Friday, July 03, 2009

The Future of Sci-Fi Cinema

Last month I saw Pontypool, a Canadian zombie film directed by Bruce McDonald, adapted from a book and radio play of the same name. [spoilers abound] When I learned that the virus in this film is transferred from person to person through the English language I was intent on seeing it. What an intelligent, intriguing idea for a horror film.

And it is intriguing! And raises lots of questions about how much one can remember from Psych 101 when we learned about the theories of Noam Chomsky and how our brains process language. In Pontypool, there are only certain words or sounds (phonemes) that can ignite the virus, which causes the host to repeat said sound or word over and over until they become belligerent and apparently thirst for human blood.

How these events are linked remains unclear, and the solution to the problem, which the film's protagonist, a crankily charming radio host named Grant Mazzy eventually figures out, is to literally unlearn the meaning of a word so that the virus cannot take hold, is severely flawed. (Wow, like that last sentence I just wrote)

How does one unlearn the meaning of a word? Is it even possible?

Where the film wins is in its ability to build suspense without showing us the horrific acts themselves. I'm a big fan Hitchcockian elements of suggestion and subtle references through editing, especially with sound. We hardly see any zombies in Pontypool, but they make their presence known. And as representative to the bunch, Georgina Reilly, the actress who plays Laurel Ann, does a pretty incredible job of scaring the pants off everyone in the theater.

Pontypool raises some relevant questions about the way we communicate with each other in the technological age. In this way, it straddles the sci-fi and horror genres. In a world where people hardly even speak over the phone, how much risk, really, is there for a viral event like this to occur? Has technology completely destroyed our language? How do we relate to each other without language? And if we're forced to, can the human race survive without destroying itself?

Moon, a film directed by Duncan Jones, stars Sam Rockwell, one of my favorite off-the-wall actors, which is really the main reason I wanted to see it. Also, one can't help but be reminded of Kubrick's 2001 after watching the trailer. And I think we'd all agree that we're all secretly hoping that someday someone will come out with a sci-fi movie for our generation that can equal the intense emotional and philosophical ramblings of that biblically important film.

Moon is too close to 2001, unfortunately. Kevin Spacey voices a computer module too much like Hal, but not nearly as cool. (He has an emoticon face, for christsakes. Whoever came up with that idea: you lose). But instead of killer computers, [spoiler alert] Moon is the story of clones, created by people, and abused by people. Jones is genius in casting Sam Rockwell, who is perhaps, out of all the cool indie actors one of the most human. In the beginning of the movie, Rockwell is simply Sam Bell, a man working on the moon harvesting resources who gets to go home in three weeks. He misses his wife, and his baby. His accent (which is EERILY similar to those of the Wilson tribe - Owen, Luke), his minature hobby, and his struggling on the treadmill instantly endears him to the audience.

But an accident reveals that there are two Sams on the space station: the original Sam we've come to know and love, and a younger, more virile, hot-headed frat boy Sam, who seems to've appeared out of nowhere. Jones gives us some comic relief in the interaction between the two, which again, is credited to the acting chops of Sam Rockwell. Playing against yourself is not always an easy thing to do, as he points out in this interview with New York magazine.

And smartly, Jones doesn't pit the clones against each other. Instead, being the same person, they can't really hate the other one enough to kill each other. They aren't pod people, after all. In the end, one Sam Bell says to the other, "I know you can't kill anybody because I can't kill anybody." No, in this movie it's the clones versus the humans, and the question we end up with: are clones humans? If so, what are their rights? Moon is a disaster movie in that the technology it presents is entirely possible in the next decade, really, as we've already cloned animals, and stem cell research will finally get its grant with Obama as President. So, if clones are on their way, what do we do with them? And will they be safe? Do we care if they're safe?

Kazuo Ishiguro paints this portrait in a more terrifying way in his novel, Never Let Me Go, which I highly recommend if you haven't read it. But be prepared for your skin to crawl. I had nightmares for weeks. It too is being adapated into a film by the director of One Hour Photo. (Fingers crossed)

While neither film is a total success, they both have a deep reverence to the work of Stanley Kubrick, and signal an intelligent and emotional investigation into the world of 2001, which we've been living in now for a nearly a decade. It's about time that someone at least attempted at a science-fiction movie that would make us all shudder with dread.

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