Tag Archives: science fiction

The Adjustment Bureau (US 2011)

Anthony Mackie (nearest camera) and John Slattery (in focus)

I’ve been asked to run a day event on ‘dystopias’ – especially as envisaged by the American SF writer Philip K. Dick. A good excuse then to catch The Adjustment Bureau which may become my study text. It’s interesting to note that most of the films based on Dick’s work have drawn on the short stories that he wrote as a ‘pulp’ writer for various magazines in the 1950s (the exceptions are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (as Blade Runner), A Scanner Darkly and Confessions of a Crap Artist). Radio Free Albumeth is awaiting a distributor, I think. This short story focus may be because some of the early 1950s work is now in the public domain or was acquired cheaply some time ago – Dick only saw a few dollars from many of his stories.

Orbit Science Fiction was published for just five issues in 1953-4

The Adjustment Bureau is ‘freely adapted’ from a story called ‘Adjustment Team’ (written in 1953 and published in Orbit Science Fiction in 1954). Writer-director George Nolfi has expanded the 24 pages offered by Dick to a full length feature script. In the process he has changed the central character from an ‘ordinary Joe’ into a potential Presidential candidate and placed him in a romance and a form of ‘conspiracy thriller’. Dick’s story was much simpler – but more terrifying in its exposure of the ‘unreality of the everyday’. It begins with a talking dog – Dick wrote several ‘fantasy stories’ in the early 1950s – and finishes with an open ending but one that is definitely not part of a romance. Witnessing an ‘adjustment’ is a much more terrifying experience than is depicted in the film. Dick’s protagonist is married and his wife doesn’t trust him. Having said that, Nolfi appears to know his Dickian stories and several aspects of his film work in recognisably ‘Dickian’ ways. Overall, I’m not sure that the film works completely but it is an enjoyable diversion and as Dick adaptations go it sits alongside Imposter and Screamers as one of the better ones. (I would agree that the narrative also resembles those of classic TV shows such as The Outer Limits.)

The simple premise of this dystopia is that a mysterious group of ‘adjusters’ are able to ‘fix’ future events by carefully nudging individuals into particular meetings and situations. At various points of history and geography they can then ‘stop’ time and re-arrange the world to ensure that events follow a set pattern. This is a perfect scenario for speculative fiction since some schmuck somewhere will inevitably fall through the gaps in the planning. In this case it is an adjustment operative who dozes off and fails to stop David Norris (Matt Damon) from boarding his morning bus to the office. As a consequence, Damon not only meets again the young woman who inspired him to make a great speech after he lost a senatorial election but also to arrive at his office in the middle of an ‘adjustment’.

Norris now finds himself trapped in a situation where he will risk forcible ‘re-adjustment’ (or a ‘lobotomy’ as he terms it) if he pursues Elise (Emily Blunt) the woman who has stolen his heart. The Adjustment Team warn him in no uncertain terms about what might happen. They appear to be like ‘angels’ in their powers and motives. At this point astute film fans might think of A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven in the US), the classic Powell and Pressburger film in which David Niven defies Heaven in order to pursue his love for Kim Hunter. Unfortunately, Matt Damon isn’t David Niven – or Roger Livesey. He’s a good actor and clearly a bright guy but for me he doesn’t have any charisma. I’ve read that some think he is the ‘sexiest man in America’, but I can’t see it. Emily Blunt on the other hand is terrific in this film. I’m not quite sure if she’s meant to be a Brit in the script but she doesn’t attempt a strong American accent and her dialogue is peppered with colloquial British English. I don’t think I’ve heard someone dismissed as a ‘tool’ (i.e. a ‘prick’, a ‘dick’, a penis) since the 1970s. (I realise ‘tool’ means something else in modern American slang, but this is Elise/Blunt speaking.) And to hear an actress in a Hollywood movie saying ‘bugger’ is a joy. In fact there seems to be quite a lot of swearing that’s got past the censors for a 12A. The image below is quite suggestive of all kinds of possibilities for Nolfi’s mise en scène and the overall look of the film lensed by John Toll (New York locations in particular) is attractive but I’m not sure it all adds up to much.

Elise (Emily Blunt) and David (Matt Damon) meet 'by chance' at the start of the narrative.

In some ways Damon is perfect as a Dickian ‘ordinary Joe’ – rather than as Presidential material. The possibility that the adjusters are some kind of divine intervention also fits in with the Dickian sense of paranoia and interest in various religious ideas which is there in most of the stories but comes to the fore in the later work. Dressing the adjusters with coats and hats like 1950s/60s FBI agents (see the image at the start of the post) is a stroke of genius and casting Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp is also a good move. Overall then this movie has things going for it. Of course, a lot of the latter part of the narrative is based on chase sequences. But if that draws in audiences and makes a Dickian adaptation more successful, I guess that is a positive.

The reviews/user comments on the film are interesting, partly because of the divergence towards science fiction or romance rather than both and for the inevitable claims that the film is ‘Inception lite’. The truth is that Inception was inspired by Dick, as are dozens of contemporary films. In fact the Dickian view of the world has now almost become the norm – in itself a Dickian outcome. Dick wrote over a period of thirty years or so. He was amazingly prolific in terms of story ideas and his writing developed during major changes in American society – and dramatic changes in his own personal situation. Adapters are able to take the ideas and attempt to fashion them into workable narratives for contemporary audiences but I’m not sure that mainstream Hollywood is the best place for such adaptations. Presumably Nolfi needed Hollywood to stage his story and this meant that he needed a star like Damon. An adaptation of the original story closer to Dick’s intention would have worked well without stars in a low-budget flick. It’s the terror of discovering that behind the façade of everyday reality there is a team of adjusters that should be the draw, not the excitement of a chase or the possibility of a fulfilled romance. Dick did feature strong emotional relationships in some stories – but rarely are they fulfilled.

Never Let Me Go (UK/US 2010)

Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan as they appear in the 1980s segment of the film.

Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.

Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).

Audience expectations

Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.

How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.

Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.

Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.

Monsters (UK 2010)

Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able) as the couple in Monsters.

Monsters is an important film for several reasons. The most obvious observation is that it proves that you can make a convincing genre film with impressive CGI for under $500,000 (or even much less according to some reports). There has never been better evidence of the possibilities for filmmakers who understand how to get the best from relatively inexpensive equipment and how to conceive a viable production idea with only two professional actors and a basic script.

Following other British films by first-time directors, such as Skeletons and Moon, Monsters also demonstrates that despite the thousands of words on the fragile state of British filmmaking, there are still new talents to watch. Writer-director Gareth Edwards previously worked in TV, mostly documentary and dramadoc/docudrama as writer/director/cinematographer and visual effects creator. He utilises all these skills in Monsters and has been deservedly rewarded with several prizes.

But most of all, Monsters looks like being the perfect film for teaching about the way in which film culture is developing and that’s what I want to explore. I should confess that I’d heard rather a lot about the film before I could get to a screening. Therefore I had a good idea of what to expect – which took away some of the possible pleasures of the narrative the first time round. I was also aware of the male lead, ‘Scoot’ McNairy who starred in the under-rated indy rom-com, In Search of a Midnight Kiss. I mention this since many reviewers refer to the two leads as ‘unknowns’ – but I felt invited in because of my familiarity with McNairy (I’ve used the earlier film successfully with students). I was also aware that many mainstream audiences for the film had felt ‘taken in’ by the title which led them to expect something that wasn’t really forthcoming – a ‘monster movie’. When I queued up at the multiplex, I realised that the group of young teenage boys behind me were discussing going to see the film and, for a moment, I thought of warning them that they might not enjoy it. I’m glad I didn’t. I’d rather risk a negative reaction than keep audiences from seeing something different.

You only have to look at IMDB and various other film websites/blogs/forums to see how this film has divided audiences. Much of the conflict focuses on expectations of what the film will offer – it was released ‘wide’, not to as many multiplexes as a blockbuster, but to far more than most specialised or ‘art’ films in the UK (164 screens compared to the 250 plus of most mainstream films). In North America, the release has been much narrower (only 25 screens, but possibly also on VOD?). I suspect that in the US, only science fiction/action fans knew about the film in the mainstream audience (the film received significant critical support which might influence the more cinephile audience). In the UK the mainstream audience was much more exposed to the trailer. So, what were they expecting?

Here is the official US trailer for Monsters. If you’ve not seen the film, please be aware that the trailer briefly shows some of the best scenes which might spoil your enjoyment of the unfolding narrative:

and here is the UK trailer:

I think the UK trailer is better – i.e. a more accurate representation of the film, though still potentially misleading. It’s inevitable that the trail will focus on the genre elements of science fiction rather than the romance/relationship drama that is at least as important. Several critics have also referred to the road movie as part of the generic mix and there is certainly a case to be argued but I think that the film is more concerned (intentionally or not) with a distinct sub-genre or extended cycle of films about migration from Central America to the United States. This involves ‘border-crossing’ and refers to a host of movies, both American and Mexican – the most recent being Sin Nombre. In the case of Monsters, the decision to make the lead male character a journalist ties the film into an0ther cycle of films about ‘journalists in warzones and their ethical stance’. One such reference might be to Nick Nolte as a photographer in Nicaragua in Under Fire (1983). Kaulder (the Scoot McNairy character in Monsters) is in Central America to take photographs about the war against the aliens. We presume he is a freelance who is nonetheless dependent on his major clients for work and he is effectively ordered by his client, a media mogul, to escort the rich man’s injured daughter back to America. He tells the young woman, Sam (Whitney Able), that photographs of happy children are worth nothing but he could get $50,000 for an image of a child killed by an alien. This has an interesting narrative pay-off later in the film. There isn’t in fact a great deal of direct critique of media corporations or US policy – which of course makes the few examples more powerful. I felt that this underplaying of metaphor was quietly effective, but it seems to have offended several internet posters. I wonder how many American viewers realised that this was a British film? The majority of films that I can think of which deal with the migration North from Central America tend to be sympathetic to the migrants and critical of the American presence at the border. Possibly the most enjoyable moment in The Day After Tomorrow is when the Americans escape to safety as refugees in Mexico.

I’m hoping to use Monsters with students and I look forward to analysing their responses.

Skeletons (UK 2010)

Bennett (the taller one, Andrew Buckley) and Davis (Ed Gaughan) at work! (The film is in full colour, only a few sequences have this tone.)

I think this is one of my films of the year and it is a delight to find a small British independent film which, without any studio backing or major stars, more than holds its own. My only slight concern is that as part of the very strong critical welcome it has been dubbed a ‘cult film’. The tragedy is that audiences are now so cowed by conventional tastes that a film like this is assumed to be far outside the mainstream when in fact it is funny, warm and hugely enjoyable. Or perhaps it’s just me? I’ve seen references to David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Withnail and I – none of which do much for me and Ghostbusters which also seems wrong in tone. Charlie Kaufman I understand, but he’s too American. This is a very English film (despite Lottery Funding channeled through Scottish Screen – I don’t quite understand that unless it has something to do with EIFF) and I thought it was more a cross between the 1960s/70s Avengers TV series, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, M. R. James and Michael Palin in Ripping Yarns. But even that’s not quite right. It isn’t a genre film as such but there is a strong element of gothic ghost story and British science fiction. It is being called a comedy, but I think that the comic elements are always there in certain kinds of British horror/science fiction.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Two unprepossessing characters march through a British upland landscape (the Peak District – the film is produced through EM Media) dressed in black suits and carrying small brown suitcases – the type used by craftsman to carry their tools in the 1950s. They visit remote houses and perform some kind of service – all the while discussing the death of Rasputin. As Nick pointed out after the screening we only really find out what they do after about 20 minutes or so. In the meantime we learn more about their intimate but slightly tense relationship in which Davis is the irritable and more adventurous partner and Bennett is more steady. As the title suggests their job involves the ‘skeletons in the closet’ found in many houses. The location of events is never revealed and the period setting is not defined – clothes and decor are not ‘now’ and the pair travel by train (clearly a preserved railway giving the feel of 1950s/1960s Britain). The pair’s boss is a stereotypical sergeant-major type ironically known as the ‘Colonel’ and played with vigour by Jason Isaacs. In the second half of the film, the pair are given a new job which plunges them into a family situation, prompting rather more self-reflection than appears to be good for them. But rest assured, there is a satisfactory outcome.


Writer-director Nick Whitfield comes from an acting background and he certainly handles the cast very well. The camerawork is accomplished and the images of British landscape look very good in ‘Scope. I do wish more directors/cinematographers would use ‘Scope and ignore what it’s going to look like on TV. There is a slight sense in which the film does feel like a first time effort – perhaps some of the framings and compositions are just too textbook perfect that they seem to stand out. Research suggests that Whitfield has no specific training and his DoP Zac Nicholson is an experienced operator gradually getting bigger jobs as DoP so perhaps my analysis makes sense? This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The project was well worth supporting (it began with a short film in 2007 using the same material) and presumably the extra support helped bring in experienced actors Jason Isaacs (something of a cult figure in British Cinema it seems) and Danish Dogme veteran Paprika Steen. I knew that I had seen Paprika Steen before, but I didn’t make the connection before looking her up. What a great casting choice – she gives the character just the faintest sense of ‘oddness’. The two leads are stand-up comedians, but Buckley also has a long list of UK television credits. I hope they both get more film roles on these performances.

Tuppence Middleton as Rebecca

The other main character is played by Tuppence Middleton who made a big impression in last year’s British ‘high school horror’ movie Tormented (which was also produced by Forward Films). She’s good again here in a rather different role and next up she is one of the teens in Nakata Hideo’s English language Chatroom. I predict big things for Ms Middleton if she gets the right parts in the next stage of her career.

Inevitably perhaps, Skeletons is being discussed as this year’s Moon, following success at Edinburgh in winning the Michael Powell Award and also encouraging festival appearances in the US. However, I’m not sure that distributor Soda Pictures has got the muscle to exploit the good audience responses that the film has garnered. When I checked the official box office figures, I found  a single print of the film had been released on July 2nd and then the film just disappeared from the charts (the UKFC chart is supposed to show all UK films, even when they make only a few pounds). What’s going on? There is a Facebook page for the film and it has clearly played at different specialist cinemas across the country and been enjoyed everywhere. We saw the film in Bradford where it has played just five times on a digital print. This is madness if the audience success is not being properly documented. If this is what happens to decent flicks while lumbering behemoths colonise the multiplexes there isn’t much hope for UK film culture. Grrr!

If Soda manage to get this onto DVD, please buy a copy. Better still, demand that your local cinema show the film on 35mm or 2K digital.

Official website

The UK trailer:

You’ll notice the music score – which I enjoyed, but others seem to have found a bit too much.

One last point, the film’s ‘concept’ has something in common with Inception – but it is much better handled!

Inception (UK/US 2010)

(Cobb) Leonardo DiCaprio and Fischer (Cillian Murphy)

I see that Inception is now No 3 on IMDB’s all-time hit list. I guess it is good that the only Summer blockbuster so far this year to offer a story for grown-ups has indeed attracted so many fans. Like everybody else, I’m not sure what all of it meant but I was impressed by the casting, the performances and the production ideas. I could do without about an hour of the action sequences – which I now realise are supposed to represent a videogame (especially the last one in the snow). I’m too old for all that and just get bored. But the ideas behind the film are interesting and for once I’m not pissed off by another poor rip-off of Phil K. Dick. I’ve seen various possible Dick novels/stories mentioned as inspiration with Ubik as frontrunner, though I think that there is another one as well. I’m sure Dick wrote about a drug you could take that had an effect on other people when you dreamed about them – but possibly my brain is frazzled!

There must be so much written about the film already and I don’t want to repeat it all, so I’ll just pull out a few observations, most of which refer to its status as ‘global film’. The first thing I noticed is that we get Ken Watanabe and a Japanese-set sequence and I wondered how deliberate this ploy was from a Warner Bros perspective. A few years ago, Warner Bros after a disappointing Batman pic in Japan started to hold premieres there with Japanese stars like Watanabe.

The film felt ‘not American’ in many ways. Apart from DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt, the other leading cast members are Canadian, British, Irish, Japanese and French – and Asian-American. The writer-director is British. The locations were all outside the US and the ‘feel’ was ‘international’. So, here’s my first question. Why choose a setting to be Mombasa when you know that you are actually filming in Morocco? Why not just name it as Casablanca or Rabat or Marrakesh? Perhaps because it isn’t meant to be a ‘real’ location? Mombasa is the setting where the South Asian character is introduced – which makes sense because there is an Indian diaspora population in East Africa, but this raises a number of other questions. Why not shoot in India and use one of many Indian actors who could handle a blockbuster shoot? My guess is that Hollywood style shooting is too difficult in interesting Indian city locations (unless it is a Hollywood film directed by Michael Winterbottom or Danny Boyle). And why not an African actor for a Mombasa shoot? Again I’m guessing that the casting director was unaware of African talent – it is certainly there but Hollywood tends to take African-Americans to its productions, often based in South Africa.

I’m not criticising Dileep Rao, the American-Asian actor in Inception (I haven’t seen Avatar, which I think he was in), merely noting that global film production only tends to go so far. I blame CGI and I do rather hanker after the 1950s and 1960s when shoots would move to Kenya for a month or so and show us something of a ‘real location’.

Inception has been released in India. It has been the Number 1 film in the ‘International’ film market (i.e. outside North America) for five weeks now but I wonder how the complex plot goes down in territories like India? The usual film industry assumption is that the Hollywood blockbusters that do well in India are action films with little dialogue or culturally specific knowledge required. Of course, there is a significant slice of the Indian audience that has the same viewing habits as American and European audiences and the reviews in the Indian Press reflect this with a generally high regard for the film. But I did come across one Hyderabadi poster suggesting that half the audience were asleep during the film.

The other interesting aspect of the film’s success is that is a 2D film able to compete with the 3D offerings. On the other hand it is also an IMAX film and I’m wondering what difference it makes to re-imagine the scenes for a much squarer albeit larger image. My own preference is to stay with ‘Scope.

Moon (UK 2008)

Sam Rockwell as the sole worker at the Moon base.

Sam Rockwell as the sole worker at the Moon base.

Moon is a film that I feel that I should like, but halfway through I thought “I’m just not enjoying this”. Afterwards, I couldn’t work out what was bugging me and so I conclude that the problem is with me and not the film.

I should like it because it is a deliberate attempt to recreate the look and feel of the ‘hard SF films’ from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The filmmakers, writer-director Duncan Jones and scriptwriter Nathan Parker, name their inspirations as Silent Running (1972), Outland (1981), Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979). For Nick and myself I think the references were Dark Star (1974) and Solaris (1972 and 2002) and everybody else has mentioned 2001 (1968). I’ve also seen a reference to Android (1982) somewhere.

The narrative is based on a simple premise. Some time in the future, Earth has turned to a form of fusion energy that involves mining something on the Moon (I think we were told what, but I don’t remember). Sam is coming to the end of his three year shift when things start to go wrong. He sets off to investigate why one of the automatic mining machines is not fulfilling its quota. He has an accident and wakes up in the sick bay where the ship’s computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey) is solicitous. How did he get back to the sick bay? Is he seeing things in the lunar base?

The best things about the film are the tawdry surroundings of the base and the effective characterisation of Sam Rockwell. There isn’t anything particularly original, but it works well as a genre film.

The really interesting question is how did this low budget (by US standards) film manage to find $5 million without funding from the usual UK sources and then go on to make an impression at Sundance and get a US release (where it has made more than $4 million so far – with more than $1 million in the UK)? Duncan Jones aka Zowie Bowie obviously has the right American friends and contacts (including Clint Mansell, the composer associated with Darren Aronofsky). However, he is clearly a talented filmmaker and deserves a break.

Interesting background on the film can be found here:


Ironically, the most ‘British’ aspect of this film is the use of Kevin Spacey’s voice for the computer. This teaser trailer gives a good idea of the film.

Solaris (USSR 1972)

Kris and his wife (or is she?) on Solaris

Solaris is one of the films offered for critical study on the WJEC A Level Film Studies course. The notes below were written for a course on ‘Speculative Fiction’ in 2001.

The novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem was published in 1961 and as such stands as a much more sophisticated narrative than most Western science fiction could manage at the time. Lem wrote as a Pole and although familiar with Western SF also drew on the ‘philosophical writers’ of Eastern Europe such as Franz Kafka. The first English language translation of the novel appeared in 1970. The Russian film version followed in 1972 and as such was taken to be a riposte to Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey, even though it drew upon a novel already ten years old.

According to some sources, director Andrei Tarkovsky did not involve Lem in the screenplay of the film. The screenplay adds sequences that refer directly to Earth and the origins of the protagonist Kris Kelvin and his family home, a familiar image from other Soviet directors such as Dovzhenko. The novel is set completely in space.

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86)
Tarkovsky was one of the few post Second World War Soviet directors to gain international recognition. His first three features after leaving film school (he had previously studied Arabic and worked as a geologist, unusual experiences for a filmmaker) all gained major international prizes. Solaris was his third film, but the first to get a UK release. It was followed into release by his second film Andrei Roublev, the story of a legendary icon painter which had difficulty in obtaining an export licence.
Tarkovsky went on to make The Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979) (also a science fiction influenced narrative) in the Soviet Union before moving abroad for three more films before his death from cancer aged 54.
Tarkovsky’s method tended to eschew ‘montage’ and to use relatively slowly paced long takes in a process of ‘sculpting time’. This became more pronounced in his later films which tended to attract small, but very enthusiastic audiences. In his later career Tarkovsky became synonymous with the popular view of the arthouse director, but Solaris represents a more accessible work.

The film and the book

Lem’s book is a classic of science fiction and Tarkovsky stays fairly close to the narrative of events aboard the space station. The main difference between the two narratives is the concentration in the novel on a satire of academic research – Kris refers to a series of theoretical ideas about the planet Solaris. Tarkovsky is more interested in the impact of the planet and its ‘living ocean’ on Kris himself. Although obviously taken with Lem’s story, Tarkovsky wanted to use the visual and aural power of cinema to the full. Even so, he maintains the central focus of the novel – the metaphysical questions about science and conscience – rather than developing the narrative into a mystery or a thriller. In this sense, Solaris represents a genuine attempt to create an ‘sf’ film.

The novel is currently in print and a ‘study guide’ can be found on the website at: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/science_fiction/solaris.html

Alien contact

Solaris, both as novel and film, belongs to one of the major narrative groups of science fiction – stories about the first contact between human beings and aliens. Such stories can be divided into two groups. The ‘alien invasion’ group sees Earth visited by aliens, who are usually portrayed as aggressive and are ultimately defeated through the application of specifically ‘human’ knowledge and personal qualities. These stories were introduced by H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The second group, common since Flash Gordon battled Ming the Merciless, sees humans meeting aliens in space.
In both groups of stories the emphasis is on the humans’ response to an alien ‘threat’ (although occasionally the aliens are benign). It has been argued that the difference in Solaris is that more time is spent on the question of how both human and alien intelligence feel and then react to the meeting. How does the alien intelligence react to encounters with humans? How can human cultural activity explore such issues? Tarkovsky links this question to that of the ‘second chance’ – having your time again.

The following extract from the detailed website operated by ‘Underman’ (I have no idea who s/he is, but the site is well worth exploring) summarises Tarkovsky’s approach:

In 1973, the year after the completion of Solaris, Tarkovsky spoke about the film with a Russian interviewer, Z. Podguzhets. The text appears in Kitty Hunter-Blair’s book, named in the footnote to this section. This is my summary of part of the text. Please note, I use “man” here in a generic, not gender, sense.

As Tarkovsky read it, the key to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris was not the technological sophistication represented by space travel, but “the moral problems evident in the relationship between Kelvin and his conscience”. The spiritual implications of technology were more important to Tarkovsky than the technology itself. He described two opposing forces influencing man: one, a yearning for complete moral freedom; two, the search for meaning in his own existence. The inevitable result was a deep inner conflict and a battle with conscience, which Lem expressed through the relationship between Kelvin and his wife, Rheya, summoned back to physical form in station Solaris. Surrounded as he is by the ultimate products of technological achievement, with which he pursues his urge to explore the universe, Kelvin can do nothing to avoid coming face to face with the implications of his own past actions.

Kelvin can never distance himself from the forces that shaped his own development. However far he journeys, he will ultimately be drawn back to his own roots. Even at the limits of human endurance, Kelvin is a creature of the earth and the people who gave him existence. The dream of returning home and eradicating the mistakes of his past lies at the core of Kelvin’s being, but it takes an alien intelligence to perceive the dream.

Yet that alien intelligence, too, is subject to whatever laws may govern the universe. The inescapable fate bestowed by a spiritual, moral existence is to live with the conscience that arises from the actions a person takes, with no prospect of a second chance. Kelvin’s ultimate destiny is to return to the place where he was born. He can go nowhere else.

http://www.underview.com/2001/solaris.html (Unfortunately, this link is no longer valid – does anyone know if the text is available elsewhere?)

Time Within Time – The Diaries 1970-1986, Andrey Tarkovsky, translator Kitty Hunter- Blair, Faber and Faber, London, 1994.

Tarkovsky and the film critics

Film critics generally, and certainly in 1972 when Solaris was released, are often dismissive of science fiction. In Sight and Sound Spring 1973, the veteran film scholar Ivor Montagu celebrates the arrival of Tarkovsky’s films in the UK, but sees Solaris as the weakest, partly because it fails to represent scientists or science and instead concentrates on the personal. Tony Rayns in Monthly Film Bulletin of June 1973 refers to ‘kindergarten psychology’ and dismisses the film. Rayns suggests that 2001 was ‘totalitarian’ and Solaris is ‘humanist’, but where Kubrick was at least ‘visionary’, Tarkovsky is ‘merely reactionary’. However, Philip Strick, one of the few film critics with a detailed knowledge of science fiction claims that Solaris is:

“… the nearest the cinema has come to capturing the complexities of modern science fiction, with its intermingling of time and memory, acute uneasiness, and emphasis on elegance and style.” (Strick, Sight and Sound Winter 1972/3)

Solaris provides us with a chance to discuss what kinds of questions science fiction can ask when it is not being ‘predictive’. These may indeed turn out to be philosophical, and even spiritual, rather than ‘scientific’.

Roy Stafford 29 October 2001