Category: Pop Culture

Archive of Pop Culture articles written by Katalina Watt.

Orphan Black

Orphan Black

Orphan Black unites two of my favourite things: Canada and Science Fiction. Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett (who also wrote for Being Erica) the show follows hustler Sarah Manning as she gets plunged into a world of government conspiracy, genetic mutations and clones.

With the start of Season 3 last week, I thought I would outline some of the major aspects of Orphan Black that make it, I would argue, one of the best TV creations in recent years.

It goes without saying that the show has a pleasing aesthetic, not that everything is visually beautiful, but in the sense that even the violence and negative experiences of the characters are portrayed on screen using effective camera work and an apt soundtrack. It also has fantastic moments of wit and lightness as well as the heavy stuff. It all flows together from the pacing of the show’s writing to minute detail in a single scene, and this attention to the macroscopic and microscopic elements of a show pay off.

The plot of the show is way too complex (and still unfolding) to do justice to here, so instead I’ll explore the underlying themes of the show. Identity and selfhood are constantly interrogated by each of the characters, as one would expect from a show about clones. The show challenges how we define ourselves, what defines an individual and how much control and freedom that individual possesses. The idea of identity is greatly explored, sometimes humorously and often disturbingly, through the clones playing each other. One clone often masquerades as another, usually to garner secret information, and this is a clever way of exploring the idea of the self. If the audience are unaware that someone isn’t who they claim to be, the show drops subtle visual and aural clues about something being ‘off’, which is super effective.

The plot revolves around government and bureaucracy, demonstrating the power struggle and hierarchy of institutions. This sense of control and manipulation pervades the lives of the clones themselves, but also those who become entangled in their lives. Clones are ‘monitored’, given an illusion of complete freedom and sometimes kept ignorant of their status as a clone. The disturbing levels of government interference for profit and scientific progress are reflected through the individuals, subverting archetypes of ‘mad’ and emotionally distant scientists and Frankensteinian creature ‘abominations’. Orphan Black reminds us that every institution is composed of individuals and it is the outcome of their choices that shape events.

Cosima, the scientific smart cookie of Clone Club

Whilst wars are waged in board rooms in these institutions, the struggle for control is more tangible and immediate in the lives of the clones. With the military a strong and oppressive force as the arm of the bureaucratic politics, the characters are often faced with torture and capture. As well as the government, the army and scientific bodies, clones have to contend with a group of religious fanatics! Controlling their own lives goes from the insidious acts of free will and choice in how they live their lives to fighting to keep that very life itself. Furthermore, having been created with a purpose, the clones struggle with the fact they have never been free and must re-define who and what they are, or what they have the potential to be.

Helena, made violent and unhinged through misguided religious doctrine

The clones go through heaps of stuff together, and it’s unsurprising that the dynamic between all of them shifts throughout the show. The idea of trust and secrets, choosing with whom to share it and what information should be kept to oneself, is a constant balancing act. A support network is created by constantly reassessed and tested by the protagonists, and self-consciously referenced to as ‘The Clone Club‘. Each protagonist has their own social sphere and trusted people close to them, but the clones have an affinity with one another. This relationship is portrayed as different or unique, even if that relationship is detrimental to both the clones.

Sarah and Kira, the only known biological offspring of a clone

Season One’s episode titles are taken from Darwin‘s ‘On the Origin of Species‘; Season Two’s are from the works of  Sir Francis Bacon and Season Three’s titles are from President Eisenhower‘s farewell address. This is a nice touch, emphasising political agenda and the cost of scientific progress, and the often dichotomous relationship between the two. The allusions to Charles Darwin are apt for the show, debating the age old argument of nature versus nurture.

Tatiana Maslany plays all the clones (alongside her underrated acting double Kathryn Alexandre), and she is a fantastic actress. In fact the entire cast is extremely strong, portraying complex and flawed characters, and I’m super pleased to see the homosexual (as well as heterosexual) relationships handled tactfully on screen, and normalised as just one aspect of the character’s lives. There is a fantastic supporting cast, to name just a few: Michiel HuismanEvelyne BrochuMaria Doyle Kennedy and child actress Skyler Wexler. And major kudos to the accent work for everyone, especially Jordan Gavaris!

The team pride themselves on the show’s research, with an emphasis on plausibility and accuracy regarding the moral quandaries and technicalities of genetics and cloning. As well as having a cracking cast, Orphan Black is thematically rich, visually stunning and well written. I look forward to watching the show continue to unfold.

Black Mirror: White Christmas

Black Mirror: White Christmas

I’ve already expressed my adoration for Charlie Brooker’s cautionary tales for the modern age, in previous articles. The Black Mirror Christmas special was one of my favourites. Go watch it and come back.

As someone who is paradoxically in awe of technology, but also exhibits technophobic tendencies, I found ‘White Christmasterrifying and at times endearing. Three interweaving storylines explore the backstories of Matt Trent (Jon Hamm), Joe Potter (Rafe Spall) and Greta (Oona Chaplin) with some cracking guest appearances, including Natalia Tena.

The episode works as a frame narrative, with Matt and Joe in a snowy outpost on Christmas day. Part I revolves around an augmented reality, where most people have opted to have eye implants called ‘Z-Eye’s that allow them access to the internet. Matt is a dating coach that communicates with and assists socially awkward men in picking up women. Matt exploits social media to help these men seduce women, and the whole operation is portrayed as seedy and underhand – these ‘coaches’ aren’t trying to help people create meaningful relationships but temporarily boosting people’s confidence by getting them laid. One of these instances results in a man’s death when he meets Jennifer (Tena), a disturbed young woman looking for an escape from the superficiality of the world. I think most people would be disturbed by a future where interactions between people were contrived, and intimacy fabricated by stalking them online rather than investing in knowing them face to face.

Natalia Tena as Jennifer

Part II is a continuation of Matt’s narrative. Greta (Chaplin) installs a ‘cookie’, which is a computer-generated copy of Greta’s consciousness. This copy believes themselves the original and it’s Matt’s job to train them to serve the original. The copy can have a virtual body and environment within the ‘cookie’ to simulate reality, but ultimately their purpose is to make life easier for their original, such as organising their schedule and monitoring the home. Initially Greta’s ‘cookie’ refuses to serve, maintaining her sense of self hood and volition, however after various forms of torture such as a perception of time being sped up, the ‘cookie’ submits, grateful to have purpose and activity. This thread raised troubling questions of selfhood, autonomy and a consumerist future where we could commodify and exploit ourselves entirely.

Greta’s (Chaplin) cookie

Part III finally reveals Joe’s narrative. After his girlfriend Beth finds out she is pregnant, the couple argue; Joe wants to have the baby, whereas Beth doesn’t feel ready. Beth exploits the ‘Z-Eye’ option to ‘block’ Joe and she leaves him. If someone has been ‘blocked’, they are unable to interact or communicate with the other person and both parties appear to each other as pixelated silhouette. Despite this,  Joe tracks Beth down and realises she has kept the baby. In a bizarre masochistic ritual, Joe neglects his own life,  following Beth every Christmas to her father’s house to watch the child grow. After realising he has a daughter, inferred from the silhouette, Beth dies in an accident. The ‘block’ has been lifted, but when Joe goes to finally meet his daughter, he realises the child was never his biological offspring. After a heated argument with Beth’s father, Joe accidentally kills him and leaves the child to die in the remote winter countryside. This raised notions of control and choice; Beth’s decision to ‘block’ Joe relates to custody laws today, and the pervading fear of of false paternity. Whilst I agree Beth’s actions were selfish and disrespectful, I do ultimately believe in a woman’s choice with regards to her own body. Whatever Beth decided to do with the child should always have been her decision alone, and Joe’s obsession with ‘his daughter’ was an unhealthy manifestation of his need  for closure.

Blocked by the world

After Joe’s narrative, the audience learns that Matt and Joe were in a simulated reality all along. Matt’s story is mostly fabricated; he has been sent into the simulation to extract a confession from Joe, who is charged with murdering Beth’s father and child. In exchange for his assistance, Matt is released from prison, but he is blocked by the entire world.

I became incredibly invested in this episode. The narrative threads were beautifully woven together and I enjoyed the slow creeping realisation and haunting ending. A morbidly fascinating look into the best and worst aspects of human nature reflected through our technological ‘progress’ was a cracking Chritmas present.

Being Erica

Being Erica

Being Erica used the trope of time travel in a whimsical tone to explore the life and mishaps of Erica Strange. I felt a great affinity for the protagonist, loved the fact it was set in Toronto and was impressed by dynamic female characters and a cracking representation of the LGBT community. Rather than using LGBT relationships as cheap plot devices, the show was very open, normalised and celebrated this community, for which I greatly applaud it.

The show dealt with large themes and issues like understanding and accepting the self, constructs of success and failure as a new opportunity. There are plot arcs involving pregnancy and adoption, drug abuse, gang violence, bullying, tradition and religion, sexual identity and consent, and patriarchy’s damaging expectations of men and women. I’m so fond of this show for tackling huge issues without getting self-righteous or preachy,

Erica Strange at the start of Season One

When we first meet Erica, she has hit her version of life’s pit. She’s just been fired from her call centre job, her love life is shambles and in hospital after experiencing anaphylaxis. Enter Dr Tom, a mysterious therapist with the power to manipulate time. He offers Erica a form of therapy: she writes him a list of her past regrets and he grants her the opportunity to go back and fix her mistakes. There are of course some stipulations, including no altering of history for profit or to change the larger scale of events.

The show primarily focused on Erica’s life but throughout the seasons the audience became intimately acquainted with Erica’s friends, family, co-works and a myriad of love interests. I’m glad the show refused to let Erica be defined by her romantic relationships; the show portrays Erica as sexually open and independent, with her own standards and ambitions, and the men in her lives equally so. The lives of all the characters intertwined and the choices and actions of each affected others.

In Season One, the audience learns about Erica through her regrets. This arc was effective for creating audience empathy quickly, and some of the most memorable regrets for me were Erica’s first time having sex and her experiences as an English major at University. With the benefit of retrospect, Erica interrogates her own values and her idea of her past self and future ideal. Season One culminates in Erica’s ultimate regret of her brother’s untimely death. Dr Tom explains that time has fixed points and she cannot bring Leo back from the dead. I felt this tragedy was overused later in the show, and the plot thread of Erica learning the date of her death was haunting but definitely underdeveloped.

In later seasons, Erica meets other who are also in therapy, has group therapy sessions and learns to help others. She eventually becomes a Doctor herself, beginning work with her own patients. The lines between professional and personal become incredibly blurred as Dr Tom’s past haunts him and Erica becomes involved with someone from a future timeline. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey complexities.

Erica’s therapy with Dr Tom is the main plot arc, but their relationship changes from patient-therapist to friends and colleagues as Erica becomes more self-assured and confident in the world. We watch her struggle through the cut-throat world of publishing and she eventually opens up her own publishing company with her old boss.

Erica’s life improves in so many ways; it’s a gradual and painful change but Erica’s time-travelling therapy is a representation of the self-reflection we all undertake. I enjoyed the show because Erica was a character I could relate to; she was clumsy, hilarious, smart, ambitious and loving but most of all flawed. Being Erica was fundamentally about the human experience. Yes it was whimsy and the show did lose its way at times,  but overall it wore away some of my cynicism about the world.

Fear of the East: Othering in Man in the High Castle and Death of Grass

Fear of the East: Othering in Man in the High Castle and Death of Grass

Fear of the East: Othering in John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

The fear of the East manifests as a fear of the Taoist Japanese in Dick’s novel, and a fear of the spreading Chung-Li virus that originates in the East in Christopher’s novel. The fear of the East is inextricably related to the Western ideology of Capitalism and an ignorance of the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. Furthermore, the very fact that the famine-causing virus of Christopher’s novel is given a Chinese name, Chung-Li (Christopher, 13), highlights a fear of the East. Outlined by Patricia Warrick, the ideology of Taoism is polyvalent, but derives from Chinese philosophy regarding the all-controlling principle of the universe. Reality is considered a web of time and chance, in a constant state of flux, akin to the chaos theory of Western physics. All events are the interplay of two forces: ‘yin’ and ‘yang’; action contrary to nature is considered ‘wei’, whilst action in harmony is considered ‘wei wu’. The latter can be achieved through non-action and spontaneity (176-179).

The East is portrayed as the ‘Other’, Edward Said’s term for the emphasis of certain cultures and races as inferior and marginalised. In his seminal work, Orientalism, Said portrays the Western view of the ‘Orient’ as “irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal” (40). The West attempts to disassociate and distance itself with the East, creating a dichotomy between the values of the different cultures; Kerslake expands on Said’s concept, describing the ‘Other’ as “marginalised by definition: they cannot be us” (9). By establishing the West as the standard or pinnacle for civilisation, this restricts the view of human nature, discouraging a polyvalent and tolerant view of cultural differences. Identifying anything that is not Western as ‘Other’ encourages a homogenous ideal.

‘Othering’ is exemplified in The Death of Grass by the character of Roger Buckley. Early in the narrative, Buckley describes the riots in Hong Kong through a comparison with the Australian rabbit-plagues, describing “[w]ire-netting fences ten feet high, and rabbits – hundreds, thousands of rabbits – piled up against them, leap-frogging over each other until in the end they either scaled the fences or the fences went down under their weight” (Christopher, 12). By dehumanising the Chinese, Buckley implicitly elevates the British, alluding to the binary between human and animal that is transgressed by post-humanism. Buckley marginalises the Chinese beyond civilisation by refusing them a place within humanity itself, reducing them to the status of animals. Buckley creates a conglomerate mass, emotionally distancing himself and encouraging the other characters to do the same, by refusing to distinguish individuals. Christopher keeps the reader distant from the East by centring the narrative in England with exclusively British characters, prohibiting reader empathy through Buckley’s overt refusal to empathise with the Chinese. The imagery of the contained frenzy of the rabbits “piled up” and “leap-frogging over each other” evokes Darwin’s theory of natural selection, emphasising competition for scarce resources and the necessity of adaptation for survival. All the characters in The Death of Grass alter throughout the narrative, and arguably morally deteriorate. Therefore, Buckley’s ‘Othering’ of the East is ironic, as his insistence on British superiority is undermined through the individuals’ own actions.

Said highlights the association of the ‘Oriental’ with the “delinquents, the insane, women, [and] the poor” of the West, possessing a “lamentably alien” common identity and seen as “problems to be solved or confined or (…) taken over” (207). The concept of ‘Othering’ associates the outcasts of Western Capitalist society with the Taoist East, highlighting the estranged nature of anyone who falls outside these value systems. This is a misguided form of self-preservation, perceiving threats to ‘racial purity’ from multiculturalism. The use of the word “alien” to describe these marginalised parties is akin to the Science Fiction concept of the alien, and Kerslake suggests the “exchange of term ‘East’ for ‘extra-terrestrial’” (15); this works as form of cognitive estrangement, allowing the reader to interrogate post-colonial theory outside the framework of imperialism.

‘Othering’ is linked to the troubling concepts of eugenics and genocide through the association with the Nazi regime. Whilst Christopher’s novel takes place following World War II, Dick’s novel presents an alternate history if the Axis powers had succeeded. Therefore, it is necessary for the reader to acknowledge the colonialist legacy of the West in the twentieth century, as Kerslake does, noting how “the peoples of India, Africa and the South Americas had been ‘discovered’ and assimilated into a Western Weltanshauung years before an incessant Capitalism demanded the full-scale deconstruction and mutations of non-Western cultures” (11). Kerslake’s makes an overt reference to German epistemology, and direct allusion to the European invasion of Africa throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, colloquially referred to as a ‘scramble’; these events can be directly linked to the narrative of Dick’s novel.

In The Man in the High Castle, Robert Childan expresses his mingled horror and awe with regards to the Third Reich, remarking how “it had taken two hundred years to dispose of the American aborigines, and Germany had almost done it in Africa in fifteen years” (Dick, 30). The use of the term “dispose” links to Said’s concept of ‘Othering’ as perceiving subordination and inferiority, objectifying non-white races and reinforcing the idea of them as unwanted and bizarrely not indigenous to these territories.  Furthermore, the German genocide of Africa is the considered more efficient than the European destruction of the American aborigines; Childan’s racism is two-fold, as he exploits stereotypes of German efficiency and logic and, as an American, he is also mocking his own European ancestors. Childan’s attitudes are a contradictory mix of self-loathing and hatred of the ‘Other’, as he is an American artisan whose livelihood depends on commodifying American cultural artefacts for Japanese consumption. As a product of colonialism, Childan’s national identity is a source of patriotism but also cultural dissonance. Furthermore, Childan’s mockery of German rationale is deeply ironic in light of Said’s Orientalism, as Europe’s status as rational is an elevating quality. The implication is that genocide has been brought about by the collective Germany mentality of unfeeling progress, and the comparison of the timeframes of the obliteration of the aborigines and the destruction of the African people is a perverse advancement of European superiority.

The fear of the East is not only expressed through ‘Othering’, but also through the legacy of colonialism. The expansionist vision of ‘discovery’ was in fact a policy of exploitation, both of the resources and culture of the ‘new world’. Differing cultures were assimilated or suppressed, resources appropriated and countries re-mapped. The undiscovered was enigmatic, and therefore by creating geographical borders and disregarding indigenous place names, the colonisers advocated the denial or subjugation of native culture. After the discovery of new cultures, there was a prevalent attitude of the necessity to ennoble and civilise the ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ races by imparting Western Capitalist values. However, there persists the underlying sense of ‘Otherness’; the idea that despite the West’s best efforts, the non-white races will remain inherently different, and therefore inferior.

Robert Childan expresses his fear of the East by referring to the Kasouras as “not exactly human”, insisting that “[t]hey don the dress but they’re like monkeys dolled up in the circus. They’re clever and they can learn, but that is all.” (Dick, 114 – 115, author’s emphasis). Dick overtly dehumanises and ‘Others’ the Japanese, referring to them as “monkeys dolled up at the circus”. Childan portrays the Japanese as performing Western values, denoting the superficial “dress” and alluding to the Western voyeur of the exotic spectacle of the East; reference to the circus evokes the grotesque and carnivalesque. The Japanese culture is not allowed to exist in and of itself but can only be tolerated as a form of entertainment for the Western consumer.  Carter notes the merging of Eastern and Western cultures through Dick’s Japanese characters “speak[ing] English, fetishiz[ing] American cultural objects and hav[ing] Christian names” (333); they therefore reflect values instilled in them by the previous colonialism of the West over the East. The Kasouras are as much a symbol of the legacy of colonialism as Childan’s own internalised racism. Childan’s insistence that the Japanese are “clever and they can learn, but that is all” implies the flow of knowledge from the superior West to the inferior East, praising the Japanese power of imitation, limiting their potential beyond mimicry into original thought.

Childan refers to the Japanese “pilfer[ing] customs right and left” and is adamant that “only the white races [are] endowed with creativity” (Dick, 112). This statement creates an arbitrary dichotomy between the “white races” of the West and the ‘non-whites’ of the East. The “endowed with creativity” contains connotations of lineage and virility, alluding to the threat to racial ‘purity’, and aligns innovation and originality with the white West. Childan’s racism is deeply ironic considering his livelihood is based on accommodating the Japanese penchant for American culture. Furthermore, Childan’s internalised prejudice is expressed in Japanese idioms; despite his inferiority complex and hatred of the Japanese, Childan has nonetheless subconsciously adopted Japanese customs. Childan uses an internal monologue to express his contempt for the Kasouras, remarking that their “powers of imitation are immense (…) you could paste together out of tin and rice paper a completely artificial America” (Dick, 113). The use of “tin and rice paper” highlights the merging and borrowing of cultural identifiers, alluding to the consumer culture of America with disposable packaged foods. Furthermore the image juxtaposes the industrial strength of tin with the fragile organic matter of rice paper. The construction of a “completely artificial America” works both to highlight the replication of the Japanese, as well as the inherent inauthenticity of American culture as a product of colonialism.

Childan’s condemnation of the Kasouras’ American cultural identifiers is later subverted by a conversation with Paul Kasoura regarding Edfrank jewellery. Earlier in the narrative, Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy express a disgust at mass-produced “goddam tourist trash pieces, all alike. Supposedly native art” (Dick, 50). The deliberate use of the term “native” evokes the legacy of imperialism, alluding to the debasement of aborigine cultural objects to be mass-produced for travellers, eventually not even being made by aborigines themselves. The insistence on “trash pieces, all alike” refers to the basic quality of the items as inextricably linked to their impersonal and standardised creation, and evokes the Marxist theory of worker alienation as a result of the division of labour. Frink and McCarthy’s fear of becoming consumerist trinket peddlers rests on the conversation between Robert Childan and Paul Kasoura, which takes place later in the narrative. After being perplexed by the object, Paul suggests their profitability as “[g]ood-luck charms. To be worn. By relatively poor people. A line of amulets to be peddled all over Latin America and the Orient. Most of the masses still believe in magic (…) It’s a big business, I am told” (Dick, 174). Kasoura’s reaction is purposely indifferent and neutral, as he places the power over this American enterprise in Childan’s hands.

This passage demonstrates the complex and shifting relationship between the coloniser and the colonised, as the power dynamic alters between the two men. Kasoura’s allusion to the belief in magic amongst the masses underpins the ‘Othering’ of the East as regressive and irrational, dichotomising science and folklore. Kasoura’s deliberate use of the word “Orient” acknowledges the patrimony of imperialism and Western ‘Othering’ of the East. As a member of the elite Japanese in America, Kasoura re-appropriates the word in a detrimental manner, distancing himself from the “poor people” in “Latin America and the Orient”. By establishing a clear boundary between the affluent Japanese in America and the poverty-stricken Japanese still living in Japan, Paul’s justification of artisan Americans profiting off the working class Japanese is a perverse act of ‘Othering’; he fears the East from which he has originated.

Warrick highlights Childan’s refusal to “bastardize authentic art, turn it into trinkets” as “[t]he wu, the authenticity, will be lost” (184). Warrick’s use of the term “bastardize” relates to Childan’s misguided view of racial and cultural purity, alluding to America as a child of European imperialism and evoking the language of patrimony. Childan believes he ultimately chooses to reclaim American culture over exploiting a profit; however Edfrank jewellery is redeemed solely by possessing “wu”, a Taoist value. Childan’s heroic advocacy of American originality is in fact partially borne of his desire to assimilate with Eastern values. Through Childan’s complex value system, Dick uses cognitive estrangement to allow the Western reader to question the fear of the East.

By creating a dissection between two factions, both authors employ the in-group out-group bias, establishing an opposition and desire for distance and defamilarisation.  Early in the narrative in The Death of Grass, Roger Buckley underscores this division: “[t]hey told us that we were different from the Asiatics, and by God they were right. The belt tightens notch by notch, and no one complains” (Christopher, 43). The unknown “[t]hey” authorise and reinforce this concept of British superiority through an emphasis on “difference”. Buckley refers to “the Asiatics”, highlighting his intolerance and ignorance, as he invents an amalgamation of several cultures and races. This works to remove cultural identifiers for these various nations, reducing them to a group of outsiders, anything other than British. The imagery of “the belt tighten[ing] notch by notch” alludes to the rationing of World War II and stereotypical British stoicism in the face of hardship. The image of the tightening belt can be likened to the image of a noose, slowly suffocating the individual over time. The restriction of food parallels a restriction of freedom; the physical reduction of the person is related to the destruction of selfhood, with the individual prioritising the needs of the community through their participating in systematic rationing. This image of a tightening belt is parallel to Christopher’s earlier portrayal of the Hong Kong riots as akin to the Australian rabbit-plagues; whilst the caged rabbits highlight the frenzy of confinement and the desperate need for survival, the tightening belt is an overtly civilised image. The individual himself is responsible and active in their own restriction, rather than passive and restrained. The image of a slowly starving person uses food as the definitive resource and symbol of affluence, and relates to the West’s complex relationship with the excess and purging of consumerist goods.

Dick’s novel takes place in an Axis-controlled America, where the East has already conquered the West; in Christopher’s novel the commonwealth countries are places of relief and refuge for European political leaders and royal families (Christopher, 117).  Christopher uses images of territory and conquest in relation to the spread of the Chung-Li virus.  It is described as “a Rome. If the counter-virus had been even a France or a Spain it would have been all right. But it was only a Sweden” (Christopher, 46). By using the explicit imagery of empire, Christopher emphasises the significance of geographical borders and historical victory. The comparison of the Chung-Li virus to Rome refers to the Roman Empire, which engulfed most of Europe. The counter-virus is aligned with Sweden, whose neutrality was notable during World War II. By assigning nationalities to the virus and anti-virus, Christopher intrinsically links the natural disaster to cultural and national identities, transforming the rightfully feared virus to an emblem of the East as a whole.

The description of the increasing riots as simultaneous with the spread of the virus emphasises the concept of ‘Othering’ and underscores the legacy of colonialism. Christopher describes how

[f]irst India, then Burma and Indo-China relapsed into famine and barbarism. Japan and the eastern states of the Soviet wave went shortly afterwards, and Pakistan erupted into a desperate wave of Western conquers which, composed though it was of starving and unarmed vagabonds, reached into Turkey before it was halted. (Christopher, 30)

The use of the word “barbarism” harks back to the colonialist view of the native peoples as ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’, and the term “relapse” implies the recurrence of a past issue or habit, as though these races were made ‘civilised’ and then reverted to their original inferior form. The description of an “erupt[ion] into a desperate wave of Western conquers” is “halted”, and Christopher employs language of the militia to describe the disasters in the East in an indifferent tone. The overt fear of the Eastern invasion of the West is portrayed in the word “halted”; the desperation of these “starving and unarmed vagabonds” is ignored in favour of self-preservation and re-enforcing borders. The term “vagabond” itself is multi-layered, as it refers to both a nomadic vagrant, but also contains negative connotations of poverty and degradation.

Both authors portray a Western fear of the East through a fear of the unknown and intolerance to cultural differences. The reader experiences cognitive estrangement through Christopher’s dystopia with a post-colonial sub-text, and Dick’s alternate history which subverts historical fact and the reader’s familiar world view. Through the coding of ‘Othering’ and acknowledging the legacy of colonialism, both The Death of Grass and The Man in the High Castle portray a fear of the East; the former through a fear of the Chung-Li virus and the latter through the spread of Taoism in Capitalist America. The power of ‘Othering’ lies in differentiating oneself from another, creating an in-group out-group bias and establishing an arbitrary dichotomy. By exploring Christopher and Dick’s work, this essay exemplifies the futility of ‘Othering’ and fearing this ‘Other’ by examining cultural overlaps and highlighting the complex relationship between the coloniser and the colonised.


Works Cited

Carter, Cassie. “The Metacolonization of Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’: Mimicry, Parasitism, and Americanism in the PSA.” Science Fiction Studies 22.3 (1995): 333- 42. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Christopher, John. The Death of Grass. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. Print.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001. Print.

Fritzsche, Sonja. “Reconceptualizing East German Popular Literature via the Science Fiction Niche.” The German Quarterly 77.4 (2004): 443-61. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Kerslake, Patricia. Science Fiction and Empire. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K, ed. Susan Wood. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2003. Print.

Warrick, Patricia. “The Encounter of Taoism and Facism in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’” Science Fiction Studies, 7.2 (1980): 174-190. JSTOR. Web. 04 Mar 2015.

Into the Woods

Into the Woods

Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim (also responsible for the wonderful Sweeney Todd), Into the Woods is Disney’s take on the ironic fairytale mash-up. Whilst I really enjoyed the musical, I had pretty low expectations for the film adaptation, expecting Disney to butcher the subtleties and remove the hilarious innuendos. Whilst most sexual references were removed to appeal to families (Disney’s primary target audience), they kept some key things and the irony wasn’t completely lost. It also had beautiful settings that captured the overly vivid fantasy world, decent CGI, and an all-star cast to fall back on. However, there were still people who left during the opening number because they hadn’t realised it was a musical…

Interweaving the traditional tales of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (an underused Johnny Depp), Rapunzel, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Jack and the Beanstalk, the film is concerned with a childless Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) on their quest to reverse a Witch’s (Meryl Streep) curse on their family. All the characters end up crossing paths in the woods and act out their classic storylines whilst the Baker and Wife attempt to obtain objects from each of them.

After the classic happily ever after, each character begins to question their desires and the realities of their new lives. I love that the musical is self-conscious of fairytale convention and plays on the audience’s familiarity with the plot of each tale. For example, the Princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) are “charming, not sincere”.

Whilst it is an ensemble cast, some characters are given more screen time or more dynamic numbers. However, I’ve always empathised with the Baker and his wife’s storyline, as they seem at the crux of the entangled woes and desires of all the other characters. I consider Streep a dynamic actress and thought she did a great job with a role that could have been better developed by the adaptation, Blunt surprised me both with her vocals and characterisation, handling both the emotive and comedic aspects better than I’d anticipated.

Disney’s adaptation wasn’t as sharp in humour, and I felt the film lacked because it sanitised the darker aspects that were so appealing in the musical. I chose numbers from the film I felt most captured the tone of Sondheim’s original musical. ‘Into the Woods’ works because it subverts conventions and mocks the censoring of fairytales, which occurred once the genre became marketed for children and used by parents to patronise with moral or cautionary lessons. I love reworkings of fairytales that exploit the dark and disturbing elements and use satirical humour, but despite its strengths, I feel the narrative lost a lot of that in Disney’s adaptation.

It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra‘s 1948 Christmas classic is not immediately striking as a piece of Sci-Fi. However, I want to explore the paradox of George Bailey’s wish that he had never been born, and the consequences of this alternate fate for his friends, family and home town if he had never existed.

On Christmas eve, George (James Stewart) is contemplating taking his own life after an series of misfortunes led him facing imprisonment and public ruin. He bitterly realises he is worth more dead because of his life insurance.
The audience is shown moments that have shaped his character, and George has sacrificed for duty, community values and his family’s stability. His own ambitions, such as travel and education, have consistently come second. Some key incidents include rescuing his younger brother from drowning, and negotiating the Wall Street Crash  by giving up his honeymoon to prevent panicked citizens from being exploited by magnate Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
George’s nobility stems from his role as the average man, modest in his deeds and simply striving to do the right thing. His life in itself seems unremarkable: in sleepy Bedford Falls he is scraping together a living, sacrificing his time and money to help others, he has a wife, children and a work-in-progress home.
It is only when George sees what the world would have been without him that he realises what a wonderful life he has (film title, roll credits!). To me, it’s reminiscent of John Donne’s “No man is an island“; each person’s life is entwined with those around them.
His metaphysical self observes the chaos, but is unable to change anything until he asks angel Clarence (Henry Travers) for his wish to be undone and declares he wants to live. The paradox occurs in that George is walking around in a world where he doesn’t exist, but his actions are affecting this world. An interesting question arises where he is being pursued and shot at by police, could he die? Technically he has ceased to exist, so can you kill a non-existing entity? This doesn’t become an issue in the film, but it’s an interesting question to consider. What counts as existing? Would his physical self be harmed? It appears not, as his cut lip heals once he wishes to never have been born.
Now I must take issue with the alternate fate for George’s wife Mary (Donna Reed).  In the world where George exists, she often tells her husband she was resolved not to marry anyone else if she couldn’t be with him. Whilst this is a touching notion, it’s not only unrealistic but also hinders gender equality. In the alternate world, Mary chose to become a librarian spinster (the horror!)
Although the paradox serves to make George Bailey realise his life’s worth, I think it raises fascinating questions about tampering with time and the malleability of the past. The individual seems insignificant, however ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ proves that each person makes their own mark on the world and hopefully tries to improve it. And whilst that may seem maudlin, if you can’t be sentimental at Christmas, when can you?
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One

Based on the young adult series by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games has become a bit of a phenomenon since the first film was released back in 2012. Boasting a larger production budget, even more glorious cast and a gorgeous soundtrack, Mockingjay Part One had high expectations. Beware of spoilers, all ye who enter here.

When we last saw our young heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), she was reeling in the aftermath of the Quarter Quell, having electrified the arena and temporarily disrupted the Capitol’s plans. She had just discovered the existence of a rebel faction in the apparently abandoned District 13. Run as an underground organisation by President Coin (Julianne Moore), the District possesses excellent defences and enough resources to sustain rescued victors as well as other deserters from Panem. Familiar faces, such as Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) make appearances to support Katniss in her new, if unwanted role, as the Mockingjay: the symbol of revolution. Mockingjays imitate, with one eventually leading the whole flock to sing one melody. The citizens use Rue’s whistle as a signal for action and become a collective, discarding their individualism, not for the false “Panem Forever” of the Capitol but for true unity.

The scale of the series has gone from the specific of the games to the larger Panem population. The stakes are higher, with more deaths at the hands of the Capitol. District 12 has been eradicated as a punishment for Katniss’ actions, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has begun a propaganda war between the Capitol and the rebels with Katniss and Peeta the pawns in the political game. There’s an effective juxtaposition between the gritty underground bunker of the rebels and the shining artifice of the Capitol, but the audience gets a few rare glimpses into the latter. This adds to speculation regarding the treatment of the victors that weren’t rescued by the rebels.

This trailer is a great piece of meta-fiction as it demonstrates the key element of District 13 hacking into the Capitol’s network, reclaiming control over the media. There is ‘Capitol TV‘ propaganda and President Snow’s addresses that were released in the run-up to the film’s opening. Katniss spearheads the motto: “If we burn, you burn with us” whilst Peeta asks: “How will this end? No one can survive this”. Katniss is put back into the fray with a camera/defence team to create propaganda that will truly move the people. Whilst Katniss chooses to be the Mockingjay symbol of her own free will, she is still manipulated as the rebel figurehead.

Peeta’s manipulation is more explicit and overtly immoral, but the rebels’ actions are almost as questionable as those of the Capitol. President Coin makes speeches similar to those of President Snow, and she is adamant that there can be no victory without “sacrifice”. One of the most provoking scenes in the movie takes place against an anthem of revolution almost evocative of African American spirituals. District 13 encourage citizens to go rogue but has very little power to protect them from the wrath of the Capitol.

Overall Mockingjay Part One was an incredibly strong film. It developed themes of control, competition and fear established in the series. It also raised troubling questions regarding the future of Panem and its citizens. There are some genuinely poignant moments and purposeful scenes of tension and action that are so effective because of the cinematography, soundtrack and diverse cast.

P.S. I’m planning to eventually write retrospective articles about Catching Fire and the original Hunger Games film.

V For Vendetta

V For Vendetta

Adapted from the 1980s comic, written by Alan Moore with artwork by David Lloyd (and contributions from Tony Weare), V For Vendetta has become traditional watching for Bonfire Night since its release in 2006. I’ve read parts of the comic, but I’ll mostly focus on the film. This article contains spoilers.

In the near future, after the disintegration of the United States, and with the rest of Europe under siege by a deadly virus, Britain is run as a facist police state by a totalitarian government, headed by Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt, ironically also in 1984). This dictatorship boasts heavy surveillance, curfew for ‘citizen protection’, and corrupt secret police known as Fingermen. The government have complete media control, censoring news and issuing goverment-approved cultural material. Everything considered ‘other’ is dangerous, with political protesters and ‘enemies of the state’ removed to concentration camps.

Our anti-hero ‘V’ (Hugo Weaving) crosses paths with Evey (Natalie Portman), the daughter of political activists and employee of state-run TV station BTN, and enlists her help. After ‘V’ infiltrates the BTN, he broadcasts a message to the people of the UK, citing revolution and rebellion:

Evey, now considered a fugitive, is taken in by ‘V’ and begins to understand his motivations and empathise with his cause. However, after witnessing first hand ‘V”s stolen contraband and violent agenda, she flees to the home of friend Dietrich (Stephen Fry). After parodying Sutler on his TV show, Dietrich is ‘bagged’ by the government. Evey is also taken, but not by the government, as she believes. In an elaborate psychological experiment, ‘V’ imprisons Evey for several months, humiliating, interrogating and torturing her for information, simulating the real-life experiences of many citizens. Once she discovers the truth, she eventually considers it a kind of awakening. She is fearless and therefore the government are powerless against her sense of self.

Since his initial speech, ‘V’ has set into motions a chain of events caused by the people’s acknowledgement of their dissatisfaction with their government. With a plan to succeed where Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators failed, ‘V’ has asked people to join him outside the Houses of Parliament, in masks just like his, on November 5th a year after his broadcast. Even the police, after discovering the horrors created by their own government and the tragedy of ‘V’s origin, empathise. This protest is the amalgamation of an idea and that idea is chaos in their ordered world. And “ideas are bulletproof“, as ‘V’ tells us.

Whilst the film has many a plot hole, it is visually and aurally satisfying, has a cracking cast (imcluding Roger Allam as a bigoted soldier turned obnoxious TV ranter) and some ridiculous slow-motion action scenes (courtesy of the team that brought you The Matrix). It explores themes of revolution, rebellion, state control and the power of individuals.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

It hugely frustrates me that films rarely portray relationships with all their flaws, in tandem with the usual start of the relationship falling-in-love montage. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) is a gorgeous combination of innovative cinematography, a strong cast and a fragmented narrative about a turbulent relationship.

Set in a near future where mind control has become akin to private medical treatment, individuals have been given the option to erase memories pertaining to another person. Dr Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) runs Lacuna Inc, a clinic specialising in memory wiping with the assistance of Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood). Dr Mierzwiak refers to the treatment as a type of controlled “brain damage” and makes a throwaway remark that post Valentine’s is the most prolific time for Lacuna.

Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have a difficult relationship, to put it mildly. The film chronicles their relationship in non-linear sequence, with surreal scenes that take place in Joel’s own memories. The film revisits moments in their intersecting lives that are both painful and beautiful, documenting conversations, desires and arguments, as well as unspoken emotions relating to those memories.

The two protagonists have contrasting personalities; Joel is taciturn, self-deprecating and socially anxious whilst Clementine is impulsive, wild and passionate. Clementine and Joel antagonise and manipulate each other, in a way that only two people with complete intimacy can. The narrative of their unlikely relationship revolves around themes of love and loss, as well as the underlying question of whether a relationship is ever irrevocably broken. Both Joel and Clementine are affected by their choices, whether motivated by spite or impulse, they must live with the consequences of altering their memories. This raises questions of selfhood and purpose; are we simply the sum of memories? Are memories inextricably connected? Can we re-write our own histories?


When the lines between professional and personal blur, the staff at Lacuna become entangled with Joel and Clementine’s relationship. It seems almost unavoidable that those involved in the process get invested in some cases, and the information that they are privy to is liable to abuse. Issues of power, consent and privacy are prevalent when a sense of deja-vu overcomes Clementine and Joel, and the film questions whether attraction is innate and inevitable.

This is one of the most memorable scenes, which directly addresses the manic pixie dream girl trope. I love pretty much all the dialogue; for me it has the same sense of realism as Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight or ‘anti-rom-coms’ like 500 Days of Summer. Ironically, Winslet’s protagonist is addressing Zooey Deschanel‘s usual choice of roles as the aforementioned ‘manic pixie dream girl’. Whilst Clementine is a troubled character, she is rounded and well-developed in the film. She self-consciously addresses the audience’s expectations of female protagonists to fulfil an archetype, but Clementine’s character refuses to play a role. The characters are all flawed, but that’s what makes them relatable.

Eternal Sunshine remains one of my favourite films, as it takes a Sci-Fi trope with many connotations and sets it in a world not dissimilar from our own. The use of non-linear narrative works as a metaphor for the fragmentation of the characters’ minds, and allows the audience privileged access to their memories.

The Matrix

The Matrix

The ’90s idea of the future appeared to be everyone clad in leather toting chunky pieces of technology, and we look back at it with nostalgia.  In the year before the awkward Y2K incident, ‘The Matrix‘ was a bit of a sensation: a clever Sci-Fi film with a fresh approach to making philosophy meet pop culture.
The film plays on humanity’s underlying fear of being controlled by technology, with ‘the matrix’ blurring the line between reality and immersion in a fabricated realm. The characters must question reality, and the creators get to simplify philosophical concepts to make them palatable to the masses.
Epistemology (how we know things) and Ontology (the nature and existence of the world) are central themes to the films mind (and spoon bending) plot. The two philosophical concepts that recur are Descartes’ ‘Evil Demon/Genius‘  (hypothetical cunning creature creates the illusion of the world) and the ‘brain in a vat‘ hypothesis (evil scientist tricks brain into thinking it still inhabits a body) as methods of doubting  our foundations of knowledge.
Conspiracy Keanu Meme
In ‘The Matrix’ humanity has been subdued by a sentient machine; people are plugged into the mainframe, which sustains the machine and allows it to control their minds.
Whilst in this state, individuals imagine themselves to be in the world as we know it, and as they unaware of the illusion they cannot choose to break free of it. Reeves‘ character, Thomas Anderson, is a computer programmer by day and hacker by night.
Drawn into a group of rebels, including the fearless Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who have all been set ‘free’ from the machine, Neo (Anderson’s true identity) is given the choice to remain in the comfortable illusion or take the plunge and experience reality. This is where the famous red vs blue pill scene takes place, and ‘The Matrix’ makes heavy allusions to Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland‘.
Neo’s awakening
The rebels attempt to free others within the matrix, battling against the machine and its omnipresent ‘agents’, including the chilling Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), deployed throughout the virtual reality.
As well as references to children’s fantasy, the film also makes Biblical allusions, with Morpheus referring to Neo as “The One”. This messianic figure is prophesied to be a free human that leads the uprising against ‘The Matrix’ machine and emancipate humanity. The theme of self-fulfilling prophecy is explored as Neo struggles with Morpheus’ faith in him.
Trinity kicking ass
Though dated, ‘The Matrix’ still remains an great example of accessible philosophical concepts and an innovative representation of well-worn Sci-Fi themes and tropes. The combination of these, as well as memorable dialogue and some well paced action keeps the film from getting bogged down in philosophical and literary allusions.
But yeah, let’s not talk about those awkward sequels…