Science Fiction Movies: A Great British Tradition?

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Speculative film fictions are intrinsically connected to open-minded American culture, from ‘Them!’ to ‘Star Wars’, but in its buttoned-down way the UK too has always been fascinated by science fiction. We’ve produced many of the greatest SF writers in the world, and yet at first glance it seems that this tradition has not been followed through to the moving image. Our earliest SF movies were plodding affairs. ‘Things To Come’ (1936) was written by HG Wells himself, but was dull and preachy. The year before, ‘The Tunnel’ was just as flat.

From there we virtually jump all the way to ‘Gorgo’, ‘Village of the Damned’ and the Quatermass series, which haunted my sleep. These last three series and subsequent films were as much a picture of petty-minded post-war authority as they were about aliens on earth. Kim Newman’s excellent new volume for the BFI on ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ sums up the mentality perfectly. SF reflects its times as well as positing future possibilities.

At the same time in the UK, SF was flourishing on sixties TV with ‘A For Andromeda’, Dr Who’, ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Pathfinders To Venus’, with the ‘Out Of This World’ and ‘Out Of The Unknown’ shows, with ‘Adam Adamant Lives’ and ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘The Avengers’. Eventually, Terry Gilliam, American-born but long settled in London, launched his series of dystopic fantasies about government control and loss of identity. But for a long time he remained a lone voice.

Duncan Jones’ low-budget ‘Moon’ may have launched a new phase in British SF, in that it returned to the cinema of ideas – in this case the new subject that’s increasingly under discussion – what it means to be human. The latest example is ‘The Machine’, with Toby Stephens, Denis Lawson and the astonishing Caity Lotz, one of the most intelligent examinations yet of artificial intelligence. In it, an AI expert tries to understand whether the injured soldiers he has helped save with the aid of electronic brain functions are working against his organisation now that they have new mentalities.

The scientist’s relationship with a robot uploaded with a dead girl’s brain becomes complicated when the standard test questions he uses to determine sentience start backfiring – is she thinking? Has she gained a soul? Can she be controlled, defied, betrayed? Does she feel?

Best of all is the uncomfortable ending which suggests there is still much more we don’t know about machine-to-machine interaction. And suddenly, the press is filled with scientists concerned that there are very real dangers connected to AI. The film couldn’t be more timely.

Now that CGI is within the reach of all directors, intelligent lower-budget SF seems back on the agenda. The recent TV series ‘Utopia’ was scuppered by its sophomoric mentality but had some good ideas, and there’s more in the pipeline, with Ben Wheatley’s highly-anticipated version of JG Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ soon to arrive.

Hollywood is rather more concerned with having low-budget SF fun. ‘Space Station 76′ is future-retro SF in which characters with seventies’ attitudes live on a ‘Silent Running’-style space station, and serves to expose outdated mentalities. It seems that cheap SF may be where the real ideas live.

Coming next is ‘Automata’, starring Antonio Banderas, which looks likely to add further fuel to the debate.

12 comments on “Science Fiction Movies: A Great British Tradition?”

  1. Jo W says:

    Thanks Admin,for mentioning Quatermass and the Pit. It’s reminded me to dig out my copy of the Goons take on the story in ‘The Scarlet Capsule’. Ever heard it? I think I’ll settle down for a chuckle this evening. 😊

  2. Vivienne says:

    Quatermass and the Pit was really frightening – I can remember watching this though my fingers and then looking behind the bedroom door when I went to bed afterwards. What about A for Andromeda, that I think got wiped? Seemed quite plausible to me at the time.

  3. Ken Mann says:

    The number of writers of British TV SF in the fifties and sixties was surprisingly small – and they all seemed to know each other. The biography of Robert Holmes mentions that he, Robert Banks Stewart, and Wilfred Greatorex all worked on John Bull magazine at the same time, for example. Television grew amongst the graveyard of post-war magazine publishing. A quick glance on t’Internet tells me John Bull published N.J.Crisp as well.

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Personally I would like to see a BBC Classic Serial adaptation of Fred Hoyle’s “The Black Cloud”, done as a period piece, not updated to the present day, so that you can include scenes of British scientists used to rationing finding themselves working in Florida in the fifties. It would fill the gap between “The Imitation Game” and “Interstellar”.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Let’s hear it for “Devil Girl from Mars”!

  6. J. Folgard says:

    I stumbled upon the trailer from ‘The Machine’ two days ago and it looked intriguing, I’ll try to see it then! Cheers-

  7. K Page says:

    The film version of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ was very poor compared to the BBC original

  8. snowy says:

    I’ll spare everybody a long wibble about placing ‘Things to Come’ in an historical context, though the acting is wooden it is worth seeing just for the costumes and sets. If that is your sort of thing.

    Instead, I’ll use the flimsy excuse of ‘British SciFi’ to shoehorn in a mention of the BBC adaptation of ‘Good Omens’ by N. Gaiman and T. Pratchett. In 6 parts starting Monday 22 December.

  9. John Griffin says:

    Quatermass was so scary – we watched on a B&W portable in the shit caravan we lived in at the time (we were poor) and the daughter of the family watching with us dropped a humungous smelly fart during a really scary bit.
    Nigel Kneale did some good things- amongst the low-budget stuff ‘the Stone Tapes’ was memorable for me.

  10. snowy says:

    There is a DVD collection of Nigel Kneale’s TV plays available called ‘Beasts’.

    Snippet from the BFI

    “Taking as their loose theme man’s relationship with animals, Beasts’ six dramas were modest in scale and budget, but they made the best of their limited resources and were driven by Kneale’s distinctive imagination. Perhaps the most original story, ‘Buddyboy’ (tx. 30/10/1976), features the ghostly influence of an apparently super-intelligent dolphin, while ‘What Big Eyes’ (tx. 13/11/1976) was a modern re-working of the Red Riding Hood fairytale which saw Kneale – not for the first time – inhabiting similar territory to fantasy author Angela Carter.

    A second theme of the stories is dysfunctional or fractured relationships. ‘Baby’ (tx. 6/11/1976), almost a companion piece to ‘Murrain’, centres on a young expectant mother and her vet husband, whose dream new life in the country is imperilled by the discovery, entombed in a wall of their home, of a hideous mummified creature – apparently a curse. As the mother’s morbid obsession with the creature grows, so too does the gulf between her and her selfish, insensitive partner. In ‘The Dummy’ (tx. 20/11/1976), a horror actor, broken by the destruction of his marriage, fuses with his monstrous alter-ego and goes on a murderous rampage, while ‘Special Offer’ (tx. 16/10/1976) sees an awkward checkout-girl’s unrequited love for her egomaniac boss manifest itself as a destructive poltergeist.”

    If anybody is short of anything spooky during the festivities. 😉

  11. admin says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on these Snowy – Christmas treats!

  12. snowy says:

    *doffs ill-fitting paper crown*

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