Thursday, July 21, 2011

Intelligent Artifice - a history of sci-fi cinema

I wrote the following article shortly after I'd written a science fiction screenplay (never made alas) in the philosophical tradition of that genre. The piece was to be published in Film Ireland, in spring 2002, but for purely logistical reasons had to be cut, so never saw the light of day. It goes some way to explaining my interest in the genre. So, here it goes:


Intelligent Artifice
Science Fiction and the search for the immaterial

In his book of essays, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that the famous scene in Don Quixote where Quixote attempts to fight the windmills with his sword, is the first expression in literature of man’s discomfort with his own technology. The Age of Reason had arrived and with it the greatest explosion of technological innovation since the Upper Paleolithic. The universe had become a clockwork, a gargantuan machine governed by fixed and immutable laws and God was, in the end, a logician. When Quixote raises his sword he is waving it as his own insignificance in the shadow of such a world.

Film, more than any other art form, owes its very existence to the advancement of the technological and from the beginning film-makers have had a preoccupation with the dual nature of the medium as the mechanical eye that mirrors the eye of direct experience. It’s no surprise then that the first moving image recorded by the Lumiere brothers was of a locomotive – one of the most potent symbols of the industrial – entering the station at La Ciotat. The shadowplay of light on the cave wall had become something precise and reproducible.

Science Fiction as a genre is, by its very nature, dedicated to the exploration of scientific concepts and their consequences to human life and the life of human society. It’s surprising to find, though, that for a genre so preoccupied by the scientific and the symbols of science the message of science fiction films so often comes out in favour of the imprecise and contradictory world of human emotion over the cold exactitudes of scientific reductionism. Few films within the genre can be seen as pure celebration of scientific discovery (or possible future discoveries) and those that do – such as Contact or 2001 – seem to call for an expanded view of science that takes into account the peculiarities of human experience and its search for extra meaning beyond the measurable and seen. In short, they attempt to reconstitute a context in which scientific knowledge exists in that which is beyond science.

Although science fiction as a rule is not committed to revealing science as it stands but as it might be in the future, more often than not futurist dramas say more about the time they were conceived than they do about the future they predict. From this point of view, Fritz Lang’s seminal masterpiece Metropolis can be seen as a quasi-religious appraisal of the plight of the worker in a mechanized world at a time when the Trade Union movement was growing in power. In the central figure of Maria, Lang presents a symbol of the harmony between the “brain and the hand”, a balancing principle regulating the relationship between the industrialist and his workforce. Of course, the industrialist Fredersen attempts to destroy Maria’s message by replacing her with a robot designed to ferment worker unrest – a clear comment on Communism – but in the end he is reconciled to Maria’s cause through the marriage of his son (his conscience) to Maria.

Although Metropolis had appeared in 1926 science fiction film-making in the proper sense only emerged in the 1950s and then largely as a response to the lingering memory of  the atom bomb and its legacy of fear played out in the politics of the Cold War. In Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) the alien visitor Klaatu warns that humanity’s entry into the atomic age poses a threat to the whole universe. The film’s cautionary, though optimistic, message is also echoed in the Edenic parable Forbidden Planet (1956) were Dr Morbius, confronted with the vast superiority of a now extinct alien civilization, believes that the human race is not ready for such knowledge. In a clever (if not very dramatic) Freudian twist, the film argues that it is our primitive instinct or “unconscious monster” that makes such knowledge perilous. It’s probably the correct conclusion but in reality society rarely withholds its technology for fear of it being abused.

Another rich period for science fiction film-making was the 1970s when a number of films where produced which spoke directly to the issues of the time. In Douglas Thumbull’s ecological drama Silent Running (1971) the Earth’s forests have disappeared and the only remaining vegetation exists on spaceships floating quietly through the void of space. When Bruce Dern’s character Freeman Lowell is ordered to destroy his cargo he refuses and in an act of desperation kills his shipmates and leaves – in one of the most poignant images found in science fiction – two robots Huey and Dewey to tend to the garden as it drifts away into the darkness. Soylent Green (1973), though marred by a wooden performance from Charlton Heston, is another interesting meditation on the problem of over-population and the ecological and social decay resulting from it.

If the notion of a mechanical universe asks a question of philosophy and religion, a mechanized society asks a question of everyone who lives in it. And the ultimate expression of the mechanization of human society is the totalitarian state. In Michael Radford’s suitable grim retelling of Orwell’s 1984 (1984) we are presented with a kind of retro-futurism, Oceania most closely resembling war-time Britain but one were fascism has prevailed over democracy. History is the key to the present as the opening credits declare: “He who controls the Past controls the Future. He who controls the Present controls the Past.”

Under the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother John Hurt’s character, Winston Smith, attempts to conduct a sexual relationship in secret, an act banned as a “thought and sex crime” by the State. Like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, also made in 1984, the film explores the limits of human resistance within such a society and finds – in an outcome not dictated to by the demands of Hollywood – that everyone has a breaking point, the film’s bleak message summarised in the devastatingly simple refrain uttered by Winston about his lover: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me.” 

Another film that mines dystopian themes, though this time in a completely minimalist futuristic setting, is George Lucas’s excellent and underrated first feature THX1138 (1971). In a twist on the notion of mechanical societies being based entirely on materialistic principles, the leader of this unnamed underground city speaks to the citizens – who are denoted merely by a serial number – via confessional booths from behind a Christ-like image instructing them to “work hard, be more productive, prevent accidents, be happy.” Of course, in a world where everything is regulated and drugs are administered to keep the population permanently sedated, there is no such thing as happiness only perhaps hope. The closing scene where THX1138 (Robert Duvall) escapes from the city and emerges into the idyllic landscape above is a truly lyrical finale to a film that makes no concessions to the terrible nature of such a vision.

Perhaps though the most audacious variation on the subject has been the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix with the idea that the ultimate form of subjugation is to not know that you are subjugated – to believe that you are free when you are not. As Morpheus tells Neo, “[you were] born into a prison that you cannot smell, or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.” And metaphorically the most interesting prisons are the ones we cannot see. You can't help but feeling that this prison might be that of material gain above all other values.

The Matrix also expresses one of our deepest fears about our own technology: that it has become so advanced that it can begin to think and out-think us, that our machines may, in the end, make machines of us. Or as Davis Cronenberg would see it in films such as Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999) our machines are destined to outgrow us and it is the future of mankind to merge in some way with technology by way of some kind of biomechanical interface, and if our computers outsmart us so be it – Darwinian evolution would simply have entered a new and exciting conclusion, though one that may ultimately spell our own extinction.

The most striking symbol of the machine, though, is one that is indistinguishable from us: the android. And the question must be asked: is there anything that truly separates us from such an intelligent machine?

In many ways the image of the android gives rise to our deepest suspicion and fear. In The Terminator (1984), James Cameron gives us a cyborg that embodies our worst nightmare: a machine that is almost indestructible, unwavering in its mission to destroy and totally lacking in empathy. This also serves as a good description of the alien species in Ridley Scott’s landmark film Alien (1979) and perhaps the alien is terrifying precisely because it embodies such machine-like qualities coupled with a kind of brute Darwinian ferocity.  

Alien, of course, also has its own android in Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer on the Nostromo spacecraft. Ash represents another version of our disquiet about intelligent machines: he may look and act like us, but he is by design an extension of corporate enterprise and will always choose what is best for the company, or state, over his fellow workers. In an interesting inversion of this idea the android in Alien Resurrection (1997) Call (Winona Ryder) is programmed to care and is revealed to be an android precisely because of her unwavering empathy. As Ripley points out: “No human is that humane.”

Although the idea of artificial intelligence may be seen as another instance were science fiction might anticipate the scientific outcome, the genre’s ongoing fascination with androids may be have more to with their metaphorical charge as representation of ourselves in a post industrial world, than they do about possible scientific advancements. The power of the film Bladerunner (1982) is not that replicants such as Roy (Rutger Hauer) are androids but that they are androids coming into awareness of their own mortality marking and, as such, making a key transition from something merely mechanical to something that resembles life. When Roy confronts his maker Tyrell he says what we might all say given the chance: “I want more life, father.” And if Roy has come into knowledge of fear he also demonstrates in his death-speech (written as it turns out by Hauer himself) that he has also experienced the very human emotion of awe.

Science fiction, like films in any genre, is often guilty of producing trite and formulaic narratives appealing more to the marketability of the genre than the vast possibilities it offers. At its best though, science fiction has produced some of the most intellectually stimulating stories of any kind about the present nature of our lives as well as the future possibilities they occupy in the imagination. If science fiction is on some level fascinated by the windmills of Cervantes novel, it is also like the book’s central character searching for the meaning beyond that landscape. Like the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Solaris - the intelliegent planet that presents us with our own deepest desires, in Tarkovsky’s film of the same title - science fiction often describes an encounter between the known and the unknowable, between what is seen and what is beyond the visible. It may not attempt like science to offer final solutions to its questions, but in their place it often delivers enduring visions of what might be true of the past, the present as well as the future of our society.