“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.”

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.