Saturday, July 6, 2013

Sci-Fi Heroes for a changing world...

'Hope everybody had a great fourth!  I spent the evening as I do most every 4th - Standing on the Cambridge Esplanade looking up at expanding globes of green, gold, purple and red stars exploding in the sky amid cascading showers of gold and floating fire lanterns.  We Americans love huge displays.  In film as well as patriotic tradition.

As a science fiction writer, I'm gratified to see sci-fi making a cinematic comeback, and in a a tasteful and artistic way.  Two sci-fi films I recently enjoyed very much were "AfterEarth" and "Man of Steel."  Both were huge special effects projects, with all the subtlety and restraint of a fireworks display.  But, they still found room for human feeling and genuine character development.  Proof the genre is coming of age.

"AfterEarth" is a visually dazzling space opera whose premise sounds an ecological cautionary note:  The human race is forced to colonize a distant solar system after pollution and climate change render Earth uninhabitable.  (Feeling the blazing heat of the summer sun this month, I feel that reality fast approaching.)  Against that backdrop, the story is one of father/son conflict and bonding.  The two main characters are played by sci-fi film veteran Will Smith and his real-life son.  The story is familiar enough.  Dad's an old army man and his son's heart just isn't in following in the old man's footsteps.  But, he wants and needs to prove himself (to himself as well as to his father.)  When the boy washes out of military training, the strained relationship between father and son comes to a head.  An interstellar father/son outing dad is hoping will bring him and his boy closer together takes a dramatically surprising turn when their starship crash-lands on, of all places, Earth.  Earth has been uninhabited for a thousand years and has reverted into a prehistoric wilderness, infested with ferocious mutant animals.  Father and son are (conveniently) the only survivors of the crash.  Dad is badly wounded and immobile.  His son must survive on his own in a savage wilderness and retrieve a radio device to summon help and save the day.  Somewhat cliched yes, but a classic coming-of-age tale and a baptism of fire that makes for an effective adventure.

 Computer-generated big jungle cats and giant birds make for a powerful man/nature story.  The boy's struggle to survive, served not always by a willingness to kill, but sometimes by a compassionate respect for nature is reminiscent of another visually spectacular fantasy film "Life of Pi."  The ultimate threat in "AfterEarth", the boy's primal fear made flesh, comes in the form of an immense and deadly alien predator which hunts by scent, rather than sight.  Here, the story gets points for originality by inventing its own lingo and mythology (as all good science fiction must, to establish its unique brand).  The military elite of a beleaguered future humanity is able to face these alien monsters through a martial arts fighting technique known as "ghosting."  The alien monster's sense of smell zeroes in on the smell of human fear.  So, the human warrior who faces the monster, George-on-dragon style must be able to suppress his fear.  To the alien, the human is like a ghost;  present, but without scent, and therefore undetectable.  As in any classic dragon slayer myth, the monster embodies our darkest inner demons.  The real struggle is internal, since the hero must conquer his own fear in order to win.  A timeless tale, "AfterEarth's" weakness is in its predictability.  It's strength is in its human emotion and classic hero mythology.  Beautiful and modern as the special effects in a film like this may be, the human factor is still the most important.  Science fiction has come a long way from its early, soulless beginnings in the pulp fiction of yore.

And speaking of yore... An iconic, all-American comic book hero, Superman, is brought to life again in  a movie which was, without doubt, the most spectacular and visually beautiful special effects display I've ever seen.  The cost was nothing short of obscene, but worth every penny.  That said, the story, again is definitely a human one.  Alien in its premise, but very human at its core.  Again, a tale of fathers and sons.  The familiar tale of Krypton's last son sent to Earth by his idealistic (and perhaps somewhat arrogant) father as the final legacy of his dying planet is reminiscent of the long-running TV series "Smallville," the coming-of-age Superboy fable which centered on the theme of destiny; choosing to be who you wish to be, not what society expects you to be.  The rarest of achievements.  The one who can manage it is the one who will restore hope to a world desperately in need of it.

In this version, Krypton is painted as a Brave New World society in which everyone's destiny is decided at birth through genetic engineering.  (A vision graphically represented by the sight of babies growing like fruit on a tree in immense fluid tanks.)  Jorell and Lara commit the ultimate blasphemy by having a child the old fashioned way, leaving his future in doubt.  Their son Kal is the ultimate messiah of hope because of his own unpredictability.  His future is what he makes of it. His antichrist-like adversary General Zod is the exact antithesis of that.  Zod is a soldier because he is genetically programmed to be.  His mission to destroy the human race so he can turn Earth into the new Krypton is what he must do; it is his duty.  When he is robbed of that, his existence loses all meaning, and he has nothing left but hate.  As always, the backdrop of sci-fi must create its own world, but the characters still must be developed to move against that backdrop, as they would against any other.  Clark Kent is innocent and vulnerable.  He wants to know who he is, and he wants to help people.  His adoptive human father prohibits both, wanting only to keep his foster son's secret, fearing the world will never accept him if they knew.  The world's capacity for hope is tested by the appearance of this new potential savior.   A Kansas farm boy who suddenly finds the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Clark/Kal/Superman's moral code is simple and pure.  Through his uncompromising love of life and respect for his fellow man, he sometimes succeeds in turning enemies into friends.  But, there are other times when life presents him with irredeemable evil and choices that force him to kill as the lesser of two evils.  The effect is excruciating for him, as all growth must be.  His innocence is lost, but his ideal survives.

Superman has become a classic American fable.  Keeping it fresh and alive in the re-telling is the challenge.  The underlying theme is hope.  Hope for new beginnings.  Science fiction has taken a nose-dive in the post-9/11 years because hope had for a long time been replaced with fear.  The apparent resurgence of the genre may be a sign that, as in "AfterEarth," we're learning to overcome our primal fears and start over.  And, as in "Man of Steel," we're learning to hope again and forge ahead into a new future, no longer slaves of the past.

And, isn't that what the American dream is supposed to be about?  Happy Independence Day.

Tom Olbert ( Mocha Memoirs Press publications:  Along Came a Spider, Hellshift, Black Goddess)

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