Posts Tagged ‘film’

Last week I re-watched Transcendence, (Wally Pfister, 2014) a film which I didn’t hate at the cinema but which I felt in many ways let itself down. There was a lot of potential in the idea, but as with most posthuman films, especially those which involve some form of collective consciousness, it pulled back from the brink, relying on a traditional A.I. = evil clichés for the climax.

 Transcendence Trailer

Transcendence failed to generate a lot of interest in the box office, firstly because it wasn’t the sci-fi action-er the trailer indicated it might be, not a cardinal sin in my opinion, but this probably resulted in false expectations for some audience members. Secondly, and more importantly, because the film has a tendency to undermine itself through the way its characters easily and conveniently change their life stances.

….. From here on in there are spoilers for Transcendence and Ghost in the Shell …..

Watching Transcendence this second time I found myself, for the most part, firmly on the side of A.I. /Will Caster, as this computer program/human uploaded consciousness pursued its agenda to develop technologies which would regenerate desolate landscapes, and damaged human tissue. What exactly was wrong with the way this program enabled blind men to see? Or disabled people to walk? Was this getting a little too close to playing God and thus playing down the Frankenstein hubristic line?

Martin is healed/enhanced by A.I. Will Caster

Martin is healed/enhanced by A.I. Will Caster

Sure, at points, Will Caster/A.I. went a little overboard and took measures which fixed the damaged humans beyond what was required. The scene where the previously beaten up construction worker single handily lifts gigantic girders, caught on someone’s smart phone footage, oozes with humanity’s fear of the other. The construction worker has become one of ‘them,’ posthuman, something that with physical enhancement might begin to follow an agenda parallel, or even at odds, to normal/traditional humans.

This is the perennial concern of the posthuman movie, exacerbated in Transcendence by the fact that all the characters enhanced by Caster/A.I. are also networked together and to him/it.

Collective consciousness or the networked hive-mind appears as a prospect of true terror in posthuman movies across most of the west. In societies that pride the autonomy of the individual above the collective this method of becoming posthuman is often demonised. Although many movies and stories offer the mantra that “there is no ‘I’ in team” British and American science fiction continues to rally against future societies which encourage too much collective integration. There may be no ‘I’ in team, but don’t be too team oriented either for therein also lies danger (Will Robinson). Whether this is a throwback to the fears of collective societies of cold war communism, or a reflection of self-orientated neo-liberal values, the negative attitude to collective consciousness seems here to stay.

This is one of the major areas where attitudes differ between Anglo-American and Japanese popular media. In the Japanese anime that I look at for my PhD I have found that there is a more positive portrayal of networked minds. There are many complex social and philosophic reasons for this which I may go into in another post stemming from the religions of Shinto and Buddhism, and from the way Japanese society has constructed a sense of collective identity, post the Second World War.

(An interesting aside in relation to posthuman noir… Many of the Japanese posthuman characters who are framed as outsiders, both in their nature as posthumans as well as their position in society, are brought doubly back into the fold by the end of their narrative journeys, they regain human emotions and are reintegrated into Japanese society. More on this in a future post, although more on this idea of the tragic loner character separated from the rest of society is explored in chapters on Japanese film noir in International Noir.)

Ghost in the Shell poster

Ghost in the Shell poster

I wonder if these differing positions will have an effect on the live action version of Ghost in the Shell which is currently in development. This film is already courting controversy in the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, who may have proven her action heroine and sci fi abilities (see my post on Lucy) but who isn’t Japanese like Kusanagi. But in relation to the question of collective consciousness, I wonder if the live action version of Ghost in the Shell will follow the original film ending with Major Kusanagi merging consciousness with The Puppet Master villain, losing the individual personality to become part of something greater? We will have to wait and see.

On a slightly different, but related, level I found re-watching Transcendence provoked questions on the possibility of a human ever being able write a truly posthumanist film. (If anyone has suggestion on films which can really be classified as posthumanist I’d be excited to hear.) Is it ever possible to think beyond our anthropocentric concept of the universe? And do we really need or want to?

These thoughts are particularly pertinent to me right now as I have begun to work on the first feature film screenplay for my PhD. Often with my current idea I wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew as I try to think of ways to think beyond some human binaries, beyond notions of current human embodiment and what the intangible elements that make humans human might be. When I began this script I wondered if I would be able to write a posthuman noir script that might even be posthumanist, but the further my research goes the more I realise these two things might be incompatible. The agenda of posthuman noir is not to push a posthumanist revolution, but rather to re-enforce a humanist standpoint.

If I attempt for posthumanism do I fail in writing a story that explores the theme of posthuman noir? I guess I will find our when I get there, but at the moment I just need to concentrate on keeping my strange posthuman noir train on the rails.

Advertisements

 

Lucy poster

Lucy poster

Lucy, by Luc Besson, has just been released UK cinemas to a mixed response. Let me put my cards on the table right now, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Is it perfect? Of course not. Very few, if any, films are perfect. In fact I’m not sure if I can think of any ‘perfect’ piece of entertainment—although that debate is open if anyone want to put a candidate forward.

However, what Lucy does quite nicely is package the ‘high theory’ of becoming posthuman inside the easier to swallow pill of a fast paced, violent action movie.

Lucy [Scarlett Johansson] a foreign student in Taipei, inadvertently becomes a drug mule for some terrifying Korean gangstars [ lead by Min-sik Choi] when she shacks up with the wrong guy [a stupidly dressed Pilou Asbaek—Kasper Juul to Borgen fans—with a junkie’s infectious nervousness]. From there on things go from bad to worse for Lucy until the bag of drugs in her stomach is damaged when she resists a would-be rapist and the new drug enters Lucy’s system sparking her evolution to superhuman and beyond.

 

***SPOILERS follow, although I say nothing of the ending***

From the start Besson makes some interesting editing/directorial choices. Lucy, in the hotel reception waiting to hand over a briefcase to the gangsters is intercut with a cheetah stalking gazelles on the plains. Lucy and the gazelle’s situations are equally and obviously hopeless but, of course, life fights to stay living. This is one of the pervading themes of the film.

The intercutting of documentary footage, predominantly of animals and natural settings, continues throughout the movie. Initially jarring, when it accompanies the lecture given by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) on the ‘science’ of this sci-fi it begins to make more sense. Yes, this is a pretty simplistic way to deal with the ideas of how increased use of the human brain capacity could influence a human’s position in relation to the world around them, but it makes the central conceit accessible to all viewers. Although, the tone sometimes overbalances on the tightrope between understandable and patronising.

Lucy manipulates hair length and colour

Lucy manipulates hair length and colour

Knowledge is power, is another of Lucy’s themes. Unlocking the potential to use more than 10% of her brain, the eponymous protagonist learns to control herself to the point of being able to order her metabolism to spontaneously grow and change the colour of her hair to escape detection; then control the world around her seeing the signals of mobile phones [a gorgeous visual] and manipulate gravity; and finally she cracks the one constant that defines existence: time.

Lucy manipulates her metabolism

Lucy manipulates her metabolism

Despite the concepts of life beyond the flesh, transcendence and actual posthumanism—a move from anthropocentric [human at centre of everything] to an entity in tune with animals, nature, time and technology—the old fears of losing the body make an appearance. Professor Norman sets up a binary of choice for cells: immortality or reproduction. If the environment is adverse cells chose immortality, which in the case of Lucy means dissipation, a merging with the surroundings. The result is an unnerving body dissolving sequence in the confines of an airplane bathroom, already the site of terror for many flyers. The confined space contrasts with the reaction of Lucy’s body and brain which want to continue expanding. A warning that the flesh can only push at the boundaries so much before the strain results in destruction. Is the message ultimately conservative, as is often the case with science fiction?

The integration of technology into the body and dissipation into omnipresence that appear in Lucy have strong visual and thematic nods to two cult anime properties, Akira [Katshiro Otomo,1988] and Serial Experiments Lain [Yoshitoshi Abe, 1998]. In one of the final sequences of the film, Lucy’s body extends and distends into sinuous vines of black cables to form a supercomputer, which resembles an anime meets H.R. Giger design. This is both beautiful and unsettling which plays on our fear of the distortion of the human body, the fear of the other and the monstrous.

Here’s a long clip from the dub of Tetsuo’s terrifying loss of control and bodily mutation.

Yet there is a dispassionate control to Lucy’s transformation/integration of technology, as opposed to the violent, terrifying integration which overcomes Tetsuo at the climax of Akira. Is this a comment on the strength of the female, who undergoes numerous natural bodily changes and penetrations, to adapt to these evolutions in a way the male cannot? Besson certainly does favour female protagonists who take agency over their environments and kick serious ass, one of the reasons I went to see the film in the first place.

One of the major flaws of the film is the issue of emotion. Once Lucy gains control of her body’s responses she is driven by a need to pass on knowledge, to survive and follow through her evolution to its full conclusion but she loses her emotional responses.

A tearful phone conversation between Lucy and her mother marks her emotional peak. Overwhelmed by being able to feel, hear and see all around her as well as recalling all memories, even the taste of her mother’s milk, this is Lucy at her most vulnerable. She is also on a hospital bed, being operated on to remove the package of drugs. Here Lucy is shown completely without control; she has not gained a handle on the new sensations bombarding her and she is at the mercy of the surgeon’s scalpel. This forms a sharp contrast to the rest of the movie where slows Lucy gains control over everything.

This dispassionate, detached tone starts seeps into all elements of the movie which starts to remove the audience from their emotional involvement in what happens. We want to see her succeed, but we don’t feel her need to.

Parisian cop Pierre De Rio

Parisian cop Pierre De Rio

Like so many posthuman characters she becomes an automaton on a mission. This should be balanced out by the human characters around her. The instinct is there as Lucy is partnered with a French detective Pierre Del Rio [Amr Waked] in Paris to collect the other samples of the drug and evade the Korean gangsters. But Del Rio is also too hard, perhaps it is in the casting but he does not provide the more ‘feminine’ emotional counterpart to the rational traditionally masculine position that Lucy occupies. There is not enough time for them to generate a spark, one that would lend a stronger explanation to why Del Rio is prepared to form a last line of defence in a fight to the death to protect Lucy while she gains final evolution.

Despite the loss of emotion, Lucy is still worth a watch for the smart, concise way it engages with questions of human evolution, becoming posthuman and the sheer joy of the action sequences and gorgeous locations.

When I started my PhD, little did I think that I would be pawing through Stanley Kubrick’s original notebooks and other written ephemera related to the unfinished [for Kubrick] film AI: Artificial Intelligence. Let’s face it, I didn’t think anyone would let me get my grubby little student hands anywhere near anything belonging to Kubrick, not without going through some trails by decontamination first.AI Poster

Of course Kubrick is renowned for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, but it is the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence that fits loosely into my area of PhD research. It is about an unreliable protagonist, a robot boy who isn’t entirely sure he’s a robot at first, nor that he isn’t an individual, who on realising this information wants to become a real boy and sets off across sci-fi noir landscape on this quest.

[Actually it is debate-able in the final film, which was finished by Steven Spielberg that David, the robot, is the only protagonist. It feels to me that David’s “mother,” Monica, is just as much of a protagonist in the first section of the film as he is. The unsatisfying feeling I get  during resolution and quest of the movie stems from the fact that Monica’s goal, her story, is not fully explored. Although for this post that’s beside the point – what was I saying about PhDs and focus?]

The year that Kubrick bought the rights for Super Toys Last All Summer Long from Brian Aldiss was 1982, the year Blade Runner was released in the cinema. It was with Aldiss that Kubrick began work on the screen idea [thanks for the term, Ian McDonald] that would become the Spielberg film A.I.

There were multiple writers brought onto the project and, after re-watching the film, I was interested to get a little taster of different drafts that eventually evolved into the final movie. As a screenwriter myself, I find it fascinating to see the different ways a script story develops from the original idea, through the influence of directors/producers/studios and even actors, to the final product.

Naturally I was a little excited, in what I hope wasn’t too obviously a fangirl kind of way, to be entering the Kubrick Archive at the London College of Communication. The room itself even threw off a Kubrickian aura, white being the dominant colour, clean lines, glass partitions and a luminous ceiling. It was like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey and I was well on my way to a little researcher heaven when the trolley arrived with, as I’d been warned, the un-catalogued material on A.I.

2001SpaceOdyssey025

2001:A Space Odyssey

Stanley-Kubrick-Archive10-c

The Stanley Kubrick Archives

There was more material than I imagined and, excitingly for me, most of it different drafts of the scripts. Unfortunately the material was not in chronological order so a later draft from 1999 was mixed in with something from 1990.

In hindsight, the logical thing to do would have been to get all the scripts onto a table and order them before starting to read. But it was my first foray into the world of the academic researcher so I picked up the box nearest me and just about managed to work through it. This gave me a flavour of the collection.

  • Cue cards covered with Kubrick’s mostly legible scrawl, questioning key points, brainstorming scenes, locations, characters and especially character motivations.
  • Notebooks filled with slightly less legible scrawl again showing Kubrick’s mind at work on the project, locating the plot holes, the places where pace dies in various earlier drafts and trying to find ways to fix the problems.
  • Script drafts and script-ments [these feel part way between a screenplay and a treatment]. I looked at two different script-ments by Ian Watson.

The first scriptment, Foxtrot, was a long way from the final film and I feel shows a lot of influence from the cyberpunk novels of the 1980s like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. There was a voice over, noir narration from a super artificial intelligence which reminded me of Wintermute in Gibson’s book. The untrustworthy narrator of this version really caught my interest as it fits into one of patterns I am exploring in posthuman noir science fiction films and anime. The scriptment read more like a sci-fi novel than a script and with that carried an  unfilmable quality, some scenes would certainly be difficult to get into a PG or even a 12 certificate film.

ai-artificial-intelligence-20110405005941664

Rouge City in the final film of A.I – the dark cyberpunk influence remaining from Watson’s first story idea

As a story, though, Foxtrot was a compelling and complex look into the relationship between humans and their robotic creations. The obsession of a little boy to become the person his mother wants him to be, a ‘real boy,’ and the dawning of childhood’s end.  The imagery and set pieces were mind-blowingly creative, making me feel a bit tame in the way I approach screen stories.

In another link to my PhD research, this scipt-ment by Ian Watson’s first stab involved multiple references to Japanese language and culture, like the cyberpunks fictions of the 1980s and 90s. So far, so exciting – for me, anyway.

When I’d found myself connected to the interwebs later, I discovered Foxtrot was a short story Watson was commissioned to write as a sample piece before he was hired to work on A.I. You can read the full article about his experience working on A.I. on Ian Watson’s website.

The second script by Ian Watson, dated around 1993, was far closer to the film made. It has the figure of Gigolo Joe and the locations of Rouge City and the Heavy Flesh Festivals. The super-A.I. is gone, Teddy is spared his Wintermute styled AI possession, and the journey David, the robot boy, takes follows a similar pattern to the film.

There is one character, a female recluse who hates humans, who Kubrick has copious notes about but who clearly will never make it to the end. As I closed the box for the day it was she who was playing very vividly on Stanley’s Kubrick’s mind.

More to come in Visiting the Kubrick Archive – Part Two...

Details of the Kubrick Archive:

Location: University Archives and Special Collections Centre
London College of Communication
Elephant and Castle
London
SE1 6SB

Website: http://www.arts.ac.uk/study-at-ual/library-services/collections-and-archives/archives-and-special-collections-centre/stanley-kubrick-archive/

Adaptations are the bread and butter of the script writing trade at the moment. Get them right and you promote the source material (usually a book) and gain support for your own work. Get them wrong and the source material’s fan base will rip you to gooey little shreds and plaster your insides across the interwebs. The stakes are high folks.

In my very short experience as a writer I’ve already tackled two adaptations; one for screen, which never crawled out of development, and one for stage which I was received pretty well by the audience, which means I did my job right.

Yesterday, I attended my first Script Yorkshire workshop on the hot topic of adaptation, run by Lavinia Murray  who has a lot of experience in adapting various materials, especially for radio. The session got me thinking about my first adaptation and the errors I made through lack of confidence in the value of my creative voice.

I was attached to my first adaptation within a year of graduating from my MFA, I’d found an agent and she had been sending my family adventure script around as a writing sample. One producer liked what I did and we had a chat about adaptation projects they were interested in. I bought the book the next day, eager to prove I was a proactive and enthusiastic new writer. It was a children’s book set in a near and alternative future.  Elements of the story resonated with me immediately and there were certainly sections that were incredibly cinematic. I told my agent, she told the producer and I was given a chance to produce a treatment.

The error I made, because this was my first go, was to stick too closely to the book. I performed mannerist feats of story sculpting to keep all the original plot and character elements in but it just wasn’t working. The producer was exasperated [who could blame them] and I got a very stern call from my agent telling me that if I didn’t pull it out of the bag I was going to lose the job.

That’s when, super stressed, I confessed that I had different ideas about adaptation, but didn’t feel I had the authority to just rip the book up. My agent told me to throw the book away and tell the producer my own take.

I should have had the confidence to take the story my own way from the start.  I realised I could keep my integrity to the soul of the story without keeping all the elements. I had a lot more fun working on the film once I could express my own interpretation, removing elements that worked in prose but were clunky for a screen story. The ultimate failure of the project was a due to the myriad of factors that are in play when working on any large budget production. I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed, very disappointed, but my time on that adaptation taught me an awful lot about the industry.

Which is a very long set up for the Lavinia’s adaptation workshop which emphasised the script writer’s interpretation of the source material and encouraged us to think well beyond the box in what we could do.

Based around a short story by L.Frank Baum The Glass Dog   Lavinia started the day with a discussion about the parts of the story that we liked and disliked. It’s always surprising how much you can draw out of a seven page short story; the hollows and gaps in the piece allowing for each reader to bring in their experiences to the piece.

Then we were tasked with picking a genre, any genre, and then adapt the short story to fit that genre. A terrifyingly daunting idea. We were given lunch to stew in our creative panic.

To help us along Lavinia had a useful website handout and, as usual with workshops, I found out about a great online resource I hadn’t heard of before, behold the periodic table of storytelling… http://designthroughstorytelling.net/periodic/ hours of good old procrastination for all scribes.

After lunch the workshop was silent as we all scribbled away, figuring out what would need to be changed to fit the genres chosen. Then Lavinia dropped the next bomb, she wanted us to write the first scene of our genre-ized adaptation for radio.

Radio? I’ve never done radio before. How does it work? Panic!

Lavinia’s main writing experience is in radio and she gave a wonderful, short explanation of the differences and advantages of this medium. I calmed down instantly. Radio seems incredibly creative and freeing once you get your head around how much you can do with sound. I feel I might dabble in radio, when I have time, in the future.

By the end, when we began to share ideas, I was stunned by number of really different interpretations: a ghost story, a comic American gothic, a western and my own little contribution in sci-fi noir [what else would it be?].

Of course I shouldn’t have been that surprised, my research trip to the Kubrick Archive to read some of the early drafts of A.I: Artifical Intelligence,  based on the story Supertoys Last All Summer Long by Brain Aldiss, had shown me how weird and wonderful the imagination can be once allowed to experiment [more on that in another post]. Then there was Frozen [see my thoughts here] which was a very creative re-imaging of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen.

The thing is we all bring our very different, individual voices to writing which are shaped by experience and everything we’ve ever read/watched/heard and loved, or hated.