Some masterpieces of cinema are simply doomed at the box office and destined to be savaged by critics. Very often the culprit is bad timing, or a weak marketing effort, or internal disputes at the studio. All three of those played a role in the brutal reception that greeted John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which is today recognized as one of the most effective, shocking, and suspenseful horror movies of all time.
Fiction and Excerpts 
According to the late film critic Roger Ebert, cinema is one of the most effective venues for bringing people from different backgrounds together. “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” he once said:
If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.
Ebert described himself as a humanist, and his idea of film as an “empathy machine” fits perfectly with some of the best works of science fiction. Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction is connected with humanism, which we can define as an ethical stance that emphasizes the rights, responsibilities, and ultimate value of people within a naturalistic framework—that is, a framework that does not rely on supernatural beliefs. Thus, a humanist film, if one could call it that, would depict people helping each other, or forging their own destiny, mainly through reason and compassion. Humanist stories also emphasize the preciousness of sentient life, on the assumption that it is the only one we have—though some films, as we’ll see, have depicted a satirical or otherwise secularized version of the afterlife.
After nearly forty years, I still maintain that the greatest moment in the history of television took place on February 6, 1980. That day, in episode #1468 of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers famously visited the set of The Incredible Hulk, devoting nearly an entire episode to the artistry, the science, and the people who made the show come to life. Even in our age of pop culture crossovers, I wonder if anything could top Mister Rogers sitting with a shirtless Lou Ferrigno while he puts on his green makeup, asking, “What do you do when you get angry?”
Like many members of my generation, I looked up to Mister Rogers as if he were an extra parent. 2018 marks a half century since his show debuted, and numerous retrospectives, documentaries, and even a quasi-biopic starring Tom Hanks will celebrate his achievements in the coming months. Moments such as his appearance on Hulk remind me that Fred Rogers’ exploration of “make-believe” not only helped children to grow up, but also cultivated a love of storytelling, planting the seeds for creativity and experimentation. Every week, Mister Rogers challenged his viewers to ask questions, to build their empathy, and to be unafraid of failure.
Creating a fictional religion is one of the most difficult feats in literature. A religion that feels real requires a sense of place, a set of rituals and terms, and a shared history in which fact, legend, and politics meld together. In other words, it requires the elements of worldbuilding that make fiction—especially science fiction and fantasy—so difficult. Writers who venture into this territory run the risk of romanticizing religion or demonizing it; of oversimplifying religion or making it so nebulous that it loses meaning for both the characters and the reader. Successful examples include the Bene Gesserit of Dune, as well as the Earthseed faith from Parable of the Sower, an idea so potent that it has even inspired real life imitation.
The 21st century has given writers a new urgency in engaging and reimagining religion. The reasons are so ubiquitous that a list quickly becomes unwieldy: 9/11, the continued rise of the religious right, the war on science (specifically evolution and climate change), sex scandals, financial scandals, and the collision of mainstream religious institutions and various social justice movements. Looming in the background is an unprecedented demographic shift, evidenced in virtually every survey on the topic, in which an increasing number of people simply walk away from traditional religion. One thing that both the fiercest atheist and the most pious apologist can agree on is this: the traditional sources of religious authority have been badly compromised, in some cases eroded to almost nothing, leading many people to seek what could be called spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.
The phrase “80s action movie” elicits images of a musclebound Übermensch dispatching dozens of faceless enemies, all while his girlfriend/wife/daughter waits helplessly for rescue. For those who grew up with this particular genre, looking back can be tricky. On the one hand, these films provided a kind of giddy, addictive fun. At the same time, they illustrate so many things that were wrong with the era of Reagan and the Cold War—perhaps not as much as the slasher genre, but close. Their single-minded violence, lack of nuance, frequent demonization of foreigners, and almost childish misogyny cannot be shrugged away, no matter how much we love them.
Of all of these films, John Badham’s 1983 tech thriller Blue Thunder has perhaps the most complicated legacy. Unlike many other movies from the genre, Blue Thunder has a decidedly subversive message—a warning of what happens when the government, specifically the police, uses advanced technology to override the rule of law. Rather than celebrating the vigilantism and “get tough on crime” rhetoric of the era, Badham’s work actively challenges such thinking. And yet somehow, that concept became muddled in the years that followed, as a series of movies and television shows mimicked Blue Thunder while projecting the exact opposite message.
There comes a moment in the fifth season of Game of Thrones (and I believe the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire) when Lord Varys, of all people, possibly reveals what the entire series is all about. In pleading with Tyrion Lannister to hold on to hope at the lowest point of his life, Varys asks him to imagine a world in which the strong do not prey on the weak, and where the neverending political intrigue and blood feuds are left behind. This being the shifty Varys, such lofty words are best taken with a grain of salt. Still, his suggestion makes one wonder: Is A Song of Ice and Fire ultimately the story of a long, bloody transition from a feudal, monarchical system to some kind of proto-democracy, in which all castes have a voice, and the nobles and the various religions must yield to the rule of law? In other words, can the game of thrones finally end, replaced by a civilization that actually works?
This leads to another question, a far simpler one: Why is Westeros so hopelessly f*cked up in the first place? We are told that recorded history goes back over 10,000 years, much longer than our own, and yet we find so little in the way of progress, innovation, new theories, or new philosophies. It’s a wonder Varys even considers an alternative to the status quo. What gives?
The process of evolution can provide some jarring examples of what animals must do in order to survive. Predation, warfare, cannibalism, kidnapping, fratricide—all of these things can be considered normal in nature. Learning about them for the first time can be shocking, even depressing, especially when we consider the implications for our own species. And yet, the meat grinder of natural selection has also encouraged some altruistic traits, such as loyalty, empathy, sacrifice, and even love. One animal in particular that encompasses these gentler qualities is the astonishing, resilient, clever American beaver, an animal that has some surprising things to tell us about kinship and survival in the face of upheaval and extinction.
For better or worse, Arnold Schwarzenegger occupies a prominent place in the science fiction and fantasy of the late 20th and early 21st century. Years from now, scholars of film will no doubt wonder how it happened: a muscleman from Austria with a thick accent and dubious acting chops somehow enjoyed an incredible run of blockbusters from the early 1980s to the late-1990s. Action stars of the past—like Steve McQueen or John Wayne—were generally respected as actors as well, with both being recognized by the Academy. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, crafted himself into something entirely different, a pop cultural oddity combining athletics, politics, and (intentionally or not) comedy. While there are no Oscar nominations on the horizon for Arnold, virtually everything he says becomes a quotable line. And, improbably, he has successfully cashed in on the nostalgia craze of our time, making movies that relive his glory days.
The Expendables franchise notwithstanding, Arnold has not headlined a blockbuster since Batman and Robin (1997), and that disaster of a film proved to be a harbinger of a long decline. I’m therefore writing this for those people who remain mostly unfamiliar with his work. Especially those who have an annoying friend—let’s call him Robert—who constantly, incessantly quotes Arnold’s most memorable one-liners. Such people may wonder: where do I begin with the massive Schwarzenegger archive? Consider this a brief guide.
In the aftermath of the War With No Name, the Colony has been defeated, its queen lies dead, and the world left behind will never be the same. In her madness, the queen used a strange technology to uplift the surface animals, turning dogs and cats, bats and bears, pigs and wolves into intelligent, highly evolved creatures who rise up and kill their oppressors. And now, after years of bloodshed, these sentient beasts must learn to live alongside their sworn enemies—humans.
Far removed from this newly emerging civilization, a housecat turned war hero named Mort(e) lives a quiet life with the love he thought he had lost, a dog named Sheba. But before long, the chaos that they escaped comes crashing in around them. An unstoppable monster terrorizes a nearby settlement of beavers. A serial killer runs amok in the holy city of Hosanna. An apocalyptic cult threatens the fragile peace. And a mysterious race of amphibious creatures rises from the seas, intent on fulfilling the Colony’s destiny and ridding the world of all humans. No longer able to run away, Sheba and Mort(e) rush headlong into the conflict, ready to fight but unprepared for a world that seems hell-bent on tearing them apart. In the twilight of all life on Earth, love survives, but at a cost that only the desperate and the reckless are willing to pay.
Robert Repino’s D’Arc is book three in the War With No Name series, available May 9th from Soho Press.
Please enjoy this encore post on the wonders of Queen, originally published on April 19, 2016.
No band is more intimately connected with the world of science fiction and fantasy than the legendary Queen. From their prog experiments of the ’70s to their power rock of the ’80s, the band provided the escapist soundtrack to a number of films—some of which would barely be remembered at all were it not for the music. I like to think that there is something deeper at work here, but I’ll settle for saying that Queen had a knack for producing catchy earworms that seemed to fit with almost any movie.
Please bear with me here: much of this article will be spent gushing over my love for Queen, and for the movies that have utilized the band’s iconic sound. You’ve been warned.
The early 1990s brought us two high-concept comedies that boldly challenged our traditional notions of the meaning of life. The first would be the classic Groundhog Day (1993), a peak Bill Murray film in which a man relives the same miserable day again and again for what could be centuries for all we know (though the filmmakers later claimed it was merely a decade). Smuggled in between Murray’s snarky comments is a surprising message of hope and resilience that becomes downright moving when you think about it. When faced with an endless expanse of meaningless repetition, our jaded hero at first indulges in carnal pleasures, then descends into a suicidal despair when it all grows boring. Eventually, he learns to wrestle meaning from his endless winter, not through some profound mystical epiphany, but through the everyday experiences of love, kindness, delight, learning, and the never-ending challenge of becoming a better person.
A similar film that demands multiple viewings is the brilliant Defending Your Life (1991), a satire written by, directed by, and starring Albert Brooks. Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a neurotic, materialistic, recently divorced ad man who, in a moment of truly dark humor, drives his brand-new BMW into an oncoming bus. He wakes up in Judgment City, a way station in the afterlife where the newly dead must prove that they are worthy to move on to a higher plane of existence—not heaven exactly, but a place where they will continue to grow and explore, free from the limitations of life on Earth.
The trope of the everyman—the “ordinary,” relatable, sometimes boring character dropped into unusual circumstances—will always have a place in the world of science fiction and fantasy. Many stories simply cannot function without one, especially those involving a collision of the fantastic with the mundane.
Some obvious examples would be Chief Brody in Jaws (1975), trailer park resident Alex Rogan in The Last Starfighter (1984), and damn near every protagonist, man or woman, in a Stephen King novel. A more obscure example that remains close to my heart is Danny Glover’s character in Predator 2 (1990). Rather than following up the first film with yet another implausible muscle-bound Übermensch, the sequel features a middle-aged guy huffing and puffing through various chase scenes, looking like he’s too old for this shit (sorry, couldn’t resist).
The war with no name rages on, setting the world on fire. Humanity faces extinction at the hands of the Colony, a race of intelligent ants seeking to overthrow the humans and establish a new order.
The bobcat Culdesac is among the fiercest warriors fighting for the Colony. Driven by revenge and notorious for his ability to hunt humans in the wild, Culdesac is the perfect leader of the Red Sphinx, an elite unit of feline assassins. With the humans in retreat, the Red Sphinx seizes control of the remote village of Milton. But holding the town soon becomes a bitter struggle of wills. As the humans threaten a massive counterattack, the townsfolk protect a dark secret that could tip the balance of the war. For the brutal Culdesac, violence is the answer to everything. But this time, he’ll need more than his claws and his guns, for what he discovers in Milton will upend everything he believes, everything he fought for, and everything he left behind.
Relentless, bloody, and unforgiving, Robert Repino’s Culdesac—the sequel to Morte—is the story of an antihero with no soul to lose, carving a path of destruction that consumes the innocent and the guilty alike. Available November 15th from Soho Press.
All storytelling is political in some way, conveying the biases, desires, and fears of the storyteller. But then there are stories with a direct political or social message, not so much woven into the narrative, but spoken outright. When this is done effectively, it can make people rethink the way they look at the world—but when it fails, it can be painful to sit through.
There was a time when made-for-TV movies and miniseries provided a vehicle for heavy-handed, message-driven storytelling. TV movies have always been the minor league of filmmaking, especially those classified as science fiction or fantasy. Almost all of them had laughable effects budgets, with bloated narratives meant to keep viewers watching until the next commercial break. For me, two films in particular stand out, both revealing some of the dos and don’ts of inserting a Big Message into a story. The first may have literally saved the world (for real). The second is largely forgotten—which is a damn shame, given how important its message is.
The ’80s sci-fi comedy, a sub-sub genre that defined my childhood (for better or worse) with films like Back to the Future and Real Genius, is alive and well in 2016. So far this year, we’ve seen the Ghostbusters reboot, as well as the more comical elements of Stranger Things (which includes an obligatory makeover montage!). Meanwhile, another edition of Guardians of the Galaxy is on the way, a follow-up to a film that dialed the nostalgia up to eleven.
No doubt the genre, in its earliest days, cashed in on the success of the Star Wars movies, combining new special effects with the increasingly raunchy humor of teen comedies. The Reagan years provided a useful foil for the subversive, underdog heroes, with government agents and evil corporations often cast as the villains—though I suppose the original Ghostbusters compromised slightly on this theme by making the bad guy a representative of the EPA. At the same time, the genre brought out some of the worst tendencies of the era. Weird Science, a film in which two horny losers build the “perfect” woman, is even more troubling than you remember. Monster Squad has not aged well, either, thanks in part to its use of a certain epithet common in the ’80s but mercifully going out of style today. And let’s agree not to talk about Howard the Duck.
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