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Colossal and Spaceship: Satisfyingly bizarre takes on sci-fi

Two new fantastical films go well beyond the genre's tropes

You have to feel sorry for the marketing department whose job it is to sell Colossal, which combines elements of romantic comedy, twisted psychodrama and monster movie. There can’t logically be much overlap between fans of The Philadelphia Story, Fatal Attraction and Godzilla. Adventurous audiences, though, are in for a treat.

It’s unusual to come across a film in which it is impossible to predict the outcome of each scene, or the agenda of each character, but from the moment Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment for being drunk and jobless, there’s no telling where this one might be going. Gloria, however, is going home – back to the tumbleweed town where she grew up. She bumps into an old school pal, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who gives her a job at his local bar, and it seems she may get her life back on track if she can stay off the bottle.

Then disaster strikes. A gigantic reptilian monster materialises in Seoul and starts stomping on cars and knocking down skyscrapers like ninepins. What all this has to do with Gloria is not immediately apparent. She has never even been to Seoul. And just because both she and the rampaging creature have the Stan Laurel-ish habit of scratching the top of their head in a quizzical manner doesn’t mean they’re related.

The Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo is in complete control of his material as he moves between apparently incompatible genres, as well as up and down the emotional register. Much of the film’s power lies in skilful misdirection. All the signs suggest that Gloria will progress from addiction to redemption, a journey familiar to Hathaway from Rachel Getting Married, but that’s only a sliver of the story. On an intimate level, it’s about the malignant consequences of poor self-image, though it could also be argued that it’s a satire about how the rest of the world always has to pay for America’s dysfunctional behaviour.

If the eventual explanation for the bizarre goings-on raises more questions than it ­answers, the rest of this satisfyingly strange film easily compensates. Hathaway and Sudeikis work boldly against type and the monster itself is oddly beautiful, ­especially in one poetic shot where it is ­camouflaged among autumnal trees. Colossal is surprising from minute to minute but it amounts to more than the sum of our gasps.

The fantasy-related oddness continues in Spaceship, a psychedelic curiosity that introduces aliens to Aldershot. The teenage Lucidia (Alexa Davies) is busy watching the skies as her archaeologist father (Antti Reini) digs in the forest. Inspired by the memory of her late mother, who used to be heard giving directions to aliens in her sleep, the girl fakes her own abduction by UFO – a shoestring spectacle, staged using smoke and coloured lights. It’s tempting to wonder why she went to all that bother when there is more than enough exoticism in her own backyard. The fetching, blue-haired Alice (Tallulah Haddon) drags her bleach-blond boyfriend around on a leash, and Lucidia’s own beau, Luke (the Ben Whishaw-like Lucian Charles Collier), dances an electrified slow-motion ballet in his head while his body has an epileptic fit in an empty swimming pool. It’s that sort of film.

For these kids, the possibility of extraterrestrial abduction becomes a means of coping with earthbound trauma, as it was in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. It is a testament to the first-time director Alex Taylor’s investment in this idea – as well as his Kenneth Anger-with-glow-paint visual style – that the scrapbook approach hangs together. The dialogue is authentic teenage poppycock. “I saw my life flash forward,” Luke says after witnessing Lucidia’s kidnapping. “I’m gonna be a famous shoe designer!”

And the performances are thrillingly uninhibited; don’t be surprised if the careers of several future stars are traced back to this film. The soundtrack is a pleasing jumble of earthy folk and throbbing electronica, with East India Youth’s euphoric “Heaven, How Long” playing a vital part in helping Spaceship achieve final lift-off. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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