Science Fiction

I recently started putting some thoughts down about Science Fiction cinema and got distracted. What follows is a cut and paste from my notes with a bit of fleshing out.

From Make Believe To Making Belief

There was a time back in the last century when science fiction was pulp literature that it didn’t warrant proper inspection as literature. In a similar way, science fiction cinema was the staple of B-movie and it too did not warrant close inspection as cinema. This all changed with the advent of Star Wars in 1977 and since then debate has raged as to the merits of the phenomenon. On the one hand it has been argued that the great success of Star Wars has allowed ‘B’ movie fodder to get ‘A’ movie budgets and has contributed to the dumbing down of cinema, while the transformation of the marketplace that resulted with the success of ‘Star Wars’ helped Hollywood and by all of extension, all cinema a period of sustained growth through three decades.

When you think about it, it is remarkable just how much the old borders of genres and notions of ‘highbrow’ and ‘proper’ realist fiction has been crossed in those 30 years. The hallmark of Science Fiction cinema used to be that it was a cinema that attempted to show what we could be, as opposed to the realist dictum of what we are. As such, we can now reflect on the 30 year push of Science Fiction in the cinema and reflect on just what it was that exploded on the screen.

The Dystopia Is Now Here

So many science Fiction movies of the late 20th century worked as presenting a bleak future with great visions of dystopia. This might start with the Malthusian anxiety of ‘Soylent Green’ or the conspiracy phobia of ‘Capricorn One’ or the environmental catastrophe of ‘Blade Runner’. The future in many ways was actually uninviting. The funny thing of living in the 20th century, now that we have arrived in the 21st, is just how much we do live in that future and seem to be psychological adapted to it. It’s enough to remind one of the story about the boiling frog that doesn’t realise the water is slowly boiling. Well, the future is here and we’re soaking in it.

We’re not at the point where we are eating people or are all convinced there are massive conspiracies in place, or that the environment is so broken that it rains forever in Los Angeles, but we’re ever closer to the problems that were raised in these films. And amazingly, judging from the tone of the news media to the polls it seems we’re relatively okay with these developments. There are whole pockets of populations that disagree with climate change science – they think it’s science fiction – they think it’s part of a global conspiracy. Yet on the whole, we seem quite okay with all of this.

In some ways it’s enough to speculate that the hyperbolic nature of science fiction narrative was actually understated when faced with the reality of human aggregate behaviour. That is to say, the authors and creators and producers of science fiction were a tad optimistic about the way we would behave in the face of actual global issues.

Technology As Apparatus To Technology As Accessory

It used to be that science fiction cinema would be centred around a device or an invention. A classic example of this might be ‘The Time Machine’ or ‘Rocket To The Moon’. The point of the story was to explore the ramifications of time travel or space travel. Even in your early Bond movies, ‘Q’ would demonstrate a technological gadget, which would later be used by Bond to blow something up. The Tricorder and Communicator in the Star Trek TV series were all part of the narrative that explained the idea of science and technology.

It can be argued that the point of science fiction narratives was to elucidate the benefits and risks of certain science and technologies. As technology seeped into our lives, we saw more and more films that contextualised the technology – real and imaginary – into an apparent realist framework. Sometimes this gave rise to re-imagined classics like ‘Back To The Future’ or absolute stinkers such as ‘The Net’ but the point was the future got an awful lot closer than the year 2000.

Then, it is very telling that recent science fiction films spend less time on explaining the technology and cut straight to the action, as with the recent ‘Terminator’ sequels – the machine is a monster, sometimes it’s a good looking girl or a strapping Aussie bloke. In the case of James Bond, his gadget is now a Nokia phone. The point I’m making is that now that the entire world’s movie-going population has accepted technology into their lives it’s possibly going to be harder to mount new narratives based on an invention or a new technology.

Toy Fiction, Virtual Reality

John Gardner who wrote ‘The Art of Fiction’ took to task science fiction of his day, calling it ‘toy fiction’. He made the case that proper fiction deals with human emotions and philosophical questions; not gadgets and inventions and monsters from outer space. He said that such fiction were toy fictions that pretended to be real works of proper fiction. So goes the ever-lasting snobbery against science fiction as a genre.

The recent development of science fiction then perhaps mounts a strong counterargument to Gardner’s position. Firstly, if one were to make an elaborate toy car that was so elaborate you could ride and drive in it, then wouldn’t it functionally be a car? I would argue that that’s what a supercar like a Ferrari or a Lamborgini was at once a toy and a car; and that perhaps something as elaborate and huge and technically accomplished as James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ happens to be both ‘toy’ as well as ‘real’.

Is ‘Avatar’ good fiction? Is it properly high-brow enough? Do such questions even matter any more in the face of its enormous success? However I wanted to bring these points together for consideration exactly because this is the centre of the snobbery against science fiction. ‘Avatar’ was a cultural phenomenon of immense undertaking. ‘Avatar’ is the cutting edge of cinema, produced and directed by one if its leading practitioners. It’s led to popular acclaim, commercial success and much critical discussion. If ‘Avatar’ was still to be considered a toy… then it’s Disneyland all on its own.

Of course, there’s a short essay about the importance of Disneyland and the ersatz by Philip K. Dick that comes to mind wherein he argued that such toys and fakery and forgeries teach us exactly what makes us human. And if that wasn’t a realist fiction’s goal then I don’t know why they get such high standings in the totem pole of genres.

Artificial Unintelligence

Some time in the late 1990s marked the future-dated birth dates of HAL and Astroboy amongst other characters in science fiction. As these calendar dates have come and gone it seems particularly interesting to note what humanity has attempted, what humanity has accomplished and what humanity has failed at. An artificial intelligence like HAL or a trip to Jupiter like in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is still in our future, but we do have a space station now and yes, the shuttle does dock with it. Space tourism is around the corner. Everybody has far more computing power at their disposal than ever imagined in any film prior to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, but it seems a little ways off before our environment control unit suffocates us deep in space.

Indeed, computing itself seems to have been the dark horse technology of all the technologies, big and small, that has been shown on the screen. Not flying cars or personal jet packs or anti-aging clinics or nanotech santa-claus machines. Perhaps then one of the most laughable moments in science fiction cinema might have been the computer virus delivered into the computing system of the alien mothership in ‘Independence Day’, which at once was a paraphrasing of the influenza virus from ‘War of the Worlds’ (the source text of the story), but also a tacit nod to the humble laptop computer as the enabler of our civilization. There they were, the big menacing invincible aliens with the huge spaceships they flew in across light years, only to crash, thanks to some cyberpunk geeks. Thanks for coming, play it again.

The Star Wars Chronology

Above all else in the ever-evolving genre of science fiction was the completion of the cycle of stories as begun by ‘Star Wars’. The first 2 sequels in the 1980s expanded the scope of the milieu considerably, so much for it spawned an undying demand for the rest of the story to be told, and so George Lucas gave us what he thought we wanted with a new trilogy, which seemed to restate the first series.

Yet, viewing the films in the order they were made seems to indicate that the story is how the authorial protagonist – George Lucas – starts off innocent and idealistic as Luke, but through the war-like experience of making films has buried himself in machines and has finished up as Darth Vader, a captive of his own machinery, dark, imposing, tyrannical and devoid of compassion or sympathy, a slave to power.

It is then quite tragic that science fiction cinema which once seemed so promising is now an integral part of the Hollywood juggernaut that keeps churning out a particular kind of action packed, short-on-thought, long-on-explosion movies as blockbusters. They are all chasing the elusive franchise movie where they can capture the zeitgesit and milk it for every buck. Looking back today, the balance sheet of what the Star Wars cycle of films has done for cinema and against cinema might actually be a very tight margin.

I love the Star Wars universe in the older episodes 4, 5 & 6. I find the Star Wars universe in episodes 1,2 & 3 a lot harder to like, and the only person I can blame for that is in fact
George Lucas himself. What’s really absent in the new lot of films is actually the sense of wonder. The films take place in a world that is now too used to technology as paraphernalia to civilisation.

The Star Trek Phenomenon

The other deeply geekly cinematic pursuit has been the other franchise of science fiction cinema, the Star Trek series. What started off as an adventurous TV drama series devolved into a bad action show, only to reborn as a 6-movie franchise of the same superannuated actors bemoaning aging. But it too has spawned a self-sustaining market that has managed to turn itself into a minor industry. In some ways it is heavily derivative of formats from older pieces of fiction, and yet it is so fecund it keeps re-inventing its form and guise until it latched on to the recent re-boot craze.

Star Trek actually is just as archetypal in our culture as Star Wars in that the characters and problems keep coming back to problems of drama and psychology. The intuition of Kirk, the logic of Spock, the passion of McCoy, the concrete rationality of Scott, all form the crux of the biscuit around which themes of immortality and yearning are played out. In its strongest moments the ‘Star Trek’ universe actually goes where no drama has gone before. In its weakest moments, it seems to regress to a soap opera mush of sentiment. Yet the point is that Star Trek is unstinting in its humanism and may offer the most answers about why we tell science fiction stories.

Star Trek stories are about discovery. In the best episodes and movies he external discovery is always mirrored by the transformative discovery within; whether it is Khan the transhuman or some alien computer that cannot calculate pi to the end, the transformation is always catalysed by the encounter with the other.

The Prognosis is Good

As with most genres of cinema, there probably is a use by date for Science Fiction, just as there was for Westerns in their heyday. It just seems to me that as long as there is science and things to be discovered, then the world is full of wondrous things we can wonder about, which suggests there’s a long way yet before science fiction is exhausted.

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