Review of “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965)


Susan Sontag (writer).

The science fiction cinema of the early atomic age.

The movies are, naturally, weak just where the science fiction novels (some of them), are strong—on science. But in place of an intellectual workout, they can supply something the novels can never provide—sensuous elaboration.

Sontag mentions Honda Ishirō and George Pal by name—the latter only as an American—and the following SF films:

Given Sontag’s bantering typologies of such films, it is dubious how many others she’d seen. There are minor errors. For instance, it is not true, as Sontag claims, that the aesthetics of destruction began in cinema with Intolerance (1916); they are similarly present in Cabiria (1914). Nonetheless, Sontag’s points are excellent: The primacy of emotion, the moral simplification, the combination of a fun war with international unity against freak outsiders, the wishful thinking, the negative ideological framing of pure science (without social criticism, in Sontag’s view), the threat of becoming machine-like replacing the vampire motif’s threat of becoming animal-like, etc.

The attitude of the science fiction films toward depersonalization is mixed. On the one hand, they deplore it as the ultimate horror. On the other hand, certain characteristics of the dehumanized invaders, modulated and disguised—such as the ascendancy of reason over feelings, the idealization of teamwork and the consensus-creating activities of science, a marked degree of moral simplification—are precisely traits of the savior-scientists.

Sontag’s ultimate conclusion is more dubious. Though science fiction is not SALT, it is arguably more adequate than any other aesthetic response to the threat of sudden atomic war.

References here: Internal contradiction by omission, Star Wars (1977), “The Alternate” (1994), Cloverfield (2008), Knowing (2009), “Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo” (2012), Shin Godzilla (2016).

text non-fiction