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John Scalzi – Do “American” Science Fiction Movies Actually Exist?


A couple of weeks ago I asked folks to feel free to ask me questions I could answer in the column, and I got a bunch. Thanks! Now I’m going to start answering some. And to start off, here’s one from Stephen Turner:

Wondered if you might want to write something about the American approach to science fiction, versus versions of sci-fi seen from other parts of the world. Americans have a certain way of approaching sci-fi, and have dominated the majority of sci-fi film due to the genres reliance on big budget effects (which few beyond Hollywood can afford).

But when other countries or cultures have done it, we’ve got things like Japanese anime (such as Akira), Mad Max (or The Road Warrior, depending on where you saw it, from Australia), or the uniquely British sci-fi like Doctor Who and 2001: A Space Odyssey (which, while directed by an American was more or less British in every other way.)

Well, Stephen, I’m going to do an annoying thing here and not actually answer your question, because I think it raises another point. And that is: What you call “American” scifi film, I’d call Hollywood scifi film, and I believe — and here, cultural conservatives will grin in triumph — “Hollywood” does not equal “American.” Let me explain why.

Let’s start by noting that science fiction cinema’s roots are not
American, but European; in the early days Hollywood had a 1916 version
of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the landmark 1925 special effects spectacular The Lost World
(it had stop motion dinosaurs). Meanwhile, filmmakers overseas produced
a raft of special effects-laden short silent science fiction, and with
the advent of feature length movies, work like Metropolis and Frau Im Mond from Fritz Lang in Germany, Aelita: The Queen of Mars in Russia and High Treason in the UK. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Hollywood began to catch up.

But here’s the thing about Hollywood: Its talent has always come
from everywhere, not only the United States. This included the studio
heads themselves (MGM’s Louis Mayer, originally from Russia and then
from Canada, is a representative sample), as well as the directors,
actors, cinematographers, and all other fields down. From the very
beginning of science fiction’s heyday in Hollywood, émigrés made their
mark on the genre. Take 1931’s Frankenstein ,
which timeshares its heritage in science fiction and horror. It was
directed by James Whale (British), co-written for the screen by Francis
Edward Faragoh (born in Budapest, Hungary) and starred Colin Clive
(British, born in France) as Dr. Frankenstein and Boris Karloff
(British emigre to Canada) as the Monster, with music by Bernhard Kaun
(German) and art direction by Charles D. Hall (British). The studio that
released Frankenstein was Universal, founded by Carl Laemmle, originally from Germany. You get the picture.

The cosmopolitan nature of Hollywood science fiction film — and the
cosmopolitan nature of Hollywood in general — continues through the
decades. Blade Runner and Alien? Directed by Ridley Scott, a Brit. Aliens, Terminator and Terminator 2? James Cameron is Canadian. Star Wars
was written and directed by an American, but half the cast was British,
and it was filmed primarily at Shepperton and Elstree studios, both in
England. The only thing truly “American” about Hollywood science
fiction films is the money — and that’s become markedly less so
through studio co-financing deals with independent (and often foreign)
production companies. Last week Steven Spielberg — certainly an icon
of science fiction — left his Dreamworks deal with Paramount Pictures
(founded by Adolph Zukor, born in Hungary) to start a new studio
financed by the Reliance ADA Group, a conglomerate based in India.

And this is why, to get back to the original comment from Mr. Turner, that 2001: A Space Odyssey
is in fact classically a Hollywood science fiction film: American
director, British writer, American studio, filmed at British studios,
largely American cast, largely British crew. This is how Hollywood
science fiction gets done.

Defining Hollywood science fiction cinema as something apart from
American science fiction cinema begs the question: Is there an
“American” science fiction cinema at all? I think there is, although
you have to work to parse it out from Hollywood’s influence, which kind
of (and necessarily) swamps it. Here are a few films I’d nominate as
“American” science fiction — which is to say they’re American in their
sensibility and to a more or less extent, put together by U.S. folk,
from U.S. parts (story and so on):

1. E.T.: The Extraterrestrial
This is a film steeped to the bone with Americana, from the suburban
setting to the multilayered play on what it means it be an alien in the
U.S. (i.e., hounded by the government), and ultimately saturated with
American tear-jerking optimism. In fact, if any thing qualifies as
“American SF film” specifically, it might be the unfortunate wave of
heat-warming SF films that followed this one, like Cocoon , Short Circuit and *Batteries Not Included , in which case it’s just fine other nations do their SF differently.

2. Men in BlackVery much in the same vein as E.T.;
it’s an urban setting this time, but weaving around the action and
comedy is the commentary about the immigrant experience. Plus Will
Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are about as American as you can get. And
let’s not forget the whole “Men in Black” meta-concept to begin with,
which is an entirely American mythology.

3. The Flash Gordon serials — The first real
American hero in science fiction film (he was originally a polo-playing
Yale graduate, don’t you know), sprung from the newspaper comics page,
themselves an American invention, having ridiculous adventures chopped
up into weekly installments. Not the first science fiction movie serial
(that would have been a German 1916 serial called Homunculus), but the
one that endures in memory. The 1980 Flash Gordon
movie, incidentally, is very much like a typical Hollywood SF
production, with a UK director, US star, Swedish villain, multinational
cast and Italian producer.

Those are my nominations for “American” science fiction films, as opposed to Hollywood science fiction films.

Your thoughts? And do you have any science fiction films you’d like to nominate as “American”?

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. His column appears every Thursday.

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