Archive for April, 2015

Perhaps it’s the unification of automotive jouissance and Thantos, so perfectly captured in J G Ballard’s Crash, that makes combat cars so compelling for Sci-Fi fans and petrol heads alike. Look at some of the outrageous stunts within any of the Fast and Furious films, dial up the technology – or side swipe the setting into the post-apocalyptic – and you’ve got the fundamentals of Death Race 2000 (1975) or Mad Max (1979) in a heartbeat.

Regardless of Mel Gibson’s latter day personality implosion, it was through him, George Miller’s 1979 film and Steve Jackson’s Car Wars table top game that these automotive dystopias were defined. Now Miller is back with Fury Road and there’s a palpable hope that the reboot will return the franchise to the apex days of The Road Warrior. There’s also the added bonus that Warner Bros’ game division are working on Mad Max: Soul of a Man – an open world combat and driving game that should be released by September. It’s a far shout from Battle Cars (1983) on the ZX Spectrum, but there’s a lineage of combat drivers that lead directly towards the Avalanch Studio title. From Carmageddon’s controversy, through Twisted Metal to the resurgence of top-down shooters on Steam (with games like Death Skid Marks), the theme is one that simply won’t run dry.

As yet, there’s no definitive opinion about whether the game and the film will fire on all four cylinders but, if the early impressions are anything to go by, we’re in for a hell of a ride over the next five months.

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Scanner Darkly

Precogs don’t have an easy time of it in Philip K Dick novels. Their awareness of the future is inevitably bound with the tragic realisation that they can’t do a thing to change it. Take the protagonist in The World That Jones Made. He has the miraculous ability to see one year into the future, but this ultimately leads to the bleak reality of living the last year of life with his own assassination sprinting down the timeline towards him. Thankfully, precognition isn’t something that has come to pass in the real world, but a disturbing level of PKDickian premonitions are still manifesting.

Previously, here on Drozbot, we’ve touched upon the burgeoning Internet of Things, and how this is analogous to many of the computerised devices in PKD’s universes. Admittedly, the semi-sentient status of his machines is a far reach from your fridge reordering milk, but there’s an ambivalence to them that highlights a healthy distrust. Giving too much control, or too much data, to the machines, the marketers and the government, is unwise.

Another device that appears repeatedly across many of the author’s stories is the Johnny Cab. Self-driving vehicles that, once again, tend to exhibit more humanity than some of their human passengers. Google’s driverless vehicles seem a far shout from this proposed future, but the convenience they offer remains part of a larger data system over which the end user will have little or no control. Again, technological advancement tempered by nervous unease.

Perhaps our machine overlords will be benevolent, much like the sentient, military killing machines in The Defenders who keep humans locked in their own bunkers for the benefit of the planet. Again, look to the fighter drones on any contemporary battlefield and PKD’s foresight seems even more incredible, formulating his ideas as he was in 1953. In this short story, as in The Simulacrua and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, another repeated trope appears, that of the robot being indistinguishable from its human counterparts. It’s an obsession that seems to have hooked Japan more than any other nation and, as a result, hardly a month goes by without another uncanny android being revealed.

Finally we come to A Scanner Darkly and the state sanctioned surveillance culture it presents. Of all PKD’s Sci-Fi futures, I find this one the most chilling. While scatter suits are the preserve of the military attempting to cloak large vehicles, the idea of our reality being obscured or even falsified by those in power (state, god or even reality itself) is a powerful one. Look into the black lenses of omnipresent CCTV cameras, especially those that resemble the prior civic forms of street lamps, and Dick’s informant culture seems just one sleepwalking step away.

Collectively, all this tech adds up to a predictive chicken and egg scenario. Is the future being mapped out as the influence of PKD’s ideas resonates with us, or was Phil simply a procog who could literally see the shape of things to come. There is evidence for the latter in that he wrote of foreseeing his own demise, slumped face down between a sofa and a coffee table. The stroke that led to his hospitalisation and subsequent death did indeed floor him in just such a position. A tragic procog then perhaps, but one reminding us to always be mindful of the futures we imagine for ourselves.

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It’s a bloodbath of terrible Sci-Fi moments. Imagine Sting from Dune yelling “I will kill him!” only to receive a negation from Mick Jagger in full Freejack mode, “I want him without a scrwatch.” Now imagine this scene being televised on a portable screen carried by one of the killer robots that finish off Gene Simmons in Runaway. OK, it’s a collective low point. But, let’s shudder it off with the realisation that the inclusion of a pop star in your Sci-Fi film doesn’t necessarily consign it to hell.

There are average flicks in which the pop stars in question are actually half decent in their performances. Admittedly, this is usually the result of casting them as a character analogous to their stage personas. So, while Tank Girl and Hardware aren’t the best genre films of all time, Iggy Pop does a laudable portrayal of himself as Rat Face and Angry Bob respectively. Tina Turner does a similar turn as Auntie Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, while Justin Timberlake manages to dramatically stretch himself for the disappointing In Time.

Occasionally, a combination of good narrative and convincing characterisation by a musician do unify to generate something that resonates. Yes, both Deborah Harry and Meat Loaf don’t deviate from their own personalities much, but neither do they detract from the overall quality of Videodrome or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Take things to the next level, and the atmosphere of quality quickly becomes rarefied. Mark Duplass takes his place here thanks to his excellent portrayal of Kenneth in Saftey Not Guaranteed, as well as showcasing his skill as an actor, musician and vocalist.

One pop star, however, has more than his fair share of standout Sci-Fi moments – no real surprise considering his genesis within the music industry. Not only was he convincing, centre stage, as the extra-terrestrial visitor in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, but he also put in a solid performance as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of The Prestige. David Bowie may not be the best actor in the pantheon of Hollywood, but he’s a natural for weird, otherworldly individuals with heterochromia. I’d hum Life on Mars as a suitable sign off, but I’d be doing the man a disservice.

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