A play in one act wherein the audience are asked to explore their own opinions while the author keeps his comfortably nebulous
Lights go up on a wood-panelled room where a bare light-globe hangs above a small, melamine table. Two men sit, one at either end of the table. Behind them, a window looks out over the ruins of a large city. Occasionally, in the distance, a pair of enormous reptilian legs stomps past, setting the light-globe jiggling and specks of plaster falling from the ceiling.
The man on the left is FANCHER, his companion HAMPTON. Both are young film critics, and as such each wears an aloof, disdainful sneer.
After two minutes of contemplative silence, one speaks.
HAMPTON: I simply cannot agree that the reinsertion of the unicorn scene confirms Deckard to be an android.
FANCHER: Replicant please; android is the book.
HAMPTON: The book's better.
FANCHER: Unarguable, but replicant is the correct title in this instance.
HAMPTON: Okay Mister Pedant; replicant it is then.
FANCHER: Thank you, and you're an idiot.
HAMPTON: Well you're a bigger fool, because your position is tenuous, to say the least, when you claim confirmation that Deckard is a replicant just because he dreams-
FANCHER: Waking dreams.
HAMPTON: -Waking dreams a full-blown unicorn, which you think we're supposed to associate with the discovery of the origami sculpture, presumably left by Gaff, outside his apartment.
FANCHER: Then what's the point if it isn't that?
HAMPTON: Art! Ever heard of art, symbolism, aesthetics of the craft?
FANCHER: Art? Come on; it's a science fiction movie.
HAMPTON: Yes, yes I know, but Ridley decided that in this particular SF movie he would employ certain ambiguous arty elements, and I believe they should not necessarily be interpreted so ambitiously. He may have been intending little more than subtlety and an ambience of esotericity.
FANCHER: Oh crap! Those sort of things don't work in sci-fi shows.
HAMPTON: Well then, maybe Blade Runner . . .
HAMPTON: Blade Runner may, just may . . .
FANCHER: Spit it out! What are you intimating?
HAMPTON: I am raising for serious consideration my good man, that just perhaps-
FANCHER: Perhaps what?
HAMPTON: Perhaps it doesn't work.
FANCHER: What? No! Don't say that, especially out loud. Don't even think it!
HAMPTON: And why not? Maybe it should be addressed. Ridley Scott should have done more than merely infer that Deckard is a replicant - not that he does so very successfully anyway.
FANCHER: It's an SF movie for god's sake. What makes you think that esoterica has to mean something esoteric, even if you recognise it as such?
HAMPTON: You're being bloody cynical.
FANCHER: Aren't you?
HAMPTON: I'm not being cynical. I'm being realistic. There's nothing there, just random esoterica. The way you - and you're not alone in this by any means - wish to interpret this stuff is simply wish fulfilment; looking for the flicker of humanity in Nexus-6 and ignoring the blatant inhumanity illustrated by the replicant's lack of respect for human life.
FANCHER: Now hold on! What about the lack of respect humans have for the replicants? Even Batty defends himself against JF Sebastian in that regard: "We're not computers, Sebastian."
HAMPTON: At least get the accent right.
FANCHER: Shut up. And Pris adds to it, quoting . . . um . . .
FANCHER: Was it Descartes?
FANCHER: No - I'm sure it was Descartes.
HAMPTON: Anyway, you and Ridley have really lost it. I refuse to accept that Ridley ever actually sets out to state that Deckard is a replicant.
FANCHER: (Shouting) He doesn't have to!
HAMPTON: Of course he does. Subtlety just doesn't work in SF movies!
FANCHER: No no, subtlety is never expected in sci-fi movies, so it's never noticed when it is there!
HAMPTON: Well actually, subtlety isn't noticed because cinematic science fiction is largely about spectacle. The idea of overwhelming sound, image and activity has always been the driving force behind the inspiration, concept, production, promotion and viewing of the super-slick SF flick.
FANCHER: Rather a sweeping generalisation; isn't it simply the case that the sci-fi that has attained classic status has largely been extravaganza of one type or another.
HAMPTON: No, no, no. Those films have defined the genre; big movies out to impress the audience with wilder graphics, better effects that previously screened: spectacle.
FANCHER: An attempt to expand our idea of reality by exploring the fanciful?
HAMPTON: Indeed. They've amounted to SFX Maestros' attempts to impress upon the poor naive audience that the Universe, in All God's Glory, is Larger, Wider and More Colourful than You Could Ever Have Imagined.
FANCHER: But it's an illusion of course, given that what's presented as "beyond the comprehension of mere mortals" must be conceived, created and filmed by mere mortals in the first place.
HAMPTON: Yep - somewhat of an act of pompous arrogance, if it wasn't simply out to entertain.
FANCHER: I guess all bigger-than-big movies can come across as self-righteous shit.
HAMPTON: Well yes, unless they manage to acquire that vital semblance of humility from the low bows and modest words of the gracious director as he accepts the accolades of the delighted and very moved sharers in his dream.
FANCHER: Oh very eloquent.
HAMPTON: Thank you; and fuck off.
FANCHER: So, sci-fi film is the cinema of the spectacle.
HAMPTON: SF is the cinema of the fantastique and the spectacle; and it has always been so, right back to Georges Melies' fin de siècle space-tripping adventure flicks.
FANCHER: But that stuff was rather naive and silly; fanciful nonsense.
HAMPTON: Precisely. Certainly, by today's standards, they were far more fantasy than science fiction, but still ground-breaking nevertheless. And they were the beginning.
FANCHER: I really think the trend towards spectacle would have properly begun in 1922, with Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse.
HAMPTON: Possibly, but no one remembers it. I mean, who's seen it? But everyone's seen the flawed masterpiece of Lang's 1926 Metropolis (albeit with disco music and pastel tinting), and because of it's popularity, or rather availability, that very cinematic, icon-laden opus made spectacle the trademark of the SF blockbuster. And films since then have built on the iconography by which we identify popular SF and made spectacle the raison d'être for this kind of movie. I mean, just look at the German film The Tunnel, followed soon after by Frankenstein.
FANCHER: The latter is really more a horror spectacular.
HAMPTON: OK, true; but my thesis is supported by Things to Come, the space opera serials, Rocketship X-M, This Island Earth, When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet and War of the Worlds in relatively quick succession. And though movies tried variation on the theme, they still maintained the central premise that science fiction is meant to excite the audio-visual senses with its stunning depiction of Things Beyond the Ken of Mortal Man. Even The Incredible Shrinking Man is about spectacle, although of inverse proportions.
FANCHER: Hmm. That's certainly true of most of the Alien Invasion movies; but that was a very '50s thing, to get all excited about big metal things that would send man into an unknown future full of great hopes and terrible fears.
HAMPTON: Ah, but the '60s and '70s kept it alive with the introduction of deservedly LSD-associated sci-fi epics like Barbarella, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Thunderbirds Are Go, Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run and Fantastic Voyage, which involves essentially the same kind of spectacle as Shrinking Man.
FANCHER: Hmm, possibly.
HAMPTON: And of course Star Wars made it virtually mandatory for the burgeoning sea of SF cinema to be primarily fanciful spectacle.
FANCHER: With the added element of myth-pretension. That'll teach Joseph Campbell to become trendy.
HAMPTON: Anyway, from the late '70s right to the end of the '80s we were subjected to the fully-formulated spectacle SF movie; Superman The Movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Escape From New York, The Empire Strikes Back, Tron and even Brazil.
FANCHER: Even though the last is culturally iconoclastic?
HAMPTON: That doesn't change its primary face. And there's no end in sight: RoboCop, Batman, Total Recall; even Terminator and Hardware.
FANCHER: (Laughs) Those last two were really spectacle-on-the-cheap.
HAMPTON: And some of it is even interesting. Of note, and at the risk of being contradictory, Alien-
FANCHER: Don't tell me you're about to be iconoclastic!
HAMPTON: -Alien succeeded in depicting a sense of immensity using the claustrophobic confines of the corridors of a large, dumb object.
FANCHER: What about Mother?
HAMPTON: Shoosh. The crew could not escape, and so were dwarfed by the sheer monstrosity of the Nostromo and that Freudian nasty scurrying around its air vents.
FANCHER: Frankly, I believe 2001: A Space Odyssey did something rather similar. It was a sort of Alien with the lights working, and the Freudian nasty was scurrying around the circuitry. Hey, did you notice how Mother acted like HAL's sister-in-law?
HAMPTON: But while Alien used the escape from those confines as its conclusion, 2001 chose to depict Man Confronting Those Visual Thingies Beyond His Puerile Imagination through spectacle. In fact 2001 is a true special effects movie.
FANCHER: Even if the ending was just a lot of solarised landscape shots. But you're still not convincing me. What about sci-fi being the genre of ideas?
HAMPTON: I'm not saying these films are nothing but audio-visual trips; some have very good concepts behind them and some excellent story-telling qualities, but even the most cerebral of them can't escape the fact that their main strength lies in a series of dominant images of power in different manifestations. They still have the express purpose of placing the viewer - not even the characters, necessarily - in a situation where it is all too clear that they are insignificant and unable to control much of even the immediate environment.
FANCHER: But this attitude within a movie is not exclusive to the field of SF.
HAMPTON: Ah, but the employment of spectacular visuals is now almost mandatory for an acceptable sci-fi entertainment piece.
FANCHER: What about all the exceptions? What about films like The Invisible Man, It Came From Outer Space, I Married A Monster From Outer Space, Village of the Damned, Charly, Colossus - The Forbin Project, The Stepford Wives, ET and The Quiet Earth; films that don't use big pictures to define them but rely instead on characterisation, subtle filmic technique, appropriate premise and the power of emotional manipulation to create an effective SF story?
HAMPTON: You do have a point, but even so, many of those films still resort to spectacle for climax or highlighting, no matter how brief.
FANCHER: Still, your generalisations are staring to irritate me.
HAMPTON: And so they should. Though I stand by my central premise, individual examples are easily argued in and out of the different lists. Indeed, many a good SF film employs both techniques.
FANCHER: So, do you feel that should be considered characteristic of the truly deserving, the classic?
HAMPTON: Indubitably. The Invisible Man, for example, employs the invisibility as a spectacle inseparable from its characterisation, and the spectacle of the machine that is the body of Colossus is inseparable from the power of the dialogue between organic human and AI. Thus, many SF movies shift between intelligent concepts and startling imagery. And some sit right in the middle, like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Blade Runner.
FANCHER: And possibly even The Abyss and Alien3.
HAMPTON: If you insist.
FANCHER: And nearly all those films I mentioned a minute ago.
HAMPTON: OK, OK, but while there are plenty of examples of intimate SF storylines, there is still a driving force in SF film which relies heavily on being spectacular to achieve its purpose.
FANCHER: Alright; let's say that I accept the argument that science fiction movies quite happily and deliberately use really neat pictures so that their audiences can feel really neat too. I still don't agree that this defines the genre. As I think I said, many non-genre films use the device to equal effect.
HAMPTON: Surely, but it's the fanciful nature of SF which provides the excuse to go way over the top, and to get away with it.
FANCHER: Yet it's still a case of "Beyond the mind of man", as conceived by the mind of man.
HAMPTON: Exactly. Now you're getting it.
FANCHER: I'm getting-
HAMPTON: But more than that: not just conceived but made by man: the things which are the spectacle are fabricated purely to further the suspension-of-disbelief, to amplify the illusion.
FANCHER: Sure, but-
HAMPTON: And obviously, because these objects simply don't exist other than as models, matte paintings and scale replicas in plaster and plywood, they must derive from the human brain reflecting on nature and mechanism.
FANCHER: Absolutely. Now if-
HAMPTON: In other words, this stuff has to be designed. And so, to re-iterate, SF film is almost always work of narrative and design; of action within an environment designed to excite the senses. You might almost say that the underlying consideration in most SF film is the confrontation of architecture. This is certainly true of movies set on futuristic worlds and in alien places (in the full sense of the word). I don't think it can be seriously argued that, in films like Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, THX1138, Logan's Run, Tron, Brazil, Blade Runner, Batman and Total Recall, architecture - in the sense of constructed landscape - is stylistically separable from action. Certainly the emotional and intuitive reactions of the audience would be different if these movies used different designs for their filmic environs.
FANCHER: That's obvious, but-
HAMPTON: Not as obvious as you might think.
FANCHER: -but I wish you'd shut your fucking mouth a minute!
HAMPTON: And because predictive design will always tend to reflect current fashion, regardless of what time it's supposed to depict, just as "Cars of the Future" colour supplements in magazines on the '50s and '60s reflected the dream-futures of the contemporary middle class, so we have marvellous SF movie futures full of giant buildings and wonderful machines, from Robby to HAL to C3PO, Rocketship X-M to the Enterprise to a Corillian Cruiser, from the Krell Civilization to Venusville.
FANCHER: There's no need to lecture me about the "future is now" principle; it's all part of that post-modern thing.
HAMPTON: Yes indeed, the post-modern thing. Interesting how an old architectural term can get so out of hand.
FANCHER: Only with puerile science fiction critics and popular culturists. Hey, did you know there's an avant-garde German Industrial band called Einsturzende Neubauten whose technique consists mainly of banging bits of metal together and who've gone as far as having Kabuki dancers in their act; all very po-mo stuff. And their name actually means something like "Confrontations with Architecture". Do you reckon a Jim Cameron clip could make them a hit with an SF movie audience?
HAMPTON: Don't be a prat.
FANCHER: Fair enough.
HAMPTON: Now, where was I?
FANCHER: Crumbling façades.
HAMPTON: Oh yes; post-modernism in SF is all the rage at the moment. And in the movie industry doubly so. I must admit though that it's a lot like when the new generation of critics in the seventies decided to apply Freudian psychology to horror movies, and suddenly it was all towering penis-monsters doing unspeakable to things to hordes of maternally-endowed females.
FANCHER: A common phallusy.
HAMPTON: Anyway, now everyone's going all post-modern over SF films, claiming them as metaphors exploring humanity's inherent technophobia.
FANCHER: Big deal. It all sounds just like the Red Terror movies of the fifties.
HAMPTON: Well, Hollywood got wind of this new trend and saw the Big Buck signs. They found that as long as they were consciously pandering to post-modern sensibilities, they could get away with parading ridiculously violent action as ironic reflection of social mores.
FANCHER: Like Total Recall and Darkman.
HAMPTON: And now some of them have come to realize that this kind of post-modern self-awareness in film does indeed allow a lot of scope for in-joking about politics, fast food, Hollywood and popular culture. Although they're not really in-jokes of course, as the audience are force-fed the correct responses.
FANCHER: You're talking about inherent self-parody. You're talking about RoboCop and Batman.
HAMPTON: Yes, but it's gone further than that. Just look at The Last Action Hero and Demolition Man. And here's the ironic bit; this development comes out of Hollywood's deep desire to seem all grown up. Suddenly they want to be seen as having put away their childish games, so they've created a new breed of action fantasy; movies supposedly aware of their own silly natures, so instead of being embarrassed about what they are, they play it for all it's worth. And they play largely on violence and in-jokes. You see, science fiction is considered a stupid genre fit only for stupid films. Thus these new SF movies are happily - proudly even - both violent and stupid.
FANCHER: This is the new sci-fi?
HAMPTON: Yes; a crass, low-brow genre habitually sniggering at its own bad humour and poking fun at itself.
FANCHER: Like a Hope and Cosby Road movie.
HAMPTON: Yes, but without the wit to justify it. With the new SF movie, Hollywood is having its cake and eating it too.
FANCHER: That's a very disturbing image when you phrase it that way. But what about Jurassic Park?
HAMPTON: Just a monster movie. Don't think about it.
FANCHER: But violence, sick humour and self-parody don't necessarily lead to bad movies.
HAMPTON: True, and some of these films can actually be quite fun in themselves. But this violent self-parody is establishing itself as the standard sci-fi. This stuff is redefining the cinematic genre of science fiction. And because of this, it will probably die: stone dead before it's got much farther than Melies' A Trip to the Moon. Fanciful spectacle, violence and self parody, like a drunken man who thinks everyone's laughing with him.
FANCHER: Hey - now you're depressing me. I mean, if science fiction has nowhere to go, what is there left to talk about?
HAMPTON: Plenty. For instance, I really feel that the director's cut of Blade Runner in fact does little more than create an ambiguous atmosphere with regard to Deckard's biological background.
FANCHER: Sometimes Hampton I just know you're full of it.
While HAMPTON sits in injured silence, FANCHER turns his head to look out of the window.
FANCHER: I still don't think he's coming, you know.
HAMPTON turns to look, and then seems to ponder something before he speaks.
HAMPTON: Have you considered that maybe he's been here all along?
The two men stare at each other in silence for several minutes before the globe is extinguished and the stage lights fade to black. However, the spectacle outside the window shows no real signs of abating, and eventually the audience realise they should probably leave.
Originally appeared pp. 27-34, Eidolon 14, April 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.