IFFBoston: Monsters from the Id

26 April 2009, 8:00 am

Dave Gargani’s deep affection for the 50’s sci-fi flicks around which his documentary orbits is obvious, and sometimes infectious. (It certainly made me want to watch Forbidden Planet again sometime soon). His enthusiasm in the Q&A after the screening made me like his film a little better.

But Gargani’s love of the source material clearly wouldn’t be sufficient to carry a whole feature, so he analyses the relationship of 50’s sci-fi movies to the culture in general, and the role and perception of science in particular. He finds some talking heads to back up his conclusions, which include some moderately baked notions current societal valuations of science, and how they might be impacted by cinematic portrayals.

I have two main problems with this. The big one is that, as far as I’m concerned, the conclusions he draws can be supported only by excluding an awful lot of 50’s sci-fi movies (or a lot of awful 50’s sci-movies, take your pick). Gargani’s thesis is that scientists were heroic figures in these films, and that they inspired the generation of real scientists behind the Apollo program.

I have no doubt that plenty of real scientists were inspired by “that Buck Rogers stuff.” But I have to quibble with the assertion that 50s’ sci-fi movies were predominantly pro-science. Many of these films had a strong current of “things man was not meant to know” in which the pursuit of scientific knowledge was inherently problematic. A lot them dealt (both metaphorically and explicitly) with the consequences of the Pandora’s box opened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Certainly some of the lantern-jawed protagonists were themselves men of science, but many of them also triumphed in spite of “those eggheads.” Even Forbidden Planet, the film that provides Gargani’s title, follows this template: scientist Dr. Morbius gets into deep trouble; the no-nonsense Commander J.J. Adams has to get his crew out of it.

The second big problem is that Gargani’s talking heads aren’t all that interesting (or that Gargani hasn’t yet figured out how to make his talking heads interesting — after all, this is his first feature film). There are moments that show definite promise — Dr. Leroy Dubeck is pretty creepy when he talks in wishful terms about how the threat of an “extinction level event” a few decades in the future could galvanize a scientific renaissance. (His doomsday scenario of choice is the big meteorite on a collision course with Earth; he seems ironically and blissfully ignorant that we may already be facing a home-grown “extinction level event” within the next several decades.) Likewise, there’s something weird about cross-cutting between interviews of NASA engineer Homer Hickam and scenes from the movie (October Sky) based on his book Rocket Boys that dramatize the same events he is discussing. But Gargani doesn’t embrace the opportunities to deviate from safe documentary structures. He takes his subjects at face value, and, I think, treats them a little too respectfully.

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