Tor.com content by

Karin L Kross

Story of Your Purpose: Arrival

I’m no veteran of film festivals—and indeed, I only started going to Austin’s Fantastic Fest last year. But if it ends up being the only film festival at which I’m a regular, I’m fine with that. It’s a “genre” festival, a term which encompasses high-profile fantasy like Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (complete with Tim Burton on the festival red carpet), sensational (if not SFnal) art films like Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, a surprise screening of M. Night Shyamalan’s SPLIT, and some magnificently disreputable midnight movie trash from all over the world. This year also featured horror short films presented as VR experiences, a “Satanic Panic Escape Room,” and the FF traditional evening of debates settled by fisticuffs at a local boxing gym.

And, yes, well, it happened over a month ago, didn’t it. You may be wondering why I’m only just now getting around to writing about more of the films I saw. Well, when Fantastic Fest 2016 kicked off, I was 37.5 weeks pregnant. The weekend after it ended—the weekend that I originally had planned to use to catch up on my reviews—the baby arrived a week ahead of schedule. So I’ve been a little busy since then.

It would probably take another month altogether to write complete reviews for every film that I saw, so for now I’m going to stick to a few specific highlights. I’ll start with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which opened the festival and which launches nationwide this weekend.

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Of Myths and Zombies: The Girl With All the Gifts

Let’s face it: a lot of us are pretty weary of zombies by now. On those grounds it might be tempting to give The Girl With All the Gifts—one of a handful of YA genre novel adaptations screening at this year’s Fantastic Fest—a miss. (In fact my spouse told me afterward that if he’d known in advance about the “Hungries”, as they’re called in the film, he would have never set foot in the theatre due to sheer exhaustion with the genre.) But if you did, you’d be missing out on a genuinely good take on zombie horror with a terrific protagonist.

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Old Timey X-Men: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children landed at Austin’s Fantastic Fest with an almighty splash. The Alamo Drafthouse has been gearing up for the release of this film with Septemburton, a celebration of Tim Burton’s work that includes special menu items, a Tim Burton issue of BirthMoviesDeath, and a slew of Burton programming. At the festival itself, each screening has been preceded by choice picks from the Burtonize This! contest (many of which have been uproariously funny, it must be said), and the day of the film’s screening was declared Keep Austin Peculiar Day—and Burton himself put in an appearance on the festival red carpet.

It’s quite a lot of froofraw, and there was a certain amount of high expectation going in. After all, the fit between Burton’s filmic sensibilities and the Gothic eeriness of Ransom Riggs’s bestselling novel and its sequels is one of the most natural imaginable. And for the most part, the movie delivers on its potential, save for a a third act that is overwhelmed by the sheer weight of CGI flash.

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Reinventing Cyberpunk in Mr. Robot

This article originally published September 11, 2015.

Cyberpunk may have been one of the 1980s’ most quintessential subgenre-movement-phenomena, and it also may have been one of the quickest to descend into self-parody. It was easy to get hung up on the aesthetics—chrome, casual violence, neon reflected in dirty puddles, mirrored sunglasses, neo-Orientalist imagery driven by fears of a economically dominant Japan—while only superficially engaging with the deeper themes of the technology-driven, corporation-dominated near-futures portrayed therein.

Then the Internet age proceeded to co-opt the vocabulary of cyberpunk, much as the world of espionage absorbed the lingo of John le Carré’s fictional spies. Brief resurgences via The Matrix and Snow Crash (which is more satirical than some people realize) notwithstanding, cyberpunk now seems like a quaint retro-future at best, and entirely moribund at worst.

[At least it did until Mr. Robot came along]

Series: Cyberpunk Week on Tor.com

Cyborgs in the Real World

Electronic eyes, hologram-producing implants, haptic tattoos—these are all examples of body modification that you’ll find throughout cyberpunk fiction. When you learn about artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas and the modifications that they have developed and incorporated into their own bodies, you might be tempted to think of them as science fiction characters, but they’re quite real, down-to-earth, and dedicated to the use of cybernetic implants as a means of expanding the senses and the human experience of the world, a unique intersection of art and technology. They are the co-founders of the Cyborg Foundation, and in May they brought their art to Moogfest, where I had a chance to talk to them about aesthetics and cyborgism.

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Series: Cyberpunk Week on Tor.com

Who Tells Your Story: The Hidden Figures of NASA History

Moogfest began as a one-day music festival celebrating both Robert Moog and electronic music in general. Over the last decade, it has grown into a multi-day symposium/festival with a scope that goes well beyond music and the circuit-driven gear that is used to make it. The daytime programming now includes discussions about transhumanism, cyborgs, race, and gender—and this year, the Afrofuturism programming track included a conversation with musician Janelle Monae and screenwriter Allison Schroeder, moderated by Kimberly Drew, who is Associate Online Community Producer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Their conversation was billed as “Women and Afrofuturism”, but much of the discussion centered on the forthcoming film Hidden Figures, written by Schroeder and starring Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer. The film is a look at a little-known piece of space exploration history: the African-American women who worked for NASA during the Gemini and Apollo missions. In telling this story from the past, Schroeder, Monae, and the rest of the film’s team find a way forward; by revealing this untold story of women of color, they want to demonstrate the possibilities for others, whether in art, science, or both.

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The Perils of Communal Living: High-Rise

This review was originally published in October 2015, shortly after the film’s U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. High-Rise releases nation-wide today.

I was predisposed to like High-Rise, given my admiration for J.G. Ballard’s fiction and Ben Wheatley’s films. Wheatley is a Fantastic Fest favorite; his previous films Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England all had their US premieres there in previous years, so it’s no surprise that High-Rise was one of the hot tickets for this year’s festival.

Advance word out of TIFF was fairly polarized, and reactions at Fantastic Fest were similarly split. High-Rise is not to all tastes. Overly literal minds will spend too much time wondering why Laing doesn’t just leave the high-rise and go to Tesco instead of doing the notorious thing that he does for food in the opening scene. Some may be slightly disappointed by the fact that it is what they envisioned when they heard “Ben Wheatley is directing an adaptation of High-Rise” and thus lacks some surprise. However, the film largely succeeds—Ben Wheatley and screenwriter/co-editor Amy Jump have created a visually striking, splendidly acted adaptation that accurately captures the sardonic humour and the gimlet observations of human behaviour of Ballard’s novel.

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The Perils of Communal Living: High-Rise

I was predisposed to like High-Rise, given my admiration for J.G. Ballard’s fiction and Ben Wheatley’s films. Wheatley is a Fantastic Fest favorite; his previous films Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England all had their US premieres there in previous years, so it’s no surprise that High-Rise was one of the hot tickets for this year’s festival.

Advance word out of TIFF was fairly polarized, and reactions at Fantastic Fest were similarly split. High-Rise is not to all tastes. Overly literal minds will spend too much time wondering why Laing doesn’t just leave the high-rise and go to Tesco instead of doing the notorious thing that he does for food in the opening scene. Some may be slightly disappointed by the fact that it is what they envisioned when they heard “Ben Wheatley is directing an adaptation of High-Rise” and thus lacks some surprise. However, the film largely succeeds—Ben Wheatley and screenwriter/co-editor Amy Jump have created a visually striking, splendidly acted adaptation that accurately captures the sardonic humour and the gimlet observations of human behaviour of Ballard’s novel.

[Mild spoilers, for those who haven’t read the novel]

Modern Folk Horror: The Witch

If you use the words “horror” and “New England” together in a sentence, most aficionados of the genre will think first of H.P. Lovecraft and the Salem witch trials. You should now include The Witch in that list, a tightly crafted and deeply unsettling film that was a hit at Sundance and Fantastic Fest, and which has a very strong claim to being one of the best horror films of the year.

[Spoiler-free review]

Exuberant Science: April and the Extraordinary World

Knowing what I do about the readership here at Tor.com, I’m guessing that if I say “hey, you really need to check out April and the Extraordinary World, because it’s a delightful animated adventure story about a scrappy young scientist and her talking cat, set in an alternate history steampunk France that feels like a mashup of Jules Verne, J.J. Grandville, and Hayao Miyazaki,” then—

Okay, a bunch of you are probably already gone, trying to figure out where and how and when you can see this lovely film, which just had its US premiere at Fantastic Fest. But just in case you need a little more information…

[Spoiler-free review]

Reinventing Cyberpunk in Mr. Robot

Cyberpunk may have been one of the 1980s’ most quintessential subgenre-movement-phenomena, and it also may have been one of the quickest to descend into self-parody. It was easy to get hung up on the aesthetics—chrome, casual violence, neon reflected in dirty puddles, mirrored sunglasses, neo-Orientalist imagery driven by fears of a economically dominant Japan—while only superficially engaging with the deeper themes of the technology-driven, corporation-dominated near-futures portrayed therein.

Then the Internet age proceeded to co-opt the vocabulary of cyberpunk, much as the world of espionage absorbed the lingo of John le Carré’s fictional spies. Brief resurgences via The Matrix and Snow Crash (which is more satirical than some people realize) notwithstanding, cyberpunk now seems like a quaint retro-future at best, and entirely moribund at worst.

At least it did until Sam Esmail’s television series Mr. Robot came along—and on the USA Network, of all places. In a recent Reddit AMA, Esmail stated that he “wanted to bring cyberpunk to TV,” and he has actually done it—and in the process, reinvented cyberpunk and made it valid again for the twenty-first century.

[Warning: Spoilers for season 1!]

A Farewell to Discworld: Terry Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown

One of the intractable problems of getting older is that you will inevitably watch your heroes die. For a reader, there comes the day when the pleasure of opening a new book by a beloved author is tempered by the knowledge that this is the last new one you will ever read.

With The Shepherd’s Crown, that time has come for the readers of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books—and the characters of the Discworld must also bid farewell to one of their most enduring citizens.

[Minor spoilers ahead.]

“Working in a Cupboard” — An Interview with Comic Artist Tula Lotay

It might have seemed to some readers that Tula Lotay burst onto the comics scene from nowhere with her gorgeous art for the Warren Ellis-penned Supreme: Blue Rose, but she had already contributed work to such diverse titles as American VampireThe Witching Hour, and Red Sonja—and, not incidentally, had founded the Thought Bubble comics festival, now one of the UK’s top comics conventions. I met with her after negotiating the terrifying badge line at San Diego Comic-Con on Wednesday, and talked with her about her work with Warren Ellis, her process, and the ways in which the internet has been—believe it or not—good for women in comics.

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Using Robots as a Metaphor: An Interview with Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen

Combining elements of space opera and the Pinocchio-like adventures of an innocent robot boy, Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender has been one of the big hits of the year in comics; before the first issue was released, Sony announced that it had secured the rights to develop a Descender film. Amidst the bustle of the convention floor at SDCC, I sat down with writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dustin Nguyen to talk about the place of artificial intelligence stories in the current zeitgeist, their collaborative process, and where Tim-21, his faithful robot dog, and homicidal friend and protector Driller would be going next.

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“What if Harry Potter Were a Reader?” — SDCC Spotlight on Lev Grossman

For his Sunday morning spotlight at San Diego Comic-Con, Lev Grossman gave a talk about how he developed The Magicians, took audience questions, and also brought up Sera Gamble and John McNamara, co-creators of the forthcoming TV adaptation. And not only did we get a look at the extended trailer—we also got to see a clip from the show.

[Do the goddamn magic!]