Shanghai Fortress and the Sino-future

By Dev Agarwal. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

To state that art does not exist in a vacuum is to loosely paraphrase the late filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. That in turn leads to his further observation that “the artist exists because the world is not perfect.” 

China is home to the largest film production economy in the world, surpassing Hollywood as well as the juggernauts of India and Nigeria. In 2012, it was the second-largest market in the world by box office receipts. It has had the largest number of screens in the world since 2016, and in 2020, it became the largest market. CNN reports that Chinese cinemas brought in $3.1 billion at the box office in 2020, nearly $1 billion more than the United States did that year. 

China has also become a major hub of business for Hollywood studios, encouraging their entry into its domestic market. Yet it is interesting to note that at the same time, in 2016, China passed a law banning film content deemed harmful to the “dignity, honour and interests” of the People’s Republic, and encouraging the promotion of Chinese “socialist core values.” 

Discussing China’s film business (and its science fiction output as a subset thereof) is not purely an economic matter, as to discuss any facet of China’s art is also to discuss the confluence of one of the world’s five remaining self-described communist states, the world’s most populous country, and a nation that may become our newest superpower. As Tarkovsky said, there is no vacuum.

The multi-media artist Lawrence Lek observes that “Sinofuturism is an invisible movement. A spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives. It is a movement not based on individuals, but on multiple overlapping flows … Because Sinofuturism has arisen without conscious intention or authorship, it is often mistaken for contemporary China. But it is not. It is a science fiction that already exists.”

Sinofuturism is with us, through a wide array of products, individuals and narratives. As a movement it has reached the point where commercial cinema has paid it attention and invested in it, bringing to Netflix The Wandering Earth (2019, Frant Gwo). This was a big SF spectacular, with a suitably cosmic story of moving the earth to safety past Jupiter on its way to the star Alpha Centauri, as our sun turned inhospitable to life. The film was successful both at the box office (posting $700 million in receipts worldwide) and with critics. 

A core theme of The Wandering Earth is sacrifice. The global population has died en masse, and a big problem (the sun is turning into a red giant in three hundred years rather than in its projected five billion years) is solved with a big solution — moving the planet all the way to a new star. The Wandering Earth, therefore, works on a big scale both in terms of the disaster — it’s planet-wide — and of the loss that’s occurred in the backstory. The solution is not about calling on actors to work individually, rather, the characters are representatives of the Chinese state and function obediently within it. 

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When Was Westworld?

By Paul Kincaid

Westworld Season One

There is no particular issue with the timeline of the original 1973 film, Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton. It is set in the then near future, 1983, and the linear action takes place entirely within the Delos theme park. But when the film became the basis for the television series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, Westworld (2016-present), time became a complex and confusing issue.

Nolan had already displayed a rather cavalier attitude towards time in his earlier television series, Person of Interest (2011-2016). The first series, first broadcast in the autumn of 2011, was set in 2012, but contained multiple flashbacks to events over the previous decade. Although these flashbacks are often dated, it can be difficult to construct a coherent timeline for the two principal characters, Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and John Reese (Jim Caviezel). But when it came to Westworld, that tendency to play fast and loose with chronology became an often understated but defining characteristic of the series.

To date there have been three series of Westworld (it has subsequently been renewed for a fourth season). For convenience I will refer to Westworld Season One: The Maze as WW1 (2016), Westworld Season Two: The Door as WW2 (2018), and Westworld Season Three: The New World as WW3 (2020), each of which presents time in a different way, even though theoretically each is a direct sequel to the series before.

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Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi): A meandering rumination about the weightlessness of human existence

Reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

Death can be understood as a scientific/biological phenomenon, but its gravity is experienced as a spiritual phenomenon. Both the scientific and the spiritual perspectives allow one to contemplate death. But when the makers of Cargo (2019) choose science as merely a veil for religious/spiritual ideas in order to comment on alienation and abandonment rampant in contemporary societies, they could have made sure that the film is passionate (or at least compassionate) enough to sustain its slow-paced narrative. Cargo (now available on Netflix) is the first feature length film of Arati Kadav, although she has written and directed several science fiction shorts in the last decade. Cargo highlights the theme of ‘loneliness’ in these times of pervasive social media that creates the impression that one is always connected and hence never alone. Hindu spiritual/religious ideas about karma and the cycle of life, death and rebirth are central to the narrative. The action mostly takes place on a spaceship orbiting Earth where human-like demons called rakshasas are essentially technicians enabling the transition from death to rebirth in a mundane, technocratic and institutionalised process — reminiscent of an airport security checkpoint, medical lab or a prison admissions office. The film terms this process as “post-death transition”, supervised by a department called Post-Death Transition Services (PDTS) that operates under the aegis of Inter-Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO) that has been established by the rakshasas. Owing to the film’s stance of deriving its fictional futuristic technology from elements of Hindu spirituality and mythology, the film has a distinct retro-futuristic feel. Perhaps the datedness of the film’s visual effects is meant to reinforce the 80s inspired aesthetics. 

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Us: A film about ‘Them’?

By Dev Agarwal

Us (2019) - IMDb

Currently, the horror renaissance sweeps through mainstream cinema and television at a pace that’s hard to keep up with. Horror narratives have always been out there, lurking in popular culture, but until recently they felt like a niche interest, ghettoised with fantasy monsters played by actors in thick make-up and rubber suits, tucked alongside the bug-eyed aliens of science fiction.

However, like science fiction, by the mid-2010s, horror is everywhere, reaching huge cinema audiences and, through Netflix and terrestrial television, coming right into our homes. The horror genre, appropriately enough, has now infected a wider host body, and it is mutating, challenging viewer expectations as to what horror is and what it is capable of. I would suggest that horror as a genre has always carried the power to challenge our thinking, to make us consider what defines a monster, and to pull back the veneer of everyday life to expose what’s going on underneath. However, you once had to be a horror aficionado to appreciate that the genre was more than just jump scares and screams. What’s new is that, by busting out of its culturally marginal position, horror is now expanding its narrative, satirical, and critical powers in front of the very mainstream society that it challenges.  

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Deconstructing the King of the Katz

By David John Beesley

King of the Katz Title shot

Making art can follow many differing paths: allowing the subconscious to do its thing; waiting for inspiration to strike alongside the time to realise craft, developing pleasure in process and deeper understandings of the self. The Neo Liberal market’s force for establishing one’s own name as a brand is a powerful psychological vortex, and for some, it is also imperative to follow the academic establishment’s call for deep research and being precise in defining one’s conceptual intentions. For myself, a commitment to the process of assemblage seems appropriate in an age of polarised economical ideologies; I see this as a way of presenting stratified social critiques –  an ethical choice. 

My favourite indulgence in developing ideas is a long walk or deep soak in the tub – establishing time for reflection. I came up with a draft for my film in about two or three hours… I was twitchingly excited, as I’d conceived an idea to make a Cli Fi Western. 

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2019 in TV and Cinema

By Gary Couzens.

As I’ve done in past years, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of genre films and television of 2019. Instead, this is a selection of titles which are worth your attention. All were commercially released or reissued in the UK last year.

If in Groundhog Day it was Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” which heralded its protagonist’s recurring day ahead, in Russian Doll (on Netflix, eight episodes of just under a half-hour each) it was Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”. It’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), again and again in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment while her own birthday party goes on. A cynical, New York thirtysomething, Nadia certainly has her share of damage, manifesting itself in casual drug use and equally casual sex. At the end of today, Nadia will die, she finds out … and then she’s back in that bathroom with Nilsson on the soundtrack. After several go-rounds she finds Alan (Charlie Barnett) in the same predicament. 

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Russian Doll

Although she was one of three creators (along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), Lyonne dominates the show. She wrote and directed the final episode and co-wrote another. Her chartacterisation inevitably brings resonances of her own personal history, including publicly-known issues with substance abuse. It’s a commanding performance in a miniseries which works out its premise in several interesting ways. The music works perfectly, from Nilsson at the outset to Love’s “Alone Again Or” in the final scene. A second season is on its way. Continue reading “2019 in TV and Cinema”

Terminator Dark Fate reviewed

By Dev Agarwal

Image result for terminator dark fate

I went to see Terminator Dark Fate with my regular film going friend, Nik.  Despite going to the cinema together since we were kids, we worked out that this was the first time we’d been to see a Terminator film together in the cinema.  Given Dark Fate’s poor box office and the fact that Schwarzenegger is 72 years old, this felt like our last chance saloon.  

I’ll state my positions now. Firstly, it’s impossible to discuss this film without spoilers, so don’t read further if you don’t want any.  Second, I’m a big fan of the original film and have watched it many times. I had been disappointed in different ways by many of the films in the series and I had high hopes of Dark Fate.  It came with a pedigree of James Cameron’s blessing, the strategic rejection of the dead ends of earlier films, and it was made by the director behind the popular film, Deadpool, Tim Miller.

Like most franchises that have survived decades, The Terminator films are no longer about one single thing, they combine and rework themes and cultural and social issues.  While a principal concern is time travel and the paradox of changing the present by altering the past, the films are also commentaries on machine intelligence, nuclear destruction and individuals striving against a faceless powerful enemy.  

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Nick’s 2018 in SFF Cinema

By Nick Lowe, part of our ongoing look back at 2018.

Image result for the shape of water oscar
Del Toro with a Best Picture Oscar for The Shape of Water. Photo credit: Chris Pizzello

It’s been quite a wait, but the fiftieth anniversary of 2001 – an event exhilaratingly marked by the theatrically-released “unrestoration” and Michael Benson’s ample new making-of book – was also the year that finally saw an sf film take the Oscar for Best Picture. And as it turned out, The Shape of Water was about as 2018 as a film could get: an unrepentant genre nerd-out with a sincere and completely unapologetic passion for the history of sf cinema and its transgressive political power to represent transhuman desires, give voices to the silenced, and enlarge humanity by embracing monstrosity. The making of monsters was a preoccupation of films as different as Sorry to Bother You, Wildling, Smallfoot, The Titan, Overlord, and The Cured, while the unjust monstering of non-human others played out in films as different as Bumblebee, Rampage, Isle of Dogs, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Luis and the Aliens, with full-on alien romances in How to Talk to Girls at Parties and Russian extravaganza Attraction, and in the other direction Beethoven thwarting interstellar genocide in weirdo British two-hander Native.

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A Quiet Place

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Gary’s 2018 Picks in SFF Movies and TV

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Gary Couzens takes a look at some screen highlights.

As with last year, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the SF and fantasy films of 2018,  but a highlighting of some titles worth seeking out, leaving out the obvious ones. Everything here, however, received a commercial release or a festival premiere in the the UK in 2018.

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