Editing in Science Fiction Film



Before discussing editing in the genre, it is necessary to first identify it, in order to be able to compare atmospheres, themes, visual elements or characters… and see how the editing could meet and match these characteristics.

To start, it would be interesting to mention the difficulty of defining science-fiction, which (unlike the western, for example) is not a very well defined film genre. If we tried to clarify it in one sentence, it would be a “novelistic genre using the themes of time-travel and extraterrestrial space in which the author imagines the evolution of humanity, in particular, the consequences of its scientific advances” (Larousse dictionary). Science-fiction develops, upon many diverse subjects, different narrative patterns, going from speculative fiction to the marvellous; from space opera to heroic fantasy.

To simplify things, we could talk about the mise-en-scene of unimaginable realities made tangible by the technical and scientific power of modern civilization.

One of the major points of this study is that one of the purposes of the image in science fiction is to make us believe in what we see, e.g. recreate elements that are familiar to us in an environment or context that is not, or vice versa. Anyway, imagery of most films refers to humanity and to our behaviour towards those around us. Although they strive to extend the limits of human experience, they remain restricted by the understanding and identification of the public; and thus contain prosaic aspects, to say the least, rather than being completely supernatural or abstract.

We will try to put all this information together with the editing in science- fiction film; through several examples of movies that have marked this genre, especially three of them: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), and Star Wars, Episode III (George Lucas, 2005).


Thus, a major feature of the genre is to operate an absolute change of scene, a total eradication; that projects us far from our familiar space and time landmarks, by the miraculous effect of scientific and technical power. When modern cinema tends to avoid traditional establishing shot – which is said to uselessly extend a scene; science fiction must restore it. Indeed, it is necessary to present to the public the unknown, unfamiliar environment in which the action is set.

Technologically, the use of collage effects (chroma key, matte keying, etc.…) surely exists in science fiction but would more suit to a study of special effects, not editing. However, what would be interesting to discuss here is the use of internal editing.
Indeed, one may talk about visual collage from the moment one knows that the shot was recomposed after shooting. Two cases apply: either the collage “hides itself”, “the shot is presented as a hybrid to be dissolved” (incrustations, trick pictures, compositing); or it shows up: “The shot gives itself as a hybrid to leave as it is” ¹. The codes of SF and fantasy genre require using the first case, where we are supposed to melt the characters in their set, when we know they’re not a result of single shot. In the Star Wars trilogies, we suppose the actors didn’t actually stand in front of a galactic empire in which wander vessels and flying saucers. This use of effects is due to the desperate attempts of SF to permanently escape the narrow limits of body and the laws of brass of reality.

Those achievements in space can also apply to time. That is why the crosscutting, flash-backs or flash-forwards can also be recurring elements of the genre. We can mention Anakin’s visions in Star Wars; or George’s flash-backs in The Time Machine (Georges Pal, 1960).

The SF is also the encounter between the unrealistic core of the marvellous and the realistic form of science. One of the major aims is to make us believe, and here the only use of effects is not enough. Despite this ocean of improbable images, it is important that the characters and their environment, even though sometimes seeming “nowhere near our familiar universe” ², appear close to us at the same time, close to our fears and desires. That is why the traditional editing techniques are not forsaken, but are still used at the proper time. An intimate dialogue between two characters, despite a fabulous decor, can still be done in a traditional over the shoulder technique.

Nevertheless, and still more specific to the genre, the over the shoulder can be done with human and machines (Dave Bowman and computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey), robots (C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars, Rotwang in Metropolis), or even monsters (Frankenstein, James Whale, 1931) that may, on screen, be treated as humans.
Indeed, let us base upon the example of the Star Wars saga. Its success is, among other things, due to the detailed, contradictory and fanciful exploration offered by the trilogies of the distinction between human and non-human. “Thus, the hero Luke embodies, over the episodes, different states of relationship with the machines” ²: fully human at the beginning of the saga, he slowly becomes master of the machines before he mechanizes as well. This fact contrasts with the two faithful robots of the saga, more human than humans… Translating this to editing, we’d say they simply gain their rights to close-ups.

On the contrary, editing can emphasize dehumanization or lack of feelings among ‘robotized’ heroes through a very small variation of camera angles, and absence of close up shots. One can think of Floyd’s dialogue with his daughter he hasn’t seen for a long time, in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey: shots only alternates between the character (whose value is reduced to a mid-close shot) and the image of his daughter on the screen, whom you see a lot more even though the father is the one monopolizing the conversation. Plus, we see him in the boundaries of a regular 16/9 shot; reminding us he is part of a film: he is fiction; conversely, his daughter is inscribed in more “vertical” borders, which resemble more our real view angles. All this makes us feel he has already lost all humanity.

Moreover, we can think of the opening scene of Metropolis where workers are shown only in two different shots, and always large, so as not to clearly see and identify any face. This contrasts with the large number of various shots that will be used to describe people on earth, in a much faster editing that establishes dynamism and vitality.

On the other hand, science fiction films can often be spread over large time periods. Such is the case with Bicentennial Man (Chris Columbus, 1999), and of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Big time ellipses are therefore required, which often leads them to make transitions more elaborated than simple cuts. We can cite the famous match cut comparing bone / starship at the start of 2001: Space Odyssey: the juxtaposition of two shots, the second breaking the narrative logic installed by the first.

This implies the figurative sense of the connection, creating a relationship between the two objects: two tools, respectively primitive and advanced, but still weapons. A similar match cut is at the end of AI : Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001), when David brush his mother’s hair, or at the beginning of Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), where a pod of glass becomes a planet. This transition effect “can darken the editing, making it invisible” as says Spielberg; for in the end, the desired effect is to merge two images, to link them. This effect is quite present in science fiction as it provides a dimension that doesn’t come from a realistic aspect, but more a fantasy or unknown one.

In the same thematic of transitions, it is appropriate to cite the rare use of wipes that we practically only find in George Lucas’ work (Star Wars) or Kurosawa’s Dreams, which also confers an epic tone to the film.
It is also worth mentioning the fades that often replaces cuts in Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1982), which are used to restore the atmosphere of old classic films that unfolds throughout the entire movie (in black and white).

Regarding the rhythms of editing, they are highly variable and differ depending on movies and sequences within movies. For example, the rate in Star Wars or Metropolis remains fitted to the register and tone of the scene (fast in action scenes, saber combats, etc.… and slowest in the lyrical scenes, for example). This technique brings the dynamism and speed to the action that it is necessary to find in the SF works where the action itself is an important aspect of the film. Lucas actually believes that we need to know “how to measure out the scenes, interrupt them for a maximum emotional impact”.

Contrastingly, in 2001, or Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), the pace is slow throughout the film, the scenes take place as in real time, and the music often plays the role of bridge between a scene and another. Here, anxiety and tension rise more slowly and naturally.
Furthermore, we should mention the very jerky editing corresponding to the movement of workers at the beginning of Metropolis, where the cuts are synchronized with the continuous and mechanical movement of workers- mechanized humans too.

Finally, the genre has certainly evolved over the years, not only through the development of cinematographic techniques. Admittedly, “the use of pyrotechnic special effects and computer graphics transforms the diegetic universe of science fiction into games spaces where the succession of sequences often obeys a parataxic logic. […] It is therefore not the use of a new semantic equipment, such as biotechnology, which has largely modified the format of the genre, but syntactic changes: the linearity of a narrative where episodes follow one another (Metropolis) was abandoned in favour of a juxtaposition principle, which is manifested by both coexistence of creatures or objects of all kinds in the field and by the succession of action scenes (Star Wars) ” ³.

In conclusion, it is necessary to recall that the features mentioned are not exclusive characteristics of science-fiction film, but rather gender-recurring items which often contribute to retransmit the themes and issues that are dealt with. In addition, each film has its own style, each director has his own idea of fantastic… otherwise, the film wouldn’t have much interest.

¹ “L’analyse de sequences” by Laurent Jullier, Armand Colin
² “Panorama des genres de films” by Claude Brillard, 1995
³ “Les genres de films au cinéma” by Raphaëlle Moine, Armand Colin.