Science Fiction Studies

#43 = Volume 14, Part 3 = November 1987

Editorial Introduction

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 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 films—Solaris (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 before 1965!

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 idea—that 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 siècle—Coates 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 time travelers.

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 technology—situated as we are in an exploitative economic and political structure—Fitting 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 humans—Byers' point, too—and 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] 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 Dick's book.

Todd H. Sammons uses a traditional—albeit meticulous and comprehensive—comparative 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 SF—and, inevitably, there will be a fourth number on the subject—may 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 terminology—the 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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