Vraisemblance and the Western Setting in Contemporary Science Fiction Film

By Roth, Lane | Literature/Film Quarterly, July 1, 1985 | Go to article overview

Vraisemblance and the Western Setting in Contemporary Science Fiction Film


Roth, Lane, Literature/Film Quarterly


Vraisemblance is the correspondence of a text to some cultural model which is already accepted as natural and understood. According to Jonathan Culler's Structuralist Poetics, this is the foundation for "the important structuralist concept of intertextualité: the relation of a particular text to other texts."1 It is through such relationships that any individual text acquires meaning, for the definition of a text in relation to cultural models makes it intelligible and coherent.

The genre film, encoded by film communicators and decoded by their audiences as a concrete manifestation of an abstract, taxonomic system, exemplifies par excellence Culler's dioscuric concepts of vraisemblance and intertextual ity. Genre films evolved as formulaic, film-factory products created to provide tacit, commercial guarantees for audiences as well as filmmakers. Thomas Schatz has commented on the "high degree of audience familiarity with these cinematic forms and hence the active but indirect audience participation in the creation of genre films. . . . The shared cultural meanings implicit in film genre make the concept of genre, as Andrew Tudor insists, "indispensable ... as a way of formulating the interplay between culture, audience, films, and filmmakers."3

Culler's literary concept of vraisemblance has been applied to film genre study by Paul Petlewski. His study, essentially a reading of an individual film, points out the special problems of analyzing a work which is a "cross-breeding of successful genres." In such an instance, the given text must correspond to two or more distinct genre models so that the separate models. as well as their confluence, are understood. The synthesis must also "make sense" by corresponding to a more general, cultural model of reality.

Science fiction is a film genre that has often been combined with another. Traditionally, the rapport between science fiction and horror has been so developed that two major studies about film genre, which devote separate chapters to the Western, the musical, and the gangster film, treat science fiction and horror as one unit.5 By contrast, the fusion of science fiction and the Western film has been so rare that past examples like The Phantom Empire (1936), Moon Zero Two (1969). and Westworld (1973) may be regarded as anomalies.

The phenomenal success of Star Wars (1977) has created new possibilities for contemporary cinema. The genre film is experiencing a robust, and unexpected, revival.6 In particular, science fiction film production has increased, with elevated budgets. Audience acceptance can be measured by unprecedented box office earnings: the weekly trade magazine Variety reports that two of the three top-grossing films ever, are science fiction.7 The spectacular rise of the science fiction film since 1977 can be contrasted with the contemporaneous eclipse of the Western. This phenomenon has been noted by Hollywood filmmakers. Robert Wise, director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), has predicted that "we may see the Western film supplanted entirely by science fiction."8 While the future of individual genres must remain speculative, the incorporation of conventions of the Western into today's science fiction films can be demonstrated. This crosspollination has recurred within the compressed time of four years, and without correlation to directors, producers, writers, distributors, or others usually attributed with film creation.

In his theoretical inquiry into the nature of film genre, Edward Buscombe has insisted that "the major defining characteristics of genres will be visual."9 This is in accord with John Baxter's assessment that science fiction cinema is "basically a sensuous medium,"10 and John Cawelli's indication that "the Western formula is initially defined by its setting."1 ' This study will describe instances of the Western's influence on contemporary science fiction films by analysis of setting in six recent "blockbusters": Star Wars ( 1 977), Battlestar Galáctica (1978), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), The Black Hole (1979), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). …

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