Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

From Alien To The Matrix (2005) by Roz Kaveney

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A to Z titles only really work if they make it across the whole alphabet rather than just half way. From Alien To The Matrix does not seek to be comprehensive though, as Kaveney makes clear:

“There are many other important films I have not written about in this volume, and omission is not to be taken as a covert critical judgement.” [page 1]

The subtitle is perhaps also slightly misleading because the book’s primary concern is science fiction rather than film and this is at least as much a work of cultural studies as it is film studies.

Although there were earlier Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) the launch of Betamax in 1975 probably marks the beginning of the video age. The twenty year span from Alien (1979) to The Matrix (1999) maps the growth, maturation and finally death of this age (The Matrix was the first DVD to sell more than three million copies in the US). Kaveney is not interested in the video age itself so much as what it represents: the beginning of an era of “films whose production and consumption has been crucially affected by technology.” [page 2] This is an era that has seen massive developments in technical aspects such as special effects as well as viewers who have been able to take literal ownership of texts in a way they couldn’t previously. There is some discussion of the increasingly porous boundary between producers and consumers and the prevalence of geek culture but mostly Kaveney is interested in the way viewers interact with “thick” texts, those made up of layers of influence and collaboration with a life outside the cinema. In this way DVD, with its director commentaries and deleted scenes, represents a further thickening of the medium. This then is a handbook for the critical consumer and the seemingly eclectic selection of films covered is explicated by their thickness. (A cover quote by Neil Gaiman rather alarmingly describes the book as “arming the geeks with the tools to read films for the DVD generation.”)

If the book is unabashedly populist and aimed at the fan at home this does not explain or justify its puzzling casual approach to some of the fundamentals of criticism. Although not formatted as such, the book is split roughly in half. The first half examines various individual films and subgenres, the second examines the concept of cinema franchises and includes a four-part case study on the Alien films. Kaveney’s concerns are set out in Chapter 1, which is slightly odd formatting since it is clearly constitutes the book’s introduction. The big shock comes in the first chapter proper, on Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1997). A reference to Neil La Bute’s Possession (2002) appears in neither the index of films nor the index. On the next page Verhoeven’s Show Girls (1995) is mentioned, again with no listing in the index. Nor is this due to their non-genre status: a one sentence mention of Peeping Tom (1960) earns it a place in the index of films whilst a paragraph on John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) and Stephen Hopkins’ Predator 2 (1990) results in one mention in the index: for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie’s next indexed mention is on page 66 where another of McTiernan’s films (1993’s The Last Action Hero) is again ignored by the listing. In fact, the index tends to privilege actors at the expense of others such as writers and special effects luminaries like the late Stan Winston. This is particularly odd considering Kaveney is at pains to refer to these less visible figures throughout the book.

If the factual entries of the index are massively attenuated, the thematic entries are also bizarrely limited. There are just three such entries: Liminality and Thresholds; Metonymy; and Music. This does not seem to indicate a particularly useful or comprehensive approach to indexing and even these three slim aren’t exhaustive since the first use of metonymy on page 13 isn’t even referenced. To take just one example of a missed opportunity, Kaveney makes many useful observations from a queer perspective and it would have been helpful to collate them.

It is upsetting to have to write at such length about technical issues when I would much prefer to get into the meat of what Kaveney is saying but this book is, after all, a reference work and these omissions make it substantially less useful as such. Unfortunately, it is not the only area where the book is more casual than we would like as, when it is focussed, From Alien To The Matrix is excellent, but let us look at where it is most focused first.

In the second half, Kaveney analyses each of the four Alien films in turn, unknots the tangled genesis of the third and forth films to show the impact this has on the finished article and charts the evolution (and regression) of the films from original text to sequel to franchise. It is a brilliant sustained case study and my only regret is that there is not more of it. It is a pity that Serenity (2005) was not yet released when the book was written because there are interesting resonances to be explored with the Whedon scripted Alien Resurrection (1997). Kaveney acknowledges the links to Firefly but this is outside her remit and so does not pursue the matter. On a much more minor level, in the interests of intertextuality it is a shame that, having earlier explicitly mentioned “the woman who is fucked to death with a sharp implement” (182) in Se7en (1995), when she discusses Purvis’ revenge through impalement in Alien Resurrection she does not draw attention to the fact that in both cases the penetrator is played by Leland Orser.

Likewise the chapters that concentrate on individual films are the best of the rest of the book; the close reading of Strange Days (1995), in particular, is quite excellent. Returning to the first chapter, too often responses to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers are coloured by the viewer’s opinion of Heinlein. Kaveney is sympathetic to Heinlein but even handed in comparing the two texts and nimble and thorough at picking out what is problematic and praiseworthy with each. (As an aside, Kaveney mentions Nick Lowe in the acknowledgements to this book and it would be fascinating to re-read his review of Starship Troopers next to her piece. Unaccountably, given that he is science fiction’s best film critic, none of his work has been re-printed and alas all my copies of Interzone are all up in the loft.)

Turning to the chapters on subgenres though, it soon becomes apparent that what the introduction suggests is a relatively modest remit is actually much broader and ambitious. This is not just an examination of a selection of thick texts but a trawl through a great deal of science fiction film and literature. Take, for example, ‘The Decline And Fall Of The Alien Invasion’. This chapter has at its heart an examination of three examples of the subgenre – Mars Attacks! (1996), Independence Day (1996) and Dreamcatcher (2003) – but Kaveney is required to cover an awful lot of ground to build up to this examination. Not only does she provide a history of the alien invasion subgenre as the chapter title sets out but also detours into various other subgenres relating to aliens. This is virtually a book in itself and, given the constraints of space, inevitably things are sketched too quickly. The choice of texts is also questionable: Mars Attacks! and Independence Day form a useful pair but little is gained by adding Dreamcatcher. The pattern is repeated in the other chapters and in each case the asymmetrical focus on several core texts of the subgenre throws into sharp relief the way she schematically treats other texts she is less interested in.

This tendency is even apparent in some of the chapters on individual films. For example, Kaveney remarks in passing in the chapter on Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998) :

“It is odd how in Dante’s films it is almost impossible to distinguish between sentimental and cynical conclusions.” [page 57]

Nothing more is made of this. In a chapter that starts with a lengthy preamble of only tangential relevance that surveys some examples of literary robots it is surprising that there was not more room to discuss Dante’s actual films. In the same chapter she suggests that Verhoeven’s anti-militarism is just posturing. This is an extremely significant criticism that isn’t supported here or in the earlier chapter on Starship Troopers; a tendency to glamorise violence and an unpleasant instinct for the gratuitous certainly, but not this deeper, more personal claim.

From the initial discovery of the inadequacy of the indexing From Alien To The Matrix betrays the signs of being written and published in something of a rush. Where other critics are alluded to in most cases no reference is given, sometimes they are not even named. Equally, it is disconcerting to find an explosion of footnotes in the chapter on Alien when there are hardly any in the rest of the book. Plot synopses can be also confusing – the chapter on Galaxy Quest (1999) is particularly bad in this respect – or, more often, just poorly integrated. Sentence construction is frequently sloppy and there are casual errors. Points are repeated within the same chapter, sometimes within the same page. The putative audience will undoubtedly find fresh insight into some of their favourite films but they will also find it a frustrating reading experience.

This review originally appeared in Issue 1 of the now defunct Fruitless Recursion.

Written by Martin

4 April 2012 at 16:25

Posted in books, sf

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  1. I like very much Strange Days and think is is the best movie of this decade. Is is one of the best performance of Ralph Fiennes


    6 April 2012 at 17:09

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