A Mercer University course has given students the skills and knowledge to digest science fiction films and better understand what they say about the world.
Dr. Cameron Kunzelman, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships and a 2012 Mercer graduate, taught this film genre course on science fiction for the Department of Journalism and Media Studies during the spring semester. A science fiction scholar, he holds a Ph.D. in moving image studies from Georgia State University and focused a large portion of his dissertation on science fiction film. In addition, he has a written study about science fiction video games that is coming out soon.
“Science fiction films are some of the most popular films in the world right now. Students need some tools to speculate and think about how they present the world for us,” he said.
Dr. Kunzelman taught a similar course a few times at Georgia State, but the spring semester was his first time teaching it at Mercer. About 20 students from freshmen to seniors took the course, which was open to all years and majors.
“Science fiction films are important and political, and they are often places where filmmakers make salient points about the real world within an estranged fictional context,” he said. “Science fiction is a tool for thinking about the now, thinking about our condition in it. That’s why science fiction constantly returns to what is human.”
For instance, viewers need to take into consideration what was happening in the 1970s and ’80s in the United States when watching the 1982 film “Blade Runner.” The 2006 film “The Host” requires a look at changes that were taking place in South Korea in the 1990s and 2000s.
Dr. Kunzelman said his goal was for students to leave his class with strategies and knowledge about how to read science fiction cinema. Students watched about 15 films on their own time and spent class time discussing specific elements beyond the plot, such as cinematic themes, structures and camera shots.
“It’s hard to learn the language of cinema, how things are put together and when the rules are broken,” he said. “Science fiction is based on presenting you with new worlds in familiar standards and then breaking those standards.”
Dr. Kunzelman chose a variety of films to give students a diverse, global perspective of the genre. He included a few big standards and then selected important science fiction films that students might not see elsewhere. Films screened included “La Jetée,” “The Thing,” “Ghost in the Shell,” “Stalker,” “Born in Flames” and “The Last Angel of History,” as well as contemporary short films.
Mallory Morgan, a rising senior double-majoring in media studies and communication studies, liked the movies “Cloud Atlas,” “Arrival” and “District 9” the most. She has always been a science fiction fan and enjoyed doing in-depth analysis of scenes.
“Everyone has expectations of what a science fiction film is. You expect aliens or technology of some kind. This class broadened my horizons and made me realize science fiction can be a lot more than that,” she said. “Exploring the cinematic language of the films was very interesting. I thought it was cool to see real-world issues in science fiction and discuss it in class.”
Yasmeen Hill, a 2021 graduate in journalism and media studies, said she doesn’t watch a lot of science fiction movies in her free time, and most of what she saw in class was new to her. The 2018 film “Sorry to Bother You” was her favorite.
“The reason I’m in media studies is I like talking about films and having those kind of conversations,” she said. “I thought this course would give me some fresh things to analyze. We viewed a lot of things that wouldn’t come to your mind when you first think of science fiction. It’s expanded how I think about the genre.”