Recently, a number of prominent publications have featured a growing body of work on classical receptions in science fiction and fantasy, including Mélanie Bost-Fiévet’s and Sandra Provini’s collection L’Antiquité dans l’imaginaire contemporain (Garniers Classiques 2014), a special issue of the journal Foundation on “Fantastika and the Greek and Roman Worlds” (Autumn 2014), and our own collection, Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (OUP 2015).
This focus on science fiction, now an important part of popular culture, reveals much about how ancient classics are being received by modern audiences, particularly when it comes to the silver screen. For example, contributors to our collection wrote on topics including inorganic beings and tropes of disability in Blade Runner and ancient literature; how Forbidden Planet evokes mid-20th-century Aristotelian visions of tragedy; and modern Hollywood visions of imperial Rome in The Hunger Games trilogy. Still other examples were discussed at the recent “Once and Future Antiquity” international conference.
However, this burgeoning field is wide open for exploration not only by professional classicists, film theorists, and other scholars, but also by fans of all of these genres. In order to invite readers to join the ongoing conversation, we note the Top Sci Five Classical Receptions on Screen that we would love to see examined at greater length and depth.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film, developed in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, is a bald-faced classical reception. Kubrick deliberately chose the subtitle to suggest that this–a long and fantastic journey through the mystery and remoteness of space–is perhaps the modern Odyssey. Yet unlike some other notable examples of ‘incredible voyages,’ 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1968) is neither parodic nor vaguely monomythic, devoting as much attention to the disconcerting metaphysical implications of homecoming as to its spectacularly realistic depictions of travel through space.
As outer space and inner spaces overlap, ‘What is out there?’ becomes a way of exploring ‘What is in here?’ and ‘Who are we / am I?’ in ways readers of Homer and Virgil are apt to recognize. Although such questions can be attributed to the film’s modern sources of inspiration—above all Clarke’s own “The Sentinel” (1951) and Childhood’s End (1953)—they also resonate deeply with ancient themes, including Odysseus’s various self-descriptions when confronted with versions of his past and Aeneas’ question of what it means to pursue a new home by divine command.
Deleted scene: As if in unconscious evocation of classical antiquity, the film’s most iconic character, the artificial intelligence and archvillain HAL 9000, was originally going to be named Athena.
Although not strictly ‘classical’ in its involvement with Greece or Rome, Stargate (Emmerich 1994) is enthusiastic about ancient studies insofar as ancient Egyptian culture is, in the film’s central conceit, the result of an intervention by a technologically advanced visitor from another world. The film thus presents a variation of gods as extraterrestrials, a theme related to both the ancient theory of Euhemerism (stating that gods are post-humans) and the modern ‘Chariots of the Gods’ theory (after Erich von Daniken’s 1968 book.) Moreover, it envisions a universe in which the study of ancient language and culture is, paradoxically, a guide to humankind’s possible future.
Of course, the film operates under somewhat unexamined assumptions about American exceptionalism, as Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) certainly conforms to assorted stereotypes of his academic field: e.g., he is white, male, heterosexual, bespectacled, physically unprepossessing, and allergic to seemingly everything. But Jackson nonetheless also embodies a kind of triumph of the intellectual over the merely physical, leading not only to military victory against the cruel alien masquerading as Ra, but also to cross-cultural understandings.
Bonus feature: The film inspired several television series of the same name, one of which centers on the lost city of Atlantis, reimagined as an ancient city-sized spaceship.
Ridley Scott’s two films in the Aliens series reveal a sustained interest in icons from classical myth that explore and articulate human suffering. In Alien (Scott 1979), the human crew of the spaceship Nostromo encounter the deadly xenomorphs on a planetoid identified as Acheron LV-426, a name that not only alludes to one of the rivers of the Underworld but anticipates the living hell the humans will experience. This makes Ellen Ripley, the film’s lone survivor, into a kind of science-fictional Greek hero who returns from the realm of the dead but now questions the very meaning and limits of humanity. Alien also complicates notions of humanity through the android Ash, who betrays the human crew in favor of his creators, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, hardening distinctions between the human and inhuman. Scott later complicates such thinking in Prometheus (Scott 2012), wherein the android David, once liberated from his human master Weyland, proves more sympathetic—and even more humane—than human characters themselves.
Prometheus engages more obviously with the classics than Alien, evoking the ancient myth of Prometheus and his gift of fire to humankind in order to explore the unintended consequences of technoscientific discovery and reimagine the confrontation between humankind and its own creator. While Prometheus, at its outset, shares Stargate’s perspective that the study of ancient languages and cultures–in this case, archaeology and the myth of Prometheus–serves as a guide to for the future, the crew of the ship Prometheus soon discover that they have instead opened Pandora’s jar, as it becomes clear that humankind’s creators, the Engineers, seek to obliterate them with biological weapons (stored in actual jars).
Language selection: Prometheus includes a version of Proto-Indo-European, which the android David studies, with on-screen assistance from real-life linguist Anil Biltoo, in order to speak with the Engineers; one Engineer returns the linguistic courtesy by decapitating David.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
This cult favorite, based on a 1973 stage musical, is a science fiction/horror film ending in the revelation that the main characters are aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. And yet, amidst its rampant, Dionysiac transgression of generic and sexual boundaries, Rocky Horror (Sharman 1975) shows a marked interest in classical hard bodies, not only through the repeated appearance of neo-classical statuary but also in its focus on the mythic figure of Atlas.
Rocky, the creation of scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter, evokes in his physical appearance not Frankenstein’s monster (as we might expect) but the exquisitely sculpted Charles Atlas, the mid-20th century guru of masculine fitness and self-transformation. However, Rocky discovers himself not to be a self-made man like Charles Atlas, but rather a prisoner in a state of perpetual bondage like the mythic Titan Atlas, known for his perpetual suffering in holding the heavens upon his shoulders and depicted in stained glass over Furter’s bed. Rocky Horror thus mobilizes an ancient icon to cast doubts upon the promised liberation of the self through modern sex and science, hinting at the complex horrors inherent in practices of classical reception.
Easter egg: When Dr. Furter captures several of the characters towards the end of the film, he transforms them into statues using a weapon called ‘the Medusa transducer,’ whose sing-song name of course recalls the petrifying Gorgon.
The Transformers: The Movie
The last item on our list is, in a way, also the first—the 1986 film that first crystallized our interest in classical receptions in science fiction. Like all Transformers properties, the film depicts an enduring war between forces of good and evil in the forms of Autobots and Decepticons. As fans will know, important Autobots have Latinate names; their leader is Optimus Prime, who is later replaced by Rodimus Prime. Important Decepticons, in contrast, have Hellenic names; their leader is Megatron, who is later upgraded into Galvatron. That contrast alone would have been sufficient fodder for the Wacky Classics Movie Night we held in our Greek and Latin House at Reed College in the fall of 1997: Are Latinates/Romans thus ‘good’ while Hellenics/Greeks are somehow ‘evil’?
But the film goes further in its tagline, ‘Beyond good, beyond evil, beyond your wildest imagination,’ to envision a universe inhabited by sentient machines taking a wide range of forms and occupying an equally wide range of moral positions. Five-faced judges with monstrous animal helpers recall the multiple judges of the ancient Underworld and the guard dog Cerberus, while scavengers who live on the scraps of earlier cultures emphasize practices of recomposition in post-classical periods. Above all, there is Unicron—also known as the Lord of Chaos, the Chaos Bringer, and the Planet Eater—whose destabilizing presence seems to evoke third-century BCE Hellenistic politics or, later on, the ‘barbarian invasions’ from the north.