Today: February 25, 2024

Smart Sci-Fi

As the Wachowski’s ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s epic Cloud Atlas hits cinemas this week, Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at that rare and beautiful thing … the intelligent sci-fi movie …

As the Wachowski’s ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s epic Cloud
Atlas hits cinemas this week, Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at that rare and
beautiful thing … the intelligent sci-fi movie …

We store our family photos in
information clouds, we connect with our fellow human beings using small,
electronic devices, and we build careers out of chance online encounters with
people we will never actually meet. We live in a sci-fi world and,
increasingly, even our escapist fantasies are infused with science fictional
imagery. Hunky alien gods, time-travelling assassins and rebooted starship
captains are now a staple of the 21st Century movie experience.
However, there are still films that use science fiction devices and ideas to
create complex worlds which touch on something deeper. These are the cinematic
heirs to literary science fiction.

eXisTenZ (1999) by David Cronenberg
Given that the culture and
industry of videogames appears to comprise little more than aging franchises,
corporate sponsorships and institutional misogyny, it is fascinating to revisit
David Cronenberg’s vision of a games industry built around a lone female
designer whose mad philosophical works are designed to liberate and educate
rather than infantilise and exploit. Though clearly intended to be ‘realistic’
at the time the film was made, this snapshot of a now-inaccessible future games
industry does not so much date the film as underline its sense of bottomless

The film presents itself as a
sort of psychological thriller in which game designer Jennifer Jason Leigh and bodyguard Jude Law go on the run from a group of philosophical terrorists
bent on destroying her latest game. While most psychological thrillers attempt
to make it abundantly clear where reality ends and delusion begins, eXisTenZ is
littered with bad accents, physical impossibilities and narrative
inconsistencies designed to undermine the sense that there might be a single,
ultimate reality hidden behind the game’s psychotic virtualities. With no basis
for choosing between worlds on the basis of what is and is-not real, viewers
are left to select their reality on purely aesthetic grounds, a point made only
more poignant by Cronenberg’s fantastical vision of a game’s industry built by
women and designed to set us free.

A Scanner Darkly (Main Image) (2006) by Richard Linklater
Based on a
semi-autobiographical novel by Philip K.
, A Scanner Darkly is an intensely human examination of what it is like
to live one’s life under clouds of psychosis and addiction.

Set in a near-future Southern
California where nearly everyone has become addicted to a drug named ‘Substance
D’, the film follows Keanu Reeves’
character as he tries to make sense of his double-life as both an addict hiding
out from the police and a policeman informing on addicts. This strangely
fragmented existence is made all the more surreal by the fact that the film’s
narcotics agents keep their identities secret from their bosses meaning that
Reeves’ character spends much of the film effectively investigating himself.

While the most striking
things about the film are its futuristic setting and its use of animation to
bring psychotic delusions to life, the real meat of the film lies in its
willingness to understand addiction from the point of view of the addicts.
Indeed, much of the film is given over to beautifully rambling set-pieces in
which Reeves struggles to deal with two insane lodgers played by Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. Rather than stressing
the intoxicating effects of Substance D, the film looks at addiction as a
process of maintenance, meaning that the house-mates are forever building and
breaking alliances in an endless dull progression of one hit to the next. This
is neither Trainspotting nor Easy Rider … this is addiction as a lifestyle hampered by madness and

La Jetee (1962) by Chris Marker
While most contemporary
science fiction uses special effects and deafening soundtracks to bludgeon
their audiences into submission, La Jetee charms its audience with little more
than a series of blurry photographs and a mournfully poetic voice-over.

La Jetee revolves around a
post-apocalyptic society’s attempts to send someone back into their
pre-apocalyptic past. Selected on the basis of his enduring obsession with a
childhood memory, the film’s protagonist visits 1960s Paris only to spend his
time there visiting zoos and falling in love before a seemingly unrelated visit
to the future reveals him to be the saviour of the human race.

Though unusual and initially
quite off-putting, the film’s use of still photography allows Marker to reflect
upon the problematic nature of our relationship with the past. Indeed, the
film’s protagonist is obsessed with a single childhood memory right up until the
moment he falls in love with a nameless Parisian woman and transfers his
obsession onto her. The reason we only learn of the woman through photographs
and voice-overs is that this is all she really is for the protagonist. Rather
than being a real person with a life of her own, the time-traveller’s obsession
has transformed her into an object, an old black and white photo stored safely
in the attic of his mind. The only problem is that when you transform people
into objects to suit your emotional needs, you have a vested interest in their
continuing to suit those needs … even when their heart leads them elsewhere.

Melancholia (2011) by Lars Von Trier
Many big-budget Summer movies
feature a group of square-jawed and American-haired heroes somehow managing to
overcome the end of the world. Much like these more obviously science fictional
works, Melancholia is about the literal end of the world but rather than
creating a fantasy in which this absolute ending is evaded, Von Trier focuses
upon how it might feel to see the world end.

The film’s tone is set in a
magnificent opening act in which a clinically depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) attempts to smile her
way through her own wedding celebrations. As the evening wears on and the
social pressures become intolerable, Justine begins acting out in a manner so
extreme that it destroys not only everyone’s enjoyment of the party but her own
marriage and career in the process. This middle-class act of self-immolation,
spectacular as it may be, is only a prelude to the destruction that follows.

The rest of the film revolves
around Justine’s family as they learn that a rogue planet is about to collide
with the Earth. Justine’s patriarchal brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) responds to the news with the upper class’s
combination of arrogant denial and toxic self-delusion: scientists say
everything will be fine! Stop worrying your pretty little heads over nothing!
Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte
) responds by acting as a supportive wife and mother who ludicrously
tries to gather the family for a final polite dinner on the terrace before the
world literally ends. Deeply depressed and long past caring either about the
bourgeois sensitivities of her family or her own well-being, Justine’s
previously transgressive behaviour begins to seem sane and normal, as though
the bleakness of the world has somehow caught up with her depressed state of
mind. Beautiful, perverse, melodramatic and extraordinarily candid and
well-observed, Melancholia is a perfect cinematic rendition of what it is like
to be depressed in a world that simply does not understand.

Children of Men (2006) by Alfonso Cuaron
The Estonian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once observed that we have
so internalised the logic of capitalism that we no longer possess the capacity
to imagine a working alternative. Trapped in a set of ideas we know to be
flawed and fraudulent, we seek novelty in exhaustions past: Let’s all wear Mad
Men suits and Su Pollard glasses! The sequel to the rebooted Star Trek is going to be bit like the
sequel to the original spin-off movie … and it stars the bloke from one of the
recent reboots of Sherlock Holmes!
Our culture is stuck and the closest we can get to an alternative is
fantasising about the end of the world.

Cuaron’s Children of Men
takes place in a future Britain where the sudden and inexplicable sterility of
the population has resulted in an even greater form of cultural blockage than
the one we are currently experiencing. Without young people to stir things up
and challenge orthodoxies, Britain has retreated into a bitter nostalgic
conservatism where branded coffee shops sit beside cages full of foreigner
refugees and pleasant middle-class people withdraw into artfully decaying farm
houses filled with relics of their long-abandoned ‘politicised’ youth. Even
when The Revolution finally comes, it feels like a mass-market greatest hits
album: Masked Islamic gunmen parading their martyred dead West Bank Style,
under-equipped paramilitaries firing through the windows of abandoned schools
Sarajevo Style, futuristic soldiers standing around impoverished suburbs
Baghdad Style: Now That’s What I Call A Revolution! Volume 666.

Children of Men is a simple
story of hope and re-birth but few films so perfectly capture the sense of
claustrophobic blockage that pervades so many Western cultural spaces. This
film might not offer any solutions to the problems we face but its diagnosis is
devastatingly precise: We need something new. We need a proper future. Science
fiction should help deliver that future and not simply dull the pain of an
uncomfortable present.

Cloud Atlas is out in cinemas on Friday 22nd February

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