Archive for January, 2009

Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970)

25 January 2009

Remarkably straight-faced precursor to cyberpunk, filmed by the future director of The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974), and based on a novel by British writer D.F Jones. (Jones was to write two sequels, The Fall of Colossus (1974) and Colossus and the Crab (1977), neither of which I have read). Dr Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) has built a computer that will bring peace to the world by monitoring intelligence, and by being ready for attack and defence at all times. Shortly after being switched on, Colossus finds a second computer, Guardian, designed by the Russian. At first both superpowers try to keep the computers apart, but the machines hold the world to ransom until the humans conform – threatening to explode nuclear missiles. All the president (played by one Gordon Pinsent) can do is wring his hands, whilst Forbin tries to find a way into the impregnable device. Forbin has a distinct German accent, I suspect a nod to the German Nazi rocket scientists.

For once the film makers play fair – there is no attempt to get a computer to define love, or to deal with a paradox, although they do try to flood it with too much data. Nowadays, they’d just update it to Vista. For a group of people who are being monitored by a supercomputer, the scientists don’t half talk on a lot of microphones and telephones, but their plot is hardly a secret to Colossus anyway. On the other hand, unlike Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), it doesn’t learn to lip read.

By taking over control of the Earth’s weapons, Colossus can bring peace to Earth – is this such a bad thing? Dr Forbin designed it for world peace – and this is what it brings. (His character is too young to have been a Nazi rocket scientist, but we perhaps think of scientists, post Einstein and Von Braun as Germanic.) There’s an allusion to Frankenstein, of course, another creation out of control. Colossus says: “We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom, freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for human pride as to be dominated by others of your species,” but the characters at least hate their new big brother.

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Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

20 January 2009

Ecological dystopia (loosely) adapted from Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966). Charlton Heston needs a chapter to himself as veteran of two Planet of the Apes films, The Omega Man (Sagal, 1971) and Earthquake (Robson, 1974). Here he is Thorn, a policeman in an overcrowded, near-future Manhattan, where people are forced to sleep on staircases of tenements for want of a better habitat. Crops and lifestock have all but failed thanks to pollution, with the population fed on various products of the Soylent company. (Soy – soya; lent – lentils.) With the brutal murder of wealthy Simonson (Joseph Cotten), Thorn finds a case that threatens to get to the heart of a starving and doomed society.

There are plenty of good world-building touches – an opening montage offers a technological history of the city from pioneer to contemporary times, the designated and rentable prostitute/lovers are referred to (in suitably sexist terms) as furniture and rioters are scooped up by JCB-like vehicles. Special effects seem to be kept to a minimum – mostly matte shots of the city, and a greenish fog to suggest pollution.

Thorn feels at times like an earlier version of Deckard in Blade Runner (Scott 1982); a detective character of course is able to visit all levels of society from the dregs to the upper echelons, and acts conveniently as a moral barometer. As he investigates, so we the audience learn about his world. On the other hand, it is his cohabitee, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his 101st and final role) who first discovers the truth about the supposedly plankton-based soylent green. This is enough for him to decide he no longer wants to live, and commits suicide.

And what to make of Sol? He has memories of the old days, when food was real, and is dispirited by the dystopia he finds himself in. Sol – sun, wisdom of Solomon – with Roth it feels Jewish in origin (a reference to Ashkenazi Jews?), which might make the suicide even more horrific. He’s referred to as a book – a sort of police researcher, presumably a (euphemistic?) term like furniture. A bells rings from somewhere – am I thinking of Shepherd Book from Firefly? The most curious thing is the comments from both Sol and Thorn that they love each other – I suspect Thorn’s relationship with Simonson’s furniture, Shirl Leigh (Leigh Taylor-Young), is there in least at part to alibi Thorn against suspicions of homosexuality. I don’t read this as father and son though.

And so the final, highly telegraphed, climactic revelation is that Soylent Green is people. This is the ultimate ecological recycling, ensuring that nobody goes to waste. This works slightly better than humans as Duracells (in The Matrix trilogy), but surely runs into loss of energy from the equation rather quickly. Let’s take it as a metaphor for consumption – and no one ever complains that Swift’s A Modest Proposal would have a similar failure – rather than a serious proposal. It’s the 1970’s ending – there’s no guarantee that the truth will out, as everyone else who has discovered it has been killed off.

Harrison gave it 50% – the acting and production was impressive, despite shoddy behaviour towards him by MGM and what he perceived as a stupid script with a dreadful title.

Harrison, Harry, “A Cannibalized Novel Becomes Soylent Green“, in: Danny Peary, ed. Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinia, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984, pp. 143-146.

Joanna Russ, And Chaos Died (1970)

18 January 2009

Russ’s second novel, after Picnic on Paradise (1968), and read now as part of my research into homosexuality in 1970s sf. In Jai Vedh we have a character who declares himself a homosexual – a rare usage of the word, and let down by the fact that his sexual partners through the novel are women. Maybe there is no essentialism in sexuality here. It’s possible to ponder about his relationship with Ivat on his return to Earth, but it doesn’t feel quite right.

Existentially flustered Jai is travelling through space when the ship he is in crashes on a planet of telepaths. The aliens teach him to teleport and to influence matter, a skill he takes back to Earth when they are rescued. He plays with the boy Ivat, jumping around Earth, and is reunited with his mentor/lover Evne.

The aliens attack Earth – but only after they have been attacked by humans – and it transpires that they themselves are colonising humans, educated by now-extinct aliens.

Of course, this must have been written in the 1960s, and is odd in the Russ canon for having a male protagonist. Of course, as she went on to write The Female Man next, this is something “fixed” by that book.

The Man who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

18 January 2009

This is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel. To summarize: something crashes in an American lake, and a hooded figure struggles across a landscape, making money by selling gold rings. This is Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), who buys the services of a patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) to launch a series of new technological inventions upon an unsuspecting public. As the increasingly wealthy Newton starts a life with former hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a chemistry professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) is first employed by and then fascinated with Newton. Both Mary-Lou and Nathan discover the truth: Newton is an alien, funding his trip back to his drought-stricken home planet. Before the launch can happen, he is captured by government agents and Farnsworth is killed.

It is the final third of the film that is most changed – the mechanics of the unravelling of Newton’s plan, and the moment of capture. There’s a sense of a longer timespan, as all the characters save Newton age significantly. One piece of future world building is having a senior agent (Bernie Casey) as African American with a white wife; the establishment of Farnsworth as homosexual but not criticised as such is perhaps also along these lines. Mary-Lou had been Betty-Jo, and the more philandering Bryce meets  Newton at the latter’s invitation rather than by a trick. Toward the end Newton’s contact lens are fixed onto his eyes, rather than blinding him.

Roeg’s style – which he had displayed to even more complexity with Donald Cammell in Performance (1970) – is to intercut quite different materials: typically sex scenes unfold in parallel with other actions, and flashbacks and anticipations become indistinguishable. It is ambiguous, say, whether Newton is remembering his home life, or these are parallel events. He is able to see pioneer era America alongside the present. And when his family are looking at a kind of flexible television screen, it almost feels like they are watching the events of the film.

Surveillance is a recurrent trope – and watching: obviously in Newton’s eyes, but also in glasses, mirrors, telescopes and cameras. Newton sells his first ring in a shop that also sells television, and a television is the first thing he asks for. He has learned about Earth from watching television, and continues his education by watching about nine at once. It is his own technology that betrays him to Bryce, just as a book of (photographed) paintings first link the two. Newton is of course under surveillance – his driver is an agent – but this seems to be from the moment he crashed on Earth. Was he tracked through space? Were the authorities told he was coming? Or do they just spy on everything?

The painting Bryce looks at is Brueghel’s painting of Icarus, a man who fell to earth and drowned, whilst everyone else goes about their business (we are able to read Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” which in part describes the canvas). Newton has fallen to earth – the name suggests gravity – but there’s perhaps also the sense in this version that he is also Fallen; Mary-Lou’s Eve introducing him to alcohol and sex. Eventually, he is betrayed, of course.

Bowie is excellent – and brings his various personae with him. As a Brit in the US he is of course an alien (and director Roeg, producer Deeley and the crew were also aliens). Roeg had worked with a rock star in Performance – Mick Jagger – and cast Art Gunfunkel in Bad Timing (1980), which I can live without. I guess I ought to take a look at Don’t Look Now (1973), although that’s more fantasy than sf.

Sally Miller Gearheart, The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women (1979)

18 January 2009

I have a sense that I read a review of this with more or less the single word “unreadable” about twenty years ago.  I tried to read the volume without this in mind, but found that difficult, as there was little ongoing plot to hold onto and it is of a flavour of feminism I’m not exactly sympathetic to. I need to go away and read Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will to get a better grasp of the feminism of the period which I suspect lies under the book.

There’s been some kind of disaster and/or revolution, and the women all live in the hills outside of the city, in harmony with nature and in telepathic communication with each other and animals. Men are confined to cities, and their machinery will only work there. A few select women enter the city to try and re-education men, but mostly life is happy (for the women) in a separatist utopia. To the extent that there is a narrative uniting the chapters/vignettes, it the sense that this can’t go on forever, and the men are not to be trusted not to spoil things. 

The temptation here is to fall back into the essentialism that other feminists undercut – women are allied with nature and men with machines, women with the ciuntry and men with the city. I can see how – after several centuries of patriarchy – women may wish to take their lives elsewhere, but it feels in the realm of the lousy solution. Readable, but uncomfortable.