#43 = Volume 14, Part 3 = November 1987
Introducing our November 1980 special issue on "Science Fiction and the Non-Print
Media," we observed that none of the contributed articles dealt with "SF film
released before the late 1960s or...productions outside the US." And of the four
contributions to our 1983 special issue on "Extraliterary Forms of Science Fiction,"
only Manfred Nagl's essay on "The Science Fiction Film in Historical Perspective"
treats non-American SF film.
We are pleased to report that the above situation has been remedied some what with this
special issue. Simonetta Salvestroni's opening essay examines two SF filmsSolaris
(1972) and Stalker (1980)by the Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky,
and the following essay by Paul Coates, "Chris Marker and the Cinema as Time
Machine," focusses on La Jetée (1962), Marker's 29-minute SF classic of time travel. And
with Coates' essay, we can now say that we have at least one study of an SF film released
As was the case with our previous writers, the contributors to this issue approach
their subjects from a variety of critical perspectives. Salvestroni demonstrates that
while Tarkovsky's SF films partake of the "fantastic strain" in classical Russian
and Soviet literature, he exploits the visual potentialities of film by using images
rather than verbal signs to reveal theme. Employing contrasting spatial imagery,
juxtaposing black and white and color, interweaving archetypal images, Tarkovsky creates a
rich texture open to multiple interpretations as he examines the problematics of
communication, the confrontation with the Other, the contrast between the drab,
deterministic here-and-now with possible, wholly strange but incredibly rich alternative
worlds, how the journey without becomes the journey within and the processes of the
transformation of the self. Similarly, while beginning his essay on Marker by
acknowledging what is by now a standard ideathat time travel emerged as a literary
theme in the work of Wells and was a response to some of the cultural and political
strands of the fin de siècleCoates makes an original and compelling case for
linking the time-travel theme to "the simultaneous emergence of cinema, with its
capacity to manipulate the illusion of time." Like Salvestroni, Coates
focuses on the
visual image and Marker's use of still photographs to reveal theme and control tone, in
addition to making the provocative suggestion that the cinema incorporates its audience as
Co-authors Peter C. Hall and Richard D. Erlich, in "Beyond Topeka and
Thunderdome," attend to two films, A Boy and His Dog (1975) and Mad Max
Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Their discussion makes use of the categories and follows
the argument developed by Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. At the same time,
they show how content can deform as recent post-nuclear holocaust films inflect the
traditional comic-romance pattern through satire and a combination of mythic patterns.
Both Thomas B. Byers' "Commodity Futures" and Peter Fitting's "Futurecop"
take a sociological-cum-Marxist approach to their subjects but arrive at slightly
different conclusions regarding the one film they treat in common: Blade Runner.
Byers compares Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1972), and Star Trek
II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) with respect to the ways in which they deal
with the contradictory relationship between "high-tech corporate capitalism on
the one hand, and individual modes and styles of personal behavior on the
other." Alien and Blade
Runner depict a future capitalistic society which dehumanizes those subject to its
control. The distinctions separating aliens and "replicants" (in Blade Runner)
from humans are problematic. By contrast, Star Trek II reaffirms the values of
the System (bourgeois capitalism) and celebrates the power of white, male America.
Fitting, however, comes to different conclusions about Blade Runner. Comparing
the film and Dick's novel with respect to their thematic differences, including the
distinction between human and non-human and our relationship to technologysituated
as we are in an exploitative economic and political structureFitting argues that
although not fully successful, Dick's novel provides sharper distinctions and clearer
ethical choices than Blade Runner does. The film instead confuses the
distinctions between androids and humansByers' point, tooand thereby
dramatizes the contradictory possibilities of human liberation (i.e., the replicants will
do all of the unappealing and dangerous work) and the "terrible price of that
seductive empowerment in the substitution for our humanity of the qualities and
characteristics of the machine." Unlike Byers, however, Fitting contends that in contrast
to the novel, Blade Runner foregrounds and sensationalizes violence in a way that
"legitimizes [its] use...in defense of the status quo even if that world is
repressive and unjust" and at the same time redirects our rage away from that repressive
and exploitative system and at its victims-cum-outlaws; and in that way it finally
reinforces the status quo, "a cynical denial of th[e] message of the major themes of
Todd H. Sammons uses a traditionalalbeit meticulous and
comprehensivecomparative and historical approach to Return of the Jedi.
Taking seriously George Lucas' comment that Lucas looks at "art, all of art, as
graffiti," Sammons shows how Lucas draws upon bits and pieces of epic poetry Homer,
Virgil, the Beowulf poet, Dante, Milton, etc.to give his film its structure, theme,
and tone. While Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) drew on the graffiti of the American
western and stories of World War II, evoking Luke Skywalker's boyhood, and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) drew on Freudian psychology appropriate to Luke's psychological
struggles as an adolescent, Jedi marks Luke's maturity, most fittingly represented by epic
poetry. The sheer number of epic analogies and parallels which Sammons finds in this film
is truly remarkable.
In our final essay, written by the only contributor represented in all three of our
special issues to date, Andrew Gordon deploys his thorough knowledge of Freudian theory
not only to explain the popularity of Back to the Future, but also to explicate
some of that SF film's more interesting but puzzling scenes. Gordon describes it as a
"therapeutic family comedy," a time-travel story which uses comedy to deal with our
social anxieties about the future and our deep-seated personal anxieties surrounding the
incest taboo. Back to the Future "allows us to laugh at potentially
dangerous material by placing it in the context of classic film comedy and
situation comedy and by deliberately using stock character types."
Our next special issue on the extraliterary forms of SFand, inevitably, there
will be a fourth number on the subjectmay well reflect the fact that we are entering
a new era of art and of art criticism. In his review of Vivian Sobchack's updated version
of Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, Gordon describes the new
situation most succinctly: "Mass culture has gone postmodern with a vengeance." We
seem to be on the threshold of a new epistemè, where the Real is entangled with and
indistinguishable from to use Baudrillard's terminologythe hyperreal, where one
can boldly assert, as Baudrillard does, that "Disneyland is presented as imaginary in
order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the
America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of
simulation" (Simulations, trans. Paul Foss et al. [NY: Semiotext(e), 1983], p.
25). Within this context, Gordon's observation that "SF may be in danger of disappearing
as a separable genre" may indeed be prophetic. The next few years should be telling.
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