Back in the '50s, artists and filmmakers were reacting against the mind-blowing and seemingly unlimited power of the atom bomb, and the uncertain Russian enemy who might have used it on us at a moment's notice. The films that were born out of this period were alive with unease, pitting the human race against a more powerful, more organized alien force bent on destroying us—or maybe just failing to stop us from destroying ourselves.
Some of the greatest science fiction films of all time were made during this period, each of which harvested the uncertain politics of the day. Lucky for us, many of these films will be playing as part of Paul Allen's Science Fiction Museum's new series The Frightening 50s. The first movie of the series, The Thing from Another World, shows on Sunday, August 7, at 4:00 p.m. Produced by Howard Hawks, and some believe ghost directed by him, The Thing... is the story of a team at an arctic military base who discover a UFO buried under the ice. When they unearth it, they unleash the destructive force of an angry alien. Helping to unearth the political and social subtext of the film following the screening will be none other than the suave cinephile Robert Horton.
With the Cold War ending in the '80s, and the superiority of the American way of life no longer in question, science fiction took a backseat to horror films and thrillers. Even George Lucas took a couple of decades off. The science fiction genre became more concerned with genetics and corporate intrigue than indomitable alien forces. And then 9/11 brought the specter of terrorists onto American shores. Once again we're faced with a threat we don't understand, one that is coming from a place we can't bomb the shit out of. The power of this unseen, unexpected violence is seeping into not just our culture but into our movies. Steven Spielberg defined the cinematic spirit of the happy-ending '80s, and he's now defining the more sobering post-9/11 sci-fi films, epitomized by his War of the Worlds. For me, the point of that movie is that there is some violence that you just can't stop, and it's dumb luck if you survive it. Tom Cruise didn't survive because of any particular skills he had, but just because he didn't get hit by one of their pants-defying lasers.
Because we are in the early days of this new age of science fiction films, you have a chance to join the fray and help define it. Whether or not you believe my bullshit thesis of how the threat of terrorism is affecting our culture, whether or not you think politics affect art, you can throw your two cents into the mix by entering the Science Fiction Short Film Festival. Both the Science Fiction Museum and the Seattle International Film Festival folks are teaming up to present the contest. Just make a short film of 12 minutes or less, pay a $25 entry fee, and you may win a pitch session with the programming executives at the SciFi Channel, where you can win the opportunity to write and/or direct a two-hour film for the network. This, of course, means that your short film should be more about commercial possibilities than the strict art films that our city is famous for, but that ain't such a bad thing, is it?