Science Fiction Meets High Art

April 1, 2007
Solaris mission: Intelligence sought on a faraway planet

Solaris mission: Intelligence sought on a faraway planet. © KINO INTERNATIONAL

Popular science fiction and critically acclaimed “art” cinema are generally considered to be at opposite ends of the film spectrum. But the two often overlap in ways not always recognized by their respective fans.

“They Came From Beyond,” an international science-fiction film series put on this semester by Screen/Society and the Center for International Studies, aims to highlight the best of both worlds.

By showing the work of high-profile directors who are known best for their non-science fiction films, Hank Okazaki, exhibitions programmer for Duke’s Film/Video/Digital Program, who helped organize the series, says he hopes to “get fans of high-art cinema to understand that science fiction is more than just a cousin to cheap horror films.

“On the other hand, science-fiction fans may not understand the way in which the genre has been pushed into new philosophical dimensions by directors like [Andrei] Tarkovsky, [Jean-Luc] Godard, and [Werner] Herzog,” he adds.

Okazaki co-organized the series with Rob Sikorski, executive director for the Center for International Studies. Both are film buffs.

The series kicked off in January with a showing of Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic, Solaris. That was followed by a double feature of 1960s French New Wave films, Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

On Valentine’s Day, the feature was Sex Mission, a Polish science-fiction/comedy farce from 1984, which tells the story of two men who volunteer for an experiment in which they are frozen to be awakened three years later. Instead, they wake up fifty years later after a disaster has wiped out all men, leaving only women.

The series continued in March with Aleksey Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon and Werner Herzog’s Wild Blue Yonder, two 2005 films that focus on the Cold War “space race” between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. It wraps up on April 25, the last day of classes for the spring semester, with the Japanese film Godzilla. The film will be shown in its original form, without the voice-overs and re-shot scenes that were originally added for American audiences.

Godzilla in some ways straddles the intersection of the science-fiction and art genres. Since its re-release, with original footage restored and “cheesy” voice-overs replaced by English subtitles, some critics have begun to embrace the film as “a serious, great film about the worries of the nuclear age, a thought-provoking reflection on the possibility of mutually assured destruction,” Okazaki says.

Screen/Society, which cosponsors several campus film series throughout the year, first gained a foothold at Duke in the early 1990s, founded by a group of graduate students who wanted to show and see films that weren’t available elsewhere. The group languished in the late 1990s, but was brought back as an official arm of Film/Video/Digital in 2001 to provide the logistical support necessary to put on film series. All films are free to the public.