Whenever people ask me how I got into loving and thinking about movies, I tell them that it all started as a detour from my first passion, which was SF: science fiction, speculative fiction, science fantasy, whatever you prefer those letters to stand for these days. It’s been a long time since I’ve been any part of that truly “cult” scene but, as a teenager, I used to read several SF novels a week.
It was SF – in particular, the rituals of SF fandom – that led me to reading and writing criticism. At the age of 13 or 14, I took out a subscription to the Australian publication SF Commentary. Edited by Bruce Gillespie, it had extremely high-level critical pieces, original contributions by the likes of Stanislaw Lem (the author of Solaris) and the Australian novelist George Turner. It also featured running lists of the editor’s and readers’ favourite SF movies. As a fannish ritual, I decided to see every single title on these lists, which set me out on the trail of some strange and fascinating films indeed, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris (1972).
The big moment in my brief life as a teenage SF fan came when I attended my first – and also my last – SF convention in Melbourne, 1975. This particular event was an odd mixture of intellectual conference and nerdy swap meet, where fans could pore over book covers, exchange lists, and sing ditties about Star Trek. To my own surprise, it was the brainy part that really grabbed me. I heard, on that weekend, my first lecture from a true film scholar – Australian legend John Flaus – comparing the imagery and themes of SF films to various motifs in high Romantic poetry (complete with some “salty language” that was new to me in this context, or virtually any context). That was a mind-bender, and one for which I’m eternally grateful.
But there was another panel, where I encountered the first “cultural studies” idea to which I ever was exposed in my life. The discussion concerned the depiction of aliens in science fiction. The participants chalked up what I would later learn are the usual truisms on this topic: how the giant ants and bodysnatchers of the 1950s stood for the Communist menace; how aliens represented our various primal fears – of the dark, the unknown, sexuality, and so on. All of this was pretty new to me at the age of 15, but one notion pierced me especially, lodging in my brain forever more. It was the suggestion that aliens in SF stories could never be genuinely alien in their logic, language, customs, culture and behaviour. If they were, we would not have the slightest chance of understanding anything they did or anything about them; and, because it’s so far beyond the capacity and imagination of the mediocre majority of SF writers to conjure something truly alien, most other-worldly SF creatures are a mishmash of familiar clichés and manageable, earth-bound metaphors. Only a visionary such as Ursula K. Le Guin (celebrated at the ’75 event), or a rare story like Terry Carr’s “The Dance of the Changer and the Three” (discussed on the panel: I can still remember this exact detail!), offered a radical path in this domain.
There was a boom in SF movies of various shades in 1997. Contact, Men in Black and Event Horizon were three of the key films in the cycle, and all of them deal with aliens – especially, the relation of aliens to humans, and the human perception of aliens. Each proposes a completely different way of imagining and portraying aliens in their interaction with we earthlings; and, of the three, only Robert Zemeckis’ Contact tries to do something a little mind-expanding, beyond those usual clichés and metaphors. Contact is the most ambitious of this group and also, as it happens, the most flawed. Yes, flawed, but also delicate and touching.
Event Horizon and Men in Black trade in what I regard as the two typically modern ways of depicting aliens: respectively, the Clive Barker and Stephen King models. I take Barker and King, for all the gross-out spectacle of their respective feverish imaginations, to be the most successful conservatives of the SF, horror and fantasy genres today. Both of them flirt thrillingly with many kinds of otherness – other worlds, other ideas, other powers, other kinky sexual practices. But they always cast this flirtation inside a story of temptation: the temptation of some weak innocent over to the other side. In fact, the dark side.
For Barker, the dark side tends to involve supernatural temptation – inside a black box, on the other side of a mirror, or conjured by an ancient incantation (the H.P. Lovecraft legacy is never far away here – see John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness ). For King, the dark side is regularly located inside the psyche of his pale heroes, like the wimpy English professor who transforms into his murdering, rock-rebel alter ago in a film called, funnily enough, The Dark Half (1993), directed by the redoubtable George A. Romero.
This Barker/King mindset has been bemoaned by many commentators, including Andrew Britton in a brilliant essay of the late 1970s titled “The Devil, Probably” (collected in the indispensable posthumous volume Britton on Film, Wayne State University Press, 2009). Britton argued that, if we always cast what is new, other and different as scary, dark and deathly, we can never get out of the bind of depicting (or imagining) monsters/aliens as anything but evil – and thus something to be stamped out immediately, at all costs. Whereas King loves the Gothic, pulpy notion of good, old-fashioned evil, Barker gives this a modern, ‘80s-style twist: for him, the big threat is chaos. Chaos: good grief, what nostalgia for order! Indeed, the alien in Event Horizon is described by a bug-eyed Sam Neill as “pure evil, pure chaos” – clearly, an all-purpose Other.
Zemeckis’ Contact is the most progressive of this 1997 cluster of SF films, at least in its refusal to buy into either what Britton called the “symbolism of evil”, or the kind of inane, zany, postmodern ‘80s humour of Men in Black. It is among the few seriously pacifistic and philosophical SF movies, in the tradition of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). It is, unfortunately, terribly uneven, and we must suffer a lot of rather uninspiring schmaltz and melodrama before the mystical adventure of contact itself begins. The schmaltz-melodrama centres on the biography of Ellie (Jodie Foster): she has been fascinated by the stars since childhood, and listens out for voices from other worlds – as well as the voice of her deceased, dearly beloved Dad (David Morse).
One day, Ellie picks up a signal from outer space, which soon becomes a series of specifications as to how to build an interstellar vehicle – one that is completely unprecedented in human technology. Ellie has to do long and tedious battle – long and tedious for the viewer – with the military, with religious fundamentalist groups, and with those colleagues and friends who worry about her single-minded, career-destroying obsession. Ellie seems to have only one comrade: a wet, New Age philosopher, Palmer Joss, painfully played by Matthew McConaughey.
Finally, the journey begins. Ellie disappears through some loophole in time as she travels down magical wormholes in space. Back on earth, there is no immediate evidence of any of this, and her testimony is duly discredited by all authorities and sceptics. All that we as viewers have to go on is the evidence of what we see – i.e., what Ellie sees – on her voyage, and that evidence of the senses is ambiguous. To say anymore here would spoil the cleverest and most powerful move in Contact – but I will indicate that there is something quite brilliantly indirect about the way this film depicts its speculative alien beings.
I hated Contact through its protracted build-up, and loved it in this very daring section of encounter between human and alien. In many ways, Contact is a girl’s-own version of a masculine space-travel epic like The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983): it offers a tough, feisty, fighting, capable woman in outer space, but fills her flight with an especially moving solitude and remembering, longing and vulnerability.
In particular, there’s one tiny fragment, 30 seconds maybe, that I’ll remember when I’ve forgotten everything else about Contact. Ellie is suspended somewhere unfathomable in deep space, looking at an array of planets and stars. The camera moves into her face, blank and rapt, as she murmurs over and over again: “It’s beautiful, so beautiful”. This deep space actually seems to be reshaping, in that moment, the contours of her face, her bones, her skin, her expression, as if some force of soul – hers and the universe’s – is now animating her body.
If this is what contact with an alien does to you, I definitely want a piece of it.
© Adrian Martin October 1997