Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997)

A70-9170Last week I was invited to introduce a screening of Contact – a film I had seen twice in twenty years and then saw twice in the same week – as part of this series at Bristol Cathedral. (The last film I saw there was The Medusa Touch (1978), which was partly filmed in the cathedral. They sat us in rows where, in the film, the ceiling collapses on people sat in rows.)  This did not seem quite the right place to detail the film’s profound intellectual dishonesty, so this, more or less, is what I said:

When we think of science fiction, if we strip away all the space battles, alien monsters and big explosions, it might seem that we would be left with a genre that is profoundly secular and materialist, free from any concern with the supernatural or the spiritual. But sf is also part of our wider culture; it plays off it and builds on it in all kinds of ways.

Indeed, Adam Roberts, in his The History of Science Fiction (2006) argues that one of the sources – or perhaps an early manifesation – of sf is a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theological debate, primarily Catholic but also taken up by Protestants, on the plurality of worlds. Could there be other worlds inhabited by other beings like us? Were they fallen races? Did Christ have to die again for each of them?

As Roberts writes, ‘unsupported by scriptural authority, the very notion of other inhabited worlds flirts with heresy, which lends the topic a dangerous flavour for more than 100 years’ (50). Both Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac wrote fiction in which the Moon is inhabited – but chose not to have these tales publish while they were still alive. Palingenius – real name Pietro Angelo Manzoli – was less careful. As Roberts states, in his ‘speculative cosmology … Zodiacus Vitae (‘Living Zodiac’), originally published in Italy in 1537’, Palingenius pointed out that some people considered every bright star to be a world, and supposes that their inhabitants count our dark planet as the least among all the heavenly bodies. Despite his circumspection in attributing such ideas to others, he was ‘classified as a heretic of the highest class in the Papal Index’ (50).

Leap forward into 20th century sf, and the same sort of questions are explored in CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelendra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), books I find hateful – the more mean-spirited they become, the worse the quality of the writing (and thinking). American writers also explore such questions, as in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958), Harry Harrison’s ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’ (1962) and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998).

In a rather different vein – weirder and more horrific – HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories of the 1920s and 1930s create a thoroughly non-supernatural universe the age and immensity of which renders alien species as kinds of mad, diseased gods.

Perhaps more interesting as a backdrop for Carl Sagan’s work is a tradition of atheist but nonetheless religious sf. Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937) is overwhelmed with awe at the unbelievably vast magnitudes – both space and time – of the universe, itself just one cosmos among many, that in the end novel it copes with the sublime by imagining a kind of prime creative energy or force. Stapledon’s his successor in this tradition is of course Arthur C Clarke, especially in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), both of which are set in quite rigorously material universes, but in which the possibility of transcendence remains – albeit as an evolutionary experience cast in in quasi-spiritual terms. (Clarke’s 2001 provides Sagan with the notion of hyperspace or wormhole travel as a kind of massive interstellar railway system; in the later stages of the film, John Hurt’s character increasingly resembles Clarke.) Stanley Kubrick’s film version of 2001 (1968) is much more oblique and ambiguous, skipping exposition in favour of a kind of overwhelming sensory experience – which Robert Zemickis’s Contact (1997) also attempts – as did films such as The Black Hole (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) before it. But all of them lack Kubrick’s cool, misanthropic tone – unsurprising with Zemeckis, who is kind of a Spielberg discovery.

Sagan’s own position seems to lie somewhere between Kubrick’s film and Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of his novel. In 1995, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan said that

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

He would describe himself not as an atheist but as an agnostic. In a 1981 interview collected in Conversations with Carl Sagan (2006), he said that

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.

In his novel Contact (1985), protagonist Ellie Arroway makes the same point when questioned about her religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

In one of my favourite passages, as she is driving through the early morning desert, her headlights sweeping ahead of her, she notices rabbits gathering on either side of the road. As each one in turn is hit by the beam of light, it stands up on its hind legs and watches until the light has past. This has obvious resonances with her team of radio astronomers – and by extension, the whole human race – picking up the alien transmission. But but she also explicitly wonders if, in that moment, each rabbit is having a religious experience.

It is one of many moments in the novel where religion, spirituality and awe are probed from various directions.

And it is worth recalling that the novel itself expresses grave concern – omitted from the film – with the growing power of varieties of dispensationalist, prosperity-gospel Protestant fundamentalism, whose influence of American public life – and the practice of science – has only increased since then.

A few words about the film Contact.

In 1979, the production company Casablanca Pictures commissioned Sagan, who had recently won a non-fiction Pulitzer for The Dragons of Eden (1977) to develop a story for them to film. He was the most famous astronomer, possibly the most famous scientist, in America at that time, even though he had yet to make the PBS series Cosmos (1980). By the end of 1980, he and his co-author Anne Druyan had completed a 100 page story treatment. (Druyan was an author, who had also headed part of the NASA project about the golden discs of sound recordings that were attached to Voyager 1 and 2, in which Sagan was also involved, having previously designed the plaque for Pioneer. They married in 1981, his third and final wife, and she co-authored his later non-fiction books. She appears very briefly in the film on an episode of Crossfire debating Rob Lowe, who seems to be in the film for no reason other than to be pretty. Which is kind of his career.)

Casablanca took the project to Warner Bros, where it go stuck in development hell. So Sagan and Druyan wrote the novel (the extent of her involvement remains unclear; he alone is credited as the author). It attracted a $2 million dollar advance from Simon & Schuster, and became a best seller, selling 1.7 million copies in its first two years. This led to renewed interest in the film. Roland Joffe, fresh from Best Director Oscar nominations for The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), was initially attached to direct. When he dropped out and it was offered to Robert Zemeckis, who turned it down, then to George Miller, who had just made Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Miller was fired because he was taking so long, and it was offered to Zemeckis again, who this time accepted, having recently wrapped up the Back to the Future trilogy (1989, 1990) and Forrest Gump (1994), for which he’d won best director Oscar. Gump seems to have inspired the use of digitally altered footage of Bill Clinton (after Sidney Poitier turned down the role President) – footage which includes his serendipitous August 7 1996 press conference about the announcement that an Antarctic meteorite – almost certainly from Mars – seemed to contain microfossils of bacteria

Sagan died in December 1996, while Contact was still in production. Released the following June, it is dedicated to him.

Before we start, just a few words of warning. If there are any Matthew McConaughey fans here tonight, be aware you have to wait a full and seventeen and a half minutes for him to get his shirt off.

If it is any consolation, the first several of those endless, utterly unconscionable minutes contain what was in 1997 the longest continuous CGI sequence in film – a record it held for seven years.

It is, I know, no consolation (sotto voce: But such is the nature of the universe.)

Advertisements

From Beyond (Stuart Gordon 1986), adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ (1934)

frombeyondposter4[The last of the pieces written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Written in 1920, ‘From Beyond’ is an early, minor Lovecraft story. Crawford Tillinghast’s new invention stimulates the ‘unrecognized sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges’, enabling him to perceive the ‘strange, inaccessible worlds … at our very elbows’ (90). The narrator, summoned by Tillinghast, finds his previously stout, clean-shaven friend a dishevelled, muttering, yellow-skinned shadow of his former self. After switching on the machine, Tillinghast warns the narrator not to move, because the rays that enable them to see beyond also make them visible to whatever exists there. As the narrator’s ‘augmented sight’ (95) develops, he perceives roiling clouds, a temple, the cosmos, ‘huge animate things brushing past … and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body’ (94–95), another realm ‘superimposed upon the terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre’ (95). The laboratory fills with ‘indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise’, with ‘inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony’ with the machine’s vibrations (95). The ecstatic Tillinghast has ‘seen beyond the bounds of infinity’, ‘drawn down daemons from the stars’, and ‘harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness’ (96). The things pursuing Tillinghast come for the narrator, who shoots the machine. He passes out and Tillinghast suffers a fatal apoplexy. The narrator can never forget the teeming, invisible world around him, or shake the feeling that something hunts him still.

Following the success of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), adapted from Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1922), Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, its US distributor, offered Gordon a three-film deal. Gordon pitched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ (1919) but Band preferred one of his alternative suggestions, ‘From Beyond’ (Gordon would eventually make Dagon in 2001). Since Lovecraft’s story is little more than a single scene – and one that would be prohibitively expensive to film – Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna adapted it as the opening sequence: Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) switches on the Resonator for the first time, and a piscine creature, swimming through the air, attaches to his face like some monstrous leech, tearing open his cheek; when his boss, Dr Pretorius (Ted Sorel) – named after Ernest Thesiger’s wonderfully queer mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935) – activates the Resonator, something tears his head off. We are not shown Pretorius’s demise. It is the last time the film will show such restraint.

Lovecraft’s unseen realm, populated by fragmentary teratalogical wonders, can be interpreted as figuring all that is excluded from what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order; and weird intrusions from there can be understood in terms of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject – things that are neither subject nor object, neither living nor dead, and which are often associated with female bodies and queer sexualities. Although From Beyond now seems quite innocent, twenty-five years ago its escalating and increasingly elaborate special effects sequences looked like a handbook of post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory.

Tillinghast is committed to an asylum run by the draconian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), named after Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, Robert Bloch. The police hire ‘girl from-beyond2wonder’ psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), to determine whether Tillinghast can stand trial. Along with the cop Buford ‘Bubba’ Brownlee (Ken Foree), she takes him back to the house, where she discovers evidence of Pretorius’s BDSM predilections and reconstructs the experiment that, according to Tillinghast, released whatever killed his mentor. A toothed, tentacled creature attacks Bubba, and Pretorius returns, monstrously transformed, before Tillinghast can switch off the machine. McMichaels, sexually aroused by the Resonator’s stimulation of her pineal gland, is compelled to turn it back on. Pretorius returns in even more hideous form. The enormous slug-like creature that sucked his head from his shoulders fastens on to Tillinghast, tearing of his hair before the Resonator is again switched off. McMichaels, fascinated by the BDSM clothes and equipment in Pretorius’s room, dresses up in dominatrix gear and attempts to have sex with the unconscious Tillinghast and with Bubba. Her sexual energy reactivates the Resonator, unleashing locusts that strip Bubba’s flesh to the bone. Returned to the asylum, the mutating Tillinghast becomes hungry for human brains. He sucks out one of Bloch’s eyes and eats her brain through the socket. McMichaels and Tillinghast return to Pretorius’s house for another extravagant display of sexual apparatuses and gloopy special effects before the Resonator is destroyed.

From Beyond never quite achieves the gleeful excesses of Re-animator, although that did not prevent the MPAA refusing it an R certificate three times before finally approving a cut. Nor did it enjoy the same critical and financial success or cult afterlife. Its prosthetic and make-up effects were soon surpassed – not least by Screaming Mad George’s work on Yuzna’s Society (1989) three years later – and its use of lurid purples and greens whenever the Resonator is switched on now seems like some archaic VHS aesthetic.

Although the original story lacks the adjectival proliferation associated with Lovecraft’s relentlessly failing specificity of otherness, the film’s comic tone detracts from the special effects’ ability to convey the gross materiality that Lovecraft strove to catalogue. Gordon is not concerned to replicate the critical seriousness of Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), but his slapstick humour is not as well developed or focused as that of the young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. From Beyond’s more salacious content lacks the shock-value of Re-animator’s notorious cunnilingus scene, while its elaboration of Lovecraft’s sexual undercurrents pales in comparison to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). But it is still worth watching, if only for Combs’ remarkable performance. He is adept at conveying with just his eyes the eagerness, hope, anxiety and inarticulate regret of a young man a long way out of his depth. The intensity he brings to the role contrasts with the blandness of everyone else in the cast. It is as if he really has seen beyond and knows more than he should.

References
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.

 

Evolution (Lucille Hadzihalilovic 2015)

evolution-poster-lucile-hadzihalilovicDo not be fooled if your local arthouse tries to advertise it like this: ‘Featuring some of the most mesmerising underwater cinematography this side of Jacques Cousteau and containing undertones of the weird horror fiction of HP Lovecraft…’

They have to do it that way round cos they’re an arthouse cinema, and they figure their main audience is going to be the people who want to see Cousteau-like cinematography. And it is indeed mesmerising, rendering the world beneath the waves beautiful and alien all at once.

But the film is really for those who like their fiction weird. And who want to know where babies come from.

An oddly piscine-looking woman raises a ten-year-old boy, Nicolas, in a white-walled coastal village full of oddly piscine-looking women, each of whom is raising a ten-year-old boy. The landscape is vaguely volcanic, the beach and streets covered in cinders. They live on a diet of khaki mush filled with worms, and every day, Nicolas must take four drops of medicine that looks suspiciously like cephalopod ink. He claims to have seen a dead boy on the sea floor with a red starfish on his belly. His mother dives to retrieve the starfish, thus ‘proving’ there was no dead boy.

maxresdefaultThe camera is generally static. No one says very much.

But Nicolas senses something is not right. Where do the women go by lantern-light once their boys are asleep? What is going on at the medical facility along the cliffs? Why do all the boys eventually go there? What happens to them?

It is difficult to write more without giving too much away. Plus, the film tends to live and resonate in its obscurities, its half-glimpses and elliptical cutaways, its silences and incompletions, so writing much more would also pin down meanings in a way which counter the film’s affect. Suffice to say, there is not just Lovecraft here, but also a Lynchian suspension of meaning, the surgical/gynaecological horror of Cronenberg, a hint of del Toro’s El espinazo del diablo but without the boys adventure literalness of his ghost story, and of The Wicker Man‘s odd local customs, and even of Brian Yuzna’s Society but without the comical excesses. (There is nothing comical about this film.) Hadzihalilovic has also mentioned in interview the influence of Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels.

For a while near the end you start to think it does not know how to end, but then its final shot reframes all that has gone before as a document of the Anthropocene.

It is probably the creepiest, weirdest-on-first-viewing film I have seen since Tsukamoto Shinya’s A Snake of June, and easily the best thing I have seen in a cinema this year.

Piqued Oil

energy-the-battle-to-keep-alaska-pipelines-flowing_66062_600x450[A version of this piece first appeared in Salvage]

On 28 September 2015, Royal Dutch Shell – suddenly and without warning – announced their withdrawal from exploratory drilling in the Chuckchi Sea. This decision will cost them, depending on who you ask, somewhere between $4-8 billion in terms of money already spent or contractually committed. Many have found reason to celebrate this announcement – especially when it was followed a couple of days later by Alberta’s governor, Rachel Notley, declaring that there was no long-term future for the province or Canada as a whole to be found in the continued exploitation of the Alberta Tar Sands.

But for others, Shell’s press release – a bland technocratic utterance, an oleaginous misdirection, terse, wilfully oblique – was a cause for concern, a weird provocation.

What exactly has Shell done up there off the coast of Alaska? What have they found? Why are they not talking about it?

What haematophagic vegetal Thing from Another World did they accidentally defrost? What therianthropic congeries of cellular neo-liberalism? What ripe metaphor? What ravening alien maw?

How long until our skies are darkened by fleets of Nazi UFOs pouring out from the Hohlweltlehre’s Fourth Reich? How long until our lands are ravaged by their subhuman legions of Dero Sturmtruppen?

Did Shell really mistake that oozing nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence for oil? What rough shoggoth, its hour come around at last, is now slouching southwards to consume us? What Hyperborean sleeping abnormalities, what blasphemously surviving entities, have they disturbed? To the attention of what Elder Gods have their clumsy probings brought us?

Did they drill so deep into the crust that the Earth itself screamed?

Or have Shell, rather more mundanely, had a Mitchell-and-Webb epiphany? Did they stare into the abyss and find themselves staring back? Have they realised that they are the bad guys? Are they going to apologise? Are they going to shut down their chunk of the oil industry and devote future revenues from green energy to repairing the environmental destruction for which they are responsible? Does this retreat from the arctic mark the start of a new era that recognises the unsustainability of development? An era in which existing development will be radically redistributed?

If only.

This is not Armageddon. No plucky oilmen and hot-doggin’ roughnecks are going to divert the extinction event coming our way.

This is not The Abyss. Deep-sea drilling operations are not going to uncover some watery alien messiah.

This is not even On Deadly Ground. No possible blend of motivational-poster mysticism, misappropriated indigenous culture, pony tails and lardy kung fu can stop the oil companies.

Shell is clear on this. Like recent similar withdrawals by Exxon and Chevron, this is a temporary, strategic move based on the several variables. Their main concerns at this point are ‘the high costs associated with the project, and the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska’. Their announcement must therefore be seen as a statement of intent: they will lobby and exert influence to get those regulations revised in their favour; they will develop and/or await the technologies that will sufficiently lower the cost of drilling, extraction and transportation; they will wait for global warming to make the Arctic more conducive; they will rely upon – and manipulate – oil demand and oil scarcity; and then they will return.

They say they will ‘cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future’. As if they do not foresee this one. As if this is not their plan.

Notley talks about weaning Alberta – and Canada – off fossil fuels over the next century. A timescale which, however well-intentioned, however inadequate, might just coincide with the oil in the tar sands running out anyway, as peak oil gives way to oil depletion.

So while this weird flight from the icy seas might seem like a turning point in the story of peak oil, it is, in truth, more about piqued oil.

The monotonous self-serving corporate drone of Shell’s statement is designed to conceal only one thing: they are just a little bit miffed.

But rest assured. They were already regrouping, strategising, shifting resources and priorities before they even said a word. And remember: they can’t be bargained with; they can’t be reasoned with; they do not feel pity or remorse or fear. And they will absolutely not stop, ever, until the last drop of oil is made profitable and then wrung from the planet.