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The Panopticon in Fire in the Sky

by Jesse Kapp

I find it fascinating that the concept of the Panopticon finds its way into Fire in the Sky. In this clip, Travis breaks out of his “cell” on the alien ship to find himself in a large cylindrical chamber that echoes the classic panopticon design. Its interesting that we have attached this concept to alien life, and use the structure as a cinematic device that we are familiar with. The “cells” that line the walls are enclosed by an elastic screen of some sort, which would initially seem to indicate that there is no guard looking in from the center. When Travis breaks through the screen of his cell, it almost looks as if there is some form of data chip embedded in it, which could in fact act as some form of surveillance. Later in the film Travis does locate several aliens who are “plugged in” to a tube, and the impression I get is that they are somehow monitoring the cells of their panopticon structure.


Foucault locates the purpose of the panopticon to be a complete visibility of the incarcerated subject while they are unaware of their own surveillance, as well as unable to directly interact with those around them.  Since the prisoners in this sequence, aside from Travis, seem to be unconscious, this use of the structure isn’t as glaringly obvious. Since the prisoners ultimately seem to be test subjects, the use of the panopticon is perhaps more aligned with the sequestering, and possibly quarantine, of various test subjects. We may assume that humans aren’t the only subjects incarcerated, and various life forms may have to be kept separate. Once Travis breaks out of his cell, I think that more prison-oriented purpose reveals itself. Although Travis doesn’t immediately encounter any type of guard, the purposeful intention behind the structure reveals itself. He can already assume that some form of intelligent life has constructed the chamber even if he isn’t specifically familiar with the panopticon. The structure itself belies a certain degree of intention and purpose behind its creator, and the size and scope of this structure immediately points to a place that has been meticulously built for its specific purpose.

Prompt for commentaries in CTCS 505: Survey of Interactive Media Fall 2010

by Survey of Interactive Media

Assignment: Select one of the clips linked to this commentary and write a commentary analyzing it in terms of one or more course themes or discussion topics. If possible, you should also make reference to at least one reading from the course syllabus or an external source. Your analysis should be thoughtful and substantial, significantly transforming the clip from its original context and/or adding significant "value" to the experience of watching it; you are also welcome to respond to previous comments or make comparisons between clips (in this case, please link the commentary to both clips that are referenced). Remember to tag your commentary with "CTCS505"!

Fire in the Sky - Panopticon

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Travis wakes up to find himself aboard an alien ship.

from Fire in the Sky (1993)
Creator: Robert Lieberman
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media