I love Science Fiction. More now than ever before. The funny thing is, I used to hate it. Like a lot of people, when I heard the words “Science Fiction” I thought of aliens, space-ships, and blasters. Space Opera, in short.
So, what changed? Well, first, I read a few Science Fiction books that were more my speed. Namely, a few classics. War of the Worlds, Ender’s Game, etc. I found out that what I didn’t like about most Sci-Fi was the “OH, cool” factor. The sense in which modern books and films in the genre tend to emphasise technology and new worlds rather than human relationships and the complications these technologies cause. That is just a little different in a film. Why? Well, there are a few aspects of a Science Fiction movie that are purely visual and can carry a story far better than the same thing described in literature. Still, a good science fiction movie has to find a way to balance a lot to reach it's audiences
So what do I like in Science Fiction movies, and what do I want to see more of? Well, here are my top five.
5. Complex Alien Worlds.
Clarification, this doesn’t just have to be alien worlds. I think this counts for Dystopian and any sort of off-world civilization too. A common problem in Speculative Fiction is the way that writers tend to force entire worlds and civilizations into molds. In fantasy it might be: All elves are vegan and worship the tree goddess. Are you telling me there isn’t one punk-rocker elf anywhere in the bunch of them? Ok, that might be extreme. But you get what I’m saying. Personalities differ even in strong or isolated cultures.
With Science Fiction we tend to see this in an extreme. Planets become equal to small countries. They all worship one god, have the same climate, the same diet, the same rulers. Can you imagine if Earth looked like that?
4. Realistic Weaponry and Warfare.
It was about an hour into the first show of the season. The Asian character had woken out of Hyper-sleep and stepped into the weapons room. Stoic and grim-faced, he grabs a double set of Katanas and starts spinning around the spaceship like a ballerina.
My biggest issue with this part of the Sci-Fi show "Dark Matter"? Once you do even the basic research on weapons, this doesn’t look “cool” anymore. It looks like a little boy playing pretend.
A real warrior would never chose swords as his primary weapon against a ranged weapon like the hand-cannons the other characters had. Even if he was Asian. (let's not even get into that)
Just like that, real warriors don’t go running into battles where they are heavily out-manned screaming and shooting (or slashing) at things just because they are bad-ass.
I get that not all writers or all consumers want realistic weapons and warfare. Sometimes its a lot to handle and yeah, even I like a mindless action movie sometimes. There is a reason we have “Movie magic”.
But what I found is that when you add even the slightest amount of thought to your battles and your guns, you are given a much more interesting world to play with.
For instance, in Disintegration, which is coming out soon, One of my characters loves his guns and knows how to use them. However, he’s not trained in any way and he isn’t good with people so thinking through tactics is a bit beyond him. As a result, he’s forced to depend on a character who’s much less foolish and cavalier, but who he thinks of as too cautious or even thoughtless. Thanks to the nuances of the weapons and armor, the close quarter combat, and the military minds they are going up against, a series of “run and shoot” sequences suddenly gained a lot more interest.
I define the Malfunction Trilogy as a Biopunk, though I often categorize or market it as a cyberpunk. There are a few reasons for that, but the biggest one? Biotech is super interesting. I had to study a lot about CRISPR gene editing, regrowing limbs, how to grow “Fetuses” in artificial environments and more for Malfunction. I see a lot of Biotech used in Science fiction in relation to what Brandon Sanderson calls “Handwavium”. Basically, writers want their characters to have super powers like mind control or invisibility. So they say “Oh, they are genetically altered” or “Oh, they are a government experiment.”
Rarely is it explored beyond that. But I love movies that use Biotech to its full advantage. Superbugs. Genetic alteration that can eliminate inherited disease. Lab experiments that present a real threat to the character outside of an evil, cackling mad scientist. There are so many ways this can be used and I’d love to see more movies exploring it to its full extent.
2. Low-Concept Stories.
High-concept Sci-Fi is considered the holy grail of the genre. Michael Crichton's work. The Matrix. Terminator. These movies venerate a single idea. One big technology, or situation, or environment that sucks the consumer in without any more explanation. I mean, Dinosaur Theme Park? We just had a fifth film on that this year alone.
I like those too. Don’t get me wrong. But I think the thing that we love more is not the concept, but the characters. The concept might suck us in, but if we don’t love the characters and the interpersonal relationships, we won’t hang on. What I’d love to see are a few more movies that focus on technologies that are not so extreme. Things that could happen today, or in a few years. If a movie could pull off a story that doesn’t focus on how cool or amazing the technology is, maybe we could get a bit more time to get to know the characters and see how they are personally affected by the plot.
It’s impossible to make a movie without themes. They slip in no matter what because that’s what storytelling is: a way to teach people lessons through the pain of someone else.
The problem is, if you aren’t paying attention, you can teach lessons and build themes that you didn’t mean to. And some might even be damaging.
Pixar does an amazing job building theme into their movies. Everything in a Pixar movie (at least a good one) points to the over-all story theme. It all exists to tell us something deeper than “The Incredibles are a family with superpowers” or “Hiro lost his brother and tried to use a robot and his brother’s friends for revenge”. Yet, while doing this, Pixar still manages to make their characters feel real, with real motivations and real situations. Basically, it doesn’t sound like propaganda but it isn’t just trying to entertain us.
It’s why their movies hold so much power. It's something that I strive for.
More than most genres, Science Fiction has a chance to teach us something. It looks at the repercussions of human actions on the future, the line between human and machine (or alien and animals) and the value of science and logic without losing our emotions and culture. There are so many things we can explore with Science Fiction. Why try to keep it so shallow?
What about you? Are there any good movies you can think of that use some of these things to make a more interesting story? What are some things you would like to see more of in Science Fiction movies?