Science Fiction Film & Television

Seeing around the next corner

The politics of time travel surveillance cinema

Science Fiction Film & Television (2019), 12, (2), 195–223.


Themes of surveillance in popular cinema raise critical questions about the apparatus of spectatorship and the overlap between film technology and real governmental and corporate spying. This paper argues that, since about 1998, what critics have called ‘surveillance cinema’ evolves a new type of ‘hypernarrative’ viewpoint that alters the political significance of surveillance in film, displacing the ‘metanarrative’ suture between a viewer’s position and the spying camera. Science-fictional or fantastical camera movements and actions – ‘impossible’ in earlier surveillance cinema because they contravene the realism through which spying is connected to actual-world politics – are now themselves naturalised and made ‘realistic’. A capacity to roam freely over space and time, as well as to surveil both factual and counterfactual ‘lines’ of plot, becomes standard in the spectator’s repertoire – surveillance is something we freely do rather than problematically observe. In what I call ‘time travel surveillance cinema’, the politics of surveillance is thus displaced and devalued but not altogether abolished. Politics resurfaces, in line with general tendencies of genre cinema, through anodyne individual reactions to ‘time travel surveillance’, especially in the guise of inapt happy endings.

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Author details

Wittenberg, David