Archive for the ‘watching’ Category

I’m a huge fan of the film Snowpiercer. It’s an exciting, action-packed story and a powerful modern fable. That’s also why I thought it would make a terrible TV show.

Snowpiercer is a parable about inequality. Following an environmental cataclysm, humanity has been reduced to the inhabitants of a single massive train, constantly rolling around the world. The inhabitants are strictly divided by class, with the wealthiest few living in spacious carriages at the front, the poorest crowded together in the rear, and a range of other ranks between. Pushed to the limit, a group of the train’s poorest inhabitants set out on a revolutionary journey to overthrow the hierarchy by fighting their way to the front of the train. As messages go, it’s not subtle.

As a film, it works because, in the short space of a couple of hours, you’re carried along by the pace of the story. You don’t pay attention to the things about life on this train that don’t make real-life sense, like how they’re managing to feed everyone. The film’s train works as a symbol, not a coherent reality, and you can brush over that for a two-hour parable. Not, I thought, for a long-form television story.

It turns out that I was wrong. The makers of the TV show have found a way to expand upon the setting of Snowpiercer, by showing us the other side of the fight for control of the train. Instead of portraying the train as a functioning self-contained system, we’re shown that it’s constantly on the brink of collapse, the people in charge struggling to hold things together. It’s like the middle third of Seveneves, where experts are desperately trying to save what’s left of humanity using the dwindling resources of a broken orbital armada. Viewers look at Snowpiercer‘s train-bound society, say “that couldn’t work”, and the characters look back at us and say “we know!”

This changes the nature of the story. The morality of the film was clear and simple – oppression bad, rebellion good. In the show, it’s more complicated. The people holding down the poorer class are doing so because they think it’s necessary to save humanity. I’m not sure that’s a good message to make relatable right now, when we’re seeing real-life authoritarians throwing around justifications for cruel and brutal behaviour. It’s certainly an argument though, and it will be interesting to see where the show takes a more nuanced and complex, but still tense and intriguing, version of its story.

I recently watched Contagion, a film about a pandemic sweeping around the world. Inspired by Folding Ideas’ moving video essay on watching the film during lockdown, I wanted to go through that experience, to see what insight or catharsis an imagined pandemic could bring.

Like watching real reactions to the pandemic, it was a strange mix of alarming and comforting. It certainly felt more real in the light of recent events. R numbers, social distancing, face masks, the difficulties of making a vaccine – many things that have become all too familiar in 2020 are present in this 2011 film. But there was one thing that was notably absent – people being reasonable.

There’s been a lot of alarming and selfish behaviour around covid-19,  from hoarding to anti-lockdown protests to attacks on telephone masts. There have also been dramatic examples of selfless, generous, even heroic behaviour, from the long hours worked by medical staff to the armies of volunteers feeding and supporting their communities. But what I’ve seen the most of, in between the clickbait headlines, is people being calmly and undramatically reasonable. Following the rules, both in their letter and their spirit. Finding ways to stay sane while they can’t get out. Rebuilding their social support structures online to get through the constant, low-level mental health grind that is living in strained circumstances.

The reality of covid-19 has been Zoom meetings, online pub quizzes, extended video calls with family and friends. It’s been waiting for hours to get a delivery slot for groceries so that you don’t go out and risk spreading the infection. It’s been everything from wine tasting to book clubs to entire business departments going virtual with a lot of ingenuity and very little complaint.

It’s not dramatic, and perhaps that’s why these reasonable moments are missing from Contagion. Or perhaps its creators couldn’t predict that this was how most human beings would behave under pressure – not moving to extremes of selfish or selfless acts, but simply, quietly, cooperatively finding ways to get on with life.

I recently decided to watch more anime, and inspired by an Idea Channel episode, I chose Attack on Titan. It’s a show that probably deserves two reviews, so here we go…

It’s All About Style

Attack on Titan is the weirdest and most fascinating thing I’ve watched in years. Set in a fantasy landscape based on a Japanese perspective of 19th century Europe, it’s a story of survival. For a hundred years humanity has been contained within a vast walled city, threatened from the outside by the Titans, monstrous giants who eat people for fun. When the first of the city’s three rings of walls is breached, a group of young people are propelled into the armed forces fighting for humanity, and a slowly unravelling plot to find out what’s behind the Titans.

I love the imagination of this setting. The towering walls and lumbering giants give it a sense of the epic and the unreal. The soldiers use gas-fired grappling wires to hurtle through the air and attack the vulnerable necks of the Titans. The fundamentals of how this war is fought are like nothing else I’ve seen. Like most fantasy, they look nonsensical if you take a step back, but they’ve been thought through in detail and are so different that I was fascinated. They also allow for some immensely cool and unusual action sequences.

This bonkers style is what I love about Attack on Titan.

No, Wait, It’s All About Substance

Attack on Titan is the deepest, darkest exploration of the horrors of war I’ve ever seen in fantasy. Set in a civilisation on the brink of extinction, it sees a group of young people propelled into the armed forces, struggling to cope with the traumas of that life. They see friends eaten by monsters, civilians crushed beneath falling buildings, superiors turning to cowards or running out of control. They face their own rage, depression and even cowardice in the face of war. Their lives have no neat answers – sometimes friends die in battle without them ever learning why or how. In Attack on Titan, war really is hell.

What’s extraordinary is how compelling this is. The absurdity of the war they’re fighting – swinging on wires as they try to fight monsters – only makes the trauma more stunning and realistic by contrast. It makes the reactions and transformations of the characters into something that left me too stunned.

Dammit, Now I Have to Wait

I watched the whole of the first season of Attack on Titan on Netflix, then discovered that the next series won’t even be on TV until 2016. It’s going to be a long, impatient wait, because bizarre as this is, bewildering as some people will find it, I thought it was an extraordinary show, both in its style and its substance.

I recently introduced Laura to the film Tremors, after making the shocking discovery that she’d never seen it. In doing so, I realised how great an example it is of a key storytelling trick – try fail cycles.

Footloose vs Dune

In case you’ve somehow missed this cinematic classic, Tremors is a 1990 film about a small town under attack by giant burrowing worms. Starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as handyman heroes Valentine and Earl, it’s a film that I love not because it’s masterful or innovative, but because it’s so much fun. It uses a horror structure, but lacks the dark atmosphere of horror. It has a humorous tone, but isn’t a comedy. The characters are clichés, but together they’re an interesting mix. The climax features one of the most hilariously in-your-face ropey special effects shots I’ve ever seen.

It’s as if Frank Herbert’s worms from Dune escaped to hunt down that guy from Footloose, and exactly as serious as such a film would be. I love it.

Try, Try Again

Try fail cycles are an important part of plotting stories. They consist of a character repeatedly trying to achieve a goal, and repeatedly facing setbacks, until they finally get there. Those failures are what make the final success feel rewarding – after all those struggles, the character and their plan have grown, and there’s real tension around whether this attempt will succeed. Given that we know that heroes usually win in the end, it’s an important way of creating doubt about the outcome.

In Tremors, those cycles are really clear, and they show how the pattern can vary.

In the first act, Valentine and Earl make repeated attempts to leave town, for a variety of reasons. Every time they are stopped in their tracks. Their eventual failure is what keeps them in town for the film, and for one final escape attempt in the last act.

In the second half of the film, once the monsters are on display in all their rubber and gunk glory, we see two try fail cycles from the townspeople. One is them trying to get to a place of safety, as one option after another at first works and then fails. There’s the same pattern with their attempts to kill the worms. They try, they succeed, but then something means they can’t follow the same approach. It’s not just a cycle of try then fail. It’s a cycle of try then succeed and then fail, which creates strong emotional peaks and troughs. We celebrate the successes and bemoan the failures along with Valentine, Earl and the rest.

Finally there’s the romantic arc, as Valentine tries to work out how to communicate with geologist Rhonda. It’s much less prominent, and less obviously a repeating cycle, but it’s there. Valentine faces his own awkwardness several times, all under the amused eye of Earl. It’s a reluctant try fail, in which Valentine fails toward realising what he wants romantically and how to make it happen.

Learn from the Worms

Sometimes it takes an unsophisticated story to expose the clever tools writers use, and Tremors is one of those occasions. If you haven’t seen it then go watch it – I’ll still be here when you get back. And maybe share your thoughts on the film or try fail cycles in the comments below.

 The problem with superhero stories is making them convincing. Sure, that’s not a problem when you’re entertaining a drooling fan like me with big spectacle like Guardians of the Galaxy. But when you’re aiming to create something low key, or to draw in a bigger audience, that’s more difficult. It’s a challenge any genre writer will face if they want to reach plenty of readers, and so it’s interesting to see how Marvel and Netflix’s recent TV show Daredevil has handled this.

In my view, there’s one small element that’s incredibly telling.

Superheroes in New York? Yeah Right.

First, lets give a bit of context, because none of what I’m going to say will make sense without it.

The nature of the superhero Daredevil, aside from being the blind martial artist with super senses, is that he sits on the boundary between two worlds. He exists within a huge universe of superpowered characters in a sprawling interconnected epic of comics / films and TV shows. But he also exists as a street level hero fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighbourhood of New York.

This sets up one really obvious problem for Daredevil as a TV show. How do you reference that superhero universe while not making it sound absurd in the context of a gritty crime story?

But there’s another problem, one I discovered reading The Devil is in the Details, a book of essays on Daredevil. Hell’s Kitchen, which was a run down neighbourhood when Daredevil was created half a century ago, has become gentrified. As a setting for a gritty crime drama, it doesn’t work as well as it once did.

Given both of those challenges, how do you put the screen Daredevil in context?

Less is More

The answer, as shown in the first couple of episodes, is by bringing those two problems together and then applying some subtlety.

Almost the only link that the show directly makes to the Marvel universe, in its early episodes at least, is to reference the huge damage done to New York in The Avengers. They don’t talk about what the destruction was, thus avoiding tackling a world of Norse gods and super soldiers, but by referencing the destruction they let fans see that the Marvel Universe has affected these people’s lives. It’s the same trick that British TV show Ultraviolet used for its vampires – if you avoid using the word ‘vampire’ or ‘superhero’, and just include its implications, you can skirt around the potential absurdity.

This reference is also how they deal with Hell’s Kitchen. Thanks to the destruction done in New York, Hell’s Kitchen is a dump again. Hey presto, in a couple of lines they’ve tackled both of their biggest problems, and given the story a rich contextual background.

That, in my opinion, is some clever writing. A lot of thought and time clearly went into crafting a few seconds of dialogue, and it was well worth it. We could all learn from it.

If you haven’t already, then I really recommend watching Daredevil. It features some great writing and acting, a number of good fight scenes and at least one really imaginative one. It comes with a big warning though – it is really not for the squeamish, taking the Marvel tone as far from Guardians of the Galaxy as it can get.

And if you’re into superheroes or want to know more about Daredevil I heartily recommend The Devil is in the Details. It includes some fascinating essays, including one on the old question of how plausible his superpowers are.

I love science fiction movies. The joy I take from their combination of interesting ideas and cool spectacle mean that I’ll enjoy some pretty shallow stuff. But in the past week I’ve belatedly watched two films that combine sci-fi awesomeness with real depth and incredible style. That makes me incredibly happy.

Snowpiercer

Before we go any further I have a confession to make – I’m a little bit in love with Snowpiercer‘s star Chris Evans. I know, I know – I’m married, straight and live thousands of miles from Hollywood. But dammit, I cannot get enough of that guy. He was a cool Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four, a wonderfully obnoxious Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and even made Captain America into my favourite big screen superhero. I’m British, proudly European and intensely suspicious of patriotism, yet he made me cheer for the guy wearing the stars and stripes. He is the king of comic book movie adaptations. His presence alone was enough to make me watch this one.

Evans does put in another good performance, as do the many talented actors in the cast. But that’s not what made me love this film. What did that was the incredible sense of style.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the surviving humans live on a giant train, Snowpiercer is incredibly visually striking. The interiors of carriages are distinct and fascinating, the costumes evocative, and it’s full of stylishly shot moments that enhance rather than distract from the plot.

The plot itself is a story of class struggle, in which Evans’s character Curtis leads a revolt against the oppressive upper class living in luxury at the front of the train. There’s meaning behind the action. This isn’t a simple Marxist polemic encouraging us through metaphor to strike off the shackles of oppression. As the story progresses it examines the cost and value of such a revolution, and asks whether it can ever succeed. Yes, it’s all obviously symbolic, but that’s no bad thing. Films should mean something.

Ghost in the Shell

I’ve only dabbled in watching anime, but I’d still heard enough about Ghost in the Shell to know that it would be worth my time. A near future detective thriller, it’s about a cyborg cop trying to hunt down the criminals hacking people’s brains.

Like SnowpiercerGhost in the Shell alternates scenes of incredible action with stretches of stillness and contemplation. It doesn’t just give the viewer time to catch their breath, it forces them to stop and contemplate what’s going on, as the animators present us with stunning visuals of rain-soaked streets, showing that there’s a wider city and society beyond the immediate action, and that the lives of other people in that city matter too.

Given its cast of cyborgs, robots and hacked brains, Ghost in the Shell inevitably raises questions about what it is to be human, and where the boundaries of humanity lie. Can a robot really be a person? If we could hack brains, would that reduce us all to machines? It doesn’t hammer the point home too often, but even its action brings the question forward, as characters we think of as people go through things no human body could.

Finding Our Own Meanings

Made eighteen years apart, these films have only come together in my mind because of the accident of watching them in the same week. But they both show such style, depth and excitement that they reminded me of how good sci-fi films can be, and that for all the shallow blockbusters, sometimes there are deep ones too.

This weekend I went to see Little Shop of Horrors at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. The plant villain, Audrey Two, was the highlight of the show on so many levels, from the design of the plant models to the intense expressions of the puppeteer singers as they animated this rubbery villain. It reminded me of just how disconcerting I’ve always found carnivorous plants. Plant eats animal is such an inversion of the natural order we expect from the world, I suspect that most people feel a shiver at the idea. It makes carnivorous plants, from tiny venus flytraps to Audrey Two, that bit more disconcerting, and so great as a menace in a story.

Weirdly though, John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids is the only other story I can think of with a plant-based villain (apart from a very hazy recollection of an old Doctor Who episode). I think it’s something I want to try writing, but I don’t want to just re-tread the same old ground, so help me internet – what other plant villains are out there?

It’s MacGyver in space! Watch him make a bomb out of a battery and some space whale mucus.

I’ve recently started watching Stargate SG1, and I’m getting annoyed. It seems like the writers have skipped the best part.

At the start of the series, exploring other planets isn’t yet a thing. Having found portals to other worlds, the US military faced an alien species that could conquer the world, and so retreated to safety. Kurt Russell has magically turned into MacGyver. Nothing much has happened since.

The first episode is spent re-establishing the need to use the stargates. The second shows the first time something bad comes back through. The military are just starting to turn stargate exploration into a thing, and then suddenly, from episode three onwards, everything’s in place. There are stargate teams 1 through 364. Some of them have been on other planets for months. The characters crack jokes about the time they visited the planet of hats. The Star Trek style planet of the week antics have begun.

You know what I want to see? I want to see the bit that’s missing after episode 2. I want to see the challenges of those first tentative steps, as the Stargate teams try to work out whether exploration is even a good idea. They should face the challenges of doing dangerous work as a new governmental organisation – under-supplied, with endless disputes about their purpose and hierarchy, no-one even knowing yet how best to train the teams for this completely unprecedented job that they’re doing. We should see them adjusting to the lifestyle, to the secrets, to the dangers and uncertainties. The conflicting interests of the military and the scientists should be a huge thing, their support from government erratic, even as they risk their lives every day exploring the universe. Maybe there’d be disputes over whether this should even be a government venture, as private companies try to stick their oar in.

But no. By episode three everyone’s acting like seasoned pros, the scientist is shooting his gun straight, and the base commander has a direct line to the president. Half the challenges of their situation are gone.

I’m not saying that I want to watch Stargate: Months of Bureaucracy, but I wish they’d taken the opportunity to explore those complications, even as they took their weekly trip to the planet of hats.

The shows we imagine are often better than the reality. Remember when Star Trek: The Next Generation ran a plotline about terrorists/freedom fighters living in a disputed border region? Those guys would have made a fascinating show, full of moral complexities, shifting loyalties, and characters struggling to enact their ideals. Instead we got Voyager, and disappointment.

Maybe I’ll just have to write those stories for myself. Or imagine them as I fall asleep at night, like I did when I was a kid. But maybe one day, if I try really hard, you’ll all get to watch MacGyver: Space Terrorist.

Anybody else have ideas for the best things we should have seen in sci-fi shows but didn’t? Tell me your awesome ideas in the comments.

I’m really bad at keeping on top of modern culture. There’s just so much of it, and so much stuff around the corner behind us that I want to peak back at. That’s no bad thing, just a reflection of how much awesomeness there is out there. But it means that as I think back on what I’ve really enjoyed this year, not all of it’s actually from this year. Still, here are the new(ish) things that really rocked my brain in 2014:

Reading

I’ve done more reading recently, as my befuddled brain has emerged from the fog of the last few years. And from that enshrouding miasma appeared a thing of spell-binding beauty – Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. They’re big, slow, weighty reads, but well worth the heavy lifting. Many thanks to Glenatron and Everwalker for pointing me towards Kay, and to Sheila for the present.

This was the year Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie returned to their old stomping ground of pop culture as magic, launching The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a beautiful looking and cleverly written comic that explores what it is to be an artist, a fan and a believer. There are clever layouts, smart references, intriguing characters and a fascinating plot. The only thing currently matching it is Chew, with its crazy world building, madcap plotting and offbeat characters. These two together show that comics can be fun, wild, entertaining and carry a serious emotional message all at the same time. They also show that the medium doesn’t have to get all dark to get beyond superheroes.

Viewing

Speaking of superheroes, did Marvel bring their A game this year or what? Agents of SHIELD turned from a limping pet only fanboys would love into a TV show that is dark, twisty and full of character. Tying its fate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier crippled it for most of its first season, but then created a moment of spectacular cross-platform awesomeness. The film and TV show spiralled around each other in ways that let them entertain as stand-alone viewing but break new ground as a cultural project. It helped that the Winter Soldier was a good film in its own right.

As if that weren’t enough, Marvel also brought out the biggest, funnest thing I watched in the cinema this year – Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of bickering misfits, forced to work together to save themselves and the universe? A talking raccoon and his walking tree buddy? A dance-off against a villain? Hell yes, I’m in for that. It wasn’t a smart film, or a ground-breaking one, but man was it ever entertaining.

But my favourite new film this year didn’t get a cinematic release, and that’s part of why I loved it. Joss Whedon, mastermind behind Marvel’s Avengers movies, took time out from his regularly scheduled blockbusters to help create In Your Eyes, a beautiful and unusual film about love and an inexplicable magical connection. It also took a bold approach to distribution that, for me, points towards the future I want to see. Just when we thought Whedon couldn’t get any more awesome, he upped his game again.

Aside from that, I’ve been making much more use of YouTube, and particularly recommend the PBS Idea Channel. Every week they come out with a slice of smart commentary, combing intellectual insight with popular culture. So cool.

 

Listening

Here’s where we leave science fiction and fantasy behind. I listen to some sf+f podcasts, and a bit of geeky music, but my favourites this year have been other things.

The Revolutions Podcast is an entertaining and extremely well presented show covering some of the most fascinating slices of history – political revolutions. So far it’s covered the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Now it’s onto the French Revolution. Mike Duncan previously created the excellent History of Rome podcast, but this is even better. If you like history at all, check it out.

Musically, my favourite discoveries this year haven’t been new to this year, but they’ve been new to me. A friend pointed me toward the Wanton Bishops, a spectacular blues rock outfit from Lebanon. For pure grinding energy, they’re hard to beat.

 

Then there’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I like to hear clever rapping and pop musicians getting away from tired themes of romance and and self-aggrandisement. Macklemore absolutely hits the spot, backed by Ryan Lewis’s catchy and diverse beats, from pro-equality anthem Same Love to the ridiculously exuberant Lets Dance to recycled shopping tribute Thrift Shop. Even when they’re crafting whole songs about Cadillacs, basketball or trainers, their sheer passion keeps me wanting more.

 

But my heart really lies with folk rock, and for that I recommend checking out The Patient Wild. Theirs are beautifully crafted storytelling songs, the sort of thing I can’t get enough of. And a member of the band reads this blog, so everybody wave to Glenatron – hi dude!

Gaming

As Laura will testify, I’m pretty much obsessed with the card game Smash Up, in which you combine genre favourite factions to battle it out for domination. Whether I’m leading robot ninjas against time travelling pirates, or dipping into madness with the Cthulhu expansion, I would happily play this all day every day. It’s a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the story/game combo of Device 6, which showed just what great things we can do with storytelling in the age of phone apps. Looking back, it feels like a test piece for greater things to come, but it’s a fascinating and atmospheric test piece.

And now I’m addicted to Minecraft. I’ll probably blog about this another day, but it’s kind of like having a giant Lego set on my Kindle, except a Lego set where zombies try to kill me. I don’t know why I didn’t play it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t given how much time it’s sucking away.

Other stuff

Tiger stripe espresso beans. Manchester’s beautiful new central library. Costa Coffee’s caramel crunch cake. This year has been full of great stuff. Here’s hoping for more.

And so, in a variation on yesterday’s question, what have been your cultural highlights this year, big or small? Please share some recommendations in the comments, give me cool things to check out next year.

With Christmas coming, it’s time to watch my all time favourite fantasy film. More dramatic than Conan the Barbarian. As heart-wrenching as Pan’s Labyrinth. Only a fraction of the length of Lord of the Rings. I refer of course to Muppet Christmas Carol.

 

I’ve made my case before for Muppet Christmas Carol being a fantasy film, but to recap, there are ghosts, talking animals and whatever Gonzo is. There’s magic, prophecy and travel through time. There are alternating potential realities. Sure, it’s also a kids’ film, a comedy film and a musical. But this is quite clearly fantasy, and proof of how misguided people are when they try to treat fantasy as some nerdy, shameful thing to brush away into the corner. Fantasy happens any time we break the rules of reality and let our imaginations run riot, and just because something doesn’t feature swords and sorcery doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of the label.

It helps that Dickens’s Christmas Carol is a beautiful yet creepy story with a classic redemptive character arc. It helps that the Muppets are timeless characters of whimsy and wonderful design. It helps that the tunes are delightfully catchy. But it’s when you bring all of that together that the magic really happens.

If I only watch one festive film, it will be this. If you aren’t already, you really should make time in your Christmas schedule to watch it too.

What festive classics will the rest of you be watching? I bet most of them are fantasy.