SF Movies: Guest post from Archie Tait

I’ve recently started opening up this debatable space to guest blogs…most recently, Stuart Angell McGregor’s splendid piece on The X-Files and his own original, never-broadcast show The Flashlight Department.

Watch out for more of these guest pieces, which will generally be grouped under the heading of Movie Zone, TV Zone, and Book Zone.  And if you look to the left of this page, under Debatable Archives, you can enter any of these zones to read these blog-essays, or ‘blessays’, as I like to call them, though I doubt that word will catch on.

And here, in a mighty blog, is Archie Tait – cineaste and producer, who has worked as a pioneering film distributor and scheduler (at the ICA Cinema in London), and as a television producer and executive producer has created a staggeringly large and diverse body of work – from Bomber, to The Paradise Club, 99-1, The Uninvited, Chimera, and Heartbeat.

Archie and I have been talking a lot in recent years about science fiction and movies and,  well,  all sorts really.  And here’s his take on

Why Science Fiction Movies Aren’t More Like the Written Word

Take it away, Archie….
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Any Science Fiction maven, however old or young, knows the complaint.  Science Fiction is an enormous genre, covering philosophical, metaphysical, sociological, psychological, historical and spiritual speculation.  So why do so many people, not Science Fiction mavens, still think it’s about men in shiny suits shooting ray-guns?

Hmmm.  Maybe it’s because of this kind of thing…
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Or this kind of thing….

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Could be this….

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It doesn’t even have to be men, and the suits don’t have to be shiny…

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But it’s all pretty much the same image isn’t it?

In a recent Movie Zone blog  about The Watchmen, Philip Palmer concluded with this hope: ‘…that we get some rich science fictional variety in the movie theatres in the years to come – character-based SF that moves us, and touches us, existing side by side with Snyder-style (Watchmen) eye-banquets.’

I agree with Phil’s pluralist demands.  Still, Science Fiction isn’t just one or the other – emotions or images.  It’s about ideas too. Isn’t it?

In passing, though, I have to admonish young Philip on his late-onset adolescent infatuation with Snyder’s soft-core eye-candy in WATCHMEN.  The extended sex sequence not only stops the story dead in its tracks  but also quite contradicts the overall theme of the film: ageing Superheroes, and how they decay physically and morally.  In a film that has so much story, it can’t afford the time for any asides,  Snyder takes an extraordinary dog-leg away from the thematically-driven narrative to reveal that,  far from ageing,  Laurie Jupiter and Dan Dreiberg are actually remarkably well-preserved hot young things, who recover their youth and get it on before you can blink an eye.  I am certainly not against sex (where would we be without it),  and not at all against sex sequences in movies (which are always entertaining). But I am against filmmakers who include sex sequences that contradict their own narratives and themes, to placate an imaginary audience of adolescent boys who can’t watch any movies that doesn’t feature this scene.

Ahem… Now, where was I? Yes -  can Science Fiction movies articulate or develop ideas? Or will it always be about the power of the movie image to astound us?

Let’s consider this question…

Ray-Guns

Science Fiction by its very nature is a zone of infinite possibility.  So what about these ray-guns?  Why do these action-packed, violent images hold such sway in the popular imagination?

The short answer is – the movies.

Whatever else the movies do – they move.  They require action.  Science fiction in the movies tends to involve marauding monsters, alien invasions and star-fleet battles.

Back-in-the-Day-Guns

But hold on – surely even before the Movies, the very template of the genre was set by Jules Verne, the Father of Science Fiction, who yoked together the Speculative with Adventure?  Verne’s scientists – Professor Lindenbrock in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1871), Michel Ardan in From the Earth to the Moon (1867), Nemo in 20,000 Leagues (1872) and The Mysterious Island (1874)– were explorers, adventurers in the world of the Future.  Men of Action.

It was from Jules Verne that the Movies borrowed not just plots, but the template for the Science Fiction Serials that developed the iconic figures of the Mad Scientist, opposed by the Two Fisted Adventurer.  FLASH GORDON (1936 and onwards) was the pinnacle, but dozens of others were churned out by poverty-row studios, incorporating stock footage plundered (usually abandoning any sense of continuity) from newsreels and European spectacles.

The Serials and the Poverty Row Programmers are the movie equivalent of the literary Pulps.  But unlike the sometimes beguiling, haunting and intellectually challenging stories that appeared from time to time in Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories, the Serials were all about Action.  Frequently contradictory in their story-telling, often senseless in their characterisation, the Serials are concerned only with moving to the next cliff-hanger, from which the Hero is extracted with little regard for science or logic.

From the serials, Science Fiction movies adopted the templates of Adventure and War.  Adventure plots would lead to the discovery of unknown monsters [KING KONG (1933) remains the greatest]; the War template was used for alien invasions [EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956), 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)]. Spectacle is the name of the game.

But it all came from the Father of Science Fiction himself…

Dad                                                                           Mum

Attack of the Five-Foot Woman

But hold on again.  Let’s go further back into the pre-history of the genre – to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.  She published ‘Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus in 1818 – fifty years before Verne published his first novel. Obviously her tag-cliché should be ‘the Mother of Science Fiction’ (though it’s not).   Here is an iconoclastic Explorer – Frankenstein – who through science questions the rules and assumptions by which we all live. Once he takes that step, and unforeseen forces are unleashed, it is not long before we meet Science Fiction’s equal and opposite requirement of the Active Protagonist – the fear that ‘There Are Some Things Man Is Not Meant To Know.’

We have entered the realm of Transgression:  an essentially moral arena,  a world of consequence,  in which our protagonists encounter the philosophical and the metaphysical.  We are going down a different road here.  We will not meet any ray-gun-blasting,  shiny-suited spacemen on it.

The Incredible Two-Headed Monster

In Frankenstein, we discover the invention of two major movie genres in the same story. Not only the Science Fiction movie, but also the Horror movie.

Though Science Fiction is generally about ‘The Outward Urge’, and Horror generally takes us into Inner Space, it is an indication of the richness of the genres that Science Fiction can take us on inward journeys [John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS (1966)], and Horror movies can take us outwards on a huge scale [George Romero’s LIVING DEAD movies; Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s PULSE (Kairo) (2001)], Horror and Science Fiction are two sides of the same coin. They are parallel explorations of speculative fiction through the rational and the irrational.

And it’s often hard to tell one from the other.  The SF Serials are themselves warehouses of the irrational; Arthur Crabtree’s FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958) and Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979) are at least as much Horror movies as Science Fiction.  And over on the other side, the Hammer FRANKENSTEIN cycle, a key set of horror iconography, is an extended portrait of scientific ambition and discovery.

It is arguable in this Horror/Science Fiction overlap – in these smaller films –  that the cinema often finds its equivalent of those beguiling, haunting, intellectually challenging stories of the Science Fiction Pulps.

Literary Gold to Movie Tinsel: Alchemy in Reverse

Olaf Stapledon’s remarkable Science Fiction novels range from the then-unprecedented scale of ‘Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future’ (1930) and ‘Starmaker’ (1937) to the inner richness of ‘Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest’ (1935) and  ‘Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord’ (1944).

In ‘Last and First Men’ he traces the history of humanity across 2 billion years, and 18 successive species of humans; ‘Starmaker’ is nothing less than the entire history of life in the Universe.  By contrast, ‘Odd John’ is the life of one man, from birth to death, an intellectual superman; and ‘Sirius’, probably still his best-known work, the life of a dog born with the intelligence of humans, yet with entirely different instincts.

It is no accident that Stapledon was a moral philosopher; his novels are philosophical fictions of a radical kind.  In cinema, only Kubrick and Clark’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) has attempted anything approaching the enormous scope of ‘Last and First Men’, and then only in snapshot.  Despite the scale of Fritz Lang’s silent masterpieces METROPOLIS (1927) and WOMAN IN THE MOON (Frau im mond) (1929), he was never able to tell stories on the sheer scale of Stapledon, Robert Heinlein or Frank Herbert.  Arguably, only the Serials would have had the time and scope to be able to tell such epic stories, had they not been bound by budget and market to two-fisted ‘space western’ stories.

Since Lang,  cinema’s storytelling,  derived from silent movie grammar,  has speeded up,  but not advanced significantly beyond the narrative devices evolved by Edison,  Griffith,  Pudovkin and Eisenstein.  In fact, it could be argued that cinematic story-telling has actually regressed since Griffith’s INTOLERANCE (1916) and Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927).  It has devolved back into the earlier story-telling tropes of Lang’s (still eye-popping) earlier films DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER (Dr. Mabuse der Spieler) (1922), SPIES (Spione) (1928) and THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) (1933).  In these films Lang created the Mad Scientist / demagogue figures adopted by the poverty-row serials, and subsequently by the James Bond movies.

Small is Beautiful

Instead, it is in pockets of relative obscurity that we find cinema’s ability to tap into the most poetic and challenging areas of Science Fiction – in

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Chris Marker’s LA JETEE (1962) [the source for Terry Gilliam’s 12 MONKEYS (1995)]; and in Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (Solyaris) (1972), STALKER(1979) and SACRIFICE (Offret) (1986).   And in those boldly dystopian small movies that invariably failed to find an audience when first released (Arch Oboler’s FIVE (1951); John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS (1966); Joseph Sargent’s COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970); George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) and Saul Bass’s PHASE IV (1974).

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These are all ‘small movies’ – character-driven movies, scratching under the surface of their protagonists.

The Shrinking Man With the X-Ray Eyes

Let’s consider two beautiful, small-scale Science Fiction movies whose narrative trajectories are strikingly similar (and along the way, continue to consider how movies differ from prose).  Richard Matheson’s screenplay THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), directed by Jack Arnold; and Ray Russell and Robert Dillon’s original script X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963) directed by Roger Corman.  The titles are pure pulp exploitation.  The films are exciting, haunting and sad. Both are small-scale stories about single protagonists; yet each film metonymically invites the viewer to contemplate huge subjects.

The Shrinking Man Becomes ‘Incredible’

In Richard Matheson’s original novel ‘The Shrinking Man’ (1956) and in his own adaptation THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, size and scale are themselves the subject.  Scott Carey inhales insect spray, and is accidentally exposed to a radioactive cloud.  Then he begins to shrink.

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That’s just about all the ‘science’ in this ‘Science Fiction’ story, which Stephen King argues in ‘Danse Macabre’ (1981), would be more accurately classed as a fantasy.  (I’d say he is largely correct, though when we get to considering the story’s conclusion, it’s really not quite as cut-and-dried as that).

The story, told in both versions from Scott’s point-of-view, is about what happens to your perception of yourself when something you have always accepted as immutable turns out not to be the case. Scott’s shrinkage is a great, multi-valent metaphor for just about everything in life we accept without too much thought.  It is a story about change – in ourselves, and in the world around us – and how we choose to adapt to it, or not.

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Book vs. Film

Although both novel and film tell almost identical stories – the Big Events in the film are all drawn from the original novel – the book and the film have different emphases, and different outcomes.  And it is interesting to note Universal’s insertion of that extra word into the title.  As though the novel’s content – extraordinary as it is – weren’t quite enough.   As though for the movies, credibility isn’t quite enough – they have to be incredible; they have to challenge the very suspension of disbelief on which they rest.

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In the novel, a medium in any event able to convey the detail of characters’ thought-process and state of mind, the emphasis is on Scott’s self-perception.  The metaphor of shrinkage is identical in both book and film.  But in the book Scott is not only married, he has a daughter; and his daughter has a teenage babysitter. As Scott shrinks, his relationship with his wife changes – his dominance in the marriage, as in the home, recedes, and with it his sexual confidence.  The sexuality of his marriage becomes nightmarish as he perceives his size – his ability to satisfy his wife sexually – shrinking.  As sex becomes a no-go area, his wife begins to treat him asexually, as a child; which puts the reverse-dominance through another cycle.
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Scott becomes infatuated with his daughter’s teenage babysitter, but his knowledge that he is continually shrinking, more than his moral qualms, keep him from doing anything about it.  Finally, even his own 5-year-old daughter becomes a threat – she treats her father like a doll.  Compared with this, the next phase of Scott’s traumatic descent – threatened by a cat, and fighting off a giant spider with implements from a sewing basket – seems almost like a respite.

None of this psycho-sexual detailing is available to Matheson the screenwriter.  In the mid-50s, even if any Universal Pictures studio executive wanted to explore sexual themes in a special effects picture (they didn’t), the MPAA Production Code precluded them from doing so.  In the movie THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, Scott and his wife have no daughter, so no teenage babysitter either.  Scott’s wife’s attitude moves directly from shock to sympathy.  The movie is therefore quite short (81 mins), and more interested in Scott fighting off giant beasts.

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However, this is not to dismiss the movie as inferior to the novel. The movie is simpler than the novel, and because of that, the huge metaphor of the Shrinking Man, expressed visually, has its own remarkable power.  Shorn of much of the inwardness the novel allows Scott, the film allows us to form our own ideas about the significance of his shrinkage (though the movie does have a voice-over narration that simply and powerfully allows us access to Scott’s thoughts and feelings).

The novel achieves a remarkable intertwining of the stages of Scott’s realisation of his changes (derived from a parallel time-structure, as the story unfolds simultaneously in the present travails of a Lilliputian man, and in ruefully accounted flashback).  He is dogged by regret, and driven by anger.  In the present, he fights the spider for survival, constantly alert.  But he is constantly diverted by thoughts of the past – regret for what he didn’t value, or didn’t achieve; anger that his future has been stolen from him.

The movie follows a linear course from the encounter with the glittering cloud, through Scott’s perception that he has changed, which no one else shares; and through his ever-diminishing incarnations.  In the movie, we need no prompts, no inward reflections: we see the metaphor in action, unexplained. We understand Scott’s dawning fear, his realisation of sexual inadequacy, his loss of dominance in society and in the home, and his increasing apprehension of further weakness.  The metaphor of shrinkage, simply observed, signifies different meanings at different stages – it is a shifting metaphor, but enormously powerful because of that.

Stripped of the searing intimacy of Scott’s memories, which constantly interrupt his quest for survival, the film becomes an oddly contemplative journey towards accepting fate. It is in all ways a more positive account of Scott’s journey, making the stages of his descent a journey, towards the transcendence of all his previous beliefs. It is dark poetry, a parable, emotionally moving in its embrace of the inexorable, and the inevitable. It strips away from its protagonist all physical limitations, all human relationships, to arrive at spiritual simplicity.

(We can compare THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN with the shifting, unspecified metaphor of Jack Finney / Don Siegel’s magisterial INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS (1956) – a metaphor strong enough to induce cold sweat after dozens of viewings, yet unspecific enough to be justifiably interpretable as both anti-communist and anti-McCarthy).

The differences between the book and film become clearer as both move on to Scott’s encounter with a character common to both versions – the midget girl, Clarice.  In the novel, Scott has a sexual affair with her – he discovers that he has not lost his sexuality with his height – he is still ‘himself’. In the film there is no sexual dimension to their friendship – Scott discovers that he is not a human freak – he finds acceptance.  And just as important as his acceptance as a fully viable person, is where he finds it – in the carnival.

Dark Carnival

In American movies, the carnival is invariably ‘the Other Side’. It is a place of night in a brightly-lit society; it is the violent and unpredictable obverse of a rigidly organised, stable world; it is the world of the impoverished and the dispossessed, outsiders from the ‘overground’ world of wealth and comfort.  When Emil Jannings’ stuffy professor is ruined by his infatuation with Dietrich’s Lola-Lola in von Sternberg’s THE BLUE ANGEL (1929) he ends up in the carnival. Tyrone Power starts as a carnival barker in Edmund Goulding / Jules Furthman’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) – so how can he fall further?  We see how far – he ends up a geek, biting the heads off live chickens.  When psychopathic playboy Rob Walker murders tennis-star Farley Granger’s errant wife in Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), it is at the carnival; to which Granger must return to exorcise his guilt by destroying it.  And it is where Ray Milland’s Dr Xavier finds his home after exercising his hubristic power in Corman’s X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963).

When Scott gets to the carnival, he has fallen beneath the lowest level of American society: he has joined the Underclass.  In the novel, he regains his sexuality – and loses his wife’s love.  In the movie he discovers – as Todd Browning had mapped 20 years previously in his long-suppressed FREAKS (1936) – that ‘freaks’ are human too: more so than many ‘normal’ people. (It is probably significant that in the movie’s more upbeat account of Scott’s encounter with Clarice, he meets her not at the carnival, but in a diner next to it – a lighter, brighter place.)

The midget girl and the carnival mark the end of the metaphor of ‘descent’.  Whatever Scott’s shrinkage means from now on, it is understood relatively.  He is going through stages of understanding his human condition – and of the Human Condition.

The End – And Beyond

And finally – the end of the book and film are different, in significant ways.  Actually, both end their narratives in the same way – there is no end.  There is no arrest of Scott’s shrinkage; certainly no miracle cure, no reversal, no return to former social and personal equilibrium.  Those things are left behind.   Particularly for a film in 1957, this is an astonishingly radical conclusion.  The horror the story elaborates turns out to be never-ending;  but also, when fully embraced, beautiful.

The novel ends with a haunting passage, as Scott recounts his realisation that his journey through change will not end even in death – and that it is a good thing.  Unlike his former existence, his life is an unending process of reinvention and discovery.

But to nature there was no zero. Existence went on in endless cycles.  It seemed so simple now. He would never disappear, because there was no point of non-existence in the universe.

‘It frightened him at first. The idea of going on endlessly through one level of dimension after another was alien.

‘Then he thought: If nature existed on endless levels, so also might intelligence.

‘He might not have to be alone.

‘Suddenly he began running towards the light.’

And it is here that the novel, from its cursory beginnings in a ‘scientific’ explanation of Scott’s condition, re-connects with the concept of Science Fiction.  In this, it is more Science Fiction than Stephen King gave it credit for.  As Einstein observed, there are always new worlds to be discovered. (1)

Say Hello to God

The ending of the film is haunting too, in a different way.  In a voice-over passage reportedly added by director Jack Arnold, Scott’s constant transformation is accounted significance by being recognised – by God.  ‘And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears locked away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God there is no zero. I still exist.’

This lurch into religiosity is entirely typical of American movie Science Fiction, and is a hallmark of the genre’s representation in mainstream cinema. It occurs almost identically in the George Pal / Byron Haskin version  of H.G. Wells’  WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), written by Barre Lyndon.  WAR OF THE WORLDS is at the opposite end of the budgetary spectrum to HE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. Wells’ ‘scientific’ deus ex machina – exposure to the common cold destroys the invading Martian war-machine – is characterised by ‘germs – the littlest things that God, in his wisdom, had put upon our planet.’  H. G. Wells wrote the line, almost verbatim; but it was written by a character, it was not Wells’ judgement on the story; and it was not accompanied by a swelling hymn and chorus.

X-Ray Eyes

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Roger Corman’s 1963 film X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES is based on a screenplay by Ray Russell and Robert Dillon, from an original idea by Roger Corman. It began as a saleable exploitation title in the imagination of James H. Nicholson, who with his partner Sam Arkoff ran the legendary drive-in studio American International Pictures.  AIP produced many of then finest examples of off-Skid-Row pulp SF movies, many directed by Corman.  Their titles are a cornucopia of ‘must see’. Many don’t live up their monikers, but many do: THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS,  I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF,  THE BRAIN EATERS,  HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER,  PANIC IN YEAR ZERO. And Corman and Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle, from HOUSE OF USHER (1960) to THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1965).

But if THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES (1955) turned out to have rather fewer (no – let’s be honest – it is one of the shabbiest monsters ever seen), at least TEENAGE CAVEMAN (1958) had a spectacular final twist, hijacked to historic effect by Rod Serling for his 1968 adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel PLANET OF THE APES.

And X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES  is a film that dwarfs even its magnificent title.  Ray Milland is Dr Xavier, who experiments on himself with a serum be believes will cure blindness.  Xavier is a driven scientist, whose own blindness is moral – he cannot ‘see himself’.  His punishment for hubris is success; and his ‘success’ will reveal to him ‘What Man Is Not Meant To Know’.

Xavier’s experiments lead to an addiction – he wants to see better, he wants to see more:  soon he discovers that he can see through solid objects and materials.  At first the discovery is the source of illicit fun – the promise of nudity (unfulfilled) the movie was selling to its drive-in audience. Then it puts him further at odds with his medical colleagues when he uses his new powers to contradict their diagnoses.  But Xavier’s addiction leads him accidentally to kill his boss: he flees, confident his newly acquired power will protect him from the law.

This is where Xavier’s ability to ‘see through’ things acquires a metaphorical resonance.  Pursued by the law, rejected by sympathetic friends and fellow scientists he insults and demeans, he is forced, like Scott Carey in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, into the sanctuary of the carnival, where he uses his X-ray powers to diagnose illnesses.  And here he re-discovers his affinity with ordinary people – re-discovering his original vocation as a doctor.  Just as in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, the carnival is a place of re-orientation; but it is also, in more conservative movie terms, a place of damnation.

The metaphor of ‘seeing through’ is growing, it cannot be stopped:  Xavier ‘sees through’ people to their psychic pain, and it begins to swamp him. He flees to Las Vegas, enriching himself through his ability to see when slot machines will pay out, and the next card to be dealt; he justifies his acquisitiveness by claiming to ‘see through’ the casino’s system for fleecing ordinary people.

There is a further level of seeing for Xavier to penetrate. He has seen through the physical world, ‘seen through’ its false ideology; ‘seen through’ the masks people create for themselves.  Now he begins to see through ‘reality’ itself – and he has the increasingly inescapable sense of ‘being seen’ himself.  Dimly at first, then in a horrific blast, he sees God.

In their indispensable Overlook Film Encyclopedia Vol 2 – Science Fiction (ed. Phil Hardy), Hardy and/or Paul Willemen have many perceptive things to say about X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES and the metaphor of sight, a theme they first explored in their book Roger Corman: The Millennic Vision (ed. David Will, Paul Willemen). But their final observation that X’s special effects are ‘weak’ is a quite inexplicable judgement.

The visual effects of this very low budget ($250,000 says Corman – probably even that is an exaggeration) are really outstanding.  Cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s prismatic colour separations are simple, but exceptionally strange and disorienting.  They are highly effective throughout the film, and it says a lot that Xavier’s ultimate vision tops them all.  Xavier’s vision is not a benign God.  Abstract colour has rarely been used to such effect in cinema.

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Xavier is driven by this vision to his final apocalypse.  It takes place in a fundamentalist religious gathering on the edge of the desert.  It is Old Testament, utterly punitive.  Shocking though it is (and I still remember my jaw dropping and my hair standing on end when I first saw it) there is speculation (by Stephen King, supported to an extent by Corman) that the original ending went even further.

Like THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and WAR OF THE WORLDS, X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES begins in the realm of Science Fiction, but unlike them, it is then drawn inexorably into the supernatural.  The film lives in the overlap between Science Fiction and Horror.  It seems fairly easy to reconcile Science Fiction and the Spiritual.  While it is possible for Science Fiction to co-exist with the supernatural, it is not possible for Science Fiction to embrace it.

However, this takes us right back to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (and it is worth remembering that Roger Corman’s final film as director was an adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound – a story by a Science Fiction absolutist, directed by a man who could only direct THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE and THE RED BARON (Von Richthoven and Brown) as horror films.

In Science Fiction there is also Horror – but it is horror of the rational and material kind. From Fritz Lang to David Cronenberg, it is a legitimate pedigree.  Yet from the same sources, pushed further than the spiritual into the supernatural, we find the connected but distinct realms of fantasy and horror.

It is important to say that while ‘…that God in his wisdom…’ and  ‘To God there is no zero.’ may invoke the supernatural, neither story relies on it.  It is equivalent, in the development of English philosophy, to Bishop Berkeley’s answer to the question of how we know the world around us actually exists, and it is not merely an imaginative construct of the mind. He concludes that we understand that the world still exists, even if we cannot see any more of it than our own vision reveals, because of the existence of God.  God sees all.  Therefore he sees the World.   Therefore the World exists.

We would say now that Berkeley was mistaken: that there are many other scientific proofs of the existence of the material world, independent of our perceptions of it; and that even if he were unaware of those proofs at the time, his proof is based on unproveable faith, which he could not see beyond.  (Yet if Berkeley were alive today, he could still legitimately argue that ‘scientific proofs’ might equally be the product of imagination.  Just a really good imagination.)

We should also compare the Bishop’s idea of God with the view of Stanton Carlisle, played in Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film by Tyrone Power, in William Lindsay Gresham’s original novel ‘Nightmare Alley’ (1946):  ‘What sort of God would put us here… in this stinking slaughterhouse of a world? Some guy who likes to tear the wings off flies? What use is there in living and starving and fighting the next guy for a full belly?  It’s a nut house.  And the biggest loonies are at the top. (2) ’

Needless to say, that speech did not appear in Jules Furthman’s still searing screenplay of the film.  Gresham’s idea of God is close to Xavier’s vision in X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES.  Corman’s film may embrace the supernatural, but it is not conventionally religiose.

Religiose or not, we are still in the world of Science Fiction.  More than being logically possible, it is logically probable that there are new worlds, presently wholly unimaginable, awaiting discovery.  These are not only physical worlds, presently defined, like distant planets, or beneath the oceans.  There are also worlds that may exist within and between the  dimensions we currently believe we know and understand. The worlds waiting for us, in Gene Roddenberry’s immortal split infinitive,  ‘to Boldly Go’…

The Beginning of The End

This blog started out asking whether Science Fiction movies could articulate or develop ideas, and ends up pitting William Lindsay Gresham against Bishop Berkeley.  Who will win?  There’s only one way to find out!  Fight! Fight! Fight! (3)

So – yes, these movies invoke ideas, and trigger new ones.

However, the question of whether movies can develop ideas, in a more complex ‘dialogue’ with the audience, is still open.  In the comparision between the novel the Shrinking Man and the movie THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, we can see that in the movies, action tends to replace reflection.

Except for Bruce Lee, to whom action IS reflection.

This does not mean that ideas are evacuated, replaced by images: it means that ideas are expressed in images, edited together.  Ideas expressed in images tend towards the general: towards big, inclusive statements.  Moving images lead us towards the biggest, the most abstract (and most vague) commonly understood ideas – hence the sudden lunges towards religiosity. This is not a quality that leads to the development of debate or ideas.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Contact: ‘Big, Abstract and Vague’ – we love it.

Yet, while we have seen how long-form movie serials are resolutely uninterested in anything other than thrills and action (pleasurable though they are), TV series have engaged in extended debate with the audience. Most obvious in this respect is LOST, which triggers in the viewer an extended series of speculations on ‘What’s It All About?’  Also BATTLESTAR GALACTICA explores a post-9/11 metaphor of building a New World Order.  HEROES and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, over their many seasons, have developed a complex set of rules and qualifications for teenagers dealing with their supernatural/emotional sides: for their target audience, the equivalent of scanning all the relevant bits of Freud and Salinger.

Finally, The End

And to return to the movies: THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES – just because the images are often bold and simple does not mean that they cannot reflect quite complex ideas. The ideas are metaphoric: they conjure ideas in the mind of the viewer, in the memory as much as through direct viewing experience.

Those images become embedded in the reflective consciousness of the viewer, in an effect more akin to the experience of poetry than of prose. We are haunted by them, and they trigger in us unexpected moods.  Chris Marker’s LA JETEE may be only 28 minutes long, but it is as rich in imagery as any feature film, or many novels.

So Scott Carey’s reflection on his continued experience at the end of Matheson’s novel can apply also to the different qualities of ideas expressed by movies and prose.  They are parallel but different; different but connected. Each produces a different quality of meaning, uniquely through its medium.  The proposition is not ‘either/or’, but each alone, and both together, in the expression of the genre Science Fiction.

The Final Question

The Final Question: would you trade the existence in the world of the novel The Shrinking Man for the movie THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN?

Of course not.

And that is why Science Fiction movies shouldn’t be more like the written world.

- Archie Tait, copyright 2009
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(1)   While writing this blog, I came across Zack Handlin’s splendid comparison of Shrinking Man book and film on badmovieplanet.com/duckspeaks.  It was a bit like the American astronauts finding a ragged Union flag on the moon at the beginning of First Men in the Moon (but the other way round).  Of course I think it’s splendid – we say very similar things.  But Zack says them more briefly and wittily.  Which is why I leave my acknowledgement to the end.

(2)   Quoted in Woody Haut’s terrific essay in Eureka Video’s characteristically immaculate Region 2 DVD Nightmare Alley (2005).

(3) A British joke.  Apologies to non-UK readers.

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