Gene Mapper by Taiyo Fujii

This review first appeared in Interzone 260 in 2015. I didn’t like the book very much, unfortunately.

Gene Mapper – Taiyo Fujii, trans. Jim Hubbert.

Haikasoru, 297pp

Translation is not a cheap business. Which makes me curious as to why Haikasoru thought it worth translating Gene Mapper for the English-language market when, to me at least, it doesn’t really seem to be that good. The answer may lie somewhere in the novel’s slightly confusing genesis: Fujii originally published a version of Gene Mapper as an e-book and it sold 10,000 copies. At this point Hayakawa Publishing, well-known as a publisher of science fiction in Japan, apparently contacted Fujii and asked for what one newspaper has described as ‘a full-length novel’, suggesting that the original version was probably rather shorter. Subsequently, Orbital Cloud, Fujii’s second novel, not yet available in English, won the 2014 Japan SF Grand Prize.

Here, I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. So far as I am aware, I have read no Japanese science fiction in translation, so I have no idea if Gene Mapper is typical of Japanese sf or whether the problems I have with it arise simply from Fujii’s being an inexperienced writer. I incline to the latter, and Fujii himself freely admits that he later signed up with a traditional publisher to benefit from editorial advice, so this review is conducted on that basis.

Mamoru Hayashida, the narrator of this story, is a gene mapper: that is, he is a designer programming the DNA of rice crops. The story is set in 2036 and crops are being ‘distilled’ from scratch in order to combat world hunger. My first difficulty arises here – it is remarkably difficult to get a sense of what it is Hayashida actually does. Whether this is because it is incredibly complicated or because Hayashida can’t properly explain it isn’t clear. Which is curious because, if there is one thing that Hayashida likes doing, it is explaining. His narrative is one long explanation of everything he sees, does, and uses (especially when it comes to software and augmented reality) to the point where the novel seems more like a speculative description of the future with a few shreds of  plot gathered around it for modesty’s sake than it does a full-blown novel. It does, though, make the failure to explain what Hayashida does seem far more obvious than it otherwise might have been.

Which suggests to me that Fujii himself is much more interested in showing how Hayashida and his colleagues use augmented reality than he is in telling the story. And indeed, in that newspaper interview, Fujii observes that ‘a world with augmented reality is a better place to live’, in which case it  would make sense to show how AR might work for someone living in the future.

But this is my second problem: Fujii’s fascination with the trappings of the future threaten to overwhelm the actual plot, what there is of it. It flickers fitfully, like the light from the jellyfish genes that will become significant as things progress. It is a simple enough story. Even in 2036 environmental activists are eager to put a stop to artificially produced crops, though in this instance they appear to have adopted bizarre measures to do so. It is up to Hayashida to figure out what is happening before his company’s credibility is destroyed. This involves Hayashida travelling in person to the site, along with his colleague, the mysterious Takashi Kurokawa, headhunting a number of hacker types to help with research, and then, right on cue, being handed most of the answers on a virtual plate. We have, so to speak, been here before, many times.

Nonetheless, there is a certain attractive quality to Fujii’s main characters. Dialogue is not among Fujii’s core skills as a writer but every now and then something sparks on the page. Hayashida’s relationship with Kurokawa, his putative mentor, is oddly charming, while his growing relationship with Shue Thep, the researcher overseeing the rice-growing project, is expressed in conversations that actually feel convincing, not least when she’s complaining about a lack of equipment. The villains of the piece, however, look and sound like stock villains throughout. We realise quickly that Hayashida and his friends are unlikely to come to any notable harm as they try to solve the mystery at hand.

Given that Fujii’s primary interest lies in the way humans interface with technology, I hope he will in future address those issues more directly in his work and give his readers something richer to deal with, rather than simply bolting a flimsy plot onto lavish descriptions using AR in the workplace. That Fujii recognises the need for editorial advice and guidance seems to me to be a positive thing. Nonetheless, it is a shame that our first encounter with his writing must be with something that still seems strangely unfinished.

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The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time – a tale of two novels

Among other Christmas presents I received the DVDs of The Children of Green Knowe (1986, from the novel by Lucy M. Boston [1954]) and A Traveller in Time (1978, from the novel by Alison Uttley [1939]). The two novels have been favourites of mine since I was young and I remember enjoying both adaptations immensely when they were first shown. I’ve seen Children a number of times over the years, thanks to a video transfer available on YouTube, but Traveller only finally came out on DVD in late 2015. The BBC never repeated it after its initial airing and I had been longing to see it again.

The short version of this is going to be that the tv adaptation of Children has lasted far better than the adaptation of Traveller, in part for technical reasons, in part because the adaptation of Traveller manages to highlight all of the novel’s weaknesses and none of its virtues. There is only ten years between the two tv adaptations but technically a lot apparently happened in that ten years. The Children of Green Knowe looks as fresh as ever; it’s very difficult to believe that it is thirty years old. A Traveller in Time, only eight years older, looks visually awful; in parts it seems terribly bleached, and there is occasional interference visible on the screen. This was very much a quick and dirty transfer to DVD, with very little in the way of titivation. The shifts between indoor studio scenes and outdoor scenes are often extremely awkward, and the painted backdrops of ‘outdoors’ seen through doors are quite obviously artificial. The soundtrack is also very fuzzy at times (though the poor choice of a very over-ripe orchestral version of Greensleeves as the theme tune is another matter altogether). It’s made even more awkward by a decision to update the story, moving it into ‘the present’, a decision which provided some unexpected visual distractions that I’ll return to.

book-cover-green-knoweBefore I deliver a more detailed verdict on both adaptations, I’d like to step back slightly and look at the novels again. The Children of Green Knowe, I’ve written about before, but not A Traveller in Time, though I know I’ve mentioned it in various places at various times. Oddly, what hadn’t struck me before my Christmas viewing was how similar in some ways the two novels are. Each concerns a child moving effortlessly, inexplicably, through time, becoming somehow caught up in the stories of the people they meet, in the history of the house, and also having to face up to the deaths, long since, of the people they have encountered. I tend to call these novels ‘ghost stories’ simply because that’s what I’ve always called them, but the very title of A Traveller in Time indicates it should be thought of as a story of time-slippage, though the situation in The Children of Green Knowe is made a little complicated by the awareness of the seventeenth-century Oldknow children that they are dead. Here, it is not Tolly who moves through time so much as the other children who fade in an out of Tolly’s own time.

traveller-in-time-coverAnd in each novel, the house – Green Knowe and Thackers – stands as a character (each fictional house has an actual counterpart – Hemingford Grey manor house, owned by Boston herself, and Dethick Manor farmhouse, originally owned by the Babington family, and known to Uttley in her childhood); each house is dominated by a woman, Mrs Oldknow, and Tissie/Dame Cicely Taberner, respectively, who functions as the genius loci of the place, and possibly bears some slight resemblance to an idealised version of the author in each instance. Beyond that, it would also be not unreasonable to say that Boston and Uttley themselves had a certain amount in common, given that they both seem to have had rather challenging personalities.

Both novels begin with a decision made to send the child protagonists away to the country. In Green Knowe, Toseland, or Tolly, is to spend Christmas with a great-grandmother he didn’t know he had, rather than languish at the rather dull boarding school where he normally lives, his parents being in Burma; in A Traveller in Time, the three Cameron children but Penelope in particular, have been unwell, and their mother decides to send them to an aunt in Derbyshire, to recuperate. So the first major event in each novel involves a train journey, with the protagonists moving away from all that is familiar, heading deep into the uncertainty of the countryside. Both train journeys present us with a picture of close-knit community; in both cases, the children are identified by other passengers as not being from around here, and in neither case is there a clear sense that they belong although they have a loose family connection to the area. Tolly’s first name, Toseland, is recognised as a local place-name but oddly, despite the family being known locally, there seems to be no awareness that Toseland is also a family forename. For all that he has lived in the interim setting of a boarding school (and possibly abroad himself) we are to understand Tolly Oldknow as returning to his house. Boston specifically frames his arrival as a return, and has Tolly anxiously ask if the house is partly his. Penelope’s attachment to Derbyshire is indicated first by her middle name, Taberner; it is her mother’s maiden name, and the family name of the aunt and uncle, brother and sister, with whom they will be staying. Penelope, we will also discover, is also a Taberner family name, so Penelope’s attachment is doubly emphasised by her naming. Her family name, though, is Cameron – her mother married a Scot, and I think by this we are supposed to see Penelope as both belonging but being somewhat ‘other’ too, in that a part of her belongs even further north.

So, in part, you could say that both novels are about strengthening that connection to a family place by involving the protagonists in the history of the houses they are staying in, houses which are, if you like, also ‘family’. The treatment of the two houses mark the first major point of divergence between the two stories, a divergence which I think makes The Children of Green Knowe the more successful of the two novels as a story. Boston provides Hemingford Grey/Green Knowe with a mostly fictional history, filling in what might have been lost along the way, but begins from a point of utter familiarity with the house itself (unsurprising given she bought it pretty much as a wreck and then restored it). Uttley never actually lived at Dethick/Thackers, although as a child she played with the child who did live there, and this only partial familiarity does show. The descriptions of the house are doubtless accurate but there is always the slight sense that they come from an outsider. I can’t help feeling that Uttley rather badly wanted to have lived at Dethick – I find it more than a little suggestive that when she bought a house in Beaconsfield from her royalties, she called it Thackers, although it was about as unlike Thackers or Dethick as one might possibly imagine – and that A Traveller in Time was, if you like, her attempt to write herself, as Penelope, into that history. There is an obsession with the house as artefact that isn’t present in Children in the same way. And while Tolly doesn’t have to claim his family history because it comes to him, in Traveller Penelope’s real fascination is with the Babingtons rather than her own Taberner family. (The question that is never posed is how, if this is the Babingtons’ house, does it come to belong to the Taberners now. The implication is that they reside there now as stewards of the Babington history, but a few uncomfortable questions are elided.)

The tv adaptation of Children was mostly filmed at Hemingford Grey; even if one didn’t know that one would feel a ‘rightness’ about the adaptation’s setting, inside and out, in a way that just isn’t there with the adaptation of Traveller. My sense is that the interior shots are mostly studio-based, simply because of the enormous amount of room available for the actors and crew to move around in, not forgetting those unconvincing outdoor backdrops glimpsed through open doors. Having said that, the shots of the modern-day farm interior, the kitchen at least, seem to have been filmed on location, which makes the juxtaposition all the more uncomfortable.

The second major difference between the two novels lies in the protagonists themselves. In Green Knowe, Tolly is seven years old. Alec Christie was twelve when he played Tolly in the tv series, and I’d place the character he played as being about nine or ten. Either way, in both novel and series, he is a very active child, exploring, investigating, asking questions, eager for encounters with the other children living in the house, eager for stories about them. As Mrs Oldknow comments, he’s ready for anything. He is, if you like, coming into his birthright, finding out who and what he is. He might start as an outsider but he is very quickly subsumed into the house and his history.

greenknowetolly

The central theme of the novel is celebratory restoration. Tolly’s arrival at Green Knowe sets in train a process of rejuvenation. While his great-grandmother is aware of the existence of the children it is Tolly’s open desire to engage with the children, not to mention his hunger for stories about them, that initiates a series of discoveries – the key to the children’s toy chest, Linnet’s bracelet previously lost in the shrubbery – as well as a series of curious experiences, such as the encounter with Toby’s horse, Feste, and, at last, the lifting of the curse laid on the topiary man, Green Noah, by the mother of the gipsy horse thief. We might suppose that the encounters with the children are simply the imaginings of a very lonely little boy stuck with an elderly relation, except that Mrs Oldknow matter-of-factly confirms his experiences. She might be humouring him, of course, except that Boggis, as much a genius loci as Mrs Oldknow, also knows all the stories, and can add one or two of his own. By doing so, either Boggis is engaged in some sort of unholy conspiracy with Mrs Oldknow, or he acts as a confirming second party. This is all very real if you are part of the family, and Boggises have been associated with the house probably for as long as Oldknows. For the most part the novel is remarkably unthreatening. Tolly is being inducted into the history of his family, and the house where it lives, the house that by implication will one day be his. The Children of Green Knowe is an introduction to his inheritance, tangible and intangible.

By contrast, A Traveller in Time is an account of that which has been lost and can never be regained. It begins as nostalgia – Penelope is clearly writing as an adult, describing childhood experiences; among others, she notes how, when offered a treat, she chose to rummage through the old things in a family chest – but somehow ends as mourning the loss of old ways. We are, I think, supposed to see Penelope as being a little old-fashioned even in her own time. But if Tolly is part of the presiding family in his house, Penelope Taberner Cameron is very different. She is much more passive, an observer but not a participant, and I think this is in part because she is a Boggis rather than an Oldknow, so to speak. Aunt Tissie is aware of the continuing presence of the Babingtons at Thackers – ‘the secret of Thackers’ – but this is something that is not discussed. And, of course, the job of Taberners is to keep secrets. As a Taberner, Penelope can never be a participant, only a guardian. The novel may try to account for this by representing her as a sickly, solitary child, as ‘fey, but the fact is that the linear inevitability of history precludes her doing anything other than witness the beginning of the downfall of the Babington family. She can tell Francis (and in the novel, Anthony) what is going to happen but insofar as either of them believes her, neither of them can do anything to prevent it happening. And this is the biggest problem with the novel as novel. Even though Penelope is ‘family’, she must remain an outsider, because she is a Taberner and not a Babington. The history being played out before her is not her history, although her family has witnessed it and participated in it.

dressinggown

One of the enduring difficulties of the novel is how to account for Penelope’s presence at Thackers, how to excuse her comings and going, her strange clothes, the fact that unlike most girls of that time, she can read and write, but that unlike her aunt, she has not the remotest idea how to do anything practical, such as identifying herbs. Her position at Thackers is constructed in such a way that she is constantly privileged and her odd behaviour excused; she rides out with Francis Babington, waits on his mother and step-grandmother, but works in the kitchen too. And to round this off, Francis falls in love with her, and she with him. It is the perfect teenage relationship.

gipps-kent

This is not to say that A Traveller in Time does not have a story but it always comes back to what cannot be done. Anthony has lost his heart to Mary, Queen of Scots, and is plotting to rescue her while she is at Wingfield. An old tunnel between Wingfield and Thackers is to be reopened and the Queen is to be brought along it to Thackers and hence onward to freedom. The plot, though, will be discovered, though at this stage Babington will not be implicated, and a handy fall of snow will conceal the digging at Thackers. But while this may be the story, it is not the plot, not least because Penelope already knows what will happen. There is a sub-plot in the novel, when Arabella, the Babingtons’ jealous cousin, suspecting Penelope of being a spy, imprisons her underground in an abandoned tunnel, from which she is rescued by Jude, the mute farm boy. He is believed to be ‘touched’ but seems to be more fully aware of Penelope’s nature than everyone else. But even this sub-plot only comes to the fore quite late in the novel and while it is given more prominence in the adaptation (complete with Arabella roasting the wax figure of Penelope that she’s made), it’s not really what the novel is all about.

According to Denis Judd’s biography of Alison Uttley, Alison Uttley: Spinner of Tales, the novel was originally rejected by her publisher and had to be reworked, though he provides no detail as to what this involved. He does, though refer to Uttley describing it as the ‘darling of my heart’, and sees Uttley as having written herself into the novel as Penelope, unsurprisingly. However, he seems to regard the novel as being rather more successful in its construction than I do. If Alison Uttley does have one great theme as a writer, it is her childhood in rural Derbyshire, at Castle Top Farm. Her love of the countryside, and of rural ways, is reflected in much of her output, from The Country Child (1931), through the myriad Little Grey Rabbit books, to A Traveller in Time. By far the most successful parts of the novel are the descriptions of country life – if we assume that the novel is originally set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, or maybe even earlier given that the voice of Penelope Taberner Cameron is that of an adult or near-adult, recalling a time when she was a child, we can assume that Uttley is drawing on her memories of her own childhood. Indeed, a comparison with The Country Child show that many of the scenes, customs and events described in that resurface in A Traveller in Time, where they are often used to establish a continuity between the Elizabethan period and the novel’s present day. By far the best passages in The Country Child, which is anyway fictionalised autobiography, are the descriptions of farm life and the evocations of the natural world, the things that Uttley knew well, and the same is true in A Traveller in Time as Uttley’s instincts as a storyteller override her attempt to tell a different story.

The disparity between the two stories is reflected in the two tv adaptations. Although both stay close to the original novels, A Traveller in Time has inevitably been abbreviated to remove the long, lingering descriptions of farm life, meaning that there is very little meat for the adaptor to work with. The adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe is visually gorgeous (perhaps unsurprisingly, given most of it seems to have been filmed at Hemingford Grey). The opening sequence, as Tolly travels deeper into a flooded landscape, swapping train for taxi, taxi for the taxi-driver’s back (reminding us of St Christopher, who plays an important part later in the story) and then piggyback for Boggis’s boat is utterly magical. And that is the point. This is supposed to be a magical story and the adaptation captures that. Which is not to say that it is not at times remarkably atmospheric, and sometimes a little scary. The sequence where Tolly sits on a book so that Linnet cannot read it and she invisibly drags it across the floor is disturbingly effective, as is Tolly’s ill-fated trip across the garden in the dark, when Green Knowe is walking, though for my money, the best, most unnerving sequence is when Tolly is wandering around the upper storey of the stables, searching for the children he can always hear in the next room but can never quite locate. In odd places it also visually reminds me of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘Lost Hearts’ (1973), when young Stephen (coincidentally played by Simon Gipps-Kent) is wandering in the grounds of Aswarby Hall and hears children’s voices.

Strangely enough, A Traveller in Time also reminds me strongly of ‘Lost Hearts’, and that’s probably a lot less of a coincidence given that there is only five years between the two. While the novel seems to be warm and sunny, the tv version is bleak, misty, grey, and altogether lacking in joy. I’m not sure where they filmed the outdoor shots but they seem to have gone looking for the most unprepossessing fields they could manage, while the railway station was not exactly a gateway to adventure. Even the shots purportedly in the farmhouse garden look less than magical, and the shots of Wingfield are grim in the extreme. One can only assume that the programme makers were in some way trying to emulate Gordon Clark, even though it was utterly inappropriate to the story. There was indeed one sequence when Penelope was riding with her uncle in the land rover and looked out to see Jude scaring birds in the field which might as well have come from ‘Lost Hearts’. I suppose all this might be argued as tying in with the rather more furtive nature of Penelope’s experience but it seemed to be a strange artistic decision.

I noted earlier that the story had been updated for a modern audience, although the visual clues were maddeningly vague at times. Mostly, one had to rely on what Penelope was wearing as a guide, given the farm, the farm vehicles, and the Taberners themselves were of course behind the times. And here is the problem. In the original story, set maybe in the 1920s or early 1930s, Penelope would be dressed in clothes which, if outlandish by Elizabethan standards, could at least be excused as ‘London fashion’. 1970s Penelope by comparison would one moment be in jeans, boots and a smock top like any normal teenager of that time, and the next wearing something oddly formal or out of time, because of course she was about to move back in time. There was a quilted dressing-gown which was very frequently brought into play because it could pass muster as some sort of over-dress that wasn’t too un-Elizabethan. Also, a cloak that no self-respecting teenager of that period would have been seen dead in.

In conclusion, I have to admit that despite my fond recollections of it, I am disappointed in the tv version of A Traveller in Time. I’m glad to have seen it again, and to have it to hand for reference, but the novel, for all its faults, wins hands down. The series is awkwardly put together, emphasising the novel’s flaws, and just can’t seem to find a story for itself. I wonder now if the production team was struggling to present it as a softer version of the old ghost stories, but simply couldn’t find the right register for it. By contrast, the tv adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe, despite its own occasional moments of clunkiness (we’ll draw a veil over the business of the walking tree) is joyful and magical, capturing the spirit of the novel very effectively. It’s a lovely thing to look at. Watching it will, I think, become a Christmas tradition, rather like rewatching The Box of Delights. There is the same sense of craftsmanship about it.

‘Recordings alone aren’t sufficient’ – speaking Arrival

As is customary at Paper Knife, I will be discussing the whole of the story, the whole of the film. If you want them both to be a lovely surprise when you get to them, I suggest you click away now. In the meantime, let us continue.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Before all else, I want to say that I enjoyed Arrival immensely. Indeed it acted so powerfully on my imagination that I dreamt a whole sub-plot for it the night I saw it, something to do with people discovering things about past situations they’d found themselves in, information that would have been helpful at the time, and now vouchsafed to them because they’d at last slipped free of the constraints of time and language.

Will Elwood wondered on Twitter whether Arrival really is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, which is an interesting point, not least because my first thought, having read the story just before I saw the film, was how do you adapt a story like this, so heavily reliant on shifts in time and narrative tense, into a film? After the film, Paul Kincaid and I initially thought that Arrival could be seen as an improvisation on ‘Story of Your Life, but thinking about it some more, I wonder now if it isn’t perhaps a commentary on the difference between telling a story with words and telling a story with images. To which you would pityingly say, ‘well, obviously, because it’s a film, right?’ And it is, and you are right, but what I’m thinking about is the different ways in which words and images (sounds, too) evoke thoughts in the mind.

I have said before that I am generally not that keen on film or tv; in part this is because I don’t like the way film-makers attempt, sometimes very crudely, to manipulate my emotions. Obviously, writers do this too, but I’ve always felt that words are something I have control over – I can stop reading if it all gets too stressful – whereas images I don’t – I cannot pause the cinema film. Images are just there, projected into my mind, something I find much more difficult to filter out unless I close my eyes and stuff my fingers in my ears.

‘Story of Your Life’ and Arrival tell the same story, more or less. Odd details change – Gary Donnelly becomes Ian Donnelly, Hannah’s cause of death will be different, but essentially, the stories remain the same. It’s the emphases that are different.

One of the several reasons why I like Ted Chiang’s stories is that while they contain much in the way of ideas, on the page they are very pared down. He gives me as much as I need and no more. He is not a writer who indulges in lush description unless for a very specific reason, and if he does, I would take notice, because. Mostly, he leaves it to me, the reader, to bring my own imagination to bear, as much as I need it to, in order to fill in the gaps between the words and the sentences. I don’t want or need it on the page. It doesn’t seem like promising material for a film.

One could imagine a film-maker looking at ‘Story of Your Life’ as nothing more than a synopsis, an opportunity for the special effects department to run riot, and I don’t doubt we could think of directors who would have done just that, allowing spectacle to overwhelm all else. But, for the most part, that didn’t happen here. At the heart of ‘Story of Your Life’ is an achronological, universal language, in which everything is said simultaneously, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things Arrival is trying to do is to explore how the film image tries to be everything simultaneously, but how the experience can differ, according to what visual memory you bring to it. OK, so this is hardly original, but too often it seems to me that locating the intertextual references in film turns into an easter-egg hunt. How smug we all feel for spotting the shop called Micklewhite’s in the Muppet Christmas Carol, knowing that Michael Caine was originally called Maurice Micklewhite. That’s an in-joke, not an intertextual reference; it’s also an artefact, and I’m thinking much more about mood.

Let’s take a few examples from Arrival, some more overt than others. If Arrival is in direct dialogue with any film, it is surely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I must admit I also read it in part as a riposte to or subtle reproof of some aspects of CETK, particularly the Special Edition. To begin with, while the huge space ships have shown up all over the world, the film focuses on one that has taken up station in Montana, which I do not doubt is meant to prompt us to think of the Devi’s Tower in Wyoming, the dominant image in CETK. But I’m thinking more of the moment when the helicopter sweeps over Louise Banks’ house at night, before landing in the meadow. The slanting light through the slats of the blinds, the confusion of dark and light, the distortion, the figure at the door, all echo the events when Barry is taken from his mother’s house. And are meant to – the audience is anticipating what Banks is likely to find when she opens the door, and there is the sense of relief that it’s Colonel Weber (though anyone who recalls E.T. might perhaps wonder whether authority figures should be trusted).

The shots of the house by the waterside, the child playing at the water’s edge, and the way the water moved, all made me think immediately of Solaris (and as Andrew M. Butler pointed out after the film, there is also the shot of the wheat field moving in the breeze). The reference to ‘the zone’ can’t help but invoke Stalker, but what about the quality of the stillness of the vast ship, hanging in the air. I thought then of District Nine. And surely everyone who has seen Arrival had at least one moment when they thought of 2001 and the monolith. I doubt any of this is a coincidence, any more than it is a coincidence that every film I’ve mentioned here is very specifically about attempting, or failing, to communicate with an alien group in ways that don’t simply involve trying to shoot them out of the sky.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that Villeneuve is very specifically offering a bank of references for the watcher to draw on if they so desire, his version of leaving spaces between the words. Because, one of the things that does strike me about this film is how comparatively sparse everything is on the screen. Not the space ship, perhaps, but we’ll come back to that shortly. It is as if Villeneuve has striven to put the minimum necessary on screen to actually tell the story. We see unremarkable public spaces that are in no way distinctive (the campus, the garage); they could be anywhere. Contingent spaces, like the cafeteria, could again be anywhere, and the people in them could be anywhere as well. Banks’ own house is more distinctive, but what we note mostly is how isolated it is, how impersonal, how see-through. The army camp is inevitably marked as temporary – we see it put up, and taken down. We see a hundred little reminders – in the furniture, fittings, cramped accommodation, banks of phones for the soldiers to call home – that this is not a place where people will settle. The room where Banks sleeps is small, functional, a place to lie down but not to be comfortable. The only space we ever see that actually seems to belong to someone is Banks’ study, with its book-lined walls; this is where she spends most of her time, and it’s the place she goes back to while everyone else is wondering how to deal with potential alien invasion. (It’s noticeable too that the lecture theatre is the only other place that seems in any way ‘warm’. It’s bigger than her study but it’s still a cocoon; she is prepared to keep on lecturing in the face of the arrival of aliens, no matter how few people attend.)

In all of this it seems to me that Villeneuve is giving us what we need, but no more, unless we want to bring it in ourselves. It’s the visual equivalent of saying ‘Banks’ office’ or ‘the army camp’. The camera rarely lingers; it’s always scurrying along behind Banks, on her way to somewhere else, taking no notice of her surroundings, because they do not interest her. We only really notice the surroundings when, in Montana, Ian is also present, or when Banks is with Hannah. These are the things that are important to the story. Perhaps we might see them as a visual equivalent of the passages in the story that are directly addressed to her daughter. The richer settings reflect engagement, affection.

Earlier, I excluded the space ship from my discussion on the minimalism of the settings. In Chiang’s story, the ships are simply referred to as ‘the ships’. Indeed, they’re really not important to the story except as vehicles to bring the heptapods to Earth. What’s really important are the alien devices, deposited on the ground. They’re called ‘looking glasses’ and described as being ‘semicircular […] over ten feet high and twenty feet across’. Later, it will turn out they’re made of fused silica, nothing exotic. Chiang’s description renders them as being nothing fancy, and I think that’s the point. You could imagine one, on a smaller scale, as a mirror over a mantelpiece in an ordinary house. It’s just that these are bigger.

The story doesn’t need a space ship; it’s taken as read, but the film? Well, maybe it panders to a section of the audience by including an actual space ship, but I wonder too if a twenty-foot mirror isn’t harder to explain than a space ship. And here the space ship can be used to tell us something about its inhabitants as well. What I particularly love about the space ship is its texture, which will echo, to some extent, the texture of the heptapod when we finally see it in detail. (Paul Kincaid thinks this is as part of a dream sequence; I am not so sure of that, but even if it is, the texture has clearly imprinted itself on Banks’ dream consciousness as well.) I like too how the curvilinear form resonates slightly with that curved-mirror artefact that Chiang describes. And also, and maybe this is my imagination, when it finally turns in the sky, I couldn’t help thinking of a contact lens, a huge, grey contact lens, but something else that says ‘seeing’ rather than hearing, and again picks up on something that is present in both story and film, the dichotomy between speaking and writing, and the need to utilise both in order to make contact. I could get all Derridean about this and start invoking ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ – maybe at some point, when I’ve refreshed my memory, I will – but for now I will simply draw your attention to Colonel Weber’s impossible demand that Banks translate the alien speech from a tape recording, with no other clues at all.

Here I should back up slightly – the reference to the mirror in Chiang’s text suggests faces; something that is very noticeable in the film is the emphasis on faces. We see often them very close to, closer than I think is always necessary. Paul Kincaid notes in his own post on the film how often the film focuses on Banks’ face at certain points, but there are instances of it with other characters, and it occurred to me that these moments we are being urged, literally directed, to take note of those expressions. Why? It could be frantic telegraphing of points, yes, but I don’t think so; this film is too good for that kind of cheap manipulation. Instead, it seemed to me that Villeneuve was quietly suggesting that not only should we not be relying on words alone when it came to communicating, we can’t.

The facial thing struck me in particular because I experience tinnitus and deafness in one ear, and it turns out that I’ve been compensating for this for years by lip-reading; I really don’t like it when I can’t see the lower portion of people’s faces when they’re speaking, and that includes in films. What brought it home to me in Arrival is the scene when they first enter the space ship in hazmat gear and attempt to communicate with the aliens. It was screamingly obvious from the beginning that at least some of the team would have to eventually divest themselves of the gear in order to communicate properly, but while one might think of this in terms of showing oneself as a ‘human’, and what a human actually looks like, it is also about revealing the face, the place where communication starts with humans. Similarly, when Banks lays her hand on the screen, it’s tempting to imagine the heptapods thinking, ‘okay, now we can talk’ because she has, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledged their means of communication.

But, of course, this also links back to Colonel Weber’s inability to ‘see’ that communication isn’t simply about words, or recordings, but about bodies, faces, presences, positioning. And as it turns out, vocalisation is not actually the heptapods’ primary means of communication. In Chiang’s story, which is made of words, the emphasis is on figuring out what the heptapods are saying and what this means; by contrast, I’d say that the film is more about how they figure it out, inevitably, because it is a very visual thing. In the story, the heptapods’ writing is described first as ‘a doodle of script, vaguely cursive’; later, as they learn more, it becomes like ‘fancilful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance’. Later, as Banks begins to appreciate the full significance of the heptapods’ written language she talks in terms of calligraphic designs, while noting that ‘No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no one human could.’ And this, to my mind, is one place where the film does something the story never can – it can attempt to represent the semagrams, shown as ink coalescing in liquid, in black and white literally. The designers have opted for circular forms, with complexes of strands branching off all over the place, as if emphasising the conceptual all-at-onceness of heptapod communication. Chiang’s story has scientific diagrams, but it doesn’t, and I think can’t, ever have anything quite like this, because words don’t work like that (as I am inevitably showing here).

And there is one thing I haven’t yet raised –how much of this film is about a lack of communication. Inevitably, perhaps. It would be impossible to resist in a film about first contact, but Villeneuve is as subtle about that. Yes, later, we get the inevitable great big diplomatic tantrums, and threats of war, and it would be wrong perhaps to exclude them, in the same way that we know the military is going to attempt to function on a need-to-know basis, and close down discussion when it most needs to happen – there is something inevitably perverse about the way in which the US military always seems to try to control the flow of information in any given situation while apparently being staggeringly inept at achieving any kind of meaningful exchange. I’m sure that is a point not lost on Villeneuve.

But think back to the beginning, after we’ve seen the death of Hannah, at the point where we might still be thinking that Banks is grieving. By the end of the film, those who don’t know the story should have made the connection, and realised that first contact comes prior to the birth of Hannah, in which case, what is striking when the alien ships arrive? Yes, we note that a linguist is ignoring all the screens as she walks through the campus building, and has failed to notice everyone gravitating towards them. Yes, we note that she presses on with her lecture even though the auditorium is almost empty (you do – I’ve given that lecture, too). But what happens in that lecture theatre? People’s cell phones start ringing, with others passing on the news that the aliens arrived. Now, we could say that for the sake of professionalism, Banks has switched her phone to silence while she lectures, but for the sake of the film, let’s assume she didn’t, and that it was on ‘vibrate’. It didn’t ring before she went into the lecture theatre, it doesn’t ring while she’s in the lecture theatre. The students have to ask her to switch on the screen so they can see what’s happening. In other words, the communications specialist has no one communicating with her socially, has no one to communicate with socially. We can only speculate on what her life at the university is like; apparently, it does not involve collegiality, yet she equally obviously has nothing to do outside except gravitate back towards her university office.

By contrast, everyone one around her seems to be communicating furiously but with little effect. Screen after screen of news reports, the bank of screens communicating with specialists at the other contact sites, and yet no one can figure out what’s happening. The screens provide a handy visual reference for the compartmentalisation of information that is going on. Everyone has a question they want to ask, variations of the question Colonel Weber asks: ‘what is your purpose here?’, but it is as if everyone has suddenly forgotten the etiquette of communication. And both story and film suggest that people are surprised, outraged even, that the aliens abide by the same rules of not giving away anything. Except, of course, that they’ve given away everything if people choose to collaborate; or finally recognise that they must collaborate.

It’s here, I think, that the film seems a little weaker, presenting us with the idea of Banks seeing into the future, and saving the world from global war. The story is rather more low-key – as I said before, it’s about ‘what’, so the problem-solving is, in and of itself, sufficiently satisfying. A film needs more overt drama, I assume, so we have the sub-plot of the group of soldiers deciding to blow up the space ship, for example. I did like how this was done. It’s never discussed but is raised for the viewer through expressions, significant glances, a mention of something on the radio. I particularly liked the way it was assumed by the plotters that the aliens wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t understand what was going on, so it was fine to bring in the explosives in plain view. Or, because they were aliens, maybe they were invisible. There’s a lot going on in just that small sequence.

The larger sub-plot, how Banks saves the world, reaching forward in time to memorise a phone number, stretched my willingness to believe just slightly, but if you look back at the original text, while there is no Chinese general, the text does begin to break down in such a way as to suggest that as Banks works with the heptapod language it is changing her experience of the world, moving back and forth in time. It’s subtle; I missed it the first time but it is there. In the film, though, it seems to need to be made more explicit.

And yet, having said that, it is reinforced in less immediately tangible ways. Paul Kincaid and I have disagreed slightly over the film’s opening. I thought initially it was a little deceitful in synopsising what comes later, perhaps tricking the audience into assuming that Banks is grieving rather than being crashingly lonely, only to reveal later that … The story, I realised after a second reading, is actually a circular thing. The end is the beginning – the question ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ is asked twice, once at the beginning, once at the end. There is an overlap. The film doesn’t do that, I thought, until Paul Kincaid pointed out that at the beginning of the film, in the first shot of the house’s interior, there are two wine glasses, as there are at the end of the film, when the question is asked. The overlap is, as it must be, visual.

And finally, I go back to Will Elwood’s query. Is Arrival an adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’? And I think the answer has to be no, because it is a translation of the story. Or, if we ‘spoke’ Heptapod, there would be a frighteningly elegant semagram which would bring together words like ‘adaptation’ and ‘translation’ and ‘reworking’ as facets of a larger concept. But we are stuck with words and images and do the best we can.

Watching The Good Dinosaur

Someone recently lent me this, saying it was, and I quote, ‘a bit weird’. It certainly was.

The Good Dinosaur comes billed as the most beautiful film Pixar has ever made, and there is no denying that it looks gorgeous. Exquisite scenery, some of it so well animated you’re hard-pressed to believe it’s not cine-photography. The water in particular looks … er, watery. The mountains look as though they might have been borrowed from Peter Jackson’s extended hymn to New Zealand, although later it becomes fairly obvious that the story is using American settings (and indeed, the film’s Wikipedia entry lists a number of them, though not Monument Valley which was also clearly visible). After that come fumaroles, boiling mud pots, geysers. There were moments when I was strongly reminded of my own geological travels down the western seaboard of the USA. And that’s still not all. The realisation of the trees, plants, incidental birds, insects and small mammals is just awesome. For those old enough to remember how revolutionary the film of Watership Down was in its day, it’s the 2015 equivalent of that opening sequence showing the field of broad beans.Pixar-Good-Dinosaur-Landscape-Technology

Except that when the animators on that film introduced the main protagonists – the rabbits – they mostly still looked like rabbits. Yes, they had been slightly humanised but they were still recognisably rabbits. For The Good Dinosaur, we unsurprisingly have dinosaurs, but if you’re imagining slightly humanised Jurassic-style dinosaurs, you will be sadly disappointed. The Good Dinosaur might feature dinosaur shapes – apatosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex, pteranodon, a styracosaurus (like a triceratops but with more horns), and some velociraptors – but that is pretty much where it begins and ends. In some ways, this is inevitable. We’re dealing with Pixar, and they have a certain way of doing things. Their dinosaurs are to real dinosaurs as their character Sadness is to me, i.e. not very. There is a conceptual relationship of sorts but only of sorts. So, in the case of Arlo, the good dinosaur of the title, he might look like an apatosaurus, but his skin is cartoon-frog green, only lightly patterned, and very polished, plastic almost, while his facial expressions betray the technical director’s previous involvement with things like Monsters University, which is similarly marked by highly polished, plastic-looking characters. Or, as I couldn’t help thinking, it was as though Wallace and Gromit had been transformed into one dinosaur. Those teeth! That faintly worried expression. One half-expected someone to say ‘cracking corn, Arlo’. It might have improved things slightly if they had. The tyrannosaurus rex fared slightly better in that they were allowed to be craggy, but this was because they were ranchers rather than farmers (we’ll get to that in a moment – it’s going to be a good moment).spot and arlo

I acknowledge that I am being slightly unreasonable by expecting any verité from what is, after all, intended to be morally uplifting entertainment. One might justify this by pointing out that the plot is not remotely realistic, so why should the dinosaurs be? It’s a fair point, but nonetheless, I would contend that if you’re going to go to all the trouble of producing such realistic animation for the landscapes, you might also want to go to a little more trouble with your main characters. Alas, Pixar did not. The dinosaurs look as though they have been parachuted into an exquisite landscape by an over-zealous toy manufacturer, which is probably not so far from the truth. This is a Walt Disney film, after all. We’re not dealing with an indy film-maker, but an arm of a multi-million-dollar enterprise with a very particular view of the world it wants to push.

Now for the story. Its initial premise is alluring. Dinosaurs were not wiped out by a meteor collision. There was no K-T extinction event, just a bright light briefly zipping through the sky. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of years go by and dinosaurs remain on the earth. Except, somewhere along the way they have upped their evolution game and acquired the trappings of what we might consider civilisation. That is, the vegetarian apatosauruses have become farmers, growing and harvesting maize, which they then store in rock-built silos. This enables some amusing shots of apatosauruses ploughing the ground with their snouts, and using their long necks as a way of spraying water across their fields, raising probably enough corn to keep one apatosaurus in light snacks for a winter’s day, or at any rate to feed their chickens. What they subsist on the rest of the time remains unclear. Later, we will see that the tyrannosaurus rex are raising what they call ‘longhorns’, bison with enormous auroch-like horns, and herding them on the plains (though I couldn’t help noting that no mention was made of why they might be herding them, i.e. for food – the script was too busy being amused at portraying T.rex as a goodie). And everyone lives happily side by distant side (lacking only a chorus of ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends’).Good Dinosar corn silo

This is a nonsensical model of sustainability, of course, but it isn’t intended to be believable so much as to reinforce a sense that life would have always turned out this way in the United States, be it with humans or dinosaurs. Manifest dinosaur destiny, if you like. Or, a failure of imagination, if you prefer. Either way, this is going to be a film about good old-fashioned white American values, played out in an alternative Big Country, and sure enough, much of the early part of the film focuses on Arlo, the runt of the dinosaur litter, struggling to find some way of ‘making his mark’ on the world – literally, in this case, as it involves making a muddy dinosaur footprint on the corn silo, which is pretty much at the centre of this story. Arlo is a small dinosaur, frightened of everything, in awe of his father, and determined to make him proud. When Henry, his father, puts him to guarding the silo and find out who is stealing their corn, Arlo sets to with a will, catching the miscreant, who turns out to be a very small boy, at which point Arlo baulks at killing another creature and the boy escapes. Henry insists that they track the boy and so they head off up-river as the clouds gather, a storm breaks and the father is swept away in a flash flood. Cue shot of gravestone, at which point I was seriously in WTF territory.

And cue shots of clouds. When in doubt, show some clouds. There are lots of clouds in this film, to the extent that they almost become characters in their collective right. The reason for this is apparently that the film-makers have developed a new technique for making Volumetric Clouds, that is, clouds that actually look like clouds (to the extent that the credits feature a whole section on the people who worked on the Volumetric Clouds).This is perhaps a clue to what is really going on with this film, but first, back to the plot. The apatosaurus family struggles on, trying to get the harvest in – these are homesteading dinosaurs with no near neighbours, obviously – but when Arlo discovers that the small boy is back, he chases after him, falls in the river, and floats way off downstream. Once he has recovered from this mishap he determines that he must go home, and he knows that the best way to do this is to follow the river upstream. Astonishingly, considering how many miles Arlo must have travelled in the water, considering how long it takes him to get back, the small boy is still there, and given that Arlo is utterly useless in the wild, the small boy starts to look after him.arloandspot

The small boy is represented in the soundtrack by what I would characterise as pseudo-native flute music, so one might argue that he is taking up the role of the Good Indian, but the chronology is complicated here if we assume that such evolution as has occurred (and it frankly doesn’t look like that much has, other than the plasticisation of the dinosaurs and their taking up farming as a marker of civilisation) still places humans as having come after the dinosaurs. On the other hand, there are clear views about who owns what in terms of land and produce, and the small human boy is initially regarded as vermin by the apatosauruses, so who knows. It doesn’t get much better when Arlo calls the boy Spot, pushing him into the oh-so-amusing role of pet dog (he even howls like a wolf). And yes, we are supposed to understand that Spot is far cleverer than Arlo when it comes to survival, though it’s uncertain whether we should read that as a foreshadowing of the delayed but inevitable rise of humans.arlopteranodon

Arlo and Spot make a picaresque journey through the mid-West, trying to get home, and along the way they meet all sorts of western film tropes, as well as other creatures, including the bizarre styracosaurus who prompted Arlo to call the boy Spot, after a competition to see which of them would keep him; and a small flock of pteranodons, whom Arlo mistakes for rescuers after a storm, but who are quartering the ground for displaced creatures to eat. This is possibly the most realistic moment in the film, but for the sake of the story the pteranodons become the villains of the piece.the-good-dinosaur-trexs

Arlo and Spot are rescued from this confrontation by a family of cow-punching tyrannosaurus rex, and Arlo and Spot in turn help them find their herd of longhorns, which are being rustled by velociraptors. It belatedly occurs to me that the pteranodons and velociraptors are rather more accurately represented in their appearance and behaviour than the good characters (though admittedly this is for values of accuracy that apply only to this film).The_Good_Dinosaur_velociraptors

So, finally, Arlo is almost home but has to stop and rescue Spot from the vengeful pteranodons one last time, to underline the fact that they are friends, equals, etc. (though not before he has a confrontation with the ghost of his father and makes his own choice about what to do). At this point a set of slightly better dressed humans (they have furs, and are possibly refugees from the Frozen kingdom) rock up and Spot finds himself torn between them and Arlo, until Arlo picks up an earlier theme of family and sends Spot away with them. Here family is clearly designated as ‘people who look like you’ rather than creatures with whom you have formed a bond, and we can doubtless rest assured they will teach Spot better manners and better dress sense. And if you’re thinking this seems rather like the end of Disney’s original The Jungle Book, you would be justified in thinking that, : there are a few other resonances as well, not least the similarities between the crows and the pteranodons.schlock

But after all this Arlo has come home, and finally gets to make his muddy mark on the silo. And that’s it. This entire 90 minutes of ‘did they really just do what I thought they did?’ is predicated on Arlo’s now being enough of a dinosaur to be able to mark his muddy footprint on a rock. Ninety overly-moralised minutes of my life I won’t get back again.

My initial theory, going back to the Volumetric Clouds, was that The Good Dinosaur is actually a show reel for the animators, and having read a few bits and pieces about the struggles to get the film made, I’m inclined to stick with that idea, especially as the ‘struggles’ seem to centre on the actual story … the need to find one. To me, the most successful moments of the film are when Spot and Arlo aren’t really doing anything except bouncing joyously through the landscape, a dinosaur and his boy, playing together. The scene in the prairie dog town, as they blow the prairie dogs out of their holes, is genuinely hilarious, while the encounters with fireflies are moments of wonder and beauty. But the moment the film turns to anything serious, the heavy hand of good old-fashioned Disney morality descends and the whole thing buckles and collapses under the weight of noble but misguided intention. This film may have exquisite background visuals, but it has very little else, and I am disappointed in Pixar. Admittedly, I don’t think they always get it right (Inside Out, to me, has similar problems with its story though I know many people adore it, and Up is two films bolted together, one of them tiny and exquisite, the other overly long and crudely executed) but generally they do better than this. I love the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc and especially The Incredibles. And the difference in each case is that the film has a story. Maybe they had a story first. I remain suspicious that The Good Dinosaur was nothing more than those Volumetric Clouds and all that beautifully animated water looking for a place to disport themselves.

Compare The Good Dinosaur with something like Zootropolis, which I’ve also seen recently, and it’s clear that it doesn’t matter how much great animation you have, and how many good sight gags you include, without a strong story (and Zootropolis has a very strong story indeed), you’re lost before you start. Zootropolis and The Good Dinosaur are working in similar territory, with rampant anthropomorphism and a life-affirming tale of surmounting the odds, but the script for Zootropolis has wit and verve, while the script for The Good Dinosaur limps along, rather as its main character does at various points.

2016 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism

The Tenth Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism will be held from Thursday 23 June to Saturday 25 June 2016.

Applications are now open. Please note that this event has been timed to coincide with the Science Fiction Research Association bringing its conference to Liverpool on 27-30 June.

We are pleased to announce that the venue will again be the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, founded by Charles II in 1675, and the home of the Prime Meridian.
Price: £200; £150 for registered postgraduate students.
The Class Leaders for 2016 will be:
Andrew Milner, literature Professor and author of Locating Science Fiction
Maureen Kincaid Speller, critic and reviews editor of Strange Horizons.
Tade Thompson, writer of SF and general fiction and consultant psychiatrist
To apply please send a short (no more than 3,000 words) piece of critical writing (a blog entry, review, essay, or other piece), and a one page curriculum vitae, to masterclass@sf-foundation.org.  Applications received by 31 March 2016* will be considered by an Applications Committee consisting of Tony Keen, Andy Sawyer and Kari Sperring. Applications received after 31 March may be considered if places are still available, on a strictly first-come first served basis.
The SFF Masterclass involves three days studying texts supplied by three class leaders. It is a great way to broaden your critical perspectives, sharpen some critical tools, and to make contacts with other people writing on SF and Fantasy. The class leaders are drawn from professional writers, academics and fans, and this is a great opportunity to learn from people experienced in their craft.
Anyone interested in writing seriously about science fiction and/or fantasy, at whatever level they are in their careers, is welcome to attend. This includes not just critics and reviewers, but historians and other scholars. Those who have attended past Masterclasses are also welcome to apply (though we will prioritise applications from those who have not been previous students).
Past students have found these events immensely beneficial, and often return. For some reports and endorsements from past students and class leaders, see the Facebook page for the Masterclass;
Information on past Masterclasses can be found here. Please direct any enquiries to masterclass@sf-foundation.org.
*Please note that this is later than the date advertised in the latest issue of Foundation.

The View from G21: watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Given Paul Kincaid and I were pretty much the last people left who hadn’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’m assuming you’ve all seen it. If you haven’t, and care about these things, be advised I will be discussing all of it. All of it.

Princess Leia was at the cinema yesterday.

She was a very small princess, but she had a lightsabre, and her hair was perfect.

I couldn’t see what her brother was wearing but her parents seemed to be in 21st century British clothes.

I would have loved to ask her what she thought of General Leia, and of Rey, and Finn, and Kylo. And grizzled Han Solo. And bearded Luke.

For that matter, I wonder what her parents thought, given they looked about the age to have grown up with all this.

That growing up with a film or franchise seems to be important right now. I was struck a while ago by people complaining about how the new Ghostbusters would ruin their childhood because they’d watched it endlessly as children. I saw it for the first time when I was 25; it’s one of my favourite films even now, but I don’t have that kind of investment in it. I noticed people talking about the significance of Labyrinth in their childhood after David Bowie died. (I’ve never actually seen Labyrinth; perhaps I should.) And I suspect there are people who feel similarly about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Galaxy Quest now that Alan Rickman has gone. (You know, I completely forgot about the Harry Potter films. Seriously. I have apparently completely wiped them out of my mind.)

But head and shoulders above all these stands Star Wars. I didn’t see the original film when it came out in 1977, for various reasons involving a boyfriend who didn’t like sf films. I first saw it around 1980/81, in a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back. I was the last one into the cinema, because there was one seat left and I was the first person they found in the queue who was on her own (I’d married a man who didn’t like sf films).

The seat was high up at the back of the cinema, higher than I normally preferred. I don’t really remember much about either film from that viewing, except that sequence when Luke Skywalker acts as gunner while Han Solo and Chewbacca fly the shit out of the Millennium Falcon. Had I been prone to saying ‘holy shit’ in those days, I’d have probably said that. It was … awesome. (I didn’t say that in those days, either.) Never mind the carnage, I was all wow! explosions! can I do that?!?

I saw Return of the Jedi six times when it came out. At least six times. Lots of widescreen shooty-shooty but mostly, I loved it for that moment when Luke Skywalker suddenly emerged from the shadows, and hey, we were back in business again. What can I say? I was 24, went to a lot of films on my own, and was coming to the conclusion that maybe I didn’t want any longer to be married to a man who didn’t like sf films.

I didn’t watch sf films critically in those days. I consumed them like sweeties, empty calories to fill the void. I found it hard to disentangle myself from the best of them (Blade Runner. Always Blade Runner) and laughed at myself for going in when I emerged from seeing the crap ones (and if you think I’m going to admit to some of the films I saw …)

Return of the Jedi? Good, definitely. Great? Possibly. But it wasn’t Blade Runner. Nonetheless, it offered a fairy-tale narrative of redemption and renewal, and restoration. We could all get through this and find something better. It would be fine. And I’d go and see it again the following week on my afternoon off, just to convince myself again.

I skipped the prequels. Well, wouldn’t you?

And now, here I am, in a cinema, in Folkestone, married to a man who likes some sf films (the man who took me to see Ghostbusters on our very first ‘official’ date – I pretty much had to marry him eventually), and we’re about to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s been thirty-three years since I saw a Star Wars film in the cinema. Holy shit, it’s been thirty-three years!!!

I’d got a rough idea of what to expect, from trailer snippets, from things people had written (I don’t lose sleep about spoilers, as you may know, though it turns out there was one thing I didn’t actually know; we’ll come to that later).

First impressions. It’s a Star Wars film. There’s the summary scrolling up the screen. And the music. Oh gosh, the music. This is like coming home, isn’t it? So exciting …

And then there’s this feeling that everything is all a bit … familiar? Haven’t we been here before? I mean, actually. Been. Here. Before?

Well, ok, it has changed, a little. Rather than bumping off a few innocent civilians while looking for a droid with information, let’s annihilate entire settlements, and show the annihilation in progress. ‘Plosions, space ships, storm troopers, fires, people running and screaming, shooting, ker-pow!!! Isn’t this great???

Er, I don’t know? Is it? My younger self remains silent on this issue, though I suspect she might have liked it. Especially in 3-D, had it existed in the cinema then (I mean, really existed) as her eyes were still about as good as they were likely to be and she didn’t yet wear glasses (although as she had no depth-perception even then she needed them).

Me? I’m thinking ‘holy shit!’, and not in a positive way.

And oh dear god, did they really just do that thing with the bloody handprint so you know which storm trooper to follow? Oh god, they just did.

face:palm as we also didn’t say in the old days.

I just don’t know … Actually, I do know, and am busy composing a brisk paragraph in my head about not trusting the audience, making it too easy, and so on.

A ghastly sense of inevitability begins to impinge.

I’m old, I’ve watched a lot of films in my time, including Star Wars, and it’s actually really not that difficult (mostly) to see what’s coming. Stormtrooper becomes human, decides to rescue captured pilot as ticket out. Escape from the Death Star Mk.II, in one of those cute little ships that looks like a diablo, and … whee, shooty-shooty. Apparently, my inner twenty-something is still big on the space gunnery. Which is handy, as there is going to be more of it. Yee-ha!

Wait! Why are we on Arrakis? Or Tatooine? No, they’re calling it Jakku this time. Was that a sandworm? Whatever, we are back in a marginal desert settlement-thing, allowing everyone to dress up in flowing robes, absolutely not being orientalist, no sir, look, we’ve got goggles and respirators, too, see?

Twenty-something me approves desperately of Rey. Current-me wonders why she doesn’t cover up her lower legs, as though they are magically immune to sunburn, sand burns, bugs, etc. I guess it’s for the climbing scenes.

Finn loses Poe Dameron, his new pilot, who has already lost his cat, sorry, droid (see Inside Llewyn Davis if you don’t get that one; and as Paul Kincaid points out, actually, this time the ‘cat’s lost Poe). Finn finds Rey – are two people incapable of meeting around here without another fucking firefight breaking out? Apparently, they are. Boom. More innocent bystanders shot up.

Let’s fly away. No, that ship’s just been blown up. Let’s fly away and use this ship instead. Holy shit (for real, this time), it’s the Millennium Falcon, hotly pursued by someone who looks remarkably like a remade Bombur from The Hobbit. I’m no longer entirely sure which film I am in.

But this, it turns out, this is what I am here for: this sequence as Rey flies the Millennium Falcon in, out, and upside down, across the face of Jakku, trying to escape Nazis-from-the-Antarctic, with Finn as her gunner. Because I cannot do this in my beloved Peugeot 208, not even on an empty motorway, for reasons involving gravity and traffic regulations. Young-me and current-me have bonded over the joy of watching the Millennium Falcon do handbrake turns all over hyperspace. Sigh.

The reappearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca is almost a grace note but there they are, and it’s all so … sorry, seem to have got something in my eye. Is that a speck of sentiment or is it just something that’s shaken its way out of the air duct? Despite what I might have already said about Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, it was always about Han Solo for me. And apparently, still is. Older … much, much older … and superbly grey and grizzled.

And being weirdly meta- about the whole thing, as though he is also thinking what I’m thinking. Harrison Ford is certainly not phoning in his performance, but I’m not entirely sure he’s always in the same film as the others. It’s funny but also disconcerting, as though he is not taking it entirely seriously. And he reminds me of someone, and I still don’t know who.

Later, once they’ve got back to the resistance planet, and he and Leia are quasi-amicably bickering, I find myself thinking of Fonda and Hepburn in On Golden Pond. And I’m torn. Because on the one hand, I am thinking that it’s fabulous to have an action movie with older people in it, even if one of them is staying at home rather too much (please give her a gun, later). On the other hand, Hollywood still apparently can only account for older couples on screen by having them estranged/squabbling/testy, and I’m kind of hurt by that. I’m looking to Han and Leia to represent me on screen, and … no, it’s not entirely working, is it? Perhaps I am too old for this. I smile as Chewbacca fusses about Han putting his coat on when they’re wandering around in Antarctica, sorry, on the ice planet, looking for the First Order base, but at the same time, I am thinking that this is like being a thirteen-year-old, reading Lord of the Rings, and identifying with Strider because there is a chronic lack of active women who aren’t elves in LOTR, and not realising that this was a problem.

I see it now. Because I’m a 56-year-old woman who is identifying with a character played by a 73-year-old man, and it’s 2016. Maybe I should identify with Rey, and to some extent I do, but not enough. There seem to be a number of younger visible women – pilots, bystanders, vamps, and so on – but this film gives me, me specifically, Leia, the doctor played by Harriet Walter, possibly Phazma but who knows under that armour, and Maz Kanata, the Guinan de nos jours (also played by a woman of colour, a young woman of colour, and a lot less visible under that than Whoopi Goldberg ever was. And I haven’t got time to stop and think about the mystical person of colour shtick). It’s not a lot to go on, is it? Maybe I can pretend there’s a middle-aged mechanic on the Resistance base.

And, wait, I’m lost now … what were we shooting up in this section? As Maz’s trading post is being destroyed, I suddenly realise I’m done with seeing things explode, masonry crumble and fall, and stormtroopers fly through the air every few seconds. The attrition rate is appalling; no wonder they are constantly recruiting. I’m slightly surprised they’ve not yet taken the orc route and started breeding them, but I can see that might be a franchise too far, and anyway, it’s always a good idea not to cross the streams. Sadly, there is a lot more exploding to go; indeed, the entire film seems to be predicated on blowing things up, including planet-sized weapons. I’m going slightly deaf by this point, and my eyes are suffering from the flashes of light as another person or object goes up in flames. And that includes what is now a mere shell of a plot.

I’m getting impatient with the film, which seems to be getting impatient with itself. There’s none of this nonsense about training to be a Jedi. In this generation, Rey can lay hands on a lightsabre and immediately start hacking away at Kylo Ren with considerable aplomb. Of course, she’s used to fighting, as is Finn, and though neither was trained to skewer things they do quite well. Kylo may be trained to fight but to add to his general woes, he’s not that good at it, which is unfortunate, and to compound things, Rey is naturally ace at doing things with the Force as well. Damn. At least he’ll be in demand for his Snape impersonation.

I’m being facetious now, because, really, there is little else left to do. Other than to debate the one thing I didn’t know about. The death of Han Solo. He has to come back, right? Though given the way things have been so far … Paul did express disappointment that Han Solo didn’t cry ‘Fly, you fools’, as the Balrog got him, sorry, as he fell into the void, but I have already warned you about the dangers of crossing the streams. But seriously, does he come back? Logic demands that he must, because the logic of film franchises like this is that no one named ever really dies, unless they die, and he hasn’t died yet. Not properly. I mean: like the White Witch, you can always get them back if you really want to, and probably with more success than resurrecting her. Rather as we’re fairly sure that we’ve not see the last of Kylo Ren, might we hold out some sort of hope for the return of Han Solo? At least so he can get his revenge on Emo Kylo for stabbing him through the heart with a lightsabre (a move that is incidentally used at least once too often, taking an element of surprise out of it)? Or was that it?

I admit, after that, I lost a certain amount of interest, even when Rey goes off to find Slavoj Žižek, sorry, Luke Skywalker, who appears to have gone to ground on Skellig Michael, presumably because he can. Take that, New Zealand!

I did enjoy The Force Awakens up to a point. But only up to a point. I like that there is another Star Wars movie in the world, that includes things I enjoyed about the originals (ok, the Millennium Falcon doing handbrake turns – so sue me, I’m shallow) but I look at it now, and all I can think of is how thin, how stretched, how  like butter scraped across bread this plot is. How this film is really one long series of nods to its predecessors, with very little in the way of newness. Some adjustment of gender roles, to be sure, and some foregrounding of actors of colour, all at long last. And I will just say here that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both outstanding actors. Along with, Harrison Ford and Chewie, they are the most watchable things on the screen. I love the moment when, having evaded the First Order, they’re excitedly dancing around, talking over each other. I love that Rey is so good a pilot she can match Han Solo. I love the giddiness of Rey and Finn falling in love. It reminds me of …

And that’s my problem, right there. It reminds me of … well, it reminds me of things I don’t feel inclined to talk about right now, but if you knew us then, knew us well, back in the day, it reminds me of that. And that takes me back to the hurt I feel about Han and Leia. We can be reminded of, but we can’t actually be …

But back in the cinema, the film was over. Princess Leia was on her way home. She’d obviously had a good time. In the foyer there was a man with learning difficulties, bouncing up and down excitedly, asking us all if we’d enjoyed seeing the film. I enjoyed his enjoyment.

As for me, it was time to go home. I felt hammered by sound. My ears were tired, my eyes were tired, my brain was curled in a foetal ball, screaming ‘enough with the self-referentiality, already. You have ticked every single fucking box, and pleased everyone by recalling their special memory of first Star Wars. Please stop it now’.

On the plus side, there were, thank god, no Ewoks.

The View from G21: A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company)

To Canterbury to see an ‘encore’ showing of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s version of A Winter’s Tale.

A Winter’s Tale is like Pericles, Prince of Tyre – broken-backed and apparently requiring some padding to make it bearable. In Kenneth Branagh’s production, this takes the form of sexually charged country dancing at the sheep-shearing supper. Actually, I lied. It’s not very sexually charged, and not really country dancing, either, choreographed to within an inch of its life, and about as abandoned as a night out in a temperance hotel.

Which pretty much sums up this production. It’s staged in this gorgeous little chocolate-box theatre (the Garrick, on London’s Charing Cross Road), lovingly restored, and like the theatre, the play is very varnished, very traditional (I think ‘Ken’ would probably want us to say ‘classical’) in its presentation, and serviceable. Very serviceable. Like the best black coat so beloved of earlier generations. Everything is there and works fine, all the boxes are ticked, and it’s forgettable.

Or worse, it’s Shakespeare like it used to be. Paul Kincaid and I both commented that it was a very old-fashioned version of Shakespeare, nostalgic almost in its presentation. Nothing here that hadn’t been seen many times before. Shakespeare for people who don’t want to have to think too hard. (The woman behind us adored it; seemed to think it was the best thing ever, as though Branagh were leading the Second Coming. When she went for ice cream, her companions proceeded to rip the play apart. My thought was that she clearly hadn’t seen either the RSC’s Othello or its Henry V.)

Yet, look at the play. What we have is very strange. To begin with, a king suddenly becomes convinced that his wife is carrying another man’s child (how long has Polixenes been visiting Leontes’ court, for heaven’s sake?), is seized by rabid jealousy, and successively alienates his best friend, his trusted advisor, his wife, and the senior lady of the court, while losing his baby daughter when he orders her abandoned, and another trusted advisor (husband to the senior lady of the court) who is eaten by a bear. Oh, and to rub it in, his son and heir dies. The oracle at Delphi tells him he was a dick head, and he comes to his senses. He then spends the next sixteen years having his remorse stoked by the senior court lady, who has actually hidden away his wife and failed to mention this fact.

Forward sixteen years, and the lost daughter has been found and raised  by a shepherd, has fallen in love with Polixenes’ son, who has neglected to mention he’s a prince, and they’re on the verge of marrying when Polixenes suddenly storms in, forbids it (having either apparently forgotten anything he ever learned about jealousy sixteen years earlier), prompting them to leg it to Sicily (at the suggestion of Camillo, formerly Leontes’ advisor, who does have a memory), where Leontes takes them in; they are hotly pursued by Polixenes and then blink, and you totally miss the reconciliation because it happens off-stage. But to make up for that you get Hermione as a statue suddenly brought back to life.

Seriously, how batshit crazy is this play? There is a faint implication that Polixenes has fallen for Perdita himself, which would be interesting to work with, and clearly Leontes’ sudden rage needs to be looked at more deeply. But in this production nothing, not a whisper, not a hint of the weird psychological dynamics underpinning this play.

A genuinely innovative director would have a field day with this. As it is, Sicily is Ruritania and Bohemia is Mummerset, and everyone’s uniforms were clearly a job lot from a Romanov yard sale. So far, so very 1960s. The music, on the other hand, seemed to come from the file marked ‘sentimental comedy’, and was frequently extremely intrusive.

And Ken, dear Ken, sweet Ken, is so obviously a pillar of the establishment it pains one slightly to remember how he really was the Second Coming once upon a time.

Which is not to say there were not pleasing moments. Kenneth Branagh still speaks verse beautifully (though while he might claim his cast is unmannered in its speaking, its unmannered speech is rather … er, mannered), and this time, unlike his Macbeth, he wasn’t staging the play in the aisle of a church, on a layer of earth thoroughly wetted by a theatrical rainstorm, so there is that.

Judi Dench is … well, she’s Judi Dench. Almost enough said, but goodness, she puts some fire into the role of Paulina (who really is an evil old bitch, though perhaps  unsurprising, given that Leontes as good as fed her husband, Antigonus, to the bear).

Michael Pennington as Antigonus –it’s not that much of a role, all things considered, but he managed to suffuse his part with immense tenderness when he talks to the rolled-up bundle of scarves with sound effect that is the infant Perdita. It was probably the most moving moment in the performance. Jimmy Yuill also turns in a sterling performance as Perdita’s adoptive father, the Shepherd. Other than that, no one with a significant speaking role was actively bad, but neither was there anything notable about them as individuals (except for the fool-figure who, as Paul Kincaid pointed out, needs to play the young Ezra Pound in something very soon).

If this production were a scientific instrument, it would be an orrery. Everything in its place, moving happily in its ordained orbit, and utterly uncontroversial.

Garrick livestreaming is clearly in its infancy. The cameras zoom through the audience onto the stage, and that’s the last you see of the audience, so this is unequivocally theatre as cinema. And as cinema, it worked fine. The audience didn’t really laugh much so one quickly forgot they were there. The interval fillers were mostly adverts for the Garrick season that almost everyone watching the livestream or the encore, won’t be able to get to. The season looks great, but going to the Garrick is clearly being positioned as something aspirational. The audience they showed was very young. The audience surrounding me was not.

What is frustrating is that the modern plays in the KBTC’s Garrick season are seemingly not being streamed, not even Lolita Chakrabhati’s Red Velvet. I suppose it’s not surprising, given the presumed cost set against likely interest (though I’m interested, dammit). Having looked at the theatre’s website, the tickets for the productions are eye-wateringly expensive, unless you don’t mind sitting behind a pillar (only then you will most likely not be sitting with the person you plan to attend the production with, and possibly not be attending the same performance if you both wish to be cheapskates and sit behind pillars). And clearly there are no plans to tour these productions because, when it comes down to it, they’re boutique theatre, made specially for the boutique Garrick Theatre.