Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

The Current State of Time Travel TV (Among Other Things).

January 1, 2018

 

 

Kawerau born singer John Rowles was blessed with an exceptional voice. He left for greener shores as soon as he could and thanks to a savvy Aussie management team scored big in 1968 with If I Only had Time. It managed a solid 18 weeks in the British charts peaking at number 3. He has two more substantial hits, Hush not a word to Mary (1968) and Cheryl Moana Marie (1970), an Australasian smash that went top 60 in the USA.

He could have been as big as Tom Jones or Humperdinck but ignoring the guidance of his manager, he who had done him so well thus far, he frittered away his formative years living the high life at the Hawaiian resort he purchased with his recording profits.

When he awoke from his tropical dream too much time had passed,  his international career was over and he was reduced to the ‘groundhog day’ of the Aussie cabaret circuit.

In 2004 a renewed interest in Rowles flared briefly when hip British electronica duo Lemon Jelly sampled If I Only Had Time for their 2005 track ’68 aka Only Time. Though he appreciated the attention he said of it, “it’s not my kind of thing”.

Rowles song is all about the joy of living and not having enough time to fulfil all of life’s promise; The Jelly’s is an existential treatise on regret and time squandered. Clearly John had a grand ole time for while but given the outcomes would he go back and change the past? It’s here that three of the hottest time travel shows on television find their muse but more on that later.

 

 

We might be forgiven for thinking that time travel is modern phenomenon given the all pervasive influence of H G Welles 1895 story The Time Machine but it is not that way at all. Welles’s story was just the latest incarnation of a narrative device so old it fades into immemorial.

Until Welles and his machine potions and enchantment and sometimes a bang to the head were the main method of navigating time – bonk, unconscious, wake up hundreds of years in the future.

As late as 1889 Mark Twain used this method to send a Yankee back to the Court of King Arthur (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). Twain’s morality fable is a critical examination the social mores of his time, the time displacement is but a handy narrative device that gives the story ‘novelty’ value.

An earlier time travel narrative is out of 7th century Japan. Urashima the Fisherman rescues a turtle and as a reward is ferried off to a magical city of wonders for a few days R&R. Trouble is it’s in another dimension and back in Urashima’s world 300 years have passed.

His life and family gone he looses his equilibrium and the result is tragic. What’s the subtext at play here? That it is better to do good things without reward or recognition? In Urashima’s defence he didn’t actually want the reward. The Japanese have a unique way of viewing the world and I wonder if I am missing the point entirely?

The future turns out better for American Rip Van Winkle. Washington Irving’s 1819 story is about a ‘put upon man’ (a nagging wife is the central point here) who falls into an enchanted sleep after drinking session with mysterious strangers in a forest (?). He sleeps for 20 years and when he awakes most everyone he knew is either dead or very old and after some initial confusion Rip adapts and free of his unsatisfactory marriage ends up living the life.

The future as escape from a disappointing present is explored to its fullest potential in Robert Heinlein’s classic 1957 novel The Door Into Summer. Now in the modern age and firmly in the footsteps of H.G Well’s instead of enchantment we have we have technology, in this case cryogenic suspension.

Betrayed and bewildered, Daniel Boone Davis takes the long sleep and is awakened 30 years into the future where he meets a man who has made a time machine. Using the technology he returns to the past determined to set right wrongs made against him by his treacherous fiancé Belle and his equally treacherous business partner Miles.

Returning to the past to set right the future the theme of three current time travel TV shows, 12 Monkeys, 11.22.63 and Travelers (2017). In all these series time travel is being used to alter the timeline in aim of a more satisfactory future outcome. Yeah, the future is grim but changing the past in aid of a better future is not as straightforward as everyone involved had hoped.

 

12 Monkeys is based on Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film of the same name, which is in turn based on Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jette. La Jette tells this now classic post-apocalyptic story through a series of still photographs with a voice over narration. Sounds dull but it is actually quite effecting. The TV series draws from both it’s predecessors vision while adding some suitable flourishes of its own.

 

 

In 12 Monkeys an operative called Cole mounts a seat set in the path of a giant laser. There is an injection of serum and lots of writhing about then bam, gone and thrust into the past. Obsessive scientist Dr Katarina Jones (played by Barbara Sukawa a former Reiner Werner Fassbinder acolyte – more on the German film master later) is determined to stop the release of a deadly virus that took the life of her daughter and most everyone else. Cole is her tool, a battered survivor sent back to the past to prevent the release of the virus. The job turns out to be barrel of confusion for the hapless Cole.

Meanwhile over on Travellers 2017, (there is an earlier short lived incarnation from 2007 drifting about so be aware), a similar scenario is playing out. In the deep into the future a small remanent of humanity clings precariously to life under the guidance and protection by an all-wise A.I called The Director (think ‘god’ and yes, there are plenty of provocative religious allusions). The Director has a plan to alter the catastrophic events that have sent humanity into freefall.

The minds of highly trained operatives are sent back in time and placed into the bodies of the ‘about to be deceased’. Our particular team of Travelers ends up bodies of an overdose victim, a young mother battered to death by her boyfriend, a sociopathic sports star killed by a punch, a retarded girl beaten to death on the street and an FBI agent about to die from a fall down a lift shaft.

To the shock of all those around him the Jock gives up sport and his old wicked ways and turns into a reasonable if not saintly sort while the battered mother (this Traveler is a trained combat expert) hefts it to her abusive man and as for the FBI agent, this meat eating workaholic is suddenly Vegan.

Yeah….. it’s true, there is no meat in the future, in fact there is barely any food at all and the series lighter moments involve Travelers having mouth orgasms over things like fries, burgers and chocolate. Otherwise it turns out that the ‘past’ is an ever-shifting game of numbers made all the more difficult by a war with Travelers who have broken ranks with The Directors grand plan.

Conceptually solid ideas, good writing and a charismatic cast make for a superior a sci-fi series. A massive hit for Netflix, season two is down with season three in production.

 

 

Back over in deranged 12 Monkeys land (yes, the TV series stays true to Gillian vision – remember Brad Pit’s weird turn? It’s all there) it turns out that time itself is sentient and does not kindly to tinkering leading us into an increasingly bizarre labyrinth of realities as Cole and company wrestle with ‘Times’ obtuse methods and the terrorists responsible for the release of the deadly virus.

Like Gilliam I had severe doubts about this show imagining a dumb smash, bash, crash set of American clichés. Boy was I ever wrong. A critically acclaimed third season is all wrapped up and a fourth and final season is now in production.

 

 

Recent Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63 (2106) like 12 Monkeys and Travelers is all about changing the past in aid of the future, in this case preventing the assassination of US President JFK in the hope of averting the horrors of the Vietnamese war. James Franco does a fair job as a high school teacher thrown in deep in aid of the cause but it is mostly dullsville.

I lost interest after episode four but the reviews tell me I should have held on because the series really starts to fire toward the end. As for the time travel, this takes place via a portal in the back of a Diner. It’s an inter-dimensional thing with time guardians and the usual King flip-flappery.

 

 

In German series Dark (2017) the time travelling has no higher purpose, in fact it’s just an unfortunate accident set upon the unwitting inhabitants of the small German town of Winden. An ‘event’ at the local nuclear power plant creates a series of time traversing wormholes that suck unwitting locals into a nightmare of endlessly repeating cycles linking decades and generations.

At it’s heart this a psychological thriller that is not afraid to taste the dark meat of human experience. The result is uncomfortable, emotionally dense and riveting. Dark has been compared to Twin Peaks and Stranger Things but it’s a flimsy comparison. Dark has a tone and reality all its own though their might be some comparison to German filmmaker Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s triumphant 1973 TV series World On A Wire, a similarly bold speculative sci-fi entertainment.

 

 

And do yourself a favour – turn off the clumsy American voice over and listen to it in German with subtitles. It serves the series and the actors so much better. Season one ends on a cliffhanger with oodles of unanswered questions still sitting in the in-tray. Season 2 is currently in production.

 

 

A side note – 2009 German film The Door is all kinds of similar. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen stars in this strange time travel thriller that like Dark, uses a cave as a doorway through time. Mad’s is supposed to be watching his young daughter while his wife is out, instead he is ‘seeing’ to his sexy neighbours needs. Daughter is killed in an accident and Mad’s is inconsolable. It turns out a cave at the end of the street is a portal through time so he sets about rectifying his big mistake but it turns out to be more difficult than he first imagines (of course it is). If you can find it, it is worth a look.

 

 

 

1966 American TV series The Time Tunnel comes from the same era that gave us camp Batman (1966), Star Trek (1966), The Prisoner (1967) and Land of the Giants (1968). The Time Tunnel has not endured as well as its cousins but was smart enough to influence a generation or two to come. 2016 series Timeless is drawn from this stock.

 

 

Bad guys steal top-secret time machine and start changing the timeline. Good guys are in pursuit. It’s standard wholesome action and adventure with conspiracies galore and a solid cast lead by Abigail Spencer. You’ll know her from Suits, Madmen and Rectify. As watchable as cool water on a hot day, Ms Spencer is an asset to any show and without her this operation would be 25% less than it is. If I were a kid, I would be drinking it up. Solid B-grade schlock, fun if predictable.

 

 

Time travel is a notable sub plot in Gene Roddenberry’s iconic Star Trek franchise, so much so that the Federation of Planets has a whole philosophy devoted to maintaining the sanctity of the timeline. It’s called the Temporal Prime Directive.

Time travel is the featured device of two of the franchises best films, The Voyage Home (1986) and First Contact (1996) and as for the numerous series, just about the best time travel concepts to be found anywhere on TV lie scattered about this vast cannon.

Among my favourites are: Times Arrow (1992 – The Next Generation), Futures End featuring Sarah Silverman and Ed Begley Jnr. (1996 –Voyager) Year of Hell (1997 – Voyager) and the various time travel scenarios involved in the triumphant Xindi story arc that tied up season three of Enterprise from 2003-2004. You’ll find them all and more on Netflix.

 

 

In short-lived 2016 series Time after Time H.G Wells invents a time machine. He shows it to his friend John who steals it. John it turns out is Jack the Ripper. Wells makes another one and goes after him. Seriously? This is the kind of idea that probably sound awesome when your 15 and stoned and thinking up shit. Based on the classic 1979 film the TV version is dull, dull, dull and cancelled.

 

 

Making History (2017) is time travel comedy, a sub-genre that includes classics like Time Travel Bong and Time Travel Hot Tub. Funny man goes back in time and stuffs up the timeline so ropes in Straight man Historian to help to sort it all out. It is about as amusing as a cup of day old coffee and was cancelled after 9 episodes.

 

 

There are some 60 odd time travel series available for viewing somewhere including the granddaddy of them all, the incomparable Dr Who. The Dr’s first hit the small screen back in 1963 and are still doing their shtick today. Among the current crop of international shows is The Ministry Of Time (El Ministerio del Tempo – 2016) out of Spain. Some critics are referring to as the Spanish Dr Who though the makers consider it closer to Timeless, a show they are suing for ‘stealing their ideas’. Apparently it is coming to Netflix.

While we are in Spain I should mention 2007 time travel thriller Timecrimes, which must rank among the smartest time travel films ever made. A scientist is caught up in an ever-tightening time loop after an experiment with a time machine throws up some unexpected results. If time travel is your thing and you haven’t seen this then Happy New Year, you have a treat in store.

 

 

In 1889 Mark Twain sent his Yankee back to King Arthur’s Court with a blow to the head but a revolution was just around the corner. In 1894 Englishman HG Wells imagines a machine that can traverse time and opens the genre up to a whole new order of possibility. The Time Travel genre has come a long way since but perhaps it’s most progressive forward step is by way of Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Travellers Wife.

Offering something utterly new and unique, the time travel device here is a rare genetic condition that causes a man to randomly move through time. Charting the course of an unconventional life, Niffenegger’s story is deeply affecting and utterly compelling. Given the phenomenal success of the book a clunky sentimental film adaptation was sadly inevitable.

 

If I was to pick one time travel film and say it was the ‘best ever’ it would be this. Using the cryogenic suspension first touted in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Door Into Summer, the original Planet of the Apes (1968) sees ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ star Charlton Heston thrust into the far future and the result is  audacious and groundbreaking. Echoing the existential fears of a world teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation this film hits every mark (including the magnificent score by Jerry Goldsmith).

Side note – as with 12 Monkeys, the Ape’s franchise originated from the work of a Frenchman. This time by way of one Pierre Boulle whose 1963 novel La Planete des Singes kicked it all off.

 

 

There is more, so much more but like John Rowles, I have run out of time. Bon Voyage.

 

 

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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.