Science Fiction and the Kitchen Sink
Science Fiction Equals Escapism?
Does screen SF have a duty to transport viewers to exotic worlds built from ever-more-dazzling F/X, with each subsequent mega-marketed summer blockbuster promising to up the ante? The economics of big-budget moviemaking demand that easily-understood action and spectacle take precedence over the cerebral and intellectually challenging. All those raygun battles on that untamed Final Frontier support the sneering complaint that it’s all just boys’ stuff. Cowboys and Klingons. And much of it is.
Philip K Dick, Barry Malzberg and the Worm’s Eye View
But much of it isn’t. Anyone acquainted with the genre’s literary branches can testify that SF is a broad church indeed, exploring every conceivable facet of our efforts to understand the universe and our ambivalent response to technology. SF’s openness permits a multitude of approaches. HG Wells was nothing if not socially conscious. And who is Orwell’s Winston Smith if not a kitchen sink Everyman? In book form, the genre has long catered to those who prefer speculative fiction with a realist edge.
Many later writers — Philip K Dick and Barry Malzberg, to name but two — show a distinctly kitchen sinkish sensibility. As with mainstream contemporaries like Richard Yates, they refuse to spare their protagonists the uncomfortable complexities of interpersonal relationships, or the continual need to keep the wolf from the door. Not only are the aliens invading, but your wife is demanding a divorce and threatening to withhold access to the kids. No slick superheroes here, just poor, downtrodden Ordinary Joes.
Alas, Hollywood’s idea of an Ordinary Joe is the musclebound Arnie of Total Recall. As one critic pointed out, Woody Allen would have been better casting.
Keeping it Real in The Day the Earth Caught Fire
Before the phenomenal success of Star Wars tilted moviegoers’ genre perceptions away from What-if? speculation toward F/X-heavy Tolkienesque fantasy, examples of kitchen sink SF would occasionally appear.
Val Guest’s tense, talky 1961 classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a case in point. Set largely in the offices of an English newspaper staffed by cynical, stressed-out journos, it offers a riveting chronicle of a typical SF situation — atomic tests knock the earth out of orbit and send it spiralling toward the sun — not from the viewpoint of some superheroic scientist, but rather a jaded, down-at-heel reporter mentally scarred by a broken marriage and often at odds with his new girlfriend.
Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner and the Kitchen Sink
Even the otherwise impeccably escapist Star Wars makes at least a concession or two to mundanity with its scuffed-up, lived-in hardware. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, blue-collar realism is the watchword. But with Blade Runner, Scott’s evident ambition to create the ultimate film noir means that Vangelis-assisted romanticism, Wellesian cinephilia and Bogartian nostalgia all dominate over Dickian drabness.
Star Trek V — Misapplied Grunginess
When William Shatner was given the chance to direct Star Trek V, he was reported as wanting to bring more “realism” to the franchise. But the Dark Star-ish attempts to “dirty things up” with equipment malfunctions aboard a glitch-ridden Enterprise seem as much a misstep as all those ham-fisted, rocket-booted efforts to replicate the jokey, light-hearted atmosphere of the previous instalment, The Voyage Home.
Primer — Kitchen Sink Time Travel
Kitchen sink SF can still be found alive and well amid the welter of CGI action epics, if one takes the trouble to seek it out. Shane Carruth’s ingenious micro-budget feature Primer has only sheer conceptual inventiveness with which to engage the viewer. Its low-key approach makes for a very convincing look at what it might really be like — not in Hollywoodland, but in our ordinary, everyday world — if someone found a way to travel through time.
The Magic Beneath the Mundane
A big-budget Tinseltown remake of Primer would probably draft in digital wizardry, acrobatic gunplay and all those other audience-broadening trappings. The protagonists would no longer be Everymen, leaving viewers less likely to reflect that ordinary life, when you stop and think about it, is itself pretty weird and fascinating.