The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Dreaming Up the Future

by Andrew Tibbetts

I don’t like science fiction books very often but I do enjoy sci-fi movies and TV shows because of the way they look! From early days of silent film, in such beautiful pictures as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” representing the future seems to call up the most interesting art direction on celluloid. And for me, there’s a large part of movie appeal that is simply eye candy! It’s a visual art.

Realism in film is so prevalent it’s hard to find a non-sci-fi film that attempts to present an artistic vision of the world as opposed to a truthful representation (perhaps with a bit of subtle lighting or use of filters that colour things slightly!) I think of Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” as one marvellous exception. Here, we have a vision of the suburbs! Juxtaposed nicely with a contrasting vision of the darkness of the creative impulse, by the way that Vincent Price’s ominous castle is just at the end of a pastel coloured lane.

But in sci-fi, directors give their artistic teams carte blance to create the world. Steven Spielberg hired Douglas Coupland among others to imagine what the near-future might look like, including the shape of garbage cans. “Minority Report” is a marvellous film, my favourite Spielberg by far. Different than fantasy, sci-fi imagines a working future. So we don’t get the silly theme-park reality of the Indiana Jones movies, we get a socio-political and deeply emotional visualization of certain aspects of human culture.

And our futures are so bound to our presents. The imagined futures of the 70’s were so bright and candy-coloured. Think of those primary coloured-coded polyester outfits of the world of “Logan’s Run”, or how funky the future of “Battlestar Galatica (the original TV series)” looked, reminding us of how ‘futuristic’ the funk bands of the 70’s were. Think of that giant spaceship landing onstage to give birth to Parliament-Funkadelic or even Earth, Wind and Fire. Didn’t all that descend from the wonderful Sun Ra (image at the top right)?

The future of the 80’s was more interested in depicting the fascism in the human heart. The future was dark and oppressive. Think of the Kafkaesque offices of “Brazil”, the film noir-ish shadows of “Dark City” or the post-apocalyptic dustiness of “Road Warrier”.

I’ve just seen a mind-blowing vision of the future that seems to be a hodge-podge of all our past futures. I’m talking about a weird little Canadian-German co-production called “Lexx”. The people who put together Lexx seem to have grown up on a diet of strictly cult films. There’s nothing resembling an ordinary, ‘good’ movie or TV show. But there’s something from every major cult movie that I can think of. The candy-coloured sexual freedom of “Barbarella”, the funny robot of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, the cast of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, the sexual libidos of severed heads from “Reanimator”, lots of brains and cannibalism from a zillion zombie movies (but just the cheesy ones) and the soft-core porn of Russ Meyer. The set design homages all those movies, plus the oppressive fascism of “The Chronicles of Riddick,” the curvy organic structures of Fellini’s psycho-sexual Italy, the strange fleshy machines of Cronenberg’s “Existenz” plus tons more I can’t even begin to elucidate.

Is it any good?

Well, it’s interesting. I couldn’t stop watching. And laughing, too.

Here’s a snatch of dialogue:
“What kind of robot head are you?”
“The kind of robot head who wants to live in your underpants.”

The accents of the cast are quite something, a silly mix of Nova Scotian and German. No one is trying to earn an oscar for subtlety so it’s curtain chewing ham-it-up time.

Did I tell you the space ships are all insectoid? At one point a person smashes on the windshield of a giant fly and gets scraped off. The creators love irony.

But the most fascinating aspect for me is the way it all looks. Everything is invented. At one point, the sex-slave Zev has a Russ Meyer shower but what kept me mesmerized was the damn showerhead. It looked like a cross between a penis and a prickly sea cucumber by way of the sandworms of Lynch’s “Dune”. I can wade through a lot of schlock for a glimpse of artistry so evocative. Of course a shower head is phallic, and of course phalluses are dangerous, hence the prickles. The scene is pure erotic nightmare. These folks know their Matthew Barney.

Do I wish someone would be as creative visually with material that was less campy, more intensely dramatic? Sure. But nobody’s going to give these guys the budget to stage the works of Euripides.

We see inventive license taken in the theatre all the time. Shakespeare’s woods as a nodal point between the fairyworld and the human world has been depicted as a circus, as a supermarket, as an abstract realm of triangles, as a boxing ring, as an empty stage, in the 1800’s, the 1900’s, the distant future and the B.C. past. If only filmmakers were given such license.

But I fear, I’m very much in the minority. A lot of people are put off when the movies present them an impression of the world, a revision of the world based on some abstracted quality, or a world that is an expression of a psychological way of interpreting it. Except, it seems in sci-fi. In that genre, we allow it, we expect it and we celebrate it. From Kubrick’s zero-gravity toilet jokes to Blade Runner’s rainy-noir-neon back alleys. From the Matrix to Star Wars, we’ve eaten up these futuristic dreams.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Excellent piece, Andrew. You obviously love film and have studied it. I'm one of those I liked it/I didn't like it types who can't tell you exactly why it did or didn't work for me.

Thu Feb 05, 01:39:00 am GMT-5  

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