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August 8th, 2005

The New Face of Science Fiction

I went and saw The Island last night, motivated by the fact that it was a complete disaster, that Sydney cinemas had sessions for eight fifty, and I was bored.

In a shocking piece of news, I can tell you that it isn't a real good film. The acting is professionally one note, Michael Bay has his love of the slooooow motion shot, and there are some fun action scenes. That's the positive spin and, truthfully, I didn't have a bad time in it, but then I do love watching Michael Bay blow shit up for millions of dollars. It's its own art, really, and Bay does nice explosions. What I especially like is watching the casual fall out of this giant set action pieces on innocent bystanders, who are often over looked in Hollywood films.

But there's no real point in blogging about The Island itself.

What did strike me after the film, however, was how much it represented the new face of science fiction, especially in visual mediums such as film and television (and perhaps even the graphic novel). I don't read so much science fiction literature these days, so I've no idea if this will apply. Still, the thing that struck me about The Island and so much newly made science fiction these days is how little the genre concepts of story mattered.

The Island has clones being made and kept as spare body parts for the rich, and a huge central lie that keeps on the clones in place, but neither of these things are important in the film. The clones simply exist to have them chase down their owners, and to speak about their child like innocence about love, friendship, and bond and fuck and grow. The central concept could have been about the divides between the rich and poor, about race, about the first world's treatment of the third world... it could have tied itself to more than a few things, but instead it just provided a backdrop much like a designer label on a pair of shoes that, in the end, do the same as any number of shoes. You've seen The Island a thousand times, but this time, it's Science Fiction, if you follow me. You can see the same in The Fantastic Four, which is a family drama with a bit of action like any number of family dramas, but in this case, with powers that have been bought out so that the action scenes and family interaction can be alternatively dramatic and different and used for comedy. The fact that they have powers means nothing, though you can go either way with the Thing who, with the loss of his wife so closely linked to his physical changes that, follows both the narrative arc of the poor, traumatised brother or uncle coming back from the war with injuries, or with the traditional changed, I'm a monster kind of thing which can be found in a number of horror texts. Likewise, Batman Begins is a revenge film that, while trying to make the point that The Batman, Bruce Wayne's alter ego, is the true face of Wayne, fails to rise above the fact that it wants to be a revenge film, only without going to the nihilistic extremes that can be found in Get Carter (the original, not the remake). The Batman element is simply there for the gadgets, the backdrop, and the designer label of the superhero/Batman franchise.

None of the science fictional/fantasy elements are actually tied to the plot. They simply don't matter outside the image that is presented to you. The Whedon Buffy and Angel shows, for all their faults, married the genre elements to the narrative and character aspects of the show so much that it's impossible to think of them without it. Angel's turn to the soulless monster when he first sleeps with Buffy both plays to the show's genre and the drama, linked through the conceptual exploration of a boy changing after he sleeps with a girl, which also played into the show's long held stance that the monsters were metaphors for the issues of adolescence. With much less success, they did the same thing with Willow's realisation that she's a lesbian by tying that awakening to her introduction to witchcraft. The reason that is not as successful as the Angel and Buffy conflict is because it essentially takes the biggest cliches about witches and lesbians and throws them together and makes me think of bad lesbian porn. It always surprised me that lesbians didn't call the show nothing but a poorly thought out male fantasy trip after that.

But with recent science fiction such as The Island , the genre elements don't matter. So there are clones, big deal. They might as well just be long lost twins for all that it matters to the film and Bay has put The Island together as if he knows this, not bothering to play the mystery of the island itself or what the characters really are. He paces it like a thriller, with the escape and chase central to the movie. That destination might as well be a parent, a lost brother, a twin, even the Mexican border for all that it matters. It's just a place for the characters to go. Similarly the genre elements in Lost mean absolutely nothing. There are giant, unknown monsters running round, odd powers in children, and a sense that the island itself is sentient... but the show itself is about exploring the back story to all the characters and their tiny personal problems. Even in Locke, the only character in the show wedded to the genre by the recovery of his legs and his wise old man of the forest routine finds himself caught in the show's need to have him explore his personal drama by robbing him of his ability to walk so that we can learn his father was an asshole who stole a liver. You could take away the island in Lost and just have the survivors of a plane crash in an alcoholics anonymous meeting discussing why they all drank and there would be very little reason to change it.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it strikes me that a lot of the genre elements in new Western made science fiction and fantasy is unnecessary these days. That it's nothing more than a costume that, more often than not, ignores the narrative possibilities than can be brought in.

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