Monday 26 February 2024

The Ascendancy of Science Fiction Cinema (Hugo Cinema 1980)

This blog post is the twenty third in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

The ascendancy of science fiction in mainstream cinema was sudden.
Science fiction's conquest of the movie theatre
hit its ascendancy in 1979, with Alien as the
capstone of cinematic achievement that year.
(Image via

In each year from 1970 to 1975, fewer than five of the top-30 movies (which could only be seen in cinemas at that time) could even remotely be considered genre works. By 1979, just two years after Star Wars, most of the top grossing movies were science fiction.

When the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation began in 1958, there had been concerns raised about whether or not there could be sufficient SFF movies worthy of consideration. Several times between 1958 and 1978, fans voted to present no award because they were dissatisfied with the cinematic fare on offer. That would never happen again.

After decades as a marginal cinematic genre, science fiction was in its ascendancy.

Most of the movies on the 1980 Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo have withstood the test of time: The Muppet Movie, Time After Time, Star Trek The Motion Picture, and Alien remain well-loved today. Only Disney’s The Black Hole stands out as being one we thought was unworthy of Hugo Awards consideration … and even it has some charm to it.

There was a lot of science fiction hitting the screen in 1979, and for the most part those nominating for the Hugo Awards picked the cream of the crop. When you look only at American cinema and television, it would have been difficult to pick five better works. The James Bond movie Moonraker presents the franchise at its most science fictional, but also at its most camp. Sean Connery’s Meteor is a B-Grade disaster mediocrety. Hanna Barberra’s C.H.O.M.P.S. is just a mess. Some contemporaneous fans were rooting for Glen A. Larson’s Buck Rogers In The 25th Century to make the shortlist, but thankfully it didn’t.

The impact of Star Wars was being felt across the globe, but the international boom in screen SF is not reflected in this shortlist. There were, in fact, some legitimately great works from outside of North America that were omitted. In Australia, the first Mad Max movie hit cinemas. Although it’s rough around the edges, George Miller’s debut feature marks the beginning of a revolution in post-apocalyptic cinema. In Japan, Mobile Suit Gundam became one of the most influential animes of all time. Behind the Iron Curtain, two first-rate cinematic adaptations of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novels (The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel and Stalker) hit the cinemas … as well as an adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s The Inquest of Pilot Pirx

"May everything come true. May they believe.
And may they laugh at their passions." 
(Stalker screen capture via
Any of these foreign works would have been worth including on an awards shortlist.

In particular, Stalker (which is regularly listed as one of the greatest movies of all time) seems like a notable omission. In its first year, it made Soviet box office history by selling almost five million tickets in Russia alone (it wasn’t released officially in the USA until 1982). It’s a languid, atmospheric piece about an expedition into a forbidden area with an alien relic that can change lives. The philosophical dialogue, painterly cinematography, and rich use of sound mixing have earned it the status of definitive science fiction cinema — and it should have received at least a Hugo Award nomination (whether in 1980 or 1983).

Certainly, Stalker deserved a nomination more than The Black Hole, a big-budget movie about explorers who stumble upon a haunted spaceship. Although it’s visually impressive, the movie feels like a rejected b-movie script from the early 1950s was resurrected with an enormous budget to catch a rising tide. Reading the various negative reviews in fanzines from 1979 and 1980, it’s surprising to us that it was on the shortlist. Regular film critic Bill Warren wrote in Science Fiction Review that: “The producers took our beautiful space — our beautiful space ships — and shit in them. They used them without any understanding, any care, any ethics, any honest, any respect. They are pandering, ignorant, stupid, contemptable shitheads.” Several members of our cinema club agree with Bill.

The Black Hole placed last on the final ballot, earning only 16 votes … fans placed it below “no award,” which received 127 votes.

"I created the Nostromo to reach the stars,
but she's gone much, much farther than that.
She tore a hole in our universe,
a gateway to another dimension.
A dimension of pure cliche … pure stupidity."
(Image via BFI)
For a franchise that has spawned eight theatrically released movies, fourteen television series, seven major video games, and uncountable ancillary products, it’s interesting to note that the Muppets have only appeared on a Hugo Award shortlist once. The Muppet Movie seems to have made an immediate impact on fandom, being embraced as a metaphor for the found family that many had built within the SFF community. “The marvel is that this film makes the muppets human,” enthused Richard E. Geiss. “See it if you have any child in you at all.”

Following Kermit and Fozzie Bear on a trip from Florida to California as they chase the American dream of fame and fortune, The Muppet Movie plays with the conventions of the ’70s road movie. In addition to smart character development and memorably great original songs, it includes a plethora of weird cameos (Steve Martin! Madeline Kahn! Terry Savalas! ORSON WELLES!) and an understated wit. Replete with visual gags that hold up well today, it is possibly the funniest movie ever shortlisted for the Hugo Award. It's a reminder of the chaos that made the Muppets so amazing in the first place. More recent iterations of the franchise (particularly those produced under the auspices of the Disney corporation) have sanded off the rough edges and turned the Muppets into a more risk-averse product.

Also making the leap from television to the cinema, Star Trek’s inaugural movie was in 1979. In the decade since it had been off the air, Star Trek fandom had only grown. The naysayers had either gone quiet or — like Issac Asimov — had recanted their criticisms of the show. A troubled production from the get-go, the movie had been retooled and revamped in the wake of Star Wars and then rushed into cinemas (with some special effects only completed a few hours before the red carpet premiere). It’s hard to deny that the movie suffered from these production problems, with weird pacing, odd pauses, and plot inconsistencies. That being said, it is a movie based around the sense of wonder that had been at the core of the original series, and for many that was enough.
For us, The Muppet Movie retains its irrepressible
charms, but there was some debate about whether
or not it was science fictional enough to
be a “Hugo” movie.
(Image via this great article in the Guardian)

Over the past four decades, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has acquired a mixed reputation among fans. We were struck by the inventiveness and beauty of the visuals and special effects, and the meaningful character development offered to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Despite the rushed conditions under which the movie was made, legendary director Robert Wise created moments of brilliance that can still hit home today.

Interestingly, the director who would take the Star Trek franchise in a new direction a couple of years later also had a movie on the Hugo shortlist in 1980. Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time is a winsome time travel movie about H.G. Wells chasing Jack The Ripper to modern-day San Francisco. Its premise is used to paradoxically critique the perceived violence of the late 1970s and celebrate some of the social progress that had been made in the preceding century, mostly around gender roles. The cast is first-rate, with Malcolm McDowell playing a slightly bumbling but charming version of Wells and David Warner providing suave menace to his foil. Adding to the chemistry of the cast, modern-day romantic interest Amy Robbins was played by Mary Steenburgen, who would go on to marry her co-star. There are some points where the movie has aged oddly, and the second act drags a bit, but it’s hard to argue against it getting a Hugo nod. Contemporaneous fans were quite fond of the movie, with Bill Coulson writing in Yandro: “Time After Time is surprisingly good. I had thought … that it was going to be a godawful mess (H.G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper?), but it turned out to be well-written, with excellent cinematography besides.”

Despite 1980 being a year with an exceptionally great shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation, there was one movie that endured as a favorite: Ridley Scott’s Alien. Watching it in the context of other films
“I belong here completely and utterly at home here.
It’s you who don’t belong, with your notions
 of a perfect and harmonious society,”
Warner’s Jack the Ripper purrs.
“The world has caught up with me.
90 years ago, I was a freak.
Today, I’m an amateur.”
(Image via
released in the same year, it stands out for the strength of its characters, the naturalistic dialogue, and the moody atmospheric direction. Despite a few slightly wobbly special effects (especially during the landing sequence), the movie looks remarkably modern, with a design aesthetic that was utterly revolutionary at the time. Though it owes a debt to forebearers like Planet of the Vampires and Forbidden Planet, it was innovative and continues to feel fresh decades later.

From top to bottom, the cast of Alien shines. While Sigourney Weaver’s no-nonsense turn as Ripley launched her career, it’s easy to forget that Yapphet Koto’s complex portrayal of Parker anchors the crew, Harry Dean Stanton glowers his way through the movie as Brett, Veronica Cartwright’s emotional vulnerability as Lambert draws the audience into the horror of the movie, and of course the malevolent android Ash is brought to life in an understated performance by Ian Holm.

Despite its classic status today, Alien met with mixed to negative reviews at the time. Time Out described it as being laden with “imaginative poverty,” while Variety and Sight and Sound panned it. Within SFF fandom, Bill Lancaster was dismissive of the movie in the fanzine COFUsSing: “Alien is a simplistic movie as far as niceties like plot and characterization are concerned. The storyline is borrowed almost intact from a ’50s B-movie on late-night TV … It is not an artistic triumph,” but granted, “There is, I believe, one aspect of Allen that sets it above most films of this type. There is a certain coherent style to everything.” It is somewhat a relief that the majority of Hugo Award voters recognized how important a movie Alien was.

For the first time, the WSFS constitution required that full voting statistics be made available to the public within 90 days of the convention. Alien won by a landslide, earning almost 40 per cent of first-place votes, and doubling its nearest competition, Time After Time.

In our opinion, this is the first truly great year in the history of the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. It’s a year that offered a variety of innovative, thoughtful, visually stunning movies as a shortlist, and one whose capstone may be the most influential science fiction movie ever made.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Big Brother's Big Shoes

There’s a graveyard in the publishing world that’s full of authorized sequels and companion novels to famous works. Neither Scarlett nor Rhett Butler’s People are talked about decades following their release or in as fond terms as Gone With The Wind. Return to Wuthering Heights seems to have existed just to cash in on Emily Brontë’s original. The less said about the sequel to Catcher In The Rye, the better.
(Image via Goodreads)

In that context, it seems foolhardy for an author to try and tackle a novel like George Orwell’s 1984, a book that is often ranked among the most important works of fiction in the 20th Century. Few novels have altered the dictionary as often and as profoundly; from doublethink and the memory hole, to Big Brother and the unperson. Moreover, every dystopian novel published in the past 75 years has been compared — often unfavourably — to this Orwellian classic.

Foolhardy or not, Sandra Newman was authorized by the Orwell estate to craft a novel set in the world of 1984.

You have to respect Sandra Newman’s ambition and, in our opinion, accomplishment. For the most part the resulting novel Julia meets the lofty standard to which it aspires.

This success can probably be attributed not to a slavish lockstep with the original, but rather to the fact that Newman’s evident affection for 1984 is tempered with a clear-eyed critical analysis of it.

This is more than an adaptation or retelling — it’s a companion piece that has something worthwhile to say.

As progressive as he was on matters pertaining to class and culture, and as observant as he was in the ways in which freedom could be subverted, Orwell neglected issues of gender equity. Notably in 1984, there are only two female characters, neither of whom is depicted as having agency or given any sort of interior development.
Multiple hit reality TV shows 
have been inspired by 1984,
the BBC has adapted it to radio
on six occasions, it's even been
made into a musical twice.
(Image via

Retelling the same narrative as Orwell did, but presenting it from the perspective of Julia, Newman recasts 1984’s protagonist Winston Smith as a self-absorbed brocialist who is willfully ignorant of much that goes on in the lives of those around him.

Newman imbues her protagonist with sly wit and an understated charm; her descriptions of working at the Ministry of Truth reveal how humour can be used as a coping mechanism for those living in totalitarian regimes. Julia is a warmer, happier person than the melancholic Winston Smith (whose nickname readers learn was ‘Old Misery’), despite having endured worse hardships.

Although it follows most of the same narrative beats, Julia is almost twice as long as Orwell’s original. This can leave the story dragging at places, but for the most part the extra length is used well, taking readers on a tour of proletarian districts, inner-party sanctums, and the wider world.

Julia is a more courageous character than Winston, and leans into the little rebellions that can make life more tolerable in a totalitarian state. Consequently, the story loses some of the bleakness that makes 1984 such a powerful novel. Perhaps this is the cost of storytelling that needs to present readers with a reflective mirror, and one that must recognize the jagged path of social progress that’s unfolded in the decades between 1984 and Julia.

In addition to being true to Orwell’s most famous work, Julia has a 21st-century perspective that might appeal more to readers under the age of 50. Those reading 1984 today may not have a visceral sense of the brooding and malign shadow the Soviet Union under Stalin cast across the globe when the book was published. As such, Newman’s take on totalitarianism — replete with subtle references to modern-day political issues — are likely to make the original more accessible to current generations.
The Orwell estate rejected Bowie's
request to make a musical based
on 1984. What other works have
been lost due to long copyright?
(Image via Rolling Stone)

In most jurisdictions (such as Canada and the United Kingdom), 1984 is already in the public domain, so anyone could have penned their own retelling in those countries — though not in the United States. But Julia came about at the express request of the Orwell estate, who invited Sandra Newman to write this book. We wonder what Newman might have done differently with Orwell’s vision if she had not been operating under the auspices of the rights holders. Likewise, what other versions might be out there ready to be created once Orwell’s book enters the public domain in the United States?

One can see why the heirs to Orwell’s intellectual property selected Newman, who is no stranger to genre fiction, having written about time travel and various apocalypses. But her work has been the type of science fiction that mysteriously ends up in the “fiction and literature” shelves of most bookstores, rather than being placed next to books with rocket ships and aliens on their covers.

This sheen of literary credibility may help Julia find readership in the wider world, but that unfortunately may also dissuade some Hugo Award voters from picking it up. Julia may only be the little sister to 1984’s big brother, but amazingly it’s not lesser.