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Defining an era through the prism of sci-fi films

by Jackson DeMos
Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema offers a peek into the production of well-known movies. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Annenberg)
Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema offers a peek into the production of well-known movies. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Annenberg)

Nicholas Cull, professor and director of the Master of Public Diplomacy program at USC, argues in his latest book that futuristic science fiction movies relate the story of their time 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Using historical documents located in U.S. and British archives, Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema analyzes the making of Star Wars, Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, among other iconic films.

“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 reveals disquiet over corporate excess in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s America while satirizing trivialized news and a corporatized military. There are also important questions over the boundary between humans and machines, a recurring 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,” said Cull, professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

He said he was surprised by the prominence of religious themes in 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. The duo’s 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. Multiple drafts of scripts, sketched storyboards, letters to and from directors and actors, journal entries and lawsuits were among the unearthed documents.

Combined together, these files tell 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 revisit,” Cull said. “I got to see firsthand 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 20th Century Fox, including the papers relating to Just Imagine, a 1930 drama set in 1980s New York, 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.”

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