PRINT May 1983


THE MONSTER AND THE CITY have been symbolic in Larry Cohen’s Q––The Winged Serpent, 1982, the sort of film normally dismissed with a tolerant smile by critics who would have you consider more serious matters, the essentials of science fiction cinema can be identified more subtly––and more knowingly––than Steve Spielberg and George Lucas, Cohen fingers the exact pulse of fearful speculations that has throbbed in twentieth-century fiction since Mary Shelley conceived it and Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were its midwives. His tales speak of monsters—J. G. Ballard has shown that all science fiction must––the geography of the mental landscape of modern man who externalizes his guilts and aspirations into an everyday environment. I would like in this article to consider the implications of that geography as charted by the cinema. What can science fiction and the movies tell us about the probable settings for our future lives?

Cohen’s film is set in New York, or to be accurate just above it. On the upper levels of the city, the sky is a little closer. Its chemistry contains, of course, some vital truths about the price of our survival on this planet, and the skyscraper society is as close as anyone can be exposure to them. Not so long ago, say sixty years, when travel by air was still suspected as a daring defiance of natural laws aptly punished by Hindenburg disasters and the like, there were stories in the nauts. There were heights to which it was feared, man was feared, man was not meant to aspire, and the scaling of them would bring the followers of Icarus tumbling back to Earth incredibly diseased and melting cased for Professor Quatermass and his reactionary colleagues. Cohen sounds the warning afresh but with a keen ironic understanding of what keeps us watching the skies; the winged menace he visits upon us is a god.

Real estate religion, its purpose to celebrate humanity by the sheer height of its temples, has at last managed, Cohen suggests, to penetrate the domain of its divine Spectator who, duly summoned, proceeds to exact tribute. As a result, the New Yorkers of Q––The Winged Serpent find blood raining down on them as sacrificial victims are snapped by the beak and talons of the swooping deity. That its home should be the Chrysler Building (close in design, it seems, to the Aztec motifs that might prompt a reawakened Quetzalcoatl to build its nest), that it should contrive to be invisible for much for its early activity (“it flies out of the sun,” explains one character helpfully), and that eventually gets shot down King Kong-style in a hail of bullets––these matters of mundane narrative while related by Cohen with his customary zest, are not really the meal of his metaphor. His camera floats lovingly across the pinnacles of Manhattan in appreciation of the city's grandeur, recognizing at the same time even utopia must have its limits, that the boundaries have been reached and the blood will now fall. Retribution always rains from on high in Cohen’s films as in God Told Me To, 1977, with its army of snipers whose terrifyingly arbitrary fusillades on the city streets are inspired by divine, or at least extraterrestrial, directive.

Utopia must always be bought at a price. The smallest community is a camp-fire glow of reassurance against the anarchic chill of the surrounding darkness, a beacon that repels––and draws––the very forces that would extinguish it. In the obscene wake of Halloween, 1978, the bogey man strolls the avenues of suburbia, knife in hand, today’s alter ego on patrol to punish the pursuit of sex and other complicated pleasures. His surreal presence undeterred by bullets or butchery, he has left the territory of science fictions to dominate the genre of the horror film, yet his lineage extends back to the Frankenstein laboratory.

In happier, less gory years when special effects were not so well equipped to transcend the boundaries of disgust, these urban nightmares had a pleasing almost cosy simplicity. In the 1920s, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s reincarnated dinosaur terrorized London in The Lost World and prepared the way for King Kong the baeest from 20,000 Fathoms, Reptilicus, and a menagerie of gargantuans contesting with Godzilla the right to trample Tokyo underfoot. Monster movies always had the same target image, generously reproduced by the poster artists: the Creature towered over crumbling office blocks and nation landmarks in disarray, while shrieking citizens scattered like vermin. A sense of pest control was implicit, as if the close-packed buildings were an invitation to vice and plague against which the cleansing forces of Nature might rise in outrage.

In the ’50s the balance could usually be restored by human ingenuity, a consoling demonstrations that it was possible to use intelligence to pull back from brink of defeat. But the context, of course, was less the realm of fantasy than that of Cold War politics, and lasting reassurance was consequently elusive. Minor inconveniences like the Deadly Mantis, the Giant Claw, or Kronos, the power-hungry monolith, could be relatively quickly vanquished, as can their more recent manifestations––Alligator, Jaws, or the American Werewolf. The end of the world is less easily shrugged off.

The world has been ending for quite a while; a century ago, the certainty of the machine age’s collapse prompted the scientific romances of Wells and the rather less romantic pronouncements of his gloomy Victorian contemporaries, among them Samuel Butler, William Morris, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin. Even Rudyard Kipling, who began by hailing technology as one of the prime justifications of colonialism, by the ’20s was issuing dark forecasts of its malevolent consequences. Wells’ writings combined the speculative spirit of the new aviation era with the multiple misgivings of the political times, his voice only one of a chorus anticipating the invasion of England. readers of Pearson’s Magazine from April to December of 1897 found in Warwick Goble’s illustrations for his War of the Worlds a portrait of social instability that remains vivid even now––the smoke of ruin drifting across Windsor Castle and Westminster from the heat rays of the Martian war machines, mounted like metallic eggs on their ungainly pylons. Just as the railways had imposed an iron grid across the land as the price of progress, so the superiority of the alien technology burned its way across England––the brand mark of the future. When the film of War of the Worlds was made by George Pal in 1953, the Wellsian tripods with their intriguing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower were replaced by sleek crafts gliding serenely above the holocaust––but the population fled in the same terror, and the cities of the world collapsed in familiar firestorms. And as they had been in Wells, only love and faith were, somewhat tenuously, the final hairbreadth defense. The equation, to put it simply, is that while the city may be the highest accomplishment of modern humanity, the architecture of its pride and joy is counterbalanced by an equally towering sense of guilt.

Writing at the same time as Wells, M. P. Shiel disposed of civilization by plague in order to produce one of the favorite concepts of disaster fiction––the empty city. The last man, inevitably accompanied in due course by the last woman, has a rare opportunity for adventure and indulgence in the ruins of Earth. In The World, the Flesh and the Devil, 1959 based rather distantly on Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901), Harry Belafonte roams a deserted New York to stock his apartment with all the art treasures he ever longed for, including an elaborate model railway. In The Omega Man, 1971, Charlton Heston has the same splendid isolation and the same collector’s instinct, his retreat an appalling shrine of hi-fi vulgarity ultimately invaded and desecrated by other, more austere survivors of the world’s latest disease. The impulse behind such images, whether literary or cinematic, is shared by many an architect or traffic-jammed commuter, or for that matter many misanthropists and science fiction writers––the wish to savor the accomplishments of humanity without having to contend with the dismal, destructive clutter of humanity itself, as if the ideal city were too fine and private a place to be sullied by occupation. Perfection and human behavior, after all, have seldom been known to achieve coexistence.

Defying historical example, the glittering mirage of utopia––a Camelot that might be raised to reality once more could there only be found the chivalry to warrant it––can be glimpsed repeatedly in science fiction. Draughtsmen have been at work on the project since the Renaissance; the Industrial Revolution finally laid classical styles to rest in order for J.M.W Turner to create such turbulent works as Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844, for such visionaries as Grandville and Robida to design fleets of armored craft to roam under and above the seas, and for illustrators like Paul Hardy, Fernand Fau, and Fred T. Jane to reproduce such inventions in response to editorial demands for futurism.

An artist in Life magazine in 1910, considering the ideal lifestyle of tomorrow’s citizens, showed passengers at a “United Air Line” terminal boarding a vast propeller-driven craft high above New York, as if the foundations of the Pan Am Building were even then under construction; another, in a 1911 issue of Judge, drew a vertiginous citizen’s-eye view of narrow-winged planes in perilous contiguity just above the skyscrapers. When Fritz Lang returned from his American visit in 1924, it was with the inspiration for Metropolis; that film in turn prompted such a surge of conjecture about the likely design of the future that Hugo Gernsback was able to launch the first magazine wholly devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories, in 1926, the same year as the film’s release.

Gernsback’s publication, and the many “pulps” that followed its example, were as vital as Metropolis in determining how the future city was popularly visualized. Lang’s weighty sets (although not unusual in the context of his Nibelungen films), and magnificent model city which conveniently dwarfed the elusive plausibility of his drama, implied a vaguely orgiastic future of riotous leisure. This would be bought at the cost of human toil and hard labor, until such time as robots and machines would minister to every need and “workers” would become unnecessary. Although orgies were frowned upon by the readers of the magazines (many of them too young to be interested anyway), the motifs of Metropolis—the inventor’s laboratory with its glass tubes and electrical miscellanies, the gloriously sensual yet lethal robot, and the towering fascination of the illuminated buildings and the floating traffic––were matters of indelible concern. With their primary colors equally unequivocal images clamoring for attention on the newsstands, the covers of Amazing, Science wonder,Startling, Fantastic, Marvel and the great Astounding were an eloquent testament to the obsessions of the ’30s.

The city of tomorrow, engineers say, will tend first to vastness: gigantic buildings connected by wide suspended road ways on which traffic will speed at unheard of rates . . . Helicopter planes,capable of maneuvering about between buildings and roof top airports, will take the place of the ground taxi. Each building will be virtually a city in itself, completely self-sustaining, receiving its supplies from great merchandise ways from below of the ground . . . In this city smoke will be eliminating noise will be conquered and impurity will be eliminated from the air. Many persons will live in the healthy atmosphere of the buildings top, while others will commute to far distant residential towns or country homes.

The text is from the back cover of the august 1939 edition Amazing Stories, over a panorama of arcades, multilevel motorways, and immense office towers fashioned some-overpowering like organ pipes. The effect of the illustration is part Metropolis, part Inferno, an overpowering muddle of thrust in which to judge from the traffic,the citizen are too concerned with the convolutions of arrival and departure to proceed with any practical business matters at all. Bar the fact that despite the text all the pedestrians seem to be cowering at ground level, it looks like ideal winged-serpent territory.

Any arbitrary dip into “pulp” art will produce an equivalent perspective of architectural complexity, where it doesn’t involve (like Frank Paul’s superb January 1929 Amazing cover) the collapse of the Woolworth Building under pressure from a new Ice Age. Along with the ubiquitous scenes of crazed scientists, these were the inspiration for Universal’s new gothic horror films (the James Whale Frankenstein of 1931, with its columns of flashing energy, a great improvement on the Edison Company’s 1910 version which merely cooked the Creature to life in a large oven) and of course for the innumerable alien cityscapes featured in ensuing serials such as Undersea Kingdom, The Lost City, and Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. In turn, these wild exploits were the inspiration for Star Wars, and for a portfolio of artists like Jean Giraud (Moebius), Phillippe Druillet, and Richard Corben, whose ruthless and extravagant comic book art would have shaken the artists of Amazing to the core. Druillet’s odyssey to Delirius, for example, the planet where pleasure is taxable distends to a staggering, gargantuan scale the megalopolis concept––rather if D. W. Griffith’s Babylon set for Intolerance were to be revealed as but one small panel in a hall of mirrors.

With the new generation of science fictions movies which properly was born with Star Wars but for which the inspiration and skills can be traced beck to the team of technicians and designers assembled and trained by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, the “Heavy Metal” artists and their muscular fantasies are being wedded by the filmmakers with computer graphics and with the practical industrial concepts of futurists like Syd Mead. This gives the sort of fusion that Ridley Scott wanted for Alien, 1979, and for the macabre near-future city in Blade Runner, 1982, an integration of the mechanical with the anatomical consistent with his examination of the android theme. In Alien the clean crystal lines of the Nostromo, the deep space freight carrier requiring human attention only in emergency, contrast with the organic decadence of the alien ship with its deadly clutch of eggs. Ideally suited to H.R. Giger’s disturbingly black arts,the contrast helped create an instant horror classic and there has been a spate of similar cinematic struggles in what have became the rather customary corridors of spaceship environment. In space, man might theoretically be reborn (and is, at the end of 2001 . . . ) And one might imagine that his hermetic, ultra-modern furnishings would be microcosmicutopias, free at last from the deterioration of earthbound city life. But the cinema suggests a contrary view.While Kubrick’s hardware in 2001 . . . was immaculate and unsullied spatial interiors from Dark Star, 1973, onwards, have reflected the wholly probable disinclination of their crews to keep them tidy.

The finest example of recognition for this enduring human love of shambles which no amount of utopian evolution seems likely to breed out of us, can be found in Solaris, 1971, the gaunt Andrei Tarkovsky versions of Stanislaw Lem’s novel. A space station circling a mysterious oceanic planet at the far end of the universe contains a weary crew too listless and introspective to complete tasks of exploration and analysis that once seemed urgent. Their haunt is a mess of discarded equipment jumbled papers and anachronistic furniture. When an astronaut psychologist arrives to investigate his guest suite is at first pristine (in a soulless manner, complete with one of those round tables that to judge from the cinema have been essential for forward thinking since the days of Merlin), but the room quickly degenerates standard-issue chaos.

The film makes no conjecture to the probable decor of the far future––the provisions for antigravity, the consequences of living without an “up”or “down,” new clothing materials, fresh leisure concepts. Instead, Tarkovsky’s future concerns itself (like his other films) with the past; the center burrows with an intense gaze. And the objective of solaris proves at last to be exactly the environment) with him––that the future will only confront him with theoretical and moral questions he has always had to tackle and which he usually fails to answer.

It’s significant although hardly surprising that all the “space” films in cinema history, from Georges Meliès to Android, 1982, have reflected this same nostalgia for the home planet. The objective of each voyage has been wither to return to earth or to recreate it elsewhere-even to preserve in space its essential landscapes (as with Android or Silent Running, 1978.) Visit Forbidden Planet, 1956, to rescue some stranded tourists, or explore the galaxy in Star Trek, 1979––what matters is the perspectives offered by each experience on how terrestrial life os ordered or should or should be. With its great galleries of Krell technology ready to self destruct at the touch of button, Forbidden Planet demonstrates the homely truth that man must conquer himself before he can infest other worlds; and Star Trek studies the incalculable riches of alien encounter with rather the head shaking Wonder of a day excursion visitor to disneyland satisfied to get home afterwords with his snapshot and his memories. In Outland, 1981, set far away in space and time the honeycombs of human proximity have reassuring familiarity as far away in space and time the honeycombs of human proximity have reassuring familiarity—as does the story, a rehash of High Noon . . .

“Things, structures, in general will be great, yes, but they will not be monstrous. Men will not be reduced to servitude and uniformity, they will be released to freedom and variety. All the balderdash one finds in such films as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis about ‘robot workers’ and ultra-skyscrapers, etc., Should be cleared out of your minds before you work on this film. As a general rule you may take it that whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here.” Wells’ guidance to his team for Things to Come in 1936 resulted in a majestic display of tubes and towers which differed very little in the end from the lang concept. And at the film’s conclusion, a small ship ventured into the stars with the ringing assurance that it would one day return and leave again, a cyclical space shuttle commuting between man and his neighbors but never able to neglect for too long the green hills and crystal skyscrapers of earth.

Forty years later, the makers of Logan’s Run, 1976, were still resisting the traditional imagery. “We tried to get away,” says Saul David, producer of the film, “from the essentially german bauhaus design styles that were part of Metropolis, the strongly cubistic, rectilinear kinds of structures. We found that lang’s picture made such an impression on the minds of the whole western world that nobody can think of portraying the future except in terms of towers connected by ramps—when what people are actually thinking about today are wide-open spaces and parklike areas of green.” Ironically, the city of Logan’s Run, largely constructed from the World Trade Center in Dallas, is the sort of place its inhabitants are eager to leave, and the areas of green are mostly in the “real” world outside. The city exteriors have some slight resemblance to discarded grocery containers and egg boxes, but the interiors, sure enough, have the curving walkways, giant glass panels, and brooding columns of bare wall in which both Lang and William Cameron Menzies would have recognized science fiction’s habitual utopia. Even in Tron, 1982, although it’s scarcely an ideal environment, some of the same solid geometry is to be found (well tempered with Buckminster Fuller) within the disciplined tyranny of the computer. And again, as it was with Fahrenheit 451, 1966, this simulation of basic human pursuits is a setting to be defeated and escaped from as quickly as possible.

In one among many magical moments in E.T., 1982, The child-sized alien pauses to gaze appreciatively at Spielberg’s favorite panorama: the level electric pattern of a suburban community, placid with order under the night sky. Spielberg savors the special symmetry of human habitation, the hypnotic fascination provided by the lights and colors of progress. Not for nothing does his supreme evocation of the future, the “mother ship” in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, look like a fairytale land of spires and skyscrapers as it rises, glowing, into the sky. Of course we’d take earth with us into space, bogey men and all—assuming, as Larry Cohen would add, that we are ever permitted to leave. What better matrix is there? Utopia, if we are to believe science fiction and the cinema, is alive and well and living in the 20th century.

Philip Strick is chief executive of a British film-distribution company, and lectures and writes frequently on film and science fiction.