Cult science fiction cinema

Authored by: Mark Bould

The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138950276
eBook ISBN: 9781315668819
Adobe ISBN:


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Although science fiction (sf) – and numerous specific sf texts, authors, artists and directors – has attracted major fan followings, and many cult movies are also sf movies, there is surprisingly little critical work on sf as a cult phenomenon. Historically, from the perspective of sf studies, this is understandable, if hardly defensible. In the pages of the pulp and digest magazines which dominated the development of American sf from the 1920s until the 1960s, and in its organised fandom, and in the first academic journals and monographs devoted to the genre, 1 sf criticism was engaged in a cultural battle to demonstrate the genre’s significance, seriousness and worthiness. Repeatedly this was accomplished by identifying some variety of sf (e.g., cosmic horror, planetary romance, science fantasy) as a debased and inferior version of the ‘real’ thing, and by differentiating sf from horror and fantasy. For example, in 1941, Wilson Tucker coined ‘space opera’ as a pejorative term – echoing soap opera and horse opera – to describe the ‘hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s]’ (Prucher 2007: 205) filling the pages of some sf pulps; three decades later, Darko Suvin insisted that the ‘commercial lumping’ of H.P. Lovecraft and other fantasy ‘into the same category as SF is … a grave disservice and rampantly socio-pathological phenomenon’ (1979: 9). 2 Sf in all other media forms – comics, games, toys, radio, movies, television – was likewise treated as inherently lesser than prose sf. For example, Carl Freedman (1998) argues that the very nature of cinema means that, with the sole exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), no film can truly be sf (his logic is flawless, his premises less so). Consequently, and with some exceptions, sf studies did not engage seriously with film until the 1990s; even now, apart from Science Fiction Film and Television, Anglophone sf studies journals continue to privilege prose fiction, with less than ten per cent of their articles focusing on other media. Little wonder then that, when it comes to movies, sf studies has largely neglected a discourse as seemingly disreputable as ‘cult’.

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