"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
April 12, 2010

Urban Futures

It is often said that the most important part of Science Fiction is not the science, but the fiction. In a way it is true of any genre; great stories are what propel our interest. What draws me back to Science Fiction is certainly not the gadgets or technology, but the scope that imagined and […]

It is often said that the most important part of Science Fiction is not the science, but the fiction. In a way it is true of any genre; great stories are what propel our interest. What draws me back to Science Fiction is certainly not the gadgets or technology, but the scope that imagined and future worlds provide for exploring what are, in fact, very old questions about life, death, morality, religion and human nature.

Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, is an example of this. The film presents us with a vision of the future, but populates that future with social struggles and iconography that map out the ideologies at work in 1920s German society. Metropolis draws on everything from Romantic religion and Maryology, through to political philosophy and revolutionary class warfare.

A few weeks ago I was able to attend the Asian premiere of a newly restored version of Metropolis, complete with footage found in Argentina in 2008. This screening was supported with a live performance of the original score (played by the Hong Kong Sinfonetta. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see this work on the big screen in as close as possible form to the way it was originally intended.

Metropolis, like many Science-Fiction films has at the centre of the story an idealised woman. In the opening scenes, Maria appears, almost miraculously, in the playground of the wealthy in her simple peasant clothes, surrounded by poor children, proclaiming a message of hope and justice that is in every way reminiscent of that other Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The theme of romantic religion as an exilic refuge from the alienation of urban life runs through Metropolis. Maria preaches in a space that is simultaneously an underground cathedral, replete with crucifixes and an warren of caves (with empty icon-less frames) reminiscent of the desert fathers.

Once Maria is captured (after a chase where cruciform lights follow and frame her), we see her shape transplanted onto the robot. Now the two Marias, the virtuous and sacrificial Maria and the evil and hyper-sexualised Maria are at war, much like the two halves of the madonna/harlot stereotype of womanhood. The split also allowed the film-makers to explore some deeper concerns at work in the society of the 20s.

“…its central figure, named Maria, is split into (physically identical) good and bad forms. She is a human being magnified by fantasy into either angel or demon. In a sense, the occult project of Metropolis may be to separate, hence ‘save’ the Madonna from her Jewishness, a move that both anticipates the National Socialist destruction of the Jews and replays Christendom’s too -frequent amnesia regarding Christianity’s Jewish roots.” Paul Coates, Cinema Religion and the Romantic Legacy, pg110.

A not dissimilar kind of idealised woman is at the centre of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (the first screening of a local Sci-Fi Sundays series). Rachel is a robot, a replicant in the language of the film who at first is unaware of her true identity. She also embodies the duality of sexual allure and innocence, of salvation and social peril.

“We encounter the same motif of ‘subjectivization’ of a cyborg in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where the hero’s android girlfriend ‘becomes subject’ by (re)inventing her personal history, here the Lacanian thesis that woman is ‘a symptom of man’ acquires an unexpected literal value, she is effectively the hero’s sinthome, ‘synthetic compliment,’ e.e., the sexual difference coincides with the difference human/android.” Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, 173.

Like Metropolis, Blade Runner uses a future city as a way to explore present day concerns, about genetic technology, globalisation, post-capitalism and neo-colonialism.

Moreover, Blade Runner is an extended reflection on what it means to be human. The main character’s name, Rick Deckard, is play on Rene Descartes. As the film progresses we start to wonder if Deckard himself might not also be a replicant, the kind of android he is hired to hunt. How would he know, that is, or is not human?

Each encounter Deckard has with the replicants raises this question – what does it mean to be human, what is the difference between us and them? Is it physiological, does it have to personality or memory, or social responses, or might it have to do with mercy and compassion?

Science-Fiction’s ability to entertain these kinds of questions is what keeps drawing me back to the genre. My favourite Science-Fiction films, like Alien, Blade Runner, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Logan’s Run, Solaris, The Matrix are invariably films that wear their philosophical curiosity on their sleeve.

And, in the end, that is always far more interesting to me than the gadgets and technology.

Mike Mahoney 14 years ago

Being a sci-fi junkie, this post really resonates with me. “Blade Runner” is seminal, in a lot of ways represents the best of what sci-fi can become. A perfect storm of story, director, cast and cinematography. I think (and the Dick purists will vilify me for this) that it perfects the original “Do Androids…” story.

For the same reasons, I really am enjoying Caprica. It’s very similar in this: that the “sci-fi” aspect is almost invisible, that at it’s heart it is an examination of character, faith, conscience and love. The science is almost incidental, even more so than it was in Battlestar. It is a deep and often uncomfortable examination of humanity.

Oh, and Deckard was a replicant, if you ask me. And Han shot first.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Mike, thanks. Sounds like we are on the same page here and I am certainly looking forward to seeing Caprica someday (still in season three of Battlestar Galactica).

Oh and, the origami unicorn gives away Deckard’s identity as a replicant.

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