Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Zombies, Existential Dread and The Girl with all the Gifts.

April 11, 2017

Early on in the film discovery phase of my life I happened upon George A Romero’s landmark Zombie Trilogy. All at once clever, disturbing and satirical these films were a delight and I have watched them many times since but as the Zombie phenomenon broke out into mainstream I realised I was less a fan of Zombies than I was of Romero and while I have dipped into some of the more popular shows and films nothing bar the British movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later have sustained my attention…… until now.

I was out walking when I happened across Unity Books (Central Auckland) and decided to go inside. I must have walked passed the place a hundred times and while I often stopped to look in at the window display I was never going any further as book buying is no longer my thing.

When I was younger and earning better I used to buy lots of books. I loved the excitement of book discovery and outlined of my personal space with a display I imagined explained to visitors something of my inner world. Considering I had few visitors the whole thing ended up seeming a little vain and frivolous so one fine day I packed all my books down and left them out in public space for people to take.

Thinking I had done some great deed I drove back to have a look an hour later to find a group of shabby looking kids kicking them about and throwing screeds of torn pages into the air. In retrospect nothing less than my vanity deserved.

I am well pleased that phase of life is over and I have since learned that the value of the books most precious to me lies in the memory of the experience not in the possession of the hardcopy. But there I was in a bookstore and I saw they had a Sci-Fi section, which pleased me no end this genre being my first love and all and because I had this impression that bookshops devoted to literature largely eschew the format out of a misguided sense that it just isn’t worthy enough.

Iconic NZ Broadcaster and literature fan Kim Hill certainly thinks so, I have heard her say it more than a few times over the years, and her opinion isn’t so unusual. I remember walking into a grand looking bookshop in Wellington a few years back and after a look about asked if they had a Sci-Fi section. The response was bemused blinking that left me feeling a bit inadequate. I scarpered and spent my money elsewhere.

As for the genre itself, it is actually a mixture of things that includes fantasy, dystopian futurism, space opera, social and technological speculation, time travel and Zombie narratives. So there I was running my fingers across the book spines when a title caught my eye. I pulled it out and balanced it in my hands and knew that I was going to read it and like it. I jotted down the title: The Girl with all the Gifts and decided to order it from the library. Sorry Unity but at almost $40 it was well beyond my means.

 

 

Book Review: The Girl with all the Gifts

By M.R. Carey.

7/10 Stars.

 

An infection has crossed the globe turning humans into mindless hosts for a parasitic life form that craves protein. These creatures stand about waving in the wind until a movement or scent from a warm living thing triggers them into action then its all running, clawing hands and tearing teeth. The few remaining humans have nicknamed them ‘Hungries’. If you have ever seen 28 Days Later you’ll have the idea.

The uninfected have retreated to a couple of protected enclaves including a research facility where Dr Caroline Caldwell is seeking a vaccine by dissecting and experimenting on the body parts of the infected but not just any old infected. He team has discovered children who have been infected but maintain something of their humanity.

These children are a striking new mutation and involved in the research is teacher and psychologist Helen Justineau whose job involves trying to understand their nature. Are they still human? Caldwell thinks not as she obsessively takes them apart with surgical tools. Justineau is not so sure and her emotional bond with a girl called Melanie is complicating things at the facility.

As for Sergent Parks, the guy who runs the day-to-day operations at Hotel Echo, these kids are dangerous, after all he is the guy who discovered them and has had first hand experience of just how overwhelming their hunger for flesh can be. He and Justineau are not seeing eye-to-eye and as far is Justineau is concerned Caldwell is out of control.

The kids are imprisoned and when required are strapped securely into wheelchairs and ferried about the facility. By and by it all goes wrong and Parks, Justineau, Caldwell, a soldier called Gallagher and Melanie (test subject number one because of her extraordinary intellectual abilities) find themselves on the run across the barren wasteland that is now the British countryside in a desperate attempt to reach Beacon and safety. Caldwell needs Melanie for her research, Melanie is attached to Justineau (the only human who has ever shown her any care), and the others just want to survive.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a spare and neatly observed novel that follows in the grand tradition of Romero’s groundbreaking original Zombie film Night of the Living Dead centered on a group of disparate people thrust together by circumstance and trying to find a way forward against increasingly insurmountable odds. M.R Carey is a novelist whose main source of income has been writing for comics (X-Men for Marvel as well as numerous projects for D.C) and graphic novels. The tight narrative structure required for this type of prose has shaped him into an economical wordsmith who knows how to spin a compelling yarn without wasting space.

The book is a reliable page turner with a well considered plot and neatly drawn characters that respects the readers intelligence and left me thinking that good writing is good writing regardless of the genre. To hell with literature snobs – Zombies make just as good a backdrop for tales of the human condition as do the sorts of themes and settings favoured by actual proper writers.

 

 

Film review: The Girl With All The Gifts (2015)

Directed by Colm McCarthy

6-10 Stars

Okay, now I have read the book I had to take a look at the film which turns out to be very much in that tradition kicked off by Danny Boyles genius film 28 Days Later (2002) and its follow up 28 Weeks Later (2007). The Girl With All the Gifts could well have been titled ‘28 Years Later’ judging by the overgrown cityscapes our little band of adventurers are wandering across as they head for the sanctuary of Beacon.

In actuality we are only eight years out from the initial outbreak but the huge mature trees filling the streets of London suggest a timeframe more in line with decades rather than a decade. The landscape is actually the abandoned Pripyat City in the heart of the Chernobyl exclusion zone whose brutalist Sovietism is not London by any stretch of the imagination. Nice try but it does serve to make the film feel a little B-Grade, as in low budget. They would have been better off sticking to those neatly rendered CGI images of an overgrown London that otherwise worked so well.

The rest of it is filmed on sets and the results are quaint rather than convincing reminding me of the TV shows I grew up watching in the late 1960s. I am thinking Star Trek, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants – all formed on soundstages with sets that are inexpensive and suggestive rather than comprehensive. Maybe this was purposeful stylistic decision?

The cast is a neat list of top line character actors including Glenn Close as the Dr Mengele like Caldwell, the ever-reliable Paddy Constantine (Dead Mans Shoes) as Sergent Parks and Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) as Justineau. They do a fine job with what they have. Melanie is helmed by an earnest Sennia Nanua whose uneven performance takes the edge of things, if only a little.

The film mostly stays true to a book written for easy big screen translation but for reasons unknown the production team have has eschewed some essential plot elements leaving the film structure feeling a little flimsy. In the book the fall of Hotel Echo is a an event which tells us a larger story about the state of the world as it stands but in the film version the security fences are clumsily knocked down by Hungries after being perfectly adequate for many, many months. Expedient but clumsy.

The director Colm McCarthy is an episodic TV director and struggles a bit with the longer format of a feature film. The Girl with all the Gifts lacks sustained tension (sadly so because the book hums along like fire on a fuse) and dramatic flair. A friend had seen it before I did and her opinion pretty much sums up my own: ”It’s ok”. Still there is potential for more from this loose franchise and that would be nice. The British do post-apocalyptic better than most.

 

What Others Are Saying:

It’s a film for people who thought they never needed to sit through another zombie flick. It’s also quite likely the strangest entry that will ever appear on Glenn Close’s IMDB page’.

– Chris Nashawatay Entertainment Weekly

 

‘A wicked, gory and even occasionally funny take on George A. Romero’.

– Barry Hertz Globe and Mail.

 

Epilogue:

I am remembering how much I loved post-apocalyptic scenarios in my youth, a strange dislocated time when I feared my natural lonerist tendencies. In my less guarded moments I dreamt of long walks through cityscapes returned to nature. It was silent and abstract world and I was happily adrift in it. There were never any Zombies, thrills, adventure or other people. My post-apocalyptic landscape was all about the mystical unconscious.

So what is the attraction of the Zombie besides the obvious scare fest? Could it be down to some existential dread based on the loss of individuality? Whatever it is, it’ a popular theme and a reliable moneymaker. The other big player here is the body-snatching genre; that’s when ethereal alien beings take over the individual’s body, eliminate the consciousness and turn it into a vessel for themselves.

Stephenie Meyer’s (the Twilight series) The Host is a modern classic (though the sputtering 2013 film adaptation by Kiwi Andrew Niccol is not). Of the several other films originating from Jack Finney’s 1954 Sci-Fi novel The Body Snatchers the best are the 1958 and 1978 titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are perfectly realised and are a ‘must see’ for those so inclined. The 1978 film features Leonard Nimoy as a charismatic cult psychiatrist and a brilliantly hysterical Donal Sutherland as a City Health Inspector on a mission to save the world from creeping threat. The final reveal is a classic.

 

 

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Todd.

September 12, 2016

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Todd was king of our scene though I don’t think he would have made that claim for himself he had have been asked but no one ever asked and he never said, not that he said much. I think given the chance he would have said nothing at all but sometimes life forced him to speak and when we did we all listened intently because you never knew when you might hear him speak again.

Todd was not a speaker he was an actor, a man who expressed himself through movement and action. His body his method, his skateboard his canvas. Todd could do marvellous things on that slim piece of fibre. He could make those wheels hum and force time to fold in on itself. Airborne he would question the laws on physics and on the ground press the material context of matter to explain itself.

Not that he was some kind of demon showoff. Far from it, he was too contained and self-aware for that. I often thought he could have been a pro if he had of chosen and made a fortune performing in arenas to crowds of screaming kids who would rush home to have his image tattooed on their arms but I am not sure the thought ever occurred to him, at least that’s my take on it but one ever asked and he never said, he just skated: under the sun, in the wet, in the crisp morning air and as the sun touched the edge of the earth on its journey toward night.

That he was a leader was obvious but he was no self-appointed one, he was a natural and the kids gathered round just to be near and to watch and soak it all up. When he wasn’t in movement he would sit on the lip of the concrete pit where we gathered and watch the others. When he saw a kid take a spill he would grab his board, launch himself down and lift the kid up and without a word show them how to make the move properly. The kid would watch and under Todd’s steady stare, figure it. After, he would pat them on the back or tip them a wink or flip them a humorous move and ‘oh-lucky-kid-was-that.’

Sometimes a new face would turn up, new to town or maybe a kid from another scene keen to prove themselves and hearing about Todd saw an opportunity to show the world they existed and meant something. Not that Todd ever invited competition, they would just show up and invade his space. He never took it on just made his moves and watched them make theirs then he would up the game as required. That’s how he played it, slow and steady, a studied master letting the challenger lead the way until they reached that point where they could go no more and Todd would just go just that little more and that was that.

At this point one of three things would happen. The kid’s would just up and leave chagrined or angry or maybe they would come over and acknowledge the defeat gracefully or unable to handle it they would try and take Todd through sheer force, determined to size him down and save-face. A fist would fly and Todd would move just enough to avoid the worst of it while positioning himself to meet the next onslaught. This would go until the kid had had enough but sometimes the frustration spilled over into something more than rage. At this point Todd, calm and steady, would lift his board and disappear into the day with nothing to prove and of no need to prove it.

This one time a kid came back with a gun and confronting Todd said “Hey now bitch, what do you think of that?” We were all shitting ourselves and rallied around our man but the kid could not be told and fired that thing. The bullet ripped through Todd’s right shoulder missing bones and arteries but leaving enough blood to make us blink hard. Todd didn’t let out as much as a whimper, he just stood stock-still staring at the kid.

“Fucker” the kid screamed and made to fire again and then Todd did something we had never seen nor would see again. He faced that bullet the way he faced a fist letting it come straight at him, whipping aside just before it hit. It slammed into the concrete well of the pit and Todd, still half alight in the air, grabbed that gun right out of that kids hand then whacked him to the ground in a manner too fast and sudden to be easily described with words. Lets just say that the kid barked and fell heavily and next thing Todd was sitting on him.

Slipping the gun into the band of his shorts he grabbed the kid with his good arm and dragged him to his van throwing him in the back. He applied some gaffer tape and off they went the crew in tow, a convoy of vehicles stretching out along the thin road that led to the coast half an hour off to the West. I managed to jump in next to Todd and using something until that moment had rested unknown within me, stymied the leaking blood as he drove.

Todd pulled over at McCauley’s Cliff all the way up there above the churning Pacific and glancing about the collective I could see that we all expected the worst. He flung the gun way out into the air and we all watched it fall a thousand feet wondering if that was how it was going to play out but all he did was go back to the back of the van haul the kid out onto the dust and left him gagging in his own ignominy. Some of us stood and watched for a while and others jumped back into the cars making to follow Todd who easily shucked them off and disappeared. Where did Todd go? No one knew. If he had a place and where that place was and what he did there were just speculation and idle gossip. It was like when he wasn’t hanging at the scene he didn’t exist.

The summer of 1996 was my last at the pit and with the coming January I rolled out of town and went north to study medicine (as it turned out) and never returned. Except for Todd and the kids my memories weren’t happy ones and I was glad to leave that place behind. Years later wanting to express some kind of gratitude for his presence in my life I tried to track him down, to no avail. As the years have passed by I have asked myself on more than one occasion if he might have just been a dream I had conjured to sustain myself through those difficult years and with that in mind I have decided that somethings are better left as they are and just be content that life worked out better than I should have expected.

 

 

 

It was a Saturday and one of those hazy Autumnal days that are neither this nor that. The sky was prescient blue, the air sleepy and the kids were talking and smoking, a few were skating and scattered threads of music drifted about the place. As the evening chill set in the buzz of conversation dissipated and one by one kids made their leave until there was no one left but Todd and me.

I sat on the edge of the pit and watched while he fired off a move I had never seen before. It almost worked but not well enough to stop him falling ass-end into the curved wall. He blinked, stood up and shook his arms as if to check they were still attached and finding everything to be as it should scooped up his board and launched himself out of the pit and landed neatly in place right next to me.

He rolled a smoke and just before he lit it snapped his fingers and asked if he could roll me one. I shook my head and he said “I guess not.” He lit up and took a slow drag and then said something unexpected and shocking: “I know who your old man is and I want you to know that he’s not worthy of you.” He stared hard at me then winked and before I knew it I was overcome with emotion. I sat there for a time struggling with my composure and when I felt I could trust myself to look up without letting slip a few tears he was gone. I got up and stretched a little and for the first time I could remember I no longer felt alone.