It's bad when you begin to believe that the alien visitation you had - you know, that funny white balloon guy with the stocking legs and the ectoplasm who wants you to take a photo of him and the missus in front of your hi-fi system as a momento of their "trans-timentional" honeymoon; their camera, their photo . . . well those guys anyway - it's time to worry when you start to think those guys are a legitimate psychic/physical phenomenon, instead of sensory over-spill from a twelve hour vid-fest of uncut Italian "art" movies with Swedish sub-titles about randy co-eds with transatlantic accents screaming at the deformed, axe-wielding Mormons ("kindly take some literature before we hack you to bits") chopping away at their door. Then again, it might have been the six litres of instant coffee I consumed. God, I need some codeine and a lie down.
And it's worse when I wake to find this tall, black, bald dude shouting, "Look man, you better put up or shut up" as he thrusts a stogie at my face. "Hey man," I cry, "I've been good. I haven't seen a John Carpenter film in weeks!" But then he turns into a pillar of static and re-emerges as some white middle-American in a lumber-jack shirt and "Budd" on his baseball cap. "Yuk, yuk," he laughs, and I scream, "I'm sorry Cameron for all the bad things I've said about you! I'll see your next movie anyway, so please leave me alone!"
I pass out briefly, only to wake on the floor, wrapped in sheets drenched with sweat, and gasping for breath. The sense of despair is close to overwhelming. But hark; a ray of light pierces my fly-specked ceiling and I'm bathed in a flickering fluorescence of wonderous, satorial, cinematic essence. A figure floats before me. He has a strong key light with a well balanced filler, set off by a subtle rear lighting of red and blue gels. I squint to make out his face, blonde and square jawed, sometimes with a beard and sometimes without. It's Saint Ridley, and he comforts me with the words, "Do not feel pain; I promise to return and set all to right. But it's a bugger trying to get Trumble out of retirement, and Mead's designing mine shaft retrenchments at the moment, and you know me - I get bored after six months. But I have to go now. I'm due on the set for my new Chanel commercial. It's real cool; it's got twenty-five angels singing some piece by Verdi as a model walks a poodle down a neon-lit replica of Hong Kong's labyrinth city, and it's all done under water. Anyway, gotta dash." "Please don't leave me," I scream. "Not without giving me proof you're gonna make Blade Runner II, you bastard!" But he's gone.
I crawl exhausted from the wreckage of my bed and, with shaking hand, reach for my video shelves, bypassing my Japanese animation and Kurosawa movies, and pull out a desperately needed, matte-black plastic case of audio-visual neurone rush. Shooting it into my VHS VCR (with NTSC playback), I collapse into my overused and under-stuffed chair, and as black-n-white fights to overcome the bourgeois colour of the picture tube, I watch with dewy eyes the magnesium flare that burns out the words "The Thing From Another World". And as a distant choir of angels sings "Slip Slidin' Away", I flip out of reality altogether.
"The advent of this type of film opens a vast story market. Because the subject matter is involved with that which is unknown, science fiction stories permit the use of new and different plot structures in the writing of screenplays. Clever writing enables one to hold interest by the presentation of a scientific background which adds a lot of authenticity as the story progresses. It is important that we don't confuse the Frankenstein type of film with the science fiction picture. The first film is an out-and-out horror thriller based on that which is impossible. The science fiction film is based on that which is unknown, but is given credibility by the use of scientific facts which parallel that which the viewer is asked to believe."
Howard Hawks, director of The Thing From Another World, speaking in 1951, as reprinted in American Cinematographer, January 1991.
- The Thing? (You ask)
- Yes, The Thing. (I say)
- With Kurt Russell?
- No, that was an '82 remake.
- Oh, you mean that black and white movie?
- Yes, that one.
- But its so . . . dated.
- Dated you say? Dated? Of course its bloody dated! It was made in 1951 for christ's sake! But the point is, you see, it has dated beautifully. Let me tell you about it.
A major part of the magic of The Thing is its characters. They are so much fun to watch. And why? Because they are humorous, witty and intelligent; not a single fuck-wit among them. Character antagonism is based on differing opinions about the ethics of the pursuit of knowledge. Even when the head scientist (who has indirectly caused the death of two men) faces the horriblenastymonster, he is portrayed as the "poor deluded fool" who believes a greater intelligence (something he automatically assumes of the space-going alien) will bow to reason rather than pulp everyone for their blood. After all, would a creature from another planet come to this miserable little mud ball just for that?
It's important to note that, after smoothing out a few emotional problems, the cast of The Thing manage to dispose of the creature intelligently and effectively. But after all, the creature never had a chance because it faced what few movie monsters ever have to face - sane characterisation. Take recent monster movies. (Or is "creature" the fashionable term these days? "Extra-terrestrial"? "Alien Life Form"?) Anyway, take a recent beastie movie and dare it to go one-on-one with the reasonably well-rounded, moderate characters of a good '50s sci-fi movie like It Came From Outer Space or Them. What if, say, The Thing's hero, Captain Patrick Hendry (actor Kenneth Tobey) had been Dallas, the captain of the Nostromo in Alien? You might have seen something like this:
Dallas: Ripley, we'll follow quarantine procedure and not bring Kane inside where goodness-knows-what might happen.
Ash: Captain, I feel Kane should be brought in immediately and placed in the autodoc.
Dallas: Put a lid on it Ash. Sometimes you think like a bloody robot.
And what if The Thing's heroine, Nikki (lead-credited actress Margaret Sheridan) was Ripley in Aliens?
Ripley: Why don't we send Bishop down and let him stroll through the place to find out what the situation is. Then we can decide if we should nuke it from orbit.
Bishop: Good idea, I will prepare myself for the task right away.
Ripley: Nothing personal Bishop. I know that the last robot I encountered was tampered with by the Corporation and that an artificial person such as yourself would have a behaviour code against violence.
Bishop: Thank you. That is most gratifying.
(Meanwhile, the rest of the crew grunt softly in the background.)
But then, any character with a modicum of common sense can infuriate a monster flick screenwriter. There's an old saying in Hollywood (or if there isn't then it's because they're still trying to keep it a secret); "Irrational people handling volatile plot elements keep a poor story going." Three cheers for Doctor Smith!
Yes, yes (the cynical little voice at the back of my mind pipes up); that's all fine and dandy, but what has that got to do with The Thing aging so beautifully? It's an old movie made in the midst of the Korean police action, when a Yank in military garb was particularly hip. And boy, in The Thing, the clean-cut fellas in their army threads were just too hip. And Nikki; now there was a classic '50s babe. And look at those scientists; a few lab coats and nerdy sociology degrees, but most of them were still cool guys. You know what I'm saying - even facing impending slaughter they were still living productive, well balanced life-styles. I mean it's so '50s, you know!
Now, my friend (I reply), I've got no problem with that. One of the principle reasons I love The Thing is precisely because it's so '50s-ish. It reeks of the full glory of 1951. I revel in The Thing, for all its datedness. What makes it work so well for me is that it's the presentation of a fifties fantasy world that my nineties sensibilities find enchanting and highly entertaining. The Thing is actually a good movie for its time, and I firmly believe it will be a good movie forever more, even as time and social patterns work to make it ever more alien. (Get it; make it more Alien as time goes by? Sometimes I crack myself up.)
We'll pause briefly while you take the free floppy vinyl recording of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" performed by the Nasal Whine Chorus of Bostock (unfortunately only available with a limited number of copies of this publication) and place it on your turntable. As soon as it begins playing, we can proceed
Yes my friends, do you not understand? Listen to that voice, that all-powerful voice that speaks The Truth. That voice that sounds as if it could destroy a city, and yet has time to speak softly to little children. (No, not Gamera! The other voice.) The booming voice that proclaims the true wisdom of all SF movies. The voice that says "SCIENCE FICTION FILM IS ALWAYS OF THE NOW!" Boom Bum Boom Bum Boom! (Aren't kettle-drums subtle?)
A science fiction film, whether intentionally or unintentionally, always reflects current emotional, intellectual and socio-political states, even if its ultimate purpose is simply to scare the pants off you. And it has to be so. A crucial part of becoming involved in virtually any film is developing a concern for its characters. But you'll find attempts to identify or sympathise exceedingly difficult if you cannot understand the characters' motives and ethical judgements. How do you respond to someone you simply can't relate to? No modern film audience is going to put up with Runthok the Viking Hero if he acts like a Viking: "Gosh what a smashing fellow" as he rapes and pillages English peasant girls all up and down the coast. See what I mean?
It must be the aim of any decent fantasy film-maker to place his characters and their setting into some kind of relationship with his own spatio-temporal norm. An audience demands to see clearly where it is from where the characters are. Not knowing what's up and what's down leads inevitably to confusion, and that's not in the film-maker's interests. And it's not just the audience that gets lost without reference points. The film-maker can't produce something out of thin air. Everything he does is built upon pre-existing foundations. Everything he can conceive is based on what he sees, thinks and believes right now. And at the moment that it's conceived, constructed and communicated, it has begun to recede into the past; it has begun to date.
Blade Runner, though not particularly old, is one film that's dating very well as the years roll by. Even though it's set in the future, much of its visual style and narrative technique was based on a fantasy world created in the '40s; the well-known, if elusive style known as film noir. By setting itself in a noir '40s crime-world, Blade Runner drew its audience into a thoroughly effective futuristic fantasy that had a fresh and exciting atmosphere, while still maintaining a bridge to another, more accessible setting. This in turn allowed the storytellers greater flexibility and the potential for ambiguity and other subtlety to enhance characterization and highlight social issues, while not detracting from the basic framework of a smouldering thriller.
SF is more often than not, like Blade Runner, set in the future, and is thus a projection, an extrapolation, of "today's world". As an SF film dates, it loses that protective element of futurity, the technological and sociological "safe guess" of what is to come, and thus is no longer a depiction of the future or even just a future. It becomes (what it always was) a depiction of a futuristic fantasy; a future for somebody else's world. But why should we consider it future at all, if its setting is not this world (no matter how closely it may parallel the world as we know it)? Isn't it fairer to say that the "futuristic film" is an Alternative Now, and that it can't ever be more than that? After all, today's SF is inherently locked into today's psyche, and will always be "the view from here", a depiction of a fantasy-world where current values exist in a futuristic setting. For example, if we're dealing with extreme sexual promiscuity as a social norm in a society of the future, we'll react to that based on current morality. So, "SF As Now" is, and must be, always the case, 'cause if it wasn't, we'd sit there and think "what the fuck was that all about?"
As such, Forbidden Planet depicts an alternative 1956 where they had flying saucers, robots, and space colonies with mad scientists and pretty daughters in exotic gowns (still aesthetically appropriate to the fashions in the real 1956). Isn't it plain that the Star Trek series was just the '60s in space? Barbarella made no pretence to being anything other than contemporary, and in fact was playing on the bizarre side of 1967 pop culture. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) has an obvious flavour of late sixties, and the plot of 2010 (1984) - an expedition to understand the mystery of the ill-fated Discovery - was the mid-'80s pondering the wonder of the 2001 of the late '60s; a "meek mind probe" into the "awesome 2001 experience", and hence more homage than sequel. Finally, look at Star Wars. By Crikey, if that isn't the '70s in space I'll be hornswoggled. Sit down sometime and watch carefully as everyone in the Star Wars saga (including Darth himself) gradually transforms from late '70s to early '80s characters.
Now don't get me wrong. I love these movies. I've always loved them. And I love them as the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, and as the '80s. And I expect I'll keep on loving them as time goes by.
And all of this leads, finally, to two recent films worthy of note. The first is not science fiction, at least not under any of the stricter definitions. It sits more comfortably, I guess, under the "fantasy" banner, but I feel Meet The Feebles tries hard to defy classification. If you dared to take this film seriously though, I guess it could be seen as an evocation of the '80s. While it may be about the lives of puppets (it's very easy to say "muppets") preparing for an up-coming performance, there's much more to it than that. For example, there's the flashback to Frogs In Vietnam by the knife-throwing Kermit clone addicted to everything softer than battery acid, and there's the porn film being shot in the theatre's basement, depicting S&M between a cow (in chains and leather) and a crustacean, while a rat (who sounds remarkably like Peter Lorre) operates the video camera. In simple terms, Meet The Feebles is sick, tasteless, obscene, offensive, disgusting, amoral and utterly vile. I loved every minute of it. This is a film that takes all the popular genres of the '80s and shows them up, as if pissing on them and paying them homage can't be done separately. To its credit, it successfully emulates (if not immolates) the styles of the films it lampoons, with a striking sincerity behind its great, wide, gap-toothed grin. I'm sure one of the goals of this movie was to show more bodily functions expressed in more grandiose ways than any film had previously, and to do that with puppets makes it all seem worth while. Some people are going to find this film devoid of any merit, on the basis of their own self-righteous and self-serving morality, but they're completely missing the point (which is probably best for them anyway). Feebles successfully gives the nod to both those who love and those who hate the recent film and entertainment trends, which range from extreme violence to sick sentimentality. For no other reason than the sheer fun of it, Meet The Feebles is out to show that, whether with sand-paper gloves or Vaseline, being wanked for your money is exactly the same.
More importantly, and on a very different level, there is Akira. Besides the technical brilliance of its animation, its clear-cut style and extraordinary soundtrack, and despite an "ending of convenience" and English translation that's not always true to the plot, Katsuhiro Otomo's depiction of Neo-Tokyo (2019) is a classic piece of disorientation. Akira's is a post-modernist world that slants sharply away from our own, and particularly from our precious contemporary morality; it's a dystopian society formed from an allegiance to the false dreams of utopian materialism; a decadent labyrinth of desperate escapism; a non-humanist and apathetic society where technology maintains an overwhelming social lethargy and where, while there seem to be people still passionate enough to riot, we're never really sure it's not just another cheap entertainment.
Kaneda (the hero of sorts) is the leader of an adolescent bikie gang that terrorises both the citizens and rival gangs. Norman Spinrad coined the term "neuromantics" in relation to the Cyberpunk literary movement, and he meant it to refer to that science fiction where the heroes or protagonists could as easily be antagonists in another story. Kaneda and his friends are such figures; locked out of their society and away from its moral values. And yet, from such a vantage, it's often easier to see the corruption on the seams and in the heart. Kaneda operates on survival instinct, rage, loyalty, lust, friendship, revenge and, above all, pride - pride in always walking the path of the fearless. He is a fool in many respects, but his sheer guts eventually earn him the respect a hero is entitled to.
It's crucial to understanding Akira that you remember it's a Japanese film made in the late '80s. There is a lot of tension in Japan today; a feeling of cultural oppression and fear of the influence of the outside world. Japan's cultural contradictions are striking. While they thoroughly immerse themselves in the international popular culture, they strive to convert everything immediately into something Japanese. Advertising is now as much a part of Japanese culture as is Kabuki. All this is crucial to the vision Otomo has created as backdrop to this predominantly action-oriented movie, and it is significant how convincing the world Otomo proposes is to us, and how much more convincing it must be to his Japanese audiences.
This remarkable depiction of a future city makes Akira one of the best pieces of visual SF ever, and yet it is equally valid as SF of its period. And film like this is useful in evaluating an audience's true tastes. If you don't like, or at least respect Akira, then you probably don't like science fiction, period. You may argue otherwise, but you're probably getting excited over nothing more than a hollow form of contemporary fantasy; shallow, escapist piss-farting that never attempts to look beyond its own time-frame or even to explore within it; Celluloid Product that neither requires nor permits the exercise of imagination, allowing the mind to remain bland and unruffled. And Oh, how much SF on film and TV is just like that? If you don't stand up and shout "Almost all of it!" then you're either lying or you should never have started reading this article in the first place. Now either you agree or you can just fuck off. I mean it. End of essay!
Originally appeared in Eidolon 5,July 1991.
Copyright © 1991 Robin Pen. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.