- Meaningful story that unfolds with a tense, creepy vibe
- More family friendly than a lot of current scifi
- If you happen to be a Brad Pitt fan, he’s pretty much in every scene of this film with a lot of closeups. Has to be on your bucket list.
- The science fiction fan will enjoy a number of zero gravity fist fights, a vehicle chase/ambush on the moon, raging space baboons, and a more gritty portrayal of space travel and space tech for the science geeks.
- Nuanced performance by Pitt. His character is non emotional with flat affect, but this film is about his growth toward engaging his emotions. I thought Pitt pulled it off.
I recommend AD ASTRA for the whole family. It’s worthy of a watch party. AD ASTRA is rated PG-13, I’m guessing for its few gory scenes. I don’t think the gore will disturb most viewers. If you need warning, write to me via comments section and I can warn you when to walk out of the room.
There are no sexually explicit events in this film and very little offensive language. It’s a quiet film in portions, much of it narrated by Pitt in voice-over journal entries/reports…The vibe felt similar to Space Odyssey, monotone and spare. However, unlike Space Odyssey, AD ASTRA gives its audience a few exceptional action sequences.
AD ASTRA, directed by James Gray, written by Gray and Ethan Gross, follows one character’s odyssey into space to save the world. Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is contacted by SpaceComm, the military’s space command, for a special assignment.
Power surges are wreaking havoc on Earth. These surges seem to be coming from an old space station, the Lima Project, the station run by Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). That station went as far as Neptune. In Roy’s youth, the station stopped communicating with SpaceComm and all its inhabitants were presumed dead. At least this has been the public’s assumption. Roy’s included.
Now, the military reveals they believe Roy’s father is still living on Lima. The want Roy to communicate with his father, but Roy can only do this from an underground Mars station. (For some reason it cannot take place on Earth). Thus begins his odyssey to Mars and beyond.
The audience knows Roy has more than a few daddy issues. He’s serious, non-emotional and disconnected from others. Roy describes himself as someone who compartmentalizes for the sake of survival. Roy does have a wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), but that relationship is failing. They have no children.
So, in saving the world, Roy McBride will journey to save himself and if possible, his father. The interior journey that parallels the exterior journey to salvation is not so subtle in the film, but it is still a fun ride.
Another Delta plane flight, another dive into Hulu’s offerings. I haven’t yet paid for Hulu’s streaming service. Maybe I will. I’ve been impressed with their original productions. What I viewed today, my second INTO THE DARK* episode, this one celebrating New Year’s Day: NEW YEAR, NEW YOU. This film is 84 minutes long, rated R for adult themes and violence, though the gore was not over-the-top. INTO THE DARK was co-written by director, Sophia Takal and Adam Gaines.
MY SHORT REVIEW: 5 Reasons I Recommend
- Compact story, tension ratcheting up with every scene.
- All-female cast of characters, all solid performances
- Surprising turns in the story
- Well done production, including a creepy soundtrack
- Director, Sophia Takal is a talent worth watching and following
NEW YEAR, NEW YOU is Mean Girls on steroids. Those viewing INTO THE DARK know the genre, so it’s not a giveaway to say that the story opens with flashes a tragedy, the body of a young woman with cuts across her face, floating face up in a swimming pool. It’s a quick and foggy flash and not explained initially. In the next scene the audience attaches to the main character, a young woman named Alexis. Alexis is the nanny for a teen girl. Together they are watching a video of an Instagram/YouTube star: Danielle. Danielle’s screen presence feels part shopping channel, part self-help guru, part inspirational speaker. Based on the enthusiastic fawning of the teen, the audience understands Danielle to be one of those personalities able to drive her fans to buy products (including a line of her own overpriced juices) that promise to deliver the screen-projected happiness she exudes.
Alexis is disgusted by Danielle’s image and message. The audience sees this in her face, her attitude, her posture. Alexis is one angry woman. She bears a scar along her jawline, also not explained. Alexis notices it often, touches it, focuses on it as she looks at her face in a mirror at least twice. The audience grows in understanding that Alexis’ old friend and now superstar, Danielle, might have something to do with Alexis’ scar.
In the second set of scenes, Alexis is preparing her house for a New Year’s Eve party, but there is little joy in her preparation.
Point of view shifts briefly to the interior of a car. Two other women, Kayla and Chloe, are driving in a rainstorm on their way to Alexis’ party. Danielle comes up in their dialogue, both her fame and how much money she has been making. Kayla and Chloe wind up with a flat tire a few blocks from Alexis’ home and walk in the rain the remainder of the way.
The two of them are warmly welcomed by Alexis. Danielle, has been invited to the party as well, though these women haven’t seen her in a while and are uncertain whether or not she will come. Danielle finally shows up, a much anticipated moment for the audience. She is alone.
Kayla and Chloe seem excited to see Danielle. Alexis tries to act happy, but she’s not a great faker. The friends proceed to drink and celebrate their evening. Danielle pushes her agenda, wanting to shoot various videos of her friends to promote herself/her lifestyle. Her controlling and shallow presence draws out the worst in Alexis, literally and figuratively. The climax takes place as the women countdown to midnight, at which point all hell breaks loose.
I didn’t come close to predicting all the twists and turns of NEW YEAR, NEW YOU, but it was a pleasure to feel on edge from beginning to end, which is why I consume such tales.
*INTO THE DARK…The series, INTO THE DARK, is a Hulu concept, a horror anthology series in the vein of The Twilight Zone, though each production is as long as a feature film. In the anthology’s first season, Hulu released one episode per month, starting with Halloween and for a total of 12 episodes. All of the episodes were tied thematically to a holiday that falls within that month. NEW YEAR, NEW YOU is the 4th episode in the anthology. It is tied to New Year’s Day.
The series, INTO THE DARK, is a Hulu concept, a horror anthology series in the vein of The Twilight Zone, though each production is as long as a feature film. In the show’s first season, Hulu released one episode per month, for a total of 12 episodes. All of the episodes were tied thematically to a holiday that falls within that month.
The 8th episode was released in May under the title: ALL THAT WE DESTROY. The story is inspired by Mother’s Day.
ALL THAT WE DESTROY is horror, but with a scifi twist. It is a tale in the vein of Ex Machina, the drama unfolding around a brilliant scientist who runs a lab in a remote location. It’s a story as old as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a trope that will please both the science fiction nut and the horror fan. In other words, this HULU original does not disappoint in terms of revealing a monster or two…
I would rate this film R for violence and language. Trigger warning to those who might be disturbed by violence perpetrated against the vulnerable. This is a monster movie.
Short Review: Four Reasons To Watch INTO THE DARK
- Lots of edge-of-your-seat suspense and mystery.
- The characters surprise, yet for all their weirdness, they are relatable.
- Strong female leads, with themes around motherhood and life-creation.
- The story takes place in a desert hideaway where the sun shines brightly. I found it refreshing to see this setting for such a dark and troubling tale.
Point of View determines how a story like INTO THE DARK will unfold. In the case of this film, the POV primarily rests with the supposed monster, the creation. In the opening scene, the audience watches her wake up out of a tub of black sludge. The audience learns within the first 20 minutes of the film that this young woman is a clone. The clone is lovingly washed and dressed by the scientist, whose hands the audience sees, but does not meet until later. Instead, we meet the scientist’s son. His mother is the scientist and she is a woman fixated on solving the dilemma of her son. She’s doing this in the only way she knows how, by using her science in what is clearly an unethical way.
The twist in this story, as you might imagine, is that the clone may or may not be the true monster.
Ex Machina was on my mind during much of the viewing of INTO THE DARK
In the case of Ex Machina (which I loved, but still haven’t reviewed on this site), the point of view is mostly held by the visitor who enters the lab. Mystery about what the heck the scientist has created drives the plot, ramping up tension as the visitor discovers (therefore, we the audience discover) the horrors of the scientist’s experiments. This tension culminates as the visitor understands that in order to survive, he will need to escape from the lab before the monster overcomes him. This is where a story such as Ex Machina, science fiction in its vibe, follows the haunted house script. Think Poltergeist, Amityville Horror, The Shining. Survival equals escape. Will the hero make it out?
INTO THE DARK gives the audience a twist on this haunted house trope. The point of view starts with the clone, but moves to the scientist and to the son at various points in the film. The clone is innocent in her birth and clueless about the dangers that lurk. The audience understands those dangers and strongly empathizes with her, is rooting for her.
Part way into the film, a visitor enters the action. It’s a chance meeting, but reveals the vulnerability of the scientist, her son and the ghastly experiment she has been conducting. The finale brings all the characters together. I liked the ending. It was packed with symbolism, but not overdone. A true Mother’s Day tale.
I rewatched BLADE RUNNER last night in a friend’s home-theater with a group of folks in their 20s and 30s. For some, it was their first time viewing the film.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have seen the original BLADE RUNNER on the big screen during its first weekend release. I was a young highschooler at the time, a huge sci-fi fan and living in Burbank, California. I remember my older brother and I driving west over the Hollywood Hills, as we did often in that era, to make sure we were getting the biggest bang for our buck. Our theater of choice that night was The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
It’s not easy to describe to a new generation of filmgoers how important this film was at that time. Most folks in the film industry, especially directors point to BLADE RUNNER as ground-breaking. Ridley Scott made BLADE RUNNER after finishing the film, ALIEN. He also made it after his brother had died of cancer. The dark setting of BLADE RUNNER reflects a dark state of mind. Don’t expect cheerfulness here.
YET…you don’t have to be a filmmaker to appreciate BLADE RUNNER.
Here are 10 Reasons Every Sci-Fi Fan Ought to Watch BLADE RUNNER
Oh, and watch the FINAL CUT. 2007 version. There are seven versions of this film. Kind of crazy, I know.
- Cult classics happen for a reason. Following its meh release in 1982, a slow-building respect, awe and cult following emerged.
- BLADE RUNNER influenced the next generation of filmmakers, especially dystopian and sci-fi writers/directors.
- This is a brilliant screenplay (especially once R.Scott took out the clunky voice-over narration), though there are many fans of that version of the film.
- Take pleasure in watching a young Harrison Ford perfectly embody the main character, Richard Deckard.
- You like The Man in the High Castle? Philip K. Dick wrote that novel. BLADE RUNNER is an adaptation of his weird classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- You’re a Battlestar Galactica fan? Here is a chance to see Edward James Olmos (Captain Adama) in a role you would not expect.
- Complicated villain. Rutger Hauer…what a performance!
- The sequel is excellent and makes a lot more sense if you watch the original first.
- This is not a movie for the weak, nor is it for the mindless. You will have to think and process the experience after viewing.
- Because of number 9, it’s a great film to see with a group of friends. At the very least, the post-film discussion won’t be boring.
If you want to totally nerd out on BLADE RUNNER, I recommend this very long and thorough article in Cinephilia & Beyond
The Hive Brain Alien (Spoilers Galore)
Writing non-humanoid aliens who don’t speak a human language is no easy task. This post is preceded by three others. If you want the earlier insights, link to to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. It occurs to me that I ought to define dynamic. That word is in all four titles.
In terms of a dynamic literary character, I mean a character who is neither pure good, nor pure evil…a character that can change its/his/her mind, can act morally or immorally, and can find its way into the audience’s heart.
This post will be a study of ALIEN, BATTLE STAR GALACTICA, ANNIHILATION and ENDER’S GAME.
Hive brain aliens (or A.I. in the case of Battle Star Galactica) differ so much from human beings, in part because their societies resemble what would be perceived by humans, as dictatorships or slave states. Hive communities, though a perfectly reasonable way of life for many of Earth’s tiny creatures, when translated into human terms, feel unpalatable. All hive individuals think alike. All live for the queen. All work for her good and the good of the community, often at the expense of the individual. So, how does an author drum up empathy for these characters? In the case of Ridley Scott with his Alien creature…almost none. The exception would be in Alien Resurrection, the third film in the franchise, when the newborn hybrid alien is killed by its own mother, Ripley. The audience knows this is necessary, but still…it hurts to see that cute (not cute) little spawn (not little) sucked out of the spaceship.
So, these aliens in the Alien franchise are not sapient. They do not make tools and have no technological civilization of any kind.
They are predators, with one goal…survival. Not only will they eliminate other lifeforms that may pose a threat to them, they will impregnate those who remain and use them to feed their young. Yeah…not a pretty picture, but still, that moment when Ripley turns her back on her offspring…it tugs our heart for a brief moment.
My husband and I have been re-watching Battle Star Galactica (which, by the way is fantastic; the writing, the acting and the overall production hold up to any tv series produced ever after). In BSG, the Cylons are the worker bees of a hive mind (an A.I. computer searching for meaning). The Cylons have destroyed human civilization and are chasing down the remnant who are fleeing in space vessels across galaxies to find a place where they will be able to survive/start over. The Cylons are called “toasters” by the humans who shoot them dead (otherwise, they will likely die by the hands/guns of those Cylons). The Cylons are non-human with little or no individuality…until, the computer brain figures out how to create machines that are VERY human-like. Those Cylons infiltrate the human remnant and take on unique personalities. One even falls in love and is impregnated by a human. So…it all becomes complicated. Including, the episode we just watched which chronicles a Cylon called Scar. The episode is the 15th of the second season and is titled, Scar. It is free for for Amazon Prime members as is the entire series.
This particular Cylon is not only named by the human fleet (naming a hive member changes the way the audience sees this character), it is feared by them. The fleet’s fear of Scar also puts it in a unique category. No longer is Scar a worker bee.
Scar has been able to kill more human viper pilots by learning. The implication put forward by one of the human-like Cylons (the pregnant one) is that each time Scar has been destroyed, its failure in battle remains in its brain. As that brain is downloaded into the new Cylon body, a new pilot is born, only it does not forget. Scar is able to access the lessons of its battle failures and grow more adept at fighting human pilots. In a previous episode of BSG, the human fleet has destroyed the Cylon “resurrection ship”. Therefore, this battle with Scar is to the death. Scar will not be coming back in a new body if it is destroyed this time.
In BSG, the writers want the audience to grapple with a morphing understanding of the Cylons. Cylons start out all evil, but don’t stay that way. Various human-like Cylons enter into human community and help it, many step in with critiques of human society, acting almost like prophets. The Cylons are monotheists, who believe there is a purpose to their existence. The human remnant is polytheistic, worshipping the gods of the Greek Pantheon. Wonderful fodder for philosophical ponderings within BSG.. Through the many episodes of BSG, the audience begins to feel more compassion for the Cylons. The entire series is worth watching if you are a writer who cares about humanizing characters that fall into the category of enemy or other.
In ANNIHILATION, the enemy is mysterious, hive-like in that it reacts en masse and not as individuals…In fact, it can’t be categorized as a hive-brain alien exactly. There is little clarity that the anomaly in Area X is actually an alien takeover. What emerges is the notion (at least in the novel) that the changes taking place in Area X are inevitable and may be good for Earth. The anomaly, however, is impersonal. The alien impact, or whatever it is, is spreading and seems to have no consciousness in the way we think of consciousness, but is more like a fungus or a virus. It has power to change its environment, but any actual “brain” that would become a military target, allowing our government to remove the anomaly is unclear. Lots of mystery, but the writer, Vandermeer, makes it work, especially in ANNIHILATION, the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy.
Area X is frightening because it consumes and/or changes all who encounter it. As a writer, ANNIHILATION is worth studying for the utter strangeness of the alien anomaly. There is no verbal communication with it, only physical and psychological encounter. The biologist character in the novel (Lina, in the film) helps the audience see the mystery as beauty. However, the ambiguity remains and is never truly resolved. It’s good to see an alien like this. The presence of it pushes the human characters to their limits and reveals aspects of our humanity that are important to recognize. Really great sci-fi ought to do this.
Lastly, ENDER’S GAME. The Formics are the enemies, (the Buggers) that Ender eventually destroys. The novel is about how he is trained to perform this act. Ender commits xenocide without knowing it. It’s worth reading or re-reading ENDER’S GAME to watch how Orson Scott Card pulls this off. The Formics are all evil until very close to the end of the novel. The turn takes place when the innocent, but talented Ender realizes how he has been manipulated and how his power has been used to “save Earth”, but while doing so, he has destroyed another species. His grief is immense. Ender will bear this guilt into subsequent novels. The audience, once it realizes that the Formics have been destroyed, enters into Ender’s regret. A young boy’s conscience has been scarred. The novel then portrays the Bugger queen communicating with Ender, giving hope to him that there might be a path to redemption. The audience wants this for Ender. The queen reveals that the Formics had initially assumed humans were a non-sentient race because they lacked a hive mind. She/they realized their mistake too late. In other words, the war was a BIG misunderstanding. The queen requests that Ender take a dormant egg that has not been destroyed to a new planet where this species can thrive anew and Ender agrees. Suddenly, the audience is rooting for the Formics.
That is a turn around worth studying! The audience goes from hating Formics and seeing them as a monolith, to empathizing with them and hoping for their rebirth.
Make sure you pick this novel up next time you’re at the bookstore or you can order it here.
Caution: A few spoilers in this post…
Non-humanoid aliens are a challenge for writers…hopefully, established in my previous post on writing dynamic non-humanoid aliens
- If the alien doesn’t look or act like a human, it will be difficult for the audience to comprehend its character and motivation
- If it doesn’t speak in plain human lingo, along with not looking like a human being…it will be near impossible to draw in the typical audience. The alien will remain “the other” and may never transcend its designation of foreigner/alien.
The honest sci-fi writer knows that if a first contact event were ever to take place in the real world, the likelihood of an alien looking like a human being and/or speaking or thinking like a human being is slim to none.
Therefore, the imagination must soar and novels like Embassytown (China Miéville) and short stories like Arrival (Ted Chiang) come into the canon. These are stories that give the audience an alien we might never have imagined. It’s worth looking at both examples. In this post, I will focus on ARRIVAL, the short story and the film. Both were excellent and if you haven’t already consumed these stories, do so and do so before you read on. Here is my non-spoiler review of the film, ARRIVAL Otherwise, I forge ahead with analysis and spoilers. You’ve been warned.
How did Ted Chiang and Eric Heisserer (screenplay writer) pull off portraying an alien that was both non-humanoid, with no human language and still give it/them so much character that went beyond “the monster” designation?
- They reveal the alien through the eyes of Louise Banks, the main character and the linguist who is trying to communicate with the creatures/entities. The story is told from Louise’s point of view. That makes a big difference in how the audience sees all that transpires in the narrative because Louise comes to the aliens as a learner, as curious and though the creatures are powerful and instill fear in most of the humans who encounter them, Louise is not overcome by fear. (Note: Louise is a fantastic hero, but she is no Ripley, of the Alien franchise. It’s likely she would have been an early snack for the buggers on that vessel. Louise is fierce in her dedication to her academic discipline, but unlike Ripley, my guess is she would not be as ready to use a gun to blow their brains out if they had revealed themselves to be monsters).
- The writers give the aliens agency, first by showing their power. These entities that have arrived on Earth are powerful, there’s no doubt about that and showing their power is not a difficult writing task. It is accomplished in a variety of well thought-out details. For starters, the vessels they have traveled in are massive. Also, these entities have traveled through space to find another sentient species, which reveals how their technology is superior to human tech. In addition, the mystery of where they have come from, their beautiful language, their form…all create an aura of their power, and I would add, their dignity. The fact that humanity is freaking out (especially the military) is another clue about these aliens and their power. We learn about them by watching how others react to them. This is a classic writing tool, especially when a mysterious character presents itself. The audience takes its cues from the group surrounding the mystery.
- The writers reveal alien character by showing us how those aliens use their power. They show us by showing us the alien actions As ARRIVAL progresses, the audience begins to form an opinion about the motives of these characters. They are characters with personality. First, the audience recognizes what the aliens have not done. They have not blasted the planet to shreds, started a war or abducted any humans. In terms of what they have done, the aliens are trying (trying hard) to communicate. They readily engage when Louise begins to learn their language. The most important scene in the narrative that reveals their goodness is the moment the entities warn Louise about danger, then save the lives of Louise and her counterpart when a bomb, planted by one of the freaked-out military men, explodes in the cave-like room where they have been making slow progress on communicating. The contrast becomes clear. We see humans who are fearful and violent. We see aliens who are steadily revealing themselves and using their power to save lives.
To close this second of four posts, I’ll nerd out a little on words.
The Etymology of Our Other-Worldly Friends/Enemies
In English, the word alien is derived from the Latin, alius, meaning other, and alienus, meaning belonging to another. The al in these words comes from the Proto-European root (it precedes Sanskrit), meaning beyond. Its root is different from the English word, foreigner, whose Proto-European root is the word dhwer, meaning door. The senses of the two words are different based on the roots. The foreigner lives outside one’s door, the alien is from somewhere beyond. I key into the fact that the word precedes Sanskrit. The labeling of the other is incredibly old. Human psychology is fundamentally tribal. Those outside our door or from beyond are automatically suspect. The film ARRIVAL is about this tribal fear and our inability…not just to communicate with strangers/aliens, but to communicate with one another. In the film, this becomes a large issue and almost leads to disaster.
One other term for the sci-fi consumer…E.T.
The term extra-terrestrial was coined in the modern era. It was first documented in 1953 or 1956 depending on who you believe. The initials, E.T., was made famous by Spielberg’s 1982 film.
A REVIEW OF THE 2019 FILM AND A FEW OTHER OBSERVATIONS
In the last ten years, the urging of audiences around the globe have pushed the film industry to re-think the way it portrays people of color and women, folks who might not have been featured in stories (especially superhero stories) as headliners.
A number of different types of heroes have emerged victorious: Wonder Woman hit the scene big in 2017, the Black Widow in the Marvel universe has taken an elevated seat (will not spoil, but she plays an essential roll in Avengers: End Game, released this past month), and Black Panther, another Marvel character and storyline that incorporates not only one African character, but an entire culture.
All those films/characters broke open that hunger into full fledged box office $ and now, CAPTAIN MARVEL enters the scene.
Captain Marvel. First of all…I have to say. What fun! I loved this film and I noticed after emerging from the fog of the fictional dream what the credits indicated. I noticed how many women worked on the writing. The WRITING. I cannot emphasize this enough. Women were put into positions of power, able to make decisions about the story.
- Directed by Anna Boden
- Screenplay written by Anna Boden and a dude named Ryan
- Story credits going to Anna Boden, Nicole Perlman, Geneva Roberson-Dworet, Meg Le Fauve, and yes…a dude named Ryan
So…when there was a shouting match in the writer’s room about what the character is thinking and feeling and the actions she is about to take…Ryan might have been “out-shouted” by the women. That was a good thing for audiences everywhere.
Wonder Woman was an amazing film, but women were not in the writing credits. A woman was instrumental in the direction of the film, which is awesome, but women did not “create the character”…in fact…here are the names of the writers:
- Zach Snyder
- Alan Heinberg
- Jason Fuchs
I’m not saying these dudes were bad people, insensitive to female motivation and feminine issues of power and agency, but…they are three dudes and there are zero women in terms of the story creation.
What was it like to be in the writer’s room of CAPTAIN MARVEL versus Wonder Woman. I imagine there was a difference.
CAPTAIN MARVEL was not a perfect film and there are problems (as an author I foresee them) with how incredibly powerful the creators have made Carol “Captain Marvel”. What is to keep her from showing up every other day and solving the world’s issues? The implication from Avengers: End Game is that she is super dang busy with solving the universe’s issues with evil, so she can’t bail them out every time there is a problem.
A problem a lot of great woman face, I suppose. They want to help people, but have too much to do and not enough time on their hands…CAPTAIN MARVEL sounds like any number of Saints in the Catholic Canon. “If there were just more of us…” said one lady saint to another…
Indeed…I hope there will be more female heroes portrayed in the superhero universe in the coming years.
By the way…for those interested…there is a weird subtext to the Wonder Woman mythology. Click here to read an article about the man who conceived of the character: The Creepy Creator of Wonder Woman
But don’t discount this creator/writer too quickly. He is said to have written this in a letter to the publishers of DC Comics:
“Look, if you had a female superhero, her powers could all be about love and truth and beauty, and you could also sell your comic books better to girls,” he said. “And that would be really important and great because she could show girls that they (girls) could do anything.”
A Study of Non-Humanoid Characters
(Beware. A Few Spoilers Below. For a no-spoiler review of the film, ANNIHILATION click here, for a review of the novel, click here )
Since my second viewing of the film, ANNIHILATION, I have been musing on my own sci-fi writing, thinking about how difficult it is to portray non-humanoid aliens in a novel, even more so on the screen or stage. The audience may not ponder this, but sci-fi authors grapple with the problem every time they sit down to write.
If you do a google image search of Star Trek aliens, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Scroll down and down and down to view many colors of skin, odd make up and costumes, but most of the images you see will be faces that look a lot like human faces. In particular, those aliens that become super villains are almost always humanoid…Klingons, for example. Why do Star Trek writers/producers seem to prefer the humanoid alien?
One theory emerges…
When telling stories, facial expressions and body language hold meaning. When my editor asks me to show and not tell in my story, I rely on movement, posture, actions as well as dialogue to show character. So, if my alien is a purple blob that does not speak human language and is flying a space vessel into lower Earth orbit for the first time and feels anxious, how do I show the reader its anxiety? My editor will scold me if I write: The blob creature was anxious as it flew into low Earth orbit? This is an example of telling and not showing. Substandard writing. She wants better and I pay her for that advice…so how does a writer manage? Maybe I decide the blob alien doesn’t have any feelings. It’s machinelike. I don’t need to show anything beyond the flying. That option is backed up by the way human beings often view the other, whether alien or human. That’s how people objectify the other.
It/he or she feels nothing = I feel no connection = I don’t relate = I can despise it, him, her.
The not-feeling portrayal of the alien works sometimes. A number of successful sci-fi stories deliver to its audience the alien as monster, a creature or entity both sinister and destructive. The Thing as well as the first Alien films are good examples. Both follow the script of the haunted house drama. Humans are in grave danger, trying to defeat a monster that has found its way into the sacred living space. It will use up and in the process destroy all the good guys, unless the good guys destroy it/them first. The monster is objectively all evil.
What about non-human characters that might not be all evil? Those are of interest to me as they are to many other sci-fi writers.
Back to the purple blob.
So, how would I portray the anxiety in my blob character? Maybe I show the blob sweating while it nears planet Earth. Okay…that won’t work. How about a trembling blob? Would my audience interpret a trembling blob as an anxious one? For all they know, the trembling is a physical reality of a ship entering Earth orbit. You see the problem, which brings me to R2D2.
R2D2, not an alien but wildly different than a human, holds one answer. Recall a number of Star Wars franchise films. R2’s personality makes his mark in all of them and does so as a non human…How do the writers pull this off? How does R2 connect with the audience, which he does in a big way? (Note: in the Star Wars universe, all droids are programmed male or female. R2 was programmed “male” which is why I use the male pronoun when referring to him.) How do we know R2 has feelings when he can only bleep, squeal, whistle, spin its carapace from left to right, roll here and there and lunge back and forth on his three-wheeled legs? He doesn’t have facial expressions, arms and doesn’t even speak a human language, but the audience, especially children, feel a connection and an affection for this character. Why?
Dig deeper into the screenplay of the earliest film…Notice how humans, Luke and Leah, or another verbal and humanoid robot, C3P0 interpret for the audience what R2’s squeals, bleeps and actions mean. The audience sees and hears C3P0 responding to R2D2 in STAR WARS, A NEW HOPE and comes to understand the determined personality of this character.
Here’s an early R2D2 scene most of us are familiar with…the droids have just crash-landed on Tatooine and are journeying together across the planet’s desert-like dunes.
C3P0: What a desolate place this is…
R2: squeak, whistle
C3P0: Where do you think you’re going? Well I’m not going that way. It’s much too rocky.
R2: bleep, squeak
C3P0: This way is much easier. What makes you think there are settlements over there?
R2: bleep, bleep, whistle
C3P0: Don’t get technical with me. What mission? What are you talking about?
R2: whistle, bleep, bleep
C3P0: I’ve just about had enough of you. Go that way. You’ll be malfunctioning within a day, you nearsighted scrap pile!
R2: (turns to the left and begins heading in a different direction than C3P0)
C3P0: (calls after a departing R2) And don’t let me catch you following me and begging for help because you won’t get it.
Clever writers! This is one way to give that bucket of tin a whole lot of personality…put him alongside another verbal character who will always react emotionally (even though he is a droid, who of us would deny that C3P0 is highly emotional?) and interpret bleeps and whistles for the audience. After a while, the audience doesn’t even need the interpretation. We begin to hear the difference between a happy squeak or whistle and a sad bleep.
Back to the purple blob. If another humanoid is flying co-pilot and happens to speak a human language…now I can have the co-pilot respond to the trembling.
Purple Blob: (trembling as flames erupt around the nose of its space vessel)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’ve never seen you tremble before, Sir.
Purple Blob: (squishes 2 hoots and a few groans out an opening on the side of its gelatinous body.)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: Well. I can see why you would be nervous. The gravity on this planet is stronger than we thought, but our heat panels should protect us.
Purple Blob: (squishes out 1 hoot)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’m just glad it’s you flying a not me.
That’s it for now. Thursday, I’ll tackle the fantastic aliens in the film and short story, ARRIVAL.
Don’t miss this film. It’s easy to watch. Right now ANNIHILATION is free for Amazon Prime members.
Five Reasons to Watch this Film
- It puts forward a non-humanoid portrayal of an alien species invading our planet–always a welcome change in sci-fi land.
- Watch it for the tension, mystery and suspense (on par with films like Alien and The Thing).
- Watch it for dynamic, mostly female cast. Realistic and flawed characters with agency and intelligence.
- Watch it for the beautifully imagined world. The CGI and other effects are a visual feast.
- I also enjoyed the creepy music. I expect it will make your skin crawl as it did mine.
ANNIHILATION is based on The Southern Reach Trilogy novels by Jeff Vandermeer. Watch the film and read the first book (in particular), also called Annihilation. To read my review of the first novel, click here. The film diverges enough from the novel, spoilers aren’t an issue. Both stand alone and give the consumer something different. The most important commonality in both is the main character: Lena, as named in the film. She is not named in the book, but is only known as the biologist.
Alex Garland wrote the screenplay based on the trilogy, but focused on the first book. He takes that novel told in the first person, a story relayed by the journal entries of the biologist, and creates something that makes sense for the screen.
In one of the film’s earliest scenes, a comet or asteroid hits Earth, near a lighthouse on the North-Eastern coast of the US. Within a few years (we learn later), an anomaly develops in and around the area where the asteroid hit. It becomes circumscribed by what the government people call, the shimmer.
The story of Lena opens with her sitting in a chair in a mostly empty hospital-type viewing room. She is dressed in scrubs, surrounded by men and women in hazmat suits, many of whom watch her through windows. One man is interviewing her about her journey into the shimmer. She is only survivor who has returned of a 5-person team. As he questions her, the story unfolds.
The casting of ANNIHILATION is strong, with nuanced performances by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as the psychologist and expedition leader).
This film was released on a February weekend in 2018, the weekend following the release of Black Panther. While the Marvel masterpiece sucked nearly all of the movie-going public into the theaters, one, two and three times to ooh and aah over that story, the graphics and the unfolding of a Wakanda power struggle, ANNIHILATION quietly drew its small and eclectic audience. It left the theaters before the Hollywood press had a chance to say much about it. In truth, even without Black Panther as competition for eyeballs, the film was rated “R”, and therefore would not have attracted the masses.
However, similar to a film like Under the Skin, this story is so creepy and alien in a way that pushes the imagination, the sci-fi fanatic will adore it…as should biologists, who will see their discipline elevated in a way not often witnessed on the big screen.
If you are a DVD watcher, here is a link for purchase.
I end with a favorite quote:
“Was it carbon based? What did it want? It came here for a reason. It came here for a reason. It mutated everything.”
AUTHORITY, by Jeff Vandermeer, A Book Review Without Spoilers.
First, A Little Data About this Book Review
- I listened to the novel via Audible and felt it was difficult to follow and a little boring, this after loving the Audible version of ANNIHILATION.
- AUTHORITY is the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy. ANNIHILATION being the first, ACCEPTANCE is the third
- I have not yet read ACCEPTANCE, but have been told by a trusted scifi-reading friend that the trilogy is worth reading overall
The Short Review.
I Give this Book a Semi-Enthusiastic yes. Read AUTHORITY for these reasons:
- The story maintains the overall tension as introduced in the first novel.
- It may not resolve completely, but the novel reveals enough enticing details to make the reading worthwhile.
- The narrator character is the protagonist and insists on being called Control. Though I’m not fond of him, he establishes a relevant relationship to someone who has survived Area X.
- The writing itself, as is consistent with ANNIHILATION, has lovely moments.
So…if AUTHORITY was a stand alone novel, I might not write a stellar review and I would give up on reading any other Vandermeer novels, but since I loved ANNIHILATION so much, I will read on. If you’re curious about my review of the first Southern Reach novel, click here for the ANNIHILATION REVIEW
In AUTHORITY, the narrator is a male who calls himself Control. His birth name is John Rodriguez. He is the new director of the Southern Reach. In an early introduction, he insists that his colleagues call him Control. I realize the title of this novel is AUTHORITY and that the book is much about who has authority in the confusing situation that is taking place in and around Area X. This was another reason I was annoyed by John Rodriguez’s moniker. It felt like the author was trying to make me think in a certain direction and less about a person. I didn’t like that.
Control seems like a weirdo, socially. I was not fond of his narrative voice, nor his behaviors or leadership. Control does not compel me. I feel a distance from this character that I think I’m supposed to feel compassion for. Since the story is being told by him, in the first person, I can’t get away from him. I would have stopped listening had I not been told by a friend that the final book and the whole arc of the three books make sense when you finish them.
Despite me not feeling a connection to this narrator character, I can see why author, Vandermeer, changes perspective in this book. He wants the reader to receive another view into Area X. That which is mysterious and difficult to describe, much less understand in Area X, is seen from another angle in this novel. Control provides the US military/intelligence/bureaucratic angle as well as some recent history.
Given that the reader knows the content of ANNIHILATION, that Area X has consumed a number military and government expeditions, the background is helpful to the larger story.
But, for me, the main silver lining around this new narrator was that the reader finally received a physical description of the narrator and protagonist from the previous book.
“The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, green eyes, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family…”
This description does make me bummed about the filmmakers of ANNIHILATION casting the biologist for the cinematic story as a white woman (Natalie Portman) with zero (or near zero) Asian heritage. Bummed for many mixed-race actresses out there who did not get this part.
I will listen to the next book, AUTHORITY, on Audible. I hope to enjoy it more than this middle novel.
Click here to buy ANNIHILATION, Bk 1 of The Southern Reach Trilogy
Click here to buy AUTHORITY, Bk 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy
Click here to buy ACCEPTANCE, Bk 3 of The Southern Reach Trilogy