Tor.com content by

Joe George

Five Lessons from the Star Trek Mirror Universe That We Need Now More Than Ever

Some days, it feels like we’re living in an alternate reality. It’s like we’ve slipped through some mysterious portal and ended up in a world where powerful governments fumble pandemic responses. A world where demagogues make moral arguments that place profits over people. A world more cruel than the one we thought we knew.

Alternate realities have always been constant in genre storytelling, from Thomas More’s Utopia to the DC Universe’s Earth 3. These stories let us examine our fundamental beliefs in a new and unfamiliar context, to test the character of our heroes in radically different situations. For that reason, the Mirror Universe of the Star Trek franchise remains one of the most compelling alternate reality conceits.

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Six Perfect Episodes of MST3K to Help You Really Just Relax

Imagine this: a person stuck inside, all alone with nothing to do but watch movies (while occasionally receiving confusing and misleading reports from the people who are ostensibly in charge). That might seem to describe most people in the world right now, but it’s actually about the future. The not-too-distant future, in fact…

It is, of course, the premise of the cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show in which robots Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot join a human host to make fun of terrible movies. Inspired by the 1972 Douglass Trumbull film Silent Running, series creator and original host Joel Hodgson created a joyful, scrappy celebration of humor and comedy in the face of loneliness and powerlessness. Even as the series changed channels, casts, and hosts over the years, that basic hopeful message remained consistent: Even in the direst situations, you can try to keep your sanity with the help of your (synthetic, if necessary) friends.

For that reason, MST3K is the ideal comfort watch for times such as these, when we’re all scared, stuck, and alone, together.

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Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This Updates the Themes of Carrie for a New Generation

The new Netflix series I Am Not Okay With This is more than okay with revealing, even reveling in, its influences. The story of misfit Sydney (Sophia Lillis of It and Gretel & Hansel) navigating the high school social order carries the DNA of John Hughes films of the 1980s, complete with a detention episode reminiscent of The Breakfast Club. On the other hand, Sydney’s telekinetic superpowers bring to mind decades of X-Men comic books and, in one explosive sequence, the David Cronenberg classic Scanners.

But I Am Not Okay With This acknowledges its most important cinematic influence with its opening image, a climactic moment from which the series flashes back and builds toward over its eight-episode season: Sydney walking away from a disastrous high school dance, her dress covered in blood.

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Looking for a Romantic Horror Movie to Watch This Valentine’s Day? Try Spring

For most horror movie fans, the 1981 Canadian flick My Bloody Valentine is the obvious choice for required viewing on February 14th. The movie offers everything the holiday demands: kissing, lots of pink hearts, and a killer in mining gear. My Bloody Valentine holds particular appeal to those who aren’t into the whole lovey-dovey thing: After all, what better way to undermine grandiose romantic claims than the sight of actual bloody hearts in decorative boxes?

But what if I told you there was a better option for horror fans who might not be sold on the idea of romance? A movie that climaxes with a man and a woman ending their spontaneous week-long affair trying to decide if it will continue for the rest of their lives?

[Okay, I know that sounds more like the end of a romantic drama than it does a horror film, BUT]

Oddballs vs. Graboids: Celebrating 30 Years of Tremors

When it comes to creature features—the horror subgenre built around monstrous beasts and the spectacular havoc they tend to wreak—two decades stand out. The atomic anxiety of the 1950s gave birth to classics such as Godzilla, as well as generating future Mystery Science Theater 3000 fare like The Crawling Eye. Then, as the conservative revival of the 1980s took hold in the U.S., filmmakers critiqued the movement and resulting cultural shifts via darker, more cynical features such as David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing. 

Although praised less rarely, the 1990s also saw its fair share of films that share significant DNA with classic creature features, from Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park to the Renny Harlin schlock favorite Deep Blue Sea. Unlike their predecessors, however, these movies were often upbeat and fun, escapist films that celebrated the strangeness of the monster instead of the vileness of humanity. In these movies, man is rarely the true monster. 

No movie signaled this change in approach better than Tremors, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. With its impressive practical monster effects and cast of small-town oddballs, Tremors changed the direction of creature features to something wackier and more fun, but no less interesting.

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Unwrapping the Yuletide Dystopia of Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 comedy Brazil may take place in a dystopian country “[s]omewhere in the 20th century,” but it fully develops that setting in its first five minutes. 

In the opening scenes, the camera pulls back from a tube television playing a commercial for designer ductwork to reveal a whole storefront display of TVs. As the commercial gives way to a chat show interview with Eugene Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), a high-ranking official in the Gestapo-like Ministry of Information, a bomb explodes, destroying the display and incinerating a passing shopper. As a match cut transitions us from the one television that survived the carnage to a TV set playing inside the concrete office of a nervous executive, we watch Helpmann answer a question about recent terrorist attacks. In contrast to the destruction we just witnessed, Helpmann speaks in warm paternalistic tones, dismissing the terrorists as “poor sports” while promising to further violate civil liberties in pursuit of security. Helpmann brings this fascistic nightmare to a conclusion with a comforting smile to the audience, wishing viewers “a very Merry Christmas to you all.”

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10 Horror Classics You Can Stream This Halloween

When the Twitter feed for Disney+ published a thread listing every title subscribers could find on the new service, some pop culture fans cheered. But even as commenters celebrated the chance to revisit pre-’70s family films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, others noted the absence of early films in other genres, especially from Disney’s newly acquired 20th Century Fox back-catalog.

On one hand, this lack shouldn’t be a surprise. Disney+ bills itself as a family service, and there are plenty of other outlets where one can find and stream movies. On the other hand, a number of critics have found that these services tend to overwhelmingly favor recent cinema over the old. Sure, Netflix still carries gems like the Kino Lorber collections of films directed by women and African Americans, and you can rent foundational works like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or The Wizard of Oz through Amazon. But these exceptions prove the rule that subscription services tend to primarily carry movies from the past thirty years.

As a result, the public has fewer opportunities to explore and learn about the history of cinema. Fewer and fewer modern viewers will get the chance to wrestle with films that built the foundations of the movies they love, or come to understand filmic language that predates the modern blockbuster era, let alone the New Hollywood revolution of the ’70s. In short, restricted access to first 70 years of movies makes us all a little less literate in what has become the dominant storytelling medium.

That’s particularly troubling in October, when audiences tend to make a point of not only watching horror movies, but of expanding their horizons in search of new thrills, tales of suspense, and haunting visuals. Now more than ever, movie fans want to watch important films in the genre or discover surprising works they’ve never heard about. But as subscription-based streaming services continue to overtake rental stores, indie and arthouse theaters, and cable, it becomes harder and harder for an enterprising viewer to broaden their tastes.

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20 Years Later, the Message of The Iron Giant Is More Urgent Than Ever

With its opening shot of Sputnik in orbit and its milieu of Red Scare paranoia, fallout drills, and cool beatniks antagonizing shady government agents, The Iron Giant was a throwback when it premiered in August of 1999.

All of the rich flavoring director Brad Bird (working off a screenplay he co-wrote with Tim McCanlies) peppers into his debut feature comes directly from the earliest days of his childhood and those of his original audience’s parents. But while the film may reach backwards to 1957, it has gradually become one of the most important superhero movies of the modern era.

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Annabelle Comes Home Could Be the Avengers: Endgame of Horror

Even aside from its massive box office draw, Avengers: Endgame was more than a movie. It was a bonafide social phenomenon, with people from all walks of life coming together to share in the stories of their favorite characters.

To a certain extent, this anticipation makes sense. Superheroes have been crowdpleasers for nearly a century now, and Captain America, Iron Man, and other heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been building a following almost as long. Furthermore, Endgame and its predecessors enjoy both consistently competent (if sometimes unremarkable) filmmaking and the full marketing machine of Disney, one of the world’s most powerful corporations.

But as demonstrated by the failure of Universal’s Dark Universe and Warner Bros. so-called DCEU, no one does shared universes like Marvel. Well, Marvel and The Conjuring. Sprung from the 2013 meat-and-potatoes horror film directed by James Wan, The Conjuring Universe has blossomed into an interconnected story across seven films and counting, pitting Catholic heroes against demonic forces.

With the most recent entry Annabelle Comes Home pulling together each of those parts, we might have something like the Endgame phenomenon in a darker, scarier hue.

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“Not My Batman” Is No Way to Go Through Life

As a superhero-obsessed eleven-year-old, I had a head start on the Batmania that swept the country when director Tim Burton’s Batman hit theaters in June of 1989, almost 30 years ago. I already read the junior novelization, I bought the Toy Biz action figures, and I wore way too much tie-in clothing (including a pair of boxer shorts my dad dubbed “Buttmans”).

To me, Batmania was a naturally occurring phenomenon. After all, Batman was the best: of course everyone wants to see him in a movie! And although I had read enough fan letters and newspaper editorials to know that some people were dubious about Michael Keaton in the title role, Beetlejuice was the greatest movie ten-year-old me had ever seen, so why shouldn’t he be the star?

Because first-run movies were too expensive for my family, I didn’t see Batman until it was released on VHS in November. Clad in Batman footie pajamas and swinging my toy crusader by his plastic retractable utility belt, I shrieked with glee when my hero dangled a crook off a ledge and growled, “I’m Batman.” It was exactly what I imagined when I read the comics, exactly what I saw when I animated the panels in my mind, and now everyone else could see it, too.

But after that opening bit, Batman mostly disappears… and instead, the movie focuses on reporters and gangsters and their girlfriends?And it’s kinda more about the Joker? And when Batman does show up, he kills a bunch of people in an explosion? And his muscles aren’t even real?

[This was not my Batman.]

Where the Fiction of Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler Meets Jordan Peele’s Us

One of the unexpected pleasures of Jordan Peele’s Us has been tracing its various influences and allusions. In the weeks since its release, culture writers have been going nuts pointing out the movie’s overt references and placing it within genre traditions.

But as useful as these discussions have been, they’ve largely focused on movies. Of course, that makes sense—Us is a movie, and its main point of reference is other movies.

However, Us is not the first piece of science fiction to address troubling issues of community and inequality through fantastic ideas and imagery—not by a long shot. Two of the most accessible pieces working on this theme are the short stories “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler. While readers of sites like Tor.com are likely to be quite familiar with both of these authors, the film is such a rich, overdetermined amalgamation of ideas, purposeful echoes, and pop cultural references that it encourages excavation—so let’s take a look at both stories, and the points where they connect with or reflect the film. While Peele may not have had these specific stories in mind while writing and filming Us, it’s clear that all three works share some thematic DNA, and that the ideas and anxieties expressed in each overlap to a significant degree.

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Attack the Block Helped Set the Course for the Last Decade of SciFi Films

When I recently took my seven-year-old daughter to see The Kid Who Would Be King, I did so out of parental obligation, not out of personal interest. Much to my surprise, I was rewarded with an exceptionally well-crafted adventure film—one with a winning and diverse cast, exciting setpieces, and entertaining supporting performances by Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Ferguson. None of this would of been a surprise to me, however, had the trailers touted the fact that the movie was directed by Joe Cornish.

Then again, I shouldn’t be too surprised. With only one directing credit to his name, and a few co-writing credits alongside Edgar Wright on The Adventures of Tin-Tin and Ant-Man, Cornish is hardly a household name, especially since his directorial debut came out in 2011. But, oh, what a debut it was…

Like The Kid Who Would Be King, Attack the Block could be mistaken for standard genre fare at first glance. The story of a group of London teens fending off an alien invasion, the movie raises questions about what makes a community and what (or who) we call a monster.

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The Self-Mocking, Self-Destructive Masculinity of the Predator Franchise

Even if you’ve never seen the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action classic Predator, you’ve probably seen this scene: A musclebound Arnold grins slyly as he saunters toward an equally brawny Carl Weathers. The two men clasp their hands together in the center of the room, creating a thunderous clap that resounds even as director John McTiernan holds his camera on their rippling, bulging biceps.

It’s a very manly moment from a very manly movie, the first of three (and soon to be four) entries in a very manly franchise. Even when Arnold and Weathers cede the series to actors not known for their massive physiques (Danny Glover in 1990’s Predator 2 and Adrien Brody in 2010’s Predators), and even when women get to play a more active role (Maria Conchita Alonso as a tough cop in Predator 2, Alice Braga as an Israeli sniper in Predators), these movies remain fixated on a specific type of exaggerated masculinity. And that sort of makes sense, as the series is about alien hunters who test their might against Earth’s greatest warriors.

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The Philosophy of Self-Destruction in Alex Garland’s Annihilation

28 Days Later was the first movie that had me stumbling out of the theater in a mind-fried daze. Back in 2002, I knew director Danny Boyle from Trainspotting and The Beach, both movies with some troubling themes, but I went in expecting nothing more than a fun zombie romp (this was, after all, long before zombies had infected every part of popular culture). But the movie sold the “humans are the real monsters” trope in a way I had never before seen. By the time Jim (Cillian Murphy) nearly attacks Selena (Naomi Harris) in his bloody rage, I no longer knew what to believe or expect. My friend and I were so shocked by what we’d just experienced that we drove 20 minutes in the wrong direction before realizing our error.

16 years later, I left Annihilation in a similar state. Working here as both writer and director, 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland uses sci-fi tropes to raise questions about identity and existence, with a level of urgency found only classics such as Solaris, Stalker, and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

(Spoilers ahead.)

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Returning to Twin Peaks: The Return One Year Later

“We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream. But who is the dreamer?”

Few lines from Twin Peaks encapsulate the cult television series better than these, spoken by actress Monica Bellucci, playing herself inside another character’s dream. The declaration doesn’t just serve as a thesis statement for the famously surreal director David Lynch, who co-created the series with veteran TV writer Mark Frost; it also reminds the viewer that Twin Peaks operates according to a dream logic, rarely cohering into an objectively clear narrative. Interpreting the series means acknowledging incongruities and accepting that our readings are deeply personal, and even the most brilliant connections and explanations are likely to be undercut by other aspects of the show. That slippery, open-ended quality is the very essence of Twin Peaks, and nowhere is that clearer than in the third season, set 25 years after the events of the original show. [“I’ll see you again in 25 years. Meanwhile…”]

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