Arts feature

Without sci-fi, there would be no cinema

Science-fiction is the ultimate film genre, argues Peter Hoskin, on the eve of a major BFI season

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

Do you know what’s hateful? The snobbery that film fans have to contend with. There’s the ‘it’s only a movie’ snobbery, by which cinema is suitable only for wastrels and dogs. And there’s the ‘if it ain’t Danish and silent, then it ain’t no good’ snobbery. Proponents of both should spend less time blowing conjecture through their Sobranie smoke, and more time watching the Hollywood films of John Ford, Nicholas Ray and William A. Wellman.

Now that’s off my chest, here’s one way in which cinema is relatively free from snobbery. For decades, novelists and literary types have wrangled over whether science fiction books are anything more than — to use Margaret Atwood’s snooty description — ‘talking squids in outer space’. But filmgoers and filmmakers seem to have accepted sci-fi movies far more readily. The genre is not seen as something bad in itself, otherwise why would directors such as Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick have given it a go? There are simply good sci-fi movies and rubbish sci-fi movies. And plenty of average ones in between.

The British Film Institute’s special science fiction season contains examples of all three — although, thankfully, there is far more good than bad. It is, like last year’s season devoted to Gothic cinema, a vast spread of delights. There are dozens of movies screening in dozens of locations over the next three months. Tickets are still available for a new digital transfer of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in Leeds Town Hall, for instance. Sadly, it’s already too late to get in on the screening of Alien (1979) at the Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The season is called Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder — and ‘wonder’ really is the word. Science fiction, perhaps more than any other genre, exploits cinema’s capacity for the fantastic and the unreal. A filmmaker isn’t bound by the rigid practicalities of the stage, nor by the motionlessness of fine art, nor by the invisibility of music. He can cross the universe at 24 frames per second. And even in the early days, when it was just 14 frames per second, directors were eager to make the journey. The very first sci-fi film appeared quickly on cinema’s timeline. It was Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902.

Even if you haven’t seen the Méliès, you’re probably familiar with its most famous image: the man in the moon grimacing from the screen, with a space-travellers’ capsule stuck in one of his eyes. It ended up there as a consequence of one of the most imaginative special effects sequences in silent movies. The Moon comes closer and closer and closer, until — splat! The rocket lands in its eye. To create the effect, Méliès knocked together a rig by which he could pull an actor, dressed up as the Moon, towards camera. The abrupt arrival of the space capsule was achieved by splicing together two separate shots.

Science fiction has always been a pioneering, frantically experimental genre. It’s had to be. How else could it have shown us monsters and lasers, planets and Terminators? And so the history of sci-fi film is like a history of special effects. In 1927, Metropolis brought us far more sophisticated miniatures than those used for Méliès’ trip to the Moon. In 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still had alien saucers flying across the sky. In 1993, Spielberg and his effects supervisor Phil Tippett brought dinosaurs back to life.

It goes on and on, to the 3D techniques that James Cameron developed for Avatar (2009) and beyond. Do you think that these special effects are ruining cinema? It’s worth remembering that cinema itself wouldn’t have happened without technological tinkering. Evolution is part of the deal. It could just be that, in a few decades, we’ll look back on the era of the ‘flatties’, when every film was shot in two dimensions. If so, science fiction will have played its part in that change. Future Bressons and Mizoguchis will owe a debt to that guy who, 28 years before Avatar, directed Piranha II: The Spawning.

Besides, how many imaginations have been stirred by these effects, let alone by the actual ideas in sci-fi movies? I remember the fraught experience of watching the, erm, ‘test of manhood’ in Flash Gordon (1980) when I was a kid. An Arborian youth has to put his hand into a tree stump that contains a slug-like beast with a scorpion’s tail. He reaches in slowly, holds his hand there for a moment, sighs with relief, and then ‘Arrrrgh!’ My mind was blown. How will Flash fare when he does the same test later? Will he overcome Ming the Merciless to save the Universe and get the girl?

I knew the answers to those questions even then, but that hasn’t prevented me from watching Flash Gordon a hundred times since. At least nowadays I can wrap it up in pompous talk of pop aesthetics, and refer my bored friends back to Alex Raymond’s original comic strip, but it’s really still the critter in the tree that does it for me. Just as for others it will be Godzilla breathing fire into downtown Tokyo, or the Death Star exploding in Star Wars (1977).

Ah, you say, but Star Wars isn’t really sci-fi because it has more to do with magic than with technology. It is, as any fule kno, a fantasy movie set in space. But the truth is that, like most genres, the boundaries of science fiction are blurred. Got a dad who enjoys war films (and topless young ladies)? Give him Starship Troopers (1997). Got a mum who likes romantic dramas? The Fountain (2006) should fit the bill. Your horror-crazy cousin would probably enjoy Frankenstein (1931). That weirdo who hangs around your house might be into Dead Ringers (1988).

Styles cross and mark each other like so many woodland paths — and what will come next? That question tugs insistently at the sleeves of film’s spiral arms. My own fantastical hope is that we’ll soon be shooting documentaries about life forms on distant planets. But, in the meantime, there’s always the Na’vi of James Cameron’s next three Avatar movies. ‘Srefereiey nìprrte’ (‘Looking forward to it’), as they say.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

The BFI’s ‘Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder’ season continues until 31 December

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • John Carins

    Without cinema would there be sci-fi?

  • Rik

    I am a lifelong sci fi fan and the genre provokes thought about all the conditions of man,but i vastly prefer the written word, some of the abortions that purport to be film versions of the novels drive me nuts.One of the worst EVER was Starship Troopers,all of RAH’s social and moral philosophy dumped for a cheap and nasty action flick

    • Your complaint is that the court jester isn’t taking the king seriously.

      Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” was a burlesque deconstruction of Heinlein’s book (and of war propaganda in general), just as his “Robocop” was a deconstruction of the 70s hardboiled cop and 80s invincible action hero genres, and as his “Total Recall” was of the escapism of the entire sci-fi genre.

      Verhoeven’ SST is not intended to be a straight adaptation of Heinlein’s book and “Total Recall” isn’t P.K.Dick’s story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”: the films are commentaries on – and critiques of – the originals.

      • stewart

        I think you’ll find ‘do androids dream’ is ‘Blade runner’ and ‘Total recall’ is based on ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’

        And I don’t buy the ‘Verhoeven’s version is pantomime’ thing His interpretation of Robert A. Heinlein’s book is popular ( like robbo cop it has big cult following-just not in hampstead) precisely because it is true to it.

        Science fiction/fantasy film by distance allows films with far more ‘right wing’ messages than might otherwise be made ( Conan and 300 examples of latter ) What surprises me is people are surprised that these films have continuing popularity

  • misomiso

    I agree. Sci-fi cinema is awesome.

    Eagerly awaiting the Spectator review of Jupiter Ascending when it comes out.