The bio-horror of David Cronenberg is the most unsettling and unnerving of the speculative forays into human evolution. At the climax of Videodrome (1982), James Woods assassinates an industrialist shouting the slogan "Long live the new flesh!" It could be the rallying cry for the cinema of Cronenberg, where the evolution of the human species is explored variously through the effects of technology, disease, addiction and mutation on the human body. In Shivers (1975), a designer parasite - part aphrodisiac, part venereal disease - infects the population of an insular apartment building and transforms them into a pack of id-driven sex maniacs: night of the living libidos. Rabid (1977) turns disease into an evolutionary hiccup: an experimental skin graft mutates into a bloodsucking phallus and transforms Marilyn Chambers into a biological vampire-cum-Typhoid Mary: her victims turn into raving, bloodthirsty maniacs. The power of the psyche transforms the physical in The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981) while The Fly (1986) twists the original film about a monstrous mutation into the ecstasy and the agony of a man in the midst of a diseased transformation that is slowly turning him into a monster and seducing his human self with primal powers and animal instincts.
Videodrome (1982) and eXistenZ (1999) remain Cronenberg's most visionary works, psycho-sexual explorations of the marriage of flesh and technology. In Videodrome, shady cable operator James Woods chases an illegal signal and uncovers a murky conspiracy of mind control and technological mutations, but the distance between the objective and the subjective merge under the influence. Is his body really mutating or is he simply driven mad by transgressive pirate TV signals? eXistenZ (1999) is a virtual reality game so realistic it threatens to become real (or as Cronenberg himself describes it: "It's the game made flesh"). The layered study in disconnection, where the line between fantasy and reality doesn't so much blur as dissolve, explores how overpowering artificial stimulus comes back to effect physical reality - but with a chilly distance removed from the screamingly visceral assault of Videodrome. Both explore the pet obsessions of Cronenberg's speculative bio-horrors: the sexualization of sensory experience, fusions of flesh and technology that are as much evolution as science, disease and mutation, murky conspiracies and the shifting dimensions of realities.
Space: The Final Frontier
Science no longer seemed like fiction when George Pal imagined space flight and a moon landing by American astronauts in Destination: Moon (1950). Adapted from Robert Heinlein's novel, in consultation with leading physicists and astronomers, and shot with a documentary-like seriousness and attention to detail, it took the idea out of the realm of fantasy and into the realm of possibility. Though stodgy and stiff as drama, the ground-breaking special effects made it one of the most influential of science fiction films. Kurt Neumann's Rocketship X-M (1950) emphasized adventure over accuracy (the astronauts veer off course, missing the moon and landing on Mars instead, where they battle primitive survivors of a long-gone golden civilization) but still attempted to create a realistic physical environment.
The genre was revived and the age of space opera was reborn. In When Worlds Collide (1951), a handful of humans create a rocket to carry a handful of survivors from Earth to a new Eden in the stars. The climax, with riots, panic in the streets and the lift-off up a long track built on a mountain, is spectacular. In This Island Earth (1955), an alien kidnaps Earth's greatest scientists to help them in a war with a deadly enemy. More memorable, though, are the bug-eyed-monster designs and alien world creations that we are witness to as the scientists are flown across galaxy. Shakespeare's The Tempest was the inspiration for the glorious Forbidden Planet (1956), a futuristic mystery in a far flung future of interplanetary colonization. For all its lavender costumes (including Lori Nelson's mini-skirt) and lavish planetscapes, the film tells a thoroughly adult story with echoes of Freud as well as the most personable mechanical comic relief to whir through a movie: Robbie the Robot.
When the space program became a reality in the 1960s, American space age cinema reflected a grittier reality in films like Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964) (which, despite the loopy title, is a spare and rugged survival tale), Countdown (1968), and Marooned (1969), while Japan and Italy went for broke in increasingly stylized and fantastic outer space adventures. The Godzilla and friends sequels were constantly rocketing off to other planets, while all new interplanetary menaces were cropping up in The X From Outer Space (1967), The Green Slime (1968) and the truly surreal, almost incomprehensible and seriously tweaked Goke: Bodysnatcher From Hell (1968). In later years, Japanese animation took over the space opera in long running serials like Star Blazers and Robotech and a whole fleet of anime features. (See the anime primer for more details.)
Italy's Antonio Margheriti made science fiction a specialty in such neat little low budget films as Assignment Outer Space (1960), Battle of the Worlds (1961) and Wild, Wild Planet (1965), while Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (1965; retitled from the more vague but less misleading title Terror From Space) is a delirious delight, a haunted spaceship story on a misty otherworldly planet with a primeval landscape of jagged rocks, bubbling lakes of lava mud, purple skies and an ancient shipwreck where the enormous skeletons of alien creatures look suspiciously like the grandfathers of Ridley Scott's Alien.
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