While working on a science fiction concept I’m developing, it’s been interesting to study how the genre itself functions. Science Fiction has two key responsibilities:
- Predicts the logical ends of a technological trajectory and sets it up as the conflict.
- Utilizes current filmmaking and computer technology in a profound way.Or “Tech-porn”. Often sci-fi films will have throwaway scenes that really have no place in the story except to showcase a new technology. These are necessary for the trailer, so they’re forgiven because they’re profound enough to elicit a strong response.
(My favorite example is in Total Recall, where police see an x-ray of Quaid’s gun, so he just breaks through the x-ray glass, toward them! The police then cower and let him run away. The scene obviously had no logic to it, yet it’s iconic, so it’s forgiven.)
This is backed up by Wiki’s explanation:
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a “literature of ideas”.
We expect sci-fi films to extrapolate on our current trajectories and set those up as the conflict. AI goes berserk (2001, Terminator), space travel finds more than it bargained for (Alien), and playing God goes bad (Jurassic Park, Gattaca). It’s what the genre promises. Take what we know about technology and show the consequences. The results of scientific innovation could be positive, but when a human is the main character, the genre tends to fall into the realm of man vs. technology. This is not an error of mere convention, but rather how stories have evolved over thousands of years.
Yet many recent sci-fi films depict scenarios already unacceptable, such as increased pollution, corporations exploiting the population, oppressive police states rising to power, etc. To make them “sci-fi”, technological elements are mixed in, often as solutions to the problem rather than problems in and of themselves. These stories are “What-if” scenarios, not logical ends to scientific innovation. Contrary to these, I can predict with certainty that in 10 years, no matter who takes office, there will be more green energy, smarter artificial intelligence, less religion, no time travel, and no zombie Hitlers. Last two notwithstanding, it’s disappointing that sci-fi filmmakers rarely tackle such issues.
In case you’ve been in a cave for the last 30 years, you won’t be surprised to hear that government-funded Science (with a capital S) has settled into a cozy era that has placed it on the pedestal. Artists are less inclined to predict its drawbacks and more interested in “what-if” scenarios should the trend reverse. That is the new sci-fi. Exceptions aside, for a genre which produced dozens of classics before the 2000s, its continual reneging on its promises has cause it to go soft and limp.
Basically, sci-fi sucks because Science takes itself so goddamn seriously.
My prediction is that this trend will not reverse any time soon, unless somehow Science loses its government funding and falls from grace, or an alternate information source springs up that competes with it. Until then, there are thousands of sci-fi concepts just dying to be made, and the audience is still there. It’s a good time to be a genre filmmaker.
I kinda disagree. Sci fi is just going into the same model/area as what you’re doing with action kickback – we’re in the new age of golden indie sci-fi. Primer, Timecrimes, Sound of my Voice, Moon, Monsters – and those guys are starting to get budgets now, leading to work like the upcoming Looper. Also I kinda disagree about your definition of the purpose of science fiction – I think that’s half of it (by the way Rise of the Planet of the Apes totally did that, and it’s new/modern/studio funded).
The other half of science fiction is about making a modern issue extreme through sci-fi elements to tell a parable about modern society – like Planet of the Apes did in the 70s. Or They Live did in the 80s. It’s still about inevitability, but not technological – societal.
Newer films, like District 9, or Blomkamp’s upcoming Elysium, are exactly that.
Anyways, good article/editorial, as always.
Your definition of Science Fiction makes sense and I think you’re consistent, but I would argue the best use of a genre is one that uses the core MacGuffin in the conflict, and for a scifi to use anything but technology as its MacGuffin would be misleading.
scifi isnt only about scifi it touches science and supernatural. Science has alot to do with it. The technology involved makes scifi possible. Its futuristic for a reason. You should check out http://www.thephilipkdickfilmfestival.com/ Its going to be the first Scifi,science,supernatural film festival in NYC. Everyone is invited December 7,8,9 in different venues. my blog has all the information.