by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
Damien Walter at the Guardian recently posted an article entitled "Why Hollywood Can't Get the Hang of Science Fiction," in which he stated that, after more than a century of cinema and despite a wealth of source material since the inception of science fiction as a literary form, only two science fiction masterpieces, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bladerunner, have ever been filmed. "When science fiction succeeds on screen," he wrote, "it is because it preserves the ideas and visions that are the heart and soul of the genre." He cited both Moon and District 9 as worthy entries in the sf canon, stating that their success proves "that audiences are not satisfied with the trappings of sf alone -- they want the ideas at its heart."
Almost immediately after Mr. Walter posted this opinion, comments appeared making a plethora of suggestions to add to his very short list. Surely he could see fit to add Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one commenter offered. Another seemed shocked that neither Alien nor Star Wars made the cut. Yet another offered placing François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 and Silent Running alongside Walter's suggestions. Not to be outdone, a few days later the Guardian released its list of the top 25 science fiction and fantasy movies, which, in the eyes of many fans, likely seemed to overlook a number of other genre favorites.
Personally, I felt that Mr. Walter's list lacked one movie on his list of masterpieces: Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. He stated in his comments that he found Tarkovsky "just a bit dull," and even preferred the American version. (Yes, that is a sneer you see crossing my face.) And the fan in me wondered why he could not see fit to include, say, Dark City or The Fountain. Where was Alphaville? I wondered. Or A Clockwork Orange? Why not Pi? Certainly 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still or the other influential science fiction movie from 1968, Planet of the Apes, should be considered? What about the anime classics Akira and The Ghost in the Shell? What about postapocalyptic gems like A Boy and His Dog and The Road Warrior? And how could he forget Forbidden Planet or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 or 1978) or David Cronenberg's Videodrome or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind? To not include these, to say that cinema has only seen two science fiction masterpieces, well, that's not just snobbery, that's downright heresy.
As I said, of the movies Mr. Walter chose for his very short list, I would have added only Tarkovsky's Solaris. Otherwise, he was correct.
I've been making a similar argument for years. Though a number of enjoyable science fiction movies exist (the movies mentioned above are all things I like for one reason or another), though several manage to provide reasonable entertainment for two hours, too few ever match the complexity and intelligence of the best that print science fiction has to offer, such as Walter J. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz or Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Most can't even match the enjoyment of entertaining reads like Mary Rosenblum's The Drylands or Robert Reed's An Exaltation of Larks. Yet they still get made, often with at best middling results. And they still draw an audience.
In 1994, I attended a panel at Armadillocon that discussed the failure of most sf movies to match the quality of its print counterpart. As an example, somebody made a derisive comment about Stargate (which I had just seen and hated) and a couple of members of the panel said, "Oh, you know, there was a lot to recommend that." I sat in the audience with my jaw dropped. Impossible, I thought. The panelists are bemoaning the state of sf cinema, which has been dreadful for most of its history, and yet they're making excuses for that particular piece of tripe? Really? How on earth do you improve sf movies if you continue to make excuses for the crap?
How does this happen? And what can be done about it?
The "how" is pretty easy. We're fans, after all, and as fans we will gravitate towards any media that promises the same sense of wonder we get when we read the best written sf. We crave it like junkies craving a fix. Not just any fix, but the fix that got us hooked in the first place. It's no wonder, then, that Kingsley Amis, in his study New Maps of Hell, describes the science fiction reader as an addict. And in Age of Wonders, David Hartwell describes how we wade through an awful lot of crap in order to find something as good as our initial exposure. "The quest through the rubble," he writes, "is not without its rewards."
Hartwell isn't wrong in his assessment. We will sit through practically anything for a chance to visualize that sense of wonder. Unfortunately, in doing so, we willingly sacrifice elements of film that we might also find worthwhile. And we must see it as a worthwhile tradeoff, otherwise why would we continue to subject ourselves to work that is often at best mediocre?
But we try to have it both ways. On the one hand, we wear our love of the dubious genre classics on our sleeve. We wax poetic when we discuss our most treasured sf titles, be they The Thing (From Another World) or The Thing, and cannot (or perhaps do not) want to imagine giving up these questionable pleasures. Many of these works have been with us since childhood. And we don't care, we really don't, that so few others, those arrogant highbrows, think so little of our little island of cinema. Well, if they can't see the charms of The Arrival or Pitch Black, well, fuck 'em. It's their problem, it's not ours.
And yet we become very upset when somebody like Damien Walter (or Harlan Ellison, whose book Harlan Ellison's Watching remains one of the cornerstones of genre film criticism) observes that, good though many of these movies might be, barely a handful could be considered masterpieces. "2001: A Space Odyssey and a small handful of other science fiction films show that movies can be visually elegant, musically engrossing, emotionally satisfying and intellectually absorbing," said Dan Simmons at in 1997. "But there are very, very few of those." Harlan Ellison in An Edge in My Voice wrote, "Even to discuss empty and empty-headed persiflage like the Star Trek movie in the same breath with Oh, God! or, again, The Elephant Man is to elevate transient commercial dreck to the level of serious attention." And there are others. And though we might try to dismiss these criticisms, how many of us secretly grouse? How many of us stamp our feet in a huff? How many of us complain that this kind of criticism completely ignores our favorite work while admitting, if only to ourselves, that there is quite a bit of truth in their core theses?
So what can we do about it?
Do we want to do anything about it?
During the 80s, John Kessel was interviewed by Fantasy Review, and although he was talking about the state of print sf, his comments easily reflect the current state of genre film. "...many of the works we call the best in the field," he said, "just do not measure up to the best of English and American fiction of the last couple of hundred years. Melville, Nabokov, Flannery O'Connor, Jane Austen, Faulkner, Conrad -- these authors are a lot better, by almost any standard, than Herbert, Heinlein, Asimov, Zelazny and others. If we want to make it in the big leagues, we've got to face big league pitching."
In this regard, a similar case could be made for contemporary science fiction cinema as well. Do we want the number of science fiction masterpieces to grow? Would we like to see more science fiction movies on the same level as, say, The Godfather and Sunset Blvd.? Would we like to see more that can stand toe to toe with The African Queen, Lawrence of Arabia or Annie Hall?
If so, then we need to be prepared to support those movies, and stop making the same trite excuses for middling efforts. Give me The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Searchers or To Kill a Mockingbird over The Matrix any day. We need to demand more.
If not, then we get the cinema we deserve.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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