A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age

By Peters, Michael Scott | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age


Peters, Michael Scott, Literature/Film Quarterly


A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age J. P. Telotte, A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1999. 218 pp. $45 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Most genre connoisseurs are familiar enough with the big films-Metropolis (1926), Paris qui dort (1924), Frankenstein (1931), and so on-but few scholarly texts deal specifically with the international science fiction of the 1920s and '30s. Author J. P. Telotte finally addressed that problem with the introduction of A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age (1999), a book that offers a comprehensive analysis of the technological spirit of the Machine Age. Although A Distant Technology unfortunately has its share of shortcomings, Telotte's singular text is generally an impressive recollection of the international opinion on scientific advancement as expressed through the art, architecture, literature, and cinema of the times. This marks Telotte's second analysis of technological attitudes and science fiction film, the first being an exploration of the "android" in Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film (1995).

The years sandwiched between the World Wars boasted a wealth of science fiction literature and cinema that expressed the complex relationship between technological achievement, on one hand, and a society that had an entire generation of boys decimated by machine guns in the killing fields of the Great War, on the other. Telotte takes this fundamental relationship and combines it with other contemporary attitudes and literary theory to describe a reoccurring phenomenon that he sees in the technology-related cinema of the Machine Age, what Robert D. Romanyshyn calls a "dream of distance." For Telotte and his frequently quoted source, Romanyshyn, technology has several "distancing" qualities. On one hand, technology makes life more comfortable and eases the advancement of knowledge, mobility, and livelihood in modern society. On the other, this same technology has the power to alienate humans from each other and from nature. In A Distant Technology-perhaps, better titled "A Distancing Technology"-Telotte and Romanyshyn's philosophy of "distance" is used as the skeleton key for unlocking the various themes of Machine Age science fiction.

Telotte's book is divided up into sections according to the nationality-Russian, German, French, American, and English-of the discussed movies and filmmakers. One or two model films are examined per section, complete with detailed plot and thematic analysis, while countless other examples from cinema, architecture, design, literature, painting, etc., are used for point solidification. The theory is that each country had its own unique version of the "dream of distance," and all looked at technology through slightly different goggles.

For Soviet Russia, the Revolution was itself a kind of social machine necessary for the movement of society toward a better future. Lev Kuleshov's critical flop The Death Ray (1925), about a scientist whose dangerous invention is stolen by Fascists, shows the technological "distance" being bridged between the Soviets and its Western neighbors. Another Soviet film, Yakov Protazanov's Aelita (1924), urged society to focus first and foremost on the Revolution, and like most Soviet science fiction, showed an ambiguous attitude toward the idea of technology's role in the new, Lenin-Marxist society.

In post-World War I Germany, there was a primary concern with how technology affected one's place in the "world picture." Fritz Lang's Metropolis warned against a possible drab life in a future technocracy where the scientific elite and society's dependency on the governing machinery alienates the working class from their basic human needs of sex, spirituality, and gratification. In the end, however, Metropolis shows that science can secure one's place in the world picture if social classes unite to control technology for the benefit of the whole. …

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