Review of Bacurau

Review of Bacurau

Joe Brace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Review of Wade Roush’s Twelve Tomorrows

Review of Twelve Tomorrows edited by Wade Roush

Dominick Grace

Wade Roush, editor. Twelve Tomorrows. MIT Press, 2018. Paperback, 276 pp, $19.95. ISBN 9780262535427.

Twelve Tomorrows is volume five in a series begun in 2011 with TRSF, and the first to be published in book form rather than as an issue of Technology Review magazine. A more accurate if less streamlined title might be Eleven Tomorrows and One Yesterday, as the book includes only eleven new stories, and a new retrospective on the life and career of Samuel R. Delany. The remit of the series, as explained on the series website is to offer “original stories that explore the role and potential impact of developing technologies in the near, and not-so-near future.” A Delany retrospective might not seem to be the ideal fit for that remit, since Delany’s importance is arguably more for his innovations in style and in social extrapolation, rather than specifically in speculation about scientific innovation, but on the other hand, he is one of SF’s major figures, and more can always be said about him. The eleven stories come from diverse hands, including several well-known SF names (e.g. Elizabeth Bear, Liu Cixin, Paul McAuley, Nnedi Okorafor, and Alastair Reynolds) as well as from upcoming figures and writers not usually associated with SF. The overall quality of the anthology is consistent, but perhaps more narrow in focus than its stated goal would suggest. While it is unsurprising that implications of computer technology innovations should loom large, the anthology would be more diverse and more fully meet its aim of speculation about developing technologies if the stories tackled a more broad range of topics. Roush indicates in his introduction that he generally banned dystopian stories because he likes his “SF with a dose of hopefulness. […] Pessimists don’t invent vaccines or build moon rockets [ix]; however, several of the stories here are more cautionary than celebratory, and a few are outright dystopian. 

Several are about AI, or variations thereof, again unsurprising at this juncture. One of the few overtly dystopian tales here, McAuley’s “Chine Life,” offers a far future in which AI has mostly supplanted humanity and has split into factions, one of which wants humanity eradicated and the other of which ostensibly wants to help, but literally colonizes the bodies of human beings in order to do so. McAuley here offers a neat sort of twist on invasion/colonization. Somewhat differently, Clifford V. Johnson’s “Resolution” (told in comics format, a welcome innovation, though John’s style is functional) offers something of a variation, imagining a future in which an alien invasion goes unnoticed because the aliens (who are apparently incorporeal) have passed themselves off as the AI the protagonist thought she had developed. Bear’s story, “Okay, Glory,” is about a wealthy recluse whose AI is hacked into believing there has ben a catastrophe in the outside world, so confines him to his impregnable fortress of a house, until he pays the hacker/extortionists $150,000,000. The cautionary tale about the susceptibility of computer tech to hacking is competently enough handled, if not new, but the story suffers from a major plot hole: if one expects to be paid a huge pile of money, one must leave the person they are extorting a way actually to get to the money. Sarah Pinsker’s “Caring Seasons” also involves smart tech (whether actually AI or not is not spelled out) run amok, as it presents a retirement facility in which the medical protocols designed to protect residents instead become the tools that imprison them. J.M. Ledgard’s “Vespers” imagines the first interstellar spaceship, run by an AI that spends the story ruminating about its situation. Almost half the stories here, therefore, are essentially variations on a theme. As such, this group represents a suite of stories that might be considered in tandem in a classroom to discuss how SF deals with AI.

Most of the rest of the stories also play on the implications of computer tech, in one way or another. Ken Liu’s “Byzantine Empathy” presents an intriguing story about attempts to co-opt cryptocurrencies to serve charitable ends—or, conversely, to allow one charitable organization to become the most powerful charitable organization in the world—by melding social media and giving. Liu Cixin’s “Fields of Gold” (which might also be connected to the AI stories) posits that the accidental launch of a woman into space on a doomed voyage may become something that would unite the world in an attempt to reach the stars, but we ultimately learn that the real woman is long dead and replaced by a computer simulation, when the rest of Earth catches up and sends out a ship that can catch up to hers. Reynolds’s “Different Seas” carries remote control to an extreme by positing humanoid helpers that can be inhabited remotely to aid people in crisis. The story includes an ironic twist that is perhaps unnecessary. Malka Older’s “Disaster Tourism” might be seen as a complementary piece, as it involves the use of drones in rescue work, when an inexplicable infection breaks out.

Only the remaining two stories carry us any distance from computer tech, S.L. Huang’s “The Woman Who Destroyed Us,” and Okorafor’s punningly titled “The Heart of the Matter.” The former deals with a medical innovation that allows for the tweaking of brains, which can allow for the cure of mental conditions, or simply for self-improvement. Whether such tech makes one more truly oneself or whether it transforms people into something else—whether this is an advance created by a Frankenstein, or a genuine boon to humanity—is treated with some nuance. The story is neither a stereotypical warning about science daring to tread where it ought not, nor a paean to advancement, though it perhaps skews in the latter direction, as it is narrated from the point of view of a woman who initially views it as the former and hopes to destroy its creator but who comes ultimately to see value in the procedure. “The Heart of the Matter” explores age-old fear of scientific advancement by representing the replacement of a Nigerian President’s heart with an artificial one as something that inspires superstitious fear in some—a fear exploited by a would-be usurper, who takes advantage of credulous equations of new technology with witchcraft.

Overall, then, this is a strong volume that does indeed offer speculations about new and emerging technology. The stories are all solid, if thematically and stylistically for the most part fairly staid (I imagine many readers will have recognized familiar themes and plot points in the brief precis above). The book is possibly useful for a course on SF and tech, or on contemporary trends in SF.