Guest review by usevalue! C (299,792 km/s)

[This week this blog gets its first guest review (huzzah!) by wordpress user usevalue, who is considering relaunching their own blog in the near future or so I heard! Exciting times.]

The following is a review of a short film, C (299,792 km/s) which was funded entirely by online donations. As I understand it, the makers of the film are always eager for more money, and are in fact selling various merchandise through their web site. So if that seems like a good idea, go throw money at them. The film is free to watch online [Trigger warning: mild violence, stunning, kidnapping], and if you’re one of those folks who is allergic to spoilers you should go watch it before reading this review.

C (299,792 km/s), a new independent film by Derek Van Gorder and Otto Stockmeier, is set in the vaguely-defined future. Due to its length (about 15 minutes) we are only given a few facts about this future. Humankind has constructed military spaceships to wage its ongoing wars; these ships are capable of achieving relativistic speeds (i.e. close to the speed of light, i.e. C); and gender equality in the military has progressed somewhat. Beyond that, the film dispenses with detailed portrayal of the world to propose a few political ideas for our consideration.

The film tells the story of a mutiny led by Lieutenant Commander Malleck aboard the military vessel the KESTROS IV. With the help of an insurgent gang of engineers, Malleck seizes control of the helm from the otherwise unnamed Captain. When a loyalist counter-insurgency forms under the doughty Second Lieutenant Kai, Malleck and her co-conspirators use the ship’s bulkheads to trap their enemies, eventually stunning them all. Malleck is keen to avoid killing any of the ship’s crew because, as she informs her rebels, the men in particular will be necessary for the gene pool when the ship arrives at its destination. At last the plot is revealed: Malleck and her team change the ship’s course, abandoning the military squadron of which it is a part, and set off on a journey through space and, thanks to relativity, time to colonise new worlds, far from Earth’s military and ecological catastrophes. These futuristic scenes are interspersed with clips from an apparent 1980s science documentary featuring Dr. Harold Newman, an obvious homage to Carl Sagan.

C is ultimately a film about the ambiguous potential of technology. As Dr. Newman’s voiceover states, there is a tendency in human development towards weaponisation, and the possibility of self-destruction through ecological catastrophe is very very real. At the same time, Dr. Newman proposes that technology offers us, ultimately, an escape from the limits of our situation. In his case, it is the eventual death of our star. Assuming you, like I, am not particularly concerned about that, we can read the event as the terrible limits imposed on us by our mode of production. The escape into the great beyond made by Malleck and the reluctant crew of the KESTROS IV, in this reading, is a secession from the coordinates of our social and political system.

The genius of the film lies in its ambiguous treatment of Malleck’s mutiny. It is undoubtedly vanguardist; surely she acts for Second Lieutenant Kai’s own good (informing him he is “a born colonist”), but she has to stun him with a rifle in order to do so. On top of this, after achieving escape velocity the engineers jettison the ship’s engines, preventing an obviously anticipated demand to return home. Leninists might not mind; the mutiny is mostly composed of engineers, and in the initial phases of the rebellion they are armed only with welding torches, giving the whole affair a nice proletarian flavour, but others might take pause. Furthermore, the film gives us no guarantee that Malleck’s plan will succeed. She asks Kai, “Do you believe a warship can be an engine for human progress?” The question is never answered. The end of the film is only the beginning of the journey of the KESTROS IV, and we are left to wonder what will become of them.

Where I see the political vision of the film (or, at least, Lieutenant Commander Malleck) failing is in its utopian, secessionist dimension. Though perhaps within a sci-fi setting Malleck’s vision is plausible, if fraught with peril, when we attempt to apply the film’s lessons to our own circumstances troubles arise. What would secession from capitalism mean for us? And where would we go? One needn’t labour the point by arguing again against socialism in one country, or declaring the interconnectedness of the biosphere. When we delve deeper into the nature of the rebellion, the problems only multiply. The Lieutenant Commander remains a Lieutenant Commander. The ship remains a military ship. It should be clear to us that existing social hierarchies and our existing infrastructure do not lend themselves to communism, as they have all been designed for the subjugation of labour, not its liberation from its status as labour. In casting its faith in the saving power of technology to escape the problems of our world, the film fails to delve into the processes of class composition and social reconstruction which any meaningful revolution would necessarily entail.

And yet for its faults, C offers us an important reminder for our political practice which is the necessary element of voluntarism in social change. We can no longer hope that the tide of history is on our side; as C hints darkly, if left unrestricted, the tide of history may carry us over the falls. In spite of all the obstacles, it does us no good to wait until the perfect moment or the perfect conditions arrive, as they never will. So while I don’t think I’d join Malleck and the hapless passengers of the KESTROS IV on their journey into what awaits, I agree with the Lieutenant Commander that we must act without delay, making creative use of the resources at hand.

And of course, if none of this political nonsense interests you in the slightest, C boasts a charming retro aesthetic, from its 1980s soundtrack, to its spurning of CGI in favour of plastic models shot against a black sheet. Watch it.

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