by Sean Axmaker
Continued from Part Two.
When Computers Ruled the Earth
When HAL 9000 droned, "I'm sorry, Dave, I can't allow you to do that," in a voice both patronizing and unfeeling in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer became the newest addition to the pantheon of movie monsters. The electronic brain had developed a personality, an identity, a sense of self and, most importantly, the instinct for self preservation. The digital revolution became the digital evolution and humans hit the endangered species list.
Where HAL rebelled against the astronauts it was supposed to protect, the super-machine of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), a military computer so huge it takes up an underground fortress the size of a couple of football fields, turns itself into a tin (silicon?) dictator with the help of a twin across the world and a proto-global communications web. On a smaller scale, the Phase IV of Demon Seed (1977) turned an automated house into a suburban prison for housewife Julie Christie, the unwilling host mother to a strange marriage of man and machine. Tron (1982) remains in its own, self-contained universe: a video game world where human computer programmer Jeff Bridges finds himself battling digital villains in the first virtual reality game.
Of course, not all computer crises begin with spontaneous sentience: It's amazing what a little glitch can do. When the master control program of Westworld (1973) accidentally shuts down all life support to the human staff, the robots find themselves free of restraints and start living up to the potential of their programs, that is, they become android killers cutting a swathe through the complacent vacationers. In the sequel, Futureworld (1976), the system becomes self-policing and self-perpetuating when the robots man the computers and the humans turn their guests into androids under their control. Man and machine merge in Saturn 3 (1980) when the robotic creation of deranged scientist Harvey Keitel inherits the human master's lust for Farrah Fawcett.
But the super-machine of Colossus: The Forbin Project remains the godfather of digital dystopia movies. It echoes through James Cameron's hard-wired hardware time travel thriller The Terminator (1984) and the souped up sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The original, a scrappy, smart little drive-in action noir informed by vivid flashes to a battlefield of the future and dominated by a computer dedicated to exterminating humankind from the planet, was Ah-nuld's career-making film (the part he was born to play: a juggernaut android hunting the once and future hope of mankind). Directed with down-and-dirty grit and punctuated by sly bits of black humor, it was one of the seminal genre films of the 80s. In the effects-heavy sequel, where Schwarzenegger's hulking mechanical marauder has been reprogrammed and sent back in time to fight on the side of the humans, Cameron pushed digital effects to what was then the limit to create the next generation of Terminator: a liquid metal creation that is almost unstoppable. Cameron bowed out of the less ambitious but satisfyingly efficient Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which delivers an impressive display of property damage and a dark climax that you never would have believed director Jonathan Mostow had in him.
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix (1999) pushes the digital dystopia of man versus machine to its primal and metaphysical extremes simultaneously with the next evolutionary step in a computer hardwired to the planet and dedicated to its own self-preservation. The most stylish, inventive, kinetically dynamic computer game to play on a movie screen borrows from comic books, Hong Kong action films, cyberpunk fiction, and every American science fiction conspiracy and tech noir thriller of the past two decades. The philosophy and rules of engagement blur in the frenzy of bullets and kung fu and sheer energy drives the film beyond logic. The Wachowski Brothers get a little too heady in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), where "Know thyself" is taken to the level of computer code and chaos theory is introduced to the well-ordered digital universe. In spite of an impressive digital paintbox, the Wachowskis become victims of their own mythmaking ambition with The Matrix Revolutions (2003), a film that sounds more like a preprogrammed video game.
The Future is Now
As stated before, science fiction is a better barometer of its own time than a harbinger of the shape of things to come. Thus Jean-Luc Godard's futuristic spy satire Alphaville (1965) and Francois Truffaut's thoughtful (if somewhat bloodless) adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1966) explore the increasing alienation and regimentation of modern life and the fears of media control and Big Brother-like surveillance through futuristic what-ifs.
The same impetus rumbles through THX: 1138 (1971), George Lucas's alienated look at a sterile, authoritarian future (see Lucas's original short version here), and Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1971), where the future is dominated by hedonistic thugs and political opportunists. The primitive violence of sadistic street thugs, the film seems to argue, is a more pure state than the repressions of social restraint. All sorts of contemporary issues were spun into future nightmares: ecology and pollution (Silent Running, 1971), overpopulation (Soylent Green, 1973), conformity and control (the entertainingly misguided Zardoz, 1973, and The Stepford Wives, 1974), and the bread-and-circuses of sports and media spectacle (Rollerball, 1975, and the exploitation satire Death Race 2000, 1975).
Chris Marker's La Jetee (1964), the experimental short that inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995), is a heady rumination on memory built into a time travel paradox. It takes a more metaphysical tack, as do Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1971; famously promoted as the anti-2001), a study in grief and guilt and second chances set aboard a space station haunted with ghosts from the past and orbiting an enigmatic planet that may be alive, and Stalker (1979), a literal search for self through a forbidden land that promises to reveal the deepest dreams of those who visit. More metaphorical than speculative, they remain some of the most confounding and challenging examples of the genre.
Outside of the Star Wars space operas, science fiction in the 1980s was far less idealistic, more cynical and laced with a dark, knowing sense of humor: a bitter joke we made of a future that kind of scares us. Futuristic action films like The Road Warrior and The Terminator punctuate their gritty dystopias with punches of bleak humor, but it becomes even more pronounced in films like Escape From New York (1981), where even the premise - Manhattan has been walled off and turned into the worldÕs biggest high security prison - is sardonic crack about the state of modern urban America and the fears of increasing crime and poverty. Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (1987) is a contemporary corporate Frankenstein tale that, between the blasts of firepower from the walking tank of justice and the gorey splats of criminals, victims and bystanders alike, uses cynical jokes to draw connections between crime, corruption and capitalism in the modern business world. Less political but equally intriguing are the surreal connections made between UFOs, secret government conspiracies, sex, drugs, rock and roll and plates of shrimp in the punky fashion nightmare Liquid Sky (1982) and the hilarious Repo Man (1984).
More importantly, the 1980s saw Philip K. Dick become the unlikely guru for modern science fiction cinema. A pulp philosopher turned Godfather of the 1960s science fiction new wave, his stories became a meeting place between physical and the metaphysical. He died in 1982, mere months before the release of the landmark dystopian classic Blade Runner (1982) (based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but with a title borrowed from a novel by another troubled visionary, William S. Burroughs). In the twenty years since his death, over half a dozen of his works have been translated to the screen, from Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990) to Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) and Paycheck (2003), directed by John Woo.
His ideas have pollinated the creative ground of many other films, from the moral quandaries posed by technology in The 6th Day (2000) to the paranoia and sanity-threatening conspiracies of The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999). Kindred spirit David Cronenberg explores similar territory in Videodrome and eXistenZ, and the idea of reality as an ever shifting construct in Dark City (1998) and The Thirteenth Floor (1999) are right out of the PDK idea book. John Carpenter's They Live (1988), a satire of consumerism and alien conspiracies, is one of the few films to capture Dick's sneaky sense of humor as well as his philosophy.
As technology complicates our lives and presents new moral quandaries, his primal themes - what is reality and what does it mean to be human - seem all the more relevant today. The journeys of his heroes through schizophrenia, paranoia and the inability to ultimately tell the difference between what's real and what isn't become brilliant metaphors for the over-stimulation of modern life. Most film adaptations retain little more than the basic, brilliant premise of PKD's work - only the underrated Screamers (1995, from the short story "Second Variety"), an ingenious portrait of the evolution of technology as a Darwinian nightmare, can claim to be faithful to his story as well as his ideas - but even the seeds of his concepts sprout resonant ideas that the biggest special effects can't destroy.
Click back to Part One.