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Science Fiction by any other name…

I’m genuinely excited about The Road, the adaptation of the novel from Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. despite a shakey production history, it looks like the Weinstein might be able to mount a successful Oscar campaign for this science-fiction tale. Oops. I shouldn’t have mentioned that hyphenated word. Pretend you didn’t hear it – maybe the Academy hasn’t heard it either. In fact, given the way that people talk about the book and the film, you’d be lucky to hear that ‘tag’ even within the same paragraph. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.

A nice father-son day out...

A nice father-son day out...

‘Oh, no!’ you protest, as a well-informed movie goer, ‘from the on-line synopsis I’ve read, the classification in my local book store and the way that intelligent people talk about, it’s actually a drama. Maybe a drama/thriller. But not sci-fi.’

Well, you have a point. No bookstore would dare lump a Pulitzer-Prize winner in the ghetto of Hugo-winning freaks. And critics go on and on about how it’s not science-fiction, but I counter with the summary of the movie from imdb.com:

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind and water. It is cold enough to crack stones, and, when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the warmer south, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing: just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless cannibalistic bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a rusting shopping cart of scavenged food–and each other.

Alright, let’s write a checklist: Burned America? Check. Gray snow? Check. Lawless bands of cannibals? Check.

It’s like Mad Max does Manhatten. Not that anyone would dare admit it. Even when they do it’s with a surprisingly earnest condescension. Take The Guardian‘s review:

The vulnerable cultural references for this daring scenario obviously come from science fiction. But what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy’s late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description.

Or from The New Republic (quoted by the publisher who categorise it tellingly as “fiction”):

The Road is not a science fiction …

The position is pretty well outlined by Michael Chabron in an interview with the LA Times:

And when this happens, when a writer of unassailable literary reputation, like McCarthy, does produce a work of genre fiction, under his own name, unlike say John Banville, the critical machine prints out and issues a pass to a writer: “This isn’t science fiction, because it was written by Cormac McCarthy.” Or, “We think all science fiction is bad, unless it’s written by a Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy.”

It’s interesting. I’ve never really bought the use of science-fiction as a label, in that it’s usually co-dependent. It’s a sci-fi comedy or a sci-fi action movie, and so on – but this type of attitude really grinds my gears. It’s as if the true and honest art lovers of the world agreed upon a definition of what science fiction should be, and then stuck a “… oh, and it’s crap” at the end of it, to allow them the occasional exemption for a book or piece of fiction using the trappings of the genre which they didn’t want to ghetto-ise.

Their clothes even match in decay!

Their clothes even match in decay!

This is my main problem with the people who object to Stephen King. He’s not my favourite author by a mile (I’ve only read a handful of his books), but it’s not because “he writes trash” or “he doesn’t write literature”, as some critics actually put it. If you want to compliment him, you use phrases like “myth” or “legend” or “fable”; if you want to insult him, you use “horror” or “genre” or “fantasy”. That’s just snobbishness.

Film, as a younger genre, is (somewhat) less snobby. It’s still a matter of degree, but you’ll find a large number of critics who agree that George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were actually fairly important social commentaries and films, rather than simply being sclock horror. Cinema does actively venerate its science-fiction classics – it would have to given the key cornerstone in modern cinema that is Metropolis. But once you get towards anything more recent than 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’re entering divisive waters.

Audiences love science-fiction. Transformers (ugh!) and Star Wars are among the biggest films of all time and they have all the trappings of science-fiction. Let’s not get into whether Star Wars is science-fiction or fantasy. It secured a Best Picture nomination, back when the Academy was cool. Since then audiences have obviously grown more sophisticated. Take the reviews of The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron, from its early screenings.

From The Guardian:

Hillcoat’s drama follows the trudging progress of two unnamed survivors of an unnamed catastrophe – a man (played by Viggo Mortensen) and his 10-year-old son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – as they plough south and forage for food. But the way ahead is fraught with danger and provisions are few and far between. In the end all they have (and by implication, all the rest of us have) is each other.

Yes, they highlighted and hyperlinked the two most important facts about the movie: it’s a drama, and it stars that hunky guy that middle-aged women swoon over (note the hyperlink is viggo-mortensen-film-good, as if to imply there’s a corresponding viggo-mortensen-film-bad – okay, it’s actually a reference to his Oscar-baiting Nazi film Good, but still…).

Most reviews skip around the adjective “science-fiction”, favouring a more sophisticated label, like “post-apocalyptic”. When a comparison is made to its obvious cinematic ancestry, it’s from the acerbic Variety and clearly meant as an insult:

The drama is one little genre step away from being an outright zombie movie, something that’s much more evident onscreen, with its drooling, crusty-toothed aggressors and live humans with missing limbs; memories of Night of the Living Dead unavoidably advance in all the scenes in which the man and boy take refuge in a house, where they must contend with unfriendly marauders.

Mortensen himself is pitching it as a “love story”. With cannibals. Oh, he left that part out. I can understand what these guys are trying to do. The only reason Avatar might get a nomination despite being a science-fiction/fantasy film is because it has James Cameron behind it. This film has a respected, but still relatively young Australian behind the camera. The Weinsteins with their backs up against the wall know how to sell films to Oscar voters – look to The Reader for that – and they know that labelling the story as ‘science-fiction’ would be a kiss-of-death to the film’s chances of being accepted by the conservative Oscar voters.

I know how these things play out. It’s just a damn shame that a label like science-fiction becomes such a heavy burden for a film to share – particularly when two of the films that have seen the best critical reaction this year (Moon and District 9) are inarguably science fiction. You’d think there’s be at least some cracks in that glass ceiling. Maybe the rumours of an Oscar nomination for District 9 will pay off (not bloody likely).

It’ll be interesting to see how things play out. It’ll also be interesting to see, when everything’s done and dusted, how video stores categorise the film on their selves once it moves beyond “New Releases”.

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