Videodrome: Watch What You Watch

[NOTE: This is more or less an analysis of the film Videodrome, and thus there are some spoilers.]

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena — the videodrome. – Prof. Brian O’Blivion

This film is impressive for a number of reasons. In 1983 David Cronenberg showcases a world with a sort of “interactive television” and thus we see a world with many attributes similar to today now that the internet is such a regular part of our lives.

Many have usernames, especially “Youtube personalities” and the like, which are certainly “names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.” The cathode ray was simply the technology behind the screen at the time, now we have flat screens but the function is the same. 

In the film, we are shown some sort of poorhouse, but these destitute ones are not in line for food. They are in line for a chance to watch some television. A chance to participate in the video arena. It is made readily available to everyone no matter their financial state, apparently their society thinks it’s that important – as important as food. In my state of California, government programs will provide anyone with “food stamps” a free cell phone, complete with data. A touchscreen for all. Facebook is preinstalled. They are practically begging: Please don’t starve yourself of a taste, nor from participating fully in the infosphere, we’ll take the bill. Be engaged in our social media, its on us.

Those are the two main literal “predictions” within the film. The final point of most relevance lies in the quote above. In that moment this is what is said:

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.

If this wasn’t sold a science fiction horror film I’d say that’s a very spooky expression. But I’ve always felt like Cronenberg has been a little more honest in his work. That is, it feels the work of an artist more than the average Hollywood movie. Perhaps someone can look into his background and connections later, but I don’t want to get into it here. This film has something interesting to say and it’s worth looking at how it is said.

This quote is a tell. Or at least functions as one. The spooks that run things would love for their word to be the beginning and end of our reality. Whatever suits their purpose and profit. They make up some tragic occurrence and immediately they put it into our brains and therefore it is our truth like it or not. They want us to ignore the reality around us as “less than” their programming.

This isn’t anything new. We know OSS and then the CIA/NRO have been happy to shape our reality with their stories, and well before them. Even Citizen Kane showcased this information game. I think that’s part of why that film has been so highly regarded. At one point Kane wants his lady-friend to be an opera star so badly that he simply puts this fake fact into his newpapers to make it true, ah, but in this case he fails. No amount of good press can make up for her lack of presence and voice. This gives those in ‘the know’ a perspective of struggle. “Oh, it’s so hard to be the reality-shapers.” And they are validated by the screen. While the rest of the audience thinks “see, they can’t lie to me that easily” and then they get all worked up over an election or a shooting. So again, the screen validates them. Citizen Kane manages to play to both sides, certainly an achievement. (Even it’s title humbles the absurdly wealthy Kane, calling him a mere “citizen”, when clearly the super rich are not like the rest of the citizenry.) 

Videodrome is much more literal about the unseen aspects of this process, about how these planted stories take root in our minds and begin to take over. It shows a man’s mind being controlled by the media he consumed, to the point that it even effects his physical body. How we are swayed depends on whose media we consume. There is also a layer of beware-who-you-trust to give you something to watch. Max trusted Harlan but Harlan proved to be against him.

Brian speaks to us only through a recorded video tape, when he points to his head he is directing our attention a head on the television screen:

I believe that the growth in my head, this head, this one right here… I think that it is not really a tumour, not an uncontrolled, undirected little bubbling part of flesh, but that it is, in fact, a new organ, a new part of the brain. I think that massive doses of Videodrome signal will ultimately create a new outgrowth of the human brain, which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human reality. After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there? – Brian O’Blivion

The “first victim” of Videodrome tells us that the new growth caused by the signal isn’t “really a tumour”. It is not a really a “new growth of tissue that possesses no physiological function and arises from uncontrolled…cellular proliferation”, no, rather it IS controlled and it IS directed. Meaning that someone is producing and controlling those hallucinations. Meaning they have the power to shape reality.

The new organ is also weaponized. Max’s gun is part of him. And it creates tumors in it’s victim, growths that do not belong. It is later shown that the gun replaces his hand. He cannot put it down. He has become the weapon. The media you consume can utterly and completely take you over and you will serve it’s purpose. You will be the video word made flesh.

~

So what does this mean to us? Well, for readers of Miles Mathis we can plainly see that those who don’t question the mainstream media or it’s controlled opposition are living a directed hallucination, their bodies by means of their minds have been successfully hijacked. As we de-spin and un-wind the information we receive we become better at seeing the physical untouched reality that lies cannot touch. But this enrages those who want all heed the video word. So the battle for our mind will continue, for a time. Individually we work to root it out completely. That’s what happens at the end.

At the end, Max is told: “You’ll use the weapons they’ve given you to destroy them.” He shoots himself in the head with his hand that is now a gun. Is this the only way to remove the Videodrome from yourself? It does picture nicely the fact that the Internet, the greatest expression of the Videodrome, the Video Word that is free for all to consume constantly, is also the only place to go to get information that can help you to unlearn the lies. Which is the reality pictured by shooting yourself in the head with Videodrome’s weapons – you use their technology to find the truth. And then the lies are destroyed by the truth never to return. 

It isn’t a tragic ending when we destroys the Videodrome within himself. The movie ends because he – and we – are finally free of the video word and now our minds can enter our real bodies, and regain the real life that was lost when we gave it to Videodrome. 

~~

In my personal thinking I’ve come to use the word “Videodrome” to mean “anything on TV, online, or printed that serves to undermine the truth”. Especially that which specifically seeks to push human actions and/or present itself as fact. Unfortunately, in this highly functioning authoritarian state basically everything has some of the taint of the insidious Videodrome signal. Sometimes it’s a heavy deep signal, like the ‘news’ or a movie like Antebellum. Sometimes it’s a less dangerous signal, like the older Star Treks or a movie like Videodrome.

Review of Blade Runner 2049

This is a review I wrote on Letterboxd shortly after I saw this movie.

I think with all the rebooting of old titles that purposely have no clue what made their namesakes resonate it’s important to look at the details. Most of the recent reboots like Star Trek and Star Wars are pretty obviously heartless fan-films with a franchise superficially applied. At best it’s unbelievably sloppy, but I don’t think so much money could be spent on those productions without a real plan, so then what is the plan? Is gutting these beloved franchises and turning all their concepts upside-down part of the plan? I think it’s pretty obvious that yes, that is the point. This train of thought is another essay, or collection of essays.

Blade Runner 2049 did a lot of things right, and so it’s a good movie to dig into. After peeling it apart one may find it easier to see how other things are often turned upside-down.

—————————————-

Not the worst filmmaking endeavor. If people think Children of Men is anything worthwhile then such ones would love both Blade Runners, I’d imagine. This continuation of the Blade Runner story is refreshing in an environment of reboots, remakes, and stories that were story-boarded years ago. The story is thin, but only because one is given so much time consider it, which is just fine by me but in this case they have nearly taken all the mystery out of the narrative. By the final part of the film the audience is so fully informed* that it becomes more about how successful the protagonist will be. In making explicit so much, we also see that this film has a unsurprising agenda: to make the first film a thing of legend.

[8/26/2020- *Even that is opposite to what made Blade Runner unique. We never really knew everything, there was always a bit of mystery. The sequel effectively overwrote all of that. The sequel had no mystery by the time we hit the end.]

Indeed this film is saturated with nothing less than devotion and awe for the original. Remember how beautiful all the scenes in the Tyrell building were? Having the Tyrell/Wallace scenes all pretty with yellow light and moody dynamic lighting can be fun, but of course when that happened in the first film it was because the sun was setting or the room had actual gold in it, and therefore the aesthetics were a logical outcome of the world’s happenings – in the new one it was all clearly just there to look pretty without regard to in-world logic or meaning.

Well, you can also answer back that the gold light and sets were there to express the haughtiness of Wallace, who like Tyrell had a bit of a god-complex. This can provide the in-world explanation -that Wallace chose to light their building through empty aquariums in odd places because he knew it would mesmerize, confuse, and impress all who entered. Given that the average educated mind isn’t trained to challenge ridiculousness, this as a decision on Wallace’s part demonstrates how humans of this age are already at the point of bowing to impressive nonsense without thinking deeply first. [2020 – This is doing far too much internal thinking for the film, there is no evidence that Wallace was so motivated. Thus, I go back to my thought that all those pretty shimmering golden lights was just a superficial reference to Blade Runner.]

This film is the among the bleakest dystopias set before me. The cities in this world are unlivable and are a horror all their own. The San Diego branch garbage dump revealing text was a laugh for me, but I really didn’t enjoy being there, having to look upon it for so long. Of course as mentioned I don’t think anyone would enjoy much in this world. Who lives in these cities? There was more hustle and bustle in the first one, the city was lived in. But in this one we have a larger city, see more outside LA, talk to more individuals but never see a real crowd. It’s like some inane joke, they keep building larger and larger structures but for nobody. Again, this film strains logic for me.

The sex is illogical too. I kept waiting for her to properly calibrate that hologram/prostitute interface. Seems like they skipped that part and just went right into physical contact which certainly didn’t look or seem like part of the calibration process to me. Be that as it may, I found the idea depicted exceedingly vile. Certainly such an on-the-nose depiction of someone being used for just their body may rub many the wrong way. You can suggest that Ryan Gosling and the hologram lady were pleased, but the film doesn’t give me that feeling. The Hologram lady arguably was the most satisfied but she’s the least human of the three°! The audience gets nothing more than a tease, which can be said to help us to feel the participants lack of satisfaction, and that’s how I took it. The closer you are to human the less you want a part of this. This is robot sex for robots.

[2020- °This supports my notion that the whole point of this film is to humanize robots while dehumanizing real people.]

Which of course brings us to one of the central story elements, that the possibly of Replicant procreation might help free our protagonist’s people from their servitude. First, if you watched this film you can see plainly that much of the top level people were indeed replicants themselves. So I guess we have a simple allegory for today’s oppression, (much like the daughter hiding in plain sight). Were there any humans at all? Second, the hope this film places before the audience is that the replicants may soon be reproducing and so be happy that they will soon be more self-deterministic. But as a human -something I’m constantly aware of- I was feeling a bit forgotten and left for dead.

A lot of time is spent experiencing this machine world, we even visit the dump and a protein farm, and there’s a fight on the shore waves crashing constantly- after nothing but buildings and desolation that was a refreshing bit of nature. Nature is a nonplayer in every scene but that one. There is no struggle against the elements. Nature isn’t fighting for her turf. We get the overhead view of that giant wall blocking the ocean more than once. So I had it in my head that nature was pretty much nullified and tamed by the constructions of this society. So that ocean shore scene really stood out. Water joined us again at the end when the snow was falling. I took this as subtle reminder that nature is still doing her thing, even if our protagonists hardly notice it. But such subtleties is not what this new Blade Runner is about. The snow is just there for looks. As someone who tries to take the presence of what’s onscreen as meaningful symbols to read, I was let down by the end. Rather than the dour vertical shot looking down on Gosling dying, the audience should have, or I’ll double-down and say _needed_ a POV of his view – which was just a sky with snow falling down. That’s the moment of clarity and beauty that a film full of trash, tubes and tech needed. To remind us to look up and see something of nature. Her beauty uncompromised and that part of her still is untouched by human meddling. Though such an ending would undermine the whole reason they made this movie so I’m not surprised.

My ending clashes with the hope offered by the story: The inevitable replicant uprising, as they learn to procreate. Which is the opposite of hope for humans so I have to assume this is a movie for borg babies, raised on smartphones and the internet. Early on during the film I actually laughed out loud a lot at how much 2049 seemed to be fellating itself and the 1982 film. I felt maybe it could still earn those moments back (since I really do enjoy the first one), but for me it didn’t end up earning them as it just wallowed in its self-destruction for a lost cause.

[2020 -It may not seem like a lost cause now but that’s just the propaganda talking, the replicant borg babies can never win Nature won’t allow it.

Ultimately 2049 fails because it’s message is just the opposite of the first one. In the first Blade Runner we felt for the replicants Decker was hunting because we came to see them as being far more human than expected. They have deep emotional lives and are able to to form connections with people and each other. That’s one of the points of the first film, that they are more human than the human hunting them. But in this sequel we are shown robots who will continue to thrive but how? It seems to me mostly in a physical sense. We are shown that their emotional lives are based on known manufactured lies, so their interpersonal relations are doomed, but somehow we are to assume that these same lies will connect them as a group that can come together and over-throw their creators?

That’s the new basic pattern that I see emerging. The more you think about the newer stuff the less it holds up, but the old stuff still has some interesting concepts and connections to discuss.]

10 Best/Favorite Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation

My love of science fiction was solidified by being able to watch this show every week night throughout much of middle and high school. This franchise is my favorite science fiction thing, mainly due to its optimistic portrayal of human society. The stories are based on honest sincere characters, all doing their best to work as a team. They have personal goals, but being on a shared assignment they have shared goals. The main one to expand human understanding through exploration. I think everyone could get behind that. Of course the galaxy is a complex place and that can be used to parallel international relations, and the series offers nicely balanced discussions of these problems. And I appreciate that they aren’t always an overly transparent allegory.

I list my favorite stories with short descriptions that also explain my fondness for the episode. I tried to be brief, but may feel compelled to add to this later.

10. Preemptive Strike – Military espionage. This is a wonderful model for the way conflicts develop in Star Trek. Ro Laren is split. She’s never been the best Starfleet officer and that background makes her cover story all the more believable, but then she slowly realizes her allegiance belongs elsewhere. The beauty of this episode is her relationship with Picard. She hates to let him down, and it weighs on her. In the end Picard completely understands her decision, and yet she also understands his position. There is conflict but both sides are right in their way. I wish the model provided by this episode has been a blueprint for the bigger conflicts we got in DS9.

9. The Defector – Diplomacy, with a bit of a mystery. Deepens the conflict with the Romulans.  The Defector being genuine is a nice surprise that shows that some Romulans are not supportive of the main thrust of the Empire’s actions. His false intelligence report shows the lengths the Romulans are willing to go to fully expose a single defector. While also displaying the resourcefulness to use the opportunity to lure the Federation into a trap. On the Enterprise side of things, it’s interesting to see them so uncertain what to believe. I love that their natural response is to trust, but they have to forcibly remind themselves this is just the sort of thing Romulans might to do to abuse their trust. In the end their mistrust is correct, but not for the reason they thought. The earnestness of the defector really makes this work.

8. Who Watches the Watchers – Diplomacy and interpersonal relations with a heavy theme of understanding our own limitations, integrity. A research station on a pre-warp civilization gets screwy and the Enterprise must salvage things without completely violating the Prime Directive. It doesn’t go well, given that at one point they think Picard is a god. He is determined to undo what damage has been done and even takes an arrow to prove a point. I like lengthy discussions of how to handle this delicate situation.

I recall this one having a really nice bit of score as well.

7. Clues – A mystery with an unusual sort of diplomatic ending. This episode really showcases the kind of drama and subtle conflict that characterizes Star Trek. The crew trusts each other enough to see that something is up. Only by letting many small seemingly insignificant happenstances matter enough to add up to a full blown mystery to we get to the point of seeing that Data isn’t quite right. Those moments when Data seems to be going against the crew are intense. He’s usually our stalwart, so it’s very uncomfortable and disconcerting – even terrifying- to have him against us! It’s such a relief to find that it’s just a promise to a rather xenophobic species.

6. Thine Own Self – An exploration of personal integrity and taking the right risk. The subplot about Troi taking the commander’s exam is a nice window into how people can still be challenged in the “utopian” world of the Federation. It shows how different people have different skills and we need them all to work together and explore the galaxy. Competition and strife are not a requirement.

Data’s story encapsulates what humanity has become. Rather being quick to judge, he is quick to help. He is open-minded and his natural curiosity keeps him exploring many options. Even as others instruct him otherwise, he can’t help but see the world the way he always has. He is objective, looking for logical cause and effect, and is motivated by his care for those around him. That’s really the heart of this episode. Data is naturally selfless and even while the town opposes him he keeps making every effort to help them.

At the end when the young girl is questioned about Data by the Enterprise crew and says that Data was her friend too, I am always moved. It’s sad that from her perspective Data is dead, but it works out well that Data can be beamed up and repaired. But Data is our friend and we can’t help but want this extraordinary man to be friends with everyone.

5. Measure of a Man – A What-is-Life episode that shows we have much to discover just looking inward. I love getting to so formally discuss the nature of Data and his sentience and rights therein. Riker’s defense feels very real, that he did his best. I always get the impression that he’s going to win! Maddox calling Data “he” at the end is a beautiful touch that shows that all involved parties learned to appreciate Data all the more.

4. Reunion – A Diplomacy episode, also a personal relationships episode. Relations with the Klingons continue to complicate. Picard is working hard to arbitrate over the succession of power in the Empire. Meanwhile the personal cost Worf’s previous decision is going up. Knowing that Worf is honorable pushes K’Ehleyr to keep investigating the Duras’ family role in the Kitomer Massacre.  This leads to real tragedy and further complicates relations.

3. Inner Light – A personal relationships episode, and a discovery/understanding episode. Even though the audience understands what is happening to Picard as he lives this life we are given a chance to get attached to his new family and the fate of this new planet. Which perfectly reflects his experience. Picard discovers just how much he values family and a simple life. I believe this experience greatly changed Picard. Another touching detail: at the end he clutches the flute close to his heart.

2. The Offspring – Similar themes to Measure of a Man, looking inward for discovery and understanding, but much more personal. Data’s building a another android is endlessly charming. His defining it as “procreation” leads to a surprise for the whole crew, and the Captain’s reaction is quite natural as he’s immediately aware of the ramifications of Data’s work. Once Lal chooses an appearance it’s a ton of fun to watch her learn the basics. We can imagine that Data’s first days were similar. Once Admiral Haftel arrives of course the mood changes, but not as much as when Lal’s life is in danger! Hearing the once antagonistic Admiral describe how Data worked to save Lal is perfectly moving. Getting this information from him solidifies that connection we’ve all had with Lal, and with Lal’s fate sealed everyone is sad to see her leave, but we can be excited for the possibilities introduced.

1. Darmok – An episode of understanding and diplomacy, while also a discovery mission. This is what Trek’s all about. The crew has an unusual not-quite first contact mission before them and Picard is taken from them. So we get to see how Riker and the rest of the crew operate without him and we get to see Picard on his own. We see his first response to to refuse a fight, yet there’s a willingness to trust and that is the key.

Riker, like everyone and anyone left in the dark, cut off from communication about the situation he is in, tries to take control and therefore lashes out in relative acts of violence. His actions even hinder Picard at a crucial moment. This of course leads to tragedy as all lashing out in ignorance tends to. Again we have a complex interesting story without in-fighting or pettiness, everyone is doing the best they can with the information available to them. That’s the Star Trek that has me call myself a fan.

But the team is still able to overcome all this. Especially Picard, who is able to read the Tamarian’s captain’s actions and come to an understanding. Understanding, that is the theme of this episode. And to me understanding is an underlying motivation behind the spirit of exploration. We explore to increase our understanding.

Of course why not a list a few as “runner-ups” in no particular order:

  • Q Who
  • Lower Decks
  • The First Duty
  • Data’s Day
  • Disaster
  • Unification
  • Face of the Enemy
  • Frame of Mind
  • Ensigns of Command
  • Déjà Q
  • The Price
  • Identity Crisis
  • The Nth Degree
  • The Quality of Life
  • Lessons
  • Booby Trap
  • Galaxy’s Child
  • Suspicions
  • First Contact
  • Silicon Avatar

What is a “Science Fiction” film?

What makes this genre uniquely stand apart? Is it just extra-terrestrial locations or space travel? I think it’s pretty easy to see that those would define the genre in a very superficial way. What does the film think it’s about? (Yes, a reference to Daniel Framption’s Filmosophy) What does it make you think about? The answers to these questions in the most general sense are the themes of a film. So to discuss what science fiction is I will prefer to focus on the themes commonly explored by the genre.

Themes are basically what movies are about in a general sense. Rather than examining the specific details of each film’s world, characters, or story, an examination of theme allows us to compare films very quickly without dipping into spoilers. For example both Contact and Arrival are depictions of encounters with aliens that involve much decoding, with a large part of that “decoding” being thanks to the emotional state of the main character. Blade Runner and Terminator explore outcomes of our own AI creations getting beyond our control. The Running Man and Death Race 2000 are about dystopian societies defined by their devotion to the reality of their media. Easy enough.

But we want to generalize the whole genre of Science-Fiction. Can we? From a mainly literary standpoint Wikipedia summarizes with a couple quotes: According to American writer and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”[5] American science-fiction author and engineer Robert A. Heinlein wrote that “A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”[6] (emphasis mine). Both of these definitions highlight the genre’s tendency to describe human changes or futures imagined around our understanding of science and technology. This is easy enough to utilize for film.

After that, this section on Wiki then descends into pretend/non-definitions given by editors, writers and modern academics. The whole point of a definition is to provide boundaries to a discussion so that it makes sense (i.e. about something). The last sentence of the section is useless and adds nothing to our discussion: “Author and editor Damon Knight summed up the difficulty [in defining science-fiction], saying “science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”[9] Right before that we are challenged “American science fiction author and editor Lester del Rey wrote, “Even the devoted aficionado or fan—has a hard time trying to explain what science fiction is,” and the lack of a “full satisfactory definition” is because “there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction.”[8] Really? Speaking as a “fan” or devoted aficionado I have no trouble explaining what science fiction is. Perhaps it’s my math and physics education? Asimov and Heinlein not only wrote in the genre, but they also had science backgrounds. Some may scoff and jab “well you’re talking about hard sci-fi”. That’s fine if it makes you more comfortable think of it that way. But I don’t think being rigorous with definitions is hard. Let’s use their simple and clear definitions to delineate limits.

First, then, let’s go down another level: What is science? Science is the knowledge and the methods by which we acquire further knowledge. Secondly, what is technology? Technology is the tool that either assists our methods or is what we create from current understanding to assist us in other actions. We can see how the human desire to explore is motivated equally by the additions to both of these. We explore to grow our understanding, and we then create something that allows us to explore more, then we push that technology to it’s limit, which creates an new “necessity” – putting us in an cycle of invention and exploration.

It’s interesting to note that technology isn’t always a physical tool, from the Wikipedia article on the subject: “Technology can be the knowledge of techniques, processes, and the like or it can be embedded in machines”. So certain types of knowledge are technology. I’m familiar with this usage. I recall something as simple as making lists or labeling things a certain way being referred to as “technology”. Another example, to help remember your 9 column on the multiplication table: simply put your hands out, then count the number you wish to multiply by 9 and drop that finger. The number left the lowered finger is the tens digit and the remaining number of fingers to the right of it is the one’s digit. I suppose then “reverse psychology” could be considered a technology. These are all bits of knowledge that when applied function as tools. Science is the knowledge considered in the abstract, but technology is what we get when we utilize that knowledge. Said another way, science is concerned only with the knowing of a thing, but technology is the application of that knowledge – it is where the actual effects then come from.

Recall that Asimov said that sci-fi “deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” Given how closely science and technology are related – and that those measurable reactions are results of the effects of applied knowledge, we can say simplify that to: Science Fiction is the genre which explores the effects of technology on humanity.

Now that we have a rather simple looking definition let’s see how it applies to some well-known films.

Some are very obvious: Blade Runner, Frankenstein, Westworld, The Terminator, THX 1138, Zardoz, Sorry to Bother You, and The Matrix all deal with man’s creations biting him back. Notice with THX 1138, Zardoz and Sorry to Bother You that we have different levels of embedded technology but still have a story that explores possible effects of social technology. We can throw in A Clockwork Orange, Equilibrium and Brazil. Interesting to note that we have surpassed some aspects of these film-worlds in terms of technology, so the hubris comes from the application. In this way the dystopian sci-fi sub genre is well-established and detectable.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Timecrimes, Primer, The Fly and Lucy all feature relatively small pockets of people effected by a new technology. A film’s focus determines its themes, so by focusing on those effected or involved with the technology we can say that our definition holds.

Then we have the idea that our advancements get us closer to extra-terrestrials, Alien, Starship Troopers, Event Horizon, Solaris, and Star Trek: First Contact all stem from the idea that we’ll encounter aliens once we’re sufficiently advanced. This brings us to the first possible challenge to this definition. What if the film features alien contact with modern/current levels of embedded technology?

Arrival, Contact, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind deal with current humanity first getting in touch with alien life. In these cases the aliens just come to earth unprompted by humans. The beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey that’s exactly what happens, as well as Close Encounters, Predator, E.T. and Virus. In 2001 after the initial contact, the monolith is moved and it’s later detection does depend on sufficient advances in technology. But there are a large number of alien encounters that feature the aliens doing all the traveling requiring no technology by humanity. Does this break my definition? I don’t think it does, since it is not necessarily implied that the technology is a result of human tinkering or ingenuity. It is no small feat to traverse the great distances in space and that achievement would effect everyone involved. Alien contact is completely dependent on technology. Of course that aspect of such encounters within a film-world are far overshadowed by the much more society-altering alien contact.

Now, to possibly rock the boat: Star Wars has many tropes or accoutrement common to science fiction but the themes are not anything like we’ve been considering here. The robots, aliens, and spaceships are nothing new, in fact, they are old and commonplace. The presence of advanced technology is not examined by the story, because the technology is not advanced to that world. One could argue that the Death Star is new, but the Empire is already in control before it arrives and the potential to examine an even more dystopian galactic society stops with the films climax. Vader even points out that the Force is more important than the technology. As is now common knowledge the story is modeled after the hero’s journey which comes to us from mythology adventure stories, so that is the primary theme of the story.

A similar example: The 5th Element. Again we have a movie that looks high-tech to us, but all the characters are used to flying cars and space-travel. Everything is new to Leeloo so her reactions don’t count for the world, and while she is a main character the film doesn’t focus on presenting the world to the audience from her perspective. Though this is an unknown they are working against it is no presented as something to explore.

I’d like to rewatch Earth Girls Are Easy to see how it shakes down. It’s like ET, but we don’t really see the same sort of reaction from society, the romance is the main focus. The ship repairs aren’t some big story element, nor does the world react much to the presence of here-to-fore unknown alien life. Rather we see the human-like aliens blending in just being slightly off, and thanks to those only slight differences a bond is formed. The climax has our main character leaving with the aliens, so that perhaps is our defining moment to consider. She is not motivated by a desire to explore the unknown but by the emotional bond formed with the alien. How is that different from Contact or Arrival? Simple: In those last two the whole world is involved, so the movie most certainly focuses on the effects of alien contact with humanity. But didn’t I say that the main characters determine the story and therefore themes of a film? I did.

See? Even with hard and fast definitions there’s still plenty to discuss and debate. I think such a debate is much more interesting than just throwing our hands up and declaring everything is relative, ambiguous, or just a system of possibly contradicting dualities.

I argue that genre should come out of a work’s themes, which come from the character actions and story of a film. A useful definition for the genre of Science Fiction is that it consistently explores the effects of technology on people.

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