J P Telotte & Gerald Duchovnay, eds, Science Fiction, Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as Cult Text (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2015) 256 pp. £75.00 Hb. ISBN 9781781384640
Science Fiction, Double Feature is a fascinating collection that addresses the fairly recent phenomenon of the cult genre. Editors J. P. Telotte and Gerald Duchovnay bring together an array of experts (and, perhaps also, fans) to provide insight into the rarely analysed relationship between cult films, particularly those belonging to the science fiction (SF) genre, and their audiences. One of the main attractions of the book is that it does not limit itself to ‘classic’ cult SF films from the 1950s to 1980s. Several chapters analyse films from the 2000s onwards, which gives the book as a whole an added relevance and contemporary appeal.
The first section of the book, 'The Multiple Texts of the SF/Cult Film', recognises the chameleonic nature of the cult film and its refusal to be tied to a single defining genre or narrative style. The first chapter, Matt Hills’s 'From “Multiverse” to “Abramsverse”: Blade Runner, Star Trek, Multiplicity, and the Authorizing of Cult/SF Worlds', combines analysis of the classic 1982 SF film Blade Runner and the 2009 big-screen reboot of Star Trek in order to examine the operation of ‘world-based and auteur-based cults’ (2). Mark Bould's 'The Coy Cult Text: The Man Who Wasn’t There as Noir SF' examines the 2001 Coen Brothers film, as well as other Coen Brothers films, in order to demonstrate the importance of ambiguity and genre mixing within cult works. '"It’s Alive!”: The Splattering of SF Films' by Stacey Abbott looks at the genre of splatter and exploitation films (including Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies), and argues that such films fuse ‘splatter techniques with SF tropes’ (64) in order to satisfy the cult audience’s ‘drive toward social and cultural transgression’ (65). Focusing on a particular actor rather than a particular film, Gerald Duchovnay’s 'Sean Connery Reconfigured: From Bond to Cult Science Fiction Figure' explores the transition of Sean Connery from ‘regular’ stardom to ‘cult’ stardom as he left the role of James Bond and achieved cult infamy in the 1972 film Zardoz.
Live action films and television are not the only ones analysed in the book. Rounding off the first section, Sharalyn Orbaugh’s 'The Cult Film as Affective Technology: Anime and Oshii Mamoru’s Innocence' provides a compelling examination of the sequel to the famous cult anime film Ghost in the Shell; two movies that each explored the complex relationship between cyborg brains and natural human consciousness. Orbaugh argues that Innocence, rather than being a cult film in ‘simple genre designation’ (85), raises intellectually and emotionally challenging questions about ontology and ‘enact[s] experiments in posthumanity through visual narrative’ (85).
Section Two, 'SF Media and the Audience', moves away from the films themselves in order to look more closely at the cult audience and the media portrayal of the cult genre. In 'Whedon, Browncoats, and the Big Damn Narrative: The Unified Meta-Myth of Firefly and Serenity' Rhonda V. Wilcox examines the mostly fan-driven rebirth of the short-lived television series Firefly into a feature film continuation (Serenity), and argues that fans of the original series – who refer to themselves as Browncoats – have formed their own narrative of rebellion which mirrors that of the Browncoats in the original Firefly. Tackling the largely untouched subject of crowdsourcing, in which films and television series are funded almost entirely by their fanbase, 'Iron Sky’s War Bonds: Cult SF Cinema and Crowdsourcing' by Chuck Tyron examines the high-profile crowdfunding of the 2012 SF film Iron Sky, arguing that crowd involvement in cult cinema is ‘beginning to redefine it’ (116). Takayuki Tatsumi analyses the social commentary of the 2009 'invaders from space' film District 9 in 'Transnational Interactions: District 9, or Apaches in Johannesburg', arguing that the film challenges its audience’s inherent notions of xenophobia by turning the traditional invasion narrative on its head. The section concludes with an insightful and interesting look at cult cinema conventions in the form of Nicolle Lamerichs’s 'A Donut for Tom Paris: Identity and Belonging at European SF/Fantasy Conventions', which outlines the dynamics of SF conventions, the unification of seemingly separate cult franchises, and the importance of such conventions to audience identity and esteem.
The book’s final section, 'Occulting the Cult: The “Bad” SF Text', is a particular treat for anyone who has enjoyed a film on the grounds that it is 'so bad it’s good'. J P Telotte’s 'Robot Monster and the “Watchable… Terrible” Cult/SF Film' examines the cult following attracted by twentieth-century SF films regarded as technical and critical failures, using the 1953 'Watchable/Terrible' film Robot Monster as a key example. 'Science Fiction and the Cult of Ed Wood: Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space' by Rodney F. Hill analyzes the genre-defying career of 'bad' film director Ed Wood, arguing that Wood’s cult status owes much to the ‘[almost] religious epiphany, even salvation’ (173) that his followers find within the narratives and unconvincing effects of his films. Citing the ‘skewed perspective on reality’ (190) that cult and SF cinema often contains, Sherryl Vint’s 'Visual Pleasure, the Cult, and Paracinema' discusses films that are appreciated precisely because of their deviation from the rationale and aesthetic norms of popular cinema, such as Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). In '"Lack of Respect, Wrong Attitude, Failure to Obey Authority”: Dark Star, A Boy and His Dog, and New Wave Cult SF' Rob Latham takes a look at two films belonging to the New Wave cult movement, a movement defined by ‘an abiding suspicion of technoscientific modes of knowledge [and] a casual contempt for social authority’ (206). Latham argues that New Wave and cult SF complement each other in terms of their countercultural nature and air of ‘connoisseurship’ (208), using Dark Star (1974) and A Boy and His Dog (1975) as examples. M. Keith Booker’s 'Capitalism, Camp, and Cult SF: Space Truckers as Satire' analyses the 1996 cult film in terms of its ‘social and political satire’ (222), its playful mixing of genres and its generally campy aesthetic; describing it as ‘loudly silly’ (231).
The book’s final chapter, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s 'Bubba Ho-tep and the Seriously Silly Cult Film', ends the collection with an enjoyable analysis of the 2002 bizarre cinematic journey Bubba Ho-tep. Weinstock argues that the cult status of the 'silly' film is mostly down to the fact that it is ‘about nothing more than itself’ (236). In his discussion of Bubba Ho-tep, Weinstock asserts that the film – a tale of two convalescent home residents who team up to destroy an ancient mummy who is sucking out the other residents’ souls through their anuses – has gained such a cult status because it has no serious or political dimension, and can therefore simply be enjoyed for its silliness rather than analysed for any commentary or critique.
Overall, Science Fiction, Double Feature is a thoroughly approachable text that would appeal most to anyone who is looking for greater insight into the often overlooked world of cult cinema and SF. The inclusion of twenty-first-century examples along with earlier cinematic works makes for an intriguing mix that maintains interest from one chapter to the next, and will appeal to a broader reading audience than the usual academic essay collection.
Caroline King, University of Hertfordshire