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Podcast script 33: Three SF DVD texts for younger secondary students - Astro Boy, Planet 51, and Monsters vs Aliens

 

mySF Project podcast, number 33

 

Download at: http://media.libsyn.com/media/pataphysics/mysf_033_2010_07_07.mp3

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Index:

Introduction
Bowers' Astro Boy
Teaching ideas for Astro Boy
Blanco's Planet 51
Student activities for Planet 51
Monsters vs Aliens
Activities based around Monsters vs Aliens
Podcast 34 preview
Resource list

 

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Introduction

Podcast 33 looks at three DVDs suitable for younger secondary students. In Australia, these students are in Years 7 and 8, around twelve and thirteen years old. The three DVDs are a new Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010), Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010) and Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009). Each has a bright image on the cover, all are rated PG in Australia, so available for showing to the age group and above, and all are animations falling within the broad genre of Science Fiction.

As the first semester has just finished leading into two weeks of a winter break, these DVDs were most useful. Students' reports were written, grades noted in the computer and the last couple of classes were just right for an animation, with focus questions written on the white board in a pretense of pedagogic rigour. Two of the DVDs were also useful for older Technology students studying animation and multimedia, but that is not the purpose of this podcast. Instead, it is their value as SF texts for this age group that is discussed.  

The script for Podcast 33 can be found through the mySF Scripts page at http://www.pataphysics.net.au/mysf_project/mysf_scripts  The script will be useful for anyone wanting to find citations or to follow links to resources for these animations. 

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Bowers' Astro Boy

By far the most exalted of these animations is, of course, Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010), a recent reincarnation and creation myth for a Science Fiction icon. My head teacher, a man in his early thirties, wears an Astro Boy t-shirt in summer and coveted my mobile phone faceplate in white with the robot boy logo. With my wife I visited a large touring 'Astro Boy' exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne. There, the Master of Manga and Atomu's creator, Tezuka Osamu, was showcased and honoured.  

Osamu's amazing contribution to manga and then to the television serial for Astroboy is not covered here but those interested can find an overview in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (Bolton and others, 2008). And there are literally dozens of fully-stocked websites devoted to Osamu's Astro Boy, many with early manga images, then on into the1960s cartoon series.  

The most recent Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010) animation shares some characters and some concerns with the earlier and more successful versions. The story has been trimmed in some areas and elongated in others, including a few extra characters who befriend this Astro Boy, such as a robot trash can dog and a gentle giant robot, that might just be a result of merchandising research.  

Bowers' Astro Boy (2010) is set on a floating island, Metro City. The citizens of this city enjoy privileged status, served by robots that are clearly sentient, with their own individual characters. The robots of Metro City are discarded onto the groaning, rubbish-strewn earth below, where rejects from Metro City scavenge amongst the techno trash.  

There are hints of other recent texts in Astro Boy (2010), not the least of these the much stronger and more interesting Wall-E (Stanton, 2008). The same contrast of selfish humans with sentient, mechanical slaves toiling on a despoiled Earth are seen, but Astro Boy (2010) does little more than nod towards this scenario.  

Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010) is a busy, ninety minute production. There are elements of the enlivening of Frankenstein's monster when the robot is powered-up for the first time, as well as several sub-plots of the robot-boy's strange relationship to his scientist father, one of the least satisfactory elements of the narrative.  

Also in the pot are the sage and benevolent Doctor Elefun defending Astro Boy, the gang of children down on the surface of the planet, an evil leader of Metro City, a huge robot, a weak love interest for the boy aspect of the robot, and several comic robot characters, such as a talking squeegy bottle.  

At the centre of the story is a very simple binary: the battle between good energy and bad energy, made palpable by fragments of a meteorite, separated into a glowing jewel of blue (Astro Boy's good power source) and a bead of red (the unstable violence that powers the enemy, giant robot).  

The battle between Astro Boy's blue energy and the evil robot's red energy pulls the narrative together when it veers away into tangents until finally Astro Boy somehow defeats the evil robot (now inhabited by the character of the mayor of Metro City) and is born again as a hero robot defending all humans.  

Bowers' Astro Boy (2010) does have some redeeming ideas. Apart from the age old battle between good and evil with the rise of a young, male hero figure saving the day, it is also a coming-of-age story. Astro Boy's problem is that he is neither boy nor robot. He asks the same questions as so many other coming-of-age protagonists:

Why am I here? Where am I going? What will happen to me in the future?
How do adults see us? Why do they treat us like this? Why are we so powerless? (Jones & Fisher, 2000)

Astro Boy faces problems with misguided parents. He faces major decisions and copes bravely and honestly with these, without help from his family for the most part. The viewer of Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010) understands that it is not the boy's DNA that makes him human, it is his willingness to sacrifice himself for others, to suffer and care and finally to understand his role as a defender of humanity.  

The dominant reading (Evans, 1996) of Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010) is the hero's return to save the city, set within a specious Science Fiction scenario. The young viewer recognises the good in the robot-boy and identifies with the need to fight against injustice. It is Astro Boy's introspection when shuddering between the worlds of humanity and robotics that ties into the age and concerns of the young secondary viewer. Astro Boy reflects the uncertainty found in the viewer while assuring them that all will be well in the end, with the young creature growing into a certainty of self that allows for confidence and strength, a rebirth as a full citizen hero, admired by all.  

The animation of Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010) is far more advanced than any and all earlier versions. It can be beautifully constructed and some scenes such as the bucolic restarting of the friendly robot Zog are as memorable as the fights through Metro City. Created for 3-D presentation and with teams of wire-framers labouring for the production company in Hong Kong, Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010) can only be disappointing for those who understand the importance of this icon in Western and Japanese cultures, but for young students this version of the man/machine tale at its simplest and shallowest can be effective.  

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Teaching ideas for Astro Boy

Following examples from Cox and Goldsworthy in Featuring Film 2: the sequel  (1997), students might be asked to write Astro Boy's first speech to the people of Metro City as their new hero. Students should try to use Astro Boy's idiom and speech mannerisms to outline the basic tenets of the new society under Astro Boy's benevolent protection, including the liberation of sentient robots and the restoration of the Earth.

Students might also be asked how successful is this animation in creating a sense of the future? (Cox & Goldsworthy, 1997) As a classroom of the future is depicted in Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010), students might also be asked to write a 'futurised' version of the class, writing a simple screenplay for the director of this sequence, including costumes and props (adapted from Cox & Goldsworthy, 1997: 48).

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Blanco's Planet 51

Jorge Blanco's animation Planet 51 (2010) for the Spanish Ilion Animation Studios and distributed by Sony is even richer in its visuals than Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010). The characters are beautifully modelled and the enitre planet setting is stunning, perhaps due to the luminosity of the greens and blues and the soft rounding of most objects - an intentional device to enhance the alterity (Roberts, 2000) or alien nature of the culture, though, of course, they are not alien at all.

The Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010) trailer gives it all away. A big, beefy and boofy NASA astronaut comes to Planet 51 and claims it with an American flag. Then the astronaut, Captain Chuck Baker, realises the planet is already inhabited. In fact, he has pitched the flag in a suburban back lawn and at the same time trod on a squeaky rubber duck. It's a nice idea.

The reversal of roles with Captain Chuck as the alien fits in neatly with the 'Enemy Within' theme area of the mySF Project. But there are problems with this as the indigenous of Planet 51 seem to be nothing other than versions of an idealised 1950s regional American town. They have gently reptilian features with antennae and skin the colour of unripe snow-peas. In a dazzling example of convergent evolution, the Planet 51 indigenous speak American English and breathe oxygen. They are are naïve and sheltered, to the point where most of the males wear no pants and have no apparent genitalia.

Captain Chuck has landed in Glipforg, a charming rural hamlet most reminiscent of Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985), except the Glipforgians look humanoid/amphibious and have not invented the wheel but instead use an unknown form of energy to hover their transport.

The viewer starts the narrative with another coming-of-age problem as the teenage protagonist, Lem, has a new job as a guide at their Planetarium and he desires but is not bold enough to ask for a date from the cute, female Neera, who lives next door.

In the pseudo 1950s Glipforg all the teenagers know the films of alien invasion, abduction and terror. They fear the arrival of Humaniacs, blobby one-eyed monsters who can control minds and wipe out army tanks with x-ray laser blasts from the cyclopedian organ. Captain Chuck looks nothing like their feared Humanic monster from the Glipforg drive-in B grade movie, but he still causes widespread panic and the army is called in. Captain Chuck is sheltered by Lem and mayhem ensues.

The Lem and Neera relationship is a boy-next-door romance resolved when both teenagers assist Captain Chuck to escape the army and its ridiculously evil Professor Kipple, voiced by John Cleese, who is more a Doctor Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964) clone than an army psychiatrist or alien specialist.

In short, the first half of Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010) is well-paced, interesting and works well in turning the tables on alien invasion. It has several clever references to 1950s B-grade SciFi films and stories but of course these may be lost on a younger secondary audience. It also includes intertextual puns, such as the licking tongue of the nasty beast from Alien (Scott, 1979) transformed to a pet, as well as a host of other SciFi moments, more suited to parents or SF teachers than most students. The jokes worked initially and the animation looks wonderful, but the second half of the text and its conclusion lost its sense of juxtaposition from norms, simply following the simple narrative instead.

Perhaps it is because the Glipforg culture is so close to Captain Chuck's and the viewers’ own that the narrative loses impact, making it more difficult to look at this animation as a useful way to start a discussion of what it is about aliens that is so fearsome.

The dominant reading of this text is a satirical view of the SF alien invasion sub-genre and its temporal location in an idealised American 1950s. The teenage couple are paired, the young hero shows courage and resourcefulness against adversity, the defence forces are manic xenophobes cured by Captain Chuck's arrival and a whole culture matures from  naïve isolationism into a more robust and accepting democracy.

For young secondary students the theme of acceptance of Otherness or alterity is useful as preparation for Science Fiction studies, but this message is not coherent and is not explored at depth in any significant scene in the animation.

It would also be difficult to use the fear of the alien as a means to discuss racism as several critics of Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010) have pointed out the voice of Captain Chuck comes  from Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, but the animation depicts a blonde-haired, blue eyed astronaut. And if Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010) is interested in the analogy of inclusivity to extend to different races, why are all the Glipforgians so uniformly luminous green? And why are the female Glipforgians, denoted by longer hair/tentacles, longer and thinner faces with lipstick, and their skirts, expected to merely support the pant-less males? Perhaps the one idea of the human as alien on a distant planet was the only real idea of the animation?

In the end, Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010) does focus on the need for healthy societies to accept difference, so teachers may like to use it as an opportunity to discuss cultural difference and inclusivity. One approach would be to note that the legal meaning of 'alien' is simply a person in a country where they are not a citizen of that country. There may be aliens in the classroom already, proud of their different cultural backgrounds. Teachers might discuss 'culture' with the students, defining it as a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterise a group.

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Student activities for Planet 51

Students could be faced with a hypothesis that an alien, this time from another planet, has travelled to Earth and landed near the school, just out the back, towards the hill in that cleared space next to the Smoker's Tree. It emerges from its craft. Nothing is known of the alien except that it looks very unlike an human. It brings out from its craft a glowing panel. One student guesses this is a communications device. The authorities have been advised and police are on their way but there are a few minutes available to make first contact right here, right outside this school. 

Working in small groups, it is the students' task to accept that the panel is, in fact, a communications device and they are to come up with the best possible three questions to discover if the alien has a similar culture to any or all of the students. What can students say about their own cultures or collective culture to establish similarities?

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Monsters vs Aliens

Similarities are evident in the reversal tale of Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010) and the third animation covered here, Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) from Dreamworks. There are clever switches of expectations, definite homage to SciFi classics and some lively satire based partly around an alien invasion.

The main reversal of Monsters vs Aliens is signalled early in the animation. Just as in Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010), we see a young couple in a car 'parking' when a meteoritic streak furrows the night sky. The car radio changes channel on its own, lights flicker but in Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) it is the young woman who takes control, who carries her chunky male companion out to see the arrival of a huge robot. Right from this early scene there are references to Haskin's 1953 War of the Worlds, and Close Encounters (Spielberg, 1977) but here the young woman is the valiant hero defending species and planet. This juxtaposition of gender roles is continued throughout Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) and works extremely well - a strong enough reason in itself to make this a useful talking point with young secondary students looking at the male-dominated SF genre.

Like Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010), the Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) animation is a wonderful opportunity to play spot the reference, though in this latter example the pickings are much richer. This is seen by the 'monsters', all garnered from many SciFi examples. The Missing Link is a talking amphibian excavated from the ice as in Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and bearing some resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Arnold, 1954). The mad scientist is Dr Cockroach, a hybrid human and bug created by the same accident as found in the original Fly (Neumann, 1958) and its many remakes. The gelatinous blue third monster is BOB, a direct descendent from The Blob (Yeaworth, 1958). BOB is a great star in this animation. The fourth monster is Insectosaurus, a nuclear mutant enlarged (but not enraged) like Godzilla (Honda, 1956), that pupates into a Mothra (Honda, 1961).

The animation’s protagonist, Susan, becomes an ash-blonde giant just short of fifty feet in height and imbued with extra-terrestrial meteorite energy. She is not touched by an alien giant to become enormous, as in Attack of the 50ft Woman (Juran, 1958), instead it is an exotic radiation from quantonium in a meteorite, echoing many other B-grade movies using radioactivity as a SF narrative device.  The alien threatening life on Earth is Gallaxhar, a many-eyed, squid-like beast in a tri-bulge starship with advanced technologies, including giant robot probes with cyclopean eyes that scan objects with blue light.

The dominant reading of Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) relates to the changes undergone by Susan, showing how a dependent young woman subservient to her fiance learns to trust her own abilities, choosing to help others with a group of societal outcasts, the Monsters of the title. As noted by Young Media Australia (2010) in their review of the animation, the 'main messages' are that good will conquer evil, self-belief will prove successful, to value friendship and to accept differences. Added to this can be a strong anti-sexism ethic that is identified immediately by younger secondary students.

It is only through the heroism and teamwork of the Monsters that Earth is saved from an evil and despotic alien, arguing for inclusivity regardless of appearance. It is the shared cultural values of humans including the American military in their secret Area 52 location as well as the Monsters working cooperatively that defeats Galaxhar and his clone minions. In many ways this is a return to favourite SF themes where the alien intruder unites humanity, finally, again harkening back to classics such as the interpretations of Wells' War of the Worlds (1898). The invocation of an alien invader is a plea for human unity.

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Activities based around Monsters vs Aliens

There is much that can be done with Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) in the younger secondary classroom. It would serve well as an introduction to the genre and the sub-genre of alien invasion by using trailers from the movies noted here found on YouTube, perhaps starting with The Blob (Yeaworth, 1958) trailer and contrasting this with the grainy preview to BOB from the animation, shown in the War Room bunker (again borrowed largely from Kubrick's Strangelove (1964)) and then a general discussion of BOB as character and problem solver. What makes BOB seem human? Is it shared cultural values? How is Galaxhar contrasted with the Monsters?

There are activity sheets posted on KidzWorld to support the release of Monsters vs Aliens on DVD but these are too simple for younger secondary students. The Maze games, number activities and so on might be useful for students to make their own activity sheets and puzzles, using online tools such as at Kathy Schrock's Discovery Education site.

For literacy pursuits Claudio Azevedo has posted some simple quizes based on Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) in a blogsite post with a downloadable activity sheet using the animation for grammar work. The sheet looks at the grammatical superlative, the highest degree of the comparison of adjectives and adverbs. This makes a great deal of sense (or should I say supreme sense) for a narrative including characters such as Insectosaurus, Escargantua and where a simple Susan becomes Ginormica. The worksheet can be found here from a Scribd upload or students can run with the idea to create and describe in superlatives new monsters changed utterly through scientific experimentation, alien intervention or meteoritic mishap.

As Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) was filmed using a new 3D camera technique, students looking at graphic design, animation or at basic computing will be interested in the accompanying extras on the DVD disk and also interviews with the creators in the Australian periodical Screen Education (Robertson, 2009 & Robertson, 2009b).

Of the three animations suitable for younger secondary students Monsters vs Aliens (Letterman & Vernon, 2009) is recommended while Planet 51 (Blanco, 2010) may be useful to discuss shared culture values. Astro Boy (Bowers, 2010), while disappointing as the latest in a proud history, can be turned to use as a coming-of-age story and to introduce the hero mythology that can be found widely in SF.

Thanks for listening to Podcast 33. Thanks also to SlowAlan for the musical segues as well as the podcast opening and closing music.

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Podcast 34

Podcast 34 is aimed at teachers of older secondary students. Its purpose is to look at two recent SciFi DVDs, Surrogates (Mostow, 2009) and Gamer (Neveldine & Taylor, 2009) as representative of the way Science Fiction elements are used to support extraordinary action and special effects. Often the DVDs taken home by students are strong and bloody, classified for over 15 years. They are not able to watch these narratives at school, often for good reason, and Podcast 34 promotes a framework that may support students in critiquing films that purport to be within the SF genre but offer little of value and are rife with internal contradictions, stereotypes and 'gyroscope' science.

If you want to find out more about the mySF Project and its blog site, aim for www.pataphysics.net.au/mysf_project. You can also send an email to michaels@pataphysics.net.au.

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Resource list

Arnold, J. (Director). (1954). Creature from the Black Lagoon. Written by Zimm, Essex and Ross. Universal Pictures.

Blanco, J. (Director) (2010). Planet 51. Written by Joe Stillman. Sony Pictures DVD Version.

Bolton, C., Csicsery-Romay, I., Tatsumi, T. (Editors).  (2008). Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bowers, D. (Director) (2010). Astro Boy. Story by David Bowers. Sony Pictures DVD Version.

Carpenter, J. (Director). (1982). The Thing. Based on the novella by John W Campbell Jnr and screenplay by Bill Lancaster. MCA/Universal Pictures.

Cox, P. & Goldsworthy, F. (1997) Featuring Film 2: the sequel. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Evans, R. (1996), Talking Film. Melbourne: Addison Wesley Longman.

Haskin, B. (Director). (1953). War of the Worlds. Based on the novel by HG Wells. Screenplay by Barre Lyndon. Paramount Pictures.

Honda, I. (Director). (1956). Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. Written by Honda, Kayama and Murata. American version, distributed by Toho.

Honda, I. (Director). (1961). Mothra vs Godzilla. Written by Sekizawa. American version, distributed by Toho.

Jones, T. & Foisher, C. (2000). Making Sense of Movies: Teaching 'Coming-of-Age' Films. Sydney: User Friendly Resource Enterprises.

Juran, NH. (1958). Attack of the 50ft Woman. Written by Mark Hannah. Allied Artists.

Kubrick, S. (Director). (1964). Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Written by Stanley Kubrick. Columbia Pictures.

Letterman, R. & Vernon, C. (Directors). (2009). Monsters vs Aliens. Dreamworks Home Entertainment.

Mostow, J. (Director). (2009). Surrogates. Based on the graphic novel by Venditti and Weldele. Screenplay by Branicato and Ferris. Touchstone Home Entertainment.

Neumann, K. (Director). (1958). The Fly. Based on the short story by George Langelaan and written for the screen by James Clavell. Twentieth Century Fox.

Neveldine, M. & Taylor, B.  (Directors). (2009) Gamer. Written by Neveldine and Taylor. Lions Gate Films.

Roberts, A. (2000). Science Fiction: the new critical idiom. London: Routledge.

Robertson, R. (2009). 'Five Hundred Painters Learn to Sculpt: Dreamworks Animators Talk About the Challenge of 3D in Monsters vs Aliens', in Screen Education, Issue 53, Autumn 2009.

Robertson, R. (2009b). '3D and Pop Culture Fandom: an interview with Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman, directors of Monsters vs Aliens', in  Screen Education, Issue 53, Autumn 2009.

Scott, R. (Director). (1979). Alien. Written by Dan O'Bannon. Twentieth Century Fox.

Speilberg, S. (Director). (1977). Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Written by Steven Spielberg. Columbia Pictures.

Stanton, A. (Director).    (2008). Wall-E. Written by Docter, P, Reardon, A. and Stanton, A. Pixar Animation Studios. Distributed by Disney Studios.

Wells, HG. (1898). The War of the Worlds. London: William Heinemann.

Yeaworth, I. (Director). (1958). The Blob. Story by Irving H Millgate and written for the screen by Linakar and Simonson. Paramount Pictures.

Young Media Australia. (2010). 'Monsters vs Aliens'. Australian Council on Children and the Media. Accessed 26 June from http://www.youngmedia.org.au/mediachildren/07_04/07_04_453_monsters-vs-aliens.htm

Zemeckis, R. (Director). (1985). Back to the Future. Written by Zemeckis and Gale. Universal Pictures.

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