Saturday, March 05, 2011

Top 10 Tear Jerkers of SF

A few days ago I was having coffee with a friend and we got onto the topic of Futurama. Amidst the laughs about the antics of the crew of the Planet Express, we got to talking about how sometimes the show sucker-punches the audience with something really heartbreaking. That got me thinking about some of the sadder moments in SF in general. So grab your kleenexes, this weakly list is devoted to:

The Top 10 Tear Jerkers of SF:

10) Futurama - "The Luck of the Fryish"
Anyone who has a sibling knows that there are times when your brother or sister is your best friend, and others where you could just kill them. This episode features Fry dwelling quite a bit on the
wrongs his brother did to him over the years, but ends with him discovering just how much he meant to his brother. It's a bittersweet moment that's guaranteed to put a lump in your throat.

9)Pan's Labyrinth
This was a movie that like an oldschool, pre-Disney fairytale didn't pull any punches. The audience is made to sit through the visceral, impotent horror of not being able to do anything but watch while a child is menaced by monsters both supernatural and human, and then ultimately murdered by one of them. The only thing that takes the sting out of this movie (and keeps it from being higher on the list) is that in the end we find out that Ofelia actually is a fairy princess and gets to go and be happy in her "real" life among the fey. Of course, that's kind of cold comfort considering that she had to make the transition in such a painful and frightening way. And, one might even say that she isn't transported to the land of the fairies, but rather passes totally into death, with the magic land really just being her own personal perception of heaven. And if you really want to put a cynical spin on it and leave the movie super depressed, you might say that she doesn't go to the land of the fey or to heaven, and that the final vision in the movie is nothing more than a final hallucination experienced by consciousness as her brain dies. Eeeesh. I think I might just stick with the fairy princess ending so I don't start weeping right now.

8) The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien - Appendix B - when Sam goes into the West
There are a lot of sad moments in the Lord of the Rings: when it seems that Shelob has killed Frodo; the story of the loss of the Entwives; when Gandalf and Boromir die; when Elrond takes Arwen aside to say goodbye forever before he leaves for the West; when Sam, Pippin and Merry have to say goodbye as Frodo and the others sail into the West; or later in the Appendices when Aragorn dies and Arwen goes off to live for ages alone in Galadriel's abandoned forest. But for me, the saddest part of the story has always been the note in the Appendix about Sam's fate. About how he grows old, and his wife Rosie eventually dies, and Sam heads off to the Grey Havens to get a little boat and try to sail into the West himself to join Frodo. We're never told in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit or LOTR what happens to hobbits when they die (we know the elves are sent to the halls of the dead in the West, but that they essentially get a reboot and can come out and hang out with everyone else again when they're ready; humans have some sort of afterlife that's hinted at but never revealed; and the dwarves are pretty convinced they'll get their own little piece of heaven serving the earth god Aule, even if the snobbish elves claim the dwarves will just turn back into dirt and stone) or what they believe will happen. Maybe they're atheists, content to be happy in the world for one lifetime. But if that's not the case, then Sam certainly makes a painful choice by going to live forever with Frodo in the West, rather than waiting out the rest of his days and eventually joining Rosie in the afterlife. Even though all hurts are supposed to be healed in the West, you'd think that after their long life together and the love they had that, content as he may be, the now-immortal Sam would still miss his wife (and later his children, who would eventually die), and missing loved ones for eternity doesn't sound entirely like my idea of heaven. In fact, Sam's decision becomes even more strange and painful when you consider that Sam knows that hobbits are allowed to sail into the West (since only humans are specifically banned, and he's seen Frodo and Bilbo go, and, though Sam doesn't know this, we know also from the appendix that dwarves can go into the West) and so one has to wonder why, knowing this, Sam didn't go down to the shores of the sea and get on a boat with Rosie while she was still alive?! He could have had the best of both worlds then. Lastly, this is an immensely sad footnote to LOTR because there's no guarantee that Sam actually survives the voyage and lands on the shores of the West. Certainly it says the tradition of his daughter's family is that he sailed over the sea. But there's really no info beyond the fact that he departed. There's no mention of whether he found a group of straggler elves and hitched a ride with them, or if he found or built a little boat of his own and set off on a solo voyage - which wouldn't bode well considering that hobbits aren't known as mighty mariners and it's a long voyage for an old gaffer to take on his own. In any case, Sam's journey (or attempted journey) into the West after Rosie's death has always been the saddest part of the tale to me.

7) From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury - Chapter 9 "Homecoming"
In this strange, sometimes wonderful, sometimes creepy tale about a family of vampires (and mummies, and ghosts, and assorted other nightmares) living in a huge old house outside a small town in Illinois, and the human child they've adopted, the chapter "Homecoming" with all its raucousness of a family reunited, is, at its heart, terribly sad. The human child, Timothy, can't join in the family's fun, he lacks their abilities, he isn't able to drink their special "wines", he stands out because he has a beating heart. These things together would be enough to make for a painful story about a person who, even in a child, is radically different and thus isolated; someone who doesn't fit in and is reminded of it constantly and can't do anything to change the situation. Add to this the unspoken truth that in being raised by this family, he's apart from normal human society and comfort, and thus will probably always be an outsider from humans as well - really, there's no belonging anywhere for this poor kid. But what makes this chapter especially crushing is the scene at the end where poor Timothy is sitting in the barn with his pets, having just cried about how he's so different, when his mother comes out to check on him. She's tender, she reminds him the family loves him, and tries to comfort him in her own way (from the unnerving perspective of the undead). But in telling him that someday he'll die and the family will make sure his grave is protected, she really only serves to emphasize the fact that he isn't one of them, and will never be, and will someday be parted from them forever. In one blow this poor kid has been confronted with the stark reality of his own mortality and, worst of all, that he will never truly fit in. It's horribly sad, but there's some cold comfort in that because of his status apart, Timothy is able to take on the role of observer/historian/author and keep the family alive in memory in the years ahead as more and more of them fall victim to modern times where supernatural monsters have no place.

6) Babylon 5 In the Beginning - Londo's tale of the war
This movie is one of my favourite parts of the Babylon 5 story for many reasons, one of which is Londo's heartbreaking description of the height of the Earth-Minbari War when humanity was almost destroyed. It's an immensely powerful sequence: a combination of beautiful and frightening visuals as Earthforce ships are blown to pieces, families holding each other and soldiers dying; the sheer moving poetry of Londo's emotional description of heroics, tragedy and inevitability; and underneath it all there's the mournful wail of a pipe and the teardrop-falling notes of a harp. It's a sequence that's designed to illicit an emotional response and it does it perfectly. How many times have I watched it? Doesn't matter. I'm still caught on the verge of tears anytime I see this part.

5) The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - "There Will Come Soft Rains"
There's no way you could make an SF tear jerker list without including this story. The complete desolation of the city and house (and by obvious extension all of mankind's works) is powerful enough, but then we're confronted with an innocent, uncomprehending victim: a family dog, suffering from radiation (and probably starvation and injuries), dragging itself home to die. Even the animals that have loved us and served us aren't safe from our folly. And then there's the bit that follows that makes my skin crawl where the house's cleaning robots nip out of their holes to cut the carcass up and remove all traces. Bradbury knows how to pluck heartstrings.

4) Babylon 5 - season 4 - "Between the Darkness and the Light" - Ivanova in the Whitestar sickbay
This has always been a tough scene to watch. Forget about 99% of all other Hollywood-made deathbed scenes (especially those made for TV), this one doesn't try to sugarcoat suffering. Where other shows or movies would have some actress made up to look as beautiful as can be (if, perhaps, a tad pale), lying on clean white sheets, alert and making some chirpy speech, hearing about how everything will be okay and then softly sighing her way into heaven, Babylon 5 paints a grim, steely, very real picture of someone whose body has been shattered as the price for a hard-won victory in war. It's a dark, grey room that Sheridan finds Ivanova in, her normally pretty face is pasty and puffy and bruised. There are metal rods jammed into her skull to immobilize her head. She's surrounded by machines. She shudders from the pain and involuntary muscle spasms. Her breathing and speech are laboured and she drifts in and out of consciousness. And she knows she's in trouble and demands to be told the truth, and we have to watch Sheridan's pain as he's forced to bear the awful burden of telling her she's going to die, and probably soon. And he knows he won't be there for her when it happens. What makes it all the more wrenching is that Ivanova got there trying to help Sheridan, and there on the edge of death, she's still trying to help him, telling him not to feel guilty for what happened to her, and thinking about the best place for him to be when he leads the liberation fleet to Earth. Right to the end she's trying to do her job as his right hand. It's a painful scene to watch, but you just can't turn away. Bravo to Straczynski and the rest of the B5 team for not flinching either.

3) Babylon 5 - season 5 - "Sleeping in Light" - the destruction of Babylon 5
Another B5 reference - damn Straczynski & co are good at making me weepy! There are so many painful moments on this list (and many more that didn't make it) involving people, and yet one of the spots in the crucial top 3 is devoted to a thing, a collection of spinning metal, a space station being decommissioned and (violently) dismantled. And yet it's a powerful scene. Certainly it's emotional because the destruction of the station follows right on the heels of Sheridan's death. But the impact of the station's destruction is also so great because of all it has come to mean to us, the audience. For the characters, it's been a home - the one place in the universe many of them could fit in and heal their emotional wounds in; the last, best place for peace; and the last, best place for victory. For the audience however, it's the heart of all of the great tales and characters that we've come to love over five long (but not long enough!) years of storytelling. It's taken a beating but always survived (if not always completely intact). In so doing, it has beaten the odds - those against its chances of success within the context of the story itself, and those against its chances of survival (especially for 5 years) as a non-network science fiction show. And so when the explosions blossom inside B5's hull, blasting it into memory, it feels very much like we've known a person as real as any of the other characters. Perhaps its an unconscious feeling along the lines of Shinto beliefs that everything has a spirit, and so the loss of B5 is legitimately as important as the death of Sheridan. And it's also just a basic, visceral reaction to something so familiar and loved suddenly being destroyed before our eyes. What's especially noteworthy is that this destruction of a vessel has an emotional impact on me in a way that others don't necessarily - certainly as a viewer I spent as much time watching Galactica pull through against the odds in the new BSG, but when when it finally flew into the sun, the sadness just wasn't there; I just shrugged it off. But B5... there's always a catch in my throat when I watch its end.

2) Futurama - "Jurassic Bark"
Remember when I said earlier my friend and I had been talking about the sucker punches that Futurama throws at you sometimes? This was the biggest one of all. If you've ever owned and loved a pet, and been loved by a pet, it's damn near impossible to watch the end of this episode and not have tears rolling down your cheeks. In the space of a minute or two it's a retelling of Greyfriars Bobby. It captures all of the love and loyalty that a pet can feel for its human, and the lengths animals are willing to go, and the sadness they feel if there's an accident and the owner doesn't come home one day. I can say that every person I've spoken with who's an animal lover and a Futurama fan has unfailingly said "Oh, let's not talk about this episode! I don't want to cry!" - and meant it! - whenever "Jurassic Bark" is mentioned. That's a powerful piece of storytelling, not just for a comedic science fiction cartoon, but for any kind of entertainment. Damn. I'm getting kinda choked-up just writing about it.

1) Up - the opening sequence with Carl and Ellie
If you're not weeping into a kleenex by now, this final nomination might clinch things for ya. Whole novels and movies have been written about couples and their relationships over a lifetime, their happy moments and their tragedies, and failed to accomplish what Up does in five-or-so minutes. We see Carl and Ellie come together as children, share their dreams and adventures, grow up together, grow old together, and then get parted by death, with poor old Carl left behind, alone, in a house full of memories that's soon to be taken from him. There are very few words, but it doesn't take much for us to quickly bond with these two, to feel happy for them having each other, and to feel their devastation at not being able to have children (in a scene that looked an awful lot to me like she'd probably miscarried), and finally to cry (or come damn near close to it) when Ellie dies. It's a piece of storytelling that captures in its own way what many couples go through if they're together long enough. If you're in a loving relationship when you're watching this film, you can't help but quickly turn to your wife/husband/partner when there's that shot of Carl sitting alone in the funeral home and feel that lump in your throat as you think "Someday that will be you! Or maybe me! And then what will I do?!" and then you just as quickly look away before they can see you looking at them because they're doing the same thing. Maybe part of the emotional impact comes from the fact that because this is a cartoon, we expect to laugh, not to cry, and so scenes like this tend to ambush us. But when it comes to Up, there's more than simple emotional bushwhacking at work here. It's good writing, plain and simple, effectively and powerfully capturing a truth of the human condition. Though it shows it on an animated face, the movie accurately illustrates the reality of the loss and grief when a spouse dies in a way that few other works ever do. That's why Up is the number one tear jerker in SF in my opinion.

So if that wasn't enough, what other SF short stories, books, TV shows, or movies get you crying?

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