Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

When More Is Less: CGI, Spectacle and the Capitalist Sublime

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

When More Is Less: CGI, Spectacle and the Capitalist Sublime

Article excerpt

And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!

-Carl Denham, King Kong (1933) and almost King Kong (2005)

The medieval philosophers were right. Man is the center of the universe. We stand in the middle of infinity between outer and inner space, and there's no limit to either.

-Dr Peter Duvall, Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Size Does Matter

-Promotional tagline, Godzilla (1998)

Perception, conception and sf

One of the most productive and pleasurable tensions within sf is the relationship between the rigorous, logical development of ideas and their extraordinary and wonderful presentation. As Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, suggests, what distinguishes sf's imaginary from the simply fantastic is that it is 'made to seem not impossible, and consequently closer to felt experiences than flights of fancy, and more permissible to the rational imagination' (147). Ideas win out; yet rather than simply offering us a potentially arid 'thought-experiment', the overriding affect of sf is the production of a 'sense of wonder' in which, it must be remembered, that 'a sense is not a concept. Wonder even less so' (146). Sf imagery escapes the understanding and produces a 'feeling-experiment' in which affect takes precedence over ideas. This tension between the conceptually intelligible and the perceptually incredible is, of course, particular relevant to cinematic forms of sf where ideas are visually materialised, making sense to the rational imagination because they are rendered direct objects of perception. Yet it is also the case that this is often achieved through the use of special effects, which equally promote our rational suspicion of such images. At its best cinematic sf offers experiences in which we do, and do not, believe our eyes, simultaneously. We see, we comprehend, we believe, we doubt, we accept, we enjoy. We see giant apes fighting dinosaurs, recognisable buildings destroyed by lasers, people dodging bullets, astonishing craft flying at remarkable speeds and any number of extraordinary life forms who befriend or battle humanity. It is worth pausing to consider the complex philosophical relationship between reason and wonder, cognition and sensation - at the most fundamental level, the relationship between conception and perception - suggested by such experiences.

At first, this relationship between the conceptual and perceptual might seem an antagonistic, if not a mutually exclusive, binary. Conception is a mental process that produces understanding while wonder is a perceptual experience caused by a lack of understanding, an inability to account for our sensory experience. If perception can be conceptualised one experiences understanding; if not, one experiences wonder. This tension is both a continuation of and reflection on the great philosophical debate between empiricism and rationalism that has dominated post-Enlightenment Western thought. In crude terms, the influence of empiricism demands that knowledge comes from the sensate world. Yet innocent and unprejudiced experience is impossible because we anticipate the world of experience via mental constructs, logical deductions and even fictions which create, rather than simply find, meaning. In this respect, Csicsery-Ronay's appeal to the 'rational imagination' as the arbiter between conception and perception demonstrates a productive dialectic as much as an antagonistic binary between the conceptually intelligible and perceptually wonderful in sf.

There is a long tradition in film studies of thinking about cinema's image-making properties as in some sense already 'wonderful'. Indeed, such approaches counter the emphasis put on the storytelling capacity of films by focusing on the presentational aspects of cinema which offer pleasures more visceral than rational. …

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