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21L.434 - Science Fiction - Spring 1998 - The Movies

I took a Science Fiction class in college from Prof. Henry Jenkins that had a pretty awesome reading list. It seems the class hasn't been offered again, because the course website still shows the syllabus from 1998. Anyway, go take a look. I got to watch Aliens in class! :) I thought I'd write some brief reviews of the books and movies.

Movies

  • The Day The Earth Stood Still - No, not the Keanu version. The original from 1951 is often credited as being the first serious science fiction movie, though the lesson is an essentially simple pacifist one.

  • A Clockwork Orange - Yes yes I'm aware of its impact on pop culture and whatnot, but somehow this movie has never resonated with me. I don't have much to say about it, except that I can never listen the "Singing in the Rain" again the same way.

  • Red Nightmare and Invasion of the Body Snatchers - This was probably the most memorable lesson for me from this class. Red Nightmare was a propaganda film commissioned by the Department of Defense. It was all about how the Commies are out to subvert us, secretly, one by one, and how your neighbors might secretly be Communists! Meanwhile, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made in the same era, was about aliens who were secretly killing humans and replacing them with "pod people" simulacra. Really obvious then how the latter film was capitalizing on the public fears drummed up by by the gov't, exemplified in the former film.

  • Aliens - The second one, directed by James Cameron. Prof. Jenkins really reinforced my love for James Cameron, and Cameron's feminism in particular. Gender politics was the topic for the week that we screened this movie, and anyone who's seen it will remember the buff female marine Vasquez and the wimpy Hudson played by Bill "Game over man! It's game over!" Paxton.

    What's interesting to me is that these two characters were not only subversions of the popular macho man/screaming damsel archetypes, but they were just plain well-written and memorable characters in and of themselves! The best story is that the actress who played Vasquez saw a casting call for a movie called "Aliens", assumed it was about "illegal aliens", and showed up in a sun dress. But then she aced the interview, acting as a marine in that dress, and the rest is history. :) And of course I haven't even mentioned Ripley's battle with the Alien Queen, and the gender issues involved there. :)

  • Blade Runner - This is an odd one for me. It took about three watches (original cut then twice director's cut) before I learned to appreciate this movie. As much as Aliens was a great analysis of gender roles, Blade Runner is basically an extended rumination on mortality, as exemplified by its most famous scene, which quotes none other than Milton's _Paradise Lost_.

  • Max Headroom - The plot of the original UK pilot movie was that a TV company was airing "blipverts", 3-second rapid-action adverts (aka commercials) that occasionally caused viewers heads to explode. But that doesn't stop them from airing them anyway to maximize profits! It was made in 1985 and seems oddly prescient about our modern media world. :) (The profit-over-deaths part is of course too-often-recurring. Just this week the head of Peanut Corporation of America repeatedly pleaded the Fifth when questioned about whether he knew his peanuts were contaminated with salmonella and insisted they be sold anyway. 600 people are sick and 9 are dead.)

  • Strange Days - A highly underrated film directed by Kathryn Bigelow but written by James Cameron. It again features a wimpy male lead played by the always slimy Ralph Fiennes and a strong female lead played by Angela Bassett (who would've made a much better Storm than Halle Berry). The gimmick is that there's a device that can record your total sensory experience and then play it back for other people.... and it gets on the black market. Whatever you think people might use that for, they do... and then some.

    Made in 1995 but set on New Year's Eve in 1999, it also extrapolates a future based on the then-recent LA riots. That added to the atmosphere, but it did kind of muddy things up a bit, causing a similar problem to the also-underrated James Cameron movie The Abyss: too many subplots at once.

    Finally, I have to mention that this movie has one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. It's set in 1995 and tries to extrapolate music from half a decade in the future. Even now, some of the tracks still sound like they could be from the future. :) Really edgy and interesting stuff.

  • 12 Monkeys - I need to re-watch this movie some time. I liked the time travel story. I liked the basic feel of it. But ultimately I didn't find the details very memorable somehow. I do remember that the plot is based on someone spreading a biological weapon around at airports around the world, thus killing most of the human population. Frighteningly plausible.

  • Contact - Directed by Robert Zemeckis, and based on a novel by Carl Sagan. This is one of my top three favorite movies of all time. It's an interesting exploration of the intersection of science and religion. It's one of the few cases where I read the book first and liked the movie better. I liked that the movie was less overly bashing of religion, and that it was necessarily focused on the main character, without all the irrelevant distractions in the novel. Some atheists complain that the movie is too softened, but I think it just shows Ellie (the main character) being human while still sticking to her principles.

  • Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure - Not sure what I have to say about this, other than: Getting to watch this in a college class? EXCELLENT! *air-guitars*

According to the syllabus, we also saw episodes of The Outer Limits, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Babylon 5, and The X-Files, but I don't remember what episodes I saw. :P Okay I'll write about the novels from the class later.

See my next post, where I talk about the books I read in that class.

Comments (2)

Nice to see the class still remembered after all of this time. You're right that I think that was probably the last time I got to teach the class, because the Comparative Media Studies grad program started a short while after that and I got pulled into covering other kinds of classes. There still is a science fiction class taught at MIT but it mostly focuses on cyberpunk as opposed to covering the full range of science fiction in the way this class did. Best Wishes

I'm honored to have you visit my blog, Prof. Jenkins! :D Yeah, I kept visiting the 21L.434 page in hopes that you'd teach the class again, just so I could crib the reading list, but alas! :P

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 13, 2009.

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