Science Fiction Movies: A Great British Tradition?
Speculative film fictions are intrinsically connected to open-minded American culture, from ‘Them!’ to ‘Star Wars’, but in its buttoned-down way the UK too has always been fascinated by science fiction. We’ve produced many of the greatest SF writers in the world, and yet at first glance it seems that this tradition has not been followed through to the moving image. Our earliest SF movies were plodding affairs. ‘Things To Come’ (1936) was written by HG Wells himself, but was dull and preachy. The year before, ‘The Tunnel’ was just as flat.
From there we virtually jump all the way to ‘Gorgo’, ‘Village of the Damned’ and the Quatermass series, which haunted my sleep. These last three series and subsequent films were as much a picture of petty-minded post-war authority as they were about aliens on earth. Kim Newman’s excellent new volume for the BFI on ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ sums up the mentality perfectly. SF reflects its times as well as positing future possibilities.
At the same time in the UK, SF was flourishing on sixties TV with ‘A For Andromeda’, Dr Who’, ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Pathfinders To Venus’, with the ‘Out Of This World’ and ‘Out Of The Unknown’ shows, with ‘Adam Adamant Lives’ and ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘The Avengers’. Eventually, Terry Gilliam, American-born but long settled in London, launched his series of dystopic fantasies about government control and loss of identity. But for a long time he remained a lone voice.
Duncan Jones’ low-budget ‘Moon’ may have launched a new phase in British SF, in that it returned to the cinema of ideas – in this case the new subject that’s increasingly under discussion – what it means to be human. The latest example is ‘The Machine’, with Toby Stephens, Denis Lawson and the astonishing Caity Lotz, one of the most intelligent examinations yet of artificial intelligence. In it, an AI expert tries to understand whether the injured soldiers he has helped save with the aid of electronic brain functions are working against his organisation now that they have new mentalities.
The scientist’s relationship with a robot uploaded with a dead girl’s brain becomes complicated when the standard test questions he uses to determine sentience start backfiring – is she thinking? Has she gained a soul? Can she be controlled, defied, betrayed? Does she feel?
Best of all is the uncomfortable ending which suggests there is still much more we don’t know about machine-to-machine interaction. And suddenly, the press is filled with scientists concerned that there are very real dangers connected to AI. The film couldn’t be more timely.
Now that CGI is within the reach of all directors, intelligent lower-budget SF seems back on the agenda. The recent TV series ‘Utopia’ was scuppered by its sophomoric mentality but had some good ideas, and there’s more in the pipeline, with Ben Wheatley’s highly-anticipated version of JG Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ soon to arrive.
Hollywood is rather more concerned with having low-budget SF fun. ‘Space Station 76′ is future-retro SF in which characters with seventies’ attitudes live on a ‘Silent Running’-style space station, and serves to expose outdated mentalities. It seems that cheap SF may be where the real ideas live.
Coming next is ‘Automata’, starring Antonio Banderas, which looks likely to add further fuel to the debate.