Seeing Through the Robots: How to Watch Science Fiction

Science Fiction films have forever been a part of cinematic history. Indeed, some of the most celebrated films of all time fall into this other-worldly genre. Beginning with early masterpieces like the short film A Trip to the Moon (France 1902) there has been a never-ending acceleration into technology, creativity, and of course the future.

For my viewing selection I watched (and I wish I would have had time for more) the following films: Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the first and second original Star Wars films (1977-80), Blade Runner (1982), Terminator 2: Jud

gment Day (1991), Gattaca (1997), Dark City (1998), and District 9 (2009).

Science Fiction (or SF) is an extremely important genre, not only for its robust role in what Langford calls Hollywood’s “lucrative summer market” but for the technical advancements and creative places and opportunities it opened and created for all of cinema.

I enjoy SF, and to be honest most of my favorite films have hints of SF imbued into them. I think this is due to the fact that SF to me is the genre that can’t stop its influence upon everything around it. As Brian Regan jokes about cranberries, they’re in everything. Cran-apple, cran-grape, etcetera. And like a cranberry, SF is incredibly versatile, with its elements showing up in every film type imaginable. From serious adult drama like this year’s Inception to children’s films like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) to western-action-comedy spoofs like the up-coming Cowboy’s and Aliens (2011).

Langford writes: “SF has a good claim to be considered the first distinctively post-classical Hollywood genre, and as such occupies an important place in industry history.” (2005 pg. 184) But as I’ve already pointed out above SF is a long-lived genre. Metropolis (Germany 1927) one of Ufa Studio’s greatest claims to fame still shows its traces in films like Gattaca (1997) or The Island (2005). Both films are cautionary towards the philosophical and moral implications of a society that is controlled by technology and divided by superfluous social classes. So the messages of SF films have changed little compared to the technology they present (both in production and story).

Film poster for Metropolis

Image via Wikipedia

So, although as Langford excellently argues that SF has seen leaps and bounds of growth since 1977’s Star Wars the true beginnings of the genre are old. The genre has moved from fantastic dreams of the future of space exploration, to mutated monster attacks like Godzilla (1954), to alien invasions throughout the 50’s like The Thing From Another World or The Day the Earth Stood Still (both 1951) or War of the Worlds (1953). And we have achieved a high-budget, star-powered and very diverse genre that uses infinite tools to express simple human truths.

But to avoid too broad of strokes when defining the genre it is important to note the characteristics that do help distinguish a sci-fi film from a simply a film with technology. Of course technology plays an enormous role, often times it is depicted as the malevolent force as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (2968), The Matrix (1999), or the Terminator (1984-2003) series, warning of the problematic possibilities of over-advancing technologies and the obsoletion (the making of something to be obsolete) of humanity. Other times technology plays a neutral role merely providing a context for other commentary as in Back to the Future (1985) or the excellent District 9 (2009) which gives a powerful depiction of apartheid and civil war and racism.

When talking about the distinguishing factors of SF, Langford begins to unravel his own argument as he explains that SF is lacking any consistent iconography. He breaks down setting, dialogue, and stories. He explains that the locations aren’t as identifiable or consistent as in Westerns, and the dialogue isn’t as placing as the gangster genre, because SF could be anywhere at any time. Sure there are “robots and rocket ships and death rays” (Langford 2005 pg. 186) and endless supplies of electricity (SF is, after-all, a genre that driven by comic book and pulp heritage), but there are also the SF films that work into the spiritual or super-natural aspects. Films like: Dark City and the Star Wars series both deal with inner forces of good and evil used to control the physical world. They just happen to be set in futuristic space-travelling times of powerful alien civilizations.

Perhaps the most identifying mark of science fiction is the “future”. And this “futuristic” setting is what has centralized the genre’s growth and change over time. Langford explains that science fiction never evolved at all. Saying in a sense, that we were always expressing the same things, we only improved upon on our ability to visually articulate them. He uses the example that our present technology has caught up to what early science fiction fantasized about. In turn we dreamed bigger. “SF has been and continues to be a recombinant genre.” (Langford 2005 pg.185) We achieve and then go back to the basics of imagination and stretch things further still.

One of my best-friends, whom I consider an excellent and born story-teller, has this remarkable ability to give hypothetical situations to prove points in arguments of any kind. And while my inevitable defeat may be frustrating, it’s part of what I love about him as a person. Say, as we recently were, we’re talking about whether you can be elitist without being arrogant. It’s a complicated question, but he makes it simpler by creating a hypothetical. A pretend civilization somewhere along the Amazon River maybe, a group who doesn’t have the exposure to see what is good or bad or excellent to be critical of their consumption. All this and more to prove his point. It’s elaborate and maybe excessive, but simply it works. It communicates so effectively a truth. Humility and elitism don’t mix; but even that sentence feels as though it awaits a challenger without some sort of tangible defense. Some elaborate situation.

Langford I think misses his own point as he trails off into amazement during his case study of The Matrix, when he finally agrees with another film writer, Scott Bukatman’s, idea that the ultimate goal of SF is to fight for the utopian promise of ultimate human society. This is not the point of SF, but rather to make profound truths about people and life clear through any means possible to use the hypothetical to say something that otherwise falls on deaf ears.

Langford nearly touches it just pages earlier when he writes of the need for basic human spirit or almost anything pre- or trans-technological as a solution to the narrative crisis: “Most famously, in Star Wars Luke Skywalker must learn to ‘trust the force’: only by turning off his sophisticated targeting mechanism and channeling the mystical animistic power that in the film’s mythology binds together the living fabric of the universe can Luke destroy the Death Star….The entire code of the Jedi Knights is founded on this conviction of the fundamental inadequacy of mere technological mastery.” (Langford 2005 pg.199) Doesn’t sound like looking for the ultimate human society to me at all. It sounds more inwardly focused.

For as long as SF can speak its simple wisdom it can be a powerful communicator. And will be an ever-changing genre, which is constantly pushing the boundaries of technology and creativity in the art of film-making. But most importantly for us viewers and critics and students of film, is a need to look at the movies with an investigative eye. To see through the robots and special effects and time travel to absorb a real meaning. To realize that even when we search the far galaxies for villains and heroes our  solutions still return to the core human needs of love, companionship, and adventure.


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