The Look of the Future

Browsing through the film program A New Tomorrow: Visions of The Future in The Cinema at the Gallery’s Australian Cinémathèque, it’s interesting to note how this sequence of films charts the rise and fall and rise again of particular themes and tropes of science fiction (SF) cinema, partly by the inclusion of remakes, re-imaginings and sequels, but also through the fictionalised representation of recurrent issues of social concern that have made their cinematic presence felt, disappeared for a while, then re-emerged decades later — I’m thinking of the eco-catastrophe films of the early to mid-1970s such as Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973) and Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976) which have been re-birthed as the cinematic spectaculars of global warming anxiety in popcorn fodder such as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 (both Roland Emmerich, 2004 and 2009). I’ll come back to a discussion of this thematic echoing in my next post for this blog but for now I’d like to discuss something else made starkly apparent in the program.

In his 1985 essay “The ‘Videology’ of Science Fiction” Garrett Stewart observed that “movies about the future tend to be about the future of movies.” Stewart argued that SF films, through their deployment of special effects, often at the cutting edge of available technology, embody the very notion of ‘the future’. One need only think of the big budget SF special effects extravaganzas of the last three decades — pretty much everything from Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) on — to realise that, in an effort to appear futuristic, the most ‘convincing’ of SF films deploy the advanced technology of filmmaking to render themselves as realistic representations of the future. Wrote Stewart, “Science fiction in the cinema often turns out to be […] the fictional, or fictive science of the cinema itself, the future feats it may achieve scanned in line with the technical feat that conceives them right now, right before our eyes.”

Stewart’s essay was concerned with SF cinema’s recurrent depiction of screens within the cinematic frame — the cockpit readouts of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) or the massive animated billboards and blimps of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) for example — as a pre-imagining of future media, but his statement equally applies to the technological imperative that resides within contemporary SF cinema, that desire to harness the latest developments in CGI or 3D or in animation that, while simultaneously appearing both futuristic and utterly contemporary, paradoxically serves to ground the most outlandish fantasy in a language of technological realism. One could not find a better example of this tendency than in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) but the roots of this technological-realist language can be traced to the very origins of SF cinema, such as the camera trickery of Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) 1902. Once SF cinema had escaped its B-movie heritage (probably in the late 1960s with Kubrick’s 2001 – but certainly an outstanding attempt at realist SF was made as early as 1956 with Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet) the dominant language of cinematic SF was set.

This figuration of the cinematic “real”, a technological-realist mode of depicting the notional future, or futuristic elements of the present day, runs throughout ‘A New Tomorrow’. A plausible future in cinematic SF is usually built around the representation of a recognisable everyday life contrasted with conspicuous moments of futurity. Most often, these instances are grounded in the mundane life of the common person. The number of moments in these films where people are seen eating, for example, are almost too numerous to mention. Take for instance the scenes of Bowman and Poole eating their space-dinners in 2001; or the scene in The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997) where Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is served noodles right at his hi-rise apartment window before it is revealed that the delivery man is floating in a kind of anti-gravity Hong Kong-style junk; or that romantic restaurant scene in Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997) that is broken up by a police raid searching for “invalids”. Nothing is more human than eating, or sharing a meal, at home or in a restaurant, and these are the kinds of moments that ground futuristic fiction in recognisable “real life”. Add to these examples the plethora of scenes in SF films depicting city streets, from underground public transport systems to high-rise buildings, from futuristic “kitchens of tomorrow” and living rooms with giant TV screens, to the numerous examples of extrapolated forms of private transport, and we can see that the “future” in SF cinema is experienced very much as we experience the present day, through layers of incidental detail contrasted with the quasi-magical wonders of technology.

This mode of representation in SF cinema is matched by a largely conservative use of film language and narrative construction. It’s rare to find SF movies with adventurous or daring use of non-realist modes of storytelling. Films such as Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) which mixes its harsh dystopic visuals with elements of fable, and Blindness (Fernando Meirelles, 2008), which flirts with the dissolution of visuality itself, are among the few exceptions to this rule. This conservatism echoes literary SF and its generic reliance on recognisable forms of narrative construction and modes of address. As SF author Kim Stanley Robinson remarked recently, “figuration is powerful because it is unambiguous.” In other words, if you are attempting to convince the reader, or the viewer, that the thing depicted is real, a poetic or non-linear approach tends to work against the viewer’s emotional/intellectual identification rather than to enhance it.

Literary modernism came late to SF. In the mid-1960s the emergence of “New Wave” science fiction created the genre’s first great schism. The New Wave rejected the hard science fiction of spaceships and intergalactic travel for the imaginative possibilities of contemporary society, finding within the texture of the everyday, in high rise buildings, in freeways and city scapes, and within the human body, ideas and themes more startling and disturbing than the most lurid 1950s style fantasies of alien invasion, bodily possession or global destruction. It wasn’t as though New Wave rejected outright these classic tropes of SF so much as they were reconfigured from external threats to outward manifestations of inner psychological states. This was a SF that turned away from the “hard science” of technology to the “soft science” of the humanities. Collage novels, abstract dream narratives and the formerly taboo subjects of overt sex and politics and feminism appeared during the 1960s, in part or in whole inspired by New Wave’s conflation of classic genre tropes, pop culture, the art world and cinema, mixed together in a heady atmosphere of experimentation. Although mostly a literary phenomenon, Chris Marker’s La jetée 1962, François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 1966 and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange 1971 bear the influence of the New Wave, if not in their source material, then certainly in their execution. SF movies concerned with social issues of the here and now — pollution, population, resources — produced from the mid-1960s until the mid 1970s avoided the techno-fetishism of 2001 for a more down-beat future. The triad of films starring Charlton Heston – Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968), The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971) and Soylent Green are superb examples of this tendency in early ‘70s SF, as well as essential viewing for those interested in the way SF displaces contemporary issues into future settings.

The release of Star Wars in 1977 decisively changed the relationship between cinema, the genre of science fiction and the marketing of movies. As Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Simon & Schuster, 1998) explains, George Lucas’s film wasn’t just the most commercially successful science fiction film ever released, it also created a model for how Hollywood could exploit fantasy genre material through medium-to-high production budget projects which, with the right marketing and target audience, could reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. The legacy of the New Wave has been lost to view in the decades since the rise of the hyper-commercialised genre film, with only faint echoes of its influence found in Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom, 2003), Children of Men and Steven Spielberg’s bizarre, often-brilliant posthumous collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, Artificial Intelligence: AI2001. It would seem then that the dominant strain of technological-realism is just about unavoidable. Yet there is another form of quasi-cinematic science fiction that offers an alternative kind of visuality, an oblique and often experimental mode of narrative. Contemporary art has had a long relationship with the aesthetics of science fiction, sharing as it does common points of cultural reference, yet the deployment of the aesthetic of SF offers a fascinating counter-voice to the domination of mainstream genre SF by Hollywood production values and “classic” storytelling.

Science fiction is marked by contrasts between the quotidian and the fantastic and images that depict such moments abound in the works of numerous contemporary artists in the ‘21st Century: Art in the First Decade’ exhibition. Mitra Tabrizian’s City, London 2008 could well be a scene from a science fiction film, its group of men in an office atrium mill about in aimless contemplation, an ambiguous narrative suspended in time. As Kobena Mercer points out in the exhibition catalogue, “…in the corporate minimalism of their architectural surroundings, the men’s dark suits draw attention to similarities of gender and age. Variations of race and ethnicity are apparent as white faces are in the minority, but sameness makes an odd return in the look-alike indeterminacy of the majority…” Like the film Gattaca, with its narrative of genetic manipulation and the domination of commercial imperatives, and its highly stylised art direction of office atria and suited men and women, individual identity in both film and photograph is besieged by the technological-real.

There are numerous other works that engage with the aesthetics of science fiction in ‘21st Century exhibition. The project The Book of Migration 2009 which depicts a contested site in Israel/Palestine, and Bill Henson’s Untitled 2008-09 which quotes Arnold Böcklin Island of the dead 1880, propose connective lines between art, science fiction and the cinema – films such as La jetée and The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009) anticipate and elaborate on these depictions of the unease we feel in the contested spaces of the city, and by contrast, in the Romantic wilderness after the fall of civilisation. Perhaps the two most astonishing examples of the way contemporary art engages with SF can be found in two video works. SUPERFLEX’s Flooded McDonalds 2009 is exactly as the title describes; a McDonalds slowly fills with water, the detritus of wrappers and packaging and a plastic statue of the corporation’s mascot rising up to the ceiling. Aernout Mik’s Pulverous2003 is a three-screen video of a supermarket being torn apart by a seemingly-bland collection of middle class types. This scene replicates an almost identical sequence in Blindness where the citizens of an unnamed city, stricken by a blindness-inducing disease, negotiate the darkened interior of a supermarket in a frenzy brought on by hunger and desperation. Although science fiction purports to depict moments that have not yet occurred, the relationship between art, cinema and the aesthetics of science fiction demonstrates that these are acute moments of contemporaneity sublimated and turned into an allegorical representations of our deepest anxieties. Moreover, the aesthetic of the science fictional are felt well beyond the borders of strict genre. Perhaps this says something about the way the popular imagination is manifested in cultural objects, but what it is certain is that the technological-real is inextricably linked to the way we perceive the world.

Published at 21st Century Blog, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, December 2010.

©Andrew Frost, 2010

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