Friday 24 May 2024

The Age of Empire (Hugo Cinema 1981)

Star Wars was inescapable in fandom.
At the 1981 Worldcon, Paul Cullen
dressed up as Luke Skywalker.
(Image via
This blog post is the twenty fourth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

The sequel to Star Wars was a cultural juggernaut within fandom, anticipated with such intensity that whole issues of fanzines were dedicated to parsing out casting rumours and speculating about the plot. Most contemporaneous fan reviews hold up well today: “This movie moves so fast, is filled with so many delights for an SF fan, and is so well done that to tell about it is a disservice. See it!” wrote Richard E. Geiss in Science Fiction Review.

But as difficult as it is to believe today, many of the arbiters of ‘higher’ aka ‘mainstream’ culture were dismissive of the sequel. “The Star Wars series, now in unpromising infancy, basically asks us to imagine and believe nothing – its technological sophistication does away with the need for the former, and its camp melding of myths in storyline and characters acknowledges the impossibility of the latter,” Sight & Sound Magazine bemoaned in a scathing unsigned review. Ralph Novak was more succinct, writing for People Magazine “it’s not up to the original.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby opined that the movie was bland, and filled with hot air.

The Hugo best dramatic presentation win for Empire Strikes Back is another instance in which the prescience of science fiction fandom is revealed over time. Unfortunately, the rest of the shortlist in 1981 was remarkably uneven. While Cosmos, Lathe of Heaven, and Empire Strikes Back are excellent nominees, it’s difficult to see merit in either Flash Gordon or the Martian Chronicles.

Given the low quality of two of the finalists, it’s also difficult to explain the omission of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Ken Russel’s Altered States, or the third-season premiere of Blake’s 7.

One of our group called The Martian Chronicles
“the last gasp of the Disco era of science fiction.”
(Image via IMDB) 
The most egregious inclusion of the year is The Martian Chronicles. Airing over three nights on NBC, the TV adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story collection is a meandering hot mess that should have had no place on a Hugo shortlist. Over the course of six hours, director Michael Anderson weaves together elements from the Bradbury stories “Silent Towns,” “Rocket Summer,” “I'll Not Ask for Wine,” “The Settlers,” and “The Watchers” (among others). His apparent need to create a cohesion between the stories not envisioned by the author ends in narrative disarray. Separately, it would be easier to forgive the shaky special effects if it weren’t for the fact that on the other side of the Atlantic Blake’s 7 weren’t doing significantly more interesting model work with fewer resources. The Martian Chronicles scripting is leaden, the acting campy, the plot unengaging. Bradbury himself summed it up best, describing the series as “simply boring.”

A big-budget flop based on a 1930s comic serial, Flash Gordon is somehow even campier and more difficult to sit through than The Martian Chronicles … but it does at least have the benefit of weirdly beautiful production value and a ludicrously great soundtrack by rock legends Queen. Although supporting actors such as Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton bring a lot to their roles, the nominal star Sam J. Jones is excruciating to watch as he lifelessly enunciates his lines as if sounding them out one-by-one off a teleprompter. It has to be noted that because Flash Gordon is relatively faithful to the source material, the movie is weighed down with painfully regressive attitudes towards gender and race. It has not aged well.
With a slightly campier script and a worse lead
actor, Flash Gordon compares poorly to the 
1974 movie Flesh Gordon.
(Image via IMDB)

The Lathe of Heaven
is the hidden gem of this shortlist. It’s a remarkably faithful adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, made on a shoestring PBS budget by avant garde video artist Fred Barzyk. Given that Barzyk had previously directed the somewhat substandard 1973 Hugo Finalist Between Time and Timbuktu, some of our cinema club had gone into the movie with a bit of trepidation. Happily, many of us found it engaging and interesting, thanks to a script that retains much of the philosophical musings of Le Guin’s original, a strong cast, and thoughtful use of locations and other setting elements. The movie can be read as a rebuttal to utopian intellectuals proposing simplistic top-down solutions to all of mankind’s problems, ignoring the experiences of everyday people. It’s a genuinely clever little movie that holds up remarkably well — and probably would have ended up at the top of the ballot for at least one of our cinema club members.

Cosmos was a cultural juggernaut, the significance of which is difficult to appreciate today. Planetary scientist Carl Sagan’s 13-part documentary series tackles the vastness of the universe, mankind’s place in that cosmos, and speculates about what else might be out there. Built in part around Sagan’s own research into the possibility of extrasolar life, the documentary lays out an argument that we might not be alone in the universe. Because Sagan had evident love for science fiction and legitimized fandom’s embracement of these ideas, the documentary was beloved in science fiction circles. Sagan’s book of the same name, released in conjunction with the series, won him a well-deserved Hugo for best related work. But there are a few aspects of the show that have dated oddly; a lot of time is spent with Sagan looking off into space with a quasi-fanatical, beatific smile on his face, which is a bit off-putting. And while some current viewers might find the soundtrack by Vangelis to be oddly outdated and weirdly religious, others will enjoy the synthesizer-driven evangelism of it. At the time, there were complaints that documentaries shouldn’t be in the dramatic presentation category, but to our minds this is a creditable inclusion on the shortlist … and might have been a worthy winner.

The biggest controversy of the Hugo Awards that year, however, was the exclusion of Superman 2 from the shortlist. At the time, Hugo administrators lacked clarity on which year the movie would be eligible in, as it had a small number of showings in 1980, before a wider release in 1981. One of the greatest superhero movies ever made never appeared on a Hugo shortlist, and consequently the awards improved their rules on eligibility.

But even if Superman 2 had been on the ballot, we suspect that the Star Wars sequel would have bested it. Replete with iconic dialogue, memorably great locations, and some snappily edited action sequences, Empire Strikes Back is a movie that has stood the test of time and remains beloved by generations of Star Wars fans. On a purely technical level, The Empire Strikes Back was an impressive feat of cinema, featuring what could arguably be described as the greatest stop-motion sequences ever put to film. However, it does not have the streamlined narrative of the original movie and the plot suffers from a lack of focus. The story has no through-line, and as much as it’s a movie filled with truly great moments, some of us were left feeling that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Regardless of these slight quibbles, and regardless of what else might have appeared on the shortlist, it’s difficult to argue with The Empire Strikes Back as a winner. With the benefit of hindsight, fans were proven right and the mainstream critics were just … wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, ESB would have beaten Superman 2, but it would have been an interesting vote.