The sirens of overstatement

Visiting David Blandy’s installation Atomic Light at John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, for New Scientist, 22 March 2023

The Edge of Forever, one of four short films by Brighton-based video and installation artist David Blandy, opens with an elegaic pan of Cuckmere Haven in Sussex. A less apocalyptic landscape it would be hard to imagine. Cuckmere is one of the most ravishing spots in the Home Counties. Still, the voiceover insists that we contemplate “a ravaged Earth” and “forgotten peoples” as we watch two children exploring their post-human future. The only sign of former human habitation is a deserted observatory (the former Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex). The children enter and study the leavings of dead technologies and abandoned ambitions, steeped all the while in refracted sunlight: Claire Barrett’s elegiac camerawork is superb.

The films in Blandy’s installation “Atomic Light” connect three different kinds of fire: the fire of the sun; the wildfires that break out naturally all over the earth, but which are gathering force and frequency as the Earth’s climate warms; and the atomic blast that consumed the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

There’s a personal dimension to all this, beyond Blandy’s vaunted concern for the environment: his grandfather was a prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore during the second World War, and afterwards lived with the knowledge that, had upwards of 100,000 civilians not perished in Hiroshima blast, he almost certainly would not have survived.

Bringing this lot together is a job of work. In Empire of the Swamp
a man wanders through the mangrove swamps at the edge of Singapore, while Blandy reads out a short story by playwright Joel Tan. The enviro-political opinions of a postcolonial crocodile are as good a premise for a short story as any, I suppose, but the film isn’t particularly well integrated with the rest of the show.

Soil, Sinew and Bone, a visually arresting game of digital mirrors composed of rural footage from Screen Archive South East, equates modern agriculture and warfare. That there is an historical connection is undeniable: the chemist Franz Haber received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method of synthesising ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen. That ammonia, a fertiliser, can be used in the manufacture of explosives, is an irony familiar to any GCSE student, though it’s by no means obvious why agriculture should be left morally tainted by it.

Alas, Blandy can’t resist the sirens of overstatement. We eat, he says “while others scratch for existence in the baked earth.” Never mind that since 1970, hunger in the developing world has more than halved, and that China saw its hunger level fall from a quarter of its vast population to less than a tenth by 2016 — all overwhelmingly thanks to Haber-Bosch.

Defenders of the artist’s right to be miserable in face of history will complain that I am taking “Atomic Light” far to literally — to which I would respond that I’m taking it seriously. Bad faith is bad faith whichever way you cut it. If in your voiceover you dub Walt Disney’s Mickey “this mouse of empire”, if you describe some poor soul’s carefully tended English garden as the “pursuit of an unnatural perfection wreathed in poisons”, if you use footage of a children’s tea party to hector your audience about wheat and sugar, and if you cut words and images together to suggest that some jobbing farmer out shooting rabbits was a landowner on the lookout for absconding workers, then you are simply piling straws on the camel’s back.

Thank goodness, then, for Sunspot, Blandy’s fourth, visually much simpler film, that juxtaposes the lives and observations of two real-life solar astronomers, Joseph Hiscox in Los Angeles and Yukiaki Tanaka in Tokyo, who each made drawings of the sun on the day the Hiroshima bomb dropped.

Here’s a salutary and saving reminder that, to make art, you’re best off letting the truth speak for itself.

Wandering off into a blizzard for no reason

Watching Creature, directed by Asif Kapadia, for New Scientist, 5 March 2023

In an isolated research station, lost amid snow and ice, a highly disciplined team of would-be astronauts are putting an experimental animal through its paces. Will their Creature survive the tests they throw at it? The cold, the isolation, the asphyxia? A punctilious Doctor (Stina Quagebeur) palpates and measures the creature, summons handlers and equipment and calls for urgent aid when it looks as though an experiment has gone too far. She is meticulous, not malevolent, and when the Major in charge tears the creature from its one source of comfort, the station cleaner Marie (Erina Takahashi), and abuses her, the Doctor fears for the whole team.

It’s up to the captain to calm his superior officer down, and goodness knows he tries. Since this is a ballet loosely based on 19th-century dramatist Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck — about the mental deterioration of a soldier so utterly beholden to his commanding officers, he agrees to medical experiments — it’s not likely that things will end well.

Jeffrey Cirio plays the Creature in this unusual project from English National Ballet — a collaboration between choreographer Asif Kapadia and filmmaker Akram Khan, best known for the documentaries Senna (2010) Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019).

It’s a grim fable of human ambition and ruthlessness, superbly performed, and shot in a way that draws the audience fully into the action, capturing moments of private emotion and the subtlest of gestures without losing any of the spectacle of an ensemble piece.

For almost its entire length (the last five minutes are rotten) Creature explores its extreme set-up with tenderness and intelligence, slowly eroding the distinction between a somewhat simian test subject and its hardly less simian handlers. The Creature wants to copy its masters. We don’t have very long to wait, however, before its masters are learning to copy the Creature. Though the hierarchies of this isolated, militaristic society are clear, and the Creature’s expendability is never in doubt, the piece holds out the possibility of real communication here, and even trust, and even love.

And then, out of nowhere, all that subtle, clever, sensitive work gets thrown away. The Captain (Ken Saruhashi), who’s been keeping the Major contained, wanders off into a blizzard for no reason, and the Major (a jaw-droppingly arrogant turn by the dashing Fabian
Reimair) makes merry hell and gets away with whatever he likes.

Creature wants to be an indictment of cruelty, obedience and power, but its central metaphor will not hold. First, astronauts are notoriously disobedient. Second, space agencies are chronically underfunded. Really, only the point about cruelty might stick, and even here, I have my reservations. Do we sacrifice experimental animals to further our research goals? Certainly, though much less than we used to. And even in the bad old days, these creatures were honoured. Look at the statues to the space dog Laika (I know of at least two), or the remains of NASA’s chimp Ham, interred at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. You can argue that these gestures were insufficient, but you can’t say they were empty.

By the end, did Creature leave me impressed? Thrilled? Moved?

Yes, all three. It also left me aggrieved.

Here I was, preparing to sing the praises of a science-fiction ballet about our difficult relationship with other primates, and what I was left with, at the end, was a by-the-numbers glimpse of how horrid people can be.

It may be that expanding human efforts into outer space is a silly idea, but the show’s censoriousness left me cold. A shame, because the dancing — ironically enough — was out of this world.

 

“Our trained mediums are standing by”

Watching Mali Elfman’s Next Exit for New Scientist, 22 February 2023

From out of nowhere, a chink of light appears. With painful slowness, the light grows stronger: we are inching towards a half-open door. Beyond the door, everything seems normal. A little boy is playing a game of pretend. At least, that’s what we think. Soon enough, we learn what’s really going on: the boy is playing cards with his dead father.

Nothing else in Mali Elfman’s debut feature lives up to this unsettling opening sequence (though there’s a sight gag — two would-be suicides renting a car from Charon Vehicle Rental — that comes close).

Rahul Kohli and Katie Parker — actors who turn up regularly in work by horror director Mike Flanagan — play Teddy and Rose, driving across the US to an appointment with Dr Stevensen (Karen Gillan) who has promised them a clinically managed euthanasia. Teddy, a Londoner, has spent ten years trying and failing to make it in the United States, and figures that being turned into a pioneer ghost (his transition from life to death monitored with all the latest gear) will at least give his life some meaning. Rose is weighed down with guilty secrets, and just wants to be done with it all.

Mind you, even Rose is not as nihilistic as the man who, early on in the film, wonders in front of their hire car, and under their wheels, with a note pinned to his chest: “Thanks for the help”.

Suicides and homicides are common now, as Heaven beckons (or whatever passes as Heaven), and our hardscrabble lives on this ordinary Earth lose their preciousness and meaning. “Our trained mediums are standing by,” a radio advert announces, offering contact with the newly visible dead. This is a world lost to itself, snared by fantasies of the hereafter.

But what do these newly discovered ghosts really want, as they stream into our world through every available screen? Not every haunting is as touching as that of the boy and his dead parent. Rose guzzles bourbon by the bottle so as not to see her mother watching her from inside the motel pay-per-view. A friendly cop, caught up in a drinking game, confesses to a thoughtless on-duty prank that killed a family of five; not surprising then, that he thinks “they’re here to hurt us.” Karma, a hitchhiker Teddy and Rose pick up out in the desert, has her own doubts: ”Just because we can see them,” she points out, “doesn’t mean we understand them”.

It’s at this point, about half way into the movie, that the viewer’s heart, if it does not immediately sink, certainly begins to tip: surely this film has bitten off way more than it can possibly chew?

Teddy admits that what he really wants out of his own managed death is for the news to get back to his absentee father: “I’d rather kill myself than live the life you gave me.” This is not a bad line, but what follows is horrific, and not in any intended way: a stage-managed confrontation with Teddy’s dad; an impromptu psychodynamic therapy session in a filling station car lot. The script rights itself, but having lost all confidence after this compound pratfall, it delivers, in the end, only a low-key retread of Joel Schumacher’s 1990 flick Flatliners. (Judgement waits for us all; struggle gives life its meaning; you know the rest.)

Next Exit is a promising film, but not a good film. It warps the world into a very strange shape, to ask some valid — indeed, pressing — questions about where the value of life resides. But it loses its way. If the writing had exhibited half as much commitment as the acting, we might have had a hit on our hands.

We’ve learned a valuable lesson today

Watching M3gan, directed by Gerard Johnstone, for New Scientist, 25 January 2023

Having done something unspeakable to a school bully’s ear, chased him through the forest like a wolf, and driven him under the wheels of a passing car, M3gan, the world’s first “Model 3 Generative Android”, returns to comfort Cady, its inventor’s niece. “We’ve learned a valuable lesson today,” she whispers.

So has the audience, between all their squealing and cheering. Before you ask a learning machine to do something for you, it helps if you know what that thing actually is.

M3gan has been tasked by its inventor Gemma (Allison Williams, in her second Blumfield-produced movie since the company’s 2017 smash Get Out) with looking after her niece Cady (Violet McGraw), recently orphaned when her parents — arguing over who should police her screen time — drove them all under a snow truck.

M3gan is told to protect Cady from physical and emotional harm. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Gemma works for toy company Funki, whose CEO David (comedian Ronny Chieng) is looking for a way — any way — to “kick Hasbro right in the d—.” In a rush to succeed, Gemma ends up creating a care robot that (to paraphrase Terminator) absolutely will not stop caring. M3gan takes very personally indeed the ordinary knocks that life dishes out to a kid.

The robot — a low-budget concoction of masks and CGI, performed by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis — is an uncanny glory. But the signature quality of Blumfield’s films is not so much their skill with low budgets, as the company’s willingness to invest time and money on scripts. In developing M3gan, James Wan (who directed the 2004 horror film Saw) and Akela Cooper (whose first-draft screenplay was, by her own admission, “way gorier”) discovered in the end that there was more currency in mischief than in mayhem. This is the most sheerly gleeful horror movie since The Lost Boys.

Caring for a child involves more than distracting them. Alas M3gan, evolving from Funki’s “Purrfect Petz” (fuzzballs that quote Wikipedia while evacuating plastic pellets from their bowels) cannot possibly understand this distinction.

The point of parenting is to manage your own failure, leaving behind a child capable of handling the world on their own. M3gan, on the contrary, has absolutely no intention of letting Cady grow up. As far as M3gan is concerned, experience is the enemy.

In this war against the world M3gan transforms, naturally enough, into a hyperarticulated killing machine (and the audience cheers: this is a film built on anticipation, not surprise).

M3gan’s charge, poor orphaned Cady, is a far more frightening creation: a bundle of hurt and horror afforded no real guidance, adrift without explanations in a world where (let’s face it) everything will eventually die and everything will eventually go wrong. The sight of a screaming nine-year-old Cady slapping her well-intentioned but workaholic aunt across the face is infinitely more disturbing than any scene involving M3gan.

“Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal,” wrote the social scientist Sherry Turkle back in 2011, “but it consigns us to a closed world — the loveable as safe and made to measure.”

Cady, born into a world of fatuous care robots, eventually learns that the only way to get through life is to grow up.

But the real lesson here is for parents. The robot exists to do what we can imagine doing, but would rather not do. And that’s fine, except that it assumes that we always know what’s in our own best interests.

I remember in 2014, at a conference on human-machine interaction, I watched a a video starring Nao, a charming “educational robot”. It took a while before someone in the audience (not me, to my shame) spotted the film’s obvious flaw: how come it shows a mother sweating away in the kitchen while a robot is enjoying quality time with her child?

Unoaku lives alone

Watching Mika Rottenberg and Mahyad Tousi’s Remote for New Scientist, 26 October 2022

From her high-rise in a future Kuala Lumpur, where goods flow freely, drone-propelled, while people stay trapped in their apartments, Unoaku (in a brilliant, almost voiceless performance by Okwui Okpokwasili) ekes out her little life. There are herbs on her windowsill, and vegetables growing in hydroponic cabinets built into her wall. If she’s feeling lazy, a drone will deliver her a meal that she can simply drop, box and all, into boiling water. Unoaku’s is a world of edible packaging and smart architecture, living rugs (she spritzes them each day) and profound loneliness. Unoaku lives alone — and so does everybody else.

Though Remote was filmed during the Covid-19 lockdowns, it would be a mistake to consider this just another “lockdown movie”. Unoaku’s world is by no stretch a world in crisis, still less a dystopia. Her vibrantly decorated apartment (I want her wallpaper and so will you) is more refuge than prison, its walls moving to accommodate their occupant, giving Unoaku at least the illusion of space. Had it not been for Covid, we would probably be viewing this woman’s life as a relatively positive metaphor for what it would be like to embark on a long space journey. One imagines Lunar or Martian settlers of the future settling for much less.

Hers is, however, a little life: reduced to self-care, to hours spent gesturing at a blank wall (she’s an architect, working in VR), and to evenings sprawled in front of Eun-ji and Soju, a Korean dog-grooming show (Soju is the terrier, Eun-ji (Joony Kim) its ebullient owner).

Then things start to go very slightly wrong. Unoaku’s pan is returned dirty from the cleaning service. Eun-ji turns up drunk to her live show. Unoaku notices that the goofy clock on Eun-ji’s wall has started to run backwards. When she points this out on the chat platform running beside the programme, she triggers a stream of contempt from other viewers.

Unoaku is far more fragile that we thought. Now, when she leans out her window, bashing her cooking pan with a wooden spoon, celebrating — well, something; maybe just the fact of being alive and being able to hear other human beings — she is left shaking, her face wet with tears.

Soon other women are contacting her. They too have been watching Eun-ji and Soju. They too can see the clock going backwards on the dog-groomer’s wall. Bit by bit, a kind of community emerges.

Commissioned by the arts non-profit ArtAngel in the UK and a consortium of international galleries, Remote is that rare thing, an “art movie”. It belongs to a genre that became economically unviable with the advent of streaming and has been largely forgotten. (“Where are today’s Peter Greenaways and Derek Jarmans?” is a question that may not even compute for some readers, though these figures towered over the “arts & ents” pages of decades past.)

Director Mika Rottenberg, an artist working in upstate New York, is best known for her short, cryptic, funny video works like Sneeze (2012), in which well-dressed men with throbbing noses sneeze out live rabbits, steaks and lightbulbs. Her co-director Mahyad Tousi has a more mainstream screen background: he was the executive producer of CBS primetime comedy United States of Al and is currently writing a sci-fi adaptation of The Tales from a Thousand and One Nights.

One can’t expect this pair to revive the art movie overnight, of course, but Remote offers up an excellent argument for making the attempt. Like a modern Japanese or Korean short story, Remote explores the tiny bounds of an ordinary-seeming urban life, hemmed in by technology and consumption, and it surprises a world of deep feeling bubbling just beneath the surface.

A baffling accident of history

Watching Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes for New Scientist, 28 September 2022 

“Hundreds of birds are falling out of the sky every day,” complains Nadeem Shehzad, by far the grumpier of the two cousins whose life’s work is to rescue the injured raptors and waterbirds of Delhi. “What amazes me is that people go on as if everything’s normal.”

People, in Shaunak Sen‘s award-winning documentary, aren’t the only ones making the best of things under Delhi’s polluted skies. The city is also home to rats, pigs and frogs, mosquitoes and turtles, cows and horses and birds, and especially black kites, who have come to replace vultures as the city’s chief recycling service, cleaning up after the city’s many slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

The film follows Nadeem, his brother Mohammad Saud and their young cousin Salik Rehman as they struggle to turn their family obsession into [https://www.raptorrescue.org] a fully fledged wildlife hospital. No sooner is yet another funding bid completed then their meat mincer breaks down. No sooner is a wounded bird stitched up than there’s a power cut and all the lights go out. What happens to the family’s sewer connection when the monsoon arrives does not bear discussing.

These struggles are compelling and yet this is not really a film about humans. It’s about, quite literally, “all that breathes”. The humans are just one more animal trying to eke out a living in this alien place called Delhi: not a bad place, but not a human place neither: more a baffling accident of history.

The cousins compare notes on the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan while, barely two kilometres away, religious riots tear up the streets. Feral pigs cross a nearby stream. A millipede eases itself out of a puddle, even as a passing aeroplane casts its reflection in the water. The film’s first shot is a sumptuous pan across a rat-infested rubbish dump. Filmed at a rodent’s eye level, bare inches from the ground, a fascinating, complex, dramatic world is revealed. Later, we hear how Hindu nationalists are presenting the city’s muslim population in terms of disease and hygiene. Any European viewer with an ounce of historical sense will know where this thinking can lead.

Whether or not one picks up on all the film’s nested ironies is very much left to the viewer. Sen’s method is not to present an argument, but rather to get us to see things in a new way. Of the film’s main subject, the black kites, Sen has said, “I want audiences to leave the theater and immediately look up”.

Achieving this requires a certain amount of artifice. Viewers may wonder how it is that a tortoise reaches the top of a pile of garbage just in time to watch a motorike career around a distant corner. Individual shots took days to capture; some took much longer. The human conversations are a little more problematic. After consuming so many slipshod hand-held documentaries, I found the conversations here a little too on-message, a bit too polished to be true.

But why cavil at a powerful and insightful film, just because its style is unfamiliar? Filmed between 2020 and 2021 by German cinematographer Ben Bernhard, supported by Riju Das and Saumyananda Sahi, All That Breathes inhales extreme close-ups and cramped interiors, exhales vertiginous skyscapes and city skylines.

The story of Delhi’s black kites, regularly injured by the glass-coated threads used to fly paper kites — one of Delhi’s favourite leisure activities — might have been better served by a more straightforward story. But then the kites would, in the same breath, have become a small, contained, even inconsequential problem.

The whole point of Sen’s film, which won a Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is that the kites are a bell-weather. We’re all in this emergency together, and struggling to fly, and struggling to breathe.

A balloon bursts

Watching The Directors: five short films by Marcus Coates, for New Scientist, 31 August 2022

In a flat on the fifth floor of Chaucer House, a post-war social housing block in London’s Pimlico, artist Marcus Coates is being variously nudged, bullied and shocked out of his sense of what is real.

Controlling the process is Lucy, a teenager in recovery from psychosis. Through Coates’s earpiece, she prompt Coates in how to behave, when to sit and when to stand, what to touch, and what to avoid, what to look at, what to think about, what to feel. Sometimes Coates asks for guidance, but more often than not Lucy’s reply is drowned out by a second voice, chilling, over-loud, warning the artist not to ask so many questions.

A cardboard cut-out figure appears at the foot of Coates’s bed — a clown girl with bleeding feet. It’s a life-size blow-up of a sketch Coates himself was instructed to draw a moment before. Through his earpiece a balloon bursts, shockingly loud, nearly knocking him to the ground.

Commissioned and produced by the arts development company Artangel, The Directors is a series of five short films, each directed by someone in recovery from psychosis. In each film, the director guides Coates as he recreates, as best he can, specific aspects and recollections of their experience. These are not rehearsed performances; Coates receives instructions in real-time through an ear-piece. (That this evokes, with some precision the auditory hallucinations of psychosis, is a coincidence lost on no one.)

So: some questions. In the course of each tricky, disorientating and sometimes very frightening film, does Marcus Coates at any point experience psychosis? And does it matter?

Attempts to imagine our way into the experiences of other beings, human or non-human, have for a long while fallen under the shadow of an essay written in 1974 by American philosopher Thomas Nagel. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” wasn’t about bats so much as about the continuity of consciousness. I can imagine what it would be like for me to be a bat. But, says Nagel, that’s not the same as knowing what’s it’s like for a bat to be a bat.

Nagel’s lesson in gloomy solipsism is all very well in philosophy. Applied to natural history, though — where even a vague notion of what a bat feels like might help a naturalist towards a moment of insight — it merely sticks the perfect in the way of the good.

Coates’s work consistently champions the vexed, imperfect, utterly necessary business of imagining our way into other heads, human and non-human. 2013’s Dawn Chorus revealed common ground between human and bird vocalisation. He slowed recordings of bird song down twenty-fold, had people learn these slowed-down songs, filmed them in performance, then sped these films up twenty times. The result is a charming but very startling glimpse of what humans might look and sound like brought up to “bird speed”.

Three years before in 2010 The Trip, a collaboration with St. John’s Hospice in London, Coates enacted the unfulfilled dream of an anthropologist, Alex H. Journeying to the Amazon, he followed very precise instructions so that the dying man could conduct, by a sort of remote control, his unrealised last field trip.

The Directors is a work in that spirit. Inspired by a 2017 residency at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London, Coates effort to embody and express the breadth and complexity of psychotic experience is in part a learning experience. The project’s extensive advisory group includes Isabel Valli, a neuroscientist at King’s College London with a particular expertise in psychosis.

In the end, though, Coates is thrown back on his own resources, having to imagine his way into a condition which, in Lucy’s experience, robbed her of any certainty in the perceived world, leaving her emotions free to spiral into mistrust, fear and horror.

Lucy’s film is being screened in the tiny bedroom where her film was shot. The other films are screened in different nearby locations, including one in the Churchill Gardens Estate’s thirty-seater cinema. This film, arguably the most claustrophobic and frightening of the lot, finds Coates drenched in ice-water and toasted by electric bar heaters in an attempt to simulate the overwhelming tactile hallucinations that psychosis can trigger.

Asked by the producers at ArtAngel whether he had found the exercise in any way exploitative the director of this film, Marcus Gordon, replied: “Well, there’s no doubt I’ve exploited the artist.”

Driven by ghosts

Watching Explorer by Matthew Dyas for New Scientit, 3 August 2022

Explorer is a documentary about Ranulph Feinnes, the first man to circumnavigate the earth from Pole to Pole without recourse to flight.

It is a film full of ghosts. Its subject emerges slowly from snatches of previous documentaries, interviews, snatches of home movies, headlines. The film touts Feinnes’ unknowability: a risky strategy for audiences new to the man and his achievements, though the intrigue pays off handsomely in time.

Feinnes is not a man driven by mysterious and delicate internal forces. This is a man driven, simply and directly, by ghosts. Four months before his birth, Feinnes’s father was killed by a German landmine in Italy. His grandfather also died in the service of his country. It was young Ranulph’s intention to follow in their footsteps. Brought up in a household of indomitable women, he wanted to live up to the dad he never knew.

It was Feinnes’s first wife and former childhood sweetheart Ginny who devised the expedition that would make Feinnes a household name and make her the first woman to be awarded the Polar Medal. Seven years in the planning, Feinnes’s three-year Tranglobal expedition, from 1979 to 1982 was, with hindsight, the last of the great hero-projects of western expedition-making. The advent of satellite photography and instantaneous satellite communication has made much human adventure redundant, and undermined our old notions of physical heroism. In an era of extinctions and climate change, the notion of a human “pitting themselves against nature” has acquired a slightly “off” flavour.

Prevented by a stretch of open water from reaching the North Pole in 1984, Feinnes has long been one of our most eloquent witnesses to global warming. Nay-sayers will say there is something rotten at the heart of a white man’s exploration of what to him are far-off places. Feinnes’s expeditions since 1984 all point to something that should agitate us far more; that all over the world, the ice itself is rotting. The man lost fingers after hauling a sled out of polar water that shouldn’t have been water. Far from losing his already tenuous relevance, Feinnes is for many the ravaged poster child of our most contemporary crisis.

People who complain about Feinnes are rather like people who complain about us “mucking about in outer space”; they wildly over-estimate the costs involved, while wildly underestimating the value generated. Take the example of Transglobal: the expedition was put together from favours, donations and sponsorship. Careers were established in countless fields, from oceanography to biology to engineering, and 650 companies reaped the rewards of their association with the adventure.

Feinnes and his wife were unable to have children. When the couple applied to adopt a child, they were turned down because they didn’t have a stable enough income. Feinnes still struggles with money. Now a widower in his late seventies, remarried and father of one, he relies on plying the lecture circuit, driving sometimes ten hours a day to get from venue to venue, and sleeping in his car to avoid expensive bed-and-breakfasts.

Stomping through winter-time surf to ease the symptoms of suspected Parkinson’s disease, this old man is, by his own admission, still struggling to live up to his father. Pushing himself to the limit of his declining powers, he comes into focus at last as a tragic figure. But what is tragedy, if not a way of giving shape and meaning to a life that, by definition, is bound to end in decline and death?

Explorer’s achievement is to reach the source of Ranulph Feinnes’ heroism. The explorations, while staggering achievements, are mere way-stations. The goal is a life that has wrought as much good out of the world as it can.

“Does it all stop at the tree?”

Watching Brian and Charles, directed by Jim Archer, for New Scientist, 6 July 2022

Amateur inventor Brian Gittins has been having a bad time. He’s painfully shy, living alone, and has become a favourite target of the town bully Eddie Tomington (Jamie Michie).

He finds some consolation in his “inventions pantry” (“a cowshed, really”), from which emerges one ludicrously misconceived invention after another. His heart is in the right place; his tricycle-powered “flying cuckoo clock”, for instance, is meant as a service to the whole village. People would simply have to look up to tell the time.

Unfortunately, Brian’s invention is already on fire.

Picking through the leavings of fly-tippers one day, the ever-manic loner finds the head of a shop mannequin — and grows still. The next day he sets about building something just for himself: a robot to keep him company as he grows ever more graceless, ever more brittle, ever more alone.

Brian Gittins sprang to life on the stand-up and vlogging circuit trodden by his creator, comedian and actor David Earl. Earl’s best known for playing Kevin Twine in Ricky Gervais’s sit-com Derek, and for smaller roles in other Gervais projects including Extras and After Life. And never mind the eight-foot tall robot: Earl’s Brian Gittins dominates this gentle, fantastical film. His every grin to camera, whenever an invention fails or misbehaves or underwhelms, is a suppressed cry of pain. His every command to his miraculous robot (“Charles Petrescu” — the robot has named himself) drips with underconfidence and a conviction of future failure. Brian is a painfully, almost unwatchably weak man. But his fortunes are about to turn.

The robot Charles (mannequin head; washing machine torso; tweeds from a Kenneth Clark documentary) also saw first light on the comedy circuit. Around 2016 Rupert Majendie, a producer who likes to play around with voice-generating software, phoned up Earl’s internet radio show (best forgotten, according to Earl; “just awful”) and the pair started riffing in character: Brian, meet Charles.

Then there were three: Earl’s fellow stand-up Chris Hayward inhabited Charles’s cardboard body; Earl played Brian, Charles’s foil and straight-man; meanwhile Majendie sat at the back of the venue (pubs and msuic venues; also London’s Soho Theatre) with his laptop, providing Charles’s voice. This is Brian and Charles’s first full-length film outing, and it was a hit with the audience at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In this low-budget mockumentary, directed by Jim Archer, a thunderstorm brings Brian’s robot to life. Brian wants to keep his creation all to himself. In the end, though, his irrepressible robot attracts the attention of Tomington family, his brutish and malign neighbours, who seem to have the entire valley under their thumb. Charles passes at lightning speed through all the stages of childhood (“Does it all stop at the tree?” he wonders, staring over Brian’s wall at the rainswept valleys of north Wales) and is now determined to make his own way to Honolulu — a place he’s glimpsed on a travel programme, but can never pronounce. It’s a decision that draws him Charles out from under Brian’s protection and, ineluctably, into servitude on the Tomingtons’ farm.

But the experience of bringing up Charles has changed Brian, too. He no longer feels alone. He has a stake in something now. He has, quite unwittingly, become a father. The confrontation and crisis that follow are as satisfying and tear-jerking as they are predictable.

Any robot adaptable enough to offer a human worthwhile companionship must, by definition, be considered a person, and be treated us such, or we would be no better than slave-owners. Brian is a graceless and bullying creator at first, but the more his robot proves a worthy companion, the more Brian’s behaviour matures in response. This is Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit in reverse: here, it’s not the toy that needs to become real; it’s Brian, the toy’s human owner.

And this, I think, is the exciting thing about personal robots: not that they could make our lives easier, or more convenient, but that their existence would challenge us to become better people.

What the fuck was THAT?

Watching Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, for New Scientist, 8 June 2022

Near the climax of Joseph Kosinski’s delirious sequel to 1986 hit Top Gun, a fifth-generation fighter engages Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s F/A-18 in a dogfight around vertiginous snow-capped mountains. Suddenly this huge, hulking, superpowered wonderplane banks, stalls and turns, hanging over Mav (Tom Cruise, even more steely-eyed than usual) and his wingman Rooster (Miles Teller) as though it’s painted itself on the sky.

“What the ____ was THAT?” Rooster cries, though an actual graduate of TOPGUN (official name, the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) would probably know a Herbst manoeuvre when they saw one.

The Herbst (also known as a J-turn) is the kind of acrobatic manoeuvre you can pull only if you’re flying one of a handful of very expensive fighters designed and built since 2010. The Russian Sukhoi Su-57 is one such; China has the Chengdu J-20.

We’re not told which aircraft — or indeed, what well-provisioned rogue state — Mav is up against here, but he is in trouble: his F/A-18 multirole combat jet is no slouch, but, being a child of the 1990s, it is neither super-stealthy nor supermanoeuvrable.

“Fifth-gens” are not the only nemesis Mav must confront. He’s also holding out against progress, personified by a rear admiral nicknamed the Drone Ranger who (in a splendidly sour cameo by Ed Harris) declares that drones are the future, and that carrier-based fighter pilots like Mav are dinosaurs.

Most of the time, however, Maverick steers clear of ideas, and devotes itself wholly to 1980s nostalgia, as Tom Cruise’s Pete Mitchell (now a test pilot) sets about making his peace with the orphaned son of his old wingman Nick “Goose” Bradshaw. This is a well-told tale of misunderstanding and redemption, interspersed throughout with one-liners and easter eggs for fans of the earlier film. In one touching and funny scene, Mav gets to thank Ice (now, God help us all, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet) for keeping him in fighter planes and out of promotion. Of Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, Mav’s love interest in the first movie, there is no mention — but not every storyline can look back, and in this film, Mav’s old flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly) proves no pushover.

This is a peculiar project: part war film (as our heroes steal a plane from under the noses of the enemy), part techno-thriller (as Mav the test-pilot breaks all speed records and reaches an insane 3.5km a second), and part sports movie (as Mav welds his brilliant TOPGUN pupils into a world-peace-saving team; by that measure, mind you, you could argue that all Hollywood blockbusters are sports movies at heart).

Films can be good fun-fair rides quite as much as they can be good dramas, and it would be silly to criticise this thrilling display of real-world aeronautical stunt work for its lack of narrative realism. The presence of real planes and real pilots (and, after three months’ training, real airborne cast-members) makes this, in a profound sense, about as realistic a film as it is possible to get.

What we might look forward to eventually, though, is a film that looks for excitement, peril and heroism in a more contemporary theatre, featuring aerial combat that’s truly fifth-generation: super-stealthy, super-manoeuvreable, and drone-enhanced.

Until someone makes that imaginative leap (and, crucially, can take a huge global audience along for the ride), we can expect armed-forces movies to draw more and more on science fiction for their plots. Why is the pilot dog-fighting with Mav and Rooster dressed like an Imperial TIE-fighter pilot from Star Wars? Why is the illegal uranium enrichment plant that’s the target of Mav’s raid equipped with a two-metre wide exhaust vent lifted from Star Wars’s Death Star? Because this is what science fiction is, much of the time: a filler, a place-holder, a hoarding that reads, “Coming soon: the future”.