by Roger Keen
Back in 2009, Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void appeared to herald a new era in psychedelic cinema, where increasing awareness and appreciation of DMT states fused dramatically with rapid advances in visual effects technology, to give rise to a better, more subtle and sophisticated film iconography that transcended the shortcomings of earlier years and got much closer to depicting the actuality of these fugitive and evanescent states. Noé’s lengthy extemporised sequences, involving fantastic voyages through fractal geometries and transmogrifying amoeboid forms, evoked both internal and external space adventure, and for the initiated he very much had it cracked. But despite high critical acclaim in some quarters, Enter the Void bombed at the box office and abjectly failed to kick-start a tryptamine-cinema renaissance. Seemingly by being so completely focussed on the arcane realms of the psychedelic inscape, it was too purist for many, lacked sufficient narrative underpinning and didn’t press enough buttons in the vital area of entertainment as well as enlightenment.
Cut to 2016 and in the latest Marvel blockbuster, the eponymous Doctor Strange – played assuredly by Benedict Cumberbatch – has his rationality and scepticism smashed by shamanic ninja the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and after first discovering his astral body, he is then hurtled onto an cosmic roller-coaster ride that more than uncannily resembles Noé’s void. The Doctor whizzes through a world of eidetically coloured planetary bodies, black holes, fractals and kaleidoscopic visions, coming to witness his own fingers sprouting hands whose fingers sprout yet more hands, and so on, and he finally becomes a true believer in alternate dimensionality. And in many other discombobulatingly trippy sequences, using further advanced generations of visual effects and 3D technology, the latest psychedelia fare is once again delivered successfully to the masses – by wrapping it in the entertainment-friendly foil of science fiction.
Dr. Strange Official Trailer
Of course this is a well-worn path, famously blazed by Kubrick’s 2001 and its ‘Star Gate’ sequence, where in the pre-CGI age, space travel was recreated as an acid trip using slit-scan photography, ambitious coloured filters, negative-image and posterisation effects, and film execs hit on a magic formula – to separate the drugs from their effects and ascribe the latter to something else. The various tropes and propensities of science fiction made for an ideal medium in this regard, and when the master of trip-inspired sci-fi, Philip K. Dick, was embraced by cinema, and the new subgenre of cyberpunk got going, the machinations of computers and virtual reality become a core stand-in for the drugs.
Tron, the first notable VR movie, released in 1982, is overtly psychedelic with its bright luminous colours, cascading fractals and dreamy glowing vanishing points. And the Dick-derived Total Recall, though it’s a bit pop art trashy, nonetheless has an intelligent and edgy rationale, adroitly riffing on the ‘hallucination-or-reality?’ theme, where barriers dissolve and you’re never quite sure what belongs on what ontological level – virtual reality and trip reality were never so close. But it was The Matrix that became the apotheosis of the ‘cyberdelic’ movie, combining a heady mix of the biblical, the metaphysical, the illegal-software-as-drugs angle – with references to mescaline and the famous ‘Blue Pill or Red Pill?’ line, harking back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – together with cool floor-length trench coats, designer shades, balletic kung fu fighting and ‘bullet time’ visual effects, where heightened perception enables a slowed-down and enhanced perspective on the ephemeral. On top of that, the movie’s principal theme is that everyday perceived reality is an illusion, and a mind-bending, level-surfing quest is necessary to break free from those bonds and experience the truth – the ultimate reality. In this respect The Matrix evokes the work of John C. Lily and the flawed Ken Russell piece Altered States.