Science Fiction Studies

#43 = Volume 14, Part 3 = November 1987



Thomas B. Byers

Commodity Futures: Corporate State and Personal Style In Three Recent Science-Fiction Movies

Abstract.--Ridley Scott's Alien and Blade Runner, and Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan together offer an interesting example of cultural and political debate as carried out in terms of visions of the future. All three specifically explore the relationship between high-tech corporate capitalism on the one hand, and individual modes and styles of personal behavior on the other. While all three offer a similar sense of the nature of the infrastructure's demands and influences on the individual, the conservatism of Star Trek II is diametrically opposed to the radical critiques of Alien and Blade Runner in terms of the evaluation of these demands and influences.

Both Alien and Blade Runner warn us of a future gone wrong, where one of the gravest dangers is a dehumanization so complete that it erases the distinction between human beings and robots. The demands of such a society make people increasingly cold, and lure them into an affectless state that serves corporate interests at human expense. Alien is at once an ecological parable and a moral tale, in which the technocrats who participate in the corporate structure are practically indistinguishable from the robot in their midst, and are forced to pay a horrible price for their acquiescence to the system. Blade Runner further explores the indistinguishability of human being and humanoid, carrying it to the point where even the protagonist himself cannot be certain that he is human, and where the inhuman antagonist finally acts more humanely than the human beings. The deconstruction of the human-humanoid opposition is at the center of a critique of the economic and political arrangements of a future society that is an extension of our own.

What Scott's movies criticize, Meyer's mythicizes, justifies, and even celebrates. It conceals or erases any sense of systematic or historical conflict, thereby eliminating any justification for non-conformity or rebellion. Hence its villains are seen as irrational space-hippie terrorists, led by a madman. Their activities are enabled largely by the naiveté and irrationality of Captain Kirk's pacifist son, who must learn how foolish he is, and acquiesce to the values and the power of patriarchal white America. Kirk's choice to absent himself from personal relationships, his repression of eros and empathy for the sake of duty to a larger socio-economic structure, is here seen not as a sign of alienation or dehumanization, but as a mark of altruism. The movie represents the apotheosis of the rational, emotionally restrained male hero, and the affirmation of the establishment he serves, over against women, intellectuals, and other irrational and dangerous types. Thus a contrast between its vision of the future and Scott's vision is clearly a contrast between two present political attitudes, two stances toward bourgeois society in an advanced stage of capitalism.

Paul Coates

Chris Marker and the Cinema as Time Machine

Abstract.--The emergence of time travel as a widespread literary theme in the fin-de-siècle period was part of a search for new areas for colonization once colonialism had completed its domination of all the world's blank spaces. Time travel is in a sense travel between the unevenly developed countries of this world projected onto the universe. As Wells and Proust dreamed--each in his different way--of entering and mapping "the fourth dimension" (a period cliché), the Zeitgeist generated cinema to effect this time travel. In the cinema, Wells's invisible man fuses with his time traveler: the film viewer moves invisibly across the ages. All this prepares for an analysis of the film which is perhaps the most powerful cinematic embodiment of the theme of time travel: Chris Marker's La Jetée. The film's aesthetic strategies (e.g., the use of stills) create a "time-after-time" in a world devastated by a nuclear war. It also translates linear into circular time; reveals a Proustian concern with memory and imagination, absence and presence; and integrates a sense of tragedy into SF, along with philosophical sophistication and even a supernaturalism often denied mainstream SF works. In one of the greatest of all SF films, the technological medium becomes a spiritualist one also.

Peter Fitting

Futurecop: The Neutralization of Revolt in Blade Runner

Abstract.--Both in what it shows and in what is absent from it, Blade Runner (1982) deviates in morally significant ways from the 1968 novel by Dick on which it is based. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? precariously balances two themes connected with the "replicants": they represent the oppressed and exploited in capitalist society and at the same time embody the danger of humans becoming mechanized. The logical nexus between these two thematic ideas is provided by Mercerism and its attendant test for empathy as the factor distinguishing humans from androids. Ridley Scott's film version, on the other hand, omits Mercerism entirely; and while it "humanizes" the replicants more than Dick's book does, this finally exacerbates the problem arising from Blade Runner's emphasis on violence in its depiction of their "termination." The film does evoke feelings of resentment and anger against a repressive status quo; but it finally turns those feelings on the very entities rebelling against the system, even as its imaging of their violent deaths would persuade viewers of the futility of rebellion. This "catharsis" of antagonism towards the abuses and waste of the present system is radically at odds with Androids' message.

Andrew Gordon

Back to the Future: Oedipus as Time Traveler

Abstract.--Back to the Future, the biggest Hollywood hit of 1985, owes its success to a great degree, like that of Star Wars, to its ritualistic, celebratory, therapeutic aspects. It is a "clean" family film which encourages audience participation and repeat viewing. Yet, paradoxically, this "clean" film flirts with incest. It is structured much like classic Hollywood fantasies such as It's a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz, and also relies on the conventions of television situation comedy. Through comedy, the film successfully combines and defuses contemporary American anxieties about time travel and incest. It is the first SF film to make explicit the incestuous possibilities that have always been at the heart of our fascination with time travel. Back to the Future both provides a comic resolution to an Oedipal crisis and reinforces the traditional American belief that history can change, that time and human character are malleable.

Peter C. Hall and Richard D. Erlich

Beyond Topeka and Thunderdome: Variations on the Comic-Romance Pattern in Recent SF Film

Abstract.--In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome traditional mythic patterns are reshaped, and this has the effect of obviating ethical and aesthetic problems inherent in the comic-romance form when used for post-apocalyptic film. Earlier films had tended to present post-apocalyptic stories as variations upon the traditional comic-romance pattern, leading to the hope for a possible rejuvenation of the wasteland. In Dr. Strangelove and A Boy and His Dog, the problems posed by that wasteland are met with a shift into the ironic mode, with a savagely satiric frustration of the comic-romance pattern. Beyond Thunderdome shows a way beyond satiric cynicism by creating a new mythos. While emphasizing the horrible effects of nuclear war, the movie offers hope for the birth of a civilization which will avoid the cycle of warfare and destruction in a new world centered on a female hero who is bearer of a human culture that is truly humane. 

Simonetta Salvestroni

The Science-Fiction Films of Andrei Tarkovsky

Abstract.--Tarkovsky is the Soviet director responsible for two masterpieces of SF film: Solaris(1972), based on the book of the same title by Lem, and Stalker (1980), adapted from the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic. Working primarily in terms of images, Tarkovsky organizes these films (like his previous ones) around a bipolarity: between Solaris and the contemporary USSR (or, more broadly, the technologized world) in the one film; between the monochromatic quotidian world and the colorful, marvelous Zone in the other. But while taking the polarities of a binary logic as his starting point, his films finally negate that antinomial logic as their concluding images indicate a tertium datur: that figured in the house of Kelvin's father, an object of this world which nevertheless, drenched by rains, recalls (and then dissolves into) Solaris; and perhaps most movingly, that which transpires at the moment when the black-and-white mechanical world of Stalker, suddenly, miraculously, appears, as seen through the eyes of the paralytic girl Martyska, in vivid color, thus breaking down the neat logical division between the everyday world and the Zone and what each of them had stood for. It is in these respects especially that Tarkovsky's films have creative affinities with the fantastic strain in Russian and Soviet literature, with the visions of Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and the Strugatskys.

Todd H. Sammons

Return of the Jedi: Epic Graffiti

Abstract.--In the three Star Wars movies George Lucas has made so far, the trilogy's hero, Luke Skywalker, passes from youth through adolescence to adulthood. Similarly, the movies themselves mature, moving from folklore (Star Wars: A New Hope) through myth (The Empire Strikes Back) to epic (Return of the Jedi). In order to give Jedi an epic "feel," Lucas uses images that have analogues in no less than eight different epic authors: Homer, Virgil, the Beowulf poet, Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser, and Milton. There are, in fact, epic analogues for every scene in each of the movie's major sections: the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, the death of Yoda on Dagobah, and the final battle between the Empire and the Rebels. But is Lucas "epic-literate," would the audience catch the analogues, should we talk about it as epic before the saga is done, aren't we in danger of overvaluing by comparing it to literary masterpieces, and is Jedi really an epic? Basically, Lucas knows enough about epics to get what he needs; the audience does not have to know where an analogue comes from in order to respond to it; the three Star Wars movies made so far differ from one another; I am pointing out fairly obvious motifs and steering clear of uncritical evaluation; and Jedi is not a true epic. Jedi is, however, a typical Lucas movie, made according to his preferred aesthetic: it is a pastiche of epic images, found in many different epics and unified only by his own artistic vision. Jedi, in other words, amounts to epic graffiti.

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