Monday, 28 November 2016

One F or two, two

Or The Sorcerers versus Nanny MacPhee.

The other night I had the pleasure of catching The Sorcerers.  Barely long enough to count as a feature - how pleasurable given the number of bloated movies dong the rounds - I had the distinct feeling that I'd seen it before, decades ago.  Like deja vu all over again.

Wikipedia describes it as science fiction/horror and I'm happy with that, as this post doesn't really work without that premise.  And I think we can agree that Nanny MacPhee is fantasy, and children's fantasy at that.

So, they're at the opposite ends of the SFF spectrum.  But, like a Venn diagram, there's a degree of overlap.  Primarily, for my purposes, both stories involve mind control; the conceit being the Sorcerers' fulcrum to the plot, whereas it's incidental to Nanny MacPhee, where it's merely used to bring the errant children to heel by turing them on each other, thus demonstrating Ms MacPhee's power.

What makes The Sorcerers science fiction, not fantasy?  It seems to come down to the eponymous sorcerers being scientists with a clinical white room full of bank of switches and dials controlling some psychedelic mind-bending headwear that Ian Ogilvy is invited to insert himself into.  Quite why he agrees to do so is taken at a gallop by the plot-donkeys, so quickly that you forget to question it.  But it's clearly the product of science, a practical demonstration of a scientific hypothesis, that allows them to control Ogilvy's mind.  So it's science fiction.  QED.

Hold on.  Not so fast.  We're told their scientists, but we see them carrying out no experiments in a formal sense, recording no data.  After locking into Ogilvy's mind through lots of spinning and flashing lights, they control it by sitting around a table, grinning and gurning.  The room of shiny boxes may as well be a wand, or Nanny MacPhee's eyebrow, it's just a device to move the story on: do 'A' and 'X' happens.  Never has Arthur C Clarke's comment that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" been so unwittingly illustrated.

Consider the wand, the traditional tool of fantasy versus a remote control device, like your TV remote, but one that gave you mind control.  That would be a sci-fi trope, right?  What if the remote had no buttons, but was voice activated?  Still sci-fi.  You want those voice activation commands to be very specific, so as to avoid accidental triggering.  Good idea to put them in a special language, like a Hogwarts-stye magic spell.  And what if it were shaped like a simple pointing device, a sort-of stick.  Like a wand.  Still sci-fi?

Or what if all the wands in the fantasy storyverse were replaced with black boxes with dials and switches, would all those fantasy tales suddenly become science fiction?  Or, if wands could have some backstory explaining their construction - more than just Rowling's Olivander's construction methods - with some pseudo-scientific principles, some fancily-monikered theory? 'It looks like a magician's wand, but it uses Avinder's Principle of Universal Mitigation to rearrange the molecules of the liquid', rather than, kazaam, and the water is turned into wine.  Still fantasy?

As for Nanny MacPhee, she doesn't even have a wand.  Her mechanism of choice is just an arch of the eyebrow and, presumably, an internally muttered spell, if it can be called a mechanism at all.  Magic reductio'd to its absurdum.

So is it that sci-fi has an explicable mechanism behind its workings, whereas fantasy is all just, well... magic?  But, hold on.  The science is utterly pseudo science, pure hokum Which we're happy to swallow.  There's nothing in the wand, but there's nothing in the remote control either, except a storyteller is telling us that we should believe that there is.  Perhaps the true difference between fantasy and sci-fi is where the bollocks lies - do you want to believe in magic and fairies, or in science that isn't true?

Is that all there is to it?  A pseudo explanation?  Choose a funny name out the phone book and put 'Principle' after it?  Dress it up in futuristic clothes and avoid tossing any dwarfs and, yes, I think you do have a recipe for turning base fantasy into shiny science fiction.

PS - And don't get me started on where comedy crosses the line into horror - Nanny MacPhee making the kids rub their bruised heads is one thing, but what if she were to make them feel for the ice-pick sticking out of their temple?  I think I'll let somebody else examine the blurring of the two...

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Hail to the Chief... Do we have to?

First Brexit, then the Columbia referendum, now this...

Well, I always suspected that the fact that we're living in the Matrix would only be revealed through a glitch in the program.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Everyone's a hero in their own story (again)

I appreciate that many of these posts are about how story works, why story works, and why it sometimes doesn't, which is as applicable to any genre as science fiction.  But I'm pretty much going to carry on until somebody tells me to stop.

A few days ago our nuclear family unit caught up with a film (fantasy, rather than sci-fi) that's been out since the summer, so forgive me if all this has been written before - there still seems to be room on the internet.  As, unlike, say, meat, films don't go off I rarely feel the need to see a movie when it first appears, being happy to catch up with the cheaper rep performances.  Or even when it appears on TV.  I refuse to be in thrall to marketing wallahs telling me something is 'must-see' here and now.  There's simply too much stuff out there and too few hours in a day.

I've always subscribed to the view that a performance (film, book, TV show, whatever) should make you laugh, cry, scared, come, whatever - any reaction is better than none.  So I suppose the fact that I felt utterly uncomfortable for large parts of this movie - as uncomfortable as I've felt watching any film since The Hunger Games or even the appalling Life is Beautiful - is a form of praise.

However, given that I was feeling uncomfortable over the romanticising of the kidnapping and (non-sexual) grooming of a child, I'm not sure how far that praise can stretch.  Any sense of victim and perpetrator was swept under the carpet, with the kid in question foregoing the desire to escape for befriending her captor like a stray puppy.  Yes, kids, we're talking full-blown Stockholm Syndrome kicking in pretty much before hunger and thirst in a way that I found genuinely creepy.

And the name of the movie?  Steven Spielberg's 'BFG'.

On the way back to the car my twelve-year old and I had a couple of robust discussions.  (One of the best pieces of advice about writing I've seen recently came from a Charlie Brooker article in a recent Guardian interview where he said that Russell T Davies had advised him that conversations tend to be two monologues clashing.  It was that kind of discussion.)  One was about my 'theory' that what we had just watched was Stockholm Syndrome.  The other was about comedy.

As a syndrome is defined as a set of symptoms, I disagreed that I was proposing a theory.  If you have spots and I say you have spots, that's observation.  If I say you have measles, that's a theory.  I was just bundling up what I had seen on screen under a convenient and appropriate umbrella term.  Neither was I saying that either Dahl or Spielberg had set out to make a story about Stockholm Syndrome - that would have been a theory.  What I was saying was that what we saw and heard added up to Patty Hearst-lite.

Indeed, I'm pretty sure that neither Dahl nor Spielberg would agree with my reading, and would probably be slightly appalled.  But, like the Hunger Games before, for me, it all comes down to the lead character's reactions to events failing to convince.  Does she react how you'd expect a kidnap victim to react?  Does she try to escape?  (Well, actually, yes, but half-heartedly.)  Is she terrified?  Fears for her life?  Not sure that comes across.  I wasn't expecting The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but at least I was convinced that Alice Creed was at least inconvenienced.

For me, that's it in a nutshell.  I'm happy to believe in the BFG.  But I'm not happy to believe in a human child reacting like that to the BFG.  And if you lose faith in the hero, who is your stand-in in the story, then you're lost, period.  (It's also why I'm probably the only person in the universe who thinks Divergent is a better story than The Hunger Games whose name isn't listed in the credits; the premise may be even sillier, but at least I can go along with how the characters react to their predicament).

And, again's the pity, that the story could have been easily fixed.  Show me that the orphanage is a horrible place (maybe it goes without saying, but this one seems fairly neglect-free), and it's better to be out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Or put the BFG in a position where he absolutely has to kidnap Sophie, possibly to save her from the murderous giants, where his options reduce to one, and one he takes reluctantly.  But that doesn't happen.  A friendly giant would trust her not to talk, or be believed if she did, and only take her when she blubbed.  In other words, if Sophie forced him into kidnapping her.  All those would work dramatically, but not this.  Perhaps Spielberg was in thrall to Dahl's original?

All this raises two moral side-questions, which I'll ask and then fail to answer.  Firstly, is it alright to be kidnapped by somebody who can offer you a more interesting life than the one you've got?  And, secondly, is it alright to kidnap somebody in order to save them from a worse fate, such as abuse or murder?  I suspect the second is easier than the first.  Feel free to theme a story around those.  Yours for free.

That other argument?  Simply that, when my twelve-year old heard that Life is Beautiful is a comedy set in a concentration camp, he declared that there were subjects that you should not write comedies about.  I, on the other hand, would defend an artist's right to make a comedy about anything, with the caveat that if and when it goes wrong you risk creating a story that is off the scale in terms of being crass and offensive.  Not sure The BFG was in that territory, but it was certainly ill-thought out.