Jordan Wolfson's Colored figure (2016)
Transcript / translation by Branimir Vasilic
Almost more than eight decades have passed since one of the pioneers of world cinematography, Georges Méliès, shot some short, unusual films intended mostly to entertain the audience, which, much later, we will recognize as the first incontrovertibly science fiction achievements. Méliès couldn’t have possibly known that what he was transferring to the celluloid strip was science fiction, for the simple reason that the title of this genre, as we remember, was coined only about three decades later, but he nevertheless indebted this sort with a whole slew of foundational medium gags and ideas.
He is the founder of the “film trick”, the ancestor of the latter “special effect”, that now for a long time represents the medium trademark of the genre. All of those amazing illusionist effects, without which today one cannot image modern science fiction films, draw their origins directly or indirectly from Méliès’s pioneering experiments with the basic processes of the film way of expression in which the great French founder of cinematography saw, first and foremost, as opposed to his predecessors the brothers Lumière, the possibilities of creating new realities which probably represents the founding principle of all of art.
However, there is another Méliès’ legacy, significantly more inconspicuous than his previous ones, with which he, looking long term, indebted film science fiction the most. He had, in fact, created most of his science fiction films following the motifs of a work by one of the literary masters of the genre. It was the only correct and honest move. Having an indisputable talent, even a genius for the medium, Méliès had understood from the beginning that there could be success only if he also equally ensured the validity of the genre side, and were there any better role models at the time than Verne and Wells.
Science fiction film can only be successful through the balance of the genre and the medium, in no way by the predominance of one of these two poles. The whole of the latter history of science fiction cinematography could, perhaps, best be represented through the changes in the relationship between the genre and the medium. It is certainly not by chance that all big pre-war science fiction films were created using a literary template, while failed creations, as a rule, were done without one or another genre foundation. The necessity of genre competency had particularly come to light during the so-called Hollywood era of science fiction film, during which, on one hand, a whole slew of original medium solutions and methods were discovered, but, on the other hand, because of the absence of genre support, almost no work crosses the threshold of mediocrity.
That the medium requires a valid genre without which there is no unity and harmony of the science fiction film, the first, after Méliès, to realize this completely was Stanley Kubrik, a brilliant master of the medium who, by requesting a collaboration with Arthur Clarke, ensured the equal excellence of the genre side. The fruit of this collaboration was 2001 A Space Odyssey, indisputably the best science fiction film of all time, whose secret of success lies maybe mostly in the almost ideal harmony of medium and genre. This film not only represented a turning point in the history of cinematographic science fiction, but also represented a deciding contribution to the popularity of the science fiction genre among the cinema going public.
In the years after 2001, on average about fifty science fiction films per year are produced around the world, out of which at least a few, every season stand apart in some way and outside of the confines of the genre. At the time when Space Odyssey was filmed, at the end of the sixties, the prediction that, only a decade and a half later, as many as three of the most watched and most profitable films in the entire history of the seventh art would carry the mighty genre emblem of SF (science fiction) would almost certainly have sounded incredible. And still, statistics tells us that today without any doubt. However, enormous success with audiences still does not have to mean an extraordinary place in the history of science fiction cinematography. 2001 itself attests to this, not being among those three films, just like some new works whose viewership cannot be compared on an equal footing with, lets say, some parts of Lucas’ Star Wars saga or Spielberg’s ET, but are still indisputable links in the development of the film genre of science fiction.
One of those achievements is, without a doubt, “Heavy Metal”, by the American director Gerald Potterton. This in no way usual film is important, first and foremost in a historical perspective, because it unites almost all of the greatest legacies of the science fiction cinematographic expression, condensing into less than two hours eight dynamical decades of development of this genre on the big screen. From a purely medium perspective, “Heavy Metal” brings about one capital novelty which may soon turn out to represent a pledge for latter improvement of this peculiar film sort. It is a case, namely, of a fully animated film, one of the first of its kind among the science fiction genre. It is as if the perfection and effectiveness of the animation point to the overcoming of the need for classical special effects since in the animated world everything is possible without tricks. This is a big step toward Clarke’s unachievable requirement that science fiction films should be shot on location.
In one special way, this was precisely the case with “Heavy Metal” and until we indeed get to the actual locations that this film reaches we will hardly have a better alternative. On the other hand, from the genre perspective, Potterton’s achievement excels in not only, these days required, technical correctness but in its unique variety, presenting a true compendium of almost all key themes and motifs from the eighty year cinematographic history of this genre. In its mosaic-like weave of episodes we meet anti-utopia and space opera, epic fantasy and cosmogonic parable, we meet aliens, robots, space monsters, altered breeds of human beings, a whole gallery of genre archetypes which nevertheless, in the unique wholeness of the film, seem irresistibly fresh and original even though they have been seen for hundreds of times on small and large science fiction screens. Eight decades after Méliès’ “Voyage to the Moon”, “Heavy Metal” had closed a big circle of the medium and genre maturation of science fiction film. This maturation enriched the whole of cinematography with brilliant medium ingenuity but also with a realization that the wholeness of success can only be achieved through a coalescence with the highest achievements of the genre.
What still follows in cineastic science fiction? Like, I guess, nowhere else, here it is extremely difficult to be a prophet. Expecting from someone today to foresee the latter shape of science fiction film, through for example the next eighty years, is in equal measure unfounded as if someone had, eight decades ago, expected from Méliès to predict or at least guess the lavish magic of “Heavy Metal”.