Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Movie Magic: On Appreciating Speculative Film

In this final essay installment, I turn to speculative films and the struggle of defining them, appreciating them, and their cinema legacy. 

 Movie Magic: On Appreciating Speculative Film

Even the earliest cinema was fascinated with portraying the speculative. Indeed, speculative films have developed and pushed film beyond its ability in the desire to imagine new worlds—even if the movie was too ambitious for the screen, such as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune. Some of the greatest directors working right now focus on speculative films, such as Taika Waititi, Denis Villeneuve, Ava DuVernay, Guillermo del Toro, and Ryan Coogler to name a few. The same can be said for some of the greatest actors working on screen, whether classically-trained like Lupita Nyong’o and Patrick Stewart or careers enhanced by speculative films like Hugh Jackman and Tessa Thompson—the overall impact on the US entertainment industry cannot be underestimated. The speculative film canon has impacted the film industry from talent to special effects to pushing the art form forward, regardless of the recognition such films have received. These films are woven tightly into the tapestry of American cinema and should be recognized as an ideal form for making movie magic.

I use the term speculative because as Vivian Carol Sobchack points out, it is difficult to define what should be included in the science fiction film canon. To even limit the discussion to science fiction draws a questionable line in the sand—are Black Panther (2018) or Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) science fiction or fantasy or science fantasy? So, I turn to the catchall term for literature, speculative. Using the term speculative also includes fantasy films in the discussion, even though they receive less recognition than science fiction, particularly between 1960 to 1990. Fantasy films should not be disregarded form this discussion, whether it’s for the special effects or career building ability of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) or the renewed interest in “monster” movies such as The Shape of Water (2017). Even when using a catch-all term such as “speculative film,” the boundaries of the canon are hard to define. Sobchack asks what makes a science fiction film and struggles to answer that question. Unlike the western film, visual aspects of a science fiction film are not consistent across movies: “One could create a list of such SF ‘objects’ as the spaceship which do indeed evoke the genre, but which are—specifically and physically—not essential to it: the New Planet, the Robot, the Laboratory, Radioactive Isotopes, and Atomic Devices” (65-66). Indeed, what constitutes a speculative film (if trying to separate speculative film from the American film canon, as is often done with speculative fiction and literary fiction) becomes increasingly difficult.

Interstellar movie poster featuring characters on an alien planet
For instance, Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), both directed by Christopher Nolan, are speculative films, but contain no similarities in terms of content or genre signifiers. Their connection is merely that the films cannot be and never have been replicated in the viewer’s reality. Yet, the American cinema’s obsession with World War I and II movies complicates this idea as that is yet another fantasy of a kind, whether it’s white washing who fought in the wars or reveling in the wholesale slaughter of Nazis, US critics love a good war movie. Indeed, film has always been about escape, as Marshall McLuhan describes: “The business of the writer or the film-maker is to transfer the reader or the viewer from one world, his own, to another, the world created by typography and film” (285). If this transfer from reality is so foundational to the film medium, then the type of film the viewer transfers to shouldn’t matter. Film automatically creates another world for the viewer, an escape from the viewer’s reality. 

One reason for undervaluing speculative films seems to be the status as “blockbusters,” films made on a hefty budget and meant to make a large profit. This budget means a large distribution and potentially more viewers for the film versus “smaller” movies that are often nominated for awards that might not be available to a wider audience and thus cannot make the same amount of profit regardless of their reception. This idea is a false dichotomy as independent or less well-known directors (to US audiences, at least) make speculative films every year, such as Bong Joon-ho directing Parasite (2019) and Snowpiercer (2013). Additionally, blockbusters are more easily dismissed as entertainment rather than art, thus separating movies that have important messages versus the latest superhero movies. Again, this undervaluing makes little sense as Black Panther (2018) had more to say about race in the US than Green Book (2018) could. Rather than dismissing a movie as entertainment because the actors wear spandex, the film should be understood for quality rather than a marketing tag.   

To that end, speculative films are important to American cinema’s canon and must be included in order to understand their impact on production, distribution, aesthetics, or consumption. From the beginning, early films were able to depict the impossible, such as in Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) directed by Georges Méliès. Indeed, depicting the impossible continues to motivate filmmakers, such as Christopher Nolan working with physicists to as accurately as possible visualize a black hole in Interstellar. This deep desire to actually create the impossible for the screen is one of the lasting influences of speculative film and can be seen in historical dramas, such as Titanic (1997), Gladiator (2000), or 1917 (2019). Indeed, just as Méliès depicts visiting the moon, so Stanley Kubrik depicts a journey through space complete with artificial gravity and spaceship hostesses. 

Movie poster for 2001 featuring characters on the moon
Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is not only a film canonical to American cinema in general but also to speculative film. Just as the monolith changes the perception of those who engage with it, so Kubrik’s film attempts to shift the perception of the audience through a depiction of the impossible. Sobchack summarizes the shift in perception: “Whether or not one finally accepts the mysticism of 2001’s planets, moons, and monoliths, one has to agree that we do leap forward visually into the unknown by the transformation of our perception. There, before us, in the same frames, we can see all the sun and the moon and the Earth, or all of Jupiter and its moons” (101). Indeed, Kubrik’s film revels in moments of profound alienation from previous knowledge through the use of cinematography and aesthetics. When early man becomes capable of using tools for murder, the world shifts. Similarly, when the robot HAL experiences the singularity and kills humans, another shift occurs, ultimately leading to Kubrik’s perception of the next stage of evolution, a sort of star child, or to become the unknown. While Kubrik is considered a canonical filmmaker to American cinema in general, to understand his importance to speculative film, it is perhaps easiest to analyze Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar as a response to 2001. Indeed, every major plot point responds to Kubrik’s view of humanity presented in 2001. 

Whereas Kubrik opens the film with humanity’s beginning on planet Earth, Interstellar begins with humanity’s last days on planet Earth as human-caused climate change has made the planet nearly uninhabitable. The protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was once an excellent pilot but lost his job due to the need for farmers as much of humanity has died from starvation. Even so, Cooper believes humanity should be exploring space instead of remaining on Earth: “Well, we used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt” (Interstellar 00:16:40-8). Cooper gets his wish when his daughter Murphy discovers a gravitational anomaly inside their house which provides coordinates for NASA’s secret headquarters. Cooper’s old professor runs an exploration program intent on finding a new home for the human race. Cooper agrees to join the mission, but there’s a cost—due to crossing through a wormhole, they are unsure if they will be able to return or how long it could take them due to the relativity of time. As this summary suggests, the film is much more idealistic than Kubrik’s 2001, but it purposefully contrasts with 2001’s nihilism. 

For example, Cooper’s motivation to save humanity stems from his desire to save his family. Kubrik’s astronauts Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Bowman (Keir Dullea) are passive and emotionless on their mission. Indeed, Nolan references the scenes where Poole and Bowman receive communication from home by including a similar visual set-up where family members can convey video messages. Whereas Poole and Bowman receive their family’s messages with no emotional response, the video messages from Cooper’s family evoke a strong emotional response, particularly after a black hole’s gravitational pull causes Cooper to “lose” over twenty years and he receives a backlog of messages, which include his son’s decision to stop sending communications. Cooper is reduced to sobs as the video messages show his son aging, the death of his first grandchild, and the birth of his second grandchild. These scenes are in stark contrast to the expressionless responses of Bowman and Poole, who seem to have more interesting relationships with the robot HAL than their families. Whereas Kubrik’s film seems to suggest that technology has replaced familial relationships, Nolan depicts the opposite: technology as a tool to help a father save his family.       

One of the most memorable characters in Kubrik’s film is HAL, who operates the spaceship “Discovery.” Indeed, Sobchack contrasts the memorable HAL to the astronauts: “In comparison to the astronauts, creating the context which emphasizes the lackluster and mechanical quality of human speech spoken by the humans, HAL—in the first part of the flight—can almost be regarded as a chatterbox, a gossip, emotional” (177). Nolan’s robots look much different than HAL but exhibit more personality than some of the astronauts. Indeed, TARS jokes about becoming robot overlords of the humans, and Cooper asks TARS for information about another astronaut’s love life. The robots are certainly memorable but unlike HAL, they do not experience the singularity and exhibit self-awareness. Rather, TARS sacrifices himself at Cooper’s order, even prompting another astronaut to say, “‘Cooper, you can’t ask TARS to do this for us,’” to which TARS responds: “‘It’s what we intended, Dr. Brand. It’s our only chance to save the people on Earth’” (Interstellar 2:14:27-43). Indeed, the role of technology ultimately supports and provides for the survival of humanity, unlike in Kubrik’s film where Sobchack argues that “although the film does not in any way deny the aesthetics of technology, it gives us in [the spaceship] ‘Discovery’ a mechanism which barely tolerates and finally rejects human existence” (70). As demonstrated by TARS dialogue, Nolan rejects the idea that the technological singularity and the self-awareness of artificial intelligence is the next stage of human evolution. Rather, robots remain tools to save humanity.    

Perhaps the strongest response to 2001 comes at the end of Interstellar. While Bowman enters the obelisk, so Cooper enters a blackhole. Bowman had no purpose in entering the obelisk, but Cooper hopes that he might be able to send information back about what happens beyond the event horizon of a black hole in order to help solve the problem of gravity and space travel. Both Bowman and Cooper have psychedelic experiences while entering their respective black spaces. Both end up trapped in strange duplications of human spaces. Bowman is stuck in some sort of bizarre living space while Cooper falls into repeated depictions of his daughter’s room. Here, the similarities end. Bowman becomes obsessed with himself as he finds different versions of himself growing older whereas Cooper becomes a “ghost” for his daughter, the true hero of the movie. 

Cooper does not meet the next phase of human evolution, but they provide the information his daughter needs in order to save the rest of humanity. Cooper’s love for his daughter is how he is able to communicate with her across time and space with the aid of evolved humanity, who is no longer bound by time: “‘Love, TARS, love. It’s just like Brand said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable. It’s the key!’” (Interstellar 02:30:35-42). While Nolan ends on the idea of love between a parent and child as the ultimate savior of humanity, Kubrik’s Bowman seems to evolve into a childlike form of some sort, but as the star child takes no action, the viewer is unable to guess the role of this evolution. While there are many visual comparisons between 2001 and Interstellar, Nolan rejects Kubrik’s nihilistic and emotionless depictions of humanity and instead depicts a future where familial love is as strong as gravity.

Speculative films have been part of the cinema tradition since some of the first moving pictures. Indeed, many major directors have contributed to the traditional American cinema canon and the speculative canon, such as Kubrik and Nolan. While it’s been well-documented how speculative films have pushed forward the speculative effects industry through franchises like Star Wars, Kubrik and Nolan also demonstrate how their inclusions of science was recognized for accuracy in film. The undervaluing of speculative film seems to rely more on the whims of Hollywood in American cinema than on quality. While a large blockbuster is often rejected as simply “entertainment” regardless of the quality or themes of the work, plenty of small speculative films are also disregarded, such as Prospect (2018) or Fast Color (2018). Indeed, small and large speculative films are often fascinating to watch for how they transform our reality through the magic of cinema. Perhaps more than any other genre, speculative films engage with movie magic to a degree that much of the canon cannot attain. Due to its historical precedent as a foundational part of American cinema to the development of special effects and filmmaking techniques, speculative cinema deserves to be recognized and greater appreciated as a canonical part of American film.    

Works Cited

2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrik. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968.

Interstellar. Directed by Christopher Nolan, Paramount Pictures, 2014.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press, 1999.

Sobchack, Vivian Carol. The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction Film 1950-75. A. S. Barnes and Co, 1980.

Phoebe Wagner is a PhD candidate at University of Nevada, Reno. When not writing or reading, she can be found kayaking at the nearest lake. Follow her at phoebe-wagner.com or on Twitter @pheebs_w.