Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film by J. P. Telotte. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 222pp. Review by: Vivian Sobchack
The central argument of this gracefully written and unpretentious volume is that “the image of human artifice, figured in the great array of robots, androids, and artificial beings found throughout the history of the science fiction film, is the single most important one in the genre.” Such replications of human function and being and the dramas of identity they generate can be tracked through time, marking “the interactions between the human and the technological that lie at the very heart of science fiction” (5). Historically played out in sf cinema through the figures of robots, androids, cyborgs and other technological “doubles” of the self, this central “fantasy of roboticism” (9) articulates increasing human ambiguity about the ambiguity of being human in the face of our own ever-increasing capacity for artifice. Telotte attributes this ambiguity to both the desire and fear that surround our relations with technology and its creative/destructive power to mirror, interrogate, extend, transform, and dissolve our human being. The power of technological replication “exercises its seductive potential by...offering to make us more than we are— to grant us a nearly divine sway over life and death” while also “fundamentally devaluing human nature” (17) insofar as it becomes indistinguishable from or inferior to human artifice. Broadly tracking the history of the genre, Telotte notes the paradox of, on the one hand, the structural reversibility between the human and its technologically-constructed double and, on the other, the functional asymmetry and historical oscillation whereby we project ourselves into and as the technological “other” until our replications become “more human than human.” Thus, the human reasserts itself—revalued in the technological. Indeed, Telotte sees the genre’s teleology as “headed less toward showing the human as ever more artificial than toward rendering the artificial as ever more human, toward sketching the human, in all its complexity, as the only appropriate model, even for a technologically sourced life” (23).
These rather general statements point to both the strengths and weaknesses of Replications. Its strength is that it presents a solid and chronological trek through the genre’s history that is clear and cogent in its readings of those paradigmatic texts selected to embody the volume’s central thematic. Its weakness is that, despite citation of major cultural theorists such as Haraway, Foucault, and Baudrillard and insightfiil readings of specific films, the volume tells us little new about the genre because its attempts at historical and cultural specificity are relatively cursory and in the service of a universalizing and fuzzy humanism. Certainly, Telotte is aware of the limits of his study and explicit in telling us that it “stops short—as history, as explication of the genre, and as cultural commentary” (i 94). What, then, do we get instead? A modest “vantage” point on our “technological doubles” via readings of a selective group of films that are intelligently glossed in terms of their specific thematics, but unfortunately put into only the most general relation to the historical and cultural conditions of their production and reception.
Chapter 1, “Our Imagined Humanity,” raises some general theoretical issues and discusses the “fantasy of roboticism” in relation to literary and dramatic texts such as Shelley’s Frankenstein, Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” and “Maelzel’s Chess-Player,” Capek’s R.U.R., and, more significantly, in relation to science fiction writers Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, and Jack Williamson, Stanislaw Lem, and William Gibson. The aim of this “overview of a robotic mythos” (51) is to contextualize the film analyses to follow and, in a limited way, it does so. However, it also sets the book’s mode of generalization about technology, culture, and history, a mode that, through default, assumes the sameness of cultural difference as it asserts the genre’s historical specificity.
Chapter 2, “The Seductive Text of Metropolis,” quickly introduces the work of early film-makers and goes on to focus on Lang’s Metropolis (1926) as paradigmatic of the ambivalence surrounding technology found in “early cinematic images of human artifice” (58). Telotte’s insightful analysis articulates the homology between the film’s seductive images and “special effects” and its narrative: “Metropolis seems self-conscious about how these images can make us desire the very technological developments whose dangers it so clearly details. It is almost as if Lang, in order to keep his ‘special effects’ from becoming too seductively ‘special,’ had decided to foreground seduction itself, especially through his central image of human artifice, to lay bare its workings” (59). Unfortunately, however, the cultural specificity of Metropolis is almost completely elided (much as is Lem’s work in Chapter 1). That the film is German, what it might have to do with the history of technology and its culture and, indeed, what it might have to do with ours (given the book’s predominant, if unmentioned, emphasis on American cinema) are issues that become subordinated to a general point and trajectory that lose substance as they are put in the service of a rather general argument.
Chapter 3, “A ‘Put Together’ Thing: Human Artifice in the 1930s,” considers films that foreground “violent efforts to redefine the human body as some sort of raw material, waiting to be reshaped, reformed by a scientific capacity for artifice” (86). Focusing on Frankenstein (1931), Island of Lost Souls (1933), and Mad Love (1935)—which problematize the generic boundaries between horror and sf—Telotte is able to productively analyze the “image of the body under dissection, rendered as a thing to be explored, mastered, and reshaped” (74). These “mad scientist” movies are not merely “modem versions of the Promethean myth,” but “operate more in the Pygmalion mold, as they address what it means to fashion or refashion the human” (87) and dramatize the effect of the modem scientific spirit as the devaluation and subjection of the human. Reflecting a doubling of creator and created in which “the human [is] at odds with itself” (88), these generic hybrids dramatize both the desire for god-head and the overwhelming anxiety that we “might too readily assist in our own grotesque reconfiguration” (89).
Chapter 4, “A ‘Charming’ Interlude: Of Serials and Hollow Men,” addresses sf serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s. At a time when Hollywood features gave us “little evidence of...technological fascination” (94), serials not only frequently featured robots and automata, but also were, themselves, machine-like constructions standardized in design and narratively predictable. The “imaginative worlds” of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers both “depend on and stand for the forces of dynamic power, control, and undifferentiation— forces that explicitly in the course of their narratives, but implicitly in their every use, promise to turn the individual into a component part in some large machine, part and product in a serial process” (98). However, Telotte notes, the robots of the serials were relatively “empty” threats, “hollow” men who played out human rather than technological will—more like The Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man than the darker and more complex technological doubles to follow.
Chapter 5, “Science Fiction’s Double Focus: Alluring Worlds and Forbidden Planets,” deals with the fantasy of roboticism in the “golden age” of the 1950s through a focus on Forbidden Planet (1956). Not only does the film feature “Robby the Robot” (a replicant prominently functioning as a replicator), but it also “fashions a world practically full of doubles...doubled characters, repeated actions, and most importantly a thematic concern with duplication or imitation” (114) that emerges from and ultimately destroys both its central figure Dr. Morbius and the entire planet. For Telotte, Forbidden Planet is paradigmatic of a growing cultural awareness not only of the seductions of simulation, but also “a lack in the double, a danger in the simulacrum that justifies the warning its title sounds” (114).
Chapter 7, “Life at the Horizon: The Tremulous Public Body,” suggests that sf film in the 1980’s recasts this schizophrenic vision of artifice by figuring its “subversive character” in a master trope that projects into our technological double the desire for “freedom and expression, even as it is pressed to be the perfect, servile subject of society” (149). Focusing on Blade Runner (1982), Robocop (1987), Cherry 2000 (1988), and Total Recall (1990) as texts which “respond to the blurred boundaries, the lost horizons foregrounded by our artifice,” Telotte argues that these films both “speak of their own constructed nature and of the sort of public images of the self that the movies typically project” (165) and also affirm “how much of the human inevitably remains...despite our long history of repressing, denying or ‘de- realizing’ the self” (164).
Chapter 8, “The Exposed Modem Body: The Terminator and Terminator 2,” uses the chapter’s eponymous films (1984, 1991) as “fitting caps” for the volume’s “discussion of human artifice” (171). Both films reveal the con- structedness of being, and also urge that we not judge human beings by their “covers.” The “new gloss on the nature of the self in a postmodern and inevitably technologized environment” is that the body as it appears is “infinitely variable, deceptive, and regenerative” (177). Telotte, by way of Robert Ro- manyshyn, concludes that these and other recent films about human artifice provide both symptoms of and occasions for critical distance. They not only show us how we reduce being “to the status of things,” but also allow us, “by reexamining that distant and superficial view of things...by peeling back the artificial surface and looking into our depths,” to “recognize how much we have iost touch with things’...and begin to reclaim the self” (183).
Replications is an accessible volume that might make a very good introductory text for undergraduates who haven’t much experience with interpreting either films or science fiction. Because of its brevity and over-arching generality, however, it may be less than satisfying for those who are looking for a closely tracked archaeology or complexly developed genealogy of “the robotic mythos” and its relationship to specific changes in American culture’s romance with technology, to science fiction as a popular film genre, and to the very technologies of representation that enable the motif its visible appearance on screen.
-Vivian Sobchack, University of California at Los Angeles.
In: Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jul., 1996), pp. 299-302
See also: http://urania-josegalisifilho.blogspot.de/2012/05/the-exposed-modern-body-terminator-and.html