Is science fiction set to become the popular storytelling vehicle of choice for writers and audiences who despise everything Donald Trump stands for?
Arrival, the recent film from Denis Villeneuve, starred Amy Adams as a linguist who may or may not have managed to communicate with aliens. (We won’t spoil the ending for you in case you haven’t seen it.) Released shortly after the US election it was a secular hymn to science, rationality, co-operation across borders and between planets. The timing was fortuitous but it was a commercially successful cinematic two fingers to everything Trump, Farage and Le Pen represent – if you want to overlay a contemporary meaning on it. It also probably generated more family and pub discussions about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis than any film has done since Carry On Up the Khyber.
Rogue One is the latest spin off from the Star Wars marketing behemoth, though it’s described as a “stand alone”. This nuance will have a massive significance for the many millions who regard these films with rather more reverence than Moses bestowed on the Ten Commandments. That sort of obsession may help explain why last year’s The Force Awakens grossed $2 billion. And while the importance of the return of Darth Vader need not concern most of us it’s worth pointing out that this one sold £17 million worth of tickets in its first week of release in Ireland and Britain. A success achieved despite the fact that one unsympathetic early online critic described it as “nothing but a Jew masturbation fantasy of anti-White hate.”
The screenwriters responded with now deleted tweets. Chris Weitz wrote: “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” To which his colleague Gary Whitta added: “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women.” It’s pretty obvious who they didn’t vote for in the presidential election.
So we have an almost unimaginably popular artefact of mass culture which is telling its audiences that it’s right to rebel against injustice, that we do this by organising people from all sorts of backgrounds and whose writers are willing to get involved in public controversy for just as long as their bosses at Disney find out.
What’s the film like?
Don’t go in expecting to be dazzled by the dialogue. There aren’t any lengthy or memorable conversations. It’s more along the lines of: “we must force open the space gate” and the best snippets tend to be aphorisms. It would be easy to imagine George Galloway or another Assad apologist when told about Aleppo: “You’re confusing peace with terror,” replying: “Well, you have to start somewhere.” And several scenes in the film are reminiscent of Central Asia and the Middle East. Whether or not the evocation of American troops in futuristic body armour terrorising the impoverished inhabitants of Iraq is intentional is a question director Gareth Edwards will have to answer.
Certainly the strikers at the Picturehouse cinemas in Hackney and Brixton understand that. They timed their most recent strike to coincide with the opening of what should have been the biggest box office week of the year for an employer which refuses to pay them the living wage. As Rogue One’s lead character Jyn Erso says: “Rebellions are built on hope.”
Oh, and talk about the magic of cinema. Peter Cushing, who is reliably reported to have died in 1994, appears in this.