Favorite Cult Classics (Part the Second)

Welcome back! As promised, the second half of my nostalgic, cult classic favorites for you to peruse! Let me know what you think, and feel to add some contenders of your own. Cult hits are nothing if not personal, and what constitutes a classic is open to interpretation. Okay, six to ten, here goes:

2001: A Space Odyssey:
Yes, this movie deserves top billing for being a classic! And yet, the movie really doesn’t seem to garner much appreciation from audiences, not unless they are self-professed film buffs or hard sci-fi fans. Not sure I qualify for either, but I loved this movie for the simple reason that it was packed full of mind-blowing themes. Much like Akira, it was chock-full of things that got my young mind thinking and completely shaped my outlook on science fiction.

Sure, there are those who complain that this movie is boring and esoteric, but I found all that a fitting price for the kick-ass subject matter, not to mention the mind-blowing climax. You got a mystery, speculations about human evolution, ancient aliens, space exploration, and existential singularities! All the while, the weight of the philosophical implications are weighing at your mind…

And let’s not forget how inspiration this movie proved to be. Today, the concept of ancient astronauts, aliens who came to Earth millions of years ago and tampered with human evolution, has become all the rage. From Star Trek to Stargate, Battlestar Galactica to Prometheus, the concept of ancient astronauts has played out. And frankly, 2001 has them all beat! Between Kubrick and Clarke, their concept of the aliens and how they altered the course of evolution on Earth was the most realistic I have ever seen.

But I think what I liked best about was the fact that the movie was the subtle nature of the whole thing. At once speculative, philosophical, and visually stunning, this movie was characteristic of Kubrick, who preferred to convey things visually rather than coming out and telling people what was going on. You never really quite knew what happened during that eye-popping final scene, but those who love sci-fi and imaginative filmaking were sure to have ideas!

Alien:
Granted, this movie wasn’t exactly under-appreciated, but compared to the lavish attention the rest of the franchise has garnered- even though it was all downhill after Aliens – this first installment truly was the diamond in the rough. Not only did it have a cool concept, awesome set designs and a kick-ass back story, the direction and cinematography captures the story’s sense of dread and claustrophobia perfectly.

Little wonder then why this movie spawned an entire franchise, because it really did have everything. You had your blue-collar peeps working for the major interstellar company (Weyland-Yutani), a frightening discovery made on an uncharted planet, a mysterious derelict belonging to an unknown race, and a terrifying creature awakened from its slumber. And not just any kind of creature, but a complex symbiote that was designed for and possessed of a single purpose.

Or as Ash put it: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” He had a point didn’t he? In fact, all structures in this movie were pure genius, whether it was the Nostromo, the Derelict, or the Facehugger and Chestbuster combo. As with everything Scott does, attention to detail and the careful construction of a universe was paramount. Every set was richly detailed, well shot, and clearly made to elicit the right feel and impressions on the audience.

Much of the credit for this goes to H.R. Giger as well, the surrealist artist who brought Lovecraftian horror to the alien concept and set of the alien ship. Years later, I still find myself tuning in just to get a glimpse of that Gothic reconstruction, or to see the Space Jockey sitting in its chair, the tell-tale hole punching through its chest. Few movies have managed to capture that same sense of awe and wonder for me, with the possible exceptions of 2001 and Akira

Johnny Mnemonic:
Some people might think I’m crazy for listing this movie as a personal classic, but it can’t be helped! And my reasons are pretty simple. On the one hand, this movie kind of has that “so bad, it’s good” thing going on, but at the same time, I also felt it possessed some real signs of quality. Sure, the acting was pretty wooden, the fight choreography total crap, and the low-budget nature apparent throughout. But it was still a pretty faithful adaptation of Gibson’s work and introduced to that world at a still-young age. Hence why I come back to it every few years just to see it again.

Filmed in the mid-90’s, this movie is an adaptation of the short story by William Gibson and previewed a lot of what he wrote in Neuromancer. For example, you’ve got the big bad corporations, the cyberspace jockeys, freelance assassins, Yakuza, and the character Molly Millions. Things are also set in “The Sprawl”, the megapolis that stretches from Boston to Atlanta and is contained in geodesic domes, and the look and feel is definitely of the cyberpunk variety.

Into all this, Gibson introduced the revolutionary concept of mnemonic couriers, people who have “wetwire” implants in their brains that allow them to carry vast quantities of data from point A to point B. Basically, these couriers are the answer of what to do in a world where information is the most precious commodity, and all databases are vulnerable to hacking and protected by “Black ICE” – hostile Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics (aka. viruses)

And, in keeping with Gibson’s style, the story involves a titanic corporation that is fighting to maintain its monopolistic grip, while freelancers, smugglers and assorted little people are fighting to undermine them and distribute the information freely. Naturally, the main character of Johnny is an unlikely hero who is forced to take a break from looking out for number one and help others for a change. Might sound cheesy, and a little cliche, but it works and delivers on Gibson’s style. At the very least, it’s a guilty pleasure flick for me.

Screamers:
Now here’s a movie that’s high on the pleasure, low on the guilt. While a low-budget sci-fi flick that was (like Johnny Mnemonic) produced and filmed entirely in Canada, it had many signs of quality that immediately made it a cult hit. There’s the post-apocalyptic setting, the frightening tone, and the Cold War feel of the thing, updated for the 90’s. All the while, there is the knowledge that this is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Second Variety, which sort of makes it a must-see of PKD fans.

Much like in the original story, the plot of the film involves a race of self-producing, self-upgrading machines that are designed to infiltrate enemy territory and eliminate all combatants. But of course, things begin to go awry when the people who produced them realize that they have upgraded to the point where they can impersonate human beings. And whereas the original story was set on Earth and took place between the US and Russia, the updated story takes place on Sirius 6b, a pining planet that became the front line between a the political-economic entity known as the NEB  and those who chose to resist its rule.

Personally, I felt the updated version works. Not only does the conflict seem more relevant, being between a mega-corporate entity and a coalition of workers and dissenters, but the off-world setting also feels more realistic. Perhaps it was the fact that in the post-Cold War world, nuclear war between two superpowers didn’t seem a likelihood anymore. Or it could just be that the whole NEB angle was reminiscent of Weyland-Yutani and Alien. All I know is, I liked it!

What’s more, a good deal of attention went into creating the setting and modelling the Screamers – aka. the automated machines that kill people. Designed to be the perfect terror weapons, they emit a high-pitched “scream” before making their attack, and can toy with their targets for some time before moving. This concept, combined with some good shooting, really created a sense of tension which is felt throughout. And of course, the paranoia which is engendered by the appearance of human-like machines was a very nice touch! A good movie, and a fitting adaptation which managed to capture PKD’s cautionary tale about the dangers of runaway progress.

Time Bandits:
And last, here is the classic time traveling tale that I first saw in my childhood. Recently, my wife was told by a coworker that she should ought to see it, and my memory was jogged! Yes, this is indeed a cult classic, and one which is deserving of plenty of kudos and praise. Well cast, well written, witty and poignant, it’s one of those quintessential 70’s movies which has been rediscovered by several generations of film buffs and sci-fi fans.

The story opens with an imaginative and historically-minded child who lives in an overly-bourgeois neighborhood with his materially-possessed family. But upon realizing that there is a time-portal in his wall and that people from the past and future can come through it, his world is turned upside down. Quickly, he become the unwitting companion in a group of dwarves who are traveling through time, stealing precious artifacts, and being pursued by both the “Supreme Being” and an evil sorcerer.

Immediately, one can see the layered and inspired plot taking shape here. On the one hand, you have some decidedly Judea-Christian elements, plus a tale of childhood imagination and escapism. The dichotomy of the Supreme Being who possesses the power of time travel and the sorcerer who wants it for himself are representative of God and Lucifer, after a fashion. The dwarves who stole this power for themselves are a sort of Icaran allegory, or possibly Adam and Eve once they ate from the tree of knowledge. And ultimately, the way they are saved in the end from evil represents their redemption.

All the while we are left wondering if the boy is merely dreaming, or if what he is experiencing is real, which is an element that is intrinsic to all tales of childhood fantasies. On the one hand, the protagonists flights of fancy are seen as a weakness and immaturity to those around them, whereas we tend to see as it a rare gift to see past the surface. Should it all be a fantasy, then the story is left without a formal sense of resolution; but if it is real, then the hero has been vindicated and proven right. Appropriately, the movie plays with the two possibilities, going back and forth, but then giving strong hints at the end that it was in fact real. So really, you have a story that is inspired, imaginative, and also suspenseful!

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Well, that’s my top ten list for the best cult classic movies of all time. What’s yours? I know I have a few in common with some people ’round these parts, and I also know that a few were previously unheard of. Hence why I want to here from others. I have a feeling there are some which I need to see and would very much enjoy. Already, I’m poised to watch Sunshine, A Boy and His Dog, and a few others which I’ve heard good things about. And I hope that in the course of swapping lists, I might be able to find a few more I’d like to see. Take care, and enjoy the rest of the long-weekend, those of who are reading this in Canada. As for the Yanks in the audience, and the rest of the world for that matter, enjoy the work week 😉

Mona Lisa Overdrive

Welcome back to the BAMA*! At long last, I’ve come to the end of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. For those who don’t remember, this began with Neuromancer and Count Zero many months ago. I had hoped to include this third and final review in short order, unfortunately other books got in the way. And by other books, I mean a tall stack that I’ve been reading, reviewing, and putting down to make room for even more! I tell ya, being a sci-fi reader/writer/reviewer can really burn your brain somedays!

Luckily, I concluded the book just yesterday and am ready to comment on it at last. And let me begin by saying that it’s very interesting, having read every novel that Gibson has written up until this point, to look back and see how his writing began and evolved over the years. It is also interesting to see how certain thematic elements which would appear in later trilogies – i.e. The Bridge and Bigend trilogies- made their first appearances.

Elements common to cyberpunk, such as high-tech and low liing, were common to all three books in this series, but were also an intrinsic part of Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The stark divide between rich and the poor and the transformative power of wealth, so important to the Bigend Trilogy, was also to be found in these earliest works. And of course, stories focusing on freelancers who find themselves in the employ of enigmatic figures, and the power plays that go on behind the scenes between various brokers, were present in all of his novels to date.

However, after completing this novel, I can honestly say that I felt let down. Prior to reading it, I was told that it was the greatest of the Sprawl Trilogy, and the reviews claimed that it was Gibson’s “most engrossing story to date”. I came away feeling that it was less than engrossing and definitely not the best of the three. For one, it seemed lacking in much of the cool elements that made Neuromancer and Count Zero so very fun and intriguing.

However, before I get into all that, I should summarize what this book is about. Here goes…

Plot Synopsis:
The story, much like all of Gibson’s works, contains multiple threads that are interrelated and come together in the end. In the first, we see a Japanese girl named Kumiko, the daughter of a Yakuza boss who has decided to send her to London in the midst of a war between the various crime families.Her only companion is a construct named Colin, a personality that inhabits a portable Maas-Neotek biochip.

Once there, she makes the acquaintance of a freelancer named Sally Shears (aka. Molly Millions) who has been hired out by her father’s people to keep her safe. In addition, Sally is being blackmailed by Swain, the head of the London mob, who has ordered her to kidnap the famous simstim star Angie Mitchell and replace her with the a body double.

In thread two, we meet the intended double, a 16-year old prostitute named Mona from Florida who travels to New York with  Eddie (her pimp) after he closes some lucrative deal. However, when they arrive, Eddie is killed and Mona is forced to undergo the surgery that will make her look exactly like Angie, whom she knows from all her simstim movies and admires greatly. Angie’s back story, about how she was the daughter of the man who invented biochips and placed bioenhancements in her brain (all of which takes place in Count Zero) is all recounted, as is her failed relationship to Bobby (aka. “The Count”).

In thread three, we learn that Angie has returned from rehab after developing an addiction to a designer drug her company was supplying. After a brief stay in Malibu, she learns that it was someone in her inner circle who was giving her the drug in the hopes that it would alter her brain chemistry, thereby disrupting her ability to access cyberspace and communicate with the AI’s now living there (the lao, or Voodoo god personas the AI’s had taken on).

In the fourth and final thread, we are introduced to three residents who live together in an abandoned factory located in “The Solitude”, an uninhabited area in the Sprawl. Gentry is the defacto owner of the place, a cyberspace jockey preoccupied with the way it has changed since events in Neuromancer where AI’s began to permeate it. Slick is his roommate, a robotics enthusiast who builds giant battledroids with the help of his friend redneck friend Bird.

Things for them become interesting when Slick’s associate, Kid Afrika, drops off a man who’s permanently jacked into cyberspace and asks them to take care of him. He leaves the man (Bobby Newmark) and a registered nurse (Cherry) with instructions to keep them safe. After examining the aleph (a biochip with immense capacity) that he’s plugged into, Gentry learns that it is an approximation of the whole data of the matrix.This is where he has been living for the past few years after breaking up with simstim star Angie Mitchell.

In the course of the story, we also learn that Lady 3Jane has died and now inhabits the aleph as a construct. At some point, Bobby stole the aleph and now inhabits it with her. After checking in with her jockey friend, Tick, in London, Molly learns that 3Jane is behind the plot to kidnap Angie Mitchell and replace her, and begins to work to unravel these plans. She travels to New York to meet with the Finn, himself a construct now, and learns that since her operation to Straylight, things have been changing drastically in cyberspace.

Now, 3Jane is looking for revenge, and Angie is intrinsic to that plot. After recruiting Swain and key members of Angie’s entourage to help her, she attempts to conduct the kidnapping while Angie is in New York. However, Molly intervenes and grabs Angie and Mona, who is being set up to replace her, and begins to travel to the Solitude. Angie, under the influence of the lao, is directed to Factory to reunite Angie with Bobby.

Meanwhile, Kumiko, who is alone in London, goes to find Tick and find out what’s going on. Ever since Molly left, she is advised by her Maas-Neotek construct Colin to seek refuge from Swain. When she finds him, she too learns about how cyberpsace is changing and how a massive data profile has entered into the matrix (which turns out to be the aleph). When they jack in, they are pulled into the aleph with 3Jane who attempts to hold them prisoner.

Things come together when Molly arrives in the Factory and Sense/Net mercenaries begin to show up to take Angie back. Meanwhile, in the aleph, Colin comes to their rescue by neutralizing 3Jane’s control over the construct. He also reveals 3Jane[‘s motivations. In the wake of her death, after a life of pettiness, greed and obsessive control, she has become jealous of Angie Mitchell and her abilities. Molly, since they know each other from the Straylight run, is pretty much on her shit list as well!

In the end, Angie Mitchell and Bobby die together, but not before their personalities come together in the aleph, to be forever joined by 3Jane and the Finn. Mona is picked up Kid Afrika who assumes that she’s Angie Mitchell, and is taken off to take over her starlet life. Molly takes the aleph and travels off into the distance while Slick and Cherry get together and head off to start a new life together. And finally, Gentry, who refused to leave Factory, stays behind to contemplate the matrix’s growing complexity.

Meanwhile, a final mystery is resolved. Inside the aleph, Angie, Colin and Bobby are picked up by the Finn who explains how and why the Matrix changed. After Neuromancer and Wintermute at the end of the first novel, the combined AI indicated that there was another like him, a construct similar to the Matrix in Alpha Centauri. Apparently, after he went there, he came back changed and divided into the lao, and the Matrix itself changed. Now, the Finn is taking them there, to meet the alien cyberspace and all the mysteries it holds…

Summary:
As I may have said already, this book was my least favorite of the Sprawl Trilogy. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, mind you. But it was diminished in that Gibson’s usual dark, gritty, and decidedly cyberpunk style – which ranges from opulent to gothic in its appraisal of technology and its impact on society – seemed to be watered down by a much cleaner narrative. In the end, it felt more like reading from the Bigend Trilogy, in that the settings and feel were quite similar.

Aside from taking place largely in London and New York, there was also a lot of buildup and not much in the way of action. And of course, the diversions into the fields of fashion, mass media and the cult of personality; these too felt like they would have been much more at home in the Bigend Trilogy. That was the trilogy that dealt with all these elements, whereas the Sprawl was all about the nitty-gritty, about cool gadgets, mercenaries, cyber-ninjas, deck jockeys, corporate bad guys, high-tech and low-life.

To top it all off, the ending felt quite abortive. Gibson is somewhat notorious for this, but whereas Neuromancer and Count Zero contained plenty of gun-toting and cyberspace runs, this book kept all the action til the very end. And at that point, it was complicated by a rather odd narrative structure and some pretty weak explanations. After learning that 3Jane was pulling all the strings and determined to wreak revenge, it seemed weak that it was all for the sake of punishing Angie out of jealousy.

If anything, I thought her motivations had to do with the Straylight run. That after fifteen years of waiting and plotting, she finally found Molly and decided to kill her and anyone else involved in changing the Matrix. To know that it was motivated by her jealousy of Angie’s abilities just rang hollow. In addition, I thought the usual motivations, like how the wealthy are constantly trying to cheat death, might have been a fitting motivation. I seriously thought at one point that her true intentions were to find herself a vessel, and Angie Mitchell proved to be the perfect choice due to the veves in her hand. Through these, 3Jane could simply download herself, provided she had her in custody and hooked up to the aleph… or something.

However, there was plenty of interest in between all that. While many chapters kind of dragged for me, I did enjoy the scenes where the history of the Tessier-Ashpool clan were reconstructed. The revelation about the Alpha Centauri matrix, which was only hinted at at the very end of the Neuromancer was also very cool. And the detailing of the lao and the evolution of the Matrix since Wintermute and Neuromancer came together, that too was interesting. In the end, I just wished there had been more of this.

And given that this novel did wrap up the previous two novels and brought closure to the whole Sprawl trilogy, I would highly recommend it. Regardless of whether or not it was the best or weakest of the three books, it is the final chapter and contains many important explanations and resolutions, without which the series would never be complete. On top of all that, it is hardly a weak read, and I know for a fact that many people consider it to be better than the others. So who am I to stand in anyone’s way of reading it?

Kudos to you William Gibson. I have now read every novel you wrote. I now move on to Burning Chrome and Johnny Mnemonic, plus any other bits of short fiction and thoughtful essays I can get my hands on. Despite all the little things I have come to criticize about your work, you remain one of the best and most important writers in this reader’s bookshelf! And if I really didn’t like you, why the hell do I model so much of my work on your prose? Like Aeschylus said of Homer, any work of mine dealing in cyberpunk and high-tech is pretty much the crumbs from your table!

Good day and happy reading folks!

Happy Canada Day!

Hello and welcome to my Canada Day post! As it is the True North’s national birthday – commemorating the day when the original provinces came together and agreed on Confederation, the first act of national building and quasi-declaration of independence – I thought it fitting that I do a post honoring Canada’s contribution to the field of science fiction. The list is extensive, contrary to what you might you think, and includes some of the most critically acclaimed examples of literature, film and television in this genre. But like most things Canadian, it suffers from a potential lack of recognition. Well, I, as a patriotic (but not nationalistic!) individual, shall do my part to promote. Hell, one day I want to be on this list, so I better make sure people know about it 😉

First up, movies that were filmed, directed and produced right here in Canada, eh!

Scanners (1981):
This film, directed by David Cronenberg, is considered a cult classic amongst fans of sci-fi and horror alike. In this movie, “Scanners” are people that exhibit powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities who are being sought out by a corporation named ConSec, a purveyor of weapons and security systems. Ostensibly, their purpose is to register scanners so the public can be protected from them, but it is clear that they have a nefarious agenda as well.

The story revolves around two rogue scanners, the dangerous Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) and the reclusive Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). After a “demonstration” goes terrible wrong where Revok causes Dr. Ruth – head of ConSec’s scanner section – to explode, ConSec becomes dedicated to finding all rogue scanners and stamping them out. On their radar is Revok, a known and powerful scanner who is a homeless transient, moving from place to place in the hopes of staying ahead of corporate spies.

In the end, Vale finds himself trapped between Revok’s renegade faction on the one side and ConSec’s goons on the other. In the end, he is captured by Revok and learns that they are brothers, that Ruth is their father, and that all scanners are the result of drug trials involving pregnant women and ephemerol. This drug, which was designed to combat morning sickness (echoes of thalidomide), is the same one which they now use to control scanners.

Revok’s plan is to now use a captured shipment of the drug and administer it to countless pregnant women worldwide, thus creating an army of scanners. When he learns of this, Vale and Revok begin to fight each other using their powers. In the end, Vale defeats his brother and then assumes his likeness, thus putting him in charge of the rogue scanners. The story thusly ends on a cliffhanger note, with Vale’s intentions open to speculation.

This movie was not only a cult classic, but very heavily inspired. It’s investigation of psychic abilities, with corporate controllers, rogue telepaths, and drugs used to control them, would all show up in later franchises, particularly Babylon 5. In addition, that head exploding scene is considered an iconic imagine, one which has been referenced many times over on the silver screen. Consider the line from Wayne’s World where Garth appears to be having a nervous breakdown on TV and one of their cronies asks: “Did you see that movie Scanners where the dude’s head exploded?”

Johnny Mnemonic (1995):
Though it was widely considered one of the worst adaptations in science fiction history, Johnny Mnemonic was nevertheless a faithful representation of William Gibson’s original work (also a Canadian). Set in the “Sprawl” of the 21st century, the story is about a mnemonic courier who uses wetwire implants (i.e. cybernetic brain implants) to carry information around illegally. This is apparently a common practice in the world of the future, where corporate control is absolute and the most precious commodity is information.

Enter into this Johnny (Reaves), a courier who is given a job to carry a package that is twice the size of his capacity. He takes it, knowing the risk it will pose to his brain, because he’s looking for that final payoff which will allow him to have his implants removed and his memory restored. This is something all mnemonic carriers must go through, which is the sacrifice of their own memories in order to make room for all the pirated data they carry.

Quickly, Johnny realizes the package he contains is incredibly valuable, as Yakuza close in and murder his contacts. His own boss betrays him as well, forcing him to turn to a freelance ninja named “Sally Shears” (aka. Molly Millions) for help. Like him, she has enhancements which are beginning to mess with her body, and she recommends they get help from her friend Spider. As a doctor, he is used to dealing with nervous system illnesses, particularly NAS (nervous attenuation syndrome).

When they arrive, Johnny is informed that he is the one who hired him, and that the information he carries comes directly from the pharmaceutical giant Pharma-Kom’s labs. It is nothing less than the cure of NAS, and the company will kill to make sure it doesn’t get it out, seeing as how they make billions off of treatment and will lose out if it is cured. The race is then on for Johnny to download the cure onto the open Net, and with the help of a group of counter-culture fighters named Lo-Tek, they manage to do just that.

Though the movie was generally panned by critics and did quite poorly at the box office, it remains a cult classic to many because of its gritty, cyberpunk feel and faithful adaptation of Gibson’s characteristic themes. It also boasted an all-star cast, which included Keannu Reaves (Canuck!), Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, and Udo Kier. On top of that, it also made use of pioneering special effects to give visual representation to Gibson’s concept of “cyberspace”, the movie also contained all the elements he so loves to include in his stories. Freelancers, Yakuza, mega-corporations, mercenaries, cybernetic enhancements, dirty environments, urban sprawl, hackers and techy geeks. This movie had all that, and is required viewing for fans of Neuromancer and Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy.

Screamers (1995):
Here’s a cult classic I keep coming back to of late! Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety”, Screamers is another adaptation of classic sci-fi which was filmed, directed and financed here in the Great White North. And I mean that literally since most of the filming took place in a quarry in Quebec during the dead of winter. And though the story was updated for the post-Cold War world, set on a distant planet and being a war between corporate interests and quasi-national forces, the basic elements remained much the same.

Taking place in 2078 on a planet known as Sirius 6b, the story revolves around an ongoing war between two factions who are fighting for control of the planet. On the one side is the NEB (New Economic Bloc), a super-corporate entity that controls mining in outer space. On the other is the Alliance, a resistance formed out of the former miners and scientists from the colony.

After the NEB bombarded the planet with nukes, turning it into a radioactive wasteland that is perennially experiencing nuclear winter, the Alliance resorted to creating devices known as the “Autonomous Mobile Sword”, a race of self-replicating machines built by a self-sustaining underground factory. These weapons, which tunnel underground and use high-pitched sonic blasts to paralyze opponents, carry the nickname of “Screamers”.

The story opens when a NEB representative comes to the Alliance bunker offering a ceasefire. After investigating the situation, the Alliance commander JOe Hendricksson (played by Peter Weller, aka. Robocop) realizes that the war still rages back home and no one cares what happens to them anymore. He decides to take the NEB up on their offer to end the fight on Sirius 6b, but during his trip to the NEB bunker, learns that new breeds of Screamers are out there. After meeting with Jessica (Jennifer Rubin), the NEB mercenary commander, they attempt to investigate the Screamer factory and learn that there are in fact four varieties now, each of which is becoming more human!

They make it back to the Alliance bunker, only to see that it too has been overrun. In the end, only Hendrickson and Jessica survive and begin making their way to the emergency escape shuttle hidden in the nearby mountains. Once there, Hendrickson learns that Jessica herself is a Screamer when an identical model of her appears and attacks them. Apparently, she is the fifth variety and the most advanced model to date, one that bleed, cry, imitate human emotions, and even have sex. Jessica sacrifices herself to protect him, and Hendrickson learns that her mission was to find the escape shuttle and go back to Earth where they could be sterilizing it of all life as well.

This was in keeping with the Screamer new mandate which was to destroy all human life, not just their enemies. However, that ended when Jessica became over-sympathetic to Hendrickson and broke with her original programming, thus demonstrating the most human characteristic of all, that of empathy. Hendrickson then takes the shuttle himself and leaves the planet, bound for Earth, and safe in the knowledge that the Screamers will never get off Sirius 6b.

Thought it differed in many ways from the original PKD short story, the thematic nature of the movie was accurate. You have the idea of the Screamers, the automonous, self-replicating and intelligent machines that are left to their own devices and end up turning on their own masters. You have the concept of runaway technology erasing the line between what is real and fake. Thought it ended on a happy note, unlike “Second Variety” where a machine made it off planet, the movie still managed to deliver on its message. And it was pretty damn scary too boot!

Cube (1997):
Here is another cult-classic that practically created its own sub-genre in science fiction film making. Directed by Vincenzo Natali and produced by the Canadian Film Centre as its first First Feature Project, Cube became an instant hit due to its paranoid, Kafkaesque feel and psychological thriller tone. Set inside a giant (you guessed it) Cube, made up of countless adjoining rooms that are numbered and contain different booby traps, the story revolves around a series of strangers who wake up inside and must find their way out.

What is immediately apparent to all the characters in the story is that they all possess different abilities and share the same story. Each and every one of them was carrying on with their daily lives, only to wake up and find themselves inside a cube-shaped room. None of them know each other or can remember how they got here, but once they found each other, they agree to work together and find the way out.

Amongst the captives is Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a charismatic police officer who takes command, Leaven (Nicole deBoer) a young mathematics student, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a doctor and conspiracy theorist, and Worth (David Hewlett), a pessimistic man who refuses to talk about himself. Quentin believes they all have a role to play, Holloway believes they are part of a government experiment, Leaven develops a theory that the room’s numbered in prime are the safe ones, and Rennes follows but seems skeptical of their chances.

As they continue, they find that Quentin’s theory about the prime numbered-rooms is flawed. Tensions also begin to rise within the group because of Holloway’s paranoia, Quentin’s controlling behavior, and Worth’s reticence. The group then experiences a bit of a breakdown, during which time Worth finally reveals that he was one of the architects who helped design the Cube. He never knew what it was for or who even commissioned it, the specs merely passed his desk and he added his own insight. He believes that essentially, the Cube created itself, the result of human stupidity and complacency.

However, Leaven concludes from Worth’s description that the numbers might actually be Cartesian coordinates, and the group begins working its way to one of the outer edges. They also come across a mentally challenged boy named Kazan, who Quentin wants to leave behind by Leaven insists they bring. But in time, their efforts prove futile when another feature of the Cube is revealed, the fact that it periodically shifts its rooms around. Another breakdowns occurs as Quentin becomes paranoid and shows his dark side. After a confrontation with Holloway, he lets her fall to her death, thinking she was out to get him.

The group begins to truly fall apart as Quentin’s true nature is revealed. It seems he is a violent man with a penchant for young girls, the reason why his wife left him with their kids. He begins to run the group through bullying and fear. But a ray of hope emerges when Leaven concludes that the numbers are not primes or coordinates by powers of prime numbers. She cannot calculate them, but the mentally challenged boy Kazan – an apparent autistic savant – can. They continue on their way and Worth incapacitates Quentin, who has now gone completely insane.

Eventually, they find their way to the outer edge and prepare to leave, but Worth wonders if it’s worth it considering that there is nothing out there but “boundless human stupidity”. They are about to step out when Quentin sets upon them. Leaven jumps in to help, and the three are pulled back in as the room’s once again shift. Kazan is left alone to walk out into the light of day, free of the Cube.

Where to begin? This story was a masterful piece of psychological thriller and paranoid fantasy! The fact that we never truly learn who built the Cube, what purpose the “test” really served, and the possibility that complacency and ineptitude is what built it not only makes for a mysterious story, but a big, fat existential allegory! For in the end, are we not all prisoners within a giant maze we can’t discern, who’s maker is unknown and who’s purpose in indistinct? Calling to mind Kafka, Sartre and the “Allegory of the Cave” – a la Socrates – these movie was not only a nail-biting thriller but a fittingly dark philosophical commentary.

Last Night (1998):
Filmed and set in Toronto by writer/actor/director Don McKellar, this apocalyptic sci-fi film tells the story of the last night on Earth, and shows various people choose to spend it. Though the date is not specified, and no explanation is given as to what calamity will be bringing the world to an end, it is made abundantly clear that it will be coming at the stroke of midnight, leaving everyone in the story only a few hours with which to live life to the fullest.

Naturally, the streets are filled with people who have decided to riot, loot and generally wreak havoc. But the main focus of the story is on the lives of various intersecting characters who have chosen to use their time more constructively. One is Patrick (played by McKellar himself), who lost his wife not long ago and is spending the time saying goodbye to family and friends, but who seems to want to spend the last of it alone.

His best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) chooses to spend it in a non-stop sexual marathon as he attempts to fulfill every possible erotic desire he has, not to mention those of his partners. This includes having sex with his former French teacher, a black woman, a virgin, and just about any other scenario he can think of. When Patrick comes to say good-bye, he clumsily tries to encourage him to have sex with him as well. Patrick awkwardly declines, but Craig manages to get a sustained kiss out of him before he goes.

Meanwhile, Sandra (Sandra Oh), who has become stranded in the streets, meets up with Patrick and they get to talking. After realizing their time is short and they have only each other to spend their last hour with, they begin talking and sharing. Many times over, she insists that Patrick open up, saying “make me love you”. They agree to a suicide pact on the roof, listening to “Guantanamera” and drinking wine. In the end, they cannot shoot each other and end their time on the Earth with a heartfelt kiss.

The movie became an instant hit because of its personal nature and the realistic way in which it depicted the end of the world. By not specifying how the world was ending, McKellar kept the focus on the people themselves and how they chose to confront death, bringing out the very best and worst in themselves. While some chose to lose all control and commit murder, others chose to spend it with loves ones, or took a chance on forming new bonds with total strangers.

This last performance, between Sandra Oh and McKellar himself, was the most touching part of the film. We have two people who would never have known each other, both of whom experienced personal tragedy, and who came to experience one brief, shining moment of love – the most life affirming thing of all – before all life ended forever. So sad, yet so poignant. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

eXistenZ (1999):
From the same mind that brought you Scanners (David Cronenberg) comes this twisted psychological thriller about reality and the way technology affects our perception of the world around us. Featuring an all star cast that included Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar and Willem Dafoe, this movie received multiple awards and was well received by critics, though its box office gross was overshadowed somewhat by the release of the Matrix that same year.

Set in the not too distant future where organic game consoles known as “game pods” are all the rage, the story revolves around two game companies – Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics – who are competing to create the best in bioware. At the same time, a group of “realists” – people who are opposed to the technology because it “deforms reality” – are engaged in a guerrilla-style fight with both companies.

Enter into this Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the greatest game designer in the world who works for Antenna and is testing her latest virtual reality game, eXistenZ. During a seminar, she is shot in the shoulder by a realist using an “organic gun” – a device which can pass through security checkpoints – and the console appears to be damaged. As a result, she must plug in and test it with a trusted person and asks Pikul (Jude Law), the security guard to join her.

As they enter the game, reality becomes increasingly distorted as the two undergo behaviors which seem odd to them but are “consistent with their characters.” At the same time, they are stalked by characters that appear to be Realist fighters who are trying to sabotage them. Geller eventually realizes that they have been double-crossed by the people who installed Pikul’s bioport, the interface which is inserted into a gamer’s lower back, in order to infect and destroy her game. On top of that, Cortical Systems personnel are also inside, looking to copy the game for their own purposes. Pikul then reveals that he is in fact a Realist agent who was sent to kill her. She answers by saying she knew for some time and detonating his bioport.

However, in a finay twist, the two then appear on a stage with the other main players from the game and realize they were all part of a virtual reality game called “tranCendenZ”. This game was being played by the cast,  mirroring the first scene, but with electronic devices rather than game pods. The real game designer, Nourish (played by McKellar), feels uneasy because the game started with the assassination of a game designer and had an overall anti-game theme that he suspects originated from the thoughts of one of the testers.

Pikul and Allegra approach him and ask him if he should pay for his “crimes” of deforming reality. As Merle (Sarah Polley), Nourish’s assistant, calls for security, Pikul and Allegra grab hidden pistols  and shoot Nourish and Merle to death. As with the other game, the other players appear more frozen than shocked, suggesting that they are still inside. Pikul and Allegra point their guns at another player, who is at first dismayed, but then asks if they are still in the game. Pikul and Allegra don’t know, and the last scene ends with the fear written on their faces.

Much like the Matrix and Inception, this movie was characterized by it’s mind-bending sequences and unpredictable twists, showing how one’s perception of reality can be distorted thanks to the effects of mind-bending technology. But whereas other films chose to delve into the relative aspects of it all or sought to make an existential point about mind control, Cronenberg’s aim was clearly in showing the dangers of such reality-based technologies by equating them with drugs. All throughout the film, the psychoactive nature of the game is played up, showing how the ability to distort reality and tamper with one’s own psyche can be an addictive form of entertainment. The dangers in this are obvious of course, in that one’s ability to tell reality from fantasy will be worn down, leading to potentially fatal consequences.

*          *          *

Well, that’s movies covered! It will take a few more days to cover the rest, respectively television and literature. These are even more fertile ground than films, so expect some detailed and lengthy posts. I will try to be brief as possible, but this is a tribute to my country of origin so don’t expect any topical treatments. No, sir! In the meantime, Happy Canada Day to all Canucks at home and abroad. Hope you are with the one’s you love and are having a good time. And to you Canada, happy 145th birthday! Cheers!

A Tribute to Badasses!

You know those characters, people who come to us from our favorite movies, TV shows, or pop culture in general. The kinds of people who excel at kicking ass and taking  names? The kinds of people that just never seem to die, they just keep getting bigger and badder the more time passes? Yeah, we all have people like that in our collective imagination, the inspiration heroes and villain who just impressed the hell out of us and made us want to be badass like them!

Well today, I felt inspired to do a little tribute piece to characters such as these. On the one hand, this seemed like a good diversion from my usual conceptual pieces which deal with big and potentially boring stuff. I mean, outside of people like me, who really cares about planetary cultures and mega cities? On the other, it felt like an overdue acknowledgement to all the characters that were well written, well scripted and well executed over the years. Yes, today I’m paying tribute to all the people in sci-fi who were so good at being so bad, or just bad enough…

Here they are!

Alucard:
The main character from the short-lived by popular Hellsing series. Not to be confused with Van Hellsing, also about a vampire hunter, this series was all about an organization in the UK that was dedicated to fighting vampires, ghouls, and other hellish creatures. Their chief operative, a mysterious vampire named Alucard (Dracula backwards), was quite the epitome of badassness!

In addition to his cape, Victorian-era clothes, and massive handgun, he had the supreme confidence and “man of few words” thing going that can only come from being alive for so freaking long. As they say with most vampire series, the longer they live, the more powerful they get. And Alucard has been around for a long, long time!

Ordinarily, he would just dispatch his enemies with a few blasts of his massive double-action pistol. But when faced with truly powerful demons, he would break the really scary shit! We’re talking seriously dark, scary energies that would tear an enemy to pieces, body and soul! Though it was never made clear why he was helping humanity in the animated series, the original comic did a better job of exploring his back story and motivations.

Taking its cue from Bram Stoker’s original novel, Dracula was apparently defeated by the notorious Abraham Van Hellsing and agreed to become the family’s loyal servant. The main story takes place several hundred years, later when the latest descendent of the Hellsing family is carrying on the tradition of keeping England safe from the forces of evil.

Blade:
Here we have another vampire hunter who’s more than just your average guy! Though his real name is Eric Brooks (according to the comic series), this street hunter goes by the professional name of “Blade”. Little wonder, considering that just about every weapon in his arsenal features an acid edged pig-sticker or a sharpened silver stake! But of course, the real twist comes in why he does what he does.

As if that wasn’t badass enough though, he also alternates between a Gran Torino and a motorbike, wears a leather cape over segmented body armor, and packs enough firepower to take down an entire SWAT team single-handedly! All the while, he utters his few, but cryptic lines through those big, vampire incisors.

Known ominously as the “Daywalker” to vampires who are scared shitless of him, he combines the best of both worlds when it comes to human and vampires. He is immune to silver, garlic and daylight, but can heal almost instantaneously and has super strength. His only weakness however comes in the form of the “thirst”, the need for blood which every vampire suffers from and must eventually succumb to, or die. In order to preserve his humanity, Blade relies on a synthetic “serum” which temporarily satisfies his cravings.

In a theme that has growing in popularity and familiarity since the early 80’s, Blade is a half-man, half-vampire who’s mother was bitten while pregnant with him. Tormented by his split identity, and the supposed loss of his mother, he has chosen to resolve this crisis by hunting those that made him what he is and robbed him of his human life. However, the question of what he will do once he’s rid the world of the last vampire, and what he will do when the serum stops working, are questions that remain unresolved, and help to drive the story.

Boba Fett:
When you hear the name Star Wars and the word badass, what naturally comes to mind? Assuming you know anything about Star Wars, then chances you thought of Boba Fett! This notorious bounty hunter was probably the most badass thing about the series, dwarfing Vader, Jabba, and the Emperor in terms of shear awesomeness!

Hell, this guy not only appeared repeatedly in movies two and three (with a small cameo in a deleted scene in movie one), he also had entire novels, comics, and games dedicated to him. Annnnd, if the Dark Horse series Dark Empire is to be believed, Fett even escaped the mighty sarlacc. Who else amongst the expanded cast of the Star Wars saga can boast that kind of record? Lando? HA!

Though Lucas attempted to explain Boba’s origins in the prequel movie Attack of the Clones, other stories from the expanded universe claims that Boba was in fact a former Stormtrooper of Mandalorian origin.

However, on this latter point, all sources agree. Clearly, Boba Fett was of Mandalorian origin, a warrior race that had become virtually extinct after the Sith Wars and had relegated themselves to the role of bounty hunters and mercenaries. Boba had apparently distinguished himself amongst his rivals by delivering on contracts, charging exorbitant fees, and being very hard to kill. Hell, somebody who crawled their way free of the sarlacc aint no pushover!

The Joker:
Batman’s nemesis, and Gotham’s smiling psychopath, the Joker is one of those villians you just love to hate! And yes, he’s also pretty damn badass! Though he has gone through countless renditions and adaptations over the years, all the variations revolve around the same basic theme.

Basically, the Joker is a sociopathic criminal who thrives on chaos, the perfect polar-opposite to Batman’s vigilante persona. Over the years, he has been in and out of Gotham’s Arkham Asylum, examined by doctors, but always seems to escape to stir up shit again.

In his most recent incarnation, as performed by Heath Ledger, the Joker reached new heights of popularity and badassery! Not only did he manage to rip off the mob, turn Gothamites against the Batman, drive Harvey Dent mad, commandeer the mob, bring Gotham to the brink, and stay one step ahead of the Batman and police the whole time. He managed to do it all with a twisted smile on his face! That’s an awful lot for a man who claims he doesn’t do planning!

Looking to the comics and expanded franchise, one sees even more examples of badassery! Here, as well as in the movies, new and old, the Joker is notorious for causing trouble and doing it with a shit-eating grin. In addition to the general mayhem he’s been known to cause, his credentials include turning a psychologist into his willing sidekick (Harley Quinn), kidnapping and torturing the Commissioner’s daughter, killing one of the Robin’s, and nearly killing Batman on numerous occasions. Yet somehow, he always manages to escape, survive, and live to inspire chaos another day. Malevolent? Yes. Psychotic. Oh yes! But a notorious badass as well? You betcha!

Raven:
“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world… Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

That pretty much says it all. Taken from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Raven is one of the chief antagonists of the story and one of the baddest motherflechter’s around! An Aleut by ancestry, he is skilled in the art of harpoon throwing, knife fighting, killing people, and being untouchable. Of course, this might have a lot to do with the fact that in the sidecar on his motorbike (pretty badass in itself!) he has a thermonuclear device stashed. This, apparently, he got off a Russian sub after stowing aboard and killing the entire crew with glass knives, and its wired to go off in case anybody does the unthinkable and kills him. Hence, nobody messes with Raven, as if his size and skill with weapons weren’t intimidating enough!

People recognize Raven not only by his obvious size, leather jacket, and motorbike, but also by the words “Poor Impulse Control” tattooed on his forehead. This is a holdover from his years in the corrections system of the future, where they’ve resorted to tattooing a prisoner’s particular maladjustments directly on their forehead for all to see. But for those who’ve pissed him off, or are just on his hit list, the first indication that Raven’s around is the telltale presence of his harpoon in your chest!

Molly Millions:
Also known as “Sally Shears”, Molly is a recurring character in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Technically, she is what is known as a “razor girl”, though cyber-ninja works just as well. Basically, she’s a gun (or razor blade) for hire who gets paid by high-rollers to take out anyone who stands between them and their objectives. This, she typically does by slashing people with razor claws that are imbedded in her fingertips, though she’s adept at hand to hand combat and wield firearms with the best of them too!

Thought tough, deadly and ruthlessly efficient, she has shown herself to have a softer, sensitive side, not to mention a sympathetic past. For instance, her first appearance is in Gibson’s short story (and film adaptation) of Johnny Mnemonic. Here, she goes beyond her usual mandate and begins to fall in love with the story’s protagonist, Johnny.

In her follow-up appearance in Neuromancer, she admits that he was the first “client” she overstepped her boundaries with and still mourns him years later. She also reveals that she began as a “meat puppet”, a form of prostitute who allows their body to be controlled by handlers while they are maintained in a blank-outed state. This is how she apparently paid for her cybernetic enhancements and became a mercenary ninja.

On top of all that, she is a fiercely loyal and levelheaded woman who, despite the nature of her job, is committed to her moral code and values the kinds of human relationships that are becoming increasingly rare in Gibson’s world. One might say that she’s tough because she has to be and would much rather live an ordinary life where love is not obsolete and murder for hire is not the only way for street people to get ahead. Still, don’t mess with her! Just because she’s got a soft side doesn’t mean she won’t fillet your ass!

Ripley:
Mother, warrior, humanitarian and xenocidal ass-kicker, Ellen Ripley defined female badassery for an entire generation of moviegoers! From her humble origins as a crewman aboard the Nostromo to her showdown with the mother Alien, Ripley demonstrated the full range of the heroine protagonist. She was began as a regular officer who was put into a terrifying and claustrophobic situation, a lone survivor of a xenomorph attack aboard a confined spacecraft.

But living to fight another day, she faced her vulnerability, overcame her fear, and put it all on the line to save a little girl. And in the course of that, she also strapped on some heavy artillery and kicked some serious ass! And in the end, the showdown between herself and the Alien hive queen was not only cinematic gold, it was so thick with allegory you could cut it with a knife! Two mothers, two titanic forces, coming together to fight for their young!

Let’s face it, this is what makes Sigourney Weaver and her character so awesome and sympathetic. She’s a regular woman who, when faced with treacherous odds, went above and beyond to do the right thing. And let’s not forget that her motives were purer than anyone else’s. Whereas some people were interested in their bonuses and others in shooting shit up, she fought tooth and nail to protect and save the life of a young child, a girl who reminded her of the daughter she lost.

And it worked. In the end, she outlived all the professionals who ignored her or were sent in to “protect her”. When all else failed, this lady came through and showed that you don’t come between a  mother and her child and you don’t underestimate a determined woman, or she’ll kick your ass! Yes, years later and Ripley still remains an inspiration to women everywhere, and a reminder to us boys to respect and honor the women in their lives. In the end, they are a hell of a lot tougher than you think 😉

Vampire Hunter D:
Yet another vampire hunter who’s got some questionable ancestry! Vampire Hunter D is based on a novel series with manga and anime adaptations. Taking place in the distant future, thousands of years after WWIII took place, D wanders through a pre-industrial world hunting the demons, vampires and assorted creatures that have come to plague it. Apparently, in the distant future, vampires have established themselves as a sort of Nobility that control their fiefdoms through a combination of advanced technology and magic.

Much like Alucard, D has a questionable ancestry which is gradually established as time goes on. Right off the bat, it is clear that he is a dhampire, the child of a vampire mother and a human mother. As time goes on, it becomes established that he is fact the son of the ancient Count himself. As a result, he has some pretty badass powers, which include spontaneous healing, super strength, and some pretty dark powers! Unfortunately, he also has his share of weaknesses as well. Sun-sickness, garlic; all the things that are fatal to vampires are pretty harmful to him as well.

Believing that vampires have overstepped their traditional authority, D is dedicated to sending them back to the darkness from whence they came. Though he is part vampire, he values his human side and cannot condone how vampires abuse the humans they have dominion over.

Ah, and his weapon of choice for dispatching vampires and demons? A big katana-style sword! This weapon can decapitate even the most powerful vampire, or rend him from his neck to his navel. Oh, and did I mention he also has a smartass symbiot living on his hand? Might sound weird, but this thing keeps him company, keeps him honest, and has even saved his life a few times.

Vasquez:
Yes, I realize I’m doubling down on a single franchise. But no list of badasses would be complete without mentioning Private Vasquez. Also of Aliens fame, this woman put the  bad in badass, toting that massive smartgun and telling everybody who got smart with her where to go! Seriously, those iconic lines, “Let’s ROOOOOCK!” and “I just want to know one thing… where-they-are!” Bam! There wasn’t a single person in the audience who wasn’t get goose bumps.

Not only was she clearly a tough, take-no-prisoners kind of woman, she commanded the respect of those around her, particularly the men. Hudson, played by Bill Paxton, would get smacked down anytime he tried to sass her. Recall the lines: “Vasquez, anybody ever mistake you for a man?” “No, how about you?” Classic! And of course Private Drake, her partner in arms, practically followed her around, even though he was twice her size!

But of course, she too had a sensitive side. When Drake fell protecting their group, she took it really hard. She was even willing to go back into the den of the xenomorph’s when it became clear he was still alive. Even though it was obvious he and the others were being used as symbiotes and the odds of them making it out alive were virtually nil, she was still willing to risk her life. One seriously got the impression that she loves the big lug after all…

But mainly, she was an ice cold chick and tough as nails. When those around her began to panic and cry “game over, man!”, she raised her gun and started kicking ass! And when at last she was cornered and wounded, did she roll over and die? Hell no! She grabbed hold of that grenade and went down with a bang, taking as many of those buggers as she could buggers with her! RIP Vasquez. You rock!

Well that’s all for now. I was going to include some non sci-fi examples in this list as well, but that would made it too long to post! Stay tuned, I’m thinking I’ll save those examples of mainstream badassery for next time. And I might just have some final thoughts to offer on this whole phenomenon known as badassesness. I love inventing words! Bye!

Dystopia – Final Word

Well, after many, many suggestions on how my list of dystopian franchises could be augmented – this mainly consisted of poeple asking me “what about (blank)?” – I decided there were a few that I really couldn’t proceed without mentioning. This will be my last tour of the dystopia factory, lord knows that place gets depressing after awhile! But one thing at a time. Here’s my final installment in dystopian science fiction series, a hybrid list of novels, graphic novels, and movies!

A Clockwork Orange:
This dystopian novella was originally written in 1962 and was adapted into film by the great Kubrick almost a decade later. In addition, it was adapted into play after the author realized he didn’t like how the adapted movie ended. Having experienced all three, I can tell you that the movie was probably the best. In addition to the rather ingenious ideas presented by Anthony Burgess, it also benefited from Kubrick’s directorial genius and the superb acting of Malcolm McDowell.

Set in the not-too-distant future, the story revolves around a British youth named Alex who is growing up in a world permeated by youth violence. He is the leader of a group of thugs known as “The Droogs”, young men who go about committing acts of “ultra-violence” which consists of them beating up homeless people, random strangers and other gangs, as well as committing theft and gang rape.

In time, Alex and his friends go to far (even for them!) and an innocent woman is murdered during a break-in. His friends, who are already angry over his bullying and strong arming of them, decide to betray him and leave him to the police. Once in prison, Alex decides to cut his sentence short by undergoing a radical government experiment – an artificially created conscience through Pavlovian conditioning!

The result of this conditioning is that Alex is no longer capable of committing any acts of violence. In fact, even the mere thought of violence produces a reaction so strong that he breaks down and is overwhelmed by nausea. This renders him benign, but also helpless. And in time, all his past crimes begin to catch up with him and he is nearly killed. Once he wakes up in the hospital, he discovers the conditioning has worn off, and he can either resume his old ways, or strike out on a new path…

Another interesting side effect of the conditioning is that he can no longer listen to Beethoven without getting sick either. This has to be one of the most curious and intriguing scenes in the movie, where a restrained and helpless Alex begs the doctors to turn off the symphony because he can’t stand the idea of not being able to listen to it. Much like everything else he does, it speaks volumes of his sociopathic nature.

Ultimately, the movie differed from the novel in that the final chapter was omitted. Immediately before this, we see how Alex is now freed from the conditioning. He also seems intent on blaming the current government, which will oust them from power. But beyond that it not quite clear what’s going to happen. However, the following chapter shows how Alex has realized, independently, that he doesn’t want to live a life of violence anymore. Human freedom, he’s determined, is the ability to make choices for oneself, free of persuasion and operate conditioning.

As I said, I truly think the movie was an improvement on the novel, which is a rare thing with adaptations. Still, it is was in the film that the point of the story really came through, thanks to Kubrick’s usual attention to detail and subtlety. Whether it was through those long, close-up shots of McDowell and his crazy eyes, the combination of wide angle action shots in slow motion, or the way that it played to the tune of Beethoven, you really got a sense of the odd combination of genius and madness that is the anti-hero Alex. The reliance on white, sterile settings also helped to punctuate the sociopathic nature of the story – how underneath the veneer of domesticity, brutality and violence can exist! And last, by leaving the ending a mystery, the moral was more ambiguous, which made for a far more effective dystopian feel!

A Scanner Darkly:
Next up, we have Philip K Dicks seminal novel about drug abuse, self-destruction and the various hypocrisies arising out of America’s war on drugs. In this near-future scenario, which takes place in California in 1994 (seventeen years after it was written), a new drug has hit the streets known as Substance D – or SD, which stands for Slow Death. This powerful hallucinogenic is a great high, is violently addictive, and can render users brain damaged after too much use and abuse. And as a result of its popularity and impact, society is gradually becoming a full-blown police state, where cameras – or “Scanners” – are on every street corner and in the home of every suspected dealer.

Written from the point of view of an undercover narcotics agent, the story follows his descent into addiction and his eventual inability to tell reality from fantasy. Through repeated use of Substance D, he gradually becomes brain damaged himself, is released from the police department, and must go to a privately run recovery-center known as “New-Path”. There, he discovers that these centers, which operate like franchises, are actually growing the plant that Substance D is synthesized from. An interesting twist in which we learn that the people profiting from the side effects are the one’s providing the drugs. A stab at strong-arm governments or the pharmaceuticals industry, perhaps?

For the sake of adapting the movie to film, director Richard Linklater shot the entire thing digitally and then had it animated through the use of interpolated rotoscope. The effect of this was to render every single image in a vivid, almost cartoon-like format, which could only be interpreted as an attempt to mimic the effects of hallucinogens. This animation also came in handy with the rendering of the “scramble suit”, a sort of cloak-like device that PKD invented to ensure that undercover agents in his story could completely disguise their appearance, voice, and any other identifying characteristics.

In addition to being science fiction genius, these cloaks were a clear allegory to the anonymity of undercover agents and a faceless system of justice. While responsible for infiltrating and busting up the narcotics subculture, PKD clearly understood that this sort of profession can lead to an identity crisis, especially if the agents in question find themselves using drugs and becoming over-sympathetic to the people they are spying on. This, of course, is precisely what happens to the main character in the story!

In short, the novel was a commentary on the dangers of recreational drug use, but also on the reasons for why such subcultures come into existence in the first place. In addition to ruining lives and causing crime, repression, domestic surveillance, and other extra-legal practices can become quite commonplace. All of this mirrored PKD’s own experiences with the drug subculture and the law, which is why he dedicated the book to all the friends he had who succumbed to drug abuse and died as a result. Very sad!

And let’s not forget the name, a play on the words from the Biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:12 : “Through a mirror darkly.” In this day and age, where “scanners” are the means for monitoring society and police officers spend hours looking at their feeds, the scanner has become a sort of means through which people attempt to gaze into other peoples’ souls. But, as with the Biblical passage, this title is meant to refer to how, when we look at the problems of drug use in our society, we are seeing it all through a haze, the result of our own prejudices and preconceptions.

Akira:
How the hell did I forget this one last time? I mean seriously, this is one of my favorite movies and one of the most inspired Mangas of all time! Not only that, it’s a pretty good example of a dystopian franchise. And yet, I forgot it! WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?! But enough self-flagellation, I came here to talk about Akira! So, here goes…

In 1988, famed Japanese writer, director and comic book creator Katsuhiro Otomo undertook the rather monumental task of adapting his Manga series Akira to the big screen. Though some predicted that a two hour movie could never do justice to the six-volume series he had written, most fans were pretty pleased with the end product. And the critical response was quite favorable as well, with the film being credited for its intense visualizations, cyberpunk theme, its post-apocalyptic feel, and the exploration of some rather heavy existential questions.

To break it down succinctly, Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a massive urban center that was literally build up from the ruins of the original. According to the story’s background, WWIII took place in 1989, and after twenty years of rebuilding, the world once again appears to be one the brink. However, as we come to learn, the destruction of Tokyo was not the result of the nuclear holocaust per se. It’s destruction merely heralded it in after the world witnessed the city’s obliteration, assumed it to have been the result of a nuclear attack, and starting shooting their missiles at each other. The real cause was a phenomena known as “Akira”, an evolutionary leap that scientists had been studying and lost control of…

Quite the story, but what I loved most about the adapted movie and the manga on which it was based was the level of detail. Set in 2019 (the same year as Blade Runner, coincidentally!) this series incorporated a lot of concepts which made for a far more intricate and interesting tale. First off, there’s the concept of a post-apocalyptic generation that is filled with unrest and angst, having grown up in a world permeated by the horrors of nuclear war. Second, there’s the ever-present element of gang warfare that has sprung up amidst the social decay. Third, there’s a government slouching towards dictatorship in response to all the protests, unrest and chaos that is consuming the city.

Into all this, you get a secret military project in which the Akira phenomena is once again being studied. Though motivated by a desire to control it and prevent what happened last time from happening again, it seems that history is destined to repeat itself. Once again, the survivors must crawl from the wreckage and rebuild, their only hope being that somehow, they will get it right next time… A genuine dystopian commentary if ever I heard one!

But what was also so awesome about the series, at least to me, was the underlying sense of realism and tension. You really got the sense that Otomo was tapping into the Zeitgeist with this one, relating how after decades of rebuilding through hard work and conformity, Japan was on the verge of some kind of social transformation. Much like in real life, the characters of the story have been through a nuclear holocaust and have had to crawl their way back from the brink, and a sense of “awakening” is one everybody’s lips and they are just waiting for it to manifest.

A clear allusion to post-war Japan where the country had been bombed to cinders and was left shattered and confused! Not to the mention the post-war sense of uniformity where politicians, corporations and Zaibatsu did their best to repress the youth movements and demands for social reform. Well, that was my impression at any rate, others have their own. But that’s another thing that worked so well about Akira. It is multi- layered and highly abstract, relying on background, visuals and settings to tell the story rather than mere dialogue. In many ways, it calls to mind such classics as 2001, Clockwork Orange, and other Kubrick masterpieces.

Children of Men:
Made famous by the 2006 adaptation starring Clive Owen, this dystopian science fiction story was originally written by author P.D. James in 1992. The movie was only loosely based on the original text, but most of the particulars remained the same. Set in Britain during the early 21st century, the story takes place in a world where several subsequent generations have suffered from infertility and population growth has dropped down to zero. The current generation, the last to be born, are known as “Omegas” and are a lost people.

What’s more, the growing chaos of the outside world has also led to the creation of a dictatorial government at home. This is due largely to the fact that people have lost all interest in politics, but also because the outside world has become chaotic due to the infertility crisis. Much like in V for Vendetta, the concept of “Lifeboat Britain” makes an appearance in this story and acts as one of the main driving forces for the plot.

In any case, this also leads to the birth of a resistance which wants to end the governments tyrannical control over society, and which comes to involve the main character and his closest friends. In time, the plot comes to revolve around a single woman who is apparently pregnant. Whereas some of the rebels want to smuggle her out of Britain and hand her over to the international Human Project, others want to use her as a pawn in their war against the government. It thus falls to the main character to smuggle her out, protecting her from resistance fighters and the military alike.

Naturally, the movie drew on all the novels strongest points, showing how society had effectively decayed once childbirth effectively ended. It also portrayed the consequences of impending extinction very well – chaos, withdrawal, tyranny, etc. However, when it came time to adapt it to the screen, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron (who brought us such hits as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), also used a variety of visual techniques and sets to convey the right mood.

For example, most of the sets were designed to look like near-future versions of today. In Cuaron’s estimation, all technological progress would have ceased once the implications of the crisis had fully hit, hence all cars, structures, weapons and gadgets were only slightly altered, or used sans modification. So while the billboards, newspapers and signs were all updated and carried messages appropriate for the period, cars, guns and other assorted background pieces looked entirely familiar.

In addition, much of the movie is shot in such a way so that the images are grey and the light effect seems piercing. This conveys a general mood of drab sadness, which is very accurate considering the setting! Last, Cuaron and his camera crews made many continuous action shots using wide angle lenses in order to capture a sense of crisis and how it effected so many people. Never was there a sequence in which you only saw the main actors and their immediate surroundings. The focus, like the scope of the story, was big and far-reaching.

Ghost in the Shell:
Much like Akira, this franchise comes to us by way of Japan and is cyberpunk-themed. In addition, it also came in the form of a manga, then onto a film, but with a television series to follow. And in many respects, it qualifies as dystopian, given that it took place in a dark future where technology has forever blurred the line between what is real and what is artificial. In addition, it also tapped into several cyberpunk trends which would prove to be quite apt (i.e. cyberspace).

Again, this story takes place in Japan in the early 21st century, a time when cybernetic enhancements and technological progress have seriously altered society. The main character is named Motoko Kusanagi, a member of a covert operations division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission known as Section 9. She is affectionately known as “Major” given her previous position with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. And did I mention she’s a cyborg? Yes, aside from her brain and parts of her spinal cord, she is almost entirely machine, and this plays into the story quite often.

In addition to facing external threats, Kusanagi and her companions also face conflicts that arise out of their own nature. These deal largely with issues relating to their own humanity, whether or not a person and their memories can even be considered real anymore if they have been replaced by digital or cybernetic enhancements. These questions were explored in depth in the movie, where events revolve around a sentient program that was developed by the government, but which has since gone rogue and is seeking an independent existence.

However, another thing that makes Ghost in the Shell a possible candidate for the category of dystopia is the setting. Whether it was the manga, the movie, or the television series, the look and feel of the world in which it takes place is quite telling. Always there is a dirty, gritty, and artificial quality to it all, calling to mind The Sprawl, Mega City One, and Neo-Tokyo.

As in these settings, things look futuristic, but also rustic, poor and improvised, hinting at extensive overcrowding and poverty amidst all the advanced technology. This is a central element to cyberpunk, or so I’m told. In addition to being futuristic, it also anticipates dystopia, being of the opinion that this “advancement” has come at quite a cost in human terms.

Logan’s Run:
Considered by many to be a classic dystopian story, Logan’s Run takes place in a 22st century society where age and consumption are strictly curtailed to ensure that a population explosion – like the one experience in the year 2000 – never happens again. In addition, society is controlled by a computer that runs the global infrastructure and makes sure that the all the dictates of population and age control are obeyed.

In any case, the story revolves around this concept of an age ceiling, where people are monitored by a “palm flower” that changes color every seven years. When they reach 21 – on a person’s Lastday – the crystal turns black and they are expected to report to a “Sleepshop” where they will be executed. Those who refuse to perform this final duty are known as “Runners”, and it falls to “Deep Sleep Operatives” (aka. Sandmen) to track down and terminate these people.

The main character – Logan 3 – is one such operative. On his own Lastday, he is charged with infiltrated the underground railroad of Runners and finding the place they call “Sanctuary”. This is a place where they are able to live out their lives without having to worry about society’s dictates and controls. However, in time, Logan comes to sympathize with these people, due largely to the influence of a woman named Jessica 6. In the end, the two make plans to escape together for Sanctuary, which turns out to be a colony on Mars.

Right off the bat, some additional elements can be seen here. In addition to the concepts of Malthusian controls and ageism, there is also the timeless commentary on how rationalization and regimentation can lead to inhumanity and repression. Much like in We or Anthem (by Ayn Rand), people do not have names as much as designations. All life is monitored and controlled by a central computer, and it is made clear towards the end that the computer is in fact breaking down. I can remember this last theme appearing in an episode of Star Trek TNG, where a planet of advanced people are beginning to die off because their “Custodian” is malfunctioning and no one knows how to fix it.

Metropolis:
A true classic of both film and expressionist art, this movie also has the added (and perhaps dubious) honor of being a classic of dystopian science fiction! Created in Weimar Germany in 1927 by Fritz Lang, this movie tells the story of a dystopian future where society is ruled by elites who live in vast tower complexes and the workers lives in the recesses of the city far below them where they operate the machinery that powers it all.

This physical divide serves to mirror the main focus of the story, which is on class distinction and the gap between rich and poor. To illustrate this artistic vision, director Fritz Lang relied on a combination of Gothic, classical, modern and even Biblical architecture. In an interview, Fritz claimed that his choices for the set design were based largely on his first trip to New York where he witnessed skyscrapers for the first time. In addition, the central building of the futuristic city was based on Brueghel’s 1563 painting of the Tower of Babel (right>).

The theme of class conflict is further illustrated by the fact that the workers who live in the bowels of the city are also responsible for maintaining the machinery that makes the city run. One is immediately reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the divide between the Morlocks and the Eloi. This comes through even more when the workers decide to revolt and begin ransacking the neighborhoods of the elites. Ultimately, it is only through the love of the two main characters – Freder and Mariah – that the gulf between the two is sealed and order is restored, a fitting commentary on how society must come together in order to survive and achieve social justice.

In another act of blatant symbolism, we learn early on in the movie that the workers have taken to congregating in a series of tunnels that run under the city. It is here that they meet with Maria, their inspirational leader, and makes plans to change society. So in addition to tall, Babel-like buildings illustrated the gap between rich and poor, we have workers who are literally meeting underground! Wow…

In addition, several other dystopian elements weave their way into the story. The line between artifice and reality also makes an appearance in the form of the robot which the movie is best known for. This robot was created by Rotwang, a scientist who is in the service of the main character’s father – Joh Fredersen, the master of the city. Apparently, this robot is able to take human form and was created to replace his late wife. Once this robot was released into the city, she began sowing chaos amongst men who begin to lust after her, and is the very reason the workers began revolting in the first place. She even causes the character of Rotwang to go insane when he can no longer distinguish between the robot and the woman she’s impersonating.

Neuromancer/Sprawl Trilogy:
Gibson is one of the undisputed master’s of cyberpunk and future noire lit and it was this novel – Neuromancer – that started it all for him. In it, he coined the terms cyberspace, the matrix, and practically invented an entire genre of Gothic, techno-noire terminology which would go on to inspire several generations of writers. His work is often compared to Blade Runner given the similar focus on urban sprawl, cybernetic enhancements, the disparity between rich and poor, and the dark imagery it calls to mind.

The first installment in the “Sprawl Trilogy”, this book takes place in the BAMA – the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (aka. The Sprawl). In this world of the 21st century, cyberspace jockeys or cowboys use their “decks” – i.e. consoles – to hack into corporate databases and steal information. The purpose is, as always, to sell off the information to the highest bidder, usually another corporate power. In addition, guerrilla tactics and domestic terrorism are often used to get employees out of their contracts, seeing as how most companies have no intention of ever letting their talent go!

picture by Maxim-Lysak on deviantArt

Also, there is the massive gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in these novels. Whereas the main characters tend to live in overcrowded tenements and dirty neighborhoods, the rich enjoy opulent conditions and control entire parts of the world. In addition, the richest clans, such as the Tessier-Ashpools and Vireks, actively use cloning and clinical immortality to cheat death, and often live in orbital colonies that they have exclusive rights to. Much like in his “Bigend Trilogy”, much attention is dedicated to the transformative power of wealth and how it affords one better access to the latest in technology.

But always, the focus is on the street. Here, jockeys, freelancers and Yakuza agents are at work, pulling jobs so they can buy themselves the latest enhancements and the newest gear. In the case of Molly Millions, a freelance lady-ninja, this includes razor nails that extend from her fingertips. In the case of Yakuza enforcer from the short-story (and movie) Johnny Mnemonic, it consists of a filament of monomolecular razor wire hidden inside his thumb. For others, it might consist of artificial limbs, new organs, implants of some kind. Whatever ya need, they got it in the Sprawl. If not, you go to Chiba City or Singapore, chances are it was made there anyway!

*Interesting  Fact: according to Gibson, Blade Runner came out when he was still tinkering with the manuscript for this novel. After seeing it, he nearly threw the manuscript out because he was afraid Ridley Scott had pre-empted him! Funny how things work out, huh?

Final Thoughts:
Gee, there really isn’t much more to say is there? One thing I have noticed is that much of modern dystopia comes to us in the form of the cyberpunk genre. Though the definition of cyberpunk appears to constantly be evolving, it is generally acknowledged that it is a postmodern form of science fiction that combines “high tech and low life.” Having sorted through several modern examples of dystopian sci-fi, I can say that this is certainly an apt description.

In essence, it assumed that the presence of high tech would entail the emergence of a dystopian society, that the endless march of progress would lead to the destruction of the environment, the devaluing of human life, the elimination of privacy, and the line between real and fake. This last aspect was especially important, embracing cybernetics, virtual reality, and things like cloning and clinical mortality. Since the 1980’s, all of these notions have infiltrated science fiction movies, television, and have even become cliches to some extent.

This genre has given rise to new kinds of science fiction as well. For example, it is generally acknowledged that a sub genre known as post-cyberpunk emerged in the 1990’s which broke away from its predecessor in one key respect. Whereas it too focused on the rise of technology, it did not anticipate dystopia as part of the process. This is best exemplified by books such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a 21st century bildungsroman which predicted vast social and political changes as a result of nanotechnology.

Other sub genres that have emerged in recent years include “Steampunk”, a literary form that combines Victorian era technologies with the punk genres noire sensibilities. Other derivatives include Dieselpunk, Nanopunk, Biopunk, and even fantasy-punk crossovers like Elfpunk. Yes, like most things in the post modern era, it seems that literary genres are becoming fragmented and tribalistic!

But alas, I still feel the need to ask the question, what’s happened to dystopian literature of late? In my initial post, I got a lot of people asking me if I could include some more modern examples. You know, stuff that’s come out since 1984 and The Handmaids Tale. But unfortunately, what I’ve found tends to be more of the same. Just about every example of dystopian fiction appears to draw its inspiration from such handy classics as the one’s I’ve already mentioned, or is in some way traceable to them. Does this mean that we’ve hit bottom on the whole genre, or could it just be we’ve moved away from it for the time being?

Well, I recently learned from an article on IO9 that Neal Stephenson himself stated that science fiction needed to stop being so pessimistic and had to start getting inspirational again. Perhaps he’s onto something… Maybe we’ve gone too far with the whole cautionary tale and need to steer things back towards a brighter future, urging people on with common sense and technological solutions rather than laments. Maybe we need to let them know that such problems as world hunger, overpopulation, pollution, climate change, poverty, war, licentiousness and greed can all be overcome.

Then again, I’m working on a couple dystopian tales right now… Is it too much to ask that this craze last just a few years longer?

Thanks to all who’ve written in and “liked” my dystopian series! Hope to see y’all again soon as I get into ore cheerful things…