Valentine’s Day is upon us and I can already feel you scowling as you read. You and I know it’s an empty holiday–most of them are–that give corporations another excuse to get you to buy things no one wants in order to affirm your feelings and commitment for someone you’re likely sick of. And that someone will measure that affirmation in cost of said things and any accompanying experiences that fill up a weekday night that you would both rather spend doing just about anything else. It’s pointless, it’s annoying, and now that the punk-y diatribe is out of the way we can move on to a list of interesting love stories that’ll actually make your Tuesday night a little more bearable.
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, the minds behind the German expressionist classic Metropolis, are responsible for putting the first, and one of the most stylish, dystopic futures on film. In the conversation of cyberpunk’s origins their names are often forgotten, but I’d argue they’re responsible for it all, along with Karel Capek are responsible for it all.
The couple managed some well-layered predictions of our well-industrialized future as seen from 1927, which is great commentary that was appropriate for the days of Weimar, while also being ahead of its time. In addition to being politically charged, Metropolis manages to introduce real jeopardy for intersecting love stories that puts lovers in a fight that rivals the changes coming to their city. New love reminds jilted suitors of what they’ve lost, hardened hearts forget what matters most in life, privileged men let their hearts show them what they’ve been denied by literally living on top of people, and it all comes together when a madman with access to technology creates a great deal of havoc so he can feel some sense of justice for being rejected by the woman he loved.
Metropolis is fascinating in its own right, showing how the political and the personal are inseparable in the 20th century and moving forward, but neither of those aspects is sacrificed to make that point.
You can get Metropolis here.
To the Stars by Hard Ways
Unless you grew up in the Soviet Union there was simply no way to get your hands on Russian movies until well into the ’90s, and even today the movies from that era are rare to come across. That alone should give you incentive to seek out ambitious sci-fi like To the Stars by Hard Ways.
Niyya is the sole survivor aboard a spaceship discovered by Soviet astronauts some 200 years from now. Amnesiac and thoroughly confused, Niyya lives with Sergei, one of the scientists, and spends most of her time with his son Stepan. Niyya slowly develops strange powers and pieces together memories of Dessa, her home planet which has been ravaged by rapid industrialization, making it largely uninhabitable, leaving the rich to exploit the survivors by controlling the equipment and supplies they need to survive.
Thanks to limited budgets and cultural ministers Soviet sci-fi aged must faster than almost anywhere else. So while it was a little risque by Russian standards at the time, meaning some partial nudity, and the visual effects were top notch by their standards, To the Stars by Hard Ways feels like a long Star Trek episode from the original run with some Beneath the Planet of the Apes sets standing in for the dystopic Dessa. Though the utopia that is Future Russia comes out looking quite nice, including their spacecraft’s interior. But once you move past those few blemishes there’s an interesting almost-love story between Niyya and Stepan that begs to fully form that’s fascinating to watch. You can feel some bureaucrat’s hand hampering the true intention of their relationship, but what Stepan and Niyya ultimately become is something that doesn’t typically happen in movies.
To the Stars by Hard Ways was recut in 2001 by Nikolai Viktorov, the director’s son, which removed much of the original Soviet propaganda. But give the 1981 cut a chance, as removing cultural significance actually damages the overall meaning of the movie.
You can find a copy of To the Star by Hard Ways here.
Another political look at the future with a love story at its core is Orwell’s 1984. But Winston and Julia’s love is by no means a sweeping romance, especially in its original novel format. I’d wager there’s even a convincing argument to be made about how much stronger the book would’ve been had Orwell stripped it from his final draft. Then again, looking at Metropolis, there’s a case to be made for romantic love and the desire to break away from oppressive systems working tangentially to help people break away.
Regardless of what you think about their pairing, John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton manage to sell on screen what never really jumped off the page. There’s an odd charm to a secret affair in the supposedly emotionless future, how the exchange of a loaf of bread or a simple dress become grand gestures that people would otherwise never consider. That they manage to do it in a bumbling, innocent, teenager-y way just before they’re discovered by black-booted police shows what’s lost when people no longer have control over themselves, why hating the party isn’t enough, it’s important to have something or someone to yourself in order to want to keep on living.
If that doesn’t sell this movie to you, watch it anyway. We could all use a refresher course on doublethink these days.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Lacuna Inc. promises to have the easy answer to getting over a bad relationship. With a piece of experimental technology, years can be recovered by eliminating the wrong person from your memory, allowing people to forge new relationships without regret. Unfortunately, technology is simple. People aren’t. Even when they want it, they can’t just delete unpleasant things. There’s no hard reset for the human mind.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also one of the few times Michel Gondry hasn’t tried to channel Wes Anderson and it’s something to behold.
You can find a copy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here.
Her starts off as an examination of where we’re headed thanks to technological dependence furthering our collective social ineptitude. People don’t know how to talk to each other. They don’t know how to get over one another. They don’t know what they want from other people. So what if this dependence on technology progresses in a more positive direction, and the needs that are met by people are actually satisfied by an operating system? Can you tell the difference? Would you want to?
Moving forward, if sex robot enthusiasts have their way, Her will probably be the point in cultural relevance they’ll point to and say it’s where their interests were normalized. While that could be true, it’s more like a good argument for technology as therapy, both negatively and positively. We’re nowhere close to technology standing in for an actual human being on any level, let alone intimate relationships. Viewed from that vantage, this becomes a very different movie.
You can find a copy of Her here.
Writer-director Shane Carruth doesn’t have enough on his resume for my liking, but the man behind Primer has interesting ideas on where to fit science and technology in an otherwise gray and muted world, managing to make experiments in makeshift labs feel organic and dynamic. Yet Carruth’s use of science always comes back to people.
In Upstream Color, a ring of scientists have discovered how to make hypnotic suggestion effective on anyone with specialized botany and farming of pigs and insects. These biohackers turn random people into their brain-dead victims that allow themselves to be robbed and their lives ruined, allowing them to fund their experiments. Soon their subjects become aware of a psychic link that draws them together with a primal magnetism.
Another word would give it away but trust that there’s a very good chance you haven’t seen anything exactly like this before.
You can find a copy of Upstream Color here.
In Code 46 people either live inside or afuera, outside the city walls. It’s an interesting future where all the world is a cultural village with seemingly no barriers except those dictated by genetics and obedience to the social contract as dictated by corporations. Part of what keeps those groups of people apart is their papel, viruses they ingest which act as a passport that dictates where they can travel based on their genetic profile in order to manage public health. Another aspect of daily life that’s controlled by corporations based on genetics in this future is who you’re allowed to “liaise” with.
There’s a lot of hidden madness in this future Shanghai, like the world being only awake at night and hiding from the sun for health benefits despite the fact that people afuera seem to get by just fine. But they must forsake the comforts of civilization. It’s a not so subtle metaphor for the safety of easy relationships and the chaos that is chance romance. Do you stay within safe lines, accept your papel and hope to live as long as possible just because? Or do you step afuera, violate codes, explore the possibility that is randomness even if it doesn’t last? And what if that liaise feels fated, the result of variables aligning to make a chance encounter possible, are code violations even considered at that point?
You can find a copy of Code 46 here.
Easily one of our favorite things of 2016 was the 3rd season of Black Mirror, and from those episodes “San Junipero” was the easy standout. There have been other love stories in the post-cyberpunk anthology series like “Be Right Back” and “White Christmas” but San Junipero is really different in this collection of stories because everything is so unlike the rest it needs to be experienced at least twice. From presentation to substance, it feels like it was made by someone other than Brooker and for a completely different series. It’s both past and future, high-tech and low, heartbreaking and uplifting–it’s liable to sour your cynical mood on this most corporate of holidays.
You can find the third season of Black Mirror on Netflix.
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