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Mars - The Red Planet in Games, Movies and Television

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 31, 2010 11:00am | Post a Comment
A lot of people come up to me and say, "Love the blog, especially the ones about moons, planets and dwarf planets in film, music, video games, &c... so why haven't you done one on Mars?"

Actually, no one said that and I just never did one until now because I figured it would be too much work. To my surprise, it actually turned out to be pretty manageable, so here you are, on the two year anniversary of the discovery of water on Mars.

The reason writing an entry about Mars in films, TV, &c proved to be rather easy is because although Martians show up all over the place in films (mainly as invaders of Earth) we rarely ever see the planet or culture of Mars itself depicted. This post, then, is only about depictions of life on Mars and not every depiction of Martians.


Marriage of Venus and Mars

O MIGHTY MARS!
Mars is named after the Roman god of war. He was the sun of Juno and Jupiter. He started out as a god of fertility, vegetation, cattle, fields, boundaries and farmers. Over time, he became the most prominent of the martial gods. As the father of Rome's founder, Romulus, he is the ancestor of all Romans.


BACKWARDS SIGNIFIER OF FIRE AND FLOW

Easily visible to the naked eye and recognizable for its reddish color, the planet named after the Roman god was an object of study and speculation for ancient Babylonians, Chinese, Dogon, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, and Mayan astronomers. To the Egyptians, the planet was Horus the Red, the backward traveler. To the Dogon, it was Yapunu toll, the planet of menstruation. To the Chinese, it was ruled by fire.


MARS OBSERVED

Mars was first observed with a telescope by Galileo Galilei in 1610. As telescopes improved, so did our view, revealing geographic features and storms, igniting the imagination of writers. In 1877, American astronomer Asaph Hall III first observed Mars's two satellites and named them Phobos and Deimos. Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli believed he could see seas, channels and continents. The Italian term for channels, "canali," was misunderstood to mean canals and American astronomer Percival Lawrence Lowell popularized the notion that they were the work of intelligent life.


LIFE ON MARS?

The perception of massive irrigation systems led to the notion of Martians as a dying race and inspired early Science-Fiction writers. In 1880, author Percy Greg wrote Across the Zodiac, in which his hero travels to Mars, where the Martians refuse to believe he is from Earth. H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, published in 1898, depicted a Martian invasion of our resource rich world. By the turn of the century, efforts were made to communicate with Martians. In July 1965, Mariner 4 arrived at Mars and pretty much put an end to speculation about life on Mars. After that, most science fiction about Mars dealt either with ancient Martian civilizations, or the future taming of Mars by settling and often terra-forming it.

MARS IN FILM
Films set (at least partly) on Mars include:





    

  

  

   

     


MARS IN TV


Martian depictions on TV include the 1962 series Space Patrol, the Doctor Who episode "The Ice Warriors," the Twilight Zone episode "People are Alike All Over," Space - Above and Beyond, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, the mini-series Race to Mars, and the Outer Limits episode "The Invisible Enemy."

MARS IN ANIMATION


In animation, Mars has been depicted in Armitage III, Cowboy Bebop, Avenger, Mars Daybreak, Tom and Jerry Blast Off to Mars, Big Wars and Genesis Climber Mospeada.

MARS IN COMPUTER AND VIDEO GAMES

Mars has also been the setting in video and computer games including Red Faction, Zone of the Enders, Commander Keen, X-COM - UFO Defense, Red Faction, Elite 2, Doom 3, Airforce Delta Strike, Descent, Martian Gothic Unification, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Armor Core 2, Terra Driver, Darius II, Mars Matrix and DoDonPachi.

MARS'S MOONS IN POP CULTURE

 

Mars's moons have shown up less often in fiction. On April Fools Day 1959, amateur astronomer Walter Scott Houston perpetrated a celebrated hoax in the Great Plains Observer, claiming that "Dr. Arthur Hayall of the University of the Sierras reports that the moons of Mars are actually artificial satellites." Both the doctor and school were made up. Nonetheless, my perusal of Youtube has shown that some people didn't get the joke and now perpetuate one of the dumbest of all the dumb conspiracy theories -- this one involving a NASA cover-up. Anyway, the moons don't show up too often.

Deimos appears in the games Doom and Marathon and the animes Zone of the Enders and Astro Boy (2003).

Phobos has appeared in the games Doom, Armored Core 2, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, Unreal Tournament, Unreal Tournament 2004, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and RTX Red Rock.



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Inception: A Borgesian Heist Film?

Posted by Charles Reece, July 18, 2010 08:34am | Post a Comment
He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres -- much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting a coin of the faceless wind.
-- from "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges
 
 


Christopher Nolan's Inception is another one of those sci-fi tales confronting the problem of infinity lurking behind subjectivity. Because it uses dreams instead of virtual reality, the film is structurally closer to the short story quoted above than the cyberpunk-influenced Matrix (although the action puts it closer to the latter). In Borges' tale, a sorcerer spends years dreaming a man into reality only to learn that he, too, was given life via the same method. And it's just as likely that the dreamer of the sorcerer is himself being dreamed, etc., ad infinitum. This is the old phenomenological problem of the Transcendental Ego.

In order to have a collection of intentional states (which are always regarding some mental or physical object) cohere as a self (the 'I' that's doing the believing, desiring, etc.), Edmund Husserl posited a transcendent pure subject that couldn't be objectified. This I was pre-reflective, the guy who was there each time an intentional state was being reflected upon (the I thinking "it is I who likes pizza" at one time and "It is I who hates the rain" at another). As with all such metaphysical "buck stops here" explanations (cf. the final cause argument for God), the question soon arose as to why this Ego didn't require another, more transcendent one to ground its reflective relations.  And since then, many theorists from various disciplines have been perfectly happy with the notion of a fractured self, that the I is nothing but a comforting mask for deterministic forces (cf. the death of the author, social Darwinism, or connectionism). Causal language is more scientistic, but problematic for suggesting the possibility that we humans have free agency, that there is something of a self not purely reducible to objective control, or material determinations. Thus, philosophical libertarianism sounds suspicious to many, like a new agey charlatanry.

There is a real world practical implication to this question of self-determination, namely that to be without agency makes morality (presumedly a very human characteristic) dubious. How responsible is a member of the Borg, or one of the inhabited human bodies in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? (All of this is much more complicated than I'm making it out to be, see here or particularly here.) While it's true that most people haven't spent much time reading about mind-body dualism, the fractured self, or determinism, they have experienced what it feels like to be treated as a product, which is ultimately what the death of the subject adds up to.  Modern-day capitalism relies on such an instrumentalist reduction; like the Borgesian dreamer of the dreamer, it creates the world which makes the reduction possible and even tolerable (the oneiric creation of a "real" man can only work if reality is illusion; capitalism only works if we accept its spectacles as reality). I suggest therein lies the intrinsic allure to Inception, a heist genre reworking of Borges, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard (to my mind, three of the most relevant writers to the 21st century). Some spoilers will follow.


While the telling of the story is somewhat convoluted, the plot is pretty basic, and not all that different from movies starring Jean Gabin or Sterling Hayden: in addition to his long-term partner, Arthur, Cobb is to assemble a team of experts for one final score initiated by Saito. Cobb is to enter the subconscious of Robert Fischer, planting the seed of an idea, which will turn him against the dying wish of his father, Maurice, for global dominance over energy resources through their corporation. Thus, the theft results by leaving something. Inception is the name of this subliminal procedure, but also provides a certain irony in the film's title, since it's never clear where the dreamscape actually begins, as is constantly alluded to throughout (e.g., walls close in on Cobb as he's running, despite being in the supposedly real world; his children don't age or change clothes from the memory of the last time he saw them). The additional crew members are: the chemist, Yusuf, who provides the specialized soporifics needed to enter dreams; Eames, the forger, who can become dream simulations of other people; and the architect, Ariadne, who's responsible for mentally designing the Möbius labyrinthes that they'll work in/are trapped by. The oneiric architecture is something like a M.C. Escher print, or Ballard's "Concentration City," which creates the illusion of space, but when an inhabitant takes the subway far enough, he ends up where he started (as the global networks connect us, the world seems smaller, yet we increasingly lose the ability to get anywhere different). If the team succeeds, Cobb will be free to return to his children in America through a simple phone call by Saito (yet another sign that reality is artifice).


Mal framed Cobb for her own suicide years ago, and he's been on the lam ever since. After spending too many years in the dream world, Mal lost her grip on what was actually real. When she awoke (through Cobb's use of inception on her), she no longer believed that reality was anything more than the mental architecture of another dreamer (as is the case in "The Circular Ruins"). Rather than accept this, she believed suicide was the only way of returning to reality. The frameup was her attempt at forcing Cobb to join her. He turns to a life of crime, blaming himself for her delusional state. He tries to lock away a guilt-derived simulacrum of his wife in his mental basement, but she constantly escapes to interfere with his thought crimes (such as warning his victims that they're in a dream). Of course, it's not clear who's actually delusional here.

In Total Recall (based on Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), Quaid's a bored construction worker who pays for a virtual memory implant of an adventure where he's a spy with a forgotten identity. Something goes wrong with the programming, so that either he's really a spy who's just been awoken by the implant, or he's losing his self-identity to the malfunctioning computer. When a doctor tries to warn him of the latter, Quaid kills him to remain in what is quite likely virtual reality. Analogously, Mal tries to warn Cobb that he's lost in mental limbo, but he's convinced that she's too imperfect to be his real wife.  She points out the ridiculousness of how he's supposed to see his kids again (why would a phone call free him of suspicion?) and how there's no clear beginning to any of the settings Cobb finds himself (there is no memory of how one gets to the beginning of a dream sequence). To increase the confusion and give the narrative a patina of unreality, Nolan de-emphasizes transitional sequences (the primary source for tension and pleasure in a heist film like Rififi) -- the characters seemingly pop up in one place and then another with little sense of time passing or distance traversed.

Furthermore, each member of the team has a totem, which functions as a reality anchor. A totem has to feel the right weight and function according to physical laws if the person is awake, unlike when he or she is dreaming. It should never be handled by another, since that could alter its functioning in a dream (an architect could otherwise account for the object's phenomenal qualities in his or her design so that it behaves as if it were really there). Cobb doesn't have one of his own, only the spinning top that was once his wife's, suggesting that his anchor is compromised. So when he decides to complete the mission and rejoin his children (which Mal tells him are nothing but virtual projections), it's possible that he's retreating from reality, deeper into his subconscious, which might be controlled by some unknown architect. Nolan leaves the ending ambiguous.
 
 


Yet, despite all of that, Inception is kind of  a bore to sit through. Cobb spends too much time spouting technobabble, an attempt to somehow make the fantasy sound more plausible. At least a quarter of the film is spent detailing arbitrary rules. A few writers can do this well (e.g., Samuel Delany, Stanislaw Lem) by using invented explanatory concepts to critique real world social structures (scientific, literary, political -- e.g., the way Solaris tells its story through fictional research articles), but here it's more like midi-chlorians. Relatedly, the dreams are too weighed down by a realistic aesthetic. Each layer of the constructed dreamworld (corresponding to increasingly deeper layers of the subconscious) is causally tied in with the other layers. When a van in one level is falling, the sleeping characters inside begin to float in the next dream within a dream they're collectively having as if there was some shared physical space with attendant nomological properties. Similarly, when Saito is shot on an upper level, he begins to bleed on the lower ones. And time behaves in standard linear fashion, only at different speeds depending on the layer (avatars age more slowly on the more subconscious levels). Not only does none of this make sense (in dream logic or the realistic kind -- e.g., we can fly in a dream regardless of our waking state, so why would such a causal connection obtain between two levels of dreaming?), but it serves to make the dream world mundane. Worse yet is that the majority of the mission involves bombs, machine guns and car chases. Maybe Nolan dreams of The A-Team, but mine look and feel more like Kwaidan.


"The Black Hair" from Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan.

Androids & Robots

Posted by Mr. Chadwick, April 28, 2010 12:30pm | Post a Comment
The inner sleeve from my last post got me thinking about this collection of Robot and Android covers.
Enjoy!

Films and Video Games

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 16, 2010 12:34pm | Post a Comment

With Tron – Legacy, the sequel to a movie about video games, scheduled to open in theaters this coming December and Tron – Evolution, a video game based on a sequel of a movie about a video game scheduled for release in November, now seems like a perfect time to look at the Ouroboros-like nature of film and video games and film.

     

In the early 1980s, Hollywood still sometimes made films that weren’t re-makes, adaptations or sequels and before there were movies adapted from video and computer games, there were movies about video and computer games. Tron (1982) was the granddaddy of them all. The Wizard (1989), WarGames (1983), Joysticks (1983), Cloak and Dagger (1984) and The Last Starfighter (1984) soon followed. 

In a culture where toys (Rubik the Amazing Cube anyone?) and sugar cereal are fleshed out into serialized children’s narratives (Cap'n Crunch - available on DVD), it was perhaps inevitable that video games would be adapted into cartoons. About the only thing memorable from Saturday Supercade (with segments including Donkey Kong, Frogger, Q*Bert, Donkey Kong Jr, Pitfall Harry, Space Ace and Kangaroo) was the excellent theme song. I have little memory of Pac-Man (1984) but was a big fan of Pole Position (1984), a show that really fleshed out the narrative of the game, which just featured a race car… racing. A couple of years later, the first film based on a video game appeared – in Japan - Super Mario Bros. - Peach-Hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen! (1986).

Continue reading...

District 9 Movie Review

Posted by Eric Brightwell, August 16, 2009 08:53pm | Post a Comment


I will admit, I was very wary of seeing District 9 for a variety of reasons. For one, my exposure to South African films had led me to the conclusion that the South African film industry is the worst in Africa. Armed with relatively large budgets, South African films seemed technically solid but at best, soulless and at worst, odious. On a continent where countries like Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali make amazing, artistic and entertaining films with a uniquely African voice, why would I want to see another glossy piece of crap from what seems like an ersatz Hollywood? Critical Assignment was one long and comically awful Guinness ad, Boesman and Lena an unwatchable minstrel show, Stander stultifying bland, Wooden Camera a ponderous examination of racial politics, and The Gods Must Be Crazy (I & II) ponderously racist. When Tsotsi was praised by the Academy, I wrote it off without giving it a chance. Only Richard Stanley's Hardware and Dust Devil did much for me. Also, I find South African accents (and all non-rhotic accents) rather unpleasant.


What's more, the premise of aliens living in townships sounded like a thinly veiled excuse for some heavy-handed sermonizing. Were District 9 to follow Hollywood rules, the film would inevitably follow the valiant effort of one member of the oppressors who, following a change of heart, would lead the helpless "Others" to victory after gaining their trust whilst the villains would embody absolute evil, therein allowing the members of the audience to feel good about themselves by making sure that they couldn't identify at all with the antagonists. Simultaneously it would allow them to feel down due to their acceptance by the authentic victims; a genre I call "Through Blue Eyes" (e.g. Dances with Wolves, Schindler's List, The Last Samurai, The Mission, Ghosts of Mississippi, The New World, Mississippi Burning and on and on). A human and an alien would come to love each other, profess to have one another's backs, and probably stand back-to-back with guns drawn on the opposition. If I want to hear shallow discussions about racial politics, I don't watch buddy films, I have a beer at the white house.


Fifteen years after the fact, a film telling me that apartheid was bad, I thought, would be pointless and annoying. Even the Israeli government can agree that South Africa's apartheid system was unjust. Do we need a sci-fi, a genre at often its best when examining our own failings, to tell us that discrimination is wrong? Furthermore, the message, if applied in District 9, wouldn't even seem very analogous. After all, the aliens in the film came to South Africa and are forced into townships. In South Africa, it was the pre-existing black population (who, it should be noted, had largely displaced and destroyed the indigenous one) who were rounded up by the new arrivals. If the film was going to draw simple parallels to South Africa, the aliens would be forcing the South Africans into concentration camps, not the other way around.


Then there was the Peter Jackson issue. Although just the producer, after the leaden, hokey and abjectly awful King Kong, I worried that his involvement might be a detriment (despite having never made a less than excellent film before).

Fortunately, District 9 is a thoroughly enjoyable film that works both as entertainment and thoughtful art. It does contain lessons about prejudice, but does so by creating an interesting scenario and then intelligently expounding upon it. And, with a paltry $40 million cost, it's a lesson in how sci-fi/action films should be and thus a towering middle finger to Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers. Even with its relatively meager budget, it serves up consistently amazing special effects and the result is the most enjoyable sci-fi film since 28 Days Later.


To start, Sharlto Copley as Wikus van der Merwe is pretty much perfect. He plays the protagonist as neither a sexy, roguish anti-hero nor a ethically spotless do-gooder. Rather, he's an unfailingly chipper, by-the-books bureaucrat who's devoted to his wife but at the same time, not completely likeable. He has a pronounced yellow streak and he doesn't, unlike say Matt Dillon's character in Crash, magically transform over the course of the film into a good person. In fact, no one in the film, with the exception of the alien, Christopher Johnson, is a shining avatar. In many ways, Wilkus reminded me of David Brent, an association re-inforced by the faux-documentary set-up that thankfully falls by the wayside after a methodically paced and protracted opening act. And even Christopher Johnson is so damned physically repulsive that the viewer's sympathetic connection to him is rather challenged. Even an intergalactic sex tourist like Captain Kirk would probably require a case of Romulan Ale before going there. One of the many clever and innovative (by Hollywood standards) aspects of the film is that the audience isn't let off the hook for its/our seemingly insurmountable prejudices. For example, when we're informed that there's a considerable demand for interspecies prostitution, it's hard not to wince at the thought, despite our valiant attempts to remain open minded. 


In doing so and in other ways, the film also suggests that discrimination and prejudice aren't the sole province of white people -- something so obviously true and yet still treated as controversial by the Kool-aid-drinking PC cult. It's rather laughable that more than one reviewer has knee-jerkily attacked the film for daring to depict Nigerian criminals as opportunistic villains, since we're only used to accepting black Africans as victims. In one of the only straightforward analogies in the film, the depiction of their cannibalism of the aliens is rather similar to the very real issue of some Africans' cannibalism of albinos for their supposed magical properties. District 9 is refreshingly and nearly completely devoid of simple, spoon-fed, race-based moralizing. It points fingers at all people complicit with concentration camps, occupations, townships, reservations, security fences and apartheid walls, regardless of skin color or hair type, instead equally implicating all humans for discrimination, xenophobia, tribalism and intolerance.


Filmically-speaking, director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp's sensibility is very African. The film is in no rush to get going. It doesn't use slow-motion or Matrix-style effects. It doesn't underestimate the audience's intelligence, explaining every aspect of the story which, for some viewers so used to Hollywood, may be misinterpreted as a technical failing. We are never told why the aliens came, why they chose Jo-Berg, how they have sex, why they like cat food, how many hours they sleep, what their favorite color is, &c. The film requires that the audience assume that a government figure specializing in alien affairs will, after a 28-year presence, learn their language, without showing us him buying and using Rosetta Stone software. Its only glaringly non-African concession to foreign audiences is in the use of subtitles to reveal information about the date and time of the proceedings.


As with all films, District 9 isn't flawless and viewers determined to find fault will invariably find enough in the film to justify their need to offer a voice of dissent against the overwhelmingly positive opinions of the masses. The two main standbys for these determined contrarians are usually bad acting and predictability. The acting is uniformly good, so only the most poorly reasoned wag will choose it as a criticism. Predictability, on the other hand, is a reality of all films. Yes, it's of a typical length, it tells a story, and there's a beginning and end. Just as Saturday predictably follows Friday, the ability to predict the inevitable isn't a sign of a reviewer's insight. As with all films, nor is District 9 completely original. The film echoes in varying degrees Enemy Mine, Alien Nation, The Fly, Iron Man and the Get a Life episode "Spewey and Me." It's also much better than any of them... except for, maybe, the under-recognizedly brilliant Get a Life. And it's not just because of lowered expectations stemming from Hollywood's near complete reliance on video games, pre-existing franchises, and old TV shows. District 9 is a breath of fresh air-- a fun, gorey, loud, gross, inventive and rousing mix of space opera and more speculative sort of sci-fi that examines issues that in many cases don't always have clear cut, real-world parallels. As such, I highly recommend it.

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