It is interesting to
revisit this classic
of English
horror. Dead Of
Night is so
influential that
its elements have
become genre
tropes, and at
times the viewer
has to remind
themselves that
they are seeing
them here for the
first time.
The film has a
gentle beginning,
an architect
Walter Craig
(Mervyn Johns)
drives up a
country lane,
halts, and seeing
a cottage shakes
his head in
apparent
bemusement. His
aesthetic sense
has not been
outraged at this
example of
English
vernacular; he
believes he has
been here before.
Welcomed in by
the homeowner
Foley (Roland
Culver), who has
commissioned
him to make
some alterations,
Craig soon
indicates that he
knows his way
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around the
property. And, on
his introduction
to the other
house guests,
reveals that he
believes himself
to have met them
all before in a
recurrent dream,
the details of
which resurface
during his stay,
and lead him to
believe some
tragedy or great
‘evil’ is destined
to engulf him.
A sceptical voice
is raised in the
person of the
psychologist Dr
van Straaten, but
the other guests
believe Craig’s
story, and in his
defence recount
incidents from
their own
experience that
supports the
credo that ‘there
are more things
in heaven and
earth than are
dreamt of in your
philosophy.’ This
then is the
framing narrative
within which a
portmanteau of
stories of
hauntings and
possession are
presented. In the
first story, a
racing driver
recovering from a
crash has an
inexplicable
vision of a hearse
outside of the
room in which he
is convalescent.
The driver of the
hearse, the
character actor
Miles Malleson,
with a jocular
wink indicates
that there is
“Room for one
inside.” On his
release from
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hospital, the
patient is about
to board a bus
when the
conductor,
Malleson again,
tells him there is
“Room for one
inside.”
Shrinking back,
the reluctant
passenger then
watches in horror
as the bus
ploughs through
the parapet of a
bridge and
crashes into the
river.
In the second
story a young
girl, Sally Ann
Howes (Chitty
Chitty Bang
Bang’s ‘Truly
Scrumptious’),
recalls a
Christmas party
in which the
young guests play
the frankly
creepy game of
Sardines. Having
been told that a
ghastly murder
once took place
in the house, and
escaping from an
over-affectionate
young beau, the
girl discovers a
tearful young boy
distraught
because his
bullying elder
sister has
threatened to kill
him. After
comforting the
child and
returning to the
party, the girl
discovers that the
child, Francis
Kent, was the
victim of a
murder that took
place some
decades before.
The child, and his
sister Constance,
were the real
players in a
notorious murder
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case; in fact
Constance Kent
had died in
Australia the year
before Dead Of
Night appeared.
In the third story
Joan (Googie
Withers) buys
her fiancé Peter a
mirror as a
present. Most
men, one would
imagine,
wouldn’t be overenamoured
of
this but the
dandyish Peter is
delighted. Peter
begins to see
another room
reflected in the
mirror, a room
from another era,
in stark contrast
to his modern
minimalist
bedroom. Joan
cannot see the
room, and Peter
cannot see Joan
in the mirror.
The room in the
haunted mirror
begins to terrify
Peter but, with
an effort of will,
and Joan’s help
and support, he
manages to
banish the vision.
While Joan is
away visiting her
mother, Peter
sees the room
again. Returning
to the shop where
she bought the
mirror, Joan is
told that it
belonged to a
man who, when
crippled and
confined to his
bedroom,
became
consumed with
jealousy at his
wife’s imagined
infidelity,
eventually
murdering her.
Returning to
Peter, Joan finds
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him transformed
and accusing of
her of being
unfaithful with
an old admirer.
Almost strangled
by Peter, Joan
only frees him
from his
obsession by
destroying the
mirror.
The next episode,
the ‘golfing
story’, features a
classic double-act
of British cinema,
Naunton Wayne
and Basil
Radford who,
firstly as
Caldicott and
Charters the
cricket-obsessed
duo from
Hitchcock’s The
Lady Vanishes,
featured in a
range of films
throughout the
1940s. Here they
are golfing
buddies who fall
out over a girl.
They decide to
settle the suit by
playing their
favourite game;
the Radford
character cheats,
and his rival
commits suicide
in a particularly
eerie scene by
walking out into
the lake water
hazard.
Subsequently,
Radford finds his
golf plagued by
the ghost of his
rival who, while
invisible to
others, threatens
to haunt him
unless he gives
up the game or
the girl. Having
decided to
sacrifice sex for
the links,
Radford is
dismayed that
Wayne cannot
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remember the
elaborate
contortions
required to
dematerialise,
and the haunting
continues right
up to the night of
the honeymoon.
Attempting to
help his erstwhile
friend and rival
Radford only
succeeds in
vanishing
himself. Left
alone with the
new bride in the
next room,
Wayne ponders
whether “To
pass, or not to
pass,” decides to
play-through and
rushes into the
nuptial chamber.
Not only is this
story a bit more
lightweight, it
features definite
supernatural
activity as
opposed to the
ambiguity of the
other stories, and
ultimately it is
revealed, in the
linking frame
narrative, to be a
bit of ribbing by
its narrator
(Culver). It is a
piece of
humorous ‘timeout’
before the
heavy business of
the most famous
sequence, the
ventriloquist’s
dummy starring
Michael
Redgrave and the
repulsive Hugo.
Dr van Straaten
tells a story
concerning his
own experience
of the uncanny.
He is brought in
to assess the
mental state of a
ventriloquist
accused of the
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attempted
murder of a
showbiz
colleague.
American
ventriloquist
Maurice Olcott
visits the night
club run by
Beulah (famous
singing star
Elisabeth Welch)
to take in the act
of Maxwell Frere.
Using his own
‘vent’ ability,
Olcott interacts
with Frere’s
dummy Hugo,
upsetting Frere
and causing the
act to stutter to a
bit of a shambolic
close. Hugo
invites Olcott to
visit backstage.
Hugo seems to be
the dominant
partner in the act
with Frere often
sidelined;
amused Olcott
addresses his
remarks to the
dummy but is
surprised when
Frere intervenes
as if he is not in
control of Hugo’s
remarks. When
Frere jams his
hand over Hugo’s
mouth to prevent
some outburst,
the dummy
appears to bite
his owner. Frere
turns down work
and Olcott
encounters him
in a bar in a state
of inebriation.
When a young
woman asks to
handle the
dummy Hugo
insults her and
her boyfriend
punches Frere
out. Olcott helps
Frere and Hugo
to their room, but
Frere seems
convinced that
Olcott has plans
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to take Hugo for
himself.
Later, Frere
bursts into
Olcott’s room
accusing him of
stealing the
dummy, when he
finds Hugo in the
room he shoots
Olcott who
miraculously
survives. In an
attempt to break
through to Frere,
van Straaten asks
for Hugo to be
placed in the
former’s cell.
Frere suffers a
trauma and
pounds the
dummy’s head
under his foot.
Frere relapses
into a catatonic
state which van
Straaten
attempts to
relieve by
confronting him
with Olcott who
has made a
partial recovery.
The plan works
but Frere has
suffered an
alarming
transformation.
All through the
telling of the tales
Walter Craig has
predicted events
in the cottage,
the arrival or
departure of
some of the
guests, Dr van
Straaten
breaking his
glasses, a powercut.
He is fearful
of the evil climax
suggested by his
recurrent
nightmare, and
now, left alone
with van
Straaten, he
succumbs,
strangling the
Doctor and then,
attempting to
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escape,
stumbling into a
maelstrom of
scenes revisiting
the tales told by
the other guests.
Finally, finding
himself in Frere’s
cell, with the
guests baying
through the bars
of the prison, he
has a fatal
confrontation
with Hugo the
ventriloquist’s
dummy. The film
ends with Walter
Craig waking
after his
nightmare, only
to receive a call
from Foley,
Culver’s
character, asking
him down to his
country cottage
to discuss a
proposed
renovation. Craig
thinks he has
heard the name
before but cannot
place it; the film
ends with him
driving up in his
car, halting and
gazing at the
cottage in
bemused
recognition. The
horror begins
again.
The
ventriloquist’s
dummy is
justifiably the
most famous
sequence in the
film and has
spawned its
imitators.
Redgrave’s
performance is
astonishing, and
it’s true, the eyes
have it. Matthew
Sweet suggests
that his
performance may
have had
something to do
with his anxiety
over his personal
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life, as he had
three children by
that point and
work was
impinging on
family life. As is
pointed out, the
dummy story has
clear homoerotic
overtones, with a
bizarre love
triangle between
Frere, Hugo, and
the potential
usurper Olcott,
so it seems more
likely that
Redgrave’s
absorption in the
role sprang from
his own
misgivings about
his bisexuality
and the double
life that
engendered.
The portmanteau
film became a
staple of British
horror with
Amicus
Productions,
some good, some
bad. My own
favourite is Dr
Terror’s House
Of Horrors
(1965), in which
DJ-turned-actor
Alan ‘Fluff’
Freeman,
terrorised by a
murderous
sentient shrub,
utters the
immortal line
“I’m no stranger
to garden tools.”
The blu-ray
restoration of
this film is
excellent and a
comparison of
footage is
provided as part
of the extras. A
75-minute
consideration of
the film’s themes,
history, and
influence is
provided by a
team of
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commentators
including the
ubiquitous Kim
Newman, actor
and writer Reece
Shearsmith, and
director John
Landis. The
circular conceit
of Dead Of Night
is revealed to
have inspired
Fred Hoyle’s
theory of a steady
state universe.
The analysts are
so thorough in
their
consideration of
the film I can
hardly dissect it
myself with any
originality; I
would rather
watch informed
and informative
talking heads like
these than have
to wade through
outtakes,
makings-of, and
blooper reels.

If you can first
wade through all
the dystopianfuture,
worldbuilding
details
of a pre-title,
info-dump intro,
Pacific Rim
fulfils its trailer’s
worth of
promises to
provide us with
the ultimate, so
far, in CGI
entertainment
about mecha
(massive robots)
battling kaiju
(giant monsters).
Delightfully
fantastical, the
story’s oversized
‘Jaeger’ war
machines are
essentially
boxing droids
with pilotjockeys,
acting in
mind-linked
pairs for shared
control of
towering suits of
armour, pitted
against invading
alien creatures
that emerge from
an interdimensional
breach (a murky
portal that
effectively serves
as a watery
equivalent of the
New York sky
wormhole
gateway in
Avengers
Assemble)
located on the
Pacific Ocean
floor.
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Artificial
telepathy called
the ‘drift’ evokes
quantum physics,
while the heroes’
science team of
half-crazy xenobiologist
Newton
(Charlie Day),
and
mathematician
Gottlieb (Burn
Gorman,
Torchwood),
figure out how to
extract intel
memories from
pieces of kaiju
brain, and
predict exactly
when attacks
from the vaguely
Lovecraftian and
otherworldly
underworld
realm will
escalate.
However, that’s
about all you get
for the weird scifi
content of this
movie, as it’s
primarily about
the formidable
leadership of
Stacker Pentecost
(Idris Elba;
thankfully, that
Tom Cruise
didn’t get his
role!) who is
responsible to
bringing war
hero Raleigh
(Charlie
Hunnam), whose
brother Yancy is
killed in the
opening
sequence, out of
retirement in
Alaska to join a
beleaguered force
no longer trusted
by their political
masters to save
the planet.
Raleigh finds his
new fighting
partner in
heroine Mako
Mori (Rinko
Kikuchi, Assault
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Girls, The
Brothers Bloom),
and so the
world’s superteam
are
assembled under
high pressure
circumstances to
combat a multimonster
strike.
Meanwhile, the
great Ron
Perlman (star of
del Toro’s
Hellboy) plays
Tokyo black
marketeer
‘Hannibal Chau’ –
a nod to Blade
Runner. He’s
important to the
development of
Newt’s project,
gathering
actionable info
via the drift linkup.
The dialogue
is often corny,
and the
sentimental
attributes of the
main characters
are blatantly
clichéd but, in
each and every
aspect of its
artistry and
sincere dramatic
intentions, this
offers astute
pacifism – not
passivity (as seen
in the story’s
coastal wallbuilding
exercises), and is
engagingly
respectful of
many subgenre
traditions.
Although we
have often seen
giant mecha in
anime (Japanese
animation), and
also in US
blockbuster
movies before,
like Michael
Bay’s
Transformers
series, Pacific
Rim is an epic
that goes much
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further than
being just a
simplistic,
fandom-friendly,
revision of
Godzilla vs.
MechaGodzilla
(1974). Director
Guillermo del
Toro shapes the
meagre plot of
monster movie
menace and
international
efforts of gungho
heroics into
an adventure
with
unprecedented
scale and
spectacular
visuals. From the
defenders’
Shatter-dome
hanger decks in
Hong Kong, the
giant-robot
launches of
Jaeger tech
embody a photoreal
kind of
tribute to
Thunderbirds,
just as the
gigantic citywrecking
beasts
dubbed kaiju pay
homage to the
life’s work of
career-animator
Ray
Harryhausen, the
late king of stopmotion
effects in
genre cinema.
The movie disc
has audio
commentary
tracks, and extras
disc’s
comprehensive
bonus package
includes: the
back-story of
Jaegers and
kaiju, featurettes
about robot
design, kaiju lore,
character
sketches, motion
capture, the drift
mind-meld,
gothic style, alien
sound effects,

cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, and Austin Stowell

director: Damien Chazelle

106 minutes (15) 2014
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Sony DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Whiplash

Albert Ayler called music “the healing force of the universe.” That it can be destructive to individual lives is also part of its mythic lure. This is a jazz film. There haven’t been too many great jazz films recently, not since maybe Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988). The TV series Fame (1982-7) follows the rise of students at the fictional ‘New York City High School For The Performing Arts’. This film, following the fall semester of jazz music students, is set in the ‘Shaffer Conservatory Of Music’ supposedly in New York, but actually filmed in Los Angeles, with some financial support from the Sundance Institute. Although set in the ballet world, Black Swan (2010) shows how Natalie Portman’s character Nina is driven to the physical and psychological limits in the quest for an impossible ideal of artistic perfection. Whiplash is all these things, sometimes more and sometimes less. And it’s a beautifully intense study of extremes.

It’s both jazz-smart, and cine-literate. When 19-year-old aspirant drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) goes to the movies with his Pennington High School writer/ teacher father (Paul Reiser) there’s Rififi on the hoarding, the 1955 French noir film directed by blacklisted émigré filmmaker Jules Dassin. When the Conservatory band takes the stage to play the Overbrook jazz competition they feature Duke Ellington’s 1936 standard Caravan (also featured in two Woody Allen films!). There’s Stan Getz on the soundtrack too. But Andrew’s particular hero is Buddy Rich, he has his inspirational monochrome Birdland photo tacked to his wall. Plus the drummer’s adage “If you don’t have ability you wind up playing in a rock band.” Rich didn’t have much time for rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz is the superior art form. It demands an intimidating level of dexterity.

When his father advises “When you get to my age you get perspective,” Andrew responds “I don’t want perspective.” Perspective is for wimps. He’s intent on taking it all the way. He fancies Nicole (Melissa Benoist) who works the cinema popcorn concession. But when he takes her out for a pizza he’s concentrating more on the jazz background music than he is on her. And when their dating threatens to detract from his rehearsals he ‘breaks it off clean’ to better concentrate on his drums. He has a path. He’s going to be great. He has bigger things to pursue.

But the real axis of the film pivots on Neiman and charismatic hard-line tutor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The teacher-conductor humiliates and bullies, using racist and homophobic jibes to provoke and antagonise, he hurls a chair at Neiman’s head, and slaps his face. “This is not your boyfriend’s dick,” he taunts, “don’t come early.” He reduces an out-of-tune horn-player to tears, calling him ‘Elmer Fudd’. Neiman practices until his hands are raw and the tympani is blood-spattered, plunging bleeding hands into an ice-bucket. Then, when Fletcher’s former protégé dies – supposedly in an auto-accident, it later emerges that no, it was due to “anxiety and depression driven to suicide,” caused by Fletcher’s extreme methods. There’s a hearing in which Neiman gives supposedly confidential evidence.

Dismissed from Shaffer for physically attacking Fletcher, he dumps his Buddy Rich poster, and neglects his drums. Should he phone Nicole? When he does it’s too late, she’s got a new boyfriend. Then by chance he sees that ‘Nowells Live Jazz Bar’ is featuring Terence Fletcher’s piano trio. He sneaks in to watch the set. Afterwards, they talk, in a seeming human reconciliation. Fletcher admits to “pushing people beyond what’s expected,” but tells an anecdote about drummer Jo Jones hurling a cymbal at a teenage Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, galvanising him to genius. “The truth is, I never had a Charlie Parker. But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And I will never apologise for how I tried.” And, as a parting shot, Fletcher offers him the drum-chair of his group at the upcoming JVC festival. But there are more twists, betrayals, and treachery to come in the climatic performance, with an extended drum solo to ignite it all.

This is a jazz film. There are solid music sequences, a three-cornered drum-duel taken ‘faster-faster-faster.’ It helps if you’re into that kind of thing. Jazz bible Downbeat didn’t like it, tearing apart its ‘unrealistic depiction,’ its historical and technical inaccuracies. I suspect they were being a mite too partisan, for Teller’s Neiman is convincing, and Simmons is impressively intense as the driven Fletcher. And even as a low-key indie project this film works as a beautifully intense study of extremes.

During a new American
depression created by
overly industrialised
farming in the mid-west,
the US heartland has
become an increasingly
poisonous dust-bowl
environment, with an
impending famine that
devastates the ability of
planet Earth to sustain
life, never mind help feed
the struggling fragile
societies forming a global
population of six billion.
Engineer turned robottractor
wrangler Cooper
(Matthew McConaughey)
eventually teams up with
NASA biologist Dr Brand
(Anne Hathaway) for an
exploratory mission to
Saturn, where a wormhole
might provide easy access
to other inhabitable
worlds.
Interstellar is, more
accurately, a science
fictional drama about
inter-galactic travel. There
is a cool realism to
depictions of hardware,
including designs for
spacecraft like the
‘Endurance’, so that
everything from the
technical gear of ship
interiors to various
weightless sequences and
orbital action scenes is
remarkably convincing,
comparing favourably to
such recent movies as
Gravity.

Yes it is the design and the technology that has led to the popularity of the trading field. Every new system like the bitcoin trader now comes with almost all of its operations easily and simply governed by technology and this is a benefit and advantage to the traders too.

In addition to the
hard-SF concepts that
inform the plot, this genre
production also
rationalises some
paranormal/ apparently
supernatural phenomena,
like ghostly poltergeist
activity, as initially
misunderstood attempts
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to communicate via
gravity waves across
space-time.
But even more compelling
is the drama that accepts
the socio-political failures
of late 20th century
education systems that
have produced generations
of workers lacking much
ambition greater than
finding regular
employment, a situation
that resulted in school’s
teaching bogus history
lessons, including such
nonsense that Apollo
missions where faked as
Cold War propaganda to
bankrupt the Soviet
Union.
Far beyond the Earth, the
spectacular landscapes of
strange alien planets
almost fulfil the cinematic
promise suggested by the
possibilities of an
imaginative combination
of location filming and
cutting-edge digital imageenhancement.
Surfing a
landing-craft on
mountainous waves, and
the hero’s climactic
docking manoeuvre with a
spinning orbiter are the
main highlights of this
movie’s traditional space
opera appeal.
The blocky slab-like robots
(named TARS and CASE)
here are the picture’s
foremost witty allusion to
Stanley Kubrick’s classic,
2001: A Space Odyssey, a
creative conceit
particularly inspired by
Arthur C. Clarke’s notion
that 2001’s mysterious
monolith is an alien-tech
version of a useful Swiss
army knife. And so the
shape-shifting droids of
Interstellar have
functional appendages
which are not unlike flickout
blades to affect a
versatile utility.
Marooned light-years from
home, Dr Mann (Matt
Damon) livens up the sci-fi
movie’s third-act
Robinson Crusoe-like
confrontation that results
from his survey mission on
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one of the prospective
habitable worlds. Cooper
and Brand end up
suffering from the
isolation and social
distancing of time-dilation
effects caused by the
colonial plans for their
expedition to visit an
extra-solar planet that’s
affected by the pull of a
black hole amusingly
nicknamed Gargantua.
Hans Zimmer’s polished
and ultimately stirring
score underlines the
movie’s sincerity and
support its epic qualities
as a multi-generational
mystery-adventure, but
Nolan’s usually astute
direction has a tendency to
slip off-course, so the
latter half is prone to
lapses into some crudely
sentimental episodes.
Refusal to accept the
obvious fact that any longterm
Earth-bound survival
of a massive population is
doomed weakens the
rationality of its SF
premise. The burden of
cartoonish quasi-religious
beliefs in love and the
necessity of the hero’s
pioneering will-power do
weigh the narrative down
a lot, but without crippling
it.
The biggest problem with
Interstellar is that its
ideas-based plot is such a
tightly wound timepiece
that it’s a clockwork
mechanism without much
room for human quirks
beyond the obvious fears,
betrayals, and familial
bonding clichés. Even the
accomplished supporting
cast of Michael Caine,
John Lithgow, and Jessica
Chastain have precious
little to do except react to
over-emotional beats and
unexpected blips of the
futuristic storyline.
Disc extras: a featurette
The Science Of Interstellar
(50 minutes), is somewhat
lazily narrated by
McConaughey, but
successfully examines
some of the basic
astrophysics (the Big
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Bang, cosmology, and
entropy, etc.) that
supports the speculative
fictions of this movie, with
vague input from scientist
Kip Thorne, although
watching Cosmos – the
original or its remake –
would probably be more
helpful to many viewers.
There’s also a batch of five
short behind-the-scenes
items.
BACK

Gravity is a
‘space movie’…
The Space Movie!
It certainly
makes Sandra
Bullock space
woman of the
year, and it
showcases the
most visually
stunning use of
virtual camera
effects for years.
It’s probably the
best work of this
sort ever created.
Gravity is a film
that harks back
to John Sturges’
Marooned
(1969), and it has
key scenes
reminiscent of
Carrie-Anne
Moss’ rescue
sequence in Red
Planet (2000),
but, most of all, it
is the best movie
about a troubled
journey home
down to planet
Earth since Ron
Howard’s
excellent
docudrama
Apollo 13 (1995).
Alfonso Cuaron’s
Gravity starts
boldly with a
single-take in
real-time of the
fictional space
shuttle Explorer
drifting into
view, while a
specialist is
working on the
Hubble
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telescope. As the
astronauts,
Sandra Bullock
and George
Clooney are
convincing – but
only ciphers if
compared to the
stronger
characterisation
of orbital space
as a perilous
working
environment
where sudden
death lurks in
each second of
every minute;
and this disaster
movie runs for an
hour and a half.
Gary Westfahl’s
book The
Spacesuit Film:
A History
(McFarland,
2012) explored
this subgenre,
from its earliest
silent movies to
post-war classic
Destination
Moon (1950),
and Kubrick’s
masterpiece
2001: A Space
Odyssey (1968),
but he closed that
study of the
book’s neglected
historical subject
with the televised
coverage with the
first Moon
landing, after
which space
cinema was never
quite the same, at
least in terms of
sci-fi wishfulfilment,
again.
Of course, there
were several
other spacesuit
movies produced
later on – most
notably The
Right Stuff
(1983) – and the
casting Ed Harris
as the ‘voice of
Mission Control’
in Gravity
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provides a
welcome link
back to that
classic movie
about space age
pioneers. But,
increasingly,
spacesuits as
expensive props
that were too
cumbersome for
actors to wear
comfortably
meant that fewer
realistic space
movies were
produced, and it
is quite
understandable
that Hollywood
blockbusters
could hardly
match the
genuinely
awesome
spectacle of real
astronauts flying
shuttles or
working aboard
space stations, so
the spacsuit
movie became
the province of
documentary
features like For
All Mankind.
And yet there
was TV movie
Starflight One
(1983), about a
suborbital rescue
mission, and
Harry Winder’s
rocket-launch as
industrialaccident,
kids
adventure
SpaceCamp
(1986),
developed as a
technological
display, typically
filmed with
NASA’s
assistance, much
like Clint
Eastwood’s later
Space Cowboys.
What Gravity
does, and does so
brilliantly that it
establishes a new
benchmark for its
subgenre, is
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reinvent the
spacesuit movie
for moviegoers
who are not keen
fans of SF, while
at the same time
appealing to any
lifelong followers
of space opera
cinema who have
sorely missed
seeing realistic
drama of this
sort, and I think
they could not
wish for anything
much better than
Gravity.
William Eubank’s
low-budget arthouse
movie,
Love (2011),
about a lonely
astronaut
stranded aboard
the International
Space Station,
tends to wallow
in its depiction of
a man’s
crumbling sanity,
and favours
abstraction above
all else, even over
subjectivity in a
viewpoint
character’s
performance. To
its detriment,
Eubank’s indie
venture feels like
a student’s shortfilm
project
extended to a
feature length of
80 minutes, so it
far outstays its
welcome, and
what it offers is
mostly long
tedious scenes
between just a
few impressive
visual effects.
Gravity is also a
character study,
not of astronauts
or scientists, but
of space itself as
the most
indifferent
antagonist in
tomorrow’s
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world. This is a
scenario of a sort
that’s familiar to
hard-SF fans of
books and
movies like The
Cold Equations.
While facing
apparently
certain death, Dr
Ryan Stone
(Sandra Bullock),
the mission
specialist on a
space shuttle
flight to maintain
the Hubble
telescope,
overcomes all
obstacles to find
her way home.
Gravity is a
magnificent piece
of action cinema
that places the
viewer firmly in
Earth orbit,
where challenges
to our perception
mean a complete
lack of any sense
of up or down in
conditions of
weightless.
The movie’s
lengthy scenes of
tethered or
detached freefall
EVA, where
momentum and
trajectory can be
enemy or ally,
and the
numerous scenes
of weightless
drifting or
relentless
tumbling switch
between the
serenity and
panic of
spacewalks in
2001 and its
sequel 2010
(1984). When she
reaches the ISS,
Bullock’s
shipwrecked
spacer does a
fetching
Barbarella
spacesuit stripoff
in zero-gee,
floating
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momentarily into
a foetal position
but, even though
she’s made it so
far, it’s not her
lucky day and
further troubles
arrive promptly.
The drama is
almost
overloaded with
many stunning
CG-images and
sublime camera
direction, as the
astronauts’
lifelines of
technological
mastery are just
hacked away, in
heart-stopping
moments, by the
space age
equivalent of an
industrial
accident. Action
is fast-moving as
hypersonic debris
fields shatter
everything in a
catastrophic
fashion. If you
want an
expansive, and
yet paradoxically
claustrophobic,
sci-fi thriller
where it all goes
horribly wrong at
once, and the
lone heroine is
totally isolated
from any hope of
rescue, here it is –
packaged with
auteurist skills
and a peerless
visual design that
is a close match
for the stillpersuasive
realism of
Kubrick’s 2001.
Similar to that
artistic
masterpiece and
the story of
Apollo 13, the
alternative future
of Gravity
(where the
shuttle
programme
continued, and a
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Chinese space
station is already
built) is
concerned with
the human spirit
caught in
adversity on a
desperate flight
homewards. It’s
not as significant
as Kubrick’s
‘ultimate trip’, or
as well acted as
Howard’s
docudrama, but
it might well be
the greatest and
purest ‘ride’
movie so far
produced.
However, beyond
the praise for this
ecstatic drama of
isolation,
survival, and
flukes of good
luck which seem
like divine
intervention,
there is almost
no philosophical
depth in this
picture. It
embraces the
easy narrative of
a Hollywood
thrill-ride with a
simple disaster
movie affect and
refuses to let go
of your attention
for a busy 90
minutes, but
that’s all it does.
In 3D, I would
assume its
vertiginous
aspects are yet
more dizzyingly
pronounced. I
would imagine
that Gravity is
likely to
overwhelm an
IMAX audience;
as the movie
creates a
compelling sense
of space as both a
workplace and a
dangerous
environment for
the fragility of
human life.
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There are a
couple of quite
forgivable lapses
of the drama into
bathetic
sentimentality
but, for most of
the engaging
movie’s running
time, it is a
gripping thriller.
As a piece of
hard-SF, this has
a somewhat
unpalatable
adherence to
religious
intimations of
the afterlife, but,
that annoying bit
of woolly
thought,
notwithstanding,
I would really
like to imagine
that Arthur C.
Clarke would
have enjoyed this
very much.
Give it four stars?
Roger that,
Houston… no
problem!

Doesn’t every
American actor
want to ‘rule’ the
supposedly free
world and
portray the US
President in a
movie or TV
show?

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To keep
this top 10
listing more
interesting than
just critical
assessment of
how accurately
Hollywood can
imitate top
historical
figures (which
actor achieved
the best
portrayal of
Abraham
Lincoln?), or
any recent
modern icon,
like JFK or
Nixon, this
article considers
only fictional
presidents. So
what makes a
great movie
POTUS? Is it the
charisma of
ultimate power;
one rousing
speech about
freedom, social
progress, and
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tolerance
(something
often absent
from the real
politics of
today); a
characterisation
of astute
intellectual and
philosophical
savvy, or
perhaps some
other
exceptional
human quality
that is much
harder to
identify or
define? And,
consider this:
why do actual
politicians
rarely match up
to their fictional
substitutes?
Henry
Fonda
Just after the
Cuban missile
crisis –
dramatised by
Roger
Donaldson’s
excellent movie
Thirteen Days
(2000) – Sidney
Lumet directed
Henry Fonda in
a nuclear chiller
titled Fail-Safe
(1964), based on
a thriller novel
that was first
published in
1962. Fonda was
the
quintessential
American actor
of his era, a
genuine
thespian for a
time dominated
by movie stars
like John
Wayne, Fonda’s
political
opposite. As the
nameless
president in
Fail-Safe, there
can be no doubt
of the sincerity
that Fonda
brings to his
iconic role as
the statesman
and
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commander-inchief
who must
overcome
conflicting
emotions in a
desperate crisis,
to drop atomic
bombs on his
own country,
appease the
accidentally
nuked Russians,
and so avoid the
global
catastrophe of
WW3. It’s a
highly
memorable
performance in
such an
extraordinarily
intense drama,
and Fonda
wrings every
ounce of
credibility from
the picture’s scifi
scenario and
its antiwar
propaganda.
Fonda also
played another
un-named US
president in
Ronald Neame’s
disaster movie
Meteor (1979).
Richard
Dreyfuss took
the same
nameless and
thankless role in
the TV remake
Fail Safe
(2000), a
tribute movie
and period
drama that
maintains the
original’s
appealing
speculativefiction
affect.
Peter
Sellers
The book, FailSafe,
was,
reportedly, partplagiarised
from
Peter George’s
1958 novel Red
Alert (aka: Two
Hours To Doom
by Peter
Bryant), and
alongside
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Lumet’s sombre
movie version –
it also formed
the basis for
Stanley
Kubrick’s black
comedy of
absurd
madness, Dr
Strangelove
(1964).
Concerned with
expressing the
Cold War’s
hilarious
insanities of the
MAD (mutually
assured
destruction)
idea, Kubrick’s
distinctive views
upon otherwise
grim antiwar
themes become
a celebration of
eccentricity and
nuclear
mayhem, as the
talented Peter
Sellers gets to
grips with three
roles, including
that of Merkin
Muffley –
uncrowned king
of comedic
presidents:
“Gentlemen,
you can’t fight in
here! This is the
War Room” – a
perfect
characterisation
of the US
president as the
world’s top
figurehead with
an empty head,
whose stuttering
and one-sided
telephone
conversation
with his Russian
counterpart still
remains very
funny – like an
unofficial Monty
Python sketch.
A notable
variation of Dr
Strangelove is
the British
movie Whoops
Apocalypse
(1988), which
featured Loretta
Swit as the
spoofy
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president.
Curiously, the
spooky Dr
Strangelove was
matched in its
wry
amusements by
the quirkily
eerie prophesy
made during In
Like Flint
(1967), a spy-fi
comedy
adventure in
which James
Coburn’s hero
remarks upon
the absurdity of
‘an actor in the
White House’, a
farce that was
realised in the
1980s when
Ronald Reagan
became the 40th
president.
Coburn was also
great in The
President’s
Analyst (1967),
and its fun to
speculate what
kind of harsh
satire a movie
based on
Reagan’s final
year in office
would be like.
As Oliver Stone
has noted, in his
epic
documentary
series The
Untold History
Of The United
States, Reagan
left the White
House behaving
– very sadly –
like “a
befuddled old
man.”
Hal
Holbrook
After presidents
played by Fonda
and Sellers each
struggled with a
global crisis that
spiralled beyond
their control,
Hal Holbrook’s
Adam Scott
finds himself
under direct
personal threat
in The
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Kidnapping
Of The
President
(1980), a
sensational
thriller set in
Canada, which
sees the US
secret service
(led by William
Shatner) failing
to protect their
primary. The
troubling
situation is all
the more
embarrassing
for security
agents and the
president
because the
American leader
is held captive
in plain sight,
locked in an
armoured van
that is wired to
explosives. An
audacious
terrorist act is
complicated
further by US
tactical efforts
by Shatner’s
men that
compromise the
rescue attempts.
Holbrook’s
performance is
excellent
throughout the
movie.
Donald
Pleasence
From a
president who’s
captured by
daring enemies
to one that’s just
lost… POTUS in
John
Carpenter’s scifi
thriller
Escape From
New York
(1981) is
portrayed by
Donald
Pleasence, an
ultimately
cynical politico
who presides
over a fractured
country almost
ruined by
escalating
crime. While
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attempting a
rescue, the lone
hero (Kurt
Russell) is faced
with the
president’s true
nature: a man
who shoots and
mocks his black
enemy, the selfstyled
‘Duke of
New York’
(Isaac Hayes).
This slick
adventure
movie presents
a pessimistic
future that’s on
the verge of a
complete global
dystopia, and
Pleasence’s
desperate
president seems
unable to resist
an impending
American
catastrophe. In
a world where
one man could
really make a
difference, this
actioner shows
that it’s not ‘the
most powerful
man in the
world’ who can –
or will – do the
right thing.
In the
comicbook style
sequel, Escape
From L.A.
(1996), Cliff
Robertson plays
the president
who’s cursed
with a very
rebellious
daughter named
Utopia.
Michael
Douglas
Ronny Cox has
played different
presidents in
three movies;
sci-fi comedy
Martians Go
Home (1989),
comicbook style
adventure
Captain
America (1990),
and crime
drama Murder
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At 1600 (1997)
about a
homicide at the
White House.
Each of these
roles was just
background or
supporting
character, but
popular
Hollywood
superstar
Michael Douglas
managed a
screen first by
playing his lead
role of Andrew
Shepherd as
very much the
central
character in
witty rom-com
drama The
American
President
(1995).
Shepherd is a
widower who
falls in love with
a lobbyist
(Annette
Bening). This is
an entertaining
movie about the
problems of a
charming man
who is viewed as
the most
powerful person
in the world but
the daily
responsibilities
his job, always
in the public
eye, causes a
peculiar and
very often
amusing set of
difficulties for
him when it
comes to
wanting a
change in his
private life.
Bill
Pullman
Although
Independence
Day (1996) is
basically just an
unofficial War
Of The Worlds
remake, it’s a
lively sci-fi
blockbuster with
a leading
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performance by
Bill Pullman
who centres his
role as President
Tom Whitmore
on his defiant
4th of July
speech, happily
misquoting and
paraphrasing
Dylan Thomas:
“We will not go
quietly into the
night! We will
not vanish
without a fight!”
This speech is
more than just a
glorified pep
talk for the
American
counter-strike
forces preparing
to launch from
Area 51. It’s not
simply a
statement of
vengeful intent,
echoing Gulf
War veteran
Whitmore’s
earlier
comment: “Let’s
nuke the
bastards.” And,
even in
summary, the
dramatic
monologue is
far better than
just a call to
arms for
mankind as the
whole planet
under attack by
aliens. Most
importantly, the
President
asserts: “We
can’t be
consumed by
our petty
differences
anymore. We
will be united in
our common
interests.” It’s a
humanitarian
message that is
more relevant in
today’s world
(and never mind
tomorrow’s hell)
than ever.
Harrison
Ford
As President
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Jim Marshall in
Air Force One
(1997), Harrison
Ford scores a
big screen first
by playing
POTUS as a
typical action
hero, one
fighting Russian
terrorists (led by
Gary Oldman in
ultra-scary
mode) that hijack
the
presidential jet.
This is a
standard plot
for a crowdpleasing
thriller,
but the likeable
Ford is a
compelling
performer as a
‘President
Hollywood’
character. A
Vietnam
veteran, Jim
kills only
reluctantly, but
he can do so
with his bare
hands, yet he
talks like a
pacifist hardliner
who
inspires great
loyalty from his
supporters, such
as Vice
President
Kathryn Bennett
(Glenn Close).
Ford plays an
all-American
superhero who
manages to
facilitate the
escape of many
hostages from
the customised
Boeing 747
aircraft,
although the
finale’s rescue of
the First Family
is achieved by a
military team
using another
plane. A pilot
himself, Ford is
also convincing
in his combat
flying scenes for
the movie’s
climax.
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Morgan
Freeman
Although he’s by
no means the
first to portray a
black president
(that was James
Earl Jones in
The Man, 1972),
Morgan
Freeman’s Tom
Beck, in sci-fi
disaster movie
Deep Impact
(1998), is a
source of
wisdom, and
winningly
sympathetic as
the world leader
facing the
possible
destruction of
planet Earth
from a collision
with a comet.
Released
alongside
Michael Bay’s
action-packed
Armageddon,
Mimi Leder’s
sombre SF
drama is rather
more intriguing
than its
swaggeringly
populist rival.
This is partly
due to the TV
journalist (a
character
sympathetically
played by Téa
Leoni), who
uncovers official
secrets about
the comet, but
it’s Freeman’s
President Beck
who holds the
main cast of this
doomsday
scenario
together. His
distinctive voice
and quiet
mannerisms can
and have been
wholly misused
in other movies,
but Freeman’s
performance
here is superb
and perfectly in
keeping with the
realistic
treatment of
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such a
sensational scifi
plot.
Dennis
Haysbert
I have not seen
TV drama series
The West Wing
(1999-2006),
which starred
Martin Sheen as
President ‘Jed’
Bartlet, but with
over 150
episodes
spanning seven
years, it must
have seemed
like its carefully
crafted insiders’
story of the
White House
would never
end. Of course,
long-running TV
shows have the
benefit of
drawing viewers
in with
extremely
detailed
character
studies, created
by talented
actors, but
Sheen was
already a
Hollywood star
when he was
cast in The West
Wing, so that
show was in a
safe pair of
hands right
from the start.
Far more
impressive, I
think, is when a
comparatively
unknown actor
manages to
make his mark
on a TV series
with such a
strong
character-arc,
and
commitment to
an engaging
performance,
that he
apparently
influences realworld
politics.
It’s impossible
to say whether
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Dennis
Haysbert’s
likeable
portrayal of
David Palmer in
TV show 24
(2001-7)
actually did
increase Barack
Obama’s
election chances
before he
entered the
White House in
2009 but, as
mechanisms of
social change
were obviously
ticking away in
the media
background, we
saw Palmer rise
from senator to
president – for
season two of 24
(and he stayed
in office for a
two-year term),
so many
Americans
might have
thought about
the possibility of
life imitating
Hollywood.
I must admit
that I was
somewhat
dubious about
the intentions of
writers and
producers on
24. Having a
black president
on the show just
seemed like a
gimmick, at
first. But
Haysbert had
already
established
Palmer as a
powerful
character, in the
first season, so
his election win
was a natural
progression for
the ongoing
storyline, and he
returned as a
welcome guest
in several
episodes of later
seasons, often
helping our TV
action hero Jack
Bauer (Kiefer
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Sutherland)
with political
contacts, or
other problems.
Geena
Davis
Last, but
certainly not
least, awardwinner
Geena
Davis plays
Mackenzie ‘Mac’
Allen, in
Commander
In Chief
(2005-6). While
feminist movie
The Contender
(2000) was a
drama about a
senator
(superbly
portrayed by
Joan Allen)
running for vice
president (with
a laidback but
likeable Jeff
Bridges as the
President), this
excellent TV
series is the very
first serious
attempt to
depict a female
president, and
Davis is an
example of
perfect
Hollywood
casting for such
a
groundbreaking
role. Created by
Rod Lurie, who
wrote and
directed The
Contender, this
is a greatly
underestimated
showcase.
Named by a
dying President
as his successor,
Vice President
Allen gets a
crash course in
realpolitik and
vote/ veto
wrangling when
her quick
unelected
ascension to the
White House is
hampered by
the Speaker of
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the House
(Donald
Sutherland),
who is an
ambitious
backstabber and
quite intolerant
of President’s
Allen’s
independence.
Her leadership
faces moments
of humility but
she also shows
outstanding
courage as many
sexist enemies
and
untrustworthy
staffers
surround her,
testing Allen’s
defiant strength
for any
weaknesses to
exploit. There is
wry humour
found in a
unique set of
social etiquette
and media PR
problems faced
by Allen’s
husband (well
played by Kyle
Secor), as the
first ‘First
Gentleman’.
Cramming a lot
of crisis
management
and
entertainment
values into a
mere 19
episodes (before
it was unfairly
and abruptly
cancelled)
Commander In
Chief is a rare
phenomenon in
US television,
an earnest
character study
of a powerful
woman.

cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, and Kodi Smit-McPhee

director: Ari Folman

123 minutes (15) 2013
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Studio Canal DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Congress

Ari Folman’s debut feature Waltz With Bashir was a glorious mess. Ostensibly an animated documentary about Folman’s experiences as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War, the film rapidly comes to focus upon Folman’s attempts to come to terms with the fact that his only memory of the war is of an event that could never have taken place. A flawed psychological detective story that starts to flinch and deflect the closer it gets to the possibility that Folman might have repressed memories relating to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Waltz With Bashir uses a variety of more-or-less realistic animation techniques to muddy the boundaries between truth and memory, resulting in an almost perfect recreation of the ambiguous shadows that most of us call memory. Folman’s second film The Congress finds him revisiting blurred realities with the help of animation but, while this very loose adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel is certainly ambitious and technically impressive, it replaces the messy humanity of Waltz With Bashir with a meta-fictional cleverness that is just a little bit too intense for its own good.

The Congress is one of the most densely-made films that you are ever likely to encounter; every detail of the plot, characters, cinematography and art direction serves a deeper purpose and these currents of purpose draw you away from the story and towards the film’s sustained critique of Hollywood filmmaking. The film’s mechanical efficiency is evident from the very first scene, a beautifully rendered family portrait in which Robin Wright plays a fictionalised version of herself who is a devoted mother to both a spunky teenaged girl named Sarah (Sami Gayle), and an endearingly tragic and glider-obsessed little boy named Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

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Aside from charging the film’s emotional batteries by establishing Robin as a devoted mother facing the possibility of watching her own son go blind and deaf, this opening scene is also packed with a dense thicket of cinematic references designed to position The Congress in the same mind-bending territory as Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York.

Usually, whenever critics start writing about films in purely mechanical terms (’emotional batteries’) it means that those mechanical systems failed to work. Films we like are deeply moving whereas films we don’t like are cynical and manipulative. The Congress serves as an interesting counter-example to this rule as while the film is undoubtedly cynical and manipulative, it is self-aware about these characteristics and uses them as part of Folman’s critique of contemporary Hollywood.

The plot kicks off when Robin asks her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) to approach the studios in search of a proper paycheque. Al dutifully returns with a generous offer but the offer involves Robin giving up acting for at least 20 years. The problem is that it has been decades since Robin turned heads in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, and her track-record of walking off sets, refusing to do PR and turning down offers at the last minute means that the studios are reluctant to work with her again. However, while the studios do not want to work with Robin, they recognise both her reputation and her skill as an actress. In an effort to square the circle, the studios offer Robin a contract that will allow them to create a digital version of Robin Wright who will appear in every film, TV series, advert, and PR stunt the studios desire. Part of the scanning process involves Robin Wright standing in a high-tech motion capture suite laughing and weeping as Al describes how he first became an agent at the age of ten and how much sadness he felt every time Robin’s fears got in the way of her becoming a star. As powerful and affecting as this image may be, it also serves to draw us away from the plot and towards the suggestion that Hollywood is a cynical institution that mirrors human emotion only to then exploit it for commercial ends. As Al shouts at Robin when she proves reluctant to sign the deal: You have always been their puppet!

The second act opens 20 years later as an elegant older Robin drives across the desert on her way to re-negotiating her contract at a studio-owned hotel. Arriving at a checkpoint in the middle of the desert, Robin is informed that the hotel is situated in an Animated Zone and that she will need to imbibe some chemicals in order to visit it. The Animated Zone is another piece of thematic signalling as it references Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but while Zemeckis’ Toontown was a place in the real world inhabited by animated characters, and threatened by a heartless corporation trying to impose economic reality upon a magical kingdom, Folman’s Animated Zone is a chemically-induced virtual reality built and operated by the corporations with the intention of having it replace reality.

The Congress takes its name from a darkly humorous science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem entitled The Futurological Congress. The Congress does away with Lem’s blend of caustic satire and slapstick silliness as well as his concerns about over-population and cultural balkanisation, whilst maintaining the bones of a narrative about chemically-induced utopias and someone being projected into the future by an overdose of hallucinogens. Lem’s novel is driven by the fear that governments will begin using chemicals to keep their populations under control and that this use of sedatives and mood-altering chemicals will eventually give way to the development of a chemically-induced consensual reality that would sit atop the real world allowing people to starve, freeze, and work themselves to death without ever becoming aware of the treacherous situation in which they find themselves:

“The year is 2098… with 69 billion inhabitants legally registered and approximately another 26 billion in hiding. The average annual temperature has fallen four degrees. In 15 or 20 years there will be glaciers here. We have no way of averting or halting their advance – we can only keep them secret.” “I always thought there would be ice in hell,” I said.

As might be expected of an author writing in a communist country, Lem echoes the leftist concern that escapism is an impediment to social reform as people who spend their time escaping the real world are less likely to want to change it for the better. This distrust of escapist forms combines with Folman’s cynicism about film to provide The Congress with a slightly lopsided intellectual spine.

Having arrived at the conference, Robin learns that she is one of only two Hollywood actors whose brand has survived the transition to all-digital entertainment. Still famous thanks to her digital facsimile starring in a ubiquitously popular science fiction franchise, Robin is expected to sign a new contract and deliver a speech launching the studio’s plan to extend the Animated Zone across the entire planet. Horrified by what she has seen and learned, Robin refuses to sign a new contract and delivers a stinging speech about the inhumanity of Hollywood’s corporate masters, thereby triggering a terrorist assault by those who would oppose the corporate replacement of reality. As the corporate police wade in, they fire chemical weapons into the crowd in an effort to force them back into compliance. Caught in the crossfire, Robin overdoses on hallucinogens to the point where her doctors decide to put her in suspended animation for 20 years in the hope that future doctors will be able to cure her. Just as evocative as the opening act, the second act harvests the dense thicket of references and draws them up into a critique not only of corporate Hollywood’s hegemonic tendencies but also of actors who participate in the blockbuster process by signing away their image rights allowing corporations to give their exploitative business practices an attractive human face.

Perhaps realising that his film has become rather densely intellectual, Folman spends the third act trying to humanise his narrative by drawing on the emotional batteries that were charged so efficiently in The Congress’ opening scenes. Projected even further into the future, Robin finds herself adrift in an animated world that knows no limits. Sculpted by desire and expediency, the city of New York has been redeveloped as a sun-kissed playground full of hanging gardens and effortlessly sensual cartoon citizens. Desperate to reconnect with her family, Robin asks for the help of Dylan (Jon Hamm), the animator who ran the Robin Wright brand during the 20 years she turned her back on Hollywood.

Dylan is sceptical about Robin being able to find her children and so takes her on a beautifully-animated tour of the world intended to seduce her and make her stay in the Animated Zone beside him but while Folman draws on romantic flight montages like those of Superman and Aladdin, he also replicates the inhumanity at the heart of these cinematic moments: just because an airfield explodes behind someone while they are having sex, it doesn’t mean that their love is real. Unconvinced by the introduction of a cynically contrived romantic subplot, Robin begs Dylan for a drug that will help her return to the real world in the hope that such a return will help her find her children.

The Congress is a difficult film to evaluate as it is a cynical and manipulative film designed to draw our attention to the fact that Hollywood films are incredibly cynical and manipulative. The sheer density of the text draws us up and away from the drama and encourages us to engage with the film on a purely intellectual level as Robin is never more than ballast in a film that feels more like an animated meta-textual essay than a conventional cinematic narrative. Readers of science fiction who have encountered the work of Adam Roberts will be familiar with this effect as both Roberts and Folman produce beautifully constructed and achingly clever works filled with neat little ideas and interesting things to say that really make you think but rarely make you feel.

As someone who likes clever texts and adores the work of Adam Roberts in particular, I feel that it is necessary to point out that intellectual shock-and-awe carries as much of a visceral punch as emotional shock-and-awe, but the element that does let The Congress down is the quality of its ideas. Strip away the brilliant animation, clever cinematic references and neatly introverted structure and you are left with a film whose critique of escapism is no more sophisticated than that of a 45-year-old comic science fiction novel. Folman certainly deserves credit for turning his guns on film executives and actors rather than nondescript corporations but, for all the artful cleverness of the way that Folman expresses his ideas, there is a very real sense in which we have heard them all before.

Tolkien famously said that the only people who object to escape are jailers and the traditional response to critiques of escapism is that whether or not escapism makes the world a worse place is a less important question than whether or not escapism makes people happier about their lot in life. The Congress ends amongst scenes of people queuing for soup in bombed-out factories while their chemical avatars sup fine wines in elaborate ballrooms. Defenders of escapism will point out that while these people are living in terrible conditions, they are experiencing bliss and luxury.

Surely conditions are only terrible in so far as they have an impact upon the quality of people’s lives? Lem was aware of this argument and The Futurological Congress tries to ground its anti-escapism position by invoking an ice age that will destroy humanity if humanity does not return its attention to the real world. Folman does a fantastic job of showing how corporations encourage escapism and how escapism disconnects us from the real world but he struggles to make a case for why this separation should even matter.

Instead of an ice age, Folman relies upon Robin’s connection to her kids to ground the argument and provide the film with moral substance by suggesting that real family ties could be a reason why you would choose not to plug yourself into a virtual reality that made you blissfully happy. Folman wrestles with this idea by having Robin act upon a mother’s love for her child rather than a woman’s love for a man she met in cyberspace but, rather than unpacking this choice and explaining why the real world is inherently better than a virtual reality, he concludes the film by expressing a cloud of ambiguous imagery that answers precisely nothing.

There is a very clear sense in which I am being unfair to The Congress as I am writing about a dramatic film rather than a philosophical essay but Folman’s decision to critique dramatic artifice whilst engaging in dramatic artifice means that The Congress draws your attention away from the drama and towards the film’s flawed philosophical argument. The Congress is a brilliant piece of animation and a clever piece of cinematic film criticism but in order to convince it needed to be either more humane or more intellectually rigorous. Trapped somewhere between drama and non-fiction, The Congress frustrates as it engages.

It would appear that
we have reached a
point in our cultural
development where
popular culture is
incapable of
addressing any
issue other than
that of parental
authority.
Last summer’s Star
Trek Into Darkness
continued the
series’ rolling reboot
by steering the
venerable franchise
away from stories
about competent
people making
difficult grown-up
decisions and
towards stories
about overgrown
teenagers trying to
cope with layer after
layer of impacted
daddy issues. This
theme was also
evident in Zack
Snyder’s lamentable
Man Of Steel, which
burdened the DC
Comics powerhouse
with not just two
separate fathers but
a third quasiadoptive
father
figure whose
presence in the film
allowed Superman
to work through his
tedious man-pain
by devastating a city
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28
2013 2014 2015
13 captures
👤 ⍰❎
f 🐦
28 Mar 2014 – 18 Mar 2017 ▾ About this capture
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and killing tens of
thousands of
people. When did
we become so
terrified of our
parents? Why do we
require so many
$100 million
cinematic therapy
sessions? Whatever
the answers to these
questions may be,
chances are that
they also explain the
ever-increasing
popularity of ‘young
adult’ literature.
Despite drawing on
images from a wide
array of literary
genres and
historical periods,
successful YA fiction
seldom refrains
from addressing
issues of parental
authority. For
example, J.K.
Rowling’s Harry
Potter books have
an endearingly oldfashioned
tendency
to depict grown-ups
as people deeply
invested in passing
their skills and
values on to the
next generation.
Yes, some of these
adult characters
may be good and
others evil, but both
Voldemort and
Dumbledore spend
the bulk of their
time recruiting kids
and helping them to
become as
competent as they
can possibly be.
While the Harry
Potter books and
films are primarily
about the
relationship
between children
and parental
authority figures,
they also contain
characters that lack
the authority of
parents but possess
more skill and
knowledge than the
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protagonists by
virtue of having
spent more time on
the margins of the
grown-up world.
These ‘adolescent’
older sibling
characters dominate
the landscape of
Stephenie Meyer’s
Twilight novels, and
Bella’s desire to
become a vampire
can be read as a
yearning to progress
past childhood and
assume an
adolescent identity
in much the same
way as Harry
Potter’s ability to
wield magic allows
him to participate in
the grown-up world.
Taking its cues from
Romeo And Juliet
by means of
Westside Story, the
Twilight series
deals with
squabbling gangs of
teenaged vampires
and werewolves
until the grown-ups
eventually turn up
in the form of the
Volturi, a group of
powerful Italia
vampires who
enforce the rules of
supernatural society
in a decidedly
parental fashion.
Aside from their age
and power, the
Volturi also
represent adulthood
with their fondness
for another of YA’s
recurring motifs:
young people being
frozen out of grownup
conversation.
The anxiety that
young people
experience at the
fact that their future
is being decided by
grown-ups having
conversations out of
earshot is absolutely
central to the allure
of Holly Black’s
Curse Workers
series.
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Concerned with the
adventures of the
youngest member of
a crime family made
up of people with
magical powers,
Black’s series
features a
protagonist who has
his memory and
personality
reshaped by his
family to suit their
own ends. Much like
the Potter and
Twilight series, the
Curse Workers
books follow the
protagonist as he
progresses from a
state of childish
impotence to one of
adolescent
competence before
eventually coming
into direct conflict
with the wielders of
parental authority.
In fact, The
Hunger Games:
Catching Fire is
all about the
moment in which its
teenaged
protagonist is
dragged out of
childhood and into
grown-up
conversation.
Based on a series of
eye-wateringly
successful novels by
Suzanne Collins,
The Hunger Games
films take place in a
post-apocalyptic
North America
where the
leadership of a
corrupt and
decadent Capitol
city supports itself
by systematically
brutalising the
inhabitants of 12
outlying districts.
One of the forms
this brutalisation
takes is that, every
year, two children
are taken from each
district and forced
to fight to the death
for the amusement,
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distraction, and
intimidation of
everyone else. Gary
Ross’ The Hunger
Games (2012)
follows a resident of
District 12 named
Katniss Everdeen
(Jennifer Lawrence)
after she volunteers
to take her younger
sister’s place in the
Hunger Games.
Though often
compared to the
film and manga
Battle Royale
(2000), The Hunger
Games has a
structure far closer
to that of a
traditional school
story in so far as it
features a childish
protagonist who is
forced to learn the
rules of a new
environment in
order to compete
with a bunch of kids
that are richer,
tougher, cooler, and
a lot more popular
than she is. An
outsider to the
games and a
reluctant
participant in
anything that does
not involve
frowning and
looking after her
younger sister,
Katniss initially
reacts to her new
environment by
refusing to play
along until a group
of ‘adolescent’
handlers manage to
convince her that
the only way to
survive the Hunger
Games is by
following the rules
and doing exactly
what the
government expects
of her. By showing
us the tangible
rewards of
compliance, the film
does an excellent
job of following
Katniss’ journey
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from a state of
childish ignorance
to a state of
emerging
adolescence where
the protagonist
understands the
rules of her world
despite lacking the
grown-up ability to
influence them
herself. However,
while the succession
of pretty frocks,
scrummy meals,
and glowing report
cards, may bring a
smile to Katniss’
grumpy face, they
never entirely
consume her
doubts.
The most
interesting things
about the original
Hunger Games
novel are that it is
written entirely
from the perspective
of a neurotic and
under-socialised
teenage girl.
Katniss’ narration
captures the joys of
trying on pretty
frocks as effectively
as it does the waves
of self-loathing and
paranoia that
accompany the
realisation that
someone in your
class appears to
fancy you. The
classmate in
question is Katniss’
fellow District 12
tribute Peeta
Mellark (Josh
Hutcherson), who is
either head-overheels
in love with
Katniss, or
pretending to be in
love in order to get
the audience on
their side and drum
up the kind of
sponsorship money
that will allow them
to receive care
packages once
inside the arena.
Katniss’
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increasingly evident
scepticism
regarding Peeta’s
plan to market them
as a pair of starcrossed
lovers not
only foreshadows a
wider set of doubts
about the
government’s use of
the games in
quelling rebellion, it
also hints at
Katniss’ refusal to
allow her fate to be
decided by grownups
having
conversations about
her in another
room. Rooted in her
home world and
capable of seeing
past the fictions of
her new one,
Katniss takes charge
of Peeta’s narrative
and uses it to
manipulate the
audience into
demanding a
change to the
Hunger Games
rules. This change
saves Peeta’s life but
it also identifies
Katniss as someone
with the potential to
function on a
grown-up level and
thereby pose a
threat to the
existing parental
authorities.
The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire begins with
Katniss and Peeta
travelling from
district to district
delivering
government
speeches and
helping to quell
dissent. While Peeta
takes both his job as
victorious tribute
and role as starcrossed
lover
incredibly seriously,
Katniss’ boredom
and detachment are
such that people are
beginning to notice.
Fearful that doubts
about the narratives
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of previous Hunger
Games might
develop into doubts
about the Hunger
Games in general,
the president of
Panem (Donald
Sutherland) visits
Katniss and speaks
to her as an adult:
play your role and
do as you’re told or
we’ll murder your
entire district.
However, try as she
might, Katniss
simply cannot
refrain from being
herself and
undermining the
role dictated to her
by the grown-ups.
This opening act
really suffers for the
decision to shoot
The Hunger Games
in a traditional
Hollywood style
with no voiceovers.
Much of the drama
in this first act
comes from the fact
that Katniss is
under enormous
pressure to perform
the role that grownups
have assigned
her, despite the fact
that she is still
coming to terms
with who she is and
what she wants to
be. Had the
filmmakers followed
the book’s example
and allowed us
access to Katniss’
thoughts, this
section would
undoubtedly have
added real depth to
the characters, but
all we get is a flood
of ill-conceived
melodrama that
drowns the strength
and quiet dignity
that Jennifer
Lawrence displayed
in both the first
Hunger Games
film, and the
marvellous Winter’s
Bone (2010) that
launched her career.
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The real problem
here is that the
process of
adaptation has
casually discarded a
vital element of the
book and
completely failed to
replace it. A more
perceptive director
would have realised
that this sequence is
not about tragedy
and melodrama, but
about the conflict
between the need
for Katniss to keep
up appearances and
the need for Katniss
to be herself. A
bolder director
would have taken
inspiration from
films like Patrice
Leconte’s Ridicule
(1996), and novels
like Wilkie Collins’
The Woman In
White (1859), and
turned this entire
section into a nailbiting
social thriller:
will Katniss resist
the urge to be
herself for the sake
of her family?
Unfortunately, as
Francis Lawrence’s
previous films I Am
Legend (2007), and
Water For
Elephants (2010)
suggest, he is a
director who is
neither bold nor
particularly astute.
As in the source
material, the film’s
middle act is almost
identical to that of
the first: Forced to
compete in a second
Hunger Games that
pits her against a
load of fellow
survi
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overly familiar, and
utterly incapable of
making us care
about a fresh cast of
largely disposable
characters, the
second act is only
kept alive by the
suggestion that the
rule of Sutherland’s
President Snow
might be coming to
an end. A
magnificent actor in
his day, Sutherland
brings little subtlety
to the part of Snow
but, in truth, all that
is required of him is
to sport a beard,
make threats, and
have conversations
about younger
people in
comfortable-looking
offices and drawing
rooms. Much like
Dumbledore, he is
nothing but a
symbolic
representation of
grown-up power
and parental
authority.
The author and
critic Adam Roberts
has published a
fascinating essay
about YA fantasy’s
obsession with the
trappings of
Victorian society on
his blog Sibilant
Fricative. While The
Hunger Games is
not particularly
Victorian, it does
draw on historical
and generic imagery
in a very similar way
to those types of
work. According to
Roberts:
What these YA
fantasies all
share is a
fascination with
history not as
history, but as a
way of
conceptualising
the parental
generation.
Tolkien-Lewis’ far
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distant medieval
pageant has no
relevance here: it
is too far back.
‘Victorian times’
might seem a
little remote too –
but the key, I
think, is that
these fantasies
operate by the
symbolic rather
than
chronological
logic. The
VictorianEdwardian
period
is a style (of
dress, of
machinery); a
code (repressive
and authoritarian,
if elegantly so),
and embodiment
of ‘past-ness’
itself. The key
conceptual
perspective here
is Jameson’s
Postmodernism
(1990), and his
argument that
one of the
features of postmodernity
is the
replacement of
history as lived
experience with
history as a
pastiche of empty
visual styles (of
dress, of
architecture and
so on) that are
then shuffled
about by culture.
Collins’ use of firstperson
narration in
The Hunger Games
books forces the
reader to be aware
of the fact that what
they are reading are
descriptions of
people, places, and
events that have
been filtered
through the mind of
a scared and
overwhelmed
teenage girl. The
strength of Katniss’
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voice is a constant
reminder of her
status as an
unreliable narrator,
and her imperfect
understanding of
people and events
lends the books a
psychological
element so
pronounced that it
frequently blurs the
line between
psychological
realism and outright
metaphorical
fantasy.
The highly emotive
nature of Katniss’
narration
encourages the
reader to take
everything she says
with a pinch of salt.
Collins makes
frequent use of this
effect as a form of
misdirection that
encourages us to
view characters in a
certain light only for
their true nature to
be dramatically
revealed at some
later date. In fact,
Collins’ use of
misdirection and
flawed narration is
so systematic that it
is easy to fall into
the habit of
accounting for the
flaws in Collins’
world-building by
pointing out that all
we ever have to go
on is Katniss’
impressions of the
world.
Thus, the fact that
the Hunger Games
and their role in
Panem’s political
system makes not a
jot of sense is not
seen as a sign of
Collins’
incompetence but as
a sign of Katniss’
incomplete
understanding of
the world around
her. Once we accept
the possibility that
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what we are seeing
is not Panem itself,
but an emotional
landscape inspired
by Katniss’ reaction
to Panem, then it is
possible to read
almost every aspect
of the book as a
metaphorical
representation of
how Katniss feels
about her world.
This not only
accounts for the
inconsistencies in
Collins’ worldbuilding
but also the
fact that the world
of the Hunger
Games feels like a
postmodern collage
comprising images
lifted directly from
an assortment of
books and real
world historical
events. Thus, the
world of The
Hunger Games feels
a little bit 1984, a
little bit reality-TV,
a little bit Nazi
Germany, and a
little bit American
dustbowl as those
images evoke a set
of emotional
responses that are
intended to help
convey not what
Katniss literally sees
but rather how she
feels about her
world.
This is why
President Snow is
little more than a
vaguely threatening
beard: Collins is
drawing on a
particular set of
cultural images to
create an image of
patriarchal
authority that will
be comprehensible
to her intended
audience. Though
not a particularly
common approach
to writing, this
transition from
psychological
realism to
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metaphorical
fantasy is fairly
common in
psychological
thrillers as well as
T.H. White’s
children’s novel The
Sword And The
Stone (1938), where
Arthurian knights
sit around drinking
port and discussing
Eton because even
though neither of
those things actually
exist in the world of
the novel, the words
‘port’ and ‘Eton’
serve as
placeholders for a
drink, and a
training
establishment, with
a comparable set of
emotional and
cultural resonances.
The problem with
this psychological
reading of the
novels is that it
simply does not
apply to the films.
Nothing in either
The Hunger Games
or The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire suggests that
we are seeing
anything other than
the complete
unvarnished truth
about what it is that
happened to
Katniss. This means
that rather than
being a film about
the experience of
moving from
childhood to
adolescence in a
world dominated by
malign and
absolutist parental
authority, The
Hunger Games
films are about a
young woman
coming of age in a
poorly imagined
world filled with
thin and derivative
imagery wrenched
from dozens of
better books and
films. Indeed, one of
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the most striking
things about The
Hunger Games
films is the
decidedly uneven
quality of their art
direction and
cinematography.
Gary Ross’ The
Hunger Games
benefits from a
relatively
uncomplicated
aesthetic line: the
film begins in a drab
and povertystricken
coalmining
town only to
progress to the
Capitol and finally
to the Hunger
Games arena itself.
To his credit, Ross
made the most of
that simple
aesthetic line by
having the film
become louder and
more colourful as it
progressed.
Undoubtedly the
standout section of
the first Hunger
Games film is the
section where a
drab and mousy
Katniss meets the
absurdly dressed
and hyper-primped
people working on
the Hunger Games,
including Elizabeth
Banks’ human
poodle Effie
Trinket, and Stanley
Tucci’s human grin
Caesar Flickerman.
While this sequel
takes its cues from
the first film, the
narrative’s tendency
to move Peeta and
Katniss back and
forth between
luxurious
apartments and
impoverished
districts fails to set
up the same set of
resonances, and
Francis Lawrence
would rather rush
his audience
through the talky-
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bits than use the
first film’s visual
language to stress
the moral
differences between
life in the Capitol
and life in the
districts. The same
lack of attention to
detail is evident in
the way that
Lawrence wastes no
time introducing the
rival tributes or
Philip Seymour
Hoffman’s Plutarch
Heavensbee.
Much like Woody
Harrelson’s trainer
Haymitch
Abernathy, and
Lenny Kravitz’s
designer Cinna,
Heavensbee is one
of those adolescent
characters who
understands the
nature of the world
he inhabits despite
having little ability
to change it. Having
raised the
possibility that
President Snow
might be about to
die, the film
introduces
Heavensbee as a
man on the rise; a
hugely ambitious
pale-haired man
whose position as
head game-maker
allows him to gain
access to those
grown-up
conversations in
which the parental
authority figure
discusses the fate of
the younger
generation. Given
the point at which
Heavensbee ends in
the film, it seems
reasonable to
assume that Collins
intended him to be
something of an
ambiguous figure
that stands on the
brink of adulthood
and whose growing
power and apparent
sympathy for
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Katniss suggest the
possibility of
change. Sadly,
Francis Lawrence
misses the
opportunity to make
Heavensbee appear
ambiguous, and the
film’s limp script
gives Hoffman so
little to work with
that it seems as
though he might
well have wandered
in off the street, and
read his lines from
cue-cards without
bothering to get into
costume; such is the
character’s lack of
visual, dramatic or
thematic impact.
However, as
bungled as the
introduction of
Heavensbee may be,
it is as nothing
when compared to
the train wreck that
is this film’s arena
sequence.
Gary Ross’ Hunger
Games was let down
by the fact that
while the story
builds and builds
towards a savage
battle to the death,
the source material
as well as the
studio’s desire for a
family-friendly
rating conspired
against the
inclusion of
anything even
remotely savage.
While Lawrence’s
failure to present
his arena battle as
anything more than
yet another chore
dumped on Katniss
by an unreasonable
parent means that
this film’s battle
feels like less of an
anti-climax, it is still
striking how little
spectacle and
excitement $130
million will buy you
in today’s
Hollywood.
Hollywood likes
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spectacle, or at least
the idea of
spectacle. Every
summer, the PR
machines spring to
life and begin to
disgorge empty
promises.
Hollywood talks
about the average
summer
blockbuster in
terms of wall-towall
action so
intense that it’s a
wonder they don’t
leave audiences
twitching and
drooling in the
aisles. However,
despite the
protestations of the
Hollywood PR
machine and callow
film critics the
world over, your
average summer
blockbusters are not
so much action
movies as they are
modern-day
equivalents of
traditional
Hollywood epics
like Cecil B.
DeMille’s The Ten
Commandments
(1956), or Joseph L.
Mankiewicz’s
Cleopatra (1963).
While these films
did frequently
include action
sequences, their
primary concern
was a luxuriant
pursuit of
authenticity that
aimed to recreate
historical settings in
a way that
highlighted the
economic and
creative might of the
studio system.
Indeed,
Man
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but Hollywood
chose to tell this
story in a form that
cost the equivalent
of $240 million in
today’s money. This
erroneous belief
that expensive films
are necessarily
spectacular is why
so many of today’s
blockbusters are
dull portentous
nonsense. Films like
The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire are not
interested in action
sequences than they
are in the expensive
recreation of things
that feature in
books and comics.
Ross’ Hunger
Games suffered for
the fact that Collins
is unable to write
decent action, and
the same is true of
Lawrence who
appears to have
spent a lot of money
recreating a forest
filled with angry
baboons and poison
clouds only to
completely fail to
make that
environment feel
exciting or
spectacular.
The unravelling of
the arena battle in
The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire begins in the
film’s bungled
second act. By
choosing to rush the
introduction of the
opposing tributes,
Lawrence not only
undermines the
drama of the battle
but also makes the
battles much harder
to follow as most of
the tributes lack the
kind of
distinguishing
marks that might
allow us to follow
their progress
through an action
scene. This situation
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is made worse by
Lawrence’s attempts
to inject urgency
into the battles by
rapidly cutting from
one shot to another.
This certainly
creates an
impression of speed
but it also makes
fights impossible to
follow, meaning
that every single
fight in this film
comes across as
little more than
frantic and
incoherent flailing
that occasionally
leaves someone
dead. As in the
source material, the
battle suffers from
Collins’ decision to
follow up every
confrontation with a
more slowly-paced
sequence in which
the characters sit
around discussing
their feelings,
mooning over dead
friends, and getting
paranoid about
their alliances with
other characters.
As with the opening
act, a savvy director
might have played
up the paranoia
underpinning these
scenes and turned
them into
simmering pots of
tension that
occasionally explode
into violence, but
Lawrence follows
Ross in choosing to
focus on the
melodrama thereby
depriving the film of
any sense of
lingering danger or
tension so that,
when the angry
baboons and
poisonous clouds do
turn up, they appear
more comical than
harrowing. There is
one particularly
wonderful scene
where Katniss’
group meets up with
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some other tributes
and decides to make
peace. Noting that
they appear to be
covered in sticky
brown liquid,
Katniss asks what
happened and one
of the female tribute
rolls her eyes and
talks about blood
falling from the sky
in the same tone of
voice that one might
talk about a ruined
wedding reception
or barbecue; a damp
squib indeed.
In truth, much of
The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire seems like
padding. While the
first film does a
tolerable job of
introducing Katniss
and placing her in a
position where her
combination of
celebrity and
individuality risks
upsetting the
political narratives
that grown-ups have
fashioned around
her, the second film
simply re-iterates
this position in a
dramatically
uninteresting
manner that allows
them to pave the
way for the
inevitable rebellion
against parental
authority. Indeed,
the only really
moving scene in the
film is the final one
in which Katniss
wakes up in an
unfamiliar place
only to hear voices
discussing her in the
other room. Dazed
and upset, Katniss
stumbles towards
the door only to find
herself being let into
the room in which a
group of adolescents
are having a grownup
discussion about
getting rid of dad.
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Even though the
Hunger Games
films are dull,
overlong, and
generally a
monument to
Hollywood’s
growing inability to
produce substantial
and enduring works
of art, they are a
phenomenal success
and it is easy to see
why. The Hunger
Games books and
films are aimed
primarily at
children and so
make use of
remarkably
undemanding
conceptual and
symbolic languages.
Accessible to a fault,
these works deal in
broad themes and
images that are
instantly
comprehensible to
anyone who has
either seen a film or
read a book at some
point in their lives.
Most people don’t
know much about
politics but they
know that there’s
something faintly
sinister about
armoured troops
beating unarmed
protestors, while
children are forced
to fight to the death
as part of some illconceived
plan to
keep the general
population under
control. The series’
themes of parental
authority and
individual
autonomy speak to
a wide audience as
every single human
on the face of the
planet is either in
the process of
dealing with
parental authority,
or has done so at
some point in the
past. However,
while this decision
to deal in only the
broadest possible
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themes may say
quite a lot about the
commercial and
artistic ambitions of
Suzanne Collins and
contemporary
Hollywood, its also
reveals quite a lot
about how we have
come to perceive
ourselves.
The 20th century
left deep scars on
the political
imagination of this
species. Fascism
and communism
displayed what
humanity could
achieve when it put
its differences aside
and worked towards
a single goal,
particularly when
that goal required
the industrialised
slaughter of
innocents. Horrified
by this vision of
collectivisation, the
west lost faith in big
ideologies and came
to embrace a vision
of human
civilisation that
emphasised our
unique
individuality, at the
expense of our
shared concerns
and feelings. While
this individualistic
approach to the
ordering of human
society is most
evident in the rise of
neo-liberalism and
globalised capital, it
can also be seen in
the way that people
appear to have lost
complete faith in
the democratic
process itself. In his
book Politics Of
Fear (2005), the
sociologist Frank
Furedi describes
how the political
system has shifted
from treating voters
as being part of the
democratic
decision-making
process to treating
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them as the passive
recipients of policy
decisions made by
politicians and
‘experts’:
The assumption
of numerous
policy documents
is that people are
not trustworthy
and cannot be
expected to live
their lives
responsibly. The
tendency to treat
adults as children
informs the
action of the
entire political
class. Individuals
are no longer
presented as the
‘political man’ or
even as ‘citizens’.
Today’s political
vocabulary
emphasizes the
passivity and
powerlessness of
the public. We
have the
excluded, the
vulnerable
(potential victim),
the victim, the
bullied, the client,
the end user, the
consumer or the
stakeholder, but
not the people as
political animals.
This infantilisation
of the electorate is
also evident in the
way the last two
generations of
politicians have
fallen over
themselves to
remove public
goods from public
hands. Institutions
built to serve the
public interest are
sold off and, when
they cannot be sold
off, they are placed
in the hands of
professionals and
experts who are left
to make important
decisions with
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minimal political
oversight and zero
public
accountability.
Issues of economic,
foreign, and
domestic policy are
regularly presented
as being too
complex to explain
to the general public
and so the grownups
retire to another
room where they
can talk about our
future out of
earshot. Half
convinced that they
too lack an adequate
understanding to do
their jobs,
politicians appear to
have abandoned
real politics in
favour of holding
opinions about the
minutiae of the
electorate’s lives:
are they raising
their children
properly? Are they
exercising enough?
Are they drinking
too much? Are they
reading enough?
Are they too fat?
These are the types
of questions that
parents ask
themselves about
their children and a
political culture that
allows politicians to
think of the
electorate in these
terms infantilises us
all. The reason that
people respond to
works like The
Hunger Games is
the same reason
they cower in the
shadow of their
parents and feel
empowered by
mass-market
therapy sessions
written for a teen
demographic: we
are subject to a
culture that
encourages us to
view ourselves as
creatures that are as
passive and as
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powerless as
children. Works like
The Hunger Games,
Harry Potter, and
Twilight benefit
from this cultural
mood as much as
they contribute to it.
What is the point of
art if not to
challenge the way
we think about
ourselves? A better
film than The
Hunger Games:
Catching Fire might
have passed muster
as entertainment,
but the only the
only thing it does is
pump you full of
ideology and shrink
the horizons of your
mind to the point
where intelligent,
resourceful women
are
indistinguishable
from grumpy
teenagers. At least
Ender’s Game
respects its
audience enough to
consider them
capable of genocide.

Orson Scott
Card’s Ender’s
Game is possibly
the single most
commercially
successful science
fiction novel
published in the
last 30 years. As a
novel, Ender’s
Game not only
won both the
Hugo and Nebula
awards in a single
year, it spawned
an immediate
sequel that won
both awards the
year after that.
Since then,
Ender’s Game has
turned into a
regular cottage
industry including
comics, radio
plays, and no less
than 15 sequel
books spread out
across three
different series,
with Card and his
writing partner
now promising
even more.

It is the success of a single trading platform like the 1k daily profit that has led to the invention and introduction of so many other similar systems and all of them are formed and designed with only a single aim which is nothing but taking part in their profit mission.

Hugely successful
upon first
publication,
Ender’s Game has
managed to
escape the
collapse of the
market for grownup
SF by allowing
itself to be reinvented
as
‘young adult’, a
clever piece of rebranding
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27
2013 2014 2016
12 captures
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27 Mar 2014 – 17 Mar 2017 ▾ About this capture
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resulting in
Publishers
Weekly
proclaiming it the
bestselling science
fiction novel of
2012, despite it
being over 27
years old. Ender’s
Game has made
Orson Scott Card
a very rich and
powerful man and
it did so by
pandering to the
very worst aspects
of human nature.
Lavishly produced
and as blandly
inoffensive as
possible given a
framework of
slavish devotion
to source
material, Gavin
Hood’s cinematic
adaptation of
Ender’s Game
is a work of brutal
ideological purity.
Set on 22nd
century Earth,
Hood’s film
begins with a
young cadet
beating a much
older cadet at a
video game.
Enraged by the
younger cadet’s
ability to ‘cheat’
by exploiting the
game’s
environment, the
older boy decides
to teach his junior
a lesson only for
the younger cadet
to respond with
an explosion of
violence that
leaves everyone in
the room stunned
and appalled. Not
content to merely
beat a much
larger opponent,
the young cadet
humiliates and
terrifies him as a
means of sending
a signal to any
other would-be
assailants. This
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young cadet is
named Ender
Wiggin (Asa
Butterfield) and
he is destined to
save the human
race.
Despite being
pegged as a
tactical genius by
the school’s
director Colonel
Graff (Harrison
Ford), Ender is
stripped of his
uniform and sent
home to what we
learn is a
psychotic older
brother and an
immigrant father
who wants
nothing more
than to raise a
military family.
The brutal
militarism of
Ender’s world is
explained by
some handy
Starship
Troopers-style
news footage/
propaganda
explaining how
the Earth was
attacked 50 years
previously by an
alien race known
as the Formics.
Desperate not to
be attacked again,
the human race
has transformed
itself into a vast
military machine
that trains its
children for war
and teaches them
that there is no
greater calling
than military
command.
The reason Ender
was sent home is
that while his
ability to
humiliate
opponents and
use violence as a
means of solving
problems had
distinguished him
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as a truly
exceptional
human being, the
school’s director
needed to know
that his intentions
were pure and
that he did not
actually enjoy
hospitalising a
fellow student.
Once Ender
points out that he
simply wanted to
end the fight
quickly and terrify
anyone else who
might attack him,
the director is
happy to promote
him to battle
school and send
him into orbit.
Gavin Hood’s
script adheres so
closely to the
source material
that it appears to
have inherited
many of the
narrative quirks
associated with
traditional science
fiction. Indeed,
we are not so
much shown the
world as told
about it through a
series of
(repetitive)
lectures and
instructional
videos. This
fondness for infodumping
is also
evident in the
film’s approach to
characterisation
as everything we
learn about
Ender, his
teachers and his
fellow students
comes to us by
means of either
voice-over or
third-party
narration. Aside
from being
inherently clunky,
this style of
narration also
drains the film of
emotion and
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presents the
characters’ inner
lives as a series of
tactical decisions
and rational
calculations. This
is particularly
evident in the
case of Ender as
the film uses the
battle school
instructors as a
psychopathic
Greek chorus that
dehumanises as it
explains the cold
logic behind his
every waking
thought.
Convinced that
Ender is the child
humanity has
been waiting for,
Graff transforms
his orbital battle
school into a
proving ground
for Ender’s
tactical ability.
Singled out as a
genius from the
get-go, the
naturally solitary
Ender is forced to
learn how to read
and manipulate
people in an effort
to stave off
bullying and
convince the
powers-that-be of
his leadership
potential. Without
the Greek chorus
and voice-overs,
this section of the
film might have
been about Ender
making friends
but the film’s
narrative style is
so
depersonalising
that it effectively
dissolves all
meaningful
distinctions
between social
interaction and
tactical
engagement. In
other words,
Ender does not
make friends but
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allies and his
ability to use
friends to resolve
social conflicts is
presented as
being part-andparcel
of his
ability to solve
tactical problems.
Whereas a more
nuanced film
might have
flagged Ender’s
style of social
interaction as
indicating a
damaged and/ or
introverted
nature, Ender’s
Game allows
Ender’s
manipulative
actions to go
completely
unchallenged. In
fact, the film even
goes out of its way
to demonstrate
Ender’s rising
popularity by
having kids jostle
each other for the
chance to sit next
to him during
lunch.
Having learned
how to make
friends and
manipulate
people, Ender is
promoted and
assigned to the
army of Bonzo
Madrid (Moises
Arias) a hugely
successful student
commander who
inexplicably takes
offence at Ender’s
presence and
promptly refuses
to train him.
Desperate to
become a more
effective soldier,
Ender sets about
undermining his
commanding
officer by first
convincing fellow
students to train
him in secret and
then staging a
series of tactical
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stunts that win
battles and
eventually get him
assigned an army
of his own. Now
in a position to
experiment with
his own set of
radically inventive
tactics, Ender
systematically
dismantles every
rival commander
in the school
before casually
defeating two
armies at once
and completely
humiliating
Bonzo in the
process.
Convinced that he
has somehow
been cheated,
Bonzo confronts
Ender in the
showers only for
Ender to use his
greater size and
tactical skill to
murder the older
boy. Horrified by
the monster that
he has apparently
become, Ender
returns to Earth;
until someone can
come up with an
appropriate moral
framework that
will explain and
justify his latest
act of grotesque
violence.
The similarity
between the end
of the first act and
the end of the
second act is
hardly accidental,
Ender’s Game is
effectively a series
of literary thought
experiments
designed to
generate a
particular moral
outcome: each act
plunges Ender
into a savage new
environment that
can only be
mastered with a
clear mind and a
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cold heart. Much
like Ender’s
Machiavellian
approach to social
interaction, this is
a reflection of the
film’s roots in
traditional science
fiction in general
and one magazine
in particul
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magazine’s
tendency towards
cultural and
political
conservatism is
particularly
evident in what
many would now
consider to be the
quintessential
Analog short
story: Tom
Godwin’s The
Cold Equations.
Despite being 60
years old this
year, Godwin’s
story remains a
work of rare
thematic
brilliance. Set in a
future where a
fragile interstellar
civilisation is held
together by a
small number of
ships with fasterthan-light
engines, the story
takes place inside
a small
shuttlecraft that
has been sent to
deliver supplies to
a planet that lies
outside the
starship’s rigid
itinerary.
Equipped with
just enough fuel
to deliver the
supplies and get
back to the ship,
the shuttle’s pilot
is horrified to
discover that a
young girl has
stowed away in an
effort to get home.
Filled with
sympathy for the
young girl’s
plight, the shuttle
pilot radios his
ship only to be
told that there is
no alternative but
to shove her out
the airlock: the
shuttle has
limited fuel, the
young woman
puts the shuttle
over weight, if the
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shuttle is over
weight for too
long then it will
run out of fuel
and be unable to
make the delivery
and return home.
The reason there
is no alternative
to killing the girl
is that the laws of
physics governing
the shuttle’s path
cannot be
changed. The
universe is
indifferent to
human demands
and so the shuttle
pilot is faced with
a choice between
accepting reality
and throwing his
life away by
refusing to
sacrifice the girl.
Initially enraged
by the cold
equations
governing life and
death, the pilot
soon comes to
accept the reality
of his position
and convinces
both the girl and
her distant
brother to do the
same. The story
ends with a
magnificently
pointed coda:
A cold equation
had been
balanced and
he was alone
on the ship.
Something
shapeless and
ugly was
hurrying ahead
of him, going to
Woden where
its brother was
waiting through
the night, but
the empty ship
still lived for a
little while with
the presence of
the girl who
had not known
about the
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forces that
killed with
neither hatred
nor malice. It
seemed,
almost, that
she still sat
small and
bewildered and
frightened on
the metal box
beside him, her
words echoing
hauntingly clear
in the void she
had left behind
her: I didn’t do
anything to die
for – I didn’t do
anything –
Like most works
of science fiction,
The Cold
Equations is a
carefully
constructed
conceit: the
universe bends
this way, human
nature bends that
way, and
somewhere in the
middle you get a
potential future
that reveals some
inner truth about
humanity.
However, while
Godwin’s story
appears to rest on
the
unquestionable
fact that the laws
of nature are
indifferent to
human concerns,
the conceit that
actually does most
of the heavy
lifting in the story
is on the human
side of the
equation as we
are expected to
believe that:
a) The pilot’s
society views fuel
as a more
valuable resource
than either
trained personnel
or shuttlecrafts
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and so would
rather lose a
shuttle and its
pilot than send
the shuttle out
with more fuel
that strictly
necessary.
b) The cruiser the
shuttlecraft comes
from is able to
able to travel
faster than light
and transport
millions of tonnes
of equipment and
materials to other
star systems but it
cannot find a way
to rescue a
stranded
shuttlecraft.
Godwin’s story
presents itself as
being about the
fact that you
cannot change the
laws of physics
and how the pilot
must accept the
cold equations
governing life and
death but in
reality the story is
all about political
despair and how
the elites in
charge of the
pilot’s society
have managed to
convince people
that a more
humane approach
to interstellar
transport is
physically
impossible. The
story ends with
not just the pilot’s
acceptance of his
society’s values,
but the
acceptance of the
victim and her
family as well.
This is pure
ideology of a very
specific kind.
Godwin’s
repeated use of
the phrase “there
is no alternative”
is fascinating as
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when Margaret
Thatcher set
about dismantling
the welfare state
and privatising
state assets, she
justified her
actions by
claiming that the
only way for
modern societies
to develop was by
embracing free
markets, free
trade, and
capitalist
globalisation. Her
fondness for the
slogan “There is
no alternative”
was so
pronounced that
many
Conservative MPs
began referring to
her by the
acronym TINA.
Godwin and
Thatcher’s use of
the TINA slogan
is part of a much
wider rhetorical
move by rightwing
thinkers to
evade charges of
selfishness by
presenting their
vision of the
world as being
somehow more
realistic and
natural than those
of their
ideological
opponents. When
early
international
relations scholars
such as E.H. Carr
and Hans
Morgenthau
argued that the
international
system was a
Hobbesian
nightmare
populated by selfinterested
and
power-hungry
states that would
stop at nothing to
maximise their
own security, the
name they came
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up with was
‘Realism’, thereby
suggesting that
anyone who
disagrees with
their right-wing
vision of the
world is somehow
being ‘unrealistic’.
This idea that
ruthless selfinterest
is the only
realistic basis for
interacting with
other people was
a brilliant
rhetorical ploy as
it allowed rightwingers
to present
the injustices and
hardships of the
capitalist system
as unpleasant
necessities: ‘Of
course we’d like to
help the poor at
home and the
starving in Africa
but you can’t
change the laws of
economics! We
don’t have that
luxury!’ Now
routinely
deployed to justify
such
administrative
atrocities as
weakening the
social safety net,
privatising public
goods,
deregulating
markets and the
worst excesses of
western militaries
and intelligence
agencies alike, the
‘realistic’
rhetorical stance
not only paints all
opponents of the
status quo as
naive, it also
absolves the
selfish and brutal
of all
responsibility for
their actions. It is
not right-wing
politicians who
brutalise poor
people at home
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and bomb them
abroad; there is
no alternative to
the status quo.
Originally
published as a
novelette in the
same rightleaning
magazine
as Godwin’s story,
Ender’s Game is
built around three
successive reiterations
of the
The Cold
Equations: each
act goads Ender
into an act of
horrific violence
before
immediately
washing away his
guilt with talk of
pure intentions
and a lack of
viable
alternatives.
However, as in
Godwin’s story,
the lack of viable
alternatives is
purely a product
of ideological
conditioning as
Ender neither
questions the
options made
available to him
nor thinks to rebel
against the
parents and
officers
embodying the
system. In fact,
the only people in
the film who do
question the logic
of the system are
the ones who
wind up being
brutalised and
killed by Ender:
the cadet who
feels betrayed by
the fact that none
of his instructors
taught him he
could use the
environment
against an
opponent, the
student who
undermines
group morale by
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picking on one of
the smaller kids,
the commander
who will not allow
Ender to train,
and the Formics
who are so alien
that their
alternative modes
of thought and
social
organisation are
deemed to pose
an existential
threat to Ender’s
militaristic
culture. Just as
Godwin invokes
the laws of
physics to justify
murdering
stowaways,
Ender’s Game
mumbles
something about
breeding rates
and claims that
humanity had no
alternative but to
launch a preemptive
strike
against the
Formic home
world.
Even before the
success of Ender’s
Game allowed
Orson Scott Card
to become a
powerful antiLGBT
activist,
progressive
elements in genre
culture have been
looking at his
work with some
degree of
suspicion. Not
long after Ender’s
Game was first
published, Elaine
Radford wrote an
essay suggesting
that the book
could be read as a
moral apologetic
for the crimes of
Adolf Hitler. Not
convinced by the
(admittedly
hilarious)
biographical
similarities
between Ender
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and Hitler, John
Kessel adapted
this
unsympathetic
interpretation and
used it to
construct a
critique of Card’s
belief that the
only things that
matter when
weighing the
morality of a
particular action
are the intentions
of the actor. While
these readings are
quite correct to
suggest that there
is something
incredibly
unpleasant about
a book that bends
over backwards to
frame genocide as
the blameless act
of a wellintentioned
victim, I think
that the story’s
true darkness lies
in its celebration
of the worst
aspects of the
status quo.
There’s a
wonderful
moment in one of
the DVD extras
where one of the
film’s producers
talks about how
she was first made
aware of Card’s
book by a prepubescent
relative
who adored
Ender’s Game
despite not having
much time for
books in general.
Aside from
confirming our
suspicions that
most Hollywood
blockbusters are
now aimed firmly
at sub-literate
tweens, the
producer’s
comment also
tells us something
about the book’s
enduring appeal.
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Ender’s Game is a
toxic power
fantasy aimed at
people who see
themselves as
having been
marginalised,
mistreated, and
betrayed by the
institutions that
surround them.
The intended
audience of
Ender’s Game is
unhappy at
school, unhappy
at work, unhappy
in life, and
genuinely
convinced of their
own intellectual
superiority. Some
of them are
bullied, others
may do the
bullying but all of
them are drunk
on a cocktail of
dark thoughts and
status-cravings:
why do people
make jokes about
me? Why don’t I
have a girlfriend?
Why aren’t I one
of the popular
kids? Why don’t
the teachers and
bosses respect
me? The appeal of
Ender’s Game lies
in the fact that we
have all had these
feelings at some
point in our lives;
we have all felt
alienated,
frustrated and
underappreciated,
and we have all
had to deal with
the fact that while
we may hate the
social systems
that surround us,
freeing ourselves
from those
systems demands
reserves of
strength and
creativity that few
of us possess.
Sometimes it
really does feel as
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though there are
no alternatives to
the hand that we
have been dealt.
At its best, science
fiction is a means
of seeing beyond
our tyrannical
present and into a
realm of plausible
possibility. When
writers make the
universe bend one
way, and human
nature bends the
other, what they
create is a literary
conceit that
allows us to
reflect upon the
world from an
entirely new
perspective, one
that makes radical
change seem like
a very real and
viable alternative.
For example,
Frederik Pohl and
Cyril M.
Kornbluth’s The
Space Merchants
presents readers
with an advertriddled
future so
nightmarish that
it is impossible to
read the book
without
questioning the
very real and very
negative impact
that advertising
has on our
cultural spaces.
Similarly, Joanna
Russ’ The Female
Man explores the
sexual politics of a
number of
different fictional
societies and
provides a
broader moral
context for real
world political
discussions. The
best science
fiction encourages
us to look at the
world with a fresh
set of eyes and see
the many hidden
ways in which it
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could be different.
The best science
fiction makes us
bold enough to
dream of what is
possible; Ender’s
Game aspires to
make us meek
and grateful for
what we have.
Despite being
designed to pass
for a moral and
intellectual saint,
Ender never once
questions either
his vocation as a
military
commander or
the values of the
society that
provides him with
that vocation.
Goaded into
increasing acts of
violence, Ender
responds to
feelings of
alienation and
betrayal by
working even
harder to follow
the rules and
provide superiors
with exactly what
they expect. At
the end of the
film, Ender is
rewarded with a
free spaceship
and the ability to
assuage his
conscience,
thereby
confirming the
old right wing saw
about how hard
choices need to be
made now in
order that we
might do what we
really want later.
The problem is
not that Ender’s
Game is a power
fantasy wrapped
in a persecution
complex and fired
into the faces of
unsuspecting
children, the
problem is that
this film sends a
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message that the
only rational and
intelligent
response to
feelings of
alienation,
betrayal and
confusion is to
conform to the
demands of the
institutions that
caused those
negative feelings
in the first place.
Ender’s Game is
not content with
telling us that
there is no
alternative to a
life of selfish
brutality, it goes
out of its way to
present that life as
sane, heroic and
oh so very clever.
Gavin Hood’s film
is well made and
elegant to look at,
as beautiful as a
$110 million
advert for fascism
could ever hope to
be.

Heist movies typically come in two subgenre types: the slick thriller where lives are put in danger (whether those at
risk are thieves or cops), and the often farcical caper (which usually has bungling crooks who fail to get anything
right). This star vehicle for Robert Redford (found on his CV timeline just before he co-starred again opposite Paul
Newman – reunited five years after Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid – in classic con-game movie The Sting),
manages the nifty trick of being a comedy thriller where failure is always an option, but giving up is not. And so,
very soon into the job, hilarious mistakes are made, but the action goes on regardless, continuing to reach a point
of obsession.
The Hot Rock (aka: How To Steal A Diamond In Four Uneasy Lessons) is written by the great William
Goldman, although this movie is based on the crime novel by the prolific Donald E. Westlake. The Hot Rock was
the first of a series of 14 books about robbery expert John Dortmunder, a character who concocts meticulous plans.
The very existence of so many novels suggests that Dortmunder is a crooked character of considerable depth,
unlike the shallow geezers and empty-headed masterminds of so many heist movies, and Redford plays
Dortmunder as a career villain determined to find non-violent solutions for even the most problematic heist. It is
his defining trait; and it makes The Hot Rock a fascinating example of an unscrupulous thief pushed to the limits of
his morality and ethical judgement. He is faced with a bewildering dilemma: under what circumstances would
Dortmunder kill to get what he wants?
Dortmunder’s partner is Andy Kelp (George Segal), a habitual failure who convinces ex-convict Dortmunder to
attempt another robbery as soon as he’s out of prison. The speech that starts with: “It’s good, and it’s bad…”
signalling Dortmunder’s calculated commitment to tackle a heist leaves Kelp baffled, but it outlines the problems
of the heist, just as it effortlessly draws viewers into the daring but doomed criminal scheme. While stealing a rare
diamond from a museum in Brooklyn, not much goes according to plan, and one of the hapless gang is arrested.
The new plan involves breaking their captured team-mate out of police custody in New York, by using a helicopter
as their getaway vehicle. It is this sequence that includes some quite rare cinematic footage of the World Trade
Centre towers still under construction.
However, this action does not solve the problem, as the stolen diamond remains out of easy reach, and two further
plot twists reveal just how determined Dortmunder is to succeed. There are bluffs and betrayals, in a mix of serious
drama and jokey action scenes. The Hot Rock is rich in characters with peculiar faults, and packed with appealing
quirks. This is a movie that ensures its antiheroes are as sympathetic as any crooks seen in cinema or TV. Unlike
most heist movies where things go wrong, The Hot Rock puts our likeable rogues into an increasingly complex
situation where they cannot, it seems, win against the odds without compromising Dortmunder’s own long-held
principles of pursuing only ‘victimless’ crimes. This apparent fall from grace for the clever planner actually tests
the crook’s deviousness to a point where he risks not just blackening his conscience, but also losing the fragile
sympathy of viewers, by apparently being willing to become a vicious killer. The scene is quite savvy enough to play
the kind of con-game that anticipates The Sting, and so Dortmunder gets to have his cake and eat it, too. As the
heist movie that breaks the rules of heist movies, this is a winner; despite its main cast all playing losers.