Science Fiction Double Feature

I don’t go to the movies all that often. London cinemas tend to get very noisy and crowded, and in any case for me watching a film is usually work, and easier when I can pause, rewind, check facts and name spellings and all the other stuff a good critic should do. (I am not of that school of thought which holds that one is a much more effective critic if one has never seen or read the work in question.)  But yesterday I saw two movies in a row – one in the afternoon, with friends, and one in the evening, at my regular Barbican anime night.

Both movies were great fun. Both had their own highly individual style. Both were remarkably similar in some ways – reversionings of an existing mythos with extra sex and violence. I also found it interesting the way one was absolutely a boys’ movie and the other just as absolutely a girls’ movie, in terms of aims, methods and viewpoints, and yet both were enjoyable for the opposite gender.

The first film was J.J. Abrams’ new version of Star Trek, on Screen 10 of Cineworld at London’s West India Quay. The second was Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Adolescence of Utena, in Cinema 2 at the Barbican.

For Star Trek, we had the cinema virtually to ourselves, so there were none of the usual popcorn-munching, gossiping, mobile-phone-using distractions. As a first-gen Trekkie who thought NextGen went a bit too far and has been disappointed in most of the movies in the canon, I expected to come out with some nagging quibbles, despite the film’s excellent reviews and my admiration for Abrams’ ability to pace a script.

Instead I emerged happy and satisfied. Abrams and his team have recaptured the essential feeling of Star Trek, that thrilling awareness of an almost limitless horizon opening up for everyone to share. They’ve speeded it up without dumbing it down, and made it fun again. I thought the pacing was close to faultless, the editing excellent and the casting very good.

For me, the standout performance was Karl Urban’s. He became Bones McCoy without doing a parody, yet he had both the physical and vocal tricks of DeForest Kelley nailed, and his timing was superb. Simon Pegg was less circumspect, unable to resist inserting his comic persona. Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott is a character built for comic relief so he got away with it without doing too much damage to my suspension of disbelief, and his performance had plenty of energy and charm.

Zachary Quinto’s Spock was completely convincing, and as a Spock fan from the beginning of the series I can pay no higher tribute. I was also delighted to see him get the girl. First-gen Trekkie girls split into three main camps – Kirk, Spock and McCoy – based on sexual and romantic fantasy preference. I always thought the quiet, clever characters were the sexy ones – it’s the difference between guys who talk a good game and guys who know that broadcasting your masculinity is a sure sign of something to prove. Abrams obviously agrees with me, at least in this movie, and it was lovely to see a public acknowledgement of that side of Spock, hitherto restricted to fan fiction, out and proud. (Sadly, venturing from fanfic into slashfic will probably be a bridge too far for a mainstream movie!)

Much to my own surprise, I wasn’t irritated by the film’s retention of creator Gene Roddenberry’s original assumption that male values and characteristics will still be the ones with most weight in a weightless, ungendered environment. This is, as I said earlier, a boy’s movie, but the best kind of boy’s movie. It celebrates the qualities of the alpha male while acknowledging their downside, and it also acknowledges that real men aren’t cookie-cutter constructs but people. It preserves the best of classic Trek with no whiff of formaldehyde – out of the embalming fluid of previous movies, fresh, vibrant and fun. I’m going to see it again, and however good the DVD extras are, I want to see it on a big screen with a huge sound system so that the meaty sound effects of the fight scenes and space battles don’t get lost.

In the evening, I presented Adolescence of Utena to the Barbican’s regular. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Utena movie on a big screen with a cinema sound system, and it was a revelation. The Barbican audience was, as usual, exactly the kind of people you’d want to see a film with. It was especially good to see some faces from my Curzon Soho anime talks alongside the Kuniyoshi exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Like Star Trek, the Utena movie is based on a TV series, 1997’s Revolutionary Girl Utena. The series’ story, stripped to its narrative bones, can be looked at in a number of ways. It’s a classic fairytale with a postmodern twist, where the Prince’s gender is mutable. Instead of the one-love-forever theme there may be more than one Princess for the Prince to defend and honour, and perceptions of any Princess may shuttle her status from Snow White to Wicked Witch. It’s a classic boarding school story on sugar overload, with the usual loyalties, rivalries and overheated view of the centrality of teenage angst in the universe, set against an ornate, archaic backdrop – Harriet Potter at the Chalet School, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in his little known Rococo Barbie period. It’s an examination of the often violent and abusive nature of teenage male sexuality and family ties. It’s a critique of the mindless worship tendency that shows itself in school gangs, band fandom and otaku, and of a certain fannish penchant for getting intensely involved, on both intellectual and emotional levels, in the development of fictional romances. All of this is developed through four main story arcs, which by the end of the last episode have reached some form of resolution.

The series has elements in common with other teen and preteen hits like High School Musical and Harry Potter, in particular its emphasis on the transition between childhood and adulthood and the role of sex and gender in remaking or destroying childhood alliances and establishing adult roles. But Utena is far more ambiguous and less rigid in its aims and methods than a Disney or Rowling product.  The sexual undercurrent is closer to the surface and the dark, violent and distinctly unromantic side of sexual relationships is never far out of shot. Friendships, desire and gender roles are all shifting and mutable, with most characters changing allegiances and exploiting relationships. Teenage estrangements echo various childhood traumas, and childhood memories often hint at a complicating or corrupting sexual element.

Adolescence of Utena refers back to events of the series, loosely retelling the basic story, and can be confusing to those who haven’t seen the TV version; yet it omits key characters and moves the series’ themes in such different directions that it forms an entirely different continuity, a new version of events – a version with even less connection to narrative continuity. The sexual elements are far more overt, and the role of sex’s usual best friend, death, is also further to the fore. Some fans think the whole movie takes place in the world of the dead. The idea of the gilded cage of Otori as a prison rather than a palace is explicit, and the empowering role of friendship in enabling freedom and fulfilment is conveyed in a hallucinogenic final sequence.

It’s a unique movie, and as the audience left the theatre I asked several of them what they thought. Some loved it, some didn’t entirely follow the narrative, but all said it was one of the most memorable anime they’d seen. And it seems nobody was quite as confused as they were after the Barbican screening of Otomo’s live-action Mushishi. But that’s another post.

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