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“The first clear indication that it was the people who wrote and read science fiction who lived in the real world, and all who lived in a fantasy, came on August 6, 1945, when the world discovered that a atomic bomb had exploded. on Hiroshima ”, wrote Isaac Asimov in the World Book Yearbook 1980. Died in 1992 of HIV, while we were still in the analog world, he would not live to see his claim proven with surprising frequency as we entered the digital age.

In the spirit of dystopian anthology series such as Black mirror and The twilight zone, Solo, Amazon Prime’s latest sci-fi offering, explores the most terrifying premise of all: that the world will change but us not. Through seven episodes, the characters advance time travel, space travel, and human cloning. They eliminate uncertainty and traumatic memories. But they’re as trapped in their vulnerability as anyone in the Dark Ages, or now. As the saying goes: wherever you go, there you are.

Susan Sontag observed over 55 years ago in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965) that science fiction films of the previous decade indicated “that there is mass trauma” about the disease. horror of Hiroshima and the real possibility of nuclear war. We’re at the start of the early stages of calculating the mass trauma of Covid-19, and I would say we haven’t really started, given that the calculation requires some emotional distance.

“Ours is indeed an extreme era,” Sontag wrote in 1965. “For we live under the continual threat of two equally frightening, but apparently opposed destinies: implacable banality and inconceivable terror. “

Fantasy helps us deal with these twin specters in two seemingly contradictory ways. First by escape. Second, by normalizing the unbearable: by immunizing ourselves through controlled exposure to the “unassimilable terrors” that infect our minds. What’s this Solo – that’s hot with great theatrics and big names (Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Uzo Aduba, Helen Mirren, Constance Wu) – sort of. But if anything of lasting value can be said about the psychic wounds caused by the terrors of mass death, instant isolation, and the irrevocable and all-embracing loss of the familiar, it is not by Solo.

Made with the production values ​​of the company owned by the richest man on the planet – who, as of this writing, announced he was about to shoot himself into space – Solo has a promising bright, titled Emmy. It is created by David Weil, the Amazon showrunner Hunters, which I also wanted to love more than me. Weil uses the full panoply of award-winning actors in the service of a great swing. Each episode is essentially a single scene monologue – think Alan Bennett’s captivating Talking heads moved to the near future and raised to 11. This unusual form – which is really just the oldest form of storytelling – is a tightrope: writing and acting must be infallible. It’s less because there is nothing to distract from the flaws – even if it’s true – and more because a monologue is an emotional dialogue with the viewer, and our trust cannot be broken. that a number of times.

At the start of each 30-minute episode, Morgan Freeman’s voice asks a big question: “If you travel to the future, can you escape your past?” or “Is the external threat greater than the internal one?” – before the story rushes with more and more frenetic emotion towards a Big Twist.

Aristotle lists pathos (a call to emotions) as one of the three modes of rhetorical persuasion, alongside logos (a call to reason) and ethos (which depends on the credibility of the speaker). The equilaterality of this triangle is misleading given the first principle of human action, art in general and science fiction in particular: the fact does not move the world. It is instructive that pathos literally means both “suffering” and “experience” and that these two words are interchangeable enough to underlie the concept.

The power of the pathetic lies in its immediacy, its appeal to the conscientiously reactive feelings that reside just below the surface due to the bruises and bounties of being alive for a certain period of time on this planet. Whether it leans towards anger or sympathy, the pathos can be pointed out. But empathy – the deeper, more connective evocation of feeling with – can not. And that’s where Solo is lower than it could have been.

Critics have observed Solo that 30 minutes are insufficient to allow the premises to take place. However, the original fuzzy area the episodes lasted 30 minutes and writers Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson overcame this constraint to show the unspeakable while exploring the dark complexity that “lies between the abyss of man’s fears and the peak of his knowledge. “.

It’s true that pacing is sometimes an issue – the end of the Constance Wu episode, for example, comes too abruptly. The same goes for the structure – the recall at the start of the episode of Helen Mirren is laborious and unnecessary. But the main problem is the tone, the emotional force of the writing: too often it’s a fire hose. Hathaway’s performance in particular could do with some Brechtian reserve but, as Anthony Mackie and Mirren demonstrate, even the best actor cannot make up for the shortcomings of the script.

When the actors don’t speak, they are transcendent. Mackie thought too long about how to urgently convey the gestalt of her young child in simple words. The realization waving Mirren’s forehead as she realizes that self-esteem is something one has to grab hold of with both hands or she will be pecked until there is nothing left. Hathaway’s eyes, so dark they seem to be made of light-absorbing pigments, only looking inside. Less – spared lyricism, elision, white space – would have been more for each scenario; technique that respects the spectator’s ability to consider and make connections for himself.

Awareness of the narrative form, Sontag observes elsewhere, invites the viewer to reflect – not just about the content, but how it affects us and why.

I like the idea behind Solo. There is something sacred about the ability of a monologue to immerse audiences in the subjective. It is the paradoxical power of the “I”, which is an opening in the lives of Others; these spaces in which we enter by voyeurism only to be confronted with ourselves. The promise of Solo not only resides in each monologue but in the replicating effect – echoes and harmonies – through seven episodes. As we shelter in place, what better way to represent our alienation and its antidote than single notes strung together in a symphony?

“Ultimately, the greatest source of emotional power in art does not lie in any particular subject, no matter how passionate, even universal,” writes Sontag. “It’s in the form.” While the archetypal themes and concerns – death, love, fear, guilt – are worthy, the speed and size and exaggerated warmth of their communication leaves me, in the end, unmoved.

Although she passed away in 2004, Sontag lived long enough to see that – whether it was the bomb or the climate crisis or one of our countless wars or domestic terrorism or the plague or polio or AIDS or Covid -19 – ours has always been “an age of extremity”; that it is less our timing and more our human failings that trap us between banality and terror. The best speculative series – and here I am thinking of those first crystalline slices of the fuzzy area, Black mirror, Maniacal and The Handmaid’s Tale – reveal that this terror is global in scope but on a human scale. And that even if he is unable to be eliminated, he could be improved upon by being confronted boldly – to paraphrase Asimov – and together.

In the midst of Melbourne’s second lockdown in 2020, I walked through the city for the first time in months, troubled by its appearance but no longer by its silence. I read how rats were deserting the closed city, how sightings of foxes had increased, and later marveled at these foxes with my own eyes. Sontag said the end of the world films such as The day the earth caught the fire (1962) “is this great scene with New York or London or Tokyo discovered empty, all its population wiped out”. But there is another advantage: the film “can be devoted to the fantasy of occupying the deserted metropolis and starting from scratch, a Robinson Crusoe world”.

In our efforts to grapple with the trauma of Covid-19 in any meaningful way onscreen, I hope that upcoming shows will make a strong case for the case, as one of the Solo‘, tries to turn around to turn around.

Solo is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Arts Journal

VISUAL ART European masterpieces

GOMA, Brisbane, until October 17

MUSIC Festival of voices

Venues across Hobart, June 30 – July 11

THEATER White pearl

Queensland Theater, Brisbane, until July 10

VISUAL ART Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at sea

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until September 12

EXPOSURE Sea country

Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, Launceston, until August 29

Last chance

LITERATURE Emerging Writers Festival

The Wheeler Center, Melbourne, until June 26

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 26, 2021 under the title “Sole search”.

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