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J.P. Telotte. Science-Fiction Film.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xiii + 217. $60.00 (cloth).

J.P. TELOTTE's Science-Fiction Film provides a broad overview of the film genre that has come to symbolize the postmodern condition, where science-fiction is becoming cultural reality, from cloning to cyberspace, metropolis to theme park, global capital to global village. Science-Fiction Film is well-organized, with each of the eight chapters covering specific topics that directly contribute to the theme and purpose of the book.

In Chapter One, Telotte reviews the previous scholarly approaches to sf film, while spending a great deal of space explaining and justifying his methodological preferences. According to Telotte, sf films are difficult to classify as a distinct and coherent genre, precisely because such films draw from the worlds of science (reason, theory, and technology) and fiction (myth, horror, and fantasy). After reviewing various attempts to define or delimit the sf film genre, Telotte outlines his own methodology, derived from Tzvetan Todorov's structuralist theory of "the fantastic" as a literary genre or narrative (10). The "fantastic" exists on a sliding scale between the "uncanny" and the "marvelous" (11). According to Telotte, the marvelous focuses on "the supernatural or spiritual realm as it intrudes into and challenges our everyday world" and the uncanny focuses on "the mind as a force in producing seemingly inexplicable events," while the fantastic occupies a place between the two, in "the realm of what might or might not be" (11). Telotte then maps these classifications the marvelous, the fantastic, the uncanny--onto three kinds of sf film narratives: "(W)e need only consider what seem to be the three large-scale fascinations of the genre: first, the impact of forces outside the human realm, of encounters with alien beings and other worlds (or other times); second the possibility of changes in society and culture, wrought by our science and technology; and third, technological alterations in and substitute versions of the self" (12). The marvelous deals with various alien or otherworldly encounters, and includes films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Independence Day (1996). The fantastic imagines broad cultural changes, usually on the scale of utopian transformation, and includes films such as Metropolis (1926), Things to Come (1936), and Logan's Run (1976). The uncanny explores the use of science and technology to remodel humans--as robots, androids, or cyborgs--and includes films such as Westworld (1973), Blade Runner (1982), and The Terminator (1984). Of course, many of these films span the three categories. One theme that Telotte repeatedly stresses is that sf films defy easy classification and transcend cultural boundaries. They now explore many realms previously left to theology and morality, while often providing a critical window on the technocultural conditions of late capitalism and postmodernity. Further, the sf film is constantly redefining itself, and thus must negotiate between two potentials, the creative capacity for "limitless vision" and the critical ability to foster "distance and alienation" (30).

In Chapter Two, Telotte provides an overview of the various critical contexts employed in the interrogation of sf films and their relation to changing technologies and cultural concerns. In the "humanist" context, the critic situates humanity and sf films within the broader philosophical perspective, using an essentialist-oriented approach to explore "truths" and "values" as they relate to "universal aspects of human existence" (35). The earliest criticism focused on the "classic" sf films such Things to Come or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), precisely because such films explored the utopian role of technology in broadly shaping modern culture. From the "ideological" context, critics view sf films as a product of the prevailing economic and/or technocultural conditions, even as the films may be offering criticism of those conditions. For example, some critics see Logan's Run as reinforcing the "individualist status quo that undergirds American culture, while linking technology to all that might threaten the status quo" (42). In the "psychoanalytic" context, critics draw from the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to explore the "human dimension," which Telotte believes is too often neglected by purely ideological approaches. Films with alien encounters, such as The Thing (1952), are seen as expressions of the civilized world's encounters with social repressions or the primitive subconscious. Often overlapping the ideological and psychoanalytic perspectives is the "feminist" context, where critics use sf films as texts for critiquing masculine technoculture or suggesting how the sf genre might be reconceived along feminist lines. This perspective has undergone major changes, accommodating the evolution of sf films. For example, films like The Stepford Wives (1975) portray women as the subjects under the technological domination by patriarchal culture, yet more recent films like Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2 (1991) situate "women in positions of technological mastery" (49). According to Telotte, perhaps the most influential theorist has been cultural critic Donna Haraway, who appropriated the cyborg as "a trope for investigating feminine identity in the postmodern cultural environment" (50). Finally, Telotte turns to the emerging context of "postmodernism" and the general skepticism toward the grand narratives usually embraced in the humanist approach. Featured are the ideas of Scott Bukatman, who sees technology as propelling humans into the "terminal identity" of computers and cyberspace, where the ontological forms taken for granted in modernity are destined for dissolution in the virtual realms (56). Central to the emergence of postmodern sf films are Tron (1982), where humans are disengaged from their bodies in cyberspace, and Blade Runner, where culture is hybridized and personal identities are fragmented and uncertain. Telotte does a good job of summarizing each perspective, and suggests they should be synthesized in any critical interrogation of sf films.

To complement his theoretical overviews, Telotte provides a broad historical review in Chapter Three. In essence, Telotte plots the trajectory of sf films over the last century, beginning with the sf literature of the late nineteenth century (Jules Verne and Edward Bellamy) and early twentieth century (H.G. Wells). Telotte sees sf films evolving through several stages, from the Machine Age between the two world wars, to the apocalyptic Fifties, to the modern climax in the epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following 2001, there were ecological films like Soylent Green (1973), dystopias like Westworld, mythologies in Star Wars (1977), the postmodern condition signaled by Blade Runner, and the emergence of Japanese anime in films such as Akira (1988).

Telotte then seeks to apply his three narratives to the analysis of three sf films, with an overall synthesis in a fourth film. In Chapter Five, Telotte analyzes Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an example of the marvelous text; in Chapter Six, Telotte critiques Robocop (1987) as an example of the uncanny text; in Chapter Seven, Telotte offers a synthesis of science fiction as fantasy in his critique of the remake of The Fly (1986), a film which crossed numerous cultural and intellectual boundaries. Perhaps of most interest to readers of Utopian Studies is the category of "fantastic" text, which focuses on utopian and dystopian sf films. In Chapter Four, Telotte analyzes the dystopian THX 1138 (1971), the first film of Star Wars director George Lucas. THX 1138 draws from the ideas of Aldous Huxley, for it portrays a brave new world where citizens have numbers instead of names and are usually drugged into passive bliss, with the entire society under total surveillance via electronic media and computers. Telotte sees this film as fulfilling our expectations about utopian/dystopian narrative, for it reveals "a series of representations or ruling ideas that inform American culture" (129). Drawing from the ideas of Paul Virilio, Telotte also views THX 1138 as pointing toward the "cinematic derealization" of reality and culture, the tendency of life "to become film" in a world modeled by cinema and virtualized through technologies of digital imagery and synthetic vision (129-134).

In Chapter Eight, Telotte concludes with another discussion of the difficulty of posing borders or boundaries for sf films, especially in a postmodern era of shifting and fragmenting territories. Telotte favors an approach which is flexible and dynamic, yet which holds onto something essential while proving interpretive patterns that "open onto the ideological" (201). In sum, Science-Fiction Film provides a solid scholarly overview of the genre and its overlapping narratives. While Telotte does expand the boundaries of sf film theory, the book seems more successful in accomplishing its other goal, that of helping readers organize their views toward sf films and situate the various questions that naturally arise from any critical interrogation of this important cinematic genre.

On a final note, Science-Fiction Film is well-illustrated, containing seventy photographs and movie stills, drawn from a vast array of films. Plus, the book provides a valuable filmography of 150 sf films, listing the studio, director, screen-writer, photographer, special effects designers, and cast. This list should be very useful for many film scholars.
Barry Vacker
Temple University
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Author:Vacker, Barry
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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