Science and technology and politics have helped push us to new heights, fostering our ability to criticize and change countless old/bad habits. But culture also plays a big role. The myths we tell and love, these propel us to action. "Self-preventing prophecies" like 1984 and Soylent Green helped save us. Star Trek offers a glimpse of our better-than-us grandchildren. Here are many of the essays and deliberate provocations in which I have tried to shake up stodgy ways of looking at film, literature and science fiction. Break the assumptions and cliches!
Star Wars is not science fiction! It is fantasy of the old school: Good and Evil are archetypes of utter simplicity. Pure light versus pure dark. The newest installment of the Star Wars franchise — The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams under Disney management — was largely a remake of Episode IV: A New Hope. It had less of the magic and brilliance of Episodes IV and V than I might have hoped for. Alas. But let’s do a scorecard of this film's Good aspects, its Okay ones, the Bad… and the Ugly...
Science Fiction is multi-dimensional and no one criterion can be used to determine a best-of list. From Bladerunner to 2001, Inception to Gattaca, Conan the Barbarian to Lord of the Rings: My recommended list of phenomenal Science Fiction and Sci Fi movies, with separate categories for those that are great for the kid in us, the grown up, and those that take us far beyond our familiar horizons...
Frank Miller’s 300 and its sequel: 300: Rise of Empire feature a veritable tsunami of outright and deliberate historical lies.. There are so many flaws, so why must I flog a flop and dismal failure? Because we need to lift our heads — as consumers — and demand better One can have vivid action without lobotomization. We can have movies that are true to their subject matter (e.g. history) without being dry or boring.
The original film "300", based on a comic book by Frank Miller, told egregious historical lies, cramming into the mouth of the Spartan general- Leonidas -- things that he would never have said. For example dripping contempt for the Athenian shopkeepers and potters and fishermen who had destroyed an entire Persian army, just ten years before, at Marathon. Spartans still stung with shame over having stayed out of that fight. But to have Leonidas rant… while ignoring what was in plain view from his cliff-edge… an Athenian-led navy holding the vast Persian fleet at bay, guarding his flank… that omission in "300" slandered Leonidas and betrayed the audience.
The self-preventing prophecy is arguably the most important type of literature, since it gives us a stick to wield, poking into the ground before us as we charge into a murky future, exploring with our minds what quicksand dangers may lurk just ahead. This kind of thought experiment – that Einstein calledgedankenexperiment – is the fruit of our prefrontal lobes, humanity’s most unique and recent organ, the font of our greatest gifts: curiosity, empathy, anticipation and resilience. Indeed, forward-peering storytelling is one of the major ways that we turn fear into something profoundly practical. Avoidance of failure. The early detection and revelation of Big Mistakes, before we even get a chance to make them. While hardly in the same league as Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Carson, and Butler, I’m proud to be part of that tradition – an endeavor best performed by science fiction.
Some impressions of old and recent Science Fiction movies, from Star Trek Into Darkness to Cloud Atlas to Atlas Shrugged: I thought J.J. Abrams dealt pretty well with the rascally immaturity of the new version of James T. Kirk by giving us a tale of maturation. Fine. Chris Pine is growing on me. I wasn't keen on this re-boot, but I think it could work out fine. (I'd like to see a more thoughtful use of the old (Nimoy) Spock. I believe he would be more nuanced in his "interference." Indeed, what's blatantly called for is an intersection of the parallel worlds, giving Pine (conveying different Kirks) even more range. But that awaits my someday having beers with Mr. Abrams.)
What does it take to be a shining new star in Hollywood these days? Well, if you're female, it helps to be beautiful. An ability to act? Kind of useful. Success may also come with knowing the right people. That much has always been true. But nowadays another essential trait has been added to the list of starlet requirements. You gotta be able to kick ass. Think about it. Can you name any hot new Hollywood sensations who can’t do a leaping decapitation kick? From La Femme Nikita and Charlie’s Angels to Witchblade and Xena, the trend has been amazingly consistent. And leading the charge has been the winsome but mighty Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What will the future be like? The question is much on peoples' minds, and not only because we stand in the verge of a new century. One of our most deeply human qualities keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow's dangers. One of the most powerful novels of all time, published half a century ago, foresaw a dark future that never came to pass. Or... at least, not yet. That we have so far escaped the destiny portrayed in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, may be owed in part to the way his chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight "Big Brother" to their last breath.
In other words, Orwell may have helped make his own scenario not come true.
That infuriating televison show: LOST: I'm going to list the inconsistencies and frustrations that most vex me in this series. They are probably not the same as what you'll read at, say, one of the fan sites, because I view it through the lens of a professional plot-smith. But first, I do try to view art in the spirit that it is offered -- and I know that the writers and producers of LOST are engaged in the art form known as the Grand Tease.
After my infamous "Star Wars Despots" essay appeared on Salon (see below) I was asked to take part in one of the wildest and most-fun debates about pop culture in years. The Star Wars franchise and the hero-or-villain status of George Lucas are at the heart of these essays by bestselling science-fiction authors, hurling (or warding off) a range of accusations! Connecting them all together is a "trial" in which I was the "prosecutor" and Star Wars novelizer Matthew Woodring Stover stand in for Lucas as the "defense attorney. (The parts in between guest essays, where Matt and I pompously challenge each other before the "droid judge" are choice. Much snapping of suspenders and harrumphing.) The incredible popularity of the movies has led to strong emotions over the strengths and flaws of the SW films. This intense examination of the epic works addresses a broad range of issues—from politics, religion, and the saga's overall logic to the impact of the series on bookshelf space as well as science-fiction film. The question: Is George Lucas a hero for bringing science fiction to a mass audience or a villain who doesn't understand the genre that made him rich? Even worse, is he disloyal to a civilization that's been very, very good to him? (Dig the cool - and entirely legal - cover!
Another look at the Star Wars universe: cliches and all. It happens time and again. You create a beloved universe — then spend most of the sequels wallowing in emotional reunions, or worse, spend most of the prequel introducing characters to each other, dwelling on each moment for long stretches laden with emotional music. R2, meet Threepio! (For the very first time!) Obi-Wan, meet Anakin! Anakin grew up with Greedo! See early elements that fell into Star Wars on Trial.
Star Trek was something else, something new. It lifted, surprised, challenged and offered hope. Amid the ructions of that awful decade – from Vietnam to civil rights to riots and assassinations – here was the notion that hope was conceivable. That (shoo-be-do) things were going to be all right.
Gene Roddenberry believed we are in a boat together. And yes, we’ll need way-above-average heroes. Even average ones! Lots of the latter, in fact. And that means you, right now, are needed by your civilization.
We're all going back to Planet Pandora - with a coming sequel to the blockbuster sci-fi epic Avatar -- no, make that three sequels… But of course, Avatar was about more than special effects. Director-producer James Cameron wants to entertain everyone, but also to make members of the audience think. Hence, it is the lessons of Avatar that I plan to engage and dissect in my blog... This version of “Dances with Others” is set not in the past like Dances with Wolves, but in a future where humans have apparently not improved, have learned nothing -- the most relentless preaching in Avatar is about the moral and esthetic superiority of the Na’vi, along with the beyond-all-redemption vileness of western civilization. Whereas even now we view diversity as strength; and we got to that point by relentlessly self-criticizing 6000 year old habits of intolerance that most cultures took for granted.
It can be illuminating to plumb the Bible -- one of the keystone books of western civilization. Moreover, it gives you the ability to stun, surprise and gain a back-brain door into the minds of some of your deep-steeped neighbors. And so, in light of the recent Russell Crowe film, let's pause and sample the story of Noah. Now of course, it is somewhat like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. Past scholars, uncharitable toward literalist believers in "biblical inerrancy," have calculated the needed size of the Ark, for example. Were even just all known mammal species shoved aboard, shoulder to shoulder -- you'd need a hundred modern aircraft carriers. In fact, this argument has had results! Creationist "scientist" Ken Ham conceded -- in his recent debate with Bill Nye -- that evolution (yes "evolution"!) must have radiated all the species we now see, from a seed population that rode upon the Ark! I cannot believe this major concession got so little play in the media or among devotees of either religion or science. It is a real shift in ground.
The movie, EUROPA REPORT, completely lacked any villains, just brave astronauts trying to survive and get their jobs done amid accidents, (some plot-convenient blunders), and monumental discoveries……which also kind of describes the magnificent Cuaron film GRAVITY, again with no villains, other than nature and the harshness of space. How interesting to spot this theme among a small number of recent films. That you do not need red-glowing eyes or gloating-evil bad guys, or even men-behaving-badly to - on occasion - make interesting cinema.
Well. Apparently -- zombie flicks flourish when Republicans are gaining ascendency. After all, such works works depict a garish, simplistic exaggeration of what they dread most -- an unruly uprising of the filthy, ignorant masses.
Vampire films, in contrast, represent fear of a predatious-controlling aristocracy and so, this genre surges in perfect tempo with times when democrats rise in influence.
S'truth! Moreover, given the sudden greenlighting of ever-more remakes of remakes of remakes of the same dull zombie scenario... the same cliches, over and over again... it looks like we may be in for a very long period of aristocratic rule. Perhaps like the 4,000 year feudal reign that only ended with the American Revolution, and that may resume at any time.
What always entranced me about "Star Trek" - helping turn this physicist into a science fiction author - was the vision it offered, exploring human destiny, confronting big issues and pondering a unique notion, seldom expressed anywhere else: that our descendants might somehow be admirable.
Central to "Trek" is the image of a large, quasi-naval vessel called Enterprise, based on 19th-century sailing ships like HMS Beagle, dispatched to practice peacemaking and war, diplomacy and science, tutoring and apprenticeship, all in equal measure.
How different from the tiny fighter planes featured in "Star Wars," each piloted by a solitary knight, perhaps accompanied by a loyal squire, or droid, symbols as old as Achilles.
The biggest irony is this -- I could scribble a 3-paragraph outline that would save Lucas. It would explain every awful inconsistency/paradox in his universe. It would make the #!#*& coincidences all work out... including the totally predictable lunacy of having Obi-Wan grab baby Luke and hide him from his darkside father... on Darth Vader's home planet, in his old home town! This is the core scenario that we know will happen in "Episode Three" and it is the most towering of three dozen real plot horrors. But the amazing thing is that I see a simple way for Lucas to climb out of this hell.
What does the figure 2001 mean to you? Why of course, it's a movie! One that, remarkably despite its age, still shines some amazing sparkles of perspective on our time. Oh, I could go on and on about mixed messages in the film. Its love-hate relationship with technology, for example. Or the story's ambivalence toward the notion of artificial intelligence. Or the quaint combination of optimism and pessimism that we saw repeated over and over again in the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov -- leading visionaries of their era -- both of whom worried that humanity might be far too snared by the sticky fibers of an aggressive Neolithic heritage ever to break free on its own.
I am asked about the movie version of my novel, all the time. Yes it sank at the box office; colliding with Titanic in December 1997 did not help! But am I resentful, especially given less than honorable treatment I received? In fact, though many authors leap to fiery indignation over their adaptations, my measured response may surprise you. The Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalyptic books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization's fall. It's a story about how much we take for granted -- and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today. It is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. A man who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared. Who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were. It would take a special kind of actor to play the lead role -- a ragged survivor, deeply scarred, yet still willing to hope. In this era of cynicism, we need reminders of the decency that lies within. That sense of strength, openness, and hope was what we felt after watching Field of Dreams. The Postman is a very different story, yet it aims to deliver the same message to the heart: We are in this together.
This infamous article appeared on Salon Magazine. Look, I quite enjoyed the original 1977 flick and I adored Empire Strikes Back! I admired the underrated Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, with its fierce love of thought and humor and civilization. Which made me wonder, after leaving Jedi... "what happened to this guy?" Worse, what happened to what had seemed about to be a truly great legend?
Just what bill of goods are we being sold, between the frames? Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn’t be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow. “Good” elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability. Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough. True leaders are born. It’s genetic. The right to rule is inherited. And... oh yeah... justified human emotions can turn a good person permanently evil, like a light switch.
Most of us are used to envisioning evolution as having to do with macro creatures -- like plants, microbes or animals -- whose bodies and behaviors prove their "fitness" value by surviving and reproducing across countless generations. By this reckoning, DNA is no more than a tool, like the creature's eyes or limbs -- a repository of codes, a passive library of biochemical and cellular tricks -- serving the needs of an individual or species. But in a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, things can be viewed the other way around. Our complex bodies and behaviors may only serve as the pragmatic implements used by genes to facilitate their own replication.
Yes, this bizarre-sounding idea is taken seriously, in fact, by a majority of the world's experts in Darwinian selection. Even more amazing, many of our best thinkers now believe the same thing happens with ideas or "memes" that replicate in human minds and make us tell the ideas (eagerly) to others.
Back in 1983 I took this concept and extended it in truly science-fictional ways, predicting the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall (unimaginable then) and that our great struggle in the early 21st Century might be with one form of "machismo culture" or another, probably the desert variety. Prescient? Judge for yourself. But come away with this new way of viewing the ideas and dogmas spread by popular culture.
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