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.
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.
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…
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:
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.