Tag Archives: science fiction

Attack of the Frozen Things!

The Thing

In the Paul Auster-scripted film Smoke (1995), William Hurt recounts an anecdote about an alpine skier who is caught in an avalanche and lost, presumed dead. His son grows up and he also becomes a skier and one day, while out skiing, he finds a body frozen in the ice. At first he thinks he is looking into a mirror but then he realises he is seeing his father’s body, his father who is now a younger man than he is. The frozen parent has the power of a parable, illustrating the curious paradox of our travelling through time and outliving that which came before. What is disconcerting in the story is the fact that the father has stopped time travelling and so allowed his son to overtake him.

The uncanny nature of the frozen is a commonplace in science fiction. As in Auster’s story, the frozen is never genuinely dead so much as stopped/suspended. In H.P. Lovecraft’s novella from 1936, At the Mountains of Madness, an expedition to the Antarctic uncovers the remains of a prehistoric race of monstrous life forms, the Elder Things. One of the recovered specimens comes alive and wreaks havoc. The horror plays on the anxiety caused by the theory of evolution. Older civilisations have ruled the earth and will rule again. Humans are just a temporarily dominant species without a permanent foothold and with no particular claim, or purpose. It was partly to direct the film version of the Lovecraft story that Guillermo del Toro eventually passed on The Hobbit (announced for 2012). Lovecraft has had an unhappy relationship with the cinema. Mined by Roger Corman once Edgar Allan Poe had run dry, or schlocked up by Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon for films like Re-Animator (1985), perhaps he will receive a more serious approach from del Toro. Although how exactly del Toro will render the ten-foot-tall blind penguins that inhabit the underground city without veering into camp remains to be seen.

For Lovecraft, the frozen represents an ancient other, an attack of the old on the young. To add to the sense that we are doomed comes the additional horror of realising it was ever so; our destruction was simply waiting for us to uncover it. This idea is borrowed in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) remake, which somewhat implausibly insists that the alien machines were already buried, frozen, thousands of years ago, ready only to be activated and piloted at the moment of invasion.

As in Lovecraft’s story, John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? is also set in Antarctica and features a scientific expedition going badly wrong. Campbell’s story is an extreme exercise in group psychology. The isolation of the setting and the hostility of the environment ramps up the tension, as a shape-changing alien frozen in the ice hundreds of thousands of years earlier is defrosted and comes to life. The ancient and alien other for Lovecraft represented a blow to humanity’s ignorant self-importance, but the Thing challenges the very notions of identity and the integrity of the self. The men discuss their predicament with clarity. If the Thing copies you perfectly, including your thoughts and prayers, your memory and your knowledge, how would it be different from you, the men ask. Would you even know you had been copied?

Ostensibly an adaptation of Campbell’s novella, Howard Hawks’s The Thing from another World (1951) jettisons much of this discussion and reduces the angst-ridden paranoia with a far safer and more straightforward fear of the other. The Thing is a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster, unchanging, safely malignant and freshly alien (he’s just crash-landed the night before). Partaking of a post-Hiroshima distrust of science, the mad (or at least deluded) scientist is seen as being as much of a threat as the creature he seeks wrong-headedly to protect. Rather than the full-throated anxiety and cannibalistic madness of the original story, Hawks’s Americans are a can-do citizen army of practical solutions, replete with a quick-fire banter lifted straight from the screwball tradition exemplified by Hawks’s own His Girl Friday (1940). There is a racy romance in the offing and the beanpole journalist says ‘Holy cat!’ far too often. Even the way the alien is defrosted is framed like a joke: an electric blanket is mistakenly left on the block of ice containing the alien. The nascent Cold War allows for no internal divisions and Hawks’s army are a loose and relaxed set of chums, with the exception of the scientific party, but even there the scientist is conveniently dispatched by the monster. The captain himself is the opposite of Campbell’s anguished Garry and is content to follow the best ideas of his men rather than ordering and inspiring (or indeed leading) himself.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a far more faithful rendering of the original story, restoring the paranoia, the mutating alien and the names of the characters from Campbell’s version. There are no quipping girlfriends. The captain is despised, the men are all dysfunctional and get on each other’s nerves before the intrusion of the other even takes place. The Thing is now once more the ancient Lovecraftian creature, frozen in ice for thousands of years. Its indeterminacy is, as one of the characters points out, a possible result of its history. It has adapted to so many forms on so many planets that we never see it as itself. Even in its monstrous manifestations it could simply be replaying a copied enemy, complete with tentacles and jaws, claws and what not. Rather than the ‘intellectual carrot’ of Hawks’s version or the blue-skinned three-eyed monster of Campbell’s, we never see the creature actually frozen in the ice. Carpenter’s film is preceded by the attack and massacre of the Norwegian base. The Thing we first see is a dog. Its original history as a frozen artefact is discovered after the fact by MacReady (Kurt Russell) when he discovers a sarcophagus of ice at the deserted Norwegian base.

Whereas the ending of Hawks’s film issues a call for vigilance which is essentially optimistic, leaving the characters and the audience forewarned and steeled to any coming conflict, Carpenter poses a hopeless and paranoid dilemma. Is MacReady or Childs the Thing? Or are they both? Or are neither of them (this obviously being the least satisfying)? Thankfully the projected sequel to Carpenter’s film has never been made, although a prequel (relating what happened to the Norwegians) is currently in post-production. The only happy ending we can imagine for the Carpenter film is that they both die without further contact with other people, thus averting an apocalypse. Of course, given that the creature has already survived freezing and given the nature of the frozen generally in science fiction films, it is more than likely that the creature has already won.

As the most famous frozen dad of film, Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), reminds us, for something that is frozen it is only a matter of time.

John Bleasdale

Edward Hollis is Wall-E


Edward Hollis studied architecture before working on Shri Lankan ruins and on old Scottish breweries. In The Secret Lives of Buildings, he charts the history of 13 buildings through time and multiple transformations, from the Parthenon and the Alhambra to the Berlin Wall and the theme parks of Las Vegas. Below, he explains why Wall-E is his filmic alter ego.

In the future, movies will always begin in Manhattan. There will be an opening shot of the East River and the cloud-capped towers of Midtown. The cameras will do a wide, lazy pan, and then zoom into some crevice where somebody normal is doing something normal. It’s always the same.

Give it a few minutes, and it won’t be normal any more. King Kong will be battling biplanes on top of the Empire State, Godzilla will have surfaced from the deep, and the day after tomorrow, a tsunami will be followed by a great freeze. Thousands of years in the future, a robot boy will sit buried under the ice, staring at a fairground attraction.

I don’t want to be a blonde starlet caught in the arms of a gorilla (not this time), nor a dinosaur, nor an artificial child, but I do want to live in that future Manhattan of disasters and miracles; and when I’m there, my movie will start exactly the same way as all the others: the river, the towers, the pan, the zoom – and little old me, scurrying along the sidewalk, being normal.

Except in the future life of my alter ego, nothing is normal, and I’m not in Manhattan. Rather, I live in a gigantic simulacrum of that long-lost city, a simulacrum I have painstakingly constructed myself. The river is a river of dust, and I have built the great towers out of little cubes of compacted rubbish, the detritus of the original Manhattan.

I am a menial robot. Every day I scavenge for rubbish, and occasionally I find a treasure or two. In the evening I drag them back to an abandoned shipping container, and in my cabinet of abandoned curiosities, I rest until morning. I do not sleep. Instead, I spend the night watching my only film: it’s a story set in a vibrant, vanished, New York. ‘Put on your Sunday best,’ sings Dolly, in the guise of Barbra Streisand.

My alter ego, Wall-E, like the junk market at the beginning of Star Wars, the City of the Dead in Barbarella, and the leaking Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Blade Runner, reminds us that in the future, cities won’t be futuristic. They will be quite as messy as those of the past. Indeed, they will be made out of their broken remains, as they have always been.

At the end of the film, the returning human race turn the robot’s trash Manhattan into an Eden, then a garden, then a farm, then a village, a town, and a great city once again. Their efforts are represented in paintings that develop from cave painting to abstraction via every style in between. In each of them appears Wall-E, the robot rubbish collector, more mythic with every redepiction.

Perhaps it’s all happened before. Cities abandoned in jungles and deserts were futuristic once. That we have outlived them is a tribute to the toiling midgets who inhabited their ruins. In the future I want to be a scavenging robot, the sentimental fan of Hello Dolly, upon whose drudgery will be constructed an entire civilisation.

The Secret Lives of Buildings by Edward Hollis is published by Portobello Books.

World on a Wire

World on a Wire

Format: DVD

Release date: 17 May 2010

Distributor: Second Sight

Directors: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Writers: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Fritz Müller-Scherz

Original title: Welt am Draht

Based on the novel Simulacron 3 by: Daniel F Galouye

Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck, Günter Lamprecht, Ulli Lommel

Germany 1973

2 x 102 mins

First screened on German television in 1973, Fassbinder’s sci-fi two-part series World on a Wire revolves around the computer game nature of virtual reality. It may come as a bit of a shock to modern viewers who think of this concept as relatively new – having perhaps first encountered it in the ‘cyberpunk’ novels of the 1980s or in films from Tron (1982) to The Matrix (1999) – to realise that it has actually been around for four decades. Perhaps modern viewers inevitably link computer games with VR, assuming the two arrived simultaneously, but writers such as Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K Dick and Daniel F Galouye, who penned the novel that World on a Wire is based on, had already been developing the concept in the 1950s and 60s. For the sake of confining this argument to ‘virtual reality’ as we define it today, I won’t go back as far as Plato and his cave.

In World on a Wire, as in The Matrix and TV series like Ashes to Ashes and Lost, there is a double philosophical quandary at the heart of the drama, specifically concerning the nature of the reality the characters perceive to be real and questions about one’s own identity within a world that may not exist. Indeed, the Wachowski brothers, though they didn’t like to discuss their own films, were very happy that The Matrix trilogy inspired much philosophical debate (however sophomoric that debate might have been).

Interestingly, almost every example of films and TV series about virtual environments also uses elements from action films, perhaps because whenever a character finds out they are in a simulation and are being watched, they feel paranoid and hunted, and inevitably go on the run. So as well as being an early example of the VR genre, Fassbinder’s mini-series has scenes familiar from the likes of The Fugitive and Alfred Hitchcock’s prototype action films The 39 Steps, North by Northwest and Vertigo. Indeed, the latter does deal with a character who simulates another ‘real’ person’s identity.

It is difficult to discuss the central themes of World on a Wire without mentioning the twist/cliffhanger at the end of part one of – something I guessed within 10 minutes of the start of the mini-series due to my familiarity with the tropes of the sub-genre – so if you don’t want to know the nature of this twist, please skip to the end of the review.


As I already knew that World on a Wire was about virtual reality, the director’s use of blank, staring models made me realise fairly quickly that the world the central character believes to be real is in fact a simulation, and that those vacuous extras are also virtuals whose personality is ‘under-programmed’ in comparison to the lead – like the infected humans in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (any version), who become devoid of emotions when taken over/replaced by alien doppelgä;ngers. We indeed find out that the lead character and his world are both virtual, but also that in the world we are first confronted with, there is a further simulation – a simulation within a simulation. The virtual characters are studying the behaviour of artificial life, so they can predict events in the ‘real’ world.

There are similar simulations within simulations in The Matrix – white voids where Neo does his combat training for example – and in Mamoru Oshii’s underrated Avalon, where each ‘level’ of reality is more colourful and ‘realistic’ than the last. The last of Kôji Suzuki’s Ring books, Loop, deals with a similar concept of worlds within virtual worlds, which might seem too strange a shift in direction for the franchise, even to audiences familiar with The Matrix – the book has yet to be filmed and I don’t expect it will be the basis for The Ring 3D, due in 2012.

In World on a Wire, even if the twist is predictable to modern viewers, the revelation that the lead character is a copy of someone from a higher level of reality still feels fresh, as it is an intriguing philosophical concept that not enough science fiction films have dealt with. When Galouye’s Simulacron 3, which World on a Wire was based on, was filmed again more recently as The Thirteenth Floor, the virtual world was clearly delineated as being different from the real world right from the start (by being shown as a film noir / 1940s simulation). Conversely, in the original novel and adaptation, all three worlds are broadly similar, and it is only the characters’ perceptions of what is real or legitimate as far as their existence is concerned that differentiates the different layers of reality, something that has greater profundity and disturbing potential compared to other examples of the genre.


While certain aspects of World on a Wire were designed to create a world that seemed unusual at the time – such as shooting many scenes in the shopping malls and newly built developments of Paris, which were unfamiliar to viewers in 1970s Germany – there are continuing tropes from Fassbinder’s own oeuvre that mark it out as simply his style of filmmaking. For example, the idiosyncratic sound design and overtly ‘theatrical’ performances from some of the cast and extras do create the feeling of a world inhabited by ‘the other’, when viewed in isolation and without having seen many of the director’s other films. Ironically, it’s these idiosyncrasies that give the series a science fiction feeling, rather than his conscious efforts to shoot in ‘alien’ locations. From a current perspective, all 1970s European architecture seems broadly similar, and this is both a blessing and a curse to filmmakers who want to create a futuristic world by seeking out the modern locations of their time. Michael Winterbottom’s use of a global architectural collage in Code 46 and Jean-Luc Godard’s choice of brutalist architecture in Alphaville to create a Paris of the future have quickly dated (Fassbinder was a fan of Godard and acknowledges his debt to Alphaville by giving Eddie Constantine a cameo in World on a Wire).

Viewing World on a Wire in May 2010 is a strangely appropriate experience. Despite its age, the film still seems fresh, and this combination is unsettling to modern viewers. Although a little slow overall – in part due to the fact that it was conceived as two two-hour-long parts with commercials, which makes the first episode seem padded – it is continuously engaging, intriguing and suitably strange, thanks to the performances and the director’s use of disorientating camera angles as well as shots framed with mirrors reflecting other mirrors. As an early example of a genre, it’s interesting to note that it has almost exactly the same ending as the final episode of Lost (and as the co-creators of Lost, who wrote that episode, are refusing to give any more interviews on the subject, I guess we’ll never find out if they’re fans of Fassbinder).

It has recently been reported that scientists have successfully created artificial life, albeit on the level of microbes; extrapolating this into the potential for the creation of artificial human intelligence, it’s interesting to speculate whether the creation of virtual worlds where human visitors can interact with virtual humans will lead to environments that are indistinguishable from our own, or ones that let us holiday in outré retro or futuristic environments. Certainly, the idea that such a world might be created first for its potential to influence the activities of big business as in World on a Wire seems a very likely one.

Alex Fitch