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oblivion Tom Cruise movie by bubbletea1

Oblivion. It’s a good film.

The cinematography is outstanding. Not showy (in fact the first half is minimalist, almost art-house), but clean, crisp, with a breathtaking integration of natural landscape and CGI. It’s way beyond Avatar. And part of the reason is because it is not 3D; how much the director must have fought the pressure from the studio to ‘upgrade’.

The plot rehashes the best elements of 17 sci-fi classics. I won’t even name them, in case you start predicting the twists. There is nothing original here, but it works, it’s well-crafted, and there are only a couple of niggles when you start saying, ‘Hang on a minute…!’ I’d like to spend an evening with a few sci-fi buffs trying to spot the references. You can do this in the comments if you have some spare time.

And Tom Cruise manages to avoid being Tom Cruise. For most of the film I forgot he was Tom Cruise. He was almost the Everyman Hero Figure of Richard Dreyfuss and Matt Damon. What’s his secret in this film? He didn’t try to smile or to look serious; he just got on with the job. And so the Tom Cruise smirk and the Tom Cruise furrowed-brow was kept at bay.

I was going to embed one of the trailers for the film for your delectation, but I can’t in conscience do that. I’ve just watched two official trailers, and they both give away almost all of the most significant plot twists – the ‘aaaahhhh…’ moments that make cinema worthwhile. It’s baffling. I made a point of avoiding every review before I saw the film, and it was worth it.

If you are not into sci-fi, don’t bother. But it’s a beautifully shot and satisfying film.

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OK, the reviewers were right, Total Recall is verging on the truly terrible. [Warning: Plot spoilers to follow] They even had the nerve to steal one of the best scenes from the first Bourne film (you could hardly call it a homage), when a man without a memory finds a code that leads him to a safe deposit box that happens to be full of passports, cash, and lots of other secret and mysterious stuff about his secret and mysterious former identity. I had to see it, of course, because I have an inability to not see (forgive the grammar) any new film involving time-travel or implanted memory. It’s a childhood thing. (See my Five Greatest Time Travel Films of All Time post).

But the great thing about even a terrible sci-fi film is that it still makes you think; in the way that a terrible Western or rom-com or road movie is simply terrible full stop. In case you don’t know the story, Colin Farrell is a guy who may or may not have had his memory completely erased and replaced by another set of artificial memories, making him unsure about his true identity; and this whole ‘who am I’ identity crisis, which is most of the film, may be taking place in the ‘real world’ (whatever that is), or it may be an artificially implanted memory created by an amusement company called Rekall to ease the boredom of his mundane life – a freely chosen escapist fantasy.

This is all very familiar, but I still find it fascinating! And the final scene, despite being so predictable, sent a shiver down my spine – when we think we are in the real world, at the end of a moderately satisfying drama, but we see Farrell catching a glimpse of a poster advertising Rekall, and we wonder whether anything real has happened at all.

So it raises the obvious questions, that have been raised a hundred times in sci-fi short stories: Is there a ‘true self’? Does it matter whether our ideas and memories about the past, and especially our experiences and personal identity, are true or not? Does it change the person we are today if we discover that something we thought was true turns out to be false, or if something we never knew or imagined turns out to be true? There is a nice moment when the baddie asks Farrell: why can’t you just accept who you are in the present, without worrying about who you might have been in the past?

Part of me is attracted to this. The whole notion of human freedom, and conscience, demands that in some sense we are not completely determined by the past, however much it influences us. We can to some extent remake ourselves, re-invent ourselves, make a new start, experience a conversion.

But here is the rub: there is no such thing as the pure present. We are always moving from a past to a future, making sense of the present and future in terms of the past, even if it is a conscious repudiation of that past. But there is no such thing as ‘no past’, because even ignorance or forgetfulness colours how we experience the past, and how we understand our identity.

All of us have moments of remembering things we have forgotten, or finding out that some powerful experience didn’t happen in quite the way we remembered it. Some of us have powerful, liberating, or terrifying moments when we are brought face to face with a truth from the past that so disorientates our world that we are unsure who we are any more. Our identity is fractured and even fragmented, our understanding of ourselves is transformed. This is often the case with deep and dark family secrets, and it’s why – as I understand it – the present philosophy within social work is to let adopted children know that they are adopted, rather than hiding it from them, or springing it on them later in life.

There is something about faith here as well. Part of coming to know God is discovering, perhaps for the first time, that what you thought was your beginning, your identity, is not the whole story. You are not just a random evolutionary product, or the fruit of a human relationship, but child of God, created by him out of love, cared for within his loving providence, and destined for a life with him for all eternity. Baptism is not, like Rekall, the implanting of false memories; it is the uncovering of memories much deeper than our own, and then the creation – through the grace of the sacrament – of a new identity. And this new baptismal identity is not imposed like an ill-fitting mask or a forged passport that has no connection with our former self, it is the fulfilment of that former self, the raising up to new life of a life that was always secretly longing for it.

If you want to see a really good movie about these themes, get hold of Moon, which I saw over the summer for the first time. (Just to make a contemporary London connection, this is by director Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie from his first marriage, who – David Bowie – is the subject of a retrospective at the V&A which is just opening.)

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What if there were another you? I don’t mean just an identical twin or a clone with the exact same genes. I mean someone who was like you in every way, the same body and mind and heart, the same past and experiences and memories, the same thoughts and feelings, the same decisions taken and the same mistakes made, standing in front of you now – but not you.

This is the idea at the heart of the film Another Earth, which jumps straight into my Top Ten films of the year. [Major plot spoilers follow – sorry!]

Another planet appears – just a dot in the night sky. As it comes closer it becomes apparent that this planet is the same size as ours, that it even has the same structure of continents and oceans as ours. Then, in a magical sci-fi moment, as the woman responsible for ‘first contact’ with the new planet speaks on a microphone, she realises that the woman talking to her on the other end is herself. [It’s on the trailer here – I’ve ruined it for you!]

So the synchronicity between the two planets and between each corresponding person is absolute, apart from the fact that it inevitably gets broken by the appearance of the other planet – so the woman is not hearing the same words ‘she’ is speaking on the other planet, but actually having a non-symmetrical conversation with her other-self.

First of all, you are simply in sci-fi territory. I love these films. And in fact this film is really a re-make of another film from the ’70s (I can’t remember its name – brownie points for anyone who can help) where the US sent a spaceship to another planet on the other side of the sun, only to discover that the planet was the same as the earth – apart from everything being a mirror image of this earth. So our astronaut lands on the other planet, and another astronaut from that planet lands on our earth, with everyone thinking that our astronaut has come back early – until he sees that all the writing here is in reverse. Anyway – this is classic sci-fi.

But very quickly it becomes philosophical. Looking at this other earth in the sky above, marvelling that we can behold such a world, you realise that this is exactly what we do whenever we reflect on our experience, or use our imaginations, or question what is going on in our own minds. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we can ‘step back’ from our own experience (inner and outer) and view it; that we can ‘see ourselves’. The strangeness of the film brings to light the strangeness of ordinary human life.

We take this ability to reflect for granted, but it really is the key factor that seems to distinguish us from other animals. No-one today would deny that animals can be incredibly sophisticated and intelligent; and on many measures of intelligence they would beat us. But this power of self-reflection seems to be one of our defining characteristics; and it surely connects, in ways that aren’t always clear, with human freedom – the freedom we have to think and imagine and act in ways that go far beyond the instinctual programming we receive as bodily creatures.

So the wonder that Rhoda Williams feels staring up at this other planet is no more than the wonder we should feel whenever we step back and reflect on ourselves.

Then there is a theological angle too. To cut a long story short: Rhoda unintentionally kills the family of musical conductor John Burroughs in a driving accident, soon after the planet is discovered. He is haunted by the loss of his family, and then receives a ticket to travel to the other planet – a ticket that Rhoda has for herself, but she decides to give it to him. Why would he go? Because if the synchronicity between the two worlds was broken when they started to impact on each other, then perhaps the accident did not happen on the other planet, and ‘his’ family is still alive up there.

I call this a theological idea, because it’s about the possibility of redemption, of putting right something that has gone irredeemably wrong in the past. That in some sense this action might not have happened, or it might be possible to go back and undo the harm that has been done. This is crazy of course – in normal thinking. But if it’s crazy, why do we spend so much time imagining/hoping that somehow we could put right what has gone wrong? I don’t think our almost compulsive inability to stop regretting the mistakes we have made is simply a dysfunctional habit that we can’t let go of; it’s a yearning for forgiveness and redemption, for someone to go back in time and allow us to change things, an echo of a possibility of renewal that we can’t justify at a rational or philosophical level – because the past is completely out of reach. It’s about hope.

Or the film is about conscience – the possibility of imagining an action now, as if it were happening, and asking if we really want this parallel imaginative world to unfold into reality, or if we would regret it. So the work of conscience, and of all conscious deliberation, brings us up against another parallel world that is exactly the same as ours – only we have the power to decide whether it shall come into existence or not.

At the very end of the film, in her backyard, Rhoda meets ‘herself’ – we presume she has come from the other planet, with her own ticket, which she didn’t need to give away, because the accident there didn’t happen. All we see is her catching the gaze of the other woman before her, and recognising her to be herself – but not. Then the film ends immediately. It’s incredibly moving. As if a lifelong search, unacknowledged, is finally over; as if, miraculously, I step away and see myself for who I am, and see myself seeing myself. And that, miraculously, is in fact what happens every time we know ourselves through self-reflection, through self-consciousness. Human beings are not just conscious. We are self-conscious. That’s the idea that the film opens up so well.

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It’s fifty years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin escaped the clutches of gravity and completed a single orbit of the earth. The Telegraph reports:

Fifty years ago [yesterday], an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space – taking the Soviet Union’s own giant leap for mankind and spurring a humiliated America to race for the moon. The flight was limited to a single orbit due to concerns over how a human would cope with space travel, but despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list.

Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission.

In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.

Gagarin’s rocket lifted off as scheduled on 12 April 1961, at 9:07am Moscow time (6:07 GMT).

The flight was fraught with drama. At one point the control room lost data transmission and problems involving the antennae put the shuttle into a much higher and riskier orbit than planned.

On re-entry, a glitch caused the ship to rotate swiftly and the landing capsule was slow to detach from the service module.

But Gagarin bailed out as planned, and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 450 miles southeast of Moscow

The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes in total and made him a national hero.

On 14 April Gagarin was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.

It was not until John Glenn’s flight on 20 February 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin’s earth-obiting feat.

It surprises me that space travel and extra-terrestrial colonisation don’t figure very much in the collective imagination. Why are they the preserve of science fiction enthusiasts instead of being on the horizon of our everyday dreams and adventures? If there is nowhere else to go but up and away, and if we are only at the very beginning of this scientific and historical journey, why are so few people interested in it? Even raising the question makes me feel slightly geeky.

The Economist has a slideshow entitled ‘The space-age future that never happened‘.

[Yesterday marked] 50 years since Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. The dizzying pace of developments in aerospace technology—just 58 years separated the Wright Brothers’ first demonstration of powered flight from Gagarin’s trip into orbit—inspired plenty of optimistic speculation about what humanity’s future as a space-faring species might look like. This slideshow takes a look back at a future that was thought, in some quarters at least, to be just around the corner, and compares it with the reality of space exploration half a century after Gagarin’s flight.

Take a look here.

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If you thought that the whole point of science fiction was to transport you into a world of the improbable, the impossible, and the utterly fantastical – think again. NASA has stepped into the debate about what makes good science fiction, and the answer is: good science.

The best science fiction takes us to the very edge of what is currently known and currently possible, it draws out the unforseen implications of this present knowledge, it stretches the boundaries and speculates about where we might be in a year or a millennium, but it doesn’t throw aside reason and create a world of nonsense or sheer fantasy. To put it another way, good science fiction is prophetic, it helps us see where we might be going – scientifically, technologically, even morally and politically. And it helps us see where we might not want to go.

How has NASA got involved? By joining with the Science & Entertainment exchange to compile a list of the best and worst science fiction movies of all time. Wenn.com writes:

NASA scientists have named John Cusack’s blockbuster 2012 as the most “absurd” sci-fi film of all time.

Experts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Science and Entertainment Exchange have put together a list of the least plausible science fiction movies ever made, and the big budget 2009 picture came top.

The film, which depicted Earth besieged by natural disasters, featured ahead of two more ‘end-of-the-world’ movies – 2003’s The Core and 1998’s Armageddon.

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, says of 2012, “It’s absurd. The film-makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012.

“The agency is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”

Staff at the organization also compiled a list of the top 10 most realistic sci-fi films, with 1997’s Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman as space agency workers, winning the highest praise from the scientists. NASA experts also named dinosaur movie Jurassic Park and Jodie Foster’s Contact among the most realistic sci-fi films.

I’d agree with this. Part of the fascination with these three films is the idea that this could really happen, this could really be round the corner. Gattaca: a genetic underclass is created in the near future and denied certain rights and privileges. Jurassic Park: fossilised DNA is used to recreate the dinosaurs. Contact: we listen for signs of intelligent life beyond our solar system, and one day we finally hear something [but ignore the crazy mystical ending].

Here are the two lists.

The worst sci-fi movies of all time:

1. 2012 (2009

2. The Core (2003)

3. Armageddon (1998)

4. Volcano (1997)

5. Chain Reaction (1996)

6. The 6th Day (2000)

7. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

The most realistic sci-fi movies of all time:

1. Gattaca (1997)

2. Contact (1997)

3. Metropolis (1927)

4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

5. Woman in the Moon (1929)

6. The Thing from Another World (1951)

7. Jurassic Park (1993)

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Andrew Marr examines three recent sci-fi films (Avatar, District 9, and Surrogates) and draws some conclusions about how people understand themselves in the West.

avatar 阿凡達 阿凡达 by 邪恶的正太.

Avatar image by Juehuayin

He detects a lack of confidence in the whole human project emerging from these films. It’s not just that we face particular problems and are not sure how to overcome them. It’s that we are wondering whether there is any point at all in trying to overcome them. So it’s not the present situation of humankind that is in question, but the very meaning and purpose of being human. “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”

[Plot spoiler coming] It’s interesting that the only way of ‘redemption’ for human beings at the end of Avatar is to renounce being human.

See if you agree with Marr’s assessment:

They are all anxiety films, even hysteria films, but they have a special edge. The bad guys seem to be human beings in general, and our corporate-capitalist system in particular. Avatar self-doubt pits a humanity that has ravaged their home planet against the indigenous blue pixies of the lush Pandora. There are “good humans” of course, a minority of geeky biologists and a disabled man, but we are left in no doubt about the insanely greedy and aggressive tendencies of most of the bipedal inhabitants of grey and battered Earth…

Though they are dark films, they are in a different category from the familiar cheery genre of apocalypse- soon movies, such as the recent (and hilariously awful) 2012. Nor are they like the earlier aliens-are-coming films, from Independence Day to Mars Attacks, in which it’s up to humanity to repel boarders. Indeed, that’s the point; recent film-making has switched the good guys and bad guys around. These films say that humans are greedy, stupid, rapacious and often lazy. They say we are infinitely suggestible, prone to being moulded by corporate interests, and at risk of being captured by our own technology.

They are, in short, films with a strong dose of human self-hatred running through them. This is anger and satire, directed against the main forward thrust of Western life, as mass entertainment…

But I do think the historians of a century ahead, writing about our times, will use the films in our cinemas right now to discuss the decline of the West. They will talk about a radical lack of self-confidence in the project of enlightenment-science-plus-corporate- capitalism, a spectacular loss of nerve. They will observe how fear about the coming “singularity” in computing power, remorse about wars in Asia and environmentalist horror about rainforest destruction and species extinction combined to shake the West’s belief in its destiny. And then they will contrast all that with the brash confidence, even triumphalism, of the Chinese film industry as a set piece contrast in how art imitates life.

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You wire yourself up. You switch the computer on. You lie back in your leather recliner. And then your ‘surrogate’ steps out of the closet and steps into the world. This is a sophisticated robot that looks and sounds like you – without the wrinkles. Everything the surrogate experiences you also experience. Everything you choose to ‘do’ in your own mind is actually done through the surrogate in the real world. You have all of the experience without any of the risks: no disease, no knife crime, no car crashes; or rather, when the crashes happen you just get another surrogate.

tin robot by Dirty Bunny.

This is the premise of the latest Bruce Willis film Surrogates, which is far more entertaining and intriguing than most reviews let on. The special effects are unimpressive; the production values are not very high; the acting is almost non-existent. But it’s a very tightly constructed plot that keeps you thinking through every scene; and the twist at the end brings a kind of epiphany about what it is to be human that moved me far more than I expected.

The idea of living through a surrogate is a clever one. We hear so much today about the attractions and dangers of living in a ‘virtual’ world – when we ‘leave’ our physical environment and get lost in a digital reality that seems quite divorced from the real world. But this film is about something more subtle: living ‘virtually’ in the real world.

Of course we do this all the time. We show a certain face, we project a certain image. We choose our clothes, our hairstyle, the frames for our glasses. We walk and talk in a certain way. I choose a title and a banner photo for my blog! These are all good things. And we would be naive to think that people become more truly themselves if they are simply stripped of the external expressions of their personality. The very word ‘person’ means ‘mask’ in Greek – as if our innermost being is inseparable from the outward expressions of who we are.

Mask by liber.

But there is always the question of how much this mask helps someone to know me, and how much it hides me; whether it allows authenticity or stifles it. Bruce Willis faces a crisis when he realises that he and his wife are only capable of communicating with each other through their surrogates (I won’t give any more plot away…). I don’t think we should just abandon all the social habits we have adopted over the years – it’s these concrete aspects of culture that make us human. But it would be good to ask more often what is really helping us to communicate with others, and what is getting in the way.

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