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??