The Visualisation of Utopia in Recent Science Fiction Film
Utopia can be conceived as a possibility – a space within language, a set of principles, or the product of technological development – but it cannot be separated from questions of place, or more accurately, questions of “no place.” 1 In between the theoretically imaginable utopia and its realisation in a particular time and place, there is a space of critique, which is exploited in anti-Utopian and critical dystopian narratives. 2 In Science Fiction narratives of this kind, technology is responsible for the transformation of the utopian impulse into a set of principles that are precisely stated and rigidly enforced. The critique focuses on the impossibility, due to the reductive force of instrumental reason, of any systematic realisation of a eutopia where the positive qualities of freedom, individualism and creativity are nurtured. The films Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg (Dreamworks, 2002), and Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol (Columbia, 1997), both examine utopian claims through speculation on the possible future use of current technologies, the tools of crime investigation and the genome project respectively. However, an examination of the plot cannot attend sufficiently to the particular properties of film and how it, as a medium, constructs utopia as a place. This article aims to address this issue by examining how technologically derived images of utopia are realised in the visual space of film, that is, on the level of the mise en scène. These images are often dystopian but the distinction between dystopia and eutopia is not crucial to the argument, because the aim is not to return utopianCOLLOQUY text theory critique 14 (2007). © Monash University. www. colloquy.monash.edu.au/issue14/atkinson.pdf
ism to its place at the vanguard of progressive politics, nor to reject utopianism on the basis that it is unrealisable, but rather to examine how technology and utopianism can combine in the visual language of film. 3 My concern here is to investigate how utopia is conceived according to the specific features of the medium rather than to present an overarching narrative judgement as to the value of utopian principles. In Gattaca, the utopianism of a genetically determined future is reproduced in the mise en scène as a set of aesthetic principles, whereas in Minority Report the utopian technology itself resembles the apparatus of film. This involves two quite different approaches to the visualisation of utopia: 4 in Gattaca, utopia is embodied in a society in which there can be “no other place,” realised through the subtraction or reduction of visual difference; in Minority Report, utopia is an expression of a panoptic regime that can incorporate all visual and cultural difference such that the visible is “every place.” The film Gattaca describes a future delimited by the principles of genetic engineering and organised like Plato’s republic, as a genetic hierarchy where aptitude and merit give way to congenital differentiation. The genetic code determines access to employment, education, sport and personal relationships either through the foregrounding of positive qualities, such as IQ, or the assessment of liability where the genetic code substitutes for a general medical examination. The protagonist Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is prevented from achieving his longstanding ambition of becoming an astronaut due to his genetic deficiencies, in particular his weak heart. However, Vincent fulfils his desire to join Gattaca Aerospace through an elaborate process of genetic deception, where he substitutes the genetic material of a crippled man, Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), for his own. He proves himself capable as an astronaut and in doing so the film serves as an obvious parable for the triumph of human endeavour and, by extension, the American Dream 5 over a world that has acceded to the...
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