Science Fiction Studies

#22 = Volume 7, Part 3 = November 1980


  • Pamela J. Annas. SF Film Criticism in the US (Ralph J. Amelio, ed. Hal in the Classroom: Science Fiction Film; Thomas R. Atkins, ed. Science Fiction Films; John Baxter. Science Fiction in the Cinema; John Brosnan. Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction; Carlos Clarens. An Illustrated History of the Horror Film; Gail Morgan Hickman. The Films of George Pal; Stuart Kaminsky. American Film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory of Popular Film; Douglas Menville and R. Reginald. Things to Come: An Illustrated History of the Science Fiction Film; James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, eds. The Great Science Fiction Pictures; Jeff Rovin. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films; Jeff Rovin. From Jules Verne to Star Trek; Richard Siegel and J.-C. Suares, with an introduction by Boylston Tompkins. Alien Creatures. William Johnson, ed. Focus on the Science Fiction Film)

  • Charles Elkins. Recent Bibliographies of SF and Fantasy (Ruth Nadelman Lynn. Fantasy for Children: An Annotated Checklist; R. Reginald, ed. Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. 2 vols.; Roger C. Schlobin. The Literature of Fantasy: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Fantasy Fiction; Marshall B. Tymn, ed. American Fantasy and Science Fiction: Toward a Bibliography of Works Published in the United States, 1948 -1973; Marshall B. Tymn, Kenneth J. Zahorski, and Robert H. Boyer. Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide)

  • Fredric Jameson. SF Novel/SF Film (Peter George. Dr. Strangelove; Harry Harrison. Make Room! Make Room! ; Robert A. Heinlein. Destination Moon; Richard Matheson. The Shrinking Man; W.J. Stuart. Forbidden Planet; Walter Tevis. The Man Who Fell to Earth)

  • Stanislaw Lem. On Science, Pseudo-Science, and Some SF (Doris and David Jonas. Other Senses, Other Worlds; Joseph Weizenbaum. Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation; Immanuel Velikovsky. Worlds in Collision; Lyall Watson. Lifetide: The Biology of the Unconscious; Ian Watson. The Martian Inca; Sir John Hackett, et al. The Third World War: August 1985; Paul Erdman. The Crash of Seventy-Nine)


Pamela Annas

Science Fiction Film Criticism in the US

Political awareness is a minimal feature in the landscape of American SF film criticism, a Left political analysis of SF film occurs even less frequently, and a feminist analysis of SF film is rarer than drinkable water in the sands of Mars.

After evaluating the 14 books covered in this review, my conclusion is that we do not yet have and desperately need a politically left, feminist, theoretical analysis of SF film in the US. Specifically, l evaluated the 14 books on the basis of whether the author was aware of the following factors: (1) that art exists in a social and historical context; (2) that one always holds to a theory, both about film and SF, so that it is better to explain it openly; (3) that there is a history of the SF film as a genre; (4) the technical side of film-making, especially the special effects. I further considered: (5) the use of pictures or stills from the films; (6) the originality and use of fresh resource material; (7) whether the prose was readable; (8) whether the organization of material was coherent and usable; (9) the scope of the book, (10) whether plot summaries or precis of the films were provided; and (11) how extensive the filmography was.

1. Anthologies. Hal in the Classroom, Ralph J. Amelio's anthology for high school and college teachers using SF film, is one of the two useful anthologies available. It contains nine essays, including Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster," published in 1961 and still the best (though controversial) single essay on SF film. "The Imagination of Disaster" is required reading for anyone interested in SF film, it is to this criticism what Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own is to feminist literary criticism, and Amelio gets high marks as an editor for including this crucial essay in his anthology. Hal in the Classroom also contains two essays reprinted from Velvet Light Trap's issue on "Politics and American Cinema" (Spring 1972): "Political Attitudes in American Science Fiction Films," by Dannis Peary, and "THX-1138 vs. Metropolis: The New Politics of Science Fiction Film," by Nancy Schwartz, as well as essays on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and King Kong. Finally, Amelio's anthology includes an essay called "Journey into Science Fiction," which is the introduction to the other useful anthology in the field, Focus on the Science Fiction Film, edited by William Johnson. Oddly enough, Hal in the Classroom does not have an article on Hal's home, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One of the really excellent features of Hal in the Classroom is its well selected and intelligently annotated filmography. There are 83 entries in the section on short films, including "The Grandmother" (34 minutes), "The Collector" (6 minutes), and "La Jet╚e" (29 minutes). The feature-length filmography lists 70 films, from Godard's Alphaville to Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's Woman in the Moon. Amelio also includes a fine selected bibliography of works on SF literature and SF film.

The other indispensable anthology of SF film criticism is William Johnson's Focus on the Science Fiction Film. It does not duplicate, but complements, Hal in the Classroom. Johnson's book is basically a gathering together of some important resources on SF film: examples are an interview with the director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel, an excerpt from "The Journal of Fahrenheit 451," by Fran┴ois Truffaut, "Shooting Destination Moon," by Robert Heinlein; excerpts from filmscripts (The Woman in the Moon and Things to Come); current reviews of films, such as a gem of a 1936 review of Things to Come by Elizabeth Bowen, in which she writes that the film "woos the imagination instead of bludgeoning it" and that Things to Come finally does not fully work because of a "conflict between moral and poetic intention."

The information and resources in Focus on the Science Fiction Film are accessible and well organized. An introduction--the one that is anthologized in Hal in the Classroom--is followed by a fascinating chronology of "Important dates in the development of the science fiction film from 1895 to the present, together with a selection of relevant events in world history and technology" (p. 13). The anthology is divided into four sections: Beginnings: 1895-1940s; Popular Years: The 1950s; Taking Stock: Some Issues and Answers; and Moving On: The 1960s and After. There is a section of brief comments in response to questionnaires Johnson sent out to such writers and filmmakers as Brian Aldiss, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, Michael Crichton, Fritz Lang, Alain Resnais, Don Siegel, and others. Focus on the Science Fiction Film makes some effort at being international; Johnson has collected essays and documents from French and Italian sources and journals as well as those in English. There is also a selected filmography and bibliography, neither annotated.

The third anthology, Science Fiction Films, edited by Thomas R. Atkins, is one of the Monarch Film Studies series (of which Atkins is the general editor). Science Fiction Films is poorly and incoherently organized and has so many pictures that one easily forgets there is a text buried somewhere in the book. There are 6 short pieces plus Atkins's equally short introduction: two interviews, one with Fritz Lang on Metropolis and one with Don Siegel on Invasion of the Body Snatchers; two articles on a single film, one on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and one on Solaris; and two survey articles, both on visual elements in the SF film. One of them, "The Alien Landscapes of the Planet Earth: Science Fiction in the Fifties," is a good, though truncated, discussion of how SF film directors with low budgets used bleak Earth landscapes to evoke a sense of the alien--a rare example of a discussion on how economic considerations shape art. There's actually some decent material in this anthology but it is sloppily put together. Though it does have some material the other two anthologies do not have, it is the least useful of the three. It is not worth chasing off to the SF bookstore in New York City for it, the way I did.

2. Filmography. The Great Science Fiction Pictures, edited by James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, is an excellent, up to date, and comprehensive (366pp.) filmography. The two authors, and their four research associates, all have numerous reference titles to their credit; their competence and experience show in this extremely thorough and professional book. The Great Science Fiction Pictures covers a lot of the bad SF pictures as well. The entries vary from half a page to a page and a half and include, for each entry: (1) all the film credits; (2) some sense of the production history; (3) a plot precis; and (4) some sense of the criticism on the film--the authors either quote from reviews or summarize. There is also, at the end of the book, a fairly complete bibliography of SF shows on radio and TV, and a select bibliography of SF bibliographies, indexes, and checklists. Neither of these bibliographies is annotated. The book is well worth owning.

3. Picture Books. Any book that calls itself From Jules Verne to Star Trek and then organizes itself alphabetically rather than historically is guilty at the least of false advertising. This book is basically an annotated filmography, with an average of 450 words per film and a varied, though not lavish, selection of stills from the major films, such as a close-up of the insect-like mutant in This Island Earth, three portraits of semi-clad female guest stars from Star Trek, and the monster of I Married a Monster from Outer Space. The television section is a nine-page, mostly pictures, postscript at the end of the book. Though this book does give the reader some minimal facts about the films it covers. From Jules Verne to Star Trek is a sloppily and hastily thrown together way of cashing in on the current interest in SF film.

Jeff Rovin's earlier book, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction, is better; at least it is (though no more than) what it purports to be. The pictures are varied; they are well spaced and laid out on the pages. The material is arranged chronologically, covering the silents, the 1930s, the serials, the '40s, the '50s (subdivided into sections like "monsters on the loose" and "robots, flying saucers, and machines amok"), the '60s (also subdivided), the '70s, and SF on television, a longer and better coverage than in his other book. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films ends with a briefly annotated critical filmography called "the best and the worst."

In contrast to the two Rovin books, Gail Morgan Hickman's The Films of George Pal is a thorough, useful, readable, and visually interesting book. There are 15 chapters, from the excellent opening chapter on the puppeteers, Pal's pre-SF animation work, through his later films both known and unknown: The Great Rupert, Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, Houdini, The Naked Jungle, The Conquest of Space, Tom Thumb, The Time Machine, Atlantis, The Last Continent, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, 7 Faces of Dr Lao, The Power, and finally, in 1975, Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze. The Films of George Pal is an appreciation and a tribute rather than a critical study. It is, however, thorough and informative. Of the books reviewed, this was the most visually competent and interesting; the layout of stills and photos made sense both in relation to each other and to the text. Hickman's book is not pretentious; it does simply and well exactly what it sets out to do: to introduce the reader to the films of George Pal.

Things to Come: An Illustrated History of the Science Fiction Film, by Douglas Menville and R. Reginald, with a brief introduction by Ray Bradbury, is stronger on the illustrations than on the history. It contains a good and numerous selection of pictures. The text which accompanies the pictures is competent; it usually consists of a paragraph or two of plot summary and one sentence of critical commentary on the film. Things to Come covers films from 1895 to 1977. The last chapter, "Wars and Wizards (1970-1977)," discusses such films as The Man Who Fell to Earth, A Boy and his Dog and two feature-length animations, Wizards and Fantastic Planet, refers to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which had not yet been released, and talks about Star Wars in detail.

Alien Creatures, by Richard Siegel and J.-C. Suares, has 40 color and 135 black-and- white photos of gorgeously alien aliens, with captions like "the tentacles of Yog grab an islander to crush him to death in Yog: Monster From Space," and "the cucumber creature from Venus eyes Beverly Garland when It Conquered the World." The authors vary the stills with movie posters. Alien Creatures is organized into five chapters: Flash Gordon and Descendants, Invasion Earth: 1950 AD, Low Budget Invaders, Galactic Encounters, and Tube Aliens. Hardly any text accompanies the pictures, which is a relief, given the generally bland and banal quality of such texts.

Instead, Alien Creatures opens with an extensive, erudite, and readable introduction by Boyston Tompkins. Historical and theoretical, Tompkins' essay considers three types of alien: bug-eyed monsters, "the extra-terrestrial as galactic human," and the god-like alien. "The humanoid alien is accessible," Tompkins writes. "He represents us either as we fear or wish to be. It is comforting to imagine that the invention of a faster-than-light drive or a teleport beam will not produce essential changes in the human species, doubly so to think that cultures that may have already developed such devices look and feel and behave as we do" (p. 19). Tompkins does take up the issue of xenophobia in SF film's presentation of the alien and its relation to racism. He does not discuss sexism and how woman is often treated as alien and other when she is not simply occupying the set as a prop.

4. Essay. Philip Strick's Science Fiction Movies Science Fiction Movies seems promising at first glance, but its achievement is uneven. Material is arranged thematically--Watching the Skies, Men Like Gods, the Mark of the Beast, Armageddon and Later, Out of Our Minds, Taking Off, Far Out, and Time Twisters--which is fine if the writer then is going to make some kind of argument around theme. Strick does not. He talks about a large number of films in each chapter, assigning a bare paragraph or two to any given film. Overall, the organization is confusing and jumbled. Principles of organization are not clear, and the transitions between a discussion of one film and another are arbitrary and sometimes jarring. Basically, Science Fiction Movies is an essay, rambling and freely associative, informative and occasionally erudite, with the information not easily accessible to nor organized for the reader. The book is a series of musings upon SF film, a kind of stream of consciousness whose purpose seems more expressive than communicative. It was probably more fun to write than it is to read; and indeed, this is the kind of book one tends not to read, but to use through its index. Science Fiction Movies is, at the moment, out of print in the US.

5. Genre Histories. There are two full scale histories of SF film--John Baxter's Science Fiction in the Cinema, published in 1970 and covering SF film from A Trip to the Moon (1902) to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and John Brosnan's Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction, published in 1978.

Baxter's Science Fiction in the Cinema is available in paperback and has been for ten years the standard text on the history of SF film. Baxter includes some horror films and some related mainstream films but tries to make distinctions between those and the straight SF film. The book covers the major films--The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, etc.--and quite a few of the minor films--The Devil Doll, The Beginning or the End, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Space Children, and so on. There is no index--a fault--but since the organization is strictly chronological, a short hunt will locate any film. Science Fiction in the Cinema is interestingly and intelligently written and it has a critical perspective. Baxter obviously knows SF and film as well as the SF film; his critical analyses, though brief, are usually accurate. The book includes a short bibliography of criticism and an average-sized filmography.

John Brosnan begins Future Tense by saying that "Any discussion of science fiction films must begin with an examination of science fiction" (p. 9). It soon emerges that Brosnan wants to see SF cinema successfully translate SF literature onto the screen. And so he often judges films by how close they stay to SF literature--not so much to a given story, but to the spirit of the genre as a whole. I don't agree that this is necessary, and some of my further criticisms of Brosnan's book come out of that initial disagreement. It seems to me that while it is essential to know SF literature and to know film in order to talk about SF film, it is not necessary, accurate, or useful to judge SF film by standards trucked in from another genre. Film is a different medium with different possibilities. A successful SF novel may not translate well at all into film, because of the very qualities that made it successful as literature.

Given this emphasis on the relation of SF film to SF literature, it is surprising that Brosnan does not always make the distinction between SF film and horror film, since horror film is surely less related to SF literature. He says, for example, "1933 was also a vintage year for lSF] films, and the one that towers above them all is undoubtedly King Kong" (p. 47). I'm going to be picky now and point out some odd and obvious inaccuracies in the book: Brosnan does not seem to know that Fritz Lang based the city of Metropolis on his memory of the New York skyline. And, though Bosnan does talk about Forbidden Planet in relation to Shakespeare's The Tempest, he says that Robbie the Robot is Caliban and the id monster is Ariel, when the reverse is closer to the spirit of the play and the film.

However, Future Tense is excellent on special effects. Generally, Brosnan's discussion of a film will include a narrative summary of the film, a discussion of special effects, often a fascinating account of the studio politics around a film, and some criticism of the film. He includes a number of quotations from film directors, special effects people, and script and other writers. Though Brosnan does not make the political analysis himself, the lavish inclusion of these quotations adds an air of economic and political reality to the text, reminding us that film is a business as well as an art and that decisions are often a compromise between economic and aesthetic considerations. Future Tense is chronologically arranged and has an advantage over Baxter's book in that it covers films from 1968 to 1978; it discusses Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind extensively, for example. There is a chronologically arranged "Appendix: SF on Television" and an index. Future Tense has much useful information. It has some well-selected, well-spaced film stills and it is one of the few books reviewed here that discusses the SF films of the last three or four years.

6. Postscript. Carlos Clarens includes a 20-page chapter on SF film, "Keep Watching the Sky," in his 1967 study, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film. Clarens talks, as might be expected from a person who is writing a history of horror film, about the ways in which SF film is also horror film--"things from other worlds offer unlimited variety as creatures of horror, untied as they are to anthropocentric codes," a theme that Boylston Tompkins takes up in greater detail in Alien Creatures. Clarens echoes Susan Sontag when he says that the ultimate horror in SF is "neither death nor destruction but dehumanization." He puts SF film into an international context when he points out that "in Socialist countries, where science is held in the highest esteem and its validity never questioned, science fiction is rarely concerned with the horrific. There are few monsters in Socialist films, and none of an inexplicable nature, no debacles, and absolutely no mutants (mutants are walking warnings against the use of atomic energy)" (p. 130).

One of the problems of trying to talk about SF film is that it has been commercially and historically confused with horror film. Clarens doesn't clear up the confusion. Nor does Stuart Kaminsky in American film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory of Popular Film (1974), which contains one chapter called "Psychological Considerations: Horror and Science Fiction," which in turn contains three sections: the horror film, the SF film, and the fantasy film. The section on SF film is approximately 800 words long. Kaminsky's main point is that, "In contrast to the horror film, the science fiction film deals with fear of life and the future, not fear of death" (p. 111). Mostly what Kaminsky does in this section is to refer the reader to Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster," which also does not distinguish between SF and horror film.

Finally, a book just published, but not available at the time of writing this article, is The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction film, by Vivian Carol Sobchack (NY: A.S. Barnes), 1980). $14.50.

7. Conclusion. We need a well written theoretical analysis of SF film with at least a thorough awareness of Marxist and feminist views. The best article on SF film--in spite of the serious failure of not distinguishing between SF film and horror film--is still Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster," published nearly 20 years ago, in which Sontag makes the crucial connection between popular art and its social context. Enough basic research, gathering information and resources, is available in the books reviewed here and in articles scattered in film journals like Velvet Light Trap, CinÚfantastique, and Jump Cut, to make it possible now to begin building a theory of SF film.

Such a theory would need to recognize that the SF film is related to but distinct from SF literature. It would need to deal with the boundaries between mainstream film, SF film, and horror film. It would need to talk about the audiences of SF film and about the business, historically, of who provides for that audience and in whose interests. It would need to discuss the economics of SF film and how that affects its "art." It would need to explore the images of SF film. It would look at aliens, and consider the relation between alien and human. It would look at the image of women in SF film. It would look at the SF film here. It would go beyond a psychological analysis to discuss what the various SF films say about people's needs and fears.

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