Where Is Sci Fi Going?

Where is science fiction going? When you look at its past the loose patterns that emerged are easy to see and have been well documented.

The cold war anxieties of the fifties were reflected in the alien invasion movies of the decade like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and It Came from Outer Space. 

Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in 1969 focused attention the possibilities of space and the excitement followed through into movies such as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

But worries about how we would cope with entities stronger than ourselves were already being explored in movies like Alien and continued with The Terminator, The Thing and Predator. And now older foes have made a comeback with vampires (Daybreakers, True Blood), zombies (The Walking Dead, World War Z) and other horrors (I Am Legend, 28 Days Later) all filling the screens and the bookshelves.

I think it was author David Brin who once wrote a piece about how our anxieties always lie outside our comfort zone, beyond the metaphorical campfire. If I remember rightly, he suggested that this was why early cultures, lacking scientific knowledge of the natural world, had gods who controlled everything from fertility to the weather. In the hard, brutal world of medieval Europe, the living feared attack from supernatural predators like vampires and werewolves. And the Victorian era, so confident in its industrial progress, still could not conquer death and so ghosts and spirits were conjured up to contemplate existence beyond the living world.

So where do our uncertainties lie? What’s beyond the campfire in this decade? Looking at recent movies and books I think our worries are coming closer to home. Progress in science and technology means that ideas that were fictional even just a few decades ago like cloning and nanotech are now fact. Some airports have holograms giving passengers information. Social networking is a powerful agent for social and political change. Our web browsing habits shape the adverts we see. And we’re still working out what our response is to all this. Where do we stand on human cloning? Assisted death? How ‘smart’ do we want our robots to be? If artificial intelligence does emerge, what rights would that intelligence have?

Movies like Inception and Source Code have mind-bending plots looking at our perception and experience of reality. Others like Never Let Me Go (based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro) and Moon look at the morality of treating human clones as a commercial commodity. The movie In Time, starring Cillian Murphy, comes out later this year and looks at the commercialization of human life. Medical advances mean that the age gene can be turned off and life itself becomes a consumer product and can be extended…… for a price.

And I’m looking forward to it all. Brian Aldiss, in his book Trillion Year Spree, wrote, “..every age gets the art it deserves.”, and I’m glad our technological age has the rich field of science fiction.

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5 Sci Fi Movies Featuring An Actor You Wouldn’t Expect

Some actors and even directors pop up in the oddest places. In sci fi movies, for instance.  In roles that are neither cameo nor star billing, their fame nevertheless propels them up the credits and makes you think, “He’s in it? Really?”

Sometimes their performance, though brief, can be good enough to make a so-so movie watchable, at least while they’re on-screen (think of Steve Buscemi’s scene-stealing act in The Island). Others seem to relish the chance to kick back and have fun with the part, like Stanley Tucci as Dr. Zimsky in box office stinker, The Core.

So, here’s my choice of five sci fi movies featuring someone you wouldn’t necessarily think of for the role. I’m not using the word miscast because often the casting turns out to be brilliant, just …. unexpected.

Warning: spoilers

Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut)  in Close Encounters of the Third Kind1. Francois Truffaut (Claude Lacombe, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977)

Back in 1977 when Close Encounters was released, director Steven Spielberg’s main claims to fame were Duel (1971) and Jaws (1975). He wasn’t the colossus of cinema he is now. Which made the appearance of Francois Truffaut, French icon and director of the classic Jules et Jim, in Spielberg’s sense-of-wonder movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind intriguing.

As Claude Lacombe, the scientist searching for the aliens, he is Reason to Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) Emotion. But when he asks Roy, “What is it you want?”, you sense his yearning for the answer is no less acute than Roy’s. Truffaut is great in the role and made Lacombe, like us, a wistful observer of the great finale.

Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) in Donnie Darko2. Patrick Swayze (Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko, 2001)

Donnie Darko is the great 2001 cult film about time travel, alienation and death. Troubled teen Donnie escapes death by aircraft engine when he sleep walks outside and has visions of a giant rabbit called Frank who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

In an already quirky movie, the casting of Patrick Swayze of Dirty Dancing and Ghost fame seemed odd to say the least.  But as Jim Cunningham, a motivational guru with a cheesy line in self-promotion, Swayze is remarkably good, oozing oily charm on a surface which overlays a cynical manipulator with a dark and dirty secret.

Archibald 'Harry' Tuttle (Robert De Niro) in Brazil3. Robert De Niro (Archibald ‘Harry’ Tuttle, Brazil, 1985)

We’re now used to De Niro’s forays into cameos and comedy (Capt. Shakespeare in Stardust and Jack Byrne in Meet the Parents) but back in 1985 he was identified with intense and serious movie roles (Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle in 1976 and The Godfather: Part II’s Vito Corleone in 1974).

So when he turned up in Brazil it grabbed some attention. Dark and dystopian, full of weird and disconcerting imagery, Brazil could only be a Terry Gilliam movie. It’s overlong but utterly brilliant and De Niro as Tuttle, an air conditioning technician suspected of terrorism, delivers a performance full of manic energy that manages to be both comic and unnerving.

Freddie 'Warlock' Kaludis (Kevin Smith) in Die Hard 4.04. Kevin Smith (Freddie ‘Warlock’ Kaludis,  Die Hard 4.0/(US) Live Free or Die Hard)

OK, I know Die Hard 4.0 is mostly an action picture but I’m gonna allow its inclusion in the sci fi category due to its subject matter of hacking and cyber-terrorism. The ‘fire sale’ in the movie where all the major institutions and utilities are hacked and sabotaged could be theoretically possible, I guess, but hasn’t happened yet so I’ll allow it as a sci fi movie.

Anyway, it’s right up there with the first Die Hard for me, easily beating the second and third instalments in the franchise. It’s great for a DVD and pizza night and one of its many joys is Kevin Smith of Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back fame. As Warlock, an uber-hacker who lives with his appalling mother, Smith is maybe not so such an unexpected a choice for this role (I’m not saying Kevin Smith is either a hacker or lives with his mother (!), just that the general geeky, basement living, computer-nerd Warlock seems like a character he would enjoy). He nearly steals a couple of scenes from right under Bruce Willis’s nose and that’s no easy thing to do. Plus, there’s a great in-joke when McClane (Willis) stands next to Warlock’s cardboard figure of Boba Fett and Warlock asks him, “What, like, you a big fan of the Fett?”. “No”, comes the reply, “I was always more of a Star Wars guy”.

Feyd-Rautha (Sting) in Dune5. Sting (Feyd-Rautha, Dune, 1984)

Not even the clutch of contemporary star power in director David Lynch’s Dune could save it from a critical slating. One of the problems is that the book by Frank Herbert is dense and complex and if you haven’t read it, the film is frankly a confusing shambles that not even the likes of Patrick Stewart, Jurgen Prochnow or Brad Dourif could save.

Some of the casting was bizarre too with Sting, singer and bassist from The Police, in the role of Feyd-Rautha, nephew of the gross and grotesque Baron Harkonnen. Although physically suited to the role he still seems an odd choice considering all the other actors that must have been available.

Still, it’s an odd movie …. but interesting and worth watching (if you’ve read the book) …. much like Sting’s performance.

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End of the World? I Feel Fine

OK, as you were, people. Rapture’s been cancelled. May 21 2011 has come and gone. No one was ‘taken up’, not even Harold Camping, leader of the Family Radio Network, who predicted the event. Pity.

Not to worry, though – donations to his (already mega-rich) organisation have increased in recent weeks which will no doubt go some way towards consoling him in his disappointment. Apparently God loves a cynic, as well as a sinner.

Also now richer on the back of the apocalypse is a woman who set up an  ‘After the Rapture Pet Care’ service. She charged people $10 to sign up to her service guaranteeing care for Felix and Fido when their ‘saved’ owners disappeared. Genius. Wish I’d thought of it.

So in the spirit of cashing in (although I’m not actually getting any money, more’s the pity), here are five different ways sci fi has told us that the world will end. There are many more….

Warning: Some Spoilers Below

28 Days Later1. Deadly virus as seen in…..
28 Days Later (2002), Dir. Danny Boyle

In Boyle’s film, the virus is a particularly nasty little sucker that produces such an intense rage in its victims that most of the UK population turn into slavering, murderous loons within a couple of weeks. Jim (Cillian Murphy), wakes up in hospital to find that the world as he knew it has disappeared. Together with a couple of other survivors he tries to find any remaining pockets of civilization and eventually reaches the apparent security of a military post….
This is a great film which would have been greater still if they’d gone with the alternative ending (which I’ve moaned about before). The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, was OK  and if the first movie hadn’t been so great, may have been better received. And, as reported last year at Screen Rant, if the third movie, 28 Months Later, is indeed directed by Danny Boyle, I can’t wait.

2. Ecological Breakdown as read in….
Dust (1998), Charles Pellegrino

Pellegrino’s a controversial figure who nonetheless wrote an intriguing book looking at the possibility of life on the planet facing extinction when a disruption to the ecosystem (the fungus gnat dies off) causes a catastrophic chain reaction through other insect and animal populations. He’s not a natural novelist but the ideas here are scary enough to get you thinking about the delicate balancing act between all the interdependent biosystems and see the current issues around, say, the bee colony collapse disorder in a different light.

Deep Impact3. Meteor/Comet/Asteroid Strike as seen in…
Deep Impact (1998). Dir. Mimi Leder
Armageddon (1998) Dir. Michael Bay

Whether it’s a comet (Deep Impact) or an asteroid (Armageddon), something hurtling into the Earth from space will be bad news for us. Both movies came out in the same year and in both, the attempt to destroy the incoming space object is a suicide mission for the space crews sent to deal with it. Of the two movies, I prefer Deep Impact‘s style to Armageddon‘s – but that’s more because I’m not a big Michael Bay fan.

The Road4. Unspecified as read/seen in…
The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy.
The Road (movie), (2009), Dir. John Hillcoat

The story’s two main characters, a father and son known only as the Man and the Boy, are travelling through an America that has become almost unrecognisable. The natural world as we know it no longer exists. Plant and animal life has been destroyed by an unnamed disaster. Trees are blackened stumps, ash covers everything and the few humans still alive are slowly starving to death. Many have resorted to cannibalism. The Man is trying to move south in a desperate attempt to save his son and find something better for them both.
Its setting is post-apocalyptic but it’s debatable whether McCarthy’s novel is actually science fiction as the story never explores or explains what caused the world to disintegrate. But that really is irrelevant. This is simply one of the best, most haunting and most disturbing novels I’ve ever read.  And the movie does it justice.

5. Nuclear Armageddon as read in ….
On the Beach, (1957), Nevil Shute

In Shute’s novel, the unthinkable has already happened. The Northern Hemisphere has been laid waste by nuclear war, everyone is believed dead. In The Southern Hemisphere, the blanket of radiation is creeping south. In Australia, it has already reached the northern town of Darwin and it will only be a few short months before the rest of those living in Australia succumb to a lethal dose.

For the modern reader, the language feels artificial and mannered, and the story develops at a slow pace. But the power of the book comes from the descriptions of deserted towns and the portrayal of the characters as they deal with knowledge of their impending and inevitable deaths from radiation sickness. Some of the assumptions about how people would behave seem unrealistic but, by the end of the book, the quiet extinction of all human life on earth stayed with me long after the last page.
The use of T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men is perfect for the book’s approach:

“This is the way the world ends
not with a bang but a whimper.”

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5 Sci Fi Characters Unravelling

Not everyone has nerves of steel. Faced with situations that are mind-blowingly awesome or nerve-shreddingly terrifying, some sci fi characters start to fray around the edges in a way that, frankly, gives serious cause for concern. Ranging from the slightly odd to the downright dangerous, none of these are people you’d want leading you in a crisis. So which five characters need to man up here and get a grip?

Warning: SPOILERS!

Pvt Hudson in Aliens1. Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), Aliens

All arrogance and swagger as the mission begins, Hudson comes apart at the seams fast once the xenomorphs start kickin’ ass. His smart-mouth one-liners get replaced by outright panic – “game over, man. Game over!” – once he realises that this is a bug hunt like no other. Not a man to have your back.

Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind2. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Like a dream half remembered, Roy Neary becomes tormented by the mental siren call sent out by the aliens. Trying to give concrete form to the shape tweaking his consciousness, he helps himself to an entire bowl of mash potato and starts to sculpt it. A real tumbleweed moment at the family dinner table, if there ever was one. He follows this up by trying to sculpt the form on a bigger scale. This time with plants and soil. In his house. In the lounge. Understandably, the family leave.

 Mac from Predator3. Mac (Bill Duke), Predator

Before he gets killed by the Predator, Blain tells Mac, “You lose it here, you’re in a world of hurt”. But lose it is exactly what Mac does after Blain’s death, going crazy with ‘Ol’ Painless’, stabbing a pig to death thinking it was Blain’s attacker and finally, scraping the rivers of sweat running down his face with a Bic as he waits for the Predator to show.

Harlan Ogilvy from War of the Worlds 20054. Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), War of the Worlds (2005)

At first, Harlan appears to be the right stuff as he gives shelter to Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his daughter from the advancing Martians. But Ray’s initial gratitude gives way to unease, then outright terror as he realises that Harlan is several sandwiches short of a picnic and that he’s trapped in a cellar with a madman who’s going to get them all killed. After creepily telling Ray’s daughter that “if anything happens to your Daddy; I’ll take care of you”, Ray does what any concerned parent would and kills him.

Gennaro from Jurassic Park5. Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), Jurassic Park

And finally, Child Care of the Year Award goes to Donald Gennaro, who, the only adult in the car with the two kids when the T. Rex goes on the rampage, does a runner and and abandons the kids to save his own skin.  Too bad T. Rex sees him and finishes him off like he’s part of a finger buffet. Serves him right.

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Morgellons – A Disease For Our Times?

Great piece in The Guardian about a new disease with the amazingly sci fi-sounding name of Morgellons. Symptoms include excruiating itching and waxy lesions in the skin caused by tiny fibres.  Microscopic organisms and nanotechnology are just two of the suggestions as to the source of the mysterious fibres. There are sufferers worldwide and the docs don’t even know how to diagnose it, let alone treat it.

Except the docs say they know exactly how to diagnose it and it’s not a new disease at all but a well known psychiatric condition called Delusion of Parasitosis, in which sufferers believe (wrongly) that they have been infested. Unlike bacterial or viral disease which is spread through air, water, food or contact, Morgellons is a form of mass hysteria which is being spread by the internet. (And, yes, I’m aware of the irony – but this was too fascinating not to write about.)

That there are real people suffering real discomfort and desperate for relief from their symptoms, whatever the cause, goes without saying. But talk about a disease for the way we live now -Morgellons, unknown fibres, spread by the internet – this sounds like something right out of the sci fi archives.

Of course, sci fi has a long history of using disease as a way of ushering in apocalyptic scenarios. From Mary Shelley’s The Last Man through to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion due out later this year, mankind and disease have been fertile ground for authors and movie makers.  I’ve only read two books that have explored a nanotech disease – Michael Crichton’s Prey and Jeff Carlson’s Plague Year. And I haven’t come across any which have suggested that a condition with physical symptoms could be spread by the internet, although I’m sure there are some out there. But this is could be the start of a meme that will gather pace as technology and communications embed themselves further into our lives. In the meantime, I shall follow the Morgellons story with interest.

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Sci Fi Cool Dudes

I’m over last week’s bout of uber-flu and feeling (mostly) human again. And to celebrate my return to form I’m gonna look at some of the coolest dudes in sci fi. They’re the ones we’d happily pick to be on our team …… if they’d have us. Which they probably wouldn’t. ‘Cause these are the men and women you probably wouldn’t describe as ideal team players – they’ll break the rules or make up their own, they’ll ignore authority when it suits them and they’re as likely to roll right over you as help you. If they are in a team they’ll want to be leader.  Oh, and they have truck loads of attitude. And they’re cool, seriously cool.


Snake Plissken1. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), Escape from New York

What makes Snake  cool:
He’s a Special Forces soldier turned criminal; he goes into the lawless hell-hole formerly known as Manhattan to rescue the President and his cassette tape with its ‘vital information on nuclear fusion’; everyone in Manhattan’s heard of Snake but thinks he’s already dead; he rescues the Pres but double crosses the authorities with the cassette tape.

unique cool:  the eyepatch

cool quote:
Hauk: You going to kill me, Snake?
Snake: Not now, I’m too tired (pause) Maybe later.

Ellen Ripley2. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Alien franchise

What makes Ripley cool:
Tough; decisive; resourceful; no time for company men; she locks’n’loads to fight the alien – and wins; finds to time to save a pet; has the guts to go back and fight the alien again; finds time to save a kid; gets cloned but still ends up fighting the alien.

unique cool:  fights the alien queen with a loader.

cool quote:
Ripley: Get away from her you BITCH!

Morpheus3. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), The Matrix

What makes Morpheus cool:
Leads the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar; awesome fight skills; enemy of the Matrix; total committment to finding ‘the One’; deep philosophical musings

unique cool: shades.

cool quote:
Morpheus: Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

Han Solo4. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Star Wars trilogy

What makes Han cool:
Captain of the Millennium Falcon; smuggler; becomes part of the rebel alliance; handy with a blaster; survives being frozen in a block of carbonite.

unique cool: best buds with a Wookie.

cool quote:
Han: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

Billy from Predator5. Billy (Sonny Landham), Predator

What makes Billy cool:
He’s aware of the Predator long before anyone else; has major tracking skills; man of few words; throws his guns away to go head to head with the Predator.

unique cool: a mean looking knife

cool quote:
Billy: There’s something out there waiting for us, and it ain’t no man.

Dr Ian Malcolm6. Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park

What makes Malcolm cool:
He’s a mathematician with a nice line in flippant asides; he sees the dangers in cloning extinct species – and doesn’t fail to rub everyone’s nose in it; he survives being chased by a T. Rex – and can still make a joke about it.

unique cool: scientist brain with rock star image

cool quote:
Dr Alan Grant: You married?
Dr Ian Malcolm: Occasionally.

Sarah Connor7. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), Terminator franchise

What makes Connor cool:
mother of John Connor; implacable enemy of Skynet; can break out of maximum security; wants to change the future; handy with a gun

unique cool: transformation from fluffy-haired waitress to ripped ninja

cool quote:
Sarah Connor: Oh come on. Do I look like the mother of the future? I mean, am I tough, organised? I can’t even balance my check book.

Pvt Vaszuez8. Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), Aliens

What makes Vasquez cool:
one of the Colonial Marines sent to investigate the disappearance of the colony on LV-426, the planet where the alien was first encountered; cocky and wise-cracking but gets down to business once the aliens appear; gets burned by alien acid; dies but takes some aliens with her.

unique cool: red bandanna, big gun

cool quote:
Hudson: Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?
Pvt. Vasquez: No, have you?

Captain Mal Reynolds9. Cpt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion),  Serenity

What makes Reynolds cool:
Captain of the Serenity; fought the Alliance; does whatever’s needed to survive; keeps doing good despite himself.

unique cool: Brown duster

cool quote:
Mal Reynolds: You all wanna be looking very intently at your own belly buttons. I see a head start to rise, violence is going to ensue.

William Adama10. Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos), Battlestar Galactica

What makes Adama cool:
Commander of the Galactica; decisive; authoritative; tough; firm; inspires loyalty; just; pragmatic; willing to go up against a superior; cool under pressure; military leader of the remnants of humanity. So Say We All.

unique cool: gravelly voice, the stare

cool quote:
Lee Adama: I didn’t know we were picking sides.
Bill Adama: That’s why you haven’t picked one yet.

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Sick Note

space mumpsUurrgh – I have an evil dose of Captain Trips so it’s a short post this week before I collapse coughing onto my sickbed again.

This Psychobilly remix of The Stand did manage to raise  a weak snort of amusement, though.

To cheer myself up I’m going off to watch some dying Martians in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds again. If the aliens invade tonight at least I know I can take the bastards with me.

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