“Dune” and “The Matrix” show how science fiction has gone astray


When politics or the economy don’t give much cause for celebration, Americans turn to the screen. The 1930s demanded effervescent shows that made us laugh during the Depression. The 1970s gave rise to a new genre of thriller that reflected the paranoia of the post-Vietnam era. The last few decades have seen an explosion of science fiction and fantasy. With the shrinking audience for adult dramas, superheroes, spaceships, and monsters reign supreme.

This change helps explain the buzz surrounding two releases this fall. Dune is the first installment in a third attempt at Frank Herbert’s classic novel, which has already been shot once as a feature film and once as a TV miniseries. Matrix resurrections is the fourth installment in a franchise that helped start the trend.

There’s one catch, though: both movies look terrible. It’s not entirely fair to judge by the previews, but the directors’ other work suggests that they will be technically accomplished, incredibly loud, deeply serious, and utterly boring.

The material is not the problem. Often ridiculed as children’s stuff, imaginative genres help us think through situations and aesthetics that would otherwise seem ridiculous. Like musicals, another genre that has seen a recent renaissance, science fiction is not bound by the laws of physics or logic. This is an area worth exploring, rather than dismissing it.

Instead, the problem lies in transforming sci-fi and its cousins ​​into the kind of seamless tailoring they were once pitted against. Once the genre where anything could happen, science fiction now tends towards high budget, high technique, and infinitely low risk. The result has all of the genre’s flaws, including flat characterization and absurd dialogue, with few rewards.

In the 1960s, critic Manny Farber describe tension through a contrast between “white elephant” and “termite” art. The “white elephant” represents consistency. Each image, sound and performance is meant to adapt, producing a work comparable to the masterpieces of 19th century European painting and literature. It is easy to find these qualities in the mid-range prestige dramas. But Farber also finds them in the fashionable authors of the time, like François Truffaut, whose seemingly unconventional style hid a mania for order.

The art of termites escapes this kind of control. Whether it’s because it’s produced cheaply, the actors cash in, or the challenges are beyond the director’s technical capabilities, “” The art of termites-tapeworms-mushroom-moss, “Farber explained,” is always going forward by eating its own limits and, like no, leaves nothing in its path other than signs of greedy, industrious and neglected activity. As the name suggests, termite art is always at risk of collapsing under its own weight.

Farber’s defense of chaotic, incompetence and quirk was part of the then-controversial appreciation of B-movies and genre films he shared with critics like Pauline Kael. But it also explains how economic and technological changes have sucked the lives of the kinds where termites once thrived.

Take the new one Dune. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has directed a series of acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy productions, it’s kind of a revamp of David Lynch’s 1984 version. While producers expected a rival Star wars, Lynch turned into an epic of strangeness that combined elements of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed production a decade earlier with Lynch’s own distinctive vision. Released in a redacted version that the director disowned, the film is both an economic and a critical disaster.

Longer cuts released later solve some of the exposure and structure issues. Even without these changes, however, Lynch Dune is an unintentional masterpiece of termite art. Much of the cast doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of their lines – or even what movie they’re in. It’s perfect, however, for a film that deals in part with the line between reality and dreams – a line blurred by the copious consumption of characters. hallucinogenic “spice”. Like other Lynch films, Dune works better as an experience than as a story.

Lynch also created an aesthetic that increases audience discomfort (in a good way). The sets, costumes, and makeup effects of the mutated characters were unusual in their ability to convince audiences that the action is set in a world that is not our own. This includes deviations from the source material, which angered some fans. In Lynch’s versions, the evil Harkonnen clan seems to subsist on a bloody purple juice that runs through the veins of their minions. It wasn’t in the source material, among other departures, that angered fans. Regardless, it’s deliciously weird.

At least in the trailers, the new Dune does not promise any of these qualities. Monumental, gritty and obsessively faithful to Herbert’s Byzantine plot, it is the coherent synthesis of form and matter that Lynch was unable to deliver. For this reason, however, it has little to offer anyone who isn’t already committed to the premise. The first reviews express disappointment in this “lifeless spice opera” on “a comical and massive scale”.

The matrix, on the other hand, has always been the art of the white elephant. The 1999 original was applauded for a premise borrowed from the dorm philosophy and a sleek look influenced by Hong Kong video games and action films. These very qualities, however, left her airless, as every scene and shot was stylized into something that approached abstraction.

by Lynch Dune can be compared to termites trying to make their way out of the towering but fragile structures that contain them. Watching The matrix it is like being dragged into a room of sensory deprivation. This is not incompatible with the Gnostic vanity that animates the plot, but creates an exhausting but paradoxically forgettable experience. Most memorable is Hugo Weaving’s termite performance as Agent Smith, one of the only hints of humor in the otherwise dismal business.

The directors are not entirely to blame for the burgeoning white elephant trends, which are exacerbated by the expectation of endless sequelae and fallout. In addition to huge budgets that make it harder to justify creative experiences, technological improvements offer a level of aesthetic control that eluded filmmakers of the past. According to Farber, the faults of the elephant’s handwriting are the attempts to “1) frame the action with an overall motif, 2) to place each event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and 3) to process every inch of the screen … as a potential area for award-winning creativity. ”In addition to the economic incentives to start a franchise, green screens, digital footage and post-production manipulation make these sins hard to resist.

But impressive shots, top-notch castings, and a cohesive artistic vision come at the expense of bewildering qualities that once gave science fiction improbable power. In Lipstick traces, a volume best described as a spiritual punk rock story, critic Greil Marcus harnesses the ephemera of pop culture to find clues to the mess and violence that lurk beneath the surface of modern life. Among other examples, he unearths Quatermass and the pit (released in the United States under the name Five million years on Earth), a 1967 British film that has something to do with the Martians who colonized Earth in the distant past. He describe watch in true horror as the plot culminates in sheer, uncontrollable anarchy that escapes both the narrative and technical limits of low-budget production.

Moments like this, where the film’s stuffing bursts out of its own constraints, revealing more than its creators ever intended, are rare in today’s technically accomplished, deeply serious, and utterly boring shows. Termites survive in duds, bombs and forgotten unique pieces like Dark city (1998), which combines elements that foreshadow The matrix with themes of Five million years on Earth. The big exception is the unexpected superb Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), who managed to preserve the gonzo energy of its predecessor from the white elephant temptations of modern budget and technology. Hope the next prequel don’t spoil that too.

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