Exploring Science Fiction: Hugh Ruppersberg’s ‘The Alien Messiah’

 In this article I will explore Hugh Ruppersberg’s article ‘The Alien Messiah’ (written in 1987) which explores the uses of a messiah figure in science fiction. Ruppersberg asserts that science fiction reflects contemporary fears that ‘civilization has run amok and is about to destroy itself’.(1.) An important contemporary fear is the concern over the increased mechanization of society and the alienation of the individual in the modern world. Ruppersberg notes that in many science fiction films:

 

the alien messiah serves to resolve these problems, at least imaginatively, to replace despair with hope and purpose, to provide resolution in a world where solution seems impossible.(2.)

 

The alien messiah figure is ‘an overtly or covertly religious personage, whose numinous, supra-human qualities offer solace and inspiration to a humanity threatened by technology and the banality of modern life’.(3.) According to Ruppersberg the alien messiah has two major functions or stages in a film’s narrative. The first is to establish or highlight the ‘vulnerability and weakness of the human characters’.(4.) Ruppersberg cites The Last Starfighter (1984), Cocoon (1985), E.T. (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as prime examples of human characters suffering from a weakness or problem beyond their apparent ability to solve (old age, a trivial and meaningless existence, a boy upset over his parents’ collapsed marriage etc.). The second major narrative stage is the resolution of the problems and weaknesses of the human characters (through the alien’s engagement with the humans). In the films Ruppersberg cites trivial lives are made important, the old are granted immortality and everlasting friendship is gained.

 

Ruppersberg notes that the alien messiah figure is also not always non-human. In The Terminator (1984) the messiah is a human time-traveller sent back in time to stop the termination of humanity’s last hope. The messiah is still alien however, because he hails from a different time zone – and therefore holds vital knowledge which will eventually secure the safety of Sarah Connor. Whether the messiah figure is human, robotic or other is unimportant, the essential element, according to Ruppersberg, is that the figure is portrayed as being from a technologically, and often morally, advanced and alternative society. Ruppersberg notes that this essential element to the messiah figure comes with the implicit assumption ‘that advanced technology breeds not only miraculous wonders but moral redemption as well’.(5.) This is not to say that technology never aids immorality, however the corruption and immorality tends to be just as often in the heart of man, rather than an explicit side-affect of technology. This is seen in WarGames (1983), it is not really the super-computer who is immoral or corrupt, it only calculates the cost of strategic moves, it is humanity’s flaws and inability to accept other’s ideological and social differences that corrupts technology. Even in The Terminator you could argue that the killing machines are a human produced inhuman, a consequence of the drive for efficiency and profit.

 

Ruppersberg uses Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an example of the messianic nature of technologically advanced beings. Ruppersberg notes that the ‘aliens are exalted by their own technological sophistication’ and that ‘Technology has redeemed them from original sin, made them godlike, sent them to us with the best of intentions’.(6.) The aliens technological superiority makes them both morally superior. Their messianic function is also illustrated in the films conclusion when they carry up Roy Neary who attempted to prove their existence. Ruppersberg explains that the aliens rescue Roy Neary because he is ‘searching for meaning, for a faith, which the aliens provide by carrying him aloft’.(7.) Roy Neary’s belief in what he witnessed, which continues in the face of disbelief and scepticism, is rewarded with ascension to the heavens. This is evidently a direct allusion to Christianity and religion in general.

 

ceot3k

 

Ruppersberg also highlights the religious allusions in E.T. Ruppersberg notes E.T.:

 

acts out his messianic role by relieving the boy’s confusion and giving him a sense of worth. He does this through friendship more than anything else. He also heals wounds, revivifies dead flowers, and levitates fruit and bicycles.(8.)

 

The allusion to the miracles of Jesus is clear; the alien in E.T. is imbued with the same messianic ability in the film’s narrative. The consequence of the alien’s messianic role, and the interpretation Ruppersberg agrees with, is that it communicates that nothing on earth is able to provide the boy with hope and a meaning in his life and that it is only faith in something otherworldly which produces meaning and hope.

 

2002_e_t_the_extra_terrestrial_013

 

The alien messiah is not always without its darker side. In The Day the Earth Stood Still Ruppersberg notes:

 

the robot Gort serves as a policemen to the people who created it. He uses his ultimate power to maintain peace, law, and order, his owner assures us, and to destroy those who turn to violence. Yet we are also told that he is capable of destroying the Earth, which he would not hesitate to do if he found it necessary.(9.)

 

Obviously the robot is intended as a positive force, but the reality of an earth without violence would be remote even in a technologically advanced world – though the film’s assumption is that technology brings reason and peace – and therefore the earth would be under threat. (There is also the possibility that the robot Gort realizes that all organic-organisms are prone to violence and destroy everything but the mechanical.)

 

Ruppersberg’s survey and exploration of the alien messiah leads him to the position that those films and filmmakers he explored have a defeatist attitude, an ‘inadequacy and insecurity and a parallel fatalistic certainty that the problems of our contemporary world are insurmountable’.(10.) Ruppersberg continues that the alien messiah and the films he explored ‘suggest that the only satisfactory way of addressing the world’s problems is imaginative appeal to super-human agencies’.(11.) Ruppersberg believes the films, which utilize the alien messiah, communicate that humanity is impotent and unable, without the help of higher-beings, to solve their own problems. Ruppersberg concludes by stating that the films:

 

reflect reactionary, defeatist attitudes in their makers… If they do not reject science and technology, they at least ignore it. If they regard the future with hope and wonder, they simultaneously discourage the hope that humankind will be more capable in the future of handling the problems that confront it today. Entertaining as they are, these films are escapist fantasies grounded in the patterns of the past instead of the possibilities of the future.(12.)

 

To Ruppersberg, these films cite faith in the metaphysical as the only refuge from the alienating force of capitalism and modernity. Ruppersberg sees this as an attitude replicating reactionary, pre-modern attitudes (accept your lot and you’ll be rewarded after death). Ruppersberg is also arguing that a more positive message would be that it is within humanity’s grasp – if they do x, y or z – to improve and make the world better (without the aid of extraterrestrial deities). Ruppersberg asserts that this would be more in-line with what science fiction should be; films based on the possibilities of the future.

 

Ruppersberg’s article is interesting and thorough in his exploration of the alien messiah, however he slightly underestimates the prevalence of the messiah figure in Hollywood and western literature. Sometimes sought after [The Magnificent Seven (1960)] or stumbling into the action [Die Hard (1988)] the messiah figure appears in many genres. They facilitate interesting, exciting and action-packed narratives [the antithesis of the messiah-figure narrative can be found in the excellent Umberto D (1952)]. The messiah figure in traditional action films reaffirm humanity’s ability to solve its own problems – and cause them – which appears to be converse to the use of the messiah figure in science fiction. Ruppersberg’s article uncovers this – although there is no mention of the messiah figure in other films than those of the science fiction and biblical genre – and illustrates that a certain mood of despondency, surrounding humanity’s ability to solve their own problems, exists in science fiction films which utilize the messiah figure [whether one agrees with Ruppersberg’s conclusion is another matter.] Ruppersberg’s article is important in its exploration of the science fiction genre.

 

1. Hugh Ruppersberg, ‘The Alien Messiah’, in Annette Kuhn (ed), Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, London: Verso, (1990), pp. 32-38, p. 32.

2. p. 32.

3. pp. 32-33.

4. p. 33.

5. p. 35.

6. p. 35.

7. p. 35.

8. pp. 35-36.

9. p. 36.

10. p. 37.

11. p. 37.

12. p. 37.

Postmodernity and the Concept of the Cyborg

Identity is a central issue in postmodernism and many theorists and artists have argued that identity is ‘infinitely mutable rather than being based on some essential nature’.(1.) An important concept is the subject in a technologically advanced capitalist society. Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg is an investigation into, and formulation of, an identity which refuses binary opposition. Haraway uses the term Cyborgs because it means a Being which is part human and part technological construct. The technological aspect is important because to Haraway ‘communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools [enabling the] recrafting [of] bodies’.(2.) Haraway states ‘neither Marxist nor radical feminist points of view have tended to embrace the status of a partial explanation: both were regularly constituted as totalities’.(3.) According to Haraway Marxism and radical feminism, both “Modernist”(4.) in their belief in political emancipation, insist on essentialist, rationalizing understandings of identity. These organizing systems, grand narratives, according to Haraway, tend to exclude oppositional and marginal discourses (voices) dominating and or excluding “others”. Haraway asserts that these rationalizing forces offer ‘unity-through-domination’.(5.) This domination or violence, according to the anti-essentialist postmodernist position, is what led to ‘Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulags’.(6.) Haraway asserts that the Cyborg rejects ‘identity grounding’ because the Cyborg would be unafraid ‘of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints’.(7.) The Cyborg is a chimera, a mixture, a hybrid. The Cyborg isn’t a Being defined by either/or – the binary construction of identity found in rationalizing “Modernist” grand narratives – but a Being defined by both/and. The Cyborg, as Malpas explains, ‘is a means of challenging those dualism that shape modern accounts of identity’ such as self/other white/black male/female: the Cyborg potentially offers ‘heteroglossia'(8.) A term originating from Mikhail Bakhtin, heteroglossia is the coexistence of multiple meanings, connotations, within one word, phrase, utterance, and in the case of Haraway’s Cyborg, a Being. Haraway’s ‘cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled post-modern collective and personal self’, an ‘organism’ according to Haraway, both social and private.(9.) To Haraway the Cyborg is a positive inhuman, a required irrational response to the rational project of Modernity and the Enlightenment.

Haraway sees the “techno-sciences” as a positive vehicle enabling a polysemic identity. However postmodernist theorists vary on the nature of science and the potential it offers. A central criticism of techno-science comes from Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard notes that ‘the development of techno-sciences has become a means of increasing disease, not of fighting it’.(10.) One such instance of science increasing disease is the over-prescription of antibiotics which has lead to the production of “superbugs” which are resistant to nearly all forms of medication. The MRSA bacterium mutated from the common bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus because of the over-prescription of antibiotics and is responsible for the death of 1,593 people in the UK in 2007 and is a growing epidemic due to an ‘increase from 51 to 1,652 deaths between 1993 and 2006’.(11.) The techno-sciences are primarily motivated by its own continuing evolution and as Lyotard notes ‘doesn’t respond to a demand coming from human needs’.(12.) The techno-sciences are ‘determined by the pragmatic logic of the markets rather than the overarching dream of a universal human good’ and therefore a part of ‘a system whose only criterion is efficiency’.(13.) The techno-sciences are explicitly linked to enabling the continuing domination of Western capitalist society.

Terminator3-09

If we engage and willingly enter into a symbiotic relationship – recrafting our bodies through science in Haraways’ words – with the techno-sciences, as the Cyborg requires, then we cannot truly be sure that the increasingly dangerous production of superbugs will not ensure that we must retreat fully into techno-science, departing from our biological identity, and succumbing to the nightmarish vision of the Robot. The Robot, and the problem of techno-science and potentially the Cyborg, is that it is programmed in computer logic which reduces identities into workable, reproducible logarithms and mathematical commands; a language of mechanical efficiency programmed to serve capitalist markets. The totalizing force of computer logic seems to be similar if not identical to the rationalizing systems of thought the Cyborg was not meant to be. The tyranny of Modernism is replaced by another tyranny; the tyranny of androgyny. The binary of either/or is replaced by both/and of the Cyborg. Rather than a positive, both/and seems to be a synonym of, and the road to, a homogeneous mass which covers and entails everything; the Cyborg comes to be another totalizing force, the Cyborg offers unity-through-domination. The Cyborg is a world of “anything goes”, a concept which seems to reproduce the very essence of capitalist culture. Lyotard notes the ‘realism of money’ or “anything goes” concept ‘accommodates every tendency just as capitalism accommodates every “need” – so long as these tendencies and needs have buying power’.(14.) The variety and eclecticism of the Cyborg’s Being is only facilitated by the continuing domination of the markets: ‘the apparently borderless postmodern world is so only for the Western elites who have the wealth and power to travel, consume and freely choose their lifestyles’.(15.) The Cyborg “myth” is an identity reliant on money, an identity determined by the financial power of the individual. A financial power which determines the constituent parts of the Being’s self; the Cyborg screams “You can wear any style you want – as long as you buy it”. The Cyborg is a reified or alienated Being, removed from the potential of opposition, it is unable to oppose the capitalist society it is borne from; the Cyborg rather than enabling difference seems to disable difference. By being both/and there seems to be a lack of space for the “other” to define itself and although the already dominant white middle-class may wish to remove any site of binary opposition the Islamic, Afro-Caribbean, working class or Eastern “others” may prefer the “violence” of binary opposition to the androgyny which the Capitalist West offers. Without this space for opposition, this no-man’s land, and difference an individual or subject cannot possibly show ‘the contradictions [a] culture contains… represses, refuses to recognise or makes unrepresentative’ and therefore becomes a cog, a robot mindlessly serving postmodernist capitalist society.(16.) Haraway’s Cyborg, a prime example of postmodernist thinking, seems to produce a problem concerning oppositional thinking in relation to the cultural dominant capitalism. The Cyborg by refusing to engage with depth – preferring to play in the shallow pool of images and depthlessness – renders itself either irrelevant in engaging with capitalism or, as I have argued, complicate with the totalizing drive for inhuman efficiency and capital. To create an oppositional grand narrative is said to be taking ourselves towards building another Auschwitz however without opposition to the totalizing force of capitalism we seem to be just as guilty, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly, of building, to use the hyperbole of postmodernism, another Gulag. What postmodernism must allow, and which the Cyborg doesn’t, is space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

borg

The concept of identity is central to postmodernism. Haraway’s Cyborg is an anti-essentialist theory of identity which refuses binary oppositions and ideas of naturalness. The Cyborg, being part organic part techno-science, is conceived by Haraway as a positive irrational defence against rational excluding discourse. The Cyborg, a chimera, which allows heteroglossia is seen as a concept allowing both/and rather than either/or. Although Haraway sees techno-sciences as a positive, I argued that the development of techno-sciences has facilitated dangerous diseases rather than aid humanity and therefore union with technology must be approached with cynicism regarding its intentions. A further reason to be cynical is that techno-science is implicitly linked to its role in enabling the continuing domination of western capitalist society. Entering into communion with the cyborg is to recraft ourselves into a world of computer logic – a totalizing force. I noted that the hybrid nature of the Cyborg is facilitated by capitalist society and therefore the the Cyborg is complicate with the dominating rationale of the markets. The Cyborg doesn’t offer space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

 

1. Simon Malpas, The Postmodern, Oxon: Routledge, (2005). p. 74.

2. Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 2269-2299. p. 2284.

3. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

4. Modernist and of the Enlightenment.

5. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

6. Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 1612-1615. p. 1610.

7. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2275.

8. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 78.

9. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2284.

10. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1612.

11. MRSA: Deaths decrease in 2007, (National Statistics Online), http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1067, [Accessed 21 January 2009].

12. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’. p. 1614.

13. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 39.

14. J F Lyotard in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

15. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

16. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 30.

Future Worlds: Role of Science Fiction

I am currently buried under work – though in June i will be publishing plenty of articles – here is a short excerpt from ‘Hegel and the Impossibility of the Future in Science Fiction Cinema’. Todd McGowan begins his paper by asserting:

Of all film genres, science fiction is the one most explicitly linked to the issuing of moral imperatives. This aspect of science fiction is tied to the futural mode in which it occurs. The science fiction genre, as J. P. Telotte claims, allows us ‘to speculate, in the precise sense of the fantastic, on what might or might not be, now or in the future’ (Telotte 2001, 141). By showing us a possible future – often either utopian or dystopian – science fiction films provide an image for us to realise or to fight against. Unlike genres focused on the present (such as melodrama) or genres focused on the past (such as the Western), science fiction, because it is futural, involves a clear break from what is and a plea for what ought to be. Science fiction directs us toward a better future, even if negatively, through the depiction of a nightmarish one.

The rest of this article can be found here.

Future Worlds: Sport Culture and Costume in Rollerball

Future Worlds: Rollerball (1975)

In order to create a critique of society a filmmaker will tend to focus upon a certain aspect of society or a social practice. In Rollerball sport is used as the vehicle for the film’s narrative. Rather than extending one particular sport to social dominance a new sport, a combination and synthesis, of several of the most popular sports in America, is developed. Costume in Rollerball is an important aspect in establishing the sport and the futuristic setting. The helmet is a direct replication of the NFL helmets worn in the 70s. The pads also replicate the image of American football athletes. The use of rollerskates produces a similar image, style of movement and tempo found in ice hockey – evidenced in the repeated “bodychecking”. The gloves the Rollerballers’ use, to pick up the ball after it is shot out of a cannon, are identical to contemporary baseball’s outfielder’s glove. The Rollerballer’s costume is a patchwork of several important parts of major American sports.

 rollerball

The controllers of the dangerous sport, and society, are several multi-national corporations who provide essential utilities – such as energy – and are altogether under the command of an ultimate ‘Executive Directorate’: some shady controlling corporate power something similar in essence to the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo [Grand Council of Fascists]. I have read the shady Directorate as something like a facsist group in relation to what Franklin D. Roosevelt said concerning the strengthening of the anti-trust laws:

The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism; ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.(1.)

In the future world of Rollerball a grand council of corporate power has assumed total control over social practices, such as sport, and everyday life itself. Corporate power even extends to the ability to revoke a marriage and to take a persons’ spouse without question. In order to establish this sense of corporate cultural control the traditional national anthem is replaced with a “corporate anthem” and every member of the audience willingly stands and places their hand to their heart. The future world of Rollerball, a state dominated by fascistic corporations, is explored through the setting of sport. The sport is established by costume and the allusion to the most popular contemporary American sports. Rollerball, often seen as an anti-sport film – incorrectly as the last image is of the protagonist Jonathan E. finishing the game by scoring then walking away in disgust – creates a critique of the way corporate-media and power is welded to produce and provide the ability to dominate and control society and social practices.

(1.) Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Appendix A: Message from the President of the United States Transmitting Recommendations Relative to the Strengthening and Enforcement of Anti-trust Laws”, The American Economic Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Part 2, Supplement, Papers Relating to the Temporary National Economic Committee (Jun., 1942), pp. 119-128, p. 119.

Short Excerpt Concerning Psychoanalysis and Science Fiction

Concerning why psychoanalysis is an interesting match with science fiction film i came across an exposition concerning Freud’s position regarding why dreams were valued highly. Freud’s position is explained thus:

‘A dream is an escape-hatch or safety-valve through which repressed desires, fears, or memories seek an outlet into the conscious mind. The emotion in question is censored by the conscious mind and so had to enter the dream in disguise, like a person barred from a club who gets in by dressing up as somebody else’ (1.)

Science Fiction replaces the dream, Andre Bazin noted that films are much like dreams, in the sense that they can, as all fiction can, become a safety valve through which the tensions are bled through and organised into symbols, ideas and actions. Repressed desires and tensions are played out and resolved through the narrative of invading aliens and machines. I will further augment this position with a look at Them (1954) and other sci-fi films in the future.

 

(1.)  Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, (1995), p. 99.

Future Worlds: Globalisation and Intertextuality in Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)

The future world, 2019 LA, of Blade Runner is a cosmopolitan “global village”. This is communicated by the use of bi-lingual advertising signs: Coca-cola sits amongst neon Japanese symbols. Although Coca-cola is an American symbol that is saturated world wide the use of it sat against the Japanese iconography communicates the sense of lost identity. While Deckard sits eating his Japanese food two “Blade Runner” cops stand behind him, and although we are in LA they speak in a foreign language to Deckard who only understands English. He must get the noodle stand owner to translate for him. The fact that an agent of the central authority, the Police, speaks in Japanese rather than English in LA signifies the state of globalisation. The identity that is lost is the local provincial aspects of countries. Instead of an American or Japanese culture we see a cross-breed intertextual mix that produces it own new identity. As I mentioned in my previous post concerning the Postmodern nature of Blade Runner this concept of intertextuality and pastiche culture is important in communicating a distinct future world. Blade Runner asks questions about individuality and authenticity [I will write a post about Blade Runner with the aim to explore the postmodern concept of cyborg ] and the intertextual nature of Blade Runner creates a future world where people have become replicants of imagery and images that “used” to signify something individual but now have become tired. Instead of Deckard being an individual he has become a “replicant” of the film noir detective in his trench coat and hard-boiled character. Similarly Rachel has become the prototypical Femme Fatal, dressed in dark, commanding screen presence and continuously smoking.

 

The future world social structures are communicated in Blade Runner by the opposition of setting, as in Total Recall and Running Man. The internal shots of the headquarters of the Tyrell corp. are luscious and extraordinary while the city streets are dark and rain is continuously falling. As in Total Recall the opposition of two colours can communicate an atmosphere that coincides with the location. In Total Recall the use of red and whites opposed each other and communicated a mood and sense of place. In Blade Runner the use of dark-blues communicate a sense of run-down dirty atmosphere while golds and yellows create a warm glow that surrounded the upper echelons of the Tyrell corp.

Future Worlds: Violence As Release Valve in Running Man

Running Man (1987)

 

In the future world of Running Man we are shown a repressive society that uses the violent show of “Running Man” as a release valve to exert the pressures of living under a repressive regime. The film uses simple diametrically opposed classes of society, with their own lighting codes, to communicate clearly the conflict in the society. The dystopia is communicated by the contrasting mise-en-scene of the upper-class day scenes and the under-class night scenes. The day scenes are full of natural light and the streets are uncluttered and open. People are allowed to sit, wonder and go as they please. This is the opposite of the night scenes.

  

The night scenes portray the have-nots of the future world of Running Man. In the night scenes we see the under-class living in a polluted and cluttered area. The people are fenced in and contrary to the day scenes there is no casual idolatry admiration for architecture. The masses are penned in and huddled, their only source of light the brightly coloured television screens. The night scenes also consistently include the large television screens indicating the extent of the media’s influence on the masses.

 

In the introduction of Running Man we are told that the government has complete control of the cultural output of the society and that all television is highly censored. If all television is censored then we must assume that violence is allowed because of some controlling value it contains. The use of violence is a cathartic one. Violence is used to burn out the passions of the people so that they have no emotional strength left to challenge the wrongs committed by the oppressive government. Running Man playfully conjures up a society dominated and controlled by violent television. The use of violence as a controlling cathartic force is ironic in Running Man as the film is of the action Sci-Fi genre. Concerns about the corrupting nature of violence in film and television are well documented and Running Man is attempting to play with this notion by creating a world where violent television has enslaved America. Violence has morally corrupted America and it is now a fascist state. The punchline of the Running Man joke is that the destruction of the media controlled state is caused by the superhero protagonist’s ability to dish out equal amounts of pain, gore and brutality against the individuals that ensure the cathartic state of the masses. The future world that Running Man creates becomes a fertile ground in which to jest at the concept of violence as corrupter and as violence as a force through which freedom is gained.