Why are there so many films about the future that depend upon a resuscitation of film noir style? Neo-noir has been a revived favourite standard for thrillers from the 1980s to the 2000s, but why is science fiction a flourishing noir sub-genre? Is it just the huge impact of cyberpunk, related to the Tech Revolution? Perhaps science fiction from the 1950s to 1970s, like Philip K. Dick’s neo-gnostic and post-apocalyptic works fed readily into neo-noir styled films based on his work, like 1982’s Blade Runner? Or is there something about noir style specifically that speaks to how we think of the future and Blade Runner's concepts of mortality and conflicted humanity?
It wasn’t always the case. Even when they criticized contemporary themes set in the future, science fiction dramas from the 1960s and 1970s, like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or the original TV series run of Star Trek, relied heavily on an earlier, Kennedy-era style, Camelot meets the big steel rocket ship. These themes were rooted in the 1950s' faith that science would open doors to ideal living standards and new worlds.
The Conquest of Space. Chesley Bonestell, 1949.
That was a style that had faith in the world of science, tech, advertising and consumption – in the world as presented stereotypically by early television in the 1950s. By contrast, film noir, derived from Depression-era detective novels merged with German Expressionism; it established its signature look in 1940s and 1950s. This was the style of the fringe, of embattled subjectivity, where failure met dreams and shattered dreams; heroines were inverted into femme fatales, whose cynical banter led to violence that showed the dangerous side of sex. In short, noir was about frightening social undercurrents that threatened to overturn post-war optimism. Noir was the style of the Twilight Zone. This was the point where science fiction lost faith in progress and became an exploration of darker impulses in the human spirit. Rod Serling’s 1959 Season One introduction to The Twilight Zone ran: “There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” By 1963, the introduction for Season Four became more urgent: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”
Opening to the first season. The Twilight Zone. CBS (1959).
Opening to the fourth season, The Twilight Zone. CBS (1963).
Why is our view of the future and rejuvenation linked to our symbolic exploration of moral self-destruction? In 2005, the creators of the film Aeon Flux tried to go against this model. In their film, based on Peter Chung’s stellar MTV animated series of the same name, they deliberately stripped away darker elements that set the tone of the TV show. They removed Chung’s turn-of-the-century decadent references to Austrian artist Egon Schiele. They also did away with the cartoon’s noir-styled banter between the femme fatale and the male anti-hero, as well as the cynicism and world weariness that are also noir trademarks. There had been noir references to Blade Runner in the 1995 Aeon Flux graphic novel, The Herodotus File, where Aeon meets Trevor in a building called ‘The Bradbury.’ All this was changed by the film’s creators, who specifically stated they wanted to avoid the Blade Runner “burning garbage can” vision of the future. The film presented the future as politically troubled and genetically modified, yes, but eco-friendly, touchy-feely, fem-conscious, creatively vegetarian, recyclable, and morally accessible. The costumes and sets were beautiful, but the mood was wrong.
Amelia Warner as Aeon's sister, Una Flux. Aeon Flux (2005).
The movie was about holding hands across the great divide between tech and culture. But this anti-burning-garbage-can picture did not work. Critics hated the film. The audience, fans and general public alike, saw Charlize Theron’s eco-friendly assassin and Marton Csokas’s lamentably defanged wet blanket Trevor as not properly conveying the dark future we know and love. This film was about immortality, cloning and reproductive technology, but audiences hardly noticed. Where was the sexual tension, cynicism, fatalism and chronic depression associated with living forever? The film touched on it, but really, it wasn’t enough. Audiences were dissatisfied. They did not want a soft pastel, soy-lite comment on cloning or immortality. Weirdly in pop culture, our understanding of living forever in the future is not about achieving a plateau of existential harmony – contrary to anti-aging specialists’ theories – no, it’s about being bored, perpetually sexually frustrated and constantly unhappy for veiled, gnostically-encrypted reasons you can’t comprehend. These ideas match film noir’s trademark symbols very well.
You could not get more noir than 2006’s animated film Renaissance, which was also about the evils of the quest for immortality. In this film, a big bad corporation, Avalon, devoted to the science of rejuvenation, is out to get the protagonists – a troubled girl searching for her missing sister (both girls were Avalon scientists) and a cop-turned-detective. This film, while not much stronger than the Aeon Flux film in terms of plot, was much more successful. It referenced Blade Runner all the way. The critics didn’t think it was the ultimate masterpiece, but relatively speaking, everyone was much happier with it than Aeon Flux, which dealt with the same themes, but deliberately went against noir type.
Avalon company motto: "We're on your side for life." Renaissance (2006).
At the turn of the current century, the cyberpunk neo-noir trilogy, the Matrix films, were also wildly successful. Dark City and Gattaca are other noir examples that spring to mind, all dealing with the same subjects. Why are we so convinced that the future must be dystopian? Strangely, being depressed about the future is our comfort zone, we like it there. We want it to be terrible! If the future isn’t going to be terrible, what is there left to believe in? This attitude directly opposes experts and gurus devoted to the science and quasi-science of rejuvenation and life extension. As aging Baby Boomers shovel money into these fields, there’s an ominous disconnect between what we want from the Fountain of Youth and what we expect from it.
Aeon Flux © MTV.
See all my posts on the Fountain of Youth.