Review of Final Fantasy VII Remake



Review of Final Fantasy VII Remake

Lúcio Reis-Filho

Final Fantasy VII Remake. Square Enix, 2020.

Fifteen years after first being announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and twenty-three years after the original game’s debut, the long awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake was released. The classic FFVII is considered groundbreaking as it paved the way for other JRPGs outside of Japan, and it was responsible, along with anime, for making local pop culture take off in the global market. According to Matt Alt, FFVII injected “a megadose of Japanese sensibilities” into the American mainstream, including the characters with big eyes and spiky hair, the manga-style melodrama, the androgynous heroes, and the very idea that games could be profound in so many ways.

FFVII was remarkably innovative in the late 1990s, as Pablo González Taboada’s book on the franchise and the Vol. 2 of Dark Horse’s Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive both recall. The game’s basic concept, drawn from the cyberpunk subgenre, presents an industrial world of highly advanced technology in contrast to deep inequality and humanity in decline. With high-tech vehicles, garments, locales and other cyberpunk motifs, the city of Midgar lays its roots in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and later futuristic urban landscapes as depicted in Blade Runner (1982) and Akira (1988). An exponent of cyberpunk storytelling, FFVII addresses late capitalism, existential dilemmas, psychological disorders, identity crisis, climate change, and class struggle. There are also nods to steampunk retrofuturism from previous games in the franchise, all reshaped for a more dieselpunk version. Biopunk themes are also relevant, such as the plot of the genetic modification that Shinra’s soldiers undergo.

Since its debut, FFVII has inspired countless other games, spin-offs, animated shorts, and a CGI film. What fans wanted most, however, was a remake, which was finally released in 2020. Far beyond introducing FFVII to new generations, the main goal of the project was to create a “new and nostalgic” experience for longtime fans. Thus, the Remake captures a broader sense of nostalgia in a context where a range of disparate cultural texts return to be explored for their intrinsic nostalgic value; at the same time, it rebuilds game systems to fit contemporary tastes.

Being the first installment in a series focused on recreating the classic game, the Remake only covers FFVII’s first act. The premise is the same: a group of heroes tries to save the world from capitalist exploitation. Players control the mercenary Cloud Strife, who joins the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE in its resistance against Shinra, a megacorporation that is harvesting the planet’s energy to feed an industrial society and generate cutting-edge technology. However, the Remake deepens characters’ development, recreating them with updated visuals. The new model for Cloud has more nuance, with the handsome, androgynous, sensitive hero reframing and deconstructing the heteronormative masculinity archetype. Cloud’s effeminate features echo the archetypal images of androgynous male beauty, which Yumiko Iida relates to the visually attractive male idols of contemporary Japanese youth culture. This topic invites scholarly discussion on the “feminization of masculinity” and the androgynous male ideal of JRPG (and anime) heroes, especially in the Final Fantasy franchise.

Social criticism converges with climate justice in both FFVII and the Remake. According to Stephen K. Hirst, the classic game has inspired an entire generation of climate activists, including members of Greenpeace. It harshly denounces the savage jaw of capitalism, the power and monopoly of megacorporations, environmental degradation, and social inequality. More than two decades after FFVII’s debut, the criticism has not lost its relevance and is gaining momentum as a driving force in the environmentalism agenda in times of global warming. The Comic Book Resources noted how the social issues raised by the game are even more relevant today than they were in 1997. Following this argument, Dani Di Placido has drawn parallels between the game’s events – Shinra as a predatory force and the meteor’s approaching – and contemporary issues such as climate change, environmental catastrophes, economic collapse, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As a critique of the Anthropocene, Final Fantasy VII Remake could be of scholarly interest to environmental fiction and climate fiction scholars, since they often intersect in speculative fiction studies.

WORKS CITED

Alt, Matt. Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2020.

Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive. Vol. 2. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Comics, 2018.

Gramuglia, Anthony. “Final Fantasy VII’s Story Is More Meaningful Today Than in 1997”. Comic Book Resources, June 22, 2019. Accessed 6 July 2022.      https://www.cbr.com/final-fantasy-viis-story-relevant-today/

Iida, Yumiko. “Beyond the ‘feminization of masculinity’: transforming patriarchy with the ‘feminine’ in contemporary Japanese youth culture”. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, v. 6, 2005, pp. 56-74. Accessed 10 July 2022. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1462394042000326905

Hirst, Stephen K. “How Final Fantasy VII radicalized a generation of climate warriors”. Ars Technica, 29 July 2021. Accessed 6 July 2022. https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2021/07/how-final-fantasy-vii-radicalized-a-generation-of-climate-warriors/

Placido, Dani Di. “In Our Sci-Fi Dystopia Of 2020, ‘Final Fantasy VII’ Feels More Timely Than Ever”. Forbes, April 5, 2020. Accessed 6 Jul. 2022. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2020/04/05/in-our-sci-fi-dystopia-of-2020-final-fantasy-vii-feels-more-timely-than-ever/

Taboada, Pablo González. Final Fantasy: la leyenda de los cristales. Palma de Mallorca: Dolmen, 2013.

Lúcio Reis-Filho is a Ph.D. in Media Studies, film critic, filmmaker and historian specializing in the intersections between cinema, history and literature, with focus on the horror and science fiction genres. He writes book, film and game reviews, and is coordinator of Projeto Ítaca (https://projetoitaca.com.br/), a Brazilian educational website devoted to the tropes and representations of mythology in the media. His research and academic interests are essentially interdisciplinary, as they cover Cinema, Visual Arts, History, Comparative Literature and Game Studies.

Review of Don’t Look Up



Review of Don’t Look Up

Steven Holmes

McKay, Adam, director. Don’t Look Up. Netflix, 2021.

“Dr. Mindy, I hear you. I hear you,” President Orlean (Meryl Streep) says after Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) emphasizes that a comet racing toward earth will be an apocalyptic event. This scene is a critical point in both the film and audience reception of the film, as Streep’s Orlean seems indebted to the trappings of the Trump presidency, even though this specific line seems to more evoke the Bush presidency. The line echoes Bush’s “I hear you” line during the Bullhorn Speech at ground zero after 9/11. In such a moment, the film clashes between Saturday Night Live-style direct political commentary, and the attempts of the film to push its critique and satire into a broader reflection on 21st century political norms and discourse.

Adam McKay’s apocalyptic black comedy set records for streaming on Netflix. Apocalyptic black comedy has become its own sub-genre, with iterations going back at least to Dr. Strangelove (1964). Like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Don’t Look Up acts as a comment on capitalism, complacency, and the power of denial and indifference. But the closest tonal analogue may be 2013’s This is the End, an apocalyptic black comedy that used as its chief form of irony the discord between celebrity personas and actual personality. Don’t Look Up is particularly focused on the interplay between celebrity persona and personal politics both in the dramatic narrative and in the production of the film. The individual conflict and character arcs for the film protagonists—DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy and PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence)—centers around these scientists suddenly being thrust into the limelight, and the differing ways they respond to their newfound celebrity. This is contrasted with bit parts, such as the arc of celebrity Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) who goes from overshadowing the comet in the news with her personal life to encouraging people to “look up” through her songs. Behind the scenes, lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio had significant control over the script of the film;      DiCaprio, who produced and promoted the film Before the Flood (2016), a documentary on climate change, has used his celebrity status to actively advocate on behalf of the issue of climate change. Don’t Look Up is a meditation on the role of celebrity in shaping political issues, starring an actor who uses their celebrity to shape political issues.

This is not the first narrative to use a comet or celestial body as a foil for political reflection. In H. G. Wells’“The Star” (1896), the near-miss of a comet forges a new brotherhood among men. In W. E. B. Du Bois’ “The Comet” (1920) the cataclysm of New York serves as a pretext to explore race relations. The narrative overtones of these stories seem in line with many apocalyptic narratives, where dramatic disturbances in organized human life allow for the re-examination or re-organization of human society. But the narrative that Don’t Look Up most directly evokes is the 1998 film Armageddon, with its celebration of heroic blue-collar oil drillers who absurdly end up more fitted for saving the world than astronauts. Don’t Look Up is not a direct parody of Armageddon (indeed, it also is drawing heavily from Deep Impact [1998]), but it doeshave a brief arc where it telegraphs the Armageddon plot structure. Orlean brings in Benedict Drask (Ron Perlman), a casually racist parody of Bruce Willis’s hero of Armageddon, to pilot a spaceship and use nukes to blow up the comet. That is, until the plot is foiled by Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), an amalgam of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who in trying to profit off the comet dooms earth to annihilation.

Despite its viewpoint characters both being scientists, Don’t Look Up is not interested in the science behind astronomy or astrophysics. The locus of its exploration of technology is less on the exigence of the comet, spaceships, and nukes, and more on the capacity to exchange in rational-critical debate and the functionality of the state. Unlike Deep Impact, where nukes are detonated but fail to completely offset the comet (only for a spaceship to fly in and use even more nukes to save the day), it seems like in Don’t Look Up the original plan to offset the comet would have succeeded had the plan not been undermined by Isherwell and his desire to profit off the comet. In turn, President Orlean’s capitulation to Isherwell highlights the extent that greed and corruption can lead to the full-scale agency capture of the state by privatized interests. In essence, the film suggests that the mechanical technology to solve largescale problems may exist, but it is the social technologies of democratic government and public discourse that are failing.  

Although the comet is a metaphor for climate change, the discourse surrounding it has clear parallels in the Covid-19 pandemic. In a historical survey, Don’t Look Up could be positioned as one of the most direct comments on the Covid-19 pandemic (and state responses to the pandemic) that was written, produced, and released during the pandemic itself. It is probable that in creating literary histories both of science fiction and apocalyptic narrative, Don’t Look Up serves as a compelling touchstone piece indicating at least some of the concerns of the post-pandemic era: collective denial in populism, the capacity of institutions to handle emergent issues, the agency capture of state institutions by privatized interests, and the totality of the warping of popular discourse around celebrity. Likewise, the strength of the film is encapsulated in the conceit of its title, where the president begins to advocate the public “don’t look up” (don’t acknowledge the comet) in a way that evokes how conspiratorial ideas can be intermixed and interwoven with both political and financial interests. Furthermore, in its interplay with Armageddon, Don’t Look Up emphasizes the cynicism and hopelessness of contemporary mass media entertainment in one of the sharpest possible contrasts to the optimism of the 1990s. To that extent, Don’t Look Up is a film that is highly productive when considered in relief to historical and literary histories.

Dr. Steven Holmes is a lecturer at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, where he is currently finishing a book project entitled Exploding Empire: Imagining the Future of Nationalism and Capitalism. His publications include articles in Studies in the Fantastic, The Written Dead: The Zombie as a Literary Phenomenon, War Gothic in Literature and Culture, and Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy. He teaches classes on argumentative writing, science fiction, fantasy literature, digital art, and Shakespeare.

Review of The Witcher, Season 2



Review of The Witcher, season 2

Cait Coker

The Witcher (Season 2). Created for television by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. Sean Daniel Company, 2021.

The Netflix television series The Witcher is primarily based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski (published in Poland from 1994 to 1999, and translated to English from 2007 to 2017), though the second season abruptly introduces elements from the popular video games created by CD Projekt Red from 2007 to 2015. The books are a political parable of Eastern European history; they utilize the language of eastern European genocide and the Holocaust—pogroms, concentration camps, political putsches, etc.—to discuss genocide, totalitarian and fascist governments, and political resistance bluntly and unsparingly. The games keep certain plot elements but scale back the political context significantly while greatly expanding character stories and arcs, thus making the television series its own unique hybrid creation. (Incidentally, and with Sapkowski’s participation, Netflix has also created a prequel anime film, The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf (2021), and a forthcoming prequel miniseries, The Witcher: Blood Origin (2022) to expand further on the world of the franchise.)

The second season of The Witcher picks up shortly after the first season concluded, with the dual protagonists Geralt of Rivia and Ciri finally meeting. Geralt is a Witcher, a genetically modified and mutated (and sterile) human trained to hunt and slay monsters, with an extended lifespan and enhanced healing, strength, and agility. Ciri is a refugee princess in hiding after the violent invasion of her kingdom by the Nilfgaardians, an expanding imperial force, and the murder of her family, as well as a cursed figure of prophecy. The first season of the television show revolved around the question of monstrosity: what indeed, is a monster, and when must it be killed? The eight episodes return to this question repeatedly, and often with the answer that humans are worse monsters to one another than creatures of magic ever can be. Season two returns to this question by digging into the political parables of the novels, with plots touching on revisionist histories, genocides historical and contemporary, and modes of political resistance. The character of Jaskier, for instance, Geralt’s troubadour friend and a figure of comic relief in both books and games, becomes a tortured political prisoner after running an underground operation to spirit people to safety from the violent rule of the Nilfgaardians. His role of the poet speaking truth with popular songs that put him in prison speaks to a long tradition of Polish poetry specifically as well as to the ways that art makes its own records of war and abuses. Geralt rescues him from prison, putting Geralt himself—who, as a Witcher, is ostensibly nonpolitical—into the fray as well. This is an interesting shift from the books, where Jaskier’s popular prestige usually lands him in safe space; both texts emphasize that it is the bard’s own choice to put himself in danger for his friends and their cause.

A frequent criticism of the first season was the confusing narrative structure: its eight episodes were narrated using nonlinear storytelling (effectively foreshadowing much later events in the books, should Netflix choose to renew the series for enough seasons), a trait which is alluded to in a joke about Jaskier’s singing storytelling in episode four. This second season is much less episodic as it adapts much of the material of Blood of Elves, the first novel in the series pentology (the first season being primarily drawn from the short stories collected in The Last Wish), which details Geralt’s training of Ciri and their eventual reunion with the sorceress Yennefer, sometime lover of Geralt and eventual mentor to Ciri. It also introduces the characters of the Voleth Meir, a Baba Yaga-esque demon original to the show, and the Wild Hunt, spectral figures from the games. The “Conjunction of the Spheres” that is often referenced in all franchise texts is not elaborated on in the novels, but explicated here as the specific traveling of beings across multiple worlds via interdimensional portals. Humans, then, are not just invaders of a new continent as a metaphor for real world colonization and conflicts, but they are invaders of a whole new world.

Geralt is always presented as other, as is Ciri, despite their able white bodies. In the second episode of the season, Ciri and Geralt discuss the history of the Witchers; she asks, anxiously, if he was attacked because he was “different.” Difference lies at multiple intersections here: the genetics that set them apart—Geralt being genetically-engineered while Ciri carries “the blood of Elves” that makes her both magically powerful and socially persecuted—and the social structures that endorse hierarchies of social and cultural value with nonhumans (whether Elves or Dwarves) at the bottom. Elves are coded both as indigenous peoples native to lands that are being encroached upon by human invaders and as Jewish, with scenes that invoke Passover, including a city filled with the anguished cries of families finding their magically murdered babies. Ciri is also structured as sexually different with her imitations of the sorceress Triss, foreshadowing the queer relationships that appear in the novels. The sorceress Yennefer, too, is coded as monstrous through her own sterility and the often selfish choices that she makes. All three characters are socially punished for their differences, but consistently prove themselves to better people than the humans who choose to torment them.

It is worth noting that Andrzej Sapkowski is the second most-translated SFF author after Stanisław Lem. If Lem’s work is preoccupied with failures of communication, memory, and trauma, then Sapkowski’s work finds itself in found families amid immense geopolitical unrest. Geralt, Ciri, Yennefer, and Jaskier are a chosen family trying to survive a world that is evocative of the worst parts of the Holocaust, World War II, and the Cold War. Airing only weeks before the uproar over the censorship and book banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in Tennessee as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, The Witcher presents its viewers with stories that grapple with these newly hot-button issues, showing that history not only repeats itself but is only as fantastical as the next retelling.

Cait Coker is Associate Professor and Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work is located at the intersections of gender, genre, and publishing, and her essays have appeared in journals such as Foundation, Transformative Works and Cultures, and The Seventeenth Century, among others.

Review of Raised by Wolves, season 2



Review of Raised by Wolves, season 2

Daniel Lukes

Aaron Guzikowski, creator. Raised by Wolves, season 2. HBO Max, 2022.

The most obvious fact to state about Raised by Wolves (RBW) is that it’s a Ridley Scott production: he is one of its executive producers (via his production company Scott Free), and he directed the first two episodes of Season 1; his son Luke Scott (director of the underrated android flick Morgan, 2016) also directed episodes 3,4 and 10. Ridley Scott’s vision is all over RBW, so much so that it could almost take place in the extended Alien universe. If xenomorphs were to make their appearance somehow among the crowded gallery of grotesque creatures and entities that already populate RBW, it would hardly be a surprise. Aesthetically, RBW shares much with the underrated Ridley Scott Alien prequels, Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017), with their muted and somewhat drab tones, colors turned down approaching grayscale, and a preponderance of dark, dimly lit settings.

Set in a future following a war between two factions: theocrats (named Mithraic, after an ancient Roman mystery cult) and atheists, which has decimated the planet, the show follows the vicissitudes of two androids, “Mother” and “Father.” This somewhat hapless couple has been sent to planet Kepler-22b to raise a family of human children, away from the pernicious influence of the Mithraic, who have also reached the planet in a colonist ship named the Ark of Heaven. Though RBW follows the various and often bloody conflicts between the Mithraic and the atheists, most of the action is filtered through Mother and Father’s struggles to keep their family together and their children alive on this barely habitable and unpredictable planet. Mother, it turns out, is not a mere service model android, but actually a weapon of mass destruction, a “Necromancer,” used by the Mithraic and reprogrammed by atheist hacker Campion Sturges. Mother’s violent—even genocidal—side comes out when she is provoked. Her actions provide one of the first moral dilemmas the show poses, and it is questionable whether Mother can really ever come back from her decision to exterminate circa-1000 Mithraic in the name of protecting her family.

RBW is science fiction of the “grimdark” variant, a type of sci-fi that stems from the world of tabletop game Warhammer 40,000, and one that generally depicts a Nietzschean universe: cold, mechanical, uncaring of human plight. In recent years, WH40K and grimdark have both been seized upon cynically by the Alt-Right, even though WH40K was originally born as a critique of heartless 1980s Thatcherism. Into this context comes RBW and its neomedievalist portrayal of future theocracy that directly recalls WH40K’s Roman Empire-influenced “Imperium” and worldbuilding. Its somewhat low-key title relates to the mythical founder of Rome, Romulus, and his brother Remus, being raised by a female wolf. RBW’s central theme of faith vs. atheism is treated in a direct and explicit way that brings to mind more the British atheist tradition (from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) than how contemporary US television typically handles faith and religion, with multiple characters here openly declaring that God (known in the show as “Sol”) does not exist and is only a myth.

What lies at the heart of RBW are its android characters. Mother, expertly played by Amanda Collin, is an android for the ages, up there with Schwarzenegger’s Terminator,  Haley Joel Osment’s creepy child in AI, and of course the Alien franchise androids—Ian Holm as Ash in Alien, Lance Henrikson as Bishop in Aliens, and Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus/Covenant. Tellingly, Mother and Father are powered by the same milky-white “fuel blood” spilled everywhere by Ash in his famous death scene. Whether in caring or terrifying “Necromancer” mode, Mother commands attention, and is perfectly complemented by the warmer, more caring identity of Father (brilliantly played by Abubakar Salim) with his awkward dad jokes and attempts to keep the peace. The androids in RBW have something of a classic comic feel to them: Mother and Father’s bickering are often only one step away from a Samuel Beckett play, and other androids and AIs such the medic Karl (Carel Nel) in S1 and S2’s sentient quantum computer The Trust (Michael Pennington), with their varying degrees of comic relief and Britishness, feel at one remove from a Monty Python sketch, or perhaps rather the Terry Gilliam of Time Bandits or Brazil.

Leaving behind the harsh deserts and valleys of Season 1 and their uncanny rolling mountaintop clouds—both seasons were beautifully shot on location in South Africa—Season 2 is set around an atheist colony in the tropical zone. This season often feels like a cyborg reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The sea (made of acid) is ever present. Characters flit about in the countryside, appearing and disappearing at will, with Kepler-22b as a new “brave new world that has such people in it,” and a character even being directly called “Tempest.” By the end of S2 though, the mysterious “entity” pulling strings in the background, the “Prospero” in a way, has yet to be revealed. S2’s uncanny, retro-futurist ambience recalls the original Star Trek, with characters stumbling around an alien landscape, though with the exoticism toned down, and also brings to mind early 1980s UK TV shows like Day of the Triffids or The Tripods.

The presence of Mother’s seventh child, a biomechanical “world serpent”, cements the show’s status as a weird retelling of the Genesis narrative. Asking the important questions here, RBW wonders: “What if God were an alien? And what if religious scriptures were a set of instructions for events yet to occur, on another planet?” As the assorted characters make their way around this very strange Garden of Eden, the show probes and negotiates the porous boundaries between animal, human, posthuman, and A.I. When young Campion (Winta McGrath), named after the android’s “creator” Campion Sturges (Cosmo Jarvis), falls in love with the android Vrille (Morgan Santo) and wishes to welcome her into his family, though he faces strong resistance, the show’s logic is firmly on his side. Likewise, the discovery that the planet’s humanoid creatures, of which there are land and acid ocean-dwelling variants, are devolved humans, feels like a piece of poetic Darwinian reverse engineering.

RBW juggles many big themes—domesticity, child-rearing, settler colonialism, survivalism, precarity, grief, our increasing reliance on A.I.—and S2 expertly balances them with unpredictable plot twists, and visuals that are beautifully-rendered and often on the edge of body horror. While not relentlessly meta like The Boys or Mr. Robot, RBW can perhaps be compared to series like Yellowjackets, Tales from the Loop, Dark or Archive 81 for its ominous sense of impending doom introduced into the humdrum of daily life, bringing together the epic and the domestic. Whereverit goes next, RBW is a relevant and welcome addition to the SF canon at a time when everyday life often has the feel of a slow-motion apocalypse.

Daniel Lukes is Communications Officer in the Bieler School of Environment at McGill University. He has a PhD in Comparative Literature from New York University, and his reviews have appeared in Extrapolation, The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and Utopian Studies. He has published three books of non-fiction, and his next book will be Black Metal Rainbows (PM Press, 2022).

Review of I’m Your Man [Ich bin dein Mensch]



Review of I’m Your Man [Ich bin dein Mensch]

T.S. Miller

I’m Your Man [Ich bin dein Mensch]. Dir. Maria Schrader. Perf. Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens. Majestic Filmverleih, 2021.

Maria Schrader’s German-language film I’m Your Man [Ich bin dein Mensch]belongs to a by now familiar enough subgenre in science fiction, that of the robot rom-com. Schrader, however, crucially reverses the typical gender dynamics of the genre’s long fembot-filled history. In film, this tradition stretches back at least to Bernard Knowles’s 1949 farce The Perfect Woman and includes more recognizable titles such as John Hughes’s 1985 cult teen sex comedy Weird Science and Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, all of which electronically recast the Ovidian myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, the sculptor’s beloved statue come to life. While there is some precedent for this specific premise—the 2014 Disney Channel Original Movie by Paul Hoen called How to Build a Better Boy is one example—I’m Your Man is also notable for the ways it confronts the male gaze undergirding so many stories of eroticized gynoids under the leadership of a woman director, still such a rarity in the world of science fiction film. Students and scholars interested in media representations of artificial intelligence and/or androids will therefore find the film a must-see addition to the ever-widening corpus of such works.

Alma (Maren Eggert) is a recently single academic leading a team working at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin on ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets as some of the earliest surviving expressions of the human artistic imagination. At the beginning of the film she has already agreed—ostensibly as an exchange of favors with the academic administrator who controls their institution’s purse strings, but possibly for other, more personal motivations as well—to offer her services as an expert evaluator of a new line of romantic companion robots that impeccably imitate a human appearance. Based on a personalized psychographic profile, her own “perfect man” has been created to become an ideal romantic partner. The result is a suave android who introduces himself as Tom (Dan Stevens) and begins showering her with transparently cheesy compliments. “Don’t you like compliments?” he observes with concern, already beginning to adjust his behavior according to her responses. “Do you believe in God?” Alma counters, and, in the way of the old chatbot SmarterChild and many of our contemporary digital assistants, Tom opts for a classically noncommittal deflection: “This is hardly the place to discuss such a question.” Alma thus enters her fixed-length trial period with Tom filled with intense skepticism about the initiative, and her expert report, we are told, will assist policymakers in determining whether such androids will be permitted “to marry, to work, to get passports, human rights, or partial human rights.” The narrative that ensues does indeed hit many of the narrative beats familiar from the romantic comedy, but always with the additional layers of complexity that arise from the science fictional premise. Tom doesn’t simply have to win the more than reluctant Alma’s heart; succeeding or failing at this preprogrammed objective counterintuitively has implications for his very personhood.

In 1950, Alan Turing famously proposed his “imitation game” as a self-consciously imperfect but infinitely more practical replacement for the difficult question “Can machines think?”: could a computer persuade a human subject in a double-blind setup that a fellow human was speaking on the other end of the line? In his own 1995 Pygmalion novel Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers waggishly makes a further substitution, replacing the conventional Turing test with the more specific question of whether a neural net trained on the Great Books could pass the comprehensive exam for a master’s degree in English literature. The roboticists in I’m Your Man have set themselves a no less difficult challenge: it is not the hard problem of consciousness as such that they seek to solve, but instead the hard problem of love, or rather, of romantic and not simply sexual attraction. In the future that the film imagines, fooling the senses is easy, even cheap, with holograms and the androids alike as indistinguishable from humans as Ridley Scott’s replicants. The goal here is much more than a “basic pleasure model,” however, and the kind of uncanny valley that Tom must bridge to reach Alma and win her heart has more to do with the mysteries of human desire, memory, and emotion than any physical stiffness or inhuman jerkiness.

And try to woo Alma Tom does, and try and try. “Failed communication attempts are crucial for calibrating my algorithm to you,” he says good-naturedly upon learning that unsolicited advice about how to improve her driving is perhaps not the optimal way to a woman’s heart: “These mistakes will happen less and less.” Eggert’s performance as Alma communicates an extreme wariness towards Tom at all points and in all ways. After all, not only does she find herself suddenly cohabiting with a strange man, he isn’t even a man, but an unprecedented and unpredictable technological creation: “your thing, your dream partner.” Perhaps more threateningly still, Tom represents a something or someone she might allow herself to fall in love with if she isn’t constantly on her guard. In the first half of the film especially, we see Alma recoil the most viscerally at being told what she likes, that her desires can be solved via algorithm: “You are attracted to men who are slightly foreign,” Tom informs her, explaining his British accent. Such exchanges speak to one of the film’s major thematic concerns, the implications of the algorithms that, visible or not, already run our lives in an increasing number of ways. Along with Alma, we don’t like the idea of being turned into data, or thinking of ourselves as a series of data points in some mainframe to be manipulated and exploited by multinational corporations according to demographic profiles that fit us all too well. Schrader’s film recognizes that the real-world AI revolution of the past decade or so has relied not only on the neural nets and self-teaching algorithms we hear so much about, but fundamentally also on big data as a key component of its formula for success. When Tom locks eyes with Alma, his cerebral processes work on the problem of her heart through access to “mind files from 17 million people.” What’s at stake in falling in love—or not—with a machine seems to have as much to do with our relationship as individuals to new forms of mass computation and abstraction that needn’t achieve self-awareness to have tremendous implications for human life and human lives.

Science fiction stories from the past century and more have given us a number of artificial women manufactured unselfconsciously for a male gaze. This film invites us to consider what might change, in the end, when the genders of the Pygmalion-Galatea relationship are reversed, and when, as in I’m Your Man, the artificial romantic partner is manufactured to fulfill the individualized desires of a particular heterosexual woman. The conclusion of the film may finally be as open-ended as the hard problem of consciousness (or romance), but overall I’m Your Man is certain to provoke much thought and discussion among many different audiences.

T. S. Miller teaches both medieval literature and modern science fiction as Assistant Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, where he contributes to the department’s MA degree concentration in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Recent graduate course titles include “Theorizing the Fantastic” and “Artificial Intelligence in Literature and Film.” He has published on both later Middle English literature and various contemporary authors of speculative fiction. His current major project explores representations of plants and modes of plant being in literature and culture.

Review of The Matrix Resurrections



Review of The Matrix Resurrections

Sándor Klapcsik

The Matrix Resurrections. Dir. Lana Wachowski. Warner Brothers, 2021.

The Matrix, which was directed by the Wachowskis and released to worldwide acclaim in 1999, became a landmark in the history of science fiction cinema. An epitome of cyberpunk, it popularized postmodern philosophy and 1980s science fiction for a wider audience. Together with its turn-of-the-millennium contemporaries, such as George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001), it paved the way for a new phase in Hollywood cinema, which intensively intends to mesmerize the audience by science fiction and fantasy spectacles. It featured revolutionary visual effects, such as the upgraded version of bullet time, and also became a landmark in the media history of home entertainment, since the special gimmicks on its DVD edition helped to popularize the DVD format (Jenkins 94; McFarlane 106). By creating a “collage of… high cultural and low cultural allusions and genres” (Barnett 366), for example, directly displaying Jean Baudrillard’s theoretical book Simulacra and Simulation, it became a favourite of young scholars whose education was dominated by postmodern continental philosophy. Hence – at least temporally – the film managed to bring closer scholarly research on high culture and popular culture (Barnett 365). With the exception of the animated anthology The Animatrix (2003), the sequels mostly disappointed the audience and critics alike. Nevertheless, with its sequels and interrelated comics, short stories, and computer games, the Matrix saga became an important early example of multimedia franchises and transmedia storytelling (Jenkins 21, 93-130).

Since then, many of the cyberpunk extrapolations have turned into our reality and the young scholars have grown up. These days, selling DVDs serves a niche market of collectors only and multimedia franchises and transmedia storytelling are the standard. The question arises then: how—and as for the anti-nostalgic sceptics (for example, Bradshaw; Cameron), why—to make a sequel more than twenty years after the first film and roughly eighteen years after the heyday of the franchise?

As successful recent additions to the Batman saga such as The Joker (2019) indicate, movies based on superhero comics can always place their characters into a different era or a new mise-en-scène, thus forming variants on the same theme without scruples. In contrast, as the struggling sequels of the Terminator saga demonstrate, science fiction franchises that want to revive old stories face a bigger challenge, since they cannot ignore the duties and restraints of nostalgia. As Svetlana Boym indicates, nostalgia can be either restorative, that is, serious and reconstructive, or reflective, humorous, sarcastic and ambivalent. As for the latter, “This type of nostalgia is ironic, inconclusive and fragmentary” (Boym 50). Forming a perfect embodiment of restorative nostalgia, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) proves that it is possible to create a beautiful and relatively meaningful pastiche to pay homage to the original story, which both the critics and the audience can appreciate. Terminator Genisys (2015) taught us that another possibility is to produce a self-reflexive, playful, fannish, somewhat goofy sequel, which the fans mostly enjoy, while the majority of critics patronizingly pan (see, for example, Hersko) and the general audience distantly tolerates or more-or-less ignores. With The Matrix Resurrections, Lana Wachowski chose the latter path, following the bumpy road of reflective, humorous and ironic nostalgia. 

Ironic and self-reflexive elements, multiple embedded stories and images, as well as moments of breaking the fourth wall, were already tangible in the first Matrix film. Surveillance footage, television screens, references to Bruce Lee’s iconic gestures and Hollywood clichés, addressing the audience directly, and other elements of parody saturated the film. Nevertheless, the cyberpunk themes, which were relatively fresh in Hollywood cinema, together with the revolutionary visual effects, managed to make the audience temporarily disregard or suspend the irony. Alternatively, the audience viewed the movie with a double vision: we saw that it was a goofy, banal, self-reflexive film, but it was refreshingly new at the same time. Thus, it is only logical that if Lana Wachowski’s 2021 sequel did not bring to light fresh themes and revolutionary visual effects, but kept or even increased the intensity of parody, the result would be a significantly more comic and self-reflexive film. This explains the mixed, and mostly negative, reviews: for a few critics, The Matrix Resurrections is a sarcastic and ironic production that shows once again how digital surveillance, social media, and Hollywood filmmaking impact our lives. For many others, the film is a childish, clichéd, badly executed farce which can acquire cult value only due to its relatively faithful repetition of characters and plot elements.

 As already highlighted in the marketing materials and trailers, the 2021 film revolves around déjà vu and reflective nostalgia. The opening sequence is an uncannily re-enacted version of the opening sequence of the first Matrix film. In this new version, different actors play the roles of policemen and agents, uniforms are more up-to-date, and Ellen Hollman appears as the reflection of the original Trinity character (Carrie-Anne Moss). The commentaries of the hackers who peek into this scene also emphasize that there is something wrong with the repetition. As gradually explained, the re-enactment is a “modal,” a test environment for computer games, and the hackers who monitor this are fans of Neo’s story depicted in the first three films. Soon after this, one of the fans who watches the uncanny repetition, Bug (Jessica Henwick), meets the re-embodiment of Morpheus (originally played by Laurence Fishburne and this time by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). She is just as happy to see Morpheus – who at this time appears as an agent in the “modal” – as a devoted fan is happy to meet an actor of a beloved television show or film; she even hugs him when it turns out that they are both fans and seekers of the long-lost Neo. It is easy for the audience to become disoriented and captivated by the multiple embedded levels in the renewed opening sequence. Yet, at the same time, the fannish and somewhat naïve enthusiasm expressed by the characters results in a burlesque parody.   

The film is at its best when it self-reflexively mocks consumerism, reboots, and remakes. As verbalized in the film, “Reboots sell,” perhaps because “Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia.” A crucial and memorable sequence describes Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a successful but somewhat burnt out game developer who invented the fictional Matrix-themed video game series, which is part of the new matrix, the current version of the computer simulated dreamworld to keep humanity under control. He intends to refuse the task of adding a new sequel to the already finished world of his award-winning video game series—but his boss and Warner Brothers insist, and they will make a sequel, entitled Matrix 4, with or without the contribution of the creator. This is followed by a brainstorming by a think-tank, the development team of Matrix 4, which comes up with various and sometimes contradictory explanations why the original game was impactful. Here the story is blatantly, perhaps all too blatantly, making fun of its own production process and the various intellectual and pseudo-intellectual reactions to the previous Matrix movies, which were, in fact, embraced and accentuated by the Wachowskis (Jenkins 99-100).

Other remarkable and tragicomic scenes depict the ordinary life of the disillusioned Thomas Anderson, that of Tiffany-Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who eventually becomes more powerful than ever, and revolve around The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris). The latter, after masquerading as Andersons’s psychotherapist, reveals himself to be the master of the current matrix. In a way similar to Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in the first film, Harris’s speeches are often ideologically revealing about consumerism, and at the same time, they inject additional humour into the film. The lives of Anderson and Tiffany are saturated with reflective nostalgia insofar as they search for their original selves, home and stories, but they need to realize that the target of their nostalgia “is in ruins or, on the contrary, has just been renovated and gentrified beyond recognition” (Boym 50). Their previous romantic love story has been transformed into an extremely popular and commercialized computer game, Zion was destroyed by a war, and the new city of the resistance, Io, is much less rebellious and “human” than Zion was. For example, while in the first Matrix film the freedom fighters needed to eat tasteless food and only the traitor character Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) enjoyed his simulated juicy steak, in Io, humans and embodied computer programs cooperate to cultivate genetically resurrected, and supposedly delicious, fruits.

To sum up, The Matrix Resurrections features many self-reflexive moments, Easter eggs, multiple embedded worlds, playful references to the Matrix saga, strong female characters, and a relatively complex storyline with quite a few plot holes. True, the new Matrix film is not as revolutionary and does not impress the audience as much as the first film did. But it clearly does not intend to. The first film warned the audience of the increasing digitalization and upcoming artificiality of our environment. The fourth film reminds the audience of the omnipresent digitalization, consumerism, and artificiality of our environment. Further, it intends to mock reboots, remakes, and sequels, and unmask how the entertainment industry exploits our nostalgic inclinations. The Matrix Resurrections is perhaps even more postmodern than the first Matrix film was (Barnett 363-366)—which does not mean that it is successful or excellent. Perhaps its postmodernity even marks it as somewhat outdated, less comprehensible and enjoyable, at least for the younger audiences. However, this should make it, to some extent at least, worthy of scholarly research and teaching.

REFERENCES

Barnett, P. Chad. “Reviving Cyberpunk: (Re)Constructing the Subject and Mapping Cyberspace in the Wachowski Brothers’ Film The Matrix.” Extrapolation, vol. 41, no. 4, 2000, pp. 359-374.

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Bradshaw, Peter. “The Matrix Resurrections Review – Drained of Life by the Hollywood Machine.” The Guardian, Dec 21, 2021, pp. 17. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/matrix-resurrections-review-drained-life/docview/2612183571/se-2?accountid=17116

Cameron, Charles. “Why Resurrections Hurts The Matrix Franchise More Than Revolutions Did.” Screenrant. https://screenrant.com/matrix-resurrections-hurts-franchise-more-revolutions-why/.

Hersko, Tyler. “Terminator: Genisys Feels Like Disappointing Fan Fiction.”  Reno Gazette – Journal, Jul 10, 2015, pp. 1. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/terminator-genisys-feels-like-disappointing-fan/docview/1695156532/se-2?accountid=17116

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

McFarlane, Brian. “The Matrix: Cult Classic or Computerized Con?” Screen Education, no. 41, 2006, pp. 105-110.

Sándor Klapcsik is an assistant professor at the Technical University of Liberec, where he conducts research on acculturation and stereotypes in migrant cinema. He earned his PhD at the Cultural Studies Department of the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, in 2010. He was a Fulbright-Zoltai Fellow at the University of Minnesota, did a long-term research at the University of Liverpool and at the Department of the Sociology of Culture, University of Lodz. His book Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach was published in 2012.

Review of Foundation, season 1



Review of Foundation, season 1

Jari Käkelä

Goyer, David S. and Josh Friedman, creators. Foundation. Season 1, Apple TV+, 2021.

When it was announced that Asimov’s famously un-filmable Foundation would finally be turned into a television series, online sf forums filled with excitement but also with fears over seeing another “inspired by” blend in the vein of Alex Proyas’s infamous I, Robot. Now that the first season has concluded, it is clear that, while Goyer and Friedman’s Foundation is in many respects closer to the original, it does not attempt a scene-by-scene adaptation of Asimov’s work, nor does it go for a condensed but rather faithful adaptation such as Villeneuve’s Dune. There are major changes, criticized by many (see e.g. Bricken), but in spite of its issues, the TV adaptation seems to retain some of the spirit of the original.

Much of the appeal of Asimov’s original is in the sense of witnessing vast sweeps of history. Some of this comes from Asimov modeling the fall of the Galactic Empire on Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89), and the TV version certainly injects elements of the Roman Empire into the storytelling. Overall, though, at the core of Asimov’s original were the notions that the ebb and flow of historical forces always surpass the individual, and that scientific calculation of the course of human history—through the fictional science of psychohistory—allows for the engineering of the course of future history. In Asimov’s work, the Foundation begins developing into a new Galactic Empire through stages that mirror the historical developments of the United States from the times of first European settlers to the early twentieth century. Along the way, this evokes undertones of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” and the metaphorical exile from a corrupt old empire turns into an analogy of revitalizing American expansionism and Manifest Destiny (see Käkelä 2016 for extensive discussion of these themes).

Goyer’s TV adaptation retains the central situation of the story: Psychohistory has revealed that the center of human civilization, the Galactic Empire, is headed toward a collapse—and the mathematician Hari Seldon’s scientific Foundation is placed on the distant planet of Terminus. In Asimov’s original, the plot was mostly on an intellectual level, even if the characters themselves often reflected the space cowboy traits of pulp sf. The TV version, on the other hand, brings the action to the physical plane, even as it goes for a more inclusive outlook with its casting (see Kaye) and updates several key characters, such as Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) and Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), into black women. In addition to the goal of making Asimov’s galaxy full of people more diverse, his dialogue-heavy approach was deliberately exchanged for heightened action and emotional appeal by the showrunners (Jackson).

As a result, the TV version’s dynamic of storytelling evokes blockbuster action up to the point where Leah Harvey’s Salvor Hardin considers the book-version Hardin’s slogan “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” an “old man’s doctrine,” and approaches the situation with action hero one-liners such as “I want to see what violence we can muster.” While viewing violence as a valid solution reflects the showrunners’ background in superhero franchises and sf action, it does also seem to subvert Asimov’s fundamentally non-violent message of letting the greater rationality prevail instead of physical force. The implications of this change certainly warrant further critical attention: The show seems to consider Asimov’s antiviolence a naïve ideal of shaping history from behind the scenes without having to become emotionally invested in it yourself—perhaps implausible in the post-9/11 world. There is potential for sociocultural, racial and gender commentary, but it could be explored further if this extends beyond giving the black female protagonist the active, traditionally white, masculine power of the action hero—and if the show goes beyond rehearsing the stock Hollywood formula: violence equals emotion.

Finally seeing Asimov’s series on screen is part of the appeal with the adaptation, and it does look gorgeous. Significant attention has gone to the visual aspects of the TV show, and the details are full of small references to the sf megatext. The added storylines that deal with the Galactic Empire also reflect a variety of motifs in more contemporary works of sf (themselves influenced by Asimov’s original). For example, the Star Bridge space elevator—the crown jewel of the Galactic Empire’s technological prowess—borrows profusely from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. In both, the massive piece of infrastructure is similarly destroyed, up to the spectacular image of its falling cable wrapping around the planet—even if in the adaptation its function is to provide a pointed 9/11 moment to the story. In visual details, there are also more subtle cues such as Salvor Hardin’s ground car, reminiscent of Luke’s at the beginning of Star Wars, and the arid desert of Terminus that evokes images of Tatooine and similar science-fictional desert planetscapes. The addition of mystical/religious elements also seems to hark back to motifs such as the Force in Star Wars and messianic elements in Dune. The representation of the Empire itself, on the other hand, takes visual cues from illustrations in pulp magazines, creates a sort of comic book version of the Roman Empire, and mashes these together with echoes of totalitarian monumentalism—all filtered through the stylizing lens of Apple’s futurism-style seen in their product design.

The visuality of the show certainly works to signal the massive scope of the original, but in addition to its attitude to violence, the first season of the TV adaptation breaks away from Asimov’s version through its emphasis on individual agency. Asimov himself did contradict his premise that characters would only be instruments of the larger Plan and historical movements as he created characters that were sort of Carlylean Great Man versions of pulp heroes. However, in the adaptation, Hari Seldon even directly says that the “entire galaxy [is] pivoting around the actions of an individual.” In Asimov’s version, a more overt focus on the individual only arose when he started to retroactively connect his Robot series to the Foundation universe in novels such as Foundation’s Edge (1982), Foundation and Earth (1986), Prelude to Foundation (1988), and Forward the Foundation (1993). Right from the start, the TV adaptation draws on all of these, and privileges individual genius as the source of action. Turning Gaal Dornick from a minor character in Asimov’s original into a central protagonist is the most obvious element of this change. Even Seldon acknowledges her “sort of intuitive processing ability that puts [her] ahead of the math.” Dramatizing Gaal’s ability to “feel the future” commits the adaptation to the agency of exceptional individuals far beyond the original. In so doing, it also seems to suppress Asimov’s reliance on scientific understanding as the basis for action, and instead tilts towards an approach that seems to reflect the 21st-century self-help culture of discovering your inner strength.

While committing to individual agency from the start, the TV version shifts the original’s treatment of violence and politics also on the level of society. For example, Asimov’s original revels in the masterful, but essentially nonviolent, manipulation by which the Foundation solves its first crisis during which the surrounding “barbarian kingdoms” of Anacreon and others threaten to annex Terminus. Asimov’s original rather gleefully narrates how the Foundation weaponizes its techno-scientific knowledge and psychological understanding to manufacture a religion by which to control their less-educated neighbors. The TV series, on the other hand, bypasses these kinds of exploitations. Instead of resolving their first crisis by tricking the “barbarians” into submission, the Foundation first engages in violent combat but ultimately survives by taking their neighbors seriously and offering them a more equal role in the Foundation’s future. It seems that the cunning manipulations are present only on an individual level through various battles of wills, not in the larger societal impact of the Foundation.

Manipulation as a method of governance has not entirely disappeared from the adaptation, but it is now used by the old Galactic Empire and works to highlight its unviability. This is most clearly present in the storyline invented for the TV adaptation where the Empire is headed by clones of the original emperor. Effectively, this manipulation is a workaround for the emperor’s mortality, but it becomes a metaphorical dramatization for the Empire’s stagnation where literally the same (cloned) white man stays perpetually in power. Relegating ethically more questionable elements of utilitarianism to the falling empire, the TV series rather neatly bypasses many of the most glaring ethical issues of Asimov’s original by not letting the ‘good guys’ use devious means to attain their goals. Modernized attitudes are visible even in the Anacreonians who scold the Foundationers for calling them “barbarians, just a convenient slur for anyone not like you.” Through these kinds of meta-level comments on Asimov’s original, the TV series distances itself from the original’s dated colonialist infantilization of subjugated nations. This change also begins to deconstruct the way Asimov meshed his references to Gibbon’s history of Rome with the imagery of American expansionism and later policies of civilizational imperialism. 

Still, even this change does not come without its problems. While the series makes a conscious effort to transfer Asimov’s WWII and Cold War metaphors to the present, portraying the Anacreonians through stereotypical post-9/11 representations of Middle Eastern terrorists complicates the TV series’ mission of inclusion. Dramatically, making Anacreon an Afghanistan analogy of sorts does allow for a plotline where the series can then present a rectification of the dynamic of recent decades in real-world history—by admitting the ostracized nations to a level playing field and engaging with them in actual cooperation. Nevertheless, even there the TV series still implies that the Western world-associated Foundation is needed to enable the agency of other nations on the world stage.

As the TV adaptation draws on all of Asimov’s Foundation universe, it also creates links similar to his 1980s retcon to his Robot stories. Although Apple apparently does not have rights to Asimov’s Robot stories, the character of Demerzel (Laura Birn), the 10.000-year-old robot assisting the emperors, is set up as similarly significant for the upcoming seasons. In Asimov’s connected Robot-Foundation universe, Demerzel was of course a disguise for his most famous robot character, R. Daneel Olivaw, who had become by the end of Foundation and Earth a primus motor of sorts for the whole retconned storyline. The TV show certainly shows a similar desire to connect everything, but it remains to be seen how much of this storyline the showrunners will retain.

Overall, already the first season makes it clear that the series is aiming to become something that stands on its own, apart from Asimov’s original stories. This is most apparent in the way the TV adaptation has begun to steer away from Asimov’s more cynical instrumentalism and utilitarian conception of history. Instead of recreating the original’s exploitation of people with less access to knowledge, endless chains of master-subject relationships and precarious balances of terror, the TV version seems to be aiming toward societies with more lasting and egalitarian stability. In a sense, though, Asimov’s original tension between determinism and free will has not disappeared; it has merely shifted, complicated by the increased focus on emotion, to a tension between mystical individual intuition and communal scientific work in building a better future. Apple has renewed the show for season 2, and Goyer has talked about going for at least 8 seasons. Time will tell how the upcoming seasons address the emerging, new tension between mysticism and science, but it will also be interesting to see if the fundamental optimism about humankind’s ability to set aside old animosities in the first season will be darkened by the currently looming shade of a new cold war in the real world.

REFERENCES

Bricken, Bob. “They Said Foundation Couldn’t Be Filmed, and It Still Hasn’t Been,”

Gizmondo, 23 Sep. 2021, https://gizmodo.com/they-said-foundation-couldnt-be-filmed-and-it-still-ha-1847731204. Accessed 30 March 2022.

Carlyle, Thomas. 1841. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Teddington: Echo Library, 2007.

Jackson, Matthew. “How Do You Make a Millennia-Spanning Tale ‘Emotional’? Foundation Producer David Goyer Explains in New Clip,” Syfy Wire, 21 Sep. 2021, https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/foundation-behind-the-scenes-video-greatest-science-fiction. Accessed 30 March 2022.

Kaye, Don. “Foundation: Why Isaac Asimov’s Estate Approved Modernizing the Sci-Fi Classic,” Den of Geek, 24 Sep. 2021, https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/foundation-isaac-asimov-estate-approves-apple-tv-series/. Accessed 30 March 2022.

Käkelä, Jari. The Cowboy Politics of an Enlightened Future: History, Expansionism and Guardianship in Asimov’s Science Fiction, University of Helsinki, 2016, URL: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-51-2405-0


Jari Käkelä is a PhD in English Philology (2016) and currently works as a lecturer at the University of Helsinki. He has published articles in Extrapolation and Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, among others. His previous research has focused extensively on Isaac Asimov’s work, and his more recent research includes looking at authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Sarah Pinsker through the continuum of the Golden Age.

Review of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts



Review of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts

Steven Holmes

Sechrist, Radford, creator. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. Netflix, 2020.

In season 3 of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, the protagonists are joined by a band of singing mutant k-pop narwhals, a point which, in and of itself, highlights the show’s particular blend of absurdist humor (the series also features singing lumberjack cats and tuxedo-wearing frogs), commitment to diverse representation, and expansion of the contours of what “post-apocalyptic media” can mean or entail. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic earth where “mutes,” or mutated forms of conventional earth animals have either gained sentience and taken on human-like community structures, or become extremely large, forcing humanity to live in underground bunkers. When the series’ protagonist Kipo’s (Karen Fukuhara) bunker is attacked by a “Mega Monkey,” she’s separated from her father and the rest of her human community and has to learn to survive on a now foreign surface. Kipo befriends surface-dwellers Wolf (Sydney Mikayla), Benson (Coy Stewart), and the mutant insect Dave (Deon Cole) in her quest to reunite with her father. Along the way, she learns that she herself is a “mute,” causing an identity crisis and forcing her to learn to control new jaguar-related powers. She in turn works to reconcile the human and “mute” communities.

The series, produced by DreamWorks Animated Television and animated by Studio Mir certainly feels in keeping with both, especially when compared to DreamWorks’ contemporaneous She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020) and Studio Mir’s earlier The Legend of Korra (2005-2008). The comparison to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power seems particularly on point, given that both series focus on a young female protagonist navigating a set of powers she doesn’t fully understand in the midst of a vibrantly-colored post-apocalyptic landscape. Both series also share voice talent (Karen Fukuhara voices Kipo and also Glimmer in She-Ra).

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is never the “first” in any of the areas where it could be considered breakthrough. It’s not the first to take the post-apocalyptic setting of Earth as the venue for a light-hearted fantasy-like adventure—that would at least be Adventure Time (2007, 2010-2018). It’s not the first series to use mutations as a foil for racism or other phobias—that would be X-Men (1992-1997 for the children’s animated series, and the earlier incarnation in the comics). And it’s not the first children’s television series to have a character acknowledge they’re gay through dialogue—that would be 6teen (2004-2010). But, in being a polished, well-produced action series on Netflix, with all three seasons released in the midst of the first year of the shut-downs from the Covid-19 pandemic, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts offers a bold, fresh new take that blends these various elements. It may end up being, if not a better-known, then at least fondly-remembered series that executed these elements well during a particularly rough year.

The main series arc focuses on the struggle to reconcile human and mute communities, a particular challenge given that the lead antagonist for the first two seasons, the mutated mandrill Scarlemagne (Dan Stevens), was experimented on as a child and seeks to enslave or annihilate the humans who once experimented on him. The most remarkable aspect of the series is perhaps the emphasis on series lead Kipo’s efforts at peacemaking, which more often revolve around finding common ground and friendship among the various “mute” communities rather than achieving victory through physical violence. While the series arc at this point may risk seeming humdrum given the decades-long prevalence of the very similar premise of the X-Men franchise in animation, comics, and film, it nonetheless still serves as an effective vehicle for the characterization of Kipo and her friends.

The series was nominated for a GLAAD award for its handling of Benson, one of Kipo’s friends who happens to acknowledge he’s gay through dialogue. Unlike 6teen, which broke that benchmark through a one-off character for a single episode, Benson is a lead supporting male role that remains significant through all three seasons. In later seasons, his crush becomes his boyfriend. But his queerness is never the subject of the main plot, and never feels like tokenism. It is, perhaps, refreshingly banal. He just is gay, and that’s not even the most interesting element of his character (that would be his friendship with Dave, the mutant insect). The representation of Benson doesn’t break any barriers that haven’t been broken before, especially when compared to Steven Universe (2013-2019), but the lack of backlash that Kipo received for its depiction of Benson will hopefully signal to other studio executives that they can stop hand wringing so much about LGBTQ+ representation in children’s animation, as there was in Adventure Time (where there were years of development before Cartoon Network would allow the queer relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline to see any progress).

Between She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, there has been a significant departure from the years of “grimdark” that defined the idea of “post-apocalypse.” After decades of The Walking Dead and the legacy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), children’s animation is showing that post-apocalyptic media can be colorful, fun, and upbeat.

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is relevant to scholars of children’s media and LGBTQ+ studies as an exemplar of the transformation possible in the medium of animation after the decades of preceding transformational works. Although works like Steven Universe may be more groundbreaking, it’s works like Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts that solidify transformations in the medium, and that exemplify the changing definition of “normal,” both in terms of the directness with which characters’ sexual identities are managed as well as in audience acceptance of those topics. The series weaves together a multiracial, multicultural constellation of intelligent beings that by the series’ conclusion, with the exception of the antagonist of the third season, agree to live and work together past their prejudices, and in this respect its utopianism and optimism serve as a sharp relief to many contemporary works of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts suggests that a movement away from “grimdark” can be accompanied with positive depictions of LGBTQ+ characters—and singing k-pop narwhals.

Dr. Steven Holmes is a lecturer at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where he is currently finishing a book project entitled Exploding Empire: Imagining the Future of Nationalism and Capitalism. His publications include articles in Studies in the Fantastic, The Written Dead: The Zombie as a Literary Phenomenon, War Gothic in Literature and Culture, and Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy. He teaches classes on argumentative writing, science fiction, fantasy literature, digital art, and Shakespeare.


Review of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier



Review of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Jeremy Brett

Spellman, Malcolm, creator. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios, 2021.

The recent flurry of Disney+ shows based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are interesting not only as examples of well-budgeted and thoughtful superhero media, but also in their roles as episodic extended meditations. WandaVision was an examination of the lingering power and debilitating nature of grief. Viewers watched with fascination as an emotionally devastated Wanda Maximoff warped reality itself in an attempt to create a fictional life free from horrific family tragedies. Loki explored, among other things, the nature of identity – the titular God of Mischief confronted multiple versions of himself from different timelines and as a result began to come to grips with what and who made him who he is. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (F&TWS), on the other hand, chooses for its own part to present an extended meditation on the concept and emotional burdens of legacy. What we owe to the past and what it owes to us – these form the thematic spine of the series and guide the motivations and actions of every major character in the show, from hero to antihero to villain.

As importantly, the scale of legacy is not only overlapping and multilayered but varies from moment to moment in the series. Overwhelming everything else is the Blip (the wiping out of half the intelligent life of the universe by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, undone five years later in Avengers: Endgame), which reshuffled the social and political order of the entire planet. In those intervening years, borders changed or were erased; the return of the Blipped forced millions to become refugees in what had been their own homes. And the fates of the un-Blipped were not universally positive, either, to say the least. For former CIA agent and once-ally of the Avengers Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) for example, survival in the Blipped world and abandonment by her otherwise occupied hero friends meant carving out a place for herself as the ruthless crime lord Power Broker, a significant moral compromise that betrays her own past as well as the heroic legacy of her deceased aunt Peggy Carter.

In F&TWS, a UN-like agency called the Global Repatriation Council (GRC) directs the lives and fortunes of both the remaining and the returnees, herding many from both sides into temporary resettlement areas while promising ‘to get back to the way things were’. It is this immense power over peoples’ futures that is the disastrous legacy of Thanos’ choice to curb universal overpopulation, and it also drives the series’ antagonists—the Flag Smashers, an international group of rebels whose rallying cry is “One World, One People” and want a return to the Blip’s simpler world of porous or entirely absent national borders.

However, the show makes clear that—tactics aside—the GRC and the Flag Smashers are both responsible for the societal injustices seen on the screen. Power differentials are the key: the GRC operates from a position of high political power where people are only masses and numbers and obstacles and threats. The Flag Smashers and their superpowered leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) work at the more visceral street level, engaging in direct action with traditional terrorist tactics of bombings, kidnappings, smuggling, and assaults while interacting with actual victims of the Blip-caused upheavals. The latter murder on an individual scale, while the former is poised to bring intense disruption and destruction to peoples’ lives. Both groups have the potential for immense good and immense carnage, and the decisions they make have consequences. As Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) notes to the rescued GRC members in the series’ concluding episode, the end of the Blip means the birth of a common struggle, and the powerful have a responsibility to “do better”, to step up else the next Karli will, and the results will be even more horrific. Power’s use or misuse leaves behind its own legacy. Among its other virtues, the series can provide media and popular culture scholars as well as scholars of more traditional social sciences with an examination of the ways in which superhero media looks at variations in structural power. Although the Flag Smashers are admittedly thinly drawn in character and motive, they nonetheless are intriguing as a symbol of popular revolt against established power structures.

But though smaller scale than the Blip, the legacy central to the series is that of Captain America, both as man and as symbol. Captain America since the 1960s has been an interestingly complex comic book figure, far more so than the patriotic propaganda symbol he began life as in 1941. He is meant to represent the promise and dream of America—the concept of a democratic and equal society, rather than the too-often unfair reality that America is for so many. On multiple occasions in the comics, Steve Rogers has resigned as Captain America rather than serve a government he believes to be corrupt or unjust, doing so again in the 2016 MCU film Captain America: Civil War. Both the comics and films make clear that Captain America is not a great hero because America is great; he is great because Steve Rogers is a good man. All these burdens are part and parcel to the role of Captain America, and in F&TWS they fall with intense and increased weight upon Steve’s friend Sam. Sam has served through several MCU films as the highflying hero Falcon, but in the last scene of Endgame, an aged Steve (Chris Evans) passed the role and shield of Captain America to him. Sam wrestles with this choice both as a man who feels unworthy of Steve’s example and as an African-American in a racist society. The reality that Steve was a handsome blond-haired blue-eyed white man, the racist American ideal and the perfect mold of an acceptable American hero, has never escaped him.  In a moment of great decision, he returns the shield to the US government, noting that “we need new heroes, ones suited for the times we’re in. Symbols are nothing without the women and men who give them meaning.”

The emotional core of the series involves a reflection on the legacy of this symbol and those who bear it into battle. Sam encounters Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), an African-American veteran of the Korean War with a horrific secret in his past. He himself is a super soldier, the only successful result of repeated US military experimentation upon Black soldiers to recreate the serum that gave Steve his superpowers. In a deliberate echo of the notorious Tuskegee experiments (as well as those of Nazi doctors), Bradley and his fellows were given dangerous unproven serums without being told the reason, with Bradley being the only survivor. For his pains, he was jailed for decades and repeatedly experimented on, his record and life erased from history to prevent exposure of the secret. In the series’ fifth episode, “Truth”, Sam faces this horrific legacy face-on as he debates whether to take up Cap’s shield at last. As he tells Bradley, “I need to understand”, to which Bradley responds simply, “You understand. Every black man does.” He goes on to say, “They will never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever want to be.” Sam’s emotional struggles over his debt to his friend Steve, to his love of country, and to the history of his people, are profound. What does Sam owe to his past and that of those Black people who went before him? In the end, Sam decides that he (and Bucky [Sebastian Stan]) need to stop looking to other people (specifically to Steve) to know oneself, and despite the complicated legacy of the shield, he is fit to wield it. He tells Bradley near the series end, “We built this country, bled for it. I’m not going to let anybody tell me I can’t fight for it.”

Sam’s greatest triumph is, perhaps, less his and Bucky’s defeat of the Flag Smashers before they can successfully kidnap the members of the GRC, and much more his success in having Bradley’s story brought into the light of day and the first Black superhero given the recognition (at the Smithsonian, no less) he deserves as part of the Captain America story, and the American story. F&TWS can serve researchers well in its analysis of patriotism and the ways in which our cultural icons and heroes both reflect and refract our stated national values.

Steve’s shadow also looms over his best friend and fellow super soldier Bucky Barnes. Bucky labors with his own historical legacy—as the Winter Soldier, he was a brainwashed Hydra operative who assassinated countless people. Having been broken of that conditioning, he seeks to make amends by bringing former Hydra associates to justice. At the same time, Bucky judges himself relative to the impossibly good and noble Steve, who never stopped believing in Bucky’s goodness. In a powerful scene in episode 2, we find that Sam’s decision to refuse the role Steve offered him left Bucky angry and scared, because as Bucky notes, if Steve was wrong about Sam, then he might have been wrong about Bucky, too. Even the choices and decisions of a well-meaning man like Steve can cause ripples in the lives of others, traces of worry and anger and insecurity. That is part of the power of legacy, too.

The weight of the past and its expectations affects yet another key character, John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the official replacement for Captain America after Sam returns the shield. Walker is, like Steve, a handsome chiseled white man; unlike Steve, Walker is also a decorated soldier and high school football hero, used to being popular and admired. Though a brave warrior who wants to do good, Walker lacks the core of common decency and compassion that made Steve such a particularly good man. He is prone to anger and quicker to resort to brutal tactics than his predecessor—a fatal flaw that ends with his publicly murdering a Flag Smasher in a vengeful frenzy and his removal from the role so symbolic to what his country should represent. Like Sam, Walker lives in Steve’s shadow, unable to live up to the legend; that insecurity torments him into a permanent sense of inferiority. But he also lives in the aftermath of his own past—he angrily protests to the commission that fires him that he has always done what is expected of him in the service (even unsavory things), and that whatever he is, “you built me”. His deep-seated trauma and guilt are parts of his inheritance, his own legacy, as is, arguably, a powerful sense of privileged entitlement that clashes with his deep fears of failure.

The end of the series posits that the response to historical legacy is ultimately malleable—that people can change it to serve new causes and be represented by new symbols (people like Sam); that people can actively do service to their legacies in making true amends rather than pursue toxic revenge (Bucky); that legacies can do real psychological harm that negatively affect their outcomes (Walker, Sharon); and that legacies have serious emotional weight that, if left to fester, can corrupt and twist one’s entire life. Legacy is multifaceted, and F&TWS shines brightly in its equally multifaceted exploration of its effects—the good it can serve and the damage it can do both to individuals and to populations.

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.


Review of Dune (Part One)



Review of Dune (Part One)

Ian Campbell

Dune. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Legendary Pictures, 2021..

The film of Dune is absolutely beautiful, a true masterpiece of cinematography and sound. The casting, acting and script are very good. For those who have never read Dune, and cannot fill in the blanks, the film is largely incoherent and its central conflict does not have the impact that it does for readers. This is clearly a matter of deliberate choice on director Denis Villeneuve’s part, as filling in these blanks would have been a comparatively simple matter. Critics and fans have been saying for decades that Dune is unfilmable; Villeneuve has addressed the problem by making a film that nobody who has not read the book will meaningfully understand. On one level, this may be marketing: after all, the overwhelming majority of the people who will see the film, like the majority of readers of SFRA Review, have already read the book. Villeneuve can thus rely on those readers’ filling the gaps with the lore and world-building of the text, and focus instead on the spectacle, which is phenomenal. Yet on another level, the film can be interpreted as both a subtle and an overt deconstruction—in the original Derridean sense—of Herbert’s novel. It compels the text-familiar audience to reconsider whether what seems logical is in fact an example of privilege that reinforces hierarchies. Like Villeneuve’s most recent work, Blade Runner 2049, this film is metafictional.

Dune has of course been filmed once before, in 1984 by David Lynch, who famously repudiated the film, replacing his own name as director with the traditional Alan Smithee in response to post-production meddling by a studio intent on commercializing the film. Notably, the theatrical version was cut down by about 25%. The film was a critical disaster and a commercial flop in spite or perhaps because of the studio’s actions, whereas the Villeneuve version has been mostly well-reviewed and has made a reasonable if not overwhelming profit—enough at any rate to greenlight the second installment. In recent years, the availability of something closer to the original cut has to a certain extent rehabilitated critical response to Lynch’s film.

For the purposes of this review of Villeneuve’s film, the salient aspect of the 1984 version is that it provides a reasonably clear explanation of the factions, the basic conflict and the centrality of the spice to that conflict:

Framing scene from the 1984 film.

It is unclear whether and to what extent the introduction was Lynch’s work or the studio’s. While this explanation of the role and importance of the spice is oversimplified, it does frame the film in terms of the spice; the introduction continues by explaining the conflict between factions as essentially one between planets, including a planet not found in the novel.

Image from the 1984 film.

Again, while one may critique this presentation, it does provide viewers who have not read the book a reasonable understanding of who the Atreides are, what their problem is, and why they have to go to Arrakis. Lynch’s/Smithee’s use of complex effects to make the eyes of spice addicts entirely blue also shows the centrality of the spice to the story. In the 1984 film, like Herbert’s text, the narrator is Princess Irulan. The novel has her present Paul as Muad’Dib and as something close to Messiah right from the beginning, and of course each chapter of the book is framed by her commentary from after the fact.

Villeneuve’s film does none of this; rather, the film is framed by Chani, who does explain that spice is central (but crucially, not why it is) and that the emperor has sent the Atreides in place of the Harkonnens to rule her planet. The voiceover ends with “Why did the emperor choose this path? And who will our next oppressors be?” From the very beginning, Villeneuve is presenting the story from the perspective of the colonized people, though to be clear, the overwhelming majority of the actual film makes Paul and the people around him the central focus.

Yet whereas the novel, and to a lesser extent the 1984 film, present Paul as Messiah as a fait accompli, Villeneuve’s film does nothing of the sort. It continually frames Paul as a well-intentioned and brave but privileged and largely clueless adolescent, torn between his father’s standards and his mother’s training. For the most part, he’s the object rather than the subject of events. To the extent that Paul has a “Destiny”, this is shown through his dreams and his reaction to them rather than told by Irulan. Paul reacts to his dreams of holy war (which the film calls “crusade”) with revulsion: he does not want to lead a galaxy-spanning war that will end up with billions dead.

In addition to framing the film from the perspective of the indigenous Fremen, Villeneuve also problematizes the white-savior narrative with which so many critics over the decades have also taken issue: Paul sees it for what it is and tries to reject it. Herein lies the overt deconstruction the film wreaks upon the novel: fans of the book can perceive Paul as the hero, if a slightly reluctant one, because the novel tells us he is the hero right from the start; moreover, the Fremen are the backdrop and the conflict within the galactic aristocracy the central plot. This is not a particularly daring perspective on the film: the reframing is widely commented upon in mainstream commercial media, not just among academic analysts.

Yet there is a rather more subtle sort of deconstruction taking place in the film, and it deserves attention at least as much as the first and more overt trope. In brief, Villeneuve presents a world and a conflict that make little sense unless and until the audience fills in the background material from Herbert’s book: there are several major aspects of the galaxy-spanning empire that are not explained in this film. On one level, these lacunae reinforce the overt deconstruction: these things are not explained because the film has been framed from the Fremen’s perspective, and these aspects are unknown or irrelevant to the Fremen. On another level, however, they exist as a means of deconstructing what happens when we read a text, especially an SF text, and how this can itself be a problem in the real world as well as in literature.

I’ve written before about Villeneuve’s previous work, Blade Runner 2049, and how it deconstructs its own narrative of liberation and the Chosen One. In 2049, when Joi holds up Nabokov’s Pale Fire for a few seconds and then discards it, the audience can choose to discard it as well, as a sort of throwaway scene. But those who have read Pale Fire may understand the seemingly-nonsensical phrases the protagonist K is required to repeat as lines from the poem within the novel. From there, the film can be read through Nabokov’s novel, which perspective will give a very different reading of the events of the film—a reading that is much bleaker than the one the film seems to present. Villeneuve’s Dune functions metafictionally in a similar way, though here, the key text is Herbert’s own novel, which is also the text the film is encouraging viewers to reconsider.

Central to the metafictional reading is that the spice is entirely missing from the film. Yes, it sparkles in the air; yes, it has unclear psychoactive properties; yes, it is valuable and available only on Arrakis. The film neither tells nor shows us that the entire upper class is addicted to the spice, nor that the spice gives longevity, nor that interstellar travel is impossible without it. The film only shows it as a valuable commodity, like spices in the nineteenth century here on Earth: a source of income or colonial conflict, to be sure, but not the sine qua non for an empire that spans a galaxy and many millennia. If a Part Two is made, Paul’s threat to disrupt spice production will make little sense: it will be perceived as disruption of a valuable but not essential resource, rather than a threat to kill everyone in the upper class and grind space travel to a halt. Again, on one level, this is because to the Fremen, the spice is part of a communal religious ritual: they don’t travel between worlds. At the same time, however, anyone who’s ever read the book, and many who haven’t, will associate Dune with “the spice must flow”. Unlike the book, or the 1984 film, Villeneuve’s film doesn’t show or tell us why it must flow. We, as viewers, are required to fill in this information, because without it, the central conflict is incoherent. What we are doing when we fill in that information is that which the film is trying to induce us to think about.

The conflict between noble houses seems similarly incoherent. The film does touch upon the idea that the Emperor cannot be seen as helping to eliminate the Atreides, lest the other houses unite against him; yet the film also shows us the Sardaukar being assigned to the conflict, which the book does not, and in the battle the Sardaukar are presented as just that rather than as incognito. None of this is relevant to the Fremen, who get an overlord anyway, and it is this that the film is framing as something to consider. Fans of the books have for decades thought “Atreides good, Harkonnen bad”. Both films and the book tell us and show us this binary opposition. The Baron is obese and cruel (and, notably, queer, though Villeneuve’s film does not bring this up); the Duke outranks him and is fit, kind and manly. One part of the book Villeneuve’s film does foreground is that the Atreides are trying to do something new on Arrakis, by treating the Fremen like humans deserving of dignity rather than as vermin. Tragically, however, this is cut short by those dastardly Harkonnens, and because the Atreides appear to have been wiped out, we can think of them as victims.

It is this binary opposition—that one noble house is Good and the other Bad—that the film is deconstructing in a way that the book and its sequels, which constantly give near-mythical qualities to the Atreides, do not. Essentially everyone who reads the Review is familiar with the dominant theoretical approaches to reading SF: following Freedman’s rereading of Suvin, readers accept that aspects unfamiliar or counter to reality, but which are perceived as cognitively plausible within the world of the text, are part of the estrangement function and therefore needn’t be examined all that closely except insofar as they estrange some aspect of our own reality. This has had many positive consequences, notably the inclusion of far more texts under the umbrella of SF than might otherwise be possible. But it’s also this that Villeneuve’s Dune is holding up in a distorting mirror. By forcing viewers to fill in the blanks themselves in order to ground the central conflict, it encourages viewers and readers to reconsider the uncritical acceptance of these conditions.

Through reframing the film, Villeneuve not only compels viewers to consider the conflict from the point of view of the Fremen, but also to reconsider the willing suspension of disbelief for those aspects of the textual world that may seem implausible, or may seem valid or decent or humane, but only through uncritical acceptance of what the text says. Viewers who read Dune a long time ago, perhaps even before the 1984 film, might well feel like Team Atreides is the right team; viewers watch Villeneuve’s film and struggle to explain it to others who haven’t read the book may well find themselves thinking of the Atreides as just another bunch of unelected, exploitive, colonialist gangsters. We might even take Chani’s position and wonder who our own next group of oppressors will be. The spice must flow, because it protects the privileges of our oppressors.

Ian Campbell is the editor of SFRA Review.