Monday, April 3, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Mrs. Speculator and I are pretty big fans of the anime movie and series, Ghost in the Shell. Sure, there are probably people who know far more about the franchise than we do, but compared to the average American movie goer, we are probably in the top ten percent of folks with knowledge about the plot and characters. But like most franchises with which we are familiar, the new Ghost in the Shell is not for us. That should not preclude any fan of science fiction, especially fans of cyberpunk, to see it. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at—the cityscapes are spectacular. The soundtrack is delightful—I have fantasies of putting it and Daft Punk’s soundtrack for Tron: Legacy in infinite loop. But the only similarities between the movie and the GitS franchise are in pieces of the backstory, the characters’ names, and their general appearance. 

I’ve discussed in the past how being fans of a piece burdens the viewer as they take on an interpretation of that piece in another medium. David Lynch’s Dune was probably my first exposure to this; I walked out of the theater before the movie had ended on opening night, because the film ends with a thunderstorm. As I’ve grown older and more experienced in studying narrative, I can figure out why some narrative changes are made: sometimes to save time, sometimes to placate a less nuanced audience, and sometimes …I just can’t explain why. But no matter the reasons for the changes, the onus is on the viewer to set aside any preconceived ideas about the piece and to accept that what is being viewed is just a different thing. Then the critic’s job (or the viewer’s responsibility as they think about what they have seen) becomes split: does the new piece do justice to the spirit of the original and how good is the new piece independent of the ties that bind it to the original piece.

The creative staff thinking about a movie adaptation of Ghost in the Shell were faced with a couple of daunting tasks. First, the setting of the franchise is well-defined over a loved comic series, a gorgeous couple of animated movies, and several well-received TV series. How can a movie with an estimated two-hour run time hope to capture all of that? I imagine the creative conversations become a matter of choosing which elements to keep and which to not deal with and also which to modify and how to modify them. And then with a property as dense and complex as GitS thematically and philosophically, the same questions have to be asked for mainstream audiences who notoriously reject movies that require deep thought. For instance, Ghost in the Shell makes a pretense of pondering the individual’s role in an increasingly technological society—the driving question of the franchise. During the first half of the movie, Major (Scarlett Johansson) has her brain inserted into a “shell”, an advanced cybernetic body capable of some really cool tricks, but she spends a lot of her alone time staring into mirrors and looking at her appendages as if they are not a part of her. Her coworkers in Section 9 assure her that she is human, but she is not so sure, especially since her savior/constructor, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche), can erase her memories and personality with a few keystrokes. But cyberpunk navel-gazing is not going to make most American viewers want to see your movie, let alone love it, so action sequences must be inserted. Instantly, the mood of the movie goes from contemplative to free-for-all, and any strong ties the movie might have had to the original franchise are forgotten in the big budget SF aspects.

The other characters in the movie are not even two-dimensional, which is also a departure from the rest of the franchise. A little effort is given to making Batou (Pilou Asbæk) more rounded, but it is cliched, so blunt and trite all at once. Togusa (Chin Han), the character from the franchise who remains cybernetically unenhanced, offers the movie a foil for Major’s meditations. Sadly, he is dramatically underused, having a speaking role in perhaps two scenes in the movie, and so the opportunity goes untaken and the movie devolves into standard SF special effects slugfest.

So the first part of the question about remakes (or re-imaginings, the term marketing folks use to give themselves wiggle room when the complaints come rolling in about the differences from the source material) is a definite no—this movie is not a good adaptation of source material. And yet, and yet, it is still a decent SF movie if you can get past its ties to the original. Its setting and atmosphere are perfect for a cyberpunk story; the music is alternatively brooding and ethereal. The city that is the setting for the story owes more to Blade Runner than its own source material; nevertheless, it is gorgeous to look at. And truly, the make-up and CGI work that went into the cybernetic enhancements of the characters is just stunning. This has the feel of what real people would do with the ability to modify and adapt their parts both for esthetic reasons and functional. The viewer is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the peripheral characters and extras.

Unfortunately, the plot is not very deep either. If you’ve seen two or three big-screen science fiction epics, you should be able to solve the “mystery” pretty quickly. And if you can’t figure it out, the plot doesn’t hesitate to beat the viewer over the head with obvious clues and even revelations. It’s typical fare (so far away from the depths and power of the source material) and okay for escapism. But if you want more from your science fiction, save your money for a matinee or until you can see this on demand. While the cinematography and effects are gorgeous, they do not give enough reason to pay full price for this movie, unless you have more money than you know what to do with.

The jarring dislocation between the source material and this latest incarnation just lead me to wonder “why?” It’s a decent science fiction movie. But if it is going to be so removed from its source, why bother to use the source at all? Why not make a truly independent thing, with its own characters and plot? I suspect the answer has to do with money and the inability of the “real fan” to not see the adaptation. “Real fans” just can’t stay away, so it’s guaranteed income for the movie. And if the non-fans can be sold on the worthiness of the movie, those people will come also. And that explanation saddens me because of just how cynical it is. The love a viewer has for the source becomes merely a tool for those trying to profit from it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Subgenres in Gravity

Recently I ran across a review of the excellent movie Gravity in which the reviewer announced that the movie was not actually science fiction. In his own words:
Gravity features no aliens, no interstellar space travel, no time travel, and it doesn’t take place in the future. In fact, given that it involves a space shuttle as its method of travel into space, it would seem to be set in a past. (
Another similar review goes like this:
Gravity is not a science fiction film. […]There is no great speculation about future technologies. No aliens arrive to inconvenience Ms Bullock. Yes, it takes place in space. But so did Apollo 13. Was that science fiction? (
My first impulse is to nitpick the rationale that each critic bases their decision on, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader even though I find it particularly galling that for some reason both writers seem to believe that science fiction can only exist if there are aliens involved (Gattaca? The Truman Show?). Instead, I’d like to introduce a subgenre of science fiction to these critics.

Gravity uses today’s science and technology as the core to its plot, which may be what is throwing off these reviewers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t science fiction. Science fiction can generally be divided into two general spheres, “hard science fiction” and “soft”. Allen Steele describes hard science fiction as “the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone”; science fiction that doesn’t have this foundation is generally termed “soft”. Unfortunately, 99% of science fiction film is soft, with barely a glance at the fundaments of physics as they strive for better and greater special effects and costumes and make-up. As a result, in the popular imagination, science fiction is identified by those elements—big-ass spaceships firing on things, weird aliens, impressive technology with lots of lights. But in the history of written science fiction, hard stories are a healthy minority with a long rich history, and writing it requires something of a specialist’s touch. Writing hard science fiction requires two difficult skills—an understanding of scientific principles and their applications in reality and the ability to communicate those principles and applications in an entertaining way (Arthur C. Clarke is considered one of the masters of hard science fiction). Unfortunately, neither attribute is very applicable to cinema, where the audience generally has a short attention span and wants to be wowed rather than lectured to. Part of the power of Gravity is that it succeeds despite the potential pitfalls of its choice of genre.

Gravity also taps into a smaller subgenre of science fiction storytelling that is not often used in cinema, that of the “problem story”. In a problem story, the protagonist or protagonists are faced with some sort of crisis in exotic circumstances that can only come from the science fiction genre—an astronaut crashes into the lunar surface and has to figure out a way to communicate with his base, for example. The roots of this kind of story are clearly related to science fiction’s own roots in the adventure story: similar stories have been written in the western and action genres where cowboys run out of water crossing a desert or an expedition member gets cut off from his party in the deep Amazon. It could be argued that because other genres have similar kinds of stories, perhaps the problem story belongs in its own classification outside of genre silos. That isn’t an unreasonable idea, but the individual stories differ by the problems that are being solved, which in turn are based almost solely on the setting of the story. And if we presume that the setting is a good bit of what determines the genre, then we have to take genre into account. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone faces the problem she faces exactly because she is travelling in space. And in turn, those problems are directly related to established science.

One of the most widely beloved science fiction short stories of the pulp era is Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”, a problem story of the first rank (I have actually found it online at  In the story, Godwin establishes a very precise set of circumstances: a colony is suffering from a deadly plague and a messenger ship races to it with the cure. The ship itself is stripped to the bare essentials in order to maximize its speed, and every bit of weight has been calculated to ensure that only the exact amount of fuel needed to land on the planet is onboard. The cold equation is that acceleration is dependent on mass, one that we have yet to figure out how to work around. But after the situation has been laid out to the reader, Godwin throws a wrench into the works—the pilot discovers a stowaway, a young girl who thought it would be a simple way to visit her brother on the planet, unaware of the crisis the ship and its pilot are trying to avert. With the girl’s extra weight, the pilot is faced with either a doomed attempt to land or perpetual orbits around the planet, never able to get down safely. What will the protagonist do—how will he deal with the hard science of physics and its remorseless effects on his mission? The solution is what sets “The Cold Equations” above most of its peers. At the time of its release, in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1954, I don’t think anyone solved the problem nearly the way that Godwin chose to.

No, Gravity doesn’t have aliens or time travel. What it does have, however, is a solid foundation in the traditions of science fiction. And as I watched Gravity, the knowledge that a much-beloved area of science fiction that doesn’t get much attention was getting a spotlight made it that much more enjoyable.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Writer’s Dilemma: Superman Syndrome and Almost Human

Mrs. Speculator and I have been enjoying the new Fox series, Almost Human. On the one hand, there is the really strong chemistry between the lead actors, Karl Urban and Michael Ealy. In addition, the writers have given some fairly serious thought to potential future technologies and their use (and abuse in the case of the criminals our heroes pursue every week). They have even managed some little things, like carrying minor plot points over into consecutive episodes, rather than make each episode act like a silo with only the macro story arc (the “mythology” in X-Files terms) connecting them. In fact, if there’s much of a weakness right now, it’s in Almost Human’s lack of a mythology. But the series is just starting out—it has to be given time to establish its rhythms and characters. Even massively mythology-driven shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had to take a while to introduce and frame the characters and standardize their interactions. Mrs. Speculator and I generally give new shows that we are interested in three episodes to sell us. In most cases, when we have that third-episode discussion, rarely do we talk about the over-riding story arc at that point. (In fact, here’s a corollary—if a series is pounding on its mythology that early in its run, it often will not make it past the first season, if it in fact makes it that far.) Unfortunately, Almost Human seems to have written itself into an unfortunate plot loop with its latest episode, “Blood Brothers”, and I’m curious to see if they did it on purpose to delight the viewers or if they are aware of what they did.

You may be familiar with the popular phrase that has been long associated with Superman: “Faster than a bullet, stronger than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…”. If you’re not familiar with the history of Superman, you may not be aware that this was originally a description of the upper limits of his powers. Superman could jump real high or real far, but flight was not one of his abilities. He could race a bullet and catch it in mid-flight, but he couldn’t travel at the speed of sound. So how did he get to the power levels he has in the popular imagination now? Think about it from a writer’s point of view: what kind of story can I tell about Superman that doesn’t seem exactly like every other Superman story? When Superman started out, he fought thugs and government corruption. But eventually, the readers are going to want something more, so the writers introduce villains that challenge Superman. What if Superman had to fight a villain who could also jump over buildings? There are two ways to overcome this—the hard way, which involves imaginative story-telling and creative use of the power set, or the easy way, by increasing Superman’s powers. Generally, the easy way wins out, so Superman strains a bit and then discovers that instead of being able to jump, say, a quarter mile, he can now jump a mile. And then a little while later, it’s five miles, then 20, and it grows and grows until eventually someone comes up with the idea of flight. During the late 50s and early 60s, the writers of the various Superman stories played with this idea by giving him ridiculous powers, like Super-ventriloquism. I’d like to believe that the writers were mocking themselves as they did this, and the stories are often a great deal of fun. But it may well be that this period was just a long detour down the easy path.

It’s this kind of power creep that I refer to as “Superman syndrome”, because eventually the problem circles back on itself—now that Superman can fly through space near the speed of light and can withstand having mountains dropped on his head, what kind of villain poses a challenge to him? The writer either has to keep amping up Superman’s powers or really buckle down and tell the story in a different kind of way or perhaps tell a different kind of story. It’s at this crux that the really good writing shines through, as the writers begin to move off into different kinds of story-telling. Alan Moore’s great “For the Man Who Has Everything” is a sly wink at the Superman syndrome—how do you challenge the man who has all those powers? Moore’s solution was ingenious, and the story-telling was well-conceived and implemented.

The point of all this? The writers of Almost Human, and especially the 9 December episode, “Blood Brothers” put themselves into a Superman syndrome loop, less than ten episodes into their first season. And, again, I’m curious to see if they attempt to resolve it. I want to believe that they have plans to address it—because again, that’s an impetus for really strong writing. But I’m also dubious.


The show introduced a minor character who acted somewhat as a plot advancement tool in the episode. Maya Vaughn (Megan Ferguson) is a witness to a murder and is scheduled to appear in a trial. She also has had an operation that increases her use of her brain’s capacity, but it has had an interesting side effect—she can talk to dead people when she touches an object that they have touched. (You could do some really interesting story things with this—what happens when she goes to the store and grabs a shopping cart?) The other witness to the murder is herself murdered, and Maya touches her scarf and begins communing with her. The android, Dorian (Michael Ealy) appears to believe that she now possesses what is usually termed a supernatural power, while the human, John Kennex (Karl Urban) does not believe her (that’s heavy-handed irony…). But by the end of the episode, and because of a few other interactions with her that have no real bearing on solving the murder case(s), we are made to believe that Maya really can talk to the dead.

So what’s the problem?

Given that the show is really a police procedural set in the future and that the show’s stars are a police detective and his android assistant, the writers have now made it possible for the police to get substantial help for every murder they investigate and every crime in which someone is killed. The police have been handed a tool, and since part of the premise of the show is that the police are falling behind in the technology race with organized criminals, they should use it at every opportunity. If there’s ever an episode where they spend the whole time trying to figure out a murder without consulting Maya, then the writing is questionable.
While the introduction of Maya closes off some obvious storytelling paths, it also opens up some really cool ones. Consulting an actual medium is not exactly the kind of logical progression of evidence that most courts would allow in a trial, so if Kennex ever does go to Maya to discover the identity of a criminal, part of the plot has to be about coming up with sufficient evidence to convict outside of Maya. Such a plot could lead to some interesting turns and twists. Or what if a connected criminal finds out that Kennex consulted Maya and tries to use that conversation in court to throw out a trial—tainted evidence, hearsay evidence? And Maya’s witnesses are dead—exactly how reliable are they after time spent in whatever happens to people after they die?

So now, in addition to the things I already like about Almost Human, I’m also going to be watching to see what they do with this development. I’ll try to remember to update the blog if anything comes of it.