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.


Review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, season 7



Review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, season 7

Adam McLain

Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Dave Filoni, supervising director. Season 7, Disney/LucasFilm, 2020.

Star Wars is a series that leans on binary moral conflicts to instigate its plot and action: light and dark, rebel and empire, Resistance and First Order, Jedi and Sith. While this simplification of morality might support narrative movement and audience retention in a blockbuster movie, it limits the depth one can take in an elongated form like a television series. In The Clone Wars (2008–2020; hereafter, Clone Wars), the binary of light and dark sides of the Force and their respective Force-users are still present, but because of the longer medium, space and time is given to investigate and complicate this binary presentation of good and bad. However, even as Clone Wars expands this binary representation of the Force, its efforts to engage in other conversations outside the insular, pseudo-religious philosophy of the Force are frustrated as it fails to delve as deeply into or inquire as fervently after other ethical dilemmas, especially those around cloning and warfare, that it brings into question.

Occurring chronologically between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2002, 2005; hereafter, Attack and Revenge), Clone Wars depicts the galaxy-wide civil war between the Galactic Republic, who believes the known galaxy should be joined under an enormous senate, and the Separatists, who believe the Senate has become too bloated to take care of the needs of smaller star systems. The animated anthology series contains various arcs that follow numerous characters as they fight for or against the Republic. Season seven is separated into three distinct arcs. In the first arc (Eps. 1–4), clone troopers go on a mission to rescue a captured ally. The second arc (Eps. 5–8) continues Ahsoka’s storyline after she left the Jedi Order in season five: she navigates the galactic underground and learns that a former enemy, the former Sith apprentice Darth Maul, has resurfaced. The final arc (Eps. 9–12) parallels events in Revenge as it details the siege of Mandalore, Ahsoka’s attempt to thwart Maul, and Ahsoka’s escape from Order 66—the Jedi genocide.

The complication of the binary system of Jedi and Sith in season seven provides a jumping-off point to critique contemporary American suspicions toward institutions and institutional support, particularly through the character development and interactions of Ahsoka and Maul, outcasts of the Jedi and Sith. Struggling with the Jedi Order’s betrayal of her, Ahsoka seeks to find her own way in the galaxy. When she discovers Maul as a threat, she returns to her master, Anakin, and asks to be sent to Mandalore to deal with him once and for all. The final lightsaber battle between Ahsoka and Maul exhibits the nuanced treatment Clone Wars provides of the light-dark duality. Because of their status as outcasts, both Maul and Ahsoka have developed non-normative, individualistic approaches to the Force that reflect but do not exactly represent the orthodoxy of the respective institutional ethics and morals in which they were raised. Ahsoka’s approach centers on an ethic that cares for and looks for the good in individual people rather than defending institutions like the Jedi Council or the Republic. This individualistic care ethic is seen after Maul reveals to Ahsoka that he has seen in a vision Anakin choosing the dark side over the light side of the force and she tells Maul, “I know Anakin. Your vision is flawed” (Ep. 10). Ahsoka’s reasoning is not that Anakin is good because he is a Jedi; she intertwines her belief in his goodness with her relationship and attachment to him, thus rejecting the Jedi Order’s ethic of non-attachment.

On the other side of the duel, Maul seeks to work within the shadows and subvert institutional power to his own self-interest. This institutional subversive ethic of the Force is seen when Maul states, “There is no justice, no law, no order, except for the one that will replace it” (Ep. 10). Instead of the Sith ethic of “unlimited power” through sole control of institutions, as seen through Palpatine’s Republic coup and creation of the Galactic Empire, Maul invests himself in the shadows, creating a network of secrets and promises that give him power yet protects him from losing his power when the inevitable institutional change occurs. This ethic requires Maul to trust, in a small way, other people, rather than invest all power within himself, as Palpatine does. Even as the battle places these two non-institutionalized ethics in stark contrast to each other, it has no clear victor in the end: Ahsoka captures Maul, but she later must use the captured Maul to save herself by releasing him from prison to cause a distraction so she can escape the Jedi purge. The uncertain victor in this battle of non-normative ethics, then, leads to a reassessment of the philosophies of the Force: instead of the Force couched in a light and dark binary institutionally presented as Jedi and Sith, the Force can now be utilized as a tool and technology to inform and complicate a variety of ethical and moral approaches to life.

This struggle for dominance reflects current American conversations around institutional trust, support, and reform. Ahsoka’s ethic of care, for example, demonstrates how individuals might reject traditional authority in favor of local networks of support and solidarity, and so can be usefully read in the context of the 2020 creation of Seattle’s “autonomous zone,” which replaced government oversight with a utopian experiment of anti-policing and communal care. Similarly, Maul’s subversion of institutional norms for personal gain recalls the ruthless use and misuse of current economic systems by wealthy individuals and institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic even as the rest of the community hemorrhages due to societal disparity and inequality. Placed in conversation with contemporary-era America, Ahsoka’s and Maul’s complications of the two-party Force-user system within Star Wars dramatize the varied moral and ethical positions individuals take under crippled and failing institutions that are meant to provide for and protect life, liberty, and happiness. In complicating the two-party Force system, season seven becomes a commentary on individual reaction to shifts and differentials of power, the various ways ideologies and their idealogues vie for political control, and how individuals gain and lose their own power within hegemonic systems of control.

Even as this battle between two outcasts of institutional power shows the interrogative depth the series can provide, the show limits itself in certain conversations and constrains the thematic development it could have in interrogating ethical concerns. For example, the series shows the lived experience of the clones, soldiers bred specifically for combat. Instead of delving into the bioethics of cloning and the moral questions surrounding living, humanoid beings formed with the sole purpose of combat and extermination, the plotlines for the clones emphasize quotidian stories of individuality, identity, and teamwork. Season seven, with its introduction of mutant clones and a storyline of rescuing a prisoner of war, provides ample opportunity to interrogate the ethics of war and justice; however, the show limits itself by not diving full-heartedly into the ethical and moral quandaries that surround cloning and the political and societal repercussions of the creation of living—and dying—weapons of war. This lackluster investigation compared to the depth given to the entanglement of Ahsoka’s and Maul’s varied approaches to the Force, then, shows an emphasis in this season—and perhaps in future endeavors in the Star Wars franchise—on individual rather than institutional solutions to moral and ethical questions.

Although this final season of Clone Wars does not problematize all of the ethical and moral quandaries within its own story world as much as a scholarly viewer might desire, it does give a strong foundation for future investigations within the universe for these dire and important questions. It shows that there is potential, even in a franchise known for its binaries, to create nuance and space for varied experiences, perspectives, and approaches. Season seven, then, becomes a catalyst to understanding the ways new Star Wars projects—like the live-action series The Mandalorian (2019–present), The Book of Boba Fett (forthcoming, 2021), and Ahsoka (forthcoming, 2022), and the animated continuation of this series, The Bad Batch (2021–present)—might complicate, interrogate, and answer moral, ethical, and philosophical questions and problems, as those who worked on Clone Wars continue to creatively guide the galaxy far, far away.

Adam McLain is a Harvard Frank Knox Traveling Fellow (2021–2022), researching twentieth-century dystopian literature and the legal history of sexual violence in the UK. He has a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and a bachelor of arts from Brigham Young University.


Review of Free Guy



Review of Free Guy

Jess Flarity

Free Guy. Dir. Shawn Levy. Berlanti Production and 21 Laps Entertainment, 2021.

Director Shawn Levy’s Free Guy is the newest “family fun video game movie,” an American tradition going back to the early 1980’s and Tron, but it also embodies all the dissociative elements of existing in a blurred reality, like the one currently being experienced by Generation Z. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls this phenomenon “liquid modernity.”

To begin, the audience is immediately thrown into the perspective of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a non-player character (NPC) who lives in Free City, a fictional mashup of Grand Theft Auto and PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, and follows him as he survives a daily onslaught of gamers who rob the bank where he works, with the initial scenes borrowing heavily from The Truman Show, The LEGO Movie, and even Groundhog Day. Soon afterwards, Guy meets the real-life player Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), and the fault lines between game/reality fracture as the narrative flows between the two worlds, disrupting any attempts to distinguish one realm as more important than the other. This plotting technique mirrors the life of the modern teenage gamer, the film’s target audience, and it is especially prescient considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as a recent study demonstrated that most U.S. youths are spending an average of 7.7 hours per day in front of a screen, double the amount from the previous year (Nagata).

Free Guy uses astonishing visual special effects to successfully leverage the chaotic, unstable aspects of liquid modernity into its central plot: this is as much a movie-about-a-video game as it is a two-hour video game “cut scene,” which is evidenced by the director’s incorporation of actual “gaming celebrities” later on in the story. However, this purposeful mixing of game world/real world elements also opens up valuable criticisms for scholars who work with critical race and feminist theories, as the more problematic issues associated with video game culture, such as racism and sexism, are repeated rather than subverted or eliminated.

From a critical race perspective, the main characters reinforce “whiteness-as-default”: Guy, Molotov Girl and her real-world counterpart Millie, and the programmer Keys (Joe Kerry) are all generically white. The vast majority of side characters, in contrast, are not white and verge on being stereotypes: Guy’s non-threatening black sidekick (Lil Rel Howery) serves in an emasculating role as comic relief, the unhinged Jewish-Polynesian antagonist (Taika Waititi) is a CEO who achieved success because he stole the game’s code from the white heroes, who are implied as being both honest and hardworking; and finally the Indian-American supporting character (Utkarsh Ambukar) sacrifices his individuality to ensure that the protagonists recognize their love for one another at the very end. The featured celebrity streamers are also problematic, as except for Pokimane—aka Imane Anys, a Moroccan-Canadian woman—all of them are white men. Free Guy’s failures here are comparable to those in Ready Player One, which has drawn sharp criticism due to its lack of non-white pop culture references and through the tokenism of the side character Aech, who is only revealed to be both black and gay in the final scenes of its narrative.

Similarly, from a feminist perspective there are several concerns with the portrayal of Millie/Molotov Girl, the heroine who serves as the romantic interest of both Guy and his creator, Keys. First is the notion that Guy only achieves self-awareness through his subconscious programming falling “in love” with Millie because he is a reflection of Keys, which reinforces the false ideology of men and women not being “complete” without each other’s love. This is both a denial of aromantic legitimacy—it assumes Guy can’t achieve consciousness without love—and an example of heteronormative bias being applied even to a non-human, artificial-intelligence construct. An even bigger problem is how Millie’s “skills” are portrayed over the course of the film. While her character’s introduction includes uncomfortably long shots focusing on her body as a non-ironic way of pandering to the male gaze, the audience soon learns that she is a formidable player in the game. She tells Guy he needs to “level up” in order to help her, and after an amusing montage, he quickly becomes her equal. This type of misogynist fantasy, wherein the male novice surpasses a female superior with inexplicable ease, is a surprisingly common science fictional plot device that is often overlooked, with other recent examples including The Matrix, Avatar, Edge of Tomorrow, and Doctor Strange.

A final feminist critique shows a sinister lack of agency on the part of the heroine: Millie is never shown doing anything competent related to computers despite the audience being told she is one of the programmers of Free City’s stolen code. Instead, quite often she is literally helpless, whether because she can’t log in, the game is down, or some other reason, reinforcing stereotypes of feminine incompetence related to technology, an all-too-common talking point that continues to cut off women from STEM fields. Her male counterpart Keys, conversely, has several important instances where he uses his superior coding or hacking skills to save the day. Even the “McGuffin,” a video clip that shows a hidden door in the game, can’t be obtained by Molotov Girl no matter how hard she tries—but by the end of the movie, Guy has become so famous that the clip’s owner goes “fanboy” and begs him to take it, further invalidating her previous efforts. This kind of wish fulfillment completes Guy’s cycle in the wheel of hegemonic masculinity: like a superhero at his apex, he becomes so powerful that he does not even need to do anything for others, especially men, to be in awe of him.

Many media critics have praised Free Guy for its impressive use of pacing and visual delights, but further analysis suggests that many of its aspects aren’t nearly as “family fun” as they first appear. There are simply too many instances where the film subconsciously echoes patriarchal ideas of white, male dominance, a mindset often linked to the certain sectors of the video game industry and a large part of its online fan community. However, the plot should also be praised for encapsulating the fluid, nomadic quality of liquid modernity in how it shifts between zones of reality, as famous YouTube celebrities create “real” streams about the “fake” game Free City; for many young people today, this isn’t fiction at all, but representative of what it’s like to spend an entire third of your daily life watching someone else through a screen.

WORKS CITED

Nagata J.M., Cortez C.A., Cattle C.J., et al. “Screen Time Use Among US Adolescents During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings From the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study”. JAMA Pediatr. Published online November 01, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.4334

Jess Flarity is a PhD candidate in Literature at the University of New Hampshire and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program in Popular Fiction. He has published works in The London Reader, Hippocampus, and other places online. His current studies involve the intersection between race and gender in science fiction in the 20th century.


Review of The Last of Us Part II



Review of The Last of Us Part II

Steven Holmes

The Last Of Us Part II. Playstation 4, Naughty Dog. 2020.

The Last of Us Part II is the sequel to Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful third-person shooter The Last of Us (2013), and as of the writing of this review remains the fastest-selling Playstation 4 exclusive (a title it may hold in perpetuity given the release of the Playstation 5 in 2020). Unlike its predecessor, however, The Last of Us Part II was far more controversial, and was the subject of an early review bomb—a phenomenon wherein a large number of people post negative reviews en masse—on Metacritic. With a typical playtime of 20-25 hours, and its status as a Playstation 4 exclusive, it is a title that is unlikely to make its way into many classroom settings as a primary text, although it remains significant to scholars of science fiction, horror, video games, and popular culture. There are at least three major topics that are likely to come up in scholastic discussions of the title, including: the game’s attempted interrogation of the norms of violence in video games, the attempted if-limited representation of a trans character in a science fiction horror game, and as its place as, if not an epilogue, then perhaps an addendum to the social controversies surrounding the “Gamergate” harassment campaign of 2014. As such, it is a touchstone in the current understanding of the video game-related culture wars.

The main focus of the game is the representation of cycles of violence. Understanding these cycles relies on some familiarity with the first game and its plot. The first game, 2013’s The Last of Us, presented Joel Miller (voiced by Troy Baker) as a hardened survivor in the midst of a fungal-zombie apocalypse (like MR Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, the zombie outbreak is modeled on the fungus Cordyceps). In that game, Joel travels across post-apocalyptic America with Ellie (voiced by Ashley Johnson), tasked with delivering her to a group called the Fireflies in the hopes of developing a vaccine to the zombie pandemic. When it’s revealed that the Fireflies will need to kill Ellie and extract part of her brain to develop a vaccine, Joel chooses Ellie’s life over the potential vaccine, killing the Fireflies, including the doctor that was about to perform the operation. Given Joel’s centrality to the first game and his popularity with the players and fans of that game, The Last of Us Part II stands out by killing Joel in the first two hours of the sequel. The game is framed around an initial cycle of violence, as Joel’s killer, Abby (voiced by Laura Bailey) is the daughter of the Firefly surgeon who would have performed the operation on Ellie at the end of the first game. Abby killing Joel is the completion of this first revenge plot, but it stirs a new revenge plot as Ellie chooses to hunt down Abby in revenge for killing Joel. The game disrupts this revenge plot halfway through, however. The perspective of the game shifts from Ellie in her quest to kill Abby, to Abby herself. The choice to shift perspectives so that the player is forced to play as the character that killed Joel for 10-12 hours of gametime highlights the game’s foregrounding of theme in shaping the structure and narrative. The game wants to aesthetically be in the same ballpark as  Spec Ops: The Line in deconstructing its own franchise and the player’s relationship to violence. Like Spec Ops: The Line, which attempted to subvert player expectations by recasting the end boss of the game as the projection of the protagonist’s guilt over war crimes he commits throughout the game, the form of subversion in The Last of Us Part II is to still present heavy violence throughout the game, but emphasize the guilt the characters experience for committing that violence as well as the guilt the game seems to think the player should feel.

For this interrogation of violence to work, Abby needs to have character traits established that go beyond her revenge killing of Joel. This is executed through the representation of Lev (voiced by Ian Alexander). The game’s attempt at presenting Abby’s redemption arc centers around her rescue of Lev and his sister Yara (voiced by Victoria Grace) from the Seraphites. In this vision of post-apocalyptic Seattle, the city is divided between the warring factions of Washington Liberation Front, which Abby is a part of, and the cult of the Seraphites, a group which, among other things, practices arranged marriage. Lev, a transman, is assigned to marry an elder man in the Seraphites. In rejecting the arranged marriage, Lev becomes a target for Seraphite violence. The apparent purpose of this sequence is to highlight that Abby is capable of rejecting the regional conflicts between the WLF and Seraphites, and that she could be viewed as a “heroic” figure if not framed around her murder of Joel. This is contrasted with Ellie who, in her own quest for revenge, kills a pregnant woman and her boyfriend in her unyielding pursuit of Abby. As a redemption arc for Abby, this presents some problems, since even if the intention is to contrast Abby’s willingness to help Seraphites to Ellie’s unwillingness to forgive Abby, the contexts may seem different enough that the parallels among the various characters will either be missed or feel weak. Despite the issues with how well Lev fits into the game’s attempt to present a redemption arc for Abby, Lev remains one of the few earnest depictions of trans identity in post-apocalyptic narrative, and this allows the game to serve as a kind of benchmark in understanding the horror genre’s evolving depictions of non-cis identity. Although the game is not interested in deeply exploring Lev’s identity, its banal depiction is still an improvement from many earlier representations of non-cishet identity in the horror genre. The range of trans characters depicted in post-apocalytpic narrative further expanded with the 2021 TV series Y: The Last Man.

Thematically, the end of the game is likely to elicit mixed reactions; the game continues to interrogate the cycle of violence as Ellie again chooses to pursue revenge at the cost of her friends, family, and fingers, only to opt for mercy in the final moments. The final scenes, though, are undercut by the ludological structure of the game, which even up until the final moments involve Ellie shooting and stabbing her way across America in her pursuit of revenge. Nonetheless, the nuances of the ending are not central to the game’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. The review bomb on Metacritic at the game’s release is as much tied to the game’s place as a kind of addendum to the Gamergate harassment campaigns of 2014, as it is to players who were unhappy the game kills off Joel in the first two hours. In response to a developer looking for a source for one of the many false accusations against the studio and developers, director and co-writer Neil Druckmann lists some of the false conspiracy theories that led to its early review bomb:

you fight homophobic Christians? Or that Anita worked on the game? Or that Abby is trans? (@Neil_Druckmann).

Since presenting the “Ambassador Award” to Anita Sarkeesian at the 2014 Game Developers Choice Awards, Druckmann has been a target for the Gamergate harassment campaign, a characteristic that has evidently lingered in the years since. The false rumor, meanwhile, that “Abby is trans”, reflected the puerile attitude of some early review bombers that took Abby’s muscular appearance and the knowledge that the game had a trans character as a sign that Abby herself was transgender. The combined commercial and critical success of The Last of Us Part II, as a lesbian-led post-apocalyptic game featuring a transman suggests that radical attempts at changing the typical representations of video game protagonists only fuels the sales of games, even if it also elicits a backlash. That being said, that this controversy exists at all reflects that there is a vocal population of misogynists and transphobes in the gaming community. This is not to imply that there are no valid critiques of the game. Some negative reviews also focus on the clumsy attempts to humanize Abby and the uneven nature of her redemption arc, although it is this dynamic that may be the game’s most interesting element for scholars.

Despite the complexities revolving around issues of representation, the game’s attempt at subverting player attitudes toward violence does not really work, but the heavy-handed attempts of the game to subvert player attitudes transforms the audience’s relationship with the narrative structure of the game. It’s not like Undertale, where the player has a ludological choice between a Pacifist or a Genocide run. While players can attempt to stealth their way through some parts of the missions, the game is primarily designed as a third-person shooter. Instead, the game interrogates the audience’s relationship with violence by toying with audience feelings. The audience is unlikely to forget the scene of Abby killing Joel at the start of the game, where she shoots out Joel’s leg with a shotgun and then bludgeons him to death with a golf club, but by the second half of the game, they are confronted with a scene where Abby plays fetch with Bear the dog. It’s a short scene, and its impact in part stems from the contrast with the twelve hours of brutal violence that precedes it. The player is probably aware of how manipulative the game is trying to be with the sequence, given the extreme violence depicted in her murder of Joel, and it is improbable much of the audience would “forgive” Abby just for playing with a dog. Instead, the player becomes more aware of the overt nature in which the game is manipulating them. The inadequacy of the dog scene in humanizing Abby is also what makes the game’s meta-textual play between developer and audience interesting. The “real” game, in some sense, is being played on the level of meta-cognition between developer and player, as the player likely still abhors Abby’s actions in the first half of the game. The narrative creates reflection for the player because of the discomfort and confusion they feel playing Abby, but also for their own willingness to continue engaging with the game’s artistic perspective. The Last of Us Part II challenges the player to reflect on what it means to choose to continue playing the game. It’s this highly subjective and variable discomfort that the game seems to most want to explore, even if the game’s argument about the nature of violence is extremely undercut by the necessities of its gameplay. The Last of Us Part II is not a masterpiece because it successfully dramatizes the complexity of cycles of violence, rather, what makes it a compelling case study in artistry are the ways it attempts but fails to do so, and in doing so creates an entirely distinct experience.

WORKS CITED

@Neil_Druckmann. “Maybe the same source as… you fight homophobic Christians? Or that Anita worked on the game? Or that Abby is trans? Or that I was scanned and mocapped anything in the game? Or that we paid for reviews? Or… I’m exhausted.” Twitter, Jun 2020, 6:28 AM. https://twitter.com/Neil_Druckmann/status/1275103339907178496?s=20.

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.