Entering this course, I questioned the value of studying science fiction films. When I think of the history of science fiction, I think of the seminal works that arose from the era of gothic literature, I think of the classic pulps that arose from the Western, I think of the groundbreaking novels that arose after the popularization of the pocket paperback. I don’t often think of science fiction film as thought-provoking.
The ultimate goal of film-making is to gain enough money at the box office to justify spending millions of dollars on actors and sets and CGI. In order to do this, movies must cater to the zeitgeist where they are shown. For instance, a movie promoting the welfare of Soviet Russians would not have made a lot of money in the America of the early 1950s. In fact, the director would have been chased out of town by a torch-wielding mob for creating such a monstrosity. Blockbuster films did not start featuring gay couples until gay culture became somewhat accepted by American society, and even now they are severely underrepresented in film. New cultural attitudes are not inspired by movies. Movies must reflect preexisting cultural attitudes.
Perhaps I feel this way because I am used to the free-range thinking one can find in books and on the internet. Literature can afford to contain progressive (or even subversive) ideas because it does not require the financial investment that a movie does. The audience of printed science fiction is more select, more attentive, and more open to what the author has to say, so new thoughts cause less of a ripple. This is why Stranger in a Strange Land was never made into a movie. And can you imagine The Left Hand of Darkness on today’s silver screen? With today’s attitudes toward intersexuality? It took Hollywood until 1979 to cast a tough female lead (Sigourney Weaver in Alien) (Booker, 15). The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that basically states that society does not need gender roles to function, was published ten years previously—in 1969. That says it all, folks. Compared to the warp drive progressivism exhibited by science fiction literature, science fiction film looks like a horse and buggy.
“American science fiction film of the 1930s was largely confined to low-budget serials… the special effects of [which] were extremely crude. However, to a generation of young Americans, they offered thrilling images of other planets and other times that presented an exciting alternative to a dreary Depression-era world that was drifting toward global war.” (Booker, 3-4)Booker’s Alternate Americas did not convince me that science fiction films were socially groundbreaking. With the exception of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, none of the movies mentioned in the passage were acclaimed for the effect they had on the American mentality (Booker, 12). Every other movie either served as a distraction from the monotony of everyday life (whether it be during the Depression, during a war, or during a time of financial prosperity), or as a comment on how Americans were feeling. If Americans want “good” and “evil” to be simple concepts, Star Wars is there to simplify it for them (Booker, 13). If Americans think that the “conventional nuclear family” is the epitome of all things wholesome, then “a group of responsible males who have recently performed their familial duties by producing offspring” will be there to save the day (Booker, 9). If Americans want cultural “relevance,” then filmmakers will suspend filming silly science fiction movies all together (Booker, 12).
“…Looking into at the Cold War years of the 1950s, then at the late 1970s and early 1980s, some critics have concluded that science fiction film seems particularly to flourish in conservative times, perhaps because of their escapist appeal to audiences appalled by contemporary reality… Here, however, the escape is… from the soul-destroying nature of life in modern capitalist America.” (Booker, 14)
Science fiction films flourished in conservative times precisely because the majority were inherently conservative. Science fiction films were astoundingly good at telling audiences what they wanted to hear.
So why do we study science fiction films? They serve as an interesting gauge of the cultural attitudes at the time of their release. The difference between remakes can reflect the changes America has underwent in the intervening years. They are the face of science fiction, in a way, as they are the most widely popular medium of science fiction. Science fiction films stir our visual imagination, create new science fiction fans, and keep the ideas of old science fiction greats alive.
And perhaps they can change cultural attitudes for the better. Maybe their influence on society is simply so slow-acting as to appear to not be moving at all. If so, I'd like to see some love for Muslim Americans and the LGBT community sometime in the near future, please.
Booker, M. Keith. Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006. Print.