That's a Fair Gloopy Title

A few months ago, I watched A Clockwork Orange for the first time. I liked the film, but there's one thing about it that pisses me off.

Every single source I've come across labels this film as Science Fiction.

I don't get it. I watched this film intently, and except for a few pieces of mis-en-scene, this film cannot justifiably be called science fiction.

Before I begin this lengthy diatribe, let's establish what science fiction is exactly. Science fiction is a branch of speculative fiction, wherein fictional worlds exist with their own fictional rules, and in these differences from our normality, drama lies. In order for a particular piece of speculative fiction to be considered science fiction, a storyline must contain one or more of the following:
  • A setting in the future, or alternate timeline that differs from or contradicts historical facts.
  • A setting in outer space, or other alien world.
  • Technology or scientific principles that violate the laws of nature.
  • Extra-terrestrial creatures.
So let's break it down a bit: A Clockwork Orange takes place in 1970's era London, has no space travel, and has no aliens. So the final remaining element that could possibly qualify it as sci-fi is futuristic technology. And what's there? Not much. As mentioned, there are a couple futuristic, mis-en-scene elements but all are negligible.

The Korova Milk Bar is the first such example. It's where the film begins, and the first lines of dialogue refer to it. The milk in question is infused with recreational drugs, totally legal, and even sold to minors. I haven't read the original novel, so I don't know the full importance of this aspect, but in the movie, it's mentioned and forgotten. It has no bearing on the plot, and for all intents and purposes, might as well have been plain old milk.

Second; the decor. Fusing a 1950's amalgamation of pop art with 70's era glamour, Kubrick tries to create a retro-futuristic setting. This is abundantly clear in all scenes set at F. Alexander's home (the writer). But more than anything, the architecture, hairstyles, wardrobe and general demeanor just scream 1970's London. What may have looked sci-fi back then might as well be a period piece, now.

Next, the brainwashing. This is the central plot point of the film, and it's probably the best argument for the sci-fi nature. There's only one problem: It's not science fiction, it's just science. Brainwashing and other forms of psychological manipulation have been documented as actuality. It's totally possible to coerce someone away from violent behavior using operant conditioning, the people in the film just used a very roundabout method. By this logic, The Manchurian Candidate would be science fiction.

Finally, the notion of dystopia. Many film and literary experts include dystopian novels and films among the ranks of science fiction. And while a number of science fiction stories do in fact take place in dystopian societies, it's not an automatic signifier. In my personal opinion, dystopia does not a sci-fi film make. It's just another segment of speculative fiction. Dystopias are characterized by totalitarian rule, a lack of personal freedoms, and constant military force. That's not science fiction, that's China!

There are probably other aspects I'm forgetting, but I believe I've made my point clear. A Clockwork Orange is a great movie with great art direction, great directing, great acting, a great score, but is nowhere near a science fiction film.

So what is it then? I'll call it a surreal crime film. Good luck establishing an entire shelf at Blockbuster with that name.

1 comment:

  1. I think A Clockwork Orange's sci-fi classification has more to do with its relationship to other films. It is often compared (and is definitely similar to) films/books like 1984, A Brave New World, and Equilibrium, all of which are pretty definitively science fiction.

    I would also argue the merits of classifying it as "alternative reality" fiction, which in and of itself is a part of science fiction. Something doesn't have to take place in the future to be sci-fi ("A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" and all that).