Could there be medieval science fiction?

Tumblr user raised a really interesting question:

here is a concept that I’m still trying to flesh out: medieval science fiction.

not, of course, aliens land during the middle ages, though I’ve read and enjoyed that, but something much more difficult to execute, if it’s possible at all: space opera (exempli gratia) as written by Bede or Gildas or Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Knowing me only too well, nickjbarlow subtly suggested that I might have some thoughts on this, with reference to a certain Duchess of Newcastle. I do.

Margaret Cavendish was not medieval, but she was an early modern natural philosopher writing at the dawn of science and she was the first (European) science fiction writer.

The main reason you don’t get medieval science fiction is because there was no science. There was natural philosophy, but the specific way of thinking that we identify as science – the scientific method for acquiring knowledge – simply didn’t exist. (In Europe – it would be very easy to say ‘in the world’ and Europeans do tend to view Europe as the birth place of science, but the truth is I have neither the world history nor the world history of science background to comment on that.)

The early modern period and the birth of science is generally dated to Galileo’s The Assayer, published in 1623.

What was regarded as known prior to this was dominated by the Church. I can’t stress that enough. What Galileo did that was so scandalous was not saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun, it was that he proved it with the scientific method and said that human beings could gain knowledge via this method and not solely from the Church and the Bible. More: humans could gain knowledge that showed the Church and the Bible to be wrong.

The Royal Society, England’s oldest scientific body, was founded in 1660.

Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World in 1666.

That’s why you can’t really get actual science fiction that dates from the medieval period. The (early) modern period is kind of defined by the shift in thinking that allows people to think scientifically and therefore write science fiction – fiction based on the possibilities enabled by scientific discovery or possible scientific discovery. Margaret Cavendish extrapolated from a whole bunch of scientific theories that she was aware of and posited another Earth (an alien world) attached to our Earth at the North Pole. She posited a different ecology for that different world (aliens and xenobiology) based on the different plants and animals found in the so-called New World (full-disclosure, it’s a bit imperialist; she was a duchess writing in seventeenth century England). She posited new and incredible machines created by the natives of that world. This is hard science fiction. The scienciest science fiction.

Now. Can we coherently imagine Bede or Chaucer writing science fiction and what that tale would be like?

Urgh… it kind of breaks my brain a bit, because you probably have to deviate significantly from how they would have been likely to think. There’s a reason people from these periods who wanted to write speculative fiction wrote Arthurian tales or about fairies and other fantastical folk traditions. Partly it’s that it would have been sacrilegious, but partly it’s that Galileo’s achievement was a massive shift in perspective with regard to how people thought. How we think about the ways in which we can gain knowledge has a knock-on effect for how they think about their entire world, including the ways in which they imagine. The very way we defined the possible and the impossible or fanciful changed. It wasn’t defined by the church anymore – knowledge was democratised, but also systematised.

Not that there hadn’t been other ways of thinking about what was known or unknown. That’s one of the oldest discussions in philosophy and dates back to the Ancient Greeks, whose theology was very different. Logic played a significant role, but logic can’t actually tell you very much about what is known about what we now think of as the physical or material world (although those are themselves are modern and early modern concepts – they wouldn’t mean much to Socrates, for whom true reality was the world of the forms). There was also natural philosophy, which Aristotle was a champion of. A Christianised understanding of Aristotle’s teachings dominated the way we thought about what could be known about the natural world (the world we know via our senses) for over a thousand years.

The dominant way of thinking about learning in the medieval period was scholasticism. Scholasticism was characterised by dialectical reasoning – using inference to resolve contradictions. (Note: scholastics were particularly Christian; there was interesting stuff going on in Islamic and Jewish scholarship at this time, too. I don’t know that it was that different for the purposes of our current question – Al-Ghazali, an 11th century Islamic philosopher, was saying stuff that Descartes was still drawing on in the 17th century – but it’s notable that Islamic alchemy was well ahead of what English, Christian scholars knew.)

Could this be used to inspire science fiction… I just… it’s just not very scientific, OK? It’s very a priori (before experience) and based on reasoning from things already regarded as ‘known’. The scholastics got into maths and geometry, and they liked Aristotle to the extent that they could make him seem Christian. Which he wasn’t. So a lot of the natural philosophical thought that we can find in Aristotle and see as a precursor to scientific thinking… just wasn’t there. I am not a medieval scholar, and I’m sure that there were monks studying nature and making observations. But by and large they were looking to reason from those observations in ways that harmonised with Church teaching. Some of that thinking is still genuinely interesting. But it’s not scientific.

It’s not interested in creating new knowledge on the basis of our observations of the world in the way that is central to science fiction.

So… to imagine someone writing proto-science fiction in the medieval period, you really need to imagine a heretic. Chaucer would never have written science fiction. I don’t want to poo-poo the thought – it’s exciting! – but if you want to do it, I’d advise reflecting carefully on who might possibly be thinking in such a controversial way at that time.

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Review: Sense8, Episodes 1-4

Sense8 posterMy first review since I went radio silent!

I submitted my thesis on Friday 29th May and I’m slowly trying to figure out what it is to live in a world where I am not constantly guilty about not writing my thesis. It’s been a strange and emotional week. I have been looking for jobs and sleeping and playing Dragon Age II. And mostly not watching as many shows as I’d like because so many of them are over and the only currently airing ones I’m watching are Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (great) and Game of Thrones (problematic). I was badly in need of some new fodder and despairing of finding any. Sense8 came out of nowhere and… and it’s fantastic, to be honest.

Sense8 is the new Netflix Original released on 5th June. Having originally been blown away by Netflix Original output, I’ve since been pretty disappointed. The difference between Hemlock Grove seasons one and two was astounding. House of Cards was so patriarchal I’ve given up in frustration. And as for Daredevil, there’s so much sexist disappointment I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So I’ve come to look at Netflix Orignals rather warily. And then I saw a post on Tumblr giving trigger warnings for it (but saying it was great), and my interest was piqued. Tumblr has a not unjustified reputation for liberal criticism, and when the Tumblrites I follow say something is painful but good, I pay attention. Particularly when they say it’s painful but good in its depiction of trans folk, and the programme in question was also created by a trans woman.

So, with nothing to lose and not yet ready to go to bed at midnight last night, I decided to give it a go. At 4am, I forcibly tore myself away.

What is Sense8, then?

Sense8 is a twelve episode show about a bunch of people who discover that they are telepathically and empathically connected – they are ‘sensates’. They find themselves feeling what each other are feeling, seeing what each other are seeing, and being able to act on each other’s behalf. Find yourself in a fight? Wouldn’t it be hella convenient for your body to be taken over by a Korean martial arts expert? It would certainly help!

The eight sensates we follow were ‘created’ when a woman being pursued by an Evil Scientist shoots herself in the head. They each witness her death and then start seeing images of her as they go about their daily business, and then they start seeing and feeling what each other are seeing and feeling.

These people are refreshingly diverse: a Korean business woman who participates in underground fighting in her spare time, a white cop in Chicago, a lesbian trans woman former hacktavist, a gay Latino film actor, a coach driver in Nairobi trying to get together the money for his mum’s AIDs medication, an Icelandic DJ in London, a Hindu woman in Mumbai who is about to marry a man she doesn’t love, and a German safe cracker. Different backgrounds, different levels of wealth, different sexualities, and a blessedly even number of women and men.

How is it?

It’s good. I mean, it’s stay-up-to-4am good. And maybe it’s the emotional week I’ve had, but I was weeping from complex feelings at the end of the last episode I watched, and for me that’s always a good sign. The characters all have complex plot arcs and relationships, the episodes are well paced and gripping, and it’s shot in a visually engaging manner.

That said, the trigger warnings on the Tumblr post mentioned above are well given. The trans woman’s plot, in particular, is painful and may cut awfully close to the bone for some viewers. Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) is a woman in a healthy, loving relationship with a cis woman named Amanita (Freema Agyeman (!<3)), but her family are not so awesome. When she faints in the middle of a Pride march she wakes up in a hospital with her family, who misgender her, prevent her partner from seeing her, tell her she needs brain surgery, and sign papers that (somehow) mean she is unable to leave the hospital – her door is locked.

As a non-binary person I don’t feel equipped to speak with authority as to whether this is well handled, but it seemed so to me. It’s certainly wonderful to see a trans character who was both created by a trans woman (Lana Wachowski) and played by a trans actor. I have no sense that the character herself is portrayed with anything but sympathy. Nevertheless, of the few trans characters that exist in TV and film, they are so often shown only through their pain – its a trope familiar across LGBT protrayals in film, what has been described as ‘dead gays for the straight gaze’ or ‘queers die for the straight eye‘ (although I hasten to add that we are not talking about literal death in this case, although identity death certainly looms as a possibility). I know some of my trans friends have lamented the fact that there are so few portrayals of trans people that are not difficult and painful to watch.

Whilst we’re here, I’d just like to add that it’s a pleasure to see the awesome Martha Jones Freema Agyeman on screen again, and whilst her American accent is somewhat wobbly, her portrayal of Amanita as Nomi’s compassionate, vibrant, sex positive partner is wonderful. Her presence on screen is a balm in difficult scenes.

I’m a little less comfortable about some of the scenes given to Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) who winds up in an awkward three-way relationship with his boyfriend and Daniela Velasquez (Eréndira Ibarra) the actress who discovers Lito’s secret relationship and imposes herself as an unasked for live-in ‘beard‘. Miguel Ángel Silvestre and Alfonso Herrera are accomplished and subtle actors who play the motions of a couple living in a difficult, closeted situation well, but the comic relief offered by Daniela sits uneasily with their more serious portrayal. Overall, it just doesn’t work for me.

I also wonder about racial and national stereotyping. Sun Bak (Bae Doona) is engaging and convincing as the secretly badass Korean woman who can fuck you up but bows meekly to sexist treatment in the day. I recall all too well the questions raised by my Asian friends about the protrayal of Mako Mori in Pacific Rim. Ami Angelwings was particularly articulate on the issue of white women saying how wonderful Mako was whilst East Asian women had issues with the portrayal that were overlooked. There’s a culture of white feminists drowning out voices whenever there’s a meek feminine woman who is also shows strength, on the basis that there are so few of such characters, despite the fact that there are (to my eyes) more portrayals of this than any other type of female character. And I find it worrying that Mako Mori springs immediately to mind when I see Sun Bak. I wonder how much the charactisation of the extreme sexism against which Sun Bak must work reflects racist assumptions about South Korea. The truth is, as a white British woman, I simply don’t know, but if I’m noting a pattern in how East Asian women are being represented in American shows, there is a chance we are being presented with a type, and not a character.

Similarly, the poverty stricken black people beset by crime and AIDs in Capheus’s (Al Ameen) plotline raise flags. As does the fact that the Indian woman is facing the prospect of a marriage supported by her family and friends that she does not really want. Do people like this exist? Perhaps – I’m wary of making any judgements as to the truth of that as a British white woman – but I think it’s worth asking whether there weren’t other characters and plotlines we could have had for a woman in India or a man in Nairobi, ones that didn’t fit so very neatly into Euro-American stereotypes of what life is like in those places.

From a less significant aspect, we also see stereotyping of white characters based off their nationality. There’s an Australian girl (not a main character) who is very blunt spoken, and everytime she makes a faux pas either she or her boyfriend says it’s because she’s Australian. I’ve known a lot of Australians in my time, but none who acted like that. They… were as varied as other people? And then there’s the Icelandic DJ. She’s has whiffs of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and her general nightclub/alternative music aesthetic makes me think of Björk. Part of me wonders if a musical alternative girl is the only kind of woman they could imagine coming from Iceland.

I also have questions about the use of the suicide of Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah) as the inciting incident. Especially as it is at the urging of one man in order to escape another and to ‘give birth’ to the sensates. Whilst this is not a classic case of ‘fridging‘ a woman in order to advance a man’s plot – as she advances the plots of several woman, too – it is using the death of a woman as a plot device, it is to fulfil the designs of a man, it is also to escape man-on-woman violence, it substantiates a sense of men as patriarchal figures, and the ‘giving birth’ metaphor gives it an unnecessary veneer of reporductive violence as well.

All of which is not to undermine the fact that these are still engaging and rounded characters or that I find myself incredibly moved by their stories. Rather, it is to acknowledge that these stories are not perfect. In comparison to everything else I am watching right now the show is still infinitely more diverse, it does provide a range of female characters such that I don’t feel any of them particularly stands as representing what it is to be a woman, it also provides a racially diverse cast (including the beautiful Naveen Andrews as Jonas <3), as well as an array of LGBT characters. One could wish for some disability diversity too, but overall, it’s a refreshing improvement.

And as for the science fiction… well, it’s more fantasy than science fiction, but that’s OK. The light-touch on scientific explanations offered so far is better than the Heroes route of talking absolute rubbish about evolution in order to justify the plot. I would like to see more consideration given to the dodginess of just taking over someone else’s body, but it’s early days, yet. Bodily autonomy is definitely a theme. I feel for these people. I engage with these people. I see both male and female characters I don’t often get to see on screen, and that means something to me. And they have superpowers. And those superpowers are both making them awesome and giving them emotional problems. Which is right up my alley, basically.

If you’re in need of some quality drama and starved of shows that don’t give centre stage to straight white cis men, Sense8 is a really wonderful choice, and I commend it to you.

Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Poster for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire(Editorial note: I wrote most of this, in, like, December, but I was in the process of leaving my job and busy doesn’t even begin to describe how I was. You probably can’t see this in the cinema anymore, but you should defo buy the DVD when that comes out.*)

It has been a while since I made it out to a cinema and successfully saw a film. My Geek Film Buddy, Lee Harris, and I utterly failed at seeing Thor 2 the other week, because we suck. We did much better this time, cunningly making sure to book our tickets online.

So, in addition to the considerable hype and unanimously good reception from everyone I know, I was also just really excited to get out of the house and engage in some well-deserved escapism. I’ve also been reading the first book (and finding that the first movie was a very accurate adaptation) and had recently rewatched the first film. And then, you know, Jennifer Lawrence.

I, like everyone else, have been utterly charmed by Jennifer Lawrence. I had been somewhat concerned about the fact that they picked a pale-skinned blonde woman to play an olive-skinned dark-haired girl (and tinted her skin) for the previous movie. However, whilst I still feel that is a legitimate concern, I find I cannot blame Jennifer Lawrence for this. She is an excellent actor and, it turns out, legit one of the most down-to-Earth, fun, and engaging stars to suddenly find herself in the public eye.

Whether it’s meeting other celebrities and looking like she’s ‘just found a unicorn‘:


Being dangerously playful with knives, or photobombing on her own red carpet, it’s hard not to love her. And the fact that she point blank refused to lose weight because she didn’t want girls dieting in order to look like Katniss basically elivated her to the status of goddess.

Needless to say, I was excited. The sort of level of excitement that is very easily disappointed. And I wasn’t.


Catching Fire picks up nearly a year on from the end of the first movie. Her new found wealth has not stopped Katniss  (Lawrence) from hunting – she just hunts for other people now. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is still interested in Katniss, and jealous of her public relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As Katniss is leaving for the pre-75th Hunger Games tour, the romantic tension comes to a head, and Gale kisses her.

Unbeknownst to either of them, the kiss is caught on camera, and President Snow shows up at Katiss’s house in the winner’s village (a somewhat bleak and grey, if well-appointed, part of District Twelve). He threaten’s Gale and Katniss’s families, if Katniss fails to make the love affair with Peeta convincing. Katniss has made a mockery of the Hunger Games in forcing them to allow both herself and Peeta to live, and she needs to make it clear that her actions in the 74th Hunger Games were acts of love, and not rebellion.

As the tour progresses, tension mounts, as it becomes clear just how much rebellion threatens in the other districts. Peeta and Katniss continue to be a focal point of rebelion, despite their efforts, and Snow decides to take action. A special Hunger Games is planned to mark the quarter-century anniversary. In this games, all the tributes will be drawn from winners of previous years.

The winners are not best pleased. But how can they fight back from within the games themselves?


As with the first movie, this is a film of two halves – one focusing on developing the political situation and world, one embedded in the survival-oriented, adrenaline-fuled Hunger Games. I loved the first film, but I can see why many people are saying they liked this one better. Now that we understand the world, the filmmakers are free to go deeper, developing the tensions and exploring the subtelties of fermenting rebellion. The second half – the one within the Games themselves – is also more tense. In the first movie we kinda knew that Katniss was going to win somehow, and whilst we also kinda know we’ll be seeing Jennifer Lawrence for a third movie, the precise resolution of this film remains open. More is at stake than Katniss’s own life, and although we know that the events within the games will be linked to the rebellion outside, we don’t know how that link is going to be progressed. In this sense, the character motivations in the two sections of the movie are more intertwined as well.

Added to this is the uncomfortable fact that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is more interesting because the Hunger Games within the movie are. All the tributes are dangerous individuals, and all of them are people who had been promised a life of luxury and safety that has unexpetedly been ripped out from underneath them. It changes the dynamic of the games. Additionally, the arena itself is more challenging and surprising. I call this ‘uncomfortable’ because we are confronted with the fact that what is designed to work on the brutal desires of the people watching in-world also works on us.

But to attribute the tension solely to a commentary on visceral joy in brutality is not to do justice to the film, or to ourselves. In particular, we are introduced to a new and deeply interesting cast of characters, all of whom have had to deal with the brutality of winning the games, and have done so in different ways. Johanna Mason  (Jena Malone) draws attention for every second of screen time she gets, spitting with bitterness and anger at being thrust into the games again. Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) is a striking, charming, enigma, who leaves us guessing about whether his compassion is real or an act. Wiress (Amanda Michael Plummer) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) present an interesting counter point to the youthful violence as tributes who won their games quite some time ago, and who did so with their wits and intelligence, rather than physical strength. Mags (Lynn Cohen) the eldest tribute, at 80, presents a different age group again, and her presence as a friend and mentor to Finnick introduces a new and interesting dynamic. Whilst it would have been nice to see an older woman presented as less weak-and-to-be-protected than is the stereotype, Mags is not simply bracketed as valueless. Katniss sees her value right away, and the character does demonstrate that there is more than one form of courage – more than one way to protect others – through her actions in the games.

Effie TrinketOther existing pre-characters are offered a chance to develop, too. I was particularly taken by the character progression of Effie Trinket. Whilst her flawlessly extravagent style is more fabulous than ever, the brief hints at compassion and team spirit that peaked into her presentation in the first movie flower here. Although the way she expresses her solidarity is received as bizarre and a little shallow at first, Effie proves that her heart is true and makes a genuine contribution to the cause. Elizabeth Banks delivers a flawless and nuanced performance that is beyond captivating.

My one critique of the film concerns the ending. I’m not going to say anything about the content of the ending, its more of a stylistic point, so I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler. The criticism is this: it just stops. I don’t think I’d realised it had actually finished until a good ten seconds after the credits had started to roll. Lee turned and said to me: ‘Maybe if we stay until after the credits, there’ll be another thirty minutes of film?’, and that’s kinda how it felt. I was well in the zone, expecting to be coming up on some kind of middle-resolution in the next half hour or so, but completely not expecting it to stop. Sure, there’s a tradition of putting a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of the second film in a trilogy, but there wasn’t even so much as Luke and Leia starring off out at the stars. I mean, split the party, if you like, but give the audience a moment of peace to collect themselves before the credits roll, you know?

So that was… jarring. I’m told that the second book does basically just stop like that, but I can’t help but feel that a film director should be able to add a little finesse to that blunt edge. And it’s surprising, because the rest of the film is so masterful. I feel like we’re gonna have to wait until we can have both films on DVD and watch 2 and 3 in one sitting in order to get a cohesive experience.

Nevertheless, ending and all, this is a great piece of cinema and well worth your time. Katniss is a great character and role model for young girls, and I adore the fact that with Peeta and Gale both mooning over her and presuring her to take them out of the so-called ‘friend-zone‘ Katniss still has her eye on the things that matter and the sense that neither relationship really fits for her forms a unique refusal to engage with an angst ridden love-triangle.

This is a nuanced, engaging, political, and exciting movie. At a time when I have to go back to the 1930s for powerful economic commentary in most popular media, it’s hard to ignore the relevance of Catching Fire‘s vision of extreme wealth discrepancy and political suppression of the media when the 85 richest people have as much money as the poorest 3.5 billion, and when protests in the Ukraine have been subject to a blanket media ban whilst our papers fill with Justin Beiber. This film is a must for teenagers and kids alike. This latest iteration cements my belief that The Hunger Games is science fiction like we rarely have the privilege to be exposed to in the twenty-first century.

(Read my review of The Hunger Games.)

Review: Looper, AKA ‘It would have been so easy not to be sexist: WHY?!’

Poster: Looper

It’s NOT my future, it’s a future where all women are mothers or whores.

Title: Looper
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, and Pierce Gagnon
Written by: Rian Johnson
Directed by: Rian Johnson

So. This was the film that everybody loved. I have literally not heard a single person say a single bad thing about this. One doesn’t like to get swept up in hype, but my chief concern was that it would be another faux-philosophical concept film, like Inception, that would annoy me by being less well thought through than The Matrix (I got no problem with The Matrix, as a philosopher – it’s a handy brain-in-a-vat hypothesis; alas, Inception is not the Dreaming argument, it just thinks it is). Actually? The concept is interesting and fairly well realised in a way that I was not able to predict from start to finish. Moreover, the acting was excellent, the script was well-structured and the dialog believable. The CGI was very impressive and there were extensive geek references (chiefly to the Terminator films, but also Blade Runner and the 2009 Star Trek).

I really want to like this movie. But I can’t. Before I give way to the ranting, let me do my best at a non-spoilery plot summary.


In the future-future they invent time travel. But it’s so dangerous it’s pretty much instantly outlawed. So only the outlaws use it. And what they use it for is to dispose of bodies. They dispose of them by employing ‘Loopers’ – people 30 years in the past (but still in our future) who wait around at spots where future-future people are scheduled to be sent back in time, then shoot those people with a specialised short range shotgun. They are paid handsomely from this. The catch is that their wealth is bought at the expense of their future. Loopers literally tidy themselves away. At some point, the person sent back to be killed will be yourself. And you don’t want to know what will happen to you if you don’t kill yourself. Why they don’t send future Loopers back to someone else to be killed? REASONS.

It’s a nice set up until a suspiciously high number of loopers start ‘closing their loop’ in quick succession (i.e. killing themselves). Then, the mate-of-Joseph-Gordon-Levitt (aka Seth) fails to kill himself, and his old self tells him that in the future a new gang boss, the ‘Rainmaker’ is closing all the loops. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is next. But, as it happens, Joe is a match for himself, and gets away: on a mission to kill the Rainmaker whilst he’s still a child.

Oh, also? There’s telekinesis in this future. It’s usually shit. It’s totally not Chekov’s telekinesis.

Why So Serious, Womble?

K. It’s a nice idea. Ultimately, because of [spoiler], the time travel is not metaphysically sound. But I don’t care about that. The time travel isn’t metaphysically sound in the Terminator movies, either.

It’s visually very pretty. In particular, it references Star Trek (2009) in the long-view vistas of the city, and it references Blade Runner in the close-up street scenes – but updated to look even cooler and more realistic. The helicopters also distinctly recall the shape and movements of the aerial Hunter-Killers from the Terminator films.

There are also countless Terminator references that felt like they were getting at something more than just ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome to have Robert Patrick Garret Dillahunt* play a killer in a time travel movie?’ or ‘Hey, let’s have a fierce momma-bear type called “Sarah” in a time travel movie!’ or ‘Hey, let’s have the hero in a time travel movie be called “Joe”, which sounds a little like “John” – we’re so rad!’.


But this world is mysteriously populated by, like, nine times the number of men to the number of women.

But the only black woman (and I think the only black speaking role?) is a waitress, who honours the hero with flirtation, but is never a real love interest the way the other women are.

But the only non-white woman who gets to be a love interest never speaks at all – and yet it is True Love!

But all the love interests are either whores or mothers. Or both. The only other woman is the black woman I mentioned earlier who gets to serve the white male lead, but never develop a real character or relationship with him.

But it is pretty much said at several points that if the mean, heartless, male killers in the film had only been loved by their mothers enough, they would never have turned out that way. That’s right: men kill because women don’t love them enough. Even though loving men is all women do in this film.

But (as though it needs to be said at this point) it does not even remotely pass the Bechdel test.

But the fierce mother called Sarah who protects a son that might be important one day isn’t actually as tough as her namesake; she needs a man around to protect her and her son from anyone who is more dangerous than a vagrant.

But her small child has more agency than she does.

And here’s the thing: it would have been so easy to make this film not sexist (or at least, less sexist than the common fair). Have some of the Loopers be women. Why not? If you genuinely think that women aren’t good fighters because they’re physically weaker than men, consider: all you have to do is shoot a handcuffed man with a bag over his head at point blank range with a shotgun who is delivered right into your waiting hands. No really, we can do that. In fact, we can do more than that. Women are police officers and soldiers and martial arts champions and sharp-shooters. They’re not rare, butch oddities, they’re relatively common these days. My sister is in the military – she knows how to shoot, disassemble and reassemble a gun**, just like a man – and she’s more femme than I will ever be.

This has come up a lot lately, and I’m discovering I feel strongly about it: women are increasingly shown as not being serious threats in popular culture. Dredd is a notable exception, and that’s part of why it so excited me. The trouble with this is that it gets defended as women being shown as ‘good’ in a way men are not. Because violence is bad.

Well. First up, let’s deal with the fucked up idea that men should be angry about: men are not born violent, uncontrollable fuckwits. Plenty of men are pacifists. Plenty of men are kind and gentle and caring. Plenty of men don’t think war is the answer. And, although you’d never know it from Looper, there are just as many fathers as there are mothers. Even if you want to blame bad men as coming from bad parents, why pick on the mothers? Why not ask: where the fuck are the fathers? But it’s so indoctrinated to think of child rearing as a female preserve that the question doesn’t even seem to occur to the writer of this film. The only father figures are the older loopers, who are complicit in the continuation of violence.

Second of all, I may not believe that violence is the answer, but being perceived as ‘good girls’ doesn’t keep women safe. And no, I am not, and would never, advocate violence against men, but the fact that violence is routinely expected (or at least conceivable) from men, and routinely dismissed as a likely response from women, means that women’s freedoms are curtailed in a way men’s aren’t, and that women are more likely to back down than men. That man cat-calling me is a twat, but who knows what he’ll do if I respond? Keep your head down, keep moving, try not to be noticed, run away. And why does he do that? Because it costs him nothing. It’s not simply that he’s been raised in a culture where he’s somehow got the idea that women might respond positively to such treatment: it’s that he doesn’t fear any kind of reprisal from women. He has nothing to lose. And this is at it’s tamest end. It’s realised in terrifying tales like this, which has been doing the rounds on tumblr, and which details everyday harassment and is still not the worst, because in the end it only involved the threat of violence. It is best summed up in the words of Margaret Atwood (as quoted by Mary Dickson in ‘A Woman’s Worst Nightmare‘):

A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed”.

As long as women are perceived as only having the weapon of their laughter, and as long as all men are presented as potential killers if women fail to offer them the expected love, this sort of inequality will be endlessly perpetuated. Ironic, really, when the message of Looper seems to be that if women love men enough they may turn out OK. It’s this sort of shit that means that Chris Brown thinks it’s funny to have a tattoo of what looks an awful lot like the bruised and broken face of his ex-girlfriend, who he was actually convicted of beating to a bloody pulp. Because why not? The worst she could do was get him sentenced to community service. And he did that, so now he can do whatever he likes. Including laugh in her face about it when she’s not even there.

So, that’s why I’m mad. Especially because this is nothing more than what is standard. Because I’m presumably supposed to be grateful there was a woman at least making a show of being tough until a man came along to do it properly for her. And more so because it made a show of using the tropes of the iconic depiction of strength that is Sarah Connor. All those geek references? They were just for geek-kudos. It spits on the memory of Sarah Connor to name a woman who cowers behind men (and her own child) after the woman who took down the terminators. It’s a bitter joke for the woman who took on the T-1000the terminators to be referenced, twenty years later, in a scene where the actor who played the T-1000 a terminator is threatening her namesake and she needs to be saved by a tiny boy.

So, yes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great. And so is Bruce Willis, and Jeff Daniels, to boot. Not to mention that Pierce Gagnon is astonishing as the little boy. I could have written this review about the impressive CGI that made JGL look like Bruce Willis. I could have written an interesting commentary of the shelf-life of an action hero, and just where JGL seems to be going right now.

But I haven’t. And it’s not because I’m a crazy feminist obsessing about something minor. It’s because it’s crazy that this kind of thing is regarded as minor – as acceptable, as par for the course. Instead of being what it was close to being – a part of a resurgence of real sci-fi, like that seen in Dredd – I am forced to talk about its negatives, because they need talking about. Because I’m shocked I haven’t seen anyone else talking about that. And because, in thinking about these things, I realised that, even minus the sexism, this was not as bright and innovative a film as I thought is was. It references classics, but it is not a classic itself. It doesn’t know what to do with its intertextuality. The CGI is pretty, but it is not the beautiful work of art we see combined when a master like James Cameron is at the helm to fine tune every lighting state and camera angle. The looper idea is neat, but it’s not as original as the terminator concept, and it’s not as fully realised.

All in all: a big disappointment instead of what could have been a fairly interesting film.

*[Edited:] @outofmyplanet has pointed out that it was not, in fact, Robert Patrick, the T-1000, but actually Garret Dillahunt, both a terminator and terminator prototype ‘John Henry’, in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I think says more about the impressive casting in TSCC than anything else. In the cinema, I leant over to my geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, and asked ‘Is that the T-1000?’ as soon as he entered. And Lee nodded. But then, he probably expected me to know what I was talking about. Seeing as I talk about Terminator 2 a lot. I think the same point goes through. Time travelling killer/opponent of Sarah Connor.

**And more, but being a pacifist myself and not being in the military, I really don’t have a clue.

Reviewing Through the Time Machine: Robocop

Robocop: posterTitle: Robocop
Cinematic release: 1987
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui, and Dan O’Herlihy
Written by: Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Genre: Science fiction, action, ultra-violence
Awards: Won the Academy Award for Best Sound Effects Editing; nominated for two other Academy Awards and listed numerous times in various Best Film lists
Price: From £1.48 on Amazon at time of posting

Behind the scenes images of the new Robocop suitThe first photos of the new Robocop movie have been revealed online, and the Internet has already begun to turn its nose up at it. The robo-suit is being criticised for looking too much like Batman’s suit in the Nolan movies. I don’t know. In all honesty, the suit from the original movie does look a lot cooler, to me, but it’s an absolutely iconic image and it’s hard to step back and give a dispassionate assessment of the new suit in comparison. Does the new suit look like Batman’s? Not really. I mean, it’s black, but it does look a lot more like robotic armour, as opposed to a costume that is also designed to protect the wearer, which is what the Batsuit does.

They’ve also released an online ‘Omnicorp’ video – a faux advertisement for various robotic commercial law enforcement products, as well as a fake Omnicorp website.

It’s a fun idea, and the video is nice enough, but they’re making a few rookie mistakes. First off: if you want your video to go viral, you don’t call it ‘Viral’ – that is not how viral advertising works. I can’t see an official account that has this video up, but the two copies I found both labelled it as ‘viral’ and one was put up by ViralMan69, who ‘work[s] for multiple production company’s that promote movies and music and try and get the content to go viral’. Telling the denizens of the Internet that you want them to create hype for you usually makes them look sceptically at you in askance. It’s that stereotype of a dad trying to be down with the kids by doing something all the kids are doing and highlighting that he’s only mimicking them by calling attention to his own pretense. Not cool, daddy-o, not cool.

The second problem is that viral marketing works best when you’ve got something quirky and new that catches people’s attention from an angle that surprises them. But this isn’t quirky or new. The omnicorp advertising video is a slick and convincing duplicate of what was quirky and interesting in the original movie, which featured well-observed, dryly ironic excerpts from Omni Consumer Products advertising. It’s not that the humour isn’t still relevant. Indeed, Better Off Ted encapsulated exactly this kind of car-crash horror of soulless consumerist commodification in its genuinely viral videos of Veridian Dynamics adverts.

What’s problematic is that where Better Off Ted and the original Robocop were satirising this kind of fake, corporate chumminess, the new Robocop is unconsciously embodying that which it’s trying to send up. Fans of the old film already have their hackles up wondering why it needs to be remade in the first place, assuming that it’s a cynical attempt to cash in on sci-fi special effects remakes in a capitalist money-grabbing bid. I actually think that Robocop is a film with a lot of relevance today and a strong candidate for a knowing remake, not because the old film needs remaking, but because the themes of consumerism, creeping totalitarianism, and the privatisation of our public services have come full circle again from the 1980s. Science fiction is at its best when it grabs our attention and uses the mirror of the future to show us what’s wrong and dangerous in the present. A Robocop remake that highlighted the way the dangers of the original film are present again in our society today could be a valuable as well as entertaining movie. The trouble is, if the film looks like it’s trying to cash in on a trend it’s completely undermining itself. A cynical attempt to get on the viral bandwagon is not the way to go.

I’m on the fence. I want to be convinced by the new Robocop. I mean, it’s cyborgs, I’m going to see it anyway, but I’d like it if it were good, too.

So, anyway, with these thoughts in my head, and Robocop on Netflix, I decided to look back at the original film and see if it really was as good as I remembered.

Turns out, it was better.


Detroit is a city in trouble. Its over-stretched police force is being picked off by a criminal with a taste for killing cops, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and beginning to mutter about strikes. Omni Consumer Products (OCP) is poised to take advantage of the situation. They’ve been developing two lines of research in robotic law enforcement, the completely mechanical ED-209, developed by Senior President, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox); and the cyborg police officer, ‘Robocop’, developed by Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer). The ED-209 malfunctions during a demonstration in the boardroom, killing a member of staff, and Bob seizes the moment to propose his project to the Chairman (Dan O’Herlihy), who is happy to give the go ahead to a more stable-sounding project.

Now all Bob needs is the organic part of the cybernetic organism package.

Enter Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a cop newly transferred to Detroit from a cushier posting. He’s partnered with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), who is young, but in many ways more seasoned. Despite some good-natured tussling for dominance over who gets to drive the car, they seem to hit it off, but their partnership is short-lived, as they get called to respond to a bank robbery headed by Boddicker. Having chased the criminal gang to an abandoned mill, Lewis and Murphy get separated. Lewis is left for dead after taking a lengthy fall, but Murphy is less fortunate. Believing his back-up (Lewis) to be dead, the gang take their time torturing Murphy, shooting off one arm to a gruesome stump, before taking him out with repeated and extensive gunfire, and finally shooting him in the head. Unbeknownst to Murphy or the gang, Lewis survived the fall and witnessed the whole, shocking scene. She calls for an ambulance, and although Murphy is pronounced dead at the hospital, he’s fresh enough for use in Morton’s project.

Murphy is re-introduced to the force as Robocop, an efficient and completely obedient officer of the law with apparently no memory of his life as a human being. As Murphy had only been with his unit for a day, no one recognises him, at first, but having watched him, for a while, Lewis begins to have her suspicions. It also becomes apparent that OCP were naive in thinking that they could completely write over a man’s personality in that way – Murphy sustained an extreme trauma, and elements of the memory begin to surface, disturbing the perfect veneer of Robocop.

Meanwhile, Morton has made a dangerous enemy in challenging Dick Jones – just how dangerous becomes increasingly apparent as the film goes on.

Can Lewis help Murphy remember who he was? Who will win in the struggle for power between Morton and Jones? Will Boddicker be brought to justice? You may be able to guess the answer to these questions, but the dramatic unfurling of the apparently inevitable is often surprising, as well as clever, shocking, and well-observed.


Made at the height of the consumerist, capitalist 1980s, Robocop is as witty and smart as it is violent. And it really is violent. Much more violent than I remember, although a friend tells me it was heavily edited for television airing in the UK, so that may be why. But even without the contrast with my memory, this film made me realise just how sanitised today’s movie violence has become. Dredd 3D is a notable exception. Nowadays, one rarely sees a bullet wound that is more than a tiny red spot. By contrast, the scene where the ED-209 opens fire on the hapless board member at OCP, early on in the film, makes a clear statement about where this movie is going in terms of graphic violence, and it only gets more graphic and more violent from this point in. It was quite a shocking moment to the eyes of a viewer in 2012.

And that’s a good thing.

Violence for the sake of violence is as boring and unwise as any poorly thought through plot element. Violence purely for shock value is just as dull. Violence intended to shock you and wake you up to something can be pointful, useful, relevant, powerful, and poignant. By explosively tearing apart an innocent man in the sterile, soulless perfection of a 1980s corporate behemoth’s boardroom, the ED-209 is metaphorically tearing apart our preconceptions of the clean and sanitsed nature of such businesses. The extreme violence used (and the almost prissy way the other people in the room respond to it) viscerally underscores the contrast between appearance and reality. This film doesn’t just say ‘There’s something very wrong here’, it punches you in the gut and forces your face into the blood until you can no longer deny that there is a shitpile of mess under the smooth, corporate veneer.

The almost omnipresent dirtiness of the scenes outside of OCP underscores this contrast, especially in the film’s other two main locations: the police station and the abandonned mill. The tensions in the police station are evident from its first scene, and one feels palpably both the justified anger and fear amongst the besieged cops, and the dangers of this force actually going on strike. They deserve better: the city would descend into anarchy without them. The city would descend into anarchy without them: how can they even consider striking? It’s a tension that speaks powerfully to our present times, as the TUC discusses a general strike for the first time since 1926. Robert DoQui as Sargeant Warren Reed marks an interesting figure as he strives to hold the police department together under these irreconcilable forces.

The irony is that Robocop is actually very good at his job – he seems to be exactly what the city needs, and, after all, he’s what we, the viewers, also want. What we paid to see. We are complicit in the dark desire to put other human beings into servitude – abuse their bodies and ignore their personal needs in service of the collective wants and demands of the whole. Western cinema is often accused of over-praising individuality and ignoring the honour to be found in placing the needs of the many above the needs of the few, or the one. But Robocop approaches the subject with nuance. We are presented not with an answer, but with the tension. Duty has a valued place in this world. Cops sign up to serve the people, and they shouldn’t abandon their posts. Headlong persuit of money and individual pleasures is dangerous and selfish. And yet society can also demand too much of the individual. If we ask sacrifice of our police, we can’t expect to keep on asking it endlessly without offering recognition and reward of that sacrifice. More palpably, what happens to Murphy seems wrong at a more visceral level. Yes, the alternative for him was death, but what sort of a life has he been left with? Shouldn’t consent have been asked of his family? Shouldn’t they at least have been told? One of the first things we learn about Murphy is that he has a son – a son that he is clearly devoted to – and that relationship is ripped from him. This highlights not only the emotional tragedy of Murphy’s condition, but the competing demands of duty. People are not one-dimensional existents. Cops can be fathers and husbands as well as keepers of the peace.

Has the film dated? A little. In some ways its embedding in 80s culture adds to the political critique, but despite good presentations of race like that of Sargeant Reed, at least one other black character occupies a painful stereotype as a humourous and incompetent henchman. By contrast, Lewis is a fantastic and refreshing female character. She is never sexualised, wearing the same uniform and bulky armour as any other police officer. She is allowed to fight side-by-side with Robocop as an equal (or as equal as any human being can be) and saves his life on multiple occasions. She is allowed to be as tough as nails without being forced into a caricature of a ‘butch’ woman. She may have a practical short haircut, but it’s fluffy with 80s style and she clearly knows her way around a make-up bag. She’s neither feminine nor unfeminine – she’s a character. Moreover, whilst she and Murphy clearly share a bond (I mean, seeing something like that happen to your partner has got to do something to you), there is no suggestion that this is a romantic relationship. Murphy was happily married; Robocop has other things on his mind – and so does Lewis.

People often look at me weirdly when I talk about the skill involved in making a good action movie, but there’s no doubt in my mind when I say this: Robocop is art. Art and knowing political satire. Films like this are important – they become iconic not because they are ‘fun’, but because they are both fun and powerful.

Robocop is even better than I remembered. Does it need to be remade? My jury’s still out. I think it has the potential to do something important for the current generation, and I don’t want to dismiss it just because I think there’s already a good movie called Robocop. I think we’ve all grown-up with movies and tacitly assumed that we know everything that they can and will do for us, but film is still a comparatively young medium. It’s evolving all the time, and not just in terms of technology. For a while it seemed like film formed a way of fixing stories in time. It created an illusion that if something had been done well and could still be experienced in its original form, then that’s how we should experience it. But no one ever batted an eyelid at reimagining Shakespeare plays with every production. Indeed, we tend to think a production unimaginative if we see it performed in exactly the same way by different troupes of actors. Stories emerged in an oral culture where they could mutate in every telling. We talk about remaking films as though it’s a new and somewhat lazy fad, but retelling stories is an old tradition in good standing as a way of using old tales to make new points, or to make the same points afresh for a new generation.

My main concern about the new Robocop is that at the moment it seems to be doing very much the same thing as the old Robocop. Chances are I will still enjoy a production like that, and I do think it may still be valuable for the new generation who, whatever we may wish, are unlikely to rewatch the old film of their own accord. But I would like to see it do something new and innovative. I love me some cyborgs, but it would be something of a sad inversion of the original spirit if this does prove to be another cynical attempt to cash in.

Review: Dredd 3D

Title: Dredd 3D
UK Cinematic Release: 7st September 2012
Worldwide Cinematic Release: 21st September 2012
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, and Wood Harris
Written by: Alex Garland
Directed by: Pete Travis
Cinematography by: Anthony Dod Mantle
Audio Description: Available in at least some cinemas

My initial response, hot off the press when I got in last night: I haven’t seen a film like that this side of the millenium. For clarity: I’m not saying it’s the very best film this side of the millennium. I’m not saying it’s the most original. I’m not even saying it’s the best or most original science fiction film this side of the millenium (Moon and Serenity, at the very least, are clear contenders). But a film like this? A smart, visually stunning, action packed and graphically violent movie with varied and powerful female characters that presents a vision of the future that is new and architecturally experimental – a real film of dystopic vision, like this? No, I haven’t seen its like.

I talked in my review of Moon about how modern science fiction has stagnated somewhat and is failing to present us with new and interesting visions of the future in the way it did in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In my review of Prometheus I noted that one of its saving graces was that it was at least trying to break out of the familiar mould that has developed over the last 10-15 years of entertaining, but not ground-breaking (except effects-wise) movies. Moon was excellent, but a very different type of movie to Dredd 3D. Same goes for Serenity, and whilst Serenity can lay a claim to violence, originality, and dystopic vision to an extent, it’s not operating on the same scale as Dredd 3D, and it must be conceded that its original setting was developed more fully before the movie in the television series, Firefly. Dredd is doing something different again.

Minimally Spoiltastic Plot Summary

In a dystopic future where crime is almost entirely out of control, the only force that stands between what remains of the law-abiding citizenry and violent anarchy are an elite group of Judges. Judges bear little similarity to anything we would recognise by that term today. They judge, sentence, and execute the law in person, and their justice is swift and harsh.

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the most impressive and feared of the judges. He is assigned by the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) to assess a new recruit, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson failed the physical requirements to be a judge by three points, but the Chief is intrigued by the value of her unusual psychic abilities. As a mutant, she should have been executed herself, but her powers have such potential that the Chief wants to give her a chance.

Dredd allows Anderson to choose her own assignment for her assessment. She decides to respond to a report of a homicide in Peach Trees – a tower block so notorious that even Judges rarely venture in. Peach Trees is effectively under the total power of the Ma-Ma clan. Ma-Ma is the leader of the gang, Madelaine Madrigal (Lena Headey), and her brutal rule is enforced by her horrific punishment for any who cross her – she skins them alive, shoots them high with the drug ‘Slo-Mo’ (which extends perceived time and heightens sensation), and throws them off the top floor of the tower complex to splatter in the central courtyard as a message to others.

The judges enter, and using Anderson’s ability they locate the man who skinned the three victims, Kay (Wood Harris). Ma-Ma knows Kay can identify and implicate her if interrogated – she cannot let the judges leave with Kay alive. Shutting the blast doors on the tower, Ma-Ma orders the inhabitants of Peach Trees to hunt and kill the judges – the doors will not be reopened until she knows they are dead. Dredd and Anderson must fight their way to the top, against a tower full of people who want them dead, or are too afraid of Ma-Ma to help them, in order to carry out Ma-Ma’s sentence (death) and escape.

Why did it rock my world?

Lena Headey as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3DFirst off, let’s talk about Ma-Ma. Yes, the name ‘Ma-Ma’ is annoying because it once again suggests that a woman’s power is rooted in her reproductive capacity, but the name is as deep as that goes, and it is at least in-world based on the character’s full name, Madelaine Madrigal. You can see why it was chosen. Ma-Ma is indisputably Lena Headey’s best role. Headey first came to my attention playing Sarah Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I was pleasantly surprised by the show, which was much truer to the original concept than any of the films after T2. Headey was a relatively weak link, though, achieving a passable impression of Linda Hamilton, the original Sarah Connor, but never really making the role her own. More recently, she has risen to fame as Cersei in HBO’s award winning TV production of George R R Martin‘s Game of Thrones. I thought this was a better role for her, and she has improved notably in the second season. But he role as Ma-Ma has taken her to a new level. This is the tough she never quite achieved as Sarah Connor. It’s beyond tough. Ma-Ma is a terrifying vision of a woman who really could sieze control and hold a 200 storey tower block in fear.

This may be the best role for a woman we have seen in a very, very long time; and even though Ma-Ma’s origin story is rooted in having been a prostitute, there is no question that her current power has anything to do with sex. Lena Headey is still a beautiful woman, even with that scar, but Ma-Ma couldn’t be further from Cersei on the philosophy of female power. When a man sexually abused Ma-Ma, she bit off his dick and seized his empire.

I mention that detail specifically because it underscores a theme of sexuality and power that is explored with nuance. Anderson also experiences a moment of sexual threat, and uses this vision of a woman violently taking her power back as a way of underlining that women can be physically threatening, even in the sexual context, too. It draws attention to the question of women and power and sex, and it offers a novel response in rejecting the accepted order that women should fear men in the sexual arena because of their physical superiority. We are reminded that in the sexual context men are uniquely vulnearble to women, also, and not in the usual way in which women are forced to manipulate men by subjugating themselves to male sexual desire. No, this is a physical and violent way in which women can seize power. It surprised and challenged me, which so few films succeed in doing on this topic.

Judge Anderson's perfectly coifed hairIn contrast to Ma-Ma, Anderson is much more feminine than I had expected from the trailers. It’s also disappointing to have yet another woman’s super-power lie in being able to sense the thoughts and emotions of others. It’s a power that can barely be called metaphorical for the old idea of ‘feminine intuition’ – the concept used to condescendingly attribute to women a sixth sense that supposedly makes up for their inability to cope with masculine concepts like logic and rational thought. She is also annoyingly blessed with an artificially curled and implausible hairstyle that manages to stay undisturbed almost until the last frame. Nevertheless, it is clear that this film is not so much a film about how awesome Judge Dredd is (although he is that) as an origin story for Anderson. She’s the rookie in this picture, and we’re viewing her fairly impressive baptism of fire. One is not left at the end of the movie with any impression that she is lacking in mental or physical toughness.

Dredd himself is excellent. I have an affection for the 1995 film, Judge Dredd, that I know few fans of the comics share, but I’m here to reassure you that Urban’s Dredd is a million miles from Stallone’s. Urban was a surprise choice for the ultimate-square-jaw-grim-face, Dredd. Hard to see the elven Éomer or the enthusiastically good humoured Bones as a potential Judge Dredd, but I’ve come to realise that Urban is something of a chameleon. He plays this role to perfection, complete with the extreme down-turned mouth for which Judge Dredd is known, yet somehow avoiding caricature. He brings the requisite gravitas to the picture whilst never stooping to the implausible growl of Christian Bale‘s Batman. Moreover, he comfortably shares the screen with Ma-Ma and Anderson, balancing the task of marking the iconic figure he is playing whilst never over-powering his scenes.

In addition to good central casting, Dredd also stands out for its supporting cast. I’d like to see Wood Harris play something other than a drug dealer and thug, but he and Rakie Ayola are both good, and it’s nice to see more people of colour on our screens. The main characters are all white, alas, but they are the exception. Perhaps due to being largely filmed in South Africa, beyond the central three characters, virtually everyone else in this film is a person of colour. It’s such a relief to see a film where the crowds aren’t as white-washed as the leads. Moreover, I particularly enjoyed Rakie Ayola’s role as Chief Judge. We have seen increasing numbers of women in senior positions in film and television, but rarely women of colour, and as I have commented elsewhere, this is not the progressive statement it appears to be. These women are almost universally set up to be undermined by their more intelligent, more charismatic, excentric and rebellious male subordinates. This is not the case with the Chief. She clearly knows exactly what she is doing and exactly how to handle both Dredd and Anderson to make them get the best out of each other.

As I commented to my geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, in our post-film animated discussion, we’re finally getting to see characters like Leia again. What’s that, you say, Princess Leia? The one who falls in love with Han Solo and needs rescuing from Darth Vader and from being Jabba’s improbable sex slave? If that’s how you read her character, we see things differently. Leia is the most consistently capable character in the Star Wars movies. Her only flaw as a female character is that by starting at a level of competence so far above the other main characters she doesn’t progress in terms of capability over the course of the three movies. This makes her more of a feature for the male characters to bounce off in their progression, and means that any character development she undergoes must be emotional. Nevertheless, after Han and Luke have thoroughly bungled their attempt to rescue her, Leia rescues herself – as she does also once she has been captured by Jabba the Hutt. Or did you forget who it was who strangled that fearsome mobster to death with the chains of her own slavery?

Like Leia, both the Chief Judge and Ma-Ma start the film as generals, and they remain impressively competent throughout. Dredd does not need to undermine them by showing them up as silly women that he can run rings around – rather, he is more impressive because he is valued by so impressive a woman as the Chief Judge, and because he is pitted against so impressive an adversary as Ma-Ma. Other writers take note: you don’t have to make women look silly in order to make men look good. In fact, if your men only look good against silly and improbably powerful women, you’re undermining yourself.

However, the fourth main character, after Dredd, Anderson, and Ma-Ma, is not the Chief Judge or Kay, it is the setting. It’s frustrating, but I can’t find any images of the interior of Peach Trees that would really show you what I’m talking about. You catch glimpses of it in the trailer above, but it doesn’t really give you a clear idea. The vistas of the mega-city are only a part of it. The interiors are like a run-down, dirty inversion of a Logan’s Run style future. You can see the artistry and beauty in the design of the Peach Trees central courtyard, but whatever the architect intended, Peach Trees has become a slum. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Dredd embodies the sort of dystopic vision we haven’t seen in a long time. This is art. And the art direction of this film is stunning – beyond compare in recent history.

Concept, technology, and technique have come together in this movie to create not only a vision of Dredd’s future, but a vision of the future of film – the vision that was still-birthed in Prometheus and conceived in Avatar. This is 3D beautiful and unintrusive as it was in The Amazing Spider-man, but moving beyond creating something beautiful and dynamic in a well-made-but-not-conceptually-original superhero movie. This is the construction of a fully-realised world, visually beautiful, but also ugly and dirty and dynamic and violent and fully integrated with the plot and its themes. Pete Travis and Anthony Dod Mantle deserve oscars for this. There has not been a film that used light and camera angles and editing and CGI and the 3D technology like this ever.

But I doubt they will get the awards they deserve. This is Dredd’s opening week in the UK, and it wasn’t showing in our city’s most central cinema. The screening Lee and I went to was virtually empty. We’ve got to fill up the cinemas for this, guys. We have to make this film known and recognised for its achievement. Get out there. See it. Love it. Talk about it.

Reviewing through the Time Machine: Remembering Margaret Cavendish

Earlier today something came across my tumblr that perpetuated a common myth. Which is to say that ‘Mary Shelley invented science fiction’. Now, if you want to say that ‘Mary Shelley was the mother of science fiction’… OK, there’s probably a case for that. I don’t want to diss Mary Shelley and her achievement, but it’s important not to let Frankenstein eclipse an earlier work by a woman who was at least as revolutionary: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish.

Artwork used as part of the British Library’s ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it’ exhibition, quote from the The Blazing World; although painting was originally from a Rondo Veneziano album cover.

Written in 1666, and republished in 1668 alongside her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (AKA ‘science’ before there was such a term),The Blazing World was inspired by a visit to the Royal Society (Cavendish was the very first woman to do so). She looked down a microscope and it blew her mind to the possibilities of different forms of life.

The Blazing World is about a woman who journeys to a parallel world before we had a vocabulary for talking about parallel worlds, and before we had even imagined space travel. This ‘twin’ of the Earth was connected at the North Pole. Cavendish’s heroine’s ship is caught in a storm, driven off course, and washed up on this new world. There she encounters strange and wonderful people (before anyone envisioned aliens – although non-human sentient creatures were common in mythology and theology, these are the first I’m aware of whose different physiology is premised on their living in a different physical world). These people elect this strange woman to be their Empress and present to her many scientific marvels (including a submarine). Cavendish uses this set up to satirise her own society and explore a world where a woman was allowed power far beyond what Cavendish herself could hope to attain (even as a duchess with an unusually permissive husband and rare education).

This looks like a pretty clear case of science fiction to me. It not only has the science fiction tropes of soft SF (aliens, parallel worlds, advanced technology), I’d make a case for it being hard SF. The story seems fantastic to the modern eye, and the idea of another world just stuck on top of the Earth just seems bizarre. It’s likely that although Cavendish was permitted to enter the Royal Society and had an understanding of science beyond most people of the time (and certainly most women), she was still merely peeking into a world that she was largely barred from due to her gender. Yet she came away from her experience having gained a new perspective on the world based on scientific evidence and extrapolated a non-actual but plausible (based on the evidence available to her) premise upon which to base a work of fiction designed to transport readers to another world and use that world to make them reflect on this one. Definitions vary, but that sounds like science fiction to me.

Hence: Margaret Cavendish wrote the first work of science fiction, not Mary Shelley*.

The reason I think it is important to remember Margaret Cavendish’s ground-breaking work for the piece of genuinely original, genre-creating art that it is, is that there are reasons we remember Shelley, rather than Cavendish. It wasn’t easy to be a female writer when Shelley wrote, but it was next to impossible when Cavendish did. Writing was principally the preserve of wealthy and educated men. As Virginia Woolf so cleverly observed, it’s very difficult to write if you have no money of your own and no space and time to devote to writing (AKA A Room of One’s Own and £500 a year). You either had to be exceptionally wealthy and well-educated (in which case it would have been scandalous for you to engage in such an activity as a woman) or have a rich patron (which would have been exceptionally rare for a woman to obtain – the only one I can think of is Aemilia Lanyer, who had a female patron). Margaret Cavendish was the former: she was the Duchess of Newcastle, and she was generally judged to be mad. Samuel Peypes called her ‘mad, conceited and ridiculous’, according to Wikipedia (they don’t provide a direct reference for this, but the article does cite an extensive list of academic sources at the end). And I recall a lecture in which it was described how theatre-goers would go to the theatre to watch Margaret Cavendish at the theatre, for she was known for bizarre fashions, including going out in public topless.

Whether she was mad or not is unclear. Anyone reporting on her at the time is likely to have viewed her through the customs of the time. She must have been a real force of personality to achieve all she did, as well as having a very open-minded husband, and it’s clear that in certain ways she was pretty eccentric. But I think it’d take a real force-of-nature-style eccentricity for a woman to be published in the way she was at the time.

On the other hand, I’ve read some of her plays, and they’re pretty bad, it must be said. The Blazing World itself is intellectually exciting, but artistically a bit of a slog. In her defence, it was early long-form prose fiction, so she’d have had little by way of reference points to guide her style, and the idea is as blazing as the title suggests. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s equal to most equivalent works of the time.

Margaret Cavendish was a woman writing with few peers who was ridiculed for writing at all. That is why we have forgotten her. She would never have had the size of audience that was available to Shelley due to the advances in printing, and her writing was hardly likely to have been championed for inclusion in a gentleman’s literary education. She was seen as a curiosity at best. Virginia Woolf speculated of what life would have been like for a sister of Shakespeare, equal to him in talent and determination, but bereft of the opportunities he would have had simply by being male. She imagines an imaginative woman torn apart by passion and despair, shunned by society for rejecting the norms that confine her, ultimately killing herself. I can’t help but feel, reading this fictional account, that there goes Margaret Cavendish, but for her fortune and sympathetic husband. If she was mad (although I suspect she was not), we should not be surprised; and if she was forgotten, we should not be surprised, either. If they couldn’t silence her in life, they were unlikely to remember her in death.

So, I feel it’s important to say: ‘Yes, Mary Shelley was awesome and we should celebrate her epoch defining achievement; but also, no, she did not invent science fiction. Margaret Cavendish did, and more people should know that.’

*Obviously this comes with the caveat ‘that I am aware of’, but I suspect it’s fair. It’s really difficult to distinguish science from philosophy prior to the 17th Century, when Cavendish was writing. The Royal Society for improving Natural Knowledge was founded in 1660. Early modern thinking about natural philosophy is usually dated to have been sparked by Galileo’s work published in his controversial The Assayer (1623), which challenged the idea that the Church was the ultimate source of knowledge**, and birthed a movement towards observational investigation as an approach to finding things out about the world that became what we now call science. I suppose some might want to argue for Utopia, but I don’t see any science fiction elements in it, myself. It’s more of an extended ‘counterfactual’ as we would say in philosophy – or fantastic hypothetical used to explore a philosophical idea. It’s really a discussion of a possibility suggested by political philosophy rather than an extrapolation from empirical observation to non-actual, but physically possible, worlds, peoples, societies, and technologies (which is the definition I would lean towards if we’re discussing works that predate the term ‘science’).

** Wooyay – footnotes within footnotes, very 17th Century. Anyway: it should be noted that observational empirical philosophy of a sort can be dated back to Aristotle. The trouble is, Aristotle’s philosophy and observations became so dominant as to become stagnant dogma, assimilated into Church doctrine and taught in the Schools***.

*** Caveat on a caveat on a caveat: all of this is very euro-centric. I can only apologise for that. My knowledge of Margaret Cavendish comes from my studies for my BA, which even though it was supposed to be ‘English and Related Literatures’, was mostly English or American literature. My knowledge of the development of science and early modern philosophy come from teaching and studying early modern philosophy, but I must confess that English philosophy is still dominated by the analytic tradition, with a side bar on ‘Continental’ (i.e. continental Europe) philosophy, and with the European cannon of philosophy that leads up to the analytic/continental ‘split’. I’ve never been taught any world philosophy and have barely dabbled in it on my own time. I know even less on the relationship between science and philosophy in non-euro-centric cultures. Any comments on the origins of science fiction should thus be seen as comments on a largely european and american tradition.

Review: Prometheus

Film poster for PrometheusTitle: Prometheus
Cinematic Release: 2012
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, and Michael Fassbender
Written by: Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
Directed by: Sir Ridley Scott

There has been an awful lot of hype about this movie. There have been rumours both that it is an Alien prequel, and that it is not. I’ve tried to avoid all of it. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to see it after I heard Michael Fassbender was in it. This is not because of his acting ability – I thought he was excellent as Magneto – but rather because of the allegations that he broke his girlfriend’s nose and burst an ovarian cyst whilst dragging her alongside a car.

Ultimately the charges were dropped, as so often happens where a Hollywood star is involved, and I can’t find anything but rumours as to why. There are reports that she dropped the charges because she didn’t want to hurt his career (she later got back together with him), and (as far as my Google-fu can tell) unsubstantiated rumours that she was just making the accusation for the money, and that she had ‘done it before’ – i.e. accused another famous boyfriend of beating her up. I’m always curious when a woman is beaten up by two different men and it’s cast as her doing something before. Doing what, exactly? Getting beaten up? Daring to take the matter to court? If she was doing it for the money, she doesn’t seem to have got anything out of it. And while I know that women who are attracted to a certain type of man will make the mistake of following that attraction more than once, and even go back to a man who has beaten them, I can’t for the life of me see why a man would go back to a woman who had wrongfully accused him of beating her if there was no truth to the charges.

It’s a quandary. I believe in ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but I know that even proven guilty men are treated as innocent in Hollywood. Chris Brown beat Rihanna in a really quite horrific way. He turned himself in and was judged guilty of this crime. This year he was invited to present the Grammys, and the Grammys explained their decision as being that they felt they were the victims because they hadn’t been able to use him for a few years. This is a man who was convicted of an incredibly violent beating.

In most ordinary circumstances it is difficult for women to have their stories believed in cases of domestic violence; in Hollywood the industry feels victimised when confronted by the moral failings of its stars and the woman is blamed for bringing ill-repute on the man. Which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if pressure was applied to Leasi Andrews to hush up, and hence why I don’t want to support Michael Fassbender by going to see movies that he is in, and why I find it a little disturbing to see people gushing over him.

Ellen RipleySo. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Prometheus, despite the hype. But then I saw the trailer, and I had to admit that it looked like it was going to be a significant cinematic event. And I reflected on the fact that this is a film by Ridley Scott. Ridley Scott gave me Thelma and Louise and the incandescently iconic Ripley from the original Alien films. If you haven’t read the incredibly powerful article ‘Ellen Ripley Saved My Life’, by Sady Doyle, you need to correct that. Because Ridley Scott doesn’t simply create and enable feminist icons, he makes films that have a powerful impact on real women’s lives, and if he had produced another work in the same vein as the Alien films that looked like it might be as powerful and beautiful as the trailer convinced me this film could be, I wanted to see it. Michael Fassbender is just one actor. He wasn’t convicted of anything. Did I really want to condemn the work of all the other actors, and of Ridley Scott because of what one man might have done? If Ridley was prepared to use this actor, shouldn’t I be prepared to watch this film?

I don’t know. It still feels a bit like I’m making excuses for compromising my morals. If you scroll down to the bottom of that link I gave you on the Chris Brown thing, you can see from the comments I add that I’ve struggled with this before with other actors I liked about whom nothing has been proven. I guess my compromise is to go see the film, and then review it, presenting all my qualms and leaving you to draw your own conclusions. Comments will be disabled on this post because I suspect that any debate about Mr Fassbender will be along similar lines to what I have seen repeatedly in looking into discussions of this elsewhere on the net. I just wanted to make this better known, as the net has been unusually quiet on this one.

But for now, let us set that behind us and discuss the film itself:


Two scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green), discover ancient artifacts from disparate ancient civilisations from around the world that they believe are an invitation from aliens who created life on Earth. Their evidence is apparently compelling enough to convince a vastly wealthy company to commission a mission to go to the place indicated by the cave paintings and see what’s there. The head of the company, Peter Weyland (Pearce), is an old man, and dying, and he wants to fund a mission so that mankind can go talk to their makers.

Film still of Prometheus crew landing in front of the 'pyramid'Everyone on the mission goes into stasis for the two years it takes to get there. Except, that is, for David (Fassbender), who is a robot created by the man who heads the company. When they reach their destination he wakes everyone up and they go down to the planet to see what can be seen. What they find are the apparently deserted ruins of a ‘pyramid’. As David has been learning the languages of all the ancient civilisations that contained the markers that led them here, he can now read the language of these ancient aliens by working out what their symbols mean. Using this ability he is able to trigger a holographic projection which leads them to a dead alien body – the alien was decapitated by a closing door. Entering the room they find a massive humanoid stone head surrounded by metallic objects that are totally-not-alien-eggs.

Room with giant stone head and totally-not-alien-eggs

Yeah, there’s no way this is an Alien prequel

Everything looks pretty dead inside this tomb-like pyramid, but David notices that by opening the room they have changed the atmosphere, and the surface of the totally-not-alien-eggs starts to change in response. Before they can investigate further, a powerful storm draws the crew back to the ship… except for Milburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield (Sean Harris), who are stranded in the pyramid, which is maybe not quite as dead as it first appeared…

How was it?

I have to admit, Prometheus impressed me. Part of it was just that I haven’t seen a proper science-fiction movie in so long. I love me some superhero films, but I miss the part of me that used to get inspired to dream about space and other worlds. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that was really trying for science-fiction in this way since Moon, and I have to say, just like Moon it was very pretty. This was grown up CGI. CGI that doesn’t even look like CGI, but is taking us to other worlds, freeing us from planet Earth. I suppose the other major contender of recent years would be Avatar, but in its constant bright, sunny colours, Avatar lacked the gritty, visual realism-combined-with-wonder of Moon and Prometheus.

That said, I’m not going to stress the realism point beyond the visuals. My geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, was much less impressed by the film than I was, and I think I can understand why. In terms of themes and big ideas, this was science fiction, but the actual science was pretty light. The trouble with doing a prequel (or prequel-like-film) is that you are constrained by the existing set-up. There is no room for the advances we have made in computing to be reflected in the vision of AI presented to us. David is fixed in the same vogue as Bishop and Ash, and in fact condemned to being an earlier model. He therefore maintains a sort of aloofness and affected lack of emotion that no longer seems plausible.

I’m not prejudging the matter of whether robots really could feel emotion (my personal feeling is yes, but the matter is still hotly debated) but rather how well they might perform it. Anyone who has ever messed around with a chatbot will know that whilst they can still sometimes be hilarious in their mistakes, they’re also based on programs that learn from those they interact with. They therefore work on a principle that allows them to seem increasingly like us, and not therefore distanced by an artificial aloofness. The idea that a computer as advanced as David clearly is would not thus be able to perform human behaviour and emotions more seamlessly than he does is simply ludicrous in 2012 in a way that it wasn’t in the 80s. Not that there aren’t hints that David does have emotions despite what everyone says, but his performance of them is still marked by an attempt to project ‘otherness’ that I don’t find wholly convincing. This is not, incidentally, a knock at Fassbender – it’s a part of the writing, and I’m pretty much sure it was a directorial decision as well.

Which brings me to another point. The technology required to produce a being like David… maybe we’ll have it before the century is out, but the tech to get us to other worlds? No. The technology that fills this film is simply too far in advance of our own. I wish I could say I thought we’d see it in my lifetime, but in all honesty, I don’t believe it.

The other major split with realism comes towards the end of the film, so this will be slightly spoilery, but I don’t feel I can adequately review some of the most significant aspects of the film without covering it. Basically, there is an instance of alien impregnation. The protagonist is having none of that, however, and manages to haul herself into an automated surgical machine (one designed solely for use on the male body, no less) and gets it to perform an abortion on her by telling it to remove the foreign body. Nevermind that her whole womb would be a foreign body on a man – let’s assume she’s a computer wiz and knew just what to input to prevent such a mistake. Having had abdominal surgery, after which the wound is sealed by staples, she fights off the surprisingly deadly alien that had been ripped prematurely from her body, struggles out of the room, and, dosed up on painkillers, manages to run, jump, fight, abseil – basically everything that is required of an action hero, for the rest of the movie. The actor, to her credit, does a pretty ace job of acting like this really fucking hurts, but you can’t get around the fact that it seems unlikely that she would have been able to stand, let alone walk or run, so soon after such an operation.

I’m in two minds on this last point. On the one hand, it’s laughably implausible. But on the other, I wonder if it would seem so if she were a male action hero. Male action heroes routinely suffer injuries that should leave them out for the count, and yet they go on to save the day – usually with less honest expression of pain than Noomi Rapace delivers. There’s a part of me that’s kind of cheering to see such a bold statement that simple possession of a womb and the ability to get pregnant does not render a person weak and helpless. Of course, Ripley was a more believable illustration of this, but I also appreciate the counterpoint to the backtracking that seemed to place all Ripley’s strength in a mothering instinct in Aliens. Elizabeth Shaw is a character who does want children, but she acts quickly to get the abortion she needs to survive. With the sort of draconian legislation that has been proposed in the US recently to further remove the power women have over their own bodies, such a bold pro-choice statement is actually pretty welcome. A few years ago I might have wondered if something that drastic was really necessary, but given the breathtaking attitudes expressed in the link above I kind of feel like the symbolic sledgehammer might have a role at this place and time on this issue.

Props should also be given (and with fewer qualms) to Charlize Theron and her portrayal of Meredith Vickers. Vickers is tough, commanding, and capable of burning a man alive if that is what’s necessary to save her team. Yet she is not frigid or unattractive as such female characters are so often portrayed. She is allowed to have a sexuality, but she does not need to use her sexuality to control her male subordinates. It slightly grated that Janek had to ‘educate’ her in asking for sex if that’s what she wanted, but this was slightly alleviated when her decision to follow his suggestion is given as a command for him to come to her quarters at a place and time of her choosing.

I also appreciated the racial diversity in this film. It’s a rare thing to have a female action hero who is not sexualised up the wazoo, it’s rarer still to have a female, mixed-race protagonist. Although the cast is still predominantly white, the inclusion of Idris Elba as another prominent character and Benedict Wong in a supporting role still help to make this a more racially mixed movie than your average Hollywood blockbuster.

The other major facet of this film was an exploration of religious belief. Unfortunately, this was not as well-developed as I would have liked. Although other belief-systems are mentioned in passing, the only religion any of the characters express any devotion to is Christianity. The over-arching message seemed to slightly awkwardly equate hope and religious belief (especially Christianity). Whilst I wouldn’t put Prometheus on a par with Signs for heavy-handed religious symbolism, the film was clearly attempting to evoke deep questioning here, and, for me anyway, only achieved something fairly shallow. There was a gesture towards a discussion about the relationship between religious belief and the human drive to seek answers in a universe that rarely gives them, but the narrow focus on Christianity artificially limited the bounds of that discussion. Equally, although a few characters in the film professed atheism, this was too often equated with not wanting answers, or with giving up, which, as an atheist philosopher, I find bizarre and a little offensive. Religion is not the only place human beings have turned to in search of answers for the ‘big’ questions about where we have come from, what life means, and how we should live. In a film called ‘Prometheus‘, which frequently underscores the fact that the fact that aliens might have created human beings, there is surprisingly little substance to its discussion of what this might mean for human belief systems, and the focus on Christianity, to the extent of making it happen at Christmas oddly polarised the debate, as though Christianity and a cold, empty atheism were the only options.

That said, I still give it props for trying. My hope is that this film will give other film makers the jolt they need to start thinking about what we can do with science fiction again. We have the technology to make it look pretty, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to just keep giving bigger and bigger budgets to films that just roll out the familiar tropes against a backdrop of very pretty scenery. Take us to other worlds and use that to make us consider other ways of viewing our world. That’s what I love science fiction for, and I have to give Prometheus some respect for bringing that to our screens again.

Prometheus: it’s worth your time. At the very least, it’s extremely pretty.

Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games film posterI went to see The Hunger Games last night, and I’m glad I did. I probably wouldn’t have bothered if Lee hadn’t said he wanted to as a part of our wine-and-geek-movies cinema thing. The reason for that is that I’d heard a lot of mixed reports of the film (and the books) in the run up to its release. Some people really liked it, some people thought that it was a) a Battle Royale rip off, and b) an unrealistic Mary-Sue/Supergirl-athon. To be fair, I’m always suspicious of accusations of the latter; I have a lot of sympathy for Comic Book Girl’s take down of the whole concept and its use in criticising women for writing wish-fulfillment fantasies where male wish-fulfillment fantasies (Batman, Superman, etc. etc.) are considered so natural that we don’t even think to call them Marty Stus, and therefore erroneously think of Mary Sues as a somewhat childish, primarily female phenomenon. I think the concept in the abstract has a use in highlighting poorly written wish-fulfillment characters, but its application often reveals a gender bias that sees it being over-applied to perfectly decent female characters, whilst leaving male counter-parts untouched, situating them under other, more positive labels, such as ‘architypal’.

But anyway, I’ll get into why exactly both these accusations were unfair in the case of The Hunger Games once I’ve given you a feel for the plot.


Once upon a time there was a great rebellion. It was so devastating that the authorities decided that harsh measures were needed to keep the population in check. They introduced The Hunger Games. Every year each district of Panem would send two youths, a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death in an arena. The winner would receive riches beyond the dreams of the twelve districts outside the Capitol. The ‘tributes’ are chosen by lottery. You can increase your chances of being chosen by taking food in exchange for entering your name a second, (third, fourth, etc.) time for the lottery, and poverty outside of the Capitol is so extreme that many are prepared to do this.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 16-year-old girl who has been supporting her family since her father died. Her mother effectively broke down at his death, and Katniss assumed the role of provider for her younger sister. She does this primarily through poaching – hunting birds and squirrels with her bow and selling them on the black market. She’s very good with her bow.

When her sister, who is only 12, is chosen for the games on her very first entry to the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is thrust into the strange and opulent world of the Capitol for a brief period of training, receiving advice from a ‘mentor’ (someone who has won a previous game) and trying to create both a likeable and memorable impression on the masses. Rich ‘sponsors’ can pay for items to be parachuted into the Games for tributes that they like, and these can make the difference between life and death, so creating the right impression is vital.

Eventually, though, the games themselves must begin and Katniss enters a fight for survival that can be as much about finding water and shelter as it is about killing and avoiding being killed.


This film was much longer than I expected it to be, and that was much to its benefit. It’s true that the idea of a deadly gameshow is not original – The Running Man springs to mind for me more readily than Battle Royale, but comparisons to both are valid. That, in itself, is no sin. The Hunger Games is interesting in being written post the reality TV explosion, as opposed to those books and films that merely predicted the slippery slope of our voyeuristic tendencies. By taking the time to outline the world in detail before thrusting Katniss into the Games the film allowed itself to be much more intelligent, vibrant, and engaging than a mere copy-cat. Indeed, in the UK and US at least, fears about reality TV ending in increasingly dangerous games seem to have proved unfounded. Big Brother has closed its doors, and the most successful reality shows nowadays tend to be those that either skew more towards talent shows or ‘docutainment’. Total Wipeout is tamer than tame, and really little more than a modern day It’s a Knockout. If you think shows like The Apprentice depict some kind of survival of the fittest I think you have a rather tame idea of ‘survival’ (or ‘fittest’, for that matter). Like Battle Royale, The Hunger Games understands that excessive violence in reality TV is unlikely to arise purely for entertainment; sustainment of the sort of cruelty involved in the Games requires some sort of government mandate and enforcement. However, unlike Battle Royale, The Hunger Games is distinctly conscious that the entertainment aspect is also vital, and the lengthy portion of the film devoted to exploring life in the Capitol, amongst the wealthy and powerful who perpetuate and orchestrate the perpetuation of the games, is vital to building plausibility and character into the film.

What The Hunger Games gets right is the direct link in our fears around our own voyeurism to what we know to have happened in societies like ancient Rome. Gladiatorial combat was both entertainment and a political vehicle. Or so films like Gladiator have taught me. I’m not claiming to be an expert historian – I’m not. But I think there is a truth to the idea of crowd-control via spectacle and the mixture of fear and voyeurism in some of the more cruel and brutal methods of punishment in the past. The names of the characters in The Hunger Games make the connection to the Roman spectacle explicit: Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones) are the flamboyant presenters of the games, whilst Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) runs the Games, and President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) quietly pulls the strings behind the scenes. It’s an intelligent analogy that shows more thought as to what it would take for games like these to not only get started but to be maintained than is evident in the earlier iconic riffs on this theme.

Effie Trinket, advertising 'Capitol Colours Nail Polish'Similarly, the opulent wealth of the Capitol is strikingly realised. I both wanted their wealth and was disgusted by its comfortable maintenance in the face of the extreme poverty of the other districts. In our time of economic crisis it’s perhaps an easy hit to highlight the Occupy movement’s mantra concerning 1% of the people possessing 99% of the wealth, but I give them credit for doing this well, and for making it entertaining. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is never less than fabulous, coiffed to perfection and with light-touch comic timing to die for. And the sleek, high levels of technology make me want their world, even as I despise what it is founded on. And that’s what a cautionary tale should do. It fails if it doesn’t make the future it warns against seem plausible. Even more impressive, they made Games seem like something I’d actually want to watch. Would I actually? I don’t know, I hope not, but the way they build the show makes it appealing to root for some tributes and dislike others. I can see how that would take hold, and that’s disturbing. Just as it should be.

As for Katniss, anyone who thinks she’s a Mary Sue just because she knows her way around a bow and seems smart and capable is not worth listening to. Katniss is not some kind of supergirl. She has one notable skill and demonstrates some intelligence, whilst never being presented as dramatically out of the ordinary. She is not one of the best fighters in the Games – in fact, quite a few people are demonstrably better, and even at her chosen weapon she is not an unerring shot. Her advantage lies in lying low and being likeable. She’s self-sacrificing without being holier-than-thou. She’s beautiful, but never overtly sexualised. She believes that she will kill if necessary, but she doesn’t want to.

There are only a couple of flaws in the movie. One is simply that Katniss has zero chemistry with either of her love interests. Her relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is interesting, and well-played by both. I suspect there’s no chemistry there because there’s not meant to be – for Katniss, at least, it is all an act. She believes that by feigning love for Peeta for the cameras she raises her own chance of survival. It’s an interesting plot, but only intellectually. It never really grabbed my emotions because I never really wondered if she might really be falling for him. Whereas her love back home, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), is largely uninteresting and doesn’t really get enough screen time to register as anything but slightly annoying.

The other flaw is that the Games themselves are rather predictable. I don’t want to give too much away, but the level of jeopardy never seemed very high to me once it became clear that Katniss was not to be permitted too much moral ambiguity. There’s an interesting tension set up behind the fact that survival dictates that forming alliances is initially useful, but any friends made will later have to be turned on. Katniss voices earlier in the film that she may be prepared to kill, as she will do whatever it takes to get back to her little sister, but as the Games progress it becomes clear that the plot is working to avoid putting her in that situation as much as possible.

I don’t want to complain too much. It’s a 12A, there’s only so much moral ambiguity allowed for the protagonist in a film aimed at younger teens. I still enjoyed it, and I recommend it to you. This is not a film to change the history of cinema, and it’s unlikely to blow your mind on any fundamental level, but it’s well made, thoughtful, and very entertaining. I imagine a teenager watching this and having good reason to find it thought-provoking and memorable. It’s certainly one of the better science-fiction films of recent years, and I think it will enter the science fiction canon of films-other-geeks-will-expect-you-to-have-seen – if not for my generation, then certainly for the generation who are turning 12 now.

Cinna, sporting some bitchin' eyeliner.

Cinna. You can't really see, here, but he is sporting some bitchin' eyeliner.

Moreover, it’s a class-act on both gender and race. A female lead who believably holds her own, carries the show, and is allowed two love interests, neither of whom render her a gibbering idiot who will be distracted from her own goals by the advent of their affection. There are also numerous non-white, non-token, non-stereotypical characters. Granted, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there were only two races in the world – black and white – but this is still a step up from virtually every film I’ve seen in the last few years. I adored, in particular, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’s stylist. In fact, in general I loved the gender play, in this movie. Whilst there are no explicitly gay characters (there may be many, but if so, their sexuality is not highlighted), but make-up seems to be something that it is perfectly OK for a man to sport. And whilst we’re here, let’s spread a little love for Seneca’s beard:

Seneca Crane's most stylish beard


You should take some time out of your life to see this movie. It is worth you attention, and is both pretty and entertaining besides.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 8

(Index to all Torchwood posts here.)

Talk about pay off!


Torchwood are taken by Kira Nerys Angelo’s granddaughter, Olivia Colasanto, to his swanky mansion. Angelo’s managed to extend his life by eating right and ‘keeping his temperature down’ or something, but he couldn’t halt aging. He’s an old, old man, and not even conscious. Apparently he has nothing to do with Miracle Day, but he does know the people who are involved. Three families – those of the three men we saw ‘buying’ Jack in the meat locker: Ablemarch, Costerdane, and Frines. As I speculated, they didn’t have Jack, but they did collect his blood (although Jack is convinced his blood is normal). Angelo’s been watching Jack for years – apparently Olivia didn’t get Gwen to kidnap Jack to kill him, but to keep him safe (Gwen and me both think this is a bloody crazy way to go about it). With the names, Torchwood hopes to find the Families, but there’s no trace of those names anywhere (incidentally, I looked, this is not true of our world).

As this is resolved, the CIA arrives – Rex has engineered to make a ‘slip-up’, letting them know where Torchwood is. Brian Friedkin (Wayne Knight) charges in and Rex catches him admitting he’s working for the Families on the lens cam. Allen Shapiro (John De Lancie) is the man in charge, he arrests Friedkin and ships both him and Olivia off to the ‘safe house’… or he would have done, if Friedkin hadn’t triggered a bomb once he was in the car (apparently the Families have his family). Much verbal sparring occurs between Shapiro and Torchwood -i t was a thing of beauty to watch! But alas, Gwen loses this round and winds up getting packed off to the UK.

While Jack is paying his respects to Angelo, though, Angelo unexpectedly dies. It turns out that Angelo has obtained a ‘null field’, which can cancel out the morphic field that caused Miracle Day, and placed it under his bed. Naturally, the CIA are very interested in this thing, but Jack refuses to tell them what it is, knowing its potential uses. He persuades Rex and Esther to help him escape with the ‘Alpha’ panel. (There’s some hint that the null field requires both this panel and Jack’s DNA to make it work, but it’s not clear.)

Meanwhile, things aren’t going so well for Oswald Danes. Oswald requests a prostitute: an adult one. He wants to change. But she freaks out when he wants to talk rather than just engage in something more mechanical. She reveals that there has been talk of classifying Oswald ‘category 0’ – i.e. a bad enough criminal to burn alive with the category 1s. Oswald confronts Jilly about this and she admits it, revealing her personal disgust with him. He hits her and she responds in kind, fighting him off. She chases him from her room, promising revenge. A man from the Families then shows up to praise her and shoot her assistant, who was a CIA spy.

Back with the CIA, we learn that Charlotte Wills, Esther’s friend, is a Family spy, although Torchwood doesn’t know it yet. Jack et al make their move, but Jack is shot and Esther is seen helping him escape. She has to go with him, and the episode closes with her driving through the desert, not knowing what to do next, as Jack lies dying in the seat behind her.

So how was it?

Stonking. Let’s start with the awesome SF alumni that has passed through Torchwood: Miracle Day. In order:

Wayne Knight – Brian Friedkin (Torchwood)/Denis Nerdy (Jurassic Park)

Brian Friedkin Dennis Nerdy

Dichen Lachman – Lyn Peterfield (Torchwood)/Sierra (Dollhouse)

Lyn Peterfield Sierra

Nana Visitor – Olivia Colasanto (Torchwood) Kira Nerys (Star Trek)

Olivia Colasanto Kira Nerys

John De Lancie – Allen Shapiro (Torchwood) Q (Star Trek)

Allen Shapiro Q

And I gotta say: John De Lancie was the icing on the cake. Him and Nana Visitor facing off against each other was electrifying. I am in full geeksquee mode, my friends.

Apart from that, though, I have to say that the episode generally held together exceptionally well. Good dramatic tension throughout. I even enjoyed the Oswald/Jilly plot. The moment with the prostitute was very nicely handled. Bill Pullman is still struggling a bit not to make Oswald a caricature, but the script is doing very nicely in handling something extremely complicated and controversial. The category ‘0’ element could feel gimmicky or obvious, but the way it’s introduced, presaged by an under-breath comment by Jilly about not having to deal with Oswald much longer, worked for it. It’s melding in with carefully developed layering of character. Jilly is so much about image and polishedness, the hints to the under-surface and what she really feels, yet is prepared to ignore to get the job done, have always been so fleetingly handled that they did not impair her immaculate veneer. But there’s always the hanging question: ‘If she really feels that way, why is she doing this? What’s under that surface that makes this possible?’ And here we get another hint – she does have her limits, she’s clearly disgusted at the thought of getting Oswald a child, but prepared to do it – unprompted, she asks ‘how old?’, and clearly doesn’t believe him when he says he wants a woman. But when we find out that she knows there’s only so much longer she has to do this we see just a crack further into her psyche. Somehow the timeframe allows her to excuse it to herself… yet that’s not much of an excuse. She genuinely seems prepared to procure an under-age girl for him.

Oswald is also proving interesting. We see that he unquestionably does have a violent rage – in particular, that he expects women to be cowed by it, as though he has a right to expect them to bend to his will, and any knock to that sense of entitlement nearly drives him over the edge. Yet he, too, has been restraining himself. He does not attack the prostitute. That the anger and entitlement is there is evident, and, however much he may want to change, those attitudes emerge in his inability to refrain from the body-language and tone of intimidation. But Jilly, he cannot restrain himself from. Her calm assumption of safety in his presence has been impressive throughout. Despite being beautiful and coiffed within an inch of her life, Jilly walks at all times in Oswald’s presence as though it is simply taken for granted that her beauty is not for him. In every moment where she refuses to behave in a way that acknowledges his threat she robs him of power. It’s quietly awe-inspiring, especially when contrasted with the behaviour of the prostitute, who is firm in her client-boundaries, but cannot conceal how uncomfortable and afraid interacting with him as a human being makes her feel. Where at first Jilly felt like a cookie-cutter evil corporate redhead, I now think she’s a bit of a feminist icon – not least because her moral ambiguity as a character is not compromised for the sake of showing her strength as a woman. She manages to control and display her beauty without, at any time, using it to manipulate her charge with sexual power.

Not that this doesn’t have an effect. Jilly’s attitude has clearly created an interest and frustration in Oswald, as evidenced in his preference for a red-headed prostitute as well as the way he cracks and responds violently when he learns that she has known he was to be categorised ‘0’ – a sort of betrayal, although she’s correct that he should have seen it coming. The thing is, Jilly has in no way provoked him with her sexuality – she has never used it to try and control him, she has not ‘led him on’. Even when he breaks and attacks her she responds not by cowering, but with rage. She fights back – first physically, and then with words, as he flees both her and his own aggression. Her veneer is bloodied, but it does not break her – she is not cowed, she reveals the strength that accompanies the emotion she usually keeps so carefully contained.

In other words, she responds in the way a male character would, without ever once having to present as ‘unfemale’. Reread as male actions: the aggressor attacks and he responds with violence, giving as good as he gets; having fought the monster off he voices his rage at his foe’s fleeing back, promising revenge. Even the fight is good: it is neither a hand-bags-at-dawn cat-fight, nor a super-polished when-exactly-did-she-learn-a-martial-art stunt-artist showdown. She neither has to be Harmony flailing comically at an equally skill-less Xander, nor a Buffy empowered with physical abilities beyond the ken of normal women. Don’t get me wrong – she doesn’t have the physical strength or skill to hold off a sustained attack from a man the size of Oswald, but she doesn’t have to. The mere fact of her unrestrained resistance is enough – as the prostitute says: he’s not used to women who fight back.

So anyway – you remember when I said I didn’t think I could ever be interested in these two? Well, yeah.

The rest of the plot is also well-handled. I love the contest of force-of-personality. I love that Angelo has not stayed young, and Jack doesn’t care. I love Jack using the null-field to have a private conversation with Esther and Rex, thrumming with tension because we know that at any moment someone could notice that their mouths are moving and there’s no noise coming out. I love that Jack could say ‘You have to get me out of here’ without losing his machismo. Very rare that a male character gets to say that without seeming impossibly weak, but in this situation it’s a must not only because Jack is mortal, but also because his being there is a danger to others as well, because he can be exploited. He is both expressing his vulnerability and his wish to protect. Nicely done.

And in the background the world is in an economic melt-down that’s eerily familiar.

People often tell me that they find immortal characters boring – that they would neither want to read, nor write about them, nor would they want to play them in an RPG. I love that Torchwood: Miracle Day has taken this much maligned trope and proved that it is anything but dull. Just takes a bit of imagination, that’s all, and these writers certainly have that.


This episode was also great for the hints and speculations. Couldn’t miss hearing the Master’s drums in the beeps of the machines registering Angelo’s death. But, of course, they’re not really the Master’s drums, they’re the sound he heard in the time vortex. Then there’s the fact that the badies are called the ‘Families’. ‘Family of Blood’, anyone? They were looking for immortality, also. And we saw in the trailer for next week further talk about feeling like something there but being unable to see it, which makes me think ‘Silence’ again, but it’s not really their MO. I dunno if the writers are just playing with us or if any of this connects. I’m sure we’d have heard about it if the Master were coming back, but the sound of those drums is certainly a very Time Lordish thing.

Guess we’ll have to wait and see!