Hollywood between Paranoia and Science Fiction: lightweight look at American phobias and anxieties through science fiction films

Clara and Julia Kuperberg, “Hollywood between Paranoia and Science Fiction” (2011)

An entertaining and lightweight look at famous Hollywood science fiction films made since the early 1950s and how they reflect the anxieties and fears of American society, this is Clara and Julia Kuperberg’s documentary “Hollywood between Paranoia and Science Fiction”. The film flits between various well-known directors such as Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Roland Emmerich and James Cameron, all of them distinguished by having made influential science fiction movies, a couple of screen-writers and an academic commenting on the films on one hand and on the other snippets of famous sci-fi flicks beginning with B-grade sci-fi films made for teenagers and short educational films about the dangers of atomic radiation.

The film is held together by a chronological account of the films spotlighted by the film-makers as influential, starting from 1950 and steadily working through the decades to the present day. Curiously,¬†famous films made in the 1960s like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” are not referenced and even the period from 1970 to 1976 is poorly represented by “Soylent Green” which starred Charlton Heston. Numerous cinematic elephants and chest-beating gorillas like the Planet of the Apes series of films are passed over. The documentary remembers to pick up George Lucas’s “Star Wars”, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and “Blade Runner”, George Miller’s “Mad Max”¬†and James Cameron’s “The Terminator” and continues through the 1990s and the early 2000s with Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers”, “Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”.

James Cameron reminisces about his childhood and his experience of atomic bomb scares and school drills that included watching the educational short “Duck for Cover”; other directors draw connections between the fear of radiation and how it can cause mutations, and the popularity of films about giant tarantulas and mutated lizards that grow to giant size, breathe death rays and terrorise people in Tokyo. Especially noteworthy is the connection made between mind control and the famous film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers while the fear of Communist invasion is reflected in the film “The Day the Earth stood Still”. The directors also talk about how their particular fears (in James Cameron’s case, his fear of nuclear bombs might have been encouraged by watching educational films warning of atomic bombs and radiation) influenced them to make films that have become pop culture favourites; Cameron’s own nuclear bomb bug-bear became the inspiration for “The Terminator”.

Without a voice-over narrator guiding viewers through an often interesting landscape of shifting attitudes, fears and hang-ups and the films that reflect those anxieties, the film lacks direction and becomes a series of talks by a small group of directors who are made to look as if they’re trying to justify the importance of their work by attaching it to whatever fear was trendy at the time they made their movies. It does seem quite contrived at times. No great psychological insights are uncovered and all the viewer comes away with is either the feeling that the documentary is making a mountain out of molehill or that Americans have a lot of hang-ups about atomic bombs, Communists, genetic manipulation, runaway science, resources depletion, mind control, identity theft, terrorism and humongous natural disasters like giant tsunamis caused by anthropogenic climate change.

It might have been much more interesting if a narrator had been on board and commented on the directors’ responses to the (out of range) questions put to them and whether the directors hit a raw collective nerve with their films and found it terribly exposed. There could have been some discussion about what the various fears the movies address say about American society and the American character, and why Americans always have to be on the alert for an enemy or something sinister. How this constant vigilance arose and the historical / cultural context this guardedness arose in, how it has shaped the American character and society for better and for worse, how politicians and corporations manipulate this fear for their benefit, and how the fear and its manipulation have led the US into invading countries around the globe since the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and impoverished the US economically and morally as a result are never touched on. One thing for sure though is that as long as there is something for Americans to be afraid of, there will always be science fiction films seizing on that topic in some way and reflecting the fear back at their audiences.

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