A mainstream suspense movie, Maayavan grapples with questions of the soul – and immortality
Tamil cinema has come a long way, and is slowly embracing sci-fi themes with movies like Endhiran (Robot)and Indru Netru Naalai (Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow) with varying degrees of success.
Another stream in this development is that the more mainstream non-scifi movies using science fiction devices and themes for its plots. One such movie is Maayavan (Wizard) directed by CV Kumar. Kumar was the producer for many critically acclaimed Tamil films such as Pizza, and Maayavan was his first directorial venture.
A police inspector Kumaran with a troubled past finds himself in the most mysterious case the police has ever encountered. Multiple killings have occurred throughout the city, each by a different killers and different victims, but the killers all share something in common — their behaviour had changed radically in the last few days before they killed their victim.
How will Kumaran confront his past? What is the true nature of these copycat killings? Who is their mastermind?
A space battleship fights alien enemies and travels 30,000 light years in a quest to save Earth
If there’s one thing that could make an SF anime fan squeal, it is a classic like Space Battleship Yamato. Released in the 1970s, the anime is considered to be as influential in Japan’s as Star Wars or Star Trek, and it even became popular in the West as the anime was dubbed as Star Blazers.
With Space Battleship Yamato 2199, released in 2013, we get a much deserved remake of the sci-fi classic with a big budget, fantastic visuals, and great action.
The anime follows the titular Space Battleship Yamato as it goes on its solo mission to save Earth, which is now scorched beyond recognition by alien attacks. These attacks from the Gamilans – the aliens – render most of Earth’s surface uninhabitable. Humanity is driven to utter chaos and forced to live underground, with not more than a year before total extinction. Can humanity be saved?
In its final season, Game of Thrones tried to subvert expectations. It kind of forgot about character development. But more than 20 years ago, Berserk got its villain right.
Game of Thrones finished airing more than a year ago. Many have decided to forget about it than remember the travesty that was the final season. Why did the dragons die? Why did Dany transform so suddenly?
Above all, why did the people of Winterfell hide in the crypts during an Ice Zombie apocalypse?
One thing that helps answer these questions is to compare it to an anime series called Berserk. It is a dark fantasy series, based on the manga by Kentaro Miura, that started its run in the late 1990s.
In a lot of ways, Berserk is similar to Game of Thrones. It is set in a medieval era with protagonists trying to grapple with their ambitions, lust, morality, and duties. It has relentless violence, both physical and sexual.
But above all, both have characters who are deeply flawed, who want the world in their grasp, and who collapse into madness when their dreams crumble into dust.
The best parts of Wandering Earth occur when it sticks to its imaginative and unique premise. The worst parts occur when it tries to emulate Hollywood, becoming cliched and unoriginal.
Last month, the Chinese sci-fi movie Wandering Earth became available on Netflix. The movie is based on the short story by Cixin Liu, one of the most well known writers of Chinese science fiction, and the author of the Three Body Problem (see my review of the book).
The Sun is expanding, heating up the Earth and slowly killing all species in it. The world unites to build huge fusion-powered thrusters on the Earth’s surface to steer it toward our closest star, Alpha Centauri.
And all this happens in the first 10 minutes of the movie, even before the title appears. Crazy? You bet.
A despised group of psychics search the galaxy for a place they could call home, while being persecuted by humans. Along the journey, the different motives of the protagonists clash, creating a truly spectacular story.
There’s something about moral ambiguity that is deeply disturbing but strangely enchanting. If the classic myths like the Ramayana talk about the struggle between good and evil, our modern epics like Game of Thrones talk about the struggle between…well, people. This grey versus grey morality, rather than black versus white morality, forms the bedrock of many fantastic anime, such as Tokyo Ghoul, Berserk, or Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
And then, there is Toward the Terra.
Toward the Terra (2007) is based on a late 1970s science fiction comic written by Keiko Takemiya, which in turn is inspired by a sci fi novel written in 1940 called Slan, written by A.E. van Vogt.
The series starts in way that is very familiar, nearly cliched. A 14-year old school boy named Jomy discovers that he is a Mu, a race of mutants with psychic powers. But in this dystopian society ruled by artificial intelligence, the Mu’s existence is kept a secret. What’s worse, once kids pass the age of 14, they have to take a test, and they are killed if the test shows any signs of them being a Mu. In the past, there were even genocides against the Mu.
Nearly killed himself by the humans, Jomy is rescued by other Mu who are in hiding…
With a gritty take on alien contact and with references to China’s turbulent past, Three Body Problem is one of the greatest achievements of modern science fiction.
Who will you support when you meet an impossibly advanced civilisation? The flawed humans or the advanced aliens? When ET does contact us, will we meet someone benign or someone hostile? What will we do if it is the latter? These are the questions raised by Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award winning masterpiece, Three Body Problem.
Set in the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution in China, we see people killing their comrades, students shaming their professors, and couples abandoning their kids. It was a time of tremendous upheaval, as Chairman Mao’s rebellion and factionalism led to the death of millions, leaving scars that still haven’t been healed today.
This grounded background sets the stage for our protagonist Ye Wenjie’s motivations, setting off a conflict spanning many light years and lasting many generations – something that no one could have foreseen, least of all Ye Wenjie.
You can’t help but empathise with the choices that the Ye Wenjie makes. After all, humanity is responsible for one of the biggest mass extinctions in Earth. We’re making a mess of our planet through pollution and global warming. And we just can’t stop fighting ourselves. Is it wrong to think that only help from elsewhere could save us from ourselves?
Three Body Problem uses clever techniques to make us understand the history and motivations of the aliens. The most important of these is when a character plays a computer game set in a fantasy world, with characters based on the great scientists, kings, and philosophers. But despite the human characters, something seems really off about the game. For starters, there is no proper day and night cycle, and extreme weather could end up killing you. This leads to characters having to enter hibernation, so that they can weather the severe conditions. This otherworldly strangeness makes you suspect that the game has a deeper meaning.
Soon, the metaphorical nature of the game becomes evident, and we finally get to understand the nature of the Trisolarian civilisation — the aliens in the story. Even though the Trisolarians are the villains, this explanation gives them a strong motive so that we understand why they did what they did, in much the same way as the Cultural Revolution helps explain why Ye Wenjie did what she did. The story has morally grey characters on both sides. As Cixin Liu recently said in an interview (see this Reddit post), talking about why Three Body Problem cannot be adapted by Hollywood:
Hollywood sci-fi films, stories, and background premises can be complex and convoluted, but their themes can’t be complicated and must present a dichotomy like the Chinese saying: ‘make the black and the white clearly separated.’ Three Body violates this most fundamental principle.
There is also a decent amount of hard science in the book, if the title of the book didn’t give you any indication. The Three Body Problem refers to a problem in physics about the orbits of 3 masses—say, stars. While with 2 masses the orbits may be stable and predictable, with 3 bodies it becomes quite chaotic and unpredictable. In the latter case, you still might get short periods of stability, but it is surrounded by vast stretches of time when there is complete chaos.
A person in a planet orbiting a triple star system will face rollercoaster-like temperature swings. For some years there may be moderate temperatures and flourishing lives as the stars are neither too far nor too close. Then, as the chaotic era approaches, the flames of the stars almost lick the planet. The person simply burns into a crisp.
This cycle of actual Chaotic Eras and Stable Eras also reflects civilization and instability across human history. The stable and chaotic eras don’t just haunt the aliens, they also haunt any society. And nowhere is this more evident than in China. Marred by death and famine in one century, and prosperity and growth in the next, China’s history is full of Stable and Chaotic Eras.
Perhaps, the aliens in Three Body Problem aren’t that different from humans.