Film A Technological Revolution

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A technological revolution in their own right, motion pictures proved to be one of the most influential means of exploring the meaning of twentieth-century technology. Early film makers eager to demonstrate the medium’s unique ağabeylity to portray movement were drawn to the dynamism of trains, autos, and trolleys. Thomas Edison’s 1903 western, The Great Train Robbery, included the first of what would be a long line of dramatic film fights staged on top of a careening train. The pioneering actor and director Buster Keaton brilliantly developed the comic potential of steamships, automobiles, and trains in The Navigator (1924) and The General (1926). But other early films offered considerably darker views. The German film Metropolis (1926) depicts a future society where the elite few live in luxurious ease while the mass of workers toil ceaselessly below in a sunless subterranean world of dangerous machines. Inspired in part by director Fritz Lang’s visit to New York City, Metropolis reflects growing concerns about the power of technocratic elites and the fear that mass production was an enslaving rather than liberating force. The American film Modern Times (1936) explores similar themes, though director–actor Charlie Chaplin softens his message with a humor completely absent from the darkly serious Metropolis. A pointed if ultimately ambiguous critique of Taylorism, Fordism, and the deskilling and subordination of labor, Modern Times vividly conveys fears of industrial domination when Chaplin’s character is dragged into a mass of gigantic gears, almost literally becoming a mere ‘‘cog in the machine.’’

In the post-World War II period, the atomic bomb and Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union made unalloyed celebration of technology increasingly difficult to sustain. In Japan the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided a subtext to Inoshiro Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla in which radioactivity from American bomb tests in the Pacific awakes a gigantic reptile that proceeds to crush much of downtown Tokyo. In Them!, an American film of the same year, nuclear radiation causes ants to mutate into marauding truck-sized monsters who threaten Los Angeles. Other films of the 1950s dealt more bluntly with the genuine peril of the Cold War nuclear arms race, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) where an alien messenger warns humans not to extend their war-like ways into outer space or risk utter destruction. Abandoning the fantastic all together, On the Beach (1959) uses stark realism to offer a sobering tale of the final days of the last survivors of a global nuclear war. As if the dangers of nuclear Armageddon were not enough, directors explored dozens of less obvious ways in which the countless new postwar technologies might threaten humanity. Stanley Kubrick’s homicidal computer HAL in the epic 2001 (1968) suggests the dangers of over-reliance on machines, though the film ultimately portrays advanced technology as the stepping stone to human transcendence. Fears of intelligent machines rebelling against humanity combined with uneasiness about the radical potential of genetic engineering to produce some of the most disturbing representations of technology in the final decades of twentieth century. The cybernetic assassins and guardians of the three hugely popular Terminator films (1984, 1991, 2003) and the corporate-created cyber-policeman of Robocop (1987) became the latest incarnation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monstermachine that rebels against its creator. However, in all these films humanity is ultimately triumphant, either destroying or taming the machine and thus perhaps reaffirming the ultimate rightness of technological progress. An exception was the 1982 film Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott’s disturbing story of a race of genetically engineered ‘‘replicants.’’ Created by a bioengineering corporation as human slaves, the replicants eventually come to be seen as a threat that must be destroyed, even  though they prove to be more human—and humane—than their creators in many ways. Given the rapid progress in genetic engineering that resulted in the first map of the human genome in 2000, Blade Runner might well be seen as emblematic of a time when the boundaries between the biological and the mechanical or between the human and the machine became increasingly difficult to define. If films like Blade Runner raised troubling questions about technological progress in the last quarter of the twentieth century, technological exuberance and optimism by no means disappeared. The short-lived but influential television drama Star Trek (1966–1969) and the subsequent legions of small- and big-screen sequels offered a generally optimistic future in which advanced technology has eliminated human hunger, poverty, and a host of other social ills. Likewise, the immensely popular Star Wars saga (begun in 1977) deliberately revived the uncomplicated technological enthusiasm of earlier film and television serials like Flash Gordon. Thus the worldwide popularity of the Star Trek and Star Wars films may suggest that, wisely or not, many citizens of the late twentieth-century postindustrial and postmodern world ultimately continued to be confident that technology remained an essentially beneficial and beneficent force for human progress.


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