Hollywood's Science Fiction Problem
As a fan of science fiction, I am often excited when Hollywood decides to make a sci-fi movie. Or at least, I used to be. These days it seems exceedingly rare that science fiction feature films are any good. At best they’re lackluster or confusing. At the worst, they make me want to throw things at the screen.
This was brought to light for me recently when I saw Elysium. On paper, Elysium should have worked. It was a film from Neill Blomkamp who wrote and directed District 9. It dealt with issues of class and immigration at a time when these things are on the forefront of many Americans’ minds. It had mostly believable science.
But Elysium ultimately failed for numerous reasons. It lacked subtlety, it was full of plot holes, and it devolved into a simple slugfest by its climax. It was a dumb movie and that seems to be the common output from Hollywood these days. For every decent movie I can think of, I can name at least three bad ones. And then there is a middling layer of mediocrity usually including the more traditional action fare.
But, because all of this is subjective, I think you deserve a baseline—what movies qualify as good science fiction? I know my own tastes, but for this post I consulted several online lists and came up with a number of movies that tally with mine. Some of the top movies (2001, Blade Runner, Alien(s), Terminators 1 & 2, Close Encounters, Back to the Future) seem to make most of the lists. The majority of these movies were from a couple of decades ago at least.
But why do so many recent science fiction movies suck? I have a few theories which I’m about to share with you. A lot of these points are related, but here’s what I think:
Ignoring the Science Part
I’m not a stickler who thinks that everything in science fiction has to be restricted to our current scientific understanding. That would mean no faster than light travel, no time travel, and a lot less fun. But, Hollywood is notoriously bad at being scientific. One has only to watch some Mythbusters to see that. What’s the big deal, you might be asking? Movies are meant to be fantasy—we watch them for entertainment, not necessarily for education. But in science fiction much of the world that’s being built—futuristic societies, alien cultures, advanced technology—depends on a believable backbone. And once you start removing pieces of real science that backbone crumbles like a Jenga tower.
There should be a general level of scientific accuracy whether we’re talking physics, biology, mathematics, geology or whatever. Real world animals should react like real animals act, unless they’ve been altered or infected or mutated. Physics should work as it usually does unless there’s something to explain why it should act otherwise.
Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a scene with the Enterprise submerged beneath an alien planet’s ocean. Even if you make up some justification for how the ship could withstand the pressure of the ocean, especially without snapping off those thin nacelles, the power required to lift such a mass out of the ocean and into space would be incredible. Even worse, it wasn’t necessary since to hide the ship all they needed to do was to stay in orbit. It’s clear that the shot was more an example of...
Focusing on the Special Effects
I firmly believe that one of the reasons science fiction films are so popular is for their special effects. Whether it’s spaceships or explosions or lasers or robots or aliens, special effects come into play. Most of the time these days it’s handled by CGI, but of course in the past filmmakers have used models or clay or matte work. And it’s impressive. As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I love seeing spaceships and warp drives and outer space and aliens and advanced technology portrayed on the screen.
But that’s not enough on its own. After Prometheus came out, people kept talking about how pretty the movie was. And it is a beautiful film. But it’s stupid as hell, too. And all the visuals, no matter how impressive, can’t change that.
Additionally, this focus on the razzle dazzle means that the focus is often taken away from the characters. I’m not anti-CGI by any means, and I think it can be used to great effect in moderation. But CGI-heavy movies, like the Star Wars prequels, tend to feel a bit lifeless after a while.
This is related to...
Focusing on the Action
Don’t get me wrong—I like action. I don’t see anything wrong with it. But too often action is used as the chief way to create drama or conflict. Elysium, for example, tries to play with all kinds of social issues, but in the end the conflict comes down to two men in powered exoskeletons bashing on each other.
This is suitable for some films, of course. Pacific Rim, for example, is all about mechs bashing on kaiju. The Star Wars movies aren’t complete without a lightsaber battle in the climax. But both of those examples pair the combat with character moments. Luke facing the temptation of the Dark Side, for example, in Return of the Jedi. And while I love action movies, science fiction should bring something more to the table.
Faulty Worldbuilding and the Resulting Plot Holes
As a writer of science fiction, I recognize that the moment you start creating new worlds and advanced societies and new technological innovations, you start opening those worlds up to scrutiny and questions. These can be overcome with a little thought and some rigor. And you can even get away with some handwaving. But these kinds of holes aggregate and can lead to the audience having too many questions. If the film opens the door by positing a technological innovation that changes the world, the viewer is going to walk through and start thinking about the ramifications of those changes. Start throwing a bunch of concepts together and you open the door for far more questions. And if you haven’t thought all of those questions through, then you end up with plot holes.
And even if everything doesn’t add up completely, there should be some internal consistency to the world. If it’s a future where everyone has the ability to instantly transport anywhere they want to, then that should affect the way that business is done, since it would completely change the way goods are imported or exported. Maybe instead of local stores, people would teleport themselves to huge warehouses that would serve the whole country. And what would that do to the concept of nationality? These are all things that could be explored, but if the world largely looks like ours, although with this technology, that’s lazy writing.
This is where a movie like Primer succeeds so well. It looks at one specific technological innovation, in this case a time machine, and deals with its ramifications on a relatively small scale. The fact that it’s so small a scale is part of the point. Sometimes a smaller scope keeps thing on track.
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
It’s no secret that big budget Hollywood movies have vast numbers of people involved in their creation. And because the budgets these days are in the order of tens of millions of dollars at the least, the people spending that money want to have their say in what the movie is about. This often dilutes the essence of the movie. It’s not uncommon to have multiple rewrites on science fiction movie scripts. Even when a script is “final”, the director might decide to change something, or perhaps the high-paid lead actor wants to alter the character or dialogue.
Contrast this to the smaller budget, more independent science fiction movies where the number of people involved is less and the amount of money on the line is smaller. In my mind, these smaller movies tend to be some of the best science fiction films of our time. Take Moon, for example, which was, for my money, one of the best science fiction movies of the past few years. Moon was co-written and directed by Duncan Jones and had a budget of $5 million. $5 million. To put that into context, Elysium, After Earth, and Prometheus had budgets of $115 million, $130 million and $120 million respectively. With a relatively small budget, the filmmaker gets more control.
Dumb Character Syndrome
In many of these movies characters do stupid and questionable things and it's obvious that these things are only done to advance the plot. Sorry to pick on Prometheus yet again, but that movie was filled with this. Scientists visiting an alien world remove their helmets and start poking around with potentially dangerous fauna without taking any precautions at all. A corporate expedition goes in without security or weapons. As if no one could imagine that there could be some kind of security system or even some creatures that might be running rampant inside the alien installation. Elysium is another offender. Aside from things just not making sense, another consequence of Dumb Character Syndrome is that I can’t really be invested in someone like that. I start thinking that they deserve what they get. And character is an important aspect of any film. Just because a movie is science fiction doesn’t mean it can get by with weak characters.
Those are my theories, and I think they make a kind of sense. Feel free to disagree and argue your own points in the comments. I'd also love to hear your thoughts on the best and worst science fiction movies of all time.
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