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Bringing Susan Sontag’s Cinema into the Twenty-First Century

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Charles Calenda

Due: 5/9/15

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Bringing Susan Sontag’s Cinema into the Twenty-First Century

        Susan Sontag’s essay “The Imagination of Disaster” is half a century old, so it seems fitting to examine her analysis of disaster’s portrayal in film. Indeed, she wrote in 1965, “The imagination of disaster does not greatly differ from one period in history to another. But from a political and moral point of view, it does” (Sontag). The Cold War ended, technology rapidly accelerated, politics have changed, and globalization has markedly changed all of Earth’s inhabitants. Still disaster has certainly not left the realities or imaginations of Americans. If anything, it has become amplified by an increased global awareness and twenty-four hour news cycles. Indeed, Sontag’s analysis of the public’s projection of fears into the world of cinema remains ever true today. Yet, her theory can be improved by also considering both the technological advances in the industry as well as the aftereffects of disaster.

         Sontag examines what made science fiction films so popular with the American public beyond their sheer entertainment value. In them, the public projects its deepest fears over possible catastrophe – hers was a time of nuclear disaster, dehumanization, and the unchecked, detached advancement of science. The fears and existential questions that plague the mind thus become wrapped up in these cinematic horror shows. However, the films rarely address the root causes or even intermediate causes leading to such a dystopian state of affairs, rather the worst-case scenario is projected straight to an alien world.  The complex moral issues are ignored, many of which in involve the viewer to some degree, in order to simply “give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings” and leave a feeling of control, or at least safety (Sontag).

        This trope is broadly the same throughout the art of storytelling in history, traced back to exiled European Jews. In the 1930’s, a humane hero rises up against the maniacal use of science: she lists “Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.” (Sontag). In the 1950’s and 60’s, it was The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Children of the Damned, or The War of the Worlds. In all films, the broad story arc is one soulless ambition either thwarted or denigrated by a sympathetic hero who sees through the ambivalence that blinds the rest of the public. Yet, as she summarizes, “There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films” (Sontag). Therefore, Sontag comes down on the films as dangerously lacking in social commentary. What could be profound commentary on the time period, correct or incorrect, only reaches the level of commercial art that serves as a two-hour indulgence from the worries of then-modern life.

        This accusation can largely be made in the year 2015. Consider the top grossing movies of 2014: American Sniper, Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, Lego Movie, the Hobbit, Planet of the Apes, X-Men, etc. (2014 Domestic Grosses) Nearly all involve heroes set in fantastic scenarios, tasked with beating some “evil” force. None deal with human rights, gun control, money in politics, gay marriage, or foreign conflicts (American Sniper celebrated a single soldier with no larger commentary). The film industry entertains the masses with cheap excursions rather than thought provoking commentaries.

        Yet, the stakes have also been amplified many times over with advances in CGI and graphics abilities. The characteristic smoke screens, colorful laser beams, and small-scale dioramas gave way to computer graphics, whereby almost anything is possible; for example, consider any classic remake of a science fiction film. The overall effect of this is to further alienate the catastrophe from the reality of the viewer. By making aliens and foreign worlds more realistic, it is easier to imagine them as the true villains rather than cheap studio effects. Earth-changing floods, earthquakes, or complete obliteration are easier to create, and thus the storylines become more dramatic. Scientific details are sometimes twisted or ignored for the sake of the plotline. The grand effect of these modern films is the creation of an “other world” whereby fears and uncertainties can be projected without consideration for the actual ramifications. Yet, in the modern age, such distant settings are pushed even further from reality. Important parallels are harder to realize when explosions pop out in 3D and rumble the surround-sound speakers.



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