Science Fiction Studies


#130 = Volume 43, Part 3 = November 2016


Sherryl Vint

Possibilities for a Science-Fiction Cinema

Mark Bould. Solaris. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 96 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Andrew M. Butler. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 102 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Jez Conolly. The Thing. Devil’s Advocates. Bedfordshire, UK: Auteur, 2013. 107 pp. $15 pbk.

Barry Forshaw. The War of the Worlds. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 86 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Mark Kermode. Silent Running. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 87 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Peter Krämer. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 114 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell. Akira. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 96 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Roger Luckhurst. Alien. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 96 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Paul McAuley. Brazil. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 96 pp. $18.95 pbk.

Kim Newman. Quatermass and the Pit. BFI Film Classics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 112 pp. $18.95 pbk.

D. Harlan Wilson. They Live. Cultographies. New York: Wallflower, 2015. 118 pp. $15 pbk.

In a Pioneer Award-winning essay published in this journal in 1998, Carl Freedman raised the question of whether “a genuinely science-fictional cinema is finally possible at all” (300). Freedman’s concerns were related to the perceived gap between the intellectual and political rigor of print sf—conceived of through Darko Suvin’s influential paradigm of cognitive estrangement—and the focus on spectacle and special effects in blockbuster sf that dates from at least the release of Star Wars (1977). At the time Freedman’s essay appeared, it was safe to assume that most readers would, with him, regard media sf as inherently inferior to print sf, with a few exceptions made for celebrated texts such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which Freedman singles out for praise. In the roughly two decades since this essay appeared, however, the status of media sf within the field has markedly changed. Recent critical handbooks to the genre (see Bould et al.; Link and Canavan; Latham) include chapters on media sf as a matter of course, and they frequently also push us toward recognizing that sf was a multimedia genre from early in its history. In his recent Routledge Film Guidebook on sf, Mark Bould argues for “a more nuanced understanding of sf’s spectacular imperatives” (61) by situating our assessment of effects within a longer film-studies history of the tension between narrative and spectacle in the medium. At the same time, sf film is garnering greater critical respect within the industry. It has long been a preferred genre for such influential directors as Kubrick, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg and has shaped some of the most interesting indie films of the past decade or so, such as Primer (2004), Sleep Dealer (2008), Moon (2009), and Another Earth (2011). It seems that we are due for a fresh look at the possibilities for sf cinema, and the British Film Institute (BFI) has offered one in its recent publications.

This review considers the recent release of nine sf titles in the BFI’s film classics book series, reviewed here alongside two other recently released short film books from other series, Jez Connolly’s The Thing (2013), published in the Devil’s Advocates horror film series by Auteur Publishing, and D. Harlan Wilson’s They Live (2015), published in Wallflower Press’s Cultographies series. I will discuss these two books and the relationship of their parent series to sf before returning to a more detailed consideration of the BFI books.

It is interesting that Cultographies and Devil’s Advocates choose films by John Carpenter, while the BFI series has thus far ignored his work entirely. Carpenter works at the intersections of sf and horror, perhaps more often tipping into the latter, and the Cultographies series, likewise, tends more toward horror titles, but their curation suggests that the fusion of horror with sf might be central to the phenomenon of the cult film. The short definition of “cult film” included on their website emphasizes the transgressive (including of genre boundaries) status of such movies and their interest in “strange topics and allegorical themes that rub against cultural sensitivities and resist dominant politics.” This series has published volumes on a number of other films that live at this horror/sf border: Bad Taste (1987), Donnie Darko (2001), and Frankenstein (1931)—along with Blade Runner (1982), whose gore might put it also in this category. The list of the top 111 cult films selected by the series editors and published on the website suggests even more the accord between cult and sf, including, to name only a few, Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Roger Corman’s X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963), Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sun-Ra’s Space is the Place (1974), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira (1988).

D. Harlan Wilson’s short book on They Live (1988) spends much of its time contextualizing the film in its 1980s milieu of production and reception, seeking to recreate for new and younger viewers the qualities that led to its cult status. He appropriately organizes much of the book around the star persona of actor Roderick Toombs—a.k.a. Rowdy Roddy Piper—and the reputation he cultivated as a core antagonist during his WWE (world wrestling entertainment) days. As Wilson reads the film, They Live is as much about the “alpha male pathology” of Piper’s protagonist, Nada, as it is about the alien conspiracy to control humanity by cultivating consumerism and conformity, the overt topic of the film. Wilson reminds us of Reaganism, the excess of the 1980s (on Wall Street, in fashion, and more), the contemporary muscular cinema of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and the only-just-emerging plight of economically disenfranchised working classes to demonstrate how and why this film connected with its audience on such a passionate level. Wilson’s broad ideological and historical overview is supported by a number of insightful close readings of certain scenes, especially the infamous fight scene in the alley, and Wilson astutely observes that “the film’s major themes of race, gender, sexuality and violence converge at this coordinate of stupid(ly) prolonged aggression” (72) whose disruptive excess “jars us awake, as it were, because it breaks the ontological laws the rest of the film obeys” (77). Wilson ultimately concludes that the film is a failure, however, because it overwhelmingly “reinforces rather than subverts the myth of gender construction” that it seeks to interrogate (70-71). This fine book achieves a lot in its roughly 100 pages, conveying a nuanced understanding of both the film and its 1980s cultural moment. It offers little commentary on the film’s relationship to sf as a genre, however.

Jez Conolly’s book on The Thing (1982), by contrast, does explore the film’s relationship to sf, a connection much less easily overlooked for a film that was based on a John W. Campbell novella, “Who Goes There?” (1938), and that saw an earlier adaptation as The Thing from Another World (1951). Still, Conolly also opens his book by emphasizing the 1980s context for the film’s release, but here his interest emerges from its overlap with the UK “video nasties” moral panic (although this film escaped being banned) and the rise of the contemporary “body horror” films that catalysed this overreaction. The Devil’s Advocate book series is explicitly about horror cinema, the genre that dominates in Conolly’s analysis. Their website promises “bracingly fresh perspectives from passionate writers” on selected films and suggests that they might serve as the “perfect complement” to the BFI Classics series. The emphasis in this volume is on close reading and personal response to the film, and it is organized via an in-depth description and analysis of each major scene in chronological order. Keying in on certain images or events, Conolly moves fluently and expansively through film history to unpack the origins of certain iconic images and their influence on the cinema that followed. There is much more emphasis in this volume on the film’s place in Carpenter’s career and on the details of how the film was technically crafted, compared to Wilson’s greater emphasis on cultural context. This book is less a specific interpretation of The Thing and more a detailed exploration of all of its possible meanings. The other books in the series are on films that sit clearly within the horror genre, such as Carrie (1976) and Saw (2004), and thus this series has less connection with sf than does the Cultographies series.

The recent sf releases in the BFI Film Classics series do not approach this border between sf and horror, although previous releases in the series have included films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Night of the Living Dead (1968), both arguably simultaneously sf and horror. The relative lack of sf/horror hybrids in this recent list may be because in 2013 the BFI did a series on horror and released a number of classic horror titles then. These nine new sf books join a dozen other sf entries in a series that began in 1992 and has produced over 100 volumes on a wide range of films, including celebrated entries from world cinema and from influential Hollywood traditions such as film noir and war films. The new volumes under review here were all released in 2014 to coincide with an exhibition at the BFI Southbank called “Sci-Fi Days of Fear and Wonder” that included film screenings, guest lectures, and discussion panels. An eponymous exhibition catalogue was also published in 2014, edited by James Bell, that included 28 short essays on various themes, cultural frameworks, and iconic images from sf film, organized into sections on “Tomorrow’s World,” “Contact,” and “Altered States.” This catalogue is gorgeously illustrated with many stills, promotional materials, and production shots from sf films across the decades, most in color, and this attention to visual elements is what most distinguishes the BFI Film Classics volumes from those in the other two series. Both Cultographies and Devil’s Advocates have a few, generally quite small, black-and-white illustrations; the BFI volumes are printed on thicker stock and glossy paper and have many more illustrations, often full or half-page, and in color (except when the source material was not). All books also include a list of the full credits for the films.

Like the events at the BFI Southbank, the films selected for new volumes during 2014 strive to show a range of sf cinema: the creature-features are represented by the Hollywood adaptation of The War of the Worlds (1952) and the British film Quatermass and the Pit (1967); Hollywood film by Silent Running (1972) and Alien (1979); more independent productions by Dr. Strangelove (1963), Brazil, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); and finally non-Anglophone sf by Solaris (1972) and Akira. Inevitably only nine volumes mean omissions in the range of films represented: some of the most widely discussed sf films are not on this list because they have appeared previously in the BFI series, including Metropolis (1972), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Terminator (1984), and The Matrix (1999). Yet there are also curious absences from this list, in particular the lack of any films by David Cronenberg or Steven Spielberg, although the latter is briefly mentioned in the concluding section of Forshaw’s book on The War of the Worlds for Spielberg’s own adaptation of this text (2005). The strong overlap between this series and the films highlighted by the Cultographies series, including two titles published here and listed as among the top cult films by the Wallflower editors, suggests something about the ongoing affinities between sf and cult film, and perhaps something as well about the waning of a conservative sense of the “classic” in BFI selections.

Despite the repetitive formal features of these books tending toward homogeneity in the series, taken together they show an admirable range of approaches to the study of cinema, written from a variety of entry points: sf authors such as McAuley and Newman; journalists and broadcasters such as Forshaw, Kermode, and Leblanc and Odell; and scholars such as Bould, Butler, Luckhurst, and Krämer. As a whole, they demonstrate the diversity and power of sf film and of ways of responding to it.

Barry Forshaw’s The War of the Worlds is centrally focused on the 1967 Hollywood adaptation, but makes frequent reference to both H.G. Wells’s novel and Orson Welles’s radio adaptation in explaining the narrative’s themes. Forshaw roots our understanding of the film in the context of Wells’s other novels and their engagement with contemporary questions of evolution, and when he turns to the film he spends much of his time on George Pal’s crucial role in creating the special effects that would warrant this film’s place as a classic in the medium’s history. The real strength of this volume is its comprehensive research into production details, including details about options discussed during the adaptation process. The book ends with a consideration of other adaptations of The War of the Worlds (1898) that followed and of the alien invasion theme overall, noting how even films as ideologically distant from Wells as Roland Emmerichs’s Independence Day (1996) are nonetheless indebted to the general framework imagined by Wells and established by this adaptation as the shape of the alien invasion film. Forshaw concludes that of all the myriad adaptations of and responses to Wells’s work, this one remains the truest to the novel’s spirit.

Kim Newman’s Quatermass and the Pit is similarly burdened by multiple versions of this story and he rightfully starts with Nigel Kneale, who wrote the 1958 television series and the screenplay for the adaptation, as well as a number of other Quatermass stories for British television, including a rebooted Quatermass series in 1979. Newman analyzes the production histories of both the series and the film, providing a lot of contextual information about the internal structure of the BBC and the relationship among the Quatermass stories, science, and a British public for whom the Blitz was a living memory. He also situates Kneale’s narratives within other contemporary sf about alien invasion, chiefly Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951), but he notes that Kneale himself disavowed any interest in sf. The strength of this book is the comparisons Newman makes between series and film, often supported by images that juxtapose the same scene from each, enabling insight into both the different contemporary aesthetic modes of the two media and the significance of the near decade that separates the two for changing the politics of public understandings of science. Like most of the books in this series, Newman goes through the plot scene by scene, rehearsing the narrative and teasing out larger meanings. He concludes the book by examining the legacy of the Quartermass cycle, which effectively ended with this film (the television reboot was not a success). The combination of Hammer Films’ interest in profitable monster movies and Kneale’s more “lofty” aims of exploring “humanity’s capacity for cruelty and self-destruction” (100) made this a powerful film that opened up greater possibilities for how monsters might signify in the cinema that followed.

Although Silent Running was released only five years after Quatermass and the Pit, it is part of a different era of sf films, in part because Quatermass is adapted from a 1950s source and in part because of new possibilities in Hollywood in the brief era between the breakdown of the studio system and the shift toward the blockbuster in the late 1970s. Mark Kermode’s book on Silent Running is the most personal of these critical overviews, conveying his lifetime fascination with the film. Kermode tells the story of Silent Running from concept to screen, focusing on the way the narrative took shape over time as part of a collaborative production process in which Bruce Dern, as lead character Freeman Lowell, played a key role. Director Douglas Trumbull’s background in special effects meant that the look of the film was key to its meanings, and Kermode provides details about how and where certain scenes were filmed. He keeps the counter-cultural ethos of the production firmly in view, noting things such as the irony of using the decommissioned carrier Valley Forge, just back from Vietnam, as the main set for a film opposed to all the values that war represented, or the fact that the plastic used to create the set’s futuristic, tetrahedron interiors was generously donated by Dow Chemicals, anxious to improve their public image after their manufacture of Napalm B and Agent Orange. Throughout we get a strong sense both of Kermode’s love of this film and the love the cast and crew put into creating it, using methods that required ingenuity to accomplish much with a limited budget. For Kermode, Silent Running is valuable not only for its themes and technical achievements, but more importantly for the “living, breathing entity, bursting with a vibrant energy all of its own” that is more than “a simple sum of its parts” (83).

Roger Luckhurst’s book on Alien similarly recounts a lot of detail about the production process, from script to casting to effects, and he draws attention to the important contingency of the collapse of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s planned adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965)—beautifully mourned in the recent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)—a circumstance that resulted in screenplay writer Dan O’Bannon’s bringing H.R. Giger into the production team for Alien. The rest, as they say, is history. Luckhurst importantly reminds us how different in status Alien was at the time of its release. In 1979 it was impossible to imagine that this small film by an inexperienced director, that cast a female rather than male lead, would go on to anchor one of the most lucrative sf franchises—or indeed that Sigourney Weaver and Ridley Scott would go on to become powerful Hollywood players. Given the vast amount of scholarship on the film and its sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, Luckhurst wisely choses to organize his book as an “attempt to account for the cultural fascination” (10) with this film and franchise rather than to offer a definitive statement on its meanings and importance. Luckhurst masterfully conveys a lot of information in this slim volume, from production tidbits, to readings of key scenes and characters, to capsule summaries of the wealth of critical responses to the franchise and the theoretical context that supports them. The book is organized according to the meanings attached to each character, recounted in the order of their deaths, and—delightfully— Luckhurst includes the cat, Jonesey, in his analysis, playfully—or is that satirically?—suggesting that “Jonesey helps underline the central theme of Alien as a philosophical investigation of the range of possibilities of humans living with its [sic] alien others” (82).

Peter Krämer has an equally daunting task in trying to convey the multiple interpretations of Dr. Strangelove in a scant 100 pages, and he achieves this in a manner similar to Kermode’s approach to Silent Running, by recounting the long process from concept to final film. The central issue in this case is whether the film would be a faithful adaptation of Peter George’s nuclear-war thriller Red Alert (1958) or the satirical comedy we know today. Krämer also takes an innovative path through his material, seeking to “adopt the perspective of an American cinemagoer seeing the film for the first time in 1964” (15), an approach that both recaptures the urgency that lay behind the comedy for such viewers—especially the hope that the plane might somehow be recalled before the missile is launched—and also insures that, despite the repetitive format of the series, the BFI books remain provocative and enjoyable. This book is organized by the film’s own chronology, with the action divided into five main “acts” that correspond to an ever-increasing risk of nuclear annihilation. Krämer, who also wrote the 2010 Film Classics book on 2001: A Space Odyssey, is deeply knowledgeable about both Kubrick’s work and this historical moment, and he covers the expected topics of masculine pathology and nuclear madness with cogent insight. His book makes its mark through the attention paid to Strangelove’s Germanness, linking the eugenic project of the Nazi State to General Ripper’s diatribes about purity and bodily fluids, and thus reading in the film’s conclusion the suggestion of a rebirth of the Reich, under Strangelove, that will become part of the new biological arms race to resolve the “mineshaft gap.” The film is ultimately about the needed “transformation of the (male) mind” (105), and 2001 is something of a sequel, the next iteration of this core idea, Krämer concludes.

The absurdities of twentieth-century political orders also lie at the center of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and Paul McAuley notes in his opening paragraph that some of the proposed titles for the project were direct homages to Dr. Strangelove. This film is marked by a particularly fraught production history in the epic battle between its director and distributor regarding who had the authority to decide on its final cut, a battle Gilliam won. A major element in his strategy was distributing copies of his cut to influential critics, thus garnering industry praise and securing a number of LA Film Critics Association Awards before the studio executives were able to compel Gilliam to release their saccharine, reassuring version. McAuley announces that his method will be to read the film as an sf writer and thus to explore “how it uses and subverts tropes shared with science-fiction novels and other dystopian films” (16), and throughout he provides a wealth of pertinent references to works that anticipated or responded to Brazil, from writers such as John Brunner, Philip K. Dick, and Samuel R. Delany to films such as Blade Runner, Escape from New York (1981), and even Vertigo (1958). As he explicates these allusions while recounting the plot, McAuley shows a commendable facility for noticing and analyzing the visual details of how a scene is composed and shot, which factor into most of his explanations. He also has a deep knowledge of Gilliam’s other work and carefully situates Brazil within it. Beyond its deserved status as a classic film, McAuley concludes, Brazil was prescient about the twenty-first century and the central place information and surveillance would take in “national security.”

Of all the books under review here, Andrew M. Butler’s is the most expansive in the contexts it brings to analyzing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Rather than choosing between a focus on creative talent and the film’s place in someone’s oeuvre or a focus on the genre markers that shape the film, Butler does both. He first explores the film in terms of its place in the career trajectories of director Michel Gondry, writer Charlie Kaufman, and leads Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, and then reads the film through three genre rubrics: sf, romantic comedy, and the puzzle film. His chapter on the film as sf concentrates on the technology of memory erasure and the role such technology plays in other sf, especially Philip K. Dick’s works and film adaptations of them, and on the way that films such as The Thirteenth Floor (1999) share with Gondry’s film an uncertainty about which screened events are real and which merely virtual or fantasy projections. Butler expands on this point in his chapter on romantic comedy, using the fusion of this genre with sf to pose compelling questions about how we are to interpret most of the relationship moments we see in the film: are these Joel’s “real” memories of Clementine, seen one last time before they are erased, or is memory itself always already a psychological invention such that what we see is only Joel’s internal version of Clementine? Even without an invented technology, memory is a fragile and fallible thing. Butler concludes that the film “transcends” (85) both romantic comedy and sf because it refuses to provide the expected ending built into each genre’s formula.

Alongside Kubrick, the most auteurist director represented in this group is Andrei Tarkovsky, and Mark Bould’s book on his Solaris, an adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel, matches the film’s own contemplative style. The book opens with two short chapters that provide context for understanding the film in relationship to Tarkovsky’s other films and Lem’s novel, with some brief comments on the poorly received Steven Soderbergh adaptation (2002). Most of the book, however, is devoted to describing and working through the myriad meanings one might attach to the images in Tarkovsky’s film, adeptly illustrating how visual cues, not narrative or chronology, make this film a masterpiece. As he unpacks the rich detail encoded in Tarkovsky’s work, Bould reminds us of examples of other sf films that use similar (or, at times, contrasting) visual styles and hints at meanings in the film through these comparisons and associations. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a touchstone here again, as is Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), as well as the socialist realism of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930) and less high-brow comparisons such as the fashion choices found in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO television series (1970-71). Bould demonstrates through such comparisons that Tarkovsky “set the tone for sf’s visual design for the ensuing decades” (60), one of the ways this film has had considerable impact on popular sf cinema despite its more evident arthouse allegiance. Perhaps more than any other book reviewed here, Bould’s captures the experience of what it is like to watch Solaris as we read about Solaris: like Kelvin’s dream of the dacha at the end, the film “reveals much” but “resolves nothing” (87), and thus it is unsurprising that this book offers many suggestions for what we might take from Solaris rather than a definitive statement on the film’s meaning and legacy.

The final volume under consideration, Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell’s book on Akira, is not only the sole example of Japanese sf included in this recent release of books but also the only Japanese sf title in the entire BFI Film Classics series thus far (other non-genre Japanese films are included in the series). Akira is a curious film to select over arguably more influential Japanese sf such as Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), but the authors make the case that it was Akira that introduced anime to the West and changed Western films that followed, especially The Matrix. They open by citing Andrew Lee’s suggestion that, without Akira, there would have been no US obsession with Japanese culture. The book allots equal time to discussing the film’s themes and its production. Le Blanc and Odell note how starkly the film’s violent protagonists and the trauma that shaped their lives differs from Western expectations of what one could accomplish with animation. Their reading of the film reveals how deeply ambivalent contemporary Japanese culture was about automation, technology, and control, even as the country became an economic leader through high-tech industries. The chapter on production is the most powerful, however, offering a meticulous overview of the painstaking process of Japanese animation that uses twice as many individual frames as Hollywood animation (58) and is able to capture a live-action aesthetic in its style. Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s true genius and innovation are clear in their discussion of his technique and in a concluding chapter that considers his other work. The book also offers some brief comments on the challenges and limitations of adapting a multi-year manga into a single film.

Examined as a whole, these new books testify to a robust and heterogeneous sf film industry and scholarly discourse on these films. The persuasive connections most authors draw between the films under discussion and the print tradition can perhaps finally banish any lingering sense that sf film is somehow less powerful than print sf. These works and the BFI exhibit emerge at a time when a greater percentage of film and television is based on sf scenarios and themes than ever before, and many people come to sf first through these media versions. Although many of these texts remain the action-thriller blockbusters that provoked disdain for filmed sf in the first place, the analyses represented here require us to acknowledge that spectacle, too, conveys meaning. The range of films covered by BFI Film Classics also points to a longer history of important sf films, within and beyond Hollywood. The prospects for sf cinema look very promising indeed.

Bould, Mark. Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2012.

─────, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint, eds. The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. London: Routledge, 2009.

Freedman, Carl. “Kubrick’s 2001 and the Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema.” SFS 25.2 (1998): 300-18.

Latham, Rob, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2014.

Link, Eric Carl, and Gerry Canavan, eds. The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction. New York; Cambridge UP, 2015.

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