Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 19, August 2003

 

 

Anna Powell

 

Selling Space:

King and Krzywinska's _Science Fiction Cinema_

 

 

Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska

_Science Fiction Cinema: From Outer Space to Cyberspace_

London: Wallflower Press, 2000

ISBN 1903364035

128 pp.

 

Literalising what Gilles Deleuze calls the 'machine assemblage of matter-images', [1] _The Matrix_ film series undermines consensual reality and gives primacy to the production of mental illusion. In _The Matrix_, Baudrillard's book _Simulacra and Simulation_ is owned by the hacker/messiah Neo. _The Matrix Reloaded_ showcases Neo's pursuit of his adversaries through a series of simulacra projected by the monstrous bio-computer that simulates a potentially limitless series of virtual realities, including the urban world of present-day America. Cinematically real spaces (thus twice projected copies of copies) are traversed by the characters. These include a contemporary urban ghetto and freeway, a Japanese dojo, and an opulent second-empire style hotel replete with baroque statues and exotic weaponry. Through the kitchen of the 'Le Vrai' restaurant, he is led through a minimalist white corridor of a bureaucratic office to an alpine landscape complete with Bavarian castle. The film series celebrates this spectacular display of simulated worlds, pitying or scorning the human wetware according to their degree of awareness of its falsity. The audience is likewise ambivalently placed, learning to recognise simulation, but happily buying in to the entire diegesis of illusion.

 

Aimed at a heterogeneous audience, the films seek to please science fiction action and effects fans *and* the philosophically inclined. The Warner Brothers official website features 'Going Deeper', a section of essays by professors of cybernetics and philosophy on the philosophical implications of the films. [2] Books have also begun to appear offering interpretations of gnosticism and virtuality. [3] _The Matrix Reloaded_ is the latest in a long line of science fiction films with plots and themes informed by philosophical questions. These include the _Terminator_ films (time travel and alternate futures); _Solaris_, _Event Horizon_, and _The Sphere_, (psychological projections made manifest); _Videodrome_ and_ Dark City_ (hyperreality and mind control); _Gattaca_ and _The Fly_ (genetic engineering); _Pi_ (chaos theory and numerology); and _The Lawnmower Man_ and _Existenz_ (computer games and virtual realities).

 

Written science fiction is recognised as a philosophically and ideologically oriented genre as distinct from the character psychology and relationship focus of many novel genres. Science fiction film, on the other hand, is the most spectacle-dominated of the traditional Hollywood genres. As such it is often critiqued for its foregrounding of effects with thrills, explosions, loud noises, and flashing lights (as in _Close Encounters of the Third Kind_ and _2001: A Space Odyssey_). Motifs and tropes from any science fiction film might of course be taken out of context and used as a springboard to stimulate a particular viewer's creative philosophical thoughts on the nature of space, time, and reality. More intriguingly, we might interact directly with the film's diegesis in a special kind of philosophical discourse enacted on the nerve endings as we think and perceive within and through sensation, sound, movement, colour, and texture. The viewer's mind and sensory affect are simultaneously melded in a embodied simultaneous process of perception. We experience the assemblage of corporeal machinery and the machine of the projected film; undergoing an intensive, Matrix-like process of hybridisation with the apparatus of cinema. This idea can be found as early as Surrealism, when Antonin Artaud claimed that an 'occult' power resides in 'the secret movement and matter of images' capable of inducing 'mental revelations' -- he asserted that the cinema is made primarily to express 'matters of the mind, the inner consciousness, not by a succession of images so much as by something more imponderable which restores them to us with their direct matter, with no interpositions or representations'. [4] More recently, drawing on particle physics and quantum mechanics, Gilles Deleuze's two-volume _Cinema_ describes the matter-image and image-time of avant-garde cinema. This deploys the image not as consciousness of something, but *as* consciousness-production. [5]

 

I would like to interrogate the claim that only experimental film mobilises this process and suggest that a comparable activity might be found in the intensive special effects set-pieces in science fiction films such as _The Matrix_, with its concrete manifestations of mental concepts. Again Deleuze, discussing Carlos Castenada's drug-induced revelations, describes comparable effects. One function of drugs, he writes is to:

 

'*stop the world*, to release the perception of 'doing', that is, to substitute pure auditory and optical perceptions for motor-sensory perceptions; *to make one see the molecular intervals*, the holes in sounds, in forms, and even in water; but also, in this stopped world, *to make lines of speed pass through* these holes in the world'. [6]

 

This process seems literalised in to Neo's ability to pass through the material envelope of a simulated world that has holes inbuilt into its fabric. Like certain narcotics, successful special effects -- whether in cinema, computer games, or virtual environments -- either create an ambience or impose a jolt designed to engineer mental shifts of gear.

 

By its splitting of signifier from signified, the Dada and Surrealist avant-gardes set up new formal paradigms. Some of these were later to be extended by electronic technologies such as computer graphics and CGI. The development of computer graphics since the 1960s increasingly deploys the skills of the experimental artist as design scientist whose milieu extends our sensorium. Virtual environments may present a non-local space-time that suspends linear progression and absorbs the attention of a subjectively dispersed spectator. Despite their representational content, cinematic special effects include unrecuperable elements positioned outside the symbolic order of language. In Lacan's sense, these exist beyond, or in spite of, the Real, but at the same time they seek to capture it. To a degree, they conflate the conscious with the unconscious and the Symbolic with the Imaginary.

 

Unlike experimental films made with independent or art house audiences in mind, _The Matrix_ film series are Hollywood blockbusters produced, marketed, and distributed by Warner Brothers. _The Matrix Reloaded_ cost twenty-seven million dollars to make and was the first film to gross one hundred million dollars in one weekend; most of it from international audiences. 2003 was promoted as 'The Year of the Matrix' (regardless of the war with Iraq) as spin-offs continued to proliferate in video games and other animated films. The films' mythology has even been cited as motivation by several murderers in the USA. [7] More overtly in _The Matrix Reloaded_, plots have deliberate gaps and fissures which invite input from viewers, supplied not from their own imaginations but from the other versions of the narrative being marketed. Narratives are structured directly by commerce once the initial formula of intelligent sci-fi/action and effects movie has been launched successfully. Commerce structures art directly. It is this aspect of Hollywood sci-fi which Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska take for their chief theme in _Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace_. They focus on how Hollywood science fiction is dominated by industrial concerns, a nexus that shapes textual content and style as well as production, marketing, and distribution. Narrative structure, characterisation, themes, and special effects all bear the indelible stamp of the corporations that developed from the vertically integrated studio system. Blockbusters are 'an expanded form of product placement', often shaped by a number of ancillary products (7). They may also be designed, like _The Matrix Reloaded_, as sequel/prequel films, which expand on existing storylines or character relationships. The final section of the book is a case study of _Star Wars: The Phantom Menace_, 'the perfect event movie' (95), which the authors analyse in detail. They focus on the pod-race sequence to illustrate how plot material is deliberately elided in ways that only make complete sense if the tie-in video game is purchased. A further aspect in this sequence is manifest through cinematography. The camera work in the pod-race is marked by the paucity of Anakin Skywalker's point-of-view shots, which serves to reduce his status as an identificatory protagonist. His heroic qualities are undermined here, which, as the film is a prequel to the events of the first film made in the Star Wars series, prepares us for his 'dark side' degeneration into Darth Vader.

 

The book offers a wide-ranging and useful survey of science fiction films, which, as they point out, may also be generic hybrids. The authors also introduce key thematic concerns such as 'Spectacle and Speculation', 'Utopias and Dystopias', and 'Sceptics and Nerds: Images of the Scientist'. Here, it suggests that the reason nerds are often portrayed negatively is to contrast them with the physical prowess and charisma of the action hero. They update this tendency by reference to Neo, who combines brains with brawn, and physical attraction is thus a new kind of hero and widens box-office appeal. The chief film theories referenced and critiqued by King and Krzywinska are genre and structuralism. They question their applicability to this most eclectic and hybrid of genres. The authors acknowledge the partial nature of such theories in favour of more tentative and eclectic approaches. They suggest that the elements which make up a science fiction film are too complex and multifarious for any one meta-theory to do justice to. The authors repudiate commonplace critical readings of science fiction films as direct representation of social problems and nothing else, as in the 'reds under the bed' interpretations of films made in the McCarthy era. Although films are clearly anchored in their social and political context, they are not reducible to an equation like this and do not 'plug in, immediately, to social concerns' (13) in any simplistic sense. Likewise, they distance themselves from the grandiose Kristevan schema of Barbara Creed's feminist psychoanalysis, which set a generation of film scholars hunting for the monstrous feminine lurking in every text. [8]

 

The book's omissions seem chiefly due to its brief as an 'introductory text' and the concise nature of the series, significantly titled 'Short Cuts'. Driven by their thesis of the centrality of industrial determinants, which they expound with convincing forcefulness, King and Krzywinska have little space for detailed aesthetic critique of cinematography, framing, or editing rhythms, and acknowledge that audience research or studies of spectatorial response are beyond their brief. Rather more problematically, they seem to retain traditional accusations of audience passivity which studies of spectatorship have done much to dispel. I find my own work with spectatorial affect, experiential viewing, and the 'machinic assemblage' of viewer and text to be at odds with their description of the SQUID playback system from _Strange Days_, which mainlines pre-recorded experience into the central nervous system, as 'not interactive, but passive, more like film itself' (93). The significant theme of time travel, which images forth elements of the spectatorial processes themselves, also surely merits more than a paragraph.

 

The authors deploy a neat 'characteristic play of binary oppositions' (2) -- for example, human/alien as an approach to analysis in several sections. Arguably, this is intended to clarify themes for easier student assimilation, but once students feel confident in the genre it may have been productive to introduce a little more deconstruction, particularly when exploring such postmodern films as _Existenz_ and _Mars Attacks!_. Neither do they introduce more challenging approaches to film studies such as the work of Deleuze. Science fiction seems ripe for such Deleuzian applications as molecularity, machinic assemblages, and becoming. This may well be due to the slow take-up of these theories in the UK academy generally, which might render them completely new to many undergrad sci-fi students and thus somewhat difficult to introduce cold in the context of a book like this. More material on what they identify as the 'deliriously high-tech interface' of cyberculture would have been useful as it is increasingly pivotal in futuristic visions like _The Matrix Reloaded_ (82).

 

The book's focus is chiefly on Hollywood and UK cinema. Again, this choice is probably informed by the authors' sound working knowledge of likely undergraduate course content, which is often dominated by classical Hollywood cinema. They do refer to the use of science fiction tropes in some independent films like _Born In Flames_, but skate rather quickly over the 'effects-plus-philosophy recipe' of auteurist directors like Kubrick and Cronenberg, leaving them chiefly as examples of niche marketing strategies.

 

The authors' thesis that science fiction films chiefly function as 'spectacular fun and entertainment' (29) leads to a couple of dismissive put-downs of certain philosophical readings as 'pseudo-prophetic and cautionary form that has been termed ficto-criticism' (56). They refer scathingly of 'the wilder speculations of the French theorist Jean Baudrillard' rather than taking the opportunity to outline some of his significant concepts such as simulation, which resonates as part of the complex consumption of images within the broad-based consciousness industry of postmodernity (56). They deny the 'sweeping' claims of postmodernism on the significance of those narrative 'gaps and openings', which they themselves read as marketing strategies in the light of their main thesis (57).

 

The presence of philosophical themes in certain films is chiefly illustrated by its overt operation in direct speech. As much science fiction dialogue is limited to rather banal functionalism, their few examples include the existentialist slant of _The Incredible Shrinking Man_, whose diminishing hero speculates that: 'The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle'. For more substantial readings of the genre's philosophical implications, I would recommend _The Cybercultures Reader_ edited by Bell and Kennedy, or Annette Kuhn's edition of essays _Alien Zone 2: The Spaces of Science Fiction_, especially their stimulating essays by Scott Bukatman on 'Terminal Penetration', and those on special effects and the sublime. [9] King and Krzywinska clearly enjoy science fiction movies and write with enthusiasm on the aesthetic pleasure in 'dazzling displays of light, colour and motion' and 'breathtaking displays of sheer energy' (59). It is unfortunate that they have not been given more scope for textual close-reading of the 'almost abstract delights' they find, for instance, in _2001: A Space Odyssey_ (59). Their skills in this kind of suggestive commentary are displayed in mise-en-scene descriptions like the one for _Forbidden Planet_, where 'the dream-house sits above vast abyssal structures of Krel technology that stretch towards an unsettling and vertiginous vision of the infinite' (75), or their speculations on the symbolic significance of the circle and sphere as 'warp drives, worm-holes, circular gateways to other dimensions and temporal loops' (85). I would have liked to read more writing in this personal, poetic vein.

 

Although my wish-list seems circumscribed by the publisher's brief, this does not detract from the substantial merits of the book. _Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace_ is an excellent little study. I strongly recommend it for use on undergraduate film courses. Written with expertise by academics who teach science-fiction and know their students, it is ideally tailored to its intended readership. I found it an extremely useful teaching tool for my own year two science fiction film course. Postgraduates would benefit from its clear-sighted elucidation of the relationship between the industry and aesthetics, whilst it also remains accessible for the cineliterate fan seeking information on the shaping influences of the industry. The style and register are lively and highly readable, moving into humour or poetry as the subject matter requires. King and Krzywinska have the gift of presenting complex issues with a lightness of touch without being simplistic or patronising. Readers are encouraged to read film contextually as well as textually, locating science fiction film within the agendas of global capitalism, yet any simplistic elision of content and immediate political situation is refused. The book is short yet succinct, packing a lot of ideas and material into a small space. The strength of its very conciseness for students is its sharp focus on underlying structures, such as the definition provided of key design styles across the sci-fi spectrum -- 'futurism, retro-futurism, realism, gothic and post-apocalyptic' (72) -- which is a valuable tool to work with the genre's mise-en-scene. Of special value is the section on music and sound effects, all too rarely considered in favour of an overwhelming emphasis on science-fiction visuals. Here, they highlight the use of soundtrack to evoke 'the coldness and the abstract nature' of non-human, and note the 'sub-sonic rumbles often less hear than felt bodily' as in the opening of _Star Wars_ (71). The authors offer a useful glossary of their key terms, a wide filmography, and a solid and representative range of sources and further reading in the bibliography -- though an index would have come in handy. In sum, students can confidently use it to advance their understanding of science fiction's formative determinants, and also enjoy reading a compact and punchy study.

 

Manchester Metropolitan University, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 85.

 

2. See <http://whatisthematrix.warnerbros.com/rl_cmp/phi.html>.

 

3. Jonathan Romney expands on these marketing implications in 'Everywhere and Nowhere', _Sight and Sound_, vol. 13 no. 7, July 2003.

 

4. Antonin Artaud, 'Witchcraft and the Cinema', _Collected Works: Volume Three_, trans. Alastair Hamilton (London: Calder and Boyars, 1972), pp. 63 and 65-66.

 

5. Deleuze, _Cinema 1_, p. 84.

 

6. Ibid.

 

7. See Romney, 'Everywhere and Nowhere', p. 27.

 

8. See Barbara Creed, _The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis_ (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).

 

9. See David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, _The Cybercultures Reader_ (London and New York: Routledge, 2000); and Annette Kuhn, _Alien Zone 2: The Spaces of Science Fiction Film_ (London, Verso, 2000).

 

 

Filmography

 

_Pi_, Darren Aronofsky, 1998.

_2001: A Space Odyssey_, Stanley Kubrick, 1968.

_Born in Flames_, Lizzie Borden, 1983.

_Close Encounters of the Third Kind_, Steven Spielberg, 1977.

_Dark City_, Alex Proyas, 1997.

_Existenz_, David Cronenberg, 1999.

_The Fly_, David Cronenberg, 1986.

_Forbidden Planet_, Fred M. Wilcox, 1956.

_Gattaca_, Andrew Niccol, 1997.

_ The Incredible Shrinking Man_, Jack Arnold, 1957.

_Lawnmower Man_, Brett Leonard, 1992.

_Mars Attacks_, Tim Burton, 1996.

_The Matrix_, Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, 1999.

_The Matrix Reloaded_, Andy Wachowski, 2003.

_Solaris_, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972.

_Sphere_, Barry Levinson, 1998.

_Star Wars, Episode Four: A New Hope_, George Lucas, 1977.

_Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace_, George Lucas, 1999.

_Strange Days_, Kathryn Bigelow, 1995.

_The Terminator_, James Cameron, 1984.

_Terminator 2: Judgement Day_, James Cameron, 1991.

_Videodrome_, David Cronenberg, 1982.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Anna Powell, 'Selling Space: King and Krzywinska's _Science Fiction Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 19, August 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n19powell>.

 

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