Shlomo Schwartzberg wrote our first post for Critics at Large about James Cameron's Avatar and the failure of American cinema to provide good science-fiction. He elaborated further on this frustration last summer when a number of highly touted SF movies hit the big screen.
|A scene from Never Let Me Go (2010)|
Take Never Let Me Go, the highly critically acclaimed 2010 British film based on a dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishjguro. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book, but the film makes no interior sense whatsoever. The movie’s opening crawl indicates that in 1952 breakthrough scientific experiments cured most diseases and by 1967 the average lifespan was over 100 years old. Yet the inhabitants of that different world use the same technology – radios, cassette tapes – in the same time-frames as we do. That’s simply ridiculous considering the remarkable dramatic medical advancements of Never Let Me Go, which we still haven't achieved in 2011. Should they not have matched their medical breakthroughs by equally great leaps in technological know-how, especially because mankind would have been spared the need to find the cure for cancer and other illnesses and thus had more time to innovate in other fields? A world where illness has been largely eradicated by the '50s is one where DVD players and computers would have been common by the '60s and astronauts would likely have landed on Mars by the '80s. To postulate that the England of Never Let Me Go would look and feel the same as our own is nonsense. Similarly, the movie’s revelation that its main characters – SPOILERS FOLLOW – a trio of young people (beautifully acted by Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield and Casey Mulligan) were actually clones that were only being kept alive until their vital organs were needed for transplant to their ageing/dying humans is also illogical. (Director Mark Romanek doesn’t do a good job of springing that news on the viewer, I figured it out pretty early on.) If their world was so cruel as to use them for this purpose – and remember they assumed they were fully human – why give them lives, an education and jobs before yanking it all away from them? It would be far more realistic if their 'world' was just made up of false memoires implanted into their brains while they lay in suspended animation or something along those lines.
More recently, this year’s Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau also stretched credibility in their scenarios. The latter, based on one of Philip K. Dick's lesser short stories ("Adjustment Team"), speculates that unseen ‘angels’ of a sort manipulate people’s lives, including the couple played by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, and historical events from behind the scenes for reasons both selfish and altruistic. If you are a wayward human, the way you can avoid detection by the angels is to move about when it rains. The angels have trouble following a wayward human in that weather. Newsflash: Earth is 90% water (this was the same stupid thinking in M. Night Shyamalan's idiotic alien invasion movie Signs). Source Code’s main conceit is that a soldier, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, upon dying in Afghanistan, has his memories and personality preserved in an isolation tank, which also contains the partial remains of his body. He is kept ‘alive’ until he is sent back in time until he can prevent a terrorist, who has already detonated a bomb on a commuter train, from blowing up Chicago with a dirty bomb. The catch is he can be inserted into the body and mind of a human being aboard the train but only for eight minutes of the man’s life. So he is sent back though the source code over and over again until he, hopefully, accomplishes his mission. Again, this isn’t believable; both in terms of the short time allowed him each trip, but also because it’s a half-assed way to stop a bad guy. The good acting in both those films and the great performances in Never Let Me Go are wasted due to their ill-conceived and far-fetched plotting.
|A scene from Blade Runner (1982)|
It’s that rare SF movie – A Clockwork Orange (1971), A Boy and His Dog (1976), Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), Code 46 (2003) – that convinces us of the veracity of the world they depict, one that actually looks and feels futuristic, significantly altered or unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. (Blade Runner, for example, also based on a work of Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is narratively slack, though oddly faithful to its source material, and now out of date. Its depopulated and Japanese dominated L.A. of 2019 is obviously not going to happen, but the film’s stunning design – 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Douglas Trumbull was responsible for its unique look – rivets you. If you didn’t know when it was supposed to be taking place, you’d buy into its beautifully detailed world entirely. The science fiction films of the 1950s, the short Golden Age of cinematic SF, are somewhat different. Most of the fine movies of that period, including The Day The Earth Stood Still,War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, didn't so much create new worlds, they were very low budget efforts, but ably depicted ours in a fresh light.)
Two new, and quite terrible, SF movies, Cowboys & Aliens and Another Earth, both of which open today, also commit the sin of being badly drawn ‘worlds,’ but they compound that folly by failing, too, in every other cinematic regard and, in the end, aren’t really that interested in the tropes of the genre at all.
|Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in Cowboys & Aliens|
Perhaps if director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) wasn't such a pedestrian filmmaker the movie might have at least breathed new life into the Western, the way that The Claim (2000) and Appaloosa (2008) did in recent years, but Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t even feel authentic as a Western not to mention as SF. Favreau displays no directorial sense of place, doesn’t know how to create tension and can’t make his movie come alive. Worse, the screenplay somehow forgets what’s it actually about in terms of the enemy the humans are up against. After an initial comment about the E.T.s possibly being ‘demons,' an idea dismissed by the local preacher (Clancy Brown), it's never brought up again, with the result that the bad guys, other than looking non-human, are treated exactly the way any bad guy, from Indians in the Westerns of the past to the villains of all hues in today’s crop of oaters, have fared on film. The movie is set in 1873 Arizona, 25 years before H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds so the nonchalance of how Lonergan and his pals get used to what they’re fighting doesn’t parse. The rest of the film is a hodgepodge of overacting performers (Harrison Ford as the town’s rich villain; Paul Dano as his obnoxious son) and underwritten characters: Keith Carradine as the towns' sheriff, Olivia Wilde as a mysterious woman who comes upon the scene, and Craig, a generally dull actor but saddled here with a carbon copy squinty eyed, laconic creation that the likes of Robert Mitchum perfected many years before. Only Sam Rockwell as an intellectual saloon keeper who learns to toughen up manages to display some acting chops, but his character is a bit less meagre than the others.
Oh, it also has a dog and a plucky kid, one who bonds with Ford’s character, courtesy no doubt of the film’s executive producer, one Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, who can boast of several successful or at least compelling forays into SF (E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) ought to be more careful of where he affixes his name. After tying himself to this noisy, empty movie and the hopelessly derivative (of his own oeuvre) Super 8 earlier this summer, he’s in great danger of diluting his brand and his reputation.
The film’s premise is what its title promises. In 2006, another planet that looks just like our own suddenly appears in the sky, perfectly visible to those of us on Earth. Promptly christened Earth 2, it seems to be a planet exactly like our own, down to identical individuals living out identical lives and situations (the exact plot of a British SF movie, 1969's Journey To the Far Side of the Sun). Okay, in print that idea has often worked, but this movie isn’t smart enough to iron out these niggling details that can’t help but irritate any discerning film-goer. Where did this planet come from and why wasn’t it visible before 2006? Did it utilize a Romulan cloaking device to render itself invisible? Does it possess some secret engine which enabled it to fly across the galaxy? How come it’s taken four years for anyone on our Earth to figure out how to communicate with anyone on Earth 2? And why are only commercial interests able to put the bucks together to launch a manned mission to land on Earth 2? If this had taken place in a future where government austerity has meant that only rich individuals, à la Richard Branson, can afford to go into space, that concept could have worked, but to set it in our present, 2010 to be exact, when NASA’s Shuttle program still existed and when the International Space Station still orbits the Earth, is another example of not thinking SF concepts through so that they make sense.
|Brit Marling and William Mapother|
- originally published on July 29, 2011 in Critics at Large.