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.

These days it seems exceedingly rare that science fiction feature films are any good. At best they’re lackluster or confusing.

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

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.

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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Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books September 6, 2013 - 8:10am

Another great low budget sci-fi flick: Timecrimes.

Two recent "Hollywood" sci-fi flicks that are actually good: Source Code (by Moon director Duncan Jones aka David Bowie's son) and Looper. Both had relatively low budgets compared to shit like Prometheus and Elysium.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago September 6, 2013 - 8:16am

I agree with what your saying. Too much reliance on special effects and action and not enough good storytelling.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like September 6, 2013 - 10:14am

Moon was very good. I'm in the minority who actually liked Prometheus.

Aside: Anybody seen Pandorum?

RE: the main point --- I think there's an uneven genre standard between 'Action' films and 'Sci-Fi' films. If Elysium or the new Star Trek were billed as straight 'Action' flicks, would the comparison to great works like Blade Runner matter? 'Action' films are only expected to entertain while 'Sci-Fi' can sometimes be intellectually stimulating or somehow revelatory as well, so I think people's expectations might be set higher. Riddick appears to be an 'Action' film set in a 'Sci-Fi' world. If you approach it the way you approach Fast and Furious, you'll likely have a different opinion than if you compare it to 2001.

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King September 6, 2013 - 10:51am

The World's End was a pretty great sci-fi flick.

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler September 6, 2013 - 12:27pm

I always like "Event Horizon."  What a great SciFi flick.

rajanyk's picture
rajanyk September 6, 2013 - 12:52pm

Re: Event Horizon, one thing I didn't have time to go into is that sci-fi/horror hybrids tend to work better. Aliens is a good example of that. I haven't seen Pandorum but that seems to be a similar thing. 

James Gillen Kosmatka's picture
James Gillen Ko... September 6, 2013 - 1:16pm

"The Star Wars movies aren’t complete without a lightsaber battle in the climax." That's demonstrably untrue.

rajanyk's picture
rajanyk September 6, 2013 - 2:19pm

@James Gillen - I suppose I use climax loosely, but they all seem to. I'll give you that A New Hope's battle is earlier than the end but still is a big part of the end of that movie. Empire has Luke vs Vader, and Return of the Jedi repeats that. Even the prequels have Qui-gon and Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul, the big Jedi battle in Attack of the Clones and both the Yoda/Dooku battles and Anakin/Obi-wan in Revenge of the Sith. 

iambrendabren's picture
iambrendabren from Oxnard, California September 6, 2013 - 3:53pm

I'm one of the few also who LOVED Prometheus. Though in general, most Hollywood movies, sci-fi or not, lack storytelling and rely too much on action and special effects. When people know you like science fiction they think you're going to see EVERY sci-fi movie that comes out. I tell them, Battleship = HORRIBLE SCI FI (along with Independence Day), Blade Runner = GOOD SCI FI.

captain mission's picture
captain mission September 7, 2013 - 1:01am

i loved prometheus, i liked 12 monkey's and i liked blade runner, hated event horizon though, these producers should focus more on story not effects. 

David Bailey's picture
David Bailey September 7, 2013 - 6:47am

I agree with most of your analysis except with Prometheus. I wish people would stop picking on that movie. This is what people are not getting. The crew wakes up, and in less than a day, they are forced to go exploring on a planet when they barely have had enough time to clear their heads from sleeping for a couple of years. All because two scientists who think because they were given a badge and a rope it was rodeo time. Remember, no one except those two wanted to go exploring because it was CHRISTMAS time and they wanted to open their presents. As far as dumb scientists, has everyone forgotten about Steve Irwin? Yeah, I know, he wasn't a real scientists, but like the biologist in the movie reaching out to touch the snake thing, well, we know what happened with Steve now, don't we? Steve knew better to pull the stinger out, but he did it anyway. Holding his baby while messing with a crocodile? I think I've made my point. Its not far-fetched to believe that scientists can do stupid things. Geologists can get lost because they do a lot, especially in Alaska.Out of all these movies you picked on, I feel Prometheus really tried to be the science fiction movie that is strived for in the genre. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated September 7, 2013 - 8:56am

Are there a lot of really good movies come out of Hollywood in other genres that I missed? There are some comdies I dig, but for the most part it all seems sort of junk like these days. 

OtterMan's picture
OtterMan from New Jersey, near Philadelphia USA is reading Ringworlds Children September 8, 2013 - 6:53am

Everything you've cited can damage a film, any film, not just Sci-Fi. The one thing that can save a film is the quality and development of the characters. I like jazzy special effects and it's always nice when the science seems plausible. All my favorite movies create characters that I either merge with during the film or that I fall in love with. I call it "Rachel Syndrome". Every time I watch Blade Runner, I fall in love with Rachel. From there on I'm hooked into the movie, I can 'become' Roy, or Deckard, or Pris and feel their feelings as my own. That's where any movie leaves it's mark, everything else fades into the background. 

It's not easy to do. It takes a director with vision and actors who can bring the vision to life. Lacking that, the flaws you mention quickly rise to the surface and the movie falls flat. The visual effects in 2001 were spectacular for the time, but the movie survives even today on the strength of Hal and Dave and the personalities they created. Throw a bunch of big names and some effects together with no story or developement to back it up and all you get is Independence Day or Armegeddon.