The most brilliant definition of science fiction I know comes courtesy of the writer Brian Aldiss, who once described it as “hubris clobbered by nemesis”. At Into the Unknown, the Barbican’s ambitious new exploration of sci-fi’s vast realm, there is certainly hubris: the claims made for it – “unprecedented”, “genre-defying” – are nothing if not grand. But, alas, you’ll find no vengeful gods at work.
Ultimately, what clobbers the exhibition, a repository for some 800 images, books, comics, models and costumes, is the rather more prosaic conviction of its curator, the Swiss historian Patrick Gyger, that size trumps all. Charmed as I was to see, among other delights, the Spindrift supersonic transport miniature from the TV series Land of the Giants, I was struck by the way that it, and pretty much everything on display, was expected to speak for itself. Where was the historical background? What about those who have never seen Land of the Giants in all its 60s glory? (Its subversions, such as they are, are surely of a piece with that decade’s politics.) The goodies Gyger has gathered are undoubtedly piled high, but they’re so unmediated as to be almost meaningless at times. He has delivered the sci-fi equivalent of Supermarket Sweep.
On a bad day, the Barbican can itself resemble Nostromo, the labyrinthine starship of Alien, so it makes sense that the exhibition extends all over the building (in the Pit, for instance, the artist Conrad Shawcross has installed In Light of the Machine, a mechanical sculpture that uses light to reflect on the relationship between cosmology and technology by casting a pattern of “stars” on its walls). The bulk of it, however, is restricted to the problematic space that is the Curve, transformed on this occasion into a dark and noisy tunnel.
Stepping inside, you may be greeted, as I was, by the sight of Laura Dern, open jawed at seeing her first brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park (a clip plays on a screen). But don’t get too excited. This is a hostage to fortune. My amazement – the second thing I saw were the wonderful drawings by the celebrated animator Ray Harryhausen for the 1969 film The Valley of Gwangi – turned almost immediately to frustration. What connects Harryhausen and Jules Verne, the writer to whom a large part of the exhibition’s first section is devoted? It takes a while to work out that the link must be dinosaurs, creatures that play a starring role both in The Valley of Gwangi – “cowboys battle monsters!” – and in Verne’s 1864 novel A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
In the end, all you can do is to try and enjoy the spectacle of it all, saving any questions for Google once you get home. Maddening lack of context aside, there’s a lot to see and some of it we may never glimpse here again (among the loans are items from the collection of Paul G Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft). Ralph McQuarrie’s original drawings of Luke Skywalker and Yoda for Star Wars are bound to charm you and Harryhausen’s model of the US capital being attacked by flying saucers (for Earth vs the Flying Saucers, in 1956) is guaranteed to make you smile; ditto the collection of confectionary cards from 1901 that promise an utterly delightful seeming future in which man will both be able to fly with ease and to dive merrily with friendly hippos.
I have to admit that Mr Spock’s space suit from Star Trek: The Motion Picture left me underwhelmed, for all that there’s surely a Phd thesis to be written on why tangerine remains sci-fi’s favourite colour. But catching sight of the alien masks from such beloved movies as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien was thrilling. My faint hope is that having seen the latter, so small and un-scary in the gloom, I will finally be able to watch Ridley Scott’s masterpiece alone.
Most peculiar, and wholly new to me, are James Gurney’s Dinotopia paintings, in which an almost Poussin-like classicism, combined with a cultural nostalgia that could come straight from Norman Rockwell, is put to work in the service of pterosaurs and sabre-toothed tigers. Gurney’s bestselling books, for which these vivid oils are illustrations, are set on an island, lost to the rest of the world, where man and dinosaurs live together in harmony and it seems to me that they illustrate something the exhibition (again, again) does not attempt to analyse: the enduring fascination of the prehistoric.
As the world burns, and our sense of a coming apocalypse grows, writers and film-makers are turning once again to other planets. But we can’t help but look back, too. Dinosaurs used to be a metaphor, a means of addressing our most deep-seated fears. They roared and we trembled; we fought them to win. Now, though, they bring with them a prelapsarian longing. As Gurney has it, on the back of a triceratops we long companionably to ride.
• At Barbican, London until 1 September