Category Archives: Science Fiction

Holding Out For a Hero

Children’s media is often dismissed as sentimentalised and condescending tripe, and in many cases this is entirely true. The heroes are as pure as the finest Colombian marching powder, driven towards benevolent ends by unselfish motives and bearing only the most superficial of flaws, ripe for a teachable moment or two. The villains are theatrically cackling menaces, skipping along the tightrope between irredeemable depravity and appropriately G-rated mischief. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and as always, England prevails! Ahem… These are literally infantile morality plays of the kind that I have previously denounced as insulting to the intelligence of anyone over the age of twelve. I personally abhor being spoken down to and kids’ television and films are often prime examples of this irksome tendency. This preamble has been a clever exercise in misdirection because I am about to defend exactly this stark good/evil dichotomy, and why this can be valuable to us as emotional and only partly rational beings.

As is my custom, a few definitions and distinctions must be noted before going any further. The terms used going forward are largely colloquial, and are not to be taken as strict definitions in any kind of logical argument. My case is not logical or necessarily rational but rather emotional, and thus it may be unconvincing to most people. The fact that emotions are non-rational does not diminish their importance to us, and per my last piece on the objective-subjective distinction, subjective matters may be simultaneously crucial and indefensible. It should also be made clear that I am referring to an abstract kind of good vs. evil story, wherein the only stakes are those of a fictional scenario, and no real world parallel is intended. This is for a very simple reason: the world in which we live is not one of black and white issues, wherein any situation can be reduced to this kind of bifurcation. To do so is offensive precisely because it fails to respect the intelligence of the audience and the complexity of the situation. Though five years have passed, James Cameron’s Avatar remains at the top of my list of least favourite movies, precisely because it commits this cardinal sin. Acting as a clear metaphor for modern American foreign policy, or whichever colonial catastrophe one wishes to mention, it attempts to reduce real history to the level of a pantomime. The following examples do not do this; any resemblance to real events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

The 1990s were the decade of the televised superhero team. This was the era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Biker Mice from Mars and the mighty Samurai Pizza Cats.  More specifically it brought the shows of Saban, a company adept in the Americanisation of Japanese tokusatsu shows, bring us VR TroopersMasked Rider, and Big Bad Beetleborgs. But the king of these programmes was one that continues to this day, and which is so ingrained into the consciousness of my generation that the first three words of the theme song will elicit a spirited singalong: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. All of the necessary elements are present: comedy, action, romance, giant monsters, giant robots, and a main cast so diverse and stereotypical that everyone could easily pick a favourite. The titular heroes would regularly foil the machinations of Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, two villains with charmingly convenient evil monikers. It was all so simple. A monster would wreak havoc, the Rangers would defeat the creature and, crucially, they saved the world. To a child this is a glowing example of the power of hard work, friendship and a pure heart overcoming any adversity. To an adult this is a bittersweet reminder that we once believed that it was as easy as that. The only threats to humankind can be overcome if we only try our best and saving the world is as easy as vanquishing a personified evil presence. To watch this now is to experience a kind of jealousy at the world that Power Rangers presents. Huge monsters ravaging the abandoned warehouse district may be a legitimate threat, but we have people we can rely upon the stop them, and these special people are capable of making a real difference and bringing peace to the planet. This is uncomplicated and incredibly endearing, and as a form of escapism functions personally. For just over twenty minutes I can almost believe that the darkness is powerless before the light, sink into a disconnected ethical simplicity, and find a little peace.

In comparison to films and TV shows, video games hold a unique advantage. You can both witness and participate in the action, by your own hand determining success or failure. This is what makes games a distinct and valuable medium, and why they deserve a place in the pantheon of the arts. Of course some games are more worthy of this status than others, and I am not here concerned with any game I would call a work of art. The interactive aspect is the important component of my point. Thus, my subject is another nostalgic creation, familiar to anyone familiar with the ’90s: Sonic Adventure, the blue blur’s first true 3D outing on Sega’s doomed Dreamcast. As with Power Rangers, there is a surprisingly jovial criminal mastermind planning to take over the world with a giant monster. But in this case, we get to take control of a group of superheroes in order to take him down. Minor conflicts abound, yet running through the middle of this game is the same moral dichotomy, and undiluted satisfaction that one is on the side of the angels. Moral choice systems have been a feature of video games since before the age of dialogue wheels, but they are noticeably lacking in this game, and it is better for it. The experience contains precisely that which I earlier lamented that Power Rangers could not give us: a chance to save the world. A computerised world, composed of nothing more than a few lines of code, but a world nonetheless. For the vast majority of us this is the closest we will ever come to the real experience, and a fictional facsimile of feeling is better than no feeling at all.

The charge of hypocrisy looms large over my comments. Surely this is a privileging of feeling over thought, of sentimentalism over rationalism. Is ignorance really bliss, and knowledge an unbearable burden? Ought we to value happiness over reality? Better a beautiful lie than an ugly truth, right? Well, no. What I am extolling is the feelings that such works can ignite in us, but also the recognition that this is escapism. The world is an enormous, complex and frightening place, and it is beyond the capability of most humans to face brute reality with no buffer at all. Even the most rational, nay cynical, of us need to take some time out with a novel, a film or a game, to take a break from the “real world”. To be absolutely clear, this can only ever be a temporary respite. To take this too far is to flirt with irresponsible delusion and an unwillingness to treat life with the weight and importance it deserves. I do not really believe that I can leave the world in the hands of superheroes, or that I can personally solve every problem with a clever gambit or righteous battle. All I can do is try to leave the world as a better placed than I entered it. But in the meantime, there is nothing wrong with stepping back and finding something simple that you can enjoy. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, love is the only thing that allows finite creatures such as us to cope with the enormity of the universe. This love can take many forms, among which I hope I have illuminated the love of these simple stories of heroism and the impossible dream that good can, once and for all, defeat evil.

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True Perfection Has to Be Imperfect – Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys (1999)

Spoiler warnings for Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2: Advent of Legion and Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys. 

Kaiju make for lousy heroes. Generally superheroes and supervillains are distinguishable by their differing regard for collateral damage. A powerful good guy with no interest in preventing innocent casualties, contra Zack Snyder, isn’t a far cry from his dastardly antagonist. Giant monsters have limited options in this area. When you weigh hundreds of tonnes and stand several storeys high, the best avoidance strategy for damage is to stand really still. Hardly practical or – frankly – entertaining. So these are the horns of our dilemma; if our huge beast does nothing, they will be safe but ineffectual and tedious; if they try to act, they will certainly cause considerable death and destruction among friend and foe alike. The best heroes are neither impotent nor catastrophically dangerous. Whence cometh the heroic kaiju?

As far as I am aware the best exploration of this concept can be found in the 1999 classic Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys, the stunning conclusion to the Heisei Gamera trilogy. Ordinarily the point at which summoning a colossal and catastrophic monster to resolve a crisis seems reasonable is referred to as the “Godzilla Threshold”, but I wish to start a movement to have this rechristened in honour of Gamera. Godzilla, at least since 1975, has rarely risen above the level of merciless force of nature, while Gamera remains a steadfast agent of good, and far more deserving of status as a hero, albeit a hero who regularly demolishes buildings. Revenge of Irys goes where few kaiju movies have gone before or since, into a world of consequences, sacrifice, and thoroughly human reactions of living in a world where huge reptiles are a recognisable threat.

As a young teenager, you are unfortunate enough to be living in Japan at the onset of the age of the kaiju. As such, it comes as something of a shock the apartment block your parents are standing is suddenly collapses under the onslaught of a tremendous fire-breathing turtle, killing them both. Given this formative experience it is entirely understandable to bear some hatred against this creature, regardless of any later heroics. This is the genius of the Heisei Gamera films: events have consequences. In this third installment, the surge in the Gyaos population is the result of the extreme lengths to which Gamera was forced to defeat the alien Legion, Sendai is still a smoking crater after its destruction by the Legion’s explosive seed pod, and the driving force of the plot began years earlier during Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. This is not just a film set, it is a living world in which life must go on in the wake of events both tragic and triumphant. In addition, a realistic world often involves making the choice between a terrible situation and a worse one. Allowing Gamera to co-exist with humanity is a constant risk, but to look at what his absence would entail, his presence is certainly the lesser of two evils. Though Sendai was destroyed, Sapporo and Tokyo would also lie in ruins. Humanity, if they had survived the predatory Gyaos of Earth, would have been further annihilated by the alien Legion. Thousands have died, but at the expense of millions.

Gamera 3 is an almost perfect reversal of the plot of Guardian of the Universe. A huge creature appears, causing death and devastation. Luckily, there is another creature who emerges, forming a close, mystical bond with a young woman, and growing in power to take down the former monster. This is carried to the point where Gamera himself looks more bestial and terrifying than he has previously, now sporting a spiked crest and darker colour scheme – looking positively demonic in Ayana’s memory – while the new monster Irys looks much more traditionally “good”. Baby Irys is frankly adorable, and its grown form looks almost like a phoenix in vivid colours with only its tentacles, a classically sinister attribute, hinting at its true nature. Any film worth its salt will feature more motivations than a simple good vs. evil dichotomy, and here we are treated to a very able example. Ayana is justifiably furious at Gamera over the death of her parents and behaves entirely understandably when given the power to carry out her vengeance. Irys seems to be exploiting Ayana’s negative feelings and gaining power from their connection.  Mayumi and Asagi, and to some extent Gamera himself, recognise the threat that Irys poses, and realise that Gamera is a necessary evil in the face of the Gyaos population explosion. Asukura and Kurata are happy to use Ayana to destroy Gamera, believing him to be a harbinger of doom. Some of these motivations are relatable, others are not, and the split does not lie along the simple split between good and bad.

Monster movies, like so many things, tend to fall on a bell curve. Most are good. A few are terrible. And some transcend the genre to become genuinely great films. The whole trilogy of ’90s Gamera films is well worth seeking out, but the final instalment brings all the threads together to become one of the best kaiju flicks ever made. If you want your audience to accept the absurdity of a huge, pyromaniacal turtle, you need to keep the rest of your fictional world very grounded, and Revenge of Irys pulls this off beautifully. To return to the beginning, in the real world, sometimes we need to accept that our heroes are less than perfect, and that thankfully perfection is not a prerequisite for acting for a better world.

[Reposted from Podzilla! King of the Podcasts]

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Improving Revenge of the Sith

This notion is just so genius that I felt compelled to share it. Any Star Wars fan has their own personal opinion on the point at which the saga was utterly destroyed. Some will point to the very first line uttered by Jar Jar Binks, while others are happy to write off the prequels, provided that they do not sully anything present and beloved in the original movies. I fall into the latter camp, and so my personal moment would be the point at which Darth Vader, one of the most compelling and downright cool villains in science fiction, was told of the death of his beloved wife and his unborn child, and let fly with one of the narmiest big “NO”s in cinematic history. During his temper tantrum, this supremely powerful Force-user lets loose all of his emotion in a psychic storm that manages to… er… smash a few jars and generally mess up one small room. You’re more likely to burst an eardrum from his verbal outburst than be injured by his telekinetic fit.

Which brings me onto the idea which would, in a single stroke, bring a far greater emotional significance to this pivotal scene, and immeasurably improve Revenge of the Sith – the point that such improvement is not difficult is acknowledged and beside the point. Picture the scene. Anakin has just been defeated, maimed, and left for dead by his mentor and best friend. He is under the misapprehension that his wife, the woman he was willing to sacrifice everything for, was in love with said mentor and best friend. He has gambled everything and lost it all. The last thing he has left to cling onto is the hope that his love still lives. This is the thought that sustains him through his rescue and subsequent anaesthesia-free surgery to save his life, grafting him into a half-human, half-machine life support system that leaves him in terrible agony. He reaches out to Palpatine, the only friend and father figure he has left, for confirmation that this sustaining thought is true, that Padmé is alive. And he is told not only that she is dead, but by his own hand. His last hope is destroyed, leaving him with nothing left in the universe. Anakin was the Chosen One, one of the most powerful Jedi to ever live, if not the most powerful. His very birth was the result of Force manipulation. And in this moment, he has lost all control, all of his humanity. His scream of pure anguish is accompanied by a tremendous outpouring of Force energy. The city-world of Coruscant, the entire planet that never sleeps, falls into darkness under this barrage of terrible emotion and power. Slowly, the lights begin to flicker back on, and the world begins to turn again. Anakin Skywalker has been subsumed by Darth Vader, the dark lord of the Sith, with nothing left to live for but faithful service to his Master.

I may be wrong, but this idea really appeals to me. This is supposed to be a turning point in galactic history, the birth of one of the driving forces for the rest of the story. The gravity of this event is essential for the importance of the events of Return of the Jedi – it’s supposed to be a big deal that Vader manages to struggle out of the abyss and regain his humanity. But alas, I can only feature this event in my own personal canon – such is the tragedy of the betrayed fanboy.

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