Keith M. Johnston’s Science Fiction Film: a Critical Introduction is dedicated to his parents because they helped him become a science fiction fan and scholar (p. xi). They took him to the films, bought him the comics and helped him get into the costumes. He was a fan, or dare we say it ‘geek,’ before he became a scholar. I empathise with his position and must admit before reviewing both Johnston’s book and James Walters Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction that I was a geek first and a scholar second as well. Growing up I disappeared into Middle Earth or Narnia, found myself on the deck of the Falcon or the Enterprise and was constantly exploring impossible worlds and improbable futures through the magic of celluloid. To be completely honest, I still do and that is what drew me to this pair of critical genre works.
Both books are part of Berg’s Film Genre series and set out to be introductions to their respective genres and the academic debates surrounding them. Any generic study is challenging since a certain amount of taxonomical classification will inevitably take place and leaving certain films, tropes or elements of iconography out can easily isolate a reader. Johnston’s work takes the more direct route, by tracing the science-fiction genre’s history from the birth of cinema up until the modern day while highlighting some of the key theorists and movements that fall directly within his scope. He also explores the large role that advertising, publicity and technology play in shaping and concreting the genre. Alternatively, Walters introduces the problematic nature of his genre, fantasy, early on. One line of argument would contend that all fiction films “have the potential to expand the boundaries of possibility and plausibility precisely through their being fictions” therefore making them fantastic (p. 17). He tackles this issue among other, at times dense, theoretical concerns throughout the book and performs a number of very focused case studies on groups of films. Due to the broader focus, Johnston’s work comes off as the more accessible of the two, and serves as the better ‘introduction’ to a genre, though Walters book is not without its own merits.
Johnston sets up his systematic approach to interrogating Sci-Fi through a close reading of Duncan Jones’ 2009 Moon – a film that sits very safely within the structure, tropes and concerns of the genre. He uses the film to highlight many of the key issues, methodological approaches and thematic concerns that can arise and/or can be seen in Sci-Fi. He sets these elements up clearly so he can return to them throughout the book as needed. This both eases the reader into Johnston’s style and approach while offsets nicely against the iconic Lumiere moon image on the cover – Johnston’s work attempts to cover each step between these two historical points. His tone throughout is informed and enlightening, however the voice of the fan-boy inside sporadically creeps through:
“the hope of the author is that this book functions as a gateway (stargate, hyperspace jump point, time portal) to the larger universes (utopian, dystopian, parallel) of science fiction and opens up new areas of exploration.” (p. 4)
However, he does not let this tone derail his academic voice, rather just add flair to his work. His second chapter, which sets up some of the broader theoretical approaches that have been used in relation to Sci-Fi, highlights the research behind his work. He uses the work of Annette Kuhn – and her five framing devices of reflections, ideologies, repressions, spectators and inter-texts – to group together the academic ideas associated with the genre (p. 27). He touches on work by Susan Sontag, Richard Maltby and Constance Penely along with numerous others. He does not favour one approach over another; he merely lays out tools for future theorists to employ in interrogating the genre.
Walters sets out on his quest into the realm of Fantasy with an exploration of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937). Though not as blatantly fantastic as many films in the genre, Walters uses this film because of its pseudo fantasy/religious ending. He also evokes scenes from The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002) and X-Men (Singer, 2000) in his introductory moments, again films one would not traditionally associate with the fantasy genre. This trend toward tangential or periphery films traces its way through the book, actively exploring one of his central arguments that fantasy has the “ability to form tangible connections with the realities of human existence” (p. 28). What makes this argument challenging for Walters is his apparent reluctance to tackle many ‘true’ fantasy films. He lists films such as the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia (Adamson, 2003), Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1920), The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) (p. 34) as major examples of the genre but of these, only Capra’s Christmas classic gets any page time. Though it is understandable to want to encourage viewership outside the generic canon, it seems in a work that presents itself as an ‘introduction’ to the genre, some canonical interpretation or evolutionary history is required. This is not to suggest Walters’ arguments and ideas are not engaging and well explored, his attention to detail in a close reading of a scene from Letter From an Unknown Woman is astonishing. It is just that the core of the genre deserves more attention, especially considering even Walters himself admits Fantasy ‘remains at the margins’ and is the subject of ‘critical neglect’ in the academic field (p. 74).
Science Fiction has had an easier ride with critics and scholars, especially in the wake of films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) or Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972). Johnston tracks the ebb and flow of the genre through history, moving easily from the trick films at the beginnings of cinema, through the B-grade classics of the 1950s by way of the blockbusters of Spielberg and Lucas all the way up to the multiplatform releases of the new millennium. He gives detailed attention to some of the most recent developments in the genre, and in cinema reception as a whole, in regard to the internet, video games and audience interactivity. Johnston suggests “technology has always been central to the genre’s interest” and he regularly draws attention to this on (robots, space travel, futuristic developments) and behind (camera techniques, make up, visual effects) the screen (p. 103). Each chapter builds on the last, working chronologically up to the present day.
Walters’ book is more episodic, each chapter tackling a particular argument or ideological standpoint on the fantasy genre. This includes work on internalised fantasies and how they are represented on screen, autership in fantasy, cohesion in fantastical worlds and the relationship between childhood and the genre. This last chapter mentioned contains some particularly standout material on Speilberg’s Hook (1991) in comparison to the Tom Hanks vehicle Big (Marshall, 1988) and stylistically removed sequel, Return to Oz (Murch, 1985). The work on autership is detailed, but he chooses to focus on the musicals of Vincent Minnelli – Brigadoon (1954), Cabin in the Sky (1943) and, most removed from the realm of fantasy, The Band Wagon (1953). The scholarship is sound and intriguing but the list of other possible subjects for auterist fantasy exploration found at the end of the chapter – Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro and Michel Gondry – all seem, at least from my perspective, better suited for the argument.
Johnston’s work also strays from the path at times, most notably in the later sections on trailers and promotional material. Though engaging histories of the methods studios used to fill theatres, the content does spiral a little too far from the genre at hand, meaning the argument gets a little too broad. However, Johnston does demonstrate some self awareness of this saying “This connection between genre marketing and new technology may not be unique to the genre of science fiction, but in the last decade it has been the science fiction properties that have explored these possibilities” (p.156). The exploration of more recent films like The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999, 2003, 2005) sequels and Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008) and the ways they opened out their narratives onto other platforms, like interactive online ‘treasure hunts’ or video games, is intriguing and reveals the genre’s ever evolving nature. Though he does traverse some tangential material, Johnston manages to cover a lot of ground on the genre.
Walters builds through his various, at times highly divergent, films to eventually arise at the place he said he would, The Lord of The Rings (Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003) trilogy. His observations on how Peter Jackson made the impossible possible through coherent spaces in the fantasy realm are engaging and convincing. However, so much time has been spent with other, more orbital, films that although LOTR (according to Walters)“emerges as the constant nomination among respondents for the title of quintessential fantasy” (p. 3) it is only discussed in one very focused way. The links between some of his earlier arguments and this genre defining work can be seen, but they need to be spelled out. In the end, Walters sums up his views on fantasy quite succinctly, it is “the fictional world expanded: sometimes even exploded” (p. 131). That is certainly the argument he has made throughout, it just seems overly focused for what sets out to be a broad genre exploration.
Maybe one of core difficulties of genre film carries over and becomes one of the challenges in writing about it. There is no one way to film a science fiction epic, there is no one way to capture a fantasy world on celluloid and there is no definite way to condense these large unruly genres into humble introductory books. Both books discussed here contain engaging explorations of their respective genres, and are written with flair and academic prowess. Johnston’s work spoke to me more directly since it seemed confident in its broad brushstrokes but Walters is a strong, detailed study of the fringes of a nebulous genre, even if it feels too dense for the series of which it is a part. In the end it comes down to personal taste. The scholar writing this review sees Johnston’s as the better book but the geek who preceded him has always preferred Dragons to Death Stars.
Johnston, Keith M. Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction, London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.
Walters, James. Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction, London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.