Are science-fiction films pointless? Are they the refuge of the sad and lonely? A work colleague recently postulated that science-fiction films were a complete waste of time, believing they had scant meaning or relevance to a modern world, seemingly already partly living the dream! It’s a wide-reaching but recognisable point of view for many who would rather sit stark naked in a vat of sulphuric acid in the centre of the Winnersh Triangle while watching an episode of Top Gear backwards than watch a Planet of the Apes box-set and yet the inescapable truth is the genre as a whole has raked in more booty from cinema, DVDs, merchandise and the box in the living room (more a flat screen now) on a global scale than many other genres put together. Their popularity, if anything, is growing! Many nowadays go easy on the cerebellum being filled with big bangs, CGI and banal characterisation with the bottom dollar the prime motivation despite cursory nods to contemporary issues that are sometimes superficial and ultimately bland. It encourages many to see them as a pitiful bunker for the social hobos of life, even if their next action may be a spot of paralytic nihilism, by switching on a soap or delving into the info porn of a celebrity mag. In an increasingly complex, high-tech world we inhabit today, one as depressingly riven by oppugnancy and war, governmental control via the use of global surveillance programmes like PRISM and world-wide internment without trial – who in reality needs such films and what understanding, if any, would they gain?
This article, being largely ‘historical’ in tone, fleetingly explores this question, necessarily forcing the omission of literature, fantasy and much else beyond the 1990s and 2000s. To do so otherwise is to navigate a cyclopean celluloid highway congested with both the relevant and its diametric opposite, heavily laced with a dirge of sputum-coated mandibles and bristling vibrissae hanging limply from hapless rubber suits. Though highly dependent on perception and taste and despite the presence of the ridiculous, mercifully there remains an undeniably resilient hard core of films that has survived the wobbly plastic protuberances and which supersedes the sometimes anthropocentric attitudes of today.
In 1927 Fritz Lang made the trailblazing, silent classic Metropolis. It was the first full length movie of its kind and was the most expensive film of the time. Wealthy industrialists rule a city of the future before the tower-clustered skylines become the ubiquitous icon they are today, despite the inspiration of the youthful New York. This parasitical, economically-empowered bourgeoisie squats capriciously over an exploited lower-class proletariat of underground workers who are in thrall to the machines that service the great city and their human masters. A catastrophe leads to eventual revolution that ends in tragedy and false prophets. Though biblical beliefs are a part-muse to the story, it is hard not to view the ruination of an oppidan environment, themes of class slavery underscored by rampant pecuniary repression juxtaposed with capitalism on the rampage as something startling, resonant for all eras with the globe’s recent collapse into economic bankruptcy, a consequence of unfettered exploitation, a poignant example.
The art deco/early New York landscape proved the blueprint for countless megalopolitan films to come – Blade Runner a landmark case in point – and is an astonishing portend of urban desolation veined with systemic disorder that are tragic features of many modern conurbations today. It’s no exaggeration to claim that many today would identify with a proletariat alienated by a seemingly soulless and impenitent ruling authority out of touch with a populace largely ossified into political stupor by the attitudes of those that purport to rule. Metropolis is a classic template for urban portrayals over the decades from science-fiction to crime and is a stunning prophecy of the benefits and perils in a vapid, pulsating city environment, familiar in many ways to contemporary viewers.
The British film Things to Come in 1936 was a liberal riot of technology and predictions based in Everytown, London in reality, and adapted from a book by HG Wells who also assisted in the making of the film. Produced by the legendary Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzies, the film charts the years from 1940 to 2036. Everytown may be London but it is the living representation of the West, a West facing the possibility of a devastating global conflict that lasts decades. Starring Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson and Cedric Hardwicke, the film obsesses over the vicissitudes of war while extolling the benefits of the increasing encroachment of technology. Unsurprisingly, much of it is dated today but it predicts the frightening consequences of scientific progress and the acute pain and suffering that dogs it like a stalker in the dark.
Even though we don’t live in some exulted chthonian sea-world as portrayed, the film was pinpoint accurate in its prediction of World War 2 (barely a year out) and the rapine horror wrought by unlimited strategic bombing. The machines are wildly fantastical but the concept of humankind’s practical fusion with hi-tech wizardry has fierce resonance with our era, universally fused into machines they once assumed they controlled. With TV, PC, iPad, mobile, BlackBerry, laptops, satellites and so much more taking centre stage in our increasingly digitised existence, the question arises: who is the master today? Our pixelating relationship with science is irrevocably changing and, for better or worse, we have in totality embraced it which is exactly what this film advocated all those years ago. What will happen to us over the millennia as flesh intertwines directly with circuits in our breathless rush to robotise ourselves is impossible to say but the film is both refreshingly antiquated and dangerously percipient in its view of man and mechanism!
The cinematic genre is not just adept at raising a clarion call of what is to come but has a role to play as a fascinating mirror-glass aimed directly at the contemporary, cultural psyche of what resides at the bloody heart of a paranoid culture of a particular time. This pellucid scalpel cuts into the murky hegemony that imprisons vast segments of a society in a sarcophagi of restrictive thought without the drawback of being considered an ‘insurgent’ or a fifth columnist.
The 1950s is a shockingly piquant example in an America obsessing over the ‘Red’ threat of the seemingly flourishing Soviet Union and the McCarthy hearings that from 1950 made it their raison d’etre to hunt out Communist sympathisers who were perceived to be absolutely everywhere. These demagogic ‘witch-hunts’ produced lists of ‘suspects’ in apparent active league with the all-seeing eye of the Communist Party, resulting in the frantic creation of the Tydings Committee to examine the damning claims. It was the burning apex of a seismic cultural shift towards state-wide hysteria and though Senator McCarthy’s career ultimately ended in political ruin and alcoholism, the effect was nothing short of terrifying for his many innocent victims and those that thought they were next.
Hand-in-glove with the national monomania for threats, a spate of science-fiction films emerged offering an absorbing reflection of the times. To many, Communism was infiltrating every strata of society, a fear headily liquidised into a toxic brew with the worries of mass annihilation from an atomically armed foe. Some films were blatantly obvious in their depiction of threat. The protagonist in the original 1951 The Thing was brutal and merciless, the epic War of the Worlds (1953) speaks for itself, as do the Invaders from Mars (fortuitously the aliens were red). Perhaps the most effective was the 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Don Siegel of later Dirty Harry fame. This landmark exercise in psychological terror has no deaths and no violence. It was shot on a low budget and was produced by Walter Wanger, freshly released from prison for the attempted murder of his wife’s lover. The deeply sinister pod-people represent many things to many people – their malefic tendencies have been interpreted as a direct assault on the McCarthy madness; however, it is more likely a highly fascinating looking-glass into America’s extreme paranoia about Communism of the time.
The attacks in Invasion of the Body Snatchers are not just on democratic values but the human body itself. Individuality is the first casualty as the ethos of communality is advanced. Emotions, the persona and personal aspiration are superseded by mass organisation, the enforced kibbutz of the new order that swiftly implements the large scale proselytization of the ‘free thinking’. The film is powerful and compulsive and a damning indictment of the mind-set the beleaguered inhabitants of the time often adopted within a besieged mentality, stoked by a seething media and the vote-winning spin from the political class. If mass-scale neurosis was the order of the day among segments of the affluent middle-class, as directly dealt with in the film, what effect could it have on migrants, homosexuals and largely black ghettos of the era? The problem with unchecked hysteria is there is no telling where all the coruscating tributaries run, with victims often being too powerless to do much about it, at least at first.
The repercussion of the period’s collective delirium reflected in film had many resonances, some almost megalophonous in their dire warnings while others were more light-hearted; however, the best of these contained prescient hues that cannot easily be dismissed. The hilarious but endearing Godzilla (1954) was created by nuclear proliferation, a film that preceded by decades the string of films warning of nuclear catastrophe such as the UK’s TV flick Threads and the 1965 little-heralded celluloid gem The Bedford Incident starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, a British-American masterpiece about the perils of arrogance, political prejudice and atomic insanity. It was joined by The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms where nuclear fission created a reptile that made its way from the Arctic to devour the East Coast and the memorable classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, which railed against our penchant for rabid violence and of course contains the obligatory Cold War warnings mixed fearfully with humanity’s potential to both destroy the world and bring holocaust to a peaceful galaxy. The genuine perils of nuclear proliferation were explored with the ruthless zeal of a modern-day Sybillian prophet in sketchily accurate reflections of the underlying psychosis of the willingly terrified.
There are other stand-out films from this era that rise head and shoulders above a general torrent of bunkum ranging from the garishly ludicrous to the mediocre.
Forbidden Planet, 1956, was directed by Fred M Wilcox from a Cyril Hume screenplay and starred Walter Pidgeon, Anne Frances and a very youthful Leslie Nielson who is disturbingly deadpan, a far cry from Police Squad. Neilson leads a party of humans on a deep-space interplanetary ship replete with string-linked microphones that lands on a suitably haunting alien world in search of an expedition sent 20 years previously. The only survivors are a father, Morbius, and his beautiful but innocent daughter Altaira and an overweight Michelin-man mechanoid, Robbie, not to mention the remains of an ancient, extinct super-race, the Krell. Everyone else has been savagely butchered by a rampant but unknown life form. Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the film’s denouement is the revelation that the alien is a living derivative of Morbius’ psyche, the id, conjured by Krell technology too advanced to control. The id, ego and super-ego are defined in Sigmund Freud’s model of the human conscious and sub-conscious thought. The super-ego defines a person’s ethical beliefs and societal constraints while the more camouflaged, subterranean id is a murky subliminal macrocosm of instinctual drives: sex, latent aggression, impulses etc. Freud believed the id was the only characteristic present at birth, the other being developed later as we mature – Morbius wards his daughter by seeing off the menacing ‘virility’ of the strangers with a subconscious headily pot-boiled into a violent, pathogenic maelstrom of living violence. Combined with Krell technology, it has torn apart the other members of the expedition and mindlessly tries to repeat the slaughter with the rescue party. It is nothing short of a mentally unhinged, super-id beast complicated disturbingly by the suggested implication the struggle is Oedipal in nature personified into existence the first moment the ‘virile’ spacemen first make their appearance. The liberated id, the neural receptacle of an unspoken libido, is set free and wastes little time in extirpating the potential sexual rivals, despite the fact the neural-based killer is the girl’s own father.
Like it or not, that is heavy stuff for any film of any decade and, arguably, visionary for the fifties!
The rest of the period is literally littered with a sea of meretricious monsters with bulging orbs, hirsute boils, over-stimulated organs and warty tentacles but a handful of these films taken from a contemporary angle provides an impressive bastion of material that is a sociologist’s wet-dream.
If the better films of the 50s were warnings of mass destruction, invasion and the appalling consequences of global warfare, the best of the 60s were largely more concerned with the human soul and the exploration of racial exploitation, a theme also readily continued in the 70s. The original Lost in Space was a blindingly backwards ‘futuristic’ representation of a typical 50s white family in outer space with ray guns and pointed tits courtesy of what must be the most metallic brassieres in film history. The dutiful women can be seen stacking clunky machine-washers and being generally very wholesome while the villain in a trend just as prevalent in Hollywood fare today is a posh if somewhat colourful Brit. Of course it’s fun, but seemingly more a preservation of white, middle-class America rather than a chance to explore social progression as it could be centuries from now.
Unexpectedly, it took an ex-cop and alleged ladies’ man Gene Roddenberry to come up with a franchise that was to hit the film world with a viewpoint much copied since. Though the aliens then were an assortment of latex lizards and half-naked people in nappies and togas, he was adamant Star Trek would be strictly atheist, fervently believing no religion could, or should, dominate a collective, equality-based future. And at a time of segregation and occasional lynching his futuristic society is dominated in almost every scene by a mixed cast from ship personnel to high court judges and commodores – something many non-white people could only dream of in the US at a time the curse of the flaming cross was still a cancerous threat. Camouflaged as a “wagon train to the stars” and with Lost in Space preserving the cultural dominance of the past, and with the fear of Communism still at a height, the unwitting studio was duped into putting out something almost socialist in nature. The equality was ground-breaking, the essential abolition of money and material greed reeked openly of socialism and women commanded the ship while the useless WASP captain was being haplessly kicked around by aliens in bald wigs (the studio woke up to this outrageous heresy and demoted the women down a rank or two, forcing them into mini-skirts though the rest of the deeply subversive material such as a ‘dangerously’ multi-ethnic society made it through). Such was the poignancy of the imagery, Martin Luther King was one of a number of prominent black-rights leaders who welcomed it with open arms. It came to a head when TV executives tried to ban the nation’s first interracial kiss to avoid offending viewers in the Southern States. This was thwarted when Shatner and Michele Nicholas deliberately ruined every take bar the actual kiss so the shot was eventually deployed. No mentions of subsequent riots have been recorded.
The decade saw other notables too numerous to mention, such as the faintly ridiculously titled Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Fantastic Voyage and Quatermass and the Pit with its memorable depiction of racial extermination, a horror irrevocably embedded into the psyche of parts of the human race if you consider the atrocities of Srebrenica and others which came later.