Welcome to The Last Sci-Fi Blog, a column dedicated to science fiction on film.
The Beautiful Marriage of Science Fiction and Noir:
Genres were made to blend. After all, isn't that how we keep storytelling fresh? We take a touch of this and a touch of that and slam together and see how they work. Science fiction is, hands down, the most flexible genre in the filmmaking chemistry set: it'll mix with anything. Combine it with horror and you've got Alien. Combine it with drama and you've got Gattaca. Combine it action and you've got Predator. The beauty of science fiction is that it can provide settings and ideas that can elevate or comment on the genres it's blending with.
There is one particular genre combination that is pretty much the chocolate and peanut butter of cinema: science fiction and noir.
On the surface, there's no real reason for these two to blend as well as they do. One is the genre of fantastic ideas, a glimpse into an enlightened or terrifying future filled with wondrous and horrible things. The other is the genre of reality at its darkest, a glimpse into the devastating lows of the human soul and how we ruin and corrupt each other. Ultimately, it's these contradictions that make these two work so well together.
Let's start with what may be the most famous sci-fi noir of them all: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Examine the world of the film. It's a completely changed society, one that is almost entirely unfamiliar to our own. The wealthy and the elite live in massive skyscrapers nestled amongst the smog while the poor (who have developed their own language and culture) live on the surface, scraping by in a world where the rain never stops. And then there are the flying cars and the homicidal androids that Deckard (Harrison Ford) spends his days hunting. It may be Earth, but it's practically an alien world. For many science-fiction stories, this is instant death with many readers/viewers: how can you possible relate to the people inhabiting this world? Where is the entry point? How do we crack the surface?
For Blade Runner, that's where noir comes in. Even if you haven't seen much noir (and if you haven't, you should get on that), you know the archetypes. The hardened hero with a mysterious past. The femme fatale. The mystery that is not what it seems. These are part of our cultural DNA. How many times have we seen a beautiful woman ask the private eye with a hangover to help her find her missing lover/brother/jewels? This is an infamously nebulous genre (what exactly constitutes noir is a argument film buffs have all the time), but it often comes down to a gut feeling: you know noir when you see it. At some level, everyone does.
So that's why the noir aspects of Blade Runner aren't just a cool part of the film's gorgeous aesthetic, they're vital to the story. We see Deckard and while we may not know what a Replicant or a Blade Runner is, we know a hardboiled, down-on-his-luck detective when we see one. Noir, being all about the pitiful weaknesses and hard-won strengths of mankind, is the most bluntly and honestly human of all genres. Blade Runner's world may be impenetrable, but we feel an instant, almost subconscious kinship with the people living there. These hardboiled men and women aren't just riffs on classic character types, they're us.
Naturally, this isn't the only way science fiction and noir can coexist. Take the 1955 classic Kiss Me Deadly.
Kiss Me Deadly is already unique among its peers for its frank and unsettling brutality. While noir has always featured murders and double crosses and all kind of violence, Kiss Me Deadly doesn't blink. It doesn't offer us a hero with a strict code of honor and it doesn't feature any any audience surrogates to make excuses for or condemn the characters. It's an unflinching look at violent men doing violent things violently. For most of its running time, Kiss Me Deadly is an insanely entertaining and squirm-inducing descent into depravity and brutality, one of the harshest American films of the '50s. Between the pitch-black plot and the often despicable protagonist, it feels like a movie made to reflect the darkest patches of the human soul.
(Major spoilers follow in the next two paragraphs if you haven't seen this film)
And then private investigator Mike Hammer discovers the object everyone has been killing each other over: a tiny box, stashed away in a locker. He's curious (and so are we), so he cracks it open… and unleashes an unimaginable blast of light and noise. Hammer thinks fast and uses all of his strength to close the box, barely preventing the annihilation of everyone in the vicinity. In one of the greatest twists in the history of cinema, this isn't a box of diamonds or gold bars, but rather a science-fiction weapon of unlimited power that has the potential to shift the balance of the entire world. Naturally, the box does get opened in time for the climax and movie fans get to see exactly where Steven Spielberg got his inspiration for the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
As nuts as this moment is, it's a quietly perfect continuation of the film's themes. If we have no problem inflicting violence upon one another in pursuit of wealth and power, what's stopping us from building a weapon of mass destruction that can wipe out a city and fit in a small locker? Granted, this is an unfortunate reality in 2012, but in 1955, this was pure science fiction. While Blade Runner used noir to guide us through its science-fiction landscape, Kiss Me Deadly uses science fiction to do the impossible and top the darkness we've been watching for the past 70 minutes.
These two genres are contradictions, but that makes them perfect partners for one another. One is about flying high into the future and the other is about wallowing in muck. When these two are thrown together, we can exist on the tether between two. We can look to the stars, but we aren't allowed to forget that man will always be man, no matter many spaceships he builds and how many planets he visits.
Adapt This: RASL
Speaking of science fiction and noir, someone should really get around to bringing Jeff Smith's great comic series RASL to the big screen. C'mon, look at this premise and tell me you wouldn't love to see this: a scientist-turned-art thief travels between dimensions to steal valuable goods to sell in his home dimension, but he soon finds himself being hunted across worlds by a government assassin and haunted by visions that may or may not be related the Tesla-inspired project that took the lives of his best friend and his lover.
Smith is best known for his fantasy/comedy series Bone (which is, no exaggeration, the best comic ever published), but RASL is completely different than anything he's done before, a pitch-black noir story filled with inventive action scenes, incredible scientific ideas and a compelling antihero. Although producer Lionel Wigram bought the rights, there has been absolutely zero momentum on this project thus far.
It'll be easy, Hollywood. Unlike so many comic series, RASL is only 15 issues long (it wrapped up a few weeks ago) and tells one long complete story. This is a tremendous concept created by one of the comic medium's greatest talents and it's just waiting for the cinematic treatment.