June 12, 2015
I finally got out to see this one, after my three weeks of travel. I made an effort because I’m worried it’s not going to be around much longer. So, what’s the verdict?
The short review: Holy cow, it really is “The Gernsback Continuum” as an action movie!
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way: It’s too long, the story takes too long to get going, the action scenes drag, and it divides its plot arc between two different main characters, which doesn’t entirely work. But I do love that we have a tough, smart girl main character in Casey. Also, and this just kind of struck me as weird, the movie is entirely devoid of mothers and mother figures. We briefly glimpse Casey’s mother in an old home video. Then she just vanishes. Young Frank has a dad but not a mom, and apparently no one even noticed when he hied off to Tomorrowland, effectively vanishing in the real world. Am I the only one bothered by this?
Now for the philosophy. The film’s philosophy is ambitious, rather heavy handed, and can be summed up with two quotes and a bunch of jet pack imagery.
First, we have Frank at the start of the movie: “When I was a kid, the future was different.” There’s this narrative that goes something like this: if we had built moon bases in 1973, we’d all have jet packs now and everything would be perfect. This is an annoying and even dangerous narrative that leads to a kind of cargo cult thinking about space exploration: if we can just build moon bases/go to Mars, then we’ll all get jet packs and everything will be perfect. These advocates are the same people who’ve been moaning about the death of NASA since the end of the shuttle program, despite the fact that NASA has more hardware in space doing more awesome science than ever before. This narrative is rife with nostalgia and ignores all the social and scientific progress that really has been made over the last four decades (including advances in bioengineering that will likely be required if we ever do expect to have permanent settlements in space).
The film is firmly anchored in this nostalgia. Casey’s big project at the start is sabotaging the dismantling of a launch pad at nearby Cape Canaveral. As if having a launch pad in place with nothing to launch out of it will somehow save the dream of space travel. Did I mention cargo cult thinking?
But then we have Casey’s quote: “This place isn’t about hope. It’s the opposite of hope.” Aha, I thought. Bingo. An acknowledgement that the Cold War dynamic that drove the early space program was much more likely to lead to the destroyed Mad Max dystopian future than the jet pack future of the ’64 Worlds Fair. We didn’t miss out on a Gernsback future. We got exactly the future the 60’s and 70’s set up for us.
I think the movie is trying to have it both ways — indulging in the nostalgia while attempting to acknowledge that the nostalgia is problematic. It doesn’t quite work — it straddles the philosophies the same way it tries to straddle two different character arcs. When really, the whole movie should have focused on Casey. At least the message is ultimately hopeful: we really can change the fate of the world if we decide to.
And then the villain throws down this long speech about how dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction is destroying the world. That was kind of hilarious. As if the fiction drove the world instead of the world inspiring the fiction.
Bonus moment: The movie is just about worth it for this ten minute stretch in the middle that was pure unbridled steampunk awesomeness. But it did sort of feel like it belonged in a different movie.