Archive for April, 2014

David Niven

A departure from pure SciFi for this post, although still sticking with the fantastical as we wander into the undead realms of limbo. It’s yet another intriguing sub-genre that has inspired a number of creatives across a spread of media – see Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under, Joe Goddard’s She Burns and even Playdead’s wonderfully cyclical game. But time is ticking, space is scant, so it’s just the filmic that falls into focus here.

There’s a long tradition of directors being interested in this in-between state, stretching back as far as Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921). A memento mori, if you will, that sits in the sub-dermis of the movie industry. Outward Bound (1930) and Between Two Worlds (1944) follow, again placing an ensemble cast against the backdrop of a journey between life and death. There was also the original, British, Friday the Thirteenth (1933), which travelled towards and through the moment of death, but this was more about the warping of temporal narrative rather than anything otherworldly. Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is the final distillation of this early period and remains, to my mind, the most powerful and successful of them all.

Modern examples of the genre are a much more hit and miss affair. While aiming for something more comprehensive is the preserve of the long form, it’s relatively easy to highlight the beautifully tragic Bliss (1985), the excellent Jacob’s Ladder (1990), the average but engaging Flatliners (again 1990), the saccharin What Dreams May Come (1998) and finally, M Night Shyamalan’s opening tour de force, The Sixth Sense (1999).

But this is Drozbot, and it wouldn’t be the site it is without a momentary nod to some kind of tech-related life beyond life – in the style of Iain M Banks’ brilliant Surface Detail. So, why not throw Brainstorm (1983) and the apparently terrible, but topical, Transcendence (2014) into the mix?

So, how to tie up a post on spiritual states of indetermination? One tactic might be to leave you hanging, suspended halfway through a concluding sentiment. Something that cuts off mid-sentence, just before…

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Atlas

A few observant tech writers have already noted the increasing similarity between DARPA’s Atlas and Arnold Gillespie’s original Robbie the Robot – designed for MGM’s Forbidden Planet. Now, with the coding of the robot’s operating system being opened to a competitive solution, the question resurfaces whether the result will be more Terminator than Robuster.

Robots becoming the dominant life form on earth isn’t anything new for sci-fi fans, but the topic is resurgent. This is possibly the result of evocative, cinematic re-visitations, but also thanks to some rapid and, in an increasing number of instances, unsettling advances in both computing and robotics.

Fictional works by writers like Daniel H Wilson are offering a greater prevalence of cautionary tales, arguing that we could well sleep-walking towards a Roboapocalypse. But, like Robbie, DARPA’s stated aim is altruistic. Atlas is to be a mobile, heavy lifter in any given disaster area – a machine designed to help rather than harm humans.

Isn’t this then what we want from our bright new future? A safer (weaponised drones), healthier (android carers for legion OAPs) and more industrious (nano-bot infested) world? Well, according to a recent Pew Research survey of the North American public, that ain’t necessarily so.

So, while we’re already willing to hand the tedium of the mowing or the vacuuming over to automation, it’s useful to spare a thought for some of the possible outcomes this increasing dependency may lead to.

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Twelve Monkeys

It’s 1995 and I’m leaving the cinema with my future wife after watching Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. The film was a revolutionary experience and, in my opinion, a brilliant piece of time-warping sci-fi that then spilt out onto the streets of London; a meta realisation that all the promotional posters for the film were also the subversive propaganda for the fictional Army of the Twelve Monkeys. A rare and beautiful moment, made all the more so by subsequent research into La Jetée on which the film was based – itself a powerful piece of independent sci-fi oddity.

It’s the moment in time that’s the relevant factor here and, like the film itself, the memory for me represents a fleeting but perfect window into another world. There’s something satisfyingly sweet about the encapsulated experience, a brevity that’s being eroded on a contemporary level by the increasing success of longer, sequential experiences. What I’m talking about here is TV syndication verses movies and, more specifically within that, TV series that are spawned from films. Incredible as this may sound, welcome to 12 Monkeys the TV series.

There’s no doubting that there are plenty of fresh and revised TV series ideas that are both excellent and welcome, and far be it for me to condemn a production that’s yet to begin shooting. However, when the director of the original film calls the necessity of such a series in to question, I can’t help but sympathise. Amazingly, this project isn’t alone among original films being reworked for an audience seemingly fearful of endings. The Truman Show and The Adjustment Bureau have also both been green lit for serialisation which, I have to say, leaves me incredulous rather than hopeful or excited.

Gene Roddenberry once said that, “ninety percent of TV is junk. But, ninety percent of everything is junk.” Looking at the past of sci-fi films made into TV series, only Logan’s Run and, possibly, Alien Nation stand out as credible continuations of under-explored storylines. Maybe that’s just my personal bias. I like endings. I like things that snap shut in a satisfying way, even when dealing with the vagaries of time travel. Which, funnily enough, reminds me of a personal story. It’s 1995 and I’m leaving the cinema…

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