Last month on The Cultural Gutter, I wrote about Nalo Hopikinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring the importance of diverse voices and experiences in science fiction. Following that thread, this month I’m looking at one of the grand ladies of science fiction, Octavia Butler, and the first book in her “Xenogenesis” series, Dawn. Understanding the Aliens explores Butler’s ability to tap into a truly visceral body horror and create a believably frightening, awkward “first contact” situation between humans and aliens. Special guest appearances by The Mote in God’s Eye and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.
When I was young still and open of mind, my parents set me loose in the University of Kentucky bookstore with the understanding that I was allowed to choose for myself from the racks of tapes and books some manner of entertainment. As I perused the offerings with a diligent focus that can be mustered only by a seven-year-old with a serious decision to make, I contemplated my options. Not a book, I decided, even though there were several promising ones. But I wanted something in which I could indulge on the long car ride back to Centerfield, and I was not prone to car sickness except when I tried to read. So a cassette…but which one? I flipped through the racks, past recordings of old radio dramas. The Shadow? Maybe. Lights Out Theater? Even better. And then I found it. With nary a doubt in my mind as to the correctness of my decision, I took from the rack and presented triumphantly to my mother my choice of prize: a recording of Orson Welles’ legendary broadcast of The War of the Worlds on Halloween eve, 1938.
When the only country in the world that has had atomic bombs dropped on it puts a mushroom cloud in one of its movies, it tends to have more resonance than when, say, the Italians do it. When the Italians set off an atomic bomb, it almost always heralds the arrival of post-apocalyptic, dune buggy-driving leather-and-shoulderpad aficionados. When Japan does it, however, it is something altogether heavier. It can also usher in not the solemn thoughtfulness one might expect, but at least in the movies I watch, instead signifies something supremely weird is about to happen, as if the sheer destructive capability is so difficult to wrap one’s head around — even when it’s been used on you — that there is no way to deal with it other than through the application of sheer strangeness.
You know what I love? I love that “post apocalyptic rollerskating movie” isn’t a description of a movie, but instead of an entire genre. Granted it’s a genre created almost entirely by a single man, but when the man is dedicated and prolific enough, suddenly you have a whole section in the old time video store with sun-bleached VHS boxes on the shelves dedicated to movies where women on rollerskates gingerly navigate the rubble-strewn parking lots of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, which is invariably going to be referred to as Lost Angeles, as it has been in so many of the crappy direct to video post-apoc films from the 1980s. It’s the DTV post-apocalypse equivalent of the DTV L.A. gang war movies, which inevitably go, “Los Angeles…City of the Angels.”
I think I’m detecting a pattern here, thanks in large part to the number of cheapjack genre films that used The Philippines and local Filipino crews and extras during the 80s and 90s. Need to make a cheap Rambo rip-off? Let the lush jungle landscape of The Philippines stand in for Vietnam. Need to make a crappy movie about a martial arts tournament that features bare-breasted female fighters? Don’t worry; The Philippines is the place for you. Want to make a post-apocalyptic adventure film featuring nude Amazons and kabuki little people? Even then you need not fear, for The Philippines truly is the Promised Land, so long as your vision of Paradise includes nude Amazons, kabuki midgets, topless kickboxing, and lots of slow motion explosions. And that damn well better be your vision of Paradise.
Cirio Santiago’s Future Hunters resembles some ancient horror buried for millions of years at the bottom of a pit beneath some black and unnamed ruin of a city comprised primarily of forms and colors that have no corresponding point of reference in our own universe. In fact, when first I purchased this movie on VHS, I ended up returning it as defective. I bought it used from a video store that was liquidating its stock back in 1995 or so, and a few days later I popped it in the VCR and set about watching it while I did some simple household chores. The film started out as a Road Warrior rip-off, with occasional Hong Kong action film villain Richard Norton tearing around the post-apocalyptic wasteland in a muscle car. Familiar enough territory. Then I got distracted, possibly by the discovery that our refrigerator had been leaking, and the leakage had turned into a putrid yellowish goo underneath the crisper drawers (man, talk about unspeakable Lovecraftian horrors). When I finished toweling up the gelatinous gloop and throwing the towel onto the roof of the credit union across the parking lot (I was young and punk then — take that, society), I returned to the living room and found that someone had recorded a different movie over the one I’d purchased. Because there on my massive ten-inch screen was a Bruce Le kungfu film, with the famous Bruce Lee imitator locked in mortal kicking combat with Hwang Jang Lee wearing a silver wig.
A storied writer, or possibly a drunk (oh, who am I kidding — there’s no difference), once said of a particular piece of writing that it was a mirror: when a monkey looked in, no philosopher looked out. While I’m sure Dr. Zaius would take umbrage at this gross generalization, the adage stands, at least for me, when it comes to the films of director Albert Pyun. I cannot hate them (well, except for Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire) no matter how bad they are, because when I look into them I see myself (a gibbering monkey). Albert Pyun has a magnificent, sprawling vision in his head. He has the drive to express this vision artistically — in his case, through the medium of film. And nearly every attempt at expressing this vision winds up a boring, biting reminder that sometimes the gap between our ability to envision something and our ability to execute that vision is insurmountably vast. Albert Pyun’s sundry failures are me — if I set out to recreate in film the lavish visions I have, they would wind up, I suspect, looking a lot like the films of Albert Pyun, except probably much worse.
There was a period, brief but never the less real, when we paid to see television shows in the theater instead of watching them for free on, you know, television. This started back when some crafty producer would take a couple episodes of a TV show and splice them into a single movie — even if the plots of the two episodes had almost nothing to do with one another. And in 1979, producer Glen A. Larson managed to get not one, but two pilot episodes released as feature films. Granted, these were substantially expensive and ambitious (in their way) pilots, but still. He was asking people to pay money to see something they’d see for free at home. He was able to do that because of Star Wars. And we did it. I did it. The first of them was Battlestar Galactica. The second was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. When I saw them both in the theater I remember liking Battlestar Galactica, but Buck Rogers? Buck Rogers I loved. And years later I still love it. This movie/television pilot is also the reason I discovered Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
I spend a lot of time, perhaps too much time, waxing poetic about the golden cliches of yesteryear that seem to have disappeared from everywhere except Univision. Grown men dressed in those little sailor boy outfits holding oversized lollipops. Quicksand gags. So many lost greats. One of my favorite forgotten cinematic trends is the “scientist of everything.” Back in the 1950s, these guys were everywhere, and they were usually played by John Agar. Anyone familiar with old sci-fi films knows these guys. They are identified as “professor” but it’s never really clear what exactly they are professors of. At any given moment, they will prove themselves geniuses in the realms of physics, history, chemistry, geology, geography, aerospace engineering, paleontology, auto mechanics — you name it and these guys will show off their knowledge of it, usually at the belittlement of their clueless sidekick scientist, who is more than likely being played by Hugh Beaumont.
“In the near future.” More times than not, it’s a euphemistic way for a science fiction film to say, “We were too broke to afford interesting sets.” Setting a film in “the near future” is a great way to get around a variety of stumbling blocks, not the least of which is a low budget. The near future allows you, as I said, to pretty much make up all sorts of new technology, situations, and laws while not having to fork over any money to build futuristic sets. It allows you to mold modern society to your whims without having to recreate it as something new. The alternate to this solution is to have a guy from the future travel back in time to the 20th century to save us or kill some other time traveling villain or some such nonsense. Once again, unless you are James Cameron, this allows you to throw some scifi stuff the way of the audience while not having to think too much about the look of the film.