What elements do we think of when the science fiction film comes to mind? Often a grand set design, as we see in 2001, Logan's Run and Blade Runner, or slightly futuristic dialogue, evident in A Clockwork Orange, in the technobabble of Sunshine or the newspeak of a 1984. The perspective is also very frequently dystopian - from Soylent Green to Planet of the Apes, from Shivers to Escape from New York. And how often in science fiction do we see society breaking down: just think of recent examples like 28 Days Later and Children of Men?
Indeed, though Susan Sontag suggested in her mid-sixties essay. 'The Imagination of Disaster', that science fiction films contained no social critique, it was as if her essay promptly generated a rush towards socio-politicising the genre. Throughout the late sixties and into the seventies sci-fi was awash with social comment films: Privilege, The War Game, Planet of the Apes, THX 138, The Omega Man, Zero Population Growth and numerous others. Sontag may have claimed in 1965, "There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films", but within a decade such a statement was turned on its head, and perhaps even today one of the appeals of the science fiction genre is the way it generates critique through hypothesis. A film like Children of Men combines a sort of Thatcherite mise-en-scene suggesting there is no such thing as society, with a Blairite empty national mourning when a baby, the last person born, dies. Imagine, the film seems to say, the worst elements of Thatcherism and Blairism and we would have very much the dystopia the film proposes. This seems an example less of generic demands, than social exploration through futuristic conceit.
There would be those who might say Children of Men is barely a science fiction film at all, and when using clips from David Cronenberg's Crash in a class on genre and sci fi, people have argued over its generic inclusion. This gets to the heart of what Phil Hardy in The Aurum Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls "the definitional problem that science fiction poses". As he compares the sci fi to the western he explains "there is no fixed locale for the science fiction film", that it can be set in the future, in the present, in the past, in outer space, cyberspace and even in inner space - if we think of Fantastic Voyage, where the characters are shrunk and pass through the human body.
Certainly there have been plenty attempts at definition, for example, Richard Hodgens' belief that "science fiction involves extrapolated or fictitious science, of fictitious use of scientific possibilities or it may be simply fiction that takes place in the future or introduces some radical assumption about the present or the past." But Hodgens wording suggests a slipperiness that indicates even he has problems holding a ready definition to hand.
So taking into account Hardy's ideas of the definitional problem of the genre, perhaps it is best to ignore trying to define it, and settle instead for addressing the elements we've already touched upon, and also to see what films are true to the 'possibilities' of the genre and not simply its expectations. If we think of a film like John Carpenter's The Thing, it seems less useful to muse over whether it is a horror film or a science fiction film, than to muse over which elements make it horror; which sci-fi. The idea of a group of characters lost in the middle of nowhere under threat would suggest horror, but the problem of this group of scientists on an expedition who come across a dormant creature they accidentally resuscitate indicates sci-fi. Critics who've had problems with the film have usually proposed that it lies in the science fiction premise giving way to the horror pay off. As The Aurum Encyclopedia suggests, "thus the dramatic tension of the film, once it is ascertained that the alien can take over humans at will, quickly becomes a question of 'who next?'" It is the speculative dimension, the notion of a beast surviving dormant in a block of ice and, once awakened, turning into a creature that takes on the form of each person it invades, which suggests the sci-fi, but the by-numbers element closer to stale horror.
It is often the speculative dimension that seems to make science fiction both a genre of some fascination and also of artistic worth. This is undeniably a qualitative argument, yet it contains a sort of embryonic ambition, as if sci-fi is so often compromised by thrills, special effects and narrative convention which get in the way of its speculatively progressive aspect, that the exceptions are taken as the works that should become the rule. At the back of the Aurum Encyclopedia, a number of writers and critics are asked for their favourite s/f films. Generally the ones proposed are films that hold as firmly as possible to the speculative over the spectacular, the exploratory over the expected. Though the top five money makers at the time of publication were ET, Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman, the names that would keep cropping up on the experts' list were Metropolis, 2001, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Only Close Encounters proves a box-office/purist cross-over.
What interests us here first and foremost is the genre as a speculative field of inquiry: films that play less to our expectations than play with our perceptions. Films like Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth and Stanley Kubrick's 2001 are great examples that don't just want to allegorize our world but also reach out towards another one. They both suggest the other worldly in terms of form and content. Roeg's film finds a temporally askew editing rhythm to hint at other dimensions of consciousness, while Kubrick's subdued soundtrack gives us an eerie sense of outer space. Both films are very interested in what is beyond conventional human consciousness as they explore stories incorporating the possibility of higher human consciousness, by utilising, if you like, a higher use of form. Whatever the strengths of films like Alfonso Cuaron's The Children of Men and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, the form is conventional even when brilliant - as evidenced in a masterful long take a third of the way through and also near the end of Cuaron's film.
So what makes science fiction an aesthetic genre isn't quite the same as what makes it a commercial genre. Commercially special effects are vital, and much of the appeal of Star Wars, Superman and Independence Day is a very specific form of what some critics have called the technological sublime, and a branch known as impact aesthetics, a term usually credited to Geoff King, The technological sublime is a term John Orr comes up with in The Art and Politics of Cinema to explain Hollywood's fascination with developing technology and a certain awe one feels in front of it. This would cover anything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to Contact, as well as Cocoon, Star Trek, Enemy Mine, Flash Gordon. Our response isn't one of speculation but rather admiration. There is almost a religious quality to this, and Erik Davis has used the term TechGnosis to grapple with our relationship with newer technologies, and our awe in the face of them. But are we often not admiring the idea of a bigger, broader universe, but simply the bigger, broader budgets of Hollywood special effects teams and their Computer Generated Imagery (CGI)? Is this not the case especially with impact aesthetics, where explosions come on such a grand scale that we're less responding to the diegetic tragedy than the non-diegetic effect. When the Empire State building gets zapped in Independence Day, aren't we gee-whizzing at the effect rather than concerning ourselves with the problem of alien life forms arriving on earth?
Let us provocatively call the technological sublime and impact aesthetics the enemy within - the genre viruses that cripple its creative possibilities. What films do we have to counter them? Obviously The Man Who Fell to Earth and 2001, but also the original Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run, Soylent Green, the 1956 and 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, perhaps Robocop and even the often trashy Total Recall, the first Terminator, Blade Runner, The Thing, They Live, Metropolis, Dr Strangelove, Seconds and certainly much of Cronenberg's work, including Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome and Crash. That is, any film - and each person's list will be undeniably partial - that suggests a greater sense of the speculative over the spectacular, even if in many instances they're undeniably in conjunction - namely in films like Blade Runner, Logan's Run and Total Recall.
One of the great qualities evident in Cronenberg's films is the degree to which the speculative idea is more strongly present than the technological effect. In much of his work, going back to his earliest films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg maximises reflection and minimises the reimagined world. If many sci-fi films reimagine the world for us without really reimagining the self that occupies that world, Cronenberg reverses this hierarchy. For example, both Shivers and Rabid point towards AIDS almost ten years before it became a general social phenomenon. As each film addresses the problem of sexual promiscuity, critics like Robin Wood accused Cronenberg of conservatism, but Cronenberg is less reactionary than prophetic, and actually quite subversive. As he says - he wants to suggest in his 'viral films' - Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, The Fly - what the virus can do to us as human beings, how it can transform us. He's even proposed that his often anthropocentrically pessimistic films could be seen as works of optimism from the point of view of the disease.
Cronenberg exaggerates of course, but if many have a problem with Crash it may reside in Cronenberg's interest in the 'abnormal' behaviour of its leading characters as they pursue a desire based on the conjunction of sexual pleasure and car culture - there is nothing more erotic in the film than making love to a fresh car crash victim. Cronenberg here does nothing to the mise-en-scene - the future is now in the spaghetti junction, concrete Toronto that the director utilises. Crash, though is just one of many science fiction films over the years that have worked with minimising the spectacular and maximising the speculative. John Carpenter's low budget Dark Star is another, as was Lucas's THX 138, while Moon, Primer and Time Crimes are more recent examples. These are films that imagine the future socio-specifically, but without the speculation residing in the set design.
This isn't to disparage films that are essentially architecturally enquiring, and if Blade Runner remains a much-heralded sci-fi it rests less on the plot which owes a great deal to film noir; more on a dystopia of a multi-nationally controlled society. Other fine sci-fi design films include AI, Batman and Dune. Yet often the re-imagining seems to draw on a certain type of scape, and Vivian Sobchack reckons in Screening Space there is a visual connection between science fiction films that lie "in the consistent and repetitious use not of specific images, but of types of images which function in the same way from film to film to create an imaginatively realized world. The visual surface...presents us with a confrontation between a mixture of those images to which we respond as 'alien' and those we know to be familiar." This world is removed from our own, she suggests, but quite often, we notice, only partially. Nevertheless, some cities are more familiarly present than others, as sci-fi films are often architecturally vertical rather than horizontal, and suggest New York as a model much more than the sprawl of LA.
Interestingly Sobchack also mentions the use of sound, and it would make for an intriguing contrast to notice how two great sonic genres - sci-fi and horror - utilise sound quite differently, no matter their crossover potential. Does sci-fi so often rely not on silence -as the horror movie frequently depends on it - but hush: the quiet swoop of electronic doors closing, the gentle, firm tones of a computerized voice, or the dull thump of feet on soft surfaces? No doubt 2001 has proved of vital influence here.
Sobchack suggests that sci-fi sound can disorientate, but what about the disorientation of self, where one's identity and perceptions can be called into question? This is one of the principles at work in Philip K. Dick's fiction and finds its way into adaptations like Blade Runner, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly. But it's also evident in Demon Seed, and George A. Romero's sci-fi/horror zombie films like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. The early stages of Dawn of the Dead focus on the ethics of killing zombies and musing over whether they remain human, while even a film like Frankenstein addresses this problem of what a sentient and emotional being really is.
What we've offered here is merely a drive-by account of the genre to help locate some of its preoccupations and its tropes. It is a genre not so much of hard science, but soft science, a science that finds its purpose not in empirical evidence, but suggestive hypotheses. Anybody who attacks the genre for too rarely being true to science may churlishly be missing the point. Equally, for all its speculative inventiveness, its job isn't to predict the future but imagine one. As writer William Gibson wryly noted recently of his mid-eighties sci-fi novel Neuromancer, there was "a complete absence of cellphones, which I'm sure young readers assume must be a key plot point."
© Tony McKibbin