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.)

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Interstellar (Christopher Nolan 2014)

MV5BMjIxNTU4MzY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzM4ODI3MjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Interstellar (2014), a film in which Matthew McConaughey both keeps his shirt on and plays a magical bookcase from a galaxy far, far away, is not that they gave the bloke responsible for Clippy, the annoying Word for Windows Office Assistant, a second chance – this time to design robots – but that, even without a credited science advisor, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan managed to grasp relativistic time-dilation effects with such precise and unrelenting hard-sf rigour that for every hour spent on the sofa watching the movie an eternity seemed to pass…

The Mad Maxathon, part one: Mad Max (1979) mostly

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Part two, part three, part four

Waking up in post-apocalyptic Britain last Friday, and with only a week to go until Mad Max: Fury Road, it was time to get back up to speed. Thus did the Mad Maxathon commence!

Back in my Plymouth teens, one of the local free papers had a competition to win cinema tickets and related goodies. Most weeks I entered and – not having enough pocket money or, later, paper-round wages to waste on a postage stamp – would deliver it in person (in a reused envelope) to their offices. The only things I ever won were a pair of tickets for a double bill of Ghoulies and Trancers (I suspect no one else entered that competition) and, a year later, a pair of tickets for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a film my girlfriend did not want to see, especially after the preceding year’s fiasco. Oh, and along with the tickets came a Thunderdome t-shirt, which I had to collect in person and, being poor, could not just throw away despite the embarrassment of advertising a film I hated. It became a winter garment, always worn under something else, until eventually it faded and fell apart. This may well be the origin of my dislike for clothing with writing on it. And of white t-shirts.

I forget when or where I first saw the previous movies – presumably on video at a friend’s house. So something good did come of those free tickets. They enabled me to reassess my opinion that Mad Max, despite holding the world record cost-to-profit ratio for twenty years, was the weakest film in the series. (The Road Warrior was always, in the words of JG Ballard, ‘punk’s Sistine Chapel’.) While I have watched the first two multiple times over the years, I have only seen Thunderdome twice – and not since it was first broadcast on television. So how do they hold up?

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Mad Max starts off as a properly sleazy ozploitation flick: a tubby copper in leather spies through rifle sights on a couple having sex in a field; an insane car chase ensues. There will be more bare bums in the franchise (and car chases).

Mad Max was one of the first Australian films to be shot using widescreen anamorphic lenses but George Miller’s real innovation was to mount the cameras on speeding cars and motorbikes so very close to the ground. It does not sound like a lot, but it was, and remains, breathtakingly perilous to watch.

mm4Accounts of the film often take note of Miller’s work as an emergency room doctor, and of several incidents during the OPEC crisis when – in full Ballardian mode – regular folks queuing for fuel violently turned on each other. Clearly some kind of autogeddon was in the ozploitation air (see also: Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), one of the earlier Australian films to use widescreen anamorphic lenses, whose spikey Volkswagen is homaged in Fury Road; Ian Barry’s Chain Reaction (1980), which stars Mad Max‘s Steve Bisley,  Hugh Keays-Byrne and, as an uncredited bearded mechanic, Mel Gibson; Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In (1986), based on Peter Carey’s story;  and, in a slightly different vein, Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981)).

I was not surprised to hear that for Fury Road, George Miller presented Tom Hardy with a 300-page ‘comic’ made up of storyboards, rather than a conventional screenplay because Mad Max – with its generic mix of AIP biker movie, backwoods Straw Dogs/Deliverance rape-revenge narrative, lone gunfighter/sheriff/samurai seeking revenge/justice, rogue cop brought out of retirement one last time and this time its personal – comes across increasingly like a 2000AD strip. This connection with the other Sistine chapel of punk comes full circle, first in Neil Marshall’s underrated Doomsday (2008), which riffs off The Road Warrior but also in its final shots gives Rhona Mitra a Carlos Ezquerra/Mike McMahon big boots look, and then in Fury Road, co-written by Brendan McCarthy, who started working on 2000AD in the late 70s and then, inspired by Road Warrior, co-created the post-apocalyptic surfer comic Freakwave (1983). Some consider Freakwave to have been plagiarised by Waterworld (1995), which was dubbed ‘Road Warrior on water’ back in the day. ‘All at sea’, more like.

Mad Max’s melodramatic transitions in particular have something comic-book about them – foreshadowing Sam Raimi’s more obviously comics-inspired Darkman (1990) – and, to be honest, much of the dialogue would probably work better as speech bubbles. The stand-out dialogue scene is the one in which Mel Gibson, with his oddly immobile face, emotes, trying to say something incomprehensible to his wife about his feelings for her in terms of feelings he had for his dad but never expressed. Or something like that. Wisely, to shut him up, she kisses him. And considering how unwise kissing Mel Gibson actually is, we should thank her. She may be overly taken with the idea that running right down the middle of the road is the best way to flee murderous bikers, but right then, at that snoggy moment, she takes one for the team.

mad-max-wifeMad Max is only Gibson’s second film and, although he has yet to become completely insufferable, the construction of his image of physically battered masculinity – the shirtlessly electrocuted resistant-to-electrocution Martin Riggs getting his ass handed to him by the mighty Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon (1987), the shot-to-pieces Martin Riggs annoyingly not dying in Danny Glover’s arms in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), the hammer-to-the-toes justifiably tortured hardly-Lee-Marvin of Payback (1999), culminating in all those unpleasant things people do to Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004) – is already gearing up as he (somewhat ineptly) wreaks his revenge.

Given Gibson’s occasional homophobic outbursts, I vividly recall being delighted to discover that, at least in the olden days, he used to have a big enough gay following to provide one of the case studies for Michael DeAngelis’s Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom: James Dean, Mel Gibson and Keanu Reeves (2001). I am however quite mystified as to the source of this, or indeed any hetero, attraction. Sure, in Mad Max, he is young and pretty and wears tight black leather and does not yet have a mullet. Is it that? Or is it his later tendency to be as shirtless as Matthew McConaughey while wrestling in the rain with Gary Busey or otherwise taking physical punishment? A suffering that in some ways maps onto his Judy Garland-like life of dislocation and addiction and abuse (although admittedly he is the abuser, not the abused)? Please tell me it is not the mullet.

Oh, and Main Force Patrol? Come on, people, that is not what MFP stands for.