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

Continue reading “Nick’s 2018 in SFF Cinema”

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.

Continue reading “Gary’s 2018 Picks in SFF Movies and TV”

Get Out

By Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in Vector 287.

Get Out premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, and was theatrically released in the United States a month later. The film was well-received by critics and audiences, with particular praise for Jordan Peele’s writing and directing and for Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Get Out was chosen by the National Board of Review, the American Film Institute, and Time magazine as one of the top 10 films of the year, and received four Oscar nominations.

The film is both its own unique story and part of a canon of socially relevant horror films. It blends social commentary, comedic elements, drama and genuine scares to bring together a coherent narrative about exploitation and the black experience in America today. 

Besides being the highest grossing feature debut for an original screenplay, the film made Peele the first black writer-director to reach $100 million on a feature debut. And at $162.8 million, it’s the biggest domestic hit from a black director. It cost $4.5 million dollars but it now grossed $175 million in the USA and 254 million worldwide. It is the third highest ranking for an R rated horror after IT and The Exorcist.  

In fannish circles, Get Out arrives at a time when some loud voices are decrying diversity as “virtue signalling” and “message fiction.” Message fiction, they claim, puts politics ahead of all other considerations, especially storytelling and entertainment. As science fiction writer Larry Correia puts it: “Let’s shove more message fiction down their throats! My cause comes before their enjoyment!” This little schism in science fiction reflects a greater schism in western society itself. For the first time in decades, the neoliberal consensus is under serious pressure, both from the left and from the alt right. Long held certainties are in question. Brexit has wobbled the postwar European project. Nuclear Armageddon is being credibly imagined once more. There are actual Nazis everywhere; Marine Le Pen of the Front National brushes against the French presidency while White Nationalists run down protesters in Charlottesville. And, of course, looming over everything is the still remarkable phrase: President Donald Trump.

And none of this is fiction. Not even the most outlandish science fiction. Into this volatile, surreal world comes the movie Get Out

Get Out posits the story of a black man, Chris, driving from his comfortable middle-class home in Brooklyn to upstate New York. But just before we get to Chris and his story, there is a pre-credit prologue. A black man is lost in a prosperous white suburb … a ‘nice’ part of town. We have, for many years and regardless of our own origins, been invited to follow the story from the default setting of white protagonists navigating white society. Get Out invites us to instead follow black protagonists navigating white society, and horror proves a relevant genre. As this prologue unfolds, the terror mounts, and racial identity become an increasingly urgent matter. 

Tanarive Due draws a comparison with ‘The Comet’ by W.E.B. DuBois, observing that DuBois was writing horror from the heart. And, of course, what he’s trying to counteract with that story is a different horror […] There were moments in the DuBois story where he’s nervous about where he goes and how he’s seen from the outside. It’s similar to the opening of Get Out, being lost in a strange, white neighbourhood. That’s so real.”

Manohla Dargis, reviewing in the New York Times observes that “Peele briskly sets the tone and unsettles the mood. He’s working within a recognizable horror-film framework here (the darkness, the stillness), so it’s not surprising when a car abruptly pulls up and begins tailing the man […] when this man anxiously looks for a way out, the scene grows discordantly disturbing because you may, as I did, flash on Trayvon Martin.”

The film soon introduces our main character, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya. A staple of horror is that things begin very “normally.” Chris is a black man in Brooklyn, living a comfortable middle-class life with his white girlfriend, Rose, who is played by Allison Williams. So things may seem normal, even humdrum. Chris has been invited to meet Rose’s family, who live upstate on a huge estate. At the outset, the implication is that Rose’s family are part of the wealthy white middle classes, post-racial, egalitarian, liberal, and welcoming. Chris’s attempts to anticipate any racial awkwardness are met with disarming humour by Rose. This premise could be lifted from Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from 1967, but then projected through the amplifying lenses of both horror and science fiction.

As we journey closer to Rose’s family, things begin to steadily deviate from anywhere near “normal.” On the drive upstate, Rose and Chris hit a deer – a jump scare and also a distressing and bloody encounter. A white policeman arrives on the scene and his reaction to the traffic accident is to demand Chris’s ID. It’s a moment designed to outrage a liberal audience. But it also reveals how both characters react. Chris is pragmatically compliant, whereas Rose, the one who was actually driving the car, confronts the officer. Following this tense, ambiguous encounter, Chris affirms Rose’s act – “that was some ride or die shit, baby; I like that” – but it’s a remark with many layers, and even below those layers, we sense that there is a lot he isn’t saying. This film doesn’t just talk about race, but also about silence: about all the ways race isn’t talked about.

By the time he arrives on the estate, Chris has been through two unnerving events, the death of an animal and the threat of a police officer. Neither incident is fantastical, and yet they add to the accumulation of tension and discomfort. Now, the family who awaits him ranges from the patronisingly liberal to the loutish and offensive. It’s just the welcome Chris appeared to fear at the outset. 

In this sense, the film is experimenting with the use of ‘normality’ in the standard horror arc. As Tananarive Due points out, “Horror is a great way to address this awful, festering wound in the American psyche, the slavery and genocide that was present during our nation’s birth.” The possibility of being arrested or murdered whenever he meets the police is part of Chris’s reality that Rose is shielded from. Likewise, the awkwardness of managing the family’s creepy behaviour is ‘normal’ for Chris. 

Nevertheless, at this stage, the story may seem more social drama than horror. However, Peele has already skilfully slipped in cues which will resonate later in the film. The narrative’s details continue to accrete like coral. The black characters on the estate are mostly servants, and they remain distinctly uncommunicative with Chris, or weirdly out of sync in their behaviour. Indeed, it is these few black characters who create the gateway into the horror genre proper. Their uncanny presence, and the reactions of the white characters to their disturbed behaviour, is the chief source of tension in this part of the film. The smallest details imply warnings of the looming terror, as the ‘minor’ characters start to leak their secrets, and bit by bit the skin of the genteel peels back to expose a brutal, fantastically horrific foundation.

I’ll avoid any big spoilers, but this is a film you can run your mind over afterwards, admiring the many small, clever details that reveal its careful construction. Many audiences may be satisfied with the jump scares and plot surprises, while more schooled genre viewers will take the extra pleasure in their anticipation of horror and SF tropes. Peele engages established genre elements – hypnotic suggestion, out-of-body experiences, experiments on human subjects that would fit within David Cronenberg’s body horror films. We even get grainy video footage of the 1980s that looks like the Dharma Project from Lost, or recalls that moment in Quatermass where a major plot development is explained by silent film footage. 

At the same time, Peele never resorts to mere pandering allusions or cheap tricks. He asks us to emotionally invest in the characters’ lives, and that means understanding how they feel in specific settings or situations. The film draws on the history of slavery and exploitation, as well as the racist stereotypes about the ‘physical vitality’ of black bodies. The allegory has resonated so widely that a UCLA course in African-American Studies has now been named after a key conceit of the film: ‘Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic.’ The course is now made available to anyone online. The trick that Peele pulls off is to make the message mesh with his story in such a way that they become synergistic and ultimately indivisible.

Get Out cost $4.5 million dollars to make and took $33.3 million on its opening weekend. It’s now surpassed the $175 million mark in the US alone, putting it behind The Exorcist and It for R-rated horror. In financial terms, Get Out is a success.

And, in cultural terms, the film is already earning the sobriquet “revolutionary.” In an interview with Evan Narcisse for io9, Tananarive Due said that, “just recently, we were talking to some network execs about a pilot we were developing […] and they were like, “Oh, like in Get Out.” And it’s not that it’s anything similar to Get Out, it’s just that was now the new framework. That’s what black horror looks like: Get Out. They can now have a reference point and you can continue with the conversation. Because before, you could barely even get that conversation started.”

Any work that is discussed as revolutionary resists pigeon-holing, especially if categorisation itself is symptomatic, as in the case of Get Out being nominated in the “comedy” category at the Golden Globes. Peele himself has said that “[t]he reason for the visceral response to this movie being called a comedy is that we are still living in a time in which African-American cries for justice aren’t being taken seriously. It’s important to acknowledge that though there are funny moments, the systemic racism that the movie is about is very real. More than anything, it shows me that film can be a force for change. At the end of the day, call Get Out horror, comedy, drama, action or documentary, I don’t care. Whatever you call it, just know it’s our truth.’’

References:

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/movies/get-out-review-jordan-peele.html
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/magazine/jordan-peeles-x-ray-vision.html?
  3. https://io9.gizmodo.com/how-get-out-inspired-a-new-college-course-on-racism-and-1801027341
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Get_Out
  5. https://themuse.jezebel.com/a-chat-with-actor-betty-gabriel-about-get-out-white-co-1794312117
  6. https://io9.gizmodo.com/get-out-almost-had-a-much-bleaker-ending-according-to-1792959724

Vector 287: Some films from Cameroon and SA/Canada

By Dilman Dila

Last year, after a long wait, I got a chance to see Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Naked Reality, which he describes as an afrofuturistic/sci-fi. Shot in black and white, it is a time-travel tale in which the protagonist searches for her identity, this being allegorical for a continent’s search for its identity. Like his earlier films, including Les Saignantes (2005), it does not use visual effects or mise-en-scène to portray the future. But while strong storytelling with an offbeat style carried his previous works, Naked Reality turned out to be difficult to watch. Its website suggests it “is a new science-fiction interactive and collaborative cinema concept where we make feature films with a story as usual but take out certain aspects like sets, music, dialogues, costumes…” While there is a call for collaboration, it is not clear if it would mean re-editing this film. What made it drag was the miming, the near complete lack of sets, and the attempt to compensate using overlays, where two video clips are blended together – kind of the cinematographic equivalent of Instagram filters – creating a style more suitable to music videos. If ten years ago a lack of props or effects could be a consequence of low budget, today, more resources are available to a filmmaker, especially in a collaborative venture, and there is free software to achieve photorealistic visual effects.

One such software is Unity. In 2016, the company behind it made a short film, Adam (available on YouTube), to showcase its cinematic creation tools and to test out the graphical quality achievable. Adam is short and sweet to look at, though does not have much of a story. The main protagonist, a prisoner, wakes up in a robot’s body along with scores of others. They meet a mystical figure, who leads them away into a bleak horizon. In 2017, Unity partnered with Neill Blomkamp – the South African director well-known for District 9 – to make two sequels to Adam, where we learn of a government called The Consortium, which harvests the body parts of prisoners but, rather than kill them, puts their brains in robots, for unknown but possibly legal or even mercantile reasons. I like the series so far, and although both plot and character development are still thin, it is a visual joy.

Neill will be making more episodes of Adam alongside other short films in his own Oats Studios, which he set up to develop ideas without years of waiting for Hollywood. The first film he made was Rakka, set in a dystopian, post alien-invasion world. The obsession of seeing aliens as the evil other echoes colonialist era fears (e.g. H.G Well’s War of the Worlds) but also resonates with anti-immigration sentiments of today. Rakka features Sigourney Weaver, whose great performance failed to save the film from a clichéd plot that does not add anything new to an alien invasion narrative.

I thought other Oats Studios films would be similar, but was pleasantly surprised. Firebase starts off like an alien-contact film, and ends up something like a revenge-ghost story, with US soldiers in Vietnam encountering something called the River God. Like the other shorts from Oats Studios, Firebase could develop into a feature film, and a recent tweet from Neill suggests he is planning to crowdfund its production – this might explain its abrupt and unresolved ending.

amosZygote is the film I liked the most. Though it also seems to be the first twenty minutes of a feature, it works beautifully as a stand-alone short. It’s a sick horror, a good old-fashioned monster tale redolent of Frankenstein, and it may be difficult for some people to watch. I liked the monster very much because it reminded me of Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the awesome “flash-eyed mother,” which is a ghost made up of “millions of heads which were just like a baby’s head,” each with two hands and two eyes that shone day and night. Zygote gripped me right from the start, and the suspense did not relent. It is set in an asteroid mining operation, and the story opens with two survivors from a catastrophe that is never fully explained, though we deduce it coincided with the creation of the monster. One survivor is a slave, an orphan bought in her infancy, and the other a synthetic human, who sacrifices himself to help the orphan escape. Like most of Neil’s films, this one is very entertaining, and yet still packs in social issues, in this case genetic engineering and a critique of corporate capitalism.

DILMAN DILA IS THE AUTHOR OF A CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES, A KILLING IN THE SUN. HE HAS BEEN LISTED IN SEVERAL PRESTIGIOUS PRIZES, INCLUDING THE GERALD KRAAK AWARD (2016), BBC INTERNATIONAL RADIO PLAYWRITING COMPETITION (2014), AND THE COMMONWEALTH SHORT STORY PRIZE (2013). HIS FILMS INCLUDE WHAT HAPPENED IN ROOM 13 (2007), WHICH HAS ATTRACTED OVER SIX MILLION VIEWS ON YOUTUBE, AND THE FELISTAS FABLE (2013), NOMINATED FOR BEST FIRST FEATURE AT AFRICA MOVIE ACADEMY AWARDS (2014), AND WINNER OF FOUR MAJOR AWARDS AT UGANDA FILM FESTIVAL (2014). HIS SECOND FEATURE FILM IS HER BROKEN SHADOW (2017), A SCIFI SET IN A FUTURISTIC AFRICA. MORE OF HIS LIFE AND WORKS ARE AT DILMANDILA.COM

Vector 287: Fashion and SF

zero history gibsonBy Ricardo Suazo

Given that 2017 saw the launch of various SF blockbusters, when looking for the best of fashion one would be forgiven for turning to these highly visual, big budget productions. Wonder Woman, Blade Runner, Star Trek and Star Wars all made a return to our screens. However, the year’s most significant SF-related fashion events are to be found elsewhere. This is because in most cases the fashion references from these productions rely on a retro-futuristic vision, one which emphasises a post-apocalyptic, hyper-sexualised, Amazonian aesthetic.

An alternative would be to look to the catwalk, to the work of designers like Iris Van Herpen, Rick Owens or Comme des Garçons, all of whom share a reputation for futuristic, SF-inspired fashion. Whilst interesting, these proposals are not new, and certainly not representative of the mood in the industry. If anything, the fashion industry seems to be falling out of love with digital technologies. For example Hussein Chalayan’s Spring-Summer 2018 collection (shown in September 2017) was a commentary on how digital technologies can veil individual identity. This was only a year after the London-based designer showed a collection – in collaboration with Intel – which included accessories that could ‘read’ the wearer’s emotions and transform them into visuals displayed on a large screen. Continue reading “Vector 287: Fashion and SF”

Interview with Larissa Sansour

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‘In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain’ by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind.

Larissa Sansour is an artist working across video, photography, sculpture and installation, often to create political artworks that explore life in Palestine. Our cover image for Vector No. 287 is taken from her recent film installation, ‘In the Future, they Ate from the Finest Porcelain’, a collaboration with the artist Søren Lind.

An interview with Larissa Sansour first appeared in the same issue, Spring 2018.

Vector: In an interview for “Reorient”, you talk about how your piece uses SF to address the ongoing trauma that is both national and personal. The film swerves away from a documentary approach, yet you leave room for it to be interpreted as a realistic narrative by using a framing device common to 19th and early 20th century SF. It is possible to imagine our world just off screen. On the soundtrack we hear a conversation between a woman and her therapist – they can be in the here‑and‑now; the visual narrative of the film can be interpreted to describe an imaginary world of the patient’s mind, her dreams, her hopes, fears and fantasies. Was this ambiguity intentional? Was there a decision not to commit fully to science fiction?

Larissa Sansour: Working with science fiction offers a lot of malleability in how I choose to comment on present day issues. There is a tendency when addressing heated or urgent political topics to fall into an already established and non-flexible discourse. One then generally has to accept the premise of the arguments that preceded your contribution. Science fiction helps me posit a new equation in which a new approach to can be formulated. So, the trauma, fear and fantasies are intended to occupy the blurry space between fantasy and reality and, like in most of my work, to question the basis of our understanding of what reality means. In In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain, this focus is very much on historical narratives, and how much of that is really based on truth value.

The anachronism in the film is also very intentional. It is hard to talk about the Palestinian trauma without addressing several tenses. The Palestinian psyche seems to be planted in the catastrophic events of 1948 and is tied to a constant projection of the future, yet the present is in a constant limbo. Continue reading “Interview with Larissa Sansour”

Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying

Image 20170224 22983 kskule.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Westworld: how far away is this future?
©2016 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved

Amy C. Chambers, Newcastle University

This article accompanies episode 10 of The Anthill podcast on the future.


From Humans to Westworld, from Her to Ex Machina, and from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to Black Mirror – near future science fiction in recent years has given audiences some seriously unsettling and prophetic visions of the future. According to these alternative or imagined futures, we are facing a post-human reality where humans are either rebelled against or replaced by their own creations. These stories propose a future where our lives will be transformed by science and technology, redefining what it is to be human.

The near future science fiction sub-genre imagines a future only a short time away from the period in which it is produced. Continue reading “Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying”

Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction

The London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC, possibly pronounced “Lucifer” for those who prefer their initalisms to be acronyms) played host to a larger crowd than usual in Gordon Square on Saturday 16th September for their first day-long conference, organised principally by Rhodri Davies, Francis Gene-Rowe, and Aren Roukema. One of the primary activities of the LSFRC is its monthly reading group: each year, the organisers decide on a theme and request suggestions for texts that might interact with the theme in interesting ways. Once the (typically extensive) list has been compiled, it is voted on by the community, and the texts which come out top form the next year’s reading list. “Organic Systems” was the topic of discussion for 2016-2017 – for anyone interested the topic for 2017-2018 is “Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction and Metaphysics” and the group meets in Gordon Square on the first Monday of each month (I’d advise checking the Facebook group for relevant details). Consequently, this one-day conference marked the culmination of a year of discussion and gently percolating thought regarding, in Chris Pak’s words, “interlocking systems intersecting on multiple levels” within sf and its accompanying critical discourse. I suppose it should be noted for reasons of editorial balance that I did attend at least some of the reading group sessions.

posterLSFRC Sublime Cognition poster by Sing Yun Lee

Continue reading “Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction”

Post-Cyber Feminist International

Glitch @ Night - BBZ London, photo Mark-Blower, no24Post-Cyber Feminist International, Glitch@Night BBZ London (Photo: Mark Blower)

‘A particularly gendered set of obstacles emerges from the contemporary ubiquity and commodification of the digital sphere. From sexual harassment and privacy to issues surrounding divisions of labour, the progress of gender justice has in some ways failed to keep pace with the dizzying velocity of digital developments. At the same time, new networked technologies have come to dominate the horizons of critical discourse, pushing older and more quotidian devices to the margins of cultural visibility. And yet, these domesticated technologies (from the Hoovers to HRT) continue to exert a shaping influence on many people’s everyday lives. It is critical that feminists find new ways of interrogating technologies in order to forge a radical gender politics fit for an era in which the analogue and the digital are inexorably intertwined’ [ICA]

Black Feminism and Post-Cyber Feminism, photoMark-Blower, no27Black Feminism and Post-Cyber Feminism (Photo: Mark Blower)

Post-Cyber Feminist International took place at the ICA between 15-19 Nov 2017, and consisted of a series of events, exhibitions and workshops dedicated to exploring how radical gender politics can shape our technological future. Visual artists, musicians, writers and theorists came together to find new ways of engaging with race, class, gender and to discuss their work-in-progress. Post-Cyber Feminist International showcased interrelated constituents such as sonic feminisms, Black feminism and glitch feminism, celebrating the 20th anniversary of The First Cyberfeminist International (1997). Continue reading “Post-Cyber Feminist International”