My Sci-Fi High

Science Fiction rivals… if not beats… my love of Horror.

I know I’ve talked a little about it before… first in my Star Wars post, and the Geek post… but I wanted to expand on it a bit more, because I love it just so much.

But like Horror… there’s a lot of crap out there. Seriously. A lot of it just blows.

In fact, I’d say it’s easier to have bad Sci-fi then it is to have bad Horror. Likewise… it’s harder to have good Sci-Fi then good Horror.

You see… Horror is relatively easy. ANY movie can be considered a Horror movie, when you think about it. Horror is simply “conflict”… and every story needs conflict or a problem that needs solving, or there’s no story to tell. I once scarred a friend of mine when I took her favorite Disney movies and re-stated them with an emphasis on the conflicts, and basically made them sound like horror movies. (She never looked at Mary Poppins or The Little Mermaid the same way again.) Whether or not a certain movie is categorized as “Horror” in the video store, really just depends on how the filmmakers place the focus on that conflict. Ever see the re-cut trailers of some movies on YouTube? The first one that gained big popularity was of The Shining… edited to make it look like a heartwarming-family-road-movie (with Peter Gabriel music in the background and everything). The secret to that is simply shifting the focus away from the blood and madness that we normally associate with that film… suddenly, it doesn’t look like a horror film anymore.

Sci-Fi… not so. It’s more specific. Not any film can be a Sci-Fi film… because Science Fiction is SO dependant on the Idea… with a capital “I”.

You can’t just throw in laser guns and outer space and have it be a true Science Fiction film. An aesthetic does not Sci-Fi make. The common conception, however, IS that’s all it takes. That’s why we have so many “sci-fi” films that are severely lacking in the science… (remember: Star Wars is NOT Science Fiction)

Think of Science Fiction as an experiment… an actual scientific experiment. We learned from school that when you wish to conduct an experiment, you need 2 groups: A Control Group… your subject in a completely normal and known set of circumstances. Then you need the Test Group… which is the subject in the same circumstances… but with ONE change to it. One singular major or minor change to it. Then you compare the two groups… and you see the consequences of that one change, and what exactly it does.

The Control Group is simple… that’s our world. The real one we live in. We *know* the normal, standard, everyday set of circumstances… we see it everyday. The Experiment Group is the world of the story… which should start out like our world… and then have one change to it. The story itself is the results of that test… whether immediately after that change has taken place… or maybe even far in the future, and you hypothesize about the long-term effects of that change.

Science Fiction allows… sometimes even forces us, to philosophize. It brings up questions that we would NEVER have probably thought about otherwise.

Have you ever thought about what it REALLY means to be “Human”?

What if you really were able to travel through time? Would you try to change anything? Even if it meant that yourself or someone you loved would then never exist? And could you kill the baby that grows up to be Hitler?

What if Man could *create* Life? (Not just perpetuate it)

If life on other planets exists… what does that mean for US?

Plus, Science Fiction can re-charge OLD philosophical questions and give whole new directions to them.

What is Reality?

Do we really have Free Will, or is everything pre-ordained?

How can we know what is truly “moral” and “good”?

And don’t forget the granddaddy of all…

Is there a God?

I’m not saying that some of these questions can’t come up in other genres… but Science Fiction is more readily able to ask them… *because* of the experimental nature of it. It “pushes the envelope” more than any other.

When you make that change in a story, you have to follow it through and look at THAT change… you can’t suddenly cop-out and then start looking at the old “two lovers from opposite sides of the tracks” kind of situation… at best you could do that in a subplot… but if you’re not going to look at and examine the change you made… then there’s no point to make it. (Looking at that change is what reveals the metaphor… which is what connects the story to us and our “control” world… maybe even helps us recognize things that we should change with ourselves.)

When it comes to the narrative, that one change you make, that idea… has to be the rule that dictates the entire underlying reality of that world. Because that one change is the audiences allowance for “suspension of disbelief”. For example, look at 2001: A Space Odyssey… the whole movie occurs and moves forward based on the idea that there are benevolent aliens aiding in human evolution. The Matrix… All events stemmed from the off-screen expositional discovery of true Artificial Intelligence. (Think about it)

I think a great example of Good Science Fiction vs Not Science Fiction… actually came from the show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, Star Trek can’t be blanketed as saying its Science Fiction… because it really comes down to each of the individual episodes, and the specific story each one is telling. Star Trek is a great “background” that can be used for good Sci-Fi. One evening, I was watching TNG in syndication… and they had 2 episodes back-to-back:

The first one was about a civil war. The Captain recruited a young protégé of his to infiltrate one side of a conflict… of which she eventually grows to sympathize with, ultimately abandoning her role on the Enterprise, and joining this rebellion full-time. The story… wasn’t Science Fiction… that’s a Military Espionage story. You could easily transplant into ANY period in history… with very little tailoring of the details. Take out the ray guns… put in whatever weapons from any time period, slap it in a third-world country… the story will still work, and give the same message. 95% of that dialog won’t have to be changed if you take it out of the Star Trek Universe.

The second episode… through a strange encounter, the crew finds that their ship, the Enterprise… is starting to gain actual sentience, and become truly “alive”. Through the entire episode; every scene, every plot, every action and reaction was coming about due to the fact that the ship was becoming alive. You could take it out of the Star Trek Universe, sure… but you couldn’t put that story just anywhere else. It needs to be, and can only happen in, a world that can allow for that possibility.

THAT is true Science Fiction. You can think of questions like, “If a computer… a machine, can truly be alive, without organic parts… then what IS Life? Would simply unplugging the console be murder? Do we have a responsibility to preserve this machine life?” And if you didn’t want to think that deeply… you can immerse yourself in the creepy notion of things spiraling out of hand in a way that no one could have foreseen.

There IS a lot of great, underrated Science Fiction out there. I think some of the best stuff comes from the show The Outer Limits… with one of the most iconic opening narrations of all time:

There is nothing wrong with your television. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are now controlling the transmission. We control the horizontal, and the vertical. We can deluge you with a thousand channels or expand one single image to crystal clarity - and beyond. We can shape your vision to anything our imagination can conceive. For the next hour we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the deepest inner mind to... The Outer Limits.

Dude… that still give me goosebumps. (This version is from the newer series that started in 1995)

Every episode was a tightly structured, completely independent story… and managed to convey some great Science Fiction ideas consistently throughout both its runs (from 1963-65, and 1995-2002).

More recently, I discovered the movie Sunshine, directed Danny Boyle. I was so blown away by this movie, I couldn’t believe it. The design and effects were beyond top-notch… with the CGI impressive yet not over-powering. I’m surprised that it didn’t get a wider release when it came out in early 2007. It’s simply about a team of astronauts that are sent on a mission to re-ignite a dying sun... and is very well told. Personally, I loved it.

Bicentennial Man… A lot of people seemed to hate this movie, but it’s another one that I think is very much underrated. One of the big criticisms I hear of it (and indeed of a lot of true Sci-Fi) is that it’s very slow-moving. Yeah, I can see that… but when it comes to Sci-Fi… I don’t mind if it moves slow. (As much as I love 2001… I have fallen asleep during it several times) Since it often is a world quite different from our own… it takes a bit of time to adjust to it. As long as the underlying idea is solid… I’ll move with the slow pace. Here… a robot’s journey to become human… is one I found really interesting… and the execution of it was nicely done. (By the same token… I didn’t think A.I. was so horrible, either)

Gattaca… I resisted seeing this movie for awhile… probably because I just wasn’t a fan of Ethan Hawke. But a friend insisted that I “had to see it”. So I rented it (just before the days of DVD)… and I watched it… and was so engrossed and touched by the story that the credits played through… the videotape went to static, then the screen went blue as it reached the end of the tape by itself… and I just sat there, thinking. I still think its one of the best Sci-Fi movies of the last 25 years. It’s a world where human genetic manipulation is possible… and even commonplace. The main character is a normal guy who is not genetically manipulated, (considered “inferior”) who is passing himself off as someone who is. I was completely shocked at how good I found this film.

Obviously, this is by no means a complete list of the only good Sci-Fi that I’ve found… but it is some of my personal favorite.

It’s actually a bit heartbreaking to think how Sci-Fi gets a bad rap for being utter shlock. Granted, with a lot of the Non-Sci-Fi out there being called Sci-Fi… maybe that reputation is slightly deserved.

But at its best… it is solid, tangible proof that human beings… can truly Dream.

So let’s Dream big.


fritz said...

I'm going to have to watch Mary Poppins (own it, haven't gotten around to seeing it yet) so I can imagine the horror slant. (The Little Mermaid--I read the HC Anderson collection when I was a kid, so I know how horrific it's supposed to be...every step cut like knives...I don't need to imagine anything worse than that, actually.) But if you want to do a separate blog post on horror-fying a couple of ostensibly non-horror flicks, I won't complain! =)

I've seen Gattaca (really enjoyed it) and Bicentennial Man (liked it). I saw A.I., but didn't love it. Haven't yet watched Sunshine (but we've got it). Never seen The Outer Limits. I watched all of 2001: A Space Odyssey once, at PSC. I don't need to see it again. I've lost count of the number of times I've watched The Matrix.

When I was a kid reading lots of sci-fi, I struggled through the science part of the books (b/c I was much younger than the target audience, I hadn't ever had a physics class, so I didn't really understand how possible (or not) the scientific advancements were). And I noticed that some authors really tried to sell the science part of their fiction. And other authors focused less on the "how" of the science, and more on the "what if?" I'm a huge fan of "what if" stories.

I agree that modern movies by and large are not real science fiction. Mainly b/c the studios are convinced they can't afford to be. With only 90 minutes to tell/show their story, they don't want to get too technical--it bogs down the narrative, or there's no audience for it (b/c everything has to be dumbed down to have mass appeal, of course).

However, part of the problem is that we don't actually know how to travel through time (or go faster than the speed of light, etc), so trying to come up with a plausible, distinct scientific explanation that sets you apart from every other attempt is rather challenging, especially for Hollywood (Fantasy is so much easier!). But everybody is so familiar with the time travel concept (however it happens) that it's a primo setup for a "what if?" movie.

Several of my favorite "what if?" movies: Underworld (Does it really matter if vampires and werewolves are created by viruses instead of magic? No. Is it fun to think about how modern technology could be adapted to help them survive? Oh, yeah!)

The Fifth Element (It's a fun, good vs. evil movie that happens to involve a futuristic setting where intergalactic travel and advanced technology are part of everyday life, and everyone wears far out clothes. But the concept that launches it is that benevolent aliens want to protect life on earth.)

Men in Black (Aside from all the alien eye candy, it really is just a buddy cop flick.)

The One (Jet Li, dressed up in a dozen different wigs and outfits, is a background shot in one scene that totally made the entire movie for me)--alternate realities converge until you've got good vs. evil.

Terminator (1&2 are favorites)--This is the beauty of "what if?" scenarios: a one or two minute setup generates an entire movie that would have been completely pointless (Arnie's trying to kill a waitress...WTF? Or, who cares?) without knowing that the fate of mankind rests on Sarah Conner's shoulders.

And this should really make you roll your eyes: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Making a phone booth into a time machine was brilliant! Using it for the grand purpose of passing their high school history class? Um, lame? Yeah, but that was kinda the point.

When I think of science fiction (books or movies), I have a very positive association with the genre (probably b/c overall, mankind has hope). But in trying to think of qualified _science_ fiction movies, I'm coming up with lots of dystopian, depressing ones: Children of Men (although I kind of get a huge kick out of the fact that they openly acknowledge they don't know why women can't get pregnant anymore rather than trying to make something up), Blade Runner, Equilibrium, Dark City (and if they hadn't made the freaks so freaky looking, I'd have liked Dark City a lot more, b/c I loved the concept of their experiments).

Thought of a happy sci-fi flick: Back to the Future! And I think I've actually watched this one more than The Matrix.

fritz said...

I'm guessing I just need to not post until after everyone else does? =)