Fred Rowson goes in search of the future of the future

13 October 2007

Ridley Scott’s recent comment from the Venice Film Festival, that the science fiction genre is as dead as the western, has naturally inflamed some critics. As Scott must surely know, at least in terms of numbers, the genre is performing as well as ever. The last few years have seen various critically acclaimed works, from Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’, to films such as ‘28 Weeks Later’, and ‘Land of the Dead’ – horror movies which encroach heavily (and, it must be said, successfully) on science fiction’s turf. His words also coincide with the upcoming release of ‘Blade Runner’, on a five disc DVD set from Warner Brothers. Needless to say, Scott’s opinion could be taken as a kind of perverse plug for the new release.

However, there is a truth in his words, alongside their maddening superciliousness. The original screenplay for ‘Alien’ (original title: ‘Star Beast’) opens with two quotations, both of which clearly define the importance of the science fiction genre for Scott, and go some way towards explaining his standpoint. One is from Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Nostromo’, which gives Ripley’s ship its name. Conrad writes, “we live, as we dream – alone”. The specificity of the threat faced in ‘Alien’ is a cruel treatment of the genre’s abiding fantasy: that somewhere beyond the stars, humanity shares its existence with other intelligent life. Through the realisation of this wish, science fiction talks to our deepest feelings about existence in a way that no other genre can manage.

The creature in ‘Alien’ is unashamedly animal. It is instinctive, as the crew’s use of fire to control it suggests, and it is viciously tenacious. Like a cockroach that refuses to be crushed. The film hints brilliantly at the possibility of other life forms and other creatures, with the discovery of the spaceship and the nest within, but the creature’s slaughter of Ripley’s crew, and its subsequent destruction mean that our heroine is left literally and figuratively alone, once again, at the end of the movie.

The second quotation is from W.H. Auden: “Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket.” ‘Alien’, I feel, does this better than ‘Blade Runner’, but neither do it so well as ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a film in which even the title pulls in different physical and temporal directions. This is what Scott claims to be the key science fiction film: the genre’s peak. But it was not this, which influenced him to make ‘Alien’. His second film was set to be an adaptation of ‘Tristan and Isolde’, until he saw ‘Star Wars’, and decided that “This is what cinema is about!” Indeed, ‘Star Wars’ is ‘about’ cinema, but a certain kind of cinema. Whilst on the topic of outrageous claims by filmmakers, ‘Star Wars’ chimes nicely in with William Friedkin’s axiom: “I’m not a thinker… If it’s a film by somebody instead of for somebody, I smell art.”

It is argued by many that ‘2001: A Space Odyssey” is art, but only those who enjoy a kind of ironic, and perhaps even a vulgar kind of art would do the same for ‘Star Wars’. And this, for me at least, is where Scott is correct.

The most recent ‘Star Wars’ films are to science fiction what ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was to the western. Only these films have no hope of future critical redemption. They are not what cinema is about, unless it is about a howling black void, as emotionless as it is ugly. They, and the ‘Matrix’ sequels are science fiction’s darkest hour, and for better or for worse, Scott has seen this.

But there is a hope that he does not acknowledge. There is a hope in Danny Boyle’s work, and there is a hope in the Peter Jackson produced film version of ‘Halo’ which, if current signs are at all indicative, will give the genre bright, and, I would even go so far as to say, starry future.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut will be released in cinemas next month