A Sci-Fi Primer

Today, Day 2 of my blog post marathon, let’s talk about science fiction! Actually, I’ll do the talking, so if you need a snack, or a beer or whatever, now’s the time.

More specifically, I want to talk about contemporary cinematic science fiction. I may include a reference or two to television, but I’m leaving written sci-fi out for two reasons. One, there’s a solid ton of it out there, and no practical way of covering it all. Two, I’m a slow reader; I’m just in the first few chapters of Asimov’s Foundation, and that was written in 1951. Of course, I’ll be talking about some older movies, possibly from the same era as Foundation, but nec pluribus impar.

Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy

A few years ago, Red Letter Media’s Plinkett review of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), they made a distinction that hadn’t occurred to me before. They posited that the major difference between the original Star Trek movies and Abrams’ reboot was a shift from science fiction to science fantasy. It had ceased to be Star Trek, they said, and had become “Space Adventure Film.” Why? I’ll let their video speak for itself, but suffice to say, that the more intricate and technical aspects of the previous Star Trek universe (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, etc), were replaced by a more freewheeling spirit, in which how something happens is less important than the fact that it does.

The old Trek was about explorers, Star Wars is about knights and wizards in space. But let’s not cling to the past. There are good analogues of both spirits out there today. Embodying the technical spirit, there are Upstream Color (2013) and Timecrimes (2007)–and probably Gravity (2013), though I haven’t seen it yet. And representing the freewheeling spirit, there are Monsters (2010) and Inception (2010)–probably also Ender’s Game (2013), but again, I haven’t seen it yet. We might understand science fiction, then, as science as fiction, and science fantasy as pretty much any story put in a setting that captures our scientific imagination.

Aren’t these distinctions meaningless, though? A little. To the genre, they’re two sides of the same coin, but as a matter of taste, it makes a big difference. As part of the sci-fi genre, The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991) are not only great movies, but are excellent examples of science fantasy. There is time travel–oh, yeah, and unfeeling killer cyborgs–but no one really cares how any of it works because it’s not particularly important to the plot. Terminator goes back in time, terminator terminates things, terminator gets terminated (fucker), and all the while, the story is of a battle against fate. It could have been told outside of the sci-fi genre, and has been. Ingmar Bergman rocked this story with The Seventh Seal (1957). It, of course, had 100% more chess playing and 100% fewer murderous cyborgs. Another, final example, is pretty much every Roger Corman sci-fi flick ever. Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) was pretty much Seven Samurai in space and spandex.

On the flip side, there are movies like Primer (2004) that rely so heavily on the science aspect, that it becomes the story. The science of Primer, isn’t how they get time travel to work, but the logical–and by extension ethical–conundrums inherent in trying to rewrite the past. No one gives a damn about that in Terminator.

The difference between the two facets of sci-fi seems to be drawn from an adoption of content versus an adoption of affect. Neither is necessarily better, but science fantasy does tend to produce a greater volume of cinema, and thus a larger share of crap.

Quality Control

Currently, the best sci-fi, on both sides of the coin, isn’t coming out of the big Hollywood studios, with a few exceptions aside. Shane Carruth has made a name for himself as an independent director and producer of mind-bendy time travel movies (Upstream Color and Primer). Monsters, the underrated and overlooked 2010 feature about two people sneaking through an alien-infested northern Mexico, was published by Vertigo Films, a British company with movies like Spring Breakers on its resumé. And Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes) is, as it sounds, a Spanish production by Nacho Vigalondo, who also contributed to The ABCs of Death.

Of course, Hollywood still releases a quality sci-fi movie every once in a while, but recently, most of them seem to be sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, and adaptations of preexisting works. One of the beautiful things about the genre is that it encourages us to stretch the limits of our imaginations and look toward what we could be. Sometimes these visions are utopian or dystopian (but at least they’re topian, right? Is this thing on?). Other times, there isn’t much difference at all. But most of all, sci-fi tells us who we are now. So what does it say about us that we’re rehashing old ideas instead of greenlighting quality stories? Whether we’re making science fiction or science fantasy, whether we’re stretching the laws of nature or just the bounds of believability, we need originality. We need to know who we are and what we’re becoming, not who we were.

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