Science fiction is perhaps the widest film genre of them all. It can be applied to films that are cornerstones of the genre, such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as ones that really only have the window dressings of sci-fi, like Jurassic Park and Iron Man. Well done sci-fi opens up the minds of viewers while also giving them a chance to go on an adventure unlike any they have seen before (although there are more retreads than ever).
There are, in essence, two types of science fiction films that are truly ingrained into the genre. Both have their strengths and examples of great movies, but they are enjoyed for vastly different reasons. While some films can straddle the two types, very few can do this without feeling like a weaker entry into the genre as a whole.
Sci-Fi Human Dilemma
These films most commonly add in one or two science fiction concepts, focus on a small amount of characters, and use a story arc that is smaller in scope. Take out the few sci-fi elements at the core of the film and the story would snap back into reality, although the plot would not be able to truly make its points. The beauty of these movies is that they are able to ask deep questions and explore them in a narrative that would not be possible when telling a story set in the real world. They explore the question of “What if?” and find that its answers tell us something about the world we are living in now.
Some of the strongest films in this category forego epic scale and a glut of concepts in order to have a narrower and more powerful focus. For example, Blade Runner takes one major concept, the creation of artificial humans for work usage, with only a few added sci-fi details, flying cars and off-planet exploration, and focuses on one main character’s story arc. Typically, the goal of these films is not to thrill the audience, although action can be a major part of the story, but rather to explore the human condition.
While the audience is invested in the fate of the characters and the resolution of the plot, these elements wrap around the central idea of the film. Such as, what makes someone human? What is reality? Is our society doomed? These core concepts may be easy to spot, like District 9, Inception, and even Robocop, or it may be an aspect that quietly informs the struggles of the protagonists and the goals of the antagonist, like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Characters that make up these films can be iconic, but they are not archetypes. Rather than being classic examples of heroes and villains, they consist of many shades of gray, making them more relatable and helping to drive the human aspects of the story. Most of the characters in these stories are not easily recognizable by name alone. Only devoted fans of these films will immediately recognize a character without seeing him or her.
For best enjoyment of these films, don’t go in expecting visceral thrills. Instead, focus on what questions are being asked and how your life is reflected in some manner by the story you are seeing unfold.
Films that fall within this category seek to provide stories with a much grander scope, but not as deep of a message. That’s not to say that these movies are less valuable than the ones that seek to examine the human condition. Rather, many of these are timeless gems of not only the sci-fi genre, but the film world as a whole. Just think of some of the films that define this category: Star Wars, Aliens, Back to the Future, The Matrix (you’re lying to yourself if you think this fits into the previous category), Terminator 2, and The Thing. Some of these films are quite light and fun, seeking to provide thrills for the whole family, while others are strictly adult fare.
The characters you find in these worlds are iconic and found on the lunchboxes of kids everywhere.
On the side of the good guys: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo (my personal favorite), Optimus Prime, The T-100, Marty McFly, Godzilla (sometimes), Captain Kirk (the new version), Ellen Ripley, and Tony Stark. Many of these heroes have their own theme songs or an iconic weapon. Take one look at their clothing or their silhouette and you’ll easily guess who they are.
Representing your villains: Darth Vader, The Xenomorph, Godzilla (other times), The T-1000, The Emperor, and Megatron. Their appearances are both intimidating and quintessentially cool. Kids want to be them, but are also frightened by them. Typically, they are not relatable.
With the exception of only a few characters on these lists, these heroes and villains do not switch sides or have much moral complexity. Rather, we are meant to quickly cheer on our heroes and boo the villains as battle rages on for the future of the planet/galaxy/known universe.
These stories are simple in their basic premise. The rebel alliance must save the princess and destroy the empire. Marty McFly must get back to his own time without screwing up the past. Godzilla is destroying Tokyo! To be truly successful, one of these films must make a simple story unique in some manner, offer great visuals, and have both action and characters that quickly draw you in. More often, audiences will want to live in these worlds, rather than those present in sci-fi stories dealing with the human condition.
These guys want the best of both worlds, but usually end up being more of a footnote in the sci-fi canon. Consider films like Oblivion, Waterworld, and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. These movies aren’t by definition bad; they just have a much harder time reaching an iconic spot in the list of sci-fi films.
These movies often want to provide the amazing worlds and heart-racing action found in Star Wars but also want their audiences to think deeply about the choices made by characters and some form of deeper meaning. But the only way to serve up proper action and also have deeper themes is to provide each with an ample amount of screen time. But no one wants to sit through a four hour movie. In the end, something is going to get the short end of the stick, or maybe both do.
In the worst case scenarios, filmmakers will decide that more concepts automatically mean a better movie. Have a movie about the end of the world caused by aliens, but it needs to be deeper? Throw in some clones! And time travel! And artificial intelligence! And, of course, a dash of romance. By the end of the film, so little screen time will have been devoted to each concept that audiences will leave and quickly forget about what they just saw.
That’s not to say that there isn’t hope for films that wish to be both deep and exciting. Children of Men, Wall-E, and The Fly all provide a deeper story while keeping their audiences gasping/laughing/squirming.
The sci-fi genre is so large and my love for it is so deep that one entry is simply not enough to cover it all. In the coming months, I’ll be writing on sci-fi films that I love, maybe some that are terrible, and various themes and visuals that are spread across the genre as a whole. Come back soon!