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 

  1. If the alien doesn’t look or act like a human, it will be difficult for the audience to comprehend its character and motivation
  2. 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?

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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

The ALIEN

Spielberg’s E.T.

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.

  1. Directed by Anna Boden
  2. Screenplay written by Anna Boden and a dude named Ryan
  3. Story credits going to Anna Boden, Nicole Perlman, Geneva Roberson-Dworet, Meg Le Fauve, and yes…a dude named Ryan

Ms. Marvel

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:

  1. Zach Snyder
  2. Alan Heinberg
  3. 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.

And for me, even before I saw the credits, CAPTAIN MARVEL struck a note about women differently than Wonder Woman did. I noticed how the character’s strengths and flaws made sense to me as a woman.

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.”

 

 

 

The Antedean on Star Trek

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 on Tatooine

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.

 

This is a review without spoilers.

Don’t miss this film. ANNIHILATION is free for Amazon Prime members, or at least it was at the writing of this post.

Five Reasons to Watch ANNIHILATION

  1. The film puts forward a non-humanoid portrayal of an alien species invading our planet–always a welcome change in sci-fi land.
  2. Watch it for the tension, mystery and suspense (on par with films like Alien and The Thing).
  3. Watch it for the dynamic, mostly female cast. Realistic and flawed characters with agency and intelligence.
  4. Watch it for the beautifully imagined world. The CGI and other effects are a visual feast.
  5. I also enjoyed the creepy music. I expect it will make your skin crawl as it did mine.

 

Lena

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 the only survivor who has returned from inside the shimmer out 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 as well as 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, it 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.

ANNIHILATION dvd

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.”

Book 2 of The Southern Reach Trilogy

AUTHORITY, by Jeff VanderMeer, A Book Review Without Spoilers.

First,  A Little Data About this Book Review

  1. 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.
  2. AUTHORITY is the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy. ANNIHILATION being the first, ACCEPTANCE is the third
  3. 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:

  1. The story maintains the overall tension as introduced in the first novel.
  2. It may not resolve completely, but the novel reveals enough enticing details to make the reading worthwhile.
  3. 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.
  4. The writing itself, as is consistent with ANNIHILATION, has lovely moments.

Longer Review

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

If you’re looking for an epic scifi graphic novel and vibrant reading experience overall, the DESCENDER series is for you. I will be reviewing each volume, 6 in 6 days, without spoilers.

Here’s the review of VOLUME 1: TIN STARS

First, my pure recommendation…YES! You ought to read TIN STARS. Here’s why:

  1. The Story is Fantastic (and volume 1 is a great set up for more drama)
  2. The Art is to Die For
  3. The Characters Feel True and Interesting
  4. The World is Fantastically Drawn (in the art and in the narrative)

Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen team up to create a science fiction epic, beautiful and gripping. Due to language and some graphic violence, I rate the comic PG-13.

If you hunger for A.I. and space and aliens of various types, shapes and forms, they all inhabit this place. Also, the graphic novel format feels like a window into the future. What the author does not describe in words, we see on the page, beautifully drawn and colored by Nguyen (what a talent!). The graphic novel genre lends itself well to the world of a future civilization, something beyond our imagination and fantastical. The author, Lemire, also knows how to build tension and keep his audience gripped and turning pages.

Speaking of turning pages, I found (after I had read the first volume) this handy reference page. The world imagined by Lemire is complex. physically and politically. Each planet has a unique character, so I can see why the author saw the value in adding it. It is called: Atlas of the Core Planets of the the United Galactic Council.

This page was not present in volume 5, perhaps Lemire assumes we know the world by then, but it is at the end of 1-4. It’s a helpful, especially if you’re the type who likes to know the world well before you read the story, flip to the back right away to orient yourself.

Don’t be surprised to see this series come to the screen sometime in the near future. When that happens, you can breathe on your fingertips, wipe them on your cuff and brag…Oh yes, I read the graphic novels, back in 2019.

To order your copy, click here: DESCENDER, Volume 1, Tin Stars

 

Watch and Enjoy. BIRD BOX is an Entertaining Film as Long as you Know that These Images and Themes Have Been Seen Before

BIRD BOX was produced by Netflix and released for public consumption on December, 21, 2018. According to Netflix data, 45 million people watched BIRD BOX in the week before Christmas.

For those who didn’t watch it over Christmas, like me, here’s the review…

This story is a Quiet Place, but without the husband (there is a stand-out dude…Tom, played by Trevante Rhodes…who becomes a stand-in husband and Father, but for a short portion of the film). The story portrays a mother, Sandra Bullock, as Malorie, who gives birth shortly after a catastrophic alien invasion? The film does not make this clear…Is it really aliens? At one point, there is a reference to North Korea and bio warfare…but one can be pretty sure it’s more along the alien invasion spectrum. Creatures are mentioned in one of the early scenes. Most eager scifi fans will swallow yet another apocalyptic scenario and accept the tragedy as instigated by something otherworldly that impacts every person, mostly in a negative way. (99% of the human race does not thrive under its influence…yes, that’s a spoiler of sorts, but then you probably knew this).

There is some challenge in writing a review of this film with zero spoilers, because the narrative is so familiar to so many of us, but I’ll try. 

Here’s the premise…After an alien invasion (I think) every person becomes infected with a psychosis. This is spread from person to person through what they see. What do they see? That remains a mystery, but the results can be seen and they are catastrophic. Those infected figure out ways to kill themselves. Society drifts into destruction. Those who survive either do so by covering their eyes or a few see and don’t kill themselves right away. However, they become crazy people who attempt to get everyone else infected. The aliens are never seen by the audience, though they are heard and they are drawn in charcoal on paper by one survivor (one of the crazies). The aliens appear (in his drawings) as demons or devils. It’s possible this is some kind of bio-tech warfare and the creatures/aliens are all imagined, part of the psychosis. The audience isn’t in the know on that one.

Sandra Bullock finds herself responsible for two children and needs to figure out a way to get them to safety and a place where they can thrive. For that to happen, she needs to float them down a river, blindfolded. The story opens with her getting on the boat after lecturing the two little ones on the dangers of the trip and the importance of never taking off the blindfold, but the real body of the film takes place in backstory.

BIRD BOX portrays what A Quiet Place never did…the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic alien invasion that jacks up humanity. In BIRD BOX, the audience sees the unraveling. In A Quiet Place the viewer needs to imagine that unraveling. However, in BIRD BOX, the audience needs to imagine the villain. In A Quiet Place, the audience gets a clear view, eventually, of the alien that is bent on destroying humanity and by the end, a possible way to defeat it. That “ending” note is missing from BIRD BOX. It does not deliver enough answers about the mystery. Does an unseen villain ruin this film? Not exactly, but if a sequel is ever made, I will expect answers.

Regarding the similarities between the two films…It did strike me right away that in BIRD BOX, covering eyes is important, while in A Quiet Place not speaking is essential…which begs the questions…is this a theme that our current audiences want to explore? What if we had to survive in a post apocalyptic world without our sight or without speaking? Maybe the post apocalyptic universe is too easy…or maybe too familiar? I suppose, the next film of this ilk will explore surviving without hearing, or how about without tasting. Apparently, the public hungers for the answers to these question. I suspect, the quandary has to do with our over-teched and over-connected reality, but maybe there is another yearning I don’t yet comprehend. Another similarity between the films is the prominence of a pregnant mom as a survivor during a horrid moment of human existence.

I will say, the film (free for Netflix users) BIRD BOX is an entertaining jaunt. If you can get past the unknowns that are never explained…watch it and enjoy the drama that can only unfold at the end of the world.

 

Hello audience of All Sci Fi! Welcome to the second guest post. My name is Abby Jensen and I am Susi Pritchett Jensen’s daughter. She raised me with a strong love of good stories and science fiction. I also am lucky enough to be one of the first test readers for many of her stories and her novel. I have been helping my mom set up this site for the past year and am very excited to write my first content for it!

 

 

No Spoilers Review:

We have a longstanding tradition in our family of seeing a movie on my mom’s birthday because it’s so close to Christmas. This year she chose SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. My brother and I had already seen it once, but it is definitely the kind of film you can go back to and enjoy more every time.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is an action-packed, hilarious, and heartwarming story of family told from the perspective of Miles Morales, a Black/Latino middle school boy. Miles faces the standard coming-of-age problems of a mixed-race kid from gentrifying Brooklyn, along with a plethora of classic Spider-Man villains to save not just his universe, but the entire multiverse from collapse. It’s also rated PG and is accessible to kids as young as 7 or 8 (younger if they’re precocious.)

The writers deftly deal with multiple Spiderman comic universes, keeping them accurate, in-character, and interesting for both kids and adults. If you are a nerdy parent looking to introduce your kids to comic books, this film could be an excellent inroad. And even if you aren’t familiar with Marvel Comics, Spiderman, and especially Miles Morales as Spiderman, is incredibly relatable for people of all ages. After all, anyone can wear the mask, which Miles and the Spider gang (from the other universes) discover together. All they need is a persistent willingness to get back up after every hit.

What impressed me more than the well-handled story, was the unique animation style. As a designer, I was dazzled by the ways the visuals connected to narrative elements in the film. High quality 3D computer animation has been around for long enough that it finally seems like studios are willing to experiment with the medium. For SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, Sony uses animation to its full potential, creating a colorful comic-like universe for Miles. The textures and chaotic 3D effects connected with the disruptions of the multiverse evoke the unknowns of multiple dimensions in a way that is familiar enough that even kids will appreciate it. 

3 Reasons You and Your Kids Should See SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

  1. The message is inclusive and accessible to kids as young as 7 and as old as me (a 23-year-old kid.)
  2. The animation is beautiful and artistically adventurous, both of which add to the story.
  3. Miles Morales, a black/latino middle-school kid, brings one of the most relatable superheroes ever created to 21st century gen-z relevance.

Science fiction pops up in the darndest places, some of those places are quiet places. Okay, okay…so that’s a bit of a spoiler, but why the heck did it take me so long to hear from someone/anyone that this film was about people surviving an alien invasion. I think some of why is because of the code of mystery that surrounded this film when it came out. Everyone seemed reluctant to tell…

I assumed A QUIET PLACE was horror/suspense. Most of the trailers indicated that this was so. I did not get the chance to see this film in the theater, but I might have tried a lot harder had I known about the scifi underpinnings. At some point, both my kids saw the film and told me with a wink and a nod that I should definitely view it. “It’s really good,” they said, “and not gory like a horror flick.”

That comment from them made me think it was for sure a horror flick, a well done horror flick, but still, horror all the way.

So…I didn’t get it. In fact, I might have missed the film altogether had it not been for a friend spilling the beans recently.

“You’ve seen A QUIET PLACE, haven’t you? There are aliens in this film.”

Okay, so now I know and now you know and it’s not a huge spoiler. The first view of the alien comes by the end of the beginning sequence, about 7 minutes into the film.

However, this story is not alien-centric. It’s family-centric in a really great way. The premise of an alien who hears its prey and only then comes to destroy, but leaves survivors alone if they are silent, now that is a fun and new angle on the alien invasion story.

Five reasons I recommend A QUIET PLACE, directed by the lead actor, John Krasinski

  1. Superior storytelling, lots of tension and heart. The idea of watching a silent film has been lost to the modern audience. In this creepy portrayal, there are powerful swaths of storytelling in which the visual completely dominates the viewing experience. That feels new and vibrant, in part because the visual story telling in A QUIET PLACE is well done.
  2. The family unit (not one individual) is the protagonist and each of the members are smartly drawn. A deaf character adds depth to the unfolding drama. We root for all of them. (Dad played by John Krasinski. Mom played by Emily Blunt. Daughter played by Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress.)
  3. Powerful and brutal villain(s). Ugly too.
  4. Inspiring examples of the will to survive and the costs we incur, AKA the suffering we endure, to love one another.
  5. Juxtaposition of idyllic scenery/cinematography and the unknown, the mystery of that which is not seen, the horror that is waiting to besiege.

The story unfolds in a post-alien invasion rural US (the locale is possibly somewhere East of the Mississippi, maybe Vermont). The aliens, rarely present, including their spaceships are not seen in the film, have come to Earth and have destroyed all living creatures who make noise (even animals that sniff about and snarl). It seems the aliens have no visual acuity, but can hear from very very far away and once they hear, they come to kill almost immediately. Those who survive the invasion are attempting a life in silence, including the protagonist family. The audience meets them initially as they tiptoe through a drug store (they are all barefoot) and scavenge for medicine and goods. The audience deduces, this is one town of millions of towns and this is one family among thousands of surviving groups? One other survivor is seen in the film…Let’s just say, he doesn’t last long.

Imagine your family trying not to make any noise. Imagine trying to communicate, trying to thrive without vocalizing. Imagine feeling pain without crying and playing monopoly without table chatter. Imagine that your life depended on staying silent. Herein lies the tension of the film. Also, there are discoveries to be made about the villain and how to defeat it/them. Might something be unearthed by our protagonists? Perhaps, but at what cost? You’ll have to watch the film to find out. $5.99 to rent on iTunes.

I recently watched ARRIVAL for a second time through Amazon Prime. In my first viewing, I was in a theater and I loved it. This second go-around, I was not disappointed. I watched with a group of my cousins who are all film/scifi nuts. The viewing was free for Prime members.

ARRIVAL is rated PG 13…it’s somewhat creepy and suspenseful, but a middle school child or a sensitive viewer could probably handle the production. I’m not sure why it did not receive the PG rating. It unfolds without graphic violence and there is no explicit sexual content. One might call ARRIVAL a quiet film, but the subject matter takes it from the quiet realm into the epic and deeply thoughtful.

ARRIVAL was released in theaters to much acclaim in 2016. The film is based on a short story by Ted Chiang. Eric Heisserer wrote the screenplay. I hope to read and review Chiang’s short story in a future post.

The film unfolds with slow intensity primarily around one character, Louise Banks, played wonderfully by Amy Adams. Banks is a linguist recruited by the US government to learn the language spoken by aliens who have alighted in giant oblong space ships in twelve locations around the globe.

The story is a linguist’s dream and as a science fiction fan, I recall a number of novels that view first contact in light of language and communication. China Miéville’s Embassy Town is a good example. In a story such as this, violence is often threatened, but not center stage. Mysteries and the push to understand the other dominate the narrative.

 

Five quotes from the screenplay to pique your interest:

  1. “If this is some sort of peaceful first contact, why send twelve? Why not just send one?”
  2. “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict…”
  3. “Are they scientists or tourists? If they’re scientist, they don’t seem to ask a lot of questions…”
  4. “If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?”
  5. “Meeting you…was more important that seeing the stars…”

Five reasons to watch this film.

  1. It’s free if you’re an Amazon Prime member.
  2. If your family is into science fiction, ARRIVAL is a crowd pleaser which you can show to your kids with a clear conscience.
  3. Potential discussion about language and linguistics, the puzzle and the importance of communication.
  4. Female hero with lots of brains and only a few characters to keep track of.
  5. Potentially leads to fruitful discussion about love, suffering, beauty, grace, even religion.

To buy this DVD, click here.