My love/hate relationship with Science Fiction

Watching the latest installment of “The Matrix”, I was reminded of my love/hate relationship with Science Fiction. I wouldn’t count myself as a huge SF fan, but I dip my toe in from time to time, and occasionally find a sub-genre, eco-system or franchise that draws me in deeper, whether via television, film or literature. Unfortunately, while the original “Matrix” movie (and maybe the first sequel) managed to be original, entertaining and engaging, by the time of “The Matrix Revolutions” both the plot and the characterisation had run thin. When I saw the trailers and the pre-launch campaign for “The Matrix Resurrections”, I was sufficiently intrigued to want to see it, especially in light of recent geo-political events. Sadly, it was a huge waste of time: the plot was banal, and the story-line disjointed; there were awkward flashbacks to the previous films (in large part to remind us of the actors who originally played the current characters?); and there were far too many retrospective explanations to justify the present “narrative”. The whole thing felt like another Keanu Reeves character had stumbled into a dystopian Lewis Carroll landscape – “Wick in Wonderland” would have been a more suitable title.

“The Terminal Man” by Michael Crichton (image sourced from the author’s website)

Growing up in the UK in the 1960s, my school friends and I avidly watched a bunch of TV programmes that found a young and eager audience for SF. These productions also spawned multiple re-boots, spin-offs and imitators, as well as giving rise to the franchise phenomenon that dominates much of today’s cinema. Those early shows included “Star Trek”, “Lost in Space”, “Planet of the Apes” and “Land of the Giants”. All of these programmes were American, which I suppose made them seem even more exotic, and therefore more appealing, to our impressionable minds.

By contrast, British television had produced the “Quatermass” TV series back in the 1950s, and “Dr Who” (launched in 1963), both of which pre-dated their US counterparts by several years. But in my mind these domestic efforts were firmly rooted in Gothic horror – more H.G.Wells and Jules Verne than Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick? – and therefore they felt less futuristic, especially when we were witnessing the real-life events of the Space Race on the evening news. Which is probably why even Gerry Anderson’s puppet creations such as “Fireball XL5”, “Thunderbirds” and “Captain Scarlet” resonated with me more than Daleks and Cybermen. So to me, British television was more successful in producing psycho-dramas founded upon stories of espionage set against backdrop of the Cold War, with programmes such as “Danger Man”, “The Avengers”, “The Champions” and “The Prisoner” being far more evocative of contemporary themes and fashions, notwithstanding some creaky plot lines.

Later, I would watch classic SF films of the 1950s, such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “The Blob” and “Forbidden Planet” which, despite their technical limitations, are still key reference points for fans of the genre; they also convey elements of Cold War paranoia, and the perennial fear of “the other”. Then, as a young teenager, I found myself reading SF novels, including works by Asimov, John Wyndham, Aldous Huxley, Michael Crichton, Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss and J.G.Ballard. Ballard, of course, preferred to explore “inner space” rather than outer space, and this means his writing contains universal themes that are not constrained by contemporary accounts of futuristic technology. In fact, this theme of “inner space” probably underpins my preferences within the SF genre, as evidenced by 1960s movies I managed to see when I was older, such as “Seconds”, “Alphaville”, and “Fahrenheit 451”.

Despite an aversion for SF that is over-reliant upon technology as a plot technique, I have enjoyed some recent novels that engage with emerging technology such as AI and robotics – great examples would include William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein”.

However, if I was to delineate my personal likes/dislikes of SF in film and on TV, I would probably list them as follows:

  • As a child, I loved the original “Star Trek”, but I’ve never seen a “Star Trek” film or any of the newer TV series
  • I’ve never seen a “Star Wars” film, and have no desire to
  • “Moon” was great, and “Source Code” wasn’t bad either
  • I really enjoyed “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and I appreciated “Contact”, “Arrival”, “Interstellar” and “The Martian”
  • “Gravity” was somehow plausible, whereas “Elysium” was a stretch
  • “2001: A Space Odyssey” is in a class of its own
  • Same with “The Man Who Fell To Earth”
  • I loved the first four “Alien” movies, but I disliked the so-called prequels, and I’ve avoided the “Predator” cross-overs
  • The original “Terminator” film was great, but the sequels prove the law of diminishing returns
  • I really enjoyed “Looper” and in a somewhat similar vein, “Inception”
  • I couldn’t ever get into the “X-files” – but I was hooked on “Twin Peaks”
  • The original “Westworld” movie was fine, but I have no interest in the recent TV series
  • Similarly, I love the original film versions of “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”, but see no point in the later remakes
  • And while I used to watch re-runs of the original “Twilight Zone” series, I’ve not seen the later re-boot; however, “Black Mirror” got my attention
  • “Donnie Darko” yes, “Stranger Things” no
  • Overall, I tend to avoid SF that is more firmly rooted in the sub-genres of horror, fantasy, magic, super heroes (with super powers), space westerns, superstition, disaster themes and most tales of the supernatural (and anything with Kevin Costner….)

Finally, there is room for humour in SF, if done well – such as “Dark Star”, “Mars Attacks!”, and “Tremors”; even the first “Men in Black” effort is head and shoulders above “Wild Wild West”….

Next week: Smart Contracts… or Dumb Software

How digital brands are advertising

During a recent visit to the cinema, I was surprised to see adverts for major digital brands on the big screen, ahead of the main feature.

I’ve always thought of cinema advertising as falling into one or more of the following categories:

  • ads you don’t see on TV (often longer than their small screen counterparts)
  • luxury names and aspirational brands (travel, spirits, fashion, financial services)
  • local businesses (the pizzeria “just a short walk from this theatre…”)
  • movie tie-ins (highlighting the product placement in the film you are about to see)
  • seasonal themes (especially Christmas)

What struck me on this occasion were the ads by three DNBs (digitally native brands), featuring LinkedIn, Tik Tok and Audible. Despite the disparate nature of their businesses, I realised that there was a common element.

As the above-linked McKinsey report states, successful DNBs are really good at connecting with (and understanding) their audience, identifying and fulfilling very specific needs with unique solutions, and leveraging the very technology they are built on to promote their services and engage with their customers. Witness the well-timed “alerts” from food-delivery platforms in the early evening, the viral campaigns designed to enforce brand awareness, and the social media feeds designed to build customer engagement and loyalty. (Note that the report features Peleton as a poster child for its thesis, before the personal exercise brand ran into recent difficulties.)

If you look at most DNB campaigns, they are primarily generating demand via very specific human drivers:

1. Aspirational – the pure FOMO element (not unique to DNBs, of course, but they do it more subtly than many consumer brands)
2. Experiential – highlighting the tangible benefits (of mostly intangible products)
3. Socialisation – the paradox of building a trusted relationship through hyper-personalisation and constant sharing…

These three cinema ads each contained implicit “story-telling“. LinkedIn positioned itself as a platform for establishing our own narrative (telling our own truth?); Audible promoted its audio content (books and podcasts) as a means to find authentic stories that resonate with us (and this was long before the recent shenanigans over at Spotify); and Tik Tok used a well-known viral video as the basis for building community around shared stories.

Of course, story-telling is hardly a new concept in brand marketing, and has been eagerly adopted by digital brands (think of campaigns during the pandemic which have featured on-line connectivity and remote working). However, it has become an over-used technique, and is often cynically exploited in the service of corporate green-washing, jumping on social bandwagons, and blatant virtue signalling.

Call me jaded, but I’m old enough to remember the fad of consulting firms pitching their clients on building a “corporate narrative“, drawing on employee stories and customer experiences, as the foundation for those anodyne mission/vision “statements” – but they typically ended up as exercises in damage control in case the truth got out.

These particular cinema ads managed to use story-telling to create a human dimension (authenticity, connectivity, community, sharing, etc.) that is more than simply “buy our product” or “use our tech” (although obviously that’s the ultimate goal). It would be very interesting to read the briefs given to their creative agencies, given that the ads were all in the service of corporate branding.

Next week: Doctrine vs Doctrinaire

 

 

 

I got nothing

After nearly six weeks in Melbourne’s current lock-down (#6 if anyone is keeping count…), I have nothing to blog about this week.

The lack of external stimulus has finally beaten me, and I have nothing much to say. The muse is gone, the well is dry, and there’s only so much you can say about being confined to quarters.

One benefit of this enforced inactivity has been the opportunity to catch up on recent movies, that I either missed at the cinema, or which were not widely distributed upon release.

A few of these films seem perfectly suited to these times – mainly because nothing much happens. These particular stories are more concerned with slow observation and self-reflection.

In “The Truffle Hunters”, there is a stillness bordering on stagnation, as a group of elderly men respond in different ways to the changes being foisted upon their cottage industry. It’s not just the fact that their traditional way of life is coming to an end – it’s the nagging inevitability of their situation, and the growing realisation that there’s probably nothing they could have done to avoid this happening.

Stagnation of a different kind informs the main characters in “Another Round”. They see their lives as being stuck in a rut (although outwardly, they have a comfortable existence), and they feel relatively helpless. Until, that is, they stumble upon the idea of a social experiment, which involves maintaining a consistent blood-alcohol level. They embark on the project to see if they can enliven their mundane existence, with vastly different results.

A similar sense of helplessness pervades “Brad’s Status”. Similarly dissatisfied with his life, and with a growing awareness that perhaps he has misread key social relationships, a middle-aged father uses a trip with his son to re-assess his friends, reflect on his values, and re-connect with what sustains him. He also finds contentment in his achievements, and achieves a sense of acceptance about what he can and can’t change or control.

Finally, a journey of self-realisation also befalls the protagonist in “People Places Things”. When his marriage collapses (and he didn’t see it coming…), our hero finds a way to use his work to explore and resolve this apparent failure to read the situation. In the process, he learns how to communicate his feelings, and more importantly, he gets comfortable with who he is.

Next week: No-code product development

 

 

Cancel or Recalibrate?

In the wake (sic) of wokeness and cancel culture, it was interesting to read that Disney has decided to add a health warning of “negative depictions of cultures” to re-runs of the Muppet Show. So rather than cancel these programmes, it has chosen to (re-)contextualise the content for a contemporary audience.

I don’t have a problem with this type of labelling, or indeed on any other content, if it helps to aid understanding, generate debate, and acknowledge past lapses of taste or judgement. Especially as programmes like the Muppet Show were huge in the heyday of mass-market network television, before cable and streaming fragmented audiences into pre-defined sub-genres and segregated demographics.

Indeed, I’ve grown used to similar health warnings attached to re-runs of many BBC radio dramas, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, when “social attitudes were somewhat different to today”.

But, if we continue along those lines, should we be applying similar health warnings to Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedies, French farces, Norse legends, European folklore as told by the Brothers Grimm, or Roman accounts of gladiatorial victories over their hapless victims?

In which case, I look forward to the same contextualisation (and health warnings) of any programmes that quote, cite, promote or reference key religious texts, most of which were written hundreds and thousands of years ago, yet which similarly offend our current values and societal norms.

Next week – Facebook and that news ban