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Science Fiction

Britain's distinctive take on the future

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Science fiction has rarely been seen as a genre that produces valid candidates for consideration as 'quality' cinema. This is certainly the case in Britain, where the tendency is to unfavourably compare home-produced films with the country's rich literary science fiction heritage. However, without wishing to make any exaggerated claims for the genre, British science fiction cinema, as well as having a lengthy heritage in its own right, has more to offer than has commonly been acknowledged, having produced a number of films that can stand with the best of the genre.

While it may not have produced the very first science fiction film, Britain was the birthplace of some of the earliest examples of the genre with The X Rays and Making Sausages (both produced by G.A. Smith in October 1897), trick films that flirted with futuristic technology. Succeeding examples of science fiction films (although that term only enjoyed common currency from the mid-1920s) were either similar trick films or near-future invasion scenarios, as with the Hun-inspired invaders of England Invaded (1909), The Airship Destroyer (1909) and The Great German North Sea Tunnel (1914).

A major development in the genre was the first direct adaptation of a work by that 'father' of science fiction, H.G. Wells, with First Men in the Moon in 1919. The most prominent film of the silent era, however, was High Treason (1929), with its vision of a futuristic London heavily influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Germany, 1927), although the film itself did not quite measure up, either narratively or aesthetically, to its German forebear.

It was by returning to Wells that Britain was to produce its first great genre entry, London Films' ambitious, expensive, over-didactic but fitfully brilliant Things to Come (1936). Despite purportedly attracting respectable audience numbers, it proved too expensive an undertaking to go into profit (as did The Tunnel (1935), another expensive undertaking that reputedly underperformed at the box-office). The relative lack of success of these films no doubt acted as an alarm bell to those considering similar projects.

At the other end of the scale, the low-budget Once in a New Moon (1935), depicting the social and political reorganisation of an English village after it has been thrown into space, bore novel and intriguing ideas, but was handicapped by a meagre budget. Only the sublime The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) appeared to find the right balance.

It was not until the 1950s that British science fiction cinema, kick-started by the contemporary Hollywood boom in genre production, began to make its presence felt (the 1940s had been a fallow period for the genre, at least cinematically, on both sides of the Atlantic). Thanks to its transatlantic impetus, however, much, though not all, of Britain's contribution to the science fiction of the period was fashioned after the American model, a strategy that did not help to endear the genre to the more serious critic.

In a faint but discernible echo from the silent era and those beastly Huns, the invasion scenario became the most common theme in the post-war period. Other than a benign visitor in A Message from Mars in 1913, aliens did not set foot on British soil until Patricia Laffan inaugurated the sub-genre in the risible Devil Girl from Mars in 1954, playing a leather-clad dominatrix visiting Earth to seek suitable male specimens to help in the repopulation of her home planet. Production budgets being what they were, aliens generally either came alone or in very small groups, usually conveniently landing in villages or other remote locales. Laffan limited her search to a remote Scottish pub, while, despite its title, the alien-controlled robots of The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) were never shown outside the Home Counties.

On those few occasions when the journey was reversed and man ventured into space, misfortune was the only result, as in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), in which an experimental rocket brought a parasitic virus back to Earth. It remains, together with its successors, Quatermass 2 (1957) and Quatermass and the Pit (1967), one of the more superior examples of British science fiction, although the film's success initiated a trend for conflating science fiction with horror, a stratagem that only served to alienate British critics all the more. With its brood of telepathic, alien-sired children, Village of the Damned (1960), an adaptation of John Wyndham's 'The Midwich Cuckoos', is one of the more subtle and intelligent examples of the sub-genre, as is the eerie Unearthly Stranger (1963), with its female alien protagonists eradicating human scientists working on space research.

Dystopias and catastrophes may have been recurring themes in the literary heritage, but they were only sporadically attended to in post-war British cinema. An adaptation of George Orwell's dystopian vision 1984 (1955) was a tame affair, especially compared to the BBC television version of the previous year. But the catastrophe theme gave rise to two of the best of all British science fiction films: Val Guest's The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), with its vision of London suffering in the heat after the world has been knocked off its axis by nuclear testing, and Joseph Losey's The Damned (1963), which, with its irradiated children being reared to live in a decimated world, concerned itself with planning for catastrophe. The latter remains a shamefully undervalued film.

While space travel was rarely undertaken in the cinematic science fiction of the period, Stanley Kubrick's seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) certainly made up for its relative neglect. Nominally a British film (made by MGM's British subsidiary), it could easily have been made in Hollywood or elsewhere, and can be seen with hindsight as a defining moment in the diminution of any identifiable British characteristics that American-financed films shot in Britain, such as MGM's own Village of the Damned, may have once possessed.

With the notable exception of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), subsequent American-financed films shot in Britain, such as Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), Judge Dredd (1995), with its bowdlerisation of a British comic book character, and Event Horizon (1997), targeted an international audience and could arguably have been produced anywhere. Any possible claims to Britishness, even with those that may have had a small amount of British financial involvement, now lay with the director (in the last three examples) or other technical talent, and a roster of familiar actors.

From the 1970s onwards, an identifiably national science fiction cinema, like the British film industry as a whole, began to encounter its own dystopia. But when the genre was tackled, and when sex comedies such as The Sexplorer (1975) were not being produced, low-budget catastrophe and dystopia scenarios, including Memoirs of a Survivor (1981) and Shopping (1994), now outnumbered alien invasions. The lamentable Split Second (1992), with Rutger Hauer hunting a killer alien in London, was among the few in the latter category.

While it may now be an irrelevancy to try and identify the Britishness of films produced within an industry largely sustained by international co-productions, all is not lost. The onset of the new century has seen the production of a handful of films, including 28 Days Later... (2002), Children of Men (2006) and Sunshine (2007), that suggest a new injection of energy and imagination, and point to the development of a distinctively modern - and identifiably British - take on the genre.

John Oliver

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