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Have You Seen…? Episode 9

Jan Thijs/Paramount

On this episode of Have You Seen…? David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf follow up their episode on classic science fiction films with a conversation about contemporary and modern sci-fi movies.

[Clip from Arrival]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen arrival?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen Arrival. I’ve read the novella, The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang as well. It's probably my favorite science fiction film of the century so far.

DH: Well, we're on the same page there, I’d say it’s mine too, probably. I like it because I think it's the best portrayal of aliens and of alien intelligence maybe ever in a movie, but certainly since the very subtle but really interesting portrayal of alien intelligence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

SVW: And I would agree. And I think that the strength of it for me is the fact that unlike most Hollywood films, it really gives you an intelligent look at this, like the way that the literature does. Here, the aliens are, you know, they're alien, they're truly alien. They're not humans. They're not like humans. And the fact that the film focuses in on language is just brilliant.

DH: Because the lead character, a college professor, who’s a linguist. They bring in Amy Adams, they bring her in to figure out the alien language. How do you communicate with these aliens? And then, of course, it becomes about much more than language - it becomes about time travel and perceptions of reality in physics experienced in a different way. It's aliens well beyond human capability. And there's more of that, that’s part of why we're doing this this show on our favorite sci-fi of the 21st century, because as time has gone by it's not like the classic sci-fi so much that's, you know, action and monsters but now there's more, may be much more, influence from the literature from writers like Philip K. Dick, who's had several movies made, several of his short stories or novels made into movies. He was the master of writing about alternate realities. There's a number of movies on our list that there are those kind of subtle stories.

SVW: And then, of course, there's also the epic adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune novel.

DH: Before We talk about Dune and kind of go through our list that you and I have look together… and we have a lot of the same favorite movies - we should talk a little bit about 2001: A Space Odyssey. When we did our classic sci-fi episode, we ended with 2001 and we just sort of said it changed everything, it's sort of said this whole year of sci-fi films is over and ever since then, it's been the most influential science fiction movie ever made, really, in terms of what has come in the 50 years since.

SVW: Definitely, and I think one of the strengths for 2001 is that it was made during the time when we were going to the moon, when the general public and watch news footage and see what it was like to walk in space or what it was like for spacecraft to be out there. And the fact every time that people are in space or that every time you see an exterior of a of the spaceship, it's silent. It's following the actual laws of science.

DH: Yes. So that was one major thing it did. It said no more of this goofy, like, you know, zap guns and goofy looking aliens and space travel that seems to happen instantaneously. 2001 was very realistic. No sound in space, it was the first movie that I know of to do that. Because there's no air and space, there's no sound in in deep space and also showing that the astronauts who are out there were basically bored. It's this month's long ride to Jupiter. There's not much to do. It's kind of mundane, but he lulls you in with this mundane stuff in the movie because… I won't be giving away much, even if people haven't seen it, it's such a complex moving after seeing a couple times. You know, ultimately, it’s about the way the human race came about and millions of years on Earth. We never see the aliens and that movie but there's this obvious incredibly high intelligence behind everything.

SVW: And also, mentioning Arrival. This is the precursor to that in terms of presenting aliens as truly alien as unlike humanity and beyond the way that the human mind cannot encompass them in a way.

DH: Yeah, they look a little bit like octopuses or something like that…

SVW: …That’s in Arrival. But in 2001, we don't see them.

DH: We don’t see them at all. But in Arrival, you know, they look really weird. They have to be behind a kind of force field because they obviously don't breathe the same atmosphere, or whatever. And you can't communicate with them at all in the beginning. And then the communication itself becomes the key to the movie and kind of the key to alternate physics and alternate perception of time, making it just a fascinating movie where we all kind of think that, we think if there is intelligence that’s out there, that's beyond ours they would be living by kind of different rules and laws, even laws of physics and that, in this movie, that's what it is.

Let's go to our list. I have a list written in reverse order starting with the most recent. And interestingly on my list going from 2022, I don't only have one 2021, all the way back to the turn of the century, the first 3, the 3 most recent, are all by the same director, the French Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve. And I would argue he's the greatest director, right now, working, of science fiction because he made Dune which people have different views on, but I think its masterful, it's a great movie, and in some ways even improves on the book, which is widely regarded by many people as the greatest science fiction novel. He did Blade Runner 2049, which was sort of, you know, a job for hire, obviously, they need someone to do the sequel. But this is one of those really good sequels that that goes its own route. Blade Runner 2049 is just not some like lesser version of the original Blade Runner from the 80's. And Harrison Ford is in it. Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas are the costars. But it's terrific. And then there's Arrival. So just on the strength of those 3, it's pretty amazing. I was trying to think what other directors have done a bunch of sci-fi in the 21st century? And, guess who? Steven Spielberg, you know, the guy who did Close Encounters and E.T. has done, I noted 4 sci-fi films that he’s done. 2 of them are kind of forgettable: War of the Worlds and Ready Player One…

SVW: Which was the most recent one…

DH: The most recent, a young adult novel. Those are both okay. But the ones that I think a really good our AI: Artificial Intelligence which is a fantastic exploration right at the turn of the century.

SVW: Which was actually a Stanley Kubrick idea… who made 2001, that Spielberg took on.

DH: Yeah, that's one of those ironies because you could argue that Stephen Spielberg is one of the most sentimental romantic filmmakers ever. And Spielberg [sic] was totally unsentimental…

SVW: You mean Stanley Kubrick

DH: Stanley Kubrick was unsentimental…

SVW: he was almost cold… and

DH: He was. And this was near the end of his life and he couldn't get the robot right. And he gave the project to Spielberg. It's one word evidence of Kubrick’s brilliance because people who love Kubrick At he's not a jerk like Spielberg, He doesn't make these romantic movies with John Williams’ emotional scores throughout them, he tells the real story and it turns out no, they were actually friends and he respected what Spielberg could do and he thought Spielberg can make this movie better than I could. And I came out pretty good. I think.

SVW: It did. In fact, one of the things that's I think is brilliant about the movie, and this is not a big spoiler because it’s a big, sprawling movie, with a lot of different things, but by the end of it, the aliens are actually humanity.

Mostly it's a near future story of a family that doesn't have a child or they've lost their child and the get a robotic child who is indistinguishable, they’re so perfect they seem like humans. And it brings up this wonderful question about what is the nature of a human being. Because this kid is, you know, the robot is programmed just to love these parents, the mother, unconditionally, and what do we owe that being? You know, who's intelligent and learns. But then it, towards the end, this won’t give away anything, you have to watch a movie, but it jumps like 2000 years in time. And people argue about that ending as to whether those beings are aliens or future highly intelligent robots. Leave it to the viewer to decide. But anyway, going back before that, before the wonderful 3 Denis Villeneuve movies, my next going backwards in time is 2015 and Mad Max Fury Road.

SVW: George Miller returning to the Mad Max Universe and doing it in a way that was critically acclaimed.

DH: To me, it's the greatest action movie ever made. It's nonstop. Amazing action all time, but also a very compelling interesting science fiction story in there.

SVW: And, you know, at a time when there's all sorts of TV shows on that you could see that our post-apocalyptic and carrying on in some ways the tradition of the original mad Max. And then Miller just comes in and says this is the way you do it.

DH: Yeah, because it's fun in a way, you couldn't enjoy it. It's not like totally depressing dystopian future, right? it's invigorating to watch this action and yet it does have a very strong story.

SVW: And then Her is one that I have not seen, directed by Spike Jones and it's another one about, isn't it? Just having remembered the previews, it's about what is human is it is an artificial intelligence. Is that something that a human can make a connection with?

DH: Right. It's very much about that. It's a romance. Joaquin Phoenix is the lead. And Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his AI. Kind of a Siri like thing. You never see “Her” title of the movie, voiced by Scarlett Johannson. But in every way it seems like a real bond, like a relationship and he takes her to be utterly human. But of course she's not so that that that's another very interesting…and that one is one of those many science fiction movies that feels like this could happen. You know, how far are we going to go with artificial intelligence?

SVW: And given how artificial…not artificial intelligence, but the how algorithms on computers and on the Internet are affecting people's behavior. And then in 2010, you have Inception Christopher Nolan. It's considered a masterpiece of science fiction. You've been aware of this film since 2010, I just watched it. And it's an amazing film. It's absolutely incredible, and it's very Philip K. Dick-like, and even though it's not based on a Philip K. Dick book or story.

DH: Yeah, Dick was the master of like, you know, he sets up one level of reality and then there's sort of like another level or a reality within that reality. And of course, Inception is about these artificially created dreams. They’re sort of engineered, they're not true dreams, but there to get inside some person's mind to be able to get them… to get information from them or to get them to do something. And, you know, the movie ends up being about what dream within a dream within a dream is multiple levels…

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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