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‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ Is a Science Fiction Film

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If Quentin Tarantino ever makes the Star Trek movie he keeps yammering about, it’ll get mischaracterized as his first foray into science fiction. Yet the truth is that at least two of his four recent movies are best understood as examples of a special sub-genre of science fiction, the alternative history. These are all films that seem like they are set in the past (World War II, 1969 Hollywood) but only make sense when we realize they take place in parallel universes where history diverges radically from the actual past.

Inglourious Basterds ends with a rag-tag Jewish militia, under the leadership of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), bringing World War II to a satisfying end by assassinating the Nazi elite, including Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, at a movie screening. For good measure, Raine and his henchman carve a swastika in the head of an odious Nazi “Jew hunter” who had switched sides in the last minute in the hopes of being rewarded by the Americans. This is, of course, wildly at variance with reality. The Nazi leadership class was decapitated by the Red Army. While some Nazis war criminals were punished, all too many escaped unscathed, especially since more than a few were recruited by the victorious powers who wanted their services as military strategists, spies and weapon makers for the Cold War.

Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, works on a smaller canvas but with a similarly audacious ending, with Brad Pitt once again being recruited to radically alter well-known history. In the movie, the infamous night where members of Charles Manson’s cult killed actress Sharon Tate and four others is given unexpectedly cheerful denouement. The killers are thwarted by a fictional duo, cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt- double-turned-factotum Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

It’s easy to chalk up Tarantino’s playing with history as yet more proof that he’s an irresponsible nihilist, someone who crafts narratives simply for their shock value with no sense of loyalty to canons of accuracy and verisimilitude. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described Inglourious Basterds as “akin to Holocaust denial.” He added that “Inglourious Basterds makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality. Insofar as it becomes a movie convention — by which I mean a reality derived only from other movies — it loses its historical reality.”

By the same token, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can be seen as insulting to the memory of the various real figures, such as Sharon Tate or Bruce Lee, whose life stories are distorted in the film. (Lee’s family has complained about the film’s portrayal as a belligerent boastful loudmouth who easily gets bested in a fight with Cliff Booth).

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