Denying Our Own eXistenZ

eXistenZ  is one of the lesser known films directed by David Cronenberg, who is probably the most famous Canadian Director, (unless you count James Cameron). Unlike Cameron, Cronenberg has always been someone working independently and outside of the United States. Cronenberg  frequently shows up in all-time greatest director top tens, but he’s more of an acquired taste. Cronenberg became famous in the 1980s for a series of science fiction horror films and basically invented the sub-genre of body horror. Nearly all of his films mix science fiction with horror, though eXistenZ is more obviously science fiction than his usual generic hybrids. Despite many successes — notably the award winning A History of Violence — he  has been controversial frequently throughout his career, and manages to piss people off on regular occasions. Surprisingly, eXistenZ was not all that controversial and confrontational (his previous film Crash was banned in Britain and censored in lots of places) though it still has that gross out element for which he is renowned. There’s almost never any rhyme or reason for the grossness – like what’s the deal with those fish guns with teeth bullets and the bio-ports? Then again, the merger between people and machines is part of our probable future, and something that Cronenberg is predicting will happen with increasing frequency. After all, our smart phones are grafted to our hands and etched in our brains. Is that all that different from a fish gun?

Cronenberg has always been completely clear on why he pushes boundaries. Basically in his view, it’s the responsibility of the artist to do that – to push boundaries. To make us thing differently about our world. To have us talk about and think about things that we don’t really want to think about. He says that it’s the ideas that we find disturbing – the gross out images, we find them exciting or funny or appealing – but the ideas behind them, those are the things that really scare us and what’s disturbing about eXistenZ is that it is not really clear what the line between fantasy and reality might be. 

The emphasis on the body is a key thing. He says that his whole idea is to make the abstract into something physical so that we can’t think it away – we have to engage it – we have to think about how it makes us feel personally – we can‘t dismiss it or intellectualize it. That works really well in both this film and Crash

Something very unusual about Cronenberg is that unlike the typical use of realism in science fiction, he utilizes surrealism instead of Realism. Instead of being grounded in philosophies of the real, of the nature of reality and where our world is going, surrealism is something else entirely. Surrealists believe in the unconscious and bringing it to the surface. That’s what Cronenberg is doing. Maybe it’s no surprise then that he made a film about Sigmund Freud and his development of modern psychology (that film Dangerous Method was not well received by starred frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightly). Notice who the villains are in eXistenZ? The Realists. Why? Because they are against evolving technologies and evolving new arts precisely because of the potential of new technologies to change the way we think and perceive our reality. 

One of the reasons eXistenZ was compared to The Matrix is because there was a series of alternate reality films in the late 1990s and it seemed to be one of those along with 13th Floor, Strange Days, Dark City, The Cell, What Dreams May Come, In Dreams that asked questions about this new fangled thingy called The Internet and Cyberspace?   

Notice what the game is called – existence – which calls up notions of existentialism. Part of the beauty of the game in the movie is that it doesn’t explain the rules and the parameters. It just starts or it has started. Or maybe it never existed. The objective of the game is also unclear. So it’s like life. As Geller when she and Ted are at the Trout Farm, says eXistenZ is a game that everyone is already playing. What he says neatly sums up an existential perspective: “I don’t like it here. I don’t know what’s going on. We’re stumbling around in this unformed world whose logic and rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable, or ever possibly non-existent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t’ understand.”

What separates Cronenberg’s vision from the other films to which it was compared is the idea of new technologies being based in and upon biology rather than separate from them. The Bio-pods are fleshy, almost animal like and I think have something to do with amphibians and synthetic DNA, and the cables look like umbilical chords. One interpretation is that this shows how technologies will effect the body; they will change or sense of reality, but also that they have to be an extension of the body in order for us to interact with them. A lot of the discussion of the internet and cyberspace back then was that it would fundamentally transform our sense of ourselves and our identities. 

As we go deeper into cyberspace do we even know what’s real anymore? Since the structure of the narrative is so complicated and so arbitrary, we don’t ever get to realism. We never get to any objective reality, or something that the film says is the real world. It’s all a fabrication. It’s all a game. The connection of the film to cyberspace discussions at the time is that it both thrilling and scary and there’s’ the sense that we won’t be able to distinguish reality and our ideas about reality from each other anymore. 

An Insatiable Hunger

[One of the best things about The Hunger Games? A generation of young fans were introduced to the fantastic actor Donald Sutherland – who was also the star of the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers].

The Hunger Games is more than just dystopian speculative fiction. One could argue that, due to its popularity and influence, it is one of the defining texts — books and films — of the past ten years, telling us a great deal about where society is today, and where it might be headed. The films could be seen as one of the best recent examples of the critical dystopia that we have seen and read about, with the added twist of a clear intention to appeal to a younger audience than most science fiction.

I feel pretty comfortable in saying that you probably know a great deal more about The Hunger Games than I do. After all, it’s supposed to be one of the defining works of your generation. The books were surprise best sellers and the movies were a cultural phenomenon. Truth be told, they are not all that original at a structural level – the dystopian future where some totalitarian regime controls the population through media, entertainment and violence is a story told many times in science fiction literature. The difference would seem to be that it is not all that common in science fiction film – at least not in films that are generally regarded as successful. The closest story to The Hunger Games might be Fahrenheit 451 – in that classic book and film by Ray Bradbury and Francois Truffaut, the dictatorship uses television and interactive computer technologies (which Bradbury thought of before anyone else) to pacify and control their citizens. But when the books were released a lot of critics found similarities between The Hunger Games and the Japanese film Battle Royale, which is about high school students who have to fight to the death with only one survivor (another similarity is that the reason they have to fight is as punishment for a student rebellion some years earlier). Truth be told, The Hunger Games is a lot like Battle Royale but much less disturbing (Battle Royale was also the last film by the great Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku who made a career out of pushing the boundaries and angering the censors). The brilliant twist to the dystopian future we see in the films and what makes it seem less like a rip-off that it might otherwise, is the reality television and entertainment element. One could see it as a bitter satire of celebrity culture and reality television, especially since the tributes become famous, have wealthy supporters and fans, and are seen as more than just participants in a competition. Like many a reality show contestant, they become symbols, underscored by the fact that they represent “districts” of society. Katniss and Peeta represent the disenfranchised and displaced, those cast aside by changes in recent American society. The film and books seem quite intentionally like a worst case scenario of a show like Survivor, where the goal is not to be the last person standing, but the last person breathing. Susan Collins, the author of the books, has certainly illuminated both the appeal and the troubling elements of shows like Survivor where people engage in morally and ethically questionable activities in pursuit of fame and fortune for our vicarious enjoyment.

That the media exists to pacify those that have lost power, and reinforce the power and privilege of the elite, a notion that is straight out of many media studies theories about hegemony is explicit in the series, but especially in Catching Fire. In fact, Plutarch’s (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) proposal to Snow towards the beginning is right out of critiques of reality television – that it controls people by alternating pleasing and scaring them. The problem for the movies, unlike the books, is how much they depend upon using the action-adventure elements of science fiction film. The first book (which, to be honest, is the only one that I have read) is pretty damning in its criticism of reality television and violence in the media and while we see some of that in the first two movies it gets overwhelmed by the gripping games themselves. When the action sequences start about halfway through the movies, it’s all very exciting and dramatic, as well as emotionally involving, which means that the criticism of violence, reality television and media is somewhat undermined. It’s still there but perhaps lessened. The idea of children murdering each other as punishment for political activism and open rebellion and for the entertainment of the country is a pretty chilling notion and effective in both book and film. But we’re so invested in Katniss’ survival and victory in the movie that we want her to kill other kids – so it’s an ambivalent story, one that is much more troubling and difficult the more one contemplates it. In Catching Fire, where Katniss, Peeta and their allies kill mostly adults makes it easier to digest and lessens the social criticism. Still, the celebrity and reality television element seems most pronounced in the second film, which is why Catching Fire is the better of the first three films (can’t speak to the fourth as I have not seen it yet). The scenes where the former tributes are paraded in front of the audience, and express their genuine resentment at being betrayed by the government, not to mention the increased sense of oppression by the dictatorship, means that the indictment of reality television and violence is a little more forceful. The twist of having returning pledges, much like the typical All-Star episodes and series of Reality Television, makes that criticism even more forceful. But, by the same token, one could wonder whether or not texts like The Hunger Games are themselves pacifying. They express the popular discontent, articulate our dissatisfaction with the way things are, and instead of proposing solutions or pointing towards possible future actions, they turn disappointment and political unrest into entertainment. You know, kind of like the games in the films. One does see in the film, quite consciously and quite overtly, an attempt at social criticism, however difficult and conflicted it might be. We are asked, through the use of soft fiction and speculation, to extrapolate into the future the very tensions of our current society — the income inequality, the prevalence of violent media, the impact of reality television, the difficult relationship between individuals and community, the simultaneous devaluation of emotion and sentiment and the marketing of the same, the critique of media, the emphasis upon spectacle as a way to keep people in line…the list is quite long. And it’s that social criticism that has made the books and films more than the typical science fiction and young adult yarn. It helps that there is also a fantastic central character and that the acting in the films is terrific, but the real appeal is not just the action-adventure elements but that the social content really registers and is impossible to ignore.

One Last Night

[Dodge (Steve Carrell) and Penny (Kiera Knightley) share a laugh in the waning hours of the world in the apocalyptic comedy Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World]

Canadian actor-writer-producer-director Don McKellar’s film Last Night, is one of the very few science fiction films to attempt to provide a ‘realist’ vision of what might happen if the end of the world were imminent. This is one of the elements it shares with Seeking A Friend For The End of The World, which was written by Lorene Scafaria, who was known as the screenwriter of Nick And Nora’s Infinite Playlist. McKellar might not be that well-known outside of Canada, but he has been an important figure in recent Canadian film and television. For American audiences, he’s really more of ‘that guy’. He’s won countless awards in Canada for writing and acting. Last Night was the first film that he directed. It was a highly profile and much talked about film in Canada, though I’m not sure how much of a box office success it was. The cast is comprised of famous Canadian actors, along with a nice cameo by the most famous Canadian director, David Cronenberg. It tends to be well thought of by Canadian film scholars and critics, with quite a few considering it a film as much about Canadian society and values as it is about the end of the world. That last part is telling because it reveals that films such as this – where the end of the world actually happens – are ultimately not about science or speculative fiction but about the central values of a society. Sadly, I don’t really know that much about Canada, at least not enough to comment upon the depiction of values. But the more general philosophical question of the film is quite clear and it’s an age old one, the kind that is a philosophical thought puzzle that we consider even at a young age: what would you do if you knew that today was going to be your last day. How would you live and who would you spend your time with and what would your last act? That’s what happens in both Last Night and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World – we see how people live out the final moments of their lives knowing that this is it. And though we are conditioned by science fiction films about the end of the world to expect a magical salvation, some last minute reprieve, here, no such salvation is pending. The world simply ends, just it was foretold it would. Films such as these were non-existent before

It’s unclear why the world is ending though it’s hinted that the sun is moving towards the earth, unlike Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, where it is clear that an asteroid is going to wipe out civilization, echoing the theories about the fate of the dinosaurs. The manner of our demise is only hinted at in Last Night, as one of the last lines of the film is when Patrick, about to engage in the double suicide pact with Sandra, says “sometimes I forget how much I miss the night” which indicates that the world has been living in permanent daylight for some time. The film also gets progressively and subtly brighter as it elapses. The final image – after the runner raises her hands in celebration and proclaims “It’s Over” – is a fade to white. McKellar purposefully kept the reason for the end of the world ambiguous for two reasons: one, so that we can contemplate that philosophical question and two, so that it would not be seen as a spectacle of disaster, but a thought piece about mortality, personal and social, the death of the self and the death of the world.

So why would we see these films in a science fiction class since there’s no spectacle, no special effects to speak of, no advanced technology, no rumination on the far flung future? It’s also fair to ask whether these could even be considered science fiction films at all. Arguing in favor of the films’ status as science fiction is how they utilize a comment convention of the genre – the threat of the end posed by some disaster, whether natural or alien-made or man-made (the out-of-control technology narrative) – in other words, the apocalypse. What makes such films different is that end actually occurs. There are countless movies that are often termed apocalyptic – ones where the end of the world is a possibility but some heroic figure sweeps in at the very end to save the world – or the disaster is somehow averted even if billions of people perish. Films like Last Night, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and a few others, dare to show the light burning its last.

Something that argues against their inclusion in the science fiction is the lack of spectacle. There are no explosions, no action sequences, no complicated production design suggesting a world yet to come (because, well, this world is over), no aliens, robots or spacecraft. It’s just movies about people — people who are in various degrees of acceptance about the imminent end. The apocalyptic is really a narrative about personal and communal salvation, that these films, where the world really does end, are not apocalyptic at all. Instead, they are anti-apocalypse in the sense there is no salvation, no hope, no rescue. Also, no explosions, no monstrous other, no spectacle, simply apocalypse, simply the end.

These narrative focus on groups of characters who are dealing with their imminent deaths, and as such, the films are ultimately about mortality. Of the many interpretations of Revelation, a common one is that is an allegory of the journey of the soul, and also a story about the individual’s faith journey. Rather than being about the death of the world, the apocalypse is really about our own deaths. It was St. Augustine who observed that “anxieties about the end are, in the end, anxieties about one’s own end” and that all humans must “come to terms with a personal apocalypse.” The apocalypse of course, has not yet happened, so it exists only in the realm of the mind, of the literary imagination, which makes it available to different kinds of stories. In the case of Last Night and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, the apocalypse is a way to explore human behavior. And such films are explicitly philosophical – asking how one faces mortality. The other philosophical element is existentialism. A philosophical discipline that explores how we find meaning in an absurd world, emphasizes action over thinking and the importance of subjective experience as a way to find our own truth. Existentialism insists upon the centrality of dread, the fear of dying, that we all feel from time to time because the only way that we can be forced to find meaning on our own. Facing our mortality, we search for meaning in all kinds of places, and as the two films demonstrate, in other humans. So what makes the films science fiction is how they are not really about the plot elements, but they are science fiction because of how much they are philosophical.

Up From The Skies

Another music post…

Two of my other favorite musicians are Jimi Hendrix and Gilberto Gil. Hendrix was interested in science fiction – apparently he was an avid reader of fantasy and SciFi books, at least according to a biography I read back in high school – and a few of his songs have space lyrics. The two most famous of these are Third Stone From The Sun and Up From The Skies. There’s no footage of Hendrix performing these songs, but here is a cover version by another great musician. Brazilian music pioneer Gilberto Gil performs Up From The Skies, live. If you’re not familiar with Gil, he is an incredibly versatile performer, writing and playing basically every musical style ever and creating some of the most enduring and innovative Brazilian music.

Next Stop, Outer Space

When it comes to groups that have been sampled by contemporary hip-hop artists, Parliament Funkadelic, led by visionary songwriter George Clinton, must be the R&B musicians with the most songs utilized. Their influence upon modern hip-hop and R&B is hard to estimate, and funk would have been unthinkable without them – they took the form invented by James Brown and expanded upon it. It also helped that the band the single greatest bass player of all time — Bootsy Collins (who recorded some incredible solo albums). You can probably here the influence that they had upon Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Parliament Funkadelic were waaaay ahead of their time, though that probably has a lot to do with the fact that most of their songs were about the future. Science fiction as a major theme for these funk pioneers. Here is one of their best known songs Cosmic Slop and a version of another fan favorite The Mothership Connection:

And just for fun, my all-time favorite P-Funk song (one of their biggest hits), Flashlight:

It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad (Max) World

 

The post-apocalyptic tale is fairly common these days, but that was not always the case. In fact, the post-apocalyptic science fiction film only became prevalent following the massive success of The Road Warrior, which was also known as Mad Max 2. That film made an international star out of Mel Gibson and gained attention for the director George Miller [Fun fact: Miller was actually a doctor who started making films during his final year of Med school; he is widely misidentified as the director of Babe – he produced that influential animated film but many think he directed it since he is a well known vegetarian and animal rights activist in Australia; another fun fact, since the first Mad Max film cost so little to make and was an international hit, it’s technically one of the most successful films ever made]. A post-apocalyptic story was rare in the early years of the 20th century, but the immediate postwar saw a proliferation of science fiction novels about the aftermath of a nuclear war and of the ambiguous uncertain future to come. Until the success of The Road Warrior, cinematic versions with the same scenario of the days following an atomic attack on the United States were much less common.

The notion of a post-apocalyptic story is a total misnomer. Implicit in the very idea of the apocalypse is that it is the final event in human history – there can be nothing afterwards. Though now a commonplace designation of a certain type of disaster and science fiction film, a ‘post-apocalyptic’ story is really about what comes after the collapse of civilization. In that sense, it’s science fiction because it takes place in the future and projects the negative trends of the present into a world to come that is dramatically worse than the current time period. Technology is highlighted because one of the recurring characteristics of the post-apocalyptic story is that some technologies have survived a catastrophe and some have not. The ones that have, such as the Father and Son in The Road, provide the focus of the story.

As many disaster movies about what happens after a cataclysmic event show – the end is never really the end. The thing is that even if the world’s great cities are leveled, or society collapses under the weight of an existential menace like Martians, or there is a nuclear war, what remains at the end of the film’s narrative is hope. The apocalyptic story is one of both fear AND hope, which is certainly true of The Road. We fear the carnage and the deaths of the world’s residents, but we have hope that some messianic figure or group will come and save a small number of people to carry on the process of building a better world from the ruins of the old. In order for this to be, something must survive all the trauma and in the post-apocalyptic story, a savior comes to guide those that deserve to survive forwards into that hopeful future, a more pure, more just, more perfect world.

We’ve discussed how new things are often made understandable by using old frameworks, in other words, the end of the world apocalyptic story. Well after the development of the atomic bomb and the start of the Cold War, a new narrative emerged indebted to Revelation and apocalyptic Scripture, and yet qualitatively different from its sources. The question of the end began to pivot towards that of survival, not death but rebirth. If the civilization destroying atomic war were, in fact, to occur, what would survive and what paradise, if any, might be discovered over the nuclear horizon?

The original form still existed but was influenced by the contrasting interpretations of post-apocalyptic authors, filmmakers and other creators of popular culture as they envisioned different scenarios, apart from the traditional but in many ways still indebted to it. For example, the Mad Max films WaterworldThe Postman and The Planet of the Apes, shift the emphasis away from the divine towards human agency, with both destruction and deliverance vested in the hands of humanity. At the same time, they feature quite prominently a heroic savior, a Christ-like figure who leads the way to redemption and salvation, overtly in the case of Kevin Costner’s Mariner in Waterworld and Shakespeare in The Postman, Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) in The Planet of the Apes, or allegorically in Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) in The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Thomas Hardy’s portrayal of Max in Fury Road, Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix, and Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) in The Omega Man and its remake I Am Legend (Will Smith), or Eli (Denzel Washington) in The Book of Eli, to name but a few. That Mad Max is ultimately a savior is most explicit in the third, film; in his travels he meets a colony of children who have been patiently waiting for a parental figure to come and save them.

Overall, there is the sense, regardless of the specific themes of a film, that the existing order cannot be reformed but has to be totally destroyed, in order to salvage its essence. The world is rotten and has to be ended through purifying, cleansing violence. But again, it’s what remains after the conflict that is most telling, most ideological, most symbolic of the contemporary world outside the film. Thus, “The study of post-apocalyptic is a study of what disappears and what remains, and of how the remainder has been transformed”. Often, the remainder is some essential, eternal aspect of American (or in the case of Mad Max, Australian) society, something from the past that is seen as imperiled by the present and the future.

Furthermore, the post-apocalyptic scenario expresses not just the desire to be free of history and of time, but also a yearning for moral clarity. The apocalypse is not only cleansing and freeing, it is “ absolutely clarifying. It would unmistakably separate good from evil, true from false. The post-apocalyptic tale is, typically, one that lacks fence straddling and complexity; these are moral fables, a means to organize historical experience that simplifies historical events. It turns out, there are benefits to the bomb, as it fosters what the devastated population in A Canticle For Liebowitz calls ‘the Simplification’, a response to a cleansing cataclysm that makes everything simpler, neater, cleaner, more Edenic.  Moreover, because these are moral tales, melodramas in essence, a post-apocalyptic tale is one “in which all identities and values are clear.”  Within this scenario it is imperative that one element of what survives past the cataclysm is humanity itself, but more its moral and spiritual dimensions than physical ones. A contrast between groups is presented in a binary manner so that there can be comparison between the human and the inhuman, the moral and the immoral.

So to be technical, what we term ‘post-apocalyptic’ is really a survival story. The survival narrative provides a pretext for reestablishing and reclaiming American Exceptionalism. What survives, then, isn’t merely a group of stoic, hardy and resourceful people,  but a cross-section of representative Americans ready, willing and able to restart their Republic. The theme of survival in a post-nuclear landscape is the pivot upon which the narrative turns in the Mad Max films. In some ways, the Mad Max series, is the template of the post-apocalyptic film. A story of a new frontier, a wasteland made transcendent and existential by nuclear war, Mad Max II: The Road Warrior and Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome, in particular, are about the aftermath of the destruction of civilization and the struggle to establish a new one in the wilderness. In a consideration of the third film, scholar Paul Williams argues that the movement between the destruction of the prior civilization and the emergence of the new one is the tension that animates nearly all post-apocalyptic narrative (and the Mad Max films in particular).

The post-apocalyptic scenario attempts to mask such questions by preposing a future that is a mirror image of the distant past, but with some modern technology. A reversion to the past does not attempt to reshape the future, but reestablish what preceded the present. The conflicts of the present are ignored so that the future becomes the past, a simpler, less ambiguous, less contested version of the past leading to a future that is created in its image, a past without a history, that could not have possibly lead to the present with its conflicts and contradictions. The simplicity of the past provides an antidote, to the present, and implies that the future is a return, rather than a progression. This sense of pastness is underscored by the visual aspects of a post-apocalyptic film. Facilitated by a post-civilization motif, the speculative future of the post-apocalyptic setting looks like a story of the past, even as the narrative insists upon the futurity of the scenario. The American West of The Postman refers intertextually to decades of Westerns, the open seas of Waterworld referring back to a time when seafaring societies dominated the political landscape, the wasteland of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome suggesting an Outback before European settlers arrived.

One of the features of the post-apocalyptic story set in the future is how it looks so much like the past, how people are shown in devolution, regression, both social and personal. Consequently, such visions of the future tend to be saturated with nostalgia for the imagined pure past and the better future that is offered mirrors that imagined pure past more than it reflects any sense of progressing towards improvement in the material or human condition. The planet itself lives on as do some representative humans even as their old social institutions are destroyed, then dramatically and radically reassembled. The post-apocalyptic is characterized by the view that in order to achieve any social change, the destruction of the old civilization must be total, final, demonstrating the view that life cannot be fixed and improved. In other words progressive social action is ineffective and folly, and the only way to move forwards, to progress towards a brighter tomorrow, is to go back and start over. As religious scholar and philosopher Mircea Eliade stated “life cannot be repaired, it can only be re-created by a return to sources.”

If one believes the movies again, something will live on after the nuclear blast – in fiction, at least – the only question to be asked is “what will endure?”.

Australian film scholar Mick Broderick, who in such works as The Apocalyptic MuseNuclear Movies: A Filmography and Nuclear Films along with several articles, has exhaustively chronicled the features of the post-apocalyptic film. Broderick continually emphasizes that what we call the post-apocalyptic “concerns itself primarily with survival as its dominant discursive mode.” One of the characteristics of the post-apocalyptic film, ever since The Road Warrior at the very least in Broderick’s estimation, is to provide a greater emphasis upon the savior narrative, to have a Messianic figure as primary actor in the existential wasteland drama. The hero still does battle with a figure of Satan-quality evil, still tries to protect and save good and righteous souls, still secures the liberation of the remnants of civilization from their oppressors and still helps to establish a newer, more perfect community at the conclusion of the narrative. More than just the embodiment of the heroic archetype, the protagonist of the post-apocalyptic film is a savior, the embodiment of the values and virtues of civilization in a world that has abandoned or forgotten them.  This is certainly the narrative of Mad Max 3, especially given how Max is viewed by the children he meets.

An outsider and loner, the hero is homeless and a drifter, but who exemplifies the skills and virtues needed to thrive in the post-nuclear world; the hero is gradually drawn into the conflict between good and evil, between nature and civilization. Initially an ambiguous and ambivalent figure, the hero is revealed to be righteous and on the side of the good, despite a penchant for violence and seeming lack of any moral commitment and conviction outside of survival; they are swept into the larger social conflict through chance and fate, but once stitched into the fabric of a community, they take a leadership role and enact justice and vengeance upon the society’s oppressors.

Go, Go Godzilla!

Not surprisingly for a band named Blue Öyster Cult, these renowned Long Island Heavy Metal pioneers have many songs about horror, fantasy, monsters and science fiction, along with quite a few with very dark themes. This song, about the King of Monsters himself, is one their best. If you listen to the words, you’ll note how precisely they nail that whole “monster movies are really about the arrogance of science and scientists playing God” theme.

 

There Goes Tokyo

One of the subsets of science fiction – the monster movie – is an example of the genre’s frequent crossover with horror. There are two kinds of monster movie – the classic monster movie based in legend, such as vampires, werewolves and other magical beings – while the second kind is the technological monster, where some horrifying creature is created by science gone wrong, such as in Frankenstein, Godzilla, The Fly or Jurassic Park, four of the defining films of the type. The Fly was a low budget film, but with a relatively well known cast; Herbert Marshall was a long time leading man and comic actor, and Vincent Price was a rising star. It was extremely successful relative to budget and well reviewed, especially for a horror, science fiction or monster movie. It was so successful in fact that it spawned two sequels — The Return of the Fly (1959) and The Curse of the Fly (1965). The director – Kurt Neumann – was a prolific director of terrible films, including the one normally regarded as the first space travel film – Rocketship X-M (1950). While it was well thought of at the time, it’s really bad, even with the presence of Kirk Douglas as the star. Neumann, sadly, never lived to see the success of his best film; he passed away a few weeks before the premiere.

 

What unites the various monster movies of the 1950s (and 1960s for that matter), is that whatever form the monster takes, the culprit is always atomic energy and nuclear bombs. You might be able to see how the fear of atomic weapons had subsided by the late 1950s but the anxiety over the scientists themselves, and nuclear energy remained. People didn’t know much about nuclear energy, but there was less of a concern with a nuclear attack in the late 1950s and more worry over nuclear energy in general. By the end of the decade, nuclear technologies were being explored in terms of peaceful and practical applications, which kept them in the public discourse, but didn’t do much to reassure people. What the monster movie does is suggest that the real danger lies with the scientists and that it would be harmful to individuals rather than society. Something that this demonstrates that’s fairly interesting is how much people get their information about science from movies. Of course, the science is almost always laughable. But think about this: how much of what we know about things like cloning, genetic engineering and biotech is from films like Blade Runner, Gattaca and Jurassic Park? We laugh at people from the 1950s and their radioactive monsters, but is there much difference between the radioactive monster and the cloned ones of Jurassic World?  Since we’re no longer worried about nuclear weapons for some reason, and computers are such a mundane part of our day to day existence, it’s genetic engineering that is the big scientific fear, and in recent years that has manifested itself as fears of terrorism, and as we see in lots of science fiction films, pandemics and epidemics, such as in 28 Days Later or 12 Monkeys.

Regardless, by the late 1950s people were concerned about the possibility that nuclear radiation would cause genetic mutations, including ones that would create sterility. Mutations from atomic radiation appear to be outside of the rationale slow March of evolution – instead they are horrifying results of our experimenting with the forces of nature and God that we should not have messed with, but did so in our arrogance. You can’t control radiation, much as mutation implies out of control transformation. Don’t forgot, it was in the mid-1950s that Watson and Crick discovered DNA and changed the way that people thought about the physical body – in the popular imagination, Watson and Crick had unlocked the secrets of the body, much as the scientists at Los Alamos were able to uncover the secrets of the atom. In both cases, scientists had ‘cracked the code’. Which means that they had acquired knowledge previously known only to God.

Unlike the hard science of the astronaut films, in monster movies, well, it’s all symbolism, metaphor and conjecture rather than real science. One can see this in the sequences where Andre teleports random objects to see what works and what doesn’t (sorry about that Bandalo, the house cat). The computers, the light set, the teleportation pods, are all spectacle and show and no actual science. This allows the true meanings of the monster movie to be more easily seen – the are about the potential dangers of science, scientists and what the community regards as undesirable, threatening.  In general, science seems more convincing in recent films, but it’s not. It’s just as misleading and silly frankly. You can dress modern movies like Jurassic World and The Day After Tomorrow up with all kinds of science and ethical questions, which such films often do, but ultimately it’s not all that much difference from Godzilla.

Ultimately, the monster movie is tied to the original science fiction story itself – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The difference in this film, and what people remember about The Fly, is that the scientist accidentally turns themselves into the monster. In Shelley’s story, Frankenstein tries to revive a dead man and succeeds, with tragic results of course. It’s not well remembered but Viktor Frankenstein is really motivated by greed though he denies it, just like Hammond. Frankenstein realizes that he was wrong because the monster begins to kill his family and friends. Shelly’s story is important because it was the first novel to ask ethical and moral questions about science, ones that nobody really listened to even as they enjoyed the story. The film is also a reference explicitly to the Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells – which has been adapted a few times including the famous horror classic The Island of Lost Souls (1932) [Interesting trivia: the film is the source of the quote: The natives are restless]. In that novel, which Wells wrote before The War of the Worlds, is about a doctor trying to create animal-human hybrids. Science gone wrong is certainly a long running and prominent theme of Science Fiction, of which Jurassic Park is the most profitable example. What unites the scientist in each film, and this is the legacy established by Shelley as she asked questions about the ethics of science, is that the scientist plays God, or believes themselves to be God-like.

Godzilla is an interesting take on this notion of the ethics of science, since that is the whole narrative around Serazawa’s super weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer. When is it ethical to use such a fearsome destructive device?  In that sense, it parallels discussions of nuclear weapons and technology. That it comes from a Japanese scientist who has been physically and emotionally scarred due to his (intentional quite vague) actions during the Pacific War adds an additional layer of meaning to the question of the scientist. He’s also contrasted to Yamane, who is heroic because his science is a traditional one, has little to do with technology and is invested in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. And yet, he is also depicted by the film as being dangerously naive about the threat posed by the monster.

The plot of a science fiction monster movie always works to ensure that scientists must be punished for their hubris – but what does that mean actually?  It’s a recurring theme of science fiction is that there are limits to science but that scientists don’t get that idea at all.  The central theme is nothing new to us as science fiction experts. It’s the dangers of technology and the question of ethics in scientists, Part of the public perception of scientists after the war, was that they didn’t care about the implications of what they are doing when it came to atomic energy. Its an old myth – man should not play God. Man should not create life – that’s really what meddling in God’s domain means – even if it is a quote from Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.  To mess around with nature is to play God, but also to attempt to deny that people are animals, governed by the rules of nature. It is to take creativity one step too far. We cannot limit what we create. We cannot contain it. That goes for technology and its unintended side effects, but also goes for meaning in a film. It always exceeds our ability to limit it, which is the case with fantasy films especially. There is always more to the story than the creators intended. And the movie illustrates our inability to control nature, especially at the atomic level – we can create things, but we cannot control them, such is the nature, the essence of humanity on some level.

The best discussion of the figure of the monster, and the monster movie, is Robin Wood’s influential article “An Introduction to the American Horror Film”, which is essential to the study of horror. He outlines exactly what a monster is – the monster, is ‘the return of the repressed’. What he means by that is: the monster is a symbol of that which society represses and can’t deal with. What is repressed is our own sense that we are a part of nature no matter what our civilization and modern world seems to indicate. But whatever we have repressed doesn’t go away – it just comes back in symbolic form. Then it has to be killed in order to keep society from being overwhelmed by that which it refuses to deal with or acknowledge.

The typical science fiction Frankenstein story is about our relationship to nature and our attempts to tame it through science. That’s why it’s fitting that Andre in the original version of The Fly is merged with something as mundane and seemingly inconsequential as an insect. We have not conquered nature, because it cannot be conquered. It just is. Jurassic Park – the epitome of the modern monster movies – is a fantastic reflection of this. The dinosaurs must have thought they were so tough but the asteroid had other ideas. What is repressed that returns, perhaps, is that we are incapable of changing nature – whether plant, animals, mammals or human – no matter how much we try. We can bring dinosaurs back, but they will eat us. What’s truly horrifying is our incapability, to change, to make things better, to adapt, to survive, and the thing that is going to improve things, that has improved things — technology — whether computer or genetic, entertainment or real, that thing, it isn’t going to help. Rather, it is going to kill us all.

Tempus Termanati

Artistic Impression of a worm hole, one of the ways that time travel might be possible, theoretically at least. By Kjordand (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

As mentioned many times, the first true work of modern science fiction (if you don’t view Shelley’s Frankenstein as modern, and don’t think that Jules Verne’s adventure tales count as SciFi) was H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, written in 1895. It was the first work of time travel that didn’t involve someone simply falling asleep and waking up 100 or more years in the future. In The Time Machine, the inventor — known only as the Time Traveller — travels to the year 802,701 and finds that humanity has devolved into a pre-civilized state, and are prey to a new ape-like species known as the Morlocks. After helping the future humans — known as the Elio — defeat the Morlocks, The Time Traveller ventures millions of years into the future to watch the world fade away.

With The Time Machine‘s popularity, time travel became not only a common and defining story of science fiction but also one of the most obviously philosophical. Time travel, as with all science fiction, is symbolic and metaphoric and not really about what it says its about. It can’t be. Because we can’t travel through time. Perhaps some day we will be able to do so but of all the things we’ve seen this semester and will see, time travel to me, is the least plausible as we understand it in the movies. By the same token, or at the same time, time travel is something we do every single day, unlike fighting with aliens or using the Force. You can do it simply by closing your eyes and imagining. Or you can get on a plane. Or, you can watch a movie, such as Planet of the Apes, which is set in the far future, but also the far past because the primates rule the world and the humanoids don’t. Fittingly the first movie about Time travel is The Time Machine in 1960 with the second one being La Jetée, the short film upon which 12 Monkeys is based.  The third time travel film, the second popular one is Planet of the Apes

There are numerous famous time travel stories (as opposed to stories set in the past or the future). To be a time travel story, the plot must have two time periods and connected by distance that exceeds the time it takes to travel there.  There was a great deal of interest in time travel narratives following Einstein’s publication of his theory of Special Relativity. But most of the influential stories were written after WWII and are by Robert Heinlein, including the insane All You Zombies (1959) (which the 2014 movie Predestination is — very loosely — based upon) and Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder (1952), the one that is the cautionary tale about changing the future by doing something insignificant in the past, such as stepping on a butterfly. Travel to the past is the most perilous because it can or might affect the future. A Sound of Thunder popularized the term Butterfly Effect and our sense that any change to the past produces ripple effects of change in the future. In it a time traveler tourist accidentally kills a butterfly during a dinosaur hunt thus disrupting the future. There’s a movie version but it’s only loosely based upon it. All You Zombies is intriguing because it’s not only hard to follow but it’s about someone who turns out to be his own mother and father. This is something alluded to in The Terminator when it turns out that Reese could be John Connor’s father.

Not surprisingly given what we’ve discussed this semester, the time travel story is an old one. For what is time travel, a vision of the future, but prophecy? What is time travel but a vision of the future and of the past?  Now of course, there is an obvious lure to time travel. Who wouldn’t want to go back and fix all those things that they screwed up?  Who wouldn’t want to go back in time and meet someone famous or see something incredible? Who wouldn’t want to go into the future see how things work out?  Associated with time travel is the desire for things to be or to have been different than they are.

And that leads to all kinds of interesting thought experiments. And it also brings up the idea that time is really about free will and predestination. There’s the famous idea that if you were able to go back in time to kill Hitler or one of his parents before he was born, first would you, second, what would happen if you did? Maybe if you killed him, the Second World War would have never happened. Or maybe if you did, it would still happen. Or maybe if you did, something even worse would happen, if such a thing is even possible. What about something more mundane such as going back in time to the day Apple stock went public and buying 100 shares. Can you change time?

When you start to think about it, you run into all kinds of paradoxes and problems. The most famous is the Grandfather Paradox.   Described by the philosopher David Lewis in a very famous article called “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” in 1976 which discusses time travel from a very rigorous perspective and attempts to reconcile the various paradoxes. Philosophers since Lewis have actively and continually debated time travel as an illustration of philosophical ideals, not just free will and determination, but other ones as well, and they even have names to which club people belong. Eternalists, Presentists, Possibilists and others. Lewis’ article is very influential in philosophical circles because it’s based in logic and rhetoric and all that and was the first to take time travel seriously as a subject, as a philosophical problem. He’s one that came up with a precise definition of time travel. A time traveler is someone who moves from one location in time to another, past or future, and the duration of the journey is different from the gap in chronological time. So really what this means is there’s a gap between the perception of time by the traveler that exists independent of their perceptions.

In the Grandfather paradox, Tim hates his Grandfather (Lewis provides the reason that not only is his Grandfather a jerk, but he also made a fortune on weapons production so there’s blood on the family’s hands). He builds a time machine and travels back in time to kill the grandfather. Finds him and kills him. Because he kills his grandfather, Tim ceases to exist. However, is that really possible because if Tim ceases to exist, then who built the time machine that enabled him to travel into the past and kill his grandfather thus making it not possible that he wasn’t born? Tim could not have existed in order to have made the time machine that allowed him to travel into the past to kill his grandfather. It’s a paradox then, it can’t really be resolved…or can it? That’s the point where the philosophers take over.

What is really going on, as the Grandfather Paradox indicates, is that time travel is really about free will versus predetermination, which starts from the premise that there is or is not a God. And that there are certain attributes that make God what he is and what our puny human brains thing he is.

It depends upon how one conceives time, which changed dramatically when Einstein published his first paper on the theory of space and time – and then years later a more refined discussion of same the theory of relativity – 1915. Basically changes the study of space and time and inaugurates modern physics. His research leads to the understanding that time is not linear that it is dependent upon other factors, something that is confirmed later with the discovery of black holes. Worm holes were theorized shortly thereafter but more conclusive evidence is discovered in the 1950s. A wormhole would be a shortcut through time and space like a black hole but without an event horizon and without smashing everything to bits. Einstein’s theory changed the world, for sure, but for science fiction fans and philosophers it also seemed to indicate that if time bends and isn’t linear, that time travel could be theoretically possible.

Imagining The Imagination of Disaster

[Illustration by the artist Henrique Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.]

The War of the Worlds, IMHO, is the greatest soft science fiction story ever written – soft science fiction. H.G. Wells basically invented science fiction, writing as he did just before the 20th century started. His first work was The Time Machine, which basically invented science fiction as a genre – The War of the Worlds in 1898 was his 5th or 6th book – in between he wrote the important works The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man. He was an incredibly prolific author and commentator, he wrote all kinds of things and was unbelievably influential. He predicted lots of things that eventually happened – like atomic bombs, genetic mutations, cloning, fascism, airplanes that would drop bombs on people. His list of important books is extremely long – one of the giants of English letters. He was also politically and socially active – he was a socialist, the real kind, and organized the world’s first advocacy organization for diabetics. His books got less literary and more consciously political as he got older and a little more bitter; but the politics was always there. He was always a socialist and always a pacifist and always a believer in sexual liberation and racial equality.

What he did in The War of the Worlds was take the Biblical apocalypse of Revelation and update it for a contemporary audience and add social criticism – merging an old story with a new one, a tendency that would become one of the defining elements of the genre. The alien invasion story is the quintessential apocalyptic narrative of the modern age. After all, aliens are superhuman, super-beings, undifferentiated demon hordes virtually indistinguishable from the armies of Gog and Magog prophesied by John. Wells meant for his vampiric, sadistic, marauding Martians bent upon colonizing our humble planet, to be a metaphor for the horrors and devastation of Britain’s colonial ambition; in the movie versions, the social critique is very different but is always there – it cannot be removed whether it’s an anti-Imperialism story, as Wells’ original or a Cold War allegory or something else entirely. Wells would have hated every single version of his story, except maybe Mars Attacks!

Wells’ The War of the Worlds, is a equally powerful work and adamant and unflinching critique of British society. The movie we saw follows the broad outline of the plot relatively closely but with a setting in the United States rather than in England. The novel envisions a malevolent Martian attack on Earth, during which the intergalactic aggressors lay waste to London before they succumb to a humble virus from which their extraterrestrial immune systems have no natural defense. An extremely rich and layered text, the narrative cross-pollinates fears of a coming war on the continent with anxieties regarding technological progress unfettered by moral concerns. Less overtly, it remains one of the most resounding critiques of apocalyptic, Social Darwinist and colonialist discourses.

[Orson Welles in the CBS Radio studio, the picture from a feature story on the War of the Worlds broadcast; October 31, 2018. Source Dallas Dispatch-Journal, October 31, 1938, p. 2.]

The most famous version of the story was done by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater for their Halloween 1938 radio show, which, urban legend has it, set off a national panic. The War of the Worlds, in whatever version, is one of the prototypical disaster movies, since one of the primary pleasures in the scenes of destruction. Disaster movies are a unique and well defined sub-genre of science fiction whose narratives are basically morality plays masquerading as stories of science. Beginning with its first official cinematic appearance, the George Pal produced, Byron Haskin directed 1953 adaptation which we saw, through the numerous B-Movie alien invasions of the 1950s, to the 1996 ‘intertextual homage films’ Independence Day and Mars Attacks!, to the Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise version, often regarded as allegorically referencing 9/11 and the War on Terror, on-screen restatements of the novel have also consistently stressed the spectacle of domestic destruction over social critique.

For instance, the Pal & Haskin version, with its Oscar winning special effects directed by film pioneer Gordon Jennings, and elegant beautiful imagining of Martian spacecraft, complex and inventive soundscapes and a visually stunning spectacle of terrestrial destruction, remains an exemplary instance of 1950s Hollywood science fiction cinema on the strength of its shimmering Technicolor surface. However, in placing emphasis on these specific surface features of the story, its status as spectacle, the filmed versions have time and again appeared to favor empire building, rather than present any critique of it.

The apocalypse, the disaster story, is central to science fiction, where the fate of the world or civilization is often at stake (as in Interstellar). Not surprisingly, apocalyptic tales became common after WWII. See before then, only God could end the world – once we invented the atomic bomb, what was mythic and divine became a real threat, with the arms race of the Cold War offering the chilling, but altogether too real, possibility of an end to human life in a blaze of hellfire.

One of the most acclaimed and popular films of the golden age of science fiction cinema, the George Pal produced and Byron Haskins directed version of The War of the Worlds, asks to be read as Cold War allegory, as a story about the dangers of nuclear weapons. The prologue of the film makes this abundantly clear. As it shows us WWI and then WWII, the film then warns the audience about the next battle, which for most Americans meant a seemingly inevitable nuclear war with the USSR. After all, 1953 was the year in which the Russians successfully tested their first Hydrogen Bomb. With allegorical symmetry, Red Communist can be easily rendered as Red Planet and fears of invasion transferred from to Bolsheviks to Martians. What will help us defeat the menace from Moscow? Well our values (symbolized by the square dance and social at the start of the film) and our belief in God (which is seen at the end of the film). Wells’ idea that the only thing that could beat the Martians was bacteria in our atmosphere is transformed into divine intervention. Our deeply held faith in the Lord, in other words our embrace of religion and religious diversity, would provide the best defense against the Soviet Union’s rising world influence. It can also be said that what saves America is not just God, but our culture – our difference from the invaders. This allegory of political difference from atheistic Soviets presents the defeat of the structures of Western political might but the simultaneous assertion in the power of belief in native culture. The essential, unbridgeable difference between the Red Other and the Americans is the invulnerability of our system of values. Though the military, government, science, industry and heroic individuals are unsuccessful in sparing the world’s citizens from the wholesale destruction of the planet, God has not removed the cloak of protection from his chosen subjects, at least, not in 1953. In The War of the Worlds, humanity is spared by its faith in God, who answers the prayers of civilization by remembering to program the planet with alien killing bacteria. If the film is to be read as an allegory of nuclear attack, the end suggests that God will save us from ourselves; if these Red aliens are Soviets, our faith in God will save us from them.

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