First Totally Unserious SF Film

Monday, December 21st, 2015

J.G. Ballard called Star Wars the first totally unserious s-f film:

Although slightly biased, I firmly believe that science fiction is the true literature of the twentieth century, and probably the last literary form to exist before the death of the written word and the domination of the visual image. S-f has been one of the few forms of modern fiction explicitly concerned with change — social, technological and environmental — and certainly the only fiction to invent society’s myths, dreams and utopias. Why, then, has it translated so uneasily into the cinema? Unlike the western, which long ago took over the literary form and now exists in its own right, the s-f film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. S-f cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.

The most popular form of s-f — space fiction — has been the least successful of all cinematically, until 2001 and Star Wars, for the obvious reason that the special effects available were hopelessly inadequate. Surprisingly, s-f is one of the most literary forms of all fiction, and the best s-f films — Them!, Dr Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Alphaville, Last Year in Marienbad (not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars), Dr Strangelove, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Barbarella and Solaris — and the brave failures such as The Thing, Seconds and The Man who Fell to Earth — have all made use of comparatively modest special effects and relied on strongly imaginative ideas, and on ingenuity, wit and fantasy.

With Star Wars the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way, towards huge but empty spectacles where special effects — like the brilliantly designed space vehicles and their interiors in both Star Wars and 2001 — preside over derivative ideas and unoriginal plots, as in some massively financed stage musical where the sets and costumes are lavish but there are no tunes. I can’t help feeling that in both these films the spectacular sets are the real subject matter, and that original and imaginative ideas — until now science fiction’s chief claim to fame — are regarded by their makers as secondary, unimportant and even, possibly, distracting.

Star Wars in particular seems designed to appeal to that huge untapped audience of people who have never read or been particularly interested in s-f but have absorbed its superficial ideas — space ships, ray guns, blue corridors, the future as anything with a fin on it — from comic strips, TV shows like Star Trek and Thunderbirds, and the iconography of mass merchandising.


In many ways it is the ultimate home movie, in which Lucas goes back into his toy cupboard and plays with all his boyhood fantasies, fitting together a collection of stuffed toys, video games and plastic spaceships into this ten-year-old’s extravaganza, back to the days, as he himself says, when he ‘dreamed about running away and having adventures that no one else has ever had’.


  1. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    As I recall, as an SF-mad youngster back in the 70s, Ballard was the first totally unreadable SF author I encountered.

  2. Kent says:

    The Thing? A failure? It’s clobberin’ time!

  3. Graham says:

    That last excerpted paragraph is particularly amusing. In the past 20 years Quentin Tarantino has been critically lauded for producing movies that amount to gaudy mishmashes of the visual metaphors of his own movie-going youth. At least Lucas kept to a few themes per film and gave them comprehensible storylines.

    On a broader level, partisans and authors from the hard-sf and social-sf or “sf of ideas” camps have often gone after one another, but just as often united to go after space opera or any of the lighter genres.

    But sometimes there is a readership for simple, or even non-so-simple but very traditional, stories told in a vaguely SF milieu. These are not illegitimate. Indeed, there is room to believe that such futuristic settings might not always change humanity all that much. We aren’t all that different from our own ancestors.

  4. Thales says:

    Oddly enough, I was able to enjoy both Star Wars and The Martian without any hint of cognitive dissonance, nerdrage or any other mental malady. Between this guy and other authors (that need not be mentioned) you’d almost think that marginal writers were trying foment ersatz tribalism for their own benefit.

  5. Rollory says:

    The quoted article is some of the most complete nonsense I’ve ever seen.

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