When critics and audiences responded to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the most recent work in the ever growing genre within sci-fi that is the epic with high(er) art leanings, I was amazed at how much had to do with the technical execution of production value. I wasn’t alarmed at the nature of the arguments, sci-fi has become the computer’s answer to what the period costume drama has been to the fashion designer; a mere way to show off the newest development, but I was a bit surprised by how virtually every piece contained at least an oblique reference to something that would be directly linked to cash and not artistry (both that it looked better because the technical was cleaner and that its quality would be determined once we’d seen how much it’d start to bring in [and then therefor validated]). You’d be fine within the latter trappings as the costumer is an actual person and the attention paid historical, but within sci-fi I find it a tad ironic that when so many films are about the coming destruction we owe unchecked technological advancement it’s then strange that so many of these films owe their entire mise en scène to what the computer can produce as long as the effects house CG artists keep receiving payment. An entire genre now largely existing in the legitimacy of the critical establishment because the digital facsimile the computer can now produce has become more appropriately realistic. So much of the awe that I saw lamented at Interstellar‘s feet was due to the scope of its world venturing interstellar travel, and how those effects softened them up enough to accept the relatively stock emoting by the real flesh players as deep and sufficiently harrowing. I don’t have a problem with most of Interstellar‘s irony, as it trades the influence of Kubrick’s 2001 as purely visual surface level set piece, dumping all of 2001’s anti-computer artificial intelligence stance. Nolan isn’t a hypocrite because he loves where computers have and can take us, and his prior films showed this with their reliance to a green screen, while finally, Interstellar openly says it. Not only are the machines our friends (TARS and CASE are HAL’s exact opposite) but solutions to many of the problems presented in the film are shown to be solved by the computer or can theoretically be solved this way in the very near future. But really my concern here isn’t the philosophy inherent in the films of Christopher Nolan, but rather how our contemporary thoughts and admiration of cinema is so often concerned (and then swayed) with the most base level visual set decoration (real or digital).
What then of a genre so tied to developing a taste level dependent on production aesthetic, an opinion that can be created with the easy infusion of cold hard cash? Let us consider a few similar films from varying financial spectrum that nevertheless feature very similar plots. Within this small sample size I’ll show, and I hope to infer that if extended further the thesis would still hold, that our opinions are being increasingly shaped by production aesthetic and thus swayed towards bourgeoisie appreciations. We’re responding not to artistic depth or originality of point, but to the quality of the production born purely from the amount of money afforded to the creators*.
It seems to me that the whole phenomena started with Stanley Kubrick’s landmark exercise in production design and special effects, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s ironic that a film with as much on its mind (real or audience imagined) as that one had (both conceptual and cinematic) would largely seal the genres fate for the next half a century and beyond in a sealed world of shiny perfection (plus, there’s the additional irony that as visually bombastic as Kubrick’s world was, it was always rooted in literary sources). A look at Kubrick’s influences and competition within the genre reveals a lot of films on the other side of the spectrum, films that were cheaply made or made at a time in cinema’s history where other worlds where difficult to envision realistically. From several sources I’ve read that Kubrick was a fan of the films of producer George Pal, and you can see definite reference from his 1955 Conquest of Space, a film as poor in execution as it is vast in ambition. It’s heart was in the right place trying to produce a huge spectacle, but its matte paintings are obvious throughout, with no where to hide within the expansive widescreen technicolor photography. Kubrick shows his film to be much larger in concept and commentary, but also with the passing of 15 years, to be greatly advanced in special effect. From here on films within the genre would need something close to Kubrick’s technical achievement, even if they never attempted anything resembling his entirety of concept. In the next generation of sci-fi films a filmmaker would come along to match Kubrick’s stylish flare, but with a pair of genre films very much in the B trappings the genre had meandered about (almost exclusively) for the previous several decades. That filmmaker was Ridley Scott, and where his Blade Runner has attained classic art film status despite its pulpy, noirish detective base, it was his other work, Alien, that had an even more pronounced low art sub-genre, that of the alien abduction/impregnation film (that and it also is structured like a slasher film, another impoverished milieu). For me, it’s this elevation of technique and production sheen within a previous trashy atmosphere that would show how the genre had changed and where we are now condemned to always reside our opinions. Suddenly the stylistic elements are largely all that matters, and sub-genres previously ignored as preposterous now ripe for elevated legitimacy. Looking at where Alien came from, and what it spawned (no, not demonic alien offspring, but a series of low budget rip-offs) shows just how hollow this cultural fascination with production aesthetic is, because when stripped away to a low-budget aesthetic, the films aping its structure and chief concerns are shown to be the unimaginative and exploitative works their plots dictate.
Alien, made for an estimated $9 to 11 million ($29 to 35 million when inflation adjusted to 2015 dollars) in 1979, made an estimated ten to twenty times that (box office numbers vary) ensuring that a series of films would be quickly produced closely mimicking its plot. An early one, Inseminoid, comparatively, was made for 1 million pounds ($1.5 million US; which is inflation adjusted to $4.8 million today) two years later in 1981, being part funded by the famous low budget Asian production house, The Shaw Brothers. While these films are in different worlds financially, with Alien being afforded a budget at least five times larger, they both look to be in different worlds than Planet of the Vampires and Breeders (1986, and its slightly more polished 1997 remake), which are positively poor alongside, though exact financial data alluded my searches (the best I could find was information that called The Planet of the Vampires budget to be ‘around 100 grand’ which translates to about $750 thousand in 2015). Specifically Breeders, which looks like it had a shoestring budget, as did the Planet of the Vampires, but Mario Bava is largely able to transcend these limitations with set originality and some pretty nifty color photography effects. But alas all these films are very similar, with perhaps only Tim Kincaid’s blatant misogyny in Breeders sticking out among them (he dresses up the film as a metaphor for sexuality in the face of the slasher movie template of ‘the virgin survives’ conservatism, where you can see the alien as a symbol of male aggression, but then he spends the entire film having his camera leer and pervert). The fact that a film as poor (in production budget not artistic quality) as Planet of the Vampires is, and as long as we’re here, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, the 1958 independent Edward L. Cahn picture, birthed Alien‘s ideas and have been largely seen as little more than curious oddities rather than trailblazing works like Alien has, points to the evidence of the cultures insatiable need for veneer. In my opinion both are at least interesting, and in the case of Planet of the Vampires, a genuine classic worthy to be watched as much as anything Ridley Scott has created. In fact I’d argue that Scott has never shown anything resembling the ingenuity and creativity that Bava oozes forth in Planet of the Vampires (it’d probably be fun to discover some of Scott’s commercial advertising work budgets before he did films, as I wouldn’t doubt if some had more spent in thirty seconds than Bava had for his entire 88 minute feature).
Dissecting the collection of films even more you see where heightened production value fool audiences into constructing a quality based hierarchy. Inseminoid‘s alien to human insemination scene is genuinely frightening; Sandy (played by Judy Geeson) is vulnerable and violated in a disorienting scene of swirling camera moves and overlaid imagery. While the rest of the film looks cheap and plays cheaper, its helpful to remind ourselves that when the film fails it is because it lapses into the very template that Alien had ‘succeeding’ in; mainly, highly unoriginal Ten Little Indians one-at-a-time character murder in the style of a slasher film. Sure, H.R. Giger’s Alien design greatly betters Nick Maley’s ET-meets-a-Citroën DS front end alien concept, and while I wouldn’t want to reduce Giger’s talent to mere availability of funds, but it’s estimated that Giger has a design budget that alone exceeded the entirety of Inseminoid‘s shooting budget. In the creation of molds, sets and puppet robotics time, money and additional hands do obviously matter. Now Giger’s Alien is infinitely more frighting in look, but we can’t deny that this is partially because it looks and moves in a more real and lifelike way, and it lives in a world more consistent to this realism as well. Plus, part of the terror born from Inseminoid‘s rape sequence is the obliqueness of what is being seen; Sandy’s legs, viewed from the side in a 45 degree angle, obscure a clear plastic tube full of green embryonic fluid being inserted into her. After a moment of this, two large orbs, made virtually unrecognizable by the fluid, slide down the tube. It’s as memorable as anything Alien produces in respect to horrors, with the sole difference that Alien produces several of these, while Inseminoid has just this one. One scene though, on a minuscule budget, implies that more are, or where, possible.
Of the films mentioned here, Breeders is easily the most unfullfilling on any level but perhaps pure camp, where it’s probably still too cynical to succeed even. Where Alien dresses up the slasher film in chic science fiction, Breeders is most closely seen as a police procedural with a space invasion make-over. It amps up the sex and (female) nudity, a ploy seen in many 80’s direct to video features, and its slightly more polished (read: more expensive) remake a decade later continues the trend. It links to the films in the wake of Aliens by featuring women being sexually assaulted by phallic alien creatures, an idea that you could very easily see being done in a more mainstream setting to critical appeal (mainstream reviewers will bemoan certain depravities, but seldom will they have a problem with violence perpetuated on women in genres they already look down their noses on). Because Breeders remains squarely where the plot dictates (exploitation) and refuses to pretend it is what it isn’t (European influenced art cinema) you more clearly see the actual trappings that Alien is working in. When the women writhe around naked in a green lit embryonic sack like vessel (covered in a glossy goo like substance we can only assume Kincaid means to evoke semen) we can’t remove it from the absurdity that we don’t feel as we see a demonic creature explode from John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (plus, Breeders features a similar sequence where a man’s stomach bubbles and rips to only deny us the payoff when the alien exists his torso while off camera). Again, that sequence is presented with a wonderful sheen of realism, so it’s seen and perceived as terrifying, when in fact it’s a tactic employed in dozens of video nasties from around this time. Are our tastes merely susceptible to technique, and how should genre works more reliant on these be judged differently (sci-fi and horror would be more applicable to these than, say, the contemporary romantic comedy)? We can never deny what our eyes and ears see and hear, and we shouldn’t deny the artistry of the production artists, but we also shouldn’t deny that films with bigger budgets attract a larger culture cache due to increased marketing and cable rotation after the fact (not to even state that production artists would always want more resources to play with).
Perhaps I’ve stacked the deck against my argument by picking two post-Alien films that are so unartistic that no amount of money could have saved them, but what if I inserted a few genuinely artistic enterprises on the cheap that are also similar to one another; say any of the long line of Godzilla movies? A franchise that seems to get duller and more lifeless the more expensive it gets. Into the computer age we’ll only see this grow ten fold as computer expertise becomes more and more expensive and the films without CG (anything pre-1990 essentially) become less of a spectacle alongside to the average filmgoer. I couldn’t help but notice that in the newest Godzilla film from 2014, that the giant lizard was animated to actually look like a lumbering man in a rubber suit—how is that for irony? Whereas the ultra cheap, and made to look like a loving homage, Godzilla 2000 from director Takao Okawara made in 1999 for $8.5 million, breaths with a fun and excitement that Emmerich’s (made for $130 million a year earlier) and Gareth Edwards’ (the 2014 variation, made for a staggering $160 million) can only dream of (and this says nothing to the run of very fun films from the late 60’s that were also highly enjoyable and comparatively cheap, like Destroy All Monsters  and Invasion of the Astro-Monster ). Their films are chock full of strained seriousness, forgetting always that what these films actually are, are Saturday matinee popcorn entertainment for malcontents under 16 years old (I say this without an ounce of malice as it was me for a spell).
Now sure, when you watch all these films discussed here it could be very obvious which are head and shoulders above, but I’ve purposely chosen a few of severe trash aesthetic (I feel there is little to redeem Breeders outside post-camp irony, and in many ways it’s also an offensive film) to more clearly show what all these films are about. What makes Alien more legitimate is how it looks, and perhaps Scott’s European art sensibility, itself borrowed from several renowned sources. But the psychology or political motivations of each of these films—what constitutes the preoccupations of art—aren’t leagues apart. What if I flipped the discussion exactly in opposite terms again; higher art precedents on an obscure plane against a very known piece of trash? Take 1995’s Species, made for 35 million (inflated to 54 million in 2015 dollars) and grossing more than three times that. What are some of the precedents? Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, the Asian ultra-cheapie that is as fun as it is original; Fire Maidens from Outer Space, the British camp trash classic; Laloux’s Gandahar, the bizarre, exotic trip that features more visual ingenuity than a boat load of expensive Will Smith sci-fi vehicles (Men in Black, I, Robot, After Earth, etc), and one could conceivably go on and on. And yet, by and large Species is the film serious and casual filmgoers know, and would more readily ‘respect’ (‘respect’ is a loose word in a film as consumed with Cinemax setups as Species is). If I pursued that argument further though, it becomes as much about advertising power behind a bigger budget enterprise and across country lines, not the shoehorning of tastes towards a cleaner, more respectable visual representation. But, it’s still an interesting vantage point to see reversed.
What could possibly be my hope for the tastes of the cultures’ consensus, especially when so much of the visual palette is moving away from the real and original and into the computer generated, and temporary? A reordering of cinema tastes is as ‘easy’ as the next big thing radically altering it (think of the effect Tarantino had on American cinema for a brief moment in the early to mid 90’s or the effect a little band from Seattle had on mainstream music for half a decade around the same time), but as we become more surrounded by the veneer (every time the television is flicked on or the web browser is opened we see more akin to the polished stuff than the not) the different has less a chance for mainstream latching on. Because, from the womb now (alien’s or human’s), we understand different to be ordered as ‘strange’ and singular, little more than curious oddity amidst the sea of everything else. Look where sci-fi promises into the future: Shane Carruth isn’t rewarded for his two blasts of small budget ingenuity and artistry, while Rian Johnson will turn the derivative, simplistic Looper into a blank $200 plus million dollar check (we have to assume here, but it’ll be at least this, as it is what JJ Abrams received to make Episode VII: The Force Awakens) to bombard our multiplexes with Star Wars Episode VIII. Our great ones, regardless of budget, are always just momentary lapses in the ordered universes of the spectacle.
*in reality this idea is prevalent across all forms of narrative today, cinematic or television. The slicker the production looks the higher the chances it’ll be taken seriously as art. I decided to single out sci-fi because the vast majority of its stories couldn’t happen without the ability of a computer to render the impossible in photographic looking reality. But, it should be said, that I also considered the recent influx of super hero films on similar grounds where I feel their sudden glut to be because a computer can now create huge green men to look realistic, or spider web slinging teens to be able to swing across skyscrapers within a palette of visual realism. Many theorists look for intellectualized reasons for these (such as: in a post 9-11 world where we feel increasingly helpless, we look for super human savors from above, blah blah blah) but to me it comes down to where once genres looked campy and productions C-level (the 60’s Batman mod television series, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four [unreleased but easily seen on bootleg or youtube], Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, etc) now computers can affix a phony appearance of legitimacy (and thus top level acting talent can be attached). The reason I couldn’t muster enough for a piece therein was because save the biggies, I’ve tried to avoid this phenomenon due to severe distaste, so my knowledge is admittingly inadequate.
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