January 11, 2008

Faculty Insight: Sci-Fi Films
An interview with Geoff Wright

Assistant Professor, Department of English
Ph.D., English, University of Tulsa
M.A., English, University of Tulsa
B.A., Oral Roberts University

"... The Sci-Fi film genre’s complex and longstanding engagement with the subject of technology is one of its defining characteristics as well as one of its great contributions to American art and culture...."

Horror movie poster "Them"Dr. Geoff Wright specializes in American war literature and film, adaptation studies, science fiction films, the American novel and Southern fiction and film. He joined Samford's Department of English in August this year and is especially keen to advance the Concentration in Film Studies within the English major, beginning that work this Spring with the course The Sci-Fi Film Genre  (ENGL 307 Film). Wright helped The Belltower understand the origins and importance of this compelling film genre.

TB: Where does science fiction come from? The Industrial Revolution, maybe, with its ambivalence about science and technology?

GW: Great question. Whatever the subject, it’s always compelling to ask questions regarding origins. And that compulsion to get at transcendent answers is partly what drives the Sci-Fi film genre. Look no further than Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film 2001: A Space Odyssey (’68), which posits technology as a kind of divine spark that ignites humanity’s evolution.

Cinema itself came into being through a series of technological inventions ranging from the late 1870s up through the mid 1890s. One principle that distinguishes film from other art forms is this inherent link to machines. You can’t make a film without a camera and rolls of filmstock, and you can’t watch one without a projector (or in my case a DVD player). In fact, one of the great films from the early period of film history, George Melies’ A Voyage to the Moon (1903), is considered the first Sci-Fi film. In making this film, Melies pointed to the potential of what we now know as the Sci-Fi film genre to imagine and critique the possibilities and dangers of technology.

Modernization is manifested partly in the mechanization of society, and the century or so between A Voyage to the Moon and now has seen Western society become increasingly dependent on technology (you don’t have to look hard to find a student texting on his or her Ipod during class). So, if we ask ourselves, “Where does the Sci-Fi film come from?” I think we must point to that historical moment at the turn into the twentieth century when our fascination with and fantasies about our own human potential met the rise of industrial machines. To that point, Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1926), considered by most film scholars to be the first “modern” Sci-Fi film, portrays a futuristic society split between the upper class and the proletariat by an extreme dependence on machines, which ultimately transforms human beings themselves into robots.

Fast-forward to the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we see Sci-Fi films such as Tron (’82) and Matrix (’99) interrogating the tensions built into our evolving relationship with computers, which are now necessary to our daily personal and professional lives. The Sci-Fi film genre’s complex and longstanding engagement with the subject of technology is one of its defining characteristics as well as one of its great contributions to American art and culture.

TB: Does Sci-Fi just offer more of a blank canvas than other genres since it's liberated from reality? Or is it really no different from any other film genre?


GW: Well, Sci-Fi is no different from any other film genre in the sense that, as an art form, cinema is constantly being used to represent or critique ideologies that shape our culture whether we as citizens realize it or not. This is one reason that, over the last three decades or so, film has been increasingly recognized as an art form equal to prose, poetry, painting, music, etc. In fact, I would argue that due to the power and prevalence of visual imagery, film is fast becoming, if it has not already become, the dominant mode of aesthetic expression and consumption in the U.S.

That said, Sci-Fi is different from other genres, certainly. The Sci-Fi genre can do things that, say, the Western or the Noir can’t. I think this potentiality of the Sci-Fi genre is bound largely to its propensity for imagination, that is, its capacity to take what is currently technologically plausible and extrapolate incredible events and even whole worlds that far outstrip our current scientific realities. Talking to a computer might have seemed fantastic and lighthearted during the original Star Trek series in the ‘70s, but how many of us have recently spent agonizing time on the phone talking to an automated computer system in a futile effort to resolve a discrepancy over a bill? Cyborgs may have seemed outlandish in the ‘80s (much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscle-bound physique,) but now it is commonplace for us to incorporate all manner of medical technologies into our bodies-- instruments ranging from hearing aids and contact lenses to prosthetic limbs and artificial hearts, not to mention steroids and human growth hormone.

All this suggests that human beings are taking shape more and more as the hybrids of the technological and the organic, which Sci-Fi envisioned a couple decades ago. So, it’s not so much that Sci-Fi is liberated from reality as it is that Sci-Fi has the distinct capacity to construct unreal worlds or identities that are actually rooted in current scientific theories. If Einstein ends up having his way, the treatment of time travel in many Sci-Fi films such as Back to the Future (’85) and Terminator (’84) might ultimately not seem so naïve or escapist…

TB: It's commonly believed that many Sci-Fi films of the `50s and `60s reflected the geopolitical fears of the era. What fears are reflected in recent Sci-Fi films?

GW: I think we are seeing a change in the trajectory of Sci-Fi film. Certainly, the decade of the ‘50s marked the heyday of American Sci-Fi cinema, when Cold War hysteria fueled fantasies of alien invasion. In the ‘80s, the Sci-Fi genre was defined by a collective turn towards the ambivalent figure of the cyborg, seen in such classics as Blade Runner (’82), Terminator (’84), and Robocop (’87). Closely linked to these cyborg films were concerns over the potentiality and danger of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. These anxieties were given expression in films such as Tron (’82), Lawnmower Man (‘92), and the Wachowski brothers’ now legendary film The Matrix (’99).

I think we are in the midst of seeing Sci-Fi being used again to represent collective American anxieties about invasion. Only this time, the enemy is not only ideologically but also racially Other. Men in Black II (’02) is a start. Certainly the X-Men trilogy, beginning in 2000 and finishing in ’06, critiques our collective fear of those who are racially Other, as well as our uncertainty about how to approach scientific experimentation in the field of genetics.

Michael Bay’s recent film, Transformers (’07), makes for a fascinating specimen. The film is stuffed with images fetishizing American military might, which is seen battling a racially Other evil in the urban settings of American cities. One such scene is highlighted by the image of a robotic plane crashing into a skyscraper: an obvious, and perhaps egregious, allusion to 9-11. Nonetheless, we must remember that the classic Cold War invasion film, War of the Worlds (’54), focuses as much on the success or failure of conventional American military weapons as it does on the spectacular images of the destructive power brought to bear by alien technologies. This parallel between the two films points to the fusion of technology and weaponry in American culture, which James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (’91) so aptly critiques. In addition, numerous recent Sci-Fi films such as 28 Days Later (’02), the sequel 28 Weeks Later (’07), Invasion (’07), and I Am Legend (‘07), conjure the specter of racial and ideological invasion in the form of viral infections that take over the minds and bodies of the unfortunate victims, ultimately threatening the downfall of Western society.

More Info

Samford English Major with a Film Concentration

Samford's Department of English

Science Fiction Films (Wikipedia)