Monday, March 17, 2008

science fiction double feature

While Katy's out of town, I've been using my newfound extreme boredom to catch up on some recently old sci fi.

For one, I watched Primer. Before I move on, I want to note that this is a very good movie. This may be some of the best cinematography and acting I've seen in a $7,000 film, regardless of genre. That being said, I have two criticisms. For one, the film struck me as being kind of reactionary in it's intent: to create a science fiction movie that did not dumb down to it's viewers, that contained zero special effects, and that made no attempt to explain either plot machinations or the (tenuous) mathematics and physics it exploited. Which gave the whole thing a kind of angry, "let them have it" cast. I'd much rather the director use a few recognizable film tropes to meet the viewer halfway, than feel like I was being corrected in some way.

The other, more important thing I was bothered by has to do with the praise heaped on the film due to it's complexity. And it is a complex movie-- at least 7 different simultaneous timelines, with an equal number of "versions" of the main characters, made it nearly impossible to untangle. It is a movie that will only get better with subsequent viewings, although I admit I chickened out and read up on the plot after the fact.

However, the people who made this film made the conscious decision to prioritize complexity of plot over complexity of character, at nearly every point. Most of the depth was in the machinations of where and when, not in showing the (considerable) change in each character, as flaws are revealed and conflict blooms. Which made it a lot closer to a few episodes of 24 than to Memento, which manages an equal concentration on both. Which, to me, seems like a waste. This sort of concentration on surface complexity is an annoyance that seems endemic to the genre, handed down from almost every forebear from Philip Dick to H.G. Wells. It's usually easy to overlook because there is little character development to really show in a lot of SF, but here there was clearly plenty going on, a fact that was highlighted by the sparse sets and near-constant facial close-ups. The total lack of any continuity between scenes made the slow dawning of each character's growth difficult to parse. Still, if you haven't seen it, do.

I also ran to the library and grabbed the latest William Gibson reference, Spook Country, which ended up pretty solid, if nowhere near as great as Idoru, or even Pattern Recognition. Gibson's done a pretty great job of transitioning from cyberpunk prophet to contemporary commentator, while still keeping things entertaining. A lot of this is due to the fact that he writes very similar sentences to Raymond Chandler, able to make a bit of interior decoration or landscape have as much backstory as the people inhabiting it. I do wish he'd remember that Chandler wrote some pretty goofy shit into his books as well, though-- too often in this book the characters were going about their actions so soberly that it seemed like everyone was on Paxil. Maybe less stepping back, less awareness would do some good.

But credit where it's due: Gibson is still the best male SF writer at writing women naturally, the best SF writer at weaving in cultural references (and inventing new ones) without seeming awkward, and the best SF writer at doing what I thought lacked above-- not only giving the internal some presence in the book, but tying it into the surface of the plot in an important way. He is still writing the books that, from his nonfiction statements, one wishes Bruce Sterling would write. That being sad, Billy, I did cringe when you tried to justify your earlier technological missteps by bringing back VR helmets for some tacked-on scenes. Weak. Don't let it happen again.

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