Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction

Keith M. Johnston,
Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction
Berg Publishers, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-84788-476-3
US$29.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Bloomsbury Publishing)

Keith M. Johnston’s Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction stands as a welcome addition to the field of science fiction overviews, one which more complements rather than replicates or competes with the relatively few other up-to-date monographs. Being up to date is of particular importance for dealing with the science fiction film, not only because, by happenstance, the present constitutes a particularly important and busy juncture in science fiction history (witness such recent genre-evolving titles as Cloverfield (2008), District 9 (2009), and Moon (2009), as well as the profusion of more typical science fiction blockbusters), but also because the genre takes as its subject matter issues of futurity, the play between present “real” science and potential but still fictional science, and this itself shifts with great rapidity. Among the few recent single-authored studies, while Christine Cornea’s Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality (2007) offers the significant benefit of an in-depth analysis of issues of gender and race in major films of the genre (along with a thematically-focused historical overview), and Lincoln Geraghty’s fairly slender American Science Fiction Film and Television (2009) offers a country-specific account of the genre (including student-friendly sidebars with lengthier analyses of key texts), Johnston’s study offers an expanded historical account of the development of the form, taking into account generally neglected time periods (i.e., that before 1950), neglected science fiction filmmaking practices (for example, the non-Anglophone and the exploitation film, as well as hybrid genre films), and neglected ancillary materials and discourses (most notably, those of film promotion).

This decision to move beyond the usual areas of coverage of science fiction study is indeed a self-conscious one, an intervention alluded to a number of times in the volume’s opening chapters on theorizing genre and science fiction. These chapters nicely summarize some of the key recent developments in genre theory and study, in particular the conceptualization of genre as a fluid and dynamic entity, shifting over time and across various global contexts, and functioning through (and shaped by) multiple discursive networks, rather than purely grounded in a set group of film texts. These opening chapters are followed by several chapters on genre history, arguably the core of the volume, which broadly and usefully trace the overall trajectory of the science fiction film right up to the present, highlighting key shifts in the science fiction discourse over time and citing an impressive array of cinematic examples – again, and quite significantly, not just examples chosen from the (mostly Anglophone) science fiction canon, but films from a global range of filmmaking traditions, both high and low, perhaps not in every case what one would think of as science fiction but contributing to (and illustrating) the fabric of that entity nonetheless.  Johnston underscores in this section, among other things, ways that currents in contemporary history bear upon the development of the genre, but he goes out of his way (and repeatedly) to caution against taking a simple reflectionist perspective, noting that currents from culture and history are just one of the forces that shape these texts. Among these chapters, particularly eye-opening and significant is that on the neglected period from 1895 to 1950, in which Johnston convincingly demonstrates how many of the tropes that get strongly associated with science fiction in subsequent decades are already developing within early “proto-generic” texts. The book’s genre history section is followed in turn by a section comprising chapters on the importance of various promotional materials (pressbooks, trailers, websites) to the development of the genre as well – this being still another neglected area of science fiction film analysis not touched on in most works.

Its substantial strengths notwithstanding, however, the volume does have its share of shortcomings, some of which bear in particular on its suitability as a textbook (depending upon student preparation and specific course aims). To touch on each of the aforementioned main sections in turn, while the opening conceptual section does nicely summarize some key developments in genre theory, the writing seems a little inconsistent as to whether its intended audience is a general readership (or beginning level student) on the one hand or a film studies specialist on the other; thus, summaries of key analytical methods in a chapter on “Reading Science Fiction” feel a bit too rushed and schematic for the novice (and alludes to material such students might not be familiar with), while not providing much useful or new for the specialist.  The chapter that follows, which has the title “Science Fiction and Technology,” may well be the weakest in the volume, in part because the focus over its scant ten pages is not entirely clear and seems to shift from time to time; the topic of technology is really only lightly touched on, and primarily as it bears upon production values (rather than its significance as a thematic element), while a greater emphasis of the chapter would appear to be on the shifting relationship between spectacle and narrative in the genre (and even here, the chapter’s arguments tend to be vague).

The historical overview section that follows, while highly readable (and hence suitable for an introductory-level or general audience) nevertheless contains surprisingly little extended analysis of illustrative film examples, something that would have been particularly useful if the intent were for this to serve as a text book, as such analysis provides an important model for students only just becoming acquainted with genre study. I would wonder, in fact, if perhaps there were budgetary or format constraints communicated by the publishers (which is often the case in the present environment), which might explain not only the brevity of certain discussions, but also the paucity of visual illustrations (or for that matter any variations in layout – for example a timeline or sidebar), which in particular might make the book feel more approachable for students. In contrast to the genre history section, the “Selling Science Fiction” section does contain several examples of extended textual analysis, of pressbooks and film trailers, for example. I suspect, though, that it might have made more sense to integrate the material from this section, which is itself organized historically, into the genre history chapters; in terms of teaching, for example, it might make sense to discuss a given era’s promotional strategies in conjunction with its other generic trends.

On balance, then, Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction is for the most part a quite readable and interesting overview, which makes a particular contribution in opening up under-explored areas and blind spots in the field of science fiction studies.  It does have its share of quirks in its approach and emphasis, however, which would speak to considering carefully whether it might be appropriate as a textbook for a given class; in any event, it would probably work best if supplemented with other materials (rather than used as a standalone text).

About the Author

Adam Knee

Adam Knee is Associate Professor in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.