Science-fiction films visualise a near or distant future, and reveal faraway realms in order to tackle anew issues of collective visions and fears. They amaze us with spectacular sets and sumptuous special effects. The special appeal of these films is that they bring a distant future closer in an arresting manner.
Overpopulation, environmental pollution, pandemics, nuclear catastrophe, a two-class society, the surveillance state, technocracy, oligarchy, totalitarianism. In short, the apocalypse and the world thereafter. These are the favoured scenarios of science-fiction films. The appeal of science fiction lies in visions of possible future societies and their living environments that also express contemporary criticisms and concerns. How will human societies define themselves in the future? What forms of government will assert themselves? What challenges will confront humanity? Science-fiction film explores all of these issues. But positive depictions of the future remain the exception. The genre is dominated by dystopian visions.
Regardless of whether a science-fiction film narrative is set in the near or in the distant future, political dystopia is the result; democracy no longer exists. In the first film version of George Orwell’s renowned novel Nineteen Eighty–Four (1984, Michael Anderson, UK/USA 1956), the masses live in a surveillance state controlled by the police. The slogan “Big Brother is watching you” is an open proclamation to the population that loyalty to the regime is paramount. Without knowing for certain whether Big Brother is a real person or just a visual simulacrum, a pure projection, the population is indoctrinated and spied upon; apostates are subjected to torturous brainwashing.
In 1984, pure totalitarianism develops after a fictional 1960s nuclear war that allows a new world order to emerge. The scenario of nuclear catastrophe, triggered either by a world war or by technological or human failure, has been a staple of science-fiction films since the development and deployment of the atomic bomb. With the outbreak of nuclear war, films like Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (USA 1959) examine how the last living humans, in that case in mid-1960s Australia, can protect themselves from the encroaching fallout. The black-and-white film uses slightly skewed camera angles to reveal how deceptive the pretence of everyday life after the catastrophe is. Society in post-apocalyptic films is constantly on the brink of failure; always just about to fall apart. Andrzej Żuławski’s visionary science-fiction epos Na Srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, Poland 1978/1989) goes a step further and allows a new, mythical society to emerge amid the decay. By contrast, in Piotr Szulkin’s O-bi, o-ba: koniec cywilizacji (O-bi, o-ba: The End of Civilization, Poland 1985) the survivors are forced to retreat underground. On the Earth’s surface, the planet is in the grip of nuclear winter, reflected in the portrayal of the refuge, a bunker complex. Using gray-blue colors, Szulkin depicts a chilling (under) world that, as the title suggests, represents the end phase of civilisation.
In the ecological dystopia of Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (USA 1973), the main foodstuff for the overpopulated state is made not of books, i.e. culture, as in O-bi, o-ba: koniec cywilizacji, but rather of nature – in the form of human flesh. The film sketches a world of muted colours, in which water, food and accommodations are in short supply, and the population is recycled like trash. Jan Svěrák is also critical of global environmental pollution in his ironic 1988 pseudo-documentary Ropáci (Oil Gobblers, Czechoslovakia), about an unknown species – the oil gobblers of the title – that can survive only in polluted regions. The logical extension of the environmental End of Days can be seen in George Lucas’ THX 1138 (USA 1971). The people of the future live in a technocracy, with all individuality and emotion suppressed by medication. The film’s bright, sterile aesthetic underscores the representation of a highly efficient, fully-automated society.
Science-fiction author Neil Gaiman said of Alex Proyas’ Dark City (USA/Australia 1998), an urban noir version of an alien experiment on humanity, “The moment when Rufus Sewell breaks through the walls of the world to see what’s behind. That’s what science fiction and fantasy is for, after all: to take one behind the scenes, to force one to reinvent the paradigm”. What Gaiman is describing is the moment of crossing a frontier, one of the key fundamentals of science fiction. Those borders are not necessarily just temporal or metaphorical, but are often literally geographic partitions that are overcome in science-fiction films. This is particularly applicable to space travel, with humans leaving their home on Earth to explore the expanses of outer space. Early space flights, such as in Holger-Madsen’s Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars, Denmark, 1918) will become longer exploration and extended expeditions, such as in Ikarie XB 1 (Jindřich Polák, Czechoslovakia 1963), until finally, with the installation of space stations in Eolomea (Herrmann Zschoche, East Germany 1972), the conquest of outer space takes on territorial dimensions. Often, the space travellers encounter alien species on their journeys.
Encounter with the Other
The subject of the alien or unfamiliar Other is omnipresent in science fiction. Time and again, the films depict scenarios of humans coming into contact with extraterrestrial life forms, often showing us how aliens might look and live. The Danish silent Himmelskibet by Holger-Madsen premiered in 1918, making it one of the earliest science-fiction films ever made. It was a peaceful vision of Mars exploration and an encounter with the planet’s beings. The childlike aliens in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA 1977) also appear friendly, and approach humankind with curiosity. The spectacular final sequence combines the Oscar-winning camerawork of Vilmos Zsigmond with the special effects of Douglas Trumbull to reach a visual climax where they walk out of the UFO and invite an Earthling to join them in outer space.
Fear of the future and mass hysteria are characteristic of genre classics like The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, USA 1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, USA 1956). In The War of the Worlds, the first film adaptation of H. G. Wells’ eponymous 1898 novel, Martians initially land in southern California, where military forces fight them in vain. What follows is a worldwide invasion from outer space that cannot be stopped by military force. The threat is ultimately overcome by bacteria that attack the immune systems of the invaders. Sometimes the threat from outer space is first recognized by aliens and they come to Earth to warn its residents. That includes the starfish-shaped aliens in Kōji Shima’s Uchûjin Tôkyô ni arawaru (Japan 1956). These aliens take on human form and warn of an imminent collision with another planet.
Man, Machine, Monster
The Other can also appear within human society or even within an individual. Artificial intelligence, androids and robots raise the issue of the differences between human and machine. Marek Piestrak’s Test pilota Pirxa (Pilot Pirx's Inquest, Poland/USSR 1979) was the first coproduction between Poland’s state film studio Zespoły Filmowe and the Tallinnfilm studio in Estonia, which was then still part of the Soviet Union. In it, Pilot Pirx tests the suitability of androids for space missions. But neither Pirx nor the rest of the crew know who is a human and who is an android, made in perfect likeness of a human. In a near-philosophical conversation, Pilot Pirx and station doctor Nowak discuss the differences between real and false crew members. Nowak justifies his existence with the comment that “it is better to be a machine than nothing”. But in the decisive moment, Pirx triumphs over the technological perfection of the androids precisely because of his “human” indecision.
Questions of identity and of the Other in humans themselves become more complex beginning in the 1960s. In John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (USA 1966), Rock Hudson is brilliant as Arthur Hamilton. In this science-fiction tale that also uses elements of thriller and horror films, he is lured by the powerful “Company” to undergo radical rejuvenation and begin a second life. His new identity frees him from the constraints of everyday life and provides him with bacchanalian pleasures, although he sometimes fails to understand how to enjoy them. But to return to their earlier existence, clients must provide the Company with a replacement candidate who is willing and able to pay. In Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, West Germany 1973), Rainer Werner Fassbinder plays “deftly with the multiple layers of perception, consciousness, and construction and unmasks an objective reality as shaped by a particular interpretation – a recognition that, in this universe, is first declared madness, but is ultimately only interpreted as another variation of reality” (Marie Anderson, Welt am Draht). In the film, the Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science has developed Simulacron 1, a simulation system that precisely predicts society’s future. However, the leaders of this project for perfect computer technology are suffering from impaired identity and consciousness. The first director dies under mysterious circumstances believed to be suicide, while his successor suffers from dizziness, headaches, and depression – among other things. As in Kathryn Bigelow’s cyberpunk thriller Strange Days (USA 1995), the lines between simulation and reality become increasingly blurred in Welt am Draht. Rarely do science-fiction films give a clear answer to questions of individual identity.
Science-fiction cinema encompasses more than just artificial visions of the future, bolstered with the most up-to-date special effects available, along with appropriate costumes and sets. Ultimately, the films are doubtless also diagnostic criticisms of the eras they occupy. And they unsettle us. In these films, the future becomes a portrait, or a caricature, that extrapolates from the present.
The Retrospective opened with a screening of a 70mm print of Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea at the Kino International theatre, where the film premiered in September 1972. Some of the Retrospective films were shown in 2016 digitally restored versions screening for the first time in Germany. Among them are the Czech science-fiction classic Ikarie XB 1, the American 3D film gog (Herbert L. Strock USA 1954) and Na srebrnym globie by Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, which fell victim to the censors in 1978 and was not completed until 1989. Wolf Gremm’s Kamikaze 1989 (Kamikaze ’89) also underwent a painstaking 4K digital restoration in 2016.
Connie Betz, Rainer Rother, Annika Schaefer