Science Fiction Studies

#43 = Volume 14, Part 3 = November 1987




Andrew Gordon

Science-Fiction Film Criticism: The Postmodern Always Rings Twice

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 separable genre.

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" (p.270).

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 future."

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 a genre.

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" (p. 127).

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 Pee-wee's playhouse!

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 (1982):93-95.

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, NY: 1981.

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.

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