The Queen’s TV

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As soon as the Black Queen hears of Durand-Durand’’s betrayal, she reveals a panel that is hidden by furs. It is vertical with a handful of transparent, organically-shaped knobs. She clicks the top one out of its off position and rotates it back and forth a few times, and the panel begins to glow as a video image appears on the high walls of the chamber, showing the events happening inside the throne room.

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Later the Queen turns the top knob counterclockwise to click it back into its stop position to stop the video feed. Then she turns another one the same direction to reveal a different video feed of the labyrinth, indicating that each knob is connected to a particular view. There’s indirect evidence that the degree of rotation controls the volume of audio.

Typically remotes have separate controls for power, channel selection, and volume. Coupling them like this adds extra work to the task of switching channels. The Dark Queen has to turn one off before turning the next one on, and readjust the volume each time. If switching channels is something she does regularly, that’s going to be a pain. But if the large screen can display more than one video feed at a time, automatically diving the screen real estate equally to accomodate the multiple views, these controls make a lot of sense, even allowing her to set the volume per feed to a sensible level.

Multiple-feeds

The only thing that might improve the interface is some label to know which control displays which video feed. Seeing as how they’re translucent, I’d suggest coating them with a rear projection film and piping the video feed directly onto the button from beneath. That provides a direct mapping from the control to the display, and a glanceable preview to let the Dark Queen what might be interesting to watch in the first place.

Control

Piranha dolls

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After landing on Tau Ceti, Barbarella is captured by feral children who tie Barbarella to a set of poles and turn a set of robot dolls on her.

The dolls exhibit some crude intelligence. They walk on their own toward Barbarella. Stomoxys (or is it Glossina? It’s tough to tell with these two.) twists a knob on a control panel of four similar, unlabeled knobs, and the dolls’ piranha-toothed mouths begin to crank open and slam shut. They then attack Barbarella, clinging and biting her legs and arms.

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At first the dials seem a strange choice for a killing device, but then you realize that this isn’t mean to be efficient. Rather, the choice of dials for controls fits the childrens’ awful goal. Stop dials are best for setting variables within a range of values. The dolls must have a few variables, like walking speed, biting force, and biting speed, that the horrible children will want to play with as they entertain themselves with this torture.

And of course to “improve” this interface you might want to label the dials so a new user would know what does what, but who would really want to make torture toys more usable?

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Course-correction

The stage managers’ main raison d’être is to course-correct if and when victims begin to deviate from the path required of the ritual.

This begins with the Prep team, long before the victims enter the stage. For example, Jules’ hair dye and Marty’s laced pot. These corrections become more necessary and intense once the victims go on stage.

Making sure there are sexy times

The ritual requires that a sexy young couple have sexy times on stage before they suffer and die. “The mood” can be ruined by many things, but control has mechanisms to cope with most of them. We see three in the movie.

Temperature

The temperature can’t be too hot or too cold, but this isn’t something that can be set and forgot. What counts as the right temperature is a subjective call for the people involved and their circumstances, such as being drunk, or amount and type of clothes worn. Fortunately, the video-audio panopticon lets the stage managers know when a victim speaks about this directly, and do something about it. The moment Jules complains, for instance, Sitterson is able to reach over to a touch-screen display and tap the temperature a few degrees warmer.

Sitterson heats things up.

The gauge is an interesting study. It implies a range possible between 48 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit, each of which is uncomfortable enough to encourage different behaviors in the victims, without the temperature itself being life-threatening.

Moreover, we see that it’s a “blind” control. Before Sitterson taps it, he is only shown the current temperature as a blue rectangle that fills up four bars and that it is exactly 64 degrees. But if he knew he wanted it to be 76 degrees, what, other than experience or training, tells him where he should touch to get to that desired new temperature? Though the gauge provides immediate feedback, it still places a burden on his long-term memory. And for novice users, such unlabeled controls require a trial-and-error method that isn’t ideal. Even the slim area of white coloring at the top, which helpfully indicates temperatures warmer than cooler, appears too late to be useful.

Better would be to have the color alongside or under the gauge with smaller numbers indicated along its length such that Sitterson could identify and target the right temperature on the first try.

Libido

The next thing that can risk the mood is a lack of a victim’s amorous feelings. Should someone not be “feeling it,” Control can pipe sex pheromones to areas on stage. We see Hadley doing this by operating a throttle lever on the electronic-era control panel. After Hadley raises this lever, we see small plumes of mist erupt from the mossy forest floor that Jules and Curt are walking across.

Hadley introduces pheromones to the forest air.

This control, too, is questionable. Let’s first presume it’s not a direct control, like a light switch, but more of a set-point control, like a thermostat. Similar to the temperature gauge above, this control misses some vital information for Hadley to know where to set the lever to have the desired amount of pheromone in the air, like a parts-per-million labeling along the side. Perhaps this readout occurs on a 7-segment readout nearby or a digital reading on some other screen, but we don’t see it.

There is also no indication about how Hadley has specified the location for the pheromone release. It’s unlikely that he’s releasing this everywhere on stage, lest this become a different sort of ritual altogether. There must be some way for him to indicate where, but we don’t see it in use. Perhaps it is one of the lit square buttons to his right.

An interesting question is why the temperature gauge and pheromone controls, which are similar set-point systems, use not just different mechanisms, but mechanisms from different eras. Certainly such differentiation would help the stage managers’ avoid mistaking one for the other, and inadvertently turn a cold room into an orgy, so perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to avoid this kind of mistake.

Lights

The final variable that stands in the way of Jules’ receptiveness (the authors here must acknowledge their own discomfort in having to write about this mechanistic rape in our standard detached and observational tone) is the level of light. After she complains that it is too dark, Hadley turns a simple potentiometer and the “moonlight” on a soft bed of moss behind them grows brighter.

Control responds to Jules’ objection to the darkness.

This, too, is a different control than the others; though it controls what is essentially a floating-point variable. But since it is more of a direct control than the other two, its design as a hard-stop dial makes sense, and keeps it nicely differentiated from the others.

Marty’s Subliminal Messages

Over the course of the movie, several times we hear subliminal messages spoken to directly control Marty. We never see the inputs used by Control, but they do, at least on one occasion, actually influence him, and is one of the ways the victims are nudged into place.

Marty breaks the fourth wall

In addition to Dana & Curt’s almost not getting it on, another control-room panic moment comes when Marty accidentally breaks a lamp and finds one of the tiny spy cameras embedded throughout the cabin. Knowing that this level of awareness or suspicion could seriously jeopardize the scenario, Hadley bolts to a microphone where he says, “Chem department, I need 500 ccs of Thorazine pumped into room 3!”

Marty finds a spy camera

Hadley speaks a command to the Chem department

Careful observers will note while watching the scene that a menu appears on a screen behind him as he’s stating this. The menu lists the following four drugs.

  • Cortisol (a stress hormone)
  • Pheromones (a category of hormonal social signals, most likely sex pheromones)
  • Thorazine (interestingly, an antipsychotic known to cause drowsiness and agitation)
  • Rhohyptase (aka Rhohypnol, the date rape drug)

Given that content, the timing of the menu is curious. It appears, overlaid on the victim monitoring screen, the moment that Hadley says “500.” (Before he can even specify “Thorazine.”) How does it appear so quickly? Either there’s a team in the Chem department also monitoring the scene, and who had already been building a best-guess menu for what Hadley might want in the situation and they just happened to push it to Hadley’s screen at that moment; Or there’s an algorithmic voice- and goal-awareness system that can respond quickly to the phrase “500 ccs” and provide the top four most likely options. That last one is unlikely, since…

  • We don’t see evidence of it anywhere else in the movie
  • Hadley addresses the Chem department explicitly
  • We’d expect him to have his eyes on the display, ready to make a selection on its touch surface, if this was something that happened routinely

But, if we were designing the system today with integrated voice recognition capabilities, it’s what we’d do.

Curt suggests they stick together

After the attack begins on the cabin itself, Curt wisely tells the others, “Look, we’ve got to lock this place down…We’ll go room by room, barricade every window and every door. We’ve got to play it safe. No matter what happens, we have to stay together.” Turns out this is a little too wise for Hadley’s tastes. Sitterson presses two yellow, back-lit buttons on his control panel to open vents in the hallway, that emit a mist. As Curt passes by the vents and inhales, he pauses, turns to the others and says, “This isn’t right…This isn’t right, we should split up. We can cover more ground that way.”

Sitterson knocks some sense out of Curt.

This two-button control seems to indicate drug (single dose) and location, which is sensible. But if you are asking users to select from different variables, it’s a better idea to differentiate them by clustering and color, to avoid mistakes and enable faster targeting.

Locking the doors

Once the victims are in their rooms, Hadley acknowledges it’s time to, “Lock ‘em in.” Sitterson flips a safety cover and presses a back-lit rocker switch, which emits a short beep and bolts the doors to all the victims’ rooms at the same time.

Sitterson bolts the victims’ doors.

Marty in particular notices the loud “clunk” as the bolts slide into place. He tests the door and is confounded when he finds it is, in fact, locked tight. Control’s earlier concern about tipping their hand seems to matter less and less, since this is a pretty obvious manipulation.

The edge of the world

Bolted doors pale in comparison to the moment when Curt, Dana, and Holden violently encounter the limits of the stage. After the demolition team seals the tunnel to prevent escape that way, Curt tries to jump the ravine to the other side so he can fetch help. Unfortunately for him, the ravine is actually an electrified display screen, showing a trompe-l’œil illusion of the far side. By trying to jump the ravine, Curt unwittingly commits suicide by slamming into it.

Curt slams into the edges of the “world” of the cabin.

The effect of the screen is spectacular, full of arcs zipping along hexagonal lines and sparks flying everywhere. Dana and Holden rush to the edge of the cliff to watch him tumble down its vast, concave surface. It seems that if you’ve come this far, Control isn’t as concerned about tipping its hand as it is finishing the job.

Krell technology

Morbius is the inheritor of a massive underground complex of technology once belonging to a race known as the Krell. As Morbius explains, ““In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty and noble race of beings which called themselves the Krell….”

Morbius tours Adams and Doc through the Krell technopolis.

“Ethically as well as technologically, they were a million years ahead of humankind; for in unlocking the mysteries of nature they had conquered even their baser selves… “…seemingly on the threshold of some supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history, this all but divine race perished in a single night.

““In the centuries since that unexplained catastrophe even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair, and nothing——absolutely nothing——remains above ground.””

Despite this advancement, unless we ascribe to the Krell some sort of extra sensory perception and control, much of the technology we see has serious design flaws.

Morbius plays half-a-million-year-old Krell music.

The first piece of technology is a Krell recorded-music player, which Morbius keeps on the desk in his study. The small cylindrical device stands upright, bulging slighty around its middle. It is made of a gray metal, with a translucent pink band just below the middle. A hollow button sits on top.

The cylinder rests in a clear plastic base, with small, identical metal slugs sitting upright in recessions evenly spaced around it. To initiate music playback, Morbius picks one of the slugs and inserts it into the hollow of the button. He then depresses the momentary button once. The pink translucent band illuminates, and music begins to flow from unseen speakers around the office.

Modern audiences have a good deal of experience with music players, and so the device raises a great many questions. How does a user know which slug relates to what music? The slugs all look the same so this seems difficult at best. How does a user eject the slug? If by upending the device, one hopes that the cylinder comes free from the base easily, or the other slugs will all fall out as well. It must have impressed audiences to see music contained in such small containers, but otherwise the device is more attractive than usable.

Morbius inputs the combination to open the door.

Many Krell doors are protected by a combination lock. The mechanism stands high enough that Morbius can easily reach out and operate it. Its large circular face has four white triangles printed on its surface at the cardinal points, and other geometric red and yellow markings around the remainder. A four-spoke handle is anchored to a swivel joint at the center of the face. To unlock the door, a user twists the handle such that one of its spokes lines up with the north point, and then angles the handle to touch the spoke to the triangle there, before returning the handle to a neutral angle and twisting to the next position in the combination. When the sequence is complete, the triangles, the tips of the spokes, and a large ring around the face all light up and blink as the two-plane aperture doors slide open.

Even Walter Pigeon has trouble making sense of this awkward device. There appear to be no snap-to affordances for the neutral angle of the handle or the cardinal orientations, leaving the user unsure if each step in the sequence has been received correctly. Additionally, if the combination consists of particular spokes at this one point, why are the spokes undifferentiated? If the combination consists of pointing to different triangles, why are there four spokes instead of one? Is familiarity with some subtle cue part of the security measures?

Morbius shares operation of the Krell encyclopedia.

All of Krell wisdom and knowledge is contained in a device that Morbius shows to Adams and Doc. It consists of an underlit scroll of material sliding beneath a rectangular hole cut in the surface of a table. To illuminate it, Morbius turns one of the two ridged green dials located to the left of the “screen” about 45 degrees clockwise. To move the scroll, Morbius turns the other green dial clockwise as well.

Why is the least frequently used dial, i.e. the power button, closer than the more frequently used button, i.e. the scroll wheel? This requires the reader to be stretched awkwardly. Why is the on-off dial free spinning? There appear to be only two states: lit and unlit. The dial should have two states as well. If the content of the pages is discretely chunked into pages, it would also argue for a click-stop rather than free-spinning dial as well, but we do not get a good look at the scroll contents. One might also question the value of a scroll as the organizing method for a vast body of information, since related bits of information may be distractingly far apart.

Military communication

All telecommunications in the film are based on either a public address or a two-way radio metaphor.

Commander Adams addresses the crew.

To address the crew from inside the ship, Commander Adams grabs the microphone from its holder on the wall. Its long handle makes it easy to grab. By speaking into the lit, transparent circle mounted to one end, his voice is automatically broadcast across the ship.

Commander Adams lets Chief Quinn know he’s in command of the ship.

Quinn listens for incoming signals.

The two-way radio on his belt is routed through the communications officer back at the ship. To use it, he unclips the small cylindrical microphone from its clip, flips a small switch at the base of the box, and pulls the microphone on its tether close to his mouth to speak. When the device is active, a small array of lights on the box illuminates.

Confirming their safety by camera, Chief Quinn gets an eyeful of Alta.

The microphone also has a video camera within it. When Chief Quinn asks Commander Adams to “activate the viewer,” he does so by turning the device such that its small end faces outwards, at which time it acts as a camera, sending a video signal back to the ship, to be viewed on the “view plate.”

The Viewplate is used frequently to see outside the ship.

Altair IV looms within view.

The Viewplate is a large video screen with rounded edges that is mounted to a wall off the bridge. To the left of it three analog gauges are arranged in a column, above two lights and a stack of sliders. These are not used during the film.

Commander Adams engages the Viewplate to look for Altair IV.

The Viewplate is controlled by a wall mounted panel with a very curious placement. When Commander Adams rushes to adjust it, he steps to the panel and adjusts a few horizontal sliders, while craning around a cowling station to see if his tweaks are having the desired effect. When he’’s fairly sure it’’s correct, he has to step away from the panel to get a better view and make sure. There is no excuse for this poor placement.

Rotwang’’s Maschinenmensch (Machine-Man)

Rotwang’s Machine-Man is the most magical technology seen in the film. This is understandable since there the only common precedent available to the audience were stories of golems and imps, soulless and wicked servants out to wreck havoc at their master’s bidding. Despite this imp paradigm, many of the interfaces around the Machine-Man are worthy of note.

Rotwang reveals the Machine-Man.

When Rotwang first reveals the Machine-Man to Joh, he does so with a dramatic yank of a curtain to the side. There sits the automaton, in a throne before a catwalk. In response to the curtain’s opening, the catwalk gradually illuminates. Did the Man-Machine turn the lights on? Was it a “curtain switch?” The movie gives no clues, but the lesson is clear. Light signals power, and the Machine-Man is imbued with a lot of it.

The Machine-Woman awaits Rotwang’s instructions.

The Machine-Man as Joh meets it is entirely machine in appearance. (Beautifully designed by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. This piece of sci-fi is so iconic and seminal that it warrants its own Wikipedia page.) At Joh’’s instruction, Rotwang gives the Machine-Man the outward likeness of Maria. How he is actually able to accomplishing this is vague, but note that as he twists up the power, more and more bars illuminate at the foot of the table. An early establishment that, as power increases, so does light.

Rotwang powers the transformation table.

This “light = power” theme is reinforced a number of times throughout this sequence.

Some machine glows as Rotwang turns it on.

With a switch the transformation begins.

Rotwang increases the power to the transformation table.

What does the tall tank, the arcing sphere, or the large wafer switch do? We don’’t know. But with the flick of a switch, something glows, and even without any sound to tell us, we know that he’’s summoning a great deal of power for what he’s about to do next.

Machine-Maria devises her saboteur’’s scheme.

Machine-Maria looks nearly identical to the real Maria. But in seeking to make the differences clear to the audience, actress Brigitte Helm needed to supply some kind of uncanny valley a century before the term was invented. Her response, which underscores the “evil twin” nature of Machine-Maria, was to adopt sharp, precise movements, an under-the-brow stare, and asymmetry. These simple cues let us know in a few seconds that she is not human and not to be trusted.

On the pyre, Machine-Maria reverts to her original form.

Machine-Maria’s death also underscores its deeply magical roots. When burning on the pillar, Machine-Maria transforms back to her original, machine-like form for little given reason other than her spell has been somehow broken.

Joh’s Videophone

One of the most impressive interfaces seen in the film is Joh’’s wall-mounted videophone. It is a marvel of special effects for 1927, and an ideal example that no matter how far sci-fi wants to look into the future, it must base its interfaces on the paradigms familiar to the audiences. Note in Joh’’s use of the interface how the videophone is an awkward blend of early 20th century technology metaphors.

The videophone is a large device, easily as tall as Joh himself, mounted to the wall of his office. At its center is a large vertically-oriented video screen that is angled upwards for easy downward viewing. To the right and left of the screen are large tuning dials. A series of knobs and controls sit below the dials.

Joh checks the recent activity of the video phone.

When he first approaches the device, he checks the tickertape dangling from an overhung box on the left. Not seeing anything of interest, he drops the paper and approaches the screen.

Joh tunes in the channel he needs to speak to Grot.

Reaching up to the right dial, he turns its hand counterclockwise from pointing at the number 10 to the number 6. Then he turns the left hand dial to 4, and the screen comes to life. It first displays the legend “HM 2” at the top. Some video appears below this, but rather than a clear feed of a single camera, it is a shifting blend of different cameras. Joh must fiddle with a few controls to clear the reception.

This moment seems quite strange to viewers familiar with modern video technology, since their experience is rooted in VHF broadcast, cable television, or online video. With these technology metaphors, channels are discrete. But it is important to recall that television was not popularized at the time, and the media metaphor most familiar to that audience would be radio, which users do in fact have to “tune” to get a clear signal.

Joh picks up the phone and calls Grot.

Joh verifies that he’s seeing the right channel visually, by seeing Grot’s nervous pacing in camera view. Confident that he’’s calling the right place, Joh picks up a telephone handset from the device, and reaches across to repeatedly press a button on the right. In response, the light bulbs on Grot’’s videophone begin to blink and (presumably) make a sound.

Joh tells Grot to destroy the Heart Machine.

Grot rushes to his device, looks into the screen and lifts his handset. The two have a conversation, each looking directly at the face on the screen.

This moment is another telling one. Lang was familiar with cameras, and could have had his actors talking to a lens. But instead he had them do what felt right and would make sense to the audience, i.e. talking to the other “person,” not the machine. In this way Lang is involved in “bodystorming” the right feel of technology, and in so doing is setting expectations for the way the real technology——should it ever get here—should work.

His command issued, Joh hangs up on an incredulous Grot.

A final note on the interaction is that, to end the call, Joh returns the handset to its resting position, and, much like a telephone, this ends the call for both parties.

This seems to us like an overcomplicated mash-up of technology metaphors: telegraph, film, radio, and telephone. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but it’’s not that Lang lacked the vision. He easily could have made the device more “magic,” by omitting the telephone handset and have Joh speak directly to the image of Grot. But Lang was not a technologist. He was a filmmaker, and needed to take his audience on the journey with him. He spoke to them in their shared language, using understandable cues to the individual components that, when added together add up to the something new that is one of the delights and promises of science fiction.

Lower City oppression

> Metropolis overview

Laborers in the Lower City live lives of horrible dehumanization, tending to and dying in the maw of the machines. Much of the technology in the early part of the film highlights this aspect of the world of Metropolis.

One shift files in as the other files out.

Access to and from the machine halls are carefully controlled. Between shift changes, laborers line up in regimented rows before the gates. A device on the wall adjacent to the gate shines two square lights up top. When that light extinguishes and the circular light illuminates, the laborers know to begin walking through the gates.

They trudge to large elevators, where an operator turns a crank wheel to raise the containing gate and lower the elevator. This elevator operator keeps his eyes on a gauge positioned uncomfortably high on the wall above the crank.

Freder encounters the worker’s city.

A laborer fails to monitor the temperature of the M-machine.

One exhausted laborer has to control the temperature of the machine. He stands before a panel where a thermometer is mounted in the dead center. Its markings tell him the acceptable maximum temperature. A row of flanges and levers line the lower part of the wall. Each has a lightbulb above it. When the lightbulb illuminates, the laborer must activate that flange. The pattern of blinking lights is difficult to keep up with and the work exhausting.

11811 struggles to keep up with his task at the machine.

When Feder returns to the Lower City, he sees a laborer tending a particularly pointless machine. He holds two arms on a human-sized, clock-like face. Instead of numbers, the face is ringed by lightbulbs. Every half a second, the two blinking bulbs will dim, and a new completely random pair will begin blinking. The laborer’s task is to turn the hands such that each one points to the blinking lights. 11811 struggles to keep up with his task at the machine.

Feeling for his brother, Freder offers to take 11811’s place at the machine.

Though too fast and random to be easily sustainable, the task itself is so apparent that Feder can offer to stand in after only a few seconds of watching.