BOOKS IN REVIEW
Science-Fiction Film Criticism: The Postmodern Always
Vivian Sobchack. Screening
Space: The American Science Fiction Films 2nd ed., enlarged. NY:
Ungar, 1987. 345pp. $14.95.
Imagine that we are all living inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: children at play in a
consumer world of toys and clutter, on a perpetual giggling high, surrounded by friendly
robots and friendly monsters. We play with talking furniture and puppets and are
interrupted by cartoons; we are ourselves not so different from the furniture, puppets,
and cartoon characters. We inhabit a magical space; we can jump into an electronic screen
and become part of the image, then jump back again. We have no connected story to tell,
just a barrage of images and events. In such an environment, dichotomies like
real/fantasy, human/machine, or human/alien become meaningless, and our sense of space
and time is so stretched that it threatens to dissolve.
In the age of MTV, Max Headroom, and Pee-wee Herman, mass culture has gone post-modern
with a vengeance. It is often difficult to tell the difference between SF and other movie
and television genres. In fact, as the critic Brooks Landon pointed out to me, directors
of SF films like Tobe Hooper and Russell Mulcahy cross over to direct music videos for
Billy Idol and Duran Duran. For better or worse, we have entered a new space-time
continuum, in which mass culture has so absorbed postmodern play with categories of space,
time, and the alien, is so involved in cognitive dissonance and cognitive estrangement,
that the fantastic becomes commercial routine and SF may be in danger of disappearing as a
This is the kind of postmodernist mass culture vividly described in Vivian Sobchack's
brilliant book, Screening Space. Although television is outside her purview--she
mentions MTV only once, briefly--recent developments in television (as well as the advent
in SF literature of cyberpunk) seem to reconfirm the validity of her central thesis about
the changes which have taken place in American culture within the past decade.
I reviewed Sobchack's The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction Film (1980),
which I praised as a valuable addition to the small number of serious critical studies of
SF film. The present volume is a retitled, enlarged edition of the earlier one. It retains
intact her chapters on SF films from 1950-76 and adds an 82-page chapter,
"Postfuturism," surveying SF films from 1977-86. The new chapter, a complete
monograph in itself, not only updates her book but makes it a far more significant and
challenging work. "Postfuturism" is bolder and more original in approach, more
penetrating in its analysis, and more sweeping in its conclusions about the state of SF
film and of contemporary American society than the earlier chapters. Her book is now
essential reading not only for scholars of SF or SF film but also for anyone interested in
theories about and studies of contemporary mass culture.
Sobchack opens her new chapter by saying that in the past ten years there has been a
radical change in our everyday lives and in our culture. Changes in technology, symbolized
by the popularization of the digital watch, the personal computer, the video game, and the
video recorder, have led to "the radical alteration of our culture's temporal and
spatial consciousness" (p. 223). And the task of mapping these changes in
consciousness and changes in the way we perceive the world and our social relationships
has fallen to SF film.
Whereas space travel in 1950s' SF film was aggressive and three-dimensional, in recent
films space is "domestic and crowded" (p. 226). Whereas time in previous films
progressed by the "teleology of plot," today's SF films tend to randomize events
(p. 228). And whereas the alien was the menacing "Other" in the paranoid '50s,
now he is more often a cuddly sweetheart. Moreover, as people in contemporary SF films
behave more like machines, so the androids, cyborgs, robots, and computers in these films
become more human. "In sum, whether mainstream or marginal, the majority of
contemporary (and popular) SF films celebrate rather than decry an existence so utterly
familiar and yet so technologically transformed that traditional categories of space,
time, being, and 'science fiction' no longer quite apply" (p. 230).
Sobchack accounts for these changes as the effects of the new structures of
organization of postmodern capitalism.
Born in the USA and with the nuclear age, extended by the mass proliferation of
electronic culture, the expansive logic of multinational capitalism has altered the
previous sense we lived and made of time, space, and the world.... The logic of late
capitalism has radically transformed both the structure of our social lives and the
aesthetic character of our cultural representations.... (p.244)
She uses as her tutor text Fredric Jameson's long essay, "Postmodernism, or the
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism."
Sobchack sees the first "Golden Age" of American SF film as coinciding with
the introduction of late capitalism or "consumer culture" in the post-World War
II period, as technology and culture began to totally replace nature and all branches of
the economy became fully industrialized for the first time in history. 1950s' SF films
emphasized the fearsomeness, wonder, and strangeness of this new technology. By the second
"Golden Age," however (from the late 1970s to the present), technology is no
longer strange but familiar and accepted as natural. These recent films "celebrate
the consumable artifacts and specular productions of late capitalism" (p. 253).
The rest of her essay discusses the changed perceptions of space, time, and being in
recent SF films. Postmodern space is hyper-real or super-real, absolute and totalizing yet
decentered. One gets lost in it, as in the example (which Jameson mentions in his essay)
of the bewildering circular lobby of a hotel designed by architect John Portman. Although
formally conservative SF films still cling to traditional "deep" space, the
space of SF film is now frequently flat, like the screen of a computer or video game.
Electronic imaging has invaded film and becomes equated with outer space. In Tron, the
characters become computer simulations wandering in an electronic landscape. Sobchack
cites Jean Baudrillard to the effect that we now live in an environment in which
everything is a representation or simulation, so that there is no more reality principle;
a cinematographic image is not inherently more "real" than an electronic one.
Along with the flattening and deflation of space goes a compensatory inflation of
space. Thus we get SF films filled with clutter and texture, like Blade Runner and
Dune. An excess scenography "substitutes quantity for depth and accumulation
for movement" (p. 269). This new "entropic aesthetic" finds pleasure in
"trash and waste, pollution and decay" (p. 263); Sobchack interprets this as the
triumph of late-capitalist consumer culture. In contrast, films she labels
"conservative and regressive," such as Close Encounters and Starman,
are nostalgic for wide-open spaces and night skies (p. 266). In '50s' SF films, we
were warned to "watch the skies" for fear of alien invaders, but now that we
live in such a cluttered environment, we are nostalgic about open, empty space. Marginal
films, like Buckaroo Banzai, Liquid Sky, and Repo Man simultaneously
deflate and inflate space through a "bewildering immersion in constant busyness"
As space becomes more important, time is devalued, along with such temporally related
elements as "personal identity, history, and narrative" (p. 272). The
relationship between past, present, and future--even the flow of time--itself breaks down.
The films of Spielberg and associates, such as Back to the Future, are nostalgic
not for the real past but for the television past of "Leave It to Beaver." As
Jameson says, we are now condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and
simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach" (p. 71).
Even the future is now past. The Star Trek films appeal to our nostalgia for
the 1960s TV series' version of the future. We are all going "back to the
The breakdown of temporal sequence leads to "schizophrenic" narratives like Repo
Man and Buckaroo Banzai, which reject "narrative/temporal logic"
for "episodic/spatial logic" (p. 280). However, we accept these films as wacky
comedies because schizophrenia has become a cultural style.
As time breaks down, the self as centered subject also breaks down. The emotion most
often expressed in contemporary SF film is a free-floating euphoria created by
technological display, as in the beatific final sequence of Close Encounters. In
other words, "special effect" equals "special affect." Both what
Sobchack calls "mainstream" and "marginal" SF films decenter and
objectify affect, but the marginal films are more playfully aware of this and mock
big-budget displays by glorying in their own deliberately tacky special effects.
Just as our concepts of space and time have changed, so has our concept of being.
Sobchack claims that because we now all feel alienated, we have become comfortably
familiar with our own alienation. We are no longer as afraid of alien invaders as we were
in the '50s. "Today's SF films either posit that 'aliens are like us' or that 'aliens
R U.S."' (p. 293). SF aliens are no longer "Other"; they are images of
ourselves. In conservative SF films like E.T. or Starman, the alien is
like us, only better, more human. But this still implies that human being is the
"original model" against which all being must be judged (p. 297).
"Postmodern SF," such as The Brother from Another Planet, "suggests
that there is no original model for being," and that we are all aliens, whether
humans or extraterrestrials; nobody is any better than anybody else (ibid.).
In her conclusion, she says that SF is in danger of disappearing as a generic category.
SF is supposed to imagine the future, but the future is now perceived as similar to the
present or the past. We are now all living inside a postmodern environment, inside
"the cultural logic of late capitalism," as Jameson puts it. Since this is our
given, we must learn to see it clearly so that we may recognize both its progressive and
its catastrophic effects. For example, marginal SF films are progressive because they
break down traditional divisions such as male/female or real/ imaginary but catastrophic
because they dissolve the boundaries between science and fiction which make SF possible as
Neither marginal nor big-budget films seem capable right now of imagining a future. To
satisfy the demand for novelty, big-budget SF films must constantly up the ante in special
effects technology; but as costs rise, they grow increasingly conservative and risk-free.
Paradoxically, they offer not novelty but the illusion of novelty.
Sobchack ends by echoing Jameson's call for a new political art "that will neither
long for the past nor merely re-present the present 'world space of multinational
capital"' (p. 304). She finds a possible model for such "post-postmodern"
art in Lizzie Borden's feminist SF film, Born in Flames (1982).
Her intention is not to present detailed analyses of specific films but instead to
establish a theoretical context for a survey of the field. She provides some startling
insights into particular films, reconsiders some neglected or possibly misunderstood
films, and makes valuable connections between works, demonstrating how many recent
American SF films are doing similar things thematically, structurally, or visually.
It is not necessary to agree with all of her judgments of individual films to concur
with her central thesis. For example, she praises Tron for its visual innovation.
I can agree in part and still think that Tron is a failed experiment because it
attempts to graft aesthetically radical, electronic visuals onto a standard quest plot. In
a quest, you need clear spatial coordinates, but electronic space provides none. Sobchack
also privileges marginal, low-budget films like Buckaroo Banzai (which I consider
a mess) over big-budget ones like Star Wars and Close Encounters. She
perhaps forgets that Lucas and Spielberg took the initial risks and paved the way for the
boom in SF film in the past ten years. Without Star Wars and Close Encounters
(which are both highly innovative films in their own conservative, nostalgic way)
there would be nothing for these low-budget films to parody. Another problem is that her
theory cannot adequately account for the exceptions to her categories, such as all the
recent xenophobic films with monstrous aliens, including the remakes of Invasion of
the Body Snatchers, Invaders from Mars, and The Thing, as well as Gremlins,
Buckaroo Bonzai itself, and the enormously popular Alien and its sequel Aliens.
The main limitation of her theory, however, is that it leans so heavily on Jameson's
essay on "Postmodernism"; both the strengths and the weaknesses of his approach
are imported wholesale into hers. Jameson is a highly original and inspired Marxist
critic, a provocative theoretician who has attempted to create some useful linkages
between Marx and Freud in such works as The Political Unconscious. But Jameson
sees the shadow of the multinational corporations intruding into every aspect of our
conscious and unconscious lives and our culture. There is good reason to have reservations
about such totalizing, global explanations. Although Sobchack applies Jameson's categories
with great skill and insight, surely there are other ways of interpreting contemporary SF
films than as the inevitable byproduct of late capitalism.
Also like Jameson, Sobchack is better at aesthetic analysis than at suggesting
alternatives--that is, better at diagnosis than prescription. After a lengthy and
compelling description of the effects of "the cultural logic of late
capitalism," Jameson admits that this new postmodern culture engenders such spatial
and social confusion that it paralyzes our "capacity to act and struggle"
against it (p. 91). He is unable to say what form a new, radical cultural politics might
take, except to specify vaguely that it "will have as its vocation the invention and
projection of a global cognitive mapping..." (ibid.) New maps of hell? But
"cognitive mapping" hardly seems like inspiring work for passionately committed,
revolutionary artists. Sobchack, too, is masterful in her description of films but offers
only one example of a progressive SF film, the obscure Born in Flames.
Sobchack imports another problem from Jameson. As Dan Latimer argues in "Jameson
and Postmodernism," Jameson is "relentlessly Hegelian," addicted to
dialectical thought but averse to moralizing (p. 127). Thus, on the one hand Jameson
claims that postmodern culture is the "superstructural expression" of a new wave
of American global military and economic domination, and thus based on "blood,
torture, death and horror" (p. 57). Yet, on the other hand, he says that moralizing
about historical phenomena is "a category-mistake" (p. 85) and that we are all
living inside postmodern culture and thus implicated in what we attempt to denounce
(although I wonder just when critics ever stood outside their native culture).
Jameson's essay is so intellectually cool and aesthetically distanced that he fails to
convey any real sense of shock or horror about postmodern culture or about the economic
relations which it supposedly represents. As Latimer mentions, "Marx admits the
possibility of an independent morality based on the consciousness of human dignity"
Sobchack too, while a committed feminist (see, for example, her fine essay, "The
Virginity of Astronauts") does not fully integrate her aesthetic analysis with her
ideological concerns here. Thus her nod to a feminist SF film comes on the last page and
is the only mention of feminism in the book. Finally, perhaps Jameson and Sobchack
overstate their case. Marxism is always predicting that capitalism will collapse of its
own contradictions; if we are now in the stage of "late capitalism," then the
apocalypse must be imminent. Moreover, if what Jameson and Sobchack claim is true, and we
are faced with a collapse of the categories of space, time, history, and the centered
self, then this is genuine cause for alarm in a presumably democratic society. Yet I sense
little alarm in their essays. Instead, like the postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon, they
seem to delight in rummaging through the trash heaps of post-World-War-II American pop
culture, celebrating the omnipresent evidence they uncover there of entropy and decay.
And, I confess, I groove on this junk also. Maybe we have all been living too long inside
Despite these qualifications, Screening Space deserves the attention of
everyone in our field. It is an important book, an indispensable book for critics of SF
film, SF, or contemporary mass culture. Read it, and you will never view SF film in quite
the same way again.
Gordon, Andrew. "Science-Fiction Film Criticism,"
SFS #26, 9:1
Jameson, Frederic. "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,"
New Left Review, 146 (July-Aug. 1984):53-92.
----------. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca,
Latimer, Dan. "Jameson and Post-Modemism," New Left Review, 148
(Nov.-Dec. 1984): 116-28.
Sobchack, Vivian. "The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction
Film," in Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science Fiction in Film, ed.
George E. Slusser & Eric S. Rabkin (Carbondale, IL: 1985), pp. 41-57.
Back to Home