Future Shock: The Death of Serious Science Fiction

The serious Science Fiction film genre is dead. Well, okay, perhaps not actually deceased, but its definitely on cinematic life support. With exceptions that are becoming rarer and rarer as the new millennial marches forward, and an omnipresent production paradigm that substitutes spectacle for smarts, futurist filmmaking is definitely gasping for breath. There are several villains in this creative cabal, elements and individuals that want to see the motion picture category cater to fanboys, geeks, and the easily entertained. But it seems a real shame that the one literary ideal best suited for the most visual of all mediums is constantly countermanded by issues that have nothing to do with either artforms’ visionary nature.

When one charts the course of cinema’s entire history, such bumps in the aesthetic road are really par for the commercial course. All categories of film go through phases; comedies veer wildly from sophisticated to gross out as dramas emerge from a stint in suburban seriousness and into dour self-indulgent drivel. Horror can be subtle, offensive, gory, satiric or even Asian-ized, while action never ever seems to find sure footing. But the situation with sci-fi is different. It’s been dominated for decades by a single storytelling dynamic. Instead of reaching for intelligence and stretching the boundaries of imagination, it decides to take hoary old clichés, lots of narrative formula, and one man’s F/X laced legacy, and completely rewrite the rules of acceptability. Where once the speculative spectacle questioned the existence of man within the cosmos, today it’s all Westerns with robots.

It would be easy to lay all the blame at the cloven feet of George Lucas. After all, his Star Wars saga — six films, a couple of TV stints, and billions in merchandising later — often sets the current greenlight gold standard. Even with the horrendous nature of his pathetic prequels, the dollar doesn’t lie. Commerciality always contradicts criticism, and indeed, if we are looking for the first reason why serious sci-fi is now a verboten motion picture variety, the lack of a real blockbuster benchmark would be a good place to start. Then there’s the reflective nature of the culture. Speculative cinema is almost always guided by the life and times we live in, and the last decade or so have provided little food for innovative thought. It all seems too unreal, anyway. Finally, there’s the real nature of the genre itself. Serious science fiction questions and speculates, not the easiest of issues to sell to a ‘hurry up and explain it all to me” movie demographic.

In the last four decades (leaving everything before the ’60s out of the equation for the moment) there have only been eight serious sci-fi triumphs — movies that readily define what one means’s by a thought provoking, inventive approach to speculative subject matter. In conjunction with the equally important TV triumphs of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Star Trek Saga (including all recent TV incarnations), this influential octet — Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Dark City, The Matrix, and most recently, Children of Men — represent real attempts to address the category’s myriad of issues and possibilities. Scattered among this collective are intriguing also-rans like Silent Running, Solaris, Blade Runner, Gattaca and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. While some may argue for a missing favorite — Alien, The Fifth Element, I, Robot — there is a significant reasons why these movies fall outside this discussion, primary among them, their lack of an inherent allegorical nature.

Serious science fiction is not a question of storytelling reclassification, but of innovation spawned by creative conjecture. Indeed, Harlan Ellison, in defending of his use of the term “speculative fiction”, argues that science fiction, or in its hated abbreviated form, sci-fi, reduces the ideas that artists craft by sticking them into a certain set of formulaic loop holes. Indeed, when one hears said movie moniker, their minds are instantly swept away to planets unknown, where intergalactic entities battle it out for control of their dying dystopian societies — or even worse, a centuries from now situation where technology or terror has run amuck, and a brave few survivors have been left behind to battle a mechanical menace, or post-Apocalyptic warriors bent on destruction. In either of those cases, the supposed science fiction element is merely a stunt — an outer shell hiding the film’s real purpose (action, horror, thriller, etc.). What’s missing is the element of exploration.

This is the main reason why the Star Wars films fail the serious sci-fi test. In essence, creator George Lucas was trying to revitalize another dying genre — the Western — when he took parts of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, fashioned some additional morality play elements to the narrative (good vs. evil, mostly) and drizzled the whole thing in a proto-religious reduction of mangled metaphysical meaning (i.e. “The Force”). The result was a phenomenon, a triumph that’s impact lingers to this very day. But it wasn’t just the story that sold the audiences. Lucas had spent years trying to find a special effect dynamic that would render his ideas realistic and authentic. He didn’t want his vision coming across as nothing but miniaturized models floating on strings through a cardboard cut out cosmos. The techniques his Industrial Light and Magic came up with — advances in blue screen, motion and computer controlled camerawork, etc — propelled the visual ability of sci-fi to resonate onscreen. Where once your standard space opera looked more than a little ridiculous, a newfound authenticity ruled the day.

It’s important to stop for a moment and consider the contributions of the past. From the first moments a camera could record images in motion, filmmakers where using fantasy and aspects of the otherworldly to wow audiences. All throughout the earliest days of the medium, directors like Georges Méliès and Fritz Lang were expanding the creative canvas, using the seemingly infinite possibilities of the format to envision the impossible (Melies’ Le Voyage dans la Lune) and the shocking (Lang’s amazing Metropolis). As the times changed, so did the impact and influence of science fiction. Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon established the Star Wars approach, turning the serialized adventure into a laser blast shoot-em up to heal Depression/World War era worries. By the time the ’50s came along, the genre had a new element to contend with — the introduction of atomic science and the resulting nuclear bomb. More than any other real world element, the fear of radiation and its unknown after effects became the sci-fi staple, fostering a solid wall of schlock.

It was a conceit that would live on for years. As endless variations of mutant beings threatened a planet and people unprepared to play God, anyone interested in exploring important themes or metaphoric facets were reduced to limited appeal publications and the occasional somber screenplay. What was needed was a burst of intelligent innovation, a means of making these potentially powerful stories as sensational idea-wise as they were becoming visually. TV tried, championing both Rod Serling’s imaginative series The Twilight Zone and its darker doppelganger, The Outer Limits. But it wasn’t until President John F. Kennedy announced an intention to land on the moon that the science aspect of this format finally kicked back in. Thanks to the experimentation of the decade, and the desire to buck most of the meaningful mainstream trends, it wasn’t long before ’60s sci-fi turned sensationally sobering.

The first salvo arrived in 1968 with the one two punch of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. While one film jumped on the promise of the advancements in space exploration, the other was a dissection of the then daunting civil rights movement. In Kubrick’s case, he confronted the idea that man may not be alone in this universe, and tried to examine the philosophical fallout from learning of such a circumstance. Schaffner, on the other hand, took minority intolerance and majority prejudice and tweaked them, showing how a society more or less degenerates into superstition and fear when biological differences distract from clear common sense. The ’70s tried to expand on such expressions of social consciousness. Solyent Green argued over the environmental impact our unchecked population growth was creating, while Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters asked us to “watch the skies”, implying that the answers to most of our pending problems could be provided by beings outside our understanding — and galaxy.

The ’80s remained stuck in Star Wars afterburner mode, doing very little to advance the cause of serious science fiction. Even Star Trek, the venerable series that helped save the genre from itself back in the Peace Decade was starting to play by the ILM rules. Only Python provocateur Terry Gilliam decided to bend the high concept action adventure rules. While many see his seminal Brazil as nothing more than 1984 processed through a mind mired in Lewis Carroll and Mad Magazine, it’s notion of social commentary as cutting edge satire definitely shook up the sci-fi formula. By the time of Dark City and The Matrix, the gist of what Gilliam wrought was up on the screen for all to see. Indeed, both of these fantastic films dabble in perception, in ‘waking up’ to one’s surroundings and seeing the treasures — and the threats — for what they really are. Smart, sentient and more than a little self-indulgent, both efforts prepared audiences for an onslaught of considered creativity. It never arrived, sadly.

In fact, with the recent release of Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Children of Men, we can literally look at how far the genre has fallen. Of course, Lucas had to try and reinvent what he already had reconfigured, putting out three pathetic ‘prequels’ that had little to do with innovation and everything to do with a jaundiced generational grab for personal glory. CGI, or computer generated imagery, made all ideas possible, but the fiscal fortunes of Hollywood dominate the creation process, meaning that all films must reference a previous box office champ, or die in ‘development Hell’. That was clear when Will Smith signed up for a big screen adaptation of I, Robot. Fans fretted that the former Fresh Prince would be unable to handle the depth that Isaac Asimov provided in his short story series. They need not have worried — the tales were tossed aside so that big time stunt set pieces could be created with the star battling an onslaught of rogue robots.

But Cuarón countered the notion of needing eye candy to sell science fiction. In fact, he avoided almost all the trappings of the recent popcorn predilection within the genre by bringing back a main missing element — ideas. Children of Men is overflowing with them, concepts that boggle the mind in their connection to reality (society split apart by catastrophe and a lack of security) and their frightening, unfathomable nature (a world gone barren, a Britain under menacing martial law). Hints of technology pepper the fringes (a floating computer monitor, an omnipresent media eye), but overall, the director’s vision of London post-infertility is like the UK after the Blitz. We see civilization hanging by a thread, while all around cooler heads, personal desire, and uncontrolled terror translate into hostility, rebellion, and death.

It’s a similar stance taken by Darren Aronofsky in his masterful The Fountain. Death is never an easy subject to address — it burns too brightly in the human heart and confuses the mind of men who believe that they will, somehow, live forever. But via a combination of period piece, meditation on faith, straightforward drama, disease of the month manipulation, and speculative wonder, we see the pain of passion fading, and the hallucinogenic vision of mortality accepted and embraced. Because of its varying nature — it really does transcend every genre it attempts — Aronofsky’s movie doesn’t make it into the serious sci-fi schema. But its approach definitely does, a category defying conceit that allows all stories to be the source of a single idea. Cuarón also captures this in Men. At times, we see a war movie, a dystopian disaster, and a straightforward adventure. Yet all fall into a single statement of humanity’s helplessness in light of a dying legacy.

While it would be nice to think that either one of these films — or recent low budget brethren like Magdalena’s Brain or Numb — would signal a rebirth for serious science fiction, the truth remains that the bottom line still rules the majority of our cinematic endeavors. The Fountain was a failure (it was too smart for audiences…and most critics) and Children of Men rode a decent wave of pre-Oscar publicity to an average return at the turnstiles. In fact, Cuarón is often championed more for being part of the Three Amigos (a wave of Mexican moviemakers including Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu creating waves in Tinsel Town) or his Harry Potter effort than Men‘s amazing vision. Some reviewers have even taken the director to task for committing a cardinal sin in sci-fi adaptation; trashing most of PD James’ book for his own narrative demands.

What we’re looking at then is the anomaly, not the trend. Anyone hoping for a real renaissance in serious speculative storylines will be waiting quite a long while. It’s all about the dollars in our current cinematic situation, and art won’t trump artifice anytime soon. Case in point — I Am Legend. For decades, Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic novel has been scheduled for a big screen revamp (it was originally made twice — once as a low budget bungle featuring Vincent Price, the second as the slightly silly Omega Man). When it was announced that Ridley Scott, the man behind both severe (Blade Runner) and sensational (Alien) genre works, was on board to direct, it looked like the author would finally get some respect. Unfortunately, budgetary demands destroyed the project, and it sat dormant until…that’s right, Will Smith signed on. Now, early buzz is that, just like Robot, Legend is getting ‘mainstreamed’ for mass consumption — i.e. rewritten to avoid the story’s inherent doom and gloom and amplify the blockbuster hero factor.

Of course, one could argue that serious sci-fi was always a genre glitch. The list of reconfigured futurist films vs. one’s actually conceived as original takes on the times via the allegorical and/or socially significant is far from balanced. Indeed, you’ll find hundreds of hackneyed space cases for every example of legitimate imagination. So before we read the category its last rites and lament the loss of speculative seriousness, perhaps we should be grateful for what we have — and happy that there are filmmakers like Cuarón and Aronofsky willing to keep trying. If history shows us anything, it’s that film will always fail us, especially when we are looking for jewels inside the junk pile. But it definitely grows more difficult when it’s clinging to life, with a prognosis that looks rather bleak, indeed.