The Peripheral (2022): Objectification

For my money William Gibson is the greatest living science fiction author, and I’m sure eventually someone, somewhere will finally feel brave enough to attempt to put Neuromancer on screen.

In the meantime, we have The Peripheral, the Amazon produced television adaptation of Gibson’s 2014 novel of the same name.

Alexa, upload my consciousness!

I found the novel a little dense and flat, and while I’ve enjoyed the first two episodes of the screen adaptation, it seems similarly heavy with detail and a little plodding in execution. There are highlights, naturally. Lavish production design, some inventive uses of London locations, and a committed cast who do their very best to sell the story. But much of the dialogue is poor, I think, with interminable wordy exposition and characters who sound like they are supposed to be drole when actually they are just verbose. Didn’t Polonius mention something about brevity being the soul of wit? In a show that clearly has the budget and the patience for some visual story telling it’s a shame to have to wade through so much talky back and forth. Is a lot of television written for an audience who have one eye on their phones these days? Make sure you repeat all the important plot points twice, in case someone was scrolling through Twitter when you said it first.

And about that cast. Chloë Grace Moretz, last seen in our house in Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010), is a fine actor who deserves better roles. In The Peripheral, she plays the same character twice, once as a real, organic person in the ‘modern’ timeline and again as an identical robot avatar of herself in the ‘future’ timeline. I think the show intends us to feel revulsion at the way other characters paw and prod at her robot body when she is not inside it: a literal portrayal of objectification. But the first time we meet her character in episode one we are introduced to her with a slow pan up her bare legs to her bottom, in a camera move straight out of the Michael Bay playbook. Amazon, you cannot have your cake and eat it.

Episode 34: All Quiet on the Western Front vs Full Metal Jacket: Two Trips to Hell

We take two trips to Hell at the Two Reel Cinema Club this episode, and emerge bloody, traumatised, and hungry for croissants. Netflix’s current release is the third time All Quiet on the Western Front has been adapted into a film, and this time it’s a good one, reversing the recent trend of disappointing original features from the streaming giant. But can the new film survive an attack from Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick’s shocking and unconventional Vietnam war movie from 1987? And which of the two deserves a visit from the Cliché Squad?

Episode 33: Popcorn Counter: That 80s Feeling

Big hair! Shoulder pads! Day-go jumpsuits! But enough about us, what about the cinema of the 1980s? After watching David Bowie’s 80s incarnation recently, we trawl through the 80s’ biggest movies with a quiz, and then search for common motifs. We visit Project Fear, look at solving problems with guns, and have a strange Leonard Nimoy fever dream. Finally we ask: is the 80s the decade that’s responsible for the film business we see today?

Coraline (2009) and the Dream World

My children were too young to see Coraline when it first came out, and it has somehow passed us by since then – until this week. Thank goodness we’ve caught up with it at last: it’s a masterpiece.

Coraline is the mardy only child of inattentive parents, who discovers a magical hidden door in their new home which leads to a seductive mirror world. There she finds two fun ‘alternative parents’, who feed her delicious food and offer to play games with her all day. But their alternative love comes at a enormous price, and the trapped Coraline has to risk everything to return to the real world again.

It’s a joyously imaginative film, full of dazzling production design, and I will admit that I spent a lot of the film’s runtime asking myself, ‘Is this part really stop motion animation? How about this part? How about THIS one?’ (A bravura credits sequence demonstrates smugly that the answer to all my questions is, ‘Yes, it is.’)

The film could have been made with CGI or hand drawn animation, yes, but it is the concrete physicality of the stop motion models that reflects the film’s themes so perfectly. This is a story about a dream world that becomes a nightmare, and what could be more dream like than an animation technique that feels so real and grounded? Nightmares scare us precisely because they seem real.

One family member pointed out after the film that Coraline isn’t very nice. And they’re right, she isn’t. She’s selfish and rude and whiny and unappreciative. She is also brave, curious, patient and generous. She’s a teenager. Her contradictory and complex character is at the core of what the film is about: choosing reality over saccharine fantasy. Reunited with her real parents at the end of the film, Coraline is overjoyed while her mother and father are largely non-plussed. But a moment later we see they have bought her a small gift, some gloves she coveted. Real love doesn’t always shout its name, the film reminds us. Real love is more often smiling and whispering encouragement from the wings. Not big gestures that hide a hefty price tag, but instead small things sincerely meant.

Episode 31: Moonage Daydream vs The Man Who Fell to Earth: Bowie Rocks

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky this episode, as we watch the new David Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream, and then leave the planet for an orbital rendezvous with the original Ziggy Stardust, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. There’s no shortage of entertainment, with ‘milk-sex’, an electrifying performance of Heroes and a waltz around a giant Pepsi can with Tina Turner. But which film shows us the most honest glimpse of the real David Bowie?

Episode 30: Popcorn Counter: Let’s Talk About Sex

Sexposition. Intimacy Coordinators. Lobster sex. There are no holds barred at the popcorn counter this episode, where we take the clothes off some of our previous projects and expose their most personal details. When we think back, we realise we’ve both written more sex scenes than we thought over our careers so far. But which scenes bring more problems, the happy or the sad ones? And have we ever been given any good advice about how to write about getting it on?

Oblivion (2013) and ‘The Secret Plot’

I rewatched 2013’s Oblivion this week with the family. There’s a great deal to enjoy here: the production design is immaculate, the sound design may be even better, and Tom Cruise is as watchable as ever in his usual highly-competent-but-still-slightly-vulnerable-protagonist role. But the film suffers from one of my least favourite tropes: what I might start calling ‘The Secret Plot’. Meaning characters keep important plot points and vital information secret from each other FOR NO REASON…

Yes, this poster does make it look like ‘Paintball: the movie!’

Warning, spoilers ahead!

In the film, Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough are astronauts who have been found and duplicated at the edge of the solar system by a malign alien intelligence, a vast von Neumann probe intent on taking over the Earth and draining it of its resources. The probe uses hundreds of mind-wiped Cruises and Riseboroughs as a clone army of brainwashed caretakers to police a post apocalyptic Earth as it siphons off the last of the planet’s water for fuel, keeping its identikit security force pacified with a fabricated story about how humanity is migrating to Titan.

But then a ship crash lands with Tom’s wife on board, played by Olga Kurylenko. She was one of the other astronauts on the ship that first encountered the probe, but luckily she was ejected before the probe could assimilate her and has been orbiting the Earth in suspended animation ever since. Now that she’s back with Tom and thawing out, she should surely realise that things are not as they should be, yes? She is a survivor from the pre-invasion days. She knows Tom intimately – they’re married! She was a work colleague of Andrea! She’s definitely going to start asking questions about what’s going on, right?

… Right?

Please keep your hands inside the ride at all times

Nope. No, she cries a bit and laughs a bit and looks quizzically at everyone involved. And that’s it. Never does she ask ‘what’s going on?’, or ‘where are all the people?’, or even ‘don’t you remember we’re married, you dolt?!’

The reason is clear: if she tells Tom what she knows, the film will suddenly be 45 minutes shorter. Most of the mysteries will be cleared up in a short conversation and the audience will be denied the fun of gradually learning the truth at the same time as the characters. So instead we’re stuck with ‘The Secret Plot’.

There could be lots of believable reasons why Kurylenko might not spill the beans immediately. I can think of a bunch of them now. Suspended animation brain fog. Maybe she doesn’t wake up for 72 hours after landing, even though the story continues. Maybe Riseborough’s character sabotages the ‘waking protocol’ in a jealous fugue. Perhaps an accident on re-entry means Kurylenko has a brain injury that needs the med-bot to operate on her and keep her sedated for two days. Any of those could work.

But we get none of them. Instead there’s just a bit of vague laughing and crying and a nagging question at the end of the movie: why didn’t she say something?

Water, water, everywhere. Until the aliens finish stealing it.

It’s a way overused trope. ‘Lost’ famously relied on it week after week. Characters would regularly make earth shattering discoveries and then tell NO-ONE about it. It makes you question if the writers have ever had many conversations with real people. The world is full of folks who can’t keep their mouths shut in any circumstance. We live in an era of chronic over-sharing where people can barely eat a meal without sending a photograph of it to everyone they know. Who doesn’t have an aunt that silts up their Facebook or Twitter feeds with endless crap that they’ve ‘discovered’ and that they can’t keep to themselves? So how come films and TV shows are all populated by taciturn enigmas who play their cards so close to their chests that it’s hard to be sure they’re in the game at all?

This is an avoidable problem. If you find yourself having to resort to ‘The Secret Plot’, I’d ask that you just think a bit harder. What would your characters really do in this situation? And if you’re confident they’d keep schtum, please make sure you have a reason for it. The mystery will always be more satisfying as a result.

Episode 29: Blonde Insignificance

We take a double length look at enduring Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe this episode, as new Netflix ‘fictional biopic’ Blonde stares into the make-up mirror and sees 1985’s Insignificance staring right back. There’s no shortage of controversy here: Netflix’s first NC17 rated picture doesn’t shy away from sex, nudity and graphic violence, while Insignificance has a body count in the thousands. But does Marilyn get a fair deal in either film, or is she still just being exploited sixty years after her death?