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.


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.


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),, [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.


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.

A Brief Exposition Concerning The Uncanny

This post is just the ground work for a series of article on films that will take a psychoanalytical approach. Here is a central concept that i will explore in relation to the horror and science fiction genres.


‘The subject of the ‘uncanny’…is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror; equally certain, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. […The] uncanny is that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar ‘ (1.)


Long linked to that which is frightening, through its importance in Gothic fiction, the uncanny in its simplest and most basic form is the combination of two opposing states at once; namely both something familiar and unfamiliar. Freud in his famous essay ‘Uncanny’ lists how the word “homely” is linked to the word “unhomely” through the definition of the home. The familiar, known and open is set against the withdrawn, unfamiliar and unknown and found to both exist in the home (or the domestic or self). The home, according to Freud in relation to the uncanny, is the place where the know is withdrawn; the familiar hides the unfamiliar. When the unfamiliar is uncovered in the familiar a sense of uncanny is produced – even though the unfamiliar exists continuously in the familiar it is the bringing forth of the unfamiliar in the familiar that frightens us, brings into question our understanding and produces fear.

In an upcoming article i will highlight the psychoanalytical elements in Blade Runner (1982) and indicate an important instance of the uncanny.


(1.) Norton Anthology [full reference to follow] p. 930

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.

Narrative Structure: Free And Bound Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures that develop and communicate a film’s major themes [Motifs are the discrete images or sounds, like a coin, where as themes are more general concepts such as greed]. Motifs are therefore essential in the language of cinema. Motif’s are often used to communicate character and to indicate and remind the audience of essential and important facts. The study of narrative, and in particular film narrative formation, indicates that there are two central motif types; free and bound.


Bound motifs are those which, according to the Russian formalists, cannot be removed from the narrative without radically changing the chronological essence of a narrative. In essence a bound motif is a motif that is essential to the explaining or telling of a story. In the film Escape From New York (1981) the motif of the wristwatch is a bound motif as the movement of time is essential to the understanding of the plot. The motif of the wristwatch is essential in understanding and remembering that Snake has only twenty-two hours to find the president. As the time slips away the motif is also used to increase the tension. The narratives sequence and chronological essence is produced by the deadline of twenty-two hours; the motif of the wristwatch is bound by its essential nature in the formation of Escape From New York‘s narrative. In the film Speed (1994) the motif of the bus is a bound motif as without it the film wouldn’t make any sense; the story could not be told without it.


Free motifs are those which aren’t essential to the retelling or explaining of a narrative. This is not to say that they aren’t highly important, but the chronological make-up of a narrative wouldn’t be altered by a free motifs inclusion or exclusion. A free motif is a tool often used to communicate character and create aesthetic complexity. The use of colour to indicate a sense of past or nostalgia isn’t essential to the retelling of a story however it produces an aesthetic more inclined to communicating that lost past or beautiful regretful age a film wishes to portray. Free bound motifs tend to create deeper meaning and communicate conflicts without the need to thoroughly establish character though screen-time. A film can communicate an ordered and synchronised character by establishing a motif; John continuously looks at his timepiece. A rupture in his character and life could be communicated clearly by the breaking, dropping or stopping of his watch. And although the watch stopping has no relevance to the plot per say it could communicate the loss of order in John. This fictional man loses his structure; he becomes de-constructed through the symbolic act of his timepiece breaking. The symbolic act communicates a loss because it was previously posited as a motif that indicated his orderliness. Although not essential to the plot, the free motif of the timepiece helps communicate the more general theme of the film concerning the man’s change in character and life. In the film Juno (2007) the central character, also named Juno, buys kitsch tat such as a faulty burger phone. This motif isn’t essential to the film’s narrative however it does communicate character quickly and clearly.

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: Communicating the Post-Apocalypse Mise-en-Scene and Mad Max

Mad Max (1979)

The sense of a dislocated post-apocalypse society is communicated in Mad Max by the continued use of the road as position of action. The main community we see is the biker-gang of Toecutter. Their violent and brutal gang community is a significant signifier of the loss of respect and lawlessness of the future world being portrayed. The use of the bare road set amongst scrub ground also dislocates us from those structures of culture and the past. The bare vision of scrub ground is similar to the wide-vista’s of the western, however the function is radically different. As the western is set in the past the nothingness signifies at least something to conquer and build on. The small towns we know will develop into prosperous cities full of life, law and order (mostly). However because the nothingness of Mad Max is set in the future that nothingness doesn’t signify potential but rather something lost, something worryingly absent. Even the roads surrounded by structures are worryingly vacant as chain link fences occupy the space where houses and drives should be. A lack of work place and offices are also worrying as no driving force for change and redevelopment can be seen. The dilapidated “Halls of Justice” signify the loss of order and law. The damaged and rusted sign symbolises this. Mad Max communicates a dislocated post-apocalypse future world easily by continuously using motifs such as leaving the shots vacant of buildings that signify culture. The use of open roads and scrub land also communicate this a sense of nothingness.

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.

Future Worlds: An Introduction

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.

Future Worlds: The Familiar as Future in Fahrenheit 451

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.

Future Worlds: The Use of Colour and Lighting in Total Recall

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.

Excerpt on Lighting and An Exposition of Godard’s Use of Lighting in The Opening Scene of Alphaville

Here is a short introductory excerpt on Lighting:

The manipulation of an image’s lighting controls much of its impact. In cinema, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us to see the action. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create the overall composition of each shot and hence guide our eyes to certain objects and actions. A brightly illuminated patch may draw our attention and reveal a key gesture, [similar to the function of a close-up] while a shadow may conceal a detail and build up suspense about what [or who] may be present there. Lighting can also articulate textures: the soft curve of a face , the rough grain of a piece of wood… the sparkle of a faceted gem. (1.)


Alphaville (1965)

In the first few introductory scenes of Godard’s Alphaville we are not allowed to see the face of Lemmon until he lights a cigarette, and when he closes his lighter his face again disappears; Godard is using the brief glimpse of light that uncovers Lemmon’s face to make a point concerning intertextuality. The voice-over croaks that “reality is too complex for oral communication. But Legend embodies it in a form” this could be taken to refer back to the casting of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution. Lemmy Caution was a popular character from what has been called ‘French pop thrillers’ and Eddie Constantine played the role in several of those pop thrillers. (2.) Robin Wood explains that you could ‘compare him [Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution] to a cut-out photograph inserted in a painting… no one [of the original French audience] would mistake this for a detailed portrait of a human being: rather, it is a reference’ essentially Wood is saying that Godard’s use of Eddie Constantine is a reference to pop-culture and a well-known, nearly worn-out character of cheap French detective Noir. (3.) Godard uses the brief glimpse of light because he knows too well that all the exposition the character needs is a few seconds on screen before the audience knows everything it needs to know about the character and the characters’ screen personality. The use of lighting further extenuates, and foregrounds Godard’s belief that Constatine is a “Legend” that embodies everything one could say about French Detective Noir just in his “Form”. This intertextual reference to the “Legend” of Eddie Constantine and Lemmy Caution is an ironic act as Lemmy Caution is, in this film, the only character who threatens the robotic, logical Alpha-60 [the machine who runs Alphaville] with his understanding of emotion and humanity. What Godard may therefore be implying is that the logical formalism of high art may be worse, or at the very least just as bad, than the flat but emotional pop-art of the Pulp-like Lemmy Caution.

1.  David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 133.

2. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ in Ian Cameron, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista, (1969), pp. 83-93 p. 85.

3. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ p. 85.