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bechdel taser: it’s not santa claus vs the martians, but 2011 has timed you some festive sci-fi

I love science fiction. From Plan 9 schlock to Moon’s sophisticated speculation on the future of us and our probing, shiny, phallic toys. I also love the  SBS Friday Night cousin to sci-fi’s behind-the-beaded-curtain hardcore, speculative fiction. I take it dead seriously, though my commitment to two-minute showers (made every time I see The Road) falters as soon as I see dandruff or have a meeting to avoid. I sometimes wonder if the dystopia I bring ever closer will be as dickish to those of us without  Y chromosomes as moving pictures would have me believe.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a flawed, clinical look at what could happen to society if an easily spread and difficult to cure disease struck on a large scale. And I have to separate character from actor here, or my ability to critique without falling into puddles of loathing will be impeded.

See, I have a problem with Gwyneth Paltrow. A barely-substantiable hatred that has no place in this column but ensured my stomach contracted as Contagion opened on her character. For a few objectively short but for me, interminably drawn-out minutes I wondered how I would sit through the film. Then her character died and I resumed normal bodily functions.

I did wonder if things had mixed up, though. See, the number of times I raised my eyebrow during this film would almost suggest it had become as autonomous as blinking. Paltrow dies shortly after we discover she is adulterous. I’ll call this punishment necromisogymania, because it gets worse. By the end of the film, her deceased character may have subtly assumed responsibility for the entire global pandemic.

Contagion’s writer succeeded in plotting an unfolding health crisis, in official terms, but had the eyes of a G.I. Joe when it came to human interaction. I don’t know if the necromisogymania was intentional, because so few of the characters seemed human. It might pass the Bechdel test, but only if you consider group briefings conversation. Even then, only just.

The film’s worth seeing, for Jude Law’s Julian Assange impersonation (replete with terrifically awful Australian accent); to be reminded of why you should wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, and to imagine how the densely star-cluttered cast would respond in the guise of earlier, better developed roles. Yes, that does mean envisaging the dad from Malcolm in the Middle governing a nation’s military response.

On the other side of the genre-flick coin comes Attack the Block. Contagion takes pains to explain the science of its speculations, Attack the Block restrains explanation to a single scene facilitating the spark-filled climax. It’s straight-up sci-fi action with a lot of humour. The social comment isn’t preached from a soap-box, feeling completely appropriate in the wake of the London riots.

The film passes the Bechdel test by the sixth minute, as a young nurse and senior citizen discuss some hoodlums. Think high bar, but not highbrow—the aged figure lets loose some choice cusses, before we start following the hoodlums. Misfits is a decent point-of reference, as the protag-s are more traditional antag-s, with foul mouths and less-than-middle- class breeding. A parallel could also be drawn to Jonah’s crew in Summer Heights High. But where these telly shows gave us co-ed gender set-ups, Attack the Block restores a boy’s club.

There’s not enough made of the implications of a gang of boys mugging a single young woman at night, and they never learn their lesson. There is an equivalently aged group of girls in the film, but they have little of the fun.

Attack the Block was terrific in a lot of ways, all of them removed from its portrayal of gender. It bothered me more than it should, as usually there’s so much more to hate about a movie. While  in my Top 10 of 2011, Attack the Block could be so much higher if not so oblivious to its gender mark-downs. There may also be some race fail, but I haven’t read enough bell hooks to pass that critique.

Some science fiction films try to separate themselves from the genre. Terms like ‘universal’ are thrown around with the abandon of a film-maker who really, really needs to get their next project funded. Another Earth, however, seems to have inserted a spacey storyline specifically because the writer was afraid his audience wouldn’t understand a metaphor.

The day after I saw Another Earth, we discovered one. This was the only real link I could draw between this film and what is supposedly a science fiction premise. It opens with the discovery of a replica planet. The science of this is never explained, which spares us what could have been a hilarious viral clip justifying a completely fantastical concept.

Rhoda (Brit Marling), is obsessed with space. She’s also drunk and driving as she hears the discovery, on the radio, and subsequently kills a man’s family.

And, more importantly, I thought, her dreams.

Paltrow is punished from beyond the grave. Marling is kept alive and suffering. I’m not excusing drink driving, but while her character is three-dimensional and intelligent, the movie keeps throwing sticks at her, and she refuses to do anything about it. The redemption she tries to earn is through domestic (and other) duties. For a man.

Still, Brit Marling is amazing in the role. Show me a completely unproblematic movie and… well, I’ll probably fall asleep, because I’ll be watching a documentary about amoebas narrated by  a computer. But Another Earth’s lady-portrayal is amazing in characterisation, if not action. I played ‘reverse the gender’, and decided I’d have more to rant about if it was the other way around.

See these movies, but skip the last ten minutes of Another Earth, the first ten of Attack the Block and everything Paltrow-related in Contagion. It’s all speculative, anyway, so invent something less tase-worthy.

Find Sarina on Twitter @sarinaisshaft

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