Monthly Archives: March 2016

Four Years

I’ve had this blog for about four years now.

Four years.

And I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve missed my self-imposed midnight EST deadline.

Why? I’ve been hard at work on my movie, The Conduits, and today marked us being half done with shooting. Which is good. In the meantime you should check out the Facebook page (linked back there) and the Kickstarter here. And tell your friends.

But anyway, keeping this blog has been a real experience. Bene help at developing a voice and it’s forced me to really look deeper at some things. Especially fiction, and why we tell those stories.

I want to write more today, I really do, but I’m exhausted and need to get some sleep.

Expect more next week, folks; and thanks for reading these rants essays.

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Fear of The Unknown

One of the wonderful agonies I found when I started watching Lost years and years ago was the show’s tendency to show a character’s reaction to a revelation/object/monster rather than the revelation/object/monster itself. It became characteristic of the show, and something emblematic of Abrams’ style.

Granted, J.J. Abrams had little involvement with Lost past the pilot, but he did work with Damon Lidelof to lay much of the show’s groundwork. Including, presumably, Abrams’ love of the Mystery Box. See, according to him, there’s a certain level of suspense and wonderment to be found in not knowing something. That there is a mysterious monster is more frightening — and in some ways more beautiful — than what it is. It’s less important what’s in the hatch than that there is one. The best horror writer is the one in your head, coming up with all sorts of half-formed possibilities for why something might be the way it is.

More than anything though, it makes us want to see what’s going on. Take Predator, due to the alien’s stealth, we spend much of the film not knowing what’s killing Dutch’s squad. Simply knowing something’s out there, something we can’t see and something deadly enough to take out an elite band of mercenaries, is terror enough. Alien does the same thing, withholding a good view of the Xenomorph as long as possible, leaving us to fill in the gaps on this monster. It’s effective, so much so that finally seeing the titular alien would be a letdown were it not for H.R. Geiger’s inspired design.

Point is: there’s something to be said for being restrained.

Cloverfield, that found-footage monster movie produced by Abrams, is in actuality a magnificent exercise in restraint. Rather than doing what Godzilla and virtually every other monster-invasion movie does, Cloverfield focused only on a small group of friends trying to survive on the ground. There’s no sweeping shots or frantic discussions in a war room. The found-footage nature of it forces the filmmakers to keep it small and, in turn, the audience in the dark. We see the monster’s limbs, we see smaller monsters, and all the time it’s scarier because we don’t see it in full. The possibility of it all is far more frightening.

Keeping in that sensibility is the not-a-but-kinda-sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane. Trapped in a bunker with a captor/savior while Armageddon might have happened outside, protagonist Michelle — and the audience — is left to fill in the clues as to what happened. We don’t know what happened outside, we don’t know if Howard is really doing this out of the kindness of his heart, heck, we don’t know what his angle is at all. That the movie is not particularly forthcoming on any of this makes every hint of malice or mystery terrifying. There’s nothing scarier than not knowing what’s going on.

10 Cloverfield Lane earns this, however, by making sure we know Michelle on at least some level. We aren’t totally in the dark, we have a handle on our protagonist and thus we can react with her to all the crazy crap going on. We have a touchstone, a constant, a frame known to counter the unknown. Without that, 10 Cloverfield would be more frustrating than gripping.

Y’know, I’m not a fan of horror movies. Too much reliance on squick and pain and how downright creepifying something can be. But what 10 Cloverfield Lane, Alien, and Lost did are much more my jam. The simple fear of the unknown taken up to eleven, an implacable fear that you can’t quite put a finger on. Now that is terrifying.

Also, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a dang fine movie you should check out and I wanna rant about, but won’t because the less you know the better. Like I said, it’s scarier when you know less.

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Of Zootopia

Stories are often a reflection of reality. Star Wars was a reflection of the existential threat posed by the Cold War. The Hurt Locker was, quite obviously, a discussion of the human cost of war. The Revenant reflected Leonardo DiCaprio’s all-consuming want for an Oscar.

And then there’s Zootopia. Which holds an unrelenting, condemning-yet-hopeful mirror to modern America. Which you wouldn’t exactly expect, because it’s a major Disney movie. Nonetheless, couched in this story of bunny cops is an incredible exploration of prejudice that your ‘deep’ friend on Facebook wishes they could have written as a status.

In Zootopia, anthropomorphic animals live in a city. But unlike any other story about anthropomorphic animals, the fact that they are animals is actually a big deal. A rabbit (like the protagonist) is tiny and water buffalos are massive. Foxes are predators, and sheep are prey. With these differences comes the logical divides and ostracizing; prey think predators are dangerous, and big animals discount the efforts of smaller ones.

The movie seems to have some very simple analogues. Judy is a rabbit and the first rabbit on Zootopia’s police force which leads to some dismissing her joining the team as just the diversity initiative paying off. So right off the bat the movie seems posed to position Judy as the Other. She, because she’s a rabbit, is bullied and downtrodden on by other animals. The arc for the story seems clear enough: Judy will have to overcome the prejudice against her species and prove that she’s as good a cop as anyone else. So like that Jackie Robinson movie no one saw, but with a bunny cop instead of a black baseball player.

The movie could have built the whole thing around that premise and we’d have gotten another movie about overcoming adversity and all that. Done deal. Nothing wrong there.

But Zootopia goes further.

When preparing to move to the titular city, Judy is warned by her parents to be careful of ‘those people,’ in particular foxes. She pushes back, but it’s made clear that  prey too hold prejudices against predators. Especially foxes who are in general seen as being sly and dishonest. The general consensus on foxes is that they’re, for the most part, a bunch of good-for-nothing louts. Something Judy’s pretty sure she disagrees with.

Now hold on, you (like me), may be thinking. The simple analogy of Zootopia is starting to break down. If the rabbits are the people-group who are oppressed, why then do they hold their own biases against foxes? And shouldn’t Idris Elba’s water buffalo get along with Judy since they’re both prey?

Zootopia is so much more complex than it lets on. Within the movie, everyone has prejudices. Judy’s own relationship with Nick the fox sees her trying to prove that he’s decent, then having her fears come true, and then getting to know him for who he is and not just as a fox. And that all happens within the first half-hour. See, the movie crafts a world where it can overtly discuss, well, racism, without necessarily pointing fingers at anyone.

I can’t overstate how amazing it is to see Zootopia tackle this topic head on with such nuance. This is a movie where the hero’s loss of faith isn’t losing a friend, being fired, or what have you, but when Judy is forced to realize her own innate prejudices. What comes next is the realization that someone can be a good person and still be prejudiced, but also that people can change.

Thats the beauty of stories. They’re trojan horses that sneak profundity in where you least expect it. Zootopia’s got incredible world building and is beautifully animated, but it uses it all to tell a beautiful narrative about overcoming your own prejudices. It’s magnificently done; we need more stories like this.

And holy crap, this is a kid’s movie!

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Living in Science Fiction

Is the movie Gravity science fiction? This was the discussion a friend of mine and I were having while talking about science fiction and fantasy winning Oscars — Gravity got Best Director, but is it really science fiction?

Wikipedia, IMDb, and such call it science fiction, given that it’s, well, in space. That’s usually the threshold for science fiction.

But something in space is hardly imaginative anymore. An astronaut who just returned from spending an entire year in space. SpaceX launches rockets on the regular. Of course, there is the room for an outlandish situation; Moon was grounded, but had mining on the moon, countless others have aliens. Gravity, though, is about someone being stranded in space because of a freak debris field. For all intents and purposes, the setting of Gravity is as much science fiction as Apollo 13. That is to say, it’s not, it’s really not.

Gravity is, in many ways, a more modern Castaway. In both stories relatively unqualified people are, due to an event beyond human control, stranded in the middle of nowhere by themselves that then prove the resilience of the human spirit by making their way back to civilization. Granted, Gravity takes place over a far shorter period of time, but that’s kinda due to the fact that it takes place in modern reality where people can’t breathe in space.

In other words, labelling Gravity science-fiction is a product of an outdated standard that something in space is automatically considered science-fiction. That’s something that makes science-fiction so weird as a genre: what’s scifi might not always be scifi. We don’t consider the first episode of Sherlock science-fiction, even though its heavy use of smartphones would definitely qualify it as some sort of techno-thriller were it produced in the eighties. Same with Gravity; it isn’t science-fiction today, but to, say, the sixties it’d be what The Martian is to us today.

Science-fiction, at least the sort inhabited by movies like Moon, The Martian and Ex Machina (more fantastical fare like Star Wars and Star Trek are another matter entirely), are rooted in having some bit of futuristic technology. Moon’s got lunar mining, The Maritian’s got a Mars base, Ex Machina incredibly advanced AI. But if we were to develop any of those technologies the fiction part of the science would be closer to the events surrounding them. If we were to develop both rogue AI and hover cars, the biggest incongruity in Blade Runner would be that Atari was supposed to still be a major brand.

I think that’s one reason why I’ve always loved science-fiction — there’s this air to it of asking what if. What if there was something new that would change the world. It takes what you know and twists it to be something, well, more. It’s a dreamer’s genre. What if you could live on a submarine deep beneath the sea? What if we made contact with aliens? What if there were giant monsters trying to kill us and so we made giant mecha to fight back? What if we could carry phones out of the house and in our pockets?

So is Gravity science-fiction? If it is, it’s still a good movie, but it’s pretty low-grade science-fiction.Yes, it fully utilizes the genre’s capability for telling parables, but it doesn’t really do anything with the almighty What If. Not to mention it’s something that, given the right circumstances, could happen tonight. I realize I’m going back on what I said some time ago in another blog post (the one I just linked to), but no, I don’t really think Gravity should count as science-fiction.

‘cuz we’ve already got people in space doing space things on space stations.

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