This ain't your daddies Scifi

by Paul William Tenny

There's a funny poll running on Scifi Wire today asking readers which of the listed films should win the Saturn award for best Scifi flick. It's funny because of the six choices, only two of them are actually science fiction, while most are borderline stupid and just do not belong. I could go on for pages about how the term has been so abused over the years that it doesn't really resemble the original use in any way. It feels like virtually anything that isn't a comedy can be called Scifi now, and people don't even think about it.

I've seen people say that Lost is science fiction, and Heroes, and these films are even more ludicrous; Transformers, Fantastic Four, and Cloverfield? Is this a joke?
Noun: science fiction
Literary fantasy involving the imagined impact of science on society

Sound much like Lost to you? Or Transformers? Technology is a device for story telling is not the same thing as examining the impact of science on society. A monster, rampaging through downtown New York, is not Sci Fi. Smoke monsters, plane crashes, tropical islands, and polar bears is not Sci Fi. Heroes could at least bring something to the debate, but it'd lose ultimately because the show doesn't explore the impact of science at all. The story telling device is genetic changes that are not explored whatsoever -- it was a stub to get the ball rolling. At its heart, Heroes and Lost are pure plain jane drama.

The two films on the list that actually belong are Sunshine, which is actually a stretch if you've ever seen the thing, and perhaps I Am Legend, though that too is questionable. If you think I'm being too strict with my interpretation, I'd argue that everyone on this planet is far too liberal with it, and that there hasn't been very much true science fiction in film or on television over the past few years, anymore than there has been for all of eternity.

Getting ready to yell about Battlestar Galactica, or any other "Scifi" on the "Scifi" channel? Don't bother. Space opera mostly, and space ships don't automatically make something science fiction. Ships, shields, energy weapons and transporters are no different than cars or planes. They are just vehicles for doing something -- fighting, running, getting from A to B -- but they don't comment on the effect that science has on society. Not unless it actually does that, which no show or movie I've mentioned thus far has even come close to doing.

BSG, perhaps but only if it wanted to, could ask these questions. When Ron Moore reinvented the series, he changed a critical unexplored aspect of the original BSG universe: humans created Cylons, whereas aliens did the deed in the original series. That's something well worth exploring, but generally, it doesn't even try. If anything, BSG explores meta and religion far more than it does any aspect of science.

I won't go into that any further since I'd really like to explore that topic in greater detail some other time, but for now, I've got to point out that given what I've said, I actually find it really insulting that Transformers is leading the vote with 41%. Sunshine, which frames itself as true honest-to-god Scifi -- and goes completely off the rail into a mixed horror/confuse at all costs flick in the last third that is disappointingly similar to Event Horizon -- barely manages fourth place.

That's basically what I'm saying here, where Transformers, a movie that is purely an action genre flick with a little fantasy thrown in to fill it out, is leading the pack by a huge margin, while the only actual science fiction film in the entire bunch is sitting at 12%. As much as Scifi has no idea what the term means, which is really disturbing for a channel that is ruining the name, most people voting seem to have no clue what it is they are seeing in the theaters.

Is it any wonder that Scifi can't get a foothold in movies and on television when so much of this stuff is constantly mislabeled, giving the genre a bad name with failures that are not much more than your traditional drama with a little flare?

For your money, some of the truest science fiction no longer on the air was the newer Outer Limits, which routinely explored the effect of science on society both in the past, present, and of course the future. It is extremely rare to see actual Scifi on TV or in the theaters and so long as people keep distorting the meaning of the words, that's not going to change anytime soon.

Lost (arguably for those who like it) deserves the Saturn nominations and I realize that Saturn awards are not strictly for science fiction, although there's no point in awarding these things strictly on the merits for fantasy, since fantasy is about as well defined as the word "good." Every piece of fiction is fantasy to one degree or another, which is why Scifi way I approached arguing that films like Transformers and Cloverfield don't belong. Every film on the list is fantasy, but only two (really only one) are actually Scifi.

When I look at films and television shows, I backtrack a little to a more generic and fundamental genre while figuring out what show really is. At their heart, both Lost and Heroes are well and true Dramas, as are basically all one-hour shows. I don't see anything significantly different about those two shows that would warrant inventing a whole new genre -- or abusing an existing one -- just to set them apart from the rest of the field when their innate quality does that job just fine.

Only when a show or film takes great paints to follow a very particular path that isn't directly related to its theme can it ascend from one fundamental genre into another that lives on a higher plain of consciousness. "This isn't just a film with space ships in it, it is saying something about how this particular technology has effected either positively or negatively human existence and development." Science cannot simply be a prop to get things going.

Horror is about more than just murder or death, as I said, these people take great pains to actually scare and horrify you not really in service of the story, but to color what you see with your own emotions to tell you something about yourself, the film, terror, and all at the same time. SF is about more than people living on space ships with awesome technology beyond anything we'll ever see in our lifetimes; it's about how that technology has fundamentally changed our lives and us as a species, forcing us to reexamine how we use it today, how it effects us today, and what we should and should not do with it in the future.

Transformers, Cloverfield, and Fantastic Four are manifestly not qualified to live on that level. These films seek to thrill through pure fantastic imagery and suspense alone. There's no significant thought process going on here, no sneaky ulterior motives to make us actually think about this stuff for a while; it's plain spun entertainment and nothing more. While there's certainly nothing wrong with that at all, it's generally not worthy of awards for extraordinary achievement in genre busting.
in Feature, Film, Television


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Did you ever see the Masters of Science Fiction anthology series before ABC killed it? It's one of the few recent attempts at serious sci-fi in a mainstream non-literay medium.

Unfortunately, I didn't really like any of the episodes they showed :/
What about "Dune"? or "I, Robot" ? I think both of those qualify as SciFi. "2001 - A Space Odyssey" ? Absolutely. "A Clockwork Orange"? - yes indeed. Of course...all of these movies are quite a few years old. When did "I, Robot" come out? It was written in the fifties I think.
Fantasy has really been at the forefront of what's being produced now (and it's a nice change from standard hollywood fare), but i'm starved for some good Sci-fi and it's really about time Mel Gibson got off his ass and produced "Farenheight 451", like he talked about 5 years ago.
I think everyone wants to see "Enders Game" on the big screen, i know i do...yet they keep churning out the same plot lines over and over when theres such a wealth of great material just sitting on book shelves.

Serenity was the last good sci-fi movie i can think of that came out fairly recently, and i remember being so pleasantly suprised that the plot didn't require large alien bugs (but i'll allow for them if it's Enders Game). Sunshine was a good attempt and i really wanted to like it more than i did maybe because the 28 movies were so good and as noted above it felt too much like Event Horizon. Just my 2 cents.

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