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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What makes a good science fiction movie?

During class today, I had a discussion with my students about what makes The Hangover a fine example of contemporary comedy (not my words, per se, but that's what we were going with in order to illustrate the topic: evaluation arguments). When I got home, I started to think about this very subject, but in relation to something a little more near and dear to my heart: science fiction. What makes a good science fiction movie? What are the criteria? Good actors? Good plot? Action? Adventure? Cool special effects? I'm not entirely sure. Now that science fiction has pretty much taken over summer blockbusters in terms of sales, it seems like a good topic to discuss.

First things first, I'm going to throw out five films that I think represent the narrative breadth of good science fiction: Star Wars (A New Hope), Sunshine, District 9, Aliens, and Independence Day. Clearly I'm leaving a lot of movies out, but that's inevitable. It should also be noted that I'm using a very broad and public definition for science fiction here, since Star Wars really doesn't count as true science fiction (it's science fantasy); but that's an academic distinction at this point, and not something relevant to the discussion.

So what is it that all five of these films have that make them good? It's not action, because Sunshine has very little of it. It's not the gritty, "realistic" feel of the films, because Star Wars very much lacks that. And, lastly, it's certainly not because of the presence of characters we can root for, because District 9 gives us a character who represents all that is selfish and terrible about humanity until the very end.

But that leaves us with an unanswered question. Are we simply drawn to the beautiful special effects? Are the plots what draw us in? Do we find the speculative elements most appealing, which are clearly lacking from non-genre productions? If it's the last of these, then we have to ask ourselves why we like some speculative elements and not others, which, I think, leads us to an unfairly subjective space that can't be argued out of (and, to be fair, all of this discussion is subjective, but at least something broad enough that we might be able to fairly address it). For me, I think it's a combination of the visual medium and the complexity or speculative power of the plot. What draws me into Sunshine is the sheer emotional power of what is going on, which is also the same thing that occurs with District 9. Independence Day and Star Wars are simply a lot of fun; yes, there's a deeper story going on there if you want to look, but what draws me to those stories are the characters and the situation, and how they both come together to produce good fun and character connections. But all of these things are varied and don't apply to every science fiction film I've enjoyed. I'm not so sure I can come up with a small list of criteria that links all my favorites together.

And so I ask you: what makes a good science fiction movie for you? What are you favorite movies and what about those movies draw you in?

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I could go through a list of points like believable characters, coherent plot, etc, but those are in common to all good movies. I think the thing that sets good SF apart from mediocre SF is the sensawunda on top of all the normal traits. If it doesn't make a dozen what ifs rattle around inside my head like a demo derby, what's the point to its speculativeness?

  3. Great question. For me, at least, I must identify with or at least like at least one character. I wasn't thrilled with Dist.9. I see that it was a well done movie. It was interesting. But it didn't grab me. Maybe I'm too much of a chick. LOL My husband loved it.

    Another thing. I want to feel that a SciFi movie is believable even when though it's fantasy. I mean, it shouldn't contradict itself or break its own rules or seem overly stupid, unless it's doing so to be funny.

  4. Adam: But what exactly is the sensawunda? What determines that a movie will produce that effect for you or for others?

    (Note: I deleted your other comment, need to have two of the same thing.)

    Amanda: I think the problem a lot of folks had with District 9 was precisely that there wasn't anyone to root for. We didn't get to know the alien characters, and our human focal point ended up being kind of a horrible person. So, in the end, we see an evolution, but we're left sort of wondering if we were supposed to care about him or not. It's not a chick thing. I've known a lot of men who say the same thing. I love the movie, but perhaps because I like that we're finally getting something that feels like what real discrimination would feel and look like...the fact is that discrimination on that level is not going to look nice...even for the characters who have the capacity to's going to look bloody awful (just look into South African the Truth and Reconciliation stuff...absolutely disgusting and depressing).

    And I agree with the second point :). No breaking rules! If you establish them, then you can't break them!

  5. I think the thing that sets good SF apart from mediocre SF is the sensawunda on top of all the normal traits. what's the point to its speculativeness.

  6. ejaz: You're the second person who has brought that up. Can you quantify what "sensawunda" is? How is it produced? What are its traits?

  7. I assume sensawunda is as individual as a fingerprint. What gets me all jazzed up isn't necessarily going to be the same as someone else. For example, I loved the city-sized saucers in Independence Day and District 9. Ridiculous scale is a sensawunda hallmark for me.

  8. Adam: Ridiculous scale? That's an odd criteria, particularly since it still makes you all googly over it after all these years (and city-sized saucers are incredibly common in SF, by the way). Why do you think that is?

  9. I always consider science fiction to be a mix-in, rather than a pure genre. A good science fiction story starts with a good mystery, a good adventure, a good war story, a good romance or what ever. The science fiction part moves the story into a new world, and the sense of wonder flows from a combination of the freedom, the author's imagination, and the constraints of consistency, character and story.

    It helps if the story respects the conventions of the genre, so we don't just get a magic gizmo that solves the mystery or some unexplained entity that wins the war. One of the nice things about Star Wars was that it respected the conventions after all those god awful 1970s movies that didn't.

    Remember, science fiction isn't as new as one might think. California was named after an imaginary kingdom in a popular New World adventure novel.