TBT: Ranking Pretention in 1970s Sci-Fi

by Katharine Coldiron 

It’s been my observation that although aesthetics generally were at their worst in the American 1970s (clothes, home décor, haircuts), it was an unparalleled golden era for filmmaking. In no other decade did American directors so thoroughly plumb the power of cinema: Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Cimino, Malick, and even the disgraced Allen did most of their best work between 1970 and 1980. 

However, the decade’s silly side is as memorable as its serious one. And some films have a high volume of both. Particularly in science fiction, for some reason; a surprising number of sci-fi films from the 1970s are incredibly self-serious. They bear deep intellectual ideas, but are executed with overly trendy production design and cringey scripts. 

Here are five 70s sci-fi films of particular note, each ranked with a Pretentiousness Score. The higher the score, the more the film fails at getting the viewer to take it seriously. This failure specifically derives from a gap between the loftiness of the film’s ideas and the ludicrousness of its execution. 


Silent Running (1972) 

Hijinks ensue when Bruce Dern dons a caftan and looks after plants in space, to the point of committing three murders to preserve them. Few plants are left alive after the planet’s biosphere has become too hostile to them (apparently?), and the remains of Earth’s forests and flowers live in domes in space, cared for by rotating teams of white men. Also, robots, named after Donald Duck’s nephews. No women appear in this film whatsoever, not even computerized voices. 

There’s a lot of Silent Running’s DNA in Moon and WALL-E, but it’s much more static than its descendants, and Dern and his environmentalism personify all the worst jokes about vegetarianism and tree-hugging. His method of trying to get the jockish other astronauts to give a damn about Earth’s last remaining trees mainly entails shouting and nurturing resentment. Not fifteen minutes in, Joan Baez sings a preachy ballad about children and sunshine. A sincere moral conflict about comfort, authenticity, and the shortsightedness of the human race, buried under decaying hippie rhetoric and obvious to-scale models.

Pretentiousness Score: 5/5 

 

Rollerball (1975) 

Hijinks ensue when a ridiculously dangerous sport holds the monied class in thrall in a fascist, pill-addled future. James Caan is the champion of this sport who, because he won’t retire, destabilizes the whole society and causes the deaths of many, many people. This one’s interesting in part because the idea of a single hero is threatening to the corporate overlords who run the world. It’s an example (also seen in Twilight Zone episodes) of mid-20th-century art that presents communism as a threat in ideological manifestations that are unrecognizable today. 

Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) made this one, and he was infuriated that, upon release, everyone loved the sport depicted in the film, because jeez, you guys, it’s an allegory. Ha. Everyone knows allegories don’t look this exciting. Aside from the actual scenes of rollerball in play, the movie drags like hell, and Caan looks constipated throughout. The fonts are wonderful, and the corporatism is familiar and troubling; the collar flaps are unfortunate, the script is tedious, and the women are sexy lamps.

Pretentiousness Score: 4/5 

 

Soylent Green (1973)

Hijinks ensue when the planet dries up, food sources shrink, the gap between rich and poor widens untenably, the infrastructure is stretched too thin, and no one wants to solve any of this. Not that that’s a familiar scenario. This movie is best known for the spoiler in its final line of dialogue, but there’s a lot more to it: the lure (and uses) of suicide in a dystopia, haves and have-nots, the endgame of overcrowded cities, the passion and danger of knowledge. It blew my mind when I was a teenager. 

In re-viewings, I’ve developed the opinion that Soylent Green is a serious film masquerading as a broad genre picture, rather than the other way around. It has enormous beauty and frightening implications to its ideas, but it also has chase scenes and police drama, a couple of beefy-dude fights, plastic production design, and unnecessary pretty girls. It looks and quacks like its siblings on this list, and its ideas are really big, yet its seriousness is much more convincing. In his final role, Edward G. Robinson plays the gentle, luminous man he was in real life, rather than the dozens of cold gangsters he acted so well, while Charlton Heston sweats extensively.

Pretentiousness Score: 3/5 

 

Logan’s Run (1976) 

Hijinks ensue when the human race, confined to domes after a vague catastrophe, restricts its lifespan to 30 years, on penalty of messy death. Michael York is tasked to leave the domes and root out a group of disobedient citizens. A scantily clad Jenny Agutter is involved, as is a T.S. Eliot-quoting Peter Ustinov and a for-no-reason Farrah Fawcett. This film can fill up a bingo card pretty well: it has lasers, teleportation, a shopping mall as a primary filming location, an all-powerful computer, and nonexistent underclasses. 

Disclosure: I love this movie. Illogically, unapologetically do I love it. I love the idea of a society constructed around color-coded stages of aging, I love the campy Carrousel ritual, I love the dumb synthesizer music and the calm female computer voice and the bizarre shiny robot bellowing “Fish! Plankton! Sea greens! Proteins from the sea!” But I recognize that Logan’s Run belongs on this list, as a movie with philosophical pretensions and lame plastic models. Would we have a better society if people never got old? I really don’t know. Better by whose standards? And does that matter more or less than the cool outfits and pretty girls? It’s hard to tell, because the ideas remain a lower priority than the flashy production design.

Pretentiousness Score: 2/5 

 

Zardoz (1974) 

Hijinks ensue when toxic masculinity spins out of control in a future that’s half Planet of the Apes and half David Lynch. This film is so weird, and so complicated in its premise, that I don’t even want to summarize it—I just want to urge you to see it for yourself, although I send you toward it with all possible trigger warnings. Sean Connery wears a red diaper, suspenders, and a long braid, and that is not the strangest thing there is to see in the first five minutes. 

Some people hate this movie, or think it’s great, terrible fun (on the order of Showgirls), but I do not. I know no other movie like it, and I find it a fascinating product of a time when filmmakers had exceptional freedom and plenty of drugs. Besides, unlike the other four movies on this list, Zardoz rewards investment in its ideas. It’s strange, but it carries off its strangeness, if you can take it as seriously as it takes itself.

Pretentiousness Score: Jacques Derrida 


Pretentious 70s sci-fi films belong to a time when it was possible to see in the same glance good taste and terrible aesthetics, a decade during which a morally bankrupt president established the Environmental Protection Agency. Similarly, all of these movies boast committed actors and competent, even excellent directing in service of self-righteous ideas and outlandish storylines. In their contradictions, few of them have aged well, but then, few films become more interesting outside their original contexts, whether political or artistic. 

The renaissance in American cinema during the 1970s helps these films to transcend pulp. Sort of. But having a better sense of humor about them than the films have about themselves makes them doubly worthwhile: fun, and thoughtful, in the same glance.  

50 Years Later: 2001’s Lasting Impact

by shannon jay

2001: A Space Odyssey was practically a flop when it was released 50 years ago this week. On the verge of being pulled from theaters, teenagers high on weed and whatever else made movie houses second guess. Thus the strangest, most mysterious film of all time became an influential classic, growing in illusiveness with every watch. Possibly the most surreal film produced by a major movie company, director Stanley Kubrick didn’t allow MGM producers anywhere on set.  

Noted for the use of special effects ahead of 1968’s time, 2001 was one of the first to detail developing technology in it’s plot, outlining a nearer and realistic future. Wanting to pull the public from their televisions back into the theater, Stanley Kubrick and MGM decided to focus their next film on the Space Race. Responding to paranoia in 1950s invasion films, which worked to “boost morale and reassert scientific superiority over the alien Other,” we’d made our way into extraterrestrial’s arena. An interesting time in tech, the 60s showed a rise in developing computers and space crafts only drempt about since the dawn of science fiction. Kubrick employed designers from NASA and the leading authority on artificial intelligence from MIT to make every detail of the space ships as accurate as possible. Some of the team’s ideas were brought to life during the moon landing a year later, with striking accuracy.

An ultra-intelligent computer, paralleling IBM’s real-world developments, might be the first AI film lead. In the film, when Dave is deactivating HAL 9000, he murmurs “Daisy Bell” as he shuts down. In 1961, only a few years before the film came out, the IBM 704 computer created the earliest recording of a synthesized voice singing [the same] song. While the also developing spacecraft stayed neutral and the video phone a fantastical touch that so happened to become a distant reality, HAL may be the first instance where developing technology itself is intelligent enough to become the villain. 

As one shot shows a bone flying out of the ape’s hand and transforming into a shuttle, so shows an informed move away from these barbaric roots could still mean demise from our own creations. In an attempt to separate ourselves from “apes” by creating intelligent designs, Kubrick suggest we’d integrated our own inherent flaws that come with consciousness. Facebook’s latest scandal shows the bones we still use on each other for our own advantage, and the tech that turned on ourselves. We made ourselves susceptible to not A.I. like HAL per sey, but willingly gave information that fellow humans took advantage of for financial gain and very start computers were able to comprehend and utilize. 

Kubrick’s heavy research and informed staff make it no mystery that the always meticulous he was able to predict technology that would come not long after the turn of the millennium, such as video chat and iPads. Great shows like Black Mirror take this now existing tech and reimagine a somehow familiar future, but Kubrick was doing it before it was possible. 2001: A Space Odyssey was early in exploring ideas of technology robbing humans of loneliness. HAL 3000 was more of a helper than a friend, but the current digital age has proven Kubrick’s theory true. Smart phones provided constant connection to all of our contacts, and from ancient AIM chat bots to Siri, there’s always a computerized voice to keep up conversation.

Even the illusive monolith looks a lot like an iPhone, and is equally as captivating. Named after the EVA Pod from the film, the iPod’s naming shows a more direct influence. “Open the pod bay door, Hal!” inspired Vinnie Chieco to throw the infamous ‘i’ in front of the word that perfectly describes the relationship between the MP3 player and computer.  

We might never know what the monolith is suppose to be, and Kubrick probably never wanted us to. The book’s author,     Arthur C. Clarke, suggests it’s the moment awoke intelligence in primates, evolving to mankind. Perhaps within the creation of man, it is also the demise. From sparking violence in primates to humans becoming outsmarted by computers, the instrument from an unknown alien source seemed more of a challenge. Unlike the propagandic and back-patting space invasion films of the previous decade, we may never outsmart external forces of the unknown universe – and screw ourselves while trying to. 

Some Thoughts Before the Oscars

by Davey Jones

I’ll confess my personal Oscar and 2017 movie opinions up front: I think “Mother!” is the best film of 2017 and everyone involved deserved a nomination in their respective categories. The most exciting things about The Post are the shots of the newspaper printing blocks and the credits rolling. Daniel Day-Lewis is still better than Gary Oldman with makeup, but Daniel Kaluuya should win Best Actor for “Get Out.” Margot Robbie or Sally Hawkins should win Best Actress. “Logan” should win for Best Adapted Screenplay and “The Big Sick” should win Best Original. 

Roger Deakins deserves the Oscar for Best Cinematography, but please please please don’t give it to him for that vulturous zombie of a sequel feeding on the bloated carcass of one of my favorite films. Sufjan Stevens should win two Academy Awards for Best Original Song or at least have two nominations. The Academy doesn’t deserve to deliberate on Best Foreign Film.

They should change the name of Best Animated Feature to Best Disney/Pixar Film, though I wish “The Breadwinner” would win the bread. “Baby Driver” should win something for Editing or Sound because that has fuck all to do with Kevin Spacey’s fall from grace (I’m guessing it won’t). Outside of the Oscars, “Thor: Ragnarok” was the year’s most purely enjoyable film, and I didn’t even see the first two. That should be enough to keep the internet troll fires burning. Alright! Let’s dive in to the politically and financially motivated appreciation of film…

Welcome to the 90th Academy Awards! The Oscars have long been known to reward films that cater to a certain kind of opinion. Hollywood has always loved movies about Hollywood, movies that tread the familiar and marketable grounds of established genres, movies that feature celebrities with established track records playing into or against the expectations of audiences, and movies that celebrate values appealing to the broadest number of voting members in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – traditionally white and overwhelmingly male. 

The crack in the armor of Hollywood’s self-serving, slow-grinding wheels of cultural justice may finally have widened in the year 2018. White dudes still have the lion’s share of say in who gets what awards this year, but there’s been a lot of ink – digital and otherwise – spilled on the Academy’s recent dedication to diversity. Whether informed by #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo, or Jimmy Kimmel’s conscience… the Academy has seen fit to nominate films like “The Shape of Water,” “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” and “Call Me by Your Name” for Best Picture.

Collectively, these progressive films represent the shift away from a world in which “Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk,” “Phantom Thread,” “The Post,” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” would have been the only films in the running. If you’re counting, part of that is due to the expansion of the category from five to nine nominees. Since that move was calculated to include animated features and films based on comic books, however, it’s especially telling that neither were included in the Best Picture category this year.

Perhaps the Academy’s intentions are not as sunny a disposition as I’d like to paint them; maybe it’s got to do with a steady year-over-year decline in ratings. Maybe all this diverse inclusion is simply casting the widest net for the greatest potential return on viewers. The fight for Best Picture will be a tale told over the course of hours: the red carpet eye candy for people who don’t actually watch movies, the short films that no one has seen, the technical  awards for people we never get to see, and lots of advertising money from companies that couldn’t or wouldn’t advertise during the Super Bowl. 

Perhaps that’s why it’s exciting to look at the Best Director category and realize that this year represents only the fifth time that either a black man or a white woman have been nominated to receive this award. Unfortunately, I think Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig cancel out each other’s chances to win. Maybe that paves the way for Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical parable of acceptance, although it might not indicate what happens at the end of the night. A recent trend of Best Pictures divorced from their directors still means del Toro could win for directing while Americans too squeamish to embrace his creature-feature-romance push Three Billboards to Best Picture.

Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor are still solidly white categories. While certainly not undeserving, Frances McDormand is the night’s most predictable winner: standing on the shoulders of her previous work while appealing to white men, white women, and others with her tough-as-nails-mother-of-a-dead-child. McDormand’s supporting co-stars, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, have their category locked down. While I’m a dedicated fan of Rockwell’s work, I prefer Harrelson’s character arc and his delivery. This is not a year for nuance, however, and the Oscar will go to Rockwell because his character outlives Harrelson’s for both screen time and  Recovering Racist™ points.

Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress each feature two people of color out of the five, but the odds are stacked against them. You try going up against Gary Oldman in Oscar-winning (prediction!) Makeup and Hairstyling. Meanwhile, Allison Janney as Tonya Harding’s scene-chewing mom is at least half of the reason you should watch that film. There is no way these categories affect Best Picture, unless somebody rigs the votes for shock value and a ratings spike.

So, really, the most exciting possibility for progressive wins at the Oscars could be in the Best Screenplay categories. As a writer, that amuses me. As a fan of movies and the way in which they shape us culturally, I’m telling you to get out of the house tonight and don’t watch the Oscars. Go live your life. Write your own screenplay. Pretty sure Lady Bird would say the same thing.

Catching Up With Little Pete On His Latest Adventures

by davey jones

If you remember All That or The Adventures of Pete and Pete from your Nickelodeon-watching youth, then you’ve already seen Danny Tamberelli (aka Little Pete). If you watched The Magic School Bus or played Grand Theft Auto V, you know Danny Tamberelli’s voice. But have you heard Danny Tamberelli’s band, Jounce? Last Thursday, I called Danny while he was in Los Angeles before he headed home to New York, and subsequently to Connecticut, to kick off the Jounce tour.


Davey Jones: Introductory, obligatory redhead question: what’s your favorite kind of sunblock?

Danny Tamberelli: My favorite kind of sunblock is a cotton, long-sleeve flannel. I hate sunscreen. I don’t like to wear it, but just… walk around with long-sleeve shirts on, and jeans… and hats. But if I had to pick, I guess, Coppertone. *Laughs*

DJ: Obviously you know that I know that you know that you were on Pete and Pete… and All That… you’ve done a bunch of voice work, too. Magic School Bus and Grand Theft Auto V. If there was a video game or a cartoon that you could do the voice for, what would you like those to be?

DT: Oh… Get me on Big Mouth! That’s where I’d wanna be. I think I would fit right in. So, hopefully Nick Kroll will uh… watch… listen… read this famous article. Could you CC him on that when you send it out to me?

DJ: I’ll make sure to include that. *Laughs* I’ll send him a link from the website… If you could be a video game character?

DT: Well, if it was a Pete and Pete video game, then definitely Little Pete still. But if I could pick anything? If they reboot Earthworm Jim, I would be a good Earthworm Jim.

DJ: That makes me want an entire animated Earthworm Jim movie.

DT: I mean… let’s get it done, man. Do you know anybody?

DJ: Let me call up all the graphic artists that I know. We’ll see if we can do it.

DT: [Norfolk-based illustrator] Todd Webb. He can do it.

DJ: How did you guys start working with Todd?

DT: He listened to the podcast and asked if we wanted to do some… because initially we were doing one a month… he would just do a recap in nine frames… a little comic strip for us. So he solicited us and then we really loved his work. It has a really unique, cool style.

He’s done some t-shirts for us, some posters. Sometimes it works out like that. Most of the time it does. Honestly, Pete and Pete was such a weird, quirky, left-of-the-dial show that… people who enjoyed it were sort of that way. That’s sort of how I am and how I grew up.

Now seems as good a time as any to tell you that I interviewed Todd Webb the following afternoon. Todd is an indie comic strip artist best known for drawing Dan Goodsell’s Mr Toast Comics series and the episode recaps for The Adventures of Danny & Mike podcast (Little Pete and Big Pete have a podcast!). He also has a band, Seamonster, that will be opening for Jounce at Charlie’s American Cafe in Norfolk this Saturday.

Davey Jones: I talked to Danny and he said that you hit them up about drawing for the podcast by sending them comics that were recaps of the episodes.

Todd Webb: They posted they were starting a podcast on Twitter. I just fired off, “If you guys need art, let me know.” Then, the producer of the show got in touch with me: “How serious are you?” I said, “I’ll do it. I wasn’t joking.” I’m a little behind. It was weekly, now it’s monthly. from like 20 shows to now, all of a sudden, there’s like 60 shows. They’ve expanded the endeavor. There’s merch and stuff.

DJ: It’s the first podcast I’ve really listened to. It’s easier for me, because they talk about lots of stuff instead of sticking to one story for the whole hour.

TW: It’s funny because, years ago, I worked for Nickelodeon Magazine. I used to try to pitch them on doing a Pete and Pete comic since the show was over. Let’s get Chris and Will that created the show involved. Let’s have Nick Magazine continue it as comics. It never panned out, so it’s funny to me that, years later, I’m technically doing Pete and Pete comics, but with Danny and Mike.

DJ: The show had a lot of influence on you as a kid. Musically, what did you take from the show and the guests that were featured on it?

TW: I haven’t even told Danny this, but the effect that Pete and Pete had on my life is so insane, if I stop and look at it from a distance. Not just because I enjoyed the show, but musically where I ended up heading… that show introduced me to Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, The Apples in Stereo, Yo La Tengo, Polaris that did the theme song, which led me to Mark Mulcahy’s stuff. That was the first weird link. This was all pre-internet.

As a kid, I would try to find the songs that were on the show, because I liked them so much. A cereal box offered a Pete and Pete cassette tape as a mail away. That’s the only thing I ever mailed away for in my life from a cereal box. I lived in Connecticut when the internet came around, and I spent all my time on the internet looking up indie comics and indie music. I found out Mark Mulcahy was from Connecticut. He lived thirty minutes away from me. The first show I ever went to see was Mark Mulcahy performing solo in Manchester, CT. Stuff like that just kept happening.

DJ: I think the universe has a tendency to reflect what you’re projecting into it. Talk to me about your band, Seamonster, that’s opening for Jounce.

TW: For the show that’s coming up at Charlie’s, it seemed like all the other acts were full bands. So, I threw a band together for Seamonster, which is something I do once in a blue moon. It’s usually just me. I drafted my friends in Berries, which is an up and coming band in the Virginia Beach scene. I’ve known the main kid since he was like 9 years old. I used to joke with him and his brother that “I’ll raise you guys and one day you can be in Seamonster.” One of those self-fulfilling prophecies. The reason I asked them to back me on this show is we played a show together at Toast last year. They learned one of my songs on their own, Plastic Fangs, and asked me to jump on stage and sing it. We hadn’t rehearsed it at all. They did a really good job, so I asked them to help me out with this show at Charlie’s.

Speaking of venues, and Virginia Beach, I rounded out my interview with Danny (the day before) by asking him about Jounce’s favorite venues to play around the country…

DT: Oh, man. We used to play a bunch of weird places in Virginia Beach. There was a place right on the beach. In 2002, or 2005, we used to play Chick’s Beach Cafe. This is a good Virginia Beach story. It’s not Norfolk, but… it’s regional. There was a table in front of where we were playing with a group of people that were getting real drunk. Our guitar player makes real funny O-face… guitar faces… he gets really into it…

DJ: *Laughs* With his solos? Was he trying to make the weirdest faces possible?

DT: Honestly, I don’t think he realizes how much he does it. It just happens. It’s how much he cares about the music. So these people started making fun of him. They made a comment between the songs: “do you make those faces on purpose?” Being a general dick to him. He was real upset about it. And I saw that one of the guys had dropped his keys, right by where my pedals were. And I just kinda — sneakily — put my foot over his keys.

I grabbed them in the middle of the song, made it look like I bent down trying to fix my pedals. I grabbed his keys and stuck them in my pocket. So, at the end of the night, we’re packing up… they’re still there and they’re freaking out. They can’t find the keys. I took the keys from the guy who drove everybody there. *Laughs* They’re frantically looking for these keys, having a night, all yelling at each other. We pack up… and we leave… with his keys. The next day, we drove to Asbury Park in New Jersey and I threw them in a garbage can.

That’s what you get… that’s what you get… don’t fuck with the entertainment, because they have power, too. I’ve not told anybody that story in a long time. I totally forgot about that, too.

Making Peace With The Future Of Star Wars

by davey jones

Forty years ago, George Lucas blazed a space opera trail through popular culture. As an intellectual property, Star Wars spawned a fan base that currently spans three generations, a growing number of films, endless franchising opportunities, and billions of dollars in revenue. Lucas faced increasing criticism since the turn of the millenium with the expansion of the Star Wars empire; some fans believed the new stories didn’t live up to his groundbreaking legacy.
 

Further criticism arose five years ago, when Lucas sold his franchise to The Walt Disney Company. In a cinematic era stocked with nostalgic comic book characters, one might ask if modern filmmakers are capable of creating new franchises without proven intellectual property. Then again, Star Wars itself draws from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, John Ford’s westerns, Flash Gordon serials, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. As creators and audiences continue to grapple with artistic notions of ownership and synthesis, a more pointed question lingers: will Star Wars fail or flourish without the guidance of George Lucas?

Lucas admits Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress “heavily influenced” Star Wars, with nearly identical plots, dialogue, and characters

I’ve been a Star Wars fan as long as I can remember. In 2016, As a long-term fan of the franchise, Rogue One was the first new Star Wars film I’ve loved since the Eighties. Rogue One was taut and thrilling with droll droid humor; it felt classic and new at the same time, like The Guns of Navarone infused with Sunshine. Unlike The Force Awakens released a year prior, the latest installment didn’t leaned too much on the success, and plot, of its spiritual predecessor. Fans were introduced to the tenuous ties between Rebel factions, the acquisition of the Death Star plans, and a fulfillment of Darth Vader’s nightmarish potential. I went home and watched A New Hope with renewed vigor and high hopes for the future of Star Wars under Disney purview.

I call my parents to figure out when exactly I first saw Star Wars. My parents saw the originals in the late 70s and early 80s. They adored it so much, Dad brought the franchise home in the hip new format — VHS. Dad can’t remember if I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater with them or not; he says I was a quiet kid, so maybe?

Either way, I was asking family members to scoop up second-hand Star Wars toys for my birthday by 1987. I received a Kenner Millenium Falcon as large as my torso, an AT-AT walker bigger than some dogs, a Snowspeeder still capable of laser lights and sounds (missing the tow cable), and an AT-ST in a scruffy-looking box. Thirty years later, I sold those nostalgic toys, telling the shop owner I was excited my collection would be a conversation starter in the weeks preceding The Last Jedi.
 

Thus, I was privately anxious about the latest episode. I’d already endured the Special Edition debacle in the Nineties, feeling betrayed and disappointed by three pathetic attempts to modernize the saga. Hindsight proved they were harbingers of the prequels. I saw Episode I with a friend the month before we graduated from high school; we both hated it. I saw Episode II during college, hopeful with news that Jar Jar’s buffoonery had significantly less screen time,
Natalie Portman resembled Princess Leia’s mother, and Hayden Christensen appeared brooding enough to portray the corruption of Anakin Skywalker.

I sat uncomfortably through a film most quotable at its worst: “I don’t like sand… it’s coarse and rough and irritating… and it gets everywhere.” By 2005, I did not have high expectations for wars, sequels, or guys named George. I should have heeded the warning in my heart but, as Ol’ Ben Kenobi said, “Who’s the more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him?”

Episode III was the chosen one, however, the film that would create Darth Vader! The mournful “NOooo!” near the end of the film felt more like what the audience was thinking. YouTube, launched earlier that year, was saving a seat for Revenge of the Sith’s unintentional comedy to usher in a pantheon of memes.

After the dust of the prequels settled, I would be unwittingly introduced to the next generation of Star Wars directors. Winter was coming as I huddled next to a space heater and eye-guzzled the first season of J.J. Abrams’ show, Lost. 2006 saw the release of writer/director Rian Johnson’s debut feature, Brick, a hard-boiled high school noir. Both would go on to further prove their sci-fi chops.

Abrams went on to reboot Star Trek in 2009, confessing his Star Wars fandom in interviews about the farm-boy-bound-for-space opening. 2012 brought both Looper, Rian Johnson’s popular time-travel flick full of misdirection, and the sale of LucasFilm to Disney for $4 billion. By Christmas that year, J.J. Abrams met with Disney, but publicly claimed Star Trek obligations would prevent his involvement. A month later, Disney had their way, confirming Abrams at the helm of Episode VII.

If Star Trek Into Darkness plundering the past had been taken as any indication, sci-fi fans might have been more prepared for the creative cannibalism Abrams would bring to The Force Awakens. At least half of the new Star Wars film felt like a legitimate attempt to overlap fresh characters and old favorites, but the plot seemed suspiciously reliant on blowing up a base capable of destroying planets.

I wanted to know more, but I had a bad feeling about this. Where did Snoke come from? Who might Rey’s parents be? Why did these open-ended mysteries remind me of Lost?

The first teaser trailer for The Last Jedi launched last April, accumulating millions of views and spinning analytics-driven media into ceaseless speculation about the aging Luke Skywalker’s fateful words, “It’s time for the Jedi… to end.” The second trailer, in October, furthered the frenzy with First Order forces reminiscent of the Battle of Hoth, a shot of Kylo Ren considering matricide, and yet another quote from Luke: “This is not going to go… the way you think.” Good! Right?

I was convinced Rian Johnson could pull the tail from the mouth of the Star Wars ouroboros. Nobody could’ve predicted Luke’s parentage in 1980, but escalating expectations have accompanied every Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back via emerging narrative patterns, box office projections, or flames of fan desire. I was expecting an epic return to form in the Skywalker saga, some greater reward for years of faithfulness during the largely consistent disappointment of the past two decades. More than anything, I wanted to be surprised by Star Wars.

I’d spend the better part of December dodging potential spoilers, resolved to sacredly screen The Last Jedi with my parents during the holiday. When the night finally came, I sat in the center of the last row in the front section awaiting the familiar sounds of John Williams and the slow crawl of giant yellow words. Somehow, I was a kid anticipating Christmas again; that was a way I’ve not felt for a long time. The feeling became complicated over the next two and a half hours. Luke’s quotes from the trailers both misled and chided the audience.

Mark Hamill delivered a performance that rivals anything he’s ever done, while the connection between Rey and Kylo showcased the complicated heart of this new trilogy, collectively yielding some of the best scenes. Almost every moment with Carrie Fisher felt worth cherishing while we
wonder how Disney will handle her physical absence in Episode IX. As for the rest of the cast, with so many entrances and exits to handle, many arcs did not feel duly developed… even in the longest Star Wars film to date.

Star Wars fans may slowly realize that the latest film’s title is part of the ruse Rian Johnson used to pull a heist. In regards to Johnson, I’ll paraphrase a quote from the second installment of another iconic trilogy: “he’s the hero Star Wars deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” Disney has contracted Johnson for a Star Wars trilogy reportedly set in a different part of the universe, perhaps indicative of his indifference to negative reviews of The Last Jedi.

The conceptual dissemination of the Force away from the Skywalker family, and perhaps even the struggle between fundamentalist Jedi and Sith, may prove fertile ground for creativity more akin to the original spirit of Star Wars. Maybe, with a trilogy’s worth of creative control, Rian Johnson can rival George Lucas. We can only hope.
 

Meanwhile… Solo better be good, Disney, for your sake. The internet is not as forgiving as I am.

Black Mirror Says More About Today Than Tomorrow

WARNING: SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD FOR Seasons 1-3

by Shannon Jay

Technology has always been at the core of science fiction films in the form of otherworldly inventions. Distant and destructive technology, however, has been swapped out in recent years with devices we come into contact with every day. Black Mirror, which just released its fourth season, exploits smartphones, computer, and modern media’s exponential development to create a dystopian future closer than ever before.  

Black Mirror recognizes that with the rise of Internet came a complete change in concepts of communication, and utilizes the new technological frontier to unsettle viewers not with fantasy, but familiarity. The show hyperbolizes an already “always on,” interconnected society shaped by social media, to see how this already ever present connection will integrate into everyday life in the future.

 This episode sneaks in a bit of #BlackLivesMatter commentary, too
This episode sneaks in a bit of #BlackLivesMatter commentary, too

While stories are seemingly disconnected, each Black Mirror storyline uses recurrently technology to stitch together separate instances. Slight differences in similar tech illustrate development over a relatively short period of time, reflecting our current, ever-evolving technical revolution.

A brain implant known as “the Grain” is used in “The Entire History of You” to track and scroll through memories in high def video, allowing users to “re-do” moments of their life. In “San Junipero,” implants are used to mimic these malfunctions successfully, creating an avatar-based world where everything feels as real as it looks, and where heaven might be found after death. In the latest season, writers get hella meta in “Black Museum,” where now outdated or fatally flawed ideas are housed.

How quickly tech becomes obsolete is far too familiar to viewers, also. In “Nosedive,” Lacie Pound is on a nationwide quest to increase her social status score. She rents an outdated electric car — the only one she can get with her plummeting rating —  after being denied a seat on an airplane due to her low score. Thus, when she goes to charge the car halfway through the nine hour trip, she finds there’s not adapters for her older model, stranding her once more. All who’ve dealt with ever-changing chargers with every few iPhone updates can relate.

Along with allusions to current culture, Black Mirror’s dystopian plot lines factually explores humans’ imprint on the near future with highly informed predictions. Our mistreatment of nature is illustrated in “Hated in the Nation,” where drone bees replace the insect population currently nearing extinction, and “Nosedive,” foreshadowing the overtaking of electric cars in reaction to the increasing threat of global warming and depletion of fossil fuels. “Playtest” and “USS Callister” explores the next level of virtual reality gaming; both episodes ground viewers in the present via identical cell phones, job apps, and beloved classic sci-fi references.  

“Less a critique of technology than of what you could potentially do with technology, or what technology could potentially do to you if you haven’t really thought through the consequences.”

– Charlie Booker, show creator

Societal tolls aren’t necessarily consciously manipulated, but instead tech takes over common sense or empowers inherently evil people. Creator Charles Brooker said the series is about “much less a critique of technology than of what you could potentially do with technology, or what technology could potentially do to you if you haven’t really thought through the consequences.” Furthermore, the era of smartphones created outsiders out of those who don’t own that technology. In “The Entire History of You,” Hallam’s Grain had previously been gouged out, and “happier now” without it, which shocked fellow dinner guests.

Most importantly, and differently than any other classic science fiction, it only slightly hyperbolizes a new and existing dependence on social media and quantitative popularity via likes. the implication of social media into our daily lives enforces deeply ingrained societal norms on a new level. Even on vacation, we’re working to keep up appearances with each Instagram photo posted or Snapchat sent, making even the most exotic location homogeneous to home. In attempts such as this to be “away from familiar places and discovering new ones unencumbered,” Christine Rosen said in her essay “The New Meaning of Mobility,” we’re never truly rewarded with an entire “freedom of disconnect.” Features already occurring in social media, such as blocking someone in the grim holiday special “White Christmas,” are brought into the real-world. 

Black Mirror uses already demonstrated destruction via dependence on constant social interaction. Within the first few minutes, we see how distracting technology can be when Ash is too bothered watching the news to notice his wife Martha, hands full, is trying to get into the car. The short time he’s in the episode, Ash is on his phone so much, Martha says he “vanishes down there” and refers to his phone as a “thief,” social media stealing the couple’s final night together. When Ash returns the moving van the next day, he dies in an accident. Character foreshadowing concludes he was distracted while driving, which is not at all far fetched considering 69 percent of drivers admit to using their phone while driving, leading to hundreds of thousands of accidents per year in the United States alone.

Furthermore, we realize later he shared so much of his life online, an artificial replica is able to compute his mannerisms and memories solely based on his social media data. Complications with the robot’s personality, however, shows synthetic representations and online personas are no substitute for true human interaction. Martha’s erection of the robot and Ash’s social media addiction illustrate how we’re never alone, and have no way to cope when we are.

While individualized technology can threaten personal relationships, the internet’s anonymity could have grave consequences on Earth as a whole, becoming an even harder to trace form of terrorism that’s easier to implement.Troll culture is tackled in “Shut Up and Dance,” blurring ethical lines via online strangers who spy on morally questionable individuals and punishes them. In the series premiere episode “The National Anthem,” a hostage video of beloved Princess Susannah has been surfaced and demands the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on national television by 4pm that day, or else the Princess dies.

Since the hostage video was uploaded on YouTube, it’s already been exposed to the public and picks up serious traction within hours, with commentary from citizens on Twitter to major media outlets tiptoeing around the details.

This episode in particular explores shows how fast information can be spread, how quickly tides of opinions can change, and how much can happen in only a few hours in our digital age. This episode uses technology at everyone’s disposal today, ensuing more fear than previous dreamlike and distant science fiction of yesteryear.

Check out VICE’s roundup of all the clever Easter Eggs Season 4 uses to alude to Black Mirror’s past tech. 
 

Stranger Side of Cult Classic Celebration

In mostly everyone’s “Recently Watched” section of Netflix, Stranger Things is surely listed. The show is fueled by the culture of nostalgia, and in a short span has garnered a cult following. For most films, like Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room, this takes at least a few years to gather steam and harbor very specific demographics. However, within the month that Netflix released Season 1 of Stranger Things last year, nearly 15 million Americans from every age range were already hooked. 

Promoters have certainly taken notice, and every major city seems to have a Stranger Things party every few months. Charles Rasputin, party planner extraordinaire, has two sold-out such themed parties in Richmond and Norfolk this month  (just pre-sale – don’t worry, you can still stand outside for hours to get in).

Popscure asked him about the power of nostalgia, and how streaming has changed our relationship with TV, somehow finding unity in asynchronous consumption. 

WHY DOES NOSTALGIA SELL?

“I think nostalgia functions in several ways to intrigue viewership but two are very specific to the phenomena of Stranger Things. The show provides familiar details and context for those who have experienced the 80’s first hand, but it also allows digital natives to see the rise of the digital age. There are parallels to coming of age in the 21 Century within this group of folks from all age groups facing the unimaginable.”

 Trumpogorgon
Trumpogorgon

Rasputin brings up a good point here. We live in a time, surrounded by inventions that were once impossible feats solely existent in science fiction. Who would’ve thought we could have a wealth of knowledge, camera, and telephone within one device at our fingertips? The past few decades have seen increasingly rapid and fantastical changes; it’s almost as surreal as the Upside Down.

Unimaginable still is how much time has passed and how much society has stayed the same — as far as racism and sexism that still torment everyday life of minorities, which just now in 2017 is being divulged. Our president is reality’s Demogorgon — monstrous and too ridiculous to be true.

HOW HAS BINGE WATCHING CULTURE CHANGED OUR RELATIONSHIP TO TV SHOWS?

“I think binge-watching has created a form for digesting visual media that is very much like reading a book, rather than time released episodes featuring advertisement-driven sequences.  One’s excitement for a story can manifest in watching all of it immediately and not being forced to slowly process at the pace of the network or the calendar.”  

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE SHOW & WHATS THE BIG DEAL?

“I think the show is great, and I’ve loved seeing it grow from a one-season concept to embrace the need for multiple seasons. I also love that it’s exciting for adults and for younger viewers who didn’t necessarily grow up in the 80s. The thing that drove our team to produce a dance party inspired by the aesthetic of Stranger Things was the thoughtful simplicity of the art direction and the accessibility for materials and settings to replicate the vibes of the show itself.

The culture of fandom is largely driven by cosplay and the ability for people to insert themselves into a character or story. Stranger Things is rich with characters and costumes that are relatively easy to assemble and the ability to create an immersive version of the story is a breath of fresh air that the “80s dance party” vibe desperately needed. We were excited to see the second season so well received on Netflix, and we knew we had to bring it back for a second round in Norfolk at O’Connor Brewing.”

Whether it’s your goofiest version of Barb or classiest prom-ready 80’s garb, bring your spirited wardrobe out Friday night at O’Connor Brewing Co. and dance the night away. 

Guillermo Del Toro: Finding Humanity in Monsters & Reality in Fantasy

by Shannon Jay

Guillermo Del Toro’s love of all things spooky started at an early age as an assessment of authority. He decorated his strict Catholic household with spooky trinkets to spite his parents and doodled monsters that drove his grandmother to douse him with holy water. As a child, he was reading medical books and getting distracted by gargoyles at church, delving into darker interests than his peers. “I think that whenever you’re born with sensibility and intelligence you’re going to have an unhappy childhood,” Del Toro told Charlie Rose.

He often found refuge from his family’s conservative overhand in the depths of his imagination, bringing his ideas to life in film at a mere 8 years old. Strapped with his father’s Super 8 camera, Del Toro made films with Planet of the Apes action figures and found objects.

One of his earliest original films, Del Toro said in his Reddit AMA, was about a “serial killer potato that dreamt of conquering the world, that murdered [his] mother and [his] brothers, and then stepped outside and was crushed by a car.” After directing the award-winning Cronos in 1993, Del Toro made his American debut in 1997 with Mimic.

To find the weird inspiration he needs, he must separate himself from reality and step into his own fantasy to seek inspiration. His getaway is in the form of a 11,000 square foot home in the suburbs of Los Angeles called “Bleak House.” Filled to the brim with concept art from films, gothic and grim etchings, biological specimens such as skulls and insects, and lifesize statues of monsters, this house surrounds Del Toro with all the inspiration he needs to create his dark, fantastical worlds. The house has 13 libraries, each dedicated to a specific subject area, including several original editions of classic novels.

He even has a “Rain Room,” complete with a false window that projects a fictional storm, coupled with a continuous thunder soundtrack and a life-size Edgar Allen Poe to accompany him. “As a kid, I dreamed of having a house with secret passages and a room where it rained 24 hours a day,” Del Toro told Time Magazine, “the point of being over 40 is to fulfill the desires you’ve been harboring since you were 7.”

This focus on truth, imperfection, and the fight for flaws are the fuel behind Del Toro’s love for monsters. He sees the ghouls and spooks who fill his films as the “patron saint of imperfection,” paralleling them with humankind’s inability to accept the monstrosities in ourselves by blurring the lines between good and evil. Frankenstein is Del Toro’s favorite monster — he defines Boris Karloff’s performance as empathetic, giving humility to the terrifying monster that made “the creature at once horrifying and vulnerable.”

“Even as a kid, I knew that monsters were far more gentle and far more desirable than the monsters living inside nice people”

– Del Toro told the Scotsman

Del Toro’s use of monsters and whmisical environments juxtapose raw stories revealing real emotions, allowing viewers to strip the imaginary layers and contemplate who the less fantastic monsters of our reality are. These overly fictitious worlds are a veil of fantasy that hide acts of rebellion and social commentary. Fairytale worlds distance viewers from reality while commentating on obliviousness of these issues in everyday life.

While these films are filled with strange creatures, the real monsters are people. In both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, human antagonists Captain Vidal and Jacinto both suffer from a lack of past, giving them few memories to learn and better themselves from, disadvantaging them to face the present with a moral compass improved by experience.

Del Toro not only criticizes humanity in his films, but also delivers subtle but potent political messages. He used Gothic vampires in Cronos to illustrate the demolition of Latin America by North American capitalism. Released the year Pablo Escobar was killed, this greed could extend to cocaine’s successful exports to Miami and New York City, which wreaked havoc on Columbia.

Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth represents the patriarchal tyranny that brought violence upon innocent children in the face of war. Throughout the film, fantasy and reality blend together without disruption, showing how tragically intertwined they are, and how an imaginary escape doesn’t get children too far away from the violence.

“I’m not a filmmaker who can speak directly about politics without addressing it through fable or parable,” Del Toro told Time Magazine.

Del Toro’s latest film, Shape of the Water, hits theaters today. He tackles these themes and brings back the shapeshifting Doug Jones to play another humanized, misunderstood monster.