Wednesday, April 01, 2015 1:09 PM
I love Tuesdays—that’s when Optimum adds newly released movies to their VOD menu. Yesterday was “The Imitation Game” and “Interstellar”. Both were excellent movies, although back-to-back blockbusters can be a strain on these old bones—and what a headache, too, after staring at my big screen for almost six hours straight. Were I a more considered sort of guy, I would have spaced them out and waited another day to watch one of them.
“The Imitation Game” was an excellent movie. I want to say that right at the beginning, because I have some caveats that have nothing to do with cinema, but I don’t want that to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy myself.
This movie is a perfect example of why it is so important to read the book before watching a movie based on a book. One can read a book afterwards, but it’s rather like smoking a cigarette before having sex—it puts the cart before the horse. A two-hour movie cannot possibly cover the amount of information to be found in an almost-eight-hundred page, carefully-researched biography—nor should it even try. “Alan Turing—The Enigma” covers Alan Turing’s childhood, his academic career, his social and family life, his sexuality, and his multi-faceted, almost unbelievable career.
Turing wrote “Computable Numbers”, which introduced the concept of using symbols for both numbers and characters, amounts and instructions—and for many years, only a handful of people could understand what he wrote. Even fewer saw the grand implications of the “Turing Machine”. He then used those ideas to help England puzzle out the Nazi’s enigma code-machine, which shortened, perhaps even won, the war and saved millions of lives. But he (and everyone else involved) was sworn to secrecy about both his scientific achievements and his heroic contribution to the war effort.
After the war, he began to work on a universal machine—a machine that would not only do a specific job of controlled calculation, as at Bletchley Park, but would be capable of doing any such job, whether it be the calculation of orbits in space, the half-lives of radioactive materials, or the guidance of a rocket-propelled missile. The strangest thing about the early history of computers is that very few people saw the point. But, once they got on board, his government took the work out of Turing’s hands. So he started working on the chemical processes of morphogenesis—the mechanism by which cells create articulated creatures, rather than a featureless sludge.
Everything he turned his mind and hand to, every idea he highlighted for the rest of us—was amazing, unbelievable, mind-blowing. Think about it. First he said, ‘In algebra, we use letters to represent numbers—why can’t we use numbers to represent letters?’ Then he said, ‘I can break the unbreakable Nazi code and win WWII.’ Then he said, ’War’s over—I’m going to build a machine that can think.’ Then he said,’Now I have a computer—I’m going to figure out how life began.’ Then he turned forty. Then, at forty-one, he ate a poisoned apple and killed himself.
The film says nothing of all this. The film doesn’t even mention his mother, who was a big influence on his life in the book. It says nothing of his visits to America, before and during the war. It reduces the crowds of people he interacted with to a handful of on-screen characters—and it makes far too much of his relationship with Joan, simply because movies have to have that sort of thing in them, even when the leading man is a recognized homosexual.
Movies have had a lot of practice at this. There’s nothing terribly untrue about what was in the movie—it is simply missing so much that it tells a story quite different from the story told in the book. I don’t blame the movie-makers—this is in the nature of filmmaking, particularly adaptations from books. It is an accepted fact that the reactions of a movie audience are more important than the details of the story being told. This gives books a tremendous advantage. However, as I said, it was an excellent film.
“Interstellar” was likewise excellent, but equally limited by virtue of its being a movie. The physics of space-time are conveniently ignored or, more likely, misrepresented by beautiful CGI effects. In a movie so focused on the scientific aspects of modern life, it is notable for its lack of realism and its tendency to resemble a dream-state more than scientific research.
But science fiction has always tread carefully on the borderline between fact and fantasy, using the suggestion of science to make an allegory about the human condition—quite similar to fantasy, which explains why the two are usually considered a single genre, sci-fi/fantasy. “Interstellar”, with its spaceships, scientists, and robots, presents itself as hard science fiction, a sub-genre that usually treats with sub-atomic physics or cosmology in a futuristic setting. But the story being told is one of wish-fulfillment and easy shortcuts—the opposite of hard science fiction.
We get only the most fundamental features of science fiction in this sort of story—we get to be awed by the vastness of space, by the mystery of time, by the power and reach of technology, and by the inexorable terror of Mother Nature. But we don’t learn any actual science, as we would when reading Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov.
Asimov is a telling figure in the world of science fiction—one of the most popular and prolific writers in the genre, but where are his movies? There’s “I, Robot” and “Bicentennial Man” –but both of those are very loosely based on the original short stories, retaining little of Asimov’s genius beyond the “Three Laws of Robotics”. What about the Foundation Series novels, or the Robot Detective Series novels? Movies, while lots of fun, are simply too stupid to encompass an Asimov story—he deals in ideas, not images. He is trapped in literature.
Or look at Clarke’s works—one movie, and that one movie is based on one of his short stories, “The Sentinel”. Stanley Kubrick, possibly the greatest movie director that ever lived, spent more than two hours on screen with “2001: A Space Odyssey” trying to tell one short story from a hard sci-fi author. Where is “Rendezvous with Rama”, or “The Fountains of Paradise”, or “The Lion of Camarre”? Hence the glut of comic-book adaptations—only science fiction intended for children is easily adapted to the screen.
But the relationship between science fiction and childhood rates a closer look, as well. Early science-fiction in the pulps was considered childish reading matter—strictly for kids. It wasn’t until we landed on the moon in reality that science fiction was able to show its face among adults. But I don’t believe this was due to children being the only ones stupid enough to be interested—it was due to children being the only ones open-minded enough to see the value of it.
Even today, the value of science fiction is considered mostly monetary—between Star Trek and Star Wars, sci-fi has become big business. But the real good stuff remains locked away in books, too concerned with science and ideas to be adaptable into stories and images. Still, “Interstellar” was fun to watch, and it had a happy ending. I do love a happy ending. And I’d rather watch Matthew McConaughey drive a spaceship than a Lincoln….