Friday, June 27, 2014

Have Things Changed Since Susan Sontag's Time?

    In Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster",  the author writes about the impact of disaster movies in American culture, particularly science fiction films. Since Sontag wrote her essay in the 1960's many of her ideas are outdated and some of her examples are no longer applicable to modern times. She first describes two different types of science fiction movies; high budget technicolor productions and low budget black and white films. She says that in each of these categories, most films follow a similar formula, with similar monsters/aliens usually involving some sort of invasion, with the inhabitants of Earth coming together to fight a common enemy. She also says that many times there is a main character who is a scientist of some sort and plays a major role in the main conflict and resolution.
      Sontag gives many examples of classic horror/science fiction movies (mostly from the early twentieth-century) and suggests many abstract ideas on the importance of science fiction films in society. For example, she suggests that science fiction movies usually involve a couple as the main characters and that the alien life-form usually lacks any human qualities and therefore seeks to dehumanize the human race (an idea which she interestingly relates to the vampire genre). This idea of dehumanization seems to be Sontag's main emphasis on the significance of the science fiction genre, since she states that it is the fear of this dehumanization that promotes the need to resist being taken over and unity of the human race.
         While Sontag's formula and recurring themes in science fiction are still relevant in some cases, much of her thoughts do not apply to todays works. Firstly, the "B movie" science fiction films of the 1950's she refers to are no longer relevant today. Therefore, it is hard to relate to her arguments if you are someone who has not viewed these old films. Today, almost all science fiction movies are big budget CGI filled blockbusters. Sontag's formula also does not apply to every modern day work of science fiction. For example, in M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs", an alien race seeks to destroy humanity, while the film focuses on a former priest, his brother, and two children. In this film, not only is Sontag's family model broken up, but her idea of dehumanization also does not apply. We are given no insight into the alien's motivation for invasion..However, we are told that they are hostile creatures who seek to harm humans (as opposed to a feelingless life-form such as a robot or blob).  There is also no uniting of human forces, as ultimately the demise of the Aliens comes from them being allergic to water ( which Earth happens to be about two-thirds of).
          The fact that Sontag's model isn't applicable to every work of science-fiction does not imply that she is wrong. It simply means that as time goes on, genres evolve and movies begin to take on new meanings in pop-culture. Despite what changes take place in film, one thing that stays the same is that the movies are there for people to be entertained. Science fiction will continue to evolve, and as long as they continue to be entertaining, they will continue to start relevant.

       - In this scene from signs, the main characters discover crop circles on their farm, and  they begin to suspect aliens may be behind it. (


  1. This is some great writing, Aaron!

    However, I'm not convinced that Signs (great film, btw) suggests her views are outdated. Granted, the film isn't about a couple, but this isn't a hard or fast rule she states. Further, it's the hero's humanity (his faith in something larger than himself) that saves his family. Food for thought; still a great post :-)

  2. I suppose that's true. However, signs still breaks away from her formula, since there is no actual battle between humans and aliens if I recall. It turned out the aliens were just allergic to water. Otherwise, it was pretty clear that the aliens would have won.