Review of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS, season 1 (2019, TV)



Review of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS, season 1

Michael Pitts

LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS. Blur Studio, distributed by Netflix, 2019.


Currently in production of its second season, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS is an anthology series produced by Netflix. Bringing together the talents of different casts and creative teams, the series consists of standalone episodes exploring diverse themes of the science fiction genre. These episodes, which do not exceed 20 minutes in length, reflect disparate genres such as cyberpunk, alternate history, and dystopia while covering themes from AI and transhumanism to colonization. They raise, for example, questions concerning the future of humankind, the destructive consequences of colonial expansion and capitalism, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the privatization of space travel, and the dilemmas of robotic consciousness. Yet, while the series offers some interesting explorations within each of these fields of interest, it is problematic in its traditional framing of issues related to sex and, more specifically, its catering to the male gaze.

A re-imagining of Tim Miller and David Fincher’s initial plan to remake the animated science fiction anthology film Heavy Metal (1981), Love, Death & Robots continues its predecessor’s efforts of legitimizing adult-oriented animation and genre fiction. Like Heavy Metal, it utilizes advanced and diverse animation techniques, pushing the genre into new territory. Led by Miller’s Blue studio, which is known for its hyper-realistic, video-game style aesthetics, and produced using a variety of animation tools, the show is characterized by vivid, realistic details and cutting-edge animation. Uniting the disparate aesthetic styles of the episodes is their depiction of tropes common to the underground comics of the 1970s, which in turn influenced the production of Heavy Metal. Like the 1970s adult-oriented graphic fiction that skirted censorship rules, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS centers explicit content including sexuality and violence.

It is this intermingling of sex and violent content that makes the series, like its comics and Heavy Metal predecessors, problematic. Like Heavy Metal, the program caters to heteronormative male viewers through its presentation of sex and the female body. Though it occasionally presents non-normative sexuality, for example, these portrayals of queer characters frame female bodies within patriarchal conceptions of desirability. Each female character populating these episodes acts, as Laura Mulvey puts it in her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “as an erotic object for the spectator within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (62). Women in LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS are therefore predominantly portrayed in accordance with the desires of a heteronormative male audience. Also, like Heavy Metal, the program frequently depicts violence towards women and emphasizes gratuitous sexual and violent details. Female characters, for example, are brutally hunted and murdered, such as in “The Witness,” or brutalized and mutilated, such as in “The Secret War.” Other episodes, such as “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” are suddenly interrupted by sex scenes clearly developed and included to appease heterosexual male viewers. While the program caters to the male gaze and includes toxic portrayals of women and violence, a few episodes do divert from this patriarchal framing of sex and gender. “Good Hunting,” for example, follows the plight of a female huli jing or fox spirit as she escapes sex slavery and mounts an attack upon the patriarchy in early 20th-century Hong Kong. Another episode, “Helping Hand,” similarly diverts from this catering to heteronormative male viewers in its centering of a female protagonist who demonstrates incredible courage and strength in the face of eminent danger. Overall, however, though it includes these limited, non-patriarchal presentations of female characters, Love, Death & Robots problematically frames women, sex, and violence.

To a limited extent, the show also comments on other issues such as colonialism and capitalism. “Good Hunting,” for example, emphasizes the legacy of colonization and its effect upon women through its portrayal of women sold as sex slaves as a result of colonialism. “Suits,” on the other hand, undermines traditional stories of American individualism and self-reliance by revealing that the farmers upon which the episode centers are actually colonizers attacking the indigenous alien species of the planet they desire to control. “Helping Hand” imagines the consequences of corporate space exploration upon astronauts whose labor is exploited at great cost. As these examples illustrate, the series builds upon pre-existing trends and themes of science fiction and occasionally offers interesting insights into topics pivotal to the future of humankind such as environmental concerns, space travel, labor practices, the expansion of human civilization, and transhumanism. Overall, then, while LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS offers occasional commentary on issues common to science fiction, the brevity of its episodes, its patriarchal framing of issues related to sex and violence, and its catering to the male gaze limit its potential as an innovative work of SF.


WORKS CITED

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminism and Film Theory, edited by Constance Penley, Routledge, 1988, pp. 57-68. 

Review of Another Life, season 1 (2019, TV)



Review of Another Life, season 1

Marta F. Suarez

Another Life, season 1. Halfire Entertainment, distributed by Netflix, 2019.


Another Life is a Netflix series currently awaiting the release of its second season. Its first season, released in 2019, consisted of ten 60-minutes episodes. The plot is quite straightforward and moves between a narrative on Earth and a narrative in space. In an unspecified year in the future, a mysterious alien device arrives on Earth and settles on an open field in the US. Six months later, the scientists are still looking for the purpose of the artifact, only establishing that it emits code to Pi Canis Majoris. Not wanting to wait any longer, the government sends an interstellar ship to the signal’s objective, hoping to make direct contact with the alien civilization. The expedition is led by Niko Breckinridge (Katee Sackhoff), newly appointed captain of the Salvare. Meanwhile, on Earth, her husband Erik Wallace (Justin Chatwin), continues to lead the research to decipher the code.

The series often nods to other sci-fi screen media, moving between echoing popular scenes, emulating genre styles, and replicating familiar narratives. Its serialised structure converges with an episodic approach that gives the series a pastiche feeling. Whereas the overall plot has striking similarities with the decoding plot of Contact (1997), Interstellar (2014), and Arrival (2016), the individual episodes approach a variety of styles, narratives, and sub-genres. For example, nods to sci-fi horror take inspiration from the aesthetics of Nightflyers (2018) and Prometheus (2012), including arachnids reminiscent of those in Starship Troopers (1997) or Lost in Space (1998). Alien (1979) is echoed several times throughout the series. Not only is the chestburster scene almost replicated, but the first scenes in the Salvare evoke those in the Nostromo, yet with a darker atmosphere. If in Alien the crew wakes up in a quiet and serene ship, emphasized by the soundtrack and long shots (as if not to disturb), in the Salvare, Niko wakes up alone and weakened, in close-ups that emphasise the discomfort and dutch angles that suggest that not all is well. As it turns out, the ship is not where it should be and the events will only take it further from Earth in a plot reminiscent of Event Horizon (1997), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), Stargate Universe (2009-2010), or Lost in Space (2018-). By the end of the season, Niko discovers that the alien race who sent the artifact, the Achaia, are decimating civilizations and implanting chips into hosts, connecting with core elements of The Mind Snatchers (1972) and the Goa’uld in the Stargate universes. The references are many and varied, making the series a kind of kaleidoscope where well-known tropes change shape but are still recognizable.

The originality of the series does not come from the plot. Indeed, some of it might result in clichés, and some of the characters are flat archetypes, with minimal internal conflict or character evolution except for Niko, Eric and the ship’s AI, William (Samuel Anderson). One of the key differences between this and other sci-fi crews assembled to go into space is their very young age, their diversity and the YA feel to the character-driven drama that they create. If in The 100 (2014-) the choice to depict younger characters is supported by the plot, in Another Life this decision brings a level of incoherence to the narrative, which suffers for it. The explanation, although given, contrasts with other aspects of the narrative. A member affirms that they have been chosen because their youth gives them the readiness to act, as opposed to a cautious disposition, which would characterize older crews. For the same reasons, space crews have abandoned uniforms, seen as outdated, and now are able to make their own fashion choices. Nevertheless, on Earth the military is still wearing uniforms, and all decision-makers are significantly older, which in a way contradicts the provided reasoning. It is also unclear why the crew only meet each other for the first time upon embarking on their voyage or why the former captain of the Salvare is part of the crew when he clearly is resentful of the change. The crew always questions the captain’s decisions, and actions are often rushed or merely illogical. The audience is left to wonder why the government has sent such an inexperienced group to make first direct contact with the alien life, whose intentions are unclear. The series’s focus on young and attractive characters and their interpersonal conflicts create narratives conventional in YA fiction, which contrasts with the space given to the internal conflicts of older characters.

The only other older member of the crew is First Officer Ian Yerxa (Tyler Hoechlin), the previous captain of the Salvare, who is killed almost immediately and replaced by his girlfriend, Cas Isakovic (Elizabeth Faith Ludlow). Michelle Vargas (Jessica Camacho) is the Communications Officer. Meanwhile, the engineering team is composed of lead engineer August Catawnee (Blu Hunt), Oliver Sokolov (Alex Ozerov) and computer engineer Javier Almanzar (Alexander Eling). The Salvare’s medic is Zayn Petrossian, a non-binary member of the crew portrayed by JayR Tinaco. Joining him in the medical bay is microbiologist Bernie Martinez (A.J. Rivera). Finally, accompanying the crew as a diplomat is the son of the US Secretary of Defence, Sasha Harrison (Jake Abel). On Earth, Eric looks after their daughter, Jana Breckinridge-Wallace (Lina Renna), and is often seen working alongside Dr Nani Singh (Parveen Dosanjh). The journalist Harper Glass (Selma Blair) provides conflict and creates tension. Overall, the characters among the young crew lack the depth of characterization that we see in Eric, Harper, Niko, or William. The dynamics between the latter two are probably the best element of the show at the narrative level. Designed not only to feel but also to combine the characteristics most appreciated by Niko, William becomes affectionate towards the captain in a relationship evocative of Her (2013). The dynamics in this relationship leads William to create another AI in search of love, complicating the matter further. For the rest of the crew, we are given little to no background story, being mostly differentiated by the way they dress and speak. There is a tendency to exposition and the dialogue often lacks subtext, breaking the script-writing rule of “show, don’t tell”. However, some of these characters have great potential. The show engages with issues of diversity, sexuality and gender in almost every episode. The guilt of the absent mother permeates Niko’s reflections about family, the engineers soon become a threesome, the non-binary medic has sexual relationships with the microbiologist, and questions of love and free will are part of a critical sub-plot with the ship’s AI. The ethnicity and cultural background of the characters is diverse, and although this does not materialize (yet) beyond the character design and into the plot, it is undoubtedly promising.

Audiences looking for a series with a robust scientific approach might be disappointed. The plot has some basic inaccuracies from the start. For example, they indicate that they miscalculated the distance to the objective because of dark matter, shown on screen as a dense thick grey cloud. Using high radiation in the ship kills alien life but is said to only impact the crew with infertility. Other elements that might feel incongruent relate to the dynamics in the ship, particularly concerning compliance to rules and following authority. The episodic structure puts the characters in situations that, for the most part, are a consequence of their own wrongdoings. We see members of the crew starting a mutiny, removing helmets in alien caves, smoking alien plants, or not using hazmat suits because the air is breathable. Because the transgressions towards leadership and regulations are so common and widespread, the audience might be left wondering how they have all been chosen for such a critical mission.

The series, therefore, is eclectic in its influences and genre, combining elements of sci-fi space travel, sci-fi horror, and teen drama, though it has issues regarding narrative coherence and scientific background. Nonetheless, the episodes could be used in a classroom environment for discussions surrounding race and gender representation, the portrayals of authority (and its failures), and moral “what would you do?” situations, of which there are plenty. For research purposes, the series might be of interest to those working on intertextuality, the portrayal of the female action hero, the ambiguity of the alien other, the fear of the unknown, reflections over the humanity of AI, the dangers of AI, and the intersections of gender and sexuality. Another Life is due to release its second season in Summer 2020. While receiving very low reviews for its narrative incoherence, these issues might yet be addressed in the new episodes. Maybe, after all, Another Life will get itself another life.

Review of Rick and Morty, season 4



Review of Rick and Morty, season 4

Max Suechting

Rick and Morty, season 4. Adult Swim, 2019–2020.


The least interesting thing to say about season 4 of Rick and Morty is that it is, generally, both good and bad in the ways that the show’s previous seasons have been good and bad. At its best, it is smart, tightly-written, and searingly funny, alternately experimenting with and lampooning the devices of science-fiction and advancing simple but compelling characters along a series of wildly imaginative conflicts. The breadth of literary and cultural history it simultaneously draws from and skewers is impressive and probably as enjoyable for the seasoned SF stalwart as the novice or newcomer, with this season variously digesting Indiana Jones, Ernest Hemingway, Batman-esque acid vats, Akira!, heist movies, Edge of Tomorrow, and more. At worst, the season is so loaded with references it becomes difficult for even the conscientious viewer to piece each episode together. Luckily, though, the episodes move at such a breakneck pace that this turns out mostly not to matter very much. Once the viewer settles into the experience, Rick and Morty becomes a kind of gamified television, unspooling familiar or almost-familiar references every few seconds.

Of course, this referentiality has been the series’ all-but-explicit subject matter since its inception. Rick and Morty has always been self-consciously about itself—or rather, about its own reflexive relationship with science fiction as a genre as well as the conventions of medium, character, plot, and so forth. The formula of a typical episode goes something like this: begin with a well-known media property or fictional trope, jam it together with a handful of other references, lay them out along an archetypal SF plot, and season heavily with complex, depressive, and/or fourth-wall-breaking metahumor. If the show’s aesthetic architecture is an improvisatory jumble of pastiche, reference, and imitation, its narrative engine is fueled by recursion, repetition, and intertextuality. Indeed, much of Rick and Morty’s charm comes from its celebration of its own intellectual indebtedness, genially rearranging its own source code with the bottomless delight of a child immersed in a Lego-and-Erector-set playworld. The result is a show which delights in endlessly plumbing its own increasingly reflexive relationship to its forebears, obsessively showing its work while at the same time acknowledging that work as at least partially meaningless.

What is novel about this season in particular, however, is that its metafictional churn is applied most strenuously not only to SF as a genre but also to the show itself—or, more specifically, to the tension between its status as both a piece of art and a commercial media product. For example, the season’s sixth episode, “Never Ricking Morty,” finds the titular pair trapped aboard a “Story Train” running along an endlessly looping track—a direct reference to series co-creator Dan Harmon’s famous story circle. While aboard the metaphor, the pair must puzzle their way through a variety of literalized narrative devices to “break the fifth wall” with their “story potential.” The episode concludes with grandpa and grandson happily zapped back to the Smith family home, entranced with what we see now to be not an extradiegetic prison but rather a simple toy train Morty purchased for Rick, who rhapsodizes:

You did the most important thing: you bought something. . . . Your only purpose in life is to buy and consume merchandise, and you did it. You went into a store, an actual honest to God store. … And you bought something. You didn’t ask questions or raise ethical complaints. You just looked straight into the bleeding jaws of capitalism, and said, “Yes daddy, please.” I’m so proud of you. I only wish you could’ve bought more.

But when the suddenly train derails, Rick’s mood sours:

Didn’t you hear what I said?! Consume, Morty! Nobody’s out there shopping with this fucking virus!

The episode thus concludes with an elaborately-constructed meditation on the relationship between commodity status, narrative logic, and audience satisfaction—with a character all but shouting the conclusion at the audience in the final thirty seconds—built atop an impossibly contemporary reference.

Such moments are par for the Rick and Morty course: speedrun absurdism maintaining its forward momentum by ruthlessly undercutting its own sentiment. Of course, it is not surprising that an “adult cartoon” should aim to soothe its audiences’ own neuroses by layering bleak cynicism, one-degree-shy-of-treacly moralizing, and wide-ranging pop culture knowledge (BoJack Horseman works in much the same way). Yet, despite its restless oscillation between desire and disdain for true feeling, Rick and Morty mostly manages to remain entertaining and lighthearted rather than slipping into pointless nerd solipsism.

This is not to say that solipsism is absent, of course, although it’s less a property of any specific part of the show itself and more the cumulative impression the series leaves on your brain. In the show’s best and most pleasurable moments, it plays like a hyperdrive version of A Thousand and One Nights (a comparison which the characters all but make themselves). Four seasons in, however, Harmon’s relentless equation of anti-social cynicism with sophistication and intelligence has started to wear through the show’s adventure-of-the-week format in a way that is harder and harder to ignore. In those moments, Rick and Morty feels less like a lighthearted romp through SF history and more like asymptotically performative snark, an affectation which unfortunately registers less as scandalous or risqué and more as vaguely annoying. (For instance, the season’s fourth episode includes an incestuous dragon-powered “ten-slut soul-orgy,” a phrase which is as tiresome to comprehend as it was to write.)

When all is said and done, however, the show’s most important assets aren’t its willingness to offend or the breadth of its references, but rather its creators’ pairing of witty inventiveness with a complex take on media and intertextuality. Hopefully Harmon and his collaborators can keep drawing from them for years to come.

Review of The Platform (2020, film)



Review of The Platform

Emrah Atasoy

The Platform. Directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, Basque Films, distributed by Netflix, 2019.


The Spanish director, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s Spanish-language thriller on Netflix, The Platform (El Hoyo, 2019) is set in a dystopian future in a “Vertical Self-Management Center.” It is a prison-like building referred to as “The Hole,” consisting of over 300 levels, with two inmates to a cell. A platform full of food descends every day from the highest level to the bottom to feed these incarcerated inmates, which is closely concerned with food distribution and rationing. The inmates at the highest level get to decide whatever and how much they desire to eat, after which the food is taken one level down. The leftovers of the inmates above become the food those below. People are randomly moved to another level after each month. The film illustrates the protagonist, Goreng’s physical and metaphorical journey which gradually reveals the brutal reality behind the Hole through his experiences with his cellmates and other people in the prison.

The movie has numerous dystopian characteristics, which may lead one to label it a dystopian movie, whereas some others may categorize it as a horror movie or science fiction horror thriller. Generically speaking, it bears certain similarities to the structural pattern of literary dystopias or dystopian movies. The film starts in medias res, as we find the protagonist Goreng (Ivan Massague) waking up on Level 48 in his cell, staring at his inmate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), an old man imprisoned due to his accidental murdering of an immigrant. The main character is initially confronted with the foil, Trimagasi, who expounds on how the system in the Hole functions, which starts his transition from a state of naivety to a state of knowledge and experience. He is gradually exposed to the reality of the system through external factors such as Trimagasi, Miharu, and other inmates. Miharu, whose name stands for “open one’s eyes wide” plays a significant role in his journey (Ishida 106).

The dystopian protagonist starts to comprehend the internal mechanics of the system and resists against the system. Goreng, who takes Cervantes’s book, Don Quixote with him as his only item, struggles hard both to understand how the Hole works and to promote fair food rationing so that everyone can have something to eat. When the protagonist does not find support from other characters, his determination is partially vitiated. The protagonist manages to stay alive and reach the symbol of hope, a girl in this case. The girl who is implied to be Miharu’s daughter ultimately becomes the token of hope that may have the potential to change the current structure. Although the blame is not explicitly put on a political body, or rather, there does not exist a political body suppressing its citizens on a holistic level, the projected world remains highly dystopian.

It is possible to approach the movie from numerous perspectives that relate to the larger intellectual and philosophical questions and concerns raised. With its strong dystopian undertones, the movie engages itself with themes such as suppression, greed, cannibalism, corruption, surveillance, empathy, self-centrism versus altruism, violence, survival, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, control, loss of individualism, social class, inequality, capitalism, the fluidity and fragile nature of borders in between different social classes, socialism, and racism. The Platform highlights how people do serious harm to others in order to survive and to climb up the ladder before them—a strong critique against capitalism. These points, illustrated on differing levels in the movie, can be introduced as relevant to research on science fiction films, dystopian films, science fiction in literature and media, as well as utopian and dystopian narratives and their cinematographic representations.

It is no surprise that The Platform has immediately become one of the most viewed movies in Netflix during the time of COVID-19. It has many similarities to the current pandemic and the new “normal” lifestyle it has brought, as social distancing and individual physical existence seem to occupy an instrumental role in both situations (emphasis added). Survival becomes the chief objective of inmates in the pit, which is followed by the desire to be on the level above, creating a dichotomy between those below and those above. Although there may be the possibility that food is sufficient for everyone, inmates eat as much as they wish instead of rationing. Therefore, people on the lower levels resort to cannibalism when they are unable to feed themselves. The self-centered approach has become clear and palpable even within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the concrete parallel of which can be people’s hoarding toilette papers, not caring for the needs of others.

In conclusion, The Platform with its unique texture, rich content and idiosyncratic characteristics suggests avenues for analysis from numerous angles in the light of its themes and features, argumentation, and scholarly discussions. It represents topics that can be discussed within the context of various disciplines, suitable for the interdisciplinary nature of dystopian studies. The search for an ideal system, the nature of humans, and the need to disrupt dichotomous thinking in order to engender a non-binary approach would further discussion within literature, political science, and environmental humanities, which all reflect the strong potential of the movie in contributing to scholarly, academic and pedagogical approaches.


WORKS CITED

Ishida, Priscilla. “Corpus Data and the Treatment of Idioms in Japanese Monolingual Dictionaries.” Research on Phraseology in Europe and Asia, edited by Joanna Szerszunowicz, Bogusław Nowowiejski, Takaaki Kanzaki, Katsumasa Yagi, University of Bialystok Publishing House, 2011, pp. 101-127.

Review of The OA, Season 2



Review of The OA, Season 2

Carmen Victor

The OA. Season 2, produced by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, Plan B Entertainment and Anonymous Content, 2019.


The second season of The OA picks up exactly where the first one left, and both continues and, arguably, doubles down on its strange allegorical and metaphysical take on science fiction and transdimentionality. To recap, the first season centers around a young woman named Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) who returns to her adoptive family after disappearing under mysterious circumstances seven years earlier. Now preferring to go by “The OA”, Prairie, who had been blind for most of her life, assembles a misfit group of four local high-school students and one teacher (called the Crestwood Five) for the purposes of travelling to another dimension, utilizing a method she and another four other people developed during their time in captivity, as revealed in the first season.. Season 2 of The OA is set in the second dimension. We are introduced to a private eye named Karim Washington (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who has been hired to investigate the disappearance of a young teenage girl named Michelle. In this dimension, the captives (Homer, Rachel, Scott, Renata) as well as Hap and OA have jumped into different versions of themselves. Hap is now Dr. Percy, the director of a large psychiatric institution where Homer works as a resident psychiatrist. Rachel, who had a beautiful singing voice in Season 1, is mute in Season 2 and OA has jumped into a version of herself that did not have a car accident as a child, thus she never had a near death experience so she never lost her sight, was never adopted, and instead led a life of luxury and privilege with her biological father who was alive and present throughout most of her life. Despite her being thrust into this new dimension, OA remembers her seven-year captivity, she remembers her friends, the movements, and the Crestwood Five, as well as everything else from the dimension whence she came. The entirety of Season 2 weaves an endlessly intriguing narrative of how Karim Washington’s search for a missing teenager interconnects with the people and events surrounding the OA and the mysteries of interdimensional travel.

Whereas the first season of The OA is a told like an ordinary drama, recounting an emotional tale of narrative fiction while hinting at the trappings of science fictionality, the second season is more akin to a neo-noir thriller, told particularly effectively visually through the use of unbalanced camera angles. In addition, the narrative at times blurs the lines between good and bad, right and wrong and employs thematic motifs that include revenge, paranoia, and alienation.

Admirers of allegorical science fiction television and film such as The Prisoner (McGoohan, 1967), mystery horror drama such as Twin Peaks (Lynch, 1990-2017), supernatural drama Lost (Lindelof, 2004-10), supernatural mystery drama The Leftovers (Lindelof, 2014-17) or German science fiction drama thriller Dark (bo Odar and Friese, 2017-20) will appreciate The OA. Like these various examples of allegorical science fiction television and film, The OA engages audiences that revel most in unravelling the mysteries of decoding a myriad of literary and historical references and associations, while seeking the sophisticated underlying and cosmic meanings embedded within the show that slowly reveal themselves on multiple narrative, visual and metaphorical levels.

However, while The OA occasionally uses science fiction tropes, it does so without deploying the hard mechanics of sci-fi. For example, while interdimensional travel is a key narrative device in The OA, it generally does not use technology as a means to travel, unlike recent science-fiction films Inception (Nolan, 2010) or Interstellar (Nolan, 2014) which do employ technology as a means to enter metaphysical worlds. When science fiction technological devices become divulged towards the end of the second season of The OA, they are as a revelation because the audience has grown accustomed to the idea of achieving interdimensional travel through choreographed movements, as entirely plausible. That The OA is wholly convincing about interdimensional travel as an analogue activity, arrived at through a series of physical movements executed in unison and with perfect feeling, differentiates this series from other science fiction narratives that deal with interdimensional travel. The second season of The OA ends climactically with characters in dual dimensions jumping together to a third dimension whose conditions are immediately apparent as meta-narrative. The season-ending cliff-hanger is maddeningly self-referential, drawing to attention the idea of its own artificiality while tangibly questioning the very medium through which The OA is being told.

According to the show-runners, the entirety of the narrative arc of The OA was meant to be told over five seasons and it had all been mapped out before production began. In an allegorical work such as this, the number five is in itself significant because it is one of many emblems that is repeated throughout the series. Five seasons, presumably five dimensions, told in five distinct genres, corresponding to the five Crestwood characters, the five captives, the five connected glass chambers in which they were imprisoned, Hap’s name short for ‘haptic’ meaning the five senses, and the five movements which enable interdimensional travel.

Scholars and researchers interested in televisual works invoking intertextuality as an aesthetic strategy will recognize The OA as a profoundly postmodern media text. though not in the way Frederic Jameson defines postmodernism, which in Jameson’s view, relies too heavily on nostalgia for a past that never existed. Rather, the postmodernism expressed in The OA is more analogous to the way Linda Hutcheon describes it: “that which paradoxically wants to challenge the outer borders of cinema and wants to ask questions (though rarely offer[s] answers)” (117). Further in line with Hutcheon’s theorizing, The OA leaves behind unresolved tensions, challenges spectators expectations, and allows contradictions to deliberately manifest. The OA is shaped by adjunct literary references that elaborate a narrative which reveals clues pointing to a series of mysteries which are never entirely articulated, self-reflexively. The OA is meta-cinema. Some of the literary references in The OA are overt and others are covert. For example, Karim Washington gives Octavia Butler’s novel The Parable of the Sower (1993) as a gift to another character in Season 2. The Parable of the Sower is a sci-fi novel featuring a character with hyper-empathy following the collapse of society due to climate change. During experiments, Hap fixates on the audio recordings captured during near death experiences, which he then situates as occurring among Saturn’s Rings. That immediately calls to mind W.E. Sebald’s 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn, a hybrid work of history, myth and memoir in which themes of time, memory and identity feature prominently. Interdimensional travel and communication (not limited to human communication but interspecies communication as well) is a central focus of The OA. Prairie/Nina/The OA uses the term an “invisible river” as a poetic description of interdimensional travel achieved by executing the five movements. This reference to an invisible river in The OA recalls German poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin’s influential hymn The Ister (1803) which, briefly, is a poem about the Danube River concerned with cyclical history while unpacking concepts of space and time. A documentary was made of The Ister (Barison and Ross, 2004) where well known philosophers including Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe discuss myriad, interconnected relations and, of particular significance here, the film is divided into five chapters that end as the river reaches its source, seeming only to claim the failure of its own project. 

Despite the highly enigmatic ending of Season 2, Netflix unceremoniously cancelled The OA shortly after the second season aired, citing that it didn’t generate enough new subscriptions, which is one of the key metrics that Netflix uses to measure the success of its productions. The fandom of The OA was in an uproar, and conspiracy theories abounded about the characters having jumped into our present dimension as well as theories circulating about supposedly innovative marketing plans for subsequent seasons by faking out the audience about the show’s cancellation. A fan went on a weeks-long hunger strike at Netflix headquarters and fans raised money to install digital billboards in New York’s Times Square in protest of the cancellation. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the series remains cancelled. The showrunners, however, stand by their 16 hours of unfettered television, which shares narrative and conceptual elements with other examples of independent, speculative fiction as exemplified in films by Benson and Moorhead: Resolution (2012), Spring (2014), The Endless (2017). As well, The OA shares conceptual commonalties with works such as Coherence (Byrkit, 2013), Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016), films written by Alex Garland 28 Days Later and Sunshine (both 2002), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Annihilation (2018) and similar radically sincere (Gilbert), independent works such as Primer (Carruth, 2004), Upstream Color (2013) and the German sci-fi Dark (bo Odar and Friese, 2017-20). 


WORKS CITED

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. Routledge, 1993.

Gilbert, Sophie. “The Radical Sincerity of The OA.” The Atlantic, 19 Mar. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/03/the-return-of-the-oa-tvs-strangest-most-sincere-show/585208/.

Review of Bunjevac’s Bezimena



Review of Bacurau

Dominick Grace

Bunjevac, Nina. Bezimena. Fantagraphics, 2019.


Before I get to specifics, readers should be warned that this graphic novel includes explicit sexual imagery and disturbing themes: it focuses on issues of sexual violence and consent. It tells the story of a young man who follows a woman home after finding her lost sketch book. When he discovers that the sketchbook includes graphic depictions of him engaging in sex with her and with others, he enacts the scenarios. By the end of the book, we are told that, in fact, the sketchbook belonged to a young girl who was sexually assaulted and murdered, along with two other girls, apparently by our protagonist. Readers who find this subject matter distressing should beware, and anyone should think carefully about whether this is an appropriate book for classroom use.

Bezimena, Nina Bunjevac’s third graphic novel, is an extended surreal narrative in which the line between reality and fantasy is not so much blurred as obliterated. Bunjevac identifies the myth of Artemis and Sipriotes, the gender-bending tale of Sipriotes being punished for an attempted rape by being transformed into a woman, as an inspiration. The book also echoes the myth of Diana and Actaeon, the voyeur transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hunting dogs after seeing the naked Diana bathing in a pool. The fable of the king who puts his face into a bowl of water, finds himself in another world and another body, living another life until he removes his face from the water and is restored to himself, is also a clear inspiration. Fairy tales, especially ones such as Little Red Riding Hood, also inform the action. The work is dense, complex, and allusive—as well as elusive—requiring readers to try to make sense of the story themselves, rather than spelling it out.

The work’s obliqueness is evident from the beginning, in the frame device of two disembodied voices—the only voices to speak in the entire text—whose dialogue consists of the story we read as told by one to the other. The voices manifest as word balloons on black pages, one speaking from “below” the page (the tale-teller) and “above” the page (the auditor). We know almost nothing about who they are or what their relative locations mean. The tale teller recounts the story of a priestess who indulges in the habit of “perpetual and needless suffering” until Bezimena thrusts her face into the pool (or perhaps river—again, readers are left to judge, and how one interprets the moment may vary depending on what sort of body of water one assumes this is) by which she has prostrated herself. This act causes her spirit to separate from her body and to be reborn into a male infant in an entirely different environment, an uncannily detailed yet unidentified European city in what appears to be the early twentieth century. The boy, Benny, is an obsessive voyeur and masturbator whose childish fixation with fellow classmate “White Becky” re-emerges when, as a young man working at the zoo, he sees a woman he is sure is “White Becky.” The similarity of the names Benny and Becky, and the overt symbolic implications of the epithet “White,” are among the many ambiguities of this text that invite readerly. It is her notebook that “Becky” perhaps loses (or perhaps deliberately abandons) that serves as the catalyst for the tale. Impossibly, the sketchbook depicts events before they have happened—sexual fantasies involving voyeurism, bondage and arguably non-consensual sex—that Benny feels compelled to act out exactly as they are illustrated.

Here, perhaps, is the book’s most overtly metafictional and fantastical conceit. Bunjevac’s art is meticulously detailed, using heavy stippling to create an almost photographic effect. Most of the pages feature single images, and all the pages with pictures are devoid of words: the narrative voice occupies the verso pages, otherwise black, while the accompanying pictures appear on the recto pages, though there are occasional wordless, two-page spreads. The illustrations also frequently frame or enclose the figures, foregrounding our recognition that they are pictures, even as they depict events. Though the pictures depict actions, they are also frequently designed to appear staged and static—as drawings, rather than as depictions of life. The line between the sketchbook Benny finds and the story we are reading largely vanishes as we read.

Even the blurred reality thereby created is further compromised with the narrative twist that occurs when Benny is arrested on suspicion of murder, and the sketchbook suddenly transforms into one filled with a child’s drawings, not with the explicit sexual images Benny has seen and used to enact his fantasies. All evidence to support Benny’s version of events disappears, in effect, and readers are left to determine whether he has fantasized the whole thing, rationalizing his murders with his elaborate scenario, or whether he has been victimized by some inexplicable force. The frame narrative of the priestess apparently being punished for her self-inflicted needless suffering, the unidentifiable disembodied voices sharing the tale, and the various myth and folk echoes certainly invite readerly speculation.

Indeed, the most intriguing thing about this book, perhaps, is its interpretive openness—though that is arguably also its most disturbing characteristic. In an afterword, Bunjevac offers a personal account of two sexual assaults she suffered, inviting readers to contextualize what they have read in light of real-world sex crimes. However, the book is far from a dogmatic or polemical critique of rape culture, Instead, it raises troubling questions about desire and gender. What one is to make of the fact that the putative rapist/murderer is represented as being the spirit of a female in a male body remains open. How one is to read White Betty—a virginal victim, a temptress who takes pleasure in the transgressive sex imaged in her sketchbook, a femme fatal who leads Benny to his doom—remains open. How we are to read Benny—victim of primal urges he cannot control, monster, victim of external manipulation and scapegoat for crimes he has not really committed (facing certain conviction for his crimes, Benny hangs himself and finds himself back in the priestess’s body)—remains open. The book is simultaneously intriguing and disturbing. It is an exceptional achievement, refusing to offer pat or even palatable answers to the questions it raises. It could engender fruitful discussions about several different discussions, but students would need to be warned in advance about what they were being asked to read.

Review of Bacurau



Review of Bacurau

Joe Brace

Bacurau. Dir. Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2019.


Set “a few years from now” in the sertão or caatinga, an arid region in Brazil’s northeast of xeric shrubland and thorn forests, Bacurau is a lush, hyperreal sci-fi Western about a community under siege. In the eponymous village of the title, named after the nightjar, a community has drawn together to mourn the loss of its matriarch and wise woman Carmelita. Some, like granddaughter Teresa, have travelled a long way to be there. Her journey through the surrounding outback demonstrates the extent to which her home has been isolated, the dirt roads lead past rusted police cars and collapsed school buildings. In Bacurau itself however the inhabitants are thriving, a well-attended school and bustling market defy the attempts of the state to strangle the settlement by cutting off its water supply. The arrival of a vote-hunting local politician, Tony Jr, demonstrates the immutable contempt of the inhabitants for their would-be leaders. Forewarned of the encroaching caravan of political lackeys and bodyguards, the inhabitants go to ground, hiding anything worth stealing and transforming their vibrant town-centre into a ghost town. Worse is to come however when a group of heavily armed Americans arrive and begin picking off the villagers. To face this existential threat, they are forced to turn to Lunga, a heavily made-up, androgyne bandit and his gang of outcasts to help defend their home.

In setting up the conflict between this homogenous, white, heterosexual kill-team of Americans and the racially, sexually and gender diverse inhabitants of Bacurau the film evokes the battle-lines drawn up in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, which has seen the wealth and privilege of the coastal cities explicitly pitted against minorities and the interior of the country. The assassinations, which are performed with the state’s collusion (the Americans’ local fixers turn out to be Assistant Federal Judges) immediately recall the 2018 murder of gay, black politician Marielle Franco as well as the worst excesses of the military dictatorship. The “day after tomorrow” setting of the film suggests less a worsening of the social contract in Brazil and more of an uninterrupted continuation of the power relations that have existed since colonial times. Bacurau’s museum contains weapons and photographs from the time of the cangaceiros, autonomous bandits from the early 20th century who, for a time, defied the government and affected a violent and carnivalesque form of wealth distribution in the sertão. A photograph of the severed heads of cangaceiro folk heroes Lampião and Maria Bonita presages the revenge that their spiritual heir, Lunga, will take on the Americans in the museum itself. Afterwards, as the blood is mopped out the front door, the curator instructs the cleaning team to leave the bloodied handprints on the walls and they become part of the permanent display, the museum is an active site able to assimilate and process new history, recalling Michael Taussig’s ideal of a museum that “combine[s] a history of things with a history of people forced by slavery to find their way through these things,” in total contrast to the “dead and even hostile places, created for a bored bourgeoisie.”

The appearance of a flying saucer, the casual dream-like way the villagers come together in sexual congress and the wild alien landscape of the caatinga might, in another film, suggest the exoticizing lens of a “magical realism,” an absurdist “New World” fantasy-land where anything is possible and where, to quote Robert Kolker, the viewer is “assur[ed] that meaning need not upset assumptions or endanger tranquillity.” This illusion is thrust aside by the film’s desire to communicate the practicalities of how Bacurau survives, how it gets its water and the dismissal of the UFO by the gardener Damiano as a drone in disguise. In fact, the inhabitants are hyper alert to the reality of their situation. The Americans by contrast, are disturbed by the bloodstained clothes of villagers they have already killed hung prominently on a washing line, they shake their heads at this vulgar allusion to the violence that has gone before and brand them “savages.”

The Americans have in fact misunderstood the situation, perceiving the withering away of the state from the village as a situation passively accepted by the villagers rather than one they actively connive in. Like the Malagasy “almost rebellion” described by David Graeber in Lost People, the community has simply become self-sufficient and ignores all but the most invasive attempts from the state to make contact. The Americans are so complacent about the ease with which they will extirpate their “prey” that they have devised a point-system just to keep the killing interesting. On the other hand, the villagers, though distraught, are quickly able to assimilate events into their understanding of the world. The mass taking of psychotropic seeds (presumably morning glory) before the final showdown, allows them to circumvent the externally imposed “logic” of the state and the Americans and defy the presupposed outcome of the encounter. When the cringing Tony Jr. is captured, he tries to appeal to reason, telling them that now they have “got themselves into deep trouble.” “We have taken a powerful psychotropic drug,” replies the schoolteacher, “and you are going to die.”

The violence in the film, sanguinary but never sadistic, links the narrative both to the mass state reprisals of the 19th century in Brazil (including the punitive expeditions against escaped slave settlements, or mocambos, and the utter destruction of egalitarian, separatist communities like Canudos) and to the contemporary cohesion of state and organised criminal violence, described by Sayak Valencia in Gore Capitalism as “necroempowerment.” The film offers a cathartic imaginary counterpoint to this violence in the form of the bawdy, horizontalist and autonomous community in Bacurau. Other than this it offers no direct political message, where one might expect an evocative textual postscript describing the current situation in Brazil the merely notes that, “this production created 800 jobs.”

By deliberately unrooting the story temporally (whenever the film is watched, it will always be set “a few years from now”) the film speaks to a continuing set of conditions in Brazil rather than simply projecting a critique of today’s politics into tomorrow’s world. This detemporality allows the film to offer a vision of radical resistance that is not tied to a specific set of conditions. Bacurau is not about Bolsonaro’s Brazil, or it is but only as much as it is about Lampião’s Brazil, the Brazil of the runaway slaves, or the Brazil of the coming water crisis. Setting a piece of science fiction in a specific future is the surest way to defang its message and turn it into a wry milestone for nostalgic audiences. Bacurau, by contrast, is forever possible, forever just around the corner.


WORKS CITED

Taussig, Michael. My Cocaine Museum. U of Chicago P, 2004.

Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness. Oxford UP, 2011.

Graeber, David. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar. Indiana UP, 2007.

Valencia, Sayak. Gore Capitalism. The MIT Press, 2010.