“Interstellar” Is Love the God Particle?

interstellar-Cooper-ice-planet2
Cooper (Mat McConoughey)

Critical reception for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction blockbuster movie Interstellar was widely mixed. Reviews ranged from being dazzled and awestruck to thinking it utterly ridiculous and silly. Much of the range in opinion had in fact to do with the hard science: hard science that Nolan insisted he get right by hiring theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to best approximate what a black hole and a wormhole will look like and behave. Science so good that it generated a discovery worthy of reporting in a scientific journal (see below). The forums and chats that debated the last half-hour of the movie and its significance were entertaining, if not informative. Interstellar also generated a spate of vitriolic, accusing the film as propaganda for American colonialism (see a few examples below).

I first watched it in an IMAX theatre (the only way to see such an epic–it was filmed using 70mm Imax film, after all), which helped achieve its grandness. Since I was five, I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. And I’ve always been a sucker for good space adventure–especially well-researched, realistic depictions defined by a good story. And that is exactly what Interstellar is. 

I’ll admit openly that this film swept me up like a giant wave. I was humbled and exalted at the same time as it dropped me into some magnificent alien worlds. Deep space; a powerful spherical wormhole; vast shallow waters between mile-high waves of a tidally locked planet; skimming beneath ice-clouds of a barren ice-planet; and falling—literally—into a black hole. All to the recursive echoes of a mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer. While I was openly moved during the film, its aftertaste caught me unawares and impressed me the most about Nolan’s talent for subtle paradox. I realized that the journey–and deep space–felt inexplicably vast and intimate at the same time.

The research by Thorne and Nolan’s visual team generated a scientific discovery. To accurately portray a black hole in the film, Thorne produced a new set of equations to guide the special effects team’s rendering software. Black holes apparently spin at nearly the speed of light, dragging bits of the universe along with it. Based on the notion that it was once a star that collapsed into a singularity, the hole forms a glowing ring that orbits around a spheroidal maelstrom of light, which curves over the top and under the bottom simultaneously. The team then discovered that “warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” explained Paul Franklin, senior supervisor of Double Negative (the visual experts). “So, rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.” Thorne confirmed that they had correctly modeled a phenomenon inherent in the math he’d supplied and intends to publish several articles in scientific journals, based on these findings.

Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer defines good science fiction as: the literature of change; it’s about something “large” (world-important), arises from a scientific premise; and is generally pro-science. Interstellar achieves all of these criteria, particularly the latter.

Cooper and his daughter Murph
Cooper and his daughter Murph

The movie begins in the near-future on a post-climate change Earth, plagued by dust storms and failing crops in a society reverted to parochial superstition. Cooper (Mathew McConaughey), once a NASA pilot and now a farmer, laments: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

In a scene reminiscent of present day schools removing cursive writing from the curriculum or the controversy of teaching evolution (e.g., in favor of creationism), Cooper’s daughter’s teacher, Ms. Kelly, informs him at a parent-teacher meeting that the history textbooks have been rewritten to make known the “truth” about the moon landing: “I believe [the moon landing] was a brilliant piece of propaganda,” attests Ms. Kelly, “that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…And if we don’t want to repeat the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century, then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.”

The danger of turning away from scientific exploration—particularly space exploration—in times of great social and economic insecurity is a theme that runs deep in the film. Not only are scientists and engineers portrayed as whole individuals, both smart and compassionate, but they are also marginalized in a future world looking more to blame than to fix. “We didn’t run out of planes and television sets,” the principal of the school tells Cooper. “We ran out of food.”

Gargantua-black hole-planet
Black hole Gargantua

When a gravitational anomaly leads Cooper and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) to a secret NASA base in the middle of nowhere, an old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), recruits him to pilot the interstellar Endeavor, NASA’s “Noah’s Ark”, into the far reaches of outer space to repopulate the human race. NASA has turned covert due to public pressure against “irrelevant or politically unfeasible” spending. After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” Cooper rejoins: “I’ve got kids.” To which Brand answers: “Then go save them.”

Millar's planet
Millar’s planet

Unbeknownst to us—and to Cooper, who leaves his precious children behind on Earth for what turns into a one-way mission—the intention is to literally leave the rest of humanity behind. You see, Cooper’s ship—headed toward one of three potentially habitable worlds beyond a wormhole near Saturn—contains the seeds of humanity and other life that the four astronauts aboard are meant to distribute and nurture. Cooper and Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), one of the other three astronauts onboard, both believe that the real ark sits back on Earth in the form of a huge spaceship—awaiting Brand’s solution to the gravity issue. Brand knows, but keeps to himself, that the solution is insolvable and sends his intrepid crew off, knowing that Cooper will never see his young son and daughter again.

While Nolan admits to some iconic comparisons with Kubrick’s 2001; A Space Odyssey, Interstellaractually shares much more with the film Contact (in which Kip Thorne and McConoughey also participated). Contact also centered on a ground-breaking scientist daughter who misses her lost father. Mark Kermode, in a Guardian review also saw the relationship:

“In both movies, it is these daughters who detect the first stirrings of an “alien” encounter: Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) identifying recurrent sequences in the white noise of interstellar radiation in Contact; Murph (very affectingly played in her younger years by Mackenzie Foy) spying Morse code in poltergeist disturbances in Interstellar. From such discoveries are missions launched, voyaging across time and space at the apparent instruction of a superior intelligence offering cryptic hands across the universe. Intergalactic portals are breached, timescales bifurcated, science and faith reconciled. Crucially, for all their astro-maths exposition, the constant in both stories is neither time, space, nor gravity, but love. More than once I was reminded of Contact’s Ellie striking the outer limits of the universe and breathlessly declaring: ‘They should have sent a poet.’”

Interstellar’s American-centric presentation generated some criticism (e.g.,

Mann's planet
Mann’s planet

NASA acting alone without any international help; all American actors; American flags erected on settled colonies). Some even vilified the film as “a dangerous fantasy of US colonialism”. Journalist Abraham Riesman raises valid issues to do with human-centric expansionism in Interstellar:

“Coop and his coterie make one assumption that the movie never questions: Humanity (which, for all we ever see, is white, English-speaking America with a couple of black friends and one British guy) deserves to go to the stars and will suffocate if it’s confined to its current environs. That logic was, of course, one of the main justifications for most imperial expansions since the dawn of the 1800s. No one stops to ask whether this civilization (which, in the movie, appears to have murdered its home planet through human-caused climate change, though, for some reason nobody talks about that) needs to make some fundamental changes in its approach to social construction and resource use. Indeed, when we see the bright new future on Cooper Station, it’s all baseball and manicured lawns. Perhaps more important, no one questions whether human expansion will kill off the new planets’ current residents. Sure, we’re told that the planets are uninhabited … but uninhabited by what? Carbon-based humanoid lifeforms? What if we immediately kill off whatever fragile ecosystems we find once we take off our helmets and exhale our Earthly germs? Of course, I’m reading too much into a movie that isn’t even implying any of the messages I’m inferring, but that’s the problem right there: No one’s even asking the questions, and for humans, that kind of attitude usually leads to bad answers.”

Amelia Brand of the Endeavour
Amelia Brand of the Endeavour

What saves Interstellar from skidding into 20th Century pseudo-jingoistic expansionism with undertones of patriarchal rationalism, is its subversive theme. And because of it, the movie transcends into artistic commentary.

I speak of love. Love embodied by two of the main characters—both women: Cooper’s daughter, Murph, and his shipmate, Amelia Brand. Love that is irrational. Love that is unscientific. Love that is inexplicable. And love that is all powerful. Inviolate. Eternal. And, I believe, our salvation.

Aspects of “imperialist expansionism” and “patriarchal rationalism” interplay through Cooper, who embodies both in his “cowboy” science. Love propels his evolution to transcend them. In Cooper, we see the constant tension between rationality of science and the “irrational” faith of love. Related to this, Cooper must continually choose between the personal and the whole in defining his humanity and ultimately his hard choices. First with his daughter and her “ghost”, then with Amelia Brand in their mission to another galaxy.

After a botched mission, Amelia appears to abandon the very tenets of hard science to ask the defining question: “Maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory. Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” She describes love as a cosmic force, a kind of empathic drive that provides the very basis for humanity’s survival: a link to our wholeness as living beings within a breathing multi-dimensional universe. When Cooper challenges Amelia’s unscientific notions, she responds with, “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful … Maybe it’s evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t consciously perceive.” Amelia nails it when she, in turn, challenges Cooper: if the second choice turns out bad, they will have enough fuel to do only one of two things: go on to the third planet in hopes of distributing the seeds of humanity OR go back home to his children. Which will he choose? It’s interesting what he does end up choosing: he chooses love. Love drives him to do impossible feats, like dock his shuttle with a damaged and recklessly spinning Endeavor:

CASE: That’s impossible

COOPER: No, it’s necessary

Love for Murph drives Cooper into the black hole … and out of it. Love directs him to that precise quantum moment where his love for Murph transcends into love for all humanity: to save the world. This is the secret. The secret Mann in his intellectualized definition of what it means to be human could not touch. The window for connection to the whole is through a single tiny grasp of it. The glimpse into Eternity is through the lens of love. I am reminded of a quote in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” In Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Itzhak Stern quotes the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Cooper travels into Gargantua
Cooper travels into Gargantua

So what is love, then? Is it gravity? Does it communicate through the God particle in the fractal fabric of the Higgs field? What other phenomenon grows from nothing? What other phenomenon is not lessened but in fact grows by giving it away? What other phenomenon provides the very weight and structure (the meaning) of our existence? What other phenomenon is like a whisper in a crowded room, yet creates the most beautiful symphony? Is it that simple?

If gravity is a plane of existence, a fifth dimension that can exist across space-time, is a black hole simply a doorway? Like death? Is love the fuel of evolution, lifting us up into a higher state?

Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft shares: “…Gravity is love on a material level. In fact, [gravity] has two movements: one is towards union, back to the center, the big bang, the past by gravity. And the other is to give itself out to all other beings, out into the future, the expanding universe, by energy and by entropy, which is energy giving itself out to the empty places.”

What struck me the most about Interstellar was how it simultaneously evoked my breathless awe in the vast universe’s existentialist grandeur with a personal connection and intimacy. Interstellar was soul-nourishing, dream-engaging; and its recursive themes called of “home”.

 

Definitions: 

Wormhole: Officially known as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that would fundamentally be a shortcut through spacetime.

God Particle: Also known as the Higgs boson or Higgs particle, the God particle is believed to be the subatomic particle that gives everything mass. Without it, nothing would have weight or even structure. The Higg boson is an elementary particle with no spin, electric charge or colour charge. It is considered the smallest possible quantum excitation of the Higgs field that unlike the more familiar electromagnetic field cannot be “turned off”; instead it takes a non-zero constant value almost everywhere.

Higgs Field: In two papers published in 1964, Peter Higgs posited that particles obtain mass by interacting with a mysterious invisible energy force field that permeates the universe: the Higgs field. It is the stuff of stars, planets, trees, buildings and animals. Without mass, electrons, protons and neutrons wouldn’t stick together to make atoms; atoms wouldn’t make molecules and molecules wouldn’t make us. The presence of the Higgs field explains why some fundamental particles have mass while the symmetries (laws of nature) controlling their interactions should require them to be massless, and why the weak force has a much shorter range than the electromagnetic force.

 

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 others. 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. Her latest book, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua is a post-climate change story and essay published by Mincione Edizioni (Rome).

Advertisements

“Solaris”

solaris01Steven Soderbergh’s stylish psychological thriller, released November 2002 in the United States by 20th Century Fox (and recently out on video), eloquently captures the theme of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 book. Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is an intelligent, introspective drama of great depth and imagination that meditates on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. Soderbergh’s Solaris is a poem to Lem’s prose. Both explore the universe around us and the universe within. Not particularly palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers, Solaris will appeal more to those with a more esoteric appreciation for art.

When I recently saw the 2002 20th Century Fox remake of Solaris (released on video this past fall), I was blissfully unaware of its legendary history. I say blissfully because I harbored no pre-conceived notions or expectations and therefore I was struck like a child viewing the Northern Lights for the first time. The stylish, evocative and dream-like imagery flowed to a surrealistic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez like the colors of a Salvador Dali painting. It was only later that I discovered that Russian experimental director, Andrei Tarkovsky, had previously filmed Solaris in 1972 based on Lem’s masterful 1961 book of the same name. Reprinted by Harcourt, Inc. with a new cover featuring a sensual image from the 2002 film, the original book was translated in 1970 from the French version by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox for Faber and Faber Ltd.

Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is a dark psychological drama. Soderbergh faithfully captures the intellectual yet sensual essence of Lem’s book by tempering the language and movements. Featuring a fluid and haunting soundtrack, his film flows like a choreographed ballet. There is a dream-like quality to it that is enhanced by creative use of camera angles, unusual lighting, tones and contrast, and sparse language. Solarisis not an action film (no one gets shot, at least not on stage), yet the tension surges and builds to its irrevocable conclusion from frame to frame like a slow motion Tai Chi form.

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (played with quiet depth by George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (played sensitively by Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Lem packs each page of his slim 204 page book with a wealth of intellectual introspection. Through first person narrative, he intimately unveils the complicated influence of this arcane force on Kelvin. Lem explains it this way: “I wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.” (Author’s Website.) Such an incomprehensible entity would serve as a giant mirror for our own motives, yearnings and versions of reality. For me the contrast presented by such an arcane alien force emphatically—but also ironically—defines what it is to be human. It is only when faced with what we are not that we discover what we are. Later in the book, Kelvin cynically observes: “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.” In the film Gibarian sadly proclaims of the Solaris mission: “We don’t want other worlds—we want mirrors.” In the book, Lem has Snow deliver a similar message, but neither Gibarian or Snow realize that these two desires may be one and the same.

Lem’s existentialist leaning is provided throughout the book and even alluded to in the name he chose for the space station: Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind for which Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver (which grew back daily). It is interesting that Soderbergh chose to send Prometheus to a fiery crash and named Kelvin’s dead wife, Rheya, after the Greek goddess, mother of Zeus and all Olympian gods. In a late passage of Lem’s book, a devastated and sorrowful Kelvin formulates a personal theory of an imperfect god, “a god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure … a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfills no purpose—a god who simply is.”

Soderbergh addresses Lem’s existential vision with several brief but pivotal scenes. One occurs when Kelvin’s dead friend, Gibarian, returns to him in a dream on Prometheus and responds to Kelvin’s question, “What does Solaris want?” with: “Why do you think it has to want something?” Another scene occurs as a flashback to a dinner on Earth, when the real Rheya, prior to her suicide, argues with both Gibarian and her own husband about the existence of an all-knowing purposeful God, which both men argue is a myth made up by humankind: to Kelvin’s suggestion that “the whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Rheya insists that she’s “talking about a higher form of intelligence,” to which Gibarian cuts in with: “No, you’re talking about a man in a white beard again. You are ascribing human characteristics to something that isn’t.” Kelvin fuels it with: “We’re a mathematical probability,” which prompts Rheya’s challenge: “How do you explain that out of the billions of creatures on this planet we’re the only ones conscious of our immortality?” Neither man has an answer. Gibarian later commits suicide on Solaris rather than deal with the manifestation of his conscience. And I can’t help but wonder if the underlying reason for his inability to reconcile with his “demon” is because he was unequipped to, given his nihilistic beliefs.

Gibarian also tells Kelvin (and we must remember that all this is Kelvin really saying this to himself through his memory of the character): “There are no answers, only choices.” It is interesting then that the first pivotal choice in the story is made by the Doppelganger Rheya (also a manifestation of Solaris but a mirror of Kelvin’s own mind) and it is a choice made out of love: to be annihilated, rather then serve as an instrument of this unknown alien power to study the man she loves.

Some critics have called Soderbergh’s Solaris pretentious, boring and devoid of action and intimacy. I strongly disagree. It is simply that, as with Lem’s original story, Soderbergh’s Solaris does not surrender its messages easily. The viewer, as with the reader, must intuitively feel his or her way through the fluid poetry, free to interpret and ponder the questions. This is what I think good art should do. And I feel both the original book and Soderbergh’s movie do this with enthralling brilliance.

Where Soderbergh and Lem depart lies more in each artist’s personal vision and belief. Soderbergh seems to view the forces that drive our universe as the manifestation of an arcane motive more readily known through spirituality, perceived by the heart, and existing as a matter of belief. Lem, however, suggests that these forces are random and without purpose, defined by science, and perceived by the mind. Still, Lem is not proclaiming a nihilism of his own: he believes we are defined by the questions we ask and Lem asks a great deal of questions—leaving the reader to do the answering.

Reviewer Rick Kisonak asserted that Lem’s “novel is an icy meditation on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. It poses countless metaphysical questions and makes a point of answering none of them. In Soderbergh’s hands, however, Solarisbecomes a celebration of romantic love, which culminates in the revelation of a caring, forgiving creator. At the end of his book, Lem writes [Kelvin ponders]: ‘the age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris [life ends but not love] is a lie, useless and not even funny.’ The director ignores the author in favor of just such a poet” (Film Threat, [Online]). Kisonak is referring here to Rheya’s interest in Dylan Thomas and its reference throughout the movie. Another reviewer, Dennis Morton, goes so far as to suggest that the screenplay of Solaris is the first stanza of the poem, which ends with: “…though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion” (Santa Cruise Sentinel, [Archived online])

While I agree with some of Kisonak’s reasoning, I think he has missed the point of Lem’s book. If one continues to read from the passage Kisonak quoted above—as Kris Kelvin transcends from what he “thinks” in his intellect to what he feels and “knows” in his heart, to accept his (and humanity’s) destiny with humble fatalism—we learn that Lem ends his book in much the same way as Soderbergh’s movie: life ends but not love. The endings are physically different, in keeping with some radical alterations from the book in the movie’s setting (e.g., the original Solaris station is located on the planet and Lem assiduously describes Kelvin’s observations and interactions with the alien ocean; whereas Soderbergh’s crew virtually never leave orbit and the planet remains aloof in the background, reflecting Soderbergh’s focus). Yet, Kris makes the same choice in faith and love in both book and movie (although the choices play out differently). In matters of faith and love, here is what Kris has to say in the book: “Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? … In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation … I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the end of both movie and book, Kris Kelvin lets go of his fears and lets his spirit rise in wonder at what astonishing things Solaris (and the universe) will offer next.

In the final analysis, both book and movie are incredibly valuable but for different reasons. Soderbergh paints an impressionistic poem, using Kafkaesque brushstrokes on a simpler canvas, to Lem’s complex tapestry of multi-level prose. Lem challenges us far more by refusing to impose his personal views, where Soderbergh lets us glimpse his hopeful vision. I think that both, though, come to the same conclusion about the ethereal, mysterious and eternal nature of love. On the one hand, love may connect us within a fractal autopoietic network to the infinity of the inner and outer universe, uniting us with God and His purpose in a collaboration of faith. On the other hand, love may empower us to accept our place in a vast unknowable and amoral universe to form an island of hope in a purposeless sea of indifference. Whether love mends our souls to the fabric of our destiny; enslaves us on an impossible journey of desperate yearning; or seizes us in a strangling embrace of unspeakable terror at what lurks within—surely, then, love is God, in all its possible manifestations. This is unquestionably the message that unifies book and movie. And it is one worth proclaiming.

This review originally appeared in April 2004 Issue of The Internet Review of Science Fiction.

 

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 and Strange Horizons, and serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches 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.

“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.

 

“Farscape” (Season One)

farscapecover1Okay, I’m a late bloomer, or so I’ve been told by many of my relatives. And they’re probably right: I got married later than most and had my son even later. I didn’t join the 21st Century tecky scene with Internet service, websites, and cell phones until recently (yeah, really!). We still don’t have cable or satellite TV (and don’t plan on it soon either). And I still don’t have a cell phone, much to the chagrin of my teenage son. So, it’s no surprise that I discovered “Farscape” for the first time through an enthusiastic fan demo to re-instate the already cancelled show after four seasons!

Upon seeing a montage of scenes at a “Save Farscape” panel at V-Con, I knew I wanted to see more and out of sheer faith bought the first season on DVD (at no small sum, I might add!). I was totally vindicated, beyond my highest expectations.

This is an intelligent, edgy, subversively imaginative series that can be perceived on many levels. Crafted as a “hero’s journey” in its truest sense, the show’s title speaks of the yearning for home. And this is, on its most obvious level, what the series is all about: finding home. The theme is most literally portrayed by the lead character, John Crichton (played by the consistently attractive Ben Browder), the human scientist/astronaut who is accidentally propelled through a wormhole into a galaxy far far away, peopled with strange and awesome aliens of all manner and shape. On another level, one could equally apply “Farscape”, the name of Crichton’s ship, to his longing for a figurative “home” — a place or state of being he can not find on Earth, where he withers beneath the imposing shadow of his celebrated heroic father.

farscape6
Moya’s crew in early Season 1

When Crichton stumbles into this awesome “farscape”, he plunges into the mayhem of a raging space battle of Peacekeeper fighters (called Prowlers) with an immense biomechanoid ship (called a Leviathan). He is captured and brought on board Moya, a living ship linked symbiotically to its Pilot and manned by a rag-tag clutch of escaped convicts, D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel.

John Crichton-Season1
John Crichton (Ben Browder)

Crichton finds himself imprisoned on Moya, along with one of the Peacekeeper Prowler pilots who has managed to get caught in the stream of Moya’s starburst (the equivalent to hyperdrive in other SF stories), as the homeless convicts flee into uncharted territory. Crichton struggles to grasp this very strange world and its alien beings who consider him “higher brain function deficient” (D’Argo in Premiere). Upon glimpsing his attractive female cellmate, Crichton thinks he’s found an ally in the human-looking Sebacean Peacekeeper pilot — only to find her hostile and contemptuous (he is, after all, a lowly non-Sebacean).  Crichton’s “Wizard of Oz” journey through this “farscape”, bursting with aliens who think him weak and useless, provides him with many opportunities to prove himself — not as the brawny shoot-em up action-man but as the cerebral, problem-solving diplomat — a different kind of hero. Crichton is a gentle soul, a man of integrity and given rather to humor and silly references to pop-culture to disarm his antagonists. Together, whether they like it or not (and the Peacekeeper certainly doesn’t – at least in the beginning) they must all find a way to work together as they are pursued through the uncharted territories. One of the greatest qualities and gifts Crichton brings to this group is his intrepid explorer’s willingness to see the best of a new and alien situation or phenomenon (e.g., Through the Looking Glass). This is because John Crichton is driven not by fear but by wonder.

aeryn sun gun earth
Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black)

The hidden protagonist of the series, the one who carries the deeper and more resonating metaphor of yearning for “home”, and ultimately the most interesting character, is the Sebacean Peacekeeper, Officer Aeryn Sun (played by Claudia Black) who is brought on board and, as a result irreversibly “contaminated”.

Unlike John Crichton, Aeryn Sun is in her home; but circumstances (of which she is more responsible than she’d like to admit) swiftly render it as hostile and “alien” to her as her homeworld is to John Crichton. While Crichton’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” discovery of the far universe draws our empathy, Aeryn’s struggling journey through her somtimes tortured inner universe is far more compelling. Her plight resonates more universally with us as she is forced to seek her identity and to become more than she was. In this regard, John Crichton’s character serves as a catalyst to Aeryn’s evolution more so than she does to his. In the Premiere episode, shortly after she is declared a traitor by her superior officer, punishable by death, Aeryn fatalistically resists fleeing with Crichton from her Peacekeeper captors: “No. I will not come with you; it is my duty, my breeding since birth. It’s what I am.” To this Crichton simply replies: “You can be more.”

Aeryn shoots
Aeryn Sun wielding her weapon of choice

Aeryn’s “hero’s journey” is not unlike that of the other main characters she is thrown together with; each fighting their own demons to find their way to peace, their “home”. Hers is just more interesting. A Sebacean (human-looking but incapable of thermo-regulation), Aeryn was born and reared aboard a Peacekeeper Command Carrier, trained from infancy to be an elite soldier and to follow orders without question. Peacekeepers are proud mercenary soldiers, serving as a military force for planets that lack one. Tenacious and clever fighters with massive ships and weaponry, their society follows a harsh, unforgiving meritocracy, with success greatly rewarded and failure mercilessly and brutally punished. Here’s an example: Aeryn’s only transgression was that she spent too much time with non-Sebacean “alien lifeforms” while onboard Moya. Her commander, Captain Crais, declared her “irreversibly contaminated” through her unauthorized contact with these “lower life forms” and sentenced her to death. His true reason for throwing her in with the others was that she brazenly — and foolishly — defended one of them (John Crichton).

fs122_090a
Sun and Crichton work out a plan … or not…

Aeryn Sun’s private struggle to reconcile her former Peacekeeper life with her life in exile resonates through the other characters, with each episode of the series providing its own individual element to the overarching theme. For instance, in the episode Exodus from Genesis, when the ship becomes infested by insect-like creatures (Draks), both Crichton and Aeryn must re-evaluate their notions of lesser creatures’s role in the universe; only Aeryn’s vision of a lesser creature isn’t the “bugs” but — you guessed it — humans.

zhaan1
Zhaan, a plant-like being

In Throne for a Loss, Zhaan attempts to enlighten a warlike Tavlek about choices, as D’Argo, Aeryn and even Crichton take their turns at donning the powerful device/weapon that removes the very need for choice.  As a Peacekeeper, Aeryn is trained to be extremely independent and self-reliant. In Exodus from Genesis, Crichton tells her, “You’re not in this alone. Everyone on board has had their lives derailed from what they thought they should be. We’re stuck together. And as long as we are, we might as well be . . .” Aeryn finishes for him, almost sneering,“What? Family? Friends? I want neither.” Of which she both learns to value (e.g., DNA Mad Scientist) and cultivate by the end of the first season (e.g., Nerve, Family Ties). In the very episode where she claims no use for such ties, she finds herself relying on Crichton when she succumbs to Sebacean Heat Delerium (which leads to the Living Death).

rygel1
Rygel, a banished royal

In PK Tech Girl, both Aeryn and Rygel are forced to come to terms with their vision of the past and of themselves (Aeryn of her status as a traitor banished from the home she loved: “I hate being ambushed.”). Crichton’s vision of her culture (and implicity of her) provides Aeryn’s first challenge. Remarking on the incredible derelict Peacekeeper ship they are investigating, Crichton says, “If you guys only used your know-how to–” Aeryn cuts him off with her own challenge: “To what? To fulfill your vision of who we should be?” Then reveals her idealism: “We are Peacekeepers. Other cultures hire us to keep order, to keep harmony–” What she leaves out — and Rygel is quick to point out — is that in many cases this is achieved through assassination, brutal torture, and kidnapping.

AerynSun-shooting
Aeryn Sun, warrior

In DNA Mad Scientist the crew (namely D’Argo, Zhaan and Rygel) lapse into selfish bickering when a mysterious scientist, Namtar, offers them the chance to find their homeworlds at the expense of Pilot (whose arm is sacrificed) and Aeryn Sun, whom they abandon to Namtar’s unnatural genetic butchery. This is a pivotal event for Aeryn, who begins the discarding of her outer shell of Peacekeeping rhetoric to learn to trust her inner feelings. Emerging from this abomination done to her, Aeryn finds herself: “I always thought of myself in terms of survival, life and death … What Namtar did to me … It was me, inside. The real me.”

AerynSun-season1
Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) Season 1

At the outset, Aeryn “has the most to lose and the most to learn” (Rockne O’Bannon, Creator/Executive Producer) when she gets caught up in the escaped ship’s rebellion and her consequent banishment. Despite her growing rejection of the Peacekeeper’s brutal totalitatianism and a society that has already rejected her, Aeryn maintains an affinity for its culture and the status she lost. But as she learns to embrace humility and tolerance (something unheard of for the proud facsist-like Sebaceans) through her interactions with Moya’s crew, specially with John Crichton, Aeryn grows as a person and begins to think in broader terms. She grows to a point where, despite her training “to survive” as a Peacekeeper (Aeryn in PK Tech Girl: “In our world showing pain is a sign of weakness…”), she permits herself the “weakness” of falling in love and chooses to sacrifice her life rather than survive at the expense of another’s (The Flax).

John Crichton-S1
John Crichton (Ben Browder)

Gradually she discovers, often with John Crichton’s help, that her true strengths lie not in the display of might or stoicism but in the gift of honor, loyalty, and compassion — traits she has always possessed. In fact, it was her sense of honor and her compassion (for which she claimed to have no use) in initially defending John from the fate of a tortuous death at the hands of Crais, that condemned her as a traitor in the first place. This single act of compassion — in itself counter to how Peacekeepers and Sebaceans deal with “lower life forms” — seals her destiny and sets in motion her journey of self-discovery: a journey of slow but inexhorable peeling away of layer upon imposed layer of Peacekeeper rhetoric to release the light burning inside her.

pilot
Pilot of bio-mechanoid ship Moya

Farscape is an elegantly crafted work of art created by Rockne O’Bannon (Alien Nation) and produced by the Jim Henson Company and Nine Network Australia (in association with Hallmark Entertainment). Edged by a haunting evokative score (by Subvision), seamless CGI, and other special effects, Farscape achieves a truly remarkable universe, often of cruel and bizarre beauty peopled by powerfully complex characters who’s journeys of mind, soul and body resonate with what it is to be human and of humanity.  Displaying moments of clever humor, and incredibly sensual interaction, “Farscape” entertains like no SF TV serial I have seen to date. Farscape is both an intellectual feast of imaginary worlds with thought-provoking concepts and a love story told on a grand scale upon a tapestry of elevated themes such as honor, loyalty and sacrifice. The program has won widespread acclaim among both genre and mainstream press and was nominated for an Emmy when news of its cancellation broke out. Matt Roush of TV Guide described Farscape as “the most irreverent, unpredictable, sexy, intelligent and exciting sci fi show on TV.” Says Clare Sainsbury in her article “Who killed Farscape?” in Strange Horizons (Oct. 14, 2002): “Often baroque, visually spectacular and pyrotechnic … [Farscape is] strange, smart, sexy, psychologically rich, superbly acted, and apparently hell-bent on breaking every rule in the book, including its own — as one fan summed it up, Farscape is ‘not your father’s sci-fi’.”Aeryn-John

I recommend this series to anyone who appreciates intelligent science fiction in the vein of Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. USA Today proclaims that, “Farscape is more than just TV’s best space show.” This “simply spectacular” (Desert News) series is “exotic … impressive…” (San Francisco Chronicle), “Eye-catching and energetic … lotsa fun” (Dalas Morning News) and “One of those rare outer-space adventure series that deserve to be called fantastic.” (Reader’s Digest). Farscape has generated an incredible fan-base, many of whom remain commited to bringing the show (e.g., mini-series, and feature films) back on the air or on the silver screen since its cancellation in 2003 (e.g., www.watchfarscape.com; www.savefarscape.com). Google Farscape for more fan sites. DVDs of seasons 1 through 4 as well as the most recent mini-series, “The Peacekeeper Wars”, which had a limited airing in October 2004 are available.  Enjoy it. I certainly still am!

 

 

Love story:

john-aeryn first kissFrom the very first scenes between these two very different people (in PK Tech Girl, John mutters: “I’m not like you,” and Aeryn hisses back: “Not even remotely.”) they have struggled with conflict and attraction. In PK Tech Girl, Aeryn blurts out, “In the beginning I found you interesting,” then quickly qualifies to Crichton’s puzzled half-pleased look, “But only for a moment.” The evolving relationship of John and Aeryn toward their first kiss was wonderfully constructed over several episodes. And when it happened (in The Flax) it combined pathos, explosive passion and humor in a complex and vivid scene that left me panting for more. Whether it is in conflict or in love and passion, or simply working cooperatively to solve a problem, Aeryn and John sizzle on screen, lighting each other on fire. Pivotal episodes of their growing (and struggling) relationship in the first season include: the Premiere; PK Tech Girl; DNA Mad Scientist; The Flax; A Human Reaction.

Ben Browder plays John Crichton with a natural, understated style, portraying a man with an appealing mixture of high moral ethics, weird humor, and innovative intellect and proving that a hero need not be the dark, arrogant loner so common on the screen these days. He’s a nice guy, a scientist and pacifist, who prefers to use his brain and humor over brute force and an arsenal of weapons to solve a conflict. “Ben is an all-American guy. There’s always something going on behind his eyes. He’s got a certain spark that’s necessary for Crichton.” (Brian Henson, President of Jim Henson Co.). As John Crichton, Browder is both very male yet soft, sweet and boyishly vulnerable: “Come on, Aeryn, you bash me all the time for being soft, but the fact of the matter is sometimes it’s an advantage and this is one of them.” (Crichton in PK Tech Girl).

John Crichton-episode 1
John Crichton (Ben Browder) in Episode 1 of Farscape

Says Browder of his character in Farscape, “John Crichton is a guy stuck in extraordinary circumstances … He spends a lot of time figuring out what’s going on around him and getting knocked down and dragged around and he pops back up and comes up with an idea to save his butt…” Browder shares a philosophical fascination for the genre of SF: “The thing about doing science fiction is it allows you to explore different ideas , different avenues, in a way you can’t do in standard drama. It allows you to raise very hard and interesting questions about what it is to be human and what it is to be moral and ethical … and also you get to tell really interesting stories and there’s fabulous alien chicks.”

During a quiet moment in The Human Factor, when John and Aeryn are hiding out, he sits beside her glum form and simply leans his head like a great big puppy dog on her shoulder. It is a move both so endearing and sweet that it’s no wonder she reacts the way she does.

aeryn-season1
Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black)

Claudia Black is Aeryn Sun: “She’s this beautiful vicious killer who is at the same time a very innocent vulnerable girl deep down that was never allowed out.” (Brian Henson, President of the Jim Henson Co.). “When we first saw [Black’s] audition, we thought: that’s not what we imagined, that’s not really what we saw. Then you watch her for ten seconds and you can’t stop. There’s something so appealing about her; she’s like a magnet. There’s life experience in her. She’s very fit, she can be strong as a person and at the same time , underneath there’s a real vulnerability that you can see through the eyes. That’s pretty much Aeryn. Her energy inside is a pulling energy. We sort of thought we knew what Aeryn was; then we met Claudia and we realized we were wrong . . . Claudia was exactly what Aeryn was.”

Black manages in her facial expressions, voice, body movements and expressive eyes to deliver the subtle nuances of a complex, often paradoxical character: one that is both strong and vulnerable; courageous and crusty yet soft inside; ruthless yet compassionate; confident and intelligent yet often uncertain of her capabilities (particularly her intellect). Black considers Aeryn “a contemporary Emma Peel” (of the original Avengers). Says Black: “When the audience first finds Aeryn Sun they’ll be a little bit surprised by how harsh she is. She’s very tough. I don’t know if she’s very likeable but gradually she’ll find her smile.”

A good example of her complex character can be found in PK Tech Girl.  Soon after Aeryn’s awkward interaction with Crichton when she catches him kissing the PK Tech Girl and blurts out her own confession of being attracted to him, Crichton (and the PK Tech Girl) get trapped by a fire-breathing Cheyang. Aeryn stages a dramatic rescue by leaping down several stories along a hanging chain, to blow away the Cheyang about to fry them. After a swift appraisal of the situation, and without so much as a look at Crichton, she coolly strides off, tapping the chain out of her way with her hand and a glib line, “Sorry about the mess.”

Supporting Cast:

Farscape-season 1D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), Zhaan (Virginia Hey), Rygel (Jim Henson Creature; voice by Jonathan Hardy), Pilot (Jim Henson Creature; voice by Lani John Tupu), Crais (Lani Tupu) and even Moya (the ship) provide a rich tapestry of imaginative setting whose filigree of characters provide humor (mostly Rygel), spirituality, conflict and drama to a show willing to take risks. D’Argo is the fierce Luxan warrior whose reaction to conflict is to attack first and ask questions never. Zhaan is a Delvian priest, whose dignified gentle demeanor provide a much needed level of balance and spiritual strength to the disparate group. In contrast, Rygel is a Hynerian, formerly royal sovereign of more than 600 billion subjects. His excessive concern with his own self-interest is barely eleviated by his small size and although he appears rather cute, this alien is far from sweet. He often serves the role of comic relief in the show. Lastly, there is the mild-mannered Pilot, who is symbiotically linked to the leviathan. Later in the season, other strange characters join Moya’s rag-tag group, adding spice, grit and confusion to the already careering homeless group (e.g., the wild bratty Nebari, Chiana, played by Gigi Edgley; and the Banik healer, Stark played by Paul Goddard).

farscape cast

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