The Kid Detective
The Kid Detective is a Neo-Noir detective story from 2020 is about a detective who is haunted by a case that he could never solve as a child prodigy. As an adult he is still working in the same small town, his life on hold, respected by no one, working on trivial cases, and still traumatised by the past. It’s a film about the loss of innocence and not being able to grow up. The film has been compared to Brick. I think it is more together, and a more satisfying story. It follows in a long cinematic tradition, from Under the Silver Lake, going back to The Long Goodbye, and The Third Man. These are stories about shattered loyalty, people in positions of trust who are not what they appear to be, realising ones own limitations – lost or alienated protagonists observing the world around them. The Kid Detective confidently navigates and expands on this story form. It’s a homage that surprises and adds a contemporary twist, while staying clear of cliché or delving into parody.
The five stages of British science fiction and fantasy
- The horror of scientific invention. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a remarkable gothic novel and science fiction and fantasy story. Frankenstein poses one of the biggest questions – what if a person becomes ‘god’ and creates life? What happens then?
- The uncertain promise. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) the society of the future is refined and made more efficient, much like a factory production line. But in its attainment of the shiny new arena, humanity will lose something of itself. In Brave New World the culture of this future society is more shocking than the technology it possesses. The whole of society has turned into Frankenstein’s monster.
- A retreat from the abyss. J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), and The Lord of the Rings (1968) is an escape from industrialisation and mass destruction of the two world wars. It’s a return to a simpler world, the eternal fight of good against evil. The Gormenghast trilogy, by Mervyn Peake, includes Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). It’s a series about the pomposity of rites and rituals, much of it takes place in a isolated and decaying society, followed by a visit to a futureopolis where the protagonist wonders if Gormenghast might have been the byproduct of his imagination (a lost world, much like the pre-War England might have seemed to many English people after the Second World War).
- A new fear. In the post-War world the only certainty is uncertainty. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) the good intentions of English socialism have been hijacked by hate politics, turning a rational-based movement for social improvement and enlightenment into a quasi-religious hate cult. There is no ideological right or wrong. The only truth is the party exercising its power. It’s not just the overzealous implementation of bad ideas or manipulations of language that are causing the problems... In John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951) nature itself has conspired against humanity. Lights in the sky are blinding the population and walking plants are unleashing their own retribution. This is the eco-disaster science fiction and fantasy story. Harking back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, our inventiveness has a sting in its tail.
- The magician. In a world of depressing problems, and an encroaching new millennium, we need an escape from reality, to go back to that magical place where heroes possess special powers. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is not quite a full-on return to the shires of The Hobbit, but nonetheless, Harry Potter takes place in an old-fashioned and ‘reassuringly’ wood-panelled environment, a private school for magicians. The hero is a kind of child Hobbit, an ordinary person, who isn’t actually ordinary. This echoes our own notions and hopes about ourselves, that although we are ordinary there might be something special, magical even, about us.
How much does the world really change?
For someone from a deprived 1920s British working class slum, a visit to a wealthy person’s house in 1921 would be an eye-opener in itself, let along being transported to 2021. Someone landing is 2021 Las Vegas is going to get a very different experience than someone finding themselves in the Lake District in 2021. What this means is that people live within personal experiences of relative ‘advancement’ and ‘progress’. 2021 would look a lot less intimidating for a wealthy Manhattan socialite from 1921 than it might perhaps be for a rural farmworker. There are people today who are living ‘in the future’ in some respects. Not literally of course, but they are enjoying things in their life that most of us will only begin to access in the future. But, a significant amount of the environment (especially in the UK) hasn’t changed as much as we might think. How much of 2021 would only look superficially different to someone from 1921? The cars are more advanced but work in much the same way. Would it be such a shock? If we were travelling 100 years into the future, the culture might shock us more than the technology.
- I’ve been enjoying season one and two of The Mandalorian. It has slick storytelling, an action-based narrative, decent acting, and immersive special effects, spaceships, monsters and robots. It’s very Star Wars. But, there’s something weird about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and then it came to me. There aren’t many ‘adult relationships’. The protagonist is basically a weaponised child minder. He’s an updated version of the dashing, honour-bound character in The Rocketeer (1991). Because of this, there’s something slightly weird about the world it depicts, an uncanny valley. It feels like a thirteen-year-old boy’s concept of the real world, his idea of living as an adult. This is compounded by a task-based plot structure that echoes the approach of a computer game. In other words, even though its a charming, fun adventure, and an enjoyable series to watch, it’s also lacking something.
- Lee Child’s essay ‘The Hero’ was published as a small book in 2019. In it, he explores ideas about heroes, starting with the drug heroin, which gets its name from the German word for heroic. Lee Child describes the idea of the folk hero, the knight errant, the ronin, etc. A man of office who is no longer in office, a man who travels from place to place, helping and protecting the innocent. Hence the Jack Reacher character was once a major in the US army, but was let go by the military. Now he wonders America without a real purpose, helping and protecting innocent people. Lee Child believes that the concept of the hero is a myth. Today, the word ‘hero’ is so misused that it’s become debased and meaningless. In real life there are no heroes: ‘I have no heroes and recognise none’. And yet, people still have fears, so there’s a continuing need to believe in heroes, especially in fiction. The hero is there to calm our fears, to reassure us.
- The story of the protagonist vs prevailing social convention runs deep in myth, ancient legend, and contemporary fiction. It’s common in children’s fiction for the main character to ignore established, or sensible advice, usually out of ignorance or because they think they know best. In The Jungle Book, Mowgli repeatedly puts himself in danger because he doesn’t listen to the parental-like warnings of Bagheera the panther. The wise Bagheera warns Mowgli about the dangers lurking in the jungle, but Mowgli never listens. Pinnoccio ignores the advice of Jiminy Cricket. Simba in The Lion King ignores the warning from his father about the dangerous shadowy land. Snow White doesn’t listen to the ‘seven dwarfs’ when they warn her not to talk to suspicious strangers. This scenario is also common in horror fiction. A group of teenagers are warned not to go to a creepy, abandoned house on the edge of town – and what’s the first thing they do? In adventures, quests, and Noir detective stories, the protagonist is warned not to go to a certain place, or search for an object, or continue their investigation.
- Old Man’s War (2005) is a military science fiction novel by John Scalzi. It’s a riff on Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), with some added Frankenstein, and Ender’s Game. Old Man’s War follows 75-year-old John Perry who joins the Colonial Defence Force (CDF) to fight hostile aliens (some of these alien species farm humans so that they can eat the human babies, which they consider a culinary delicacy). The arduous training phase allows the reader to get to know the characters with the latter part of the novel covering the various conflicts Perry has with enemy alien lifeforms. The novel explores the effects of his enhanced and augmented body, the initial sense of power it gives the ‘75-year-old’, the traumatic effects of combat, stress, the guilt of killing intelligent alien species, and the ensuing crisis of identity provoked by the experience. Beneath the dramatic action Old Man’s War asks some profound questions about galactic competition, and what it means to be human.
- Dune (1984) was adapted by David Lynch from the 1965 novel. The film has a poor reputation. The main problem with it is that it’s too long and slow moving. The noir-baroque style is interesting but the retro-futurism feels very 1984. Anyone today would probably give it a more glossy advanced tech sci-fi futurism. Some of the elements in the film are annoying, the glowing blue eyes would probably be done more subtly now and the spoken thoughts get a bit too much. Both of these elements get in the way of the acting performances. The spoken thoughts are often overtly expositional, which doesn’t help.
- Foundation is a 1951 science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov. The book is made up of five connected short stories that have been joined together to form a novel. This is the first book in the Foundation Series. The story revolves around the Foundation, a scientific institute that’s been set up by ‘psychohistorian’ Hari Seldon. He’s predicted the demise of the Galactic Empire and gets the go ahead to create the Encyclopaedia Galactica, a resource base of human knowledge. Foundation is an intriguing sci-fi document, but it’s also quite a weird book. In some ways, it’s typical of older science fiction where the ideas are more interesting than the execution of the story. It’s 1950s science-optimism with 1950s technology, which feels dated today.
- John Scalzi’s Interdependency series, The Collapsing Empire (2017), The Consuming Fire (2018), and The Last Emperox (2020) explores a far distant future civilisation, which is about to face a catastrophic natural change to their environment. The series asks the question: how do people deal with the chaos at the twilight of civilisation? Do they double-down on preparing for the future? Do they regard it as a business opportunity? Do they use it as a means to gain power?
- World building in speculative fiction involves three basic types of society: rising, plateau (stable or stagnant), and declining. The plateau society isn’t changing. It can be ossified or culturally stifled in some respects, or it can be in balance with its surroundings (in a positive way). Rising societies may be extropian and believe that they are all-powerful and capable of achieving anything. They may possess a sense of being an unstoppable force because they possess momentum. In a rapidly rising society there can be an almost god-like sense of cultural supremacy over their rivals, and over nature itself. Societies in decline have achieved things in the past, but they are now fragmenting and transforming into a diminished force. They are subject to the forces of natural decay, entropy. They may look back to their past glories and historical power, but something has changed in the declining society that has fundamentally damaged its culture and confidence and they may be post-extropian. The shock could be due to dwindling resources, a ruthless competitor, environmental change, incompetence, or eco-disaster. The declining society places a priority on keeping things just as they are, resisting change. A declining society is often distracted by its own divisions and infighting. The cycle of rise, plateau, and fall, is often represented in speculative fiction as: the wilderness (the wasteland, desert, or the ruined world). The rise (from nomad, to village, to town, to city, to megacity). A new civilisation (a high culture with advanced technology). Catastrophic destruction (through plateau and decline, nuclear war, ecological devastation, etc). The wilderness (again, a reset).
- Oswald Spengler’s book The Decline of the West was published in 1926 (English edition). It represents German soul-searching after defeat of World War One. A lot of it is nonsense, but the gist of it is that cultures take 1,000 years to mature into a civilisation, and then they take another 1,000 years to decline. The Decline of the West had a precursor, Edward Gibbon’s 1776 The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s book covered the Roman Empire, early Christianity, and the fall of Byzantium. Like other Enlightenment thinkers, Gibbon shared responsibility for characterising the ‘Dark Ages’ as a hellish period after the retreat of the Roman Empire. Despite its brutality, the Victorians admired Ancient Rome as a perceived bastion of civilised orderliness. The grand tour had long been a quasi-religious adulation of Ancient Roman and Ancient Greek culture.
- Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary by Frank Pavich. It explores Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade production of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965). Jodorowsky’s production was killed by the studio. It’s been called ‘the greatest movie never made’. Alejandro Jodorowsky directed El Topo (1973), and The Holy Mountain (1973) before working on Dune. His version, if it had been made, would have been just as weird as his other films.
- Jonathan Swift’s satirical work Gulliver’s Travels (Its full title is: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships) finds the protagonist, Gulliver, in the bizarre land of Lilliput, which is divided between the higher-heeled Tramecksans (High Church) and the lower-heeled Slamecksans (Low Church). Swift was satirising the ridiculousness of British and European politics. The Tramecksans (High-Heels) are Whigs and the Slamecksans (Low-Heels) are Tories. Lilliput and Blefuscu are England and France. The war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians is the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The change from eating one end of an egg to the other is akin to the Protestant Reformation.
- Love and Monsters (2020) sells itself convincingly in the opening credits with a comic take on post-apocalyptic story tropes. The self-depreciating humour does a good job of allowing the viewer to empathise with the protagonist without making him seem too weak. The film is a multiple cross-genre tale: monster movie, post-apocalypse, wilderness survival, comedy, romance, quest, action-adventure, coming-of age, human and animal buddy story, and a road trip (albeit roadless and on foot) where the hero makes new friends along the way. The story references A Boy and His Dog, Tremors, and Zombieland. It keeps things upbeat, never allowing itself to become self-important or sentimental. With a $30M production budget, Love and Monsters feels like a film in a higher price bracket. The special effects are especially good considering the budget. Dylan O’Brien (Maze Runner trilogy) does a nice job in the lead role. The ending is a slight disappointment, which takes the overall story satisfaction down a notch or two. It’s not genre defining or defying, but as a piece of fun entertainment Love and Monsters definitely works.
- When an experiment in space goes wrong, three animals on Earth are infected with mutant genetics. Rampage (2018) is an okay big action movie. If you can look past some ridiculous moments and convenient plotting, it’s an action and special effects crowd-pleaser.
- Palm Springs (2020) is a riff on Groundhog Day, combining a science fiction time travel loop with a romantic comedy. It has a high 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes (which seems a little high to me considering that Citizen Kane is 99%). Although it’s a low budget $5M production it successfully makes the most of its budget and feels like it cost significantly more. The script is tightly written and it playfully explores the clichés, and the time loop metaphors (where the protagonist inevitably learns the true meaning of life along the way). Palm Springs mixes the time loop story with bar room philosophy and the bawdy humour of a 90s college movie.
- The Water Knife (2015) is a dystopian, cli-fi, biopunk novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. It takes place in a near-future Southern US when society has fractured under the effects of global warming and economic decline. This is a world in which America has lost its geo-political dominance. The novel follows many of the themes from Bacigalupi’s short stories in the collection Pump Six (2008), and his novels The Windup Girl (2009), and Ship Breaker (2010). Bacigalupi writes hard science fiction in a literary type of style. There’s a strong focus on the world building and the psychological inner life of his protagonists. His descriptions are often intricate and lavish, which can slow the pace down considerably. His work deals with the pervasive effects of climate change, genetic enhancements, big business, and American decline.
- The Endless (2017) is a low budget science fiction horror directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, with the directors also doing double duty in the two lead roles. The story is about two brothers who receive an old video in the post, recordings from their days as members of a ‘UFO death cult’. They decide to go back and investigate the old community that they were once part of. One of the brothers is sceptical of the community. The other sees them as harmless kooks. They smoke the locally grown ‘flower’ and reality blurs with the cult’s strange beliefs. The first half of the film plays it straight with a mixture of the mundane, poignant moments, and dry comedy. Then it descends into the fantastic. The Endless feels like it’s trying to do a bit of everything and in the process (especially the second half), doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It might have been a better film if it was less ambitious, and the special effects budget wouldn’t also have been spread so thin.
- When a series of bodies are discovered, with grim echoes of Seven, two paramedics are forced to come to terms with the reality of a designer drug that makes users travel in time. The science fiction horror Synchronic (2019) has a kind of Donnie Darko school of time travel logic about it, so don’t ask too many questions. It’s a mixed bag of family drama, missing child story, paramedic buddy tale, mystery story, time travel exploration, and sacrificial friendship.
- Pierre Boulle’s novel, Planet of the Apes, has a brilliant reveal that could only have been achieved in a novel. It would have been impossible to pull it off in a film. The Planet of the Apes film has its own reveal. It’s clever, but different to the novel’s. The reveal in storytelling is a revelatory insight that gives the reader or viewer a dramatic and unexpected new perspective about the story. The Matrix has a well known reveal, as does Dark City, and Star Wars. Incorporating a reveal in a story means the element can’t be used as a device for creating suspense (because it has to be kept secret, until the reveal). A reveal is a surprise. Suspense gives away the surprise in exchange for tension (the reader or viewer not knowing when it’s going to happen).
- Adapting the novel The Knife of Never Letting Go into the film Chaos Walking (2021) was always going to be a challenge. The protagonist is incredibly weak in the novel, and that doesn’t translate easily into a sympathetic movie character. The novel also features a phenomena called the ‘Noise’ where male thoughts are externalised, and represented graphically by using stylised text. In the film ‘Noise’ is visualised as a kind of shimmer or Aurora Borealis around a person’s head (a flame in the case of the Preacher). The critical reception has been largely negative and its rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 22%. The script’s focus on acting as a setup for further films is infuriating because a sequel looks unlikely to go ahead. With the actors hobbled by the script, the overbearing ‘Noise’ becomes the films defining element, and that’s unfortunate because it’s annoying. The film cost $85M and it was quoted as being ‘unreleasable’. After $15M of extensive reshoots (taking the production cost up to $100M), the film made $17M at the box office. This is one of those ‘production hell’ films that feels like a missed opportunity.