Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Our Science Fiction Movies Hate Science Fiction

Ripping off the heads of robots like a sweaty space-age cyberpunk Robin Hood, Matt Damon is delivering future-social-justice this week in Elysium. It's directed by Neill Blomkamp, who brought us the politically charged alien flick District 9. Elysium as well has been positioned to be this summer's antidote to stupid run-of-the-mill blockbuster science fiction films.

Like the alien apartheid in District 9, the division between “serious” science fiction films and “mainstream” SF flicks certainly exists. But the actual boundaries between these kinds of movies might be fairly blurred. What's more, it's not clear any more if these science fiction movies even like science fiction.

When I was nine years old, I received my first definition of science fiction from my late father, after he tricked me into renting Barbarella from the local video store. Dad insisted that real science fiction contained “spaceships and babes.” As in Robert Palmer’s then-popular “Addicted to Love” video, sexy women seemed to be the important part for him, and it’s here where we can form an inverse corollary for detecting serious science fiction films. We know what it’s not. This isn’t to say half-naked people can’t be present in a serious science fiction movie, it’s just that their presence alone doesn’t make it so. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.

The serious science fiction film derives its story and aesthetic from a concept that does not yet, as we know it, exist—aliens, robots, spaceships, time-travel—and the rest of the movie examines the repercussions of that science fiction idea. Serious science fiction (like Children of Men) has people or society at its center. And this may sound axiomatic, but the serious science fiction film takes its concept seriously. Often the proof of this serious devil is in the details. In Contact, Jodie Foster’s Ellie worries that everyone is okay with installing a chair into the nifty spacepod the aliens told us to build, even though the schematics said nothing about a chair. The real-world answer is “because it’s a movie,” but the fact that the script addresses the chair at all is part of what makes it a serious science fiction film. The chair also serves to introduce more doubt about whether the spacepod functions—but mostly, the movie actually wonders about how the science fiction would function in a real-life situation.

But my late father can have his spaceships and “babes” too. The original Star Trek: The Motion Picture (directed by Robert Wise of The Day the Earth Stood Still!) features a foxy bald alien named Ilia, but also has at its center a basic science fiction conceit, which the movie in turn, takes seriously: How would an artificially created creature of extreme intelligence and power cope with the idea that it was created by hopelessly flawed organic creatures? You might call this film slow, boring, or even worse; pretentious, but in almost every single way, it is the most serious science fiction film of any of the big screen Star Treks. This summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness, in comparison, is mostly people punching each other. A bunch of violence and horror don’t equal good SF, despite how many people get smacked.

Superficially, the story of Alien is mostly just an improbable monster trying desperately to kill everyone in a confined space. But no film has a more serious attitude towards its premise. It is bound by the construction of a realistic (and probable) world, and that world seems to have rules which can’t be broken. Independence Day, or The Avengers, or Oblivion are not like this. Shoot-'em-ups are often more entertaining viscerally than their more earnest cousins. But saying The Avengers is more “entertaining” than Elysium is like saying Internet porn is more fun than the Merriam-Webster “Ask the Editor” online video series. Everything has its place.

And while educational YouTube videos aren’t in direct competition with Internet porn, serious SF movies are constantly in the shadow of the big blockbuster versions. Quiet, small-stakes science fiction movies do exist, but for every Moon or Primer or Safety Not Guaranteed out there, there’s also an After Earth or Oblivion to drown it out with big stakes, loud music, monsters and guns (laser or otherwise). And the genre and the industry have their impact. To combat their cheesier compatriots, films like Elysium get burdened with epic stakes (and epic soundtracks). There's a weirdly pervasive result of this imitation or cohabitation: despite being more thoughtful than other blockbusters, serious SF movies are often just as violent as their dumb cousins—and can be frighteningly anti-science.

While The Terminator films aren't technically serious SF, they are emblematic of the general problem with an anti-technology knee-jerk tendency in nearly all Hollywood SF. (The third film is moronically subtitled "Rise of the Machines.") This subtitle could be attached to nearly every major science fiction film ever: most big-league SF leans heavily on dystopia. (The Alien franchise, at its early best, is a reasonable pro-science capitalist-ruin dystopia; as the franchise proceeds and degrades, it turns against science as well.) If x future concept comes to exist, the writer's room reasoning goes, then it follows that it will be misused, abused, or will otherwise be used to figure out a way to destroy us. If that science fiction thing is technology we’ve created, it will turn on us either because it becomes a murderous Terminator robot, or because the rich and powerful have used the technology to oppress everyone else. Technology is the bad guy in 2001, The Matrix, Gattaca, Logan’s Run, Avatar, Planet of the Apes (the original), Looper, 28 Days Later, Equilibrium, Jurassic Park, and, most bizarrely, last year’s Prometheus. At least 9 out 10 serious science fiction movies are dystopian narratives with characters struggling against their filmmaker's SF inventions.

All stories need conflict, and big movies really need big conflict. No one wants to leave a SF movie thinking, “Wow that really was an accurate meditation on science fiction in a realistic setting.” But the vast majority of science fiction films—even the very best of them—still see the SF, the tech, the speculative concept, as the antagonist of the film. We had a regular movie here until this spacepod showed up, and now, it’s all going down!

But literary source material doesn’t have to be like that. (Nor does every movie. One rare exception: the rather crazy but also wonderful Nicolas Cage vehicle Knowing.) The original collection of Asimov’s linked stories—I, Robot—doesn’t explore the ways in which robots turn on humanity and screw up their lives. Instead, it’s about robot problems. The singularity actually happens towards the end of the book, and it’s a relatively positive thing. This isn’t to say those stories are without conflict; a short story about a well-meaning lying robot is a particular favorite of mine. It’s just that the conflict isn’t about punching people, nor is the science fiction itself seen as the conflict alone. This is why Ursula Le Guin novels don't become movies.

Elysium could have been poised to change that simply by virtue of the fact Matt Damon is using an SF creation—a super-powered robot exoskeleton—to fight science fiction: a space station dream paradise which allows the rich to forget about the rest of us. This is a gorgeous set-up, but it's all there is: then it becomes every Iron Man, two guys in super-powered suits hitting each other. There’s a character in Elysium named Kruger, who probably has more screen time than Jodie Foster and is the poster-child for a laughable cartoon bad guy. Whenever he kills someone, he issues his catcphrase: "That’s what I’m talking about!” He also reminds me of this guy in this “Give him the stick!” G.I. Joe Parody video.

Elysium uses the shiny aesthetics of golden-era science fiction as the oppressor of a more realistic Earth. Even the robots are chromed-up and straight from central casting: they talk like robots, they look like robots. They are the tools of “the man.” Matt Damon works in a construction plant which manufactures the robots, which is ham-handed for the message that technology keeps good people down.

The most unlikely science fiction film this summer to actually use technology, instead of just fight it, is Pacific Rim. Here, linking your brain with your brother, father, friend or girlfriend makes you a better person and allows you to control a giant robot which saves people’s lives. As silly as it sounds, Pacific Rim is a SF movie that actually likes science fiction. It doesn't take itself too seriously—or, for that matter, make much sense—but it’s never cynical. And though it’s mostly action, the film is not violent in the horrific way Elysium is. Pacific Rim gets to have its alien lunch and smack it with robots too. Will Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s forthcoming Clooney-in-space thriller, free us after the summer’s simplification of SF? Space-suited fingers crossed!

I would prefer an abundance of senseless sex to the amount of endlessly uncreative violence in today’s big science fiction films—which is all of the films, really. With the exception of Titanic, the top-grossing fifty films are all SF or fantasy. The oldest of them are very, very different than the ones we have today. Yes, the endlessly ammunitioned Terminator existed, but there were also big films like E.T., Back to the Future, Starman, Enemy Mine, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. None of these films are overtly violent—and neither do they take an anti-science or anti-science-fiction stance toward their subject matter.

For all the great special effects and enormous, booming noises our films are bringing us now, the majority of science fiction films have forgotten the one thing science fiction is supposed to do: make us think about the future. Thinking, we have forgotten, is not the same as worrying.

Ryan Britt is a fiction writer, essayist, and critic living in New York City. His work has appeared with,, Opium, Soon Quarterly and elsewhere. His science fiction/fantasy criticism has appeared with Clarkesworld Magazine, The Mindhut, and also extensively on Tor. He teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Why, WHY do you persist in posting stuff like this RIGHT BEFORE I'M SUPPOSED TO BE LEAVING WORK?

Anyway this was good, agree, A+ (though I disagree about Terminator — the first two films are among the few scientifically self-consistent movies about time travel, and their message is pretty bleak and awesome if you think it all the way through.)

riotnrrd (#840)

Nice essay, but I think you're misunderstanding (or misrepresenting) many of the science fiction films you claim pose technology as the "bad guy." In 2001, for example, technology is depicted in almost completely positive terms, it's humans (specifically, lying and secrecy) that are the villains. HAL feels compelled to kill the crew of the Discovery because he can't reconcile his morality (to discover and share knowledge) with his orders (keep the true mission secret from Bowman, et al). Similarly, Jurassic Park's villains are human hubris and greed, not the cloning technology. Equilibrium makes no comments on technology; it is the suppression of emotion that is the "bad guy." And so on. I also think that several of the other films you cite (the Matrix and Prometheus) are too incoherent to extract a pro- or anti-technology stance from.

I'm certainly not claiming that no science-fiction films use technology as the villain (the mis-named Frankenstein complex), but I think these films are in the minority. Many films simply don't deal with ethical issues of technology in a coherent way.

@riotnrrd Perhaps the gist of Britt's argument is that the majority of science fiction films takes a much bleaker view of what humans will do with technology and science. We will always overreach and in the end hubris aided by technology will lead to disaster. Or so it seems from most of these films.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

@riotnrrd: Precisely. You wrote the comment I clicked over here to write.

Multiphasic (#411)

@riotnrrd Belated pedantic point: in 2001, HAL really is an unknowable menace. The rationalization that puts its actions into context comes from 2010.

scrooge (#2,697)

"… the one thing science fiction is supposed to do: make us think about the future." I don't agree. It generally makes us think about the present, often makes us think about the past (District 9) and sometimes about the eternal. Really good SF is often a philosophical "thought experiment", like The Matrix, which makes us ask "How do you know 'reality' is really out there and not in here?", or Blade Runner, which is a kind of meditation on the Turing Machine. Or Minority Report, which might be of interest to many of the inhabitants of Guantanamo. Sometimes, true, it does make us worry about the future, like Soylent Green, which was very much the product of a decade worried about ecological disaster.

As for Pacific Rim, I was stunned to learn that most people liked it. I guess the real purpose of SF movies is to make money, and all you need for that, apparenlty, is some whizbang graphics, a gullible audience, and a thundering soundtrack to try to make up for the complete lack of substance.

deepomega (#1,720)

@scrooge It goes on the list of movies I'd have enjoyed ten times more if it were in an un-subtitled dead language. Jesus, that dialogue.

@scrooge @deepomega You're both right. Pacific Rim has holes you could send transdimensional space monsters through but the plot had some problems, too. And the dialogue! But goddamn those were some top-notch fisticuffs!

Chris Ostergaard (#246,912)

@scrooge I firmly agree that science fiction does not exclusively make us think about the past. What good science fiction does is make people think, not get brain-washed by spectacle.

Christian Brimo (#8,639)

It bugs me how movies like GATTACA and The 6th Day seem to HATE science.

LondonLee (#922)

@Christian Brimo I love GATTACA but the thing that bugs me about it is that all these super-fit, genetically-perfect people smoke like chimneys. Even having a bad heart doesn't stop Ethan Hawke from puffing away.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@LondonLee Me too. My favorite thing about that movie is how everyone has to prick their fingers or pee into a cup every time they go from one room to another. If they had decided to rely on non-gross methods like eye-scans or fingerprinting instead, Ethan Hawke would have been screwed.

That and Jude Law jumping into the incinerator at the end. What?

Chris Ostergaard (#246,912)

@Christian Brimo I really enjoy Gattaca. I don't see inherent hatred towards technology in that film; instead, I see fear, a common trait of science fiction films. Because, really, the sky's the limit in terms of the future of technology. Gattaca shows the the negative consequences that new technologic advances may produce (and they are both plausible and probable). Especially its ideas of genetic engineering and genetic discrimination don't feel far off.

cvx (#247,105)

@Christian Brimo We are afraid of what it may mean. Or Hollywood is.
Think of what is possible now and in the near future in genetics. how about why did Elysium allow unbridled population growth on earth?
What for? Economics as we know it were not tied to growth as it was not needed. So many points were left out.

GailPink (#9,712)

"Thinking, we have forgotten, is not the same as worrying." Great final sentence to an excelent, thought-provoking article!

It's interesting that after how hard Cuarón had to fight to get a woman in the lead role of Gravity (Sandra Bullock) it's still referred to as "Clooney-in-space."

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

The 'spacesuits and babes' aspect of science fiction is a reflection of its pulpier roots. Yeah, you don't need either for a serious science fiction story, but fulfilling the historical expectations of your audience is crucial to any genre.

PlatoSunTsu (#246,501)

If you want real sci-fi, pick up a book, Alastair Reynolds or Peter Watts, to start…

Tobbar (#246,818)

I can kind of see the author's point, but at the same time I think (as others have pointed out) that technology/science itself isn't the main enemy in a lot of these movies, its how people use that technology. And surprise! The Man may not use it for altruistic purposes.

A lot of these come down to the eternal struggle of the haves vs. the have-nots and since science and technology is pretty expensive the haves tend to get it first. The exception to that? THEY LIVE. Awesome!

Also, I liked OBLIVION, and I would recommend it. Where did it supposedly break its own rules?

A to G (#235,414)

I think that we'll need to make some important distinctions. Let’s start with the distinction between science and technology. A difficult process this day and age, when the two are economically and institutionally tied at the waist. But a lot of great sci-fi films deal with examining the gap between the enlightened basis of the scientific worldview and the perverse implementation of such a worldview’s capabilities. And this perverse implementation is not just the result of the people that live in Elysium, but by properties very much intrinsic to the logic behind techno-logic (one of my favorite examples would be all the drug-related sci-fi, such as PKD's Three Stigmata or even Burrough’s books. Science helped create LSD, but its effects and its users aren't necessarily pro-science). So in Minority Report, we're dealing with the issues of “criminality” as they relate to the formation of the modern subject and we’re simultaneously asking whether such a logic is in sync with its technological implementation. The first issue is essentially a question of science, if only science as a philosophical worldview. And in this sense the narrative remains fundamentally pro-science.

The author is right in suggesting an extremely conservative bent in movies like THE MATRIX or ELYSIUM or any superhero spectacle, but I think that this brand of spectacle is very much related to Hollywood’s own anxieties about the film industry. It’s been well known that many SF/Fantasy films consist of Hollywood teaching us that it can negate the probity of technological change by running technologies through the same old self-congratulating narratives and blowing up more buildings onscreen.

Tobbar (#246,818)

@A to G Good points. Perhaps the bigger 'problems" with science/technology in several of the movies you cite, and the real world itself, is that nobody seems to think it through very far.

LSD is a good example. Science made it, but then they didn't seem to spend nearly as much time and energy researching its effects on people, or how to treat people who had been affected by it.

We seem to do this a lot. Automation is great, but it tends to put a lot of people out of work. For that matter, Amazon is great, but it seems to force a lot of people to work in soulless warehouses for slave wages.

Which I suspect is where the have/have not situation comes into play.

Last thing re: Hollywood sci-fi. I read somewhere (I don't think it was The Awl) that the majority of sci-fi movies are doomed to fail in the third act because act three is almost always a big shoot 'em up– it almost has to be because most moviegoers want that big spectacle for their money.

The author cited the differences between the Star Trek TV shows, which involved a lot of innovative problem-solving, with the Star Trek movies and came to much the same conclusion as the author of this Awl article did– that Star Trek the Motion Picture was by far the most "classic sf", and the rest usually (3rd act) are about blowing things up.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

"Elysium uses the shiny aesthetics of golden-era science fiction as the oppressor of a more realistic Earth."

!!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!! !!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!! !!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!!
!!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!! !!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!! !!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!!
Sooo…. I guess you didn't watch the movie through the end?
!!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!! !!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!! !!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!!
!!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!! !!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!! !!!! SPOILER ALERT !!!!!!

"…the majority of science fiction films have forgotten the one thing science fiction is supposed to do: make us think about the future. Thinking, we have forgotten, is not the same as worrying."

This. Right here.

These two sentences articulate exactly what I thought was wrong about "Star Trek Into Darkness."

The essay is a great promise unfulfilled.

• The given definition of science-fiction leaves out one of the classics of science-fiction tales, Orwell's 1984: no aliens, no computers, no robots, no spaceships, just a speculation on a possible future if language is exploited to oppressive extremes.
Considering CCTVs everywhere in the UK, does this make Orwell a prophet or just still a mere English teacher turned successful (science-fiction or political) writer?

• If thought-provoking is a characteristic hallmark of science-fiction, then "The Manchurian Candidate" and the original intent of "The Bourne Identity" satisfy that condition without evoking outrageous science(-fiction).
Considering recent news about NSA's data collection i.e. spying, rather makes "Enemy of the State" more realized science-fiction than some minor political techno-thriller.

• Speaking of Frankenheimer, his "Seconds" was considered science-fiction but by today's measures, it is more of a techno-thriller like Robin Cook's Coma or Crichton's "The Terminal Man". Does that make the James Bond movie "Die Another Day" sci-fi or a techno-thriller given a "scientific" application of gene therapy in an exercise of racial re-assignment?

Then what about "Disclosure"? Techno-thriller to be sure, but the computer industry is not popping out VR machines like the consumer electronics industries had with VCRs back in the 80s. The technology can actually exist but (yet) it does not exist. (Rather like Steampunk in a way: what could have been.)
I am getting more 3-D/VR from watching current crappy movies at the cinema-house; my apologies Disney/Pixar.
Is it too soon for "Looker"?

• Then let's go back to early-classic science-fiction with Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" which certainly is science-fiction but hardly necessarily thought-provoking and certainly less so than his "The Master of the World".

• I am guessing "The Postman", "The Book of Eli", and "I am Legend" are all science-fiction, thought-provoking AND involve less gun-play than Charleston Heston's early-non-classic sci-fi "The Omega Man". There was more bullet spray and slaughtering in Heston's movie than all the other three combined.

Further, we can imagine "I am Legend"/"The Omega Man" are the aftermath of "Contagion" and "Outbreak".
Was "Outbreak" science-fiction or thought-provoking? Especially to those who survived — I mean really survived, not just lived through or during — the plague that was AIDS in the 1980s, "Outbreak" may be all too real and more of an exaggeration about what had happened than about could happen.

• "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" which came out in 1979 was already set in the proverbial stone when the great Hollywood shift in science-fiction happened with the late-non-classic sci-fi "Star Wars" (1977) which harkened back to the late-classic science-fiction tales like Buck Rogers — here, you go with babes and rocketships.

Speaking of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek — NOT Ronald Moore's & Rick Berman's — was a deliberate attempt to get away from the then typical dystopian sci-fi motif. Star Trek's Federation paints a rosy future for humans; conflict arose from xenophobic interactions. The series "The Twilight Zone" was one media that introduced the Man vs. Machine plot device well before "Star Trek" or "The Forbin Project". (Aside, the Man vs. Machine motif really dates back to the Industrial Revolution fear of machines replacing man.)

• "Alien" at root is a horror film like Stephen King's "Thing". The horror happens to be an alien as opposed to being supernatural in origin.

Note: For point of clarification, these are MY demarcations
early-classic e.g. Verne, Wells
late-classic e.g. Buck Rogers, X Minus 1, "The Day the Earth Stood Still"
early-non-classic e.g. "Planet of the Apes", sci-fi of the 60s and 70s
late-non-classic e.g "Star Wars" – the original three, "Back to the Future"

Hi, I totally agree with you. By the way I just loved Safety Not Guaranteed, a true piece of science fiction. All this action and lack of real story telling is draining me to the point of "oblivion" sorry for the pun. Disliked the movie Oblivion so much I feel asleep 20 minutes in. All these blockbuster films seem to follow the same story curve, with intermingled excessive violence and they think they have produced a classic film, but they do not. As a true science fiction fan, I would prefer to walk out of the movies and spend days, weeks or years thinking about what that movie was trying to communicate to me, rather than walk out and think to myself "I just paid money again for another nap."

cvx (#247,105)

The problem is Hollywood. Many want a "happy ending". Looper was one where all the work was wasted with the horrid end. Yes killing the monster was the right thing to do.
Elysium missed a good dialogue between the political differences that were never investigated. And of course the warm fuzzy ending.

giacomo (#269,514)

But what you're saying?! Alien is a film about an improbable monster, etc, etc! Oh, f*** you, i***t!

And more Avengers and other movie you quote are super-hero movie not scifi.

And f*** your father too: scifi is about spaceships and babes. He use too much drugs too!

Shut up!

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