How’s it going, people?
It’s list time again! And this time it’s all about sci-fi. Now, a friend of mine and myself occasionally blag on about sci-fi and he’s a stickler for conforming to the parameters of the genre. He has since convinced me of the merits of his views (that’s A.pt by the way) and I shall endeavour to reflect them in the list…. to a degree. His view is that science-fiction begins with science-fact and then asks “What if?” For example, take the film Gattaca – the premise works like this:
So we can: Analyse a human’s DNA and identify congenital problems.
What if: In the future, governments used DNA analysis to determine an individuals life opportunities.
Hence, fact + what if = science fiction.
I’m not entirely sold on that whole idea. Some films don’t really begin with a singular science-fact and ask what if. Some films begin with scientific development and speculate on its interaction or dialogue with social norms or society. So, in my list I’ll try to stay true to both ideas.
1. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s franchise-starting 1979 film was a study in tension. Introducing the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in her career defining role), Scott’s film was one of the first mainstream efforts that presented with sincerity the idea of a female action lead. The insidious alien has since become a pin-up boy/girl for the creature flick genre, but in the original film it played a deeper symbolic role. Lurking in the dark places of the Nostromo, the alien was an analogue for repressed, terrifying sub-conscious fears of solitude, sexuality and feminine power. The latter of these ideas became the vehicle for incarnations of the creature in later films – Aliens explored the fear or motherhood through the menace of the alien queen (but loses its gravitas amidst the explosions and overt blockbuster scoring).
The film is full of ingenious moments of clever direction and scripting. The medical officer tries to kill Ripley by forcing a rolled up newspaper into her mouth! Phallic much? The body horror of a species that attaches itself to your face and puts an alien fetus in your body. All very clever.
Is it sci-fi? Well, we have the ability to fly in space, what if in the future corporations controlled space exploration and were willing to sacrifice people for the opportunity to collect a valuable species? It’s a stretch but I think it’s close enough.
2. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Aside from starring Leslie Nielsen in a non-comedic role (which he played very well), Forbidden Planet is remarkable for its ground-breaking special effects. However, it also holds its own as a work of serious sci-fi on film.
Centering around a voyage to a small settlement on a distant planet which has been out of communication for some time, the film explores the Freudian notion of superego, ego and id to cast some criticism on the notion of inevitable human progress and the danger of power that exceeds our moral fortitude to use it. Essentially casting humans as a brilliant but flawed species that, despite the gloss of technology, are driven primarily by unquestioning wants that arise from our subconscious, the film meanders through some pretty deep philosophical territory. Yet, despite its pretty heavy content, the film is engaging and enjoyable from start to finish. Brilliant work from the first golden age of sci-fi.
3. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s time traveling discourse is in part an exercise in esoteric film-making and in part an accessible exploration of time travel paradoxes. Bruce Willis (who is often overlooked as a credible actor) puts in a brilliant performance as a man that is slowly torn between his distopian future “reality” and the comforts of the already lived 20th century past. Brad Pitt’s performance as the unhinged animal rights “terrorist” is quite brilliant, as well.
Few films that deal with time paradoxes are able to sustain the integrity of their plot across the entire arc and unfortunately raise too many niggling questions (not interesting ones, either) to really achieve any sort of intelligent insight. Twelve Monkey’s, however, is insular enough in its temporal logic to remain unscathed by any of the usual problems.
Is it sci-fi? Well, that’s a tough one. Time travel can be conceptualised within science but is hardly ‘science-fact’. Furthermore, the vehicle for the film is not really the technology that enables time travel so much as the usefulness of historical knowledge. In short… I don’t know… but, come on, give me a break.
4. Silent Running (1972)
Years before the “climate change” debate had everyone feeling anxious and planting kitchen gardens (splitting political parties and undermining government policy as it went), Silent Running painted the picture of an over-corporatised, distopian future where the environment was a quiet battleground. The film centres around Freeman Lowell (Free Man, yes), an employee of American Airlines and one of a crew of four men on a massive spaceship that orbits Earth with some of the last remaining plant species in existence. All plant life on Earth has gone the way of the dinosaur and Lowell, as part of a larger fleet, has been charged with protecting those plants that could be salvaged. After the order is given to destroy the domes housing the plant life so that the ships may return to commerical duties, Lowell freaks out and seeks to preserve the soon-to-be extinct plants himself.
Examining corporate greed and man’s responsibility to nature – this film is a by-product of the hippie movement to some degree (but without the free love). Bruce Dern, who plays Freeman, gives a clever and quiet performance. The robot helpers that maintain the ship add a certain je ne sais quoi, too.
5. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Now, accepting this as a work of science fiction depends entirely on your ability to accept that psychology is, in fact, a science. That aside, there is no doubt that the film treats psychology as science and explores the idea of behaviour therapy and conditioning.
The cinematography of Stanley Kubrick’s films always seems ‘hollow’ to me. I don’t know how else to explain it. I think this is evoked through his tendency to place characters in a shot which emphasises the negative space. The rooms always seem a little too big; the characters always seem a little too far away from the camera. Alternatively, domestic or domestic-like scene are always a little too tight – not quite close ups but not far enough away to feel comfortable. It’s as if Kubrick’s directorial style aims for two extremes: to invade your psychological/intellectual space or to invade your personal and bodily space. In short, I find his films always a little uncomfortable. Like a Bauhaus chair.
However, his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ exceptional short novel of the same name is a brilliant study in adaptation. Malcolm MacDowell delivers a type-setting performance as Alex – the deliquent but content Teddy Boy. Of special note is the musical juxtaposition of Beethoven with scenes of “ultra-violence” which is quite tame by today’s standards (Oliver Stone pretty much ripped off this technique in Natural Born Killers). In particular, Kubrick subtly but cleverly intertwines the theme of the biblical fall which is present in the novel. Just check out the mural on the ground floor of Alex’s apartment block before and after his stint in prison for a bit of insight into that.
Bladerunner, Robocop, Terminator, Primer, The Abyss, Starship Troopers, Gattaca, Moon.
Where’s Star Wars?
Well, the truth is – Star Wars really isn’t a sci-fi film. If anything, it’s a fantasy (or perhaps an uber-historical fiction for which there is no historical evidence). That’s not to say that the original Star Wars trilogy are bad. I like those films. But they aren’t science fiction. Sorry.