“Holy looming planets, Batman!” Half A Post About Non-Genre Science Fiction Films
The Guardian wonders if science fiction is creeping into more mainstream films. My ears pricked up at this as this is something I started thinking about earlier in the year. However, I didn’t get round to actually completing my thoughts so here is the first half of them:
Non-genre science fiction is a pretty ugly term but it is also nice and straightforward. SF is a mode as well as a genre and quite often authors produce works of science fiction from outside of the community, published by different publishers and in dialogue with different influences. It often gets a bad rap within the community but usually this is no more reflective than a moan about bloody foreigners coming over here and stealing our jobs. Personally, I’m a big fan. It often gives me something that I am missing from most genre SF, although it can be relatively limited. I’ve reviewed quite a bit of non-genre SF for Strange Horizons and it usually falls into three main camps: near future satire (Barleypunk, if you will), dystopia and post-apocalypse. Only very rare exceptions feature core genre tropes like spaceships.
Things are different with film. It is a younger medium and is attendantly more democratic both in terms of producers and consumers. Studios are much less signifiers of content than publishers, directors are much more likely to move between genres and influences are much more universal. (There is also the small issue of money but let’s ignore that.) As such, non-genre SF doesn’t really exist in cinema. So it is interesting to compare and contrast two post-apocalypse films which, if they had been published as novels, would have clearly sat on different shelves. On the silver screen things are a bit less clear cut.
The Road, of course, is a book. Cormac McCarthy Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 novel is probably the most famous and acclaimed work of non-genre SF in recent years. The 2009 film adaptation was directed by John Hillcoat and by written Joe Penhall. Like many film directors, Hillcoat started out making music promos and then went on direct The Propostion, Nick Cave’s 2005 Australian Western. Penhall is a playwright who has also written crime dramas for television and adapted Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997, 2004).
The Book Of Eli isn’t a book and was written and directed by the Hughes Brothers, Albert and Allan. They are not a particularly prolific pair. Over the last two decades they have produced four films: a piece of violent social realism, Menace II Society (1993); a crime drama-war film hybrid, Dead Presidents (1995); a documentary about pimp culture, American Pimp (1999); and an adaptation of Alan Moore’s Jack The Ripper comic, From Hell (1991-96, 2001).
Er, and that is as far as I got with that argument.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I never got round to watching The Road. When is the right time to watch an adaptation of a remorselessly grim text whose only joy comes from McCarthy’s inimitable prose? Secondly, Adam Roberts’s review of The Book Of Eli killed it dead for me.
Back to the Guardian article. Just as I’ve contrasted these two films, Anne Billson contrasts Never Let Me Go with The Island and points out that “Hanna was sold as a junior Bourne Identity, whereas it was essentially a junior Universal Soldier. She starts by mentioning the recently released Another Earth and Melancholia, the film industry suddenly producing a simultaneous pair of existential art house SF films in the same way it has previously done did for films about volcanoes, asteroids and any number of other topics. The point is less about this strange symmetry than the fact that the science nature of these film is unremarkable. Billson concludes:
It’s tempting to dismiss such films as SF for People Who Don’t Like Science Fiction, since mainstream pontifications on the genre still yield blinkered pronouncements from folk who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Star Trek movie. Conversely, a lot of people who might have enjoyed Monsters were probably put off by it being marketed as a variation on District 9 (“After six years, they’re no longer aliens. They’re residents”) when it was really the sort of thing that plays better at Sundance than at a fantasy festival – a low-budget relationship movie that happened to have tentacled aliens as walk-on extras. But it’s more likely a symptom of the way boundaries between traditional genres are dissolving.
So I was sort of wrong and sort of onto something. I’m not sure where I’m going with any of this but it is interesting to discuss.