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Genre or Die, Pt 5: Science Fiction

SPOILERS: Minority Report & Impostor in particular
Science Fiction, Sci-Fi, SF. Take your pick. For safety’s sake after last time I’m going for SF. Also it takes less time to type and I’m a lazy moo.

SF appears to me to be the one genre that needs another to really “work”: think about it. When was the last time you saw a movie that was *just* set in the future or had futuristic elements? Alien – SF Horror. Minority Report – SF Thriller. Galaxy Quest – SF Comedy, Running Man – SF Action, etc etc. It seems (to me anyway) that SF is less a genre in terms of STORY and more of a genre in terms of ARENA.

I read a lot of SF specs. A LOT. The one issue they invariably have is clarity, ie. I haven’t the foggiest what is going on. At all. This is usually because, like most specs, they are convoluted and not simple enough in terms of story or make strange and twisted plot moves. However, an added issue (BECAUSE they are SF) is that they do not establish the “world” of the story well enough. I won’t know, even if we are in the year 3000 (where not much has changed ‘cept we live underwater*) what role, if any, technology, law, society’s values etc has in the story. In short, set up in SF specs is often underdeveloped, meaning the reader is often lost. Completely.

Yet SF specs have much to learn from produced movies in the sense of simplicity. Whilst the machinations of plot often through up questions about existence (either because of the nature of survival literally or what it means to be “human” metaphorically – often posed together), usually the actual story right at the heart of produced SF stories are very simple indeed. Let’s have a look at some of them:

Aliens, homicidal 1: Earth Invasion. This is when the aliens are coming – and they’re landing on Earth. Think War of The Worlds, Independence Day, the various incarnations of Invasion of The Bodysnatchers, plus Predator, Predator 2, Alien Vs Predator and AVP: Requiem. Sometimes they live amongst us undetected first, like in The Arrival, though this is less usual. Sometimes the alien force is not extra terrestrial but replicant and man-made, like in Bladerunner or alien-made as in Impostor. these films obviously portray specific concerns of a time as a metaphor. Aliens of the 1950s and 60s were Communist concerns like Cuba; in the 70s Vietnam and 80s The USSR. Nowadays it’s Al Quaeda.

Aliens, homicidal 2: Space Invaders. This is when astronauts, usually in the future, come into contact with a hostile alien force, usually when they are salvaging or rescuing a ship that is afloat or a colony found Marie Celeste-style, though not always. Think Alien and Aliens but also Event Horizon, Starship Troopers etc.

Aliens, non-homicidal. Sometimes aliens come to earth and by coming in peace, teach us something about the world and/or ourselves. Good examples here are ET, Cocoon, Batteries Not Included, The Abyss. I can’t think of any alien movies before Steven Spielberg that portrayed aliens as peaceful; I’m sure there are some, but given the hysteria and conveyor-belt nature of the invader movies that’s probably what audiences wanted at the time. And still want, because invasion movies still seem to be incredibly popular and certainly there are more of them.

Brave New World. This is when something has changed about the future – usually not for the good either. Society has changed into some kind of dystopia or is an illusion altogether. The Matrix, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Equilibrium are the most obvious, but also Children of Men, Minority Report and I Robot. This is usually the most “man-made” element of SF it seems, with man’s problems not being as a result of Aliens but humankind itself.

Surreal/comic book SF. This can happen when science fiction is combined with action-adventure, though not always. Examples of the more surreal include The Fifth Element, Judge Dredd, Starship Troopers, Transformers (original 80s cartoon feature), Iron Man.

New Technology. This is when something new not present in our own society underpins the narrative, sometimes helping characters out of the situation they find themselves in. Examples of this include The Abyss and that impressive liquid stuff that allows Bud to go into the Abyss without being crushed to death. In many many Philip K. Dick adaptations the technology is hostile like the vivisect in the much-underrated Impostor. Robots often often a hostile AND saving force in sci-fi, Transformers and the Terminator trilogy the most obvious, but also the likes of VIKI and Sonny in I,Robot and also the replicants in Bladerunner.

Five rough categories there – much the same as many of the other genres I’ve already written about in this series. What’s striking then to me is how many share very similar ideas – it’s the execution that REALLY sets them apart. Philip K Dick made a living from this in particular. Minority Report and Impostor are practically the same idea: two guys, experts in their field, are “mistakenly” believed to have broken the new laws they champion. Of course, they have broken those laws, they just have to accept it – and those new societies they live in have to accept the consequences of those broken laws. However, if you watch both films you will see different films with that same simple story. Interesting.

Yet most SF specs have no simple idea underpinning their narrative. They want to throw up philosophical questions and they do this usually with philosophy. Plato and his idea of the “forms” is the most widely used that I’ve seen and thanks to the Matrix trilogy Phenomenalism and Descartesian philosophy (“I think therefore I am”) gets a look in too. Now I used to be a philosophy A Level teacher (really!) so I am familiar with many of these concepts – yet I am still lost as to how they play out within the story or what relevance they are supposed to have. A story is not philosophy – philosophy is like an “offshoot” of a story. I think of it like a by-product. Let me illustrate.

Think of Dr. Who. Yes it’s a TV show, not a movie (though I do get quite a few SF TV specs these days) but on the surface, these are usually simple stories about The Doctor and his companion discovering a new race, helping it in some way or helping another fight it. It goes from A to B to C in a straight line, with The Doctor and his companion (usually) walking away unscathed at the end of the episode, ready for the next week’s adventure. Yet each week, they’re supposed to have learned something – or at least the companion is. Last week’s posed question’s about the nature of slavery. James Moran’s was about the eternal philosophical question “Would you kill (a certain amount of people) to save a (certain amount of people)?” In the same way then, I Robot asks us what is to be “someone” and not “something”, symbolised in Sonny in the same way Bladerunner does with the replicants. The Matrix asks us what reality truly is. Minority Report asks us what price we will pay for justice. The Terminator Trilogy poses the question of pre-determination AND Chaos Theory at the same time.

But crucially, none of these asks those difficult questions within a convoluted plot. The more you want to ask of your audience, the simpler you must be to get your point across. It’s the ultimate SF paradox, really.

So, as always: your fave SF films? Why?

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: I dunno! Run out of requests. What should it be? You decide.
* Yes I know, not funny: so why couldn’t I resist??? WHY??

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24 thoughts on “Genre or Die, Pt 5: Science Fiction”

  1. Hi Lucy. These have been really interesting posts. I would just add that SF in agreement with you that SF really only works when it’s ‘about’ something else ie. it’s being used as allegory. You only have to see how effective the current run of BSG is with its parallels to what’s happening now. I think Clive James said nothing defines any period of a society as its conception of the future.
    Oh, btw, I think the first peaceful aliens film to my mind is The Day the Earth Stood Still. But I could (and frequently am) wrong

  2. My favourite has to be terminator 2. I say the second because, although the first was a brilliant piece of work, the second is paced and doesnt feel as though it sags.

    It is such a fantastically simple idea yet (as you said) it asks bigger questions without sounding preachy/stupid.

    I love the way the story is told as well, it totally plays with your beliefs.

    For example people who had already seen the first film (like me)already associated arnie as the bad guy and so james cameron obviously went with that, and becasue robert patrick was in a police uniform (another smart move) people naturally assume he is the ally.

    The brilliant thing about that is we dont know what is what until a third into the film. It made for brilliant suspense.

    A classic case (for me) of only show what you need to.

    Plus there are some cracking performances. Robert patrick does a great job. And Arnie was born to play the terminator.

    And the effects were absolutely astonishing at the time, and still look ok to this day, bar one scene.

    All in all i would say its one of my favourite films full stop.

  3. I LOVE Impostor, Gary Sinise is amazing in it. I like it so much better than Minority Report too. Like Charlatan I like T2 better than the original in lots of ways as well. By the time our generation was old enough to watch the first film it was very dated, especially when Arnie takes his face off – yet I think the second has stood the test of time. And unlike lots of movies where the bad guy keeps coming you can still suspend your disbelief cos of the melting thing and them being in a furnacey place.

    Oddly enough many of my favourite films are actually scifi I’ve noticed of late: Impostor and T2 obviously, but Abyss, Aliens, Pitch Black, Solaris and Event Horzon. I’ve never thought of them as being anything other than horror and/or action/adventure, yet now I see them in a new light.

  4. Colin – interesting about the Clive James quote. On that basis then our society is manically depressed I’d say with the likes of Children of Men as an outlook! Blimey. Don’t know The Day The Earth Stood Still, will look out for it.

    CW & Anya – I enjoy T2 a great deal, but my love is reserved for the first movie. It’s SO simple and straightforward, exactly what good SF is supposed to be, whereas T2 has no choice but to build upon that premise and make it more convoluted to make it work. It does it with top marks, but it’s the simplicity of the original – and the impact it then made (who’d have thought people would still be going on about it nearly a quarter of a century later, let alone making series and T4 too!) that really does it for me.

    Oh and Anya: I think the furnacey place was a steel works or something similar : )

  5. Hello Lucy, it’s Mike for a change. I’ve bound and gagged Dazza and changed our Blogger password. Should probably get my own but can’t be arsed.

    Loving this series, but then I love genre movies as you know. Still in awe of Severance and Shaun of The Dead. Love those films.

    With a risk of being called a complete saddo, I really enjoyed I Robot. I thought it had everything: fights, nice explosions, a girl in danger and for the girls Will Smith with no clothes on. And there’s even some nice questions as you say about life n’ stuff. What’s not to like?

    Oh, I enjoyed AVP too. That pyramid was scary and v claustroihobic, the whole thing had a real 80s feel. The second one did nothing for me though.

  6. Steel works – that was the word I was looking for! lol

    I’ve been reading lots of gangster scripts like Lock, Stock online etc, how about a look at them next Lucy?

  7. Another fab post. I love SF and I think you’re right that the crucial question is always what ‘else’ it’s about. I’ve been converted to Dr Who by the last two episodes because it’s finally ‘touched’ me – good old timeless stories about human situations (done very well). And the other obvious TV example is BSG. It’s ability to raise dilemmas and questions about a) what it means to be human and b)just about every political/moral/philosophical issue ever has really opened my eyes to the possibilities of SF.

    And film – Terminator (the first) is one of my favourite films of all time. Close behind would be Alien, Pitch Black, Starship Troopers, Total Recall, Minority Report, Serenity, Blade Runner, Twelve Monkeys and Gattaca.

    Although I liked Strange Days when I first saw it I was disappointed when I re-watched recently. But very interesting how the plot is basically a take on the Rodney King police brutality case which sparked the LA riots in the 90s. Just goes to show the power of SF to take up very contemporary issues.

  8. Mike! Where the hell have you been? Dazza has been terrorising us all in your absence. I don’t think you’re a saddo re: I Robot – I got dragged there by Alf and expected it to be total pants. I really enjoyed it. Thought it had some great set pieces, not least the crush/crash in the tunnel. AVP was alright, had some nice moments – was a little convoluted for my liking. Can just imagine the commissioning process: The predators have the alien queen on Earth! Why? Er…Because they do! How does she not get out and infect the human race?? Er… Because she’s underground! In a pyramid! In Antarctica! That’s the sort of a stuff a spec could NEVER get away with in a million years ; )

    Anya – gangster flicks, not a bad idea at all. Am waiting on an email actually, will keep you posted.

    Caroline – thanks! And Total Recall was amazing to me when I first watched it as a kid. Especially the woman in the bar with those multiple boobs. Love 12 Monkeys too.

  9. 12 monkeys IS awesome!

    Actually I really liked I robot as well.

    Another classic for me is Planet of the Apes. Absolute masterpiece and although the sequels never really reached the heights of the first they were all still good films. And i liked the paradox aspect of it all.

    Although thats my geeky time travel loving side coming out again.

    On that note Back to the Future & BTTF 2 are brilliant SF films.

    I dont think BTTF had much to say. But they are still brilliant films.

    Someone once said something (which I still agree with). That sf isn’t a genre, but a setting, and that Star Wars was just a western in space.

    Lucy, Is this what you meant by sf is a genre with regards to arena?

  10. that’s exactly what I meant my friend, though shame on your ass since if you don’t know what Arena is, you’ve clearly not read my AWESOME arena articles on the Top 25 of this blog. DIE EVIL ONE ; )

  11. I KNOW! shame on me. I shall peruse the article immediately 🙂

    But I’m new to this blog game. Cant you cut me some slack?

    I have a short attention span coupled with a bad memory so I may have already read it but forgotten completely. Which doesn’t bode well with regards to writing.

  12. Big thanks Lucy. I know this one was painful for you.

    SF was what kept me in the cinema as a kid. Thankfully my Dad never complained about being dragged along.

    And then there were the Saturday Night Movies on TV. Day of the Triffids, When Worlds Collide…

    My favourites are those that concentrate the characters and how they deal with stuff, rather than going for impressive set pieces with lots of big effects.

    I think that’s what made Pitch Black so great. Yes there were effects but the focus was on a small group of people and how they went into meltdown under pressure.

    Alien was the same. Tight on the people and how things affected them. Both low budget. Hmmm. A link maybe?

    But in our house the Post-Apocalyptic rules. But it’s got to be gritty.

  13. Oh god, so much to say and no time or space to say it.

    You know I’m a huge SF fan, Lucy, and one of those SF TV scripts was mine, n’est pas?

    Anyway, I have this huge chip on my shoulder about SF being a “genre”. I can get quite apoplectic. You’re right in thinking it probably isn’t. Neither is fantasy, in exactly the same way that “contemporary” isn’t a genre and nor is “historical”.

    They are all settings or arenas.

    You can place any kind of tale into any one of those — horror, thriller, mystery, comedy, drama, musicals.

    The “problem” with SF and F is that some people are unsettled by ideas that are away from their comfort zone. So they “don’t like them”.

    (This is not to suggest there haven’t been seriously bad SF movies mad.)

    But The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet are very very good. The latter being an adaptation of the Tempest.

    The true stupidity of it is when someone says “I don’t like SF. I love BSG.” It’s been said. Because BSG *can’t* be SF because it’s so good.

    Likewise, in novels, Ursula Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” (about a planet of hermaphroditic humans) isn’t SF, because it’s so good. And a “literary writer” claims that her book about a future Earth ruined by pollution isn’t SF — because she doesn’t write SF, she writes “literary fiction”.

    As well as the insanity where “Iain Banks” writes literary fiction and “Iain M Banks” writes SF. And they’re the same person but the publishing establishment wouldn’t allow him to use the same name (but one initial difference is enough).

    Can I scream now?

    SF is not a genre, it’s a setting.


    (Oh, let’s not forget “Metropolis”, the silent movie Daddy of them all. And it was still about character.)

    I’ll get my coat.

  14. Shame on you Lucy for not knowing The Day The Earth Stood Still. It’s a total classic and a great film (although apparently about to be remade with Keanu Reeves in the lead role.) Other friendly aliens pre E.T are Spielberg’s greys in Close Encounters (wonderful film), the visitors in This Island Earth and the (unseen yet but obviously not malign) alien intelligence in 2001.

    As for SF films I like and recommend, let’s go back to the 50s when it all started properly. Post-war rebuilding, the reality of being in the Atomic age and the onset of the Cold War gave us some absolute classics, most of which you’ve mentioned but also When Worlds Collide, Day of the Triffids, Godzilla and Quatermass. In the 60s you’ve got films like The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Fantastic Voyage and Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. The 70s was a fantastic decade for conspiracy based SF (before you get to the big blockbuster movies like Star Wars etc.) Collosus: The Forbin Project, Rollerball, Silent Running, Soylent Green, THX 1138, Westworld, Demon Seed, Logan’s Run as well as films like Dark Star and Mad Max. I’ll leave the 80s onwards because most of them have been mentioned and, to my mind, “proper” sci-fi starts to fall by the way side in deference to SF-as-arena pieces and sfx filled extravaganzas. Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys are the two that deserve special mention. (And Tetsuo 1 & 2 because they are such head fuck things to watch!)

  15. A good list, Tom. I love Gattaca but I tend not to think of The Day the Earth Caught Fire as a SF move and more of a great newspaper movie. (It was going to be the cornerstone of a blog post of my own on that genre).

  16. Definitely a good list — I just have to say “Alphaville” a weird and wonderful French SF classic by Jean-Luc Godard.

    But I can’t agree about the travesty that became the Hollywood “Day of the Triffids”. Some of the true scariness of the book came through but it reallt wasn’t good. The 70s BBC version still carries the air of menace.

    This Island Earth was a good attempt to communicate the futility of war, but was also rather poor.

    Dark Star — cool.

  17. Rach – Wasn’t painful, I was surprised actually when I sat down how many films I liked that had SF elements or settings. Low budget *could* be the link… I think sometimes people get more caught up in the SF than the story, so story ends up feeling tacked on.

    Steve – no need to dob yourself in! You know the drill, I only ever talk in generalisations – and you know my feelings on that script too. Clarity might’ve been an issue at first, but only in the sense that it is for just about every SF script I see… And you more than dealt with that to produce a rather slinky little SF number, so stop fishing for compliments ; )

    Tom – Good list. I have actually seen loads of those. Loved Quatermass. Had a lecturer at uni who was obsessed with 1950s/60s invasion-style movies too and we were made to watch the likes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis til our eyes bled. For me though still the ones that endure are those I watched as a child, even though I’ve probably not seen them since. They just became a part of the mad mess of images in my head… Like This Quiet Earth. Loved that. I remember watching the Charlton Heston version of I am Legend too, is that SF? I can never decide if last-man-on-earth stories are, though I suppose they have much in common with Mad Max which I also loved as a kid. Not the Tina Turner one though.

    Colin – I wasn’t keen on Gattica, I don’t think I even watched it til the end now you mention it – but I DID like Steve’s recommendation of Forbidden Planet.

    Lots of great recommendations here though folks, cheers. I think if anyone swung by here looking for inspiration for a SF spec they would certainly have food for thought… Anyone writing an SF spec by the way? I’ve tried and failed miserably to the point I’ve barely completed a draft, simply because my premise was so woefully crap in every way.

  18. Good stuff, Lucy.

    Pleased to see Impostor getting a mention. It’s a really good example of adult sci-fi (and a reminder that ‘adult’ has nothing to do with sex, swearing or pointlessly explicit violence).

    Is it just me or have there been a lot of really bad sci-fi movies lately? Next with Nicolas Cage had the worst cop-out ending I’ve ever seen. And the Bodysnatchers remake was so bad that after thirty minutes I was rooting for the alien spores.

  19. Hey Tom. You’re not that old. Day of the Triffids TV one was 80s (just)not 70s. It’s sitting on our shelf, pride of place. And definitely scarey.

    But as a little kid the old film one still freaked me out. I’ll never do a nighttime security shift in a big victorian greenhouse.

    I’ve sat the kids through the old Quatermass ones but they couldn’t understand why I was curled up in a ball watching Q and the Pit.

    True hard SF seems hard to find these days. Even in the books. Maybe they should try again at adapting some William Gibson.

  20. Steve,
    Believe it or not, the “Hollywood” Day of the Triffids was actually a British film and very much a product of it’s time. Granted, it’s a very poor adaptation of the original material and the special effects are on the ropey side but it has moments. On the other hand, I haven’t seen it for ~15 years so I might recant if I was to watch it again. The BBC TV series was excellent though. I caught some of it on some digital channel recently and despite the poor lighting, wooden sets and typically cheap BBC production value for that time, it was absolutely brilliant and so scary when watching it as a child.

    Another recommendation for good and recent “proper” sci-fi is the movie Primer which is ultra low budget (shot for $7000 apparently) and all about Time Travel. It’s not just using Sci-Fi as a setting or an arena, it is a pure SF film. Does take a couple of viewings though. Haven’t yet seen Imposter yet though (although plot line reminds me of an old Marvel Comics “Tale of the Watcher” story from years ago) – may remedy that this weekend if I can find it.

  21. Ooops. Scrolled too fast and got authors muddled. So Steve, you’re not that old. The curse of scan reading.

    And Tom I’ll check out Primer. Imposter is worth watching by the way but pay attention.

  22. Tom: British? (Scans IMDb) So it was. Good grief.

    Rach: It was 1981, and I really am that old. In fact according to a recent survey I’m nearly old enough to be a successful British screenwriter (i.e. over 50).

  23. Excellent post Lucy. I was going to list me faves but handily everyone’s done it for me, hurrah!

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts on art house.

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