Seventy minutes of concrete

Watching Last and First Men (2020) directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson for New Scientist

“It’s a big ask for people to sit for 70 minutes and look at concrete,” mused the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, about his first and only feature-length film. He was still working on Last and First Men at the time of his death, aged 48, in February 2018.

Admired in the concert hall for his subtle, keening orchestral pieces, Jóhann Jóhannsson was well known for his film work: Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) are made strange by his sometimes terrifying, thumping soundtracks. Arrival (2016) — about the visitation of aliens whose experience of time proves radically different to our own — inspired a yearning, melancholy score that is, in retrospect, a kind of blockbuster-friendly version of Last and First Men. (It’s worth noting that all three films were directed by Denis Villeneuve, himself no stranger to the aesthetics of concrete — witness 2017’s Blade Runner 2049.)

Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men is, by contrast, contemplative and surreal. It’s no blockbuster. A series of zooms and tracking shots against eerie architectural forms, mesmerisingly shot in monochrome 16mm by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, it draws its inspiration and its script (a haunting, melancholy, sometimes chilly off-screen monologue performed by Tilda Swinton) from the 1930 novel by British philosopher William Olaf Stapledon.

Stapledon’s day job — lecturing on politics and ethics at the University of Liverpool — seems now of little moment, but his science fiction novels have never been out of print, and continue to set a dauntingly high bar for successors. Last and First Men is a history of the solar system across two billion years, detailing the dreams and aspirations, achievements and failings of 17 different kinds of future Homo (not including sapiens).

In the light of our ageing sun, these creatures evolve, blossom, speciate, and die, and it’s in the final chapters, and the melancholy moment of humanity’s ultimate extinction, that Jóhannsson’s film is set. Last and First Men is not a drama. There are no actors. There is no action. Mind you, it’s hard to see how any attempt to film Stapledon’s future history could work otherwise. It’s not really a novel; more a haunting academic paper from the beyond.

The idea to use passages from the book came quite late in Jóhannsson project, which began life as a film essay on (and this is where the concrete comes in) the huge, brutalist war memorials, called Spomenik, erected in the former Republic of Yugoslavia between the 1960s and the 1980s.

“Spomeniks were commissioned by Marshal Tito, the dictator and creator of Yugoslavia,” Jóhannsson explained in 2017 when the film, accompanied by a live rendition of an early score, was screened at the Manchester International Festival. “Tito constructed this artificial state, a Utopian experiment uniting the Slavic nations, with so many differences of religion. The spomeniks were intended as symbols of unification. The architects couldn’t use religious iconography, so instead, they looked to prehistoric, Mayan and Sumerian art. That’s why they look so alien and otherworldly.”

Swinton’s cool, regretful, monologue proves an ideal foil for the film’s architectural explorations, lifting what would otherwise be a stunning but slight art piece into dizzying, speculative territory: the last living human, contemplating the leavings of two billion years of human history.

The film was left unfinished at Jóhannsson’s death; it took his friend, the Berlin-based composer and sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman, about a year to realise Jóhannsson’s scattered and chaotic notes. No-one, hearing the story of how Last and First Men was put together, would imagine it would ever amount to anything more than a tribute piece to the composer.

Sometimes, though, the gods are kind. This is a hugely successful science fiction film, wholly deserving of a place beside Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Kubrick’s 2001. Who knew that staring at concrete, and listening to the end of humanity, could wet the watcher’s eye, and break their heart?

It is a terrible shame that Jóhannsson’s did not live to see his hope fulfilled; that, in his own words, “we’ve taken all these elements and made something beautiful and poignant. Something like a requiem.”

 

An inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers

Watching iHuman dircted by Tonje Hessen Schei for New Scientist, 6 January 2021

In 2010 she made Play Again, exploring digital media addiction among children. In 2014 she won awards for Drone, about the CIA’s secret role in drone warfare.

Now, with iHuman, Tonje Schei, a Norwegian documentary maker who has won numerous awards for her explorations of humans, machines and the environment, tackles — well, what, exactly? iHuman is a weird, portmanteau diatribe against computation — specifically, that branch of it that allows machines to learn about learning. Artificial general intelligence, in other words.

Incisive in parts, often overzealous, and wholly lacking in scepticism, iHuman is an apocalyptic vision of humanity already in thrall to the thinking machine, put together from intellectual celebrity soundbites, and illustrated with a lot of upside-down drone footage and digital mirror effects, so that the whole film resembles nothing so much as a particularly lengthy and drug-fuelled opening credits sequence to the crime drama Bosch.

That’s not to say that Schei is necessarily wrong, or that our Faustian tinkering hasn’t doomed us to a regimented future as a kind of especially sentient cattle. The film opens with that quotation from Stephen Hawking, about how “Success in creating AI might be the biggest success in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.” If that statement seems rather heated to you, go visit Xinjiang, China, where a population of 13 million Turkic Muslims (Uyghurs and others) are living under AI surveillance and predictive policing.

Not are the film’s speculations particularly wrong-headed. It’s hard, for example, to fault the line of reasoning that leads Robert Work, former US under-secretary of defense, to fear autonomous killing machines, since “an authoritarian regime will have less problem delegating authority to a machine to make lethal decisions.”

iHuman’s great strength is its commitment to the bleak idea that it only takes one bad actor to weaponise artificial general intelligence before everyone else has to follow suit in their own defence, killing, spying and brainwashing whole populations as they go.

The great weakness of iHuman lies in its attempt to throw everything into the argument: :social media addiction, prejudice bubbles, election manipulation, deep fakes, automation of cognitive tasks, facial recognition, social credit scores, autonomous killing machines….

Of all the threats Schei identifies, the one conspicuously missing is hype. For instance, we still await convincing evidence that Cambrdige Analytica’s social media snake oil can influence the outcome of elections. And researchers still cannot replicate psychologist Michal Kosinski’s claim that his algorithms can determine a person’s sexuality and even their political leanings from their physiology.

Much of the current furore around AI looks jolly small and silly one you remember that the major funding model for AI development is advertising. Most every millennial claim about how our feelings and opinions can be shaped by social media is a retread of claims made in the 1910s for the billboard and the radio. All new media are terrifyingly powerful. And all new media age very quickly indeed.

So there I was hiding behind the sofa and watching iHuman between slitted fingers (the score is terrifying, and artist Theodor Groeneboom’s animations of what the internet sees when it looks in the mirror is the stuff of nightmares) when it occurred to me to look up the word “fetish”. To refresh your memory, a fetish is an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

iHuman’s is a profoundly fetishistic film, worshipping at the altar of a God it has itself manufactured, and never more unctiously as when it lingers on the athletic form of AI guru Jürgen Schmidhuber (never trust a man in white Levis) as he complacently imagines a post-human future. Nowhere is there mention of the work being done to normalise, domesticate, and defang our latest creations.

How can we possibly stand up to our new robot overlords?

Try politics, would be my humble suggestion.

Run for your life

Watching Gints Zilbalodis’s Away for New Scientist, 18 November 2020

A barren landscape at sun-up. From the cords of his deflated parachute, dangling from the twisted branch of a dead tree, a boy slowly wakes to his surroundings, just as a figure appears out of the dawn’s dreamy desert glare. Humanoid but not human, faceless yet somehow inexpressibly sad, the giant figure shambles towards the boy and bends and, though mouthless, tries somehow to swallow him.

The boy unclips himself from his harness, falls to the sandy ground, and begins to run. The strange, slow, gripping pursuit that follows will, in the space of an hour and ten minutes, tell the story of how the boy comes to understand the value of life and friendship.

That the monster is Death is clear from the start: not a ravenous ogre, but unstoppable and steady. It swallows, without fuss or pain, the lives of any creature it touches. Perhaps the figure pursuing the boy is not a physical threat at all, but more the dawning of a terrible idea — that none of us lives forever. (In one extraordinary dream sequence, we see the boy’s fellow air passengers plummet from the sky, each one rendered as a little melancholy incarnation of the same creature.)

Away is the sole creation of 26-year-old Latvian film-maker Gints Zilbalodis, and it’s his first feature-length animation. Zabalodis is Away’s director, writer, animator, editor, and even composed its deceptively simple synth score — a constant back-and-forth between dread and wonder.

There’s no shading in Zabalodis’s CGI-powered animation, no outlining, and next to no texture, and the physics is rudimentary. When bodies enter water, there’s no splash: instead, deep ripples shimmer across the screen. A geyser erupts, and water rises and falls against itself in a churn of massy, architectonic white blocks. What drives this strange retro, gamelike animation style?

Away feels nostalgic at first, perhaps harking back to the early days of videogames, when processing speeds were tiny, and a limited palette and simplified physics helped players explore game worlds in real time. Indeed the whole film is structured like a game, with distinct chapters and a plot arranged around simple physical and logical puzzles. The boy finds a haversack, a map, a water canteen, a key and a motorbike. He finds a companion — a young bird. His companion learns to fly, and departs, and returns. The boy runs out of water, and finds it. He meets turtles, birds, and cats. He wins a major victory over his terrifying pursuer, only to discover that the victory is temporary. By the end of the film, it’s the realistic movies that seem odd, the big budget animations, the meticulously composited Nolanesque behemoths. Even dialogue feels clumsy and lumpen, after 75 minutes of Away’s impeccable, wordless storytelling.

Away reminds us that when everything in the frame and on the soundtrack serves the story, then the elements themselves don’t have to be remarkable. They can be simple and straightforward: fields of a single colour, a single apposite sound-effect, the tilt of a simply drawn head.

As CGI technology penetrates the prosumer market, and super-tool packages like Maya become affordable, or at any rate accessible through institutions, then more artists and filmmakers are likely to take up the challenge laid down by Away, creating, all by themselves, their own feature-length productions.

Experiments of this sort — ones that change the logistics and economies of film production — are often ugly. The first films were virtually unfollowable. The first sound films were dull and stagey. CGI effects were so hammy at first, they kicked viewers out of the movie-going experience entirely. It took years for Pixar’s animations to acquire their trademark charm.

Away is different. In an industry that makes films whose animation credits feature casts of thousands, Zabalodis’s exquisite movie sets a very high bar indeed for a new kind of artisanal filmmaking.

A private search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Watching John Was Trying to Contact Aliens for New Scientist, 27 August 2020

You have to admire Netflix’s ambition. As well as producing Oscar-winning short documentaries of its own (The White Helmets won in 2017; Period. End of Sentence. won in 2019), the streaming giant makes a regular effort to bring festival-winning factual films to a global audience.

The latest is John Was Trying to Contact Aliens by New York-based UK director Matthew Killip, which won the Jury Award for a non-fiction short film at this year’s Sundance festival in Utah. In little over 15 minutes, it manages to turn the story of John Shepherd, an eccentric inventor who spent 30 years trying to contact extraterrestrials by broadcasting music millions of kilometres into space, into a tear-jerker of epic (indeed, cosmological) proportions.

Never much cared for by his parents, Shepherd was brought up by adoptive grandparents in rural Michigan. A fan of classic science-fiction shows like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, Shepherd never could shake off the impression that a UFO sighting made on him as a child, and in 1972 the 21-year-old set about designing and constructing electronic equipment to launch a private search for extraterrestrial intelligence. His first set-up, built around an ultra-low frequency radio transmitter, soon expanded to fill over 100 square metres of his long-suffering grandparents’ home. It also acquired an acronym: Project STRAT – Special Telemetry Research And Tracking.

A two-storey high, 1000-watt, 60,000-volt, deep-space radio transmitter required a house extension – and all so Shepherd could beam jazz, reggae, Afro-pop and German electronica into the sky for hours every day, in the hope any passing aliens would be intrigued enough to come calling.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Killip to play up Shepherd’s eccentricity. Until now, Shepherd has been a folk hero in UFO-hunting circles. His photo portrait, surrounded by bizarre broadcasting kit of his own design, appears in Douglas Curren’s In Advance of the Landing: Folk concepts of outer space – the book TV producer Chris Carter says he raided for the first six episodes of his series The X-Files.

Instead, Killip listens closely to Shepherd, discovers the romance, courage and loneliness of his life, and shapes it into a paean to our ability to out-imagine our circumstances and overreach our abilities. There is something heartbreakingly sad, as well as inspiring, about the way Killip pairs Shepherd’s lonely travails in snow-bound Michigan with footage, assembled by teams of who knows how many hundreds, from the archives of NASA.

Shepherd ran out of money for his project in 1998, and having failed to make a connection with ET, quickly found a life-changing connection much closer to home.

I won’t spoil the moment, but I can’t help but notice that, as a film-maker, Killip likes these sorts of structures. In one of his earlier works, The Lichenologist, about Kerry Knudsen, curator of lichens at the University of California, Riverside, Knudsen spends most of the movie staring at very small things before we are treated to the money shot: Knudsen perched on top of a mountain, whipped by the wind and explaining how his youthful psychedelic experiences inspired a lifetime of intense visual study. It is a shot that changes the meaning of the whole film.

“Cut the cord!”

Watching Alice Winocour’s film Proxima for New Scientist, 31 July 2020

THE year before Apollo 11’s successful mission to the moon, Robert Altman directed James Caan and Robert Duvall in Countdown. The 1968 film stuck to the technology of its day, pumping up the drama with a somewhat outlandish mission plan: astronaut Lee Stegler and his shelter pod are sent to the moon’s surface on separate flights and Stegler must find the shelter once he lands if he is to survive.

The film played host to characters you might conceivably bump into at the supermarket: the astronauts, engineers and bureaucrats have families and everyday troubles not so very different from your own.

Proxima is Countdown for the 21st century. Sarah Loreau, an astronaut played brilliantly by Eva Green, is given a last-minute opportunity to join a Mars precursor mission to the International Space Station. Loreau’s training and preparation are impressively captured on location at European Space Agency facilities in Cologne, Germany – with a cameo from French astronaut Thomas Pesquet – and in Star City, the complex outside Moscow that is home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. She is ultimately headed to launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Comparing Proxima with Countdown shows how much both cinema and the space community have changed in the past half-century. There are archaeological traces of action-hero melodramatics in Proxima, but they are the least satisfying parts of the movie. Eva Green is a credible astronaut and a good mother, pushed to extremes on both fronts and painfully aware that she chose this course for herself. She can’t be all things to all people all of the time and, as she learns, there is no such thing as perfect.

Because Proxima is arriving late – its launch was delayed by the covid-19 lockdown – advances in space technology have already somewhat gazzumped Georges Lechaptois’s metliculous location cinematography. I came to the film still reeling from watching the Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour lift off from Kennedy Space Center on 20 May.

That crewed launch was the first of its kind from US soil since NASA’s space shuttle was retired in 2011 and looked, from the comfort of my sofa, about as eventful as a ride in an airport shuttle bus. So it was hard to take seriously those moments in Proxima when taking off from our planet’s surface is made the occasion for an existential crisis. “You’re leaving Earth!” exclaims family psychologist Wendy (Sandra Hüller) at one point, thoroughly earning the look of contempt that Loreau shoots at her.

Proxima‘s end credits include endearing shots of real-life female astronauts with their very young children – which does raise a bit of a problem. The plot largely focuses on the impact of bringing your child to work when you spend half your day in a spacesuit at the bottom of a swimming pool. “Cut the cord!” cries the absurdly chauvinistic NASA astronaut Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) when Loreau has to go chasing after her young daughter.

Yet here is photographic evidence that suggests Loreau’s real-life counterparts – Yelena Kondakova, Ellen Ochoa, Cady Coleman and Naoko Yamazaki – managed perfectly well on multiple missions without all of Proxima‘s turmoil. Wouldn’t we have been better off seeing the realities they faced rather than watching Loreau, in the film’s final moments, break Baikonur’s safety protocols in order to steal a feel-good, audience-pandering mother-daughter moment?

For half a century, movies have struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing realities of the space sector. Proxima, though interesting and boasting a tremendous central performance from Green, proves to be no more relevant than its forebears.

 

A shockingly dirty idea

Watching UCP/Amblin’s production of Brave New World for New Scientist, 15 July 2020

THE 20th century produced two great British dystopias. The more famous one is 1984, George Orwell’s tale of a world unified into a handful of warring blocs run by dictators.

The other, Brave New World, was written in the space between world wars by the young satirist Aldous Huxley. It had started out as a send-up of H. G. Wells’s utopian works – novels such as Men Like Gods (1923), for instance. Then Huxley visited the US, and what he made of society there – brash, colourful, shallow and self-obsessed – set the engines of his imagination speeding.

The book is Huxley’s idea of what would happen if the 1930s were to run on forever. Embracing peace and order after the bloody chaos of the first world war, people have used technology to radically simplify their society. Humans are born in factories, designed to fit one of five predestined roles. Epsilons, plied with chemical treatments and deprived of oxygen before birth, perform menial functions. Alphas, meanwhile, run the world.

In 1984, everyone is expected to obey the system; in Brave New World, everyone has too much at stake in the system to want to break it. Consumption is pleasurable, addictive and a duty. Want is a thing of the past and abstinence isn’t an option. The family – that eternal thorn in the side of totalitarian states – has been discarded, and with it all intimacy and affection. In fact, no distinct human emotion has escaped this world’s smiley-faced onslaught of “soma” (a recreational drug), consumerism and pornography. There is no jealousy here, no rage, no sadness.

The cracks only show if you aspire to better things. Yearn to be more than you already are, and you won’t get very far. In creating a society without want, the Alphas have made a world without hope.

Huxley’s dystopia has now made it to the small screen. Or the broad strokes have, at least. In the series, Alden Ehrenreich – best known for taking up the mantle of Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars story – plays John. Labelled a “savage” for living outside the walls of the World State, he encounters the Alpha Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) and Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), his Beta pal.

Bernard and Lenina are vacationing in Savage Lands, a theme park modelled a little too closely on Westworld in which people act out the supposedly sinful values of the old order for the entertainment of tourists. It is while they settle into their hotel room at the park that Lenina and Bernard suddenly realise they want to be alone together – a shockingly dirty idea in a world that has outlawed monogamy and marriage – and that “it could be our wedding night”.

“In Huxley’s book, characters were given a hard choice between freedom and happiness”

“We’re savages,” gasps Lenina, as it dawns on the two what they actually want. It is a scene so highly charged and sympathetically played that you only wish the rest of the show had lived up to it. The problem with Brave New World is that it is trying to be Huxley’s future in some scenes and trying to be our future in others. The two do not mix well.

Some of Huxley’s ideas about the future loom over us still. The potential eugenic applications of CRISPR gene editing keep many a medical ethicist awake at night. In other respects, however, Huxley’s dystopia has been superseded by new threats. Artificial intelligence is changing our relationship with expertise, so who needs human Alphas? At the other end of the social scale, Epsilons would struggle to find anything to do in today’s automated factories.

Squeezed by our technology into middle-ranking roles (in Huxley’s book, we would be Betas and Gammas), we aren’t nearly as homogenous and pliable as Huxley imagined we would be. Information technology has facilitated, rather than dampened, our innate tribalism. The difference between the haves and have-nots in our society is infocentric rather than genetic.

In Huxley’s book, the lands left for those deemed savages featured an unreconstructed humanity full of violence and sorrow. Characters were given a hard choice between freedom and happiness. None of that toughness makes it to the screen. At least, not yet.

The TV series is a weirdly weightless offering: a dystopia without lessons for the present day. It is as consumable and addictive as a capsule of soma, but no more nutritious.

“The time-suck is killing”

Watching the documentary Picture a Scientist, directed by Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney, for New Scientist, 22 June 2020.

What is it about the institutions of science that encourages bullying? That pushes a young geologist down an Antarctic hillside, or blows grit in her eyes? That tells a black chemist to straighten her hair before applying for a job? Or swipes vital equipment from the lab (already tiny and ill-appointed) of a promising geneticist?

As a PhD student on her first research trip to Antarctica, the geologist Jane Willenbring was first insulted, then bullied, then physically abused by her supervisor. The second scientist featured in this film, Raychelle Burks, a black chemist, has been regularly mistaken for the cleaning staff and challenged when she uses the staff car park. The third, geneticist Nancy Hopkins, had her ground-breaking work on zebra fish constantly disrupted by colleagues who seemed to think they needed her equipment more than she did.

Willenbring deplores a culture which advantages those who put up and shut up. PhD students depend upon their supervisors for opportunities and funding. They are painfully aware that an ill-disposed supervisor can foreclose all avenues of professional advancement. It pays them, therefore, to be tolerant of their supervisor’s “quirks” — to see no evil in them, and speak no evil of them. In this dynamic of patron and client, the opportunities for abuse are rife.

In spite of this, all three women achieved success in their careers. Alongside her fulltime career, including her role as director of the Scripps Cosmogenic Isotope Laboratory, Willenbring champions science education for girls. Raychelle Burks, an analytical chemist based in Washington, is quickly becoming the most visible chemist of her generation, and a STEM celebrity on YouTube. Hopkins initiated a sea change in the institutional culture of MIT, creating an example of best practice that institutions around the world https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18424676-400-its-a-womans-world/ are beginning to follow. This is not a bleak film, by any measure. And the women, for sheer charisma and smarts, are an inspiration and a delight.

At the same time, one is left with a profound sense how much good science may be lost, when accomplished scientists have to spend time fighting for their right to come to work at all. Willenbring studies the responses of the earth’s crust to climate change. Burks develops cheap, easy forensic tests for war zones and disaster relief. Hopkins researches cancer. All three have become passionate advocates for the welfare of women in science; all three insist that they would much rather have been allowed to do their jobs. “The time-suck is killing,” says Burks.

Picture a Scientist is not just about individual scientists. It is also about how institutions work, and about how science can improve our understanding of them. The idea that institutions embody bias and prejudice is resisted by managers. It took Nancy Hopkins years to convince MIT that its female staff were being crammed into campus’s smallest laboratories. She was met, not with conspiracy, but with incredulity. After all, no one at a managerial level at MIT had ever decreed that women should be treated this way! Managers were reluctant to even consider the evidence Hopkins presented. She herself feared that she would gain a reputation for being “difficult”.

In 1999, MIT and its provost Robert Brown decided to own and set about correcting the examples of sexual discrimination Hopkins and her fellows female colleagues at MIT http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html brought to light.

Moss-Racusin spells out the moral for deans and provosts. “The time has passed for intuition,” she says. “We have the evidence, the data.”

Hopkins regrets the research time she sacrificed to transforming MIT. “Such a waste of time and energy,” she sighs, “when all you wanted was to be a scientist.”

Watching this film, I cannot agree. There is nothing trivial — and certainly nothing easy — about making science measurably better.

Belgium explained

Watching the sitcom Space Force for New Scientist, 2 June 2020.

As recruitment advertisements go, the video released to Twitter on 6 May was genuinely engaging. Young people stared off into the Milky Way, as rockets of indeterminate scale rolled out of unmarked hangers.

“Some people look to the stars and ask, ‘What if?'” drawled the voice-over artist. “Our job is to have an answer.”

This admirably down-to-earth sentiment was cooked up by the US Space Force, the most recently founded arm of the US military, officially brought into being by President Donald Trump on 21 December 2019.

It’s been the butt of humour ever since. On 18 January the Space Force showed off its uniforms to Twitter. Apparently there’s a use for camouflage in space. Six days later it revealed its logo — a sort of straightened-out, think-inside-the-box version of — yes — the Federation symbol from Star Trek.

Then — the coup de grace — Netflix announced it would be streaming a sitcom about the whole enterprise, created by producer Greg Daniels and actor Steve Carell.

A lot of expectation has been gathering around this fictional Space Force. Greg Daniels’s writing and production credits include the US version of The Office, Parks and Recreation and King of the Hill. Everyone’s expecting a savage parody. So any initial disappointment with the show ought to come tempered with the realisation that the real Space Force, at its birth, would outcompete any television satire.

On the same day the U.S. Space Force’s recruitment video was released, 6 May, General Jay Raymond, its Chief of Space Operations, had a piece of advice for Carell, who plays the Space Force chief in the new sitcom: “Get a haircut,” he grinned, during a webinar hosted by the nonprofit Space Foundation. “He’s looking a little too shaggy if he wants to play [me].”

I’m glad he can see the funny side. While the fictional General Naird and his head of science Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich) spar spiritedly over the launch procedures of one giant-looking rocket after another, in the real world the redoubtable General Raymond is being tasked with defending US satellites from laser and projectile attack from multiple potentially hostile forces, all on a start-up budget of $40m. Think about it. There are streets in London where that wouldn’t buy you a house. Meanwhile the total US annual military budget stands at $738 billion.

Space Force the sitcom is, likewise, a labour of love, produced on an obviously low budget. It would not feel strange, at this point, if the showrunners abandoned parody entirely and went over to give General Raymond a hug.

Space Force’s small satisfactions take a while to build. Naird’s elevation means the family must relocate from Washington to an old NORAD facility in Colorado (an “up and coming” state, according to Naird. His wife, played by Lisa Kudrow, sobs softly into her pillow). At work, Dr. Mallory insists on taking two steps of at a time when he climbs a staircase, even though his fitness isn’t quite up to it: trust Malkovich to make comedy gold out of nothing. Other cast members underplay themselves. Improv comedian Tawny Newsome, as helicopter pilot Angela Ali, plays straight-woman to both Naird and his exasperated and lonely daughter. Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang gets decent lines, but in demeanour he remains the soberest of Mallory’s team of interchangeable scientists.

Trump wants boots on the Moon. American boots. What does that mean? Naird, in a speech, tries to clarify: “Boots with US feet in them, I mean. Can’t be certain where the boots will be made. Maybe Mexico, maybe Portugal.”

This is the main point: what does it mean to make nationalistic noises about space when doing anything worthwhile up there requires massive international cooperation? In a later episode, Naird demands to know what the foremost aeronautical engineering theorist in Belgium is doing on his oh-so-secret base. Gently, Mallory explains: Belgium is part of the European Space Agency, and that’s because Belgium is part of Europe.

Space Force arrives at an difficult moment. We may, after all, have had enough parody, and no-one on this show seems entirely sure what comes next. A little kindness, perhaps. An acknowledgement that the US is a nation among nations. A general agreement that we should not turn space into “an orgy of death”.

And if the show is not quite what we expected, still, there is real charm in watching gruff General Naird expressing his feelings at last, and learning to get along with his teenage daughter.

Because he loves his mother

Watching Jeff Chan’s Code 8 for New Scientist, 7 May 2020

AROUND 4 per cent of humans are Special. Connor is one of them. Lightning shoots from his hands. His mother is Special, too. She freezes things, including – since a tumour began pressing on her brain – patches of her own skin. Connor needs money to save his mother. And, since Specials have been pushed to the social margins, this means he needs to rob a bank.

Code 8′s director, Jeff Chan, is a relative newcomer whose screenplays co-written with producer Chris Pare fold well-trodden movie ideas into interesting shapes. Grace: The Possession from 2014 was a retread of The Exorcist seen from the possessed girl’s point of view. Code 8, released to streaming services all over the world last December (but not, for some reason, in the UK until now), is a low-budget sci-fi crime thriller.

Connor, played by Robbie Amell, works in construction, wiring up houses with his bare hands. A nicely understated sequence sees his workmates walk past carrying concrete bollards under their arms, when a police raid on “illegals” drops robots from the sky that shoot a worker in the back.

After this, Connor decides he can’t take any more and ends up under the wing of Garrett (Stephen Amell, Robbie Amell’s cousin in real life), a thief whose professionalism is sorely tested by his boss, the telepathic drug lord Marcus (Greg Bryk).

Code 8 is a masterclass in how to wring a believable world out of unbelievably few dollars. This doesn’t come from its premise, which is so generic that it is hardly noticeable. Instead, what sets the film apart is the way it marries contemporary American crime fiction to sci-fi. This fusion is harder than it looks.

Since James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934, American crime fiction has primarily been an exercise in social realism. It’s about life at the bottom, steeped as it is in poverty, addiction, ignorance and marginalisation. The American crime genre tries to tell the truth about these things, and the best of it succeeds.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is a literature of ideas. Detective plots are tempting for science fiction writers. Put a detective in a made-up world and get them to ask the right questions, and they can show your audience how your made-up world operates.

But that, of course, is precisely the problem: it’s only a made-up world. We aren’t being told anything about the way the real world ticks. Inventive sci-fi can feel an awful lot like under-researched crime fiction.

Somehow, Code 8 manages to be both a cracking crime caper and a solid piece of science fiction. While spotting influences is a hazardous game, my guess is it is an homage to Michael Mann’s L.A. Takedown, a fabulous TV pilot from 1989 that provided the skeleton for Mann’s much more famous 1995 blockbuster Heat.

But it is Code 8′s science-fiction element that impressed me most: a cleverly underplayed cat-cradle of a plot, tangling superpowers, social prejudice, drug addiction and state prohibition so as to create a set of intractable social problems that are both strange and instantly familiar.

Robbie and Stephen Amell have championed the film and its ideas since working on the 2016 short film of the same name. Now a TV spin-off is in the works. I do hope Stephen, in particular, attaches his name to this. Anything to get him out from under his role as the DC Multiverse’s Green Arrow…

Pollen count

THEY are red, they have stalks that look like eels, and no leaves. But Karl, the boss of the laboratory – played by the unsettling David Wilmot – has his eye on them for the forthcoming flower fair. He tells visiting investors that these genetically engineered creations are “the first mood-lifting, antidepressant, happy plant”.

Ben Whishaw’s character, Chris, smirks: “You’ll love this plant like your own child.”

Chris is in love with Alice, played by Emily Beecham, who is in love with her creations, her “Little Joes”, even to the point of neglecting her own son, Joe.

Owning and caring for a flower that, treated properly, will emit pollen that can induce happiness, would surely be a good thing for these characters. But the plant has been bred to be sterile, and it is determined to propagate itself by any means necessary.

Little Joe is an exercise in brooding paranoia, and it feeds off some of the more colourful fears around the genetic modification of plants.

Kerry Fox plays Bella, whose disappointments and lack of kids seem to put her in the frame of mind to realise what these innocent-looking blooms are up to. “The ability to reproduce is what gives every living thing meaning!” she exclaims. Her colleagues might just be sceptical about this because she is an unhappy presence in the lab, or they may already have fallen under the sway of Little Joe’s psychoactive pollen.

Popular fears around GM – the sort that dominated newspapers and scuppered the industry’s experimental programmes in the mid-1990s – are nearly as old as the science of genetics itself.

At about the turn of the 20th century, agricultural scientists in the US combined inbred lines of maize and found that crop yields were radically increased. Farmers who bought the specially bred seed found that their yields tailed off in subsequent years, so it made sense to buy fresh seed yearly because the profits from bigger crops more than covered the cost of new seeds.

In the 2000s, Monsanto, a multinational agribusiness, added “terminator” genes to the seed it was developing to prevent farmers resowing the product of the previous year’s crop. This didn’t matter to most farmers, but the world’s poorest, who still rely on replanting last year’s seed, were vociferous in their complaints, and a global scandal loomed.

Monsanto chose not, in the end, to commercialise its terminator technologies, but found it had already created a monster: an urban myth of thwarted plant fecundity that provides Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe with its science fictional plot.

What does Little Joe’s pollen do to people? Is it a vegetal telepath, controlling the behaviour of its subjects? Or does it simply make the people who enjoy its scent happier, more sure of themselves, more capable of making healthy life choices? Would that be so terrible? As Karl says, “Who can prove the genuineness of feelings? Moreover, who cares?”

Well, we do, or we should. If, like Karl, we come to believe that the “soul” is nothing more than behaviour, then people could become zombies tomorrow and no one would notice.

Little Joe’s GM paranoia may set some New Scientist readers’ teeth on edge, but this isn’t ultimately, what the movie is about. It is after bigger game: the nature of human freedom.