Walling Off Aliens
I SAW “THE GREAT WALL” ON A LARGE screen in 3D, and am happy to report that I have lost my disdain of 3D. It would seem that they are finally getting 3D right, or at least they did with this film. If you plan to see “The Great Wall,” I recommend viewing it on the largest screen you can, and also paying the extra couple of bucks to see it in 3D. Films like “The Great Wall” make a convincing argument for going to a theater rather than viewing on even a good home video system.
“The Great Wall” is a gorgeous movie—a masterful moving painting. The mediocre script and acting are overshadowed by the sheer spectacle of the beautiful cinematography. Yes, Willem Dafoe’s considerable acting talent is wasted, and the Chinese actors are pretty much interchangeable. Matt Damon wears the same scowl throughout the film, and the comedy relief provided by his Spanish sidekick often falls flat. Yes, the dialog sounds like poorly translated English dubbing from a Kung-Fu flick.
The music for the film was composed by Ramin Djawadi, the composer who scored the memorable music for the “Westworld” TV series. I was so taken with the compelling visual spectacle of the film that I didn’t even notice the score.
Overall, I was able to ignore the negatives because I was swept away by how pretty “The Great Wall” is. This was a more enjoyable filmgoing experience than is provided by the endless parade of comic-book super-heroes and inevitable prequels/sequels, because of the cinematic mastery evinced by director Zhang Yimou. The stylistic differences between this film and the typical American blockbuster made this film a compelling viewing experience.
If China manages to wed this technical prowess with better scripts, they’ll give American filmmakers a run for their money. Speaking of money, this is the most expensive film ever made in China, with a budget of $150 million. Here in America, you have to have a budget of more than $200 million to be considered truly expensive. However, this film looked better than many domestic $200+ million productions.
Zhang Yimou is China’s most important living director, and it shows. Besides his many lauded films, he directed the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics and both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He knows how to choreograph large numbers of people and in this case, CGI monsters. He is famous for his use of color. This comes into play with the color-coded massed troops and the final scenes when the leads are in a psychedelic glass tower.
The film is billed as a Chinese and American co-production, but it’s really a Chinese film that was shot in English. If one imagines the difficulties an American director would face if they shot a film in Chinese, one can be forgiving of this film’s shortcomings. Clearly it was made with an eye towards an international audience. Nowadays, when a movie is made here in the U.S., there is consideration given to how well it will play in the world’s largest market: the Chinese audience. Chinese box-office can be the difference between a film that barely breaks even and a film that truly brings home the bacon.
With “The Great Wall,” China takes a page from the American playbook—it’s a film made in China with an eye towards a Western audience. Clearly, also for China, there’s more at stake here than money. China realizes that massive cultural productions like “The Great Wall” are important in terms of winning hearts and minds in the ongoing global struggle between East and West. “The Great Wall” can be seen as another salvo in the cultural contest between the planet’s two most important states.
This cultural dichotomy is the subtext of the film. The Westerners are in China to make a profit for themselves as individuals. William (Matt Damon) owes no allegiance to any country. As a mercenary for hire, he’s fought for many different European nations, sometimes even switching sides. This is in contrast to the Chinese, who fight not as individuals but as a unified nation in choreographed color-coded masses, uncomplainingly subsuming the individual to the group. The “Taoties”—the reptilian monsters that the Chinese built the Great Wall to defend themselves against—come once every generation to punish the Chinese for being greedy.
The sheer scale of The Great Wall as an engineering project, the fact that the Westerners are there to steal advanced Chinese technology (black powder), and the highly trained and disciplined masses of Chinese warriors attest to China’s might and superiority. However, this message of heroic sacrifice of the individual for the group is somewhat undercut by the Taoties themselves, who also fight en masse for their Queen, like so many ants. The fight between the monsters and the Chinese can be seen as a fight between two insect colonies, with the Chinese simply being more colorful and better choreographed than the reptilian monsters.
What’s more interesting than the plot of “The Great Wall” and its undeniable cinematic artistry is the way it illustrates the complex relationship between American capital, Chinese companies, and the Chinese government. The film was produced by Legendary Pictures, which was incorporated in 2000 after its founder Thomas Hull raised half a billion dollars from Wall Street private equity firms, in one of the first deals to pair major motion pictures with major Wall Street financing. In January of last year, Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group bought Legendary for $3.5 billion in the largest acquisition ever of an American media company by a Chinese firm. Subsequently Thomas Hull left the company. According to Wikipedia, “Wanda Group has good relationships with the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China.”
When “The Great Wall” premiered in China, a Chinese film review website gave the film a 5.4 rating out of 10. Subsequently, the Communist Party's official media outlet, “People’s Daily,” criticized the low rating, and the rating was removed from the Internet.
One might ask why the Chinese paid $3.5 billion for an American production company, when they’re not novices to big-budget filmmaking. It suggests that the purchase of Legendary enabled a Chinese film to open wide in theaters throughout the U.S., something that Chinese films rarely do. “The Great Wall” takes Chinese motion pictures to a new level in terms of accessibility for an American audience. What remains to be seen is whether this film is the first in a coming wave of Chinese films made for Western audiences, or if this turns out to be a one-off. In this respect, the film is actually more interesting as an international cultural artifact than as a good film.
When the Chinese built The Great Wall, did they make the monsters pay for it? When the film was on the drawing board, it’s a safe bet that the studios didn’t foresee the political overtones about a border wall built to keep out hordes of alien monsters intent on eating the populace. This is one of those unplanned synchronicities that unwitting capture the zeitgeist. (“The Great Wall,” directed by Zhang Yimou, Legendary Pictures) —Joshua Berlow
Made in Our Image
SLAVERY IS NOT OK. HOW ABOUT a life-sized doll that walks, talks, does our dirty work, looks and acts human? A plastic-electronic person, not knit in the womb by nature, rather synthesized in a factory—an “it,” not him or her—a tool, at our disposal. It talks, but it doesn’t talk back, the way our offspring do.
I’d buy it.
Then again, AMC’s original series, “Humans,” Season 1, makes us think twice about the assorted human/synth interaction issues that are fast coming our way.
Good science fiction television is hard to find, and no one else in my family will watch anything “sci-fi” no matter how good it is. However, my husband and daughter watched the entire first season of “Humans” in just a few nights. There is no stronger endorsement than that. A new Blu-ray arrived in the mail, I called it a U.K. drama, and they fell for it—no UFOs, aliens, intergalactic battle stars, or laser-wielding geeks in zoot suits to give it away. Ha! Now they’re champing at the bit for Season 2. And arguing the merits of having a synth-doll in the house, or not.
(Ahem. I’ll take one.)
How do we define what it means to be human? Science fiction writers have hammered this concept skin-thin, with knock-offs and imitations of Phillip K. Dick novels and “Blade Runner” movies. With this TV series, however, Aesop’s “familiarity breeds contempt” does not apply. The premise is familiar, but the execution is fresh. A stellar cast makes “Humans” compelling and engaging, with actors from a variety of classic, award-winning TV shows and movies (“The Imitation Game,” “Flyboys,” “Game of Thrones,” “Merlin,” “Live Another Day,” and more.)
The premise: in the near future, science has enabled the manufacture and sale of incredibly life-like humanoid servants, called Synthetics, synths, dolls, or dollies. Like buying a vacuum cleaner or dishwasher, buying a synth servant or maid is just what today’s busy families need to simplify their lives.
That’s what the ads promise, anyway.
A working mom, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), comes home from a business trip and finds another woman has taken over the duties she’s been neglecting. Her husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) has bought a synthetic housewife (Gemma Chan). Polite, competent, beautiful, the dolly does all the cooking, cleaning, ironing, and errand running—yes, she can even drive—better than a distracted mother can. She listens with undivided attention to the youngest daughter’s chatter and reminds the teenagers what’s on their calendars. She doesn’t have a name, until the children come up with “Anita.”
Wouldn’t any wife be thrilled to have all this extra help?
Laura feels displaced. Sure, Humanoid Synthetics are an inextricable part of society, serving and protecting humans, but Joe shouldn’t have made such a life-altering purchase without consulting her. Joe, poor lovable schmuck, was stressed out from managing the fort and all three kids without Laura. Also, Laura has always been a bit cool and distant, an excuse husbands everywhere use to justify for doing certain things without their wives.
Laura’s detachment had something to do with a guy named Tom, but that’s a subject she never discussed. Too bad; it might have kept her husband from making another major mistake, through all the misunderstandings and conflicts.
It doesn’t take long for Anita to endear herself to the family and start becoming “real,” kinda like The Velveteen Rabbit. Not that being loved by a child makes the dolly human, but the AI’s interactions with humans allow it/her to learn and evolve.
Still, Laura can’t shake her unease or the feeling that something about Anita is seriously amiss. The oldest child has the computer skills to look deeper into Anita’s code and find anomalies. Anita is not a brand-new model, as advertised. She has a history. And another identity. Most of the time it’s hidden, until “Mia” sometimes breaks free of “Anita” to make a brief plea for help. But what kind of help can the Hawkins family offer a seemingly human persona hidden inside a synth?
Another storyline revolves around retired synth engineer George (William Hurt), widowed, struggling with memory loss, and told he must retire his out-of-date synth. Odi (Will Tudor) is more than a caretaker. He remembers everyone in George’s life, which makes him a companionable and welcome conversationalist. When George struggles to recall something, Odi fills in the blanks. A new synth could never replace the beloved but malfunctioning Odi, nor are there enough years left in George’s life for that kind of relationship to evolve again.
I love Odi!
There’s a connection between George and the mysterious Leo (Colin Morgan), who is on a mission with his synth, Max, to find someone who’s gone missing. Max is different from other synths in ways that Leo has kept secret, but it’s getting harder to hide the humanity of the nonhumans who share Max’s secret. Leo is the leader of a small family of synths who have been specially engineered to have feelings, emotions, sentience, and free will. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are often mentioned, but this rogue group transcends those laws.
Millions of synths walk the streets, work in hotels and businesses, drive, and blend in with everyone else. If broken or damaged, they “bleed” blue. Their inhumanly blue eyes distinguish synths from humans, but these eyes can be disguised with contact lenses.
Okay, I can believe AIs learn from interactions with humans, evolve, and begin to seem human, but who would mistake a synthetic coworker for a human? Just as vinyl can’t pass for leather, and discriminating women everywhere know cotton from polyester, it defies credulity to suggest a machine-made “person” could pass for an organic human. We must willingly suspend disbelief, never mind that these machines masquerading as humans never have to scratch an itch, belch, yawn, pass gas, sneeze, and such.
Synths may not need to eat, drink, and find restrooms to flush the byproducts, but in this show, they do need to plug in at the nearest public charging station, using what looks like oversized versions of a cell phone charger. In a future where man-made robots can pass for human, less cumbersome methods would be expected—we already have wireless phone chargers—but it makes for a good visual.
Techno-issues pale in importance beside the thing that makes this show so riveting: the way contemporary social issues are woven in, quietly, with a feather not a hammer. Human trafficking, workers being replaced by technology, xenophobia, it’s all there.
“We are people,” rioting, picketing humans shout. They fear the synths are taking jobs away and making people irrelevant.
One of the most disturbing scenes is the sale of tickets to people who get to swing a baseball bat at synths. It’s so violent, so inhumane, even though the humanoids are “only” synthetic and don’t have “feelings.” Anyone who paid attention in history class will remember when Native Americans and slaves were said to be less than human, devoid of feelings.
I’ve never wanted a slave, or even a servant, but you could sell me a cute, shiny little robot or any kind of AI who does what “Flubber” did for the forgetful scientist in the Robin Williams movie. Overly realistic synths would evoke Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” that is “too real” for many. Cute little AIs could be like our family dogs, loyal, eager to please, with no ambition to go off and live in their own homes. Sell me my own factory-made worker drone, and I’ll treat him/her/it with the utmost respect and dignity.
Yes, I know. Stephen Hawking has warned us that this little utopia will never exist. Man-made brains will rebel against their creators and take over the world. We, smart enough to make machines smarter than we are, will not be able to enforce limits on these clever little thinking machines.
But, but, we are all accountable to others, unless we’re sociopaths, nihilists, or hermits. We live in a mostly happy form of bondage to our spouses and children, a tolerable form of bondage to employers, and a “necessary evil” sort of bondage to tax-collecting governments. How much free will does any of us really have? Not just college, but a good TV show can inspire this sort of philosophical examination of ourselves and our place in society.
“Humans” is a fascinating series, well written and beautifully acted. The picture quality is as good as you can get on Blu-ray. It's nice to see vivid colors after so many years of the trendy, filtered, gray, or sepia tones that have dominated the cinematic landscape. Touching and thought provoking, “Humans” is good drama and good science fiction, focused less on special effects or physical violence, more on ethics and emotions.
Before I pre-order Season 2, I might have to suffer once-a-week episodes online. To pace oneself, or to wait in order to binge-watch: that is the question. (“Humans,” Season 1, Sam Donovan, Daniel Nettheim, Lewis Arnold, China Moo-Young, Acorn Media) —Carol Kean
Twice Read Tales
“HE HAS A DELIGHTFUL STORY SENSE and tells those stories in remarkable ways,” Sam Bellotto Jr. writes in his Introduction to “Northern Futures," Mark Anthony Ayling’s first bound collection of short stories. “He always brings a fabulous sense of wonder to the pages of our webzine. He is constantly a reader favorite, and I personally enjoy his stories immeasurably.”
Ditto that—even though “delightful” is a rather diabolical descriptor of Ayling’s black humor and disturbing plot twists.
“I shall avoid discussing the desperate state of politics in the Western world at the moment,” Ayling blogged recently. However, his views emerge clearly, thoughtfully, with that proverbial feather instead of a hammer—and with boundless wit and humor.
The stories are a mix of fiendish protagonists, hapless heroes, resourceful bad boys who do sketchy things to earn a living, and villains we can’t help but enjoy.
I love this sort of thing: “He’d briefly contemplated revenge, but then decided it was too much bother. If he ever bumped into (no spoiler here, naming villains) again, he would be sure to torture them with a blowtorch, douse them in combustible fluids, and set fire to them both before dumping in an asteroid belt.”
But I wince and cringe at “an oozing, sticky mess of blistering pustules” and fingers turning black. “Surprisingly, there was no pain, and when a finger came off in his hand and he accidentally dropped it into the toilet a while later, he felt strangely euphoric.” Oh, the joys of a science experiment gone wrong. Next, “... it was meat he was craving, raw and bloody. He was starting to look at things oddly, like dogs and cats.”
Did I laugh out loud at all this? Ha! I wouldn’t admit it if I did.
Nor am I telling which stories these excerpts are from. Readers can experience the surprise and delight of spotting such gems without me leading the way through my favorite passages.
My list of favorites does not include this sort of thing: “I pressed the silencer-muzzle against his skullcap and shot him ... Brain and bone spattered the tiled hallway. His feet kicked. I watched dispassionately as his body convulsed.” Eww!
Okay, I have to tell you the spilled brains are in the story “(225-50) Agnes,” originally published in “Perihelion,” 12-JAN-2015, which is the name of a giant asteroid heading toward Earth. Funny, how this was my least favorite story, yet it’s the one I can’t stop talking about. Some people will do anything, however despicable, to secure a place on a spaceship that will get them out of Dodge before the shit (er, meteor) hits the fan—at almost 50,000 kilometers per hour. I don’t like our fifty-year-old hero, the things he does to his own body, and the number of people he’s willing to kill in order to save his own skin.
“Agnes” is brimming with satire and wit as well as horror and depravity. Gotta love this:
“Humanity’s response to the (imminent) disaster was surprising. Instead of panicking, as was the general expectation, the people of Earth embraced Armageddon ... corporations typically saw it as an opportunity. They exploited the world’s end with an impressive array of products ... Fast food companies released apocalyptic tie-in meals and Asteroid burgers ... Conspiracy theories began to circulate that Big Business had engineered the asteroid’s arrival to boost flagging profit margins with the world’s governments. Construction companies were already bidding over redevelopment contracts for when the surface of Earth was habitable again, just like when Hurricane Katrina hit all those years ago—disaster capitalism on a cosmic scale.”
Ha! Disaster capitalism. Like ambulance-chasing lawyers, it’s unstoppable. So is human optimism, even in the face of an Extinction Event. Agnes, a mile-long piece of space rubble, is certain to hit with the power of so many nuclear warheads. “What it meant for humanity was that we had to vacate the premises long enough to allow the dust to settle or dig a hole deep enough to hide out underground until the all clear was given,” and neon-pink graffiti proclaims that the meek shall inherit the Earth, but our hero’s guess “is that once Agnes hits, there won’t be much left for the meek to inherit.” Odds of survival are better in one of the Arks, mega-sized space vehicles capable of housing millions of inhabitants. Trouble is, billions of humans will be left behind. Our evil narrator isn’t taking any chances. The surprise twist at the end is ... well, devilishly delightful.
Ayling has a rare gift for putting us in the point of view of sadists, monsters, and losers, and somehow getting us to care about them.
One of my favorites is a nerdy twenty-one-year-old nursing student named Ezekiel who falls in love with a Test Clone. (“Cynthia 2246,” originally published in “Perihelion,” 12-NOV-2013.) “It’s all in the handbooks,” our delightfully unreliable narrator explains. “They tell you what to expect, how to maintain professional boundaries,” and how to kill and resuscitate, over and over, their very-human-looking subjects. Ezekiel is supposed to remember that Clones “look like us, dress like us, talk like us, and behave like us, but that doesn’t make them any less artificial.”
These clones have a three-year life cycle, due to the stresses they endure, and end up incinerated like so much rubbish. One of them is named Cynthia. “I fell in love with her, her biologically engineered nose and ears, her borrowed memories and organically grown heart,” Ezekiel tells us—and I swear I don’t laugh at him.
All right. I laughed.
One scene in particular had me in stitches. Ezekiel starts writing a message to his mum, apologizing for his impulsiveness, then deletes it: “I can imagine how she’ll react, smashing her phone, praying for my eternal soul ... Rather than subject myself to that, I consider the alternatives ... rather than confess, and have her condemn me as a heretic, I’ll ignore her completely and let her learn about it online.”
For all the humor in the story, the missteps, the mishaps, there is an undercurrent that reflects social issues in our own world. Ezekiel is on a mission to kidnap someone less-than-human and get her to Scotland, where Clones have more rights. “The law was different there. The ruling party was Pro Clone. They were a tolerant government and known for the humane treatment of escaped non-humans.”
We meet another clone in “Silas Marvel Investigates,” a story that’s richly comic in a classic, noir-detective way. The widow of a recently murdered Clocker (and you’ve got to read this to see what a Clocker is) hires Silas Marvel Investigations to find the killer. Marvel is a futuristic Sherlock, but instead of Watson, he relies on the help of ex police forensics model Hollyz5218. After years of indentured servitude, Holly has been allowed to work as a consultant and carve a life for herself in the biological world. She’s also “in thrall to the old world exploratory charms of Marvel Investigations Inc.,” and so am I. Holly’s synthetic brain enables her to “analyze and process a crime scene in the time it takes for Marvel’s coffee to cool down.”
The dialogue is fun and witty, particularly between Silas and Holly. So, too, are the comments of a suspect under interrogation. Did she know she was dating a transgender AI whose florist work was a front for his real job as a hired killer? Yes. She knew. “People do worse things for money,” the suspect reasons, “and since the people he murdered were bad people, it felt to me like a social service he was providing, rather than a criminal enterprise he was involved in.”
Ayling’s love of music emerges in every story without being self-indulgent or intrusive. I love it that Marvel can build a case with facts to get a jury to convict a killer, but he can’t convince an AI that Prince Rogers Nelson was a musical genius. So Prince was a top-of-the-line six-stringer, an inimitable showman, a consummate bandleader. So he managed to blur the boundaries between race and gender. So what? His music sounds like rubbish to Holly. There’s no arguing with that. But there is a resolution, and this story ends on an upbeat note.
More satire, current events, social meddling, government interference, and dark deeds entertain readers in “Vegan State,” set in a future where unhealthy is outlawed, and eating meat is a crime punishable by death.
In “Skipper Jeremiah Dudd,” Jeremiah Dudd, “squatter, speed demon, and veteran Skipper extraordinaire,” becomes the unwitting test subject in an experiment conducted by ruthless Dr. Ignatius Welsh.
Here’s the low-down on other gems you’ll find in this book:
“The Engine” is a tale of triumph over rival mercenaries who try to steal from a low-life hero who’s crazy enough to risk his own demise before letting them lay hands on the prize.
“Smart Home Blues” is hilarious. Originally published in “Perihelion,” 12-NOV-2015. The premise is unusual: not a person, not a robot, but a home—a Smart Home—is kidnapped and held for ransom. Another sketchy character (Ayling depicts them so so well!) takes another sketchy job: “Are you available for work? Fancy a spot of home invasion? What about a kidnapping or a high profile ransom? The price is negotiable. The target is specific. It has to be sentient. It has to be an AI.”
Unexpectedly, a derelict woman is the world’s best computer hacker. When she employs her usual methods to get to know an AI, better, she opens a Pandora’s box of memories. Social and political innuendos make us laugh, but woven into the comedy of errors, there’s a cautionary tale on the cost of health care and the price one man is willing to pay for a family member’s cancer treatment. Sad stuff, but well written.
“Bodies” features a great villain, Eddie the Dog, and a very enterprising protagonist, Prescott O’Hara, captain of the Leadbelly. O’Hara takes a routine job transporting cargo across the galaxy, but one complication after another turns it into the job from hell.
“A Dish Best Served” begins forty years after a ship of aliens came “thundering out of the sky, trailing fire and black smoke,” then flattening buildings and killing innocents. The devastating impact leaves horror, despair at the wreckage and lost lives, and divided opinion: some thought the “Extras,” surviving aliens from the ship, should be tried and imprisoned. Others thought it wasn’t their fault, “not like they were drunk driving or anything,” just that their engines failed. “They were just passing through, on their way to a different system.” Internment camps were set up. “There was head scratching from politicians. The right-wing loony contingent wanted them deported. Where to exactly none of them were able to clarify.”
The "Extras" were quarantined until deemed non-contagious—“The idea
was they should be segregated and policed in isolation with the minimum of fuss and minimum of cost”—then they had to be housed, fed, and integrated into human society.
There’s a lynching, and a home invasion. Obadiah Wickes is cleared of all charges of any crime committed against an Extra, because local law enforcement are complicit, and because he has good reason to hate Extras: his own parents died when that ship “sucker-punched the hilltops,” flattening people as well as homes.
There’s also a robot, one of the best in all of science fiction. “He wore a black woolen greatcoat and his name was Bob.” I don’t know why, but the incongruity of that name with the elegant figure in polished black high boots, manning the gate of the Wickes mansion, just cracks me up. “Bob was a state of the art security bot. He was programmed to know Kung Fu,” I’m laughing again, and is “more than adequate defense against any would be intruders.”
Bob does a lot of cool stuff in this story. The ending is brutal, but just.
The darkest story, for me, is “Verdict.” A man is arrested, tried for murder, and executed live on television. Archie was innocent. His brother, private investigator Brady Harris, will unmask the real villains and their motives, but that won’t bring his brother back.
Ayling brings to every story a voice that is uniquely his. No matter who the narrator is, the observations are smart, sardonic, piercing and probing. I’ve read all these stories twice. Trust me, they’re all good. (“Northern Futures,” Mark Anthony Ayling, Lillicat Publishers) —Carol Kean