August 09, 2013 1:15pm PT by Graeme McMillan
Is Movie Science Fiction Actually Anti-Science Fiction?
As Elysium hits theaters and everyone starts thinking about the end of a summer of movies that were filled, at least in part, with science fiction ideas -- whether superheroes who were actually aliens or using high-tech suits of armor, or giant robots that fought giant monsters, or space-faring explorers trapped in revenge cycles that make more sense if you remember the pre-reboot stories that inspired them -- here's a question: Were this year's sci-fi movies actually anti-science fiction?
A great piece on The Awl -- ostensibly a review of Elysium, but it goes far beyond that -- makes the argument that the needs of blockbuster movies end up pushing those movies in a direction that's entirely contrary to science fiction as a genre.
"All stories need conflict, and big movies really need big conflict. No one wants to leave a SF movie thinking, 'Wow that really was an accurate meditation on science fiction in a realistic setting,'" admits writer Ryan Britt. "But the vast majority of science fiction films -- even the very best of them -- still see the SF, the tech, the speculative concept, as the antagonist of the film."
The sole movie this summer that avoided the pitfall of making science the ultimate antagonist of the film, Britt argues, was Pacific Rim. "As silly as it sounds, Pacific Rim is a SF movie that actually likes science fiction," he explains. "It doesn't take itself too seriously -- or, for that matter, make much sense -- but it’s never cynical."
The positive about making technology, or aliens, or something that doesn't actually exist in the real world the villain of your piece is that you don't run the risk of accidentally causing insult to part of your audience, and cutting off a potential customer as a result. There isn't, after all, a kaiju or Kryptonian demographic to feel offended by being villainized in a particular project.
Britt makes a solid point about the downside, though. In constantly demonizing the unknown -- especially without offering some "good" other as balance -- we're being presented with a curiously conservative worldview that is, in many ways, the opposite of the curious, questioning, uncomfortable-with-the-way-things-are nature of science fiction as a genre. Sci-fi is -- or should be -- about what's next, what's not possible, what could happen in some future variable world, and not in a "Something unexpected happens and it's terrible" sense.
Curiously, this line of thinking makes me look forward to Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy movie even more. Sure, there will be big, bad cosmic threats to be dealt with in there, but those dealing with them will be equally unexpected, unusual and ridiculous. When the good guys include talking alien raccoons and sentient trees, things might be taking a turn for the better.