Review of Christine Cornea, Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality (Edinburgh University Press, 2007) and Adilifu Nama, Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (University of Texas Press, 2008)

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Review of Christine Cornea, Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality (Edinburgh University Press, 2007) and Adilifu Nama, Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (University of Texas Press, 2008)
  the same paragraphabout lf's a Mad Mad Mad MadWorld, she both refers tothe film's producers as United Artists and as Universal (373), and there aresome other small mistakes that, in a work of suchscope, are probably inevitable-but she performs an important service by exposing Merman's battering and abuse at the handsof her third husband,Robert Six; he even beat herelderly parents and Merman's children as well, a topic that Kellow does not mention.Neither does a good job of explaining how Mermancould be under "exclu- sive contract"to Warner Bros. but make all but oneofher early shorts for Paramount. But of course, if you are a reallybig Ethel Merman fan, you will have to read both booksany-way, and will have a fabulous time in either ,I/IARTINFRADLEY Science Fiction Cineno: Between Fontosy ond Reolilyby Christine (orneo Block Spoce: lmogining Roce in Science Fiction Filn by Adililu Nomo Christine Cornea's Science Fiction Cinema undertakes an ambitioushistorical survey of the science-fiction film in dif-ferent national and cultural contexts. Cornea iscareful torepeatedlyemphasize the broad varief of transnational tra- ditionsand influences which commingle in the genre. Unconventionallyfor a scholarly tome,the volume includes a series of lively interviews with significant SF practitioners, includingsuch luminariesas William Gibson, Roland Emmerich, effects technician Stan Winston, and the charac- teristically forthright Paul Verhoeven. An introductory vol- ume clearlyaimed at an undergraduate audience, Science Fiction Cinema takes a chronological approach. Beginning with literarysrcins,Cornea moves to cinematic prototypes from Voyage tothe Moon ( I 902 ) to Metropolis (1927),before crossing the Atlantic to discover incarnationsof Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in print, radio,and cinema serials. The study begins in earnest with the SF boom during its so-called Golden Age in the 1950s, and hereCornea follows in the productivelyrevisionist footsteps of Mark |ancovich'sRational Fears: AmericanHorror in the 1950s (Manchester 18 FALr. 2oo9 University Press, 1996)by guiding her analysis away fromthegenre's allegedcontemporaneouspreoccupation with mr clear age angst and anti-Communistparanoia. Instead Science FictionCinema explores the domestic discontenft obliquely registered in Americanfilms of the era before dir cussing the influence of|apan's Coiira (1954) and the BritishQuatermass films from 1955 onward. Films such as 200I:ASpace Odyssey (1968) in the 1960s and 70s are classified in terms of a "maturation"of the genre, the fantastical andspeculative projections of SF combining with the influence of Europeanarthouse cinema to make a genre fit for an emerging counterculture. These progressiveshifts are subse- quently vaporized bythe sweeping ray gun of Reaganite "backlash"conservatism in the 1980s, thoughCornea notes that genderdynamics of films as diverse in tone as Blade Runner(1982) and Starship Troopers (1997) continue to be oppositionalor radical. And herein lies the conundrum o{ Science Fiction Cinema. As a teacher, I struggleto think of a more succinct andclearly written single-volume introduction to thegenre; as a scholar andaficionado, however, I found myselfwant- ing to readsomething that made me look at these well- known films in new ways. In this respect, I wasmostly disappointed, although towardthe book'send there are two excellentchapters. One is on representations of race and ethnicity,and it containsincisivecommentary on a wide rangeof films, includingiconic SF cycles such as the BlackPower-era Planet of the Apes (1968-73) series and the multiculturalism andtechno-Orientalism of The Matix (1999-2001)franchise. The other is a discussion of "post- human" sublectivityand cyborg performativity in DavidCronenberg'sCrash (1996) and eXistenZ(1999);here, atlast, the author really comes togrips with the material in an srcinal and highly sophisticated way. Though some readers may be alienated bythe conflation of gametheory and eso- teric conceptual specr-rlation here,others will be thrilled (as I was) by Cornea's nuanced analysis ofthe "constantly emerging techno-hum an"(238). "Race," asserts Adilifu Nama, "is the ultimate science fic- tion" (42). Alluding quiteunambiguouslyto the mannerin which essentialist socialconstructions of "race" invariably rely upon a dubious conflation of quasi-scientificjargonand neo-Darwinist rhetoric, the author of Black Space tnder- scores theway SFreflects painfulhistorical realities. Tracing theevolution of the American SF film from the emergence of the Civil Rightsmovement through to the present day, Nama examines the genre's shifting allegorical stagings of collective fears,fantasies, and desires surrounding race in American society.Seeing SF's progressive potential as indica-  / tive of American culture's speculative capacity to reimagineltself, Black Spoce depicts such futuristic proiections as al-ways already caught between the utopian imagination andthe inevitable social limitations of the present.As the authornotes, "If we cannotlook toward thefuture to imagine new possibilities and solutions for a history of race relationsmarred with fear, violence,institutionaldiscrimination, and deep-seated ambivalence,then where else?" (172).Black Space is forthe most part unapologetically polem- ical. At its best, this approach canbe persuasive and com- pelling. For example, Nama finds in the overwhelmingprevalence of white characters in SF cinema a "symbolic wish-fulfilment of America's staunchest advocates of white supremacy" (10). Until the 1970s, the idea of AfricanAmericans in space-and, by extension, equal citizens in a sociallyjust democracy-seemed simply too far-fetched tomainstreamaudiences, even allowingfor SF's ostensibly un- confined scope for futuristic fantasy. Much of Nama's broad-ranging survey is preoccupied with the frustrating limitationsof SF in terms of racial representation. Star Wars is roundlyandsuccinctly denounced as "elevating white nationalism to the level of a catharticmorality tale" (31), while the reac- tionarypolitics and disturbingly Caucasian universe of Logan's Run (1976)and dubious neoconservative agenda ofCattaca (1,997) are similarly critiqued. To underscorethe genre's often depressingly limited racial imagination, the au- thor pointstothe enormous popularity of Will Smith. While Nama duly credits the starof lndependence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), l, Robot (2004), and I Am Legend(2007) with significantlyheightening the black presence in SF cinema,Smith is also pithily described as an icon of assim- ilation, his persona successfully blending "the racially non- threatening posture of Sidney Poitier with the charismatic bravado of trddie Murphy" (39).For Nama, Smith's SFroles function as a convenient corrective to fears about domestic racial dissent and, in turn, as symbols of patriotic solidarityand reassuring post-9/l I national consensus. Black Spacesometimes overstates the case against Hollywood SF. While the all-white future of When Worlds Collide (1951) is certainlyindicative of the era's widespread racism, it is nevertheless something of a leap to argue that the film is therefore a direct expression of white supremacism. Furthermore,"alien-ness"is a more malleable trope thanBlack Space oftenallowsfor,and Nama'sreductive tendency to elide the strategic ambiguities of Hollywood entertain- mentis notwithout its problems. It is certainly true that Warof theWorlds(2005) is rife with visual references to 9/11, but Nama's pigeonholing of the film as unthinkingly anti- Islamic seems toomuch. Much like thenightmarish urbanwarzone of Cloverfield(2008), Spielberg's depiction of sense- less mass slaughter can also be read as an empathetic por- trayal ofthe groundJevel experience of"Shock and Awe"-s[le ahocities.Elaborate critical pirouettes are required elsewhere to arguelhat The Thing(l9BZ) advocates eugenics, or thatStarWars:ThePhantomMenace (1999) is the SF equivalent of RichardJ. Hernstein and Charles Murray's incendiary 1996 book about intelligence,The Bell Curve. Overall, a cer- tain humourlessness certainly characterizes Black Space, and one only has to compareNama's contemptuous dismissal of irreverence in The Fifth Element(1997) with Cornea's more compelling celebrationof that film's endorsement of culturalhybridity to get a sense that Black Space suffers from a degree ofinflexible overseriousness. (On a related point of cross-culturalmisrecognition: while Nama is absolutely right to emphasize the overdetermined status of a chained and infected black English soldier in 28 Days Later 120031,1 can assure the authorthat viewers in the U.K. would be con-siderablymore likely to understand this scene as a condem- nation of institutional racism in the Britishmilitary rather than as an evocation of "the historical use of black men in America as human guinea pigs to observe the effects of syph- ilis" [65].) Much more intriguing arethose sections where Black Spacedeftly explores the progressive potential of SF cinema.Nama's analysis of the ambivalentexploration of interracial desire in TheWorld, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), the proto- integrationist politics of Robinson Crusoe onMars (1964), and the "Afrofuturism"of blaxploitationepic Space is the Place(1974) are exemplary in this respect. Elsewhere, a nuanced revisionistanalysis of The Empire StrikesBack (i980) salvages Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) from accusationsof tokenism,andfinds in the film a sophisticated allegory of theconflicted racial dilemmas faced by an uP- wardly mobile blackmiddle class. Nama alsooffers srcinalcommentary on the cross-race alliancesand shifting class/ gender dynamics in the Alien(1979-97) franchise, while thepost-industrial nightmare ofRobocop (1987)-setin Detroit -is celebrated for its dystopian satire of blue-collar decline. Nama is alsorefreshingly uninhibitedby any searchforauthorial consistency: while Tim Burton's remake of Planetof the Apes(2001) issavagely condemnedfor its racial poli- tics, Mars Attacks! (1996)is acclaimed for its sustained cri-tique of SF's persistent marginalization ofblack characters. Similarly, |ohn Carpenter'sThey Live(l9BB) is hailedfor ih "radical"depiction of cross-race working-class solidarity while Escape from NewYork ( l98 1) is viewed as aneo-racist visionof a self-destructiveblackpopulace. Yet in the optimistic fer-vor that prevails as I write this-shortly after theelection of FrrM oUARTERTY 79  thefirstblack U.S. president-Black Spaceseems curiously like rafro-futurism. While one should becautiousabout any naively utopian "post-racial" rhetoric, onecanonly hopethat -with this sense of future shock intact-we truly are begin-ningto live ir-r a science-fiction present. @200e,rrrorrinFrodhy makingit a good resource forpeople coming tothedirector'sfilmsforthe firsl time. Hitchcock's ability to draw customers into theatenhelpedto make him oneof the most admired andpowerfirlfigures working in Hollywood.And as a result,his films and his approaches to direction have beenstudiedandcopiedbv innumerabledirectors. ForDavid Boydand R. Barton Palmer, the extent of Hitchcock'sinfluence onthe style" structure,andcontent of otherfilmmakers'work, however, "isan often acknowledged, but as yet largely unexaminedfact" (2).To correct this,theyhavepublish ed AflerHitchcock, a collection of thirteensrcinal essays that considers the ways inwhich thedirector'ssignature themesand techniques havebeen appropriated by directors as various as Jonathan Demme, Pedro Almod6var,and Kenneth Branagh. The collection opens withan essay by Constantine Verevis that considers Psycho (1960)and its nlrmerous se_ quels andknock-offs. The author focuses at firstonGusVan Sant's shot-for-shot1998remake,a picture many reviewersdismissed as "anattemptto exploitthe srcinal film,slegend- ary status" and "thedefilementof a beloved classic,, (15). But, as Verevis points out,imitations of psycho have existed for nearly as long as the film itself. The "massivedomesticand internationalsuccess" (19) which themovie initially en- f oyed at thebox officeprompted an immediate wave of imi_ tative thrillerslike William Castle's Homicidal (1961) and J. LeeThompson'sCape Fear (1962). Andinthe 1970s and B0s, thesrcinalpicture again served as a modelfor numer_ous "slasher"movies, including Ha lloween ( l gTB) and Friday the 13th (1980), which inspiredtheirown imitations. In thel9B0s, as well, several official Psychosequels wereproduced by Universal, with Anthony Perkins reprising hisrole as Norman Bates. This long sequence ofderivativeproductions calls into question any claims that Van Sant,s remake is some_ how exceptional. AsVerevisargues, "psycho 98-indeed, all of the Psycho remakes-draw attentionto theverynature of cinema, tothe nature of cinematicquotationandcultural production, to the fact that every film . . . isa type of re_ making" (28).Eventhe srcinal psycho, Verevisnotes,isn,t entirelysrcinal; the film containsstructural elementsandthemes whichHitchcock hadworked with earlier in Stage Fnght (1949), I Confess (1951), andStrangers on a Train (1e51). In "Shadows of Shadow of a Doubt,,, Adam Knee ex_ plores the intertextual linksthat exist behr,reen Hitchcock,s 1943 thriller and a pair of low-budget remakes both released in I9 5 B, Step Down to Terror andThe Retum of Dracula. The latter is of particular interestto Knee, who analyzes the ways STEPllENB. ARMSTRONG After Hilchcock:lnflaence, lmitotion, ond lnterlextuolity ed. Dovid Boyd ondR. BortonPolmerHitchcockond the Methods of Suspense hy Williom Hore In Hitchcock and theMethods of Suspense, film historian William Hare considers the cultural contexts inwhichAlfredHitchcock workedandhowtheymayhave affectecl the wayhemadehis films.A series of anecdotal vignettesand produc_ tion histories, this sprawling survey charts the creation of some of thedirector'sbest-known works, including Noforlous (1946), Nofth by I'lorthwest (1959), and the underrated Family Plot (1976). Hare speculates, for example, that newconcernsaborrt theenvironment,popularized by the publi_ cation of RachelCarson's Silent Sping in 1962, may have influenced Hitchcock andscreenwriter Evan Hunter whenthey prepared their script forThe Birds (1963).,,With the massive attention givento Carson,s best_seller,,, Hare argues, "along with theattendant internationalpublicity .on.eiri,,,g herwell-publicized congressionaltestimony,interviewsandlectures,it would be virtually inconceivablefor her viewpointand widely expressed concepts to escape Hitchcock,s con_ sciousness" (276).Too often, however, Hare devotes his atten_ tion tomaterial which has been coveredat length elsewhere, in particular the well-knownstory of David O. Selznick,s strainedrelationship with Hitchcockand the mannerin which the producerintroduced his own interests and neuro_ ses intofilmslike Rebecca (1940), The paradine Case (1947),and especially Spellbound(1945), which refl ected Selznick,s newfascination with psychoanalysis. Free of difficult theo_ retical concepts and claims, Hare,s bookmay notbe par_ ticularly groundbreaking, but it is readableand informative, 80 FALL 2ooe
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