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Science Fiction and Europe: A Troubled Relationship

Sci-fi may be a niche genre in Europe. But as Aidan Power argues, it has produced some important moments in European cinema.

Science fiction film remains something of an anomaly. On the one hand it has traditionally been seen as a niche genre, one that inspires devotion from a hard-core base of fanboys and fantasists, yet often struggles to attract the unwavering attention of more mainstream audiences.

On the other hand, a cursory glance at the current top ten highest grossing films of all time reveals that no fewer than six entries can be classified as science fiction (SF), unequivocally so in the cases of Avatar (James Cameron 2009), Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow 2015), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams 2015), while the superhero movies The Avengers (Joss Whedon 2012), Iron Man 3 (Shane Black 2013) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon 2015) all lean heavily on SF tropes. The rise of superheroes, geek culture and comic-con bolsters SF’s current popularity, one that Hollywood, television and streaming outlets have been quick to exploit.

Early European sci-fi


Early European sci-fi: Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (1902)

In Europe, however, the script reads rather differently. Although often regarded as an American genre—a trend harking back to at least the 1930s and films such as The Invisible Man (James Whale 1933) and Lost Horizon (Frank Capra 1937) and copper-fastened in the 1950s with the “Golden Age of SF”—the genre in its filmic form owes much to a European tradition dating to early silent cinema and before that the formative literary mode of scientific romance popularised by Jules Verne and later H.G. Wells.

The French filmmaker Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (1902), which borrows thematically from Verne’s work, is widely credited with being the first SF film and would in time become recognised for its formative influence on the nascent genre. Méliès subsequently created other memorably fantastical worlds in films including Voyage à travers l’impossible (1904) and 20,000 Lieues Sous les Mers (1907), while in 1918 Europe had its first feature length SF film with the Danish production Himmelskibet (Holger-Madsen).

As a visual embodiment of technological advancement the cinematic medium brought adventure and possibility to life, yet it also exemplified the very advances that threatened the balance of everyday existence and that in more hysterical circles were seen as having the potential to render human labour obsolete.

These competing feelings of awe and fear were crystallised in Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis (1927), a film that embodied many of the traits of a German Expressionist Movement that had emerged largely as an artistic response to the horrors and attendant alienation of the First World War. Although not a SF movement (indeed the crippling costs incurred in the production of Metropolis played a significant part in drawing the Expressionist era to a close), German Expressionism, like SF, thrived upon the creation of strange and fantastic onscreen worlds that were nevertheless anchored in everyday reality.

Despite a resultant historical tendency to thrive during periods of social and political upheaval that saw Hollywood production spiral during the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s and more recently the aftermath of 9/11, Metropolis remains something of a highpoint in European SF. While films such as F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht (Karl Hartl 1932) and Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies 1936) attest to the presence of the genre during the 1930s, a notable downturn in production was evident and a European Golden Age of SF never materialised.

Faded from view

Numerous external factors must be taken into account when querying why at the very moment SF’s popularity exploded in the US in the early 1950s, the genre largely faded from view in a European context, chief amongst them being the absence of a comparable studio system.

Whilst delineating films according to genre was an intrinsic component of Hollywood’s commercial success, European cinema lacked a sustained tradition of genre cinema (which is not to say of course that there was no tradition of genre in Europe), while on a more elemental level still, many of the continent’s filmmaking facilities were destroyed during the second world war. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that many of the pre-eminent European directors (Lang amongst them) migrated to Hollywood during this period.

Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut 1966)

Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut 1966)

The movement toward realist cinemas in the immediate aftermath of the war hampered the SF cause further, while perhaps gesturing toward reasons why the genre lacked the appeal in Europe that it enjoyed in the US. A central tenet of the Italian Neorealismo movement of the 1940s was the creation of a cinema of the people, one that reflected the bleak realities of the post-war era. While SF seeks to invert everyday reality, the prevalent mood of the day militated against such an approach in a landscape where recourse to the fantastic seemed a feeble response to the horrors of mass genocide.

Regionally, SF did enjoy intermittent popularity in the intervening decades, examples including British television output of the 1960s, 1970s Italian SF spoofs and a brief vogue for the genre in the Eastern Bloc of the 1980s, yet a truly sustained national or transnational SF never endured.

A critical preoccupation with an auteur driven cinema that had its roots in Neorealismo further enervated possibilities for the establishment of the sort of frameworks conducive to genre production, even allowing for the French Nouvelle Vague’s memorable flirtation with SF in the 1960s, a brief yet fecund period that resulted in films such as La Jetée (Chris Marker 1962), Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard 1965), Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut 1966) and Je t’aime, je t’aime (Alain Resnais 1968). This trend of auteur dalliances with SF has survived larger European ambivalence toward the genre and can be seen today in the oeuvres of Michael Haneke (Le temps du loup 2003), Lars von Trier (Melancholia 2011) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster 2015).

No shortage of material

Since the turn of the century in fact, European SF has enjoyed something of an upturn with the social, political and economic turbulence of a post 9/11 world ensuring that there is no shortage of material for filmmakers to engage with. 9/11 and the resultant “war on terror” looms large over productions such as Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom 2003), Banlieue 13 (Pierre Morel 2004) and 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo 2007), for example, while anxieties over border control and the threat posed by outsiders inform the plots of Allegro (Christoffer Boe 2005), Babylon A.D. (Mathieu Kassovitz 2008) and Attack the Block (Joe Cornish 2011) amongst others.

One might suppose that the fiscal crisis in the Eurozone would, in addition to providing ample subject matter for SF, result in a downturn in production. At EU level this may be partially true, yet while the budgets of transnational funding agencies such as the Council of Europe-backed Eurimages may have dwindled slightly at the height of the crisis, the production of SF in Europe actually rose in 2008, the year that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and has remained comparatively high in the intervening years as a recent Sci-fi films in Europe undertaken by Huw Jones for the MeCETES project confirms.


The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)

The report makes for interesting reading, yet it makes clear that while SF production in Europe is up, such gains have to be read against the overall paucity of SF production in an arena where SF releases account for just 1% of the films released in European cinemas. Nevertheless, the report concludes that this 1% accounts for 9% of the European box office and so an appetite for the genre clearly exists, even if the vast majority of box office revenue can be accounted for by Hollywood productions.

On the face of it, SF remains a niche market in Europe, an impression that deepens when the focus shifts exclusively to European SF. Hollywood franchises skew the scales in Europe as they do elsewhere and so the current vogue for SF does not necessarily translate into increased viewership for local productions.

Despite the odds, however, European SF continues to garner plaudits with films such as Moon (Duncan Jones 2009), Melancholia, Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer 2013) and The Lobster receiving widespread critical acclaim. Furthermore, productions are slowly emerging from an increasingly diverse cross-section of European nations including Belgium, Croatia, Greece and Ireland.

As with other genres, European SF cannot hope to compete with Hollywood, while smaller productions will continue to struggle for relevancy outside of their host markets. Tellingly, of the 25 most commercially successful SF films released in Europe recorded by Jones, Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014) is the sole exclusively European production and at that, profits from the presence of Scarlett Johansson.

Even so it would be imprudent to dismiss European SF entirely. Capable only of incoherent responses to the humanitarian fallout from the wars in Syria and Iraq and struggling still with the aftershocks of a financial crisis that shook the Eurozone to its core, Europe remains at a crossroads. When even the German chancellor is susceptible to electronic surveillance, we must surely be close to an Orwellian tipping point.

A discernible drawback of Hollywood backed European-based SF films such as Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón 2006) or the dystopian V for Vendetta (James McTeigue 2005) is that they strip source texts of their regional and political specificity until we are left instead with thinly veiled commentary on American foreign policy. Europe needs a SF that engages with European issues and right now there is no shortage of topics ripe for analysis.

Aidan Power is a Research Fellow at Universität Bremen, where he works on science fiction cinema and film studies. He is currently working on a book about European sci-fi cinema.

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