Saturday, October 21, 2017

Futures Before the Internet: of Star Trek and Blade Runner


   Since the mid 1990s, the thrust of American technological progress has come through the commercial Internet.  Streaming video, smartphones and MMO games such as Destiny are but some of the many advances that owe their mass adoption to Internet connectivity.  It is difficult to imagine a world today without the ad-supported commercial Internet, so much that a vast amount of today's futuristic science fiction stories don't even try.  What kind of a world would exist without the ad-supported Internet--or, possibly, if it was replaced by something else?  Some of the more interesting approaches to creating a speculative world without the commercial Internet have been demonstrated by two sci-fi franchises created before its existence.

   For all the sophisticated technology shown on the various Star Trek series, none of them has ever demonstrated a world in which the Internet as we know it exists.  This is a world which has incorporated, over the course of several series, video games that have become so sophisticated that they can simulate actual life experiences (the Holodeck), androids that have become nearly human (Data), starships that can travel considerably faster than light, and matter replicators that could create numerous objects.  Of course, since the Star Trek world is both post-capitalist and post-scarcity, any online connective system that exists in it would likely be very different from the ad-laden, user-data hungry Internet of today, but actual storylines involving "hacking" and the data side of technology can be surprisingly rare over the course of the various Trek series.  Even the latest series, Star Trek Discovery, which has gone out of its way to conform to the tropes of "Prestige TV" in utilizing a darker atmosphere and a very serialized narrative, still does little to explain how a world of such technological wonders would exist without the current Internet.  As its narrative continues to evolve, it seems more preoccupied with conspiracies in the Klingon Empire and the bizarre "Tardigrade Drive" creature than how its technological wonders could work.  Ultimately, Star Trek has always been defined by its striving for a better future than a painstaking analysis of exactly how such a future could work, and Discovery seems likely to maintain this legacy over the course of its run.

   Another pre-online culture sci-fi series that has not incorporated the modern commercial internet is the Blade Runner films.  The first Blade Runner, though set in 2019, was released in 1982, before online services were widely available; its portrayal of a world 37 years from its release date is understandably different from our own.  Its visual aesthetic, of blocky shapes, bright neon, and visible "cyberpunk" technology seems very different from our current 2017 reality.  And yet, it is a world that, if different from ours, is in many ways parallel to it; although there is no "Internet" in Blade Runner, computers clearly have some form of searchable databases and online connectivity.  It is a world that is far more advanced than our own in many ways (complete with flying cars!) and  no less commercially oriented, with gigantic neon billboards for corporations and loud audio advertisements bombarding the citizens of the future megacity Los Angeles at every waking moment.  If not quite the same as our current timeline, Blade Runner in many ways anticipated it from the perspective of the early 1980s.

   The unique aesthetics of this world make a return in its sequel, this year's release Blade Runner 2049.  The various Star Trek series have very different looks in terms of production design; the bright colors of the 1960s original series seem particularly jarring when contrasted to Discovery's comparatively shadowy hues.  Unlike this, the two Blade Runner films strongly resemble each other; 2049 retains the blocky look, flying cars, and gigantic billboards of the original, as well as its dark, noirish color pallete.  But a closer analysis reveals that the advertising technology of 2049 has grown far more advanced than its precursor, with eerie, aetherial holograms populating the sides of buildings and numerous digital billboards...and even the main character, "K"'s apartment.  The "Joi" hologram in K's apartment serves partly as an incredibly sophisticated evolution of the various "personal assistants" available now like Amazon's Alexa; like these, she can obey voice commands and search requests for her owner.  But she is far more advanced than any currently available personal assistant; she is able to perfectly read the emotions of K, arrange her holographic appearance in any manner he desires, and respond to his wants better than a human being could possibly hope to.  The Joi holograms have such an uncanny ability to intuit human emotion that K's final encounter with one occurs in a haunting way that will have the viewer question the motives and programming of them during the entire film.  Though 2049 lacks the familiar "social networks" of our age, it presents a world in which the soul of our Internet--the advertising--has become so incredibly sophisticated that it can achieve an almost human status in our physical world.  What will happen if that technology that Silicon Valley has invested so deeply in--the adware of our current "primitive" Internet--becomes so advanced that it no longer needs a computer screen to reach into our lives?  This is one of the true questions that 2049 poses for our age, as much as the techno-utopianism of Star Trek's seemless replicators was a project of the now-lost optimism of the 1960s.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Horror in an Age After Imagination

   This October, in a month of candy, costumes, and commemorative rock music, take a minute to ponder the fates of our original cinematic horror icons.  Vampires have become identified more as the stars of trashy YA romance lit such as the Twilight series than as the classic Lugosi inspired figure.  Frankenstein's Creature is rarely seen onscreen anymore, and succesful films featuring it are even rarer.  Mummies are perhaps the rarest of all, and the last major film featuring a mummy, a poorly reviewed Tom Cruise starring vehicle, inspires little confidence. What's happened to these creatures that once haunted our dreams?

   When these creatures first appeared onscreen, there was still an element of surprise and awe in seeing a legendary horror made flesh. Films about legendary horror creatures date to the very dawn of commercial cinema; the first Frankenstein film dates all the way back to 1910!  During the silent era, the cinematography, makeup, and stylistics of monster films rapidly became more sophisticated, particularly in 1922's Nosferatu, an unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel.  Early sound films such as 1931's Frankenstein, the beginning of the classic Universal Monsters series, could not match the wondrous cinematography of Nosferatu, but featured amazing acting from horror stars such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.  These films, relatively short (especially by modern standards), and far from the most expensive of Universal releases, were among the most resonant in an America racked by the poverty wrought by the Great Depression and racked by the racial cruelty of Jim Crow laws.  This was a transitional phase in America, a country where people still rarely left the state of their birth and could be awed by Karloff as a mysterious, Egyptian stranger who just may have powers from beyond the grave.  It was a nation that could only see its injustices mirrored in the horrors endured by Frankenstein's creature because the Code and other censorship of the time prevented the honest depiction of racial and other injustices endured by millions of Americans.  In a darkened theatre, in an imaginary realm of shadows and darkness, Americans confronted the strange and the mysterious in the only environment that felt safe to them in a changing, foreboding world.

   Then the worst thing that ever happened to the American horror genre occured--the victory of the Allies in World War II.  America enjoyed a burst of postwar prosperity as the only nation involved in WWII that had not seen its manufacturing centers bombed into a ruin.  In the period of success and equality that followed the war, class equality and incomes grew, racial injustices were slowly rectified through the efforts of civil rights leaders, and the once-formidable Universal Monsters became little more than a punchline in a joke.  It's quite telling that their last collective appearance, in 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, was a solely comedic one; the "classic" Universal Mummy would also make a last apperance in a comedy, the 1955 film Abbott and Costello Meet the MummyThe Abbott and Costello Mummy film represented the end of Universal's interest in its classic monster films and the death of mainstream Hollywood's interest in horror themes, as the studio's only remaining use for its old creatures was as matinee rereleases and fodder for local TV horror hosts.  The banner of memorable horror releases during the 1950s fell to those nations that were far more devastated than America by WWII, ranging from Japan's Godzilla to Britain's Horror of DraculaProducts of anguished and wounded nations, these films were more graphic and brutal than the American horror that had preceded them, and those foreign studios that had created them, Japan's Toho and Britain's Hammer, frequently had superior production budgets and better directon than the remaining low budget American horror fare.

   Only as America's involvement in Vietnam lingered on and as storm of societal unrest gathered, did major Hollywood studios finally regain their interest in horror films.  Even as releases like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist gathered critical acclaim, the classic monsters (no longer were they Universal-made) were typically relegated to poorly made schlock like Dracula vs. Frankenstein and Frankenstein's Castle of FreaksEven during the 1980s, a decade full of sexual trauma over the AIDS crisis and the end of the "free love" era, the old creatures were mostly displaced by newer slasher film villains like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.  The legendary creatures would receive one last loving homage, the memorable 1987 release The Monster SquadA sort of "horror Goonies", this movie managed to make its creatures both funny and scary at the same time, and featured great monster design and makeup which resembled that of the Universal creatures while retaining enough imagination to not being totally derivative of them. Sadly, the aim of horror had already moved past the age of matinees and and films that could still be seen by children; The Monster Squad did not fit the appetite of an audience that had come to value gore and lurid thrills above all else, and the film bombed as a result.

   Now, in the late 2010s, Universal has finally taken interest in its back catalogue of horror films once more. However, the early results are...not optimistic.  Universal's interest in its legendary creatures is no longer a thing of mists and shadowy castles but the stuff of massive franchise crossovers; the studio wants to invest hundreds of millions into creating a "Dark Universe" to rival the imaginary worlds of Marvel and DC, and fling boatloads of expensive CGI at its viewers while doing so. The Dark Universe's first release, the 2017 remake of The Mummy, is emblamatic of this; much of the film isn't even about the mummy itself so much as it is about Tom Cruise's hero character interacting with a pseudo-SHIELD organization that fights monsters around the world.  The mummy wanders around and does stuff, draining the life force of men to sustain herself (conceptually, she's more a vampire than mummy, although I don't know if the screenwriters considered this too heavily) and sets boldly get exploded, but this is a film entirely devoid of imagination, of the striving for the mythic darkness that the old Universal films and even older silent films evoked.  This is the product of an age beyond suggestion, beyond subtlety, beyond thought itself, and in its cynical attempts to rip off the "Marvel model", it evokes another poorly regarded entry in a long-running series, Godzilla: Final Wars, which also pilfered Marvel's SHIELD model of a secret organization and featured CGI-laden fights that were perfunctory and unsatisfying.  There has been no further movement on the Dark Universe following The Mummy's disappointing summer release, suggesting Universal has put its legendary menagerie to rest once more.  Could Universal regain the old vital spirit of madness, that spark that once animated its creature in 1931 while Dr. Frankenstein yelled "It's Alive!"?  Such a thing would mean that our own cinematic dark age, the Age After Imagination, would finally be coming to an end.