Henry: As you suggest in your introduction, “futuristic narratives and images of SF cinema are determined by the circumstances of their production.” What relationship do you posit between the ebb and flow of visibility for science fiction films and the evolution of the American and British film industries?
Nick: When we wrote that line we were thinking mainly about the way in which the historical circumstance can be channeled into SF, which is so wonderfully open to addressing contemporaneous issues by allegory (or hyperbole), but I think it can be applied to the film industries or ‘industrial context’ if you will. Cinema is a business and there are clear business cycles at work. While we found that the reputation of SF as a high risk genre which seldom delivered on its promise to producers was exaggerated – we ran into more examples of bland returns than out-and-out ruination – it does seem to have inhibited production somewhat. Production runs in cycles as if producers on both sides feel sure that SF will pay off, take a risk with a high budget film, fail to realize expectations and then back off in disappointment for a couple of seasons.
2001 breaks the cycle and ushers in a SF boom which has yet to end. The successes are so spectacular that they carry the genre over the bumps. The boom made it economically feasible to develop dedicated technologies to create even better films – the story of Industrial Light and Magic is a case in point – and these technologies seem to have been best displayed in a genre which allows or even requires images of the fantastic.
I think SF has now evolved into the quintessential film genre which sells itself based on taking images to new places. There are industrial reasons reinforcing this trend, not the least being that if you make your money from exhibiting something on the big screen you need to seek out stories that are actually enhanced by that treatment. Not every genre lends itself. I doubt there will ever be a British social realist film or the sort done by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh shot in IMAX, though insights from that approach can take SF to new places, witness Attack the Block.
James: The market is also relevant here. Take Things to Come: one of the top ten films at the UK box office in 1936, but the British market alone was insufficient to recoup the costs of production and the film didn’t do much business in the United States. Another theme that crops up several times, is that, while Britain no longer has a large film production industry, it does have excellent studio and technical facilities. Hence big Hollywood-backed films like 2001 and Star Wars were shot in British studios with largely British crews. And there are other examples – Alien, Judge Dredd – that we didn’t have space to include.
Henry: A central emphasis here is in the ways that science fiction responds to popular debates around political and technological change. It’s a cliché that Hollywood had little interest in delivering “messages,” yet historically, science fiction was a genre which sought to explore “ideas,” especially concerns about the future. How did these two impulses work themselves out through the production process? Do you see science fiction cinema as the triumph of entertainment over speculation or do most of the films you discuss make conscious statements around the core themes which SF has explored?
Nick: As I said when thinking about the literary/cinematic transition, I think that messages and ideas can have a hard time in Hollywood and often find themselves being forced out by images. This said, the messages that survive the process are all the more potent. Avatar may have been all about what James Cameron can do with digital 3-D it made important points about indigenous rights and the environment along the way.
James: There’ve been some honourable and well-intentioned attempts to build SF films around ideas or messages – Things to Come stands out – though I think that in general, and this is true of popular cinema as a whole and not just SF, audiences tend to be turned off by overt political or social messages and prefer their ideas served up within a framework of entertainment and spectacle. Nick’s chapter on Star Wars, to take just one example, shows how this film was able to address a range of contemporary issues within a framework of myth and archetypes that resonated with audiences at the time and since. Here, as elsewhere, 2001 is the watershed film – perhaps the only ideas-driven SF film that was also a huge popular success.
Henry: You devote a chapter to the little known 1930s film, Just Imagine, and among other things, note that it is not altogether clear how much Hollywood or audiences understood this to be a science fiction film given its strong ties to the musical comedy as a genre. What signs do we have about the role which these genre expectations played in shaping the production and reception of Just Imagine?
Nick: Neither the producers nor audience of Just Imagine had much idea what was going on generically. First of all the production team were a re-assembly of the group who had worked on the studio’s boy-meets-girl hit Sunny Side Up and all their credentials were in musical comedy; secondly the critics who saw the film had trouble finding terminology to describe the film. They tended towards terms like ‘Fantasy’ and drew parallels with The Thief of Baghdad rather than Metropolis. Finally there was the question of law suits as sundry writers claimed that elements we now think of as common points of the genre such as space flight to Mars were original to them. Courts were unimpressed.
Henry: Things to Come is one of those rare cases where a literary SF writer — in this case, H.G. Wells — played an active role in shaping the production of a science fiction film. What can you tell us about the nature of this collaboration and was it seen as a success by the parties involved?
James: It’s a fascinating, and complex, story. This one film exemplifies perfectly the tension between ideas and spectacle that runs throughout the history of SF cinema. Wells was contracted by Alexander Korda, Britain’s most flamboyant film producer, and the closest that the British industry ever had to one of the Hollywood ‘movie moguls’, to develop a screenplay from his book The Shape of Things to Come. Wells was interested because, unlike many writers, he believed in the potential of cinema as a medium for exploring ideas and presenting his views to a wider public.
From Korda’s perspective, Wells was a ‘name’ whose involvement attached a degree of intellectual prestige to the film. But there were two problems. The first was that Wells tried to exercise control over all aspects of the production, even to the extent of dictating memos on what the costumes should look like – which Korda was not prepared to allow. The second problem was that The Shape of Things to Come – an imaginative ‘history of the future’ – is not a very cinematic book: no central characters, for example, or big set pieces. So a new story had to be fashioned.
Some aspects of Wells’s vision were lost in the process. For example, the book is critical of organised religion, but the British Board of Film Censors frowned upon any criticism of the Church as an institution – so that theme goes by the wayside. And Wells’s book posits the notion that a well-intentioned technocratic dictatorship – he calls it the ‘Puritan Tyranny’ – would be beneficial for solving the problems of the world. Again this is significantly downplayed in the film.
So there were a lot of compromises. The collaboration is perhaps best described as one of creative tensions. Publically Wells spoke warmly of Korda and his collaboration with director William Cameron Menzies (an American, incidentally, referring back to our previous discussion of Anglo-American contexts). But privately he was profoundly disappointed by the finished film and was scathing about Menzies, whom he described as “incompetent”. In the end, Things to Come is one of those cases where the finished film reveals traces of the problematic production. For Wells it was about the ideas, for Korda it was about the spectacle – but the two are not really reconciled into a wholly satisfying experience.
Nick Cull is professor of communication at University of Southern California. He is a historian whose research focuses on the interface between politics and the mass media. In addition to well-known books on the history of propaganda he has published widely on popular cinema and television including shorter pieces on Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson and The Exorcist.
James Chapman is professor of film at University of Leicester in the UK. He is a historian who has specialized in popular film and television. His work has included book length studies of James Bond, Doctor Who, British Adventure Serials, British Comic Books and British propaganda in the Second World War. His previous collaboration with Nick Cull was a book on Imperialism in US and British popular cinema.