Maybe it’s only because I’ve been waking at three in the morning these last few weeks now. But more and more as I struggle through the Rosetta Stone that is my coffee maker and opt instead for the French Press, Hilary Swank begins to make sense as Captain Sam, helot hero of Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising. Not really because of The Reaping or because of the pre-millennium disaster flick The Core but because of Boys Don’t Cry.
Aristeia Rising is a strangely successful mix of all the very best sci-fi you’ve ever seen on the silver screen, jam-packed into sleek, elegant graphic novel. Its grim-bright lighting of dirty, sexy streets on Venus illumined by tawdry neon beacons (scenes that scream Hong Kong or Singapore) is deeply evocative of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner . Its hardcore female lead in Captain Sam Narayan is coolly reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver’s now-immortal Warrant Officer Ripley, protagonist of Alien. And the wide-scale clash of ideologies played out on an interplanetary scale taps the same primal source that the original Star Wars trilogy does.
Yet despite these readily available tropes, Aristeia Rising is a wildly original piece. In summation, it is the story of Venus’ last stand against the hegemonic Solar Alliance of Planets, seeking to incorporate Venus as a protectorate without the necessity of war. When Venus refuses the Solar Alliance “offer” to have their government dismantled and their territory occupied by Alliance troops, a small ineffectual Marine Corps makes a Hail Mary stand against a vastly superior military machine.
Sam, who in the opening pages of the book ran as far away from recruitment as possible finds herself in the improbably position of piloting a mechsuit and standing in a phalanx awaiting the incoming invaders. When a crucial turn in the battle reveals her secret history, Sam reluctantly assumes field command of the Venusian forces.
The story is richly textured and easily reminds me why I’ve watched Jaws more times than I’ve watched Deep Blue Sea. Deep Blue Sea is a more modern film, it is better structured to keep tension at a nail-biting high, it has better special FX. And yet Jaws has that remarkable dinner-table scene, with father and son. In truth, Jaws is simply better at articulating what the shark threatens—it’s not just human life, but the bonds of community, the shape and quality of what gives a human life meaning.
It is no different with Aristeia Rising. Once you think you have a beat on it as a war story, creators Mark Long and Nick Sagan (working writer M. Zachary Sherman) flip and remind you about what’s worth protecting. Once you get hemmed in by the ideologies at play (either the essential liberty that Venus represents, or the freedom to overcome being a “second-class” genetic citizen as the helots are), Sherman highlights those parts of Long and Sagan’s story that tell of Sam’s personal price.
If for no other reason, this is why Hillary Swank makes sense in the role of Capt. Sam Narayan. Because at her core as an actor, more so than her cerebral athleticism, she brings a deep an abiding compassion. And as an actor she is perhaps uniquely placed to portray the emotional and intellectual complexity demanded by so fine a work as Shrapnel. This is so intuitive a thought I can grasp at it even at three AM, even before my first cup of coffee.