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.

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.