and help other women in ways that most men in Westeros would never even think to attempt, because she understands, more than any other knight, that women are truly worth something as individuals.”

Are other women of Westeros poised to rise as true agents of change and takebrienne-of-tarth command not only of their lives but to save the world? Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon mother, liberates slaves; courage and a sense of justice animates the independent Arya. And we’ll see what becomes of Brienne…and Jaime.

I will continue to watch this series with uneasy anticipation.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.

 

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Live, Die, Repeat: “The Edge of Tomorrow”

 

Edge Of Tomorrow - Emily Blunt warrior
Emily Blunt

She’s called The Angel of Verdun. You also see another name scrawled in bright red over a London bus: Full Metal Bitch. When we first see her, angry and fierce in her battle gear (which resembles a modern-day knight’s armor) she’s heading out to battle, stomping out of the bunker, surrounded by an entourage, and summarily knocks an acolyte down who gets in her way. She’s badass. She’s the Full Metal Bitch.

Her real name is Rita Vrataski. She wields a sharpened helicopter blade as her weapon of choice and serves as the poster girl for the United Defense Force to recruit more into the fight.

Rita (Emily Blunt) is a very different kind of poster girl for the war effort of the recent SF action movie Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman and written by Christopher McQuarrie. There is an “edge of tomorrow” in this military SF story that explores how much we’ve changed since the time of World War I and II. And that change is most apparent in how women are seen and act.

Edge of Tomorrow makes subtle and not so subtle reference to both world wars: from its June 6th release Edge-of-Tomorrow-Poster(70th anniversary of D-Day and the massive and decisive Normandy landing) to its reference to the trenches of Verdun in WWI, the Nazi or German Empire forces as the original seat of the Omega entity and many more.

The premise is straight-forward science fiction stuff: Earth is under attack by an alien species, who have seeded themselves with a meteor shower. The aliens have conquered Russia and China and now threaten France and England. Evoking echoes of World War II’s Normandy invasion, the United States joins the fray in support of their allies.

American Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), who is with the PR staff of the war effort, gets unwillingly drafted to the front as a rookie private and dies in the first five minutes of landing on the shores of Normandy—but not before he kills an alpha alien, which covers him in blue blood. This sends him into a vicious time loop, where he must relive and die over and over in that horrendous bloodbath. Each time, he glimpses the Angel of Verdun repeatedly killed. On one occasion, Vrataski runs across him, lying injured in the mud. He can’t move, sure victim to the aliens. She snatches his battery pack and moves on, leaving him there to die. Astonished at the Angel’s apparent lack of compassion, Cage will later mimic her “let him die” attitude when he knowingly lets fellow soldier Kimmel get crushed.

In a later iteration he finally meets Vrataski on the battlefield, where she realizes (having gone through the time loop and lost it) that he is now in a time loop and therefore the key to their victory; she tells him to find her when he wakes up just seconds before she lets herself get blown up and they begin their looping journey together. To his complaint, “I’m not a soldier,” Vrataski replies, “No, you’re a weapon.” That’s how she sees him. And to that end, she mentors him in the art and science of soldiering. When things go awry she time and again unflinchingly shoots him dead to reset the time. Cage tries to engage her in casual conversation and finds her taciturn. “You don’t talk much,” he observes, to which she quips, “Not a fan.” She’s all about the business of defeating the enemy before the human race is wiped out.

Emily-Blunt-in-Edge-of-Tomorrow2
Emily Blunt as Rita Vrataski

Edge of Tomorrow provides a refreshing kind of woman hero; someone who is equal to her male protagonist in skill, intelligence and heroic stature. What I mean by heroic stature is that her heroic journey of transformation does not play subservient to her male counterpart’s journey. This almost happens on two occasions when Cage gives her an “out” to stay behind and let him take over. She declines. In fact, Cruise lets her character take the lead, even though this it truthfully Cage’s story of metaphoric transformation from “onlooker” to “participant”.

In so many androcentric storylines, the female—no matter how complex, interesting and tough she starts out being—must demure to the male lead; as if only by bowing down to his superior abilities can she help ensure his heroic stature. Returning us right back to the cliché role of the woman supporting the leading man to complete his hero’s journey. And this often means serving as the prize for his chivalry. We see this in so many action thrillers and action adventures today: Valka in How to Train Your Dragon, Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie, Neytiri in Avatar, Trinity in The Matrix, and so many more. There’s even a name for it: the Trinity Syndrome.

WW2 pin up girl
WW2 pin up girl

Tasha Robinson writes in her excellent article entitled, We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome: “The idea of the Strong Female Character—someone with her own identity, agenda, and story purpose—has thoroughly pervaded the conversation about what’s wrong with the way women are often perceived and portrayed today, in comics, video-games, and film especially…it’s still rare to see films in the mainstream action/horror/science-fiction/fantasy realm introduce women with any kind of meaningful strength, or women who go past a few simple stereotypes.”

I give Cruise, Liman and McQuarrie full marks for not doing this. For example, after Cage makes his case to his Squadron to go find the Omega in Paris, they remain reluctant until Vrataski emerges. “I don’t expect you to follow me,” says Cage. “I do expect you to follow her.” The Angel of Verdun—or better yet, the badass Full Metal Bitch. And why not? Who wouldn’t follow her?

Is this one of the reasons that this movie didn’t do so well in the North American box office as it did in Europe, whose audience may reflect a more mature, open and enlightened audience?

edge of tomorrow-rita vrataskiWhen a female lead is stronger than the male protagonist, some reviewers (OK—some male reviewers) treat and categorize that movie as a “woman’s story”. I’ve been told by some of my male friends that they couldn’t possibly empathize with such a character—mainly because she is a woman and she is stronger than the male lead “they want to be”. Invariably, in many of these, the male counterpart is so much “milk-toast” compared to that awesome female-warrior. And have you ever noticed that, while the male hero gets the girl, the female hero usually ends up alone? Great examples include: Buffy the Vampire SlayerXena: Warrior Princess; Sarah in The Terminator and of course Vasquez in Aliens. These women are amazons; they stand apart, goddess-like, unrelenting, unflinching—untouchable. It’s actually no wonder that my ex-husband dislikes Sigourney Weaver to this day—she could crush him underfoot and eat him for breakfast at a moment’s notice. And probably would…

In a superb article in NewStatesman entitled I hate Strong Female Characters, Sophia McDougall says:

“…I want to point out two things that Richard has, that Bond and Captain America and Batman also have, that Peggy (Carter of Captain America), however strong she is, cannot attain. They are very simple things, even more fundamental than “agency”.

1)      Richard has the spotlight. However weak or distressed or passive he may be, he’s the main goddamn character.

2)      Richard has huge range of other characters of his own gender around him, so that he never has to act as any kind of ambassador or representative for maleness. Even dethroned and imprisoned, he is free to be uniquely himself.

On the posters [women are] posed way in the back of the shot behind the men, in the trailers they may pout or smile or kick things, but they remain silent. Their strength lets them, briefly, dominate bystanders but never dominate the plot. It’s an anodyne, a sop, a Trojan Horse – it’s there to distract and confuse you, so you forget to ask for more.”

rita vrataski-cageThere is another type of female hero. She is equal to her male counterpart. Her story is not secondary to his story; her heroic status and hero’s journey is equal to his; in fact they may share the same journey. Examples include: Bonnie and Clyde; Peter Chang’s Aeon FluxFarscapeBattlestar Galactica

And now Edge of Tomorrow. As with the above examples, Vrataski and Cage form a team, in which together they are more than the sum of their parts. A marriage of independent autopoiesis, combining skills, abilities and vision. This is also why, in my opinion, the ending of Edge of Tomorrow is totally appropriate: not because it’s “the happy ending”; but because it carries the message of the enduring collaboration of equals.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, IROSF, Europa SF, and Amazing Stories. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. Nina teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her newest release, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua (Mincione Edizioni, Rome) is a bilingual short story (and essay) on water and climate change.

 

“Orphan Black” Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

orphanblack-EWCanadian science fiction thriller Orphan Black, written by Graeme Manson and directed by John Fawcett—now in Season Two—stars the extraordinary multi-talented Tatiana Maslany in multiple roles of herself—really.

Shot in and around Toronto, Ontario, the series focuses on Sarah Manning, a fringe-dweller with questionable friends, who assumes the identity of her clone, cop Elizabeth (Beth) Childs, after witnessing her suicide. In Season 1 alone, seven clones are revealed. Those still alive include suburban housewife Alison, university evolutionary biologist Cosima, corporate mogul Rachel, and crazed sociopath Helena. So far, two more have been revealed in Season 2.

Orphan Black is a slick, sophisticated and edgy exploration of human evolution that raises issues about the moral and ethical implications of bio-engineering and genetic tampering—specifically human cloning, personal identity and intellectual property.

Toronto is filmed brilliantly in a vague every-city pastiche that combines the look of London’s eastside, NYC and northern Europe all in one. Like its characters, the show is both sparsely existentialist and baroque funk. Besides Sarah’s own diverse clones there is foster brother Felix and his various friends or cronies who add significant colour to this film-noir set. Unsavory antagonists not only add intrigue but provide significant texture from sophisticated and subtle to the banal and truly terrifying. And like biology itself—perhaps the true main character here—all the characters are shape-shifters; looking for balance in a shifting world where “normal” keeps chasing itself.

helena-sestra on the go
Helena (Tatiani Maslany)

The metaphoric and allegorical nature of science fiction positions itself as a major commentary art form on our nature and evolution. With its emphasis on identity, rights and intellectual property, Orphan Black has positioned itself at the forefront of evolving science fiction.

“While other stories, including Jurassic Park and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, could certainly be categorized as biopunk science fiction, very few television shows and movies today delve into the idea of biology,” says Isabella Kapur in her article “Clones are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black.”

Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

Orphan Black

Human cloning recently made a media comeback when three different research groups created embryonic stem cells out of embryos cloned from adult cells.

designer genesIssues, brought on by GMO foods and medical genetic research, have propelled a major debate in gene patenting. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled against patenting sequences of the human genome in Association for Molecular Pathology Et Al. vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc., Et Al., reports Isabella Kapur in her article: Clones are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black. “Myriad Genetics had patented two genes they had isolated that were identified as genes involved in increased ovarian and breast cancer risks,” said Kapur. “Companies, like Myriad, that spend money to identify nucleotide sequences want to be able to patent those discoveries. However, the patenting allows for monopolies on illness treatments and allows companies to have exclusive access to portions of human DNA. As of June [2013], companies like Myriad Genetics can’t legally copyright portions of DNA they have isolated in the human genome, but they are, according to the Supreme Court, allowed to patent synthetically created sequences of complementary DNA.”

leekie talk
Transhumanist Aldous Leekie promotes “self-directed evolution”

In Orphan Black, the ownership of the clones’ genomes by The Dyad Institute would be lawful if all the clones’ DNA was entirely synthetically made. The company would also have exclusive rights to study the clones’ genome, effectively placing the clone Cosima under copyright infringement if she decided to study and apply her research (on herself) outside of the Dyad Institute. If the clones were synthetic, like the DNA created by scientist Dr. Craig Venter, then the Dyad Institute would be in a unique situation with regards to ethics and newly emerging considerations of human rights yet to be determined. For instance, how much of the clones really belong to company that made them? What even constitutes a person?

Felix-neolutions
Felix (Jordan Gavaris) at a Neolution club

The series unravels a frightening panoply of stakeholders in this biological transhumanist game, spanning from the ultra-sophisticated to the deranged fanatic. Proletheans are religious extremists, who seek to systematically eliminate clones as “abominations” against the natural order of things. Pastor Henrick, a Waco-style cult “prophet” who quotes Einstein, conducts Mengele-style “breeding” experiments to recast humanity in his version of “perfection”.

eugenics-propaganda GermanyThe Dyad Institute, a biotech corporation with arcane connections to invisible powers and eugenics, patented the clones as theirs to do with as they please—which might be anything. The Neolutionists, a transhumanist movement pursuing “self-directed evolution” evokes social Darwinism and the Übermensch. All bring to mind the early American eugenics programs that inspired the fascist sonderweg and Hitler’s aggressive application of eugenics in the Holocaust. All are frightening.

For instance, why were the clones made? Who exactly is the Dyad Institute and who is behind them? In the latest episode (2.8: Variable and Full of Perturbation), we discover that not only are the clones female prototypes (of what?) but that they were purposefully created to be sterile.

Conditions of Existence…From Perfect Human to Perfect Society

Cosima
Cosima (Tatiana Maslany)

Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818—often regarded as the first science fiction story written—the “mad scientist” has endured and evolved as an archetype in literature. Literary works from science fiction to thriller, mystery, action adventure and even literary fiction have often portrayed scientists as sociopathic, and so consumed with their experiments that they are either oblivious to or outright disregard their social consequence. Most stereotypes and cliché derive from a realizable archetype based on social experience. In reality, ambition and political motive are dangerous bedfellows in the pursuit of science (to use another cliché). A recent book jacket introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, shares the following examples: “the brains behind the nuclear arms race, scientists who create super bacteria, and laboratories that experiment with artificial black holes. But most notably is the area of science devoted to gene manipulation, both in genetically modified foods and human cloning. Frankenstein has much to teach us in a world where we constantly test the limits of science and human ambition.”

Eugenics congress logoWhere do we draw the line in our tightrope walk across the sea of chaos to find the Holy Grail? When does a Transhumanist’s individual expression of “transcendence” become a movement toward the Singularity? When does a singular powerful thought encompass an entire society?

The political ambitions that wish to use science to “enhance” humanity, based on someone’s idea of “perfect” carry great social implications. Enter the pseudoscience of eugenics, a concept as old as Plato, and one that has haunted humanity since the biblical portrayal of Adam and Eve. Simply put, eugenics uses science and/or breeding techniques to produce individuals with preferred or “better” characteristics. Coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, eugenic strategies flourished in the USA in the early 20th Century when thousands of people underwent forced sterilization. Ultimately, these same principles inspired the Nazis to exterminate people with disabilities and those considered to have “lessor” ethnic or philosophical backgrounds.

orphan-black
Tatiana Maslany as several clones

“Perhaps more than any other science, biology has consistently been employed as an accomplice to moral claims because it has tremendous social utility in translating scientific findings into political imperatives,” says Cosima Herter, science consultant for Orphan Black. “Deeply embedded in the public consciousness is the hope that social problems can be solved with ‘scientific panaceas’,” Herter adds. “…Science can as easily act as an ally to existing institutions and justify pernicious prejudices – racism, sexism, homophobia, and class disparity to name a few – as it can produce wondrous, beautiful, and beneficial fruits in the service of a better world.”

What is perfect and how do we measure it? What is the risk of even suggesting a recipe for such a thing? A perfect society? Isn’t a Utopia an oxymoron of unresolvable paradox? Science fiction literature has given us many visions of where so-called utopias may descend (e.g., Brave New World1984Fahrenheit 451A Stranger in a Strange LandThe Handmaid’s TaleThe MatrixThe Hunger GamesElysiumDivergentClockwork OrangeDeliriumAlways Coming Home, and so many more). The very act of being an individual provides complexity and diversity that promotes stability in change. Stable chaos.

Perhaps, what Orphan Black demonstrates the best is that even clones—who are exactly the same genetically—can differ significantly, given free reign in a diverse environment.

What Orphan Black does exceptionally well is ask those hard questions. OK. It’s not asking the questions so much as presenting the “then” scenario to some pretty important “what if” premises. It’s doing what all good art—versus polemic—does: it’s providing the seeds for viewers to engage in intelligent conversation on emerging social issues via Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social media.

Join in.

You Want to Go to “The Island”

island-the-movie-2005From its metaphoric title to its powerful end, Director Michael Bay’s The Island had me fully engaged. Told in the genuine style of great science fiction commentary by screenwriters Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (in 2005), The Island reflects the escape-from dystopia films of the 1960s and 70s such as Fahrenheit 451, THX 1138, and Logan’s Run. This elegant story examines a full range of human foibles—consumerist greed, racism, fascism and isolationism—through a premise that is as frightening as it is possible.

In the year 2019, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) live in an isolated community where behavior is governed by a set of strict rules. This includes the avoidance of too close contact. Everything is the same; residents all wear the same white uniform and carry out simple duties. They’ve been told that the outside world is too contaminated for human life with the exception of one island. Everyone lives for the weekly lottery, where the winner gets to leave the compound to live on the island.

It’s a simple and banal existence. We glimpse a scene of adults reading Dick and Jane out loud. When in the opening scene Lincoln Six Echo finds a shoe missing in his provided wardrobe, this becomes a major focus of his day (when greeted by a colleague with, “How are you doing?” he responds with, “I’m missing a shoe.”)theisland-clones

Lincoln can’t accept this mundane existence. In an interview with Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), the scientist who runs the compound, Lincoln naively unleashes a tirade of items that frustrate him, like why everyone wears white, who determined tofu Tuesday, and then ends with: “I want to know answers and I wish there was more than just waiting to go to the island.” He also suffers from dreams about a life he doesn’t understand—they are, in fact, memories of his ‘sponsor’, the original man (Tom Lincoln) that he is a copy of. When he discovers a moth and follows it, he stumbles into the hidden part of the compound. There he witnesses what really happens to “lottery winners”: they are killed and used for organ harvesting, surrogate motherhood, etc. for each one’s sponsor.

the-island-merrick
Merrick (Sean Bean)

Lincoln is just an insurance policy. An ‘agnate’ according to Dr. Merrick, who describes them as in a “persistent vegetative state that never achieves consciousness” to clients, willing to pay millions of dollars for a second chance at life—and blithely unaware that ‘agnates’ are alive and fully formed with thoughts and feelings like them.

When Lincoln learns the truth, and knowing that Jordan just “won” the lottery, he convinces her to escape with him. Merrick hires Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), a mercenary and former GIGN veteran, to find and dispatch them.

The Island received mixed reviews from critics, island-helicopterwith a 40% “Rotten” rating, based on 185 reviews. Variety’s Justin Chang called the film an “exercise in sensory overkill.” Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek lamented that when the film got really interesting, Bay seemed to think he needed “to throw in a car crash or round of gunfire to keep our attention.” If these critics found fault with this elegant action-thriller, I hate to see what they make of 90% of the so-called SF movies out there today. Unlike them, The Island provides a refreshing meaningful face to action-adventure.

Roger Ebert suggested that The Island missed the opportunity “to do what the best science fiction does, and use the future as a way to critique the present.” Again, I disagree. The Island does what the best science fiction does well: it examines the nature of our humanity through the choices we make in adversity within a future world and premise that provides great opportunity for abuse.

the-island-lalalala
Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou)

The theme of this parable is carried evocatively by Steve Jablonsky’s score. Like a swelling tide it sweeps us on a journey to some distant shore. From the melodic strings and yearning chorus, the music builds to a powerful conclusion at the film’s end, when it lifts us to victory, resonating with our divine evolution.

the island-Djimon_Hounsou-smileI was particularly struck by the timing of the strings and chorus with the appearance of Albert Laurent, walking among those he had just liberated. It is a pivotal and powerful moment that escalates into a resonating vibration of liberty and victory as his eyes meet briefly with Lincoln and Jordan, reunited, and he smiles—for the first time. A beautiful smile of inner joy. It is the smile of a man who has “come home” and is finally free.

Laurent’s subplot is particularly compelling and carries one of the principle elements of the film. In some ways, Laurent represents you and me, caught up in our societal ‘duties’, seduced by self-serving entrapments only to awaken to a path of courageous compassion for all of humanity. Laurent’s journey from jaded mercenary to liberating hero begins when he notices Jordan’s skin branding and, recognizing a connection with her plight, helps her free the mass of ‘defective’ lottery winners about to be incinerated. We learn that his father had been killed as a rebel and Laurent was ‘branded’ as less than human. So, there he walks, brilliantly black among the white-clad ‘agnates’ who slide down the hill after emerging from the underground bunker in which they were incarcerated.

the-island-escapeThis motion picture is ultimately about finding dignity in the face of adversity and ridicule. It is about confronting the bully and gaining victory over one’s own barriers of fear and doubt toward compassion. It is about the power of love and connection with humanity. It is about retribution and finding one’s true path through the knowledge that we are all one.

 

I am you; you are me. You are the waves; I am the ocean. Know this and be free, be divine.” Sri Sathya Sai Baba

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.

 

 

“World War Z”

wwz-pitt-family running
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) gathers his family

I don’t watch zombie movies.

I steer away from them. I find them generally tasteless, unimaginative and lacking anything remotely connected to “story”. Most appear, at least from their trailers, to focus on violence and gore with little interest in anything else (what could be more gruesome than a person stalking then eating another?).
As a writer of science fiction and fantasy and avid fan of this genre in motion pictures, I lamented that zombies had become the “in thing” in stories and film these days. We’d just gotten over werewolves and vampires. Now I felt doomed by an infestation of the “undead”. I mean, how many ways can you portray such listless deadbeats?
Now there’s the action thriller “World War Z”. Despite my intrigue with the trailer, it took my trusted friend’s insistence for me to go see it. Remember: it’s a zombie movie and I don’t watch them.
I was vindicated in my trust of her good taste.
“World War Z” is not your typical zombie movie. In fact, to call it a zombie movie is to fail to acknowledge the deeper thematic reflections portrayed. What struck most was that this action thriller focused less on what zombies did (all that missing blood and gore that some reviewers lamented over gave me relief and gratitude) than on the effect of a plague that turned most of humanity into them. It actually had a story! While the motion picture apparently honored the iconic lore and criteria established in the zombie mythos, director Marc Forster and screen writers J. Michael Straczynski and Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on the book by Max Brooks) cleverly did not let themselves be limited by it. In fact, zombies per se serve more as plot tools in a far more interesting and deeper story arc and theme.  wwz-jerusalem
I’m referring to the subtle notes of ecology, biology and co-evolution interlaced throughout this visually stunning and rather disturbing film. What happens when you disturb Nature? The opening titles and scenes show a montage of curious and subtly dark reflections on the consequences of our general indifference to Nature and her growing unbalanced ecosystems. “Mother Nature is a serial killer,” virologist Andrew Fassbach tells our hero during his first—and last—ten  minutes on screen. During that short time they spend together, Fassbach shares some key insights into how Gaia plays. And she doesn’t always play “fair”. Fassbach also tells us that this zombie plague started with a virus. Which brings up some interesting questions. Was it an “intelligent virus”, manufactured and introduced? Did the virus co-evolve with some organism as an aggressive symbiont and was spontaneously triggered by a disturbance? What was that disturbance and was it an accident or a mistake? How did it come to be?
I didn’t fail to notice the reference to swarming ant colonies in the title montage that foreshadowed a later scene of zombies piling onto each other on the walls of Jerusalem in a frenzied search for warm bodies to eat. This is clearly a film about Nature’s powers and mysteries. You can be sure that questions about what triggered and defined the zombie plague will be addressed in the sequel, already scheduled. Because, like any serial killer, Mother Nature wants to be caught, says Fassbach.
Co-Evolution & Symbiogenesis
Which brings me to what this film really touches on: how Mother Nature takes care of herself and her own… whether we like it or not. The key is evolution and something called co-evolution: this is when two normal aggressors cooperate in an evolutionary partnership to benefit each other. Ehrlich and Raven coined co-evolution to explain how butterflies and their host plants developed in parallel. I wrote about it in an earlier post called “Co-evolution: Cooperation & Aggressive Symbiosis
  
wwz-zombie-ant hillVirologist Frank Ryan calls co-evolution “a wonderful marriage in nature—a partnership in which the definition of predator and prey blurs, until it seems to metamorphose to something altogether different.” Co-evolution is now an established theme in the biology of virus-host relationships. The ecological “home” of the virus is the genome of any potential host and scientists have remained baffled by the overwhelming evidence for ‘accommodation’.“Today…every monkey, baboon, chimpanzee and gorilla is carrying at least ten different species of symbiotic viruses,” says Ryan.
“Why,” asks Ryan, “is co-evolution [and its partner, symbiosis] such a common pattern in nature?” Ryan coined the term “genomic intelligence” to explain the form of intelligence exerted by viruses and the capacity of the genome to be both receptive and responsive to nature. It involves an incredible interaction between the genetic template and nature that governs even viruses. Symbiosis and natural selection need not be viewed as mutually contradictory. Russian biologists, Andrei Famintsyn and Konstantine Merezhkovskii invented the term “symbiogenesis” to explain the fantastic synthesis of new living organisms from symbiotic unions. Citing the evolution of mitochondria and the chloroplast within a primitive host cell to form the more complex eukaryotic cell (as originally theorized by Lynn Margulis), Ryan noted that “it would be hard to imagine how the step by step gradualism of natural selection could have resulted in this brazenly passionate intercourse of life!”
Aggressive Symbiosis
In his book, “Virus X” Dr. Frank Ryan coined the term “aggressive symbiont” to explain a common form of symbiosis where one or both symbiotic partners demonstrates an aggressive and potentially harmful effect on the other’s competitor or potential predator. Examples abound, but a few are worth mentioning here. In the South American forests, a species of acacia tree produces a waxy berry of protein at the ends of its leaves that provides nourishment for the growing infants of the ant colony residing in the tree. The ants, in turn not only keep the foliage clear of herbivores and preying insects through a stinging assault, but they make hunting forays into the wilderness of the tree, destroying the growing shoots of potential rivals to the acacia. Viruses commonly form “aggressive symbiotic” relationships with their hosts, one example of which is the herpes-B virus, Herpesvirus saimiri, and the squirrel monkey (the virus induces cancer in the competing marmoset monkey). Ryan suggests that the Ebola and hantavirus outbreaks follow a similar pattern of “aggressive symbiosis”. All you need is a perceived hostile trigger. A disturbance in an otherwise balanced ecosystem, for instance.
Aggressive Symbiosis & Human History
The historian, William H. McNeill, suggested that a form of “aggressive symbiosis” played a key role in the history of human civilization. “At every level of organization—molecular, cellular, organismic, and social—one confronts equilibrium [symbiotic] patterns. Within such equilibria, any alteration from ‘outside’ tends to provoke compensatory changes [aggressive symbiosis] throughout the system to minimize overall upheaval.”
So…what triggered the zombie plague of “World War Z”? And how will humanity prevail in this new paradigm of nature? I guess we’ll have to watch the sequel…

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange HorizonsIROSFEuropa SF, and Amazing Stories. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. Nina teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her newest release, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua (Mincione Edizioni, Rome) is a bilingual short story (and essay) on water and climate change.

“Oblivion”: Earth is a Memory Worth Fighting For…

oblivion-high-rise-cliffsI just recently experienced the visually stunning motion pictureOblivion in an IMAX theatre and I highly recommend it. Directed by Joseph Kosinski (based on his graphic novel), this SF action thriller is worth seeing on the big screen. It takes place in a devastated NYC (no longer recognizable as a vast lonely landscape of buried skyscrapers and dried up rivers). It’s 2077, sixty years after aliens invaded and destroyed the moon and much of the planet as consequence. This film is LARGE. Kosinki’s spectacular imagery and M83’s other-wordly and evocative score must be seen large.

Technician Jack Harper (Cruise) and Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are assigned to mop up the remaining resource extraction of a “fallen” Earth, before they join what’s left of the human race, who have settled on Titan, Jupiter’s moon. Victoria oversees operations and communicates with mission commander Sally (Melissa Leo) in the Tet (a large space station orbiting Earth) from the 3,000-foot high Sky Tower, a posh high-tech home/work station where she and Jack live. Meantime, Jack risks his life daily, servicing the droids that chase after “scavs” (remnant aliens), who keep sabotaging the giant resource harvesters.

Oblivion harvesters
Harper has lunch with harvesters in background

Jack and Victoria have been stationed there for five years and are due to leave in two weeks. Faced with the prospect of leaving Earth, Jack grows maudlin for humanity’s home. Without disclosing to Victoria or Sally, he’s been collecting Earth memorabilia (e.g., baseball cap, toys, sunglasses, books); It doesn’t help matters that he is haunted by dreams of living in pre-war NYC with another woman (Olga Kurylenko).oblivion-tom-cruise

Every day Jack leaves his ultra clean and tidy Sky Tower home and descends to Earth’s gritty and dangerous landscape. On some level, he thrills in the place, finding a strong connection between its vast and lonely landscape and his own identity. Jack is a man in search of an identity; he was ‘mindwiped’, after all (to keep the scavs from getting important intel if he was ever captured). Jack desperately summons shadows of memories and collects Earth memorabilia every chance he gets. “Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been, to mourn a time you’ve never lived?” he reflects. When he finally learns what he truly is and the heinous role he (and those like him) unknowingly played in the near-destruction of humanity, Jack does the only thing he can; he sacrifices himself to save what’s left of humanity and those he loves: “If we have souls, they’re made of the love we share. Undimmed by time, unbound by death.”

Oblivion-TET
The TET orbiting Earth

Showatcher.com calls Oblivion“a slick 21st century science fiction pulp actioner” with genuinely amazing CGI and action set pieces. Showatcher adds that “it was refreshing to witness a film that, though it did not break new ground, held the attention of a jaded sci-fi audience.” A large part of its attention appeal lies in its “techno-bass” musical score composed by Joseph Trapanese and Anthony Gonzalez with M83 (a French electronic/shoegaze band named after the spiral galaxy Messier 83). They elegantly orchestrated a score that was locked in step with the narrative imagery of Claudio Miranda in a viscerally synchronized life-pulse. The score surges and ebbs like an intelligent sea; at times assaulting the senses with an open-throated tsunami of crushing sound; at others a throbbing caress of longing nuance.

Oblivion-Movie-TET
Harper’s ship enters the TET

Many reviewers (see the litany on Rotten Tomatoes) have trashed the film for various reasons, from plot holes and appropriation, mismanagement of suspense, to it being a Tom Cruise film. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls Oblivion “bafflingly solemn, lugubrious and fantastically derivative sci-fi, which serves up great big undigested lumps of Total RecallAIPlanet of the Apes–with little snippets of Top Gun.”

Oblivion-morgan freeman
Morgan Freeman plays a rogue Earther

Roy Klabin of Policymic is less kind: “Unfortunately, I got to see an early preview and doubt it will satisfy even the most dim-witted of audiences…the film’s unsubtle commentary on our own use of robotics in warfare is lackluster and anticlimactic…the weak story is sprinkled with a heavy dosing of famous actors [with] wooden-faced expressionless performances.”

 

David Dizon of ABS-CBN News calls Oblivion “an idea-movie, except the idea seems like a rehash of ideas from other, much better sci-fi flicks.” He and others cite Mad MaxMoon2001: A Space OdysseyHaloMatrix, and Star Wars Episode 1 as examples. Dizon calls Oblivion “a pretty movie served cold.” He claimed that the movie’s sin wasn’t in the “idea” department, but in the way it was executed.

I couldn’t disagree more on all counts.

oblivion-movie-directed by Joseph KosinskiOblivion is not a “pretty movie” and certainly not served cold. Vast. Beautiful. Eerie. Elegant. Visceral. Memorable. I also saw many similarities with the various films Dizon and others mentioned (I would include Bladerunner and Solaris in the mix). But here’s the thing: science fiction is the literature of “the large”. SF metaphorically explores our evolution, the meaning of our existence and our place in the universe through premise and idea. It is not surprising that viewers will see similarities with other films in Kosinski’s meditation on the nature of the soul, identity, self-actualization, love and community.

Several reviewers suggest that the film flirts with such big questions” yet makes no effort to fully answer them. Showatcher adds, “Where the film falls short is not in its visual styles; and its pacing can be forgiven in that it actually builds to a satisfying conclusion. The film falters with its need to include cliched action set-ups… the film addresses some very interesting questions of the human soul, religion, and the meditation of loneliness; however, it never takes it as far as it could. Instead we are left with a slick visual style and action scenes.”oblivion-skytower sunset

Good art always asks the big questions; unlike propaganda and polemic, good art also lets the viewers answer those big questions for themselves. This concept is not as palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers.

Some movies are like appetizers or snacks. Others, like Kosinki’s Oblivion, returns the film experience to a full meal, engaging all one’s senses and where sound (its own character) marries with setting and actors to create an epic and heart-thrilling experience. Like many things in life, and certainly in good art, the most potent aspect of communication lies in the often subtle and oblique non-verbal narrative. Good art “shows more than it “tells”.

For those receptive to his art, Kosinski–like Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Soderbergh in Solaris–lets the imagery and score express a sensual dance that invokes both mind and heart.

In the final analysis, Oblivion is a simple film dressed elegantly. Oblivion goes beyond surface plot constructs and intellectual proselytizing; it dives deep into thematic representation to pose questions on identity, love, community, and the meaning of “home”. Rather than offer up a platter-full of rhetoric, Kosinsky keeps the narrative slim; instead, he provides us with a multi-filigreed tapestry of sensual possibility.

And choices.

After making the startling discovery of who and what he is, Jack transcends his “mind wipe” and remembers what is worth remembering. In a final scene, Jack tells Sally why he is doing what he must do, even though it means his certain death. He quotes from an old book that he’d picked up earlier in the movie (Lays of Ancient Rome narrated by Centurian Horatius): “to every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late. And how can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods.”

Ben Kendrick of “Screenrant” summarizes what lies at the core of the film: “Oblivion could have easily been a convoluted and indulgent movie-going experience; instead, the film keeps a restrained focus on Jack’s character journey—which, thankfully, is an “effective team” of drama and post-apocalyptic adventure.”

Do me a favor; when you go into the theatre to watch this film, park your intellectual self at the door and bring all your senses with you. This film needs to be FELT. Prepare to participate.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.

The Unexpected Protocol of “I, Robot”

irobot-coverI reread Dr. Isaac Asimov’s 50+ year old masterpiece, I, Robot, in preparation for the 2004 Twentieth Century Fox motion picture of the same name, knowing fully well that to appeal to today’s action-thriller rollercoaster-addicted audience there was no way the movie and the book could even come close. I was right. But not the way, I thought I would be.

The movie, directed by Alex Proyas, begins with the three laws of robotics: that robots must not harm a human being; they must obey human orders, so long as this does not violate the first law; and they must protect their own existence, so long as that doesn’t violate laws one and two. Apart from these three laws and the use of the same title and some of the character names, the motion picture appears to radically depart from Asimov’s book, first published by Doubleday in 1950. To give Twentieth Century Fox credit, the film does not pretend to be the same as the book; I noticed that in the credits the movie was “suggested by,” rather than “based on” Asimov’s work. But how different was it, really? I submit that the two are much more similar than they first appear.

Surficial differences between book and motion picture are nevertheless glaring. First off, Asimov’s, I, Robot, is essentially a string of short stories that evolve along a theme; much in the vein of the Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The book is told largely from the point of view of Dr. Susan Calvin, a plain and stern robo-psychologist, who gets along better with robots than with humans. Dr. Asimov uses this cold and colorless character as a vehicle to stir undercurrents of poignant thought on the human condition through a series of deceptively mundane tales. I, Robot offers a treatise both of humanity’s ingenuity and its foibles and how these two are inexorably intertwined in paradoxes that speak to the ultimate truth of what it is to be human. Each of his nine stories discloses a metaphoric piece of his clever puzzle. The puzzle pieces successively tease us through the three laws of robotics, as ever more sophisticated robots toil with their conflicts when dealing with perceived logical contradictions of the laws. For instance, there is “Robbie,” the endearing nursemaid robot. Cutie (QT-1) is a robot Descartes in “Reason.” In “Liar,” Herbie has problems coping with the three laws as a mind-reading robot. And in “Little Lost Robot,” Susan Calvin must out-smart Nestors — or the NS-2 — model robots, whose positronic brains were not impressioned with the entire First Law of Robotics. The larger question and ultimate paradox posed by the three laws culminate in Asimov’s final story, “The Evitable Conflict,” which subtly explores the role of “free will” and “faith” in our definition of what it means to be human.

The book jacket aptly describes I, Robot this way: “…humans and robots struggle to survive together — and sometimes against each other … and both are asking the same questions: what is human? And is humanity obsolete?” Interestingly, the latter part of the book jacket quote, which accompanied the 1991 Bantam mass-market edition, can be interpreted in several ways.

Asimov’s stories span fifty years of robot evolution, which play out mostly in space from Mercury to beyond our own galaxy. Proyas’s movie is set in Chicago in 2035 and condenses the time frame into a short few weeks with some flashbacks from several years prior. This serves the film well but at some cost. What is gained in tension and focus is lost in scope and erudition, two qualities often best left to the literary field. Asimov’s tales are quirky, contemplative, and thoughtful. The film version is more direct, trading these for a faster pace, pretty much a prerequisite in the film industry toda

The original screenplay, entitled “Hardwired” by Jeff Vinter, was reworked by Akiva Goldsman into a techno-thriller/murder mystery directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City) with its requisite hard-boiled detective cop (Will Smith) and a ‘suicide’ that looks suspiciously like murder. Smith’s character (a Hollywood invention, so don’t go looking for him in the book) is a 20th century anachronism: a Luddite who wears retro clothes and sets his computer car on manual. The story centers on Spooner’s investigation of a so-called suicide by Dr. Alfred Lanning, robot pioneer and the originator of the three laws of robotics. Lanning was an employee of U.S. Robotics, a mega-corporation run by Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood). Robertson relies on the real brains, V.I.K.I, the corporation’s super-intelligent virtual computer.

i robot end
Where abandoned robots congregate

With a “simple-minded” plot (according to Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times) and a lead character who is little more than a “wisecracking … guns-a-blazin’… action-hero cliché” (Rob Blackwelder, Splicedwire), the motion picture rendition of Asimov’s ground-breaking book promises little but disappointment for the literate science fiction fan according to many critics. I disagree. I was not disappointed. This is both despite and because of director Alex Proyas’s interpretation of Asimov’s book and his three laws. Several critics focused on the surficial plot at the expense of the subtle multi-layered thematic sub-plots contrived by a director not known for creating superficial action-figure fluff. I think this critical myopia was generated from critics admittedly not having read Asimov’s masterpiece. Familiarity with Asimov’s I, Robot is a prerequisite to recognizing the subtle intelligence Proyas wove into his otherwise playful and glitzy Hollywood techno-thriller.

While literate science fiction fans will certainly recognize the names of Lanning, Calvin and Robertson, these movie characters in no way resemble their book counterparts. Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) is a robo-psychologist, but in the movie she is far from plain and her wooden performance fails to disguise that she is clearly ruled by her feelings, unlike the coldly logical book character. The lead character in the film, Del Spooner (Will Smith) is, of course, a Hollywood fabrication, along with an entourage of requisite techno-thriller components: spectacular chase and battle scenes, explosions, lots of shooting, and some romantic tension. The film is also fraught with Hollywood clichés: for instance, repressed psychologist (Moynahan), who typically speaks in three-syllabic words, encounters cynical anti-hero beefy cop (Smith) whose rude attentions help transform her into a gun-slinging kick-ass warrior.

And: ‘evil’ machine turns against its masters to rule the world. But Proyas also treats us to some of the most convincing portrayals of a futuristic metropolis, complete with seamlessly incorporated CGI-generated robots and an evocative score by Peter Anthony. Dr. Asimov fans will, of course, also recognize certain aspects of the book in the movie, such as a scene and concepts borrowed from “Little Lost Robot.”

Despite the clichés and comic-action razzle-dazzle, Proyas manages to preserve the soul and spirit of Dr. Asimov’s great creation. He does this by allowing us to glimpse some of Asimov’s elevated theme, if not his more complex questions. Indeed the most poignant scenes in the movie are those, which involve the ‘humanity’ of the robot called Sonny (Alan Tudyk). A unique NS-5 model with a secondary processing system that clashes with his positronic brain, Sonny is capable of rejecting any of the three laws and hence provides us ironically with the most complex (and interesting) character in the movie. Sonny is both humble and feisty, a robot who dreams and questions. For me, this was not unlike the several stirring scenes in Asimov’s “Liar,” where the mind-reading robot, Herbie, when dealing with the complex nature of humans, unintentionally caused its own destruction (with the help of a bitter Dr. Calvin) by trying to please everyone by telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. Sonny’s complex character (like any character with depth) keeps you guessing. Sonny asks the right questions and at the end of the film we are left wondering about his destiny and what he will make of it. This parallels Asimov’s equally ambiguous ending in “The Evitable Conflict.”

I-Robot-Sonny
Sonny hides among his own

Which brings me back to the foundation shared by both book and movie: the three laws of robotics, the infinite ways that they can be interpreted, and how they may be equally applied to robot or human. The laws may apply physically or emotionally; individually or toward the whole of humanity; long-term or short-term … the list is potentially endless. Asimov’s collection of stories centers on these questions by showing how robots deal with the conflicts the perceived contradictions present by the laws. Asimov’s last story describes a world run by a network of powerful but benevolent machines, who guide humankind through strict adherence to the three laws (their interpretation, of course!). Taking his cue from this, Proyas cleverly takes an old cliché—that of ‘evil’ machine with designs to rule the world—and turns it upside down according to the first law of robotics. His ‘evil’ machine turns out not to be evil, but misguided. V.I.K.Y acts not out of its own interests, like the self-preserving HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the best interests of humankind (at least according to the machine). Citing humanity’s self-destructive proclivity to pollute and make war, V.I.K.Y decides to treat us as children and pull the plug on free-will. Viewed from the perspective of the first law, this is simply a logical, though erroneous, extrapolation of ‘good will’; and far more interesting than the workings of simple ‘evil,’ which I feel is much overdone and overrated in films these days. The well-meaning dictator possessed of the hubristic notion that he holds all the keys to the happiness and well-being of others smacks of a reality and a humanity all too prevalent in well-meaning governments today. It is when the line between ‘good-intentions’ and ‘wrong-doing’ blur that things get really interesting. Both Asimov and Proyas explore this chiaroscuro in I, Robot, though in different ways. The challenge is still the same: If given the choice of ending war and all conflict at the expense of ‘free will,’ would we permit benevolent machines to run our world? Or is it our destiny—and requirement for the transcendence of our souls—to continue to make those mistakes at the expense of a life free of self-destruction and violence?

On the surface, Proyas offers the obvious answer. He likens the benevolent machine to an overprotective parent, who in the interests of a child’s safety, prevents the enrichment of that child’s heart, soul, and spirit otherwise provided by that very conflict. Asimov is far more subtle in “The Evitable Conflict” and while these questions are discussed at length, they remain largely unanswered.

In one of his most clever stories, “Evidence,” near the end of his book, Dr. Asimov expounds on the three laws to describe the ultimate dilemma: of defining and differentiating a human-looking robot with common sense from a genuine human on the basis of psychology. Asimov’s Dr. Calvin says: “The three Rules of Robotics are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world’s ethical systems.  Every human being is supposed to have the instinct of self-preservation. That’s Rule Three to a robot. Also every ‘good’ human being, with a social conscience and a sense of responsibility, is supposed to defer to proper authority. That’s Rule Two to a robot. Also, every ‘good’ human being is supposed to love others as himself, protect his fellow man, risk his life to save another. That’s Rule One to a robot. To put it simply, if [an individual] follows all the Rules of Robotics, he may be a robot, and may simply be a very good man.” Proyas metaphorically (if not literally) explores the question of “what is human” with his robotic character, Sonny.

In a stirring scene of the motion picture where Sonny is prepared for permanent shut down, Dr. Lanning expounds on his belief that robots could evolve naturally: “There have always been ghosts in the machine… random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul… Why is it that when some robots are left in the dark they will seek the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space they will group together rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter moat of the soul?” Near the end of the film, Sonny, having fulfilled his initial purpose (i.e., stopping V.I.K.Y.), asks Spooner, “What about the others [NS-5s, recalled for servicing and storage]? Can I help them? Now that I have fulfilled my purpose I don’t know what to do.” To this, an enlightened Spooner answers: “I guess you’ll have to find your way like the rest of us, Sonny… That’s what it means to be free.”

Proyas gives us a strong indication of what his film was really about by ending not with Spooner—his lead action-figure character who has just saved humanity from the misguided robot army—but with Sonny, the enigmatic robot just embarking on his uncertain journey. The motion picture closes with a final scene of Sonny, resembling a messianic figure on the precipice of a bluff, overlooking row upon row of his lesser robotic counterparts.

sonny leading
Sonny finds a following…

We are left with an ambiguous ending of hope and mystery. What will Sonny do with his abilities, his dreams, and his potential “following”? Will his actions be for the betterment of humankind and/or robots? Will society trust him and let him seek and find his destiny or, like Asimov’s fearful “Society for Humanity,” will we squash them all before they get so complex and powerful that not only do we fail to understand them but we have no hope of controlling them? This parallels Asimov’s equally ambiguous ending in his book. In it, Stephen Byers (a humanoid AI), and robo-psychologist, Susan Calvin, discuss the fate of robots and humanity. Ironically, it is through her interaction with robots that Susan discovers a human trait that may be more valuable to humanity than exercising “free will”: that of faith. It is she who confronts the coordinator with these words: “…How do we know what the ultimate good of Humanity will entail? We haven’t at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its.” Then to his challenge that human kind has lost its own say in its future, she further responds with: “It never had any, really. It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand … at the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war…Now the Machines understand them…for all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable.” This quote in Asimov’s final story may horrify or anger some, even as it may inspire and reassure others. But, if true “free will” is largely a self-perpetuated myth of the Western pioneer movement, then we are effectively left with respect and faith in oneself and in others. Perhaps, ultimately, that is what both Asimov and Proyas had in mind.

It is interesting to note that Harlan Ellison and Asimov collaborated on a screenplay of I, Robot in the 1970s, which Asimov said would provide “the first really adult, complex worthwhile science fiction movie ever made.” Am I disappointed that this earlier rendition, most likely truer to the original book, did not come to fruition? No. That is because we already have that story. You can still read the book (and I strongly urge you to, if you have not). Proyas’s film I, Robot is a different story, with a different interpretation. And like the robot’s own varying interpretation of the three laws, it is refreshing to see a different human’s interpretation expressed.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, IROSF, and Europa SF. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published byEditura Paralela 45. Her latest release is La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), a story about water and climate change.

The Paradoxes of “Aeon Flux”

When I was first tantalized by the high-speed head-smashing trailer for the Paramount motion picture, Aeon Flux, directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) and released in late 2005 (now on DVD), I was blissfully unaware of its history: that it was based on the darkly irreverent and raunchy 1995 MTV Liquid Television animated SF series created by Korean American animator, Peter Chung. The series achieved cult status among a select audience of insoniacs (it played at midnight on MTV, if that tells you anything). This may have worked in my favour. I had no expectations or preconceptions, except for a hair-flying ride. As a result, when the content (written by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay) had merit as social commentary, I counted it as a bonus. But, then there was the matter of the reviews that emerged between the trailers airing and my seeing the film.

Unfortunately for the motion picture, Paramount’s lack of press-screenings (and subsequent press reaction because of those lack of screenings) may have predisposed critics to dislike it. And many provided negative, though conflicting, reviews; as if they couldn’t all agree on why they didn’t like the film. Kieth Breese (Filmcritic.com) found the film “gorgeously surreal and vacuously arty.” According to Jami Bernard (New York Daily News), “in the dystopian future [of Aeon Flux], apparently, women will be bendable Barbies in leather scanties, and everyone will speak like brain-dead robots…a silly live-action movie.” Justin Chung (Variety.com) decided that Aeon Flux protrayed “the future [as] alternatively grim and hysterical…a spectacularly silly sci-fier.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times said that Aeon Flux was “flooded with colors and chilly effects [but was] drained of emotional interest, to say nothing of narrative coherence.” And, finally, William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it “too somber and cerebral for the young action crowd.” Silly or too cerebral? In truth, this disappointment is because the Aeon Flux movie was wrongly perceived (and wrongly marketed) as an action thriller; it is more aptly described as a dystopian political thriller—not the brazen cry of V for Vendetta—but a subtle cautionary tale of the consequences of complacency, greed and living in absense of—and trying to cheat—nature.

In typical dystopian fashion, we join the Aeon Flux story roughly four hundred years after an industrial-related virus has killed 99% of the world’s population. Scientist, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) has developed a cure and the Goodchild dynasty secures a home for the five million survivors in the last city on Earth, Bregna, a paradise walled off from the unrestrained wilderness that ever-threatens them. Dystopias, like Bregna, often appear utopian on the surface, exhibiting a world free of poverty, hardship and conflict, but with some fatal flaw at their core. A dystopia (“dys”=bad; “topos”=place) is a fictional society that is the antithesis of utopia. It is usually characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government or some kind of oppressive, often insiduous, social control. Other examples that depict a range of distopian societies in literature and film include: 1984Brave New WorldFahrenheit 451The Handmaid’s TaleMetropolisTHX-1138Blade Runner, and V for Vendetta. Built from scientific premise and intended only as a temporary measure, the technocratic society of Bregna continues long after its intended span as the Goodchilds attempt to deal with an internal and enduring glitch (infertility) of the “cure”. Like most imposed provisional governments, this one’s solution to a problem (cloning) has created yet another problem (fugitive memories from the previous clone’s life).

It is now 2415 and the walled society of Bregna appears utopian—clean and organized, beautiful, rich and spatious; but beneath the laughter and contentment, stirs an uneasy disquiet. Bregnans are losing sleep, having bad dreams, and are plagued by memories that don’t belong to them. Rebels challenge the Goodchild regime, run by Trevor and his brother Oren, and among the rebels is a highly competent and ruthless assassin, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron), whose tools include whistle-controlled ball-bearing bombs, drugs that allow her to meet people on higher planes of existence, and interchangeable eyeballs. She is aptly named, as she serves a true agent of discord to Goodchild, the guardian of order and all that he naïvely believes is good.

“Some call Bregna the perfect society,” Aeon tells us in the opening scenes of the motion picture, “Some call it the height of human civilization…but others know better…We are haunted by sorrows we cannot name. People disappear and our government denies these crimes…But there are rebels who…fight for the disappeared. They call themselves the Monicans. I am one of them.” Several critics disliked the narrative introduction. I found that it particularly worked, by adding a reflective literary quality to the motion picture. It is noteworthy that in the original animated series, Trevor Goodchild often frames each episode with his reflections; only fitting that Aeon gets her chance in the film version. The reflective narrative of the motion picture is meant to enlighten its audience that this is not your ordinary action thriller. What follows is a fast-paced yet thoughtful story, with elements of romance, that explores notions of longevity, social structure and connection, faith and greed to a satisfying end.

Twitchfilm.net aptly called the motion picture “biological science fiction”. Says Oren, Trevor’s treacherous brother who betrays him: “We’ve beaten death. We’ve beaten nature.” The film’s clean organic high-tech look faithfully captures the “sense of biotech gone wild” of the TV series by exploring several paradigms inherent in a society that lives deliberately in the absense of nature’s chaos. Indeed, the lack of connectivity resonates throughout the motion picture in its exploration of friendship, family, loyalty, and purpose. When her sister is murdered in the beginning of the film supposedly by Trevor’s men (but in actuality by his scheming brother, Oren), Aeon’s mission becomes personal: “I had a family once. I had a life; now all I have is a mission.” We never learn what the animated Aeon’s motives are.

The film truly launches into stylish action and intrigue when Aeon gladly accepts a mission to assassinate Trevor, thinking that this violent act will make it all better. Instead, it unravels her, beginning with when she confronts him; finding him uncomfortably familiar and alluring, she hesitates and decides not to kill him. “What do you want?” Trevor asks her. “I want my sister back. I want to remember what it’s like to be a person.” It is indeed he—or rather what he knows—that holds the key to who she is. The key is that she, like he and all those in Bregna, is a 400 year-old copy of someone before the virus. Four hundred years ago she was the original Trevor’s wife.

Filmed in Berlin, the movie is visually stunning, from the opening shot on the steps of Sans Souci to the labrinthine wind canal used by the Nazis. Displaying an eclectic mixture of spareness and mid-century design the film is acted out in a fluid dance to Graeme Revell’s (Sin City) haunting score. The action is rivetting and seamless with both plot and underlying theme of bio-tech gone awry. Early on we are treated to a thrilling sequence of Aeon and her biotech-altered rebel colleague negotiating the security of Goodchild’s sanctuary that consists of a beautiful but deadly garden, guarded by patches of knife-sharp blades of grass and poison dart-spitting fruit trees.

Aeon champions moral ethics and single-handedly destroys the relicor, the supposetory of the clone DNA, pursuing honour at the expense of loyalty (to Goodchild) and heralding in a new age of “mortality”. The movie ends as it begins, with Aeon’s narrative: “Now we can move forward. To live once for real and then give way to people who might do it better…to live only once but with hope.” This is truly what Aeon Flux represents and what her very name embodies.

The term Aeon comes from the Gnostic notion of “Aeons” as emanations of God. Aeon also means an immeasurably long period of time; the Suntelia Aeon in Greek mythos symbolizes the catastrophic end of one age and the beginning of a new one. This is apt for our heroine, who, at least in the movie version, pretty well single-handedly destroys an old corrupt world, and heralds in a new age. Aeon was “emanated” back after four hundred years by the gentle oracular Keeper of the relicor, whose original version saved her DNA and kept it hidden and safe until the right moment.

Fans of Peter Chung’s baroquely violent animated Aeon Flux will recognize some similarities between Kusama’s 2005 film adaptation and the original MTV cartoon. While admitting that the motion picture version was only based on Peter Chung’s characters (check the credits), Karyn Kusama intended to “honor [the cartoon version’s] wierdness in spirit and…pay homage to its esoteric boldness and…strange energy.” Homages to the animated series include: Aeon’s signature fly-catching with her eyelashes, demonstrating a woman extremely in tune with her body; Monican anarchists (though in the film they are subversives within Bregna rather than from an adjacent society); a virus that kills off most of the population and assassination attempt on Goodchild (Pilot); the harness worn on the torso that transports the wearer to another dimension (Utopia or Deuteranopia?); passing secret messages through a french kiss (Gravity); issues of cloning and two colleagues crossing a weaponized no-man’s land together (A Last Time for Everything). Original and movie adaptation also share at their core the exploration of the consequences and ambiguities of choices in life and the role that nature plays, subversive or otherwise.

Although they share recognizable motifs and characters, the 2005 movie adaptation contrasts in some important ways from the six 5-minute shorts of 1991 and 10 half-hour episode TV series that aired in 1995. Chung’s avante garde series is set mostly in a surrealistic dark future Earth (presumably) where two communities, Bregna and Monica, are juxtaposed but separated by a wall (not unlike East and West Berlin). Bregna is a centralized scientific-planned society and Monica is Bregna’s ‘evil twin’, an anarchistic society. Chung’s innovative use of “camera angles” reminiscient of cinematography, together with a spare, graphic choreography, portrays a sprawling Orwellian industrial world. Peopled with mutant creatures, clones, and robots, it features disturbing images of dismemberment, mutilation, violent deaths and human experimentation as Chung explores post-modern notions of cloning, mind and body manipulation, and evolution through a series of subversive aggressively non-narrative pieces. On the subject of his cloning experiments (A Last Time for Everything) Goodchild says to Aeon: “My work offends you. Why? Human beings aren’t so unique, just a random arrangement of amino acids.” To which Aeon retorts, “These people you’re copying are already superfluous. You’re trafficking in excess.”

The title character in the animated version is a tall, scantily-clad anarchist (featuring the sultry voice of Denise Poirier) skilled in assassination and acrobatics, who infiltrates technocratic Bregna from the neighbouring revolutionary society of Monica. As with the movie character (elegantly portrayed by Theron), the animated Aeon is a stylish dance; completely in tune with her body. Says Chung of his creation: “The way she’s dressed, the way she looks, the way she moves was tailored to seduce the viewer to watch more, even though they may not understand at every moment what was happening.” Despite their similar intelligence, physicality and drive, the two Aeons depart as characters. For instance, one of the major differences between original animation and adapted film is the ongoing relationship between Aeon and her nemesis/lover, Trevor Goodchild (John Rafter Lee). The sexual and intellectual tension between Flux and Goodchild is far more palpable in the TV series and does not explain itself or resolve itself like it does in the movie. The opening of the animated series describes their odd relationship, which suggests that their destinies are bound together: Aeon: “You’re out of control.” Trevor: “I take control. Who’s side are you on?” Aeon: “I take no side.” Trevor: “You’re skating the edge.” Aeon: “I am the edge.” Trevor: “What you truly want only I can give.” Aeon: “You can’t give it, you can’t even buy it and you just don’t get it.”

The Gnostic “Aeons”, emanations of God, come in male/female pairs (aptly represented by Flux and Goodchild). As with the Gnostic “Aeon pairs”, Flux and Goodchild make up inseperable parts, the yin/yang (complementary opposites) of a whole, and represent the paraxical oxymoron of chaos in order. Long-limbed and continually in fluid motion, Flux dances through Goodchild’s rigid scientific world of order with an ease that stirs both his fascination and his fury. He, in turn, enthralls her and ensnares her with his intellectual hubris. The Gnostic “Aeon” male/female pair (called syzygies) of Caen(Power) and Akhana (e.g., Love) closely parallel Goodchild and Flux as they flirt with each other in a complex dance of power and love. Their attraction/antagonism mimics the characterizations of Eris(Greek goddess of discord) and Greyface (a man who taught that life is serious and play is a sin) in the Discordian mythos. Like Eris and her golden apple, Aeon Flux stirs up trouble for Goodchild’s complacent technocratic regime, constantly challenging his hubristic notions of human evolution, perfection and even love.

The cartoon Aeon Flux—and Trevor Goodchild, for that matter—are also far more compelling than those depicted in the movie. Headstrong, foolish and selfish but also dedicated and deeply compassionate and honourable, Chung’s Aeon Flux is a paradox. She scintilates with passionate self-defined notions against an industrial tyranny, while nurturing a naïve desire for personal love; the target of both being found in one man, Trevor Goodchild. Often cruel at times, she shows moments of selfless consideration, compassion and humour. Despite her violence, perverted fetishes and lustful obsessions, she is as appealing as she is strange; a discordant rock tune, which often enough hits a resonating note that draws out one’s interest and captures one’s empathy. In contrast to the super-hero competence and aloofness of the two-dimensional movie Aeon, the animated Aeon is wonderfully flawed; she is a complex paradoxical character, who makes mistakes, blundering often due to over-confidence and poor decisions (usually connected with her feelings for Trevor). Chung’s Goodchild is equally complex, and is, unlike the naïve feckless scientist of the movie, a true equal to Flux’s energetic and often misplaced heroics. Kusama’s Goodchild is neither menacing nor diabolical; rather, he is a well-intentioned and watered-down version of the Machiavelian scientist that Chung created. And, though quite appealing, he is also uncompelling as a result. Chung’s Goodchild is a visionary pedant, who often spouts twisted Orwellian diatribe: “That which does not kill us makes us stranger.” “The unobserved state is a fog of probabilities…” “There can be no justice without truth. But what is truth? Tell me, if you know, and I will not believe you.” Flux cuts through Goodchild’s dogma with her own one-liners—“Trevor, don’t trouble me with your thin smile”—and usually shuts him up with either a smack or a kiss.

The animated series is far more gritty and edgy than the movie version, featuring twisted eroticism and dark humor amid scenes of graphic violence. It oozes with a delicious perversity that the movie version abandoned in favour of cohesive narrative (and a PG-13 rating). Showing a healthy and irreverent disregard for that very narrative continuity, Chung’s animated series successfully makes commentary on various societal notions and behaviours through his uniquely disjointed and liberating form. Chung asserts that this plot ambiguity and disregard for continuity were meant to satirize mainstream film narratives. I think it does far more than this as art form, by providing a journalistic style of reporting the nuances and filigrees of life that gives it an immediacy hard to overlook. Chung’s apparent intention was to emphasize the futility of violence and the ambiguity of personal morality. This is best shown in his six 5-minute shorts and pilot, created in 1991. The shorts commonly featured a violent death for the title character, sometimes caused by fate, but more often due to her own incompetence.

The TV Aeon Flux flows like a subversive movement; punctuated by a series of abstract, often garrish, statements on various themes of souless biotechnology. Each episode is a vignette that explores singular questions of integrity, honour, loyalty, belief and love using the clever platform of the kiss/kill dynamic of Aeon and Trevor. Their interactions scintilate with clever wordplay, often amid physical-play that usually involves a pointed weapon: Aeon: “You’re psychotic. You no longer have a common conscience with your fellow man.” Trevor: “I understand the will of evil…[it] is like an iron in a forge…conscience is the fire.” Aeon: “you’ve lost the substance by grasping at the shadow.” The underlying question of connectivity and what it is to be human filter through his discordant series primarily through the twining of his two main characters, both loners with little connection to anything except to one another (which they both seek and abhor). The motion picture version pursues through a more structured and lengthy narrative, the same theme of connectivity (with nature, with others of our society, with family, and our beliefs) and the consequence of living a life with out meaning, though on a far more simple level. At the end of Kusama’s movie, Aeon challenges Trevor’s assertion that cloning is their only answer for survival: “We’re meant to die. That’s what makes anything about us matter…[otherwise] we’re ghosts.” In contrast, at the end of Chung’s episode, Reraizure, Trevor closes with these words of reflection: “We are not what we remember of ourselves. We can undo only what others have already forgotten. Learn from your mistakes so that one day you can repeat them precisely.”

Kusama’s film version chose narrative coherence to make its statements by sacrificing character for story and challenging its audience cerebrally. Chung’s cartoon version challenges us more deeply, at a visceral level, through the interplay of his characters where cohesive narrative doesn’t matter. In the final analysis, the motion picture version pursues the same questions posed by Chung’s original animated version. Only, Chung isn’t so eager to provide answers, leaving both interpretation and conclusions to the individual. Both versions are mind-provoking and a celebration of excellent art. While the film’s moralistic tale resonated and lingered like a muse’s long forgotten poem, the subversive kick of the comic series (which I thankfully saw later) struck deep chords and left me breathless with questions.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange HorizonsIROSFEuropa SF, and Amazing Stories. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. Nina teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her newest release, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua (Mincione Edizioni, Rome) is a bilingual short story (and essay) on water and climate change.

“District 9”

Science Fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself—Frederic Jameson, critic

District-9-01We call them “prawns”: bottom feeders, vermin: feared and hated aliens who descended unannounced—and unwanted—over Johannesburg twenty years ago. Their massive starship hangs poised over the crowded city, casting a daily reminder that we are not alone in the universe.

The ship came and hovered in the hazy skies over Johannesburg, in a pall of silence. Humanity waited for something to happen; nothing did. A United Nations team was finally dispatched to investigate and what they found was not an imposing conquering force of great superiority but a million starving refugees in a shipwreck. Multinational United’s (MNU) Department of Alien Affairs housed them in a compound while humanity decided what to do with them.

Blomkamp leaps into the story mid-stride, effectively skipping twenty years of feckless inter-alien relations to a nexus in the storyline, where we find the aliens incarcerated in a ghetto that resembles the South African townships: they are essentially not allowed out. The analogy between the marginalization of the aliens and the South African segregationist policy of apartheid is obvious and further parallels Nazi Germany, Palestine and other scenarios of irrational prejudice and cruelty. The aliens even speak in a language that includes clicking that reflects many native South African languages. So, begins Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9

Jackson and Blomkamp intersperse action scenes with “back-story narrative” provided through the device of expert interviews, ranging from sociologists to entomologists. Blomkamp filmed his opening scenes using hand-held video cameras and stop action in news reels and interview format to capture an authentic immediacy to this powerful social commentary of humanity’s first encounter with the “other”.

We first see the aliens as the humans see them: unattractive unruly and repulsive insect-like creatures, who are not terribly intelligent and are pathetically addicted to cat food—until we meet one. Chris Johnson (or so he’s been named by the humans, reminiscent of the white people’s renaming first nations peoples or the Europeans who came to America) is on a secret mission to get home; along with his son and others Chris has been secretly building a shuttle to get back to the mother ship for over 20 years by collecting a rare liquid to fuel their organic technology. We quickly realize that these creatures possess the intelligence and knowledge that reflects the technologically advanced spaceship hovering above the city and the alien weaponry that only they can operate. The humans just haven’t taken the time or effort to find out.

Enter our not so likeable “hero”, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a shallow, rather insensitive and not so bright Afrikaner bureaucrat, who, like his colleagues at MNU, sees the aliens as no more than pests, not meriting the respect beyond the common insect. For instance, when he is assigned the task of evicting the aliens from the crowded ghetto to District 10, a tent city no better than a concentration camp, he treats them all like imbeciles and potential criminals. When he finds an illegal “nest” (the aliens are forbidden to procreate), he cheerfully kills the growing young by setting fire to them and blithely reflects that their death-cries sound like popcorn popping. He even gives a colleague of his one of the murdered babies as a souvenir. Eric Repphun of The Dunedin School, describes Wikus as both “compelling and chilling”, given that “his casual racism towards the aliens is an uncomfortable mirror of apartheid [and] reflects racism accurately.” 

It is only when Wikus is forced to interact with one as an individual and finally recognizes Chris as a “soul” that he shows true compassion and acts accordingly—which doesn’t happen until the end of the movie, by the way. Until then, he is a lame version of the reprehensible rest of MNU who reflect the fear and insecurity and consequent open prejudice and fear of humans toward “the other”.

We find out that MNU’s primary directive is not humanitarian to help the aliens but is pursuing weapons technology research and conducting experiments on them to acquire the secret to their DNA-manipulated weaponry. Through one of the interview sessions we discover that MNU is the second largest weapons manufacturer in the world. The plot thickens…

Blomkamp chooses his metaphors carefully, from the less than attractive insect-like aliens to the ordinary and feckless bureaucratic “hero”. Blomkamp dissects and lays out a shameful platter of our bullying nature, driven by our insecurities and fears and exposes us as a fearful, intolerant race. “The place is swarming with MNU,” says Chris to his son. I liked the reverse use of insect-terminology.

Chris’s son likes Wikus. “We are all the same,” says the boy with a wisdom that far surpasses anyone else there. He is, of course, referring metaphorically to the universal truth of a “family” of intelligence and compassion.

District_9-alienMeantime, Wikus had become a most valuable business artifact because he could operate alien weaponry. This points out one of our most appalling weaknesses borne from insecurity and greed: the devaluing of human and any other life to the level of commodity. Everything is commodity or product for the “rightful” use of those self-appointed “above the law” moguls.

As he lies on his back, about to fall out of his robotic “insect shell”, now far into his metamorphosis and spewing alien black “blood”, Wikus watches the shuttle rise up toward the mother ship, and smiles his victory; it is the aliens’ victory and ultimately Wikus’s too—for he is one of them now.

Wikus is the unlikable “hero”, more like Dante’s “everyman” a very ordinary man of shallow character with no real heroic qualities. He is a good enough person (he loves his wife and objects strongly to being forced into killing one of the alien adults). Throughout the film, he is offered several chances to elevate himself to “hero status” and each time he fails. It is only at the very end, when he is close to fully transformed physically, that Wikus demonstrates heroic qualities and sacrifices himself to save Chris and his son. This suggests, rather cynically, that humanity’s acceptance of something this foreign can only be achieved once we are forced to directly experience “the other”. It is a sad commentary on our inability to rise above our own limitations of deriving value through “self-image”. But it is one I tend to agree with. One of my esteemed colleagues disagreed. Objecting to this shallow portrayal of humankind, she attested her faith in our evolution. I hope she is right.

Largely overlooked by the Academy Awards, District 9exposes the very worst in human nature with an unforgiving gritty quasi-documentary realism. It’s not a pretty film. It is not a story of humanity’s triumph; indeed, Wikus’s heroism is directly related to his physical transformation from human to alien (hybrid). He only acts as hero once he is mostly alien, spilling alien blood and seeing through alien eyes. Is this why District 9 faired so ill with the Academy?

Eric Repphun calls District 9 a powerful allegory that deconstructs the post-colonial costs and asks unsettling questions about colonial powers. It is subversive science fiction that viscerally grapples with the ghosts of the past, particularly that of South African apartheid. “Its almost unrelenting dark vision of humanity” suggests that horrifying things hang “over the world of men like Wikus, who perform utterly irrational acts of prejudice and injustice in the name of safety and rationality, even after apartheid as an official policy has ended.”

Many viewers saw no further than the thrilling elements of this social commentary: aliens come and there’s a war with kick-ass weapons and cool creatures getting blown apart. But as Brian Ott notes, “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” says Peter Nicholls. Ott reminds us that it is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters.

 

 

 

 

nina-2014-BW

 

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, and serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches at The University of Toronto and Geroge Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice. Her newest release, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua (Mincione Edizioni, Rome) is a bilingual short story (and essay) on water and climate change.

“Contact”, a journey to the heart of the Universe

contact03The opening sequence tells the entire story… It is both spectacular and humbling at the same time as we begin with a view of Earth gleaming in a sunrise. An almost frantic jumble of broadcasts— news, TV shows, music—assail our ears. As we pull back from Earth and pass the outer planets, we hear older broadcasts… disco…Kennedy… the Beatles… Hitler…then ultimately the unintelligible static of all the radio stations on Earth. Then, as we leave the solar system, passing breathtaking nebulae, the sounds give way to silence. A dead silence, as we continue to pull back out of the galaxy and out of the local group of galaxies into the quiet depth of our vast universe. “It’s enough to make you feel tiny and insignificant and alone,” says Maryann Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com. “Which is precisely the feeling it’s meant to evoke.”  From that arcane vastness, we are brought back to our own “intimate” existence within it as the universe transforms into a dark reflection in a young girl’s eye.

With a powerful entrance like that, it is hard to imagine that this 1997 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, received very mixed reviews by critics.

Cindy Fuchs of the Philadelphia City Paper called it “far more mundane than its aspirations to cosmic insights might have produced.”  Kevin N. Laforest with the Montreal Film Journal said, “Contact is not a bad film, but I can’t say it’s all that good either.” Even TVGuide.com rated it a two out of four: “It’s really about [Jodie] Foster, and with her lips pressed tightly together and her hair carelessly shoved behind her ears, she’s utterly convincing as a researcher who’s subverted everything to a life of the mind. Unfortunately that adds up to a rather remote protagonist and Ellie is surrounded by a supporting cast of one-dimensional types…far too cold-blooded for summer audiences.” This is ironic, considering that the advertizing pitch calls Contact “a journey to the heart of the universe.” Finally, Christopher Null (Filmcritic.com) recommended it for its looks but not highly. Said Null: “Carl Sagan’s ode to the superior intelligence of aliens (and how us darned humans mess everything up) is consistently beautiful and interesting, but it never makes a point (except for that bit about the darned humans).”

contact-jodie-foster
Ellie Arroway played by Jodie Foster

Well, Mr. Null, I think you’ve missed the point, as have some of the critics I have just quoted. Contact—and its somewhat tortured protagonist—demonstrates much in the way of “heart” and in doing so, makes a compelling story. Hearts beat deeply inside us, and this movie is no different; its “heart” runs deep, deep beneath the surface rhetoric that seems to have distracted several critics who likely prefer to take a shallow sip of their coffee steaming hot than wait and savor the rich flavor of a dark blend in a deep swallow.

This 1997 motion picture by Time Warner examines the moral, social and religious implications of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence through the personal journey of astronomer, Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (played impeccably and sensitively by Jodie Foster). Never knowing her mother (who died at child birth) and having lost her father when she was ten, Ellie grows into a strong-willed scientist who dedicates her life to finding alien life in the universe by foregoing a career at Harvard to join a SETI Observatory in the Puerto Rico jungle. In an earlier scene with her father, she asks the question we have all pondered at least once: “Do you think there are people on other planets?” to which her father blithely answers, “if it’s just us, seems like an awful lot of wasted space,” a simple argument that appeals to the young logically-minded Ellie and one that will dominate the perseverance of her adult life in her resolute search for life in the universe.

Ellie hears the first sounds of contact

And persevere Ellie must, because nothing comes easy for her. Shortly after she settles at the SETI Observatory her teacher (and nemesis) David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) pays her a visit with implied threats of shutting the place down. Ellie also meets Palmer Joss (Mathew McConaughey), a man of faith, who is writing a book about the effects of science and technology on the third world. Although she is attracted to him, alarm bells go off in Ellie, who feels threatened by his faith (something she does not outwardly understand yet clings to in another form). Wanting to see him again, she introduces him to the man he wants to interview: Drumlin. And one of the most poignant conversations follows:

When Ellie challenges Drumlin’s apparent wish to do away with all pure research, he responds with, “What’s wrong with science being practical, even profitable? Nothing—”

Palmer cuts in, “—As long as your motive is the search for truth, which is exactly what the pursuit of science is.”

Drumlin counters peevishly, “Well, that’s an interesting position coming from a man who crusades against the evils of technology.”

To which Palmer responds, “I’m not against technology; I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”

Palmer and Ellie collide from two different worlds and despite their differences, they are profoundly attracted to one another. But as quickly as she falls for Palmer, she recoils from him.

Nothing comes easy for Ellie: “small moves, Ellie,” her father is accustomed to telling her, “small moves…” Shortly after she and her colleagues have been shut down by Drumlin and have set up anew (thanks to eccentric billionaire entrepreneur, S.R. Hadden, played by John Hurt), Drumlin and others shut them down yet again. But, as though a greater force intervenes, this is when Ellie makes her momentous discovery and intercepts an alien message from Vega, a young star still surrounded by a proto-planetary cloud of debris about 27 light years away from us. The scene is scientifically plausible and elegantly powerful—as we witness the drama of this phenomenal discovery unfold in a frisson of action.

Zemeckis wisely shows us exactly how such an event would really play out. And Sagan didn’t pick Vega out of whimsy: a sphere sixty light years thick of radio communication radiates from Earth from our radio and TV broadcasts. These signals may be captured by alien technology and sent back as a “message”. In theory, such a signal could be received on Earth anytime after 1990, the round trip time for a light or radio signal to travel to Vega and back from the first global signal, which in itself is momentous and telling. In another spine-tingling scene, the scientists who have descended upon Ellie decipher the arcane harmonics of the “message” as the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (the first truly global TV broadcast made) over which Hitler presided. In fact, in another stroke of irony, the now infamous swastika is the first icon they decipher. Later still, they discover embedded instructions to build a machine that appears made to take a human on an extra-galactic trip.

wormhole “ship” at Hokaidu

At the same time that Ellie intercepts this message, Palmer Joss experiences a meteoric rise to stardom with his bestselling book, Losing Faith: the Search for Meaning in the Age of Reason (which could well have been the alternate title for the film; it certainly describes the subtext of the story and the major thematic element: Faith & Meaning). In an interview with a prominent news show host, Palmer asks the question that most of us have avoided:  “The question that I’m asking is this: are we happier? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?…We shop at home, we search the web—at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than any other time in human history…We have meaningless jobs, we take frantic vacations [and] trips to the mall to buy more things to fill these holes in our lives.” Ironically, Palmer touches a similar nerve in Ellie when he brings up her dead parents: “It must have been hard… being alone…” insinuating that her fanatical search for intelligent alien life may simply be filling a hole in her heart. She flees Palmer shortly after, fearing his revealing intimacy. When they next meet, years later, they fall naturally into their familiar banter and she turns the table to challenge his faith in the same way: “What if science simply revealed that [God] never existed in the first place?” She then evokes Occam’s Razor, which says that “…all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one…what’s more likely? An all powerful mysterious God [who] created the universe then decided not to give us proof of his existence or that he simply doesn’t exist at all and we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Both of them are saved from an answer by the intrusive rings of their cell phones.

Ironically again, it is Ellie’s lack of belief in God that causes her to be overlooked for the momentous journey in the alien craft, in favor of the crafty Drumlin with the oily smile. Unfortunately, a religious zealot sabotages the mission and Drumlin, along with the whole alien craft and construct, are blown up in a spectacular explosion at NASA’s Cape Canaveral. Ellie gets her chance after all when they build a second one. Her journey in the alien space craft, which we are later told takes up eighteen hours of her time but passes instantaneously on Earth (to the point where they all think nothing actually happened), is truly epic and elegantly portrayed. Her encounter with the aliens is also in keeping with the plot and imagery of the story. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is the one where Ellie is introduced to the incredible and indescribable beauty of the vast Universe. It is at this point that she experiences her epiphany: science is not the sole purveyor of truth in the Universe. As she gazes at the splendor revealed before her, she acknowledges that the language of science is unable to express the sheer magnitude of the breathtaking scene. Grasping at something to say, she blubbers with a scientific term then finally gasps, “No words…to describe it…they should have sent a poet…”

Upon her return, Ellie is challenged by skeptics who think she suffered a giant delusion (remember that on Earth, no time had passed during her supposed eighteen-hour voyage). Ellie offers up a strained scientific explanation (e.g., wormhole travel through space-time also called Einstein-Rosen bridges) which is challenged by National Security Advisor, Michael Kitz (James Woods) as only theory, and must finally resort to her faith; one she selflessly offers to the world: “I… had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality Practice said it best: “Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery.”

 

The SETI Institute, who currently conduct the search for alien life, have a website dedicated to the movie.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, IROSF, and Europa SF. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.