Tag Archives: Super 8

Science Fiction, Parables, and Gravity

Yes, I’m still on my science fiction apologetics kick. As I’ve established over and over again, as a genre, science fiction can say a lot that normal fiction can’t, or say it in ways it can’t. Gravity is a fine example of this. Because like it or not, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece is science fiction. If Super 8 and Moon are science fiction, then so is Gravity.

Super 8, like E.T. before it, is fundamentally a movie about growing up and moving on. Moon isn’t about Sam Rockwell mining Helium-3 so much as it questions ideas about what it means to be human. Pacific Rim is as much about togetherness as it is about canceling apocalypses. Similarly, Gravity is a movie about faith,the will to live and what exactly being alive means. All these movies use the trappings of science fiction as the backdrop for their stories and to tell stories that could not be told otherwise.

Pacific Rim communicates its refusal to settle for the world we’re given though Jaegers and Kaiju. We’re presented personifications of fear and devastation and then told a story where those beasts can be stood up to and defeated. The movie’s centered around this idea, with other themes wound into it. It’s the clear-cut line of all of humanity against the invaders that allow it to be conveyed so clearly and yet so artfully. It plain works.

Moon uses its lunar setting to heighten the feeling of isolation that permeates the film. It also uses its twenty-minutes-into-the-future time period to address its central issue in a unique way. Duncan Jones’ film gives physicality to the question of identity and humanity; rather than having characters discuss it they’re forced to confront it. We, as an audience, don’t choke on the philosophizing, instead it’s presented to us through the story. Through the use of science fiction, storytellers are able to smoothly communicate themes and ideas that, in another setting, could feel heavy handed or just plain out of place. Gravity does this magnificently.

Gravity could be called Life of Pi in space without a tiger. Like Yann Martel’s novel, Gravity centers itself around people trying to survive where people aren’t supposed to survive. Also like the book, it examines the meaning of life, insofar as what’s the point of being alive? Gravity explores this theme through its two astronauts drifting in space, dying to survive. Where better to ponder God then miles above the atmosphere? Where else to examine humanity’s need for connection than in the isolation of space? By setting Gravity in space as opposed to in the middle of the ocean, a desert, or vacant island, Cuarón can hone his film to what he wants to address and mask it beautifully in a sublime story about survival. There’s little preachifying, instead its message is communicated through the story and characters.

Science fiction, like fantasy, can be a parable. Within its lack of limits we’re able to personify evil itself or present a helplessness beyond the scope of anything we know. Within it lies the capability to eloquently communicate a message unique to itself. Does all science fiction explore the depth its afforded? No. But then does all non-genre fiction?

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The One With Aristotle

Around 2,300-odd years ago this guy named Aristotle wrote a thingy about what makes good stories. Yes, I’m referencing Aristotle; this is definitely an essay and not a rant. Now, I think storytelling as a whole has progressed beyond some of his ideas (his limitation of fiction to tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy, for example), but one thing that still sticks is his idea of catharsis. Aristotle figured that a story should arouse a lot of emotion in its audience, and then purge it in the end: catharsis. So, why is this vital to a good story/movie/book/video game/tv show/ballad?

Super 8 is a story on many different levels. People call it a story about an alien in a small town, I say it’s a story about kids making a movie. But underneath all that, is the story about a boy growing up and learning to move on. The movie carries this theme and tension, we see it when he interacts with his dad and with his friends and it’s reflected in the conflict with the alien. For most of its runtime we’re drawn into Joe’s turmoil, we feel his refusal to let go and understand how he has to. This is the thing that Aristotle called ‘arousing feelings of pity and fear.’ The movie culminates in Joe letting go of his mother’s locket, symbolically expressing his willingness to accept life as it is now and, with that, purging us of all that built up emotion. That feeling you get when you watch the ending of Super 8? Ladies and gentlemen: catharsis.

Using that dramatic structure thing you learned back in middle school, this is called the resolution. But resolution implies that everything has to be resolved, catharsis does not. Take The Empire Strikes Back, for example. It ends with Han frozen and captured, the Rebels scattered, and Luke finding out that Darth Vader is his father. There’s little resolution to be found (Will Han be okay? Obi Wan lied! Who did Yoda mean by ‘another’? [I bet it’s Han!]), but it feels complete all the same. We got our catharsis through the escape from Cloud City and the scene aboard the medical frigate. Unlike the second movie in many two-part trilogies (Dead Man’s Chest, Matrix: Reloaded), you get that sense of closure even without the third entry. Interestingly, the same goes for The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. During the Breaking of the Fellowship or Sam’s speech about the stories that really mattered we find our catharsis. Though the plot is tied up yet and though the ring is yet to be destroyed, we feel fulfilled.

Catharsis, if done right, can be more important than tying up plot. Like the finale of Lost, which, yes, I will constantly and vehemently defend. Instead of trying to tie up every loose end, Lindelof and Cuse opted instead to give the audience catharsis for their emotions. Sure, we didn’t find out why that one green bird said Hurley’s name that one time, but we did get the resolution that despite all the crap they went through, the survivors were reunited. They got their happy ending, and we felt all the better for it. Least we did if you weren’t watching Lost just for the mysteries. And why not? Focusing on the mysteries of Lost rather than the characters resulted in an intellectual rather than emotional investment, and thus, none of Aristotle’s desired feelings of fear and/or pity.

It all comes down to caring about the story. If we don’t give a crap about what’s going on, we won’t feel anything with the inevitable catharsis (for example: Hereafter). We go to the movies, play video games, and read books to feel something. Maybe it’s the wish-fulfillment of shooting up the Covenant as Master Chief or the sense of familiarity from watching Firefly, we wanna feel something. We just need that moment of release afterwards.

And yes, I did actually read Poetics, though it took Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters for it to really make sense.

Note: When done right the lack of proper catharsis is catharsis in and of itself. See: the ending of The Last of Us, though it could be argued that the catharsis comes during that final chapter. Either way, it still works due to our heavy investment in the characters and Druckmann’s incredible script.

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Why Abrams Is The Man For Star Wars

A little more than a week ago it was officially announced that JJ Abrams would be directing the new Star Wars. Some people met this news with a measure of caution.

Myself? I think Abrams is the person to direct it.

Look at Mission: Impossible III. Abrams made his directorial debut with the sequel to this established series. He kept strongly to the themes and style of the original TV show (so I’m told). Not only was it considered the best Mission: Impossible film until Ghost Protocol came along, but it elevated the series from being simple action movies to intelligent, developed thrillers. JJ Abrams entered into a franchise, captured the themes, and made it better.

But let’s move on to his next film, shall we? 2009’s Star Trek made Star Trek cool. Really cool, lens flare cool. Sure, it felt different thematically from the TV series, but it kept the characters’ personalities and dynamics. It’s not just the old names applied to new people: they’re the same! More than that, he crafted a well made adventure that, like Mission: Impossible III, took an established franchise, made it his own, and made it good. We didn’t get a half-baked sorta-Trek, we got a movie that took the idea of a cool and wonderful future and made it work. It was a sheer wide-eyed adventure of a farmboy saving the world, like the original Star Wars.

His most recent film is Super 8. If you wanted an 80’s adventure film in the spirit of E.T. or The Goonies, you loved this movie. You might be sensing a bit of a trend here: Abrams captured the spirit of movies from that decade but also infused it with a feeling of something new. He wasn’t just rehashing old stories, he told a new one. Furthermore, in Super 8 he balanced adventure and fun with some very quiet, very poignant scenes. As the world around them swirls in a mess and the film reaches its end, characters share these quiet beautiful moments. In the midst of action and visuals, Abrams still captures the emotion. Like in, y’know, Empire Strikes Back.

And through it all, Abrams has this feeling of mythology. He helped lay the groundwork for Lost, he gave us the enigmatic Rabbit’s Foot in Mission: Impossible III and the alien in Super 8. Unlike George Lucas and the prequels, Abrams doesn’t feel the need to explain away every detail. He gives his work a feeling of mystery and myth. Again, this is something the Holy Trilogy was built on (the Force is a mystical energy field, not some, well, whatever midichlorians do).

But the script must count too, yes? Doesn’t matter how good your director is if your script sucks. The writer for Episode VII is Michael Arndt. He’s the guy that did Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that balanced comedy with a lot of heart. A lot. He also did this little film called Toy Story 3 which you’ll probably recall as a sequel that effortlessly slipped into the established continuity and trumped all prior. What do we know from these two films? This man can give a screenplay heart without it feeling shoehorned in and capture the voices of characters who aren’t his own. Furthermore, the script is being supervised by Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote Empire Strikes Back).

As it stands now, Star Wars Episode VII is shaping up to be the Star Wars movie we’ve wanted for a very long time. Did we need a new Star Wars? Not really, but now that we are getting one, and now that we know who’s behind it… We have the perfect storm for a new Star Wars. Yeah, I know, it’s at least two years away… but c’mon man, I’m excited.

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In Defense of Science Fiction

You ever caught yourself explaining the conceit of a piece of science fiction and, halfway through, realize how stupid it sounds? No matter how cool it is, it just sounds silly on its way out of your mouth?

Compare these two ideas:

• A group of kids make a movie and wind up learning about life and moving on in this coming of age film.

• A mysterious alien appears in small-town Ohio giving a group of kids the adventure of a lifetime.

The former sounds like a movie that’ll become this award winning, tearjerking, instant classic. The other one sounds more like a popcorn flick with little value beyond entertainment. Thing is; they’re the same movie: Super 8. It is a film about a group of kids making a movie, and they do go on an adventure, and they do learn about life and moving on and letting go and all. And yeah, there’s an alien too, but the alien is a plot device. The alien provides an external catalyst that creates the tensions of the story. Without it, Super 8 wouldn’t have worked the way it did.

Not only that, but the alien in Super 8 essentially serves as the manifestation of one of the main themes of the film: understanding. The creature is an empath, able to feel emotions and see it through their eyes. Joe, the protagonist, has been unable to let go of his dead mother. It’s in the alien that he finds a sort of understanding and comes to terms with it and is, at last, able to let go and move on. We get a clear embodiment of the theme that doesn’t feel forced. It simply wouldn’t work in ‘normal’ fiction. The whole chain of events also has Joe develop from a pushover to the guy who’s doing his best to save the girl.

Further more, the effects of the alien’s arrival causes the two fathers in the story to step up and be dads. Their animosity (due to one being the cause of the death of the other’s wife) is put aside when they have to go after their kids.

Would it have been workable without an alien or other science fiction tropes? Possibly. Thing is, a different catalyst like a military invasion or even a serial killer would lend the movie unnecessary weight and implications. The alien allows the movie to focus in on the topics of forgiveness and letting go, without being bogged down by other themes.

One of the many races in the universe of Mass Effect are the quarians. They’re a nomadic race that, a long time ago, created a ‘race’ of AI machines called the geth. The geth rebelled against the creators, forcing the quarians to be the nomads they are. They’re based in massive ships, sending their young adults out on pilgrimages to find things useful for their Migrant Fleet. Furthermore, they wear full bodysuits due to having an exceptionally weak immune system.

Right, I know, it sounds kinda silly. Wandering aliens in spacesuits because of weak immune systems and all that.

But it creates such a wonderful way to look at issues. The quarians are ostracized from the galactic society as a whole due to their faceless nature and that most of the ones seen are only trying to find something to benefit their fleet. The Mass Effect games explores this idea as well as the idea of being excluded from your own race with the quarian character of Tali’Zorah. She’s a wanderer from a wandering people; a young woman who wants not only to do right by her people but right by the galaxy as well. In her we have a tension born of ostracism from both others and home.

Even if it’s subconscious, it makes us think about the idea of belonging and loyalties, of understanding and racism. Due to it’s scifi setting, Mass Effect doesn’t make it overt with words like “Jew” or “African-American” or anything like that; instead we’re giving an almost parableian look at the idea. Normal fiction would run the risk of sounding preachy or patronizing; in Mass Effect it comes with the setting.

Science fiction has been described as a way to run social commentary or satirize situations, something it does very well. The setting is also capable of providing catalysts for fantastic character driven stories (or adventures as the case may be). It’s such a shame that so often the very idea of science fiction gets ridiculed due to the simple fact that it is not reality.

There are some stories that can only be really told with a gap from reality; to say that the themes or points of these stories are somehow less due to them being ‘unrealistic’ is, simply put, unfair.

And c’mon: science fiction has friggin’ spaceships!

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Why Science Fiction Is Not A Genre

Walk into any book store and you’ll find them sorted into categories. You’ve got your Fiction, Children’s, Military History, Home and Garden, Romance, Young Adult, the odd shelf titled ‘Young Adult Paranormal Romance’, and, of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s fairly obvious where books go, works of Fiction goes in fiction, kids’ books go in Children’s, non-fiction goes with its topic, and so on.

Now, a work of fiction, whether it’s set in 1950’s New York City, medieval England, or present day Rio De Janeiro, is classified as Fiction. But add a spaceship or another planet and it’s suddenly Science Fiction. Doesn’t matter if it’s a Space Opera or a gritty post-apocalyptic war, they all go on the same shelf. Wanna add an elf to your modern day crime drama? Same problem. Fantasy is fantasy, no matter the subject matter.

Why’s this the case? Dracula features a vampire and yet it’s put in Fiction. Animal Farm has talking animals that run a farm and it’s in Fiction. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a weird dystopian novel with tropes straight out of science-fiction but it gets classified along with ‘proper literature’.

I realize my examples up there are all works that have been accepted as classics due to literary significance. So what about The Lord of The Rings? It’s got immense literary significance (reinvented the conventions associated with fantasy) and a truly epic plot with universal themes transcending its own story. So it gets put on the Fantasy shelf, and rightly so, because its setting is the archetypical fantasy world. Yet it’ll never be formally classified as ‘proper literature’.

The same idea extends to film. Super 8 is a movie about a bunch of kids making a movie. Throughout the plot they solidify their relationships with parents and each other; it’s about growing up. There’s also an alien in there, but it’s a plot device, not the point. But there’s an alien so it’s science fiction. Monsters has aliens too but it’s more like Lost in Translation than War of the Worlds. Once again, the titular monsters are a plot device, they exist to move the protagonists’ and the plot along. They’re not antagonists or even characters in the least. You could replace them with another trope and the plot would still work just as fine.
But because it’s an alien, it’s science fiction and thus not eligible for any ‘real’ awards. Super 8 and Monsters weren’t even considered for an Oscar because they’re science fiction and, ergo, not art.

My point is: the use of certain tropes doesn’t disqualify a work from being art. District 9 deconstructed much of what was accepted of a typical alien inversion. It was different and asked question normally never asked. Ender’s Game took the idea of the young hero and took it apart, adding the grief and trauma one would expect from such an event. They got their accolades from the science fiction community but beyond that, not much at all. Timothy’s Zahn’s work in the Star Wars Expanded Universe justified the movies and codified the universe. But because it could be written off as glorified Star Wars fan-fiction, no one outside the Star Wars fandom gives a crap.

When it comes down to it, science fiction is a setting not a genre. Genres are romances and comedies, tragedies and dramas. A setting is a spaceship or downtown Chicago. The only real difference between science fiction and ‘regular’ fiction is setting. You have humorous science fiction (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), character focused drama (Firefly), and sweeping adventures of pure romance (Star Wars, natch). There are post-apocalyptic adventures and galactic tragedies. To lump all of them together under one category due to similar setting would be like categorizing a Jeffery Archer book, The Great Gatsby, and The Bourne Identity under the same genre because they’re all set in the 20th Century. A story having binary suns should not detract from its merit as a work of fiction. If it still engages and it still carries its themes then it’s literature all the same, right?

In any case, I still like science fiction. I like space. I like adventure.
And I’m willing to accept the stigma of being a science fiction fan if it means I get spaceships.

Writer’s Note: Granted, science fiction and fantasy have more than their share of crap which unfortunately stereotypes the ‘genre’ as a whole. But within all that there are some brilliant gems. And shine they do.

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