Science Fiction Film: An Overview
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The science fiction film genre has been around almost as long as movies have, but like the cinema it is still a fairly young art form. This genre came into existence shortly after the invention of the movie camera in 1888 and has endured for over one-hundred years. Science fiction is adaptive; it changes with the times and this trend can be seen in its incorporation of other genres, cultural history and technology. This essay will attempt to define the genre, chronicle the history and evolution, and explore its relation to technology. This is in general and in the cinema.
When discussing the science fiction film genre a problem occurs. The distinction between science fiction and other genres is not always clear cut. Many movies span between the science fiction genre and other genres. Movies such as The Ring (2002) or the Alien series (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997) illustrate how the distinction between science fiction and horror films can be obscure. (Telotte 46) Some comedies, such as Mars Attacks (1996) and Back to the Future (1985), are very much science fiction. (Mitchell 133) In fact there is an example of a science fiction film fitting into almost any genre. Starship Troopers (1997) parallels a war film and Outland (1981) resembles a western in many respects. (Telotte 45)
The characteristics that define the science fiction genre can be difficult to pin down. A genre such as the western has easily identifiable characteristics such as cowboys, guns, the wild west, and bad guys with mustaches. The average person would have no trouble picking out a science fiction film but when asked to come up with a definition, most would struggle. After being exposed to a number of science fiction films people are able to recognize characteristics and clues that together to constitute a cultural consensus of what a science fiction film is. (Telotte 56) From this, however, someone might say any film with aliens or monsters is science fiction, while others might say a science fiction film has to have ray guns and space travel. A science fiction film is a film based on currently known facts about the physical world with some type of twist which answers the question “what if.” In other words it deals less with explicit characteristics and conventions and more with cultural concerns.
Science fiction films give us a taste of what our lives would be like if our technological situation were different. (Newman 80) These technological changes could be a result of humans taking a different path in the past or the present, evolving into the future or as a result of a visit by extraterrestrials. It may sound obvious but a science fiction film is fiction. While science fiction films deal with real concerns they are entirely fictional. The film Deep Impact (1998) plays on our fear of Armageddon. (Mitchell 52) While an asteroid could strike earth and destroy humanity, it has not happened. For the purposes of this essay the definition of science fiction is a film that explores the repercussions of a technological situation that differs from our current relationship with technology. This definition is adequate in describing the majority of science fiction films but is still open to debate.
Throughout its history the science fiction film genre has paralleled the current fears and concerns of people at the time. The science fiction film genre got its start in 1902 with Le voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) by French film maker and magician Georges Méliès. (Frank 13) It shows how during the industrial revolution, people were afraid of industry destroying the planet, forcing them to search for new places to settle. This film, and other early science fiction films such as The Mysterious Island (1929) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), also shows how pre 1960’s science fiction films dealt largely with the fantastic voyage or alien invasions. (Telotte 45)
While these types of science fiction film did not disappear, the 1960’s ushered in a new type of science fiction film that dealt more with science, the human identity and political issues. It came at a time when major technological and social changes were occurring. The civil rights movement, assassinations of government figures and the Vietnam War were all happening in this time period. People began to have a new outlook on government. They no longer view the government as a solution to the problem as in Godzilla (1954) where the government’s determination saved the day.
In the movie E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) the government captures and plans to experiment on a friendly alien stranded on earth. This new view of government is illustrated in Star Wars (1977). The first line in the opening text is “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. (Telotte 82) It immediately removes any type of association to politics or society. Star Wars came out in response to peoples’ mistrust of government. Many people ere rallying against the Vietnam War at this time and Star Wars reflected their distrust in government.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is an early example of a science fiction film dealing with technology and the human identity. The HAL 9000 computer paralleled peoples’ fears of technology brining the downfall of humanity. Other post 1960 examples include Westworld (1973), Terminal Man (1974), and Demon Seed (1977). These films were made at a time when computers and machines were beginning to replace humans in the work place. (Telotte 46) They reflected concerns at the time about the future role of technology and artificial intelligence by showing how things could go wrong. The films Westworld and Demon Seed show how technology can turn against its creators. Terminal Man explores what can go wrong when people begin to enhance their bodies with machines.
Science fiction films today often depict humanity or government as an obstacle to finding the solution, or the cause of, a problem within the movie. It is often humanity’s faults that are responsible for its downfall, such as in the movie 12 Monkeys (1996) where the government created a virus that killed most of the earth’s population. The Matrix (1999) shows how the technology created by humans turned against and enslaved them.
Much of modern science fiction deals with philosophy and psychology. The Matrix Revolutions (2003) is an extreme example of how philosophical a science fiction with its twist on the “brain in a vat” paradox. (Pope) Some modern films explore the ethics of creating artificial intelligence. They make us wonder if creating machine life is playing god, and whether we have the right to do with that life as we please. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is excellent examples of this type of philosophical movie.
The science fiction genre is continually reinventing itself. It has evolved and continues to evolve as technology changes. The modern science fiction film borrows heavily from real science. (Newman 60) A Trip to the Moon (1902) shows how people at the time envisioned space travel. This view has evolved considerably since the invention of real space vehicles and actual trips to the moon. The movie Red Planet (2000) provides an excellent example of how changing technology affects the science fiction film. Red Planet is far more realistic in its depiction of space travel. It uses current ideas about how a manned mission to mars could be accomplished.
The future of science fiction is difficult to predict. It is a safe guess that the science fiction genre will continue to reflect our deepest concerns and values. Spiderman (2002), X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003) show the increasing popularity of action hero science fiction. These films deal with our value of tolerance. In these movies super heroes are often ostracized by the very people they are trying to save. Spiderman must disguise himself so that he can continue to live his normal life and be accepted by society. In the Movie X-Men people fear and hate mutants. A future example of this trend is Spiderman 2 will be in theaters later this year and is expected to be wildly successful.
The science fiction genre relates to technology more that other types of films. While technology affects science fiction, science fiction also affects technology. This is why we must discuss special effects. Many science fiction films have to rely heavily on special effects to advance their plot. Star Wars (1977) had to some how show a world filled with technologies that do not exist such as hover cars, laser cannons and star destroyers. Special effects are the only way to bring these types of stories to the big screen. This is why science fiction film has been at the forefront of the special effects industry for its entire existence. Many special effects, some of which are still used today, were fist used in science fiction films. A Trip to the Moon (1902) was not only the first science fiction film but one of the first films to make extensive use of special effects. (Frank 134) It was revolutionary in its use of editing and trick photography.
The Lost World (1925) made extensive use of stop-motion animation and Star Wars (1977) used computers to assist in creating realistic motion while filming models. (Telotte 90) CGI, which was first used in Tron (1982), was used to make incredibly realistic dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993). The Abyss (1989) used a newly developed CGI technique called morphing. It was later used in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) to create a liquid metal terminator that could mimic anything it touched. (Telotte 93) The special effect “bullet time” was developed solely for the movie The Matrix (1999). It is clear that the science fiction genre is pivotal in the development of new special effects technologies. It is responsible for the invention or creative new use of almost any special effect used today or in the past.
The science fiction film explores the repercussions of a technological situation that differs from our current relationship with technology. It shows us what our lives could be like in ways no other type of film could. Science fiction is adaptive; it changes with the times and this trend can be seen in its incorporation of other genres, cultural history and technology. It reflects problems within society adapting as we do. The science fiction genre has been constantly changing since its beginnings in 1902. It has evolved as new technologies have been invented and as peoples’ perceptions of the world have changed. Science fiction film is responsible for many advances in special effects and is affected by changes in real science. Science fiction is truly a genre that reflects society and its values.
Newman, Kim. Millennium Movies: End of the World Cinema. London: Titan Books, 1999.
Telotte, J.P. Science Fiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001
Mitchell, Charles P. A Guide to Apocalyptic Cinema. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001
Frank, Alan. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Hand Book. Totowa: Barns & Noble Books, 1982