I.B. Tauris continues to mine its richly successful seam in film writing and analysis with this ambitious and highly readable guide to contemporary science fiction.
Written by Roz Kaveney, whose previous ‘Reading the Vampire Slayer’ was critically lauded by both fanboy and highbrow critic, ‘From Alien to The Matrix’ presents a new critical approach to SF films that considers them as both autonomous creations and contributions to the genre and to the broader culture. Apparently, according to Kaveney, "we are all geeks now". This book, then, seems an attempt to chart us though that unfashionable territory.
Kaveney’s introductory chapter lays out the current terrain and acts as structuring template for the rest of the book. One would hope that its subtitle – "Competence Cascades, Thick Texts and the Universalization of the Geek Aesthetic" – was written with tongue firmly in cheek, as such a dense and jargon-loaded opening gambit does not augur well for the rest of the proceedings. If, like me, you have always approached science fiction film rather reluctantly – "Not another invaded planet", "Not more talk of cognitive breakdown" – then the book seems squarely aimed at us floating semi-aficionados. As Kaveney suggests, "popular film and television and comics can be the focus through which a large audience gets a sense of the tragic and the ecstatic". Popular culture, it seems, can be the conduit for wider explorations of the world around us, and the films chosen here certainly endorse that.
Kaveney is most successful in her sustained analysis of films concerned with alien invasion – Independence Day (1996), Galaxy Quest (1999), Men in Black (1997) – and she also provides some prescient insights into film franchises. The coup de grace, however, and the main reason for purchasing the book, is an expert deconstruction of the ‘Alien’ quartet. Mixing close sequence analysis with anecdotal additions, the four chapters exude a real identification with these films. This isn’t some clinical dissection of a text, but at once a love-letter, a fan’s eulogy and a serious look at how American cinema has dealt with perhaps it most enduring franchise. Even the previously mauled Alien 3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997) are soberly discussed, and Kaveney is right to concentrate on those films’ interesting takes on genetics and religion.
Elsewhere, it is rare to see films as eclectic as Small Soldiers (1998), Dark City (1998) and Strange Days (1995) treated with extended consideration. Indeed, much of the book’s success resides in its reclamation of SF from the chatroom to the realm of serious debate. This erudite embracing of texts previously regarded as expendable genre pieces is a common thread in the book, and true to form, Kaveney does her best to elevate the recent Star Wars films to the pantheon of high culture. Likewise, although its cultural impact may take longer to flourish, Kaveney hints that The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be the next ‘thick text’, ripe for acceptance.
The brief assessment of the Terminator films is enlightening and intermittently amusing (the author’s disdain of the non-Cameron directed Terminator 3 (2003) is barely concealed) and it’s refreshing to see The Matrix dealt with only briefly, despite the title’s promise. These sets of films have become endlessly recycled icons held up for approval from the critical and academic community, but Kaveney was wise to eschew lengthy debate or discussion. Indeed, given the mighty disappointment of the Matrix sequels, it is fitting that the book should celebrate more modest fare like Mars Attacks! (1996) and Starship Troopers (1997).
If there is one criticism, it is that there is no conclusion; no attempt to provide closing remarks or open the debate out. This abrupt end is a real shame and nullifies much of the book’s impact.
Ultimately, then, From Alien to The Matrix reads a guidebook; an accompaniment to generation increasingly weaned on SF, whether on DVD, at national convention or through cable repeat. With her encyclopaedic knowledge and jaunty writing style, the book’s key achievement is to reject theoretical pomposity (there’s scarcely an –ism to be found) and nerdish triviality. Instead, critically exhausted films like Alien (1979) and The Terminator (1984) are reintroduced, allowing us to see them with newer, fresher, geekier eyes.