III. A Limited History of Science Fiction Cinema

According to some historians, the first effort at science fiction cinema was A Trip to the Moon, a sixteen minute-long piece directed by Georges Méliè in 1902. Adapted from two separate stories by acclaimed science fiction writers Jules Verne and H.G Wells, A Trip to the Moon seems to have provided an early opportunity for a strong relationship between film and science fiction; if so, however, it was an opportunity for the most part overlooked. While a few German film directors such as Fritz Lang and Paul Leni continued in the twenties to produce notable and bizarre fantasy-type films that were at times entwined with sci-fi reminiscent themes, still the science fiction film genre deteriorated in its quality and popularity through the thirties and early forties, especially overshadowed by horror, which was in its prime throughout the first thirty years of cinematic history.

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Yet in 1945, a single event changed the role of science fiction in society forever. On August 6th, the United States dropped “the Bomb,” the world’s first atomic weapon, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima as part of its strategy to end the American war in the Pacific; three days later, the U.S dropped a second bomb, this time on the nearby city of Nagasaki. The resulting destruction was unlike any ever seen, catastrophic in immediate damage and death – and arguably even more tragic later, with the effects of nuclear exposure on the surviving biological entities and ecological systems. Across the post-war U.S, anxieties and moral questions rose in consequence regarding the power of the Bomb and scientific advancement – and horror filmmakers, mindful of new trends in fear, paid close attention. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hollywood began producing a new breed of horror film: the horror/sci-fi hybrid, with stories of scientifically mutated creatures and alien plots to destroy the planet Earth. These low-budget thrillers, including films like Rocketship X-M (1950), Unknown World (1951), and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), played freely with the idea that the “atom bomb had somehow unsettled the balance of the universe.” And yet, while science may have been the pretext for this theme, one notes that horror remained the genre element most stressed in the films’ marketing strategies. Promotional materials such as movie posters and trailers reflected conventional horror tropes: textual promises of “terror” and “danger,” for example, laid on top of images that juxtaposed an attractive female face and body with the hideous exterior of the film’s primary threat, be it a creature, a thing, or a place [see Figures 1-4]. This traditional horror film contrast of cosmetically enhanced bodies – one positive and familiar, the other monstrous and extreme – was often likewise present within the plot of the horror/sci-fi film, with the scripted and intertwining movements of the female cast member(s) and the threatening incarnation(s). Sensuous scenes of unconscious made-up women, for example, carried in the arms, claws, or tentacles of monstrous beasts proved very popular in films like This Island Earth (1955) [see Figure 5], just as they had in early horror films such as Dracula (1931) [see Figure 6]. However, in the midst of these hybrid films, one new monster subset, that of the humanoid robot, began to show fissures in its relationship to horror and its various cinematic conventions. Along with a several other key factors, the developing robot figure helped throughout the fifties to push the horror/sci-fi film into the science fiction genre proper, as well as to establish a new cosmetics of the imagined unfamiliar, sleek and silver now, no longer only hair and teeth.

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After the appearance of the feminine “Machine-Man” of Metropolis in 1927, robot characters, like the rest of the science fiction genre just described, effectively disappeared from film until the early 1950s. When they did begin to reappear, however, they showed themselves greatly changed, re-imagined by the social and cinematic events of their twenty year absence. For example, while the Machine-Man’s initial deployment in Metropolis required both (1) the sacrifice of human flesh in order to give it life (Rotwang’s arm) and (2) the “borrowing” of human flesh in order for the machine to model human countenance (Maria’s face), by contrast the robots of the fifties exhibited for the most part neither of these basic human dependencies. On the contrary, in fact, most 50s robots were purposely characterized as alien to humankind, either entirely mechanical in composition or else literally alien in the sense of coming from another planet; often both. The new generation of robots furthermore defied the femininity and sex appeal of the Machine-Man, favoring instead a type of masculinised semi-androgyny in their form. Factors such as the war, the bomb, and new public awareness of technological progress all help partially to explain these shifts in the nature of the robot character. To these factors, however, one should not hesitate to add advancements in the science and culture of cosmetics, which was in its own “golden age” by the mid-twentieth century. As earlier discussed, the made-up female face in 1950 had all but completely lost its power signify artifice and danger on its own; the heavy eyeliner and dark lipstick that defined the Machine-Man’s false and unnatural female face in the twenties no longer presented the spectacle requisite to represent the unfamiliar possibilities of the post-nuclear, pro-cosmetics fifties universe. The search for a new “unnatural” look, in answer to the new “Natural” female face, encouraged the appearance of more extremely artificial robots on the silver screen. The result was a plethora of ridiculous robot monsters – but with them one or two key innovations in robotic interface, spectacular in a way previously unknown to film or to cosmetics.

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While it would be tedious to recall a full list of the less-than-impressive robot characters that appeared in 1950s film, a few have since become recognizable enough through nostalgic discussion and comic expense to merit here some brief attention. One of the most absurd robots to wobble onto the screen, for example, “Ro-Man,” the shaggy, simian-bodied villain of Robot Monster (1953) has been parodied numerous times in films ranging from the zany Lobster Man from Mars (1990) to the animated children’s movie Twice Upon A Time (1983) [see Figures 7-9]. Ro-Man’s peculiar appearance – a combination ape-suit, darkened spaceman helmet, and cheap T.V. antennae – illustrates the deteriorating struggle of the horror/sci-fi film hybrid to cope with its lack of distinct identity. Both Ro-Man and the film are a hodgepodge of familiar horror elements, taken out of context and forced to fit inside the mask (or helmet) of the new, the artificial cosmetics of science and space. Visually it is Bride of the Gorilla (1951) meets Destination Moon (1950), lusty animal flick from the neck down and mechanical alien movie from the neck up. Yet as Robot Monster testifies with its ridiculous results, a monster with a metal head does not a cosmic robot make. Rather than produce fearful wonder, Ro-Man re-presents horror clichés as science fiction novelty, creating comedy as an unintended by-product. Indeed, this specific dynamic is addressed in Twice Upon A Time, in which Ro-Man’s parodic double “Ibor,” figured as a mechanical gorilla with an old-fashioned television set for a head, communicates only through film clips from cliché-laden films of the thirties through fifties. Ibor, as Igor-robot, and Ro-Man, as robot-human, are comic and embarrassing reminders of the missing link between sci-fi film and horror that while doomed to extinction, helps yet to illustrate the primary masculine identity of the robot – rooted in the simian horror monster – as well as the secondary emasculation of the robot – mechanically converted after the fact. Ironically, it was two years before the appearance of Ro-Man in Robot Monster that the first significant robot of the fifties, Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), debuted before American audiences. Along with Robby from Forbidden Planet and, to a lesser extent, Tobor from Tobor the Great (1954), Gort’s character is considered by many science fiction film critics to be one of the top achievements in robotic interface made during the golden age of sci-fi cinema. As the speechless goon-associate of the Christ-like alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie), Gort’s aesthetic is one of solid stoic violence – entirely metallic, facially expressionless, gargantuan and always potentially deadly. Its level of control, emotionally and physically, directly conflicts with the instability and sexual impropriety stereotypical in the simian horror creature. Even Gort’s general humanoid shape reflects an opposition with the horror monster, as its form is subdued, without the muscles, hair, color or curves that horror exaggerates to visually define the sexuality and gender of its creations. But behind this exterior simplicity, Gort’s interface still offers a host of complexities. Its form, for example, is one of anti-decadence, but also of pro-artifice; of seeming non-masculinity, yet clearly not of femininity; he is a living doll, painted to defy a gendered or cosmetic understanding. Because of these ambiguities, the audience remains constantly in suspense over Gort’s actions relative to both men and women, and particularly to the masculine alien Klaatu and to film’s female lead, the lovely Helen Benson (Patricia Neal). That the movie climaxes with Klaatu’s fatal wounding and a hostile confrontation between Helen and Gort adds only more confusion to the question of Gort’s robot nature. For without the conscious presence of Klaatu as male protagonist intermediary, Helen and Gort’s relationship reverts to one of, frankly, horror. Upon Klaatu’s “death” for example, Gort, though some distance away, immediately activates into murderous mode, easily overpowering the several men that have been guarding it. The physical superiority of Gort as robot over numerous male figures hyper-masculinizes Gort – its destructive programming, standing in for the horror monster’s lustful nature, trumps the stoicism of its earlier scenes. However, when Gort encounters Helen, who subsequently rushes into the scene (to deliver the classic message, “Klaatu Barata Nikto” and thus prevent Gort’s rampage), Gort’s actions take on a far slower and more menacing character. Rather than destroy her outright, Gort allows the moment to linger, waiting for its laser beam visor to warm up before attacking. This dramatic pause serves of course to mark the climactic nature of the moment as well as give Helen time to utter her all-important phrase to save the world. But the suspended time interval also permits the audience a significant opportunity to reflect upon the opposition between Helen, as attractively made-up heroine, and Gort, as ambiguously made-up robot machine. Repeatedly juxtaposed close-ups of each visually intensify their difference, which is transformed quickly through the tricks of the film medium into the contrast of over-masculinized monster versus over-feminized lady victim. Not even Klaatu’s disembodied voice, the “Klaatu Barata Nikto” message, saves Helen from the horror film dynamic; having delivered the message and skirted death by laser beam for example, Helen is still cornered by the silver giant, who takes her immediately unconscious body away to its alien spaceship. The sexualized bridal-carry convention that here again appears temporarily insinuates a second horror conversion in Gort, with its thwarted penchant for violence transferred into a libidinal potential of equal monstrosity. That this is not in fact the case becomes clear only as the robot also retrieves and revives the corpse of Klaatu, hence restoring the male protagonist place in the triangular balance between the woman and the machine. What fate this act saves Helen from is uncertain. To the 1950s spectator, however, two things were clear: one, that beautiful women should beware of giant metal robots, and two, that “unnatural” had earned a new visual approximation – in the awe-inspiring and awful robot aesthetic.

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