Friday, October 25, 2013

Enter Sandman

He woke up, buried up to his neck in sand. Not lying down and covered with sand. Standing up, hot sand pressed up against him. How’d they do it? It wasn’t painful. But it didn’t feel good either. He didn’t panic. That wasn’t his style.
Whoever buried him here had a sense of style. Had the decency to put sunglasses over his squinting eyes. Wayfarers, not too shabby. Funny, in a sadistic, humiliating way, but also considerate. The California sun was right in front of him. He’d go blind, otherwise.
It was the back lot, behind Outbuilding #7. There were piles of sand arranged in regular intervals like giant anthills. Different sand from the stuff he was buried in. This sand was saturated with acid runoff. Waste water from the new, black project installation in the previously mentioned Outbuilding #7. A clever recipe; his idea. Throw sand on top of the waste water, bulldoze it in piles, always being careful to wear a mask. Allow sand piles to back in the sun. As the water evaporates, the acid binds to the silica in the sand particles. Continue to dry for a few days more, then put the sand in barrels, dump the barrels. Saves thousands. That was the plan.
Being buried up to his neck interfered with that plan.
He started hollering. It was Sunday; figure the shop was empty. Or figure somebody was fucking with him and it wasn’t. Either way, it couldn’t hurt to try to get somebody’s attention. So, he hollered.
Then, after a few minutes, he heard a whirring noise. Looked up, around. Nothing. Then looked straight in front, at ground level, a worm’s eye view.
Three remote-control toys were closing in on him. A bulldozer.  A crane. A dump truck. Bright yellow, shiny. Cute, in a fever dream kinda way. For one second, he had a brief, deranged idea. The toys were alive. They had little computers inside. They were possessed. But that was bullshit. He could see the antennas. Remote-control toys, had to be.
“OK, guys … enough’s enough.”
The bulldozer whirred up to one of the piles of acid-soaked sand. It’s little blade came down. It pushed some sand out of the way. The crane whirred up, scooped up some of the sand. Then it dropped its burden of sand into the toy dump truck. This continued until the toy dump truck was full.
The dump truck backed up. Actually made a beeping noise. Beep-beep-beep. Hilarious.
Then it whirred forward again.
And started rolling towards him.
The toy dump truck stopped, inches from his face. Then it rotated around, making that beeping noise again.
“This isn’t … this isn’t funny, guys. Hey!”
A tiny hydraulic cylinder hissed. The dump truck base lifted up. The gate fell back. Hot, acid-saturated sand spilled down on his face and neck. Chemical burn. It hurt like hell, but he didn’t scream.
The dump truck rolled away again. The other toys slowly filled it up again.
He tried to reason with whoever was out there. Offer them anything. Whatever they wanted.
The dump truck returned. Dumped more of that burning sand on him. The plastic sunglasses started melting into his eyes.
This time he screamed. And finally panicked.
The dump truck went away. It kept coming back and dropping its load.
Until the burning sand covered his face.
The screaming continued, muffled, agonized.
Eventually, the screaming stopped.
And the toys rolled away.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

REVIEW: "Gravity"

Space, the final cliche. Science fiction, like any genre accumulates conventions. The sound of explosions in space. Artificial gravity. Faster-than-light travel. Laser-beam shoot-outs with aliens.

Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" tosses all that in the waste disposal chute. Cuaron approaches the subject of space with a fresh eye. Unbelievably, amazingly, he directs like he hasn't seen a science fiction movie made after Kubrick's 2001. And while we're on the subject, what he created is probably the most original, freshly imagined science fiction film since 2001 -- at least dealing with the subject of space itself. Space as a hostile working environment. Staggeringly beautiful to look at. Utterly hostile to life.

The story itself is a lean, mean struggle for survival. It's set maybe 5-10 years in the future. The space shuttle program has been rebooted; some astronauts from the Explorer are giving the Hubble an upgrade. Meanwhile, the Russians test satellite-killing tech on a decommissioned spy orb. Unintended consequences cascade -- worse than one of the Coyote's schemes in a Roadrunner cartoon. Debris from the dead satellite destroys other satellites, forming a wave of wreckage shooting from east to west in high orbit at 2,700 mph like a blast of space buckshot. The debris field destroys the shuttle, kills all the astronauts save Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Now, to get home, the survivors have to get to the International Space Station -- where the remaining Soyuz has deployed its parachute, making it useless for reentry. That means they have to take it to the nearby Chinese space station and take its rescue craft -- if they can outrun the debris field orbiting the planet in time. And assuming they both make it that far.

Cuaron does what filmmakers rarely do -- even visionary sci-fi filmmakers. He takes the premise seriously. What would it be like to work in space? Granted that situation, what would happen? What could go wrong? What would the characters do? He deals with weightlessness (an expensive pain in the ass for filmmakers). He gives us silent space, and weird orbital mechanics, and all the intuitive slip-ups that would happen if humans (hard-wired for gravity) were working in a zero-G environment. Or fighting for their lives.

It's a gripping movie. Painstakingly researched, and scientifically accurate -- to the extent a work of action-adventure science-fiction set in space can be. The physics of space as a practical environment feels convincing. Cuaron and company did their homework. That said, it's an elemental movie. A survival story. Man against beautiful, indifferent nature. Live or die. I compared it to 2001, but the tone is very different. 2001 was beautiful, cold and remote. Gravity is what the Japanese call "wet." Emotional, involving, going for your gut, gizzard and heart strings. Cuaron wants you rooting for Bullock's character, wants you feeling her pain.

You do. He succeeds.

If that's not the final frontier of fimmaking, I don't know what is.