SF Films on Consciousness

My friend David Peat, the physicist and writer, asked me for a few thoughts on the subject. I dashed off the following, which might be useful as a first measure of this interesting subject matter. David has since published a book on the subject, but I haven’t seen a copy– probably he forgot to send one: he’s a busy guy!


SF Films on Consciousness, Psychic Transformation and Visionary experience 

We need to make an initial division between fantasy films, pseudo-scientific films and science fiction. I understand SF as a form of fantasy that draws on some rational principle derived from scientific thinking or invention. Classic SF (Wells, Verne) and Golden Age SF seldom venture into individual consciousness transformation, or dramatize the inner world. Transformation of character is presented externally, or seen as a social issue. There are exceptions, such as Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay and Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, which are all about consciousness, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. This external obsession applies to the films as well (see below). With the advent of New Wave SF in the 1960s the focus turned inward. This paved the way for the psychedelic films, the alternative reality films, that came along later, and which are common nowadays—and seem to be what you are after.

Traditional fantasy derives from the “romance” tradition, which has roots in ancient literature (the fantasy sections of the Odyssey; Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, the Apuleius Metamorphosis book), and has its grounding in religion and mythology.

My classification “Pseudo-scientific” refers to works that deal with some scientific discovery, works that purport to tell us about a real; discovery, a real scientific experience or a case history. They are not exactly SF, although they play with science and fictionalize it (e.g. the 1930s Pasteur film, the Huston Freud film, Three Faces of Eve, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, films about breaking the sound barrier, etc.) The only ones of these that are relevant to your interest are the ones that deal with psychic transformation, or inner exploration, such as Spellbound.

We also need to keep in mind the division so well articulated by David Peat and others between the “old universe” in which we have matter in motion and an “objective” separate observing consciousness, and the post-quantum universe where psyche and matter interpenetrate. The movement “inward” –as you and others have noted—greatly affects art, and in fact creates New Wave SF, psychedelic art and the whole the subject that you are contemplating writing about.

This movement inward means that the boundaries between SF and fantasy, always a bit fuzzy, are increasingly dissolved. Traditional SF extrapolated from a fantasy concept, albeit one that had a hint of possibility, but seldom worked out its extrapolations by focusing on inner experience. Everything was externalized.

This division is important in the case of SF, since the majority of SF works in literature and film relate to the “old universe” and are therefore rather irrelevant to David’s purpose. The Wells and Verne traditions last pretty well through the 1950s, and some of the best SF productions in literature and film are based on the traditional mind-matter dichotomy.

For example, that old classic, Wells’s own Shape of Things to Come is purely external, dealing with social organization, the role of science, technocracy etc.

Other pre-quantum films, thanks to a powerful symbolic structure, such as Metropolis, The Golem. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (and other of the UFA and expressionist films) take a turn inward and begin to turn external reality into a projection of consciousness, or an analogue for the real transformations, which are inner.

The reason for this seems obvious to me: such films derive from the fantasy tradition as preserved in European “Gothic” and Romantic story-telling, whereas many British and American films are reflections of fears and expectations about scientific discoveries and technology, and have little room for transformation.

Which is not to say that the fantasy tradition was not alive in Britain and the US. It’s just that it was often completely divorced from science and technology, which had their own, more externalized, story-telling traditions, the tradition of the so-called Golden Age SF of Asimov and the others.

The exceptions to this are notable. One was the American film Island of Lost Souls, shot on Catalina Island in California, a tremendous erotic Gothic fantasy, loosely based on Wells (who hated what they did with his story).

This raises several questions for you.

1) How much weight are you going to give to traditional fantasy as compared with science-inspired explorations?

2) Are you going to limit your idea of transformation to stories that actually dramatize psychic transformation in symbolic form by “surrealistic” means, films that concentrate on “inner imagery?” Or are you going to include films of transformation that suggest the inner change through outer events?

If you take American 1950s films, some of the best SF films ever made, you find a strong emphasis on social/political structures and outer reality.

For example, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The transformation imagined here is a political and social one, despite the experiences of the boy and of Patricia Neal.

The Thing (Hawks). The suggestion is that change will come from external forces, from the outer universe. “Search the skies!” cries the reporter at the end.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is more ambiguous. By focusing on the uniqueness of self and by invoking the idea of the pods that grow to replace human beings it raises questions of inner life and the uniqueness of soul.

Forbidden Planet, although in many ways a typical Golden Age SF production, with an emphasis on technology and robotics and outer conflict, thanks to its Freudian symbolism—the “power of the Id” that destroys the futuristic Prospero, Walter Pidgeon, begins to link to traditional fantasy and inner reality.

It’s important to remember that what we loosely call SF comprises various “sub-genres,” some of which are fairly irrelevant to your purposes, while others connect with what you are interested in. A quick run-down easily distinguishes among these.

Utopia-Dystopia. Generally irrelevant to Peat’s purpose, although Clockwork Orange takes us to new dimensions, with its tremendous costumes, mise en scene and music and its conditioning sequences.

Lost World stories. Generally irrelevant.

Stories of new creations machines, robots etc. Generally irrelevant, except when we get to the point of playing with machine consciousness, or the ambiguities of human creativity, raised in the Frankenstein stories, but not really fully emergent until the post-quantum period. Then the focus on “inwardness” begins to raise issues of other-than-human consciousness, and to break the traditional boundaries between “human” and “machine.” The near-sickening Spielberg movie AI was perversely fascinating, (despite the rampant “momism”) in its reach into the far future where machine/human boundaries dissolve. Blade Runner, a much better movie, remained mostly “external” and presented Harrison Ford’s transformation through action sequences, although its weird and compelling mise en scene made it seem almost psychedelic.

Time Travel stories. Initially, socially constructed, as in Wells, but thereafter highly relevant to your purpose, as post-Einstein ideas of time as intrinsically related to human existential reality begin to percolate through the genre. See 2001, below.

Catastrophe and Apocalypse Stories. Generally irrelevant to Peat’s purpose. Although as DH Lawrence pointed out, the actual biblical Apocalypse is one of the chief consciousness-transformation stories in western culture. Most of the SF treatments are purely externalized, however. E.g. War of the Worlds, Planet of the Apes.

Space Travel stories. Mostly irrelevant, as in the externalized 1950s treatments, trips to the moon and Mars, and in the scriptings of Verne and others, such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In Fantastic Voyage we even get an “inner space” story that is determinedly “outer” as Raquel and her team wander through a patient’s body! The original Star Trek, fifties in most of its trappings, managed to incorporate some stories of inner space and consciousness transformation. But the best one of all, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a perfect centre for the Peat inquiry, since it begins “objectively” but hints at something deeper, then makes good with a tremendous plunge into inner reality at the end.

Alien ecologies. There are few of these but one is central: Solaris. The book includes psychic ecology; the film goes even more inward, much too far inward, I would say, and becomes one of the really important “post-quantum” movies, at least in ambition (I’ve always found it a yawn). Frank Herbert’s Dune didn’t work well in the movie version (see below).

Alien invasion stories. Generally “monsters arrive and threaten us” stories of little relevance to what you are looking at, but there are notable exceptions. E.g. I Married a Monster From Outer Space, which, despite its dreadful title, is about inner reality and relationship and is an amazing study of marriage alienation. Also The Man Who Fell to Earth. CS Lewis gave himself credit, probably correctly, for reversing the alien/human dichotomy and making us “the bad guys” and the aliens, films like The Man Who Fell to Earth make good on this reversal.

Galactic Empire stories. Generally irrelevant to the Peat inquiry. The Star Wars
Series, despite the influence of Joseph Campbell, remains externalized and popcornish, the two Dune attempts are similar, although the TV mini-series here and there got close to what Peat is looking for. Dr. Who was fun, but didn’t get much beyond camp. Some recent SF serials have cut much deeper, in particular, Babylon Five and the recent Battlestar Galactica.

ESP and Super-being stories. These are often externally treated as stories of conflict between the normal and the extraordinary (which often turns out to be evil), but many of them are closely connected with what you are interested in.

Alternative Reality stories. This is a pure fantasy concept (as old as the Odyssey) that has been embedded in some science fiction, and is usually wedded to stories of aliens, space and time travel, ESP, etc. After the computer and media revolution it was natural that these contemporary obsessions should prominently figure in such tales. Thus we get Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the Matrix, and many others.

Anthropological Fantasy. Generally making a point about society and human reality, and not explorations of consciousness, but Quest for Fire and Lord of the Flies, although straightforward and largely external narratives, touch on core human reality.

One could go into the various categories of traditional fantasy as well, but to save time I will mention those as I list films, below.

I haven’t tried characterize all the films I list here. I will simply divide the list into fantasy films and SF films, so as to provide you with a checklist.

Fantasy Films

Many classic early modern films about “crossing over,” about contact with the demonic or the divine, some of them with interesting psychic transformations; or adventure fantasies.

Outward Bound
Stairway to Heaven—wonderful first half
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir—holds up terrifically well
Death Takes a Holiday—stagey but not bad
The Man Who Could Work Miracles
The Thief of Baghdad
The Cocteau movies, especially Orpheus
Curse of the Demon
The Haunting
Spellbound (Dali Sequences)
Portrait of Jenny

The Universal SF-Fantasy films, mostly Gothic horror

Frankenstein series
The Wolf Man

The RKO fantasy series of Val Lewton, some of the best fantasy films ever made

Cat People
I Walked with a Zombie
Isle of the Dead etc

The Hammer SF-Fantasy series–The Devil Rides Out is an exceptional example.

Roger Corman Poe Series–Campy costumed Gothic

The Jack Arnold Fantasy Films of which The Incredible Shrinking Man is most relevant to the Peat thesis, and a fine film.

The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Donovan’s Brain, the Dr. Phibes movie and assorted Hollywood films of some interest.

Modern Fantasies

A distressing number of angel fantasies, with the exception of Wings of Desire.

Adventures of Baron Munchhausen—more on the Peat wavelength, a good if faulty movie

Beetle Juice

Excalibur—some nice consciousness sequences

Superman and Batman series—mostly comic strip stuff

The Mario Bava movies. Especially Diabolik

The Ray Harryhausen movies—Clash of the Titans, Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts

Off beat and interesting horror and supernatural movies

Carnival of Souls
The Woman in Black
Wendigo-a nice try,but faulty
Pi—depressing but brilliant

Science Fiction and Related Types that Peat seems to be after, in no particular order.

Last Year at Marienbad
Hiroshima, mon amour
Je t’aime, je t’aime
The Passenger
2001: A Space Odyssey
A Clockwork Orange
The Shining
La Jeteé
Saragossa Manuscript
Paris n’existe pas
The Phantom of Liberty
Cosmic Zoom
The Trip (Roger Corman)
Altered States
The Matrix
Repo Man
Slaughterhouse Five
Silent Running
The Matrix

Final Note:

In all of the above comments and lists, I have left out a lot, but if I go on much longer I’ll have to write the book myself!


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