Cinema heads into the future at warp speed but remains anchored in the present
PUBLISHED: 17:13 27 September 2018
Cinema has had a long-lasting love affair with science and science fiction. These tales of tomorrow often address present-day concerns. Arts editor Andrew Clarke goes Back to the Future
Ever since Georges Méliès fired a shell into the eye of The Man In The Moon in his experimental 1902 film, Le Voyage dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon), cinema has been in love with science and more importantly science fiction.
The telling of these fantastical tales has challenged film-makers to tell stories in more imaginative and inventive ways and pushed technical teams to come up with ever more believable special effects.
As you would expect the first silent science fiction epics were all based on classic novels such as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Verne’s 1916 submarine adventure was one of the first feature length films and the 1913 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the first film to blend science fiction with horror.
Dinosaur movies have long been a staple of the science fiction genre on screen. Model maestro Ray Harryhausen dazzled us (along with Raquel Welch) in One Million Years BC in the 1960s, the 1970s brought us The Land That Time Forgot and the 1990s and 2000s gave us the reconstituted world of Jurassic Park.
Cinema loves dinosaurs and it loves the pseudo-science that will allow us to extract DNA from soft tissue preserved in fossils to populate theme parks and remote islands with these potentially dangerous ancient creatures.
To prove that there is nothing new under the sun the first Lost World movie hit our screens in 1925 which was thematically followed up in 1933 by that brilliant piece of science fiction film-making King Kong. Although, the miniature animatronics may look primitive by modern CGI standards, they were still a triumph of precision engineering. Kong himself was constructed from an anatomically correct metal skeleton with tiny ball and socket joints which allowed the animators to make the tiny movements which allowed them to animate not only Kong’s climb up the Empire State building but also the giant ape’s battle with the dinosaurs on his island.
Although, the process has been refined over the years there is not a lot of difference between the production process in King Kong and Jurassic Park in 1993.
Looking back at the history of cinema’s ongoing relationship with science fiction is that it is often used as a metaphor for the concerns of the day. Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece Metropolis (1927) addresses similar concerns to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) that technology is steadily de-humanising society.
The visuals in all three films created an important vision of the future. Metropolis also gave cinema its very first robot - a female robot called Maria. Footage of her awakening was incorporated by Queen into the video for their hit single Radio Gaga.
Metropolis like much cinema of the 1920s and 30s continued to embrace the restorative power of electricity. Electricity could defy death. It could animate the inanimate. In James Whale’s Frankenstein, scientist Victor Frankenstein creates The Monster, a composite cadaver, thanks to the efforts of a pair of grave robbers. Electricity defies death and gives life to the creature. In the same way it is electricity which brings Maria to life in Metropolis. In a world in which death and disease lurked just around the corner, electricity was seen as a magic elixir which could turn man into a God.
This is an idea which Christopher Nolan returned to in his 2006 contemporary masterpiece The Prestige in which David Bowie played real-life electrical scientist and entrepreneur Nikola Tesla who perfected the perfect cloning device.
During the 1930s and 40s, The Depression and Second Wold War film-makers were more concerned with the challenges of the present to worry about gazing into the future. The only big science fiction success of the 1930s was Flash Gordon, the ultimate 1930s B serial starring Buster Crabbe, which, remarkably, was still being screened on British TV during the school holidays in the 1970s.
It was also lovingly turned into a big screen movie in 1980, complete with intentionally awful dialogue. “Flash, I love you and we only have 14 hours to save the Earth.”
In terms of B Pictures, the 1950s created some of the greatest science fiction movies. They were cheap, they were plentiful and they gave expression to America’s Cold War paranoia. They were also great movies with good ideas but didn’t always have the budget or the technical know-how to realise the effects required to make the story truly believable. Films like The Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Fly, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Time Machine and The Day The Earth Caught Fire have remained classics of their time and reminders of the nervousness of the era.
By contrast, the 1960s were both a time of optimism and idealism and concern for the effects of nuclear war. Prior to the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1969, the biggest science fiction moments belonged to the original series of Star Trek on television, which was the flower power generation’s blueprint for a tolerant, non-militaristic, explorer-led future.
It celebrated useful technology which came to resemble todays must-have technological accessories. It’s giant two-way view screen on the bridge was an early version of Skype, their communicators are our mobile phones while tri-corders are really i-pads and tablets. All we need now is to develop transporters to beam ourselves here, there and everywhere and dodge those rush-hour traffic jams.
In contrast, the Planet of the Apes film, explicitly conjured up the effects of a nuclear holocaust.
As the day-glo optimism of the 1960s turned into the 70s, it was the darker tone of Planet of the Apes which characterised most of the science fiction in dark decade. Apes star Charlton Heston comes face to face with the greenhouse effect in Soylent Green (1973), over-population is addressed in the most drastic way in Logan’s Run (1976), Westworld (1973) worried about the rise of AI technology and the pursuit of pleasure while Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) tackled the dangers of deep space exploration.
George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy and the re-birth of Star Trek as a big screen phenomenon both had more to do with Saturday cinema adventure movies than a serious look at science fiction but Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) and ET: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) offered hope for the future.
Sadly, the rise of the summer blockbuster over the past 30 years has meant that visual effects are more highly valued than ideas and so most modern science fiction films more closely resemble fairground rides than inventive stories. But, every now and again a thoughtful modern classic appears such as Total Recall (1990), The Terminator (1984) and RoboCop (1987) along with Contact (1997), Gattaca (1997) and The Matrix (1999).
Again, these address concerns of the age such as cloning, the rise of artificial intelligence software in computers and our ambiguous relationship with technology. I suspect the distrust that exists between humanity and computers is a theme that will remain current for some time to come.