Inside your head: conceptual science fiction

Low-budget, high-philosophy sci-fi forays – including the recent Ex Machina, Predestination and Coherence – remind us of the intrinsic visionary potential of imaginative narrative and editing.

Jonathan Romney
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La Jetée (1962)

La Jetée (1962)

The term ‘speculative fiction’ has sometimes been used in preference to plain old ‘science fiction’ by defenders of the genre who want it to be taken seriously – the usual term being too readily evocative, for non-adepts, of bug-eyed monsters and Leonard Nimoy’s ears.

‘Speculative fiction’ immediately suggests the preoccupation we usually associate with the form – speculation about the future, about new technologies ahead and their possible ramifications. But properly speculative fiction – which ideally, you’d expect most serious fiction to be – would also be speculative in the sense of being philosophical. Starting from scientific or technological premises, it would ask what it might mean to experience existence, or to be human (or alien, or an android), under certain physical or existential conditions.

The best science fiction cinema has certainly aspired to such insights. But in commercial examples of the genre, this philosophical dimension generally tends to offer itself as a side dish to a main course of spectacle. The Matrix might explore theories of consciousness but it gets away with that in the marketplace because it presents itself in the first instance as a hyper-stylised fantasy. Minority Report is, in the final reckoning, only incidentally about the ethical implications of identifying crimes before they happen: really it’s about exploring the parameters of the Tom Cruise action blockbuster in a futuristic setting, and about such design innovations as computer-screen interfaces that hover immaterially in mid-air.

This hybrid quality in no way diminishes the complexity of such films; it’s just that big-budget productions cannot overtly be first and foremost philosophical. Smaller productions can, however, and there’s a special strain of films that you might classify as ‘conceptual science fiction’: either art films that explore science-fiction themes, or genre films proper that use the formal devices of art cinema to notify us that themes, rather than thrills, are primary.

Je t’aime je t’aime (1968)

Je t’aime je t’aime (1968)

Concerned above all with exploring their philosophical or theoretical premises to the limit, conceptual science fiction (CSF, for brevity) in the movies involves a certain scaling down of resources, a formal concentration that can make such films as attractive for their austere or minimalist invention as for their ostensible content. Cinema’s classic CSF work remains Chris Marker’s 28-minute La Jetée (1962), a concise exploration of a time travel paradox; La Jetée is all the more haunting and provocative in its use of still images, plus a minimum of motion, to generate hugely resonant themes of memory, perception and visual recording.

Another great French time puzzle, still too little seen, is Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). Both films suggest that time travel is a particularly fruitful theme to explore on limited resources because so much can be done not with spectacle, but through the malleable possibilities of editing. That was confirmed by Shane Carruth’s Primer, in which the elusive complexity of the premise is mirrored in hyper-fragmented editing, leading us into a time-twisting hall of mirrors in which there’s little conventional signposting.

CSF has explored other themes with similar formal concentration. Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) places a single actor in the hermetic enclosure of a lunar base to explore questions of identity. Carruth’s Upstream Color, even more fragmented than Primer, inquires variously into biology, identity, memory, technological ethics and the very possibility of decoding narrative and the world. Although it trades more on old-school B-movie sensationalism, I’d add Vincenzo Natali’s genetic engineering drama Splice, an update on the traditional Frankensteinian monster movie, but with a spare execution that keeps its speculative dimension always close to the surface.

Ex Machina (2014)

Ex Machina (2014)

This year, we’ve already had a small significant flurry of CSF. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is the most prominent: another Frankenstein story, about a female robot. For all its SFX sleekness – not least the creation of Ava (Alicia Vikander), with her human face imposed on a transparent metal-and-plastic body – Ex Machina presents itself primarily as a film of ideas.

With its cast of three and single enclosed location, the film is a chamber drama, structured around a series of interviews between Ava and hero Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), designed to establish whether Ava truly is a sentient, self-aware being. In fact, the interviews reveal as much about Caleb’s attitudes to technology, ethics and women as about Ava’s nature; with its game-of-wits psychodrama dimension, Ex Machina is not only about artificial intelligence but also a musing on contemporary sexual politics and the question of what we are thinking when we project our desires onto others. The film may finally suffer from a certain glibness, but it is so effective because it makes the most of its sober theatricality: science fiction that aspires to be closer to Sartre than to Spielberg.

Then there’s Predestination, the new film by Australian duo the Spierig Brothers. Like Primer, this is another exploration of time-travel paradoxes, arguably the privileged trope of contemporary science fiction films, whether overtly philosophical or not (cf. Back to the Future, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Looper, Duncan Jones’s Source Code; it’s also the premise of current teen adventure Project Almanac, and of new video game Life Is Strange).*

Predestination (2013)

Predestination (2013)

For a long stretch, Predestination is that most theatrical of formats, the barroom encounter, as a man (who started life as a woman) narrates his/her flashback-laden biography to a bartender who turns out to be more involved in the story then we first suspect. Based on a concise but vertiginous 1959 short story by Robert A. Heinlein (who’s sometimes credited with popularising the term ‘speculative fiction’), the Spierigs’ film faithfully expands the original to develop its themes of time paradox, gender crisis, narcissism and incest, adding an extra Borgesian dimension in the plot strand of a time-travelling agent’s pursuit of the bomber who is, it transpires, his ideal adversary.

Stylishly executed, Predestination presents itself as a slice of retro-modernism, set in an alternative version of our past (and Heinlein’s imagined future), a world in which space travel is a common career option in the 1960s. There’s a pleasing no-frills genre flamboyance to the film, a touch of Roger Corman or Charles Band, and an extraordinary performance from Sarah Snook as the gender-shifting central figure (imagine a butch androgyne love child of Sissy Spacek and Eric Stoltz). The Spierigs package their themes with bracing pulp-novel economy, and have fun not just expanding on Heinlein’s story but also riffing on its wordplay: clichés like “Son of a bitch” and “I doubt if my mother would recognise me” acquire new resonance, as do Heinlein’s philosophical one-liners, such as the notion that a paradox can be “paradoctored”.

Predestination (2013)

Predestination (2013)

What’s new, however, is a post-9/11 dimension in the theme of the pursuit of a bomber in the past: the idea that terrorists enable state security organisations to exist, and that therefore those organisations owe everything to terrorists, without whom they are nothing. This is just one of the ways in which Predestination is a perfect, perverse love story.

There’s also a dimension in Predestination which is arguably always present, overtly or not, in time-travel stories: a meta-fictional dimensional relating to narrative itself, and how we make sense of it. Take for example the editing style of Primer, which constantly makes us aware how its time travellers seek to re-edit their own history. Predestination plays on the idea of history being pre-written and yet possibly open to rewriting; the story is about the problems of controlling the story. In meta-filmic terms, you might see the film’s security boss and arch-manipulator Robertson (Noah Taylor, enigmatically feline) as a sort of studio head, determined to stop actors and directors from changing the script.

Just as meta-fictional, and arguably even more ingenious – given its extreme economy of means – is recent release Coherence, written and directed by James Ward Byrkit. Not the least of this film’s provocations is its title, which defies us to protest: after a simple start, the plot seems to spiral rapidly beyond all bounds of coherence (like Primer, this is a film whose fans may feel compelled to draw up charts mapping out its intricacies). But Coherence is a venture to admire not least for its chutzpah: a dizzyingly aporistic parallel-worlds mind-bender that takes place almost entirely at a middle-class dinner party.

Coherence (2014)

Coherence (2014)

Once the guests start to gather, the talk turns to a comet due to pass through the sky that night. Talk turns to weird phenomena associated with comets in recent history, which caused people to act erratically. Strange things do indeed start to happen: mobile phone screens crack; phone and internet connectivity vanish; then there’s a blackout. Strangely, one house nearby still has its lights on, so two of the company set out to visit it. They return with a mysterious box, which contains photos of all the assembled characters: it’s the first example of the film’s copying, or doubling, which soon gets out of hand.

As the characters deduce with the help of a book on quantum mechanics, the comet has caused reality to splinter into multiple versions of the universe, all co-existing for the duration of its transit. These people are in a situation akin to that of Schrödinger’s Cat, which is potentially alive and dead at the same time, until the opening of its box determines one or other alternative. Similarly, on this eerie night of nights, there co-exist multiple (perhaps infinite) possible versions of these characters’ universe: if they visit the other house (or one of many ‘other houses’), they will meet their doppelgängers. It’s all to do with the phenomenon of ‘quantum decoherence’, apparently, but the precise science is neither here nor there: what matters is how the film maintains its own precarious suspension between narrative coherence and decoherence.

That may seem confusing, but it’s not for nothing that these characters keep venturing out of the house and into the dark (venturing offstage, as it were, for this is a rather Pirandellian piece, or something like a West Coast reimagining of J.B. Priestley’s paradox plays). Before reaching the other house, characters report passing through a “weird zone” that’s darker than normal night. This spot, surmises one character, is like the hub of a roulette wheel; when you pass through it, you don’t know which reality you’re going to emerge in. People turn out to be fiercely possessive of their own realities, which they’re determined not to let their doppelgängers invade. One character even has the ingeniously malevolent idea of dominating his double by blackmailing him, using his own adulterous secret as leverage (the payoff being the inspired line, “If there are a million different realities, I have slept with your wife in every one of them”).

Coherence (2014)

Coherence (2014)

I was puzzled at first by Lance Pereira’s editing, in which scenes are interspersed with extended cuts to black, although in one way, it seems a natural way to punctuate long, naturalistic scenes of dialogue (the film was improvised by its actors, following a meticulously planned narrative structure). But you might read this device as subverting our assumption of continuity. We naturally suppose that each new scene is taking place in the same house – but perhaps with each cut, the film itself is passing through that dark ‘weird zone’, and while we think we’re seeing the same eight characters, we’re actually seeing a different but identical eight.

Delicately poised between control (Byrkit’s storyline) and chaos (the improv acting), Coherence so energetically manages a near-cacophony of ideas and information that it all but implodes under its own density – and that too is appropriate to its premise. Coherence suggests that all fictional universes are parallel universes in any case, and that our own universe is as much a fiction, perhaps even a pre-written drama, as any other – it depends on us to work out whether we have to sticking to the script, or improvise for ourselves.

* No, I haven’t forgotten the Terminator films: they are such central texts in the time travel canon that they are overtly, and knowingly, referenced in Project Almanac, along with Looper and the Bill & Ted movies. Back to the Future may well be in there too, but if so, I missed it. [→ back to reference]

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