PART TWO: THE LATEX AND THE SELF
The scene is a mid-American country town of the style we have become accustomed to: a sky of blue over a dirty gray landscape of arid farming land. Yet there is more to this scene than first meets the eye. Far off over the horizon the pristine blue sky is being stained black by a cloud spewed up from the dead soil. Beneath the cloud, stretching wide across the flat terrain is an undulating band of lush, rain forest green. It's large and is getting larger as it rumbles steadily towards you. Then the green, rich and alive like chlorophyll, breaks up into individual bodies. The ovoid mass of a single beast stands up on several thin, crab-like legs. Low on its front are two tiny dots that could only be eyes, but eyes that are black and containing no hint of life, as if consuming life itself. From the centre of a rough-rimmed crater between the eyes protrudes a thin tube, and from this tube a wet sucking sound eminates; a hungry sound. You stand frozen in utter disbelief, as two thin legs clasp your rigid body and a rigid wet proboscis slides between your ribs. The blue sky overhead fills your fading view as your mind is poured out into the void.
On the TV, between video static, shots of stunned reporters with microphones, bewildered anchormen, satellite maps with huge flashing arrows, interviews with stern academics, and various brands of economical yet reliable kitchen cleaning fluid, are jiggling images of giant, wild and rabid aphids running rampant across the U.S. countryside, sputtering in and out of focus, blurred and broken up by blue lines of low resolution. Huge, bright green, leaf-shaped insects pick up screaming humans, force proboscii into chest cavities, suck out the juices and toss the crumpled shapes, dried-orange-peel humanity, down on the blood-spattered dirt. The creatures move further away, soon obscured by dust clouds as they head towards the next simple, country community, moving inexorably towards the coast and the Big Cities of America.
Of course, no-one believes any of it. No-one believes anything on TV, unless it's officially denied by the US Airforce, cross-referenced in "The Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover" and has Jack Palance rasp exuberantly about it on "Ripley's Believe It Or Not". Ever since Orson Welles, no-one believes anything - he still cops the blame for a lot of this shit.
It transpires that these poor, huge insects were nothing more than the household variety that lurk beneath rose leaves and horrify your gardening grandmother, vilely perverted by a money-hungry biologist experimenting with Growth Hormone on Tomato plants in an attempt to corner the market in ready-made pizza base. The transformation which ensued sent the fellow round the twist, and he ended his days giggling loudly, lusting after cockroaches, finding God in the writing of Orson Scott Card and believing that without Gorgio Moroder, Metropolis would not be the great film it is today (a result similar to the effect of taking a three hour personality test that "will only take a minute of your time").
Enter the ex-marine, dishonoured New York beat cop, suspended over the shooting of his fun-loving, overweight, comic-relief-type partner. Investigating the scantily-clad-insect-poster bedecked secret laboratory of the too-expensive-for-more-than-the-first-five-minutes, half-dead-Shakespearian-actor Scientist, our hero accidently stumbles into the late Labcoat's daughter, a semi-frigid and often half-naked research chemist recovering from a relationship turned sour when her lover pissed off with her specimens (don't worry, the aphids get him). After brushing off our hero's first amorous advances, she is almost half-sucked in the shower (by an aphid), and comes to realise that if she had originally given in to wild sweaty sex, she would now be living a more fulfilled lifestyle (and be in position for a decent crack at a Mickey Rourke movie as well). And so, by the end of this epic horror-action adventure, our hero can be seen standing on a lump of twisted metal and concrete, his research chemist by his side, watching the bronze sun low on the horizon as James Horner's musical score sinks somewhere between John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and an out-of-court copyright settlement.
But what of the aphids? What happened to them? Were they destroyed, given useful tasks in society or simply merchandised as fluffy green windscreen ornaments? Unfortunately, we may never know, as Paramount pulled out of its 64% financing deal for US Theatrical and Video Rights after Variety announced that Columbia had backed a "package" with a bankable star and a similar concept and scripting to be worked out later. The German soft-porn company was left holding the bag with their side of the deal to provide 25% for European and Asian distribution as an attempt to expand into the mainstream market. Left alone in unfamiliar territory, they pulled their money out to fund a late-night cable TV Games Show called "Name That Hair". The producers of the now-defunct aphid venture were severely put out, but soon recovered (they always do), hired another screenwriter to transform the aphids into MiG fighters and the research chemist into a tactical theoretician, re-cast the cop as a heartthrob fly-boy and made an absolute fortune on the soundtrack. Interestingly enough, the studio had been telling them to do this all along. As the Executive, seated in his vast, plush, award-cluttered office said: "These days, if you're not James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger, people just don't want rubber suit monsters. They want reality, kid. Real, honest-to-God true-to-life stuff. Why do you think we sunk our cash into Days of Thunder?"
Besides, when you get right down to it, what the Hell is a rabid aphid? Rabies is a mammalian disease. And any high-school biology student knows that insects breathe through spiracles by diffusion - a process that's size-limited; they just cannot grow that big. And while we're at it, how come there's light two miles beneath the ocean, why can we see sunlight on both sides of the spacecraft and hear it's engines for God's sake? Why do people in ancient fantasy worlds speak with midwestern accents? Why is sixties fashion all the rage in the twenty-third century? Why don't sophisticated aliens from outer space have a decent quarantine system and how come the entire resources of the military are unable to work out something an uneducated, reckless teenager with a motorcycle takes five minutes to realise?
And people wonder why scriptwriters hide away in dark rooms, talk arrogantly and use pseudonyms. "Leave me alone!" he screams. "It's only a movie, it's not real, it's fantasy. Who cares? Who really cares?" Then he wanders off, ragged and suicidal, until he gets the marvellously original idea for a film where a bunch of people are stuck some place, wondering which one of them the "unknown thing" will noisily and bloodily dispose of next.
Is he right? Do people care? Do they notice scientific inaccuracies and downright contrivances? How much do they consider the "poetic logic" entailed in a fantasy film when judging their enjoyment of it? Is this pseudo-science expected, like exploding heads and sound in a vacuum? Neither makes sense in terms of known physics, but both turn up with monotonous regularity, and we accept them without batting an eyelid. They're part of what makes up the sci-fi movie, that is, the futuristic space fantasy movie. They are, or can be, as much a part of this cinematic sub-genre as the set designs, costumes and special effects. Sci-fi is fantasy dressed in hi-tech with its own laws of science - very similar, indeed almost indistinguishable, from reality so you don't get lost, but desperately wrong nevertheless. Sci-fi is a kind of rubber suit for the entire film. It's not a subject, it's a package.
The stories remain pretty much the same over the years. The packaging, however, is very fashion-orientated, at least in its detail. The times change the suits, like they change the social mores and the language. The futuristic vision within cinema has progressed in stages, where major redesigns have been successfully attempted in order to update the look and keep up with, or ahead of, the audience. Only a handful of films have strongly influenced the look of SF movies in general, either by updating technology or, more often, by adapting to the changing sensibilities and perspectives. The films worth taking special note of are these; Metropolis (1926), Things To Come (1936), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), and Blade Runner (1982). It doesn't matter what you think of the stories - they're largely irrelevant. It is the audio-visual experience that determines the cut and wear.
Recently, there has been a spate of freshly repackaged re-releases of Sean Connery movies. Amongst the plethora of old Bond films there was the exceptional The Offence, the equally appalling Meteor (Man vs the Mediocre special effect), and Outland. When it was released, Outland received bad press for its obvious rehashing of the old High Noon plot (basic, three-point story: Baddies too bad for the Folks, Hero too good for the Baddies, Folks not good enough for the Hero). But Outland wasn't a steal - it was an unashamed remake of High Noon [ 1 ]; a remake of the Western into SF, in the same way the feudal Japanese sword epic Seven Samurai became the western The Magnificent Seven (and, later, the space fantasy Battle Beyond the Stars). The basic plot is the same, only the genre - the rubber suit - has changed.
Outland was a 1981 release, and its visual style was so obviously inspired by overdoses of Alien that they could be set in the same universe (something Outland's few remaining fans would like to believe). I won't defend the very silly science and the occasionally stupid plot (see "Harlan Ellison's Watching" for a good discussion), because I found it easy to watch the film around them, rather than ignore them - something I'm usually unwilling to do. Though it helps to be a high-tech/hardware/space/fantasy/SFX/Monster Movie buff, I can enjoy Outland and, on occasion, other Sci-Fi movies, for the somehow appealing, translucent wetsuit that half-conceals the often underweight frame beneath.
In Part One of this discussion of SF Cinema, I proposed the Rubber Suit ethic, also known as the Godzilla Credo. Simply put (hand over your heart and repeat after me), "The degree of silliness of the Rubber Suit is proportional to the suspension of disbelief required". A statement of ideal. You can almost see the poster: Man and Woman side by side in profile, gazing up into the matte sun and the huge, silhouetted Godzilla hanging nobly in the sky. Sadly, the truth is that little is that perfect. If it was, Godzilla, the Ninja Turtles and a handful of aging fantasy films would not stand out so brightly against the dull insincerity of the modern sf film. The rubber suit of Sci-Fi, when used with the proper degree of respect, can evoke emotions and construct fantasies that are fresh and different, unique and not otherwise able to be experienced. To use this venerable sartorial construct to conceal the ordinary, the over-used or the insubstantial is irreverent, destructive and misleading. Sadly, this is often exactly how it is used.
I intend Outland as an example of both the good and the bad. Most science fiction movies over the last several years follow Outland's lead in that they are nothing more than standard action-thrillers dressed in Sci-Fi suits for no better sake than novelty. As pieces of entertainment they may succeed (an argument that involves different criteria), but as science fiction they are often as cardboard and plastic as the sets and props used to dress them up. The suit is nothing but a colourful toy to draw the audiences' attention away from the common, workaday plot ("It's the sound and movement they like," to quote Dame Edna).
In this regard, the works of James Cameron (The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss) are a sore point with me. The suits he dresses his films in are often so pretty that I'm willing to put up with extreme discomfort over the excessively contrived plots, the banal scripts and the poor character direction, just to revel in the images and design one more time.
There can't be a hard line on how much is decoration and how much a legitimate SF depiction; some films do a beautiful job of blending the two. Alien is one of the better examples of this - it's a Horror movie set in space for effect, but its depiction of that setting creates an extra dimension, alluding to a bigger "Science Fiction Experience" that moves it beyond its one-and-a-half line plot.
As I've noted, the opinions I've passed with regards sincerity, and hence quality, of the films I've mentioned are derived by comparison with other films. This raises the question of absolutes: "Is a good film good for and of itself, or is it good because similar films are so patently a lot worse?" Can comparison provide the only measure of the quality of a film, or, in particular, of a fantasy film? The SF and fantasy concepts and constructs used in a film can be judged exclusive of the rest of the film's production, direction, stylistics or performances, but the simple rule is "A good film must be a good film, regardless of genre." You cannot be more forgiving for having been provided with a nice rubber suit that happens to agree with your taste in clothes. The simple, hard and fast rule is that no novelties, no gimmicks, no giant aphids or ETs with water-wings will make up for the lack of a good story that's worth being told and that's told with honest intent. You need no other guidelines - the rest must be judged by what feels right for you.
An afterthought: there have been a spate of afterlife/love stories
recently, including Flatliners (four of me walked in and
one stayed for the ending of this MTV-pretty film that finally
lacks credence - it was simply too insincere for its band-standing
morality), Ghost (showed better adherence to its own rules
but was even more contrived and stickily sentimental: yet it did
take less risks, lifting all its major elements, with minor retro-fit,
from Topper (1939), A Guy Named Joe (1943), A
Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) (1946)
and The Times of their Lives (1946) with Abbott and Costello),
and struggled hard to overcome patchy SFX and that uniquely American
fantasy that love will stop anything, including a 12-gauge shotgun),
and Always (Steven "please genuflect" Spielberg's
direct remake of A Guy Named Joe which nevertheless has
a classic feel that will take time to forget - read "reappear
forever on late night TV"). Yet despite these three being
big-budget US films, I saw the best of this odd sub-genre in the
Jump Cut Film Festival at Perth's Lumiere Art Cinema. Produced
in 1988, Rouge is a Hong Kong ghost story with more meaning,
philosophy, culture and honesty than the above three put together.
A stylish film, produced by Jackie Chan and directed by Stanley
Kwan, Rouge is filled with honest feeling without a hint
of facsimile sentimentality. It remains distinct in my memory
while the other films are even now fading away as most mass-market
films will. The only recent American film that comes close is
Field of Dreams which, though sentimental and as American
as Rouge is Hong Kong Chinese, stands as the finest US
Fantasy film since Harvey (1950).
Originally appeared pp. 42-47 Eidolon 3, December 1990.
Copyright © 1990 Robin Pen. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.