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Palumbo, Donald. The Monomyth in American Science Fiction Films: 28 Visions of the Hero's Journey.

Palumbo, Donald. The Monomyth in American Science Fiction Films: 28 Visions of the Hero's Journey. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 204 pp. softcover. ISBN 978-0-7864-7911-5. $40.00.

Donald Palumbo combines his enthusiasm for science fiction movies with his deep involvement with Joseph Campbell's Monomyth plot structure in this detailed and insightful analysis of sf quest movies from 1960 to 2009. While there are detractors of the Campbell and Jungian archetypal approaches, his analysis of recurring archetypal motifs offers one compelling explanation for their great popularity and commercial success.

There is a regularly recurring sequence of items that Palumbo analyzes in each of the chapters, based on the unvarying stages of the quest narrative. First, however, Palumbo deals with the underlying structure itself in the introduction, "On Joseph Campbell's Monomyth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces," either introducing the reader to a complex structure with which s/he may not be aware or refamiliarizing the reader very cognizant of this approach and adding a few unexpected twists. Palumbo has been dealing in print with this Monomythic structure at least since 1992, according to his bibliography. To the reader who has been following Palumbo or some others on this path, this volume will either serve to reinforce the awareness of the Monomyth as an underlying archetypal pattern for additional diverse narratives or will possibly add some new twists to the understanding of this recurring mythic plot structure. For example, in the introduction Palumbo at one point states, "These rituals serve to protect us from one of two truths--that change is unavoidable and that the individual is insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things--by implying that the ritual itself causes and controls change and by focusing on the individual who is to be transformed by the ritual" (2). This rather astounding statement, which seems to be at odds with so much of the enthusiasm that the Monomyth inspires, reminds us that life is life and fiction is fiction, and however fiction may help us to deal with life, it still doesn't repeal the law of gravity (despite a scene in The Matrix).

Another arresting comment that Palumbo makes about the Monomyth, but one that is not only self-evident but essential to the power of the Monomythic structure, is that "everyone [is] the initiate and, by extension, the hero of the adventure. The message of myth is that, in this sense, everything happens to everybody" (4). This means that every reader or viewer of each book or film bearing the Monomythic structure can identify with the hero of the adventure by virtue of having to undergo the stages of departure, initiation, gaining acknowledgment of one's successful self-transformation, and returning to ordinary life, transformed.

The nine chapters apply the same Monomythic structure to successive groups of films: the original Star Wars trilogy, films made either before or without apparent influence by the Lucas Star Wars trilogy, early '80s cult films, variations on Dune, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Total Recall and The Matrix, the first ten Star Trek films, and, finally, J. J. Abrams's rebooted 2009 Star Trek. Although there are obviously widely varying amounts of film narrative to cover in these chapters, each one follows the same structure, consisting of plot summary, analysis of the protagonists in relation to Campbell's Qualities of the Hero, plot analysis in relation to The Departure Stage of the Monomyth, further plot analysis in relation to The Initiation Stage, and then, finally, to the extent that it exists, The Return Stage. Using this absolutely predictable order in his analysis is very helpful for the reader, partly because s/he may or may not already have memorized the Monomyth--probably not, in most cases--and this provides an opportunity to learn that sequence via repetition. This is also useful because as the reader builds up a familiarity with the order of archetypal events, s/he can get a sense of the structural conservatism of many of these fictional works, and also notice, not to say be astounded by, departures from the structure.

The general approach implicit in the order with which Palumbo deals with these films implies that there are conscious and unconscious uses of the Campbellian Monomyth, hence starting with the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas was directly inspired by Campbell's 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which the Monomyth is first laid out and described; the original Star Wars trilogy is truly the most "textbook" application of these stages to a movie plot and characters. Chapter two deals primarily with films made before this time, so that it can be seen that some of the stages exist despite not having been modeled after the Lucas films, but perhaps several of the stages are "missing." The early '80s cult films chapter seems to be a grabbag of films not in any particular school or tendency, but which nonetheless exhibit Monomythic stages in their own idiosyncratic ways.

The Dune chapter has its own peculiar unity and disunity: Palumbo, who has dealt at length with Frank Herbert's Dune novel series from a Campbellian perspective before, is beset with a series of problems in making a comparative analysis of the novels, the David Lynch Dune film adaptation--which he calls "almost surely the worst film to be considered in this study" (73)--and the two Sci-Fi Channel miniseries adaptations of Dune. Concerning the Lynch and Sci-Fi Channel adaptations, Palumbo here bewails, "It is as though the creators are unaware of the fact that in replicating Herbert's story they are replicating Campbell's monomyth as well" (74). From Palumbo's perspective, this is perhaps the most damning critique of these versions: they miss the essential underlying structure of the original work.

In his chapter on The Terminator, Palumbo shows how the same basic structure can exist but fundamental variations on it can occur; in this case, the Hero function is split between two characters, one of whom is a woman, the mother of humanity's future savior from conquest by Artificial Intelligences. The other character sharing the characteristics of the Hero is the man sent from the future by her son to prevent her murder by a time-traveling android--and who becomes the father of that future hero. What we can see by this point is that increasingly complex variations on the hero's characteristics and the recurring stages of the hero's trials and initiations process are occurring.

Chapter six, on Back to the Future, shows how the Monomyth can not only be comic--indeed, Palumbo states that Campbell holds the Monomyth to be fundamentally comic in Northrop Frye's sense, or ending in integration rather than tragic disintegration--but that the Monomyth itself can be seen as an adolescent fantasy. An initiation ritual, although highly serious, as all who have graduated from some school have known, is nonetheless, before it has been achieved, unreal and the object of wish-fulfillment dreams.

While Total Recall and The Matrix might seem an unlikely combination for a chapter, the fact that in both films the protagonist is offered the choice of either a red pill or a blue pill, one pill supposedly awakening the taker to reality as it really is, the other keeping him in an illusory dream state, highlights the problematic question of what reality is in the two films, and makes the quest for enlightenment, if that is what Campbell's mythic quest boils down to, problematic.

In the eighth chapter, "Celebrating a Formula: The First Ten Star Trek Films," and the ninth chapter, "Rebooted: J. J. Abrams' Star Trek," Palumbo takes on the most massively popular Space Opera series since the Star Wars trilogy and shows the fidelity, whether consciously or not, to the Monomythic structures, elaborating on how the kind of "splitting" of characteristics of the Hero between two or more characters from The Terminator has been adopted by the writers of this series of films, splitting the functions of the hero between Kirk and Spock; Kirk and Picard; Kirk, McCoy, and Spock; the members of the crew of the Enterprise in general, and even giving that role to the Enterprise herself. Furthermore, Palumbo shows how the most recent--2009--Star Trek film, introducing the new actors making up the crew of the Enterprise for a new, or renewed, franchise, is also doing some archetypal work of a very interesting nature concerning the parallelism between the training of Kirk and Spock, their acting out each other's shadow, and so on.

This book is a daunting read in that Palumbo must by necessity recapitulate elements of the Monomyth in each chapter, and must go through their occurrence, and variations of their occurrence, in each of the films featured in that chapter. This is difficult where films the reader either has never seen or has not seen in some years are concerned, and it is particularly dizzying in the chapters on the various Dune versions and the various Star Trek variations, where one must follow the archetypes, variations on the archetypes, and the variations in the different versions of the narrative. This book is recommended for all students of sf film archetypes, and students who wish to explore archetypes whose time has come in relation to the times when they arose.
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Author:Riggs, Don
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 19, 2019
Words:1529
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