The Red Turtle

Spoiler alert!

This film was such a disappointment! I had high hopes for it, the trailer was gorgeous, and it had Studio Ghibli attached – so what could go wrong?

I should say, first, that the art work is lovely throughout; the detail and realism of the island backgrounds and wildlife are worthy of Studio Ghibli, or other Japanese animation like the films of Mamoru Hosoda. The human characters bear no resemblance to saucer-eyed anime characters, and did seem more ‘French’ to me, reminding me of artists like Moebius (I may simply have been pre-biased by knowing it was a French co-production, or this may just be due to the fact that it does not look like anime or Disney). The sound effects of the natural world, as well as the soundtrack, are also superb.

The story is of a shipwrecked man stranded on a deserted island. After exploring the island, he builds a raft from bamboo and attempts an escape. Some invisible force destroys the raft a short distance from the island, and the same thing happens when he builds a second, bigger raft. A third, still bigger raft is also destroyed, but this time the giant red turtle of the title is there, and the man assumes it is her attacking him and his raft, although she leaves him alone when he is in the water.

After the third attempt, the man sees the red turtle coming up onto the beach. In a fit of rage, he smashes her over the head with a bamboo pole, turns her onto her back, jumps on her, then leaves her to die in the sun.

Later, feeling guilty, he tries to revive her by pouring seawater over her head, and also tries and fails to right her. It doesn’t work and she appears to die, her shell splitting open.

Then, she turns into a woman, unconscious, and still lying inside the split shell. The man feeds her fresh water, and builds a shelter over her. After a brief rain storm she becomes conscious, and runs into the shallow water near the beach.

The man leaves her his shirt and walks away into the bamboo forest, when he returns to the beach, he sees the woman in the water, walking away from the beach, pushing the floating turtle shell in front of her. When she reaches deeper water, she pushes the shell off out to sea and returns to the beach.

The man responds by doing the same with the forth raft he had started to build. Then they sit on a sand bank, and the woman starts breaking open mussel shells, feeding them both. The man has a flashback to smashing her over the head and shudders, the women now appears unafraid of the man.

Then they walk from the beach into a meadow on the island, and both float up into the air together – a PG metaphor for sex, as we then skip to years later, when they have a toddler son.

The rest of the story covers the boy’s growth into manhood; he swims out to sea with other giant turtles (they are all green, but he has red hair like his mother), and eventually swims off with them for good. There is also a tsunami that devastates the island before he leaves.

After the son leaves, the man and women stay on the island together until they are old and grey, then the man dies in his sleep, and the woman turns back into a turtle and heads back out to sea.

The problem I had with the film while watching it, is that it looks like the man is rewarded for his act of cruel violence by being given a compliant, silent, wife. I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt while watching, hoping there would be something later in the story to mitigate it, but I don’t think there was.

There is no talking in the film, and we never see the story from the woman’s perspective (we see the man’s dreams and hallucinations while he is alone on the island, as well as his flashback). There are lots of fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment trapping them in animal form, or stories like The Little Mermaid, where a magical/mythical creature chooses to be transformed into human form (and these transformations are often violent, or come at a cost), but it is never clear which is the case for The Red Turtle, and there is no way the man knew in advance that this is what would happen, it is obviously a complete surprise to him.

It is not clear what force is keeping the man on the island – is the red turtle supposed to represent the spirit of the island itself? But the island, when it is devastated by the tsunami, is shown to be a normal island, at the mercy of the elements. Was she in love with him from the start? But we only see them ‘meet’ right before he attacks her, they build no relationship with her as the turtle – the brief moment when they first see each other is actually quite moving, it feels like two sentient creatures making first contact, but that is then spoilt by the later violence.

I can see what the story is trying to do, it is aiming for mythic resonance, but I don’t think it achieves it. As a whole, the story itself is best at the beginning, when the man is first washed up on the island, as he explores his new environment (and as an aside, ‘mild peril’ my arse! The moment when he is trapped in a deep-sided pool and forced to swim underwater through a very narrow tunnel to escape terrified me!). The details of this first half build the character of the man, he dreams of a bamboo bridge out to sea that he flies along, and hallucinates a chamber orchestra. There is humour to his Sisyphean raft building, and there are cute crabs for comic relief.

The rest of the story, covering decades, feels sparse by comparison, and the woman never really has a character at all. We only see her swimming once as a human, she doesn’t even go into the sea when her toddler son falls into the same pool that his father fell into before. There is one moment, when the man draws pictures in the sand to show the son that there is a whole world beyond the island, and she adds a drawing of a turtle, but it is not clear if this means she misses her people, or if she is just telling her son that there is that option for him as well.

So, I was disappointed, because the need for the violence of the transformation is never explained, and there is not enough character development to see why the woman wants to stay with him anyway. I worry about the message it portrays, that (male) violence (against a woman) is an acceptable prelude to romantic love and devotion.

“Popular culture is popular for a reason”

Popular culture is popular for a reason; even the most forgettable and disposable works touch on matters of authentic psychological urgency, despite distorting and falsifying and debasing them. That’s why the good ones – the ones that pull more than a few threads from the underlying tangle and let them show through the shiny surface of simplification – take hold of the imagination in ways that defy their modest artistic merits.

Richard Brody, reviewing Fifty Shades Darker in the New Yorker

Manchester by the Sea and Was


Last month I went to see Manchester by the Sea, and re-read Geoff Ryman’s Was.

Manchester by the Sea was funnier, and not as unrelentingly grim, as I had been expecting (and fearing) from the reviews I read beforehand. It tells the story of Lee, a man to whom something terrible happens (I won’t spoil what exactly), something that changes his life, and his family’s lives completely, that affects his entire community. Years later, he has to go back home after his brother dies, and his now teenaged nephew needs a guardian.

The thing that makes this such a good film is that there is no clear-cut redemption, there is no feel-good happy ending; Lee’s life changes, but he isn’t ‘fixed’, he’s never going to be ok, ever, but his life still goes on, still damaged. It’s a good film because it handle’s this with respect, it never feels voyeuristic (even though we have to wait to see exactly what happened that caused Lee to leave town), it never feels like the character is being tortured to death by the story for the sake of it (or for the sake of ‘proving’ some bizarre ideological point); it shows that life doesn’t have any larger purpose, or higher meaning, terrible things happen, but people still carry on, scraping something together for themselves.

Was, published in 1992, combines the stories of Judy Garland, the filming of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, an actor dying of AIDS in the 1980’s, Frank Baum, and the ‘real’ Dorothy Gael who inspired him.

Geoff Ryman is one of the most compassionate and humanist writers I have read (ages ago, I found a description of literary humanism I really like, in this review of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: “authentic humanism, meaning a consideration (both celebratory and cautionary) of human doings and undoings”); he is an author whose works I return to again and again – I have lost count of how many times I have read Was, and I would also particularly recommend his books Lust and Air, and his short-story collection Paradise Tales (if the story in that collection about the Angel of the North doesn’t move you, nothing will).

Was also covers difficult subjects, death and loneliness and the abuse (emotional and physical and sexual) of children, and describes people continually striving to live meaningful lives; but, as with Manchester by the Sea, it is never there to shock or titillate. Ryman shows compassion for all his characters, even the bad ones, without ever making excuses for them.

Ryman also does his research! He travelled and read and researched what Kansas was like in the late 19th Century, and the real-life accounts he discovered expanded and enriched his own story telling.

In his afterword, Ryman says: “I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism. Because I am a fantasy writer, I am particularly aware that every work of fiction, however realistic, is a fantasy. It happens in a world that is an alternative to this one.” He later adds:

I fell in love with realism because it deflated the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth – history.

I love fantasy because it reminds us how far short our lives fall from their full potential. Fantasy reminds us how wonderful the world is. In fantasy, we can imagine a better life, a better future. In fantasy, we can free ourselves from history and outworn realism.

Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don’t. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand.

Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history – our own personal history, our country’s history. Where we are deluded by fantasy – our own fantasy, our country’s fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy wherever possible.

And use them against each other.

Arrival / Story of Your Life


SPOILER ALERT: I am writing about the film Arrival specifically as an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, so it will be spoiler heavy for both.

I loved this film so much, I think it is a great film in its own right, and I think it is probably the best adaptation possible, even if it doesn’t manage to do the central concept of Chiang’s short story justice.

I re-read ‘Story of Your Life’ before going to see Arrival (and I read it again to write this post); I wanted to make sure I really understood the original ideas before seeing the adaptation. The only downside to this is that I will never get to see the film fresh, unaware, I will never really know if it works on its own. I want to see it again already, so I can just enjoy it, instead of constantly anticipating how well it does/does not match the short story.

Ted Chiang’s short stories contain more craft, more in the way of ideas, than most full-length novels. His stories are what I think of when I say ‘hard SF’, where the ideas are central to the story; most science fiction is merely adventure stories with an SF setting, and you could tell the same story in a fantasy or historical setting. But, unusually for hard SF, ‘Story of Your Life’ is also fully engaged with human emotions, there is no ‘action’ in the short story at all.

Films have to be visual, hence the ‘looking glasses’ of the original are replaced with giant spaceships (and the visuals of these are stunning). I love the way the aliens and their writing were actualised on screen; making the heptapods vaguely squid-like creatures who appear to ‘swim’ through their heavily gaseous atmosphere, and their written language rendered in squirted ink, is brilliant, and builds on and augments the original descriptions in the short story.

There has been a lot added to the story, there is military control of the alien contact in the original story, but nothing about how the rest of the world reacts, except one brief line near the beginning of the short story: “The government said next to nothing about them, while the tabloids said every possible thing.”

But it all makes sense; of course there would be mass panic, of course there would be military and political machinations, of course there would be military grunts influenced by internet based right-wing shock-jocks. And of course, for the film, there needs to be a plot, something big at stake.

There is something very prescient and necessary about the ideas of co-operation and communication in Arrival, and about the importance of getting communication right; the Chinese use Mahjong to communicate with the heptapods, pre-biasing their interpretation of the alien conversation to one of conflict.

Some things have to be glossed over, like the long hard work of deciphering the heptapod languages, which is there in the short story, but handled in a voice-over and montage in the film – it was wonderful, though, to see the acting out of verbs kept in, as Ian (renamed from Gary in the short story for no reason I can think of) walks along and a heptapod ‘walks’ along beside him.

The biggest change is adding a purpose to the alien’s visit, they know humans will help them in 3000 years time, so they are making first contact now. In the short story, there is no discernable purpose to their visit.

In the short story it isn’t that the aliens can see the future and change their actions accordingly, their subjective experience of time is entirely different to our own. We only experience time, past and present, cause and effect, because that’s the way our brains are wired.

At this point it’s easier to quote from ‘Story of Your Life’ than to try to explain it in my own words:

“The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand these concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.”

“For the hepatapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they use language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already know what would be said in any conversation; but in order for that knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”

“Even though I’m proficient with Heptapod B, I know I don’t experience reality the way a heptapod does. My mind was cast in the mould of human, sequential languages, and no amount of immersion in an alien language can completely reshape it. My worldview is an amalgam of human and heptapod.

“Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present. After I learned Heptapod B, new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn’t arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades. It is the period during which I know Heptapod B well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with [the heptapods] and ending with my death.

“Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive – during those glimpses – that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours.”

Arrival shows the cognitive changes brought about by immersion in the heptapod language as a literal time travel, as a super-power, with Louise ‘jumping’ into a future event, where the Chinese general feels compelled to give her vital information she needs in the present to influence events. This is a crude rendering of the central idea of ‘Story of Your Life’, but a necessary one, I don’t think there is any better way it could have been shown on screen, not in a commercially viable SF film anyway.

‘Story of Your Life’ is as much about human emotions, particularly of motherhood, as it is about first contact, the micro and the macro. It’s there in the film too when Ian says that meeting Louise was just as important to him as making first contact.

This centrality of motherhood/emotion/relationships is as interesting for an SF film as it is for a hard SF short story. The scenes with Louise and her daughter at the beginning of the film reminded me of Malick’s Tree of Life. It is in jarring contrast with Nocturnal Animals, another Amy Adams film, which I saw about a week before Arrival. I found Nocturnal Animals to be entirely hollow, a millimetre thin shell of style with absolutely nothing underneath (I know that’s supposed to be the ‘point’, but I still found it pointless). There are some things, films and TV programmes particularly, which simply come across as ‘men men men men men’, and I switch off completely, this was one of them. Women being raped and murdered to further a man’s storyline is a tired old trope (but credit where it’s due, at least the husband/father says at one point that he wanted to know how his wife and daughter felt while it was happening).

It’s good to see SF showing something different, to see an SF film showing the full potential range of the genre, to have an SF film outdoing a more mainstream, ‘artistic’ film; it is not entirely unprecedented either, Interstellar placed a high value on the emotional bonds between characters (albeit to the point of silliness at times).

Cerebral SF films are few and far between compared to action SF films. As well as Arrival and Interstellar, I would count Gravity as cerebral, but maybe not Inception (dreams don’t actually work like video games); The Prestige counts, but is more fantasy than science fiction. Otherwise you need to go back a few decades to films like Blade Runner and Silent Running. I hope Arrival‘s success will encourage more filmmakers to take a risk on this type of film.