I have long since touted my love for science fiction on these pages and made clear that it was older sci-fi that appealed to me. In fact, so little modern sci-fi appeals to me that I have begun to wonder if I really love sci-fi at all or if I am simply nostalgic for the movies of my youth. At what point does saying sci-fi hasn't appealed to me in the last twenty years simply become an admission that I just don't like sci-fi or, at the very least, that it's not my favorite genre? But if it's not, why do I keep saying I love it so much?
Some of this question was answered for me the other day after I watched an episode of The Outer Limits, courtesy of my Amazon Video on Demand Library in combination with my Roku. And not just any episode but perhaps the most famous episode, Demon with a Glass Hand, written by Harlan Ellison. The episode is science fiction through and through. Most modern sci-fi isn't. I suppose the best place to start is by defining, to some degree, science fiction, at least to the degree to which we're discussing genre in film and television, not necessarily literature.
Genre definitions are often confused for setting by many people who associate tell-tale visuals with similar story lines. Genre, of course, is not setting, not location, but story and how that story is told. A musical has no setting, it can take place in Hollywood at the advent of the sound era (Singin' in the Rain), in Paris during the fifties (An American in Paris) or in Russia in 1905 (Fiddler on the Roof). The location's not the thing, it's the telling of the story through song that is. Similarly, a western can take place in the desert (Stagecoach), a mountain valley (Shane) or outer space (Outland). It doesn't have to be in the west, it has to tell its story in a certain way, although, unlike any other genre, its very title, Western, denotes a location. A horror movie can be about fantastical monsters or down to earth serial killers and it can take place any place, any time. Again, setting doesn't matter, story does.
And so, while watching and enjoying Demon with the Glass Hand I couldn't help but think about science fiction and how it too relies on story, not location. Science fiction, to take its most basic definition straight from the first line of its entry on Wikipedia, "is a genre of fiction dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology, often in a futuristic setting." Demon with a Glass Hand deals with technology directly as the thrust of its story. A man, Trent (Robert Culp), is being pursued by an alien race who want control of a glass computer attached to his wrist in the form of a hand. This alien race attacked earth 1,000 years into the future and have now chased Trent back through time to acquire the computer because only it knows what happened to humanity: all humans vanished without a trace after the invasion and the aliens began to mysteriously die off.
Demon with a Glass Hand takes place in the present day and almost entirely inside an abandoned office building. The location doesn't make it science fiction, the story does. To help understand that statement better, let's use Star Wars as an example.
Star Wars takes place in space, on distant planets and, most famously, in a galaxy far, far away. This has caused many to confuse location with story but the story is clearly one of mythological fantasy, not science fiction. The story is about dark lords and princesses and knights, not technology turned against man ala Blade Runner or The Terminal Man. It's not about the exploration of alien races ala 2001: A Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Third Kind although it clearly does include alien races of all kinds. But the story - the story - isn't about anything technical or scientific, it's about mythology.
Most people wouldn't look at a movie that takes place in France, say, Les Diaboliques, and happily claim, "It's a musical!"
"Why," you might ask.
"Because," they respond, "it takes place in France. Like Can-Can, Gigi, An American in Paris, Les Miserables..."
They continue because, well, a lot of musicals take place in France. But just because a movie takes place in France, that doesn't mean it's a musical, does it?
Star Wars runs into this same problem. "How's it not sci-fi? It takes place in space!" Yes. Yes, it does. But it's story is rooted in fantasy, adventure and mythology. It's comparable to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not The Matrix trilogy. As Ebeneezer Scrooge might say, "There's more Mists of Avalon than Avatar about you."
But what does any of this have to do with me not liking science fiction. Because science fiction tends to mix the fantasy/mythological/action elements in these days and less the pure sci-fi. Star Wars goddamn space setting all but assured that the sci-fi of 2001: A Space Odyssey would take a back seat to sci-fi more concerned with action than ideas.
None of this is to say that a generous portion of sci-fi hasn't always done this anyway, but for every action-filled War of the Worlds there was a Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, Day the Earth Stood Still or The Incredible Shrinking Man. Special effects played into all of those but it was the ideas held the movies together, not the action. When it comes to the ideas holding everything together it seems television is the last holdout for sci-fi purists (literature, of course, remains free of this problem).
Television gave us Star Trek (in all of its permutations), Space 1999, The X-Files and Lost which all concentrated on story over action. The cinema continues to deliver sci-fi but even the best of it, like Terminator (which borrows heavily from Ellison's Soldier episode of The Outer Limits), tends to cross genres and end up more as an action/thriller than pure sci-fi. Probably the best sci-fi movie I've seen in the last twenty years would be Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence which took a science fiction story and didn't back away from it by injecting large amounts of action and adventure. Another Spielberg sci-fi, Minority Report, does an excellent job as well but definitely leans more towards being classified as a mystery/thriller than science fiction. A.I. is pure sci-fi, and maybe that's why it's among my favorites in the genre even if movies like A.I. don't come along very often anymore.
So, do I still like science fiction movies? Yes, very much. I just don't like the more action/thriller oriented sci-fi movies of today, I suppose, which is kind of like being a fan of a dead language. I like it but no one uses it anymore and finding it in its pure form seems harder and harder, although it does exist (Moon, Primer). But for better or worse, most cinematic sci-fi now means sci-fi/action/thriller with no signs of turning back. As Caesar might say, "Alea iacta est."
Since I only mention the Star Wars genre mash-up briefly, I thought it might be of help to link to another article that covers it completely. It wasn't hard to find one and this one, Star Wars is not Science Fiction, seems to cover it more thoroughly than any other I found. It delves into sci-fi literature as well and raises many of the same points I raise here about location and setting but goes a bit further into what makes a story "science fictional" in its telling. I recommend it highly as a deeper examination of what I only touched on here.