During COVID, I have been watching older science fiction films, whose theatrical release I might have missed. EQUILIBRIUM falls into that category. Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, starring Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs and Emily Watson, this film is rated R for violence, released in 2002. You can rent it as an Amazon Prime member for 4 dollars.
I recommend this film. It’s not the most thoughtful science fiction around, but it was entertaining on a few levels.
Short Review, 4 Reasons to watch
- Christian Bale gives a nice performance
- The one idea that drives the plot does create tension and makes the audience think at least a little…(see longer review)
- Stylized fight scenes–if you like martial arts/Matrix type battles
- Tight, linear story…easy to follow (given I just watched Tenet in the theater, it’s nice to watch a film that is relatively straightforward)
Earth exists in a dystopian reality, post WWIII, led by a man the population calls Father, though the ruling powers are likely something broader than one man. These decision makers have determined that Earth will not make it through another world war and have created a rigid society for the sake of survival. Emotion is outlawed, so are all things associated with emotion, in the film’s case: art, music, nostalgia items, love/affection, sensual pleasure, pets. The ruling class gives the population a drug to dampen emotions. Most faithfully take their doses a few times a day, including Bale’s character, John Preston. Preston is called a cleric, which the audience learns is a highly trained enforcer of the government’s anti-emotion policy. He roots out the rebels and those who indulge in art of all types.
The incident that brings upheaval into Preston’s life is when his partner Partridge, played by Sean Bean, steals a poetry book they had confiscated. Preston confronts him when he catches Partridge reading Yeats for his own pleasure. He is sentenced to death, but not before he reads a few lines of poetry out loud. Soon after, Preston discovers Patridge’s lover, played by Emily Watson. When he realizes that his former partner had gone down this road toward emotions, even falling in love…it seems, he cannot go back….something in him is triggered.
The unraveling continues as Preston dreams and recalls his wife’s conviction and execution. She was caught “feeling” outside the bounds of what the society permitted. His son is a rigid rule keeper, but his daughter is obviously more emotional and possibly disturbed (who wouldn’t be in this world?). Preston stops taking the drug and begins to truly feel a lot more. His new partner, Brandt, played by Taye Diggs, begins to notice his odd behavior. In the meantime, the rebels begin to recruit Preston. They want him to kill Father.
There is a strange interaction between Preston and the leader of the rebels where the leader makes sure that Preston cannot allow himself to feel if he is going to do the job he needs to do. The leader also indicates that he himself buried his feelings. That raises an interesting question about feelings and soldiers who are called upon by society to perform a “justified” killing. The audience can see in this a reflection of Father’s maintenance of the population…Father has told his followers that they must not feel in order to perform righteously. I think the audience is supposed to ponder this and reflect on what it means to kill another human being (like killing the spirit of the person by outlawing art!), but the interaction does pass by pretty quickly and there is no further discussion on it. Moreover, many people die in this film, so if we’re supposed to feel horrible about murder/a crazy amount of killing…hmm…not sure.
There are almost zero female characters in EQUILIBRIUM, which begs the question…
Is a non-emotional world a place where women have a hard time existing? I suspect so, at least in this film world. All of the female characters who have significant screen time (which isn’t much) are in the rebel category. Even Mona Lisa cannot exist in this world. (Da Vinci’s masterpiece is destroyed in an early scene). I appreciated the Emily Watson character, but she is one among six guys who dominate every scene. I realize a lot of folks don’t care about this issue…but I like to contemplate…Does it have to be this way? Would this film say something deeper and broader about humanity if one of the hardcore cleric characters was a woman? Or maybe the filmmaker was showing us what a world might look like without women, without mothering, nurturing and emotional connection…and maybe without them…art could not exist. That is an interesting idea, but I don’t think this film quite got us there.
Good science fiction does often grapple with the question, what does it mean to be human? The equilibrium sought out by the government in this film, is tentative and only possible because of the numbing of the population through a constant intake of a drug. EQUILIBRIUM portrays characters who will forego taking the drug, are willing to die and choose to sacrifice all for the sake of feeling. Art, poetry, music, love, affection and warmth in relationships…we cannot be human without them. We cannot live without them.
For that reason, I found EQUILIBRIUM a hopeful picture of humanity. Love, creativity and expression will burst forth. It cannot be contained. It can never be fully squelched and is a hopeless task of any government to try to do so.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, by Michael Crichton, was the first novel published by Crichton under his actual name. He had published previously under a variety of pen names. His reason for publishing under other names…he was a medical student at Harvard and was actually thinking he might practice medicine someday and didn’t want his patients to know that he was writing on the side. This must have been a “thing” in that era because it strikes me that wouldn’t phase anyone now.
However, Crichton soon after became a best-selling author and gave up the idea of practicing medicine.
I read this novel because of a recommendation by a friend during Covid19…
Do I recommend this novel? No, I don’t and here are 5 reasons why:
- The novel puts forward an interesting premise, but not fully baked (I am pretty sure this novel would never get published today)
- Bland main characters. It’s hard to keep them straight, they all seem like the same guy (except they attended different Ivy League schools and have slightly different occupations)
- So-so tension, but nothing like one of his better books, Jurassic Park, for example
- Characters are all white dudes in lab coats and even the non lab-coat characters are all white dudes. *note…when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was turned into a film in 1971, the screenwriter changed one of the dudes to a female…even in the 70s the character line-up was thought to be way too monochromatic.
- Too much data and exposition and not enough heart. I felt nothing for all the people (except for the infant…who seems to be completely neglected)
So…this novel became a best-seller and gave rise to a film that bears the same title. Both were hits/made a lot of money. In fact, this book catapulted Crichton’s career. I can only surmise that there was a great hunger for techno-thrillers at the time and that Crichton scratched an itch that had be itching for a long time.
The funny thing is, immediately following this read, I’m consuming Philip K. Dick’s, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP and I am so wowed by the writing and how different it is from Crichton’s. Dick knew how to flesh out a character. Crichton did not, at least he didn’t yet. He got much better at it in subsequent novels, many of which I have enjoyed.
So, let me just nit-pick a little…
If I was ever to teach a writing class on the development of a writer…I might choose Crichton and force my class to read this book and then give them the pleasure of Jurassic Park as examples of how one gets better at the craft. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN almost feels like a “freshman novel”, that novel written by an aspiring author who has one great idea, but can’t quite figure out how to tell the story.
In that class, I would also ask the students to read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, by Philip K. Dick, written in the same era.
There is a reason that BLADE RUNNER, a brilliant film and subsequent franchise, emerged out of Dick’s novel, published in 1968, one year before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.
The character of Rick Deckard is brilliantly written, fleshed out. The reader feels his pain, his angst, his story as he/she reads. Not only that, the secondary characters are complex, mysterious and full of emotion even when Dick writes about androids. His androids seem more human than Crichton’s actual human characters.
I do believe that Crichton saw his errors and improved immensely, but it will be a mystery to me for a long time that this book, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, was published and was sold and was read by so many, including me!
If for some reason you want to buy this book, click here.
To watch the film via Amazon Prime, click here.
I sort of missed it and gonna blame that on COVID19, but April 26 is the day the scifi community celebrates the Alien Franchise. Today, a little late, I’m re-watching ALIEN and feel there are some great lessons for the 2020 human host of COVID19
Five Lessons Ripley Can Teach Us About Living with a Hidden Enemy
- Be on guard at all times. The “man” the “government melded with the corporation” is always trying to pull one over on ya…so be wary.
- Take care of your own team (including yourself). The bad guys will infiltrate your team, your mind and your spaceship and they lie real good…they will lull your people into passivity and then STRIKE.
- Let go of sentimentality and fight till the end. Some of your team will fall. Hell, you might even fall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still fight. Do not give up.
- Kill the demons…never, never, never give them an inch. They feed off you and will take advantage of any weakness you exhibit. They deserve no mercy, so don’t give them any.
- Always keep the goal in mind. Your survival and that of humanity, especially the young and the weak. Hope is everything.
Confession, before I write anything else, I have to say…I love Ripley and not just because Sigourney Weaver graduated from my alma mater and starred gorgeously in the original two Ghost Buster films. I love her for her character in the Alien franchise. I love Ellen Ripley because though she is that suspicious babe you wish would go away most of the time, you def want her on your team when the going gets tough. She always chooses humanity, always chooses moral good, even when it costs her everything.
If you have the stomach for it in this season of quarantine, re-watch the original ALIEN. The creature in the film is modeled after this parasite and not a virus, however, the fear of contagion is palpable and gripping (We can relate).
The ALIEN screenplay, for those who love the genre, resembles the haunted house narrative. Enclosed in a house (in this case, a spaceship) the members of a routine haul (AKA…this crew is made up of blue collar haulers) must battle an enemy determined to consume and hide. Many of the emotions parallel our current quarantine, so if you think it will help you process and release steam, watch Ripley kick ass and conquer.
- 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.
SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Gurihiru was released exactly one week ago, Wednesday the 16th of October and understandably, it is moving off the shelves fast. I highly recommend this first installment in the three part series. I rate this series PG and would encourage parents to read it with children and discuss the many aspects of the story that are rooted in history.
Short Review: Five Reasons to Own and Read SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN:
- Be a collector! Only 3 installments to buy. Keep this historic series forever while using only an inch of space on your bookshelf!
- The drawings and colors are beautiful and stylized to deepen the reading experience.
- Learn history. There are historic truths woven into the story. Yang also adds autobiography relaying the story of how he has experienced racism and historical facts about the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the comic.
- The characters are well-drawn (literally and figuratively), avoiding cliches that sometimes populate comic book fiction
- The story is full of action, suspense, but doesn’t paint an overly simplified view of good vs. evil. This is one Gene Luen Yang’s strengths…the empathy he feels for all his characters, even the very broken ones.
To buy this book, Part 1 of 3, you’ll need to visit your local comic book store or click here. Also, if it’s been a while since you entered a well-stocked comics store, you owe yourself the treat. Go now and browse the shelves!
Most science fiction fans love comics, but not all. I know a few who have avoided them in favor of novels, television and film, but the comic format has proven its heft in recent years with literary stories like American Born Chinese. Gene Luen Yang, the author of American Born Chinese, also wrote the much-acclaimed New Super-Man, in which an Asian American young man emerges as the Superman in the story. It is no surprise Yang was DC’s choice to bring SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN to life. The story is an adaptation of a 1946 smaller story arc within a radio series called The Adventures of Superman. In it, an Asian-American family is threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and Superman is inspired to protect the children of this family from racist terror.
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 many fans adore 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 classic novel, 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.
To buy Dick’s novel, click this link Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
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…
Complex portrayals of the non-humanoid alien are a writing challenge for many sci-fi writers…this I tried to establish 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 nearly 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.