Sunday, 28 April 2013

Truth From Legend - Columbia: A Modern Day Icarus?

I love inventive, cross-media promotion and the advertizing for BioShock Infinite has supplied us with a two-part documentary from the Eighties (Nineteen Eighties that is) which attempts to reconstruct the fate of the flying city of Columbia. This two-part commercial provides some fantastic background for the events of the game and some interesting connections to real history (or, at least, history in our universe).

Saturday, 27 April 2013

BioShock Infinite (2013)

BioShock Infinite, the new release by designer Irrational Games and publisher 2K, is both a stunning visual feast and a provocative reflection of both the Scientific Romances of the Victorian-Edwardian Era and the modern socio-political climate in the West. The original BioShock was heralded as an artistic masterpiece of modern gaming, marrying an astonishing setting with interesting philosophical concept, in that case being a critique of Ayn Rand's economic theory in an Art Deco city under the ocean... A submarine Fountainhead, though ostensibly better written. BioShock Infinite continues this legacy of using video games as a medium to dissect the nightmare of political and economic utopias.

This chapter takes place in 1912 in a city above the clouds dubbed “Columbia.” The player takes on the persona of Booker DeWitt, a veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee and former Pinkerton who has been commissioned to extract a mysterious girl from this man-made Heaven. Making his way to a storm-tossed lighthouse in Maine, DeWitt is locked in a rocket capsule and fired high above the torrent. Sun breaks and bathes a wonder of aerial skyscrapers and flying machines in a golden glow. All of this is the vision of the so-called prophet Zachary Hale Comstock, who claims to have received a vision from the angel Columbia – the personification of the United States in the same fashion as Britannia for Great Britain and Marianne for France – at the Battle of Wounded Knee. In order to enter what has been fashioned as a “New Eden,” DeWitt must undergo baptism into Comstock's cult of personality.

Whereas the original BioShock examined Objectivism, Infinite explores the concept of American Exceptionalism. Columbia is very much like a hypercharged Tea Party Republican vision of the United States filtered through Disneyland's Main Street USA. Comstock's ever-present propaganda uses the iconography of Christianity and speaks of God, but its religion is the United States itself. After emerging from his near-drowning at Baptism, the first thing DeWitt sees are statues of “Father” Washington, “Father” Jefferson and “Father” Franklin. Wandering the streets of Columbia is very much like visiting a theme park: pristine, gleaming, gilded, delightfully old timey, gay (in the original sense), with red, white and blue bunting, balloons and even parades. Yet there are also posters cautioning racial purity and fidelity to the cult. Abraham Lincoln is vilified as a serpent leading America astray and one of the amusements of the local fair is pelting a pair guilty of miscegenation with baseballs. Infinite's version of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, called the “Hall of Heroes,” is even more transparent than its Disneyland counterpart. In it, the player walks through funhouse versions of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, complete with howling redskins and the yellow peril.

The setting is appropriate to the theme as more than just a Steampunk window-dressing (in fact it is considerably better than Steampunk, as it is better studied in what Victorian-Edwardian aesthetics actually looked like). Exceptionalism stands on a foundation of misbegotten nostalgia for a conservative “golden age” usually placed before the First World War and its subsequent perceived uptick in modernism. As I discussed in my article on the centennial of the Titanic's sinking in 1912, the beginning of the 20th century was considered at the time to be a bright era full of technological possibility. The only comparable era since was the fervour of the early Atomic Age and the Space Race. Like the Fifties, some also have a tendency to look upon the Victorian-Edwardian Era as a more moralistic time, a utopia of conservative values. Not long before writing this review I was embroiled in a debate with a person decrying to the liberal bias of modern public education, unbelievably citing the 19th century as an ideal time when children learned really useful things at the feet of their parents.

Racism was endemic to this period, and the only people more racist than the conservatives were the liberals. Belief in technological progress and moral development married in the doctrine of human perfectibility, specifically in the realm of eugenics. The concept of ennobling racial heritage and the weeding out of inferior stock was an accepted part of the zeitgeist right up to its ultimate flowering in the Holocaust. It is unavoidable in the Scientific Romances of the time, particularly those penned by American authors. In the year that BioShock Infinite is set, Edgar Rice Burroughs was publishing two classic stories of great white men dominating savage peoples. Unfortunately eugenics still rears its head amongst the fashionable, self-styled intelligentsia, going by any number of terms like “transhumanism” or “intelligently-designed morality.” The implicit racism and classism of promoting eugenics in a society where even basic health coverage is not universal should be obvious, but the only significant opposition to the far leftist side of the American “culture war” is the straight-up, old-fashion, sheet-wearing racial bigotry of the Tea Party.

The podcast Associated Geekery, conducted in part by our friends Ryan and Mac, had an interesting discussion on the discomforting racism prevalent throughout BioShock Infinite in their fourth episode. Racism displayed so prominenetly in the game has, naturally, proven controversial to many who are not necessarily accustomed to thinking about the issue nor seeing it so vividly. As Associated Geekery notes, it in turn raises questions about implicit racism in other games: when you see a Sci-Fi future completely full of white people, is it a racist ideal? In Infinite this is lampshaded, the player being made conscious by racist propaganda of the fact that there are only white people around. For myself, I had the opposite problem. Being a fan of Scientific Romances from the time period, I've developed a strong filter for racism. I've simply learned to accept it as an artefact of the time period without giving it much further thought, compartmentalizing it so as to better appreciate the aesthetics of the era. Like Main Street USA, Columbia is a gorgeous place... so long as you can get past the creepy American ultra-nationalism and fundamentalistic cult of personality.

Like any society of affluence then or now, doctrines of racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism serve an express purpose in maintaining the system of oppression on which the society enjoys its affluence. The Antebellum South, for example, was not gratuitously racist. Racism provided an ideological support for the economic reality of slavery. Belief in the inferiority of Native Americans justified the practice of expansionism. Likewise, the furor over illegal immigration in the United States is not really about protecting American workers or the American "way of life" from Latino hordes. It’s about protecting the profit margins of those people who employ migrant workers so as to avoid minimum wage laws and benefits packages. Comstock’s New Eden also has to face this reality even though it was built to literally rise above the unwashed, dark-skinned masses. As one of the characters, Columbia’s main industrialist, observes in one of the “voxophone” recordings scattered like Easter eggs throughout the game, no one wants to be a menial in Heaven.

Thus we get the Vox Populi, Latin for “Voice of the People,” a workers revolt composed primarily of African-Americans and the Irish. In true turn-of-the-previous-century fashion, even the Irish are not considered white enough in Columbia, thanks to their red hair, incorrigible Papism and, worst of all, their willingness to undercut wages with cheap labour. Literally beneath the gleaming thoroughfares and airways of Main Street Columbia lies the squalor of the Negro and “White Negro” tenements.

The temptation of any work of genre fiction involving issues of class is to swing too far in the other direction. These stories lionize the revolutionaries, idealizing them in ways eerily similar to the ways in which Fr. Comstock and the Founding Fathers were deified in the world of Infinite. This always rings false to those better acquainted with the era and who know that both the left and the right bore racial assumptions, and that the temperance and eugenics movements went hand-in-hand with the suffragettes. The Vox Populi are the Occupy Wall Street to Comstock’s Tea Party, and the central Science Fictional twist of the game allows us to see parallel worlds where Columbia is ruled by both. To its credit, BioShock Infinite is an equal opportunity iconoclast of utopian promises.

Had the game centred only on a flying city in 1912, it would be a nice bit of retro-Edwardian Scientific Romance. The mystery of the girl DeWitt has been sent to retrieve turns it into a legitimate piece of Science Fiction making good use of the concept of parallel worlds with a bit of “just so” quantum mechanics. The opening dialogue when DeWitt is being conducted to the lighthouse where he is carried up to Columbia suggests something off, but it is difficult to make much of it until the second play-through. Our real first indication that there is more here than even a flying city is a barbershop quartet singing a Beach Boys ditty. It is eventually revealed that the city is kept aloft by “quantum levitation” and that this, along with the mysterious girl, is causing tears in space-time to appear throughout the metropolis.

One of the more ingenious novelties of the game is drawing links between quantum theory and religion. A voxophone recording early in the game has Fr. Comstock meditating on whether a baptized man is both sinner and saint, redeemed and unredeemed, until he emerges from the waters to be seen by the eyes of other men... An interesting variation on Shrodinger's Cat. Later Comstock also wonders on what happens to the sinner after the saint emerges. Are they still alive somewhere in some other world? Then there are the questions of what exactly the gift of prophecy is when all of space and time and the multiverse is spread open before you.

This marrying of religion, American Exceptionalism and quantum theory provided further controversy for BioShock Infinite. One player received a refund from Irrational Games because he refused to undergo the baptism at the beginning of the game that allows DeWitt to enter Columbia. A designer for the company actually went so far as to hand in his resignation as progress reached the game's conclusion. To his credit, creative director Ken Levine sat down with the employee and discovered that doing so helped him to write a more convincing and substantive ending to the game that better understood religious motivation rather than treating it as a stock boogeyman (as well as convincing the employee not to quit).

Sensitivity to these motivations affects an even broader theme to BioShock Infinite than either issues of race, politics or quantum mechanics. It is ultimately a story of redemption and the lengths that people may go to find it. In some cases, this quest may cause even more suffering when a clean conscience only serves to justify dirty deeds. Sadly the game does not offer a more positive vision of a healthy prescription for reconciliation than it does a critique of pathological pursuit of redemption, but what it does say is still a far greater work of art than simply shooting up bad guys or hunting through castles for princesses.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon (1967)

Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon is a Sixties caper comedy in the same vein as The Great Race (1965), Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and its sequel Monte Carlo or Bust (1969), built on the skeletal fragments of Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon. American distributors were so anxious about drawing a connection to that genre that they even renamed the film "Those Fantastic Flying Fools" (and some gave it yet another title, "Blast Off"). Though not considered a minor classic like Great Race or Magnificent Men, it does dispense with some of the dated elements of those films, making it a more pleasurable experience to watch.

Though set in the Victorian-Edwardian Era, these comedies were always products of their time. As a consequence, they can make a viewer squeamish at points. In addition to being just too long, Blake Edwards' riffs on women's liberation are awkward for a person who was born after 1975. It's not a very resonant form of humour. Nor are Magnificent Men's racial stereotypes, delivered with a total absence of subtlety. Rocket to the Moon is tauter than its predecessors and relies more on its situation and characters than contemporary issues, allowing it to go down a little more smoothly.

The story has been altered substantially from Verne's novel. In this version, Phineas T. Barnum (played by Burl Ives) is on the run from creditors and happens across a scientific demonstration with lunar implications. He forms a consortium with a German explosives expert (Gert Fröbe of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), the Duke of Barset (David Price), an engineer who builds bridges but doesn't expect them to stay up (Lionel Jefferies of First Men in the Moon) and the conniving cheat and gambler Captain Sir Harry Washington-Smythe as treasurer (Terry-Thomas of Magnificent Men). Original plans called for a smallish man about the size of General Tom Thumb (Jimmy Clitheroe) to go up, but he would have none of it once he found out about it. It didn't help that Jefferies' engineer Sir Charles Dillworthy created a rocket model that intended to get a man to the moon but not to bring him back. THe project is put in more jeopardy when Washington-Smythe is exposed as an embezzling bounder. Thankfully Gaylord Sullivan (Troy Donahue) arrives with blueprints for a functional shuttle. Washington-Smythe and Dillworthy conspire to wreck the launch, but there is also an Agent of the Tsar lurking about the area.

Despite radical changes to the story, Rocket to the Moon is still the truest adaptation of it in tone and spirit. From the Earth to the Moon is a satire of American society and the zeal for technological progress that is worthy of Mark Twain, but that biting comedy is often lost amidst Verne's reputation as a futurist. The 1958 adaptation dispensed entirely with the humour, creating a ponderous, joyless meditation on atomic power. This lighthearted romp flashes it out at the camera.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

Aching to fit into the atomic anxiety of 1950's Science Fiction film, From the Earth to the Moon most certainly takes its queues from Walt Disney rather than Michael Todd. Purporting to adapt one of Jules Verne's funniest social satires, director Byron Haskin turns it into a joyless and self-contradictory pontification.

Joseph Cotten stars as Victor Barbicane, head of a cabal of arms dealers who has invented a new weapon dubbed, in suitable Googie Age fashion, "Power X". In the film's opening act we see the first major break with Verne: gone is the ironic comedy of the Baltimore Gun Club, whose amputated members bemoan the end of the Civil War. In its place we have the merchants of death who joke about having sold weapons to both sides and bemoan their loss in profits. Barbicane comes to the rescue with his new substance, which he claims taps into the very fundamental power of the cosmos. The problem is that it needs a test... A way to demonstrate its unmatched destructive capabilities that no affluent government can ignore. Nowhere on Earth would submit to such a demonstration, so there is but one solution.

Stuyvesant Nicholl, played with aplomb by the voice of Shere Kahn, George Sanders, disbelieves the munitions dealer's announcement. He is himself the creator of an indestructible metal plating and wagers his immovable object against Barbicane's irresistible force. Power X not only destroys the metal, but the whole mountainside, and in so doing makes headlines around the world. The governments take notice and President Ulysses S. Grant intervenes. When informed of the political risks of his moon launch, Barbicane suddenly switches into a great philanthropist, extolling the capacity for Power X to revolutionize technology. It's no good. Over 20 nations have already said that they would consider the moon launch and the demonstration and development of Power X to be, in itself, an act of war. Barbicane is cowed by the kind of pressure that would have been applied to the US government had the Manhattan Project been public.

Quietly quitting the project with all its financial donations, Barbicane is crucified by the public. Left to stew in his newfound concern for the future of humankind against humanity's own frightened ignorance, he makes a sudden discovery. The combination of Power X with Nicholl's metal has created a new ceramic substance that would make an ideal casing for a manned moon rocket. The project has revived, with Barbicane, his assistant, and Nicholl off to explore the lunar orb.

The plot thickens in a manner that would be picked up by Contact much later, imperilling the lives of the crew and Nicholl's nubile daughter who decided to stow away so that the audience could have some romantic interest. The ensuing chaos provides ample opportunity for Barbicane to gyrate between benefactor and profiteer as he argues with Nicholl over the progress of humanity, the acceptable limits of science, the benefits of mutually assured destruction, and the wrath of God. The whole thing ends on a downer, with the only person to see the upside being Jules Verne, who has been inserted into the story as an associate of Barbicane.

Atomic and technological cautionary tales are extremely difficult to pull off in a way that is organic and natural without being overly preachy. The most effective of the whole Atomic Age was Gojira, otherwise known as Godzilla, if for no other reason than it was a moving expression of the only nation to have suffered nuclear holocaust. Making use of Verne, Master of the World starring Vincent Price manages to do it convincingly in spite of its limitations. Yet even the mightiest motion picture of them all, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea can't seem to figure out whether Captain Nemo is a great technological visionary acting for a higher purpose or a merely conventional man out for revenge. From the Earth to the Moon is ponderous and often nonsensical, made all the more noticeable for its divergence from the source material.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962)

Excerpt from Five Weeks in a Balloon.

One of the luminous names of mid-century Science Fiction is Irwin Allen. Renowned as the "Master of Disaster", he directed and produced a number of films and television series that are regarded as classics of a sort, despite not being particularly good: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (a film in 1961 and series from 1964-68), Lost in Space (1965-68), The Time Tunnel (1966-67), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and a modernization of The Lost World (1960). Ever conscious of opportunity, he also brought one of Jules Verne's novels to life in 1962's Five Weeks in a Balloon.

Coming in the wake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and their kin, Five Weeks in a Balloon is calculated to have almost exactly everything required of a Vernian film of the period. Sir Cedric Hardwicke - who enjoyed a cameo in Around the World in 80 Days - plays Professor Ferguson, the Scottish inventor who develops a mode of aerostatic flight that does not require loss of either gasses or ballast. His assistant Jacques is played by the bepompadoured teen idol Fabian, echoing Journey's Pat Boone by singing the catchy but not especially good theme song (a trait inherited from Disney). Comic relief is supplied by both Richard Haydn - instantly recognizable as the voice of the Caterpillar from Disney's Alice in Wonderland - and Red Buttons. Haydn plays the stiff-upper-lipped British prig and Buttons the incompetent, philandering American reporter. Thrown into the comedy team is Peter Lorre, who was in both 20,000 Leagues and Around the World, as a slave trader. The funny animal this time around is a chimpanzee. Romantic interest is provided by two Barbaras: Barbara Luna as a rescued Arabish slave girl and the stunning Barbara Eden as a rescued American missionary.

Resemblance to the original novel is slight. Instead of adventure and exploration for its own sake, this expedition is in the service of the Crown to plant the Union Jack in the unexplored regions of West Africa before slave traders reach it. Should they fail, the bulk of Africa may be lost to these ne'erdowells. A moderately more serious and accurate adaptation was released a year before in the form of Flight of the Lost Balloon. Unfortunately, legal pressure by Allen and Twentieth Century Fox compelled producer/writer/director Nathan Juran to drop any explicit reference to Verne.

The bulk of Five Weeks in a Balloon's action takes place in the forbidden cities of Muslim Africa, in the palaces of Sultans and slave markets of Zanzibar and Timbuktu. Surprisingly not much time is granted to the idea of cross-African exploration. There are montages of giraffe and ostrich, to be sure, but it is not an epic on the scale of Around the World or 1950's King Solomon's Mines, 1964's Zulu, and even 1951's The African Queen. It even lacks the outlandish, matte-painted scenery and air of globetrotting exoticism of Disney's second Verne adaptation In Search of the Castaways, also released in 1962. Undoubtedly this is due in no small part to budgetary constraints allowing for the creation of a single Islamic city set but only stock footage of Victoria Falls.

Nevertheless, despite its limitations and the fact that one can check off a laundry list of tropes, Five Weeks in a Balloon is one of the more enjoyable films of the type. Its not in the echelon of 20,000 Leagues, Around the World, Journey to the Center of the Earth or even Jules Verne's Master of the World, but it is ahead of more humourless films like From the Earth to the Moon and Mysterious Island or too unfunny films like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Great Race. Like most of Irwin Allen's productions, it is an also-ran, but a fun also-ran.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future (1964)

Coming hot on the heels of an overabundance of films based on his works, Franz Born's Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future perfectly taps into the mystique around the Victorian prophet. "Rockets zooming faster than sound from Florida toward the moon," the dustjacket reads.
submarines slithering under the North Pole, skyscrapers looming over moving sidewalks - all these things are part of our lives today, or will be in the near future. Yet, in the nineteenth century, they were the fantasies of Jules Verne's fertile imagination.
The book, intended for younger readers, begins with an exciting episode from modern headlines: the voyage of the U.S.S. Nautilus beneath the North Pole in 1958. Verne, Born insists, did not merely foresee the accomplishments of latter days, but actually invented them. The first nuclear submarine was named for Captain Nemo's and polar explorers were inspired by Captain Hatteras. The French author was a self-fulfilling prophet.

What follows is a brisk biography of the great author, with particular focus on his meteoric success with Five Weeks in a Balloon, From the Earth to the Moon, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, In Search of the Castaways, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. At each stop along the way, Born informs us of the ways in which Verne inspired true-life adventures from polar explorers and nautical pioneers to world tourists and the upcoming moon launch a few years hence.

Though Born adheres mostly to the paradigm of Verne as the prophetic techno-optimist - which isn't entirely true, and latter chapters are devoted to his eldery cynicism - he does have gems of genuine insight into the appeal of the master's work. The following excerpt could easily be a thesis statement for this very weblog:
His characters are not dressed like monsters of technology in fantastic space suits, helmets, and oxygen masks. They travel in everyday clothes. They eat ordinary food. Michel Ardan sees to it that they are served a good breakfast and an even more delicious dinner every day. They drink wine and smoke cigars.

They travel through the air in a drawing room, just as in another Verne novel, Professor Pierre Arronax and his companions will travel through the depths of the ocean in an even more sumptuous salon.

Yet even though these luxurious quarters seem quaint to us today, they served a purpose in Verne's novels. Jules Verne's readers, sitting in their own drawing rooms, felt they were sharing in the experience of space travel. It was as if they had only to look out of their own windows to see the meteors passing by and the huge disk of the moon coming closer.

From their armchairs, Verne's readers received a detailed "guided tour" of the moon from very close up. The fascination of Verne's description lies entirely in the factual information we are given about the moon! Unlike so many pseudo-scientific novels, Jules Verne does not need to resort to moon people or similar nonsense. He describes only what had actually already been observed - but only with the help of telescopes. These "facts" proved more overwhelming than the fantasies of other writers.

Perhaps the real highpoint of the book is the suit of illustrations by Peter P. Plasenica, which have illustrated this article. He foregoes full Victorian detail to opt instead for clean Atomic Age, Googie style. The full set can be seen at the blog Ward-O-Matic.