The ever-shifting shape of things to come

12th July 1996 at 01:00
You can almost laugh at those old films about people landing on the moon. "Laugh" because they somehow forgot to wear space-suits and bounce about, as you do. I guess they couldn't foresee that we'd actually get there one day.

You might find today's future-gazers just as funny; the telepathic headsets, the time machines and, perish the thought, those microchip brain implants. After all, they'll never actually do that - any more than Star Wars could become Reagan's plan for defence, or that the power station in The China Syndrome (1979) would ever become the B-feature to real-life Chernobyl, only seven years on.

Cinema has always thrilled us with ideas about the future. In its 100-year history, some ideas have come true and some are actively being worked on. These are the ideas in Image-ine, a special exhibition at MOMI, the Museum of the Moving Image on London's South Bank.

Using film clips and slides, Image-ine hits you with the idea that cinema is our real-life time machine. And forever looking for a harder punch, it's finding new ways of showing movies, new ways of seeing them, and new ways of telling them.

Witness the new technologies we're using such as giant IMAX cinemas, virtual reality and CD-Rom. You'll see how they made The Darkening, a big budget interactive movie where you can manipulate the plot. There are apparently 500 routes through this space-age thriller and you see actors stepping into virtual space buggies on the computer-generated set. In October it will be on a computer near you, as you feed it with its seven CD-Rom discs.

You'll also see how cutting-edge firm Silicon Graphics can put you in a wrap-around screen world where they have anticipated every move you might make, and you just joy-stick your way through it. A television film shows how useful this is for designing engineering works, or the layout of a supermarket. As if you didn't know, it's all based on trickery.

Exhibits show those classic, Esher-like optical illusions and run the gamut of cinema tricks called "morphing", "compositing", and blue-screen. A quote from author Arthur C Clarke reminds us that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". They say that with today's magic, you can even dance with Fred Astaire. Mind you, there is a nice low-tech trick here - as you step back away from a spot-lit, concave plastic mask, it seems to turn inside out. Explain I can't, but it works at home without any advanced technology.

As another slide set shows, we've come away from the shadow puppets and magic lanterns. We're no longer thrilled as the first moviegoers were, to simply watch the sea or a horse pulling a bus, because today we can explore Mars or the insides of the body. We might even see our cinema culture as a museum.

Designer of the exhibition and founder of MOMI, Leslie Hardcastle points to the Thirties film The Shape of Things to Come, imploring people to "seek other beings in the heavens and beyond". He wonders what "they" will think of us, adding "With the speed that the signals travel, the people beyond are now receiving Fifties star Lucille Ball. They've got Dallas and Neighbours as delights to come".

Still, I'd save Image-ine for advanced groups, as most others will want to visit the bigger and hands-on experiences at this showpiece of movie and TV history. The main features include a Tardis, Dalek and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein. You can fly like Superman, or be "interviewed" by Barry Norman. The museum is the bigger attraction and it's staffed by real actors in period costume who, I might add, play the roles of unhelpful guides remarkably well.

Image-ine sparks thoughts about where we're going. It's disorientating as you wonder if we're still at the beginning. What's also disorientating is that, since that first moon visit, I can only remember that we had space suits and bounced on it. But I can't remember why we went there. After 27 years, it's time we went back, goodness it must have changed!

Image-ine runs until October 9 at the Museum of the Moving Image, Waterloo, London. Tel: 0171 815 1339

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