The Sins of Professor X (Part One)

Let me roll off some key features of a comic book character and see if you figure out who I’m talking about:

Kindly father figure, symbol of peace and tolerance, wheelchair-bound, teacher, bald, eyebrows like the wings of an eagle, enjoys the letter X, disagrees with his more violent buddy, named a school after himself, and the spitting image of Sir Patrick Stewart. See, at this point, you probably have a pretty clear idea of who I’m talking about. If you don’t… nah, you do (come on, Ben, be confident).

Okay, now I’m going to rattle off a few more key characteristics and see what happens: dead-beat dad, creepy perv, master manipulator, liar, militant extremist, destroyer of worlds, child abuser, slave driver, guy who can walk.

No, I am not describing two entirely different characters. All these characteristics add up to define Professor Charles Xavier, man of peace, founder of the X-Men, and:

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(You said it, Kitty!) Art by Paul Smithaption

Welcome, to

The Sins of Charles Xavier!

  1. Dead Beat Dad

Okay so Chuck (which is short for Professor X) is pretty consistently nice to children, right? That’s one of his main features. The Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters exists so that he can do his best to take care of young Mutants. He is like the father figure. So you would think Professor X would be just as caring (if not even more) with his own kid, right?

Ha-ha, nope.

From writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, meet David Charles Haller, the son of Charles Xavier, or as you might know him better, LEGION (on TV via FX as of February 8th).

Legion
Image from gstatic.com

So Professor X had an affair with scientist Gabrielle Haller, and then took off as fast as his X-themed wheelchair could carry him. Legion has psychic powers like his father. His telepathy was uncontrollable for most of his childhood, along with a whole host of other powers. Over time, Legion developed a form of dissociative identity disorder. Each of his different personalities controlled a different power.

Legion has over seven hundred personalities. Fun fact: he is an Omega Level mutant. This makes him one of the most powerful beings in the universe. Fun fact number two: his personalities are actually the minds of people who have been absorbed into his own. They are each living beings trapped in the brain of an insane god.

What did Professor Charles Xavier—the man who has dedicated his life to protecting mutants and training them to control their powers—do when he learned of the fate of his offspring? Nada. He left him locked up for years on Muir Island, trapped in a cell to keep the world safe.

Nice one, Chuck.

  1. Creepy Perv

This one is going to be short.

Professor Xavier met Jean I-Die-And-Come-Back-Every-Wednesday Grey (alias Marvel Girl/Phoenix/Dark Phoenix) when she was eleven years old, and she joined the X-Men at the age of maybe 15 or 16.

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Professor X had the hots for his teenage pupil. Gross, Chuck. That’s all I’ve got to say on this one. Okay, let’s move on.

  1. Hypnotising Wolverine

Why Professor Xavier, the great man of peace, let Logan the Wolverine (man who stabs everything, smokes everything else, and is unforgivably Canadian) into a school full of children without any misgivings was a longstanding mystery for me. Just me. I don’t know how many others care about these things. But all was finally revealed/retconned in the series Wolverine Origins. The reason Wolverine really joined the X-Men? He had been programmed to kill Charles Xavier.

Of course, this was a stupid plan. Xavier could sense the plot a mile away. So why did he still let Wolverine on the team? Because once safely in the X-Mansion, the professor simply used his telepathy to go into Logan’s brain and erase the brainwashing suggestions to go all stabby-stab.

After this, Xavier had a choice. Should he finally free the poor man who had been tortured and abused and manipulated for decades, and release Logan of all the Wolverine baggage that others put in his head? Or should he simply alter the programing so that Wolverine would then be loyal to the X-Men, and Hugh Jackman could show his tuchas in the Days of Future Past movie?

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Wolverine, whose entire character evolves from the fact that Xavier took him in out of the goodness of his heart, eventually learns of the betrayal. Wolverine continues to move forward as an X-Man trying to be the best version of himself, but this is no longer due to a motivation to live up to the shining image of Xavier.

I know what you’re thinking. Wow! That’s totally not cool, Charles. But at least the list ends here, right?

Nope! See you next time for Part Two, where I will quickly work myself out of this cliffhanger and jump right back into the thick of things with evil robots, crazy deceptions, and a heck of a lot of people named Phoenix.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

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The Wrath of Khan

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Image from imdb.com

How do you feel, Jim?”

 

Did you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid and think, “Hot diggity, that was great!”, only to leave it for a long time, get some grey in your hair (seven hairs exactly), and then come back to that movie you loved as a kid only to finally realise how brilliant it was?

Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. I wasn’t equipped to appreciate how Nicholas Meyer paints his space opera of revenge with themes from classic literature. I can now.

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) failed to gain the box office numbers that Paramount wanted, The Wrath of Khan was given a much slimmer budget (11 million US dollars to the first movie’s 35 million). Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a sequel to the plot of the 1967 Star Trek episode Space Seed. The result saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted that his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie was shot in a series of tight angles and close ups. The acting, and the script, had to rise above the special effects.

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Image from trekcore.com

The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. The young Vulcan trainee Saavik is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody dies. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus the movie starts with the idea that at some point, we must all face a no win scenario.

I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best run as Kirk. Never before or again is this character so nuanced or layered. “How do you feel?” Bones asks near the beginning of the film.

Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.

And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of aging, sacrifice, and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario. And if aging and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended, Dr. McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf:

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Image from thegeektwins.blogspot.com

Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the tribute this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan literally hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly, the reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr. Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can literally make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.

But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Space Seed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew. He and his followers are abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan answers, “Tis better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.”

So if Space Seed is Satan being cast out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for the purposes of this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off-chance either William Shatner or George Takei ever read this and explode (each for completely different reasons).

As for King Lear: Kirk is the king, and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.

What runs through all of these great works are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the movie is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (AKA the most well done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own. In this, Spock takes a step forward and manages what none of these classics of literature ever managed to do: he beats The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Lear or Paradise Lost.

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Image from swiftfilm.com

All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the enterprise are getting older. Yes, Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the aging of its actors, this movie actually makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of aging, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and whose chest is still shiny and visible at all times.

Kirk admits at the end of the movie that he has never faced death. “Not like this,” he says. At this point Kirk has beaten the adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched the creation of new life with Genesis. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.

How do you feel, Jim?” asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and the end of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. At the end, Kirk has lost his best friend, and watched as a new planet roared to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been, or ever will be again.

Young,” he says in the end.

I feel young.”

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Image from scifanatic.com

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Bowie Fiction

There was a time during the twentieth century when the position of the greatest science fiction author was officially split into three. The greatest authors were considered to be Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov.

Of the three, the latter two came to an official accord on how to respond to questions of who was the better writer. While sharing a cab ride in New York, Asimov and Clarke drafted The Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue.

This agreement stated that when asked who was best, Clarke was to refer to Asimov as the best science writer, and Asimov was to refer to Clarke as the best science fiction writer. Each was to claim to be second-best in the other’s field.

The only written evidence of this treaty appeared in the dedication of Clarke’s novel Report on Planet Three:

“In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science fiction writer.”

Why am I talking about this? Because it helps to establish my point: that there are many different moving parts of the speculative genre. There are science writers, science fiction writers, science fiction artists, and filmmakers. But there is one mode of science fiction we seem to often overlook: the science fiction poet. The Spectatorial is incredibly cool to have published a selection of speculative poetry in every issue.

The speculative has pervaded every form of storytelling we have to offer, so why don’t we recognize any great science fiction poets the same way we recognize the writers and the filmmakers? In the tradition of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, who should I name the greatest science fiction poet of their time? That’s easy.

David Bowie.

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Image from chartattack.com

Now hang on, don’t shout me down right away. Let me make it clear that, yes, I know Bowie was a musician/songwriter, but hell, isn’t a good lyrical song just a poem with some groove to it? I know there are people who write actual science fiction poems, but hear me out. David Bowie had a long and illustrious career. Not all of his work was science fiction, but so much of it was, and it made for some of the best and most memorable science fiction poetry of his generation.

The obvious and easy place to start is Space Oddity. It’s a famous song: the tragedy of Bowie’s fictional astronaut, Major Tom, who breaks free from earth and becomes lost in the depths of space. This is a character Bowie would revisit throughout his career, writing and expanding upon the story until Major Tom became a permanent fixture of our pop culture. Sure, Space Oddity is a great song, but it also doubles as Bowie’s earliest science fiction poem to pervade our imaginations.

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Image from rocktrain.net

Next, I want to talk about Bowie’s great concept album, which for the sake of this article I’m going to call an audio-epic poem. It’s a majestic tragedy of a bisexual rock star who becomes the prophet of a race of god-like aliens. This character prepares the world for the coming of the messianic extra-terrestrial beings of infinity, but is tragically deceived: he is consumed by the Starman, so it could take physical form, and the aliens he convinced humanity were coming to save them end up destroying the world instead.

Does all that sound familiar? Because it should. That is the story of what the Rolling Stones Magazine ranked the 35th greatest album of all time, and I would argue one of the greatest epic poems ever written:

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The story begins in the song/poem Five Years, in which the narrator ominously proclaims that there are only five years left until the end of the world. The panicked reaction of the human race is juxtaposed with the narrator’s love interest calmly getting ice cream. Powerful themes of chaos, death, unity, and acceptance run throughout the album, through songs like Moonage Daydream and Lady Stardust. Songs like Starman reveal that perhaps some otherworldly beings might come to save us, but first humanity must prepare to receive them by learning to love rock and roll:

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky,

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds”

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Image from highsnobiety.com

Even the tragic death of Ziggy Stardust in the finale of Rock and Roll Suicide reads like poetry. Ziggy being destroyed by the Starman he worked so hard to bring to earth seems like something we should have seen coming, with Ziggy’s name literally being Stardust.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth,

You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette

The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, and then you forget ohhh you’re a rock’n’ roll suicide”

Really, the tragedy of Ziggy Stardust reads like anything Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein might have written. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a long narrative piece of science fiction poetry about unity and self-destruction. It’s got aliens and world-ending prophecies and cool guitar solos. I’m not sure about you, but that’s good enough for me. If you choose to disagree with my interpretation, that’s also okay.

But for the sake of my argument and my own sanity, let’s just say I’m right. Let’s all congratulate David Bowie for making a hugely accessible collection of science fiction poetry available to the world forever. In the spirit of the Clark-Asimov treaty, and by the power and authority vested in me—meaning that I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation, keep a copy of The City and the Stars under my pillow, and have Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars playing as I type thisI hereby give the title of “best science fiction poet of a generation” to Mr. Bowie.

RIP Starman.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

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Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

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Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

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Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Arrival – A Case of Déjà vu

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Walking into Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, I only knew a little about the movie. I knew that it was based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang which I have not read (it’s on the shelf). I knew that it was starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. I was pleasantly surprised to see Forest Whitaker around the ten minute mark. I knew this was going to be a movie about first contact with aliens. And yet as the movie began, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this all before. I mean that as the highest of praise, incidentally.

Twelve alien space ships land on Earth. Nobody knows why. Professor of linguistics “Louise Banks” (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US government and sent to the alien arrival sight in Montana, where she is partnered with “Ian Donnelly” (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Together, they are charged with finding a way to communicate with the visitors.

As Louise and Ian learn to communicate with the Heptapods (cheekily dubbed Abbot and Costello by Ian), Louise begins to uncover the Heptapods’ strange circular written language, which has no beginning or end, and begins to have flashbacks to her daughter Hannah, who died of an incurable disease.

Right away this is where Arrival separates itself from so many other “first contact” movies. In Louise and Ian, I can see every goofy pair of scientists in science fiction, sidelined as the comic relief while someone brash and bold fires a rocket wrapped in the American flag to save the day. But not this time. Arrival has billed itself as a film of intelligence, and it remains so to a fault.

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But still, Arrival is intensely aware that it belongs to a canon. Maybe not to everyone in the audience, but to someone like me, who lives and breathes science fiction of this nature to the point that it’s tattooed on my body, I can see where all the elements come from. I can hear Close Encounters of the Third Kind in sound effects of the Heptapods. I can see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in the aesthetics of the alien ships. I can see The War of the Worlds in the design of the aliens, and District 9 in the TV news footage of the world’s reaction to their arrival. I can even see Independence Day in the scale of the story. Hell, I can see E.T. in Louise’s growing connection to the Heptapods, and Slaughterhouse Five in the nature of the aliens themselves.

I can see where all these elements of famous science fiction staples were drawn together to make this film, but this is far from a bad thing. Sharply aware of the pastiche of its particular sub-genre, Arrival focuses on what makes it so smart.

Every shot of this film is beautiful. From a spaceship hovering over a field in Montana, to Amy Adams framed by the sunset streaming through her backyard window, to the interior of the spaceship itself, every frame suggests a world that is vast and expansive.

Louise is an interesting character. She’s a workaholic, a loner, has a sense of humor, empathy, and everything else that an interesting lead in a movie like this needs to have. The only thing that stretches my suspension of disbelief when it comes to Louise is how nice her house is. I’m not sure what school she’s a professor of linguistics at, but there is no way on Earth (pun intended) that she can afford a beautiful modern home in the woods overlooking mountains. No way.

In Arrival, we get two stories, and both are equally interesting. We get Louise and Ian learning how to communicate with Abbot and Costello. The movie spends a lot of time and energy on discussing the Heptapods’ written language. They write in beautiful, arching spheres, with no sense of linear time. Within their language, past, present and future happen all at once. Louise and Ian are learning to communicate with their Heptapod ship, even as eleven other nations around the world begin to communicate with their own ships. Tensions mount as the nations of the world start refusing to share. Arrival becomes a story about overcoming differences, and learning to cooperate with one another.

For those with an eagle eye, the first time the Heptapod language is explained, a big twist is given away. At least, part of it is. Yes, I have no problem saying that there is a time travel element to this story. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

The second narrative is about tragedy, as we follow the story of how Louise’s daughter Hannah grew up, why her father left them, and how Hannah dies. This is about a grieving mother learning to cope with the death of her daughter, and understand that even though death is inevitable the time before death is still worthwhile.

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Arrival is a story about grief, and making connections, and aliens, and time. It never fails to be smart, it never devolves into the action-oriented blockbuster format of so many others, it never falters in the ideals that it strives to put on screen. It is everything that a modern science fiction movie should be.

If you want to go see a movie that does science fiction right, with intelligence and integrity, is beautiful for every frame of its runtime, and might make you cry like the little baby we all secretly still are, Arrival is the movie for you.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Remember To Save What Keeps Us Human: Looking At “Childhood’s End”

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Childhood’s End is a 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke. In the twentieth century, Clarke was considered to be one of the three greatest science fiction writers, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

The story that has stood the test of time for over sixty years. Now, after various failed attempts (Stanley Kubrick once tried to make it a movie, and the BBC did a radio adaption in the 90s), Clarke’s favourite of his own novels has reached the small screen thanks to the efforts of Matthew Graham and the Syfy channel.

But does the adaption live up to the source material? Well… yes. Many of the things that made Clarke’s writing great are alive and well on screen, yet so are his weaknesses. Some deviations from the source material don’t seem to hurt, but neither do they improve the story much.

Let me explain myself.

This show perfectly adopts the atmosphere that Clarke was once so famous for. There is a real sense of scale and power to Childhood’s End. When you are told to believe that the events of the show are affecting the whole world, you really believe it. Clarke’s novels always gave an impression of size and, just like in the books, when spaceships appear in the sky above Earth in the show, you really get a sense that they are vast. His ideas have enormous scale, and that scale is represented perfectly in the series.

Unfortunately, like Clarke’s books, the characters aren’t quite as impressive as the world they inhabit. Yes, they serve a purpose, and can be charismatic and cool, but you never quite invest in them the way you should. Character development takes a back seat to the grander, more fascinating story being told. As a result, it’s hard to care about the characters’ complicated relationships.

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Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren

However, credit must still be given to Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren for giving what otherwise is a bland and tired trope some charisma and weight. In addition, Osy Ikhile as Milo Rodericks manages to pour in some good emotion, and the wonderful Charles Dance as the alien “supervisor for Earth” Karellen turns out to deliver an absolutely stellar performance.

But like I said, characters are a secondary feature. The story and its ideas are what sells.

One day, spaceships appear in the sky. The human race is told not to be afraid. A peaceful alien invasion proceeds, with aliens titled the Overlords now watch over the skies of planet Earth. They have decrees that it’s time for the world to become a utopia—but at what cost?

The book is split into three parts: Earth and the Overlords, The Golden Age, and The Last Generation. Similarly, the show is split into three two-hour long episodes titled The Overlords, The Deceivers, and The Children. Though the names are changed, the focus of each episode mostly correlates with the novels’ plots.

The Overlords begins with an ominous flash to the future, in the ruins of a post-apocalypse, where a man named Milo stumbles through the wreckage of a city and claims to be the last living human being.

With that to hang over us, we are thrown back in time to our present-day Earth, with the arrival of giant spaceships in the sky, and the grumbling tones of Charles Dance introducing himself as Karellen. Karellen proclaims himself to be the supervisor for Earth, and he has come to pull humanity into the future by ending war, poverty, starvation, and every other blight on Earth.

The Ooverlords choose a farmer (though in the book it was a UN secretary) named Ricky, a calm, self-assured, almost painfully all-American boy as their liaison. Ricky is periodically brought to the Overlords’ ship. Karellen advises him, and there is slowly a real sense that the two have become friends. This is by far the most interesting relationship in the show.

Together, they end war, pollution, famine, and slowly transform the world into a better place. There is some resistance to the Overlords, but it is quickly defeated. During this time, a young wheelchair-bound boy named Milo is shot through the heart. A beam of light comes down from the sky, and  Milo is suddenly alive again and able to walk. Milo then tells an old man who he shares a friendship with that he wants to grow up to become the first person to see the Overlords home planet.

 Everything is wonderful, but as Karellen continues to stay in the shadows, Ricky becomes more frantic and paranoid as to why his alien friend won’t reveal himself. When Ricky finally catches a glimpse of his friend, he decides that it’s better that the Overlords go unseen. Then, after fifteen years on Earth (fifty in the book), Karellen reveals himself to the world.

Cloven hooves for feet, horns, bright red wings, and fiery eyes—Karellen looks like the devil.

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Charles Dance as Karellen

Episode two, The Deceivers, might be the weakest of the three episodes. This is not the fault of any particular element. Episode two must deal with the consequences of the first episode while setting up for the finale. That’s a lot to do, and its storyline is hindered by some sub-par new characters. While we are invested in Milo and Ricky, it’s hard to care about the new Greggson family and their seemingly possessed children. Meanwhile, when Ricky falls ill from exposure on the Overlords’ ship, it simply seems like a way to continue to include him now that his role has been fulfilled. Milo is still fascinating as the only human to still yearn for answers, but he’s mostly just waiting around to take the spotlight in the finale.

The quality of episode three, The Children, is somewhere between the two preceding episodes. Ricky’s inclusion seems pointless, though with some nice beats, and the Greggsons’ story continues to be annoyingly flat. Their deaths in the climax occur without any emotional resonance. We simply don’t care about these people.

Nevertheless the Greggsons do serve a purpose. They help show that, though humanity has reached utopia, it has done so by sacrificing its imagination and its culture. The world may be perfect and free from all evil, but it’s a dull perfection. This is contrasted by the small community that rejects the Overlords’ help, and lives as the humanity of days gone by, in which culture, creativity, and scientific inquiry are seeping back in. They are also included in the series because their child, Jennifer, grows to possess psychic abilities, linking her to all other children and showing the eventual fate of Earth.

It’s Milo who takes the final spotlight however. As a man who grew up wanting to be a scientist, he is distraught to find that scientific inquiry on Earth is dying, and he’d like to know why. Milo believes there is a time distortion that occurs when the Overlords travel from their world to Earth, so he hides aboard their ship, thinking it will be a forty days journey between worlds.

Milo is awakened on the planet of the Overlords, and it is there that their true purpose is revealed to him before he is taken back home. He was wrong. As Milo stumbles through the wreckage of the Earth, eighty years after he left, we are finally back where we began.

As the Earth crumbles around him, Milo asks Karellen to save something, anything of Earth culture, so that it may survive them. Karellen obliges, and as the Earth vanishes from the universe, music remains.

Music floats in space as a symbol of the culture and creativity that once was the human race.

Childhood’s End is by no means perfect, nor is it an exact replica of Clarke’s great novel. The inter-human relationships fall flat, to the point that I didn’t even bother to mention some of them here. But the story is as beautiful and fascinating as it was on the page, a story that I’ve only partially spoiled here—if you’d like to know it all, go watch for yourself! The love and attention payed to Clarke’s story has resulted in six hours of television that are definitely worth watching.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Trying to Be Happy – Exploring the Issue of Humanness in “Swiss Army Man”

Swiss Army Man poster
image source: aintitcool.com

Human bodies are weird and gross. They are scary, and we are often ashamed of them. Our bodies can make us feel alone. However, our bodies are beautiful.

Life is weird and gross. We are often afraid of it, and ashamed of being afraid. It can be lonely. But life is also beautiful.

Trapped in our bodies, and trapped in this thing called life, we don’t have to be alone.

This is the message I’ve taken away from a movie which opens with Paul Dano almost committing suicide on a deserted island before he spots a dead body on the beach, pulls the pants off Daniel Radcliff’s corpse, and uses his super powered farts to ride him like a jet-ski away from an island into the ocean while singing joyously. I cried a little bit.

Yeah. You heard me. Super farts made me cry.

For the majority of Swiss Army Man, there are only two characters: Hank (Paul Dano) and the dead body of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). For the first half hour of the movie, Hank carries the corpse that saved his life with him through the woods while he searches for civilization, with a dying phone.

Why does Hank carry the body with him? Perhaps it’s an act of compassion from someone lonely, perhaps anything with a face will do for company, perhaps it’s a sense of duty to the body of a human being that once saved his life.

On his journey through the wilderness, Hank slowly discovers that Manny’s body has special powers that might help him survive. He can fire projectiles from Manny’s mouth, he can light his farts on fire like a rocket. When Hank gets dehydrated, Manny vomits up clean drinking water. This is already an insane premise for a movie. But wait, there’s more.

“I need you to help me get home,” Hank says to the dead body, because he hasn’t got anyone else to talk to. “Okay buddy?”

Okay buddy,” answers Manny, and this is when everything begins to slide into place.

Swiss Army Man flits around several different genres of cinema, many of which I normally don’t enjoy, but loved here.

I don’t really enjoy survival movies, but I thought this one was magical.

I don’t like most musicals. I feel the same way about acapella as Indiana Jones does about snakes, but here I found both not only fitting, but moving. I have already downloaded the soundtrack.

I only sometimes enjoy coming of age movies, and while I would understand the label, I don’t think it fits here. This is a story about coming to life, and coming back to life.

I do love buddy/friendship movies, which this absolutely was, exploring the vulnerability of male friendships without the tiring bravado that so many Hollywood movies bring as a filter. This is instead a story about two young men exploring their feelings about themselves and each other, as well as their bodies and the world beyond them.

I would also say that parts of this movie are a romance. At one point, Manny and Hank seem to be falling for one another (represented in the music like everything else, with the line “are we falling in love?” sticking out among the lyrics). And yes, maybe what could be considered the third of a four act movie does end in a kiss (but not for the reasons you’d think), but I would argue that the movie quickly transcends that.

Manny and Hank become a kind of platonic ideal of friendship, with all the honesty and awkward grossness of being human. This is fitting, since the audience must occasionally wonder if Manny is even real, or if Hank just went mad after so much time alone.

All of this is backed by a surprisingly beautiful soundtrack, mostly featuring the voices of the two actors themselves. It is only once the two characters finally stumble back into the real world do we finally remember how alien the world that the two have been hiding away in was, free from the shame and limits of the society we have created.

Swiss Army Man isn’t for everyone: it will make some uncomfortable as it touches on the grossness of our bodies and the strangeness of what it feels like to connect with another human being. I will say that in a world where movies feel constantly over-saturated with reboots and sequels and generic nothingness, Swiss Army Man stands out as something I’ve never seen before.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan