Interviews

Sci-Fi Films that Question What It Means to Be Human

While the summer science fiction series is a common repertory staple, MoMA’s Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction stands apart from the rest with its interest in the uncommon.

Still from Holy Motors (2012), France/Germany, written and directed by Leos Carax (courtesy of Photofest)

When the summer months drive city dwellers toward beaches, lakes, and mountains, multiplexes attempt to keep them indoors by providing a different kind of escape: transporting viewers to distant worlds populated by wondrous creatures in Hollywood’s loudest, most expensive blockbusters. New York City’s repertory cinemas similarly engage audiences during these months with more intelligent science fiction, challenging the mind in addition to the senses. While the summer science fiction series is a common repertory staple, MoMA’s Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction stands apart from the rest with its interest in the uncommon.

“I was hoping at one point to do a science fiction series in which I wouldn’t have to show 2001: A Space Odyssey,” jokes curator Josh Siegel. “I have nothing against it, but when you go through the usual suspects, you’re not left with much room for the less-known films.”

To achieve his goal of showcasing the buried gems of science fiction cinema, Siegel developed three criteria for work featured in Future Imperfect. First, characters could not travel through space. Second, the movies could not feature alien invasions or monsters. Finally, the films needed a present or near-present setting.

These guidelines helped Siegel shine a spotlight on films that question what it means to be human. He started with a list of 900 films and eventually whittled it down to the 60 plus offerings featured in the series, where classics from auteurs like Darren Aronofsky (Pi) and Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) stand side-by-side with blockbusters (Minority Report, Groundhog Day), indie milestones (Derek Jarman’s Jubilee), and foreign favorites (Battle Royale, Los cronocrímines.)

In a recent phone call, Siegel discussed the series of cerebral escapism at its August midpoint.

Still from Battle Royale aka Batoru rowaiaru (2000), Japan, directed by Kinji Fukasaku (courtesy of Photofest)

Jon Hogan: The series features blockbusters as well as avant-garde film and video art; what are some of the areas where these two categories of films differ most starkly in their projections of possible futures, and what are some elements about which they’re surprisingly in agreement?

Josh Siegel: In some ways, I don’t differentiate between the two. I think of films as good or less good. You’re either a visionary or you’re not. You can be a visionary working with no money, or you can be a visionary working with a lot of money.

JH: The selection for the series is international, representing 22 countries including the United States, the Soviet Union, China, India, Cameroon, Mexico, and more. What geographic trends stand out in the films’ portrayals of alternate dimensions?

JS: Certainly some have political roots. Obviously Kafkaesque, dystopic visions of the future lend themselves well to people living under Communism in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Invasión from Argentina is an allegory of life in ‘68, which was of course fraught with peril. It’s evident in quite a few Argentine films of the time, some of which were made by actors who were disappeared soon after. This is anticipating Argentina’s entrance into that dark period. Films like the wonderful Afronauts are a sendup of the way in which African countries were pawns in a Cold War game. It’s an inventive approach to their invisibility.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006), USA, directed by Richard Linklater (courtesy of Photofest)

JH: The series features several animated selections like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and A Scanner Darkly. The most crucial benefit of animation is its blank canvas, lending the ability to make any event — no matter its unlikeliness — occur in a realistic context. How do these films take advantage of the limitless possibilities that animation allows?

JS: One of the compelling things about Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly is that he found in animation a kind of analogue to the trippy, hallucinatory experience of Philip K Dick’s writing. In the case of Ghost in the Shell 2, it makes possible social and political critiques by being a “mere” animated film.

Still from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), Japan, directed by Mamoru Oshii, (courtesy of Production I.G.)

JH: CGI is the type of animation most common in modern science fiction films. My favorite piece in the series is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. It’s a feature-length celebration of what can be accomplished without CGI, from Denis Lavant’s fluid acrobatics to the detailed makeup effects that help him embody different characters. What do you see as the benefits and detractions of using CGI in science fiction films?

JS: If you think of a filmmaker like Herzog who doesn’t use any special effects in his films but can still evoke what it is to be in the middle of a desert encountering a mirage, I don’t think you need CG to elicit the same kind of experience. Having said that, obviously there are certain things you need CG for. It would be hard to do Ex Machina without the use of some CG effects. They eschewed CG effects in the sense of using green screen, but they did a lot in post-production. It’s a little hard to convey what a humanoid or an android looks like without CG without it looking campy. Campy can have a virtue; that’s one of the joys of [The Craven Sluck director Mike] Kuchar for example. But it does seem to me that CG is a tool like any other in filmmaking. It has its uses and its abuses.

Still from The Crazies (Code Name: Trixie) (1973), USA, written and directed by George A. Romero (courtesy of Photofest)

JH: It’s interesting to see The Crazies in the series, as it is a lesser-known film of a recently deceased legend: George Romero. How did this film expand on his legacy as a zombie maestro?

JS: As it happens, we worked closely with George on the restoration of Night of the Living Dead that we just premiered several months ago. So it’s a little bittersweet for us because we had the opportunity to get to know him better and really convey to him how much we admire and cherish his film. I had already planned to show The Crazies for precisely the reason you had mentioned. Obviously, George Romero has the blessing and curse of being associated with one genre when in fact he was a kind of scathing observer of American life [and] went way beyond the zombie genre.

JH: In a series focusing on alternate visions of the here and now, which film do you think best captures the current moment? I lean toward Strange Days, which was a revelation to rewatch months back.

JS: I could argue that any of these films is relevant to our present day predicaments. Given that I just read an article the other day that the potency of human sperm has plummeted over the last 40 years, I thought of this film It’s Great to be Alive, one of the early Fox nitrate films from 1931 [sic]. It’s kind of a “Last Man on Earth” story. All of the men have succumbed to a plague called “masculitis.” There’s only one man standing, and — of course — every woman wants a piece of him. It’s a kind of wacky pre-Code comedy from Fox.

Still from Los cronocrímenes (Timescrimes) (2008), Spain, directed by Nacho Vigalondo

JH: Do you have a personal favorite in the series, or something you’re especially excited to share with the public?

JS: It’s impossible for me to say. All of these films excite me in some way or another. I think that Fassbinder’s World on a Wire is an epic film for many reasons, not least of which is its 1970s decor. I have a particular fondness for Polish cinema, so I gravitate toward Andrzej Wajda’s film. It has a wonderful kind of sardonic humor that we know from Polish cinema. These are all films I’d like to watch repeatedly.

Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction runs at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown West, Manhattan) until August 31.

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