Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Transparent Cliché

We were trying out some ideas for premium hand-outs for the Austin crowd. The idea that came up was a combination business card and convention badge, a laminate with a slot cut in it for a lanyard. This is a great idea: It's something you can hand out that will get worn and seen. The even better idea that got batted around was to make it transparent.

This idea stalled out when we found out just how much it would cost to get something printed on transparent plastic, especially on two sides, especially with white knock-outs for text and such. Apparently, only American Express Clear can afford it.

So while the plans got scaled back a bit, I thought about exactly why that was so cool. Well, it's because our story is in the Sci-Fi genre, and transparent is... well, Sci-Fi.

Why the hell is that? I'm not sure, but transparent props-- Gizmos featured very prominently in some of the most famous science fiction films ever made-- have been around for 50 years, showing off their futuristic, mysterious see-through power to generations of awe-struck moviegoers.

Forbidden Planet (d. George Pal, 1955). For the most part the incredible technology of the long-dead Krell was grey and opaque and covered with rings, and even hinted to a charming Mid-Century Modern style that would not look out of place at Sterling Cooper Advertising. But clear is here: The Krell music player (“Much like our phonograph,” I remember Dr. Morbius saying) is mostly metal, but it has a band of see-through something right in the middle. How do it work?

2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Most of the film was painstakingly designed to show believable, detailed technology. But to make the technological superiority of HAL 9000 stand out over the general art direction, his Logic Core Modules-- The rectangular units Dave Bowman ejects that makes HAL sing funny-- are perfectly transparent.

(Apparently, Kubrick originally wanted the monolith to be transparent, but then-current acrylic casting techniques were not up to the task of making something that big and the idea was scrapped.)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (D. Ted Post, 1970). The mutant Manhattanites who worship the big polished-brass Doomsday Bomb use a control interface consisting of clear cylinders. TAP plastics was obviously consulted. There are three translucent knobby things on it (which correspond to Ready, Aim, and Fire, no doubt) that make it... Well, blow up.

Zardoz (d. John Boorman, 1974). The computer which runs Vortex Four, a besieged repository of knowledge in a grim post-apocalyptic world, is called The Tabernacle. It is not church-sized, though: It is a lovely piece of faceted lead crystal, easily held in Sean Connery's remarkably hairy hand. Makes a dandy paperweight.

Aliens (d. James Cameron, 1986). Sweaty corporate bad guy Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) wants to go Alien harvesting, but needs someone with on-the-job Alien-wrangling experience to come along. To that end, he gives his calling card to a reluctant Ellen Ripley. It's perfectly transparent-- and rather bulky. Couldn't carry many of those in his wallet, I'm guessing.

The computers of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” ran on "Isolinear Optical Chips," little frammises which were about the same size as modern computer memory, but came in shades of translucent green and blue. They're “optical,” see, so they're see-through, get it?

The Matrix (d. The Wachowski Brothers, 1999). You can pick either the red pill or the blue pill, both are perfectly valid choices. And both are see-through gelatin caps. Not hard to see why Neo took it: He probably thought it was vitamin E or timed-release cold medicine. He did look sort of green in the gills.

Minority Report (d. Steven Spielberg, 2002). Digital effects finally evolved to their current mind-bendingly realistic maturity when this film was made, so they went positively nuts with the see-through. Huge wall displays, computer monitors, tray-like data cards, all as clear as glass. Even Tom Cruise's sad home movies are on little squares of lucite.

(I'm sure there are more good examples. Anyone?)

What's up here? Why is the future always transparent? This visual metaphor has been going on so long, I am officially pronouncing it a cliché. I have several theories as to why see-through has become short-hand for futuristic:

  1. The Inexplicable. To a contemporary movie-goer, a device that has no working parts is not of our time. And a device with no working OR visible parts: well, that's even more impressive.
  2. The Mystical. Sci-Fi giant and satellite buff Sir Arthur C. Clarke's third law of prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” crystal-clear machines fit that description to a T.
  3. The Metaphoric. Showing a doo-hickey that obviously does something but appears to be invisible may be the filmmaker's way of saying “Sorry, doesn't exist. Don't look here.” That's right: See-through technology is a way to hang a lantern on it.
  4. The Cinematic. The great thing about clear plastic props is you can shoot lights through them, and they refract and glow in a really dramatic fashion, as if they were somehow filled with amazing energies as yet uninvented. Hate to say it, this is probably how it all got started.
We have repeatedly seen the future, and we can see right through it.


  1. I'm wracking my brains and I think you've covered everything. Except the car in Tomorrow Never Dies which was invisible. Come to think of it putting that car in the ice hotel sequence was design madness on an epic scale.

  2. See also: the crystalline controls that operated the mysterious pylons, in the "Land of the Lost" series. Basically a tray full of colored glass. http://tinyurl.com/mysrf2

  3. Just remembered: Barbarella (d Roger Vadim, 1968) Everything was made from translucent plastic, including strategic parts of the costumes. Ah, that Roger Vadim, what a perv. They're remaking it, didja hear?

  4. I heard. Normally I dread remakes but this time, I dread the original so much that I assume the remake will at least take that bad taste out of my mouth.