- Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema by James Chapman and Nicholas J. Cull
Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema is informative if also weakly conceived. Its authors stake a somewhat questionable claim, that the sf film, unlike sf literature, has not been taken very seriously. While that notion might have been entertained three or four decades ago, it seems highly problematic in light of the many books, articles and even specialised journals (such as this one) that have since appeared. Moreover, they suggest that studies which have ‘drawn upon the discourses of cultural theory’, including those that ‘focus on themes of gender politics and sexual difference’, are flawed because they ‘return to the same narrow range of examples … that best support a particular theoretical interpretation’ (6). In response, they set about ‘expanding the field of inquiry’ (6), as they claim, by looking at a variety of films and thoroughly embedding their discussions in ‘historical contexts’ (7) – that is, issues of production and reception as measured by archival accounts. The result is a work that, while a bit peevish in its dismissal of the ‘voguish trends in cultural theory’ (7), also reminds us of the amount of information that often goes overlooked in many contemporary genre studies. And it is that beneficial reminder that readers will have to weigh against the book’s implicit sense that films, even in the course of their production and reception, might be divorced from culture and our thinking about it.
To emphasise that ‘historical’ thrust, Projecting Tomorrow is arranged chronologically as a series of discussions of selected American and British films starting with Just Imagine (Butler US 1930) and ending with Avatar (Cameron US/UK 2009). In total, it offers treatments of 14 films, works chosen, as the authors acknowledge, not because they are ‘the best or the most historically significant SF films’, but because, as noted above, they might help to vary ‘the field of inquiry’, and because of ‘their narrative and visual representations of the future’ and their ‘role in shaping the genre’ (7) – two notions that, [End Page 130] while initially presented as central concerns of the volume, are never really developed. Rather, the authors present a series of case studies, the real focus of which lies in recounting the plots of these films, exploring how those narratives emerged from other, most often literary, properties, and offering overviews of the critical and box office receptions of the films. In these respects the book recalls a number of older, venerable volumes on fantasy films, such as Carlos Clarens’s Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films (1967), John Baxter’s Science Fiction in the Cinema (1970) and Bill Warren’s two-volume Keep Watching the Skies! (1982, 1987).
Certainly, many of the films examined here have exercised a strong influence on the genre – most notably, Forbidden Planet (Wilcox US 1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick US/UK 1968) and Star Wars (Lucas US 1977) – although they are also, the authors’ claims notwithstanding, ones that have already received extensive critical examination. While these selections hardly seem to expand the field, some of the other films discussed are more interesting choices, including Just Imagine, three British adaptations from television – The Quatermass Xperiment (Guest UK 1955), Quatermass 2 (Guest UK 1957) and Quatermass and the Pit (Baker UK 1967) – and that strange intersection of sf and documentary elements, The Hellstrom Chronicle (Green and Spiegel US 1971), which actually won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. These selections represent multiple strains in the genre, and all do in various ways present us with ‘representations of the future’ – even if Star Wars’ ‘future’ is ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’. However, each discussion stands as an individual case study with no overarching effort to link the chapters or to advance a unifying thesis about the form’s development, even though the utopian/dystopian emphases of Just Imagine, Things to Come (Menzies UK 1936) and Logan’s Run (Anderson US 1976) – among others...