Back at work, and the last couple of weeks have been taken up with readjusting and putting myself on the U.K.’s radar. A few months work in the Inland Revenue, about fifteen years ago, meant that I was on some special sort of list and my National Insurance Number was guarded by MI6, or someone. The getting of a U.K. bank account involved the usual waterboarding and biopsies of my bone marrow.
Still, I live here now: gee, it’s all been so sudden. I don’t know what more assimilation I can do, but next time I burn the toast I’ll try and blame it on all the fucking immigrants or something. Aside from adjusting myself to being a Brit, and reacquainting myself with the salty, pungent ecstasy that is Marmite, the last two weeks involved…
Well, let’s confine ourselves to a trip to the cinema, and another to the theatre.
Divergent is absolutely, definitely the last time I go and see a mainstream SF or Fantasy film for quite some time. It’s the perfect encapsulation of everything that’s currently wrong with This Kind Of Thing, and it’s infuriating because I sit there and think that this should be the sort of thing that appeals to My Kind Of People. Science Fiction is supposed to be about new worlds and environments and strange concepts, about revelling in the odd. This was even the case in the 80s, because although we all know that-
- wait for it -
- Hawk The Slayer’s rubbish, it was at least trying to present a story taking place somewhere odd with strange rules. I don’t want to launch into another Star Wars defence but the popularity of the appalling Star Trek remakes, in which every single planet is no more than a stage-set for plodding, cock-obvious stabs at “relevance” and “satire,” indicates that most people don’t even expect sci-fi to take us to strange places any more. There’s a blanket acceptance that science fiction is just an exercise in putting identikit characters in the same generic backgrounds, and all you need to do is to brand said backgrounds with their own paper-thin USP.
Divergent is based on a book I’ve not read, and don’t intend to, but it was presumably written by someone who thought “Hey, that whole Sorting Hat thing in Harry Potter is a bit nasty if you think about it! I bet no-one else in the world noticed.” So it’s set some indeterminate time after an unspecified future war, and there’s a sort of a bombed-out city where everyone lives, and society is divided into five groups called sort-of-pretentious things like Abnegation and Erudite and Dauntless and Candour and something else I couldn’t be bothered remembering.
It’s not all the adolescent fetishising of ooh-his-hand’s-on-her-waist that’s the problem, because ultimately it’s a film for adolescents and that’s fine. It’s not even that it opens with an infodump voiceover that flatly tells us all this stuff about factions and tests that it would actually be interesting to just figure out (and yes, that cockawful film of The Amber Spyglass, you made that royal fuckup too). No, the issue is that there’s no sense of this world actually existing: it never feels like anything other than a cinematic construct, and a flaky one at that. It wouldn’t even fly in a Doctor Who episode, and two hours staring at this universe leads to it coming apart at the seams.
I mean, let’s do the big one first: it’s a society that traumatised and near-destroyed itself through war (somehow). That war would be overtly on everybody’s lips for centuries on end, a historical event that overshadows everything because it’s gouged into the populace’s brains in capital letters two inches deep. But no-one even mentions when this war was, or how it started. It’s an abstraction, used to justify this factions-based setup that revolves around the principle that someone can’t possibly be clever and kind at the same time (or rather, such people are so incredibly rare that they threaten the stability of society). Yes, really.
This lazy sort of disconnect extends everywhere. On the one hand, these people have got the technology to create fully immersive dreamworlds and directly see the thoughts of the inhabitants. They can go together into these environments, just by injecting themselves with a drug. And yet nobody seems to have the slightest interest in doing so, they all walk happily around their post-apocaylptic city living austere lives. When our hero, I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Katniss-Everdeen, joins Dauntless – a faction who early on spend most of their time whooping and being rebellious, free-climbing up buildings and just being teenage aaaawesome types – it turns out to be a proto-fascist military. This isn’t a twist, mind; the two things aren’t seen as mutually contradictory at all. There must have been hundreds of people working on this story, once you count the cast and crew and production team and writers, and not one of them felt the need to stick a hand up and say “ummmm, this hyper-disciplined militia of people who are rebellious and unruly and not afraid of their superiors… how the fuck does that work, then?”
In Harry Potter, for all its low-level tweeness, the world has texture; it’s full of detail and language and weirdly incidentaly places. Diagon Alley and butterbeer and that funny night bus don’t serve any plot purposes, they just make the environment seem properly encapsulating. Yet step up an age bracket and all the teenagers get are hokey premises with nowhere to go, into which demographically-correct heroes / heroines are dropped, and girls become physically strong because it’s the most marketable form of empowerment. You can add superhero films to this list; Superman and Spiderman and Insert Marvel Character Here exist in recognisable capitalist societies which barely warp at all to accommodate a world-changing paradigm. Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a ponderous load of prot-fascist wank, but at least he tried. But in general the environments, the universes, the architecture of new worlds are too difficult to grasp, so fuck it.
All the more of a surprise to go and see Much Ado About Nothing in the Exchange Theatre in Manchester and find it to be, accidentally, exactly what decent science fiction should do but never does. It’s got a vivid if predictable plot, it’s got strong characters, and it’s set somewhere strange. People talk in a way that’s entirely alien, but we understand them anyway. There are some acts that are, to a modern-day onlooker, utterly appalling: the shaming of Hero at her wedding, by people we’re supposed to like, is a shocking and dignity-stealing scene. But we’re asked to accept this strange paradigm as an alien manner of behaviour, something that people from this place do. It’s funny, and vividly played, and packs a wallop when it wants to.
The masquerade-dance is rendered in the most extraordinary way; the characters wear enormous papier-maché heads, all the faces the same, performing exuberant dance-moves that produce a spectacle like nothing you’ve ever seen on earth. Watching this fragment into scattered conversations, unsure of who’s who (you’re almost sure, but never quite), is to watch something exciting and unfamiliar that screams of elsewhere. So much for the shock of the new – the future all looks the same, these days. Backs’s the new forward, baby.