In several articles I have spoken about the cinematic and rhetorical device of taking an element, filmic or social, to its extreme to produce a critical reading or fertile ground for critique. In essence all Sci-fi does this. It could be taking the threat of Communist invasion to a symbolic level where the Communists are replaced and the threat transformed into fearsome aliens from outer-space. It could also be taking the environment’s health to an extreme where in we are shown a society which can only feed its populace with a synthesised form of meat produced from deceased Humans. The setting, and the symbols used to produce or communicate this, in Sci-fi, reflect the central concern of the film because the setting of the film is created rather than reproduced. Although obviously the Notting Hill of Notting Hill (1999) is a filmic white-washed version of the geographical location it is only in film genres such as Sci-fi that the setting itself becomes truly and consistently symbolic and a reflection of the central concern of the film and an important vehicle of plot communication. In my ‘Future Worlds’ articles I have, and will, attempt to further communicate this point.
* A side note: the setting of Notting Hill is more important as an ideological study of the white-washing of a predominantly mixed race cosmopolitan area into an upper-middle class white English haven of yuppies and celebrities.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Modernist architecture is noted for its elimination of ornament and simplification of form. An outcome of Modernist architecture is that it produced large estates with many buildings built externally and internally uniform. The central vision of many Modernist estates, like the Park-Hill estate in Sheffield, were to produce easily reproducible identical living units which would satisfy and reproduce communities ravaged and displaced from their terraced estates by the second world war. Large sprawling streets were replaced with tall expansive high-rise apartment buildings. This style of architecture failed in many estates and rather than being a shining beacon of good planning the estates, like the Park-Hill estate in Sheffield, have become run down poverty stricken and crime infested. The lack of ornament and the Modernist belief in aesthetic uniformity is used in Fahrenheit 451 to symbolise the fictional societies philosophy. Uniformity is cited as the reason why books must be burnt – without uniformity society is violent, passionate and uncontrollable. The contemporary modernist setting of Fahrenheit 451 is used as a site in which the fictional societies philosophy is foregrounded.
Another reason why Modernist architecture is used is to produce a sense of familiar. Fahrenheit 451is set amongst the Modernist architecture of the 1960’s – the Alton housing estate in Roehampton, South London. Fahrenheit 451 uses the Modernist estate to to produce a future world built from the contemporary fashion and architecture of the 1960’s. This ensures that the future is not really “when” but rather an extension or an extreme version of “now”. Science fiction has always used the future as a safe space in which to deal with the threats and concerns of contemporary society. However Fahrenheit 451 does not allow this act of distancing – normally provided by the setting of a different and unrecognisable future – because the vision of the “future” in Fahrenheit 451 is evidently still the contemporary world. What this does is produce a critique of contemporary society and life that is unavoidable and unmistakable.
Fahrenheit 451 creates a “future” where uniformity has become so important that is has removed all elements of humanity, however; as science fiction critiques the contemporary we can also infer that Fahrenheit 451 is arguing against the very same architecture it is using in the film. It could be said that Fahrenheit 451 is arguing that “ornament”, what Modernist architecture and uniformity removes, is that which makes humanity so interesting and inspirational. Fahrenheit 451 communicates that ornament is the aesthetic response to understanding humanity as impossible to simplify and that “simplicity” of form is the attempt to dehumanize humanity. Therefore Fahrenheit 451 could be seen as a critique of Modernist philosophy of architecture and other rationalising philosophies.
Along with many other article styles i will be running a short look at the production of setting in Sci-Fi. Here is the first of a short run that will include Alphaville (1965), Running Man (1987) , Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Total Recall (1990), Blade Runner (1982), Westworld (1973) and maybe some others (if you’re lucky?).
Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall contains two central lighting motifs which communicate a definitive sense of place. Setting is important in Total Recall. Mars serves a plot function both as the conductor of Quaid’s dreams of a different future and as the site of his repressed past. In the Earth scenes thelighting is primarily the classical naturalistic white lighting which produces soft clear features and a sense of cleanliness and neutrality. The clean lines are important in the first part of Total Recall in producing a sense of clinical perfection at odds with Quaid’s dreams of a dirtier, rougher life as a pioneer travelling on the troubled red-planet Mars.
The Earth phase’s lighting creates a sense of an expansive nature, a conquered clinical world. A world not physically suffocating like Mars but spiritually suffocating. Although some of the clean cut lines of Earth are thrown into relief by the scenes containing Quaid’s escape from the company agents to Mars it is not until Quaid arrives proper in Mars that we witness a world opposed or opposite to Earth.
The colour red floods nearly every scene situated on the planet Mars. This produces both a sense of setting but also a seedy dirty environment. Richter’s face is illuminated by the bright redness of Mars’s continuous timeless glow; his character is defined by that mechanical, artificial, electronic glow emitted by neon lights in the claustrophobic Mars’ Streets. The doors behind Richter are also tinted by the redness of Mars, the structure of Mars defines him and more importantly his actions and character. The setting of Mars defines both the characters and the structures that surround and define them.
Every aspect of the mise-en-scene is defined by the redness of Mars. Total recall uses the rather overt, extravagant lighting techniques to imbue the scenes with a sense of place. Another affect of the use of red is that it imbues all the action with a seedy, aggressive, passionate and lusty atmosphere which helps communicate the moral vacuum that Mars signifies. The choice of lighting and colour in Total Recall communicates the atmosphere of both Earth and Mars and is very affective at foregrounding this.
Mad Max (1979)
The final scene in Mad Max communicates the cost that society must levy on the individual if it is to function smoothly. Max stands over Johnny the Boy. Johnny is handcuffed by the ankle to a wrecked car. Max sets up a symbolic test for Johnny, which will gauge the sincerity of Johnny’s protest that the crimes committed weren’t his fault. Max sets up the car’s dripping fuel into a time bomb that will explode shortly.
As he hands over a saw Max explains to Johnny that it will take him ten minutes to saw through the handcuffs, but only five to saw through his ankle. This gruesome test is symbolic for Johnny’s inclusion into society; he must amputate himself – remove his ability to function as an individual – to survive. Max offers him death or mutilation. Lawful society requires the individual to sacrifice their ability to function in isolation and Max sets up the symbolic test to examine if Johnny is able to submit to domination.
Max himself doesn’t survive this symbolic test unfazed; as the film ends we are given a symbolic image. The camera speeds along the white line in the middle of a road, Max is symbolically on the edge between two opposite lanes; Max is situated between madness and sanity, law and criminality.
Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a film that explores contemporary theories of the postmodern. The film explores, through the detective figure Deckard, questions of authenticity. An aspect of postmodernity is the loss of faith in traditional meta-narratives [meta-narratives are the overarching stories that explains and legitimises knowledge or belief. Some traditional meta-narratives are Christianity, Communism and Scientific progress]. Questioning or losing faith in these narratives means that the individual inquires about their own subjectivity; and is left with no system of authentication. History, or how we have become to be, is a meta-narrative that is questioned explicitly in Blade Runner. History is a narrative which tends to explain events as linear, every event has its cause and affect; eras come one after another in dialectical progress. Even though in reality the change of era and cause of events are not easily understood the narrative of History constructs and validates a reality of existence which is understandable and rational.
Blade Runner subverts our sense of history through the technique of mise-en-scene. In Blade Runner, Rachel, dressed as the archetypical femme fatal of film noir, goes to Deckard’s apartment with the intention of questioning him about the results of a ‘Voight-Kampff’. The scene moves smoothly into the new space of Deckard’s apartment with the traditional establishing shot, the framing of the important scene adheres to the Classic Hollywood continuity editing system. The use of the establishing shot gives the viewer time to process the alien-like mise-en-scene. The mise-en-scene combines the common domestic with the bizarre and unrecognisable, imbuing the scene with an eerie sense of the familiar, which raises questions about a disconnected sense of heritage. Although the domestic aspects are familiar with our own, the kitchen sink and cupboards, we are unable to relate the aesthetic and technological advances to our contemporary life. The mise-en-scene is important as it reveals that underneath all of the questions about Rachel’s authenticity there is a lack of rational connection with our society to the society shown. The structures that surround the characters are disconnected from any logical progression in fashion and science.
Ridley Scott raises problems concerning the conception of history as dialectical progress, cause and affect, in Blade Runner. Earlier in the film, during the opening scenes, we see that the future Los Angeles is a vision of an alien future disconnected from the present day geographic entity. Los Angeles had been transformed into a city splintering upwards with harsh vertical lines, dark shadows and bright lights; Los Angeles has been transformed into a city more reminiscent of New York. The philosopher Derrida once declared that nothing is outside the text; the use of continuity editing could itself be seen as an ironic example of this. The classical Hollywood system of narrative is itself an organizing system which explains and legitimises knowledge, and like the historical meta-narrative it orders events into cause and effect. Blade Runner critiques the use of meta-narratives to explain and rationalize while functioning from within one, therefore is a representation of postmodernity.