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The Why of Sci-Fi…

“Science-fiction” is one of those genres which finds itself consistently boxed in by film fans. Mentioning that hyphenated word calls to mind images of “warp speed”, space ships, transporters, aliens, time travel and all manner of weird genre devices. It’s part of the reason why so many film viewers attempt to stay away from the genre – I have encountered more than a few people will dismiss a science-fiction film or television show off-hand because it must be camp or ridiculous. I remain convinced that this is the reason that Battlestar Galactica never got the attention it deserved (with advertisements on my local channels playing down the fact that it happens “in space”). However, what is science-fiction when you boil it all down?

Are viewers spaced out by sci-fi?

I think science-fiction gets a bit of a tough time because of the imagery it conjurs up when you mention it to a potential audience member. Perhaps more than any genre other than the western, science-fiction film is defined by the world in which it is set rather than the plot of the film itself. When you hear “western”, you think desert. You might think of a defining set of themes – like moral ambiguity or the harsh nature of man – but these undoubtedly come later. Dislodge a western film from its sense of place and it ceases to be a western. A Fistful of Dollars was not a western when it was played out as Yojimbo in a Japanese village, for example – and you’d be hard pressed to describe The Seven Samurai as a western, even though its remake, The Magnificent Seven, clearly is. Although science-fiction is not so firmly listed in “place” (although any film set in space or “the not to distant future” will inevitably be classified as science-fiction by someone), it often seems to be better defined as a series of background details rather than a storytelling form itself.

Compared to other major genres like “thriller”, “comedy”, “action” or “drama”, sci-fi doesn’t seem so much a genre classification as a handy description. For example, when thinking of a science-fiction film, it’s rare to find the film classified sole as such. Total Recall and Robocop are science-fiction action movies; The Fly is science-fiction horror; Star Wars is science-fantasy adventure; Solaris is science-fiction psychological drama. It’s hard to think of a film that you would describe purely as a “science-fiction” film – I can think of perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey, that old trusted fall-back in discussions like this. I remember reading that Kubrick made the film purely so there could be “that one great science-fiction film”.

What defines these films aren’t necessarily the plots, but the plot devices. The themes are normally fairly straightforward, but the stories in question typically adopt an interesting manner of engaging with them. Take, for example, the machine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a movie about how memories and pain shape us into the people we are – and that if we do not learn from out mistakes we are doomed to repeat them. However, in order to explore that theme, the movie introduces a device which allows the user to wipe a person entirely from their memory. There are fairly frequent on-line discussions as to whether that device renders the movie a “science-fiction” movie – which is the type of worrying gerrymandering that damages the genre, the belief that “it can’t be science-fiction because it’s good”.

"Keep movin', son, before the suggestion we're in a sci-fi film catches up with us!"

The same sort of logic is applied to The Road as written by Cormac McCarthy. Though it uses elements that one would associate with science-fiction (a post-apocalyptic setting), one is highly unlikely to find it selved in that section at the local bookstore. It will be stored under “literature” or “fiction a-z”. The movie was heavily publicised as a tale of human survival rather than a science-fiction film, as it was widely believed that being a science-fiction film would severely hamper the film’s Oscar chances.

The fact that the devices so frequently associated with science-fiction (like lasers or rocket ships) are frquently dismissed as childish has hardly helped the portrayal of the genre. In fact, I’d be highly surprised if the mention of the genre didn’t bring the image of robots or silly aliens or lasers or space ships into the mind of anyone who read it. However, I don’t necessarily think that this is a fair approach to the genre.

To me – and I admit that this is highly personal – I see a science-fiction story as one where the writer uses any number of fictious elements (from aliens to advanced technology) in order to tell their story. I admit that what constitutes one of these fictious elements is highly subjective (I mean, if it’s a wizard it’s fantasy, if it’s an alien it’s science-fiction – but what if it’s an alien wizard?), but I think it’s fair. Replace the robots in Blade Runner with escaped convicts, and move the film’s setting to modern New York rather than future Los Angeles – suddenly it goes from being a science-fiction noir to just being a noir. Sunshine would be a regular psychological studio of human interaction and the conflicts between rational and irrational if it wasn’t set on a giant bomb hurdling through space.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me – but I do think that science-fiction is probably best used a description of a series of plot devices rather than a genre proper. If a genre exists to facilitate grouping, I believe that more value is found in grouping a film like Blade Runner with Chinatown rather than Space Balls. But then perhaps I am on my own on this one.

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