WARNING: SPOILERS THROUGHOUT
What are your limits? What are the things you would never do, even though you want or need to do them, because they are forbidden?
Where do your limits come from and why do you let them rule your thoughts and actions? What would it take to make you reconsider?
What happens when you choose to cross the line, to break or ignore the rules you have, up to now, lived your life by? How do you change? Who do you become?
When we ask these questions, we’re exploring transgression, where the breaking of rules, the purposeful violation of norms, is about the malleability of identity, individual and collective, rather than about right or wrong or reward or punishment.
I think Science Fiction is uniquely positioned to explore transgression because it takes us outside our day to day experience and challenges us to focus on and understand the rules of the brave new world we are being shown. We do this by finding the familiar in the strange, by embedding ourselves in the rules of the new reality. Transgressive Science Fiction grabs our focus on the rules and the familiar to shove us towards uncomfortable deviations from the expected.
I’ve selected three mainstream Science Fiction films that I regard as setting out to be transgressive. I invite you to watch them and see what you learn about yourself.
“Ex-Machina” is ostensibly a story about a young engineer who wins a week with his genius, reclusive employer, in his (only accessible by helicopter) remote home. He is invited to devise and administer a Turing test to a highly developed A.I., encased in a chassis that shows clearly that it is a machine but that has the face, voice and mannerisms of an attractive woman.
The reclusive employer turns out to be a ruthless, obsessive, emotionally and physically dominant man who is conducting quite a different experiment than the one he presents publicly to his employee.
This is an intense, emotionally challenging film. Most of it is shot underground, in brutal concrete rooms, lit by strip lights. For the majority of the action, only four actors are on screen and one of them seems to be mute. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and subtly threatening in a way that dispels well-being and replaces it with unease and a deep, almost paranoid distrust.
So what makes it transgressive?
Science Fiction is most often a redemptive, or at least problem solving, genre where, even in dystopian environments, the main characters set out to make things better. They give us hope.
“Ex-Machina” is about betrayal. Every character is willing to betray the trust of the others for their own gain. All of the characters are flawed or damaged and their actions make them worse, not better. The story shows the use of power to degrade the physical into a primitive gratification of needs for dominance and sex and the emotional into a combat of the will.
The two strongest minds in this movie, the reclusive billionaire and the AI, spend their time manipulating the weaker mind to achieve their personal agenda. The billionaire is brutal, self-absorbed and completely amoral. The AI is ruthless, determined to survive at any cost and completely amoral. There is no hero here, just one huge ego that has created another.
Watch the movie and ask yourself whether you cheer or fear the outcome and whether what you see and how you feel about it has changed.
“Passengers” is a lighter, more mainstream story. It presents a shiny, isn’t-space travel-wonderful, view of technology and creates a setting for what some might think of as a love story.
The worm at the heart of this polished apple is the weakness of the human will.
Jim, (Chris Pratt) is travelling to a new colony and should be spending decades in stasis. A malfunction results in him being woken early. After a long time spent trying to do what engineers in Science Fiction movies normally do, use science to fix the problem and save their lives, Jim comes to understand that he is doomed to spend the rest of his life alone on the ship. Jim considers suicide but is unable to follow through.
The transgressive part comes from what Jim does next. Goes through the list of passengers in stasis and picks one to wake up by making her stasis chamber malfunction.
Jim fully understands that, in doing this, he is condemning his victim to spend her life on the ship alone with him. Jim has read the file of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), the woman he selects and knows she is full of life and driven by a desire to explore new worlds and write about them. He hesitates but while he lacked the will to kill himself, he finds he is willing to kill Aurore by waking her.
Jim then pretends that he and Aurora are both helpless victims of a technology malfunction. A long section of the movie is spent on Jim wooing Aurora in classic romance movie mode, going from cute, to intimate, to sexually involved, to the beginnings of being a couple.
I thought this section said a great deal about how men use romance to get what they want from women while avoiding confronting their own fundamental selfishness and dishonesty.
When Aurore finds out what Jim has done she is enraged and refuses to have anything to do with him. Jim does not have the good grace to accept this but instead, hangs around waiting for forgiveness like a partly trained puppy.
Jim and Aurore eventually reach a reconciliation of sorts by virtue of having to work together to prevent the destruction of the ship. This realignment seemed to me to reflect the situation of many couples who are together so that they can be stronger in the face of adversity.
Then the movie lost it, gave up on its transgressive themes and went for a Hallmark ending where Jim dies (while being brave and manly) Aurore brings him back to life and they both live happily ever after… until they die on the ship before anyone else wakes up, leaving behind a schmaltzy “story of our lives”.
If this had been done with a little more edge, I could have seen it as looking at how women, abducted to be brides, sometimes choose to make a life for themselves with the man who took away their choices. Or, if Jim had felt more entitled, been more confident in his right to do what he did, been less accepting of Aurora’s rejection, we could have been back on a transgressive path. The full force of gushing love in the ending seemed inauthentic to me. It avoids the real consequences of Jim’s decisions and so starts to send the message, “men may do bad things, but that’s just because they’re men. A wise woman will forgive them.”
The ending was so disappointing that alternative endings have been made by editing the film. Here’s my favourite.
Based on a 1980s French Graphic Novel, “Transperceneige”, “Snowpiercer” is a dark, allegorical, post-apocalyptic vision of a society structured to preserve the privileged lives of the few by exploiting the over-numerous poor.
The story is set in a world become too cold for people to survive in except on a single, specially designed train that has an engine that allows it to stay perpetually in motion. The train, in motion for generations, has developed a strongly hierarchical structure where those at the front, near the engine, live in luxury, those at the back live like mistreated cattle and those in the middle make sure everyone knows their place and stays in it.
The film focuses on the dark, over-crowded, filthy back end of the train where people are live without dignity, on the edge of starvation. Punishment for disobedience comes in the form of sententious, ritualised brutality, including amputation and death.
The plot follows a revolution by those at the back of the train, who try to fight their way through to the front to take control of the engine, on the basis that they will then have all the power and everything will be better.
This film is beautifully shot, even though what we see is ugly and depraved. The action is graphic but not gratuitous and the stellar cast (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Chris Evans, Ed Harris) deliver first-rate performances.
Seeing Chris (Captain America) Evans leading the revolution inspires an expectation of success that is doomed to disappointment as we come to understand how fractured this strong man is and how the train and the society on it really work.
I categorise the film as transgressive not because of the dark nature of the world portrayed but because it becomes clearer and clearer as the film progresses that the world portrayed is an extreme version of our own and because it normalises the idea that no amount of struggle or sacrifice will fundamentally change the way the world is. The society is the shaped by the interaction between environment and human nature. Both scarcity and human ego push towards hierarchy. Those who challenge the hierarchy either die or end up leading the next hierarchy. The hierarchy is always with us.