The Return Of Serious Science Fiction
Literary SF has a small but dedicated following, and usually defeats me, although I read a lot of it growing up, mainly because the ABCs, Aldiss, Asimov, Ballard and Clarke, were ubiquitous in paperback.
There has been a gradual move toward ‘adult’ SF lately, but mostly on film. The genre has split itself into sub-groups; on the one hand superhero movies rule, with their vast story arcs and complex graphic origins. On the other there are the knockabout robot/monster movies, from ‘Kong Island’ to ‘Pacific Rim 2’. Which nicely leaves room for something a little grown-up.
We’d had it before, of course, with films like ‘2001’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Solaris’ and ‘Soylent Green’. It revived with films like ‘Brazil’, ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Primer’, but has been hugely helped by Alex Garland. Now we’ve got to a darker place. ‘Arrival’ was the real game changer.
It starts pretty much where ‘Close Encounters’ ends. The opening establishes that 12 gigantic space vessels have appeared around the earth, and we have to figure out how to contact them without getting our heads blown off. Why have they come here – and why land in Devon? As one scientist says; ‘Why those places? All we can find to link them is they all have low light intensity and Sheena Easton had hits in every location.’ Amy Adams is comparative linguist Louise Banks, who finds herself in a team chosen to attempt communication.
But how do you understand a language that has not originated on earth? It’s a theme first explored in ‘The Arrival of Wang’, an Italian movie in which an alien has arrived who has learned Mandarin but lands in a small town in Italy.
Meanwhile, Ben Wheatley was working closer to home, first with the eerie, inexplicable ‘Kill List’, then with ‘High Rise’, the purest distillation of Ballard (for good and bad) yet seen on screen. From Europe came ‘A Bothersome Man’ – in which a businessman wakes up in a desert garage and is taken to a huge faceless city to start a non-job, unless he fails and has to go back…it’s a stranger, more surreal version of Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’. Then there were ‘White God’ and ‘Jupiter’s Moon’, both reviewed on this site, about falling from – and transcending – innocence, complete with jaw-dropping special effects. They reminded me of the wonderful ‘Avalon’, about a VR gamer who glitches the system and messes up her life.
But SF doesn’t have to be po-faced to conform to ‘proper’ SF laws. ‘Okja’, ‘Mute’ and ‘Valerian’ are all, in their own ways, fantastic SF movies, and are frequently very funny. In the darkness there’s ‘Life’, which deserves a second watch – I dismissed it as an ‘Alien’ ripoff the first time I saw it, but seeing it again at home reveals its smart-alien structure. ‘Monsters’, ‘Chappie’ and ‘Rogue One’ all brought fresh ideas to filmed SF. I loved the idea put forward in ‘Monsters’ that an invasion could create a new, annoying form of illegal alien, locked out of Trump’s future vision for the country.
Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ is ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ married to JG Ballard’s ‘The Crystal World’ (right down to the original’s alligator). In fact it’s so Ballardian it’s a miracle no-one has issued a lawsuit. But SF is full of ideas built on by others, and Garland is far more interested in the human effects of mutation and invasion.
In its slow, tentative pacing is the gestation of an intriguing idea. Would a first meeting with aliens be remotely comprehensible to us, or could it be so extreme and toxic that we would not stand a chance of survival? The strange prismatic shimmering of the forest, the silent mutating of cells, the utter confusion of the humans sent to investigate, the sense of pessimism that seeps through it, the sheer beauty of change, all mark the film as a unique experience, especially the bravura ending (which apparently mystified some people – Garland never knows how to end his films). And it does something else we’ve never seen; it hands the film to its female stars, despite having a gore level as high as Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’.
Thoughtful SF offers new ideas and a subtler visual aesthetic that feels like a way out of the tights-and-cape dead end. It explores big human ideas – although its critical reception often serves to mark out the lowbrow crits who simply don’t get that filmed SF can be something other than two guys punching each other on a skyscraper.