More believable than the triumph

Visiting In Event of Moon Disaster at the Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, for the Telegraph, 16 February 2024

20:05 GMT on 20 July 1969: astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are aboard Apollo l1’s Lunar Command Module, dropping steadily towards the lunar surface in humankind’s first attempt to visit another world.

“Drifting to the right a little,” Buzz remarks — and then an alarm goes off, and then another, and another, until at last the transmission breaks down.

The next thing we see is a desk set in front of a blue curtain, and flanked by flags: the Stars and Stripes, and the Presidential seal. Richard Nixon, the US President, takes his seat and catches the eye of figures hovering off-screen: is everything ready?

And so he begins; it’s a speech no one can or will forget. It was written by his speechwriter, William Safire, as a contingency in the event that Buzz and Neil land on the Moon in a way that leaves them alive but doomed, stranded without hope of rescue in the Sea of Tranquility.

“These brave men… know that there is no hope for their recovery.” Nixon swallows hard. “But they also know that there is hope for Mankind in their sacrifice.”

From 17 February, Richard Nixon’s speech will play to visitors to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich. They will watch it from the comfort of a 1960s-era sofa, in a living room decked out in such a way as to transport them back to that day, in June 1969, when two heroes found themselves doomed and alone and sure to die on the Moon.

Confronted with Nixon struggling to control his emotions on a period TV, they may well ask themselves if what they are seeing is real. The props are real, and so is the speech, marking and mourning the death of two American heroes. Richard Nixon is real, or as real as anyone can be on TV. His voice and gestures are his own (albeit — and we’ll come to this in a moment — strung together by generative computer algorithms).

Will anyone be fooled?

Not me. I can remember Apollo 11’s successful landing, and the crew’s triumphant return to Earth less than a week later, on 24 July. But, hang on — what, exactly, do I remember? I was two. If my parents had told me, over and over, that they had sat me down in front of TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination, I would probably have come to believe that, too. Memory is unreliable, and people are suggestible.

Jago Cooper includes the installation In Event of Moon Disaster in the Sainsbury Centre’s exhibition “What Is Truth”. Cooper, who directs the centre, wasn’t even born when Apollo 11 rose from the launchpad. Neither were the two filmmakers, Halsey Burgund and Francesca Panetta, who won a 2021 Emmy for In Event Of Moon Disaster in the category of Interactive Media Documentary. The bottom line here seems to be: the past exists only because we trust what others say about it.

Other exhibits in the “What is Truth?” season will come at the same territory from different angles. There are artworks about time and artworks about identity. In May, an exhibition entitled The Camera Never Lies uses war photography from a private collection, The Incite Project, to reveal how a few handfuls of images have shaped our narratives of conflict. This is the other thing to remember, as we contemplate a world awash with deepfakes and avatars: the truth has always been up for grabs.

Sound artist Halsey Burgund and artist-technologist Francesca Panetta recruited experts in Israel and Ukraine to help realise In Event Of Moon Disaster. Actor Louis Wheeler spent days in a studio, enacting Nixon’s speech; the President’s face, posture and mannerisms were assembled from archive footage of a speech about Vietnam.

President Nixon’s counterfactual TV eulogy was produced by the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality to highlight the malleability of digital images. It’s been doing the rounds of art galleries and tech websites since 2019, and times have moved on to some degree. Utter the word “deepfake” today and you’re less likely to conjure up images of a devastated Richard Nixon as gossip about those pornographic deepfake images of Taylor Swift, viewed 27 million times in 19 hours when they were circulated this January on Twitter.

No-one imagines for second that Swift had anything to do with them, of course, so let’s be positive here: MIT’s message about not believing everything you see is getting through.

As a film about deepfakes, In Event of Moon Disaster is strangely reassuring. It’s a work of genuine creative brilliance. It’s playful: we feel warmer towards Richard Nixon in this difficult fictional moment than we probably ever felt about him in life. It’s educational: the speech, though it never had to be delivered (thank God), is real enough, an historical document that reveals how much was at stake on that day. And in a twisted way, the film is immensely respectful, singing the praises of extraordinary men in terms only tragedy can adequately articulate.

As a film about the Moon, though, In Event of Moon Disaster is a very different kettle of fish and frankly disturbing. You can’t help but feel, having watched it, that Burgund and Panetta’s synthetic moon disaster is more believable than Apollo’s actual, historical triumph.

The novelist Norman Mailer observed early on that “in another couple of years there will be people arguing in bars about whether anyone even went to the Moon.” And so it came to pass: claims that the moon landings were fake began the moment the Apollo missions ended in 1972.

The show’s curator Jago Cooper has a theory about this: “The Moon is such a weird bloody thing,” he says. “The idea that we merely pretended to walk about there is more believable than what actually happened. That’s the thing about our relationship with what we’re told: it has to be believable within our lived experience, or we start driving wedges into it that undermine its credibility.”

This raises a nasty possibility: that the more enormous our adventures, the less likely we are to believe them; and the crazier our world, the less attention we’ll pay to it. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” said TS Eliot, and maybe we’re beginning to understand why.

For a start, we cannot bear too much information. The more we’re told about the world, the more we search for things that are familiar. In an essay accompanying the exhibition, curator Paul Luckraft finds us in thrall to confirmation bias “because we can’t see what’s new in the dizzying amount of text, image, video and audio fragments available to us.”

The deluge of information brought about by digital culture is already being weaponised — witness Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who observed in 2018, ‘The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Even more disturbing: the world of shifting appearances ushered in by Bannon, Trump, Putin et al. might be the saving of us. In a recent book about the future of nuclear warfare, Deterrence under Uncertainty, RAND policy researcher Edward Geist conjures up a likely media-saturated future in which we all know full well that appearances are deceptive, but no-one has the faintest idea what is actually going on. Belligerents in such a world would never have to fire a shot in anger, says Geist, merely persuade the enemy that their adversary’s values are better than their own.

“Tricky Dick” Nixon would flourish in such a hyper-paranoid world, but then, so might we all. Imagine that perpetual peace is ours for the taking — so long as we abandon the faith in facts that put men on the Moon!

Fifty years ago you’d have struggled to find a anyone casting doubt on NASA’s achievement, that day in July 1969. Fifty years later, a YouGov poll found sixteen per cent of the British public believed the moon landing most likely never happened.

Deepfakes themselves aren’t the cause of such incredulity, but they have the potential to exacerbate it immeasurably — and this, says Halsey Burgund, is why he and Francesca Panetta were inspired to make In Event of Moon Disaster. “The hope of the project is to provide some simple awareness of this kind of technology, its ubiquity and out-there-ness,” he explains. “If we’ve made an aesthetically satisfying and emotional piece, so much the better — it’ll help people internalise the challenges facing us right now.” Though bullish in defence of the technology’s artistic possibilities, Burgund concedes that the harms it can wreak are real, and can be distributed at scale. (Ask Taylor Swift.) “It’s not as though intelligent people aren’t addressing these problems,” Burgund says. “But it takes a lot of time — and society can’t change that quickly.”

A snapshot of how a city survives

Watching Occupied City by Steve McQueen for New Scientist, 31 January 2024

Artist and director Steve McQueen’s new documentary unfolds at a leisurely pace. Viewers will be glad of the 15-minute intermission baked into the footage, some two hours into the film’s over-four-hour runtime. If you need to make a fast getaway, now’s your chance — but I’ll bet the farm that you’ll return to your seat.

McQueen, a Londoner, now lives in Amsterdam with his wife Bianca Stigter, and Occupied City is based on Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945, Stigter’s monumental account of the city’s wartime Nazi occupation.

Narrator Melanie Hyams recites the book’s gazetteer of the occupation, address by address, while McQueen films each place as it appears today. Here is the street market where they used to hand out Star of David patches to the city’s Jews. (60,000 of the city’s 80,000 Jews were expelled during the second world war, and almost all of those taken were subsequently murdered.) Outside this now busy cafe, someone once found a potato in the gutter, and burned a book to cook it. At this site, in the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945, the diving boards at a since demolished swimming pool were chopped up for firewood. Here, a family was saved. There, a resistance worker was betrayed.

Though many of the buildings still stand, the word “demolished” recurs again and again, and it’s rare that McQueen’s street photography does not capture some new bit of demolition or construction. Amsterdam does not stay still. So how does a living, changing city remember itself?

There are acts of commemoration of course — among them a royal visit to a Jewish holocaust memorial, and a municipal apology for the predations of the city’s participation in the slave trade. But a city’s identity runs deeper than memorials surely? Do drinkers at this bar remember the Jews who were beaten outside their windows? Do the occupants of that flat know about the previous owners, a Jewish couple who committed suicide, sooner than live under Nazi occupation?

Stigter’s Atlas is an act of remembrance. Her husband’s film is different: a snapshot of how a city survives being managed and choreographed, corralled and contained. Some of Occupied City was shot during a five-week Covid lockdown. We see the modern city beset by plague, even as we hear of how, in the past, it was brought near to destruction by foreign occupation. McQueen draws no facile parallels here. Rather, we’re encouraged to see that restrictions are restrictions and curfews are curfews, whoever imposes them, and whatever their motives. What’s interesting is to see how people react to civil control, as it becomes (whether through necessity or not) increasingly heavy-handed.
At a big anti-fascist rally, conducted outside the city’s Concertgebouw concert hall, a speaker announces that “Democracy is more fragile then ever.”

Is it, though? Occupied City would suggest otherwise. It’s a film full of ordinary people, eating, playing guitar (badly), playing videogames, smoking, sheltering from the rain, and walking dogs in the mist. It’s a film about citizenry who survived one lethal onslaught now handling another one — not so obviously violent, perhaps, but pervasive and undoubtedly lethal.

Occupied City is not about what people believe. It’s about how they behave. And, lo and behold, people are mostly decent. Leave us alone, and we’ll go tobogganing, or skating, or cycling, or dancing. We’re civically minded by nature. The nightmares, the riots, the beating and betrayals — these only surface when you start putting us in boxes.

A spirit of anarchism pervades this monumental movie. It’s not anti-authoritarian, exactly; it’s just not that interested in what authority thinks. Reeling as we are from the dislocations of Covid, it’s a comfort, and a challenge, to be reminded that cities are, when you come down to it, nothing more than their people.

“Something very strange is happening here”

Watching Maite Alberdi’s The Eternal Memory for New Scientist, 1 November 2023

Sometimes, to really understand a process, you have to follow it, without flinching, even if it upsets you, even if it breaks your heart.

Oscar-nominated director Maite Alberdi won the Sundance Grand Jury prize in 2023 for The Eternal Memory, a documentary made from original footage, home movies, newsreels and tapes smuggled out of Chile during the darkest years of General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year-long dictatorship. Its subject is the Chilean writer and journalist Augusto Góngora, who’s living — and by the last reel very obviously dying — with Alzheimer’s disease.

Góngora (who passed away earlier this year aged 71) spent the years between 1973 and 1990 editing an opposition newspaper and shooting and smuggling VHS recordings out of Chile, as part of a desperate attempt to document and share years of national turmoil and horror. It was dangerous work. In 1985 a fellow journalist on the project, Jose Manuel Parada, had his throat slit from ear to ear for his trouble. This violent episode haunts Góngora, whose sense of self comes to depend increasingly on the presence (real or imagined) of friends and family.

From 1990 Góngora’s films recording “17 years of death” were succeeded by 18 years of cultural programming, as he went about interviewing writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians — people he believed could help bring his newly democratised nation out of its forced (book-banned, movie-less) forgetfulness, and reawaken its once vibrant culture.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014, Góngora readily embraced his wife’s plan to record his physical and cognitive decline. Such a record would, at very least, be a testament to their 25 years together. Assembled, edited and capstoned with much new footage, The Eternal Memory is that and more: a meditation on what we can and cannot expect from memory.

The spine of the film is an honest, frank but never voyeuristic account of how Augusto Gongora succumbs to his neurodegenerative disease. Early on we see his wife, the actress and politician Paulina Fernández, taking the couple’s portrait off the bedroom wall before they settle to sleep. If she doesn’t take it down, the sight of two strangers staring down at him from the wall in the middle of the night might send Augusto into a panic.

Gongora’s deterioration is relentless: soon he is talking to the strangers in mirrors and glass doors. “Something very strange is happening here,” he muses. Soon he will not even recognise Paulina’s face.

Paulina’s plight is given its proper weight. Tirelessly she recites the basic facts of her lover’s life to him, and for a while, this litany brings comfort. “They’re always with me,” Augusto mutters, over and over, “and they love me, every day.” But no respite lasts for long, and the toll all this takes on Paulina is shocking.

What’s extraordinary about this film is that, even as it records the disintegration of memory in a single individual, it celebrates the way memories — set down in books, recorded on videotapes, delivered as witness statements or transmuted into art or drama or music — work collectively to bring an all-but-broken nation back to life.

Because for all the sadness here, this, too, must be said: that Gongora, through his films and through the three volume collection of remembrances La Memoria Prohibida (published at last in 1989), kept the memory of his country alive, and by doing so, he preserved its identity.

One line from that three-volume work of national renaissance echoes through the film: ”Without memory, there is no identity”. “I’m not myself any more,” Gongora weeps, near the end of the film. Even as Gongora loses his identity, however, his people are seen regaining theirs.

At a time when the idea of national identity is little more than a political football, it is worth remembering that a people’s idea of itself is a living thing, worth defending against the amnesia of tyrants.

Apocalypse Now Lite

Watching Gareth Edwards’s The Creator for New Scientist, 4 October 2023

A man loses his wife in the war with the robots. The machines didn’t kill her; human military ineptitude did. She was pregnant with his child. The man (played by John David Washington, whose heart-on-sleeve performance can’t quite pull this film out of the fire) has nothing to live for, until it turns out that his wife is alive and working with the robots to build a weapon. The weapon turns out to be a robot child (an irresistible performance by 7-year-old Madeleine Yuna Voyles) who possesses the ability to control machines at a distance. Man and weapon go in search of the man’s wife; they’re a family in wartime, trying to reconnect, and their reconnection will end the war and change everything.

The Creator’s great strength is its futuristic south-east Asian setting. (You know a film has problems when the reviewer launches straight in with the set design.) Police drones like mosquitos rumble overhead. Mantis-headed robots in red robes ring temple bells to warn of American air attack.

The Creator is Apocalypse Now Lite: the Americans aggressors have been traumatised by the nuking of Los Angeles — an atrocity they blame on their own AI. They’ve hurled their own robots into the garbage compactor (literally — a chilling up-scaled retread of that Star Wars scene). But South East Asia has had the temerity to fall in love with AI technology. They’re happy to be out-evolved! The way a unified, Blade-Runner-esque “New Asia” sees it, LA was an accident a long way away; people replace people all the time; and a robot is a person.

Hence: war. Hence: rural villages annihilated under blue laser light. Hence: missiles launched from space against temple complexes in mountain fastnesses. Hence: river towns reduced to matchwood under withering small-arms fire.

If nothing else, it’s spectacular.

The Creator is not so much a stand-alone sf blockbuster as a game of science fiction cinema bingo. Enormous battle tanks, as large as the villages they crush? think Avatar. A very-low-orbit space station, large enough to be visible in the daytime? think Oblivion. Child with special powers? think Stranger Things. The Creator is a science fiction movie assembled from the tropes of other science fiction movies. If it is not as bankrupt as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels Prometheus and Covenant (now those were bad movies), it’s because we’ve not seen south-east Asia cyborgised before (though readers of sf have been inhabiting such futures for over thirty years) and also because director Gareth Edwards once again proves that he can pull warm human performances from actors lumbered with any amount of gear, sweating away on on the busiest, most cluttered and complex set.

This is not nothing. Nor, alas, is it enough.

As a film school graduate Gareth Edwards won a short sci-fi film contest in London, and got a once in a lifetime chance to make a low budget feature. Monsters (2010) managed to be both a character piece and a love story and a monster movie all in one. On the back of it he got a shot at a Star Wars spin-off in 2014, which hijacked the entire franchise (everyone loved Rogue One and its TV spin-off Andor is much admired; Disney’s own efforts at canon have mostly flopped).

The Creator should have been Edwards’s Star Wars. Instead, something horrible has happened in the editing. Vital lines are being delivered in scenes so truncated, it’s as though the actors are explaining the film directly to the audience. Every few minutes, tears run down Washington’s face, Voyles’s chin trembles, and we have no idea, none, what brought them to their latest crescendo — and ooh look, that goofy running bomb! That reminds me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow…

The Creator is a fine spectacle. What we needed was a film that had something to say.

An all-out cyberwar is coming

Watching Billion Dollar Heist by Daniel Gordon for New Scientist, 6 September 2023

On Thursday, 4 February 2016, after a year of meticulous malware-enabled close observation of its computer systems, an international criminal group called Lazarus tried to steal a billion dollars from Bangladesh Bank. The country’s central bank was a soft target, with no firewall, and simple $10 electronic switches connecting it to the SWIFT global payment system — used by over 11,000 financial institutions around the world.

The Federal Reserve in New York, meanwhile, is the largest bank in the world, housed in one of its most secure buildings, with its own power plant, water supply and communications system. One problem: back in 2016, it hadn’t thought to put in an emergency hotline for its customers. This, in an institution responsible for providing financial services to foreign central banks and international organisations as well as to the US government, has since proved to be, shall we say, a source of embarrassment.

An interview with British investigative journalist Misha Glenny provides the narrative for Billion Dollar Heist, a documentary that makes up, with its talking heads and comic-book graphics, what it lacks in expensive location shots. Reuters journalist Krishna Das guides us through the heist itself. Of the 35 financial transactions Lazarus attempted, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York cleared five, sending 101 million dollars in two directions: $20 million to Sri Lanka (where a spelling error raised a red flag and stopped the transaction) and $81 million to the Philippines, where Under Philippine banking laws, the stolen funds could not be frozen until a criminal case was lodged. Most of the $81 million disappeared into the country’s casino industry, which is exempted from anti-money laundering laws, and was lost, presumably forever.

Requests for payment continued to pour in, totalling around a billion dollars. By then, though, and frankly more by luck than good management, the fraud had been detected. (The fraud: not the hack. That took months to unpick.)

Finnish computer security expert Mikko Hyppönen and Eric Chien, technical director of Symantec’s Security Technology and Response division, lead the film’s discussion of the implications.

The Lazarus Group, bankrolled by the North Korean government, was responsible for the heist. In 2017, a year after the events recounted here, it attacked five Asian crypto exchanges and made off with $571 million.

If they worked purely to line their own pockets, this would be bad enough, but such organisations — and there are about a dozen of them, including APT 10 (backed by China) and Sandworm (backed by Russia) — are very much thieves for hire, riding the boom in state-sponsored cybercrime that’s been triggered, we’re told here, by the growing effectiveness of the global sanctions regime.

If the daylight world of international diplomacy stops your bank accounts, you know who to call.

Billion Dollar Heist is directed by Daniel Gordon, a sports documentary maker whose 2002 film, about the 1966 North Korea national football team drew him into more politically charged territory. True to his pedigree, he spins a logistically complex story in terms that are easy to follow. No ponderous political generalisations cloud his narrative. This is a caper movie, albeit one with a vicious sting in the tale, as Misha Glenny spends the last few minutes of screentime preparing us for the world this heist and others are ushering in. The world hasn’t had an all-out cyberwar yet, but it’s coming, care of Lazarus and other groups the US State Department has designated “Advanced Persistent Threats”.

Health services, transport networks, communications, finance and the apparatus of government: all are a single human error away from compromise, and then annihilation.

Remember that, next time you forget your keys.

The press of a single red button

Watching Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer for New Scientist, 19 July 2023

At 05.29 and 45 seconds on 16 July 1945, an electrical circuit clicks shut and thirty-two detonators fire, driving a uranium plug into a core of plutonium. The plutonium fissions, each atom splitting into lighter elements, a blast of gamma radiation and two or three more neutrons, which hurtle forth, triggering further reactions. A new world order is born: one in which the human species has the capacity to all-but wipe itself from the face of the planet; a world in which the terror of annihilation helps avert global conflict, unevenly, at great cost, and by no means necessarily for ever.

J Robert Oppenheimer directed atomic bomb development at Los Alamos in New Mexico, and then spent many subsequent years arguing for international arms control, and against US development of the even more powerful fusion bomb. Not only did he midwife this new Cold War world into being; he gave us the vocabulary with which to talk about it, agonise over it, and fear it.

It is possible to miss the point of Christopher Nolan’s superb biopic of Oppenheimer. One and a half hours of screen time follow the successful Trinity test of an atomic device. If all that interests you is how Nolan, a filmmaker famously wedded to analogue production and real (70mm IMAX) film, conveys the scale of an atomic explosion, you’re in for a long haul.

Oppenheimer is about the war in its hero’s head. It reflects the world in which Oppenheimer actually operated. It’s a film set in lecture rooms and laboratories, in living rooms and kitchens, shacks and bunkers. (The horror of Hiroshima is conveyed quite simply: Oppenheimer, sat in front of footage of the aftermath, cannot stand to watch, and looks away.)

Following America’s use of two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the second world war, walls shake, exposures wobble, continuity stutters and different film stocks are muddled together to convey Oppenheimer’s increasingly nightmarish experience of the new reality. Were Nolan’s story (drawn from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus) not so grippingly told, the final film, with its invarying pace, portentous, minimalist musical score and abiding humourlessness would, I suspect, prove unwatchable: like 2020’s Tenet, a film easier to read than to watch: a three-hour-long promo video.

What transforms Oppenheimer — and makes it, for my money at any rate, Nolan’s best film since 2006’s The Prestige — is the sheer crafti evident in the script.

The film orbits around two official hearings, both of which took place in the early fifties: Oppenheimer’s appeal against the revocation of his security clearance with the Atomic Energy Commission; and former AEC commissioner Lewis Strauss’s cabinet confirmation hearing as he tilted for reappointment as US Commerce Secretary. Those who know Strausss’s fraught attitudes towards Oppenheimer will relish Robert Downey Jr’s screen-chewing perfomance as the multifaceted Strauss. Those coming to the material fresh have a cracking twist in store, as the pair’s relationship comes to vivid life in the final act of the film.

Fragments of Oppenheimer’s odyssey — from theoretical astrophysicist to father of the atomic bomb — orbit these two centres of gravity. The narrative surface that results is as complex as anything Nolan has achieved before, but less confusing. Oppenheimer covers a staggering amount of intellectual historical and biographical ground, with nary a trace of gallumphing exposition. The script finds room to give Russian physicists given their due, and conveys very sensitively the internationalist sentiment that dominated research at Los Alamos.

Of course, the physicists and engineers at Los Alamos could think what they liked. There was a war on, and a Cold War to follow. Oppenheimer’s largely fruitless tilts at geopolitical realities after the war was over became emblematic of the plight of the conscience-stricken government scientist. His damaging run-ins with officialdom during the anti-communist scares of the 1950s only confirmed his status as a modern Prometheus, punished for handing atomic fire to humanity.

Strauss had little time for the idea of Oppenheimer-the-tragic-overreacher, and Nolan, funnily enough, seems to agree. At any rate, he finds no use for Oppenheimer’s own self-dramatising. (Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad-Gita, used to notoriously bang on about becoming Death, Destroyer of Worlds; this dark flourish is got rid of early on.) Nolan is much more interested in Oppenheimer’s impossible bind: an intelligent man, by no means naive or “unpolitical”, whose background in academia and theory un-fits him for the world he helps create. Emily Blunt’s performance as Kitty, Oppenheimer’s increasingly embittered and partisan wife, is crucial, if almost wordless. Other big names flourish in supporting roles that allow them unusual freedom. Matt Damon is positively gruff as Leslie Groves, the general in charge of the Los Alamos project; Dane DeHaan relishes a gratingly unsympathetic portrait of Kenneth Nichols, director of US Army R&D; Bennie Safdie makes even the peaceniks among us fall in love with Edward Teller, hawkish father of the fusion bomb, a straight-shooting adversary Oppenheimer can’t help but shake by the hand, to Kitty’s lip-curling disgust.

Even before he starts acting, Cillian Murphy’s resting demeanour drips a sort of divine cluelessness that makes him a shoo-in for the role of Robert Oppenheimer. He goes on to deliver a shuddering performance that, more than any finely wrought dialogue, conveys the impossible moral bind of scientists recruited into government service.

To know the world is to change it. On 16 July 1945, knowledge and deed were separated by the press of a single red button. Oppenheimer takes three hours to explain why this moment matters, and there’s not a second of screentime wasted. It’s a rich, strange, compelling film. A tragedy, yes — and a triumph.

“I want you to laugh openly at it”

Watching Sebastien Blanc’s Cerebrum for New Scientist, 12 July 2023

A year after the car he was driving span off the road and into a tree, William is shown into an all but empty room. There’s a camp bed. A TV. It’s not his old bedroom — it might not even be his house, it’s so anonymous — but it’ll have to do. William’s still learning to walk again, and the stairs will be too much for him. This is a shame, because he wants to see his mother, who never comes downstairs, never visits him, and is, it seems, constantly “under the weather”.

William scribbles a message to Richard, the man who brought him here: “Is she angry?” and Richard protests just that little bit too much. Already we feel we shouldn’t be watching, not because there’s anything bad going on, but because the script, by first-time feature director Sebastien Blanc, absolutely refuses to acknowledge our presence.

The camera work is no guide, either. Shot in the flat, pseudo-factual style of a British soap opera, Cerebrum views everything that happens with same dispassion. No jump scares. No plangent chords. We’re going to have to figure all this out for ourselves.

And so we do. Richard is William’s adoptive father. The house, for all that it is virtually empty, is indeed — or was — their family home. Dad is killing and burying women in the garden. And Mum is — or jolly well ought to be — dead, killed in the accident for which William (rightly, as it turns out) blames himself.

“You have no idea what I am doing to fix what you have done,” says Richard, in a rare moment of lost temper, and hands the astute viewer pretty much the entire plot.

It’s a gutsy, deliberate move, placing suspense over surprise. We know our Frankenstein. We know what happens to the mad professor in the attic. For one hour and 37 minutes we watch, with growing excitement and gathering horror, as the expected denouement approaches, and Ramona Von Pusch, playing William’s mother, gets the briefest of brief moments in the limelight.

Tobi King Bakare’s more or less mute turn as William, damaged in both body and mind, is visceral to a fault. Best of all, he never plays for sympathy: William hates himself so much, we rather hate him too, at least at first.

Steve Oram, who plays Richard, is a ubiquitous presence on British TV, but nothing prepared us for this. It’s impossible to keep in mind that the man is acting. Richard is a terrifying creation: a quiet, unimaginative man building his very own road to Hell.

When the floodgates finally crack, and Richard sits William down for a spot of family therapy, things take a very dark emotional turn. “I want you to visualise what is troubling you,” says Richard, “and then I want you to laugh openly at it” — at which point half of me wanted to cheer at the scriptwriter’s chutzpah, the half to run screaming from the living room.

Cerebrum is not an important movie. It’s a no-budget labour of love that gives writer-director Blanc something to talk about in pitch meetings. Structured entirely around suspense, the film can’t help but leave us feel disappointed in the final reel, though I can’t help but feel that any extra twists would have felt tacked-on. The script, which gives a black twentysomething white adoptive parents, and then hands everyone plenty of conversational rope with which to hang themselves, suggests Jordan Peele’s superbly queasy 2017 debut Get Out — but the threads here aren’t gathered nearly so tightly or so cleverly.

Watch Cerebrum for its performances, for its chillingly spare script, and for the trust it puts in its audience. Don’t expect miracles. Richard did, and look what happens to him…

Don’t be fooled by that Grateful Dead concert

Watching Wild Life by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi for New Scientist, 14 June 2023

Don’t be fooled by that Grateful Dead concert near the beginning. Wild Life is not about happy-go-lucky hippies who fell backwards into money.

It’s about three major outdoor apparel companies, and the minds that founded and controlled them. And it’s the story of how two of those minds, Doug and Kristine Tompkins, spent their middle years engineering the largest ever private land donation in history, all to save diverse and rapidly degrading ecosystems.

Kristine (then McDivitt) met rock-climber Yvon Chouinart in 1965 and went on to help him turn his blacksmithing business (turning out pitons and other climbing gear) into a world-leading outdoor brand, Patagonia. Chouinart conceived Patagonia as an “anti-corporation”, campaigning to preserve the environments its products let you explore.

by the early 1990s Chouinart, despairing of the garment industry’s environmental footprint, had started promoting advertising copy that all but urged customers not to buy his clothing.

That was the moment Kristine decided there had to be more to life. She quit her role as Patagonia’s first CEO. She wanted something “wild”. Something “outrageous”. And by marrying Doug Tompkins, she got it.

Doug and his wife Susie were long-time friends and rivals. They were the ones who got Grateful Dead to play at the opening of their first store, called North Face. Later, they founded Esprit. Now Doug was divorced and out of the business, living in Chile, haemorrhaging money on experiments in sustainable agriculture and trying to buy his way into the conversation game, one acre at a time.

He had set up home in Chile, was widely mistrusted, and didn’t seem to care. Once, when word went round that he had set a bounty on a man hired by salmon farmers to shoot sea lions, he had to hide out in the US embassy.

Chile was emerging from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The last thing ithe country needed was to see its land bought up and (many suspected) parcelled off by an American tycoon. Chile is narrow — a strip of land between the Andes and the coast, just 90 km wide at its thinnest point. Doug’s plans for a public nature reserve not only looked unfamiliar; they also split the country in two.

Doug died in 2015 from hypothermia following a sea kayaking accident. His death, Kristine says, nearly finished her. Instead she dedicated herself to expanding on what he had started.

She has triumphed. For every acre Kristine has donated up to 2018, Chile’s federal government has set aside nine acres of unused land. 17 wildlife parks have been created, covering 14.7m acres. That’s more than three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone combined. About the size of Switzerland. And the work continues, in Chile and in neighbouring Venezuela.

Wild Life is billed as a love story. Kristine’s presence on camera, her passion, and her continuing grief, are visceral.

The directors are out to capture breathtaking shots of unfamiliar coastal and mountain ecosystems. They’re out to assemble an intimate portrait of a remarkable couple through interviews and archive. They are not in the business of asking difficult questions about the role of capital in conservation. But Kristine proves more than capable of asking a good number of those questions of herself. She’d be the first to tell you that the adventures of Tompkins Conservation over the last quarter-century have been anything but plain sailing.

Ultimately, Wild Life succeeds because it treats the Tompkins’s success as a laudable highlight of the conversation movement — not some sort of blanket solution to all the world’s problems.

We’re not going to save the world by buying it. But someone saved a corner, and filled it with giant anteaters, jaguars, red-and-green macaws, and giant river otters, and that is worth remembering, and should be, for all of us, both a provocation and a challenge.

“So off we go to the future”

Watching Alastair Evans’s A Crack in the Mountain for New Scientist, 17 May 2023

“Everyone on a bicycle wants to be on a motorbike. Everyone on a motorbike wants to be in a car. And everyone in a car wants to be in a helicopter.” A wry smiles creeps across the face of local business owner David “multi” English: “So off we go to the future.”

Ten years ago Phong Nha in Quang Binh province was arguably the poorest region in Vietnam. English arrived during the 2010 floods and remembers the region’s air of despondency. People fished the rivers and grew a little rice. Hunger was commonplace.

But the arrival of British caving expedition the previous April already signalled a big change. They had arrived to explore a cave system known to local farmers since 1991 but very remote, and up until then, entirely ignored.

Following a 5 kilometre-long fault through limestone, they discovered chambers that could each quite happily contain an entire city block. In places the ceilings are 200 metres high. Here and there, where the roof has fallen in, there are sunken forests boasting unique species of tree fern and other plants.

With its two jungles, two rivers and a waterfall, Hang So Doong is not just the largest dry cave in the world; “it doesn’t feel like you’re on planet Earth any more.” So says Meredith Harvey, who visited the cave in 2017.

Now the local government wants to put a cable-car through the site, opening it up to 1000 tourists per hour. Conversations with UNESCO have won a reprieve to 2030, but no-one seriously believes the site will remain pristine forever. Jonathan Drake, who visited in 2019, puts it this way: “Just imagine if the Grand Canyon was just discovered this week and it didn’t belong to anyone… how would that go?”

Alastair Evans’s documentary tells a story we have heard before, many times. In 1968 biologist Garrett Hardin coined the expression “tragedy of the commons” to describe a situation in which individuals use a shared resource in their own self-interest, leading to its eventual depletion. Will this happen to So Doong?

Certainly. It’s impossible to imagine the rulers of an Asian Tiger economy simply writing off their most potentially lucrative natural wonder, just so that a handful of wealthy foreign tourists can continue to enjoy its untouched charm.

It is not unreasonable to want an adventure. It is not unreasonable to make the most of one’s birthplace. It is not that unreasonable, after a lifetime riding to work on a motorbike, to want your children to be able to afford a car. This is what makes the tragedy of the commons a actual tragedy.

Of course, it is still possible to watch A Crack in the Mountain simply for its beauty, and for this, some credit must go to the local expeditions company Oxalis Adventure, founded by businessman Chau A Nguyen to put considerable sums (enough to buy schools, anyway) back into the local economy. The production values on show here are extraordinarily high. The expeditions through the cave appear very well managed. One might wish that Nguyen and his kind could simply be left alone to tailor the region’s development according to the needs of local people.

But then, that’s to forget the ravages of Covid-19, that closed down 90 per cent of Phong Nha’s small businesses, not to mention a series of recent floods that brought what little activity that remained in the region to a standstill. Big government, big finance and big engineering can weather such storms — but their activities come at a price.

This is a film about a wicked problem, sure to despoil a wonderful location, if not today then tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. By then, if a way to square this impossible equation ever does present itself, it will surely have been inspired by films as intelligent and passionate as this one.

Not our Battle of Britain

Watching Andrew Legge’s film Lola for New Scientist, 12 April 2023

Two sisters, orphans, play among the leavings of their parents’ experiments in radio, and by 1938 the one who’s a genius, Thomasina (Emma Appleton), is listening to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on a ceiling-high television set that can tune in to the future.

The politics of the day being what it is, Thom’s sister Martha (Stefanie Martini) decides that this invention (named Lola after their dead mother) cannot remain their personal plaything — it belongs to the world. With the help of Sebastian, a sympathetic army officer (soon enough Martha falls in love with him) the sisters are soon collaborating with British intelligence to fox Nazi operations a day before they happen.

Drunk on success, Thom lets her ambition get the better of her, and starts sacrificing the civilians of tomorrow in order to draw out the Wehrmacht. When a horrified President Roosevelt catches wind of this, it spells the end of Churchill’s efforts to draw the US into the war against Hitler.

Good intentions, ambitious plans and unintended consequences usher the world into Hell in this often stunning piece of micro-budget science fiction. As high concept movie ideas go, Lola’s counterfactual 20th-century history is up there with Memento and Primer and Source Code.

Attentive readers will feel a “but” hovering here. For some reason the director and co-writer Andrew Legge took a day of rest after fleshing out this winning idea; he seems neither to have finished the script, nor given his actors much directorial guidance. Lola is more a short story narrated to a visual accompaniment than a fully fledged film. Thom and Mars are supposed to be nice 1930s gals transfigured by their access to glimpses of 1960s pop culture — but it’s impossible not to see them for what they are, personable young actors from the 2020s let loose to do their thing in front of the camera.

This makes Lola a good movie, rather than a great one — and it’s a shame. Some extra scriptwork and a spot of voice coaching would have added hardly anything to Lola’s admittedly tight budget. In 2009, Legge made The Chronoscope, a 20-minute foray into the same territory. Lola is more solemn than that short outing, but no more serious, as though Legge were intimidated, rather than inspired, by the possibilities offered by the feature format.

Elsewhere, the film’s resources are deployed with flair and ingenuity. The film is an historically and technologically impossible but highly convincing assembly of found footage and home movie. (Among Thom’s other incidental inventions is a hand-held camera that records sound.) Famous radio broadcasts of the period are repurposed to chilling effect. (Lola’s “Battle of Britain” is not our battle of Britain). The Zelig-like manipulations of newsreel footage are fairly crude in purely technical terms, but I defy you not to gasp at the sight of Nazi invaders waving their Swastika over a bombed-out London, or Adolf Hitler being driven in state down the Mall. And Neil Hannon (the maverick musical talent behind The Divine Comedy, not to mention Father Ted’s “My Lovely Horse” song) has a quite indecent amount of fun here, cooking up the beats of a counterfactual 1970s fascist Top 10.

These days the choice confronting British and Irish filmmakers is stark: do you want to make your movie as quickly as possible, on the lowest possible budget, get it seen, and generate interest? Or do you want to spend twenty years in development hell, working with overseas production companies who don’t know whether they can trust you, and — with many millions of dollars on the line — are likely to homogenise your project out of all recognition?

I wish Lola had impressed me less and involved me more. But in a business as precarious as this one, Legge’s choices make sense, and Lola is an effective and enjoyable industry calling card.