Six Wild Drugs in Sci-Fi Cinema
As if there weren't enough real drugs in the world, literature and cinema is full of fictional substances that cure disease, enhance performance and lifestyle, or have recreational uses. Whether it's Dr. Jekyll and his eldritch potion from the 19th Century, Samuel's Delany's bliss from the 20th Century, or Neal Stephenson's allswell or Richard Morgan's tetrameth from this century, strange drugs are a staple of speculative fiction.
The same holds true in cinematic science fiction, where, as in other genres, drugs become a fulcrum for discussions about human ambition, desire, obsession, and fraility. In sci-fi cinema, the drug experiences run the gamut. Here are six of the most striking fictional drug representations in the genre, in chronological order:
1. VELLOCET, SYNTHEMESC, DRENCROM - A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). The special added ingredients that turn milk into milk-plus at the Korova Milkbar, where young Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his droogies like to get even more jacked up in between episodes of the old ultraviolence. Presumably some sort of amphetamine-type stimulant. This classic dystopian film is based on a novel by Anthony Burgess and also features the non-druggy but most definitely mild-altering Ludovico technique, the fictional aversion therapy that turns Alex the singing psychopath into Alex the hapless (although not entirely helpless) victim of retributive brutality.
2. EPHEMEROL – SCANNERS (1981). Shades of thalidomide! Ephemerol was designed to quell morning sickness in pregnant women, but had some unfortunate side effects, including rashes, dizziness, and the progeny's ability to read other people's minds, set them on fire, or even make their heads explode. Paradoxically (like kids with ADHD taking amphetamines), the young scanners of the film's title also used it to damp down their telepathic abilities. A proudly creepy entrÃ©e in the David Cronenberg canon.
3. MELANGE – DUNE (1984). Also known as spice, mÃ©lange is an extremely valuable commodity found on only planet in the Dune universe, Arrakis, where rival noble houses vie to control the supply. Produced by desert sandworms, the addictive substance gives users longer life, greater vitality, and enhanced awareness. It also turns their eyes blue and causes bodily mutations that can turn them into 30-foot slugs needing room-sized glass tanks to move around in. But hey, that's a small sacrifice to make when it also allows some of them, enlisted as Space Guild navigators, to fold space-time, allowing the interstellar travel on which empires are based.
4. NUKE - ROBOCOP 2 (1990) A sci-fi version of crack cocaine, Nuke is an injectable synthetic drug that produces energy and euphoria, but also instant addiction. In the film, Nuke is red colored and known as "Red Ramrod;" a blue variety called "Blue Velvet" was being tested by Nuke cult leader Cain, but a police raid destroyed his lab before it could be perfected. Set in a dystopian Detroit, the film presciently had the city going bankrupt, which actually happened in 2013. Directed by Irvin Kershner and starring Petter Weller as Robocop.
5. SUBSTANCE D - A SCANNER DARKLY (2006). A highly addictive euphoric also known as "Slow Death," the drug works by weakening links between the brain's two hemispheres, causing wild hallucinations, not to mention paranoia and violence. But in the long term, it can lead to two distinct and mutually unaware personalities. The entire film has a strange, druggy look thanks to a technique known as interpolated rotoscope, where animators trace over the original footage frame by frame. The cinematography fits not only the druggy sensibility but also the dystopian police surveillance state its characters inhabit. Directed by Richard Linklater, the film stars Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reaves, and Winona Ryder. It's based on novel by Philip K. Dick, whose output could fill an entire list of bizarre fictional drugs.
6. NZT-48 - LIMITLESS (2011) The ultimate smart drug, NZT-48 makes the user super-smart, but, as always, there are side effects. First, you have to keep taking it or the effect wears off, and it becomes not only psychologically addictive, but potentially deadly if you go off it for too long. Then there's that annoying insomnia, violent ideation, and psychosis. It's a hell of a way for Bradley Cooper to get over his writer's block in this film directed by Neil Burger, based on the novel Dark Fields by Alan Glynn.