Saturday, December 29, 2012

Movie still from Static Mass Emporium
  Following on from my post focusing on Sight & Sound magazine’s 2012 list of ‘The Greatest 100 Films of All Time’, with my own nominations in the form of a list of ten films, it’s been interesting revisiting two that I chose, both sci-fi classics based on sci-fi classic novels: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Just like reading Orwell’s 1984, both these films are fascinating to watch now for their predilections of what would come in the future at the time they were shot, when that time depicted has either now happened (as it 2001) or will happen soon (Blade Runner, set just seven years away, in 2019). Both, in fact, while mostly being hugely off the mark, contain some prescient moments. In 2001, while the predilection of habitable space stations orbiting Earth turned out to be broadly true, those space stations certainly haven’t turned into the kind of ‘orbiting hotels’ (pictured below) - replete with a receptionist - as depicted in the film, in which members of the general public are seen visiting.

Movie still from The Final Take
Popular Mechanics stills (above and right) from Retronaut
The ISS, as with the other current space stations, remains a cramped, stressful place for those fleet crew staying there. The closest mankind will get to anywhere near that depicted in the film at the time of writing, eleven years on from predicted, has been with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, set to launch next year. That, however, will only take certain members of the public (all paying to the tune of a mammoth £128,000 each) for a short duration, rather than the potentially long time period depicted; furthermore, the environs are still unlikely to look anything like Kubrick’s extraordinary retro-futuristic vision. Indeed, the only semblance of reality is with the scene where Dr. Heywood Floyd communicates with his daughter via a ‘conference’ or ‘videophone’ call, which today is commonplace.

More unrealistic still is the film’s depiction of the US’s outpost on the moon, called Clavius Base. At the moment, and despite NASA’s rhetoric about one day having one, the notion of any permanent base on the moon, never mind terraforming, seems ever more remote. Where the film is especially implausible, though, is the notion that by 2001 we would be able to send manned spaceships to Jupiter, suspending human life in cryogenics part of the way. Again, while NASA has mentioned vague plans one day of sending a manned mission to Mars, it seems pretty clear that it won’t be for a good while yet, what with the American Government unable to send a manned probe even back to the Moon, never mind any other planet in our solar system. And even with any planned trip to Mars, huge logistical quandaries in getting human life to the Red Planet – from mental through to physical issues (arising from long-term weightlessness), as well as radiation – would need to be overcome.
Indeed, looking back on the film now, it’s reminiscent of some of those amusing Popular Mechanics magazine articles (pictured above and right) from the 1950s, imagining the future as way more advanced than it’s actually turned out to be, from flying cars – which have been pretty much a staple of any film set in the future - to Buckminster Fuller’s floating communities, and onwards. That’s not to deny that sheer wonderment of the film, though, which brilliantly realises Arthur C. Clarke’s vision in the novel of the evolutionary progress of man as having been initiated by the alien’s ubiquitous, perfectly designed Monoliths (all famously with that precise ratio of 1:4:9).

Movie still from Movie Photographs
Kubrick captures this notion perfectly with the famous match-cut from an ape – the precursor of man - millions of years ago, newly emboldened with a conscious intellect thanks to the arrival of the Monolith, throwing a bone/weapon in the air; the camera juxtaposes the fall of the bone in the air beautifully with a modern-day (2001 in the film) orbital satellite moving in space, implying the slow progression from one to the other.

Blade Runner, released in 1982 but based on the book written by Philip K. Dick (as “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) in the same year that 2001 was released in the cinema (1968), envisions some form of terraforming taking place on other planets (which we never see), but dispenses with any notions of extra-terrestrials (though keeps interesting metaphysical notions with its idea that androids could be ‘just as human’ as humans). Instead, BR remains extraordinary in its visionary film noir realization of Dick’s dystopian vision of Los Angeles in 2019, where the city has become a fire-breathing vision of Hades (below).

Movie still from The Blog of Big Ideas
We also see it reflected in the huge watchful eye at the start of the film (picture top of blog post)  - shades of 1984, perhaps, also reflected in the constant surveillance lights that penetrate into buildings. While the aforementioned flying cars also remain a staple, repeated through most futuristic films – a trope that’s never been replicated in reality - BR does capture more accurately how big world cities have become globalised, with the film’s depiction at street level of cultural and religious mixing, as well as neon signs in Japanese and Chinese. Furthermore, it brilliantly predicts the use of moving advertisements (now commonplace on the London Underground). There’s also the omnipresent rain, which the film suggests is the result of industrial pollution in a similar manner to global warming; although set in LA, it feels strangely prescient to here in the UK, with the rainiest year on record. The permanent rain and film noir feel to the film also seems apposite in reflecting how many cities now feature a mixture of the hi-tech and shiny alongside decay and rotting (just check out the area around the Shard if you don’t believe me). Of course, for all the paranoia about corporate power embedded in not just these films but other sci-fi classics – from the Alien quadriology through to The Terminator franchise – what these films all failed singularly to predict was what has been one of the most technologically important developments in the last twenty years: the Internet, which would be just around the corner.

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