The Science Fiction Genre in Films

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Answers From - contributorFrom Anya Tretyakova – contributor to Answers From

Barry Langford describes the Science Fiction (SF) genre as “hyper-modern almost by definition” (182); whether through a belief that this is self-evident terminology or due to simple oversight, Langford neither attempts to define nor elaborate on the meaning of this term other than to seemingly equate it with postmodernism.  It is not uncommon to see ‘postmodernity’ used to describe ‘hypermodernity’ in academia (A. Kroker, M. Kroker and Cook 443; Armitage 26), the difference seeming that the latter is a more aggressive state of the former, requiring little further elucidation.  Uniquely, Lipovetsky provides a deeper explanation, positing hypermodernity as essentially an exaggerated, intensely individualised social movement, built upon hedonistic consumption, whilst simultaneously earmarked by anxiety over the loss of traditional ties and the precariousness of an unclear future (22).  Likened to a culture of panic, a social mood oscillating between extreme optimism and acute despair (A. Kroker, M. Kroker and Cook 443), Langford’s proposition is well placed to describe the SF genre, specifically within cinema.

Although hypermodernity is often touted as a specifically American phenomenon (A. Kroker, M. Kroker and Cook 448; Langford 75), made salient through American SF film, with the success of movies such as The Fifth Element (1997), District 9 (2009) and Moon (2009), produced in France, South Africa and Great Britain, respectively, there can be little doubt that SF film of a high caliber can originate from somewhere other than the United States; this trend echoes Langford’s observations that SF and the social concerns this genre exposes, are of a global nature (193).  This cinematic tendency is particularly true of Great Britain, with a spate of SF releases including Sunshine (2007), Monsters (2010) and the remarkable Children of Men (2007), directed by Mexican-born Alfonso Cuarón, which will be discussed in some detail later, indicating that the home of great SF literature (Hunter 6), may also be developing into a purveyor of great SF film.  Langford implies that it is due to the hypermodern nature of the genre, that SF film generally utilises the latest in advanced technologies and cinematic techniques, as well as taking innovative approaches to narrative style and aesthetic (182-183).  Furthermore, Langford posits that the narrative concerns which are at SF film’s semantic core – technophobia, loss of human identity through technology and global annihilation – are more pertinent than ever before, proving to be concerns at the forefront of a society in the thralls of hypermodern anxiety and unpredictable change (183).  To illustrate the veracity of Langford’s argument, as well as expanding on its essence, a brief exploration of two seminal SF films, from two different eras and countries, seems a prudent test of Langford’s supposition that SF is now, more than ever, an important filmic genre with which to view society’s chaotic, ever-developing, hypermodern times.  Blade Runner (1982), an American SF film directed by British-born Ridley Scott and the aforementioned British SF film Children of Men, are two notable movies, for their style and narrative, garnering considerable critical success as SF works.  Although produced a quarter of a century apart, both films deal with the probability of the same, not-too-distant future, albeit in startlingly different ways.  For the purposes of this academic exploration, the 2007 Final Cut version of Blade Runner will be referenced, due to Ridley Scott’s preference for this version and therefore, presumably, its fidelity to his vision.  

Science Fiction

The Los Angeles of Blade Runner is a futuristic, noir city, a “narrative conflation of the past and present with the future” (Sobchack 247), always submerged in darkness, violence and deviance; giant billboards, building sides and airships prominently advertise commercial companies, which by no accident, happen to be real contemporary American corporations, like Coca-Cola. Deckard and most of the city’s inhabitants seem to pass the time by drinking, frequenting sexually perverse establishments and engaging in anti-social behaviour. The clear social implications of portraying such a future are that the hedonistic values which saturate contemporary society, if left uncurbed, through decadence and a lack of ethics, will bring about the downfall of civilisation. Disturbingly, the replicants that Deckard mercilessly hunts down display more ‘humanity’ than their ‘genuine’ counterparts. The Voight-Kampff test, utilised by Deckard, further reflects the growing anxieties over artificial intelligence and echo mathematician Alan Turing’s test of the 1950s, the test for an evolved intelligence from the artificial; the test proposes if “absent all other clues, can we distinguish between a human being and a computer based solely on interactive conversation?” (Cowan 55). The consequences of this test being ‘passed’ are disturbing, perhaps necessitating a re-definition of humanity.

Of course, Deckard promptly encounters the beautiful femme fatale Rachel, only realising she is a replicant following the extended application of the test at the insistence of her maker, Tyrell.  Deckard finds Rachel unsettling and confronting, perhaps eliciting the cognitive dissonance of Freud’s ‘uncanny’, feeling both repulsed by Rachel’s inauthenticity as a human and feeling attracted to her, sexually (Freud 1).  Even more so, Deckard is shocked to discover Rachel herself does not know she is a replicant, having been implanted with real memories by the Tyrell Corporation – the makers of all replicants – the embodiment of corporate greed and irresponsible scientific practice.  Cowan astutely argues that this memory implant trope of SF film offers strong argument against Descartes’ proposition cogito ergo sum (65), a sentiment echoed by the replicant Pris in J.F. Sebastian’s apartment, Tyrell’s sickly partner and the Henry Frankenstein to Tyrell’s Doctor Pretorius as in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), directed by James Whale.  Furthermore, Rachel’s insistence that she is human, providing Deckard with a photograph of herself and mother, shows an overreliance on the ‘proof’ of memories, specifically technological markers such as photographs and their ephemeral, easily manipulated nature (Kuhn 223).  Threateningly, the scene highlights the synthetic construction, not only of the photograph, but of what it represents – Rachel herself – the picture becomes a “nostalgia for the human body per se” (Stewart 228).  The use of photographs as signifiers of identity, is another trope common to SF film, used notably in Gattaca (1997), directed by Andrew Niccol, wherein the protagonist Vincent, rips his image out of his family’s portrait before embarking on a new life, a life (hopefully) free of the stigma attached to his very genetic code (243).  Even Leon, seemingly the most simple-minded of the replicants in Blade Runner, attempts to recover photographs from his apartment before it is searched by police, showing an attachment to what he perceives to be his identity, no matter how fictional.

The narrative themes in Blade Runner reflect its socio-historical context; following the downfall of the classical studio system and the placatory sentiments of the incoming Regan administration (Langford 191-192), the realities of the 1981-82 American recession and continuing political tensions with the Soviet Union, leading up to its collapse, created a dissonance between what the American government claimed was reality, versus what the public could observe (192-193).  Nevertheless, the era of digitisation had arrived and propelled SF film into commercial stability and global popularity (184).  With its film noir aesthetic, impressive special effects and exploration of social issues in the wake of a technological overload, Blade Runner embodied both the acknowledgment of past mistakes, as well as the foresight to prevent future ones, in a hypermodern ‘reality’.

Scientific genre in films

“Children of Men boldly proposes that a bleak future is not unimaginable and comfortably separated from reality by time, but that it is on our very doorsteps.”

Where Blade Runner deals in a futuristic dystopia, Children of Men shows a time not too aesthetically different from the contemporary, albeit, the more disturbing world seen in television news reports, regarding third-world countries in the midst of war.  Children of Men boldly proposes that a bleak future is not unimaginable and comfortably separated from reality by time, but that it is on our very doorsteps.  Hunter cites John Baxter’s assertion that “the field [of Science Fiction] in Britain has never equaled in imagination the work of its writers…the great British SF film has yet to be made” (2); with its seemingly uninterrupted cinematography and beautiful, documentary-style feel, Children of Men certainly makes a play for the title.  Cowan suggests that another major SF film trope is “the quest for transcendence”; despite the healthy amount of derision attached to religious themes in SF, in lieu of rationality, logic and scientific fact, Cowan argues that ‘religion’ is often poorly defined by such critics (x-xi), and in his essay Science and Fiction, Kyrou also attests to SF’s foundation in theistic mythology, despite its “liberating power” to usurp these roots (91).  Certainly in the case of Children of Men, the heavy religious significance cannot be ignored.  The anxiety in Children of Men, although implied to be technological in origin, is regarding the absolute loss of fertility in mankind; advancing an old, yet powerful fear.  As suggested by Carlos Clarens, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), directed by Jack Arnold, introduced the fear of “a gradual inexorable descent into nothingness” (Sobchack 187), a passive horror with devastating consequences.  Set in 2027, Children of Men never makes clear exactly why humanity loses fertility 18 years prior, however, it does make clear the despair and violence which comes about as a result.  Hypermodern in its attempt to place the consequences of a future, already here, in a more familial context, Children of Men recreates scenes common to the streets of contemporary Baghdad, Beirut and Islamabad, and places them within a ‘home’ context, on the streets of London.  Particularly prescient, due to the London Bombings of 2005, the film invites the audience to consider the current state of the world, outside one’s national borders and reflect on how easily such conflict can spill into one’s own streets.

Sci Fiction or reality

“Regardless, the feeling of watching something ‘real’ is chilling.”

The film in heavily laden with religious themes with much of the soundtrack resembling the religious songs of Islamic and Hindu nations, intermingled with British popular music, old and new.  The visual references to the Holocaust and human atrocities as committed recently by American soldiers in Abu Grhaib are evidenced by the abused illegal immigrants lining the streets of London, as Theo, the protagonist makes his way to work and later, when he enters the Bexhill Prison Camp, attempting to escort Kee, the mother of the first-born child in 18 years.  Cowan’s theory of a theistic “quest for transcendence” (91), is particularly applicable to Children of Men, given the possibility of simply reading the film’s infertility as a punishment dealt to humanity by God.  A more complex reading of the film’s aspiring themes of faith and hope, in the midst of bleak despair, as evidenced by Jasper’s retelling of Theo’s son’s death, to Kee and the midwife, is also fitting and not necessarily anything more than spiritual.  However, the overwhelming references to religion, such as calling the guerrilla refugee rights group ‘Fishes’, Kee joking that her pregnancy is the immaculate conception whilst showing Theo her pregnant belly in a barn, as well as the zealously pietistic reactions of strangers who first see Kee’s newborn baby, imply a theistic reworking of a SF dystopia.  This, too, support’s Langford’s approach to SF film; the anxiety of hypermodernity in losing its roots to traditional ties is used as a countermeasure to annihilation in Children of Men, the implication is that in order for society to be saved from itself, ties to religion and spirituality must remain.  The long sequences within the film, lend it a hyper-real quality and were not necessarily shot in single sequences, with Cuarón admitting in later interviews that many scenes were digitally spliced to create the affects of a single shot.  Regardless, the feeling of watching something ‘real’ is chilling.

Although utilising different cinematic techniques and narratives, both Blade Runner and Children of Men are warnings, like the tinnitus ‘swan song’ of death in the latter, the films encourage preventative social measures to evade the fate of the societies portrayed in these two films.  The works address the anxieties of hypermodernity by encouraging a return to tradition, family and the safety of community.

Works Cited

Armitage, J. “From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond: An Interview with Paul Virilio.” Theory, Culture & Society 16.5-6 (1999): 25-55. Print.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Prod. Ridley Scott and Hampton Francher. By Hampton Francher and David Webb Peoples. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. Warner Bros., 2007. DVD.
Bride of Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Prod. Carl Laemmle. By William J. Hurlbut. Perf. Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, and Colin Clive. Universal Pictures Corp., 1935. DVD.
Children of Men. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Perf. Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine. Universal Pictures Corp., 2006. DVD.
Cowan, Douglas E. Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2010. Print.
Freud, Sigmund, James Strachey, Anna Freud, Carrie Lee Rothgeb, and Angela Richards. “The Uncanny.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1953. 218-52. Print.
Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol. By Andrew Niccol. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, and Gore Vidal. Columbia Pictures Corp., 1997. DVD.
George, Susan A. “Not Exactly “of Woman Born”: Procreation and Creation in Recent Science Fiction Films.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 28.4 (2001): 176-83. Routledge. Web. 1 June 2013.
Hunter, I. Q. British Science Fiction Cinema. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Kaveney, Roz. From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science Fiction Film. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005. Print.
King, Geoff, and Tanya Krzywinska. Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace. London: Wallflower, 2000. Print.
Kroker, Arthur, Marilouise Kroker, and David Cook. “PANIC USA: Hypermodernism as America’s Postmodernism.” Social Problems 37.4 (1990): 443-59. JSTOR. Web. 01 June 2013.
Kuhn, Annette. “Sensuous Spaces: Introduction.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science-fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 221-25. Print.
Kyrou, Ado. “Science and Fiction.” Focus on the Science Fiction Film. Ed. William Johnson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972. 91-96. Print.
Langford, Barry. Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005. Print.
Lipovetsky, Gilles. Hypermodern Times. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005. Print.
Pyle, Forest. “Making Cyborgs, Making Humans: Of Terminators and Blade Runners.” Film Theory Goes to the Movies. Ed. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Collins. New York: Routledge, 1993. 227-41. Print.
Sobchack, Vivian Carol. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 2nd ed. New York: Ungar, 1987. Print.
Stewart, Garrett. “Body Snatching: Science Fiction’s Photographic Trace.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science-Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 226-48. Print.
Telotte, J. P. “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film.” Film Quarterly 36.3 (1983): 44-51. JSTOR. Web. 1 June 2013.
Telotte, J. P. Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1995. Print.


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Written by Anya Tretyakova

Sometime thespian, wannabe film director. Lover of literature for life.