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Where's the sci-fi magic?

The latest sci-fi extravaganzas have lost touch with humanity. Great opening weekends cannot surely be the only reason why these films must continue to be made, opines Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2003 19:33 IST

The science fiction film is nearly as old as the medium of cinema itself. In fact, it was exactly 100 years ago that the world's first-ever fantasy film, A Trip to the Moon (1903), was made. Conceived, designed and realised by French stage magician and entertainer Georges Melies (who also played a pivotal on-screen role), the 21-minute 'epic' drew inspiration from both Jules Verne and HG Wells.

Sources of inspiration for all sci-fi films remain the same to this day, but something has gone missing from their core. Is it the pure magic of trick photography, the infectious innocence of a good old story well told or simply the unspoiled purity of vision that is the essence of all outpourings of genius? Caught in a miasma of special effects excesses and computer-generated visual artifice, contemporary sci-fi cinema has lost all of the above and much more.

If only the Matrix Reloaded and Lord of the Rings of the world could recapture the sheer directness of A Trip to the Moon. The Melies film had rudimentary

special effects but it told a story that has stood the test of time. A professor, played by Melies, draws up a grand plan for the exploration of the moon. A space shell is created to carry the astronauts on the expedition. Fired from a specially cast gun, it travels through space and lands right in the eye of the Man in the Moon (the film's most famous image).

The astronauts alight from the shell and the first thing they do is catch a view of the Earth from the Moon. A snowstorm strikes and they seek shelter in a crater full of giant mushrooms. They are captured by the curious inhabitants, Selenites, and taken before their King. But the Earthmen escape and are decorated amid much fanfare once they are back on terra firma.

A Trip to the Moon and films of its ilk continue to fascinate filmmakers the world over even as new technological tools and software have transported science fiction films to a different realm of superficial expertise. The giant Hollywood studios seem to be particularly enamoured of the genre.

But somewhere along the way, as the quality of special effects as improved by leaps and bounds, these films have lost their humanity, their soul, and their integrity. The result: we are left to make do with the comic book banality of the X-Men, Matrix and Terminator films.

Today's sci-fi films do obliquely reflect humankind's misgivings and fears about virtual reality, about worlds that exist in cyberspace, about areas of existence that have been created by supercomputers.

But, ironically, in using the very tools that they seem to warn against, these films have taken mass cinema away from the purity of the medium. They have become essentially exploitative fare aimed at pumping up the "shock and awe" value of filmed entertainment.

But the world's best science fiction films - these, not surprisingly, are films that were made well before the excesses of technology overran the genre - have always had deeply philosophical and often unambiguously political underpinnings.

Barring the sci-fi films of the early years, the short tricks films of Melies, Louis Lumiere and others, which were comic in tone, the genre has invariably delivered somber films that have articulated contemporary concerns - sometimes they have addressed the effects of scientific and technological advances, at others they have delved into the anarchy that weapons of war can trigger.

But no matter what theme they have dealt with, the truly great sci-fi films - Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, George Lucas' Star Wars, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and David Lynch's Dune, to name just a few - have always had a strong human core. The philosophical formulations that they put forth were based on an identifiable reality.

Today's sci-fi extravaganzas are just that: mere extravaganzas. Their only aim is to inveigle the masses, and rake in the big bucks, not provoke and confound them. Many such Hollywood films of the past decade have succeeded famously in their mission, but will any of them be remembered in 2103?

That's unlikely for their appeal is largely visceral and, therefore, transient. A stunt or a CGI sequence in a Terminator film or in the recently released Matrix Reloaded may elicit whoops of surprise/awe/admiration from an audience, but can it match the magic of a moment from a Kubrick or Tarkovsky masterpiece?

For their effect, sci-fi films of the past relied on the virtuosity of their production designers and cinematographers and the imagination of their directors. A Stanley Kubrick or his cameraman, Geoffrey Unsworth, would wait for months on a location for the right kind of light for a particular shot.

So would Tarkovsky and Vadim Jusov. Today, a director is restricted by nothing at all and he does not need a highly evolved visual sense to be able to make an eye-popping film. He simply has to herd together a bunch of computer whiz kids in order to get any effect he wants. The machines have well and truly taken over.

While that might be impressive from the standpoint of technical innovation, it certainly isn't art. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to accept as much.

2A cursory glance at the list of Best Picture Oscar winners of the last 13 years is enough to reveal what the Academy thinks of these sci-fi blockbusters. Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves (1990), Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999) and Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind are the films that have got the nod in recent years.

The only big, showy picture that has sneaked through the Oscar sieve is James Cameron's mushy Titanic, but it certainly hasn't proved the adage that an exception proves the rule. It's time for Hollywood's dealmakers to stop reloading its worn-out stunts-and-effects matrix.

It's time for them to begin looking beyond the lure of record-smashing opening weekends. Surely, there is something about A Trip to the Moon that is calling for a revival.

First Published: Jun 17, 2003 13:48 IST