I was perusing the AMC Filmsite blog the other day, reading over their re-listing of the American Film Institute’s “10 Top 10 Film Genres,” when I came to the Science Fiction section. Filmsite quotes AFI’s definition of SciFi as:
a genre that marries a scientific or technological premise with imaginative speculation…at the core of all science fiction is the provocative question, "What if...?" Science fiction presents stories and situations that tap our brightest hopes and darkest fears about what might, one day, turn out to be true.
I’ve come to realize only recently that the definition of science fiction, perhaps more than other genres, involves a high degree of subjective reading. The question: “What is SciFi?” begs a multitude of answers. AFI’s characterization of the genre suits me well, as it is generally in line with what I had assumed to be a unified definition. Yet, the more I speak with cinephiles and lay viewers alike, the more I discover that my assumptions about what constitutes SciFi is incongruous with many others’ expectations. This realization is reflected at the bottom of the site’s page, wherein Filmsite includes a brief comments section that rejects top nominees and winners along the lines of generic infidelity. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) was a romantic comedy, for the most part, not Science Fiction,” and, “E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was more a children's fantasy film, not pure science fiction,” embody this purity bias, as do the assignments of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) to the action film genre and the dismissal of Back to the Future (1985) as a light-hearted comedy with time-travel/SciFi elements.
As a lifelong fan of the horror genre, I am perhaps too familiar with this kind of generic scrutiny. Silence of the Lambs (1991), although a beautifully orchestrated and effectively frightening film, a horror picture it is not. A psychological thriller? Sure. A tense crime drama? No doubt. A suspenseful serial killer film? Absolutely. But, a horror film? Nay! This steadfast exclusion of Silence of the Lambs from the horror genre has kept the film (a film that I consider to be one of the most effectively unnerving pictures to date, mind you) off my various horror lists. Yet, I hold no personal qualms in including Alien (1979) or The Fly (1986) amongst my lists of SciFi bests.
SciFi purists inline with those comments featured on the Filmsite blog might argue that Alien and The Fly are horror films, more specifically monster movies, or hybrid narratives, at best, but not strictly science fiction. Yet, I posit horror and science fiction have been inextricably linked since at least the classic period. Furthermore, I would argue that SciFi has always assumed a hybridized stance.
In its earliest years, when the French magician George Méliès was first teaching the screen to take us to the moon and back, he was doing so while wrapped in the blanket of hybridization. A Trip to the Moon (Fr: Le Voyage dans la Lune, 1902), an adaptation of the Jules Verne novels From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, is as much fantasy as it is SciFi. The moon men Selenites are fantastical acrobatic creatures that look near identical to the various imps Méliès conjures by means of lore and mysticism in his other films. When one of the venturing astronomers places his umbrella on the floor of a lunar cavern, it sprouts upward and changes magically into a mushroom, in an act that feels much more an element of Alice’s Wonderland than a strictly scientific phenomenon. This trend continues through the ages as science fiction matures.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Universal made a mint and established its studio identity by ushering in its definitive genre: the monster movie. Traditionally considered a subsidiary of the horror genre, the classic monster movie, with titles like Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), teeters just as regularly into the SciFi realm as it does horror. This early trend trio, considered among the best of the bunch, is comprised of cautionary tales warning against the haphazard advancement of science with shocking, blasphemous! repercussion that are nonetheless founded in science and predicated on the SciFi axiom: “What if?”
The same can be said for the wave of red scare pictures and nuclear fear films of the 1950s. The former was kick started by a pair of films now considered SciFi classics: The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Both films were adapted from literary science fiction. The Thing From Another World is based on John Campbell’s 1938 novella, “Who Goes There?” while The Day the Earth Stood Still is based on Harry Bates’s 1940 short story "Farewell to the Master.” Yet, both also contain elements of the monster movie. The Thing From Another World, which tells the story of an arctic science expedition that excavates and defrosts a malevolent, plant-based alien being, serves as an early entry into the rising trend of thinly veiled, anxiety-driven allegories about the foreign other and communist infiltration. A traditional monster movie in form, The Thing (as it was popularly know) features as its antagonist an alien creature, while questioning the differences between life on Earth and that from another planet. The Day the Earth Stood Still addresses more directly American anxieties over military tensions, with escalating war serving as the catalyst for extraterrestrial intervention in Earth affairs. Klaatu, an otherwise benign visitor falls victim to human/American fears and foreigner hostilities when he is shot by US soldiers shortly after exiting his spacecraft. Though not a monster movie in structure, the presence of the retaliatory robot juggernaut Gort, which disintegrates the offending military men responsible for wounding Klaatu as well as additional soldiers later in the film, stands as a monstrous element the likes of Frankenstein’s creation or the fabled Golem. Klaatu’s departing ultimatum to mankind solidifies the film’s pacifist position with a warning that speaks duly to rising Cold War tensions as well as to the recurrent aggressions that have defined humankind throughout the ages:
The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure…if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.
The 50s was also the era that gave us a slew of ginormous creature features, a trend that continued into the 60s and even the 70s as second rate/exploitation companies, like AIP, took the reigns from classic studio forerunners, like Warner Bros. and Columbia. Everything from leaches (Attack of the Giant Leeches, 1959) to ants (Them!, 1954) to spiders (Tarantula, 1955) and ever shrews (The Killer Shrews, 1959) got the giant-sized treatment. In some instances the creatures are the direct result of nuclear fallout, as in the case of the irradiated ants in Them! and octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) or the nuclear blasts that awoke the dinosaur-esque creatures of the deep in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and the Godzilla franchise. Other times the giant creatures are the product of similarly hubristic scientific tinkering, as in the case of the oversized shrews, which were animal test subjects to a scientist whose ambitions extend to half sizing humans in order to curb world hunger (the logic being that half-sized humans would consume half as much food). Each film, like The Thing, maintains a traditional monster movie structure and is intent on inducing scares in its viewers. Still, the scientific hubris at the heart of these stories, the questioning about the effects of scientific advancement, and even the strength of SciFi to delve into the social unconscious and conjure up and confront our repressed societal demons (e.g., fear of the foreign, McCarthyism, nuclear anxieties), make these films defining contributions to the SciFi canon.
SciFi’s hybridized obsession with horror continued into the post-classical, modern cinematic era and up to the present day. SciFi-monster movies have proved a lasting generic formula with titles like Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), Species (1995), 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), and Prometheus (2012), while additional ScifFi-horror couplings have continued to emerge. Event Horizon (1997), for instance, is a space set haunted house picture; Re-animator (1985) is a splatterfest SciFi-horror-comedy; while, both the 1972 Tarkovsky original and Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of Solaris are art house approaches to SciFi-ghost stories with elements of the haunted house film and the psychological thriller. Yet, science fiction has not been content having only horror as its mate. Modern SciFi has run the hybridized gamut. Predating Tarkovsky’s generic turn, Kubrick brought SciFi into the realm of the art film (or vice versa; it’s really impossible to say) with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Star Wars franchise played SciFi as an epic fairy tale while nuancing its form and themes with elements of the samurai film and the western. The existentialist cyberpunk thriller Blade Runner (1982) integrated film noir aesthetics with the police procedural. The Terminator (1984), which is similarly noirish, helped usher in the SciFi-action film, a hybrid that re-emerged in its higher-keyed sequel T2: Judgment Day (1991) as well as countless other examples from the 80s and 90s, like Aliens (1986), Predator (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Demolition Man (1993), to name just a few. Robocop (1987), like Blade Runner, played off the police drama. Rian Johnson's Looper (2012) gave the genre a gangster twist. Ghostbusters (1984) found a scientific solution to afterlife overflow and the buddy comedy, while E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) took a similar buddy approach to the children’s film, and Independence Day (1996) modernized the SciFi-disaster film.
In fact, science fiction hybridization is so prolific that it is perhaps more appropriate to question: What does it mean to be “strictly SciFi”? We here at Other Worlds Austin pride ourselves on our diverse interpretation of the SciFi genre. Yet, as history reminds us time and again generic fidelity in regards to science fiction is just that: “fiction.”