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No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
As a completely unofficial tie-in with the British Film Institute’s science fiction season, Days of Fear and Wonder, I’ve prepared a countdown of my top five science fiction films that transport the viewer to fantastical environments. At its best, science fiction can be the ultimate cinema experience, as it creates another world and takes you to distant places and times. These are not necessarily the greatest science fiction films of all time, but they are all films that take the viewer on a remarkable journey. The next few days will feature a countdown of my top five transportive science fiction films, beginning with…
Star Wars (1977)
The cultural impact of Star Wars can never be over-estimated, and for its time it was an extraordinary piece of groundbreaking cinema. While I do not find it particularly transportive and its script and direction is ropey in many places, it remains an undiluted thrill ride through a far away galaxy, a long time ago. Contact (1997)
Contact’s journey is as much about travelling into the heart and mind as it is about a journey to a distant world. An intelligent science fiction film that explores humanity on Earth while also reaching out to the stars. Solaris (2002)
Steven Soderbergh is a great utiliser of editing and cinematography, which sometimes collapses into irritating style for its own sake. In the case of Solaris, however, the discontinuous editing takes the viewer both into a grieving mind and to a strange world where time, memory and reality blur together and nothing is what it seems. WALL-E (2008)
One of Pixar’s finest films conveys both the ghastly isolation of an abandoned Earth and the expansive wonder of space. One is gloomily familiar and the other a source of inspiration and beauty, best demonstrated in the space dance sequence between WALL-E and EVE. But perhaps most importantly in WALL-E, the journey to the final frontier is not only transportive but transformative, as humanity, led and inspired by little robots, returns to the Earth that is our home. Interstellar (2014)
The most recent entry and a convenient release for the BFI’s season (Coincidence? Unlikely). Fear and wonder populate Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: fears include the horror of ecological devastation as well as the vacuum of space, balanced with the spectacle of Saturn as well as spherical worm holes and alien landscapes. Interstellar echoes earlier films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Contact and, while it sometimes tries too hard to explain everything, it remains a breathtaking journey into the infinite.
Transcendence does what the best science fiction stories do – gives big ideas the big treatment. This is both the great strength and the great pitfall of the genre: if the dramatisation of these ideas is effective, extraordinary cinema can be created (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix). If it is ineffective, you can be left with little more than tedious, pseudo-philosophical, techno-babble (see The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions). Transcendence falls somewhere inbetween, as it engages with its grand ideas with conviction and creativity, director Wally Pfister showing a keen eye for the tiniest details, both of nature and technology. At times, the overall scale of the events is not made clear, while several of the characters are essentially cyphers, and these features can undermine the drama. Overall though, the film’s conviction wins out, as Transcendence pursues its questions about humanity, identity, mortality and the dangers of good intention to their logical and, at times, unsettling, conclusion.
A late release of 2012, which I expect to be one of my films of the year, arrived with high expectations as to its quality. Rian Johnson’s Looper is, unusually, not a sequel, nor a prequel, nor a franchise instalment, a reboot, a remake or even an adaptation, but that rarest of films, an original mainstream movie. I found Looper an excellent sci-fi thriller, which used its time-travel conceit to effectively fuel its gangster setting and explore themes of freedom, destiny and responsibility. As Old and Young Joe, respectively, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt convey excellent contrast between naïve nihilism and desperate hope, while Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Jeff Daniels provide sterling support, and Pierce Gagnon is thoroughly creepy.
Johnson’s style is unusual for an action film, favouring longer takes and a more measured pace than might be expected. The style is, however, effective, as rather than being caught up in frenetic action sequences, the film lingers on the consequences, both physical and mental, of violent action. We are used to seeing Bruce Willis wipe out a room’s worth of armed thugs, but at several crucial moments, Looper pauses to allow contemplation of what is about to come, and at one point denies showing us the kill. Instead, Joe’s face(s) shows the impact of what he has done, experience steadily etched into both, one youthful, the other aged, but both deeply pained.
Consequence is crucial, as the time travel conceit of Looper is deeply concerned with the impact of one’s actions, responsibility for those actions, and consideration of what impact actions have upon the future. Looper can become confusing if you think about its temporal mechanics too much, as Abe (Jeff Daniels) mentions. But it also uses these mechanics to motivate the overall plot and individual scenes, including a thoroughly nasty yet remarkably bloodless torture scene, and an emotionally powerful conclusion that emphasises personal responsibility. Whether the laws of causality would allow such attempts to change the future by altering the past is debatable, but that’s why we call it science fiction. However, the resonances with other science fiction films is quite striking, as it is easy to relate the film to others that are similar and yet different.
I am not alone in this response, as without pre-existing material to base expectations upon, the buzz surrounding Johnson’s third film seemed desperate to relate the film to other films, particularly in the science fiction genre. It makes sense to form associations through the time travel trope: Looper explores time travel in a similar way to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Donnie Darko and Twelve Monkeys. All involve a traveller from the future who attempts to change the future by altering events in the past. Stylistically, Looper is very much its own entity, not as smooth as Cameron’s cyborg opus nor as trippy as Kelly’s debut or as skewed as Gilliam. A hard edge runs throughout Looper, perhaps echoing Johnson’s debut, high school noir Brick that also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The measured pace restricts the visceral thrill of Looper’s action sequences, and the brutality of the film’s gangster setting is maintained, creating a grim and oppressive atmosphere. This brooding, malevolent oppression is in constant tension with the conceit of being able to change your destiny, through time travel or any other means. Looper’s grimness distinguishes it from Back to the Future, which is far more light-hearted and, furthermore, that film’s time travel and temporal causality is accidental rather than intentional. A more recent comparison is Source Code. Like Looper, Source Code involves an individual trying to change the past within a context that works against him and places him in terrible danger. Unlike Looper, Source Code is more concerned with alternate time lines than actual time travel, but both play to the conceit that one man can make a difference, face the past and fight the future (hang on, isn’t that Looper’s tagline?).
Other films that have been related to Looper include The Matrix, Children of the Corn, The Adjustment Bureau and Blade Runner, and these seem less obvious. A dystopian future need not always echo Blade Runner, and Looper’s largely rural setting is very different from Ridley Scott’s noir cityscapes. Only the final act bears resemblance to Children of the Corn, as Looper brings horror into its already potent genre mix of gangster, chase thriller and sci-fi. It is testament to Johnson’s skills as a writer-director that these elements integrate rather than clash – much like Argo, Looper performs an impressive balance between potentially disparate elements.
To compare The Matrix with Looper is strange, as the film’s subject matter as well as Johnson’s style is very different to the Wachowskis. While there is an element of mind-over-matter in Looper through the telekinesis of various characters, in The Matrix that element is part of the artificial reality, which is not a feature of Looper at all. Looper and The Matrix both involve men with a lot of guns, but that is hardly a distinctive feature. Similarly, as Looper is an intelligent sci-fi film with some complex ideas, an obvious reference point is Inception. Indeed, a moment in the trailer in which objects levitate reminded me of the famous upward tilt of a street in Inception, but when I saw Looper itself there was very little that reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s dream heist film.
Why is it so hard to take a film on its own without reference to other films, and why is it so easy to make these inter-textual connections? Saturation may be partly responsible, especially in an era of cross-media platforms where films, TV series, video games, music videos, webisodes, trailers, advertisements and YouTube videos assail us from every screen. But such inter-textual references are hardly new, as studies have demonstrated how major texts from Gothic literature such as Frankenstein fed into the work of later writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Subsequently, this literature fed into science fiction films from A Trip to the Moon and Metropolis, to The Blob and The Day the Earth Stood Still, to Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Blade Runner, The Matrix, Inception and Looper. Science fiction is inherently inter-textual, as any science fiction film seems influenced by others and may well have been, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the filmmaker. As sci-fi consumers, we link one text to another as part of our textual understanding. As another example, when I recently saw the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which was not as bad as I feared it would be), while being very different from the original film, it also looked to have been influenced by Independence Day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial. Similarly, Looper is perceived and understood as a science fiction film in relation to other science fiction films, so critics and audiences alike forge these links as part of our understanding of the science fiction mega-text. This works in several ways, as audiences are savvy enough both to see the commonalities between films like Source Code and Looper, and to create their own links between Looper and The Matrix or Inception.
These inter-textual references, not to mention marketing and commentary, created expectations for Looper. Not being a franchise instalment, marketing was more moderate and I only noticed the trailer and posters. But reviews had an influence: Total Film, which I tend to agree with, gave Looper a five star review and described it as the best sci-fi film since Moon, while Empire also gave it five stars and compared it favourably to Repo Men, Surrogates and In Time. The BBC’s Mark Kermode was positive but more reserved. Overall, critical reaction was very positive, so one could go into Looper expecting something good.
Precisely because of its non-franchise status, I was not sure what to expect of Looper except that it be very good, based on the reviews that I encountered. Most years deliver a major film which is not based on pre-existing material. Looper was the original oddity of 2012, much like Super 8 in 2011, Inception in 2010 and Avatar in 2009 (Avatar can be accused of being unoriginal, but it is not an adaptation of any previously published property). Super 8, Inception and Avatar were all among my favourite films of their respective years, and they are also all sci-fi. The link I made for Looper therefore was with earlier favourites of mine, and I expected the film to blow me away as those had. It is perhaps unsurprising that it did not, as Looper is not an emulation of those films and, overall, I do not think it is as accomplished. Super 8 created a convincing, believable community that was afflicted with something very strange; Inception used its high concept to explore issues of grief and memory while also being meta-cinematic; Avatar re-invigorated cinema and performed a spiritual call to arms. Looper merges genres in an intriguing and cohesive melange, but I did not feel it offered me the combined emotional and intellectual satisfaction of those previous films. Looper has much to admire and to enjoy, regardless of what it is like and unlike, but once again, expectations were too high and had a negative effect upon my appreciation of the film. That said, I imagine it will be rewarding on repeat viewings, and like Prometheus, should be an interesting film for philosophical discussion.
A little late in the day, I offer my reaction to Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction. It is perhaps interesting that Scott’s re-entry into the genre has been marked by a 30 year absence, filled with films from such diverse genres as crime thriller (Black Rain, American Gangster), military drama (G.I. Jane, Black Hawk Down), historical epic (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) and conman tragi-comedy (Matchstick Men). Yet Alien and Blade Runner cast long shadows over the director’s career, creating an initial level of anticipation for the viewer. The film’s marketing increased this anticipation, with viral marketing giving details of the Weyland-Yutani Company and snippets of the characters. The stage was set for something special, spectacular and superb.
The reaction to the film, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been mixed, but if there is a consensus, it is that Prometheus failed to live up to its hype. Plenty of online comments have lambasted the film, with such comments as: “Prometheus is a train wreck”; “Prometheus is a vacuous experience. Just well-directed nonsense with magnificent production values. Plenty of it makes little sense and one can only hope that a Blu Ray ‘Director’s Cut’ will prove more satisfying. Why did you create us? Because we could. Why do you believe? Because I choose to. These one-liners are metaphors for all of Prometheus’ secrets”; “Prometheus – Not an alien film!!!! And not good. One has to worry when the only interesting character is a freaking robot. Far too long. Nothing explained”; “Ridley Scott is a hero of mine, but Prometheus is not the intelligent, emotionally satisfying prequel that Alien deserves. It’s a derisory, empty experience – and anyone who loved Alien is surely too old and too smart to be fobbed off with something this bad just because it’s shiny”; “Alien worked because it focused on believable characters stuck in a terrible situation, without that believability the film would be greatly lessened. Prometheus, lacking that, is uninteresting”; “With a little more thought, Prometheus could have addressed the plot holes I and others have noted, and as a result been a tighter film with more tension and surprises”; “The CGI is good and the acting would be fine if the actors had been given something worthwhile to do. But every other aspect of the film was a disappointing waste of time”. Other responses go into more detail – “My God, We Were So Wrong”, “Prometheus Rising” and others. Critical response has also varied, with critics such Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert being impressed with the film, while publications such as Empire, Variety and the Guardian have been critical but not damning. The only aspect of the film to attract universal acclaim, it seems, is Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David.
What is interesting about these responses is that they have been largely comparative, a common complaint being that Prometheus is not Alien, nor like Alien. This is fair: Prometheus does lack the slow, drip-feed menace of the earlier film, and when the scares come, they are thrills and spills rather than tension and suspense, and its action compares poorly to that of Aliens. When compared to Alien and Aliens, Prometheus does come up short. Compared to Alien 3, Alien Resurrection and (whisper it) Alien VS Predator and Alien VS Predator: Requiem, it excels.
If the rest of the franchise is left aside, however, how does Prometheus stand on its own? Many criticisms have been directed at the script, rather than the style, to which I return later, but to consider the script first, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay does lack characterisation, or character detail and distinctiveness. The simple reason for this is that there are too many characters – 17 in total, but many are disposable and could have been amalgamated, providing less cannon fodder (or should that be alien food?), which would have increased the tension as the major characters have less to hide behind.
In terms of the major characters though, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and Captain Janek (Idris Elba) are fine, and Fassbender’s David is a great character, superbly played, and a useful expression of the film’s major themes, to which I shall return later. As Peter Weyland, Guy Pearce (under a tonne of prosthetic make-up) is somewhat wasted. Indeed, considering David’s interest in Lawrence of Arabia, it is a missed opportunity that the role of Weyland is not played by Peter O’Toole (who recently announced his retirement from acting).
These responses highlighted a common issue for me in film analysis. Characterisation is not a major concern for me, a position that I find interesting as it appears to be unusual. For years, I have been irritated by the complaint: “I didn’t care about any of the characters”, because this concern, to me, is given disproportionate weight. Why is it necessary to care about the characters when there are events going on? What is going to happen next has always been more important to me than to whom it happens. For example, in relation to The Dark Knight Rises, I want to know what will happen to Batman (Will he live or die? Will he retire from crime fighting? Will it end with him going back on the job?), but am less concerned about what character development there may be. Similarly, with Prometheus my interest and enjoyment of the film are related to what will they find on the planet and how will they deal with it.
I may be demonstrating the accuracy of a stereotypical male response, simplified as “men like plot, women like character” and oversimplified as “Men like action, women like story”. I cannot speak for men in general, but for me, plot and story are more significant than character. This is not to say I have no interest in character – I find many characters fascinating especially those in the films of Michael Mann that I have analysed in great detail. Character is one pleasure within texts, but I do not regard it as essential – the progression of events is just as rich a pleasure for me.
One comment that my position invites is “If you don’t care about the people you’re watching then why spend your time watching them?” It’s a good question – if I am not overly concerned about the people onscreen, what am I getting out of the experience? My enjoyment for events over people is not as straightforward as plot point A to plot point B to plot point C, they need to be presented in an engaging fashion, and it is this presentation that is crucial to the specific enjoyment of cinema, at least for me. The medium of film employs a multitude of techniques, features and elements, and it is the combination of these elements that makes film work.
Furthermore, I think there is a certain responsibility on both sides – films and viewers work together to create meaning, theory, analysis and audience studies have demonstrated that film viewers are not simply passive receptacles. Characters can indeed be under-developed by screenwriters, unsympathetically or unconvincingly played by actors and edited out of films – perhaps more of Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers was left on the cutting room floor, for example. But if you do not care about a character, might this not be down to your own reaction, taste or personality as much as the film text itself? It seems unfair to blame the film for not presenting a character that you will care about, because how could the filmmakers possibly know what every possible viewer will need from a character to care about them? A response to this is that “good writing always means good characters, so when I don’t care about the characters it’s because the writing is bad.” To me this is too easy, simplistic and a little arrogant – good and bad writing are not determined by objective standards, however much we like to believe they are. Good writing is good writing? Character is character? According to what? To whom? Who decides these things? Critics? Academics? Audiences? None of these groups collectively agree, so is there not space in textual, cultural, aesthetic, artistic appreciation for all views, responses and positions?
For me, all elements of a filmic text, including the plot, character, mise-en-scene, editing, sound and cinematography, are tools for the presentation of the film’s meaning. What matters to me, what makes a film (or any text) engaging, is the meaning within it, i.e. the sub-text and themes. One of the first academic essays I ever wrote on film was concerned with the power of sub-text, and I didn’t do very well because I discussed sub-plot as much as sub-text. Perhaps this early career trauma (ha ha) made me more sensitive to sub-text and it has become a major source of pleasure for me in film – what is this film actually about. It may be deep and complex issues like those in Prometheus, and they may be explored in greater depth as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or it can be a simpler notion of learning about one’s own courage or how do two people get together, as a great many films are. How that central question plays out, for me, is what I want to see on screen.
To return to Prometheus, criticisms have identified the plot holes, but perhaps these holes are strengths – the narrative involves a quest for ultimate knowledge, answers to the ultimate questions, but instead grand narrative proves unreliable, leaving only incomplete interpretations and speculation. This may be too generous – the plot holes are there and the script is patchy at best. But visually and stylistically, the film is stunning – as expansive and looming a use of an alien planet’s environment as Star Wars or Avatar, and Scott makes great use of 3D in his signature world-building. More importantly, these are not empty visuals or style for style’s sake – they serve the film’s central premise (according to my interpretation) of people getting out of their depth, largely due to their own hubris, scientific and otherwise. This thematic conceit is expressed visually through the location filming (Iceland), the grand sets, and the deep focus potential of 3D. My impression when viewing the film was one of being overwhelmed, on a regular cinema screen but in 3D. 3D is a tricky cinematic device, vastly overused and often for no good reason, but in the case of certain cinematic worlds, such as those of Avatar, Hugo and Prometheus, it does add something.
Indeed, this sense of being overwhelmed and engulfed is a common visual and thematic trope of Ridley Scott’s oeuvre. From the expanses of the South-West USA in Thelma & Louise to the grandeur of Rome in Gladiator, as well as Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven and the rain-soaked cityscape of Blade Runner, the horrific urban war zone of Black Hawk Down and of course the claustrophobic interior of the Nostromo in Alien, time and again Scott depicts people in environments that threaten to subsume them, both mentally and physically. Fear, courage, resolve, determination, panic and eventual defeat or triumph are juxtaposed against these odds, and Prometheus develops this idea further when the Engineers prove to be anything by benevolent. Prometheus therefore continues the director’s interest in environments that are both beautiful and terrifying, overwhelming the people within them, landscape manifesting the overpowering forces that the characters encounter. Rarely has this been more apparent than in Prometheus, which perhaps might have been better named “Icarus”, as the explorers indeed fly too near the sun and are severely scorched – indeed two spacecraft rise and subsequently fall. This is one of the main ideas in the film, which for me is its ultimate and considerable strength. It is a film of ideas, as the most interesting science fiction films frequently are: where, what and who do we come from? Why do we exist? How do we regard and react to our creators/parents? And that old favourite, what does it mean to be human?
Through its exploration of these ideas, largely through visual devices and techniques, utilising the expressive potential of cinema, I suggest that Prometheus will make a very useful study text for film studies courses. When asking students the initial questions about what makes film work, it makes sense to present them with something that depends on its filmic expression for meaning. At the other end of the scale is another 2012 release, Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), which is largely dialogue-based and has a very restrained visual palette. Prometheus utilises cinematography, mise-en-scene, sound and editing for the major exploration of its thematic material, so I would certainly show it to students with the directive to look, see and interpret, rather than focus on the (admittedly apparent) shortcomings of the writing.
With its combination of big questions and horrific answers, I would class Prometheus as the offspring of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, perhaps midwifed by Blade Runner. Doubtless many fans of these classics would lambast me for comparing Prometheus to them favourably. I doubt Prometheus will become a classic of the genre as these have, it is unlikely to join the ranks occupied by The Terminator and Aliens, Star Wars and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but it is a science fiction film willing to ask big questions, and leave us pondering the answers. That, for me, is reason to applaud it, and to teach it.