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21. Gattaca (1997)

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by Adam Ferenz

October 1997, 106 minutes. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Loren Dean, Gore Vidal.

Andrew Niccol’s opus, Gattaca, is not only among the smartest work of science fiction-different to Sci Fi-of the 1990s, but among the best films of that decade. From the opening sequence, during which the narrator, Vincent, describes his origin, through to our view of him as a child growing up, then moving away as a young man, we are introduced to a world similar to but vitally different from our own. This is a world in which genetic testing determines everything about you. Your life, in total. How others view you, and, perhaps, how you view yourself. Of course, as the tag line for the film says “there is no gene for the human spirit” and it is this theme which is so expertly explored. What makes us who we are? Is it the circumstances of our birth, our flesh and bones, or is it our desires, our determination, and our feelings? Where the film lands is clear. What makes the film great is that instead of being judged, the characters are explored in relation to how their beliefs have affected them.

The plot itself is basic: Vincent, now in his guise as Jerome, lives in a world where everyone is placed based on their genetic markers, based on testing done at birth, which determines probabilities of everything from physical to mental disorders and likely age of death. These are the Valids and the Invalids. To the former, he has become a “borrowed ladder” because he has faked his way out of the latter, to which he belongs. Vincent works at Gattaca, a space agency, as a navigator, on a coming mission to Titan. However, the chief mission director has been murdered and Vincent, observing the scene amidst a crowd, leaves behind an eyelash. This leads the police, of which his brother is a member, to search for him. Throw in Vincent’s blossoming love affair with the brilliant technician, Irene, and the very real consequences for being the perpetrator of a major fraud, and Vincent is in potentially dire trouble. That he escapes it is at times in doubt. What matters here is the journey, and that is where the film differentiates itself. (more…)

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by Stephen Mullen

Science Fiction can come in many forms. There are the big world building SF stories imagining whole worlds different from ours, however rigorously they might work out how they got to be different. Think Metropolis, Star Trek, Brazil, Children of Men. There are smaller world building exercises, where something alien or some invented technology is dropped into the world, and we see how the world reacts: think The Thing from Another World, or Under the Skin, or Midnight Special. But there is another type that isn’t, really, about world building at all. In these stories, something is changed – technology, usually, something that doesn’t exist in fact – and it is used to tell an intimate story, about a small group of people, with no direct implications for the world at large. (Though with indirect implications, maybe.) The Face of Another, a 1966 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, is this kind of story. It is science fiction because of one detail – the face itself – a detail used to justify what is mainly a psychological study, with horror overtones.

The story is this: a man (Okuyama) is burned in an accident, his face ruined, forcing him to wear bandages the rest of his life. He broods, alienated from his wife, his co-workers, everyone. He has a doctor, a psychiatrist who dabbles in science (making prosthetics) who says he will make him a face that will look exactly like a real face. He does so, all the time speculating on how this different face will change Okuyama’s psyche. Okuyama puts it on, and starts establishing a second life – but his ultimate intention is to try to seduce his wife with the new face. He tries it and it works all too well – he is horrified at her unfaithfulness. (He has made himself jealous.) When he confronts her, though, she says she knew all along, and thought he knew – thought this was a shared masquerade, to get past the complications of his bandages. She thought he was being considerate of her. (He is not considerate of anyone.) After that, whatever claims he had to sanity are gone – he attacks a woman in the street, and when the doctor bails him out, put him out of his misery – and then? Good question. This story is intercut with another story, a young woman with a terrible scar on her face, probably from Nagasaki, though half of her face is beautiful. She suffers and becomes increasingly anxious about the coming of another war, until she pulls her hair back and walks into the sea.

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With our very dear friend John Grant (realthog) at the Princton Book Festival on Saturday

by Sam Juliano

What a fabulous surprise was in store for Lucille, Danny and I went we walked down the rows between tables at the Princeton Children’s Book Festival on Saturday.  Lucille actually noticed that our venerated comrade John Grant (realthog) was posted behind one of the tables with his lovely wife Pam, promoting his new book Eureka, which we secured a copy of.  Grant, the ever prolific writer and blogger was quite the welcome site during the one hour or so we spent there before reversing direction for the two hour right north to Chappaqua, New York -the hometown of Bill and Hillary Clinton – for another children’s book festival of annual renown.

The science-fiction countdown is down to its final quarter, and it continues to offer up one superlative essay after another in what has become a sterling display of cinematic scholarship.  Thanks to all who have supported it by way of comments and page views.  It has been quite a ride, one sadly accompanied by our unconcionable tragedy.

Lucille and I saw one film in the theaters – the western remake of The Magnificent Seven.  With the season of horror upon us I also caught several genre films at home, with one a just-released blu ray of a cheesy sci-fi-horror flick from the 50’s that worked quite well after so many years. (more…)

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Time and time again I knew what I was doing and

Time and time again it just made things worse

It seems you see the most of what is really true when

You’re stepping into your hearse

Only time can write a song that’s really really real

The best a man can say is how its play on him does feel

And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals
—’Time’, Richard Hell (Destiny Street, 1982)

Time, it’s said of in the opening sequences of Alain Resnais’ 1968 sci-fi Je t’aime, je t’aime, is something that scientists can explore the past of but not the future of, and even then, only at intervals of a minute at a time. It seems a safe enough enterprise, a white lab mouse is shown to have safely made the excursion in one piece, but then, as the scientists readily point out, a mouse is unable to verbally recount the voyage, so a human is necessary to make the experimental trip. But, time is also a creator of feelings and memories, often darkly sad or painfully repressed, not merely a void with which to experiment and observe, so our hero’s journey might not be the seamless excursion we’re being sold.
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30. Melancholia (2011)

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by Pat Perry

“The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.”

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is, in the simplest terms, the story of a wedding, two sisters and the end of the world.

At its deepest level, it presents the destruction of the earth as metaphor for a clinical depression that renders all human ritual and activity essentially meaningless and futile.

It’s a work of science fiction as well, although the science it’s based on is apparently specious. Type “Melancholia movie science” into any search engine, and you’ll find a plethora of posts by scientists (both amateur and professional) grumbling about the “implausible” planetary “dance of death” that winds a slow and sinister thread through the film to its explosive climax.(In a nutshell, they’ll tell you it’s impossible for a planet to come out of hiding from behind the sun and smash into the earth within a matter of days, per the film’s depiction. Rather, those unlikely events would play out over many years.)

As apocalyptic dramas go, Melancholia is unusually intimate in scope and decidedly low-tech. It’s not so much about the end of all mankind as it is about the end of a small, sequestered family group. The deadly approach of the rogue planet is mostly measured through a loop of wire attached to a stick.

But this is a Lars Von Trier film, and Von Trier has never played to standard audience expectations. Like all  of his best work, Melancholia is equal parts transcendent and absurd – chilling or heartbreaking in one moment, completely wack-a-doo in the next. I well remember seeing it on its opening night in 2011 at a suburban art-house theater; the audience hooted with derision throughout much of it, and many of them complained noisily all the way out of the auditorium. (What had they been expecting? Obviously these people had not been fans of Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, let alone Anti-Christ. Or even seen them, for than matter.) My boyfriend also hated it and we had a fairly rancorous argument about it on the drive home. But that’s the way it goes with the director I fondly refer to as Mr. Shaky-Cam Provocateur – he’s a divider, not a uniter. Based on my experiences of discussing his other films, I’m looking forward to some lively debate on the comments thread for this post. (more…)

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Aspiring artist Danny Juliano with renowned author/illustrator Raul Colon at Brroklyn Book Festival.

by Sam Juliano

The heartbreak of the last few weeks has taken on a surreal temperament, though there remains an aching pain that is all-too-real.  Yet we must rally and stay the course, as our colleague’s final wishes have made it clear that he wants all his friends and associates to keep that cinematic candle burning at all times.  For some, including the site’s new co-administrator Jamie Uhler, watching and reading stuff is a form of panacea, and the best way to combat the extreme grief many of us are feeling right now.  (To be sure Jamie has his own site, and is busy with more than one project at the current time, but he was exceedingly close to Allan and comes as close to the “yang” role Allan played here for over eight years).  Allan would have wanted this in keeping with his own “telling it like it is” sensibilities and I welcome the move with open arms and fully understand Jamie’s involvement in whatever capacity he is able to negotiate is fully contingent on the demands of his own ventures.  As always my esteemed colleague and very dear friend  Jim Clark remains a twice-a-month contributor, and the various projects that are being contemplated will be deliberated on with some of the other main players including Bob Clark, whose role has been heightened over the past months.  Similarly, it is expected Joel Bocko and Maurizio Roca will be part of this new allignment, but again, everyone is busy on their own fronts understandably.  As always, Tony d’Ambra remains an invaluable advisor, designer, writer and exceedingly close friend whose expertise and friendship has fueled this place from the very start.  The Caldecott Medal Contender series will again be staged at the site, beginning in late October, with a few reviews a week.

The science-fiction countdown is racing towards a glorious conclusion with one superlative piece after the other, though the black cloud of Allan’s passing during the execution of it will never be shaken or forgotten.  I urge all readers to listen to the podcast under the post on THX-1138, where Bob Clark, Joel Bocko and Jamie combine to provide a fitting testimonial to Allan as well as the film itself.

Lucille, the three and boys and I attended the annual Brooklyn Children’s Book Festival on Saturday.  Always a thrill for Danny, who has his own artistic aspirations. We also saw two films theatrically, SNOWDEN and SULLY.  The screening of SNOWDEN was originally set for the Chelsea Cinemas -just a block and a half from yesterday’s Manhattan explosion – before we changed our plans to watch the film in New Jersey.  Of course, we never made it back into the city for our weekly eatery for obvious reasons. (more…)

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32. The Fountain (2006)

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By Dean Treadway

A dialogue:

FUTURE ME: Why are we doing this? I have work to do.

PRESENT ME: Well, I called you two here to talk about Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.

PAST ME: One of my favorites.

FUTURE ME: Oh, I was so young then. Not even forty. Really into anything kind of trippy and obscure.

PAST ME: How did I get so cynical in my old age?

FUTURE ME: Hey, I still like it, but I don’t ever need to see it again. I stopped watching movies I’ve already seen years ago.

PAST ME: Wow!

PRESENT ME: That’s kind of where I’m at now. I think I’m starting to agree with Pauline Kael that watching movies even a second time clues you into their tricks and faults. Only the best ones escape this. This probably means I’ve been watching too many movies.

PAST ME: I can’t see many faults in this one. I saw it on the big screen twice and it stunned me with its boldness and beauty. There’s really nothing like it.

PRESENT ME: The Fountain works most effectively on the big screen, I agree. But there’s a reason for there being nothing like it—it’s a sentimental mess, though occasionally moving. And a box office bomb–way too inquisitive and slow for the masses, even if it’s only 90 minutes long. But it’s brave and beautiful, nevertheless.

PAST ME: I love it. It just hits me, and fascinates me. And there’s part of me that sees it as Aronofsky’s effusive love letter to his wife, Rachel Weisz, whom he clearly adores. Just look at all those loving close-ups.

PRESENT ME: They’re divorced now. She remarried James Bond—Daniel Craig.

PAST ME: Aww, that sucks. Man, where’s the love? And I can’t believe Daniel Craig is James Bond now. Weird choice.

FUTURE ME: You should see who’s playing him now—Benedict Cumberbatch.

PAST ME: Cumberwhat?

PRESENT ME: Guys, guys…back on point. I still find the conquistador segment of the story transfixing, and the future bubble, with the Tree of Life being sent up into a golden nebula, remains a helluva image.

FUTURE ME: We still don’t have any flying bubbles, but we did finally get the Hoverboard down. (more…)

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