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Science Fiction
by Sean Axmaker

Continued from Part One.

It Came From Within

Atomic fears gave way to other, more unsettling poisons and diseases in the 60s. In The Last Man on Earth (1964), adapted from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and remade as The Omega Man (1971), a plague has practically killed off of humanity and turned almost all of the survivors into biological vampires. In George Romero's influential Night of the Living Dead (1968), perhaps the first truly modern American horror film, the dead rise to eat the living due to fallout from a space mission. While the viral cause is merely a foggy assumption in Romero's film (he made it more explicit in the conspiracy thriller The Crazies, 1973), it's the gripping mystery at the center of The Andromeda Strain (1970). Methodically directed by Robert Wise from an adaptation of Michael Crichton's all-too-plausible novel, science is at the forefront of this science fiction thriller as scientists race the clock to understand the alien microbes that have decimated a desert town, before it mutates and spreads.

eXistenZ

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.

The sexy, silly Barbarella (1967), a titillating cheesecake-and-kink romp through pop art planets, is like an international version of an Italian space opera, produced by Italian Dino de Laurentiis, directed by French eroticist Roger Vadim, adapted from a risqué French comic strip by American satirist Terry Southern, and starring a cast of British, French and Italian starlets and character actors headed by American pin-up Jane Fonda, who opens the film with a zero-gravity strip tease. The tongue-in-cheek humor and retro-futurism design was revived in the campy Flash Gordon (1980), which managed to be almost as kinky without seeming overt about it (it got a PG rating), not to mention the definitely more overt skin flick parody Flesh Gordon (1974), best remembered for its golden-age style special effects and lively stop-motion sequences rather than the community theater performances and tawdry production values.

The ground under science fiction shifted with Stanley Kubrick's visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a meeting of science, speculation and metaphysics. He turned space flight into ballet at the same time that he visualized the most detailed and believable look into the future of space travel (with help from Douglas Trumbull), created a computer with more feeling than its human comrades and redefined human evolution as the greatest trip of all, though with a road map drawn by another ancient race. After all these years it still feels revolutionary: the startling cut that connects weapon-wielding early man to space-going modern man and the astounding play with point of view in the evolution sequence at the end still sends my head spinning. John Carpenter's Dark Star (1974) sent up the metaphysics with a deep space crew slowly going crazy and a talking bomb on a quest of self discovery.

Lost in the shadow cast by 2001 was Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), a head trip through the looking glass where an astronaut lands on a mirror image of Earth. Produced by "Supermarionation" creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, it's as dramatically lackluster as most of their live action work, but also boasts the most impressive and beautiful special effects and spaceflight models this side of Kubrick and Trumbull.

Planet of the Apes (1968) may have been little more than pop sci-fi done up with style by Franklin J. Schaffner, but it was a far more important and influentual stranger in strange land adventure. American astronaut Charlton Heston wakes up from untold years of suspended animation, bares his chest and leads the human rights revolution. Adapted by Rod Serling from the Pierre Boulle novel with plenty of character and an undercurrent of humor, it was followed by four sequels and a TV series, none of which touch the macho glory of the original (though the nuclear cult that lives Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 1970, provides a compelling twist in the sequel). It remains a striking, exciting classic of late 1960s science fiction, a kick-ass adventure with a bizarre but cleverly conceived vision of an alternate reality, savage landscapes and superb art direction, and a legendary climax that never fails to provide a final kick.

It took Star Wars (1977), an updated cliffhanger serial with state-of-the-art effects and a delirious sense of adventure, to really kick the contemporary space opera back into gear. The knock-offs followed in quick succession: Laserblast (1978), Starcrash (1979), Galaxina (1980) and the Seven Samurai-inspired Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) from Roger Corman's stable (written by John Sayles). While Battlestar Galactica battled Cylons in deep space dogfights on TV, the influential TV series Star Trek was brought to the big screen with the stodgy Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1980) and took off with the jaunty swashbuckler of a sci-fi adventure Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the best of the Star Trek movies.

Return of the Jedi

But George Lucas ruled the cineplexes with his own sequels: the dark middle chapter The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the cuddly, Ewok-filled Return of the Jedi (1983) and the recent prequels (which were helmed by Lucas himself): The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002). Technically dazzling and dramatically soulless, Lucas's return to the director's chair shows that he's forgotten the simple joys that charged the first Star Wars and transformed millions of adventure-hungry kids into instant science fiction fans.

As different as could be from such space operas was Dune (1984), the adaptation of Frank Herbert's cult epic with a similarly mythic structure and an ecological and social subtext. Directed by David Lynch, the film is visually spellbinding, imaginative, ambitious and too dense and dark for a film culture weaned on the bright, energetic simplicity of the Star Wars films. Such ambition wasn't seen again until the likes of The Matrix and (though hardly science fiction) Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Click on to Part Three and our recommendations....

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