Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir

Paul Meehan,
Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008
ISBN: 978 0 7864 3325 4
US$55.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by McFarland & Co.)

The similarities between the popular family comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (USA 1988) and 1930s mad scientist movies such as Doctor X (USA 1932) and The Raven (USA 1935) may not be instantly obvious. Their connection, it seems, lies in their mutual membership of a sub-genre called ‘Tech-Noir’. This, explains Meehan, is a designation applied to “science fiction works that exist in a… recognizably noir milieu of crime, murder, mystery, suspense, obsession, perversity, predestination, femmes (and hommes) fatales and identity transference.” (p. 1) Apparently the fantasy element of Roger Rabbit qualifies it to be classed as sci-fi; Meehan’s interpretations of genres are sometimes a little unorthodox (p. 183).

In attempting to define Tech-Noir, Meehan points repeatedly to Blade Runner (USA/Hong Kong 1982) as its paradigm: “the best-known and most artistically satisfying example of this genre meld” (p. 163). Indeed, the very structure and raison d’être of the book seem to radiate from this film, tracing both precursors and successors to its thematic and stylistic generic hybridity. Returning periodically to this central reference point, Meehan offers up a largely chronological account of films that combine sci-fi story lines and iconography with a noir sensibility and mise-en-scène. Beginning with German cinema of the silent period, he identifies two films as especially influential: Homunculus (Germany 1916), “the Ur-text for much of the tech-noir subgenre” (23), and Metropolis (Germany 1926), which set the template for “the science fiction noir city” (18). The tour continues through American sci-fi and horror films of the 1930s and 40s, via the atom-age sci-fi of the 50s, and into the still darker and more paranoid films of the 60s and 70s. Though dominantly US-centric, his examples of significant titles from this period also include Alphaville(France 1965) and Solaris (USSR 1972). Yet, while they are certainly not uninteresting, these chapters sometimes feel as though they’re taking rather a long time to build up to the main event: the ‘cyberpunk cinema’ of the 80s and beyond.

When formulating the idea of Tech-Noir, Meehan undoubtedly had in mind a fairly distinctive filmmaking sensibility. He colorfully describes this as hinging upon the ways “in which the effects of tainted technology cast long shadows over the resident darkness of the human condition.” (p. 2) Yet his account is impaired by two related elements that can make for frustrating reading. Firstly, his application of the term is not always consistent and the category boundaries rather nebulous; secondly, copious descriptions of films whose relationships to the more archetypal Tech-Noir seem fairly tangential and sometimes distract from the book’s purported focus. The historical dimensions of Tech-Noir are especially unclear, with ‘sci-fi/horror films’ of the 1950s and earlier sometimes written of as antecedents (p. 2) and elsewhere as fully fledged members of this critical category (p. 49). Indeed, it is hard to avoid the impression that Tech-Noir proper has such a small generic core that a range of rather more tenuous inclusions were needed in order to bulk it up to a book length study. For instance, Meehan supplies a lengthy description of Videodrome (Canada 1983) without ever making any serious attempt to argue for its status as Tech-Noir, referring to it instead as “a horror/sci-fi opus” (168). The Wasp Woman (USA 1960) is another film that comes across as having been rather crudely shoehorned into the category (p. 106-7). The result is a sense of Tech-Noir as a somewhat ill-defined hybrid of several ill-defined genres, occurring across an ill-defined period of time.

Meehan’s writings about specific films do indeed raise a fair few pertinent points but his style is, on the whole, more descriptive than analytical. In the best sections, he succeeds in striking a good balance between synopsis and analysis, extracting a range of interesting observations and ideas; in the worst, lengthy synopses are loosely strung together with only limited critical insight. Indeed, his style and approach fall rather unhappily between the two stools of academic and populist, being fully satisfying neither on one level nor the other. A smattering of production anecdotes and biographical information offers some points of interest for film buffs, although much of this information will already be familiar to the keenest fans.

Aside from a haziness about what exactly constitutes Tech-Noir and – in relation to its central examples – how much the concept adds to or differs from notions of cyberpunk (p. 176), the back-cover marketing blurb also makes promises on which the book fails to deliver. According to this spiel “The author also details the hybrid subgenre’s considerable influences on contemporary music, fashion and culture.” This ‘detailed’ analysis is actually comprised of just one short sentence in the book’s penultimate paragraph, which is a shame (p. 236-7). Meehan does, however, make a much better job of considering the relationship between the Tech-Noir features of the films described and the socio-cultural contexts from which they emerged, citing for instance the political cynicism of the 1970s (p. 16) and the development of virtual reality technologies in the 1990s (p. 193). These discussions are interesting although they would sometimes have benefited from further development.

All things considered, Tech-Noir does indeed address a genuinely stimulating subject matter with a broad historical and international scope. The range of loosely interconnected films with which the book deals serve to highlight the many ways in which filmmakers have expressed an ambivalent attitude to technological development. In particular, the potential for new technologies to erode identity and spark existential crises says something worthwhile about the intersection between science, government systems and their impact upon the individual. Although its dealings with genre history and theory often tend to come across as rather half-baked, such methodological shortcomings should not be allowed to occlude the other qualities of a book born of the author’s apparently genuine and sometimes infectious enthusiasm.

Deborah Allison,
United Kingdom.

Created on: Saturday, 14 March 2009

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Deborah Allison

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Deborah Allison

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