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Reviewed by:
  • Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality
  • Andrew M. Butler (bio)
Christine Cornea , Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 308 pp. £18.99 (pbk).

This overly ambitious volume is the sort of book that might be recommended for a module on sf film, but for the sense that it is being pushed in too many directions at once. It is a history of the genre, an exploration of the different theoretical paradigms that can be used to examine sf, a brief history of approaches and a series of interviews with practitioners. The volume's use is most likely in proportion to the aesthetic with which a tutor has designed a module, or the general reader's sympathy to theoretical accounts. My fear is that it falls between too many stools. There is a slight sense of this being more a study of film studies with a focus on sf, rather than a study of sf on film. Whether not being the latter is a problem is open to interpretation.

We do need a new critical history of sf film. Written sf has a number of such, most purporting to be histories of sf, period, but which ignore film - aside from the work of a handful of auteurs, such as Metropolis (Lang Germany 1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick UK/US 1968) and Star Wars (Lucas US 1977) - and television much beyond Doctor Who (UK 1963-89) and Star Trek (US 1966-9). Frequently - even, dare we say it, on occasions justifiably - sf film is treated like an embarrassing younger sibling, sometimes a little infantile, sometimes overly pompous, but not yet ready to be taken seriously much of the time. The ghetto of sf literature needs to look down on something. Of the existing specialist sf film histories, Vivian Sobchack's Screening Space (1993) is nearly two decades out of date, and a third version of John Brosnan's Future Tense (1978)/The Primal Screen (1991) was stopped by his untimely death. On the whole, I find that students do not like old films, and the definition of old is such that I am beginning to encounter those who prefer episodes one to three of the Star Wars series to episodes four to six (and recent horror remakes to their 1970s' and 1980s' originals). It takes a strong will to teach anything pre-Indiana Jones, but some kind of context is essential to do so.

Science Fiction Cinema has eight chapters (covering 1895-1940, the 1950s, 1960-80, 1977-1995, 1977-2003, 1960-2003, 1950-2000 but mostly late 1990s and 1992-2006, again mostly the 1990s) organised by approach rather than chronology. Up to the emergence of the family movie blockbuster in the late 1970s - let Star Wars stand as the moment of transition - the chronology is largely linear in [End Page 309] terms of analysed context, but the chapters widen in scope, although the centre of attention is increasingly the 1990s and the 2000s. Each chapter focuses mainly on a critical approach or paradigm - families, feminism, masculinity, race, special effects and so on - but does not limit itself to that approach. Whilst there are moments where it is acknowledged there is sf production outside of Hollywood, Hollywood and its immediate independent neighbours are the focus.

Each chapter is end-stopped by an interview with what the blurb calls 'some of the main practitioners in the field' - the subjects are Brian Aldiss and William Gibson (both for chapter one), Billy Gray, Ken Russell, Paul Verhoeven (in two parts), Joe Morton, Dean Norris, and Roland Emmerich and Stan Winston (both for chapter eight). Whilst this is commendable as a concept, as it does give some insight into the making of specific movies, the careers are usually too protean to offer sufficient illumination of the specificities of making sf. Gray was too young when filming The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise US 1951) to have convincing knowledge of its production, Russell declares himself to be 'deliberately out of touch' (104) with any social context for his films and the adaptations of Aldiss' and Gibson's work for the screen show neither them nor...