Posted by gregferrara on March 10, 2013
Like most genres of film, Science Fiction has many sub-genres within a one all-inclusive umbrella but there’s the odd, subtextual mix of the fun and the disturbing in almost all of it. No matter how fun it may be to watch, just under the surface or perhaps to the side of the screen, in a scene that may take up only a few seconds, something profoundly disturbing is happening. In something as fun as Star Wars (more fantasy adventure than sci-fi, I know) an entire planet is blown up. Millions of children, families, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, babies, animals, beloved pets, you name it, all dead. In an instant. In Forbidden Planet, one man’s own arrogance and desire to never leave his adopted home results in the deaths of every member of a landing colony, save himself and his daughter. In Them!, a little girl sees her whole family killed by giant ants. It’s a safe bet she will be deeply troubled and mentally isolated the rest of her life. What fun! How disturbing.
I’ve written about sci-fi a lot here and elsewhere. On the Morlocks alone I’ve already written two pieces sci-fi’s darker side, here and here, so it’s no surprise that I’m returning to it yet again as it’s a subject that interests me, but this morning, as I was looking through my DVD collection and my eyes landed upon Logan’s Run (yes, I have Logan’s Run and, yes, I enjoy it) I thought to myself, “That’s a really disturbing story.” And then I thought of Silent Running and, hell, even Wall-e. They all share the same conviction that the planet, at some point, became inhospitable to either human life, plant life or both. In Logan’s Run (the movie, not the book, which is vastly different and a little more interesting and also explains a bit more) humanity lives under a dome, isolated from the environment. Now the movie focuses on the fact that computers run everything and the population is systematically thinned by killing off anyone who reaches the age of 30 but what the movie never quite answers is why are they all living under a dome. And when they exit, and find Washington, DC (after crossing water so I take it the dome city is located in Virginia), it’s covered in ivy and uninhabited except for an old hermit and lots of awesome cats. Obviously, at some point, the world became so horrible that the population escaped underground and constructed domes to wait it out and then, as in Wall-e, forgot they were waiting anything out and became sedated and addled in their new existence.
Now I know what you’re thinking but I don’t find the whole “civilization has been destroyed”, ala Planet of the Apes, as disturbing as the fact that everyone has forgotten it was ever there to begin with. That’s the really disturbing implication of Logan’s Run: We are all forgotten. Every achievement, every mistake, every triumph, every horror, everything always and ever, forgotten. And that old hermit is about as knowledgeable of the world around him as the cats (but not nearly as adorable) so there’s little chance of culling any history from him. And the fact that the dimly lit dome city inhabitants seem eager to “learn” from him at the end signals dire straits indeed for the remaining years of humanity.
Silent Running (later used as a kind of loose inspiration for Wall-e) deals as well in disturbing themes of loss and neglect. In that movie, domes carrying the remaining plant life of planet earth orbit Saturn, awaiting orders to one day return so that the earth may become green once again. Leaving aside the fact that the earth could not function as a vital, living planet without plants (hey, sometimes you have to cut sci-fi some slack to make it work), the implications of the story are disturbing indeed: Not only did we make a planet inhospitable to plant life, we eventually stopped caring. It’s the other side of the same coin with Logan’s Run. The horror isn’t just that it happened, it’s that, at some point, everyone stopped giving a damn. When the astronauts manning the plant domes are given the order to jettison the domes and head back to earth, one man, botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), takes matters into his own hands to save the plants but in the end his success is questionable (one dome is saved, yes, but what it’s ultimate fate will be we will never know).
Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer, is wrapped in disturbing themes from beginning to end but, again, the main disturbance is that of loss of self. In the case of Seconds, literally. Unlike Logan’s Run and Silent Running, where we can at least optimistically assume that the disasters that befell humanity were gradual and neglectful, in Seconds, the loss is purposeful and immediate. Its characters make the decision to forget the past, wipe the slate clean and start from scratch, no matter the result. It is a much more disturbing film than Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (disturbing enough) because it is not leavened with humor but rather, presented as a stark, cold meditation on what it means to completely lose one’s uniqueness as a human being.
In the film, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) chooses to have his life erased (some poor soul is killed in his place and he undergoes reconstructive surgery) so that he may be reborn as a young man, ready to become what he always wanted to be instead of what the world told him to be. He is transformed into Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and quickly realizes that everything he thought was tying him down and holding him back were the very things that defined him as a person and, thus, made his life worth living. From beginning to end, it as stark and unsettling a look at what makes an individual who they are as there has ever been.
These three films (Seconds, Silent Running, Logan’s Run) all came within a ten year period and echoed the disturbing outlook of the sci-fi around them (The Terminal Man, Soylent Green) making the sixties and seventies my favorite period ever in the realm of sci-fi. Oh, there were optimistic and adventurous sci-fi movies in that period, too, and for a while, in the eighties, it looked as though sci-fi would forever more be whimsical and fluffy. But alien invasions and dystopian futures kept the fires burning for the type of profoundly disturbing sci-fi themes that attract me as a viewer. The idea of a society forgotten, a planet neglected or a persona willingly thrown aside are subjects that instinctively bother us because the implications seem too horrifying to face. And maybe we never will as long as sci-fi keeps exploring the possibilities and we keep watching.
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