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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 37
The Future and Its Discontents

Early last year I noted that the Future used to be a place, as real a destination to movie goers and the general public as Chicago or Los Angeles, and about as strange to those who grew up a perfectly ordinary suburb during the heights of paranoia infusing the decade of the 1970s. The visual language of the movies released during that period shared many similarities: perfect geometries and Spartan design aesthetics, as if the concept artists studied too closely Ken Adam's sets for Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Diamonds Are Forever; slow pace, emotional detachment, and stilted, underdeveloped characters to match the meditative tempo and alien's-eye view of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and often attempting to match his visual cues); scores either leaning heavily on classical music (Norman Jewison's Rollerball) or bizarre electronics, as in Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain. (Kubrick proffered the most interesting soundtrack in A Clockwork Orange, with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony rescored with synthesizers.) Indeed, by the release of Star Wars, the look and feel of the Future felt as cohesive and as much of a piece as the stories John W. Campbell published in Astounding Science Fiction during the 1950s. Those anomalies that played in movie theaters only seemed to bolster the image; dilapidated though the New York City of Soylent Green may be, it still, in the minds of many, existed alongside the decadent perversions of The Man Who Fell to Earth, however distant the border.

Soylent Green A Clockwork Orange The Andromeda Strain

A recent viewing of three different 1970s dystopias -- George Lucas's THX 1138, Woody Allen's Sleeper, and Michael Anderson's Logan's Run -- served to reinforce this observation. Despite the varying levels of quality -- THX 1138 and Sleeper retain, respectively, their experimental, haunting visual power and their well-executed slapstick, while Logan's Run's flaws become more obvious as time and the viewer's age pass -- all three fit together like pieces of a cinematic jigsaw puzzle. Moreover, although the movies differ in tone (Sleeper plays as an homage to Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin, while Logan's Run takes on the air of an adventure story and THX 1138 shares elements of Orwellian nightmare), all three tell roughly the same tale. The Future might be a place, but its denizens search for the quickest freeways exiting the city limits.

THX 1138 represents the most interesting of the three dystopian movies for two distinct reasons: it is the first feature film directed by George Lucas, and, of the three, it best ties in with science fiction's literary New Wave with its experimental beginning. Set in a future in which sex is illegal and drug use is mandatory to ensure obedience, the movie focuses on its title character (played by Robert Duvall), who works in a factory producing humanoid robots that function as police officers. His roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), disillusioned with the society in which they live, alters his medication, causing THX to experience emotions for the first time. As he falls in love with LUH, the authorities intervene, ultimately causing THX to flee the underground city in which he lives.

The movie opens with an advertisement for a Buck Rogers serial boasting of the mechanical miracles brought to life in the 24th century, and provides an interesting contrast to Lucas's vision. Lucas's experiment doesn't last long -- barely a minute before the main action begins -- and his sparse visuals, including white spaces representing a limbo world representing THX's imprisonment, invite viewers to fill in details of the world he creates. (Obviously it takes place in a totalitarian future since the underground city's citizens wears white clothing and shaves their heads, yet the details remain occluded.) This is also true of Lucas's dialogue; his screenplay, co-written with William March, avoids the slang of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, but never stops to fully explain the society dramatized. Lucas even leaves the religion of THX 1138 to the imagination; when THX visits a unichapel to confess his deficiencies at his job, a recorded message spouts pesudo-religious platitudes tinged with Marxism ("You are a true believer. Blessings of the state. Blessings of the masses."), advising him in closing to "be happy." If the story owes much to the kinds of stories Barry Malzberg enjoyed satirizing in his critical work Engines of the Night, the vision receives enough of a 1970s upgrade to lay the course for the Future.

THX 1138 Sleeper Logan's Run

Logan's Run also takes place in the Future, one in which the City of Domes appears to coexist with THX 1138's hive-like metropolis. Like THX, Logan 5 (Michael York) lives in acceptance with his society, though as a Sandman sent to exterminate the Runners who decide they do not wish to be "renewed" on their 30th birthday in the ritual known as Carousel, he occupies a pretty secure place as an authority figure. Until he is sent by the City's computer to find and destroy a Runner haven known as Sanctuary, and so must live as a Runner, accompanied by Sanctuary-seeker Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter) and pursued by his friend and fellow Sandman Francis 7 (Richard Jordan).

Unlike THX 1138, Logan's Run envisions a view of the Future informed more by Aldous Huxley than George Orwell (hedonism holds sway; one can place oneself on a channel for casual sex, a kind of Craig's List crossed with a 3D printer), yet few other obvious differences exist. Like THX, Logan finds himself ultimately dissatisfied with his life and the society of which he is part, and must flee. He learns of the wrongness of the City of Domes, something which THX never actually questions; both become criminals, yet Logan 5 experiences more cognitive dissonance; he realizes that Carousel is not a rebirthing ceremony, but state-sanctioned murder, and he is a willing participant. THX, despite becoming a discontent in his civilization, never questions that civilization.

Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) in Sleeper, by contrast, cannot help but question the society in which he lives... but since he was inadvertently put in cryogenic suspension in 1973 and finds himself in 2173, his outrage at the police state occupying North America is understandable. ("What kind of government you guys got here?" he asks the revolutionary scientists who revive him. "This is worse than California.") Miles, however, wants nothing of the revolutionary life, despite the fact Civilization and Its Discontents that the authorities want him destroyed. The poet and greeting-card writer Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) wants nothing of the revolutionary life, either, and cannot understand why anybody would ("Why does there even have to be an underground? I mean, there's the orb. There's the Orgasmatron."), but when she becomes intertwined with Miles and the government slates her for destruction, she discovers that, like THX and Logan 5, she can no longer live in that society, even as the state captures and brainwashes Miles.

All three movies echo an anxiety of the Future, positing a sterile environment rife with compulsory obedience (be it drug-induced or through vapid pseudointellectual babble) and a lack of genuine emotions (love among the most prominent). Consequently, the characters (identified in the titles of all three movies) find themselves in need of removing themselves from the Future in order to seize their own humanity and identity. One might view them as companion pieces to Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, though with simpler sociology and broader conclusions. As THX climbed from the underground city into a field in which a deep orange sun rose above the horizon, I wondered if he might stumble upon Logan 5 and Jessica 6 and wind up in a plot with Miles and Luna to overthrow the totalitarian regimes under which they live.

I thought it as logical progression as any as the credits to the Future rolled, and my palm-sized Roku player presented a variety of possible, diverse futures that had been subdivided, the sterile metropolises trashed with postmodern high-tech, the revolutionaries more accepting of their own brand of laissez-faire fascism, before I decided to switch it off. The Future was a place, and it receded each year, as if I saw it in the rear-view mirror of my Ford Focus.

Copyright © 2013 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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