“Science fiction, double feature. Doctor X will build a creature. See androids fighting Brad and Janet. Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet. Wo oh oh oh oh oh. At the late night, double feature, picture show.”
Those were the tantalising sci-fi references made in the chorus of the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s famous theme song. Synonymous, not just with a luscious pair of poison apple lips and perfect rows of ivory white teeth, but also with a spell-binding state of extrasensory and super-sensual hypnosis, Richard O’Brien’s fundamentally fabulous film – which he skidded into as Riff Raff, divinely sinister sidekick to Tim Curry’s rambunctious Dr Frank-N-Furter – is not only a blinding diamond stud in the crown of cult cinema, but an outrageous transmission from the mother ship of the sci-fi genre. Loosely translated into intelligible human language, this transmission reads as thus:
To all out there who are, indeed, way out there – you are not alone. You stand at the cusp of a fantastic voyage into worlds where the laws of nature are warped into the dimensions of discovery. Here you will find what you never thought to search for; your eyes will explode with excitement and your ears will grow arms to capture snips and snaps of the surreal sounds that surround you. Walk through these dimensions if you wish, but think a little harder and you may hover, glide or even teleport from one hyperhallucinogenic hotspot to the next. Formulate your paradoxical paradise in the laboratory of your brain or experiment further and dissect your squishy grey matter so that you may acquire the perfection of superhuman destiny. So many sublime surprises await you, out here, past the past, across the void and onto the dance floor in space.
This is merely my decryption, and is probably insufficient for the purposes of transcending base physical forms to embrace something much, much crazier. But you get the idea. If you don’t, you’ve not yet been triggered by the cosmic vibe inherent within the syllogism of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the equation for which is: the unknown is pleasure; pleasure is the unknown. But what O’Brien’s master class in cross-dressing and celluloid seduction beams through to us in pleasure, it does so also in hot doses of pain. After delving deep into the playground psyches of the newlyweds Brad and Janet and exposing them for the erotic imps they really are, the script superimposes the sniggers of deception and screams of danger as the alien life forms from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania unveil themselves in all their golden-flecked glory.
Wise as it is whacky, this queen of cult films suggests there is more to us flesh and bone folk than just bog-standard science. Stephen Hawking, our man in the stars, once said, “To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit”, and I can’t help but be absorbed by this tractor beam of truth. The stiff-collared men behind their force fields of red tape dictate the imperatives of science and mathematics in these uncertain times (funny how they look to the most certain subjects for assistance), and simultaneously they downgrade the arts as a means of trivialising society. While no one gives a flying Martian what the fat cats think, the arts would be better served by their masters if the sci-fi genre was taken off the industrial backburner and given a front row seat in production.
What I mean when I stimulate this old electrode is that Stephen Hawking’s quote on the limitations of the human spirit needn’t just apply to science, but also the arts. While science fiction has been a popular conductor of the imagination’s orchestra for many years now – Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, the microscopes are on you guys – genres such as fantasy and historical drama have much more scope to them, ironically. What makes sci-fi’s rivals in the industry so formidable? Is it simply a case of time and context? Are we so nervous of the future that we’d prefer to replicate the past time and again for our entertainment and escape from what has not yet been encountered? I suppose this factory nostalgia in the industry guarantees more success across the audiences because, unlike the unknown future, we can relate to the past. But I refuse to believe as a brainchild of the 21st Century (I don’t remember much from the 90s, surprise, surprise) that human curiosity is confined to dwelling in the past, which distances us from diving into the future.
When I scan through my cinematic data logs the disequilibrium between sci-fi and its rivals in recent years is disheartening, yet expected. One of the last films in the genre I saw was Pandorum, a jarring alien action-adventure that was packed with potential; maybe a little too much. With a set so reminiscent of its predecessors it isn’t even worth describing and a plot that tries too hard at times, I was caught between an asteroid and a cargo hull on this one. What won me over, for the most part, was the fidgety editing and desperate pace that ran as the characters slaved over how in the hell they were going to salvage their ship’s mission. The concept of deep-space mental deprivation and deterioration is an attractive, albeit discomforting ploy in the sci-fi’s arsenal. I recall seeing it used to great effect in Event Horizon, another sci-fi horror film that focused on asylum and survival in deep-space. Dante 01, a French sci-fi film that incorporates elements of horror more akin to thriller devices, is by far the more superior film out of the three I have mentioned. Incorporating futilitarianism, existentialism and religion, Dante 01 achieves new heights of disorientation, which is the embodiment of what outer space experiences should be in cinema.
In contrast to these more obscure sci-fi experiments, the mainstream blockbuster Star Trek, named eponymously after its predecessor sister TV series, achieves its own excellence through stunning visuals and eye-bashing action sequences that are designed to project an adrenaline-fueled astral arena. I confess to being relatively ignorant of Star Trek prior to seeing this film, and actually neglected to give it the time of infinity until a friend recommended we watch it. J. J. Abrams, who co-created Lost (which I’ve only tasted scraps of), charged up the warp drive all the way to 10 and recreated the stigmatised nerd universe of Star Trek for a generation of thrill seekers by successfully dividing the film from the TV series’ old storyline and spicing up the stars with bare-fist bar fights (where Kirk doesn’t captain the competition), intense interstellar laser jousting that fries the irises and a satisfying number of casualties. Oh, did I forget to mention Leonard Nemoy’s reprisal of his iconic half-human, half-Vulcan persona, Spock? Perhaps a scholarly cameo from Sir Patrick Stewart in the sequel? I think Star Trek is destined to live long and prosper, thanks to Abrams and co.
Science fiction isn’t stranded in space, however enamoured I am with gigantic space cruisers and Giger-inspired phallic aliens (mandatory Alien reference, check). The territory that the sci-fi genre spans is, like space, overwhelming to calculate, because it concerns the future, which it is also alike in its unpredictability. There is no fast-forward button or hyper-drive ignition on a command module that can accelerate our understanding of what’s to originate from this genre; but who would wish for one or the other? The question of what’s in store for our tiny little minds is what makes them extrapolate, leading to expansions of our imagination that we can explore and occupy. I’m probably just getting ahead of the film industry when I accuse it of shying away from the universal picture (as opposed to the planetary), but I can’t help but think the births of sci-fi successes are not unlike the chance sightings of great comets – sporadic and serendipitous.
James Cameron’s invasion epic Avatar evidences how captivating sci-fi films are to mass audiences; also, in its sympathy, it gave Sigourney Weaver an opportunity to reconcile with a friendlier form of alien after the hell she went through on the Nostromo (optional second Alien reference, check). And with the integration of 3-D technologies and various other visual innovations, this futuristic genre appears to be approaching the genesis of its golden age. I’m not saying all other genres have met their expiry date and should be locked away in the archives for eternity. What I want is for cinema in the 21st Century to be the vision of the future, for it to inspire and encourage even greater accomplishments in the fields of science and philosophy. Art shouldn’t be just about entertainment or enlightenment; it has the power to change minds and influence the progression of the human race. Listen to me, I sound like a PR consultant for NASA. I just hope the conclusion reached by the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show about man being alone, a rock floating through space, is not a prophecy of our destiny. Let’s all go forth and prosper like promiscuous intellectuals and show the past what the future’s going to be made of!