Citizen of nowhere

Watching Son of Monarchs for New Scientist, 3 November 2021

“This is you!” says Bob, Mendel’s boss at a genetics laboratory in New York City. He holds the journal out for his young colleague to see: on its cover there’s a close-up of the wing of a monarch butterfly. The cover-line announces the lab’s achievement: they have shown how the evolution and development of butterfly color and iridescence are controlled by a single master regulatory gene.

Bob (William Mapother) sees something is wrong. Softer now: “This is you. Own it.”
But Mendel, Bob’s talented Mexican post-doc (played by Tenoch Huerta, familiar from the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico), is near to tears.

Something has gone badly wrong in Mendel’s life. And he’s no more comfortable back home, in the butterfly forests of Michoacán, than he was in Manhattan. In some ways things are worse. Even at their grandmother’s funeral, his brother Simon (Noé Hernández) won’t give him an inch. At least the lab was friendly.

Bit by bit, through touching flashbacks, some disposable dream sequences and one rather overwrought row, we learn the story: how, when Mendel and Simon were children, a mining accident drowned their parents; how their grandmother took them in, but things were never the same; how Simon went to work for the predatory company responsible for the accident, and has ever since felt judged by his high-flying, science-whizz, citizen-of-nowhere brother.

When Son of Monarchs premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, critics picked up on its themes of borders and belonging, the harm walls do and all the ways nature undermines them. Mendel grew up in a forest alive with clouds of Monarch butterflies. (In the film the area, a national reserve, is threatened by mining; these days, tourism is arguably the bigger threat.) Sarah, Mendel’s New York girlfriend (Alexia Rasmussen; note-perfect but somewhat under-used) is an amateur trapeze artist. The point — that airborn creatures know no frontiers — is clear enough; just in case you missed it, a flashback shows young Mendel and young Simon in happier days, discussing humanity’s airborne future.

In a strongly scripted film, such gestures would have been painfully heavy-handed. Here, though, they’re pretty much all the viewer has to go on in this sometimes painfully indirect film.
The plot does come together, though, through the character of Mendel’s old friend Vicente (a stand-out performance by the relative unknown Gabino Rodríguez). While muddling along like everyone else in the village of Angangueo (the real-life site, in 2010, of some horrific mine-related mudslides), Vicente has been developing peculiar animistic rituals. His unique brand of masked howling seems jolly silly at first glance — just a backwoodsman’s high spirits — but as the film advances, we realise that these rituals are just what Mendel needs.

For a man trapped between worlds, Vicente’s rituals offer a genuine way out: a way to re-engage imaginatively with the living world.

So, yes, Son of Monarchs is, on one level, about identity, about how a cosmopolitan high-flier learns to be a good son of Angangeo. But more than that, it’s about personality: about how Mendel learns to live both as a scientist, and as a man lost among butterflies.

French-Venezuelan filmmaker Alexis Gambis is himself a biologist and founded the Imagine Science Film Festival. While Son of Monarchs is steeped in colour, and full of cinematographer Alejandro Mejía’s mouth-watering (occasionally stomach-churning) macro-photography of butterflies and their pupae, ultimately this is a film, not about the findings of science, but about science as a vocation.

Gambis’s previous feature, The Fly Room (2014) was about the inspiration a 10-year-old girl draws from visits to T H Morgan’s famous (and famously cramped) “Fly Room” drosophila laboratory. Son of Monarchs asks what can be done if inspiration dries up. It is a hopeful film and, on more than the visual level, a beautiful one.

Who’s left in the glen?

Watching Emily Munro’s Living Proof: A climate story for New Scientist, 6 October 2021

Most environmental documentaries concentrate, on the environment. Most films about the climate crisis focus on people who are addressing the crisis.

Assembled and edited by Emily Munro, a curator of the moving image at the National Library of Scotland, Living Proof is different. It’s a film about demobbed soldiers and gamekeepers, architects and miners and American ex-pats. It’s about working people and their employers, about people whose day-to-day actions have contributed to the industrialisation of Scotland, its export of materials and methods (particularly in the field of off-shore oil and gas), and its not coincidental environmental footprint.

Only towards the end of Munro’s film do we meet protestors of any sort. They’re deploring the construction of a nuclear power plant at Torness, 33 miles east of Edinburgh. Even here, Munro is less interested in the protest itself, than in one impassioned, closely argued speech which, in the context of the film, completes an argument begun in Munro first reel (via a public information film from the mid-1940s) about the country’s political economy.

Assembled from propaganda and public information films, promotional videos and industrial reports, Living Proof is an archival history of what Scotland has told itself about itself, and how those stories, ambitions and visions have shaped the landscape, and effected the global environment.

Munro is in thrall to the changing Scottish industrial landscape, from its herring fisheries to its dams, from its slums and derelict mine-heads to the high modernism of its motorways and strip mills. Her vision is compelling and seductive. Living Proof is also — and this is more important — a film which respects its subjects’ changing aspirations. It tells the story of a poor, relatively undeveloped nation waking up to itself and trying to do right by its people.

It will come as no surprise, as Glasgow prepares to host the COP26 global climate conference, to hear that the consequences of those efforts have been anything but an unalloyed good. Powered by offshore oil and gas, home to Polaris nuclear missiles, and a redundancy-haunted grave for a dozen heavy industries (from coal-mining to ship-building to steel manufacture), Scotland is no-one’s idea of a green nation.

As Munro’s film shows, however, the environment was always a central plank of whatever argument campaigners, governments and developers made at the time. The idea that the Scots (and the rest of us) have only now “woken up to the environment” is a pernicious nonsense.

It’s simply that our idea of the environment has evolved.

In the 1940s, the spread of bog water, as the Highlands depopulated, was considered a looming environmental disaster, taking good land out of use. In the 1950s automation promised to pull working people out of poverty, disease and pollution. In the 1960s rapid communications were to serve an industrial culture that would tread ever more lightly over the mine-ravaged earth.

It’s with the advent of nuclear power, and that powerful speech on the beach at Torness, that the chickens come home to roost. That new nuclear plant is only going to employ around 500 people! What will happen to the region then?

This, of course, is where we came in: to a vision of a nation that, if cannot afford its own people, will go to rack and ruin, with (to quote that 1943 information film) “only the old people and a few children left in the glen”.

Living Proof critiques an economic system that, whatever its promises, can cannot help but denude the earth of its resources, and pauperise its people. It’s all the more powerful for being articulated through real things: schools and roads and pharmaceuticals, earth movers and oil rigs, washing machines and gas boilers.

Reasonable aspirations have done unreasonable harm to the planet. That’s the real crisis elucidated by Living Proof. It’s a point too easily lost in all the shouting. And it’s rarely been made so well.

One courageous act

Watching A New World Order for New Scientist, 8 September 2021

“For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope,” runs the verse from Ecclesiastes, “for a living dog is better than a dead lion.”

Stefan Ebel plays Thomasz, the film’s “living dog”, a deserter who, more frightened than callous, has learned to look out solely for himself.

In the near future, military robots have turned against their makers. The war seems almost over. Perhaps Thomasz has wriggled and dodged his way to the least settled part of the planet (Daniel Raboldt’s debut feature is handsomely shot in Arctic Finland by co-writer Thorsten Franzen). Equally likely, this is what the whole planet looks like now: trees sweeping in to fill the spaces left by an exterminated humanity.

You might expect the script to make this point clear, but there is no script; rather, there is no dialogue. The machines (wasp-like drones, elephantine tripods, and one magnificent airborne battleship that that would not look out of place in a Marvel movie) target people by listening out for their voices; consequently, not a word can be exchanged between Thomasz and his captor Lilja, played by Siri Nase.

Lilja takes Thomasz prisoner because she needs his brute strength. A day’s walk away from the questionable safety of her log cabin home, there is a burned-out military convoy. Amidst the wreckage and bodies, there is a heavy case — and in the case, there is a tactical nuke. Lilja needs Thomasz’s help in dragging it to where she can detonate it, perhaps bringing down the machines. While Thomasz acts out of fear, Lilja is acting out of despair. She has nothing more to live for. While Thomasz wants to live at any cost, Lilja just wants to die. Both are reduced to using each other. Both will have to learn to trust again.

In 2018, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place arrived in cinemas — a film in which aliens chase down every sound and slaughter its maker. This cannot have been a happy day for the devoted and mostly unpaid German enthusiasts working on A New World Order. But silent movies are no novelty, and theirs has clearly ploughed its own furrow. The film’s sound design, by Sebastian Tarcan, is especially striking, balancing levels so that even a car’s gear change comes across as an imminent alien threat. (Wonderfully, there’s an acknowledging nod to the BBC’s Tripods series buried in the war machines’ emergency signal.)

Writing good silent film is something of a lost art. It’s much easier for writers to explain their story through dialogue, than to propel it through action. Maybe this is why silent film, done well, is such a powerful experience. There is a scene in this movie where Thomasz realises, not only that he has to do the courageous thing, but that he is at last capable of doing it. Ebel, on his own on a scree-strewn Finnish hillside, plays the moment to perfection.

Somewhere on this independent film’s long and interrupted road to distribution (it began life on Kickstarter in 2016) someone decided “A Living Dog” was too obscure a film title for these godless times — a pity, I think, and not just because “A New World Order”, the title picked for UK distribution, manages to be at once pompous and meaningless.

Ebel’s pitch-perfect performance drips guilt and bad conscience. In order to stay alive, he has learned to crawl about the earth. But Lilja’s example, and his own conscience, will turn dog to lion at last, and in a genre that never tires of presenting us with hyper-capable heroes, it’s refreshing, on this occasion, to follow the forging of one courageous act.

Sod provenance

Is the digital revolution that Pixar began with Toy Story stifling art – or saving it? An article for the Telegraph, 24 July 2021

In 2011 the Westfield shopping mall in Stratford, East London, acquired a new public artwork: a digital waterfall by the Shoreditch-based Jason Bruges Studio. The liquid-crystal facets of the 12 metre high sculpture form a subtle semi-random flickering display, as though water were pouring down its sides. Depending on the shopper’s mood, this either slakes their visual appetite, or leaves them gasping for a glimpse of real rocks, real water, real life.

Over its ten-year life, Bruges’s piece has gone from being a comment about natural processes (so soothing, so various, so predictable!) to being a comment about digital images, a nagging reminder that underneath the apparent smoothness of our media lurks the jagged line and the stair-stepped edge, the grid, the square: the pixel, in other words.

We suspect that the digital world is grainier than the real, coarser, more constricted, and stubbornly rectilinear. But this is a prejudice, and one that’s neatly punctured by a new book by electrical engineer and Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, “A Biography of the Pixel”. This eccentric work traces the intellectual genealogy of Toy Story (Pixar’s first feature-length computer animation in 1995) over bump-maps and around occlusions, along traced rays and through endless samples, computations and transformations, back to the mathematics of the eighteenth century.

Smith’s whig history is a little hard to take — as though, say, Joseph Fourier’s efforts in 1822 to visualise how heat passed through solids were merely a way-station on the way to Buzz Lightyear’s calamitous launch from the banister rail — but it’s a superb short-hand in which to explain the science.

We can use Fourier’s mathematics to record an image as a series of waves. (Visual patterns, patterns of light and shade and movement, “can be represented by the voltage patterns in a machine,” Smith explains.) And we can recreate these waves, and the image they represent, with perfect fidelity, so long as we have a record of the points at the crests and troughs of each wave.

The locations of these high- and low-points, recorded as numerical coordinates, are pixels. (The little dots you see if you stare far too closely at your computer screen are not pixels; strictly speaking, they’re “display elements”.)

Digital media do not cut up the world into little squares. (Only crappy screens do that). They don’t paint by numbers. On the contrary, they faithfully mimic patterns in the real world.

This leads Smith to his wonderfully upside-down-sounding catch-line: “Reality,” he says, ”is just a convenient measure of complexity.”

Once pixels are converted to images on a screen, they can be used to create any world, rooted in any geometry, and obeying any physics. And yet these possibilities remain largely unexplored. Almost every computer animation is shot through a fictitious “camera lens”, faithfully recording a Euclidean landscape. Why are digital animations so conservative?

I think this is the wrong question: its assumptions are faulty. I think the ability to ape reality at such high fidelity creates compelling and radical possibilities of its own.

I discussed some of these possibilities with Paul Franklin, co-founder of the SFX company DNEG, and who won Oscars for his work on Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi blockbusters Interstellar (2014) and Inception (2010). Franklin says the digital technologies appearing on film sets in the past decade — from lighter cameras and cooler lights to 3-D printed props and LED front-projection screens — are positively disrupting the way films are made. They are making film sets creative spaces once again, and giving the director and camera crew more opportunities for on-the-fly creative decision making. “We used a front-projection screen on the film Interstellar, so the actors could see what visual effects they were supposed to be responding to,” he remembers. “The actors loved being able to see the super-massive black hole they were supposed to be hurtling towards. Then we realised that we could capture an image of the rotating black hole’s disc reflecting in Matthew McConaughey’s helmet: now that’s not the sort of shot you plan.”

Now those projection screens are interactive. Franklin explains: “Say I’m looking down a big corridor. As I move the camera across the screen, instead of it flattening off and giving away the fact that it’s actually just a scenic backing, the corridor moves with the correct perspective, creating the illusion of a huge volume of space beyond the screen itself.“

Effects can be added to a shot in real-time, and in full view of cast and crew. More to the point, what the director sees through their viewfinder is what the audience gets. This encourages the sort of disciplined and creative filmmaking Melies and Chaplin would recognise, and spells an end to the deplorable industry habit of kicking important creative decisions into the long grass of post-production.

What’s taking shape here isn’t a “good enough for TV” reality. This is a “good enough to reveal truths” reality. (Gargantua, the spinning black hole at Interstellar’s climax, was calculated and rendered so meticulously, it ended up in a paper for the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.) In some settings, digital facsimile is becoming, literally, a replacement reality.

In 2012 the EU High Representative Baroness Ashton gave a physical facsimile of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun to the people of Egypt. The digital studio responsible for its creation, Factum Foundation, has been working in the Valley of the Kings since 2001, creating ever-more faithful copies of places that were never meant to be visited. They also print paintings (by Velasquez, by Murillo, by Raphael…) that are indistinguishable from the originals.

From the perspective of this burgeoning replacement reality, much that is currently considered radical in the art world appears no more than a frantic shoring-up of old ideas and exhausted values. A couple of days ago Damien Hirst launched The Currency, a physical set of dot paintings the digitally tokenised images of which can be purchased, traded, and exchanged for the real paintings.

Eventually the purchaser has to choose whether to retain the token, or trade it in for the physical picture. They can’t own both. This, says Hirst, is supposed to challenge the concept of value through money and art. Every participant is confronted with their perception of value, and how it influences their decision.

But hang on: doesn’t money already do this? Isn’t this what money actually is?

It can be no accident that non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which make bits of the internet ownable, have emerged even as the same digital technologies are actually erasing the value of provenance in the real world. There is nothing sillier, or more dated looking, than the Neues Museum’s scan of its iconic bust of Nefertiti, released free to the public after a complex three-year legal battle. It comes complete with a copyright license in the bottom of the bust itself — a copyright claim to the scan of a 3,000-year-old sculpture created 3,000 miles away.

Digital technologies will not destroy art, but they will erode and ultimately extinguish the value of an artwork’s physical provenance. Once facsimiles become indistinguishable from originals, then originals will be considered mere “first editions”.

Of course literature has thrived for many centuries in such an environment; why should the same environment damage art? That would happen only if art had somehow already been reduced to a mere vehicle for financial speculation. As if!

 

Just you wait

An essay on the machineries of science-fiction film, originally written for the BFI

Science fiction is about escape, about transcendence, about how, with the judicious application of technology, we might escape the bounds of time, space and the body.
Science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why the dream fails: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. More often than not science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama – so polished, so chromed, so complete. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam.

Science fiction takes what in other movies would be the set dressing, finery from the prop shop, and turns it into something vital: a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are, and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes, in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. Futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of the distant space city Alphaville (1965) and the strangeness is all in Jean-Luc Godard’s cut, his dialogue, and the sharpest of sharp scripts. Alphaville, you see (only you don’t; you never do) is nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand: tinsel and Pan Stick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Doctor was tearing up the set, and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned. Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who (1963) was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick, a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the point: it said, We’re making this up as we go along.

So how did it all get going? Much as every other kind of film drama got going: with a woman in a tight dress. It is 1924: in a constructivist get- up that could spring from no other era, Aelita, Queen of Mars (actress and film director Yuliya Solntseva) peers into a truly otherworldly crystalline telescope and spies Earth, revolution, and Engineer Los. And Los, on being observed, begins to dream of her.

You’d think, from where we are now, deluged in testosterone from franchises like Transformers and Terminators, that such romantic comedy beginnings were an accident of science fiction’s history: a charming one-off. They’re not. They’re systemic. Thea von Harbou wrote novels about to-die-for women and her husband Fritz Lang placed them at the helm of science fiction movies like Metropolis (1927) and Frau im Mond (1929). The following year saw New York given a 1980s makeover in David Butler’s musical comedy Just Imagine. “In 1980 – people have serial numbers, not names,” explained Photoplay; “marriages are all arranged by the courts… Prohibition is still an issue… Men’s clothes have but one pocket. That’s on the hip… but there’s still love! ” (Griffith, 1972) Just Imagine boasted the most intricate setting ever created for a movie. 205 engineers and craftsmen took five months over an Oscar-nominated build costing $168,000. You still think this film is marginal? Just Imagine’s weird guns and weirder spaceships ended up reused in the serial Flash Gordon (1936).

How did we get from musical comedy to Keanu Reeves’s millennial Neo shopping in a virtual firearms mall? Well, by rocket, obviously. Science fiction got going just as our fascination with future machinery overtook our fascination with future fashion. Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre tall liquid- propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building one eleven metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily they ran out of money.

What hostile critics say is true: for a while, science fiction did become more about the machines than about the people. This was a necessary excursion, and an entertaining one: to explore the technocratic future ushered in by the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940 and realised, one countdown after another, in the world war and cold war to come. (Science fiction is always, ultimately, about the present.) HG Wells wrote the script for Things to Come (1936). Destination Moon (1950) picked the brains of sf writer Robert Heinlein, who’d spent part of the war designing high-altitude pressure suits, to create a preternaturally accurate forecast of the first manned mission to the moon. George Pal’s Conquest of Space, five years later, based its technology on writings and designs in Collier’s Magazine by former Nazi rocket designer Wernher von Braun. In the same year, episode 20 of the first season of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Colour was titled Man in Space and featured narration from Braun and his close (anti-Nazi) friend and colleague Willy Ley.

Another voice from that show, TV announcer Dick Tufeld, cropped up a few years later as voice of the robot in the hit 1965 series Lost in Space, by which time science fiction could afford to calm down, take in the scenery, and even crack a smile or two. The technocratic ideal might seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the Moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines: the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B–9, perhaps. Once clear of the frontier, there would be few enough places for danger to lurk, though if push came to shove, the Tracy family’s spectacular Thunderbirds (1965) were sure to come and save the day. Star Trek’s pleasant suburban utopias, defended in extremis by phasers that stun more than kill, are made, for all their scale and spread, no more than village neighbourhoods thanks to the magic of personal teleportation, and all are webbed into one gentle polis by tricorders so unbelievably handy and capable, it took our best minds half a century to build them for real.

Once the danger’s over though, and the sirens are silenced -– once heaven on earth (and elsewhere) is truly established – then we hit a quite sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched Star Trek to Desilu Studios as “Wagon Train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: the Moving Picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness. The day your show’s props become merely props, is the day you’re not making science fiction any more. Forget the teleport, that rappelling rope will do. Never mind the scanner: just point.
Realism can only carry you so far. Pavel Klushantsev’s grandiloquent model-making and innovative special effects – effects that Kubrick had to discover for himself over a decade later for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – put children on The Moon (1965) and ballet dancers on satellite TVs (I mean TV sets on board satellites) in Road to the Stars (1957). Such humane and intelligent gestures can only accelerate the exhaustion of “realistic” SF. You feel that exhaustion in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, the boredom and incipient madness that haunt Keir Dullea and poor, boxed-in HAL on board Discovery One are the film’s chief point: that we cannot live by reason alone. We need something more.

The trouble with Utopias is they stay still, and humanity is nothing if not restless. Two decades earlier, the formal, urban costume stylings of Gattaca (1997) and The Matrix (1999) would have appeared aspirational. In context, they’re a sign of our heroes’ imprisonment in conformist plenty.

What is this “more” we’re after, then, if reason’s not enough? At very least a light show. Ideally, redemption. Miracles. Grace. Most big- budget movies cast their alien technology as magic. Forbidden Planet (1956) owes its plot to The Tempest, spellbinding audiences with outscale animations and meticulous, hand-painted fiends from the id. The altogether more friendly water probe in James Cameron’s The Abyss took hardly less work: eight months’ team effort for 75 seconds of screen time.

Arthur Clarke, co-writer on 2001 once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He was half right. What’s missing from his formulation is this: sufficiently advanced technology can also resemble nature – the ordinary weave and heft of life. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) both conjure up alien presences out of forests and bare plastered rooms. Imagine how advanced their technology must be to look so ordinary!

In Alien (1979) Salvador Dali’s friend H R Giger captured this process, this vanishing into the real, half-done. Where that cadaverous Space Jockey leaves off and its ship begins is anyone’s guess. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) adds the dimension of time to this disturbing mix, putting hapless strangers in the way of an alien lifeform that’s having to bolt together its own lifecycle day by day in greenhouses and shack laboratories.

Prometheus (2012), though late to the party, serves as an unlovely emblem to this kind of story. Its pot of black goo is pure Harry Potter: magic in a jar. Once cast upon the waters, though, it’s life itself, in all its guile and terror.

Where we have trouble spotting what’s alive and what’s not – well, that’s the most fertile territory of all. Welcome to Uncanny Valley. Population: virtually everyone in contemporary science fiction cinema. Westworld (1973) and The Stepford Wives (1975) broke the first sod, and their uncanny children have never dropped far from the tree. In the opening credits of a retrodden Battlestar Galactica (2004), Number Six sways into shot, leans over a smitten human, and utters perhaps the most devastating line in all science fiction drama: “Are you alive?” Whatever else Number Six is (actress Tricia Helfer, busting her gut to create the most devasting female robot since Brigitte Helm in Metropolis), alive she most certainly is not.
The filmmaker David Cronenberg is a regular visitor to the Valley. For twenty years, from The Brood (1979) to eXistenZ (1999), he showed us how attempts to regulate the body like a machine, while personalising technology to the point where it is wearable, can only end in elegaic and deeply melancholy body horror. Cronenberg’s visceral set dressings are one of a kind, but his wider, philosophical point crops up everywhere – even in pre-watershed confections like The Six Million Dollar Man (1974–1978) and The Bionic Woman (1976–1978), whose malfunctioning (or hyperfunctioning) bionics repeatedly confronted Steve and Jaime with the need to remember what it is to be human.

Why stay human at all, if technology promises More? In René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973) the gigantic Draags lead abstract and esoteric lives, astrally projecting their consciousnesses onto distant planets to pursue strange nuptials with visiting aliens. In Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Darren Aronofsky charts the epic comedown of characters who, through the somewhat injudicious application of technology, have glimpsed their own posthuman possibilities.

But this sort of technologically enabled yearning doesn’t have to end badly. There’s bawdy to be had in the miscegenation of the human and the mechanical, as when in Sleeper (1973), Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) wanders haplessly into an orgasmatron, and a 1968-vintage Barbarella (Jane Fonda) causes the evil Dr Durand-Durand’s “Excessive Machine” to explode.
For all the risks, it may be that there’s an accommodation to be made one day between the humans and the machinery. Sam Bell’s mechanical companion in Moon (2009), voiced by Kevin Spacey, may sound like 2001’s malignant HAL, but it proves more than kind in the end. In Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), Theodore’s love for his phone’s new operating system acquires a surprising depth and sincerity – not least since everyone else in the movie seems permanently latched to their smartphone screen.

“… But there’s still love!” cried Photoplay, more than eighty years ago, and Photoplay is always right. It may be that science fiction cinema will rediscover its romantic roots. (Myself, I hope so.) But it may just as easily take some other direction completely. Or disappear as a genre altogether, rather as Tarkovsky’s alien technology has melted into the spoiled landscapes of Stalker. The writer and aviator Antoine de Saint- Exupery, drunk on his airborne adventures, hit the nail on the head: “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

You think everything is science fiction now? Just you wait.

Snowflake science

Watching Noah Hutton’s documentary In Silico for New Scientist, 19 May 2021

Shortly after he earned a neuroscience degree, young filmmaker Noah Hutton fell into the orbit of Henry Markram, an Israeli neuroscientist based at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

Markram models brains, axon by axon, dendrite by dendrite, in all their biological and chemical complexity. His working assumption is that the brain is an organ, and so a good enough computer model of the brain ought to reveal its workings and pathologies, just as “in silico” models of the kidneys, spleen, liver and heart have enriched our understanding of those organs.

Markram’s son Kai has autism, so Markram has skin in this game. Much as we might want to improve the condition of people like Kai, no one is going to dig about in a living human brain to see if there are handy switches we can throw. Markram hopes a computer model will offer an ethically acceptable route to understanding how brains go wrong.

So far, so reasonable. Only in 2005, Henry Markram said he would build a working computer model of the human brain in 10 years.

Hutton has interviewed Markram, his colleagues and his critics, every year for well over a decade, as the project expanded and the deadline shifted. Markram’s vision transfixed purseholders across the European Union: in 2013 his Blue Brain Project won a billion Euros of public funding to create the Human Brain Project in Geneva.

And though his tenure did not last long, Markram is hardly the first founder to be wrested from the controls of his own institute, and he won’t be the last. There have been notable departures, but his Blue Brain Project endures, still working, still modelling: its in silico model of the mouse neocortex is astounding to look at.

Perhaps that is the problem. The Human Brain Project has become, says Hutton, a special-effects house, a shrine to touch-screens, curve-screens, headsets, but lacking any meaning to anything and anyone “outside this glass and steel building in Geneva”.

We’ve heard criticisms like this before. What about the way the Large Hadron Collider at CERN sucks funding from the rest of physics? You don’t have to scratch too deeply in academia to find a disgruntled junior researcher who’ll blame CERN for their failed grant application.

CERN, however, gets results. The Human Brain Project? Not so much.

The problem is philosophical. It is certainly within our power to model some organs. The brain, however, is not an organ in the usual sense. It is, by any engineering measure, furiously inefficient. Take a look: a spike in the dentrites releases this neurotransmitter, except when it releases that neurotransmitter, except when it does nothing at all. Signals follow this route, except when they follow that route, except when they vanish. Brains may look alike, and there’s surely some commonality in their working. At the level of the axon, however, every brain behaves like a beautiful and unique snowflake.

The Blue Brain Project’s models generate noise, just like regular brains. Someone talks vaguely about “emergent properties” — an intellectual Get Out of Jail Free card if ever there was one. But since no-one knows what this noise means in a real brain, there’s no earthly way to tell if Project’s model is making the right kind of noise.

The Salk Institute’s Terrence Sejnowski reckons the whole caper’s a bad joke; if successful Markram will only generate a simulation “every bit as mysterious as the brain itself”.

Hutton accompanies us down the yawning gulf between what Markram may reasonably achieve, and the fantasies he seems quite happy to stoke in order to maintain his funding. It’s a film made on a budget of nothing, over years, and it’s not pretty. But Hutton (whose very smart sf satire Lapsis came out in the US last month) makes up for all that with the sharpest of scripts. In Silico is a labour of love, rather more productive, I fear, than Markram’s own.

Waiting for the End of the End of the World

Watching the 2021 European Media Arts Festival on-line for New Scientist, 19 May 2021

For over forty years, the European Media Art Festival in Osnabrueck has offered attendees a glimpse of the best short films coming on-line and to festivals over the coming year. It’s been a reliable cultural barometer, too, revealing, through film, some of our deepest social anxieties and preoccupations. This year saw science fiction swallowing the festival whole.

It’s as though the genre were becoming, not just a valid way to talk about the present, but the only way.

This was the quite explicit message of the audiovisual presentation Planet City and the Return of Global Wilderness  by London-trained, LA-based architect Liam Young, much of whose work is speculative — not to say downright science-fictional. Part of Young’s presentation was a retrospective of a career spent exploring global infrastructures, “an unevenly-distributed megastructure that hides in plain sight… slowly stitched together from stolen lands by planetary logistics.”

Forming a powerful contrast with his past travels — through container shipping, the garment supply chain, lithium mining and other real-world adventures — Planet City also featured a utopian future in which humanity sagely withdraws “into one hyper-dense metropolis housing the entire population of the Earth”.

It’s the impossibility of this utopia that’s Young’s point. Science fiction used to be full of such utopian possibilities. These days, however, it has become, Young says, just our favourite way of explaining to ourselves, over and over, the disasters engulfing us and our planet. The once hopeful genre of science fiction cedes ground to dystopia, leaving us “stranded in the long now… waiting for the end of the End of the World”.

We’ve confronted the End of the World before, of course. Marian Mayland’s film essay Michael Ironside and I  weaves between three imaginary rooms, assembled from still and short clips from three iconic science fiction films. The rooms are uninhabited, cluttered, uncanny, and cut together to create an imaginary habitation connected to the outside world via shafts and closet doors. War Games’s bedroom in a suburban family house (1983), Real Genius’s California campus dorm room (1985) and the bowels of Sea Quest DSV’s futuristic nuclear submarine (1993) fold into each other to create a poignant fictional 1990s childhood, capturing the effects of Cold War thinking on a generation of geeky male adolescents.

Mayland’s film, which won a German film critics’ award at the festival, is exactly the sort of work — moving between film and performance, document and experiment — that the festival has been championing for over forty years.

Other science-fictional experiments included Josh Weissbach’s A Landscape to be Invented, a collage of wobbly 16mm and Super 8 footage set to excerpts of audiobook sci-fi from the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson and Cixin Liu. It’s a kind of “how to” manual for terraforming a distant world, only this world is not verdant, but violet, not green but purple, as Weissbach passes his footage through a digital, faux-ultraviolet filter.

Zachary Epcar’s more obviously satirical The Canyon sees the calm pace of life in a sunny waterside housing estate turn increasingly strange, as the blissed-out, evesdropped lines of the inhabitants (“Sometimes I come to in the glassware aisle, and I don’t know how I got there”) give way to the meaningless electronic gabble and vibration of phones, toothbrushes and keyfobs.

If this all sounds rather grim, rather unsmiling, even rather hopeless — well, I don’t think the selection, or even the works themselves, were to blame. I think Young is right and the problem lies in science fiction itself: that it’s ceased to be a playground, and has become instead a deadly serious way of explaining increasingly interconnected and technological world. And that’s fine. That’s science fiction growing up.

But what the artist-filmmakers of EMAF have yet to find, is some other way — less technocratic, perhaps, and more political, more spiritual — for imagining a better future.

Oh, shut up

Watching Chaos Walking for New Scientist, 12 April 2021

Young Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is learning to be a man, and in Prentisstown (ostensibly the only settlement to survive humanity’s arrival on the planet New World) this means keeping your thoughts to yourself.

Something about the planet makes men’s thoughts both audible and visible to others. Men are constantly constantly having to hide their thoughts, by thinking of something else, by rehearsing daily chores, or even just by reciting their own names, again and again. Women were unaffected, apparently, but the native (and rarely glimpsed) Spackle killed them all years ago.

(If this account of things seems a little off, imagine it delivered by an especially troubled-looking Mads Mikkelsen, playing the settlement’s mysterious mayor. Watching his settlement’s secrets come to light, one by one, is one of this film’s chief delights.)

Viola, played by Daisy Ridley, has arrived from space, scouting for a second settlement wave when her landing craft all but burns up, leaving her at the mercy of the men of Prentisstown. You’d think they’d be glad of her arrival and her company — but you would be wrong.

Chaos Walking arrives under something of a cloud; to begin with, no one could fix on a script they liked. Charlie Kaufmann (of Being John Malkovich fame) got first bite of the cherry, before the project was passed from pillar to post and ended up being crafted by Christopher Ford (Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)) and Patrick Ness, author of the book on which this film is based, The Knife of Never Letting Go. Chaos Walking should, by all measures, have ended up a mess.

But if it’s not the blockbuster the studio expected or needed, Chaos Walking is nonetheless a real accomplishment: a disconcerting little masterpiece of sensitive acting and well-judged design.

In this film, men quite literally cannot shut up, and in her very first conversation with Mayor Prentiss, it dawns on Viola that this gives her huge advantages. She can lie, she can keep secrets, and she’s the only one here who can — crucial points made almost entirely in dialogue-less reaction shots. Daisy Ridley’s talents weren’t wildly well served in the last three Star Wars films, but she’s given her head here.

Tom Holland’s Todd is a naif who must save Viola and get her to a neighbouring settlement he never even realised existed — a place where women survive and (understandably) dominate.

Todd is the model of what a man must be in this New World: polite, honest, and circumspect. Holland’s bid to “be a man” in such circumstances is anything but straightforward — but Holland keeps our sympathy and our regard.

Indeed, the great strength of Chaos Walking is that it interrogates gender roles by creating genuine difficulties for its characters. Even Prentisstown’s lunatic and misogynist preacher Aaron — surely David Oyelowo’s most unrewarding role yet, all beetle brows and gnashing teeth — turns out to make a dreadful kind of sense.

No gender is well served by the strange telepathic gifts bestowed on half the human settlers of New World. Only good will and superhuman patience prevents human society going up like a powder keg.

This has happened once, in Prentisstown, and — given the weirdly stalled settlement of the planet — it has almost certainly happened elsewhere. The planet’s architecture and technology are an uneasy and creative mishmash of battered industrial machinery and Western-genre make-do-and-mend. The effect is oddly unsettling, particularly in the sequence where horse-riders pursue each other through a forest that had very obviously been planted in rows.

Chaos Walking is not a western. Neither is it, in any easy sense, a feminist fable. Chaos Walking is about people’s struggles in unreasonable circumstances, and for all the angst bound up in its premise, it becomes, by the end, a charming and uplifting film about love and reconciliation.

Perfect in a special way

Watching An Impossible Project for New Scientist, 24 March 2021

Jens Meurer is a hard figure to pin down. As a producer he’s seen major mainstream movies like Black Book (2006) and Rush (2013) to the big screen; the European Academy named him ‘documentary filmmaker of the year’ in 1995; he’s also quite prepared to spend months following in the wake of an eccentric Viennese entrepreneur who’s convinced that the future of technology is analogue, or at any rate post-digital — a strange and hard to monetize mash-up of the two, perhaps.

An Impossible Project is Meurer’s passion project about Florian Kapps (everyone calls him “Doc” on account of his working studying the eye muscles of spiders). Though he can never be too sure how to meet next month’s bills, Kapps nonetheless moves in interesting circles. We follow him around Berlin, New York and Menlo Park, and say goodbye to him as he’s hosting a dinner party for “analogue champions” including higher-ups in Moleskine, Polaroid and Facebook (yes, Facebook: it has an analog research lab) in a mothballed (hence wholly analogue) grand hotel just outside Vienna.

Kapps is a one-man cultural revolution. He bought the last surviving Polaroid factory in 2008, just before it was due to be demolished. He got it running again, only to discover that several chemicals needed to make Polaroid’s signature instant-developing film were no longer in production. That film was “the most chemically complicated man-made product ever,” claims Steve Herchen a former Polaroid product manager. Early attempts to replicate the original formula were, in Kapps’s memorable phrase, “perfect in a special way” (the colours were wildly unreliable; half the time the image would melt off the backing).

Still, Kapps persevered. He reckoned analogue technology has an irresistible mystique; that if he rebuilt the technology, new customers would appear. And he was right: Impossible, the company he founded, now bears the Polaroid name and sells a million instant films a year. Kapps, though, is a dreamer, not a manager, and Impossible’s board had long since kicked him out.

It is hard to feel too sorry for him. His subsequent ventures in analogue — including a museum-cum-bar-cum-store in Vienna called Supersense — address, in a much more direct and personally satisfying fashion, his scattergun delight in goods you can touch and smell, and machines you can hear working and can take apart and understand. Kapps curates analogue printing machinery, recording equipment, cameras and telephones. All the machines work, and those that are for sale, sell quickly. Every few weeks he traipses across Austria in search of just the right meats to serve in his cafe. After hours he uses his shop floor to stage concerts that are cut straight to vinyl, creating one-of-a-kind records of live events. David Bohnett, creator of Geocities and one of Silicon Valley’s first millionaires, reckons Kapps is inventing a whole new class of luxury item — unique records of unique experiences. Is he right?

People under 25 seem to think so. It’s this cohort, who grew up in a digital world, who are Kapps’s most eager customers. Kapps believes a monotonously digital diet has starved them of sensory pleasure, and that “after a long period of analogue companies trying hard to become digital, it’s now time for the digital companies to start thinking how to connect with people in analogue ways.”

An Impossible Project is a highly ingenious movie. Meurer has gone to extraordinary lengths to portray the man who saved Polaroid in a film that captures that casual, magical, slightly unreliable Polaroid feel. It’s informal. Practically every take looks like an outtake. People grin at the camera as if they’ve never seen a camera before. The shots don’t seem particularly well framed, and yet they add up to an extraordinarily beautiful film. And the colours are gorgeous.

Just dump your filth on somebody else

Watching Space Sweepers, directed by Jo Sung-hee, for New Scientist, 24 February 2021

Tae-Ho is a sweeper-up of other people’s orbital junk, a mudlark in space scavenging anything of value. In Jo Sung-hee’s new movie Space Sweepers, he is someone who is most alone in a crowd – that is to say, among his crewmates on the spaceship Victory. They are a predictable assortment: a feisty robot with detachable feet; a heavily armed yet disarmingly gamine captain; a gnarly but lovable engineer with a past.

Tae-ho is played by Song Joong-ki, who also starred in Jo’s romantic smash hit A Werewolf Boy (2012). Song is the latest in a long line of South Korean actors whose utter commitment and lack of ego can bring the sketchiest script to life (think Choi Min-sik in revenge tragedy Oldboy, or Gong Yoo in zombie masterpiece Train to Busan).

Tae-ho has a secret. As a child soldier, culling troublemakers in orbit, he once saved the life of a little girl, adopted her, was ostracised for it, hit the skids and lost his charge in a catastrophic orbital collision. Now he wants her back, at any cost.

The near-magical mega-corp UTS can resurrect her using her DNA signature. This is the same outfit that is making Mars ready for settlement, but only for an elite 5 per cent of Earth’s population. The rest are left to perish on the desertified planet. All that is needed to restore Tae-ho’s ward is more money than he will ever see in his life, no matter how much junk he and his mates clear.

Then, as they tear apart a crashed shuttle, the crew discovers 7-year-old Kang Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin), a girl with a secret. She may not even be a girl at all, but a robot; a robot who may not be a robot at all, but a bomb. Selling her to the highest bidder will get Tae-ho’s daughter back, but at what moral cost?

South Korea’s first space-set blockbuster is, in one aspect at least, a very traditional film. Like so much of South Korean cinema, it explores the ethical consequences of disparities of wealth – how easily poorer people can be corrupted, while the rich face no moral tests at all.

But what do all these high-minded, high-octane shenanigans have to do with space junk, like the 20,000 artificial objects with orbits around Earth that can be tracked? Or the 900,000 bits of junk between 1 and 10 centimetres long? Or the staggering 128 million pieces that are smaller still and yet could wreak all kinds of havoc, from scratching the lens of a space telescope to puncturing a space station’s solar array?

Nothing, and everything. Space Sweepers is a space opera, not Alfonso CuarÓn’s Gravity. The director’s interest in the physics of low orbit begins and ends with the mechanics of rapidly rotating bodies. And boy, do they rotate. On a surprisingly small budget, the movie ravishes the eye and overwhelms the ear as Victory hurtles through a cluttered, industrialised void, all right angles and vanishing perspectives. You can’t help but think that while space may never look like this, it could easily feel like it: frenetic, crowded, unreasonable, ungiving, a meat grinder for the soul.

Similarly, while the very real problem of space junk won’t be solved by marginalised refugees in clapped-out spaceships, this film has hit on some truth. Cleanliness isn’t a virtue because it is too easy to fake: just dump your filth on somebody else. It is just wealth, admiring itself in the mirror. Real virtue, says this silly but very likeable film, comes with dirt on its hands.