Xenomorph - 1993
Cinematic Science Fiction Landmarks
of The Last 25 Years - JK Fouzder
(page 3/7)

Cinematic Science Fiction Landmarks of The Last 25 Years

The history of science fiction in Film is in fact virtually as old as film itself; some of the earliest classics of the cinema, such as 'King Kong' and 'Frankenstein', deal with standard SF themes of alien culture, the ethics of biological creation and man's desire to play God. Over the years, both the nature of celluloid science fiction and its prominence in the cinema in general have changed considerably. Many would argue that the most important science fiction on film was actually produced well before the last 25 years and particularly before the advent of what's usually termed its 'commercialisation'. Examples of this would undoubtedly include Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis', 'The War Of The Worlds', 'The Time Machine' and the aforementioned 'Frankenstein'. I decided to restrict myself to the last quarter of a century not only because readers may not be too familiar with films made before then, but also because of the vastness of the scope of the topic and so for the sake of brevity. Another restriction which this necessitated was that this article confines itself only to consideration of the 'angle' of each film in its contribution to the SF universe and the general response to it. Finally, I paid a little more time to later films in the period, also for reasons of reader familiarity.

Science fiction films in the given time span only really started with Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, '2001' in 1968. The importance of the film is perhaps best illustrated by its inclusion on the recent 'Sight and Sound' critics' all-time top ten films list, but not only did it introduce an entire generation to the potential of science fiction, but also inspired a whole set of film-makers to further investigate its many permutations. Why is '2001' as important as it is? One of the most notable differences between this and most science fiction films up to this point was simply the scale of its budget. Until '2001', SF had been strictly B-movie material; low budgets, recycled sets and scripts that were simple rehashes of mainstream hits had been typical features of SF cinema. Probably the most famous example of this was the director Roger Corman (whose recent autobiography was called 'How I Made Over 100 Films and Never Lost A Dime'), who is famous even today for his ultra-cheap SF Kumsawa remakes and Edgar Allan Poe filmings (remember 'The Pit And The Pendulum'?). '2001' was the first SF film backed by a major studio to combine a budget comparable to those of expensive mainstream films, a quality director (Stanley Kubrick) and also the use of a notable SF author for the screenplay. The reason for the sudden departure in the attitude of a studio to a genre remains unclear, but a decision for which fans are probably still grateful. Douglas Trumbull's special effects, which are extraordinary even by today's standards, merit mention for illustrating how effects could be used as an integral part of a story, for inspiring the work of the effects artists who came to prominence in films of the late 70s and early '80s and also for their setting a new state-of-the-art in the effects industry. There was little obvious gloss in the story, which contained much more by way of philosophical underpinnings than was the norm at that point. The themes were unusual in their depth; they were also unusual in that they were focused on the human mind rather than on some alien culture and this served to show how SF could be used in an introverted manner instead of its cinematically more typical decentralised form. Notable use was made of classical music on the soundtrack and the film was pretty much solely responsible for coining the idea of 'space opera'. Another distinctive aspect was its man vs. machine theme, similar to that investigated in 'Metropolis', but one which had not really been explored in such considerable detail since. Critical response to the film was good (it always has been), but the initial audience response was atrocious, leading to very poor box-office taking. The extent of the positive support it received from its core SF audience, however, led to the film's current status as a cult classic and it is still screened in repertory screens world-wide.

Although the early 70s produced a lot of interesting (and some not very good) film SF, I shall ignore the bulk of this and consider only George Lucas' 1971 Film 'THX 1138'. Lucas was at the time only just finished as a student and the film was backed by Warner Bros. at the behest of Francis Ford Coppola, in an attempt by the studio to keep him happy after a recent success. As the studio wasn't much interested in the film in itself, Lucas' directorial debut was very low-budget, but also relatively free from the meddling typical of other studio SF films, in attempts to make the genre more palatable to wider audiences. Despite this, Lucas was able to use Robert Duvall in the leading role, as he wasn't then quite the star he later became.

What of the film? 'THX 1138' is probably the most influential and almost certainly the most famous, dystopian science fiction film ever made; it also rivals films like 'Taxi Driver' for the title of the bleakest film of the decade. While it certainly owes most of its story and its central theme of an oppressive society set on the elimination of individuality to George Orwell's novel '1984' (a film of which was made thirteen years later), it couches it in a white, sanitary, colour-drained visual style, which was to be much copied by directors of other low-budget science fiction movies and was also favoured by commercial and pop video directors. This was certainly the most noteworthy aspect of the film, as its plotting is, probably intentionally, slightly incoherent even at its clearest. Ever since its release, the film has divided both audiences in general, and also SF fans, who either love it or hate it; there would appear to be no middle ground on the issue. Personally, I feel that regardless of opinion on the technical merit of the movie, its influence on later visual SF can't be ignored; it should be borne in mind when reading that last comment, though, that I like the film.


The next real cinematic SF landmark was Lucas' second film after 'THX 1138', which was of course 1977's 'Star Wars'. Its status as box-office champion of the time quickly established that science fiction films could be as popular as other tried and tested, commercially favourable genres and so changed the attitude of almost the entire film industry towards SF, opening the doors for most of the later big budget efforts, as well as helping to nurture the segment of the industry concerned with low cost rip-offs of big successes, in the direction of science fiction. The movie's style, which was to come in later for much flak from hard-core SF fans, was essentially very lightweight, rather glossy and generally perceived to be operatic in a slightly camp, but still rather endearing, sort of way. The movie itself was clearly a good vs. evil parable, rather like the '30s adventure serials, relocated to the far reaches of space. Its appeal to young audiences led to its becoming famous in cinematic circles as being one of the first to lead to the 'juvenalisation' of films so evident throughout the '80s. Its broad appeal could probably be explained by its quite fast pacing, the quality of the special effects (although I don't feel that they've dated very well), the famous John Williams orchestral score and the humour with which the story was told. Despite the movie's apparent shallowness, however, film- buffs the world over were surprised to see that the film did in fact comprise of quotes and regurgitation's from other, critically much better-known films. The plot was a straight lift from Akira Kurosawa's 1958 film 'The Hidden Fortress', while the hard wipes used to cut between scenes (instead of the more usual soft dissolves) were another stylistic feature quoting Kurosawa's films. Individual scenes from the movie were lifted from classics such as John Ford's 'The Searchers' and 'Red River', while Lucas and the film's scorer admitted that the music was intentionally styled more in the manner of '40s and '50s glossy-'MGM' type scores than the (then) current vogue for film music.

The first sequel, 'The Empire Strikes Back', was made about 3 years later, but Lucas, despite retaining virtually total creative control, handed over the directorial reins to Irvin Kershner. Probably as a result of this, the film was much darker in tone and much slower than its predecessor. It was also more reliant on character development, with less emphasis on action, whilst the visual style was not as rough or exciting as the previous film's, but was instead much smoother with much more dramatic camerawork, editing and use of colours. The special effects had improved vastly since the first film (I would say that they still stand out even today and are even comparable with those in the third). The characters were made more complex than they were in 'Star Wars' and the morality inherent in the story was made cloudier than before. I personally prefer this film to the other two of the trilogy, due to its lack of reliance on exciting set-pieces and the lack of overt optimism in the script; it's not quite as 'simple' as the first nor as camp as the third. The film also has a more prepossessing storyline than the other two and its ending is fairly downbeat.

The second sequel, 'Return Of The Jedi', was made a further three years after the second. The tone of this movie was, as far as I'm concerned, one of soap opera. The characters became much camper than in either of the first two films, while the story was a simple reprise of that in the first with a couple of added elements (most notably the precursor Jabba the Hut episode). The script used the basic characterisations from 'The Empire Strikes Back' and took them to melodramatic excess, culminating in the rather unfortunate lightsabre duel at the end. On the good side, the special effects were even better than in the previous film, although the climactic space battle did look too much like an effects showcase, rather than a genuine attempt at highly visual storytelling. Both 'Star Wars' sequels produced very good box-office figures, although these were not quite as high as those for the first film of the trilogy, while the critical response was favourable to the first and generally very negative indeed to the second. Thematically, though, it is very difficult to produce a good argument for considering the 'Star Wars' trilogy as being a worthwhile contribution to science fiction; the films are best seen as ordinary adventures transposed to the SF domain.

At about the same time that 'Star Wars' was being conceived, director Steven Spielberg's 'Jaws' was breaking box-office records; as a result, he was allowed to film a pet project of his, which was to become 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind'. This film was quite daring mainly for its positive outlook; it had become unusual since well before the McCarthy-inspired alien invasion movie's of the '50s for all the aliens in any science fiction film to be portrayed as absolutely benign. The film did actually hark back quite a bit to the optimistic SF films of the earlier part of this century, while at the same time combining those ideas with that of the personal quest of the lead character to understand the milieu of events around him. In many ways, the themes as well as their handling were reminiscent of '2001'; indeed, the notion of a literal journey mirroring a metaphorical one on the part of the protagonists was a theme common to both films. The later film, however, dwelt more on the idea of fear of alien cultures and how that fear could well prove unjustified, whereas the earlier one was more excited by the possibilities of a meeting with extra-terrestrials. 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' was described by its director as being one of the most personal films that he'd ever done; certainly, its human angle sets it apart from the bulk of science fiction movies and was perhaps indicative of the best that SF has to offer. It is, perhaps, worth noting that three years after its initial release, Spielberg was given the chance to re-edit and partly reshoot the film to produce the version he would have done had he actually been given the amount of post-production time that he'd been promised (but not actually given), with the condition that he shot extra material for the ending (namely the inside of the ship). The resulting 'Special Edition' was really the start of the trend that has lasted right up to the present day for director's cuts of films. As science fiction, the movie (regardless of edition) offered an incredibly upbeat view of possibilities, which is rare even today.

In 1979, there appeared a film which revolutionised SF in cinemas: 'Alien'. Ridley Scott's now legendary masterpiece was initially perceived as simply something of an antidote to the gloss which permeated throughout visual science fiction in the late '70s, as illustrated by films like 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' and 'Star Wars'. The aim of the film, according to its director, was "pure terror" and many people responded to it as such. Personally, I don't find the film very scary at all, but that's just my opinion. Predominant among the movie's various contributions to science fiction were the combination of its strong visual style (actually a hallmark of Scott's, but a characteristic of all the films in the trilogy) and the extraordinarily integrated and unusual sense of design throughout. Despite films like 'THX 1138' and, more importantly in this context, 'Dark Star' introducing viewers to less than positive predictions of the future, it was 'Alien' which popularised the idea through the consistency and coherence of its vision.

The film's visual style was actually several individual styles combined. Scenes in the medical rooms or the hypersleep chamber aboard the Nostromo were shot with a colour-bleached, 'white' look; which contrasted with the grungy, dirty, 'smelly' look of the other areas of the ship, where the bulk of the film featuring the Alien was set. Both of these in turn were juxtaposed against the interior of the ship where the Alien eggs were first discovered, and indeed the look of the Alien itself, which had the feel of mechanical layout and indeed metallic materials, but within the context of an organic design. This visual framework was lit by Scott in a manner designed to heighten the contrasts between the elements of the movie, to convey the impression of discord, violence and even in the earlier scenes fear, when little of the alien or its background was known and was only hinted at. The essential design of 'Alien' was mainly the work of Swiss artist H. R. Giger, whose creature was unlike those which could be seen in most monster movies made up until then. Not only was there innovative use of materials (such as raw latex for the face-hugger), but the basic appearance of the beast tried to deflect the audience's awareness away from the fact that what they were watching was only a man in a suit. This was achieved by using a 7' actor and a suit design which 'broke' the human form with its long, smooth and blind head, 'tailpipe' appendages, webbed hands and enormous (and quite credible) tail. Most distinctive of all was the much psychoanalysed mouth, with its vagina-with-teeth outer jaw revealing a phallic, toothy inner jaw; the baby Alien bursting out from within John Hurt was also described as resembling a "little dick with teeth". The designs in the film were fundamental in the critical reputation it received as being some sort of dark nightmare, somehow in tune with people's innermost fears. Books were written about the imagery in the movie and psychological explanations were offered as to why audiences found the film to be as scary as they did. One of the more popular such explanations was that the film was simply a rape nightmare for heterosexual men; the violation of John Hurt's body by the Alien was the ultimate outrage, which the men in the film proved impotent against and so a woman was forced to take up arms to neutralise the beast. Personally, I find most of these ideas a trifle far-fetched, while still subscribing to the notion that the design was really the core of the movie's power.

Other features marked out 'Alien' among SF films in general. The rather small cast (just seven principal actors) distinguished itself with terrific ensemble playing from all; a good illustration of this was 'Leviathan', a cheap derivative made 11 years later, which attempted and failed to create a similar atmosphere in its opening scenes, illustrating just how good the performances in 'Alien' were. Worth noting as well were several novel stylistic features of the film's direction: Firstly, the film had very little by way of quick cutting, with Scott relying instead on suspense. Related to this was the intensity of the film's atmosphere, which was achieved through careful shooting, numerous close-ups and pared-down editing. Scott was also very careful not to reveal too much of the beast right up until the end of the movie, relying on the idea that the worst fear is that of the unknown. Lastly, 'Alien' gave consideration to audience involvement, an aspect of film-making which has always been unfortunately neglected by too many directors in the horror and SF genres. This was done by making the Nostromo's crew what was termed "truck drivers in space" and thus characters to whom audiences could relate and thus identify with when the Alien's terror was finally unleashed.

'Alien' was very well received by SF fans, horror fans and critics, but not quite the huge commercial success that its backing studio (Twentieth Century Fox) had hoped for; certainly no sequels were ever intended. Around four years after the movie's release though, the owners of Brandywine, the production company for 'Alien', met with James Cameron, who had just one directing credit (the Corman-produced 'Piranha II: The Spawning') to discuss the possibility of a sequel, an idea which had germinated in their minds after the release of 'Alien'. The result, after Cameron's 'The Terminator' had been completed, was 'Aliens'.

In Cameron's words, the basic idea underpinning the movie was that of an army of "grunts in space". 'Aliens' was a daring follow-up in that it didn't just defy the first movie the way some sequels do in terms of basic stylistic limitations, it actually transcended them and really placed itself in a different game: that of the action or war film. When considered as such, the film really was unsurpassable. Even Cameron, with expensive efforts like 'Terminator 2: Judgement Day' wasn't able to achieve pacing or timing quite as effective as that in 'Aliens', in my opinion, no other film ever produced quite the adrenaline effect of some of its-fever-pitch chase sequences. When compared to 'Alien', the sequel had editing that was very much faster, much more kinetic camera-work, totally different basic designs and the look of the film was certainly different. 'Aliens' appealed to quite a different audience to 'Alien', but still garnered good reviews as well as drawing viewers of the first film through sheer curiosity and so made quite a lot of money for its studio.

What, though, of the film's value as science fiction? 'Aliens' didn't have quite the interest in SF or the possible nature of the future as its predecessor, its vision didn't have any overt basis and was nothing like as intense and the film's appeal had little or nothing to do with its fundamental grounding in the SF universe. One thing it did share with 'Alien', however, was a strong sense of design; the visual feel of the various elements in the movie was a consistent one. One basic facet of the movie's design was that it tried not to look too futuristic in a way that was vastly removed to things people were used to; instead, it tried to update present-day imagery. A good example of this was the way in which conventional machine guns were refitted and modified in a manner in which they might naturally develop, but one in which they were still familiar. Another feature shared by both movies was the general quality of the acting, which was quite surprising in the sequel as the cast was mainly composed of small-time actors. Sigourney Weaver produced another very good performance, but one which drew considerable criticism from other actresses (Jodie Foster referred obliquely to Ripley in 'Aliens' as a "female Rambo"). The film also attempted to build on the Alien myth by making its own contribution to the creature's life-cycle, that of the Alien Queen. This turned the basic conception of the Alien away from that of the lone warrior of the first film to a hive-like colony in the second, giving the film's audience a new surprise, since the face-hugger and basic Alien warrior were no longer unknown.

alien, ripley

This thematic change was one that was echoed elsewhere in the movie in scenes which were deleted from the final release print, but reinstated in the film's 'Special Edition'. In these, considerable attention was paid to Ripley's daughter, who had aged and died during her extended hypersleep. The other important omissions from the shorter version were scenes establishing relationships between the principal characters aboard the army vessel and particularly Ripley's 'mother hen' attitude towards the marines. One fundamental motif in the film, although this was not explored or even reasoned in any way, was that of motherhood: Ripley had lost her ability to be a mother through the death of her child, which was regained by her bonding with the orphan Newt. This was contrasted with the motherhood of the Alien Queen, who nurtured only destructive progeny and who herself was only otherwise capable of killing. This implied that Ripley's actions through the film were maternal in nature. The deletion of many of the scenes film the original release of the movie, though, indicated that the studio was more interested in the film as a non-stop actioneer than in its character development. Sigourney Weaver was reported to have been quite annoyed at the removal of certain scenes, as she felt that much of her character's motivation was then lost 'Aliens' climaxed with the apparently total destruction of the Alien colony, but due to financial pressure from the studio, Brandywine were asked to produce a further chapter in the Alien saga. Various ideas were mooted and the script reportedly went through over twenty different rewrites and three directors, the second of whom left the project after pre-production had already commenced. These events came to a head with the choice of David Fincher, whose prior experience was in music videos, as director.

The third film ignored the gun-fetishism of the second and used themes which were much more downbeat The (in my opinion) stunning opening montage quickly established a new scenario, by killing off the survivors of 'Aliens', apart from Ripley and locating the events on a barren prison planet, thus allowing a fresh start. The motherhood theme of the previous film was made slightly more extreme, of which examples include Ripley's being the only female in a population of men, her 'carrying' of the Alien Queen and at the film's end, the Company representative offering her the chance "to have children of her own". Religion, the other main theme, was also touched upon in parts of the movie, but no explanation was offered for the prisoners faith. The theme was really something of a leftover from early script drafts, but the notions of sacrifice, birth and death recurrent in the film and the manner of Ripley's suicide at the end were certainly part of it.

alien, ripley

Non-thematic differences included the colour scheme of 'Alien 3' replacing its immediate predecessor's strong browns and blues with a much softer, warmer brown. The editing of the film was also generally slower, greater use was made of a moving camera and the lighting had mote contrast than in 'Aliens'. The scenes which best illustrated these visual differences were Newt's autopsy, the cremation intercut with scenes of the Alien's 'birth', Ripley's arrival on the operating table intercut with computer readouts of the status of the other EEV occupants and her medical scan revealing the Alien Queen gestating inside her. 'Alien 3' tried to get closer in style to 'Alien' than its sequel, which explained why the film's format was again one-Alien-picking-off-several-people-one-by-one. The film also featured much more by way of visual scrutiny of the Alien than either of the first two films; in 'Alien', Scott hid the creature right until the end of the movie, whereas 'Aliens' only showed the Alien Queen in any detail, relying on the Alien army to present a largely unseen threat. The third film, however, made the Alien more integral to the film's visual story. The design of the Alien was changed again; the rationale behind this was the fact that it bred in a dog, rather than the human hosts of the previous films, but the design used was rendered after consultation with Giger, the original Alien designer, whereas the designs of the second movie were produced without any direct reference to him at all. As far as music was concerned, both sequels' scores were based on aspects of the original, the third movie's music was closely related in mood, whereas 'Aliens' really had an action score. 'Alien 3' was much slower in pace than 'Aliens', but yet was perceived to have none of the horror aspect of the first movie. This could be attributed to the change of emphasis over the course of the trilogy away from the Alien and more towards Ripley and so it wasn't a horror movie at all, but rather the third chapter in Ripley's character development.

The only film of the trilogy to make any significant contribution to cinematic science fiction was really the first one. The other two movies really only built on ideas inherent in the script of 'Alien', while taking quite different approaches (which weren't themselves actually very novel) to the subject. The trilogy as a whole was, however, a landmark in cinematic SF, both in the ideas the films produced and the way in which the movies changed audiences' perception and preconceptions of science fiction.

In 1982, after an abortive attempt at filming Frank Herbert's novel 'Dune', Ridley Scott set to work on his next film after 'Alien', the result, 'Bladerunner', was and still is considered by many (including myself) to be one of the most important and innovative science fiction films ever made. Among its many assets, 'Bladerunner' had an extraordinary cast, an acclaimed score by Vangelis, stunning cinematography (courtesy of Alex Thomson who worked on 'Alien 3') and managed to capture almost precisely the most common themes in the works of source novelist Philip K. Dick. Initial responses to it were mixed from film critics, very positive from SF fans and mixed from audiences in general, but it endured as one of the most popular cult classics on the 'midnight movie' art house circuits and in repertory screens around the world. Possible reasons for the movie's consistent popularity were numerous, but it usually had something to do with the fact that it was rare for a film to be quite as 'pure' science fiction wise as 'Bladerunner' was; most SF films tended to have 'crossover' appeal for mainstream viewers, through their scripting or through changes movie after test screenings. Technically, the film boasted terrific performances and little to indicate budget limitations, but at the heart of 'Bladerunner' were ideas, some of which were considered fundamental in science fiction: these included knowledge of reality, knowledge of the nature of oneself, the most basic nature and definition of humanity and even an attempt at questioning the meaning of life. These were channelled quite distinctly through the film's visuals, i.e. its production design or photography, or through its script.


Visually, 'Bladerunner' was more extreme than anything that had been seen previously with respect to the extent of its dystopianism. The production design used sets which were actually current day, but were 'retro-fitted', to look like contemporary locations updated to Scott's grimy vision (part of the verbal design brief was "Hong Kong on a bad day"). Extensive use was made of what were to become Scott's hallmarks, namely neon, very smoky atmospheres and unconventional lighting, whilst virtually all of the 'outside' photography contained persistent rain or drizzle. Matte paintings, used mostly in the climax, were very Gigeresque in style and the numerous miniatures conveyed the impression of an overcrowded, decaying urban environment very effectively. The photography also helped to evoke the necessary atmosphere, which was highlighted by its use of subdued and 'dirty' colours. Kinetic camera-work was used to convey the strength of the Replicants, particularly Batty's when hunting Deckard.

The script of 'Bladerunner' was probably, with the possible exception of '2001', the most literal translation of a science fiction novelist's ideas ever to be written for the screen. The shooting script didn't really copy the essential dialogue and events from the source story ('Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?'), but rather transposed them to make them more cinematic. The main method of exploring the central ideas of the film was through the quest of the Replicants for their 'maker' (Tyrrell), the way Batty dealt with him when they met and through comparisons between them and Deckard. The conversation between Batty and Tyrrell acted as a sort of exposition for the movie's theme of the worth of life and the reason for man's desire for it and this was harked back to in Batty's final speech to Deckard ("All those moments will be lost like ... tears in rain"). One of the most important themes in the film was the truth behind the apparent reality of memory; this was brought to the fore with Rachel's wanting to know if she was a Replicant or not and her complete ignorance of the possibility up until the start of the story ("How can it not know what it is ?"), but was reflected in the (admittedly viewed as contentious) possibility that Deckard himself was a Replicant too. An attempt was made in the film to analyse what may be termed 'humanity' by comparing the characters of the Replicants and their human antagonists; this started right in the prologue, when killing one of them was referred to as 'retirement' and later, when Rachel asked Deckard if he had "ever retired a human by mistake". The murders carried out by the Replicants were shown to be brutal, but Deckard's 'retirement' of Zhora was also very bloody and was portrayed as excessively violent and, perhaps, slightly unreal as well. Other contrasts between the two sets of characters included differences in their respective outlooks; Deckard appeared never to really have considered death or the purpose of his life, whereas these were the driving forces behind the actions of the Replicants in the film. Additionally, Deckard was at the start of the movie quite dispassionate; his emotions became more intense during the story when he started to relate to the Replicants as characters rather than just machines, as he appeared to have been used to. The Replicants' emotional development over the course of the movie also resulted in quite intense characters, but their understanding was primarily one of their own existence.

'Bladerunner' was also important in terms of cinematic SF in that, like 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind', it was released in two different editions. The version released in 1982 was tailored to suit the results of preview audience test screenings, but that released world-wide over 1991 and 1992 was the original 'Director's Cut', which was shorter, featured slight editing differences, more of Vangelis' music and lost both Harrison Ford's voice-over and the upbeat ending. Fans were virtually unanimous that the 'Director's Cut' was vastly superior to the original release and both Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford had been, at the time of the movie's premiere, publicly annoyed at the changes that had had to be made. The overall effect of the alterations to Scotts final cut had been to lessen the impact and integrity of the film; it was no longer really consistent with the director's style and no longer had the coherence of vision which really set it apart from more typical science fiction movies and which turned it instead into a hybrid of SF and more conventional film. The negative view the film took was ruined by the rather trite editing, whilst the voice-over destroyed Scott's method of visual story-telling and so the release of the 'Directors Cut' was welcomed by virtually all of the film's following. In summary, the real strengths of 'Bladerunner, as just mentioned, by in the purity and distinctiveness of its vision; its contribution to cinematic SF probably can't be overestimated as with this film, dystopian - SF movies and in fact SF films of all types really came of age.

Although unique in its approach, 'Bladerunner' wasn't the only science fiction movie to investigate 'reality': 'Robocop' did so, but, despite the movie's quality, its approach wasn't really innovative in any way. 'Total Recall', also directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on a Philip K. Dick story, played with similar ideas, by submerging them in a melee of action, gore and fast pacing. A much more interesting, although largely overlooked, effort was Canadian body horror director David Cronenberg's 1982 attempt, 'Videodrome'. The movie started like a conventional story, but gradually descended, rather like its lead character, into a bizarre, sexual, surreal nightmare, where reality and hallucination could no longer be distinguished. James Wood's performance was excellent and so were the special prosthetic effects. The basis of the film, a cable TV programmer getting indoctrinated by a subliminal message broadcast with a snuff channel, made its message quite clear and yet Cronenberg's (typically) dramatic handling of the subject still made it highly watchable. Another theme behind 'Videodrome', however, was the power of the media; it was the effect of this combined with the movie's continuous trickery as to the definition of its 'reality' that gave it its visceral impact. The media theme was evinced by the fact that all the characters in the movie were somehow media-related and particularly by the fact that Max's downfall was caused by a media conspiracy. As a film, Videodrome' managed to cross boundaries between science fiction and horror in quite a novel manner, albeit one which didn't make it quite a 'landmark' movie of SF cinema.

In the decade since 'Bladerunner', science fiction gained increasing prominence on film. None of the movies produced since then, in my opinion, earned the distinction of being a landmark, although many of them are still worth examination. The 'Star Trek' sextet of films was interesting for its bringing humanist ideas to SF film, despite the variety of the approach of each of the movies; they varied between straightforward adventures, a '2001'-inspired quest, a comedy and a parable mirroring current-day event. 'The Terminator' successfully evoked nihilism and man's self-destructive nature with its simple and yet very well-told story of the battle between an android and a human. Its sequel, however, was simply an upbeat and not as effective reprise of these ideas, which acted as something of a showcase for the film's groundbreaking special effects. 'The Abyss' recycled the ideas behind 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind', also with much better effects, but did not explore them any further. Also worthy of mention was the work of John Carpenter, the director of 'Dark Star', 'Escape From New York' and the remake of 'The Thing'. This last film was interesting because its main themes were paranoia and mistrust, which were relevant both in the context of the Communist scares of the '50s when the original film was made and also during the "evil empire" Reagan era of the '80s when the remake was produced.

To conclude, then, the last twenty five years saw science fiction gain increasing prominence in the medium of film, as the genre gained cinematic 'respectability' or credence. Themes explored in the best of these movies gained in their complexity, while whole new film-making techniques were created and also, in fact, used in other, non-SF films. The selection of movies discussed in this article were by no means exhaustive and clearly personal opinion played a significant role in their choice. Many of them were landmarks not in themselves, but in the way they changed attitudes towards SF on film and in the effect they had on the broader topic of science fiction itself, while many significant movies were omitted purely because their contribution was not felt to be highly original or particularly interesting in SF terms.

JK Fouzder

by Luke Gietzen