Movies and Machines

March 13, 2012 12:00 pm

As a great fan of cinema and film I have always enjoyed debating what messages, ideas and other possibilities can be transplanted from reel to real world. In this series of articles I will endeavour to open up some of these debates. I do not intend to provide a comprehensive coverage of each but rather introduce some of my musings and hopefully provoke further thought and debate.

"Man's reach exceeds his imagination"

In The Prestige (2006) we see the very clear truth of the phrase ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp’, a truth which comes to a very startling and ominous climax in the line ‘Man’s reach exceeds his imagination’. In an ever more materially, morally, and emotionally  costly battle between the Great Danton and The Professor neither seems content to simply stop at having their audiences in awe and wonder at their latest illusions but instead strive for the next and ultimate ‘Prestige’. Likewise man is never happy simply with what he can ‘grasp’; instead we constantly feel the need to strive to ever greater lengths, to push the very bounds of what is physically possible, in order to satisfy an eternal search for something more.  In the course of the magicians’ competition the film delves into the world of science-fiction playing on the work of Nikola Tessla. Although perhaps detracting from the otherwise realistic plot this is not necessarily to the films detriment. It merely adds to the central message by further emphasising the lengths that man will go to satisfy not only an inherently competitive streak, but also natural curiosity about the physical world and a desire to make it better along with our lives within it (our ‘Reach Complex’). This idea can be seen as prevalent throughout the history of film, dating back to the very earliest of silent movies such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Whilst we are unable to create such things in reality we commit them to film in order to demonstrate that which we strive for. Man’s desire to struggle for these advances is not an entirely novel concept, and much time has already been given over to such studies. However, it remains an important idea as it prompts us to question how healthy such an addiction is and also whether man’s ability, his ‘grasp’, is now potentially catching up with his ‘reach’ and even his ‘imagination’.

Most would argue, in my mind rightly, that man’s imagination will always exceed his grasp because of Reach Complex; and so long as these dreams cannot be a reality they will be projected onto our screens to intrigue and entertain us. Is this a good thing when it has the ability to make us forget that which we already have and constantly look to the future, making us always dissatisfied with our lot? This has many traces of an addiction, the constant desire for something more, something greater, and a belief that such things will make us happier than we are at any point in time. The dangers of such motivations are again apparent in film, and one only needs to return to The Prestige; I, Robot (2004); or Event Horizon (1997) to be reminded of this. It is in the very nature of reaching out into the unknown and the fact that we cannot fully comprehend what we will find that makes this a dangerous character trait. However, despite this I believe that the gap should, and indeed must remain in order for mankind to continue to better itself. It is often imagination which has caused us to strive for something better and which has produced the new technologies which we take for granted today. Such technologies have made significant impacts on our lives through wiping out diseases or simply adding to our quality of life. What we must learn to do is to proceed with caution and not to get swept along by our grand ambitions to the point that we ignore any warnings presented to us. We have to accept that we are stumbling into the unknown and in so doing take the necessary precautions. This will not eliminate the danger completely as much of what we achieve will be through trial and error, but it will ensure that those detrimental effects of such an approach are outweighed by the positive developments.

The idea behind the iPad?

Connected to this point is my belief that the space between what we can grasp and what we can imagine, which shall be referred to as the ‘Hollywood Gap’, is closing, even if it can never be truly plugged. Will the real world soon match what has only ever been the realm of Hollywood directors’ imaginations and what can be formatted to a screen? Perhaps not in the nearest future, however the influx of such technologies is strikingly apparent and such claims are ever more convincing.  This can be seen in the diminishing time that it takes for future technologies to be transferred from big screen to real world. A word of note here is that this only takes into account the gap in civilian life, it is impossible to delve into the murky and perhaps dangerous realm of military and scientific imaginations as such work necessarily takes place behind closed doors. Although this means we cannot claim to understand the full picture of what is possible; again film should be a useful medium to suggest broader trends and aid debate rather than articulate definitive proofs. If we look back to the not so distant past the Hollywood Gap can be seen as consisting of decades. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) the astronauts are seen to use flat portable devices to watch T.V. whilst relaxing in their pods. Achieving wide acclaim for successfully predicting many technologies, could this have been an early reference to the iPad? The first iPad was launched in 2010 setting the Hollywood Gap at 42 years. Sixteen years later The Terminator (1984) included references to retinal displays which overlaid the viewers’ surroundings telling them details of terrain, people, weapons and so on. This can be seen as an increasing possibility in the work of augmented reality devices. Although the ideas behind such devices have been around for some time they have only begun to enter a usable format in the last decade. Although a shorter time-period, it still leaves the Hollywood Gap at around 20 years.  If we jump forward to the twenty-first century the picture is very different. Frequently technologies in film no longer appear as ground-breaking because there are often real world equivalents in everyday life. Although teleportation and reaching ‘light speed’ are certainly well beyond us, the dawn of the information age in the 1990’s (with mobile phones, and the internet becoming a matter of routine) mean that instant communications no longer have the ability to astound audiences, and space travel is increasingly becoming a more realistic idea as an everyday form of transport with space tourism becoming ever more common (I exaggerate, but the point is clear). This to me suggests a blurring of the Hollywood Gap as although we have not caught up completely we are able to create useable equivalents for everyday life in the space of months; not years or decades. Again this is not to say that we will shortly all be driving hover-cars and robots will interact with humans as normally as we do with each other, but there is no doubt that the gap is closing and our grasp is catching up with our imagination.

As a result of the closing ‘Hollywood Gap’ I hope that we will become more pragmatic in our approach to our ‘Reach Complex’. This is down to the fact that we can more readily comprehend what we are striving for as it is not such a distant prospect as was the case fifty years ago. I fear though that this may not be the case, instead it is likely that we will become greedy because of our increased ability to achieve such advancements. Furthermore, in an ever more competitive world we will ignore any prior warnings or limitations in order to be the first to take the next step and profit from it. This is why film, although perhaps a rather simplistic medium, stands as an important and ever present reminder to us of the dangers produced by our ‘addiction’. Another aspect of this debate which I will explore in my next article is the moral impact of such technologies and how messages in film can help us to understand such dilemmas.



  • A well written and intriguing article – I hope that your theory is not correct with all the ‘end of the world’ movies that have been made of late…

    Thank you for your insights and I look forward to your next article!

  • the sausage man cometh

    thank you for enlightening my day moon dweller

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