Friday, October 24, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir

"On one hand, gleaming spaceships, cyborgs, laser guns, aliens, robots, monsters and far-off planets..."

"On the other, dark forbidding streets, private eyes, elegant femme fatales, psychopaths and mysterious murders..."

- From the preface of Paul Meehan's comprehensive genre study, Tech-Noir (2008).

Sadly, I just don't have the time to read every review copy that publishers send my way here in Muir-ville. But every now and then a fascinating book title, a concept, a description, or even an introductory passage will cross my desk and jump out at me, requiring some serious attention.

That's precisely what occurred with Paul Meehan's compelling and well-researched monograph, Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir (McFarland, 2008). This book captivated me and I've been thinking about it on and off since I began reading it last week.

This book adopts the long view of genre history, and charts the ascent of the science-fiction noir from the days of German Expressionism in the 1920s to the modern age of such films as Blade Runner (1982), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999) and even I, Robot (2004).

After explaining how the 1930s and World War II environment originally gave rise to film noir in America (in terms of film-style and thematic narrative), Meehan explains in detail how many familiar noir archetypes (private eyes, femme fatale, Sydney Greenstreet-type villains, a bustling city backdrop...) have been co-opted and resuscitated by the science fiction genre. I must confess, I had considered this notion occasionally (in terms of Dark City and Gattaca, particularly), but Meehan does an admirable job of exposing just how deep the bond between film noir and science fiction actually runs.

The naked [American] city of the 20th century, whose "mean streets" were once dominated by the likes of con-men, thieves, murderers, hookers, informants, immigrants, spies and vulture-like aristocrats, has been replaced in the new format with a populace that instead includes, in Meehan's words: "alien vampires, homicidal androids, teched-out hackers, assassins dressed as Jesus Christ, Men in Black, fluid metal Terminators, decadent genetic designers, psychopathic scientists and extraterrestrial femme fatales."

Meehan also writes" "As strange and exotic as this technological Mordor may seem, it is but an echo of another world, the DNA mutation of a template of reality created in a far distant time and place, in the nation of America in the first half of the previous century."

Thus Sil in Species (1995) emerges as the ultimate evolution of the femme fatale: sex with this dame is literally fatal.

Thus Sean Connery's morally ambiguous sheriff in Outland (1981) is the heir of morally ambiguous private dicks like Sam Spade of Phillip Marlowe.

Thus the noir hero's investigation (ultimately a quest which takes him to a new reckoning of self....) -- a journey so important to an understanding of works like Chinatown or Angel Heart -- becomes the search for personal identity in films like The Matrix (Neo is the One...) or Dark City.

This rabbit hole goes much deeper than is initially apparent. The frequent film noir plot gimmick of "amnesia" (seen in such efforts as Somewhere in the Night [1946]), Shadow on the Wall [1950] and Mirage [1966]) is reinterpreted to include deliberately "erased" memories in the tech-noir thrillers Total Recall (1990) and Paycheck (2003).

The "locked room" mystery of film noirs like Dangerous Crossing (1953) get re-booted in modern thrillers such as I, Robot (2004).

The mistaken identity chestnut, so vital in Strange Impersonation (1947), re-surfaces in The 6th Day (2000) and others.

Meehan writes convincingly and authoritatively about the previously unexcavated tech noir genre (a term coined by James Cameron in 1984's The Terminator). In particular, I enjoyed the author's detailed discussion of the works of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson; and how their works have proven especially influential in the modern cinema.

Throughout the book, Meehan does something else of import too. He re-contextualizes films we all know well (and some we don't...); films such as Escape from New York, Existenz, The Fury, The Cell, Hollow Man, Impostor, The Island, Runaway, Robocop, Strange Days, Solaris, Timecop and Twelve Monkeys. Now I need to see them all again, considering the ways they "evolve" film noir.

By my personal reckoning, a really good film reference book is one in which you can tap into on the author's enthusiasm and passion for his subject matter; one which makes you want to re-visit the films he describes based on his new, and original take on them. If that's the benchmark, Meehan has exceeded it with Tech-Noir. The author doesn't "do" stupid capsule reviews; he doesn't give unnecessary binary (thumbs up/thumbs down) assessments of the works in question. Critically, he isn't caught up in some arbitrary received wisdom on these movies. Instead -- focused like a laser beam -- Meehan looks at the ways in which a wide variety of science fiction films fit perfectly his definition of tech noir, this strange hybrid of genres. I'd like to see Meehan next tackle the fusion of the horror genre and the film noir; a book that could include films like Angel Heart, Lord of Illusions, and, of course, Psycho.

You can order Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir at Amazon. Or from McFarland here.

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