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Noir A.D.: Why Sci-Fi Is Better Hardboiled…

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “cyber noir” – the unlikely combination of sci-fi and film noir to make an oh-so-tasty film.

Nobody’s entirely certain who it was that came up with the idea of combining peanut butter and jelly. It isn’t exactly a logical leap, after all. The most popular theory seems to be that it was American soldiers, who had been issued with ration packs containing peanut butter and jelly during the Second World War. With these two items in their packs, the soldiers decided to pair them up and eat them as part of the same sandwich. However, though this might suggest that the two were thrown together by coincidence, they stayed together because they just work so well. So it is with science-fiction and noir, that most unlikely of combinations which can’t help but go down a treat.

The alpha and the omega?

Although Blade Runner remains perhaps the defining example of a neo-noir film told against a science fiction backdrop (with its moral ambiguity, constant rain, trench coats and beaten-down lead), the true origin of the sub-genre is more likely Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Alphaville would indeed inspire a few follow ups (most notably Soylent Green, a film that is as widely known as it is seldom seen – everyone and their mother can quote that one line – and arguably even Alien), but the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars pretty much set the template for science fiction in Hollywood over the next few years.

Blade Runner wasn’t a huge success at the box office or with critics. History has been very kind to the film, which has developed a status as something of a genre classic and seen no less than four different versions released in the thirty years since it originally appeared in cinemas. If ever a film was vindicated by history, Ridley Scott’s exploration of the human and the artificial in a futuristic Los Angeles was that film.

Talk about picking people up off the street...

I’d argue that the influence of Blade Runner stretches even outside the boundaries of the shared border between noir and science-fiction (inspiring, for example, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins) – although both genres are so hazily defined that it is not so much a clearly delineated border as something of a bleed. Still, we’re here today to discuss that overlap, the merging those two seemingly unlikely bedfellows. The genre has been described as “cyber noir” or “sci-fi noir” or any other number of names, but there’s a very strong link  between the two.

Off the top of my head, I can list an almost infinite number of noir-inspired science-fiction films (or sci-fi driven noir films, depending on your preference). These involve titles as high-profile as The Matrix (which is, at least, aesthetically inspired by noir – trading the white in “black and white” for a pale shade of green) to those as relatively obscure as The Thirteenth Floor. There are cult classics like Strange Days and horrible misfires like Johnny Mnemonic. It can even – as Renaissance and A Scanner Darkly demonstrate – go animated. The combinations and permutations are endless, especially depending on how you define neo noir – is it a visual style, themes, tones or a combination of plot devices?

Dove for Men...

On the surface, the pair seem a rather strange combination. After all, film noir is (as the name implies) all about darkness and the very words “science fiction” conjure up images of the sterile sets of Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Let us make the assumption that the above represents a fair description of film noir, and focus on the “light” imagery that the public seems to associate with science fiction. Of course, anybody with any familiarity with science-fiction will know that science-fiction has a far wider scope than that, but these are undoubtedly very important associations to the public at large. We can make geekish arguments about differences of classification between “science-fiction” and “science-fantasy” or the Moh Scale of Science Fiction Hardness all we want, but these are the most popular and defining images of science fiction.

If we are to make a very broad definition of “science fiction”, so as to capture films as large as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and so nuanced as Never Let Me Go, we realise just how hazily defined the science-fiction genre as. We can try to set up all manner of subdivisions within that larger genre, but it’s a very deep pool. If we were to be honest, and avoid the sort of gerrymandering that mainstream reviewers engage in, we’d concede that even indie favourites like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds and The Road fall within the classification.

It's not the end of the world...

Science-fiction is a genre that is not defined by setting or character or even mood. It’s something greater than that, and something more difficult to define. An Oscar-chasing romantic comedy can fall within the genre, as can the summer’s biggest blockbuster release, or an obscure indie drama set in the far future. It’s tough to tie everything down (in the way that, for example, one can adopt a strict literal approach to the Western – stating it must be a film set in a particular time and place).

My attitude to genre is relatively lax compared to most. I would, for example, dare to classify Kill Bill and No Country For Old Men as Westerns. I also don’t necessarily believe that science-fiction is a genre that can be used to classify a film on its own – it’s a descriptive word, but I don’t think it classifies a movie in the same way as “action” or “thriller” or “drama”. I’d argue that a “science-fiction” film is arguably better described in combination with another word – a “science-fiction drama” or a “science-fiction thriller” and so on. Describing a film as “science fiction” tells you something of the mood and perhaps the setting, but nothing of the plot. I love it dearly, but I’d almost describe it as a “parasitic” genre.

Robert Downey Jnr's more animated than usual...

That’s a similarity that I see with noir. As I’ve demonstrated over the past week, neo-noir comes in many shapes and forms. Though one may associate various archetypes (a private detective, a femme fatale, gangsters, cops), there are no essential ingredients that one can use to mark a film as “noir” or “not noir”. se7en, for example, is a neo-noir thriller – while Heat is a neo-noir action drama. I think that there’s a nebulous quality to both genres which makes them seem like almost kindred spirits.

However, I’d argue the appeal is something deeper than that. These similarities are enough for the occasional harmless flirtation, but a long-term affair requires a truly deeper understanding from both partners. All successful relationships are based upon the principle of “give and take”. Each partner provides something for the other that they just can’t get anywhere else – be it understanding, affection, support, whatever. So, to get all cold and clinical, what exactly to noir and science-fiction do for each other?

Dark people in a Dark City...

Well, let’s take a look at science fiction as a genre. Let’s attempt that task we shrugged off as too difficult not five paragraphs ago – let’s attempt to define it. It’s not a movie set in the future. It’s not necessarily a story of man in competition with technology. It’s not necessarily a story about a technological advance (although it does generally feature one or several). I see science-fiction as an enabler, basically. I see sci-fi as the “what if” genre.

What science fiction does is that it allows you to rationally tell stories that you couldn’t otherwise. Sure, all movies feature suspension of disbelief and make-believe – take, for example, the stuntwork in a standard blockbuster – but most simply write it off without explanation (or with a grounded “real world” explanation). Oh, those two people bumped into each other again and started flirting? Coincidence! He got shot in the chest and lived? Bullet-proof vest!

Putting the matter to bed...

Science-fiction, on the other hand, explains these plot developments in a way that resembles rational thought. Why is that guy blue? He’s an alien. How did they get to an alien planet? They used a space ship. Sure, if you eventually keep asking, you’ll hit a simple “because the plot happens that way”, but that’s true on any genre (why didn’t they just shoot him in the face? because then the movie would be over).

Truly exception science fiction films take one big interesting philosophical idea or concept and use this seeming rational explanation (but non-existent) to tell an interesting story. So Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes the premise “our memories, painful or otherwise, make us who we are” and uses a rational-sounding device or explanation (a device which can erase specific memories) in order to explore that premise in a more literal manner than a more straight-forward film could. Similarly, Blade Runner wonders “what is so special about our humanity?” while using a rational-sounding device or explanation (human-like robots) as a vehicle to delve into some philosophical explanation.

Do you think sci-fi and noir have a shot together?

What makes science-fiction such an interesting bedfellow to film noir is that noir thrives around various core ideas which are metaphorical in the real world. It might seem like everyone is out to get out protagonist and the entire city is against him, but we know that it’s just a heightened perception of what’s actually going on. The lead character might doubt that they’ve manage to retain their humanity – but they’ll always actually be human. As much as the city might seem like an oppressive or threatening environment, it’s still a city – it’s still grounded in our knowledge and expectation of cities.

Of course, a good director can channel the emotional intensity of certain things (a real city can, for example, be a terrifying place), but they are still (mostly) confined to a literal and rational plane. In an actual film noir, the city can never really be alive and the lead character’s humanity can never truly be up for discussion. The appeal of adding science-fiction to this core concept is that sci-fi routinely makes leaps away from the literal and real in service of a grander metaphor.

All the time in the world...

In Dark City, the city itself is actually a maze, constantly reconfiguring itself – literally shifting and impermanent. In Blade Runner, Rick Dekkard’s humanity is honestly a matter of debate and ambiguity. In Soylent Green, the system is actually chewing up and consuming regular people. In The Matrix, the world is genuinely trying to kill our hero. In all of these cases, science-fiction allows for a literal exploration of the key themes of the noir genre. For a brief two-hour runtime, the intangible and metaphorical concepts become tangible and literal.

Whether this is more or less effective that a standard approach, of course, depends on the viewer. Some may appreciate the ambiguity that they find in regular film noir, and may consider it crude to use science-fiction for the sake of making what was implicit explicit. On the other hands, some viewers may latch on to the freedom that the union of science-fiction and noir offer, embracing the chance for a literal exploration of concepts that would remain merely implied and ambiguous.

Gun to your head, what do you think?

I don’t know. That’s my reasoning, as crazy as it might seem. What do you guys think? Do sci-fi and noir work? Is there a particular reason that they go together?

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

4 Responses

  1. “What science fiction does is that it allows you to rationally tell stories that you couldn’t otherwise.” To write a good science fiction story, ignore a few principles of rational thinking, but keep most others. The fewer principles you drop the better. Look at politics. Same thing. Ignore a few basic ideas, and make the rest rational. The difference is that science fiction is enjoyable, whereas politics affects our lives and happiness. We need to be aware of what rational thought is. See the new book, “Rational Thinking, Government Policies, Science, and Living”. Rational thinking starts with clearly stated principles, continues with logical deductions, and then examines empirical evidence to possibly modify the principles.

  2. I like this post though I think I’m going to disagree with the use of the word “better” in the title. Let me explain how I see it.

    To me, science fiction and noir easily combine because at the heart of both, they are romance — not of the love and flowers variety, but in terms of sensibility and approach. I see science fiction as having two aspects, light and dark for lack of better terms, that simplistically stated are optimistic and pessimistic (to varying degrees).

    I can’t speak about Star Wars because I never liked it and find it all unmemorable. Star Trek, however, is something else. On another blog of mine I wrote, “… Star Trek was romance, though of a masculine kind. In other words, it was a western with phasers instead of six shooters, starships instead of horses. Captain Kirk was a cowboy.”

    Just as Dirty Harry is a western in an urban setting, Star Trek (at least the early version) is science fiction as western. There is a much longer discussion here but put briefly, when the heroism of the western is looked on skeptically, we start moving into noir. For me, then, westerns and noirs are sides of one coin. When I refer to romance, noir reflects the disappointment and cynicism of the failed hero. Westerns tend to reflect the excitement and sentimentality of the hero who still believes he/she can determine their fate.

    It’s worth noting that science fiction, noir and westerns are all rooted in pulp fiction. All fall into the category I’m calling romance, though maybe that isn’t the correct word.

    One day I have to write all this out so I can properly explain what I mean. 🙂

    • I look forward to it, but I get what you’re saying. I like to think that the piece might have been more coherent if I’d had more time. My computer crashed the weekend before the blogathon, so I was scrambling to get everything done on time for the event.

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