The Future is Here
by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
future where love is the ultimate crime. In the not-too-distant future,
wars will no longer exist... The next war will not be fought - it will
Some decades before the future, in the seventies, science fiction films, only recently liberated from B-movie invasion scenario stereotypes, promised utopia on a plate, as long as you were willing to eat your soylent greens and relish the horrors that inevitably underpinned the gleaming surfaces of the hedonistic societies and controlled spaces you were consuming. If every decade has given birth to a central visual image of the future (the eternal dark skies of Blade Runner and the Terminator in the eighties, for example), the seventies future is a weird hybrid of Fischer-Price white plastic toys, neon, uber-computers the size of a house, technicolour skies, Pucci prints and laser guns. Often understood as reactionary dark dystopias, the films of Charlton Heston (Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Planet of the Apes) and the various death sport spectacles (Deathrace 2000, Rollerball, Westworld) that filled cinema screens thirty years ago removed the external enemy from doomsday narratives and portrayed post-catastrophic futures in which destruction was wreaked by combinations of natural disaster and the misuse of technology. But these films, allowing cinema to showcase its finest special effects, also offered American audiences an opportunity to visualise magnificently rationalised societies under totalitarian rule divorced from the immediate cold war context. So if after depleting the worlds natural resources we could subsist on multicoloured crackers or live inside domes, if we could enjoy organised violence and streamlined interiors, if our worst case scenario was living like a cult of beatnik zombies on the ruined streets of our decaying cities like the plague infected Family in the Omega Man, why was the future such a cause for anxiety?
In a society that was beginning to question the validity of its own claims to freedom and equality, science fiction films boldly suggested, sometimes unwittingly, that dedication to pleasure in a free market democratic society could be at odds with the very notions of individualism and liberty that it seemed to emanate from. Rather than a different time, they seem to be showing places that exist somewhere between Soviet heavy industry complexes and Eames designed hotel lounges. What they present as a breathtaking gaze into the unknown is actually a rather cold consideration of a frighteningly familiar reality, the same one detailed by the post-war neo-Marxists. Though endless remakes conspire to empty most of these surplus meanings, there remains something subversive about these attempts to celebrate the beauty of utopia as inherently totalitarian while maintaining a critical distance from the implications of this attraction.
The seventies saw the idea of progress seriously questioned by filthy abandoned inner city districts, unsustainable energy resources highlighted by the oil crisis, race riots, a post-hippie youth culture falling into chaos as exemplified by the Manson family and a collapsing social order faced with the challenges of feminism and rising divorce levels. If a decade earlier science fiction was used as an extended metaphor for the Kennedy administrations expansionist ambitions, the future now felt closer to home, not because of a foreign threat but because "the center was not holding...[in] a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children...not a country under enemy siege [but] the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967", as Joan Didion famously described the social vacuum that the hippie community tried desperately, and failed miserably, to replace with new institutions and values . The book that a vast public in the seventies experienced as the most adequate description of how the progressive discourse of post-war America turns into a nightmare was Alvin Tofflers "Future Shock". Written in 1970, "Future Shock" is a link in the long chain of chroniclers of postmodernist malaise, and it portrays a society in a state of crisis whose technology, social morality and psychology have been consumed by the rocknroll paradox of "too fast to live too young to die": "This is why the individuals sense of the future plays so critical a part in his ability to cope. The faster the pace of life, the more rapidly the present environment slips away from us, the more rapidly do future potentialities turn into present realty" .
Science fiction films followed Tofflers advice and upped the ante envisioning the future wasnt just a means of survival, survival itself became a central theme in visions of the future. A dominant political metaphor in the seventies (just think of "I Will Survive", "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" and "Staying Alive"), survivalism presents a way out of the vacuum portrayed by Didion, a literal absence of society in the Omega Man or the total lack of emotional commitment in THX 1138, Logans Run and Rollerball. But while natural catastrophe is posited in many of these films as the reason for all manner of social oppressions, the ultimate challenge these survivors have to face is freedom, or the collapse of the distinctions between work and leisure that have shaped society in the modern age. Even before we experience the underbelly of these perfect worlds, the various ruling mechanisms and the underprivileged classes, we know something is wrong with the young hedonistic denizens of the domed city in Logans Run, the beautiful women cum furniture that fill the spectacluar bachelor pads of Soylent Green or the Rollerball executive wives in their diaphanous evening gowns. We know without being told that "[t]heir prosperity covers up the Inferno inside and outside their borders [and that] it also spreads a repressive productivity and false needs" . Society is experienced only as a mediated spectacle, a condition understood by the protagonist as natural up to a point: in Deathrace 2000 people are split into supporters of different race drivers and then divided again into different score values (killing a baby being worth 70 points as opposed to a 100 points for a geriatric). This is a system of repression, a succinct portrayal of the society of the spectacle defined by Guy Debord. Yet despite providing such an accurate representation of spectacular alienation, these films are pure spectacle (if they had any cake in the future, they would definitely have it and eat it with the aid of some techno-foodie marvel or other).
Repression also occurs on a spatial level. Taking their cue from highways that bypass still segregated city centres and fantastical fortresses that aim the barrels of their CCTVs at the mean streets of L.A., the future cities of past cinema with their transparent transport tubes, pyramid-like public domes and bright-white wide underpasses, are the logical conclusion of the suburbs. Le Corbusier had killed the street in the thirties, and if the future was to follow suit, cities would only have separated, alienated urban spaces: huge congregation areas, clean rooms and white cubicles. The underclass must exist on the outskirts of this highly ordered social space, in dilapidated areas that are routinely policed and seldom visited by the affluent city dwellers. This architectural manifestation of social repression is underscored by the film sets themselves, big, clumpy edifices that seem overcrowded in the studios that they were shot in. Predating our ever-miniaturising technology and the weightless manipulations of computer-generated graphics and special effects, the bulky constructions of the futures we never got to experience first hand define a closed universe with its own rules, even as they mirror our own increasingly restricted public spaces.
Transgression is almost impossible in these totalising systems, and can only be attained through a primal violence to rival that enforced by the powers that be. A good example of this is Rollerball, whose protagonist comes to realise that there is nothing outside the game. Tracing back the history of rollerball, its power structures, he finds only the absence of explanatory information. If the pleasure of science fiction plots often revolves around trying to piece together the exposition, to understand, together with the hero, what led to the state of affairs displayed on screen, here this quest is constantly frustrated. When top athlete Jonothan E. finally reaches the super computer that has replaced the library as repository of knowledge, his question about the history of the corporate wars is deemed irrelevant by a machine unable to process it. The only avenue of rebellion left to him, in a world where even killing is organised as entertainment, is meaningless violence, a senseless lashing out that will achieve nothing. Similar notions of murder in excess of socially acceptable killing occur in Logans Run, where the protagonist explains that he has never killed anyone in his job as a sandman, whose purpose is to terminate runners, those who do not succumb to the euphemistic death ritual known as renewal. As soon as he becomes a runner, though, Logan starts to kill indiscriminately, merely to survive: survivalism becomes a form of existentialism. Murder is also investigated in Soylent Green as a crime, even though the state kills and recycles dead bodies systematically, while in Deathrace 2000 the resistance movement targets the killer race drivers to oppose state regulated slaughter. Curiously, this kind of violence beyond the point of saturation also happens in Westworld only here it is the robot played by Yul Brynner who breaks the mould by going on his own self-initiated killing spree. This disturbing notion of murder as a necessary stage in the formation of an autonomous self, suggests something of the contradictory anarcho-conservative politics ambiguously espoused by these films. Following a logic not too dissimilar to present day terrorists, they seem to reject state-regulated brutality precisely because of the neat consumerist order it creates and enforces, preferring a more individualistic, almost personal form of killing that produces self-empowerment.
This perspective becomes even more interesting when considered together with the type of ecological claims made by the catastrophes that provide the premise for many of these plots. Hyper-technologised societies are shown to lead to biological warfare horrors, overpopulation and poverty that must then be controlled rigidly with drugs, rations and systematic killing. But natures other, artificial technology is somehow understood as equally naturally occurring disaster is never followed by regeneration and the manmade marvels uphold the lifestyles of the upper echelons inevitably falls to decay as soon as their unsustainability is exposed. At the same time, the production of waste offers the only escape from overly rationalised social settings. The resolution of the battle for individualistic survival is never a compromise, a technological breakthrough or a scientific solution. Somehow the only way to overthrow the restrictions of a too functional society (such as the one in Logans Run or THX 1138, where population growth is successfully controlled by the rationalisation of birth and death), as much as those of a dysfunctional society (like the chaotic streets of Soylent Green and The Omega Man), is to defy logic and reason. Senseless killing becomes the mirror image of the conspicuous consumption of overpriced strawberries (a rare commodity at $150 a jar in Soylent Green) and tree burning (a fun pastime proposed by Rollerball).
There is small wonder that the citizens of these future societies find it hard to conceive of progressive change and resort to even more extreme forms of violence to get back to the real in defiance of the spectacle. The time they live in is the eternal present of the suburbs, beyond the pseudo-cyclical time of the commodity described by Debord, "lack[ing] any critical access to its own antecedents, which are nowhere recorded. It cannot be communicated. And it is misunderstood and forgotten to the benefit of the spectacles false memory of the unmemorable" . Liberated from both work and history, they are trapped inside machine-like social constructs designed to eliminate conflict and its resolution, progress. From the perspective of the viewer, though, they are immersed in history. Fetishised and embalmed in celluloid, our present crops up amidst the ruins the library of congress overgrown with ivy in Logans Run, the statue of liberty in Planet of the Apes, the streets of LA in The Omega Man. Yet we experience these futures not as our own but as futures past. Partly this is the result of watching these old films in a world of DVD widescreen surround digital dolby super sharp technology which makes their puny special effects seem like distant backwards soviet cousins. But there is also another time loop mechanism at work. The perfect utopias of progress city with its instant technologies and abundance are in many cases themselves set in the fictional past of the films, as causes of catastrophe. The positivistic utopias that governed early twentieth century ideologies no longer seemed plausible in the aftermath of World War II and the failure of the economic boom of the fifties, and where we do get to glimpse them they are immediately historicised by the meaning our own context provides them.
The warped chronology of retro-futuristism doesnt stop there, though. Already in the seventies, many of the science fiction films we now experience as originals were in fact remakes and reworkings of novels. The hip albino zombies of The Omega Man started out as vampires in the 1954 novella I am Legend, Soylent Green was an adaptation of the 1967 novel Make Room! Make Room! and Deathrace 2000, also based on a short story, incredibly managed to outdo all the others by remaking Rollerball before the film ever came out (this was common practice with Roger Corman, the films producer, who would find out about films in production and then copy them and beat them to the screens. He also followed Deathrace 2000 with Deathsport). This commodification of time encases and replicates the aesthetics that we celebrate when we enjoy these films as camp (like most cult films, they are often hardly enjoyable in any other context and we are not even going into talking dogs in A Boy and His Dog, and other even more ludicrous manifestations of the retro-futuristic dreams of seventies sci-fi cinema). Eerily, these a-historical societies become increasingly recognisable in our own as retro-nostalgia culture takes over and the only futures we can think of are the ones in all those old cult films. Utopia, even in its darkest negative form, is now conceivable only through the mediation of an image projecting apparatus, the living room entertainment centre matrix. The machines put in charge of these worlds would surely approve, Keanu Reeves notwithstanding.
In the year 2004, government policy still seems at times to be shaped by the imaginary futures proposed by speculative science fiction. Many in America seem to feel that we are already living, after September 11th, in a post-apocalyptic society, and governments the world over are taking into their hands the kind of power and control envisioned in the films discussed here (arresting people for years without trial, implementing severe surveillance). At the same time, Charlton Hestons battle for unbridled individualism continues in his role as president of the National Rifle Association, in which capacity he has stated: "I have come to realize that a cultural war is raging across our land... storming our values, assaulting our freedoms, killing our self-confidence in who we are and what we believe, where we come from". What he fails to see is that the association organises violence in the same way as the systems his fictional alter-egos used to fight against. This is the paradox at the heart of the retro-futuristic extrapolations of the seventies, and it remains at the heart of American, and therefore global, politics today. As work/leisure balances are being questioned and the realities of globalisation change our understanding of citizenship and nationality, the historical tension between social organisation and individual freedom on which America was founded comes to the fore. Perhaps a way forward from this conflict can be suggested by the paradigm shift that occurs at the end of the original story that The Omega Man was based on. Having failed in his quest for a cure for the plague, the books Robert Neville doesnt hold on to his old world perspective as obstinately as Heston. Recognising his significance in the eyes of the vampires, who had for centuries frightened little children at bedtime, he realises that it is he who is now the bogey man, proclaiming: "I am legend". It will be interesting to see if Paul Andersons anticipated remake will take up this idea, but judging by recent attempts at grappling with our technological and political anxieties, it is also doubtful.