By Jackson DeMos
Communication professor and director of the Master of Public Diplomacy program Nicholas Cull argues in his latest book that futuristic science fiction movies not only tell the story of their time, but that they do it in a way that is often more telling than political discourse.
Using historical documents located in U.S. and British archives, “Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema,” analyzes the making of movies such as Star Wars, Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“The book uses the most successful films of a particular era as a way to understand that time," Cull said. "We look at War of the Worlds to understand the 1950s, Planet of the Apes to think about the 60s and Avatar as a window on our own time. A great way of understanding who we are is to look at the stories we tell ourselves about an unlimited subject like the future.”
For example, Cull said RoboCop (1987) reveals disquiet over corporate excess in Ronald Reagan’s America and satirizes trivialized news and a corporatized military. There are also important questions over the boundary between human and machine, a regular theme in science fiction literature and cinema.
“Sometimes you can see things more clearly in the fiction than you can in political discourse because people are less guarded about what they put on the screen,” Cull said.
He said he was surprised by the prominence of religious themes in the other movies examined in the book.
“I found it particularly interesting how science fiction is tied up with religious yearnings – I didn’t expect that,” he said. “Many storylines are either a substitute for religion or put people in touch with religious questions like, ‘Where did we come from?’ Where are we going?’ Those themes kept coming back, and were one of the most important elements we saw in movie science fiction.”
This is the second book Cull has co-written with University of Leicester Professor James Chapman. Their first book, “Projecting Empire: Imperialism and Popular Cinema,” was published in 2009.
Cull and Chapman wrote chapters for “Projecting Tomorrow” based on their research in the U.S. and British archives, respectively. Documents unearthed included multiple drafts of the scripts, sketched storyboards, letters to and from directors and actors, journal entries and even law suits.
Combined together, these files tell stories such as how the films came into existence, what challenges they overcame, which battles took place between book authors and Hollywood screenwriters, and how the actors perfected their craft.
“I thought RoboCop was great fun to re-visit,” Cull said. “I got to see first-hand the creative differences and technical problems of the film and the ways in which they overcame these. I gained a great respect for actor Peter Weller, who worked with a professor of mime from Julliard to learn how to move like a robot.”
Studying the archives gave Cull and Chapman a chance to examine materials from movies never heavily researched before (RoboCop) and perhaps never to be researched again (Just Imagine). Cull said the archives of Twentieth Century Fox, including the papers relating to Just Imagine were closed soon after he completed his research.
“Every chapter was exciting in its own way,” Cull said. “It was amazing to investigate the process by which these famous films came to be made. A lot of now familiar stories were drastically changed in the telling and the process is very revealing about who we are.”
From the publisher:
"Cinema and science fiction were made for each other. The science fiction genre has produced some of the most extraordinary films ever made, yet science fiction cinema is about more than just special effects. It has also provided a vehicle for filmmakers and writers to comment on their own societies and cultures. This new exploration of the genre examines landmark science fiction films from the 1930s to the present. They include genre classics such as Things to Come, Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey alongside modern blockbusters Star Wars and Avatar. Chapman and Cull consider both screen originals and adaptations of the work of major science fiction authors. They also range widely across the genre from pulp adventure and space opera to political allegory and speculative documentary – there is even a science fiction musical. Informed throughout by extensive research in US and British archives, the book documents the production histories of each film to show how they made their way to the screen – and why they turned out the way they did."