Friday, January 28, 2011

Why Science Fiction No Longer Appeals to Me

I started writing this post before The Siren published her post on science fiction films she likes a couple of days ago. This was unexpected. Having a post on sci-fi coincide with a post by The Siren's Farran Smith Nehme on sci-fi movies is a bit like putting up a post on westerns only to have Arbogast put up a list of his ten favorite John Wayne/John Ford collaborations at the same time. It's not impossible but you figured this was one area in which you'd never have to compete. As such, I've slightly altered this post in response to what transpired at The Siren's place where, as is common, her post has already logged 12,847 comments, or something close. I was the first to comment on the post and made reference to how Star Wars was not sci-fi. I now feel the need to defend that statement here which, it turns out, I was going to do anyway, deep within the post itself but only as side thought. Now, however, I feel I must make it more of a "front and center" kind of a statement. With that in mind, let us now delve into the original post itself, altered only slightly in response to The Siren's post.

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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."

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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.

39 comments:

Marilyn said...

If you are looking for a science-based story without all the explosions, check out Moon or Primer. There's the remake of Solaris as well.

Greg said...

Marilyn, I love both Moon and Primer, even if the latter doesn't make much sense. I wish more sci-fi was like those two and thank you for reminding me how much I like them.

Greg said...

Marilyn, I went ahead and slightly amended the post (last paragraph) to include mention of Moon and Primer.

Sylvie said...

A very intriguing post for someone like me who can never quite explain why, if I "don't like sci-fi," I do like Star Wars, or Firefly, or a myriad other things that happen to take place in space.

Marilyn said...

On a second viewing, Primer is easier to follow. During the first viewing, I literally worked myself into a headache.

Greg said...

Sylvie, I can totally understand people being bored by sci-fi, even if I'm not. It contains conventions that many would find belabored and ham-fisted as it explores social and political notions through technological backgrounds. But an action/adventure or mythological centered film like Star Wars can easily appeal to a non-sci-fi fan since it isn't really of the sci-fi genre.

Greg said...

Marilyn, I still haven't viewed it a second time but really loved it the first time even if I didn't quite follow the shotgun subplot thing. I think I'll give it another look soon.

bill r. said...

Great post, Greg. As I think you know, I agree with everything you say. And saying that STAR WARS is fantasy, not SF, strikes me as so plain-as-day that you might as well say steak is a type of meat. But too many people don't see it that way.

This is also partly why the initial, heavy negativity towards AI made me so angry. Nobody ever makes pure SF like that anymore, and the one time somebody does everybody gets all pissy (but more than that, certain they have the movie pegged). I was and am grateful that movie got made, whatever its flaws.

I think that Wikipedia definition of SF is a bit narrow -- it doesn't have to solely be technology, it can be social ideas, but now I'm just nitpicking.

Greg said...

Well, the Wikipedia entry (just put in "Science Fiction") is pretty long and in depth. That's just the first line. Throughout the article though it does deliniate further.

Although, A.I. does indeed fit that definition. The whole story is about the impact of a technological innovation (androids) on society and in turn, the impact of one in particular on a family and on the android itself.

I, too, was unhappy with some of A.I.. About half its admirers like the ending and about half don't. I'm one of the ones that doesn't, thinking it should have ending with him wishing in front of the Blue Fairy, but I can see why others like the ending. Either way, it's an incredible piece of science fiction and truly delivers on everything you expect good sci-fi to deliver. While I've seen some damn good sci-fi since, like both Moon and Primer mentioned by Marilyn and added to the post by me afterwards, nothing tops A.I. for post 2001: A Space Odyssey sci-fi.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Coincidences happen. Around Halloween 2008, Cinebeats and I both wrote about two different films inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu, both posted at about the same time. So there!

And what do you mean Les Diaboliques is not a musical? Next thing you'll tell me is that Gone with the Wind is not about tornado chasers.

bill r. said...

AI is absolutely the strongest SF movie since 2001, at least that I've seen. I like the ending, I think it can work a couple different ways, and my problems are more in certain details (the Flesh Fair didn't work for me) then anything major.

Like I say, I was nitpicking in my comment about the Wikipedia description. I shouldn't have even brought it up! I'm so stupid!

Greg said...

And what do you mean Les Diaboliques is not a musical? Next thing you'll tell me is that Gone with the Wind is not about tornado chasers.

Okay, I admit, the scene where Simone Signoret sings, "On the street where you drowned" does fall in favor of calling it a musical but Paul Meurisse's singing is so bad on the number "Water Gets in your Eyes" that it feels like a bad parody of a musical more than an actual one.

Greg said...

Bill, I think the ending can be taken a few different ways too and I guess I don't necessarily think it's bad as much as I think ending it underwater would have been better.

Some even take the ending that's there as more nihilistic in that our small boy is given a brief respite only to realize he will never see her again after that but isn't that kind of where he was before anyway? As in, he felt he would never see her again. Now at least he has closure, which is the way I prefer to look at it. But I like it better thinking of him freezing up and shutting down after centuries with the tragedy of that closure never realized.

Marilyn said...

In a lot of ways, A.I. is like The Last Laugh. Both could have been devastating if the happy ending hadn't happened. I don't know what happened with the latter film, but I do think giving a happy ending to A.I. (or at least bittersweet) is what needed to happen with a Spielberg film, and I still think it works in giving scifi a more optimistic outlook. I know Spielberg has always been high on the possibilities of science - as am I - and that ending felt satisfying.

Greg said...

I think you're right about that, Marilyn, but I guess I also let personal bias enter into the equation in that I always see "cloying" where Spielberg intends "feel good" or "optimistic." And that ending has more of a "cloying" feel to me but, again, maybe I'm just letting personal bias enter in where there should be none.

The Gimlet Eye said...

It was my understanding that the ending of AI was exactly as Kubrick had mapped it out in the screenplay, and wasn't tacked on by Spielberg to make it a happy ending.

Greg said...

It's true and Jonathan Rosenbaum, a huge supporter of the film even though he's normally a huge Spielberg detractor, backs it up. My suspicion, or bias probably, is that Kubrick would have made it colder and more cerebral but, in the end, I'm probably just seeing things that aren't there.

Vanwall said...

All SF is really about mythology. All of it. I'm somewhat of what they used to call "hard science fiction" based in my choices for favorite SF films - as in the story has a classic definition of it as the plot device. The "soft" aspect was always somewhat more human based, often fantastical, but almost always involved some sort of fictional psi powers that can rankle when done poorly - but both "soft" and "hard" are still an interpretation of myth. So are all westerns, and all noir, if you go deep enough. All SF films can be interpreted as mythology, in my view, and the settings can be SF and mythic at the same time, as well. "Star Wars" is as scientific as "Creature From the Black Lagoon" or "Demon with a Glass hand" for that matter, and both of the earlier efforts are as mythic as SW, in fact even more, yet like the TV masterpiece, "The Prisoner", the science elements are always there, and are part of the plotting no matter how minute. That's what makes films SF for me sometimes.

That said, for me, like the article you linked to, most of the SF films today lag dreadfully behind the written forms, because they concentrate on visuals, naturally. You can only do so much in films with plotting, the time element doesn't allow for much in any genre, and TV shows often take the easy way out, as well - that being the BEM and Babe, which are easier to sell. "Outer Limits" had that as the starting premise from the producers at the get go, BTW.

A.I was most certainly mythological SF for me, and a bit of the decidedly un-scientific Pinocchio thrown in. My brother was heavily involved in running the massive online mystery SF game, "The Beast", that was part of the A.I's promotional stuff, and that was more hard, classic sci-fi than the film by far. As far as he could tell, A.I. ended up with mostly Kubrick's vision, tho.

Frank R. Paul has won in the end, tho - the look and yes, the settings, of his old pulp covers is the de-facto interpreted look of film SF, even now, regardless of how unscientific his art.

Greg said...

All SF is really about mythology. All of it... So are all westerns, and all noir, if you go deep enough.

Well, yes, I guess if you really dig, you can say any genre's about anything. I appreciate the breadth and depth of this comment but what I'm not getting is anything in the way of supporting arguments. For instance, you say they're all about mythology but don't provide examples that state how. Anyone can say, "Nice job, Greg, but despite the examples you provide here to differentiate between science fiction storytelling and mythology, I say they're ALL mythology!" Okay, tell me how.

I outlined the "hows" and "whys" of the mythology behind Star Wars and I don't see that applying to The Terminal Man, a film I used in my piece because I think it's a great example of science fiction, in which technology is melded with man and the conflict comes in dealing with the paranoias and actual dangers inherent in such an undertaking. In Star Wars, technology becoming part of a man, ala Darth Vader, is used in a mythological sense of a transformation from noble knight to dark lord.

Now, to say it's all about mythology is reductio ad absurdum. We could take most modern urban drama and classify it as a journey of discovery which could fit it into mythology but the point isn't that if we reduce something enough times it will eventually fit the mold, rather that if taken at the face value of their primary story elements, some deal with mythological stories and some are about science and humanity in conflict.

Don't get me wrong, I understand your reduction argument but don't believe Demon with a Glass Hand fits into the mythology mold like Star Wars. Even if you did put it in a mythology mold it wouldn't be the classic mold that's for sure. Yes, there is a journey of discovery, that part's there. But nothing else fits. It works more as "an eternal man" myth which isn't the same thing exactly.

Anyway, I appreciate the thought you put into your comment and, Vanwall, any comment from you is always welcome, I'd just like you to give me some more comparisons to help me understand better. You clearly have a pretty good background with this kind of thing so I'd definitely like to hear more on this from you.

Vanwall said...

Ah, it's your blog I just didn't want to throw to much verbiage into it as a comment.

The basics of all stories were word-of-mouth myths no doubt, and not all the classic Greco-Roman ones fit sci-fi. In my view, Native American, Sumerian (mispronounced/mentioned as one of proto-stories for "Demon with a Glass Hand" in Vic Perrin's deathless tones at the beginning, BTW) Norse, or Indian sub-continental ones are often as apt - and as we know from Harlan Ellison's travails, and the failure of adaptations of, say, Roger Zelazny's works - many of which are specifically based off Eastern myths - scriptwriters are also usually voracious readers of others' works, and often not shy about swiping from them.

The science may be "harder" in "Demon with a Glass Hand - but only because we can more easily appreciate it as such when it's presented as machine oriented reality; "The Force" from SW is only a step away from the time travel accouterments of the Kyben, however, and the fairy-tale aspects of SW are no further from sci-fi than the Blue Fairy in A.I.

This also applies to "The Terminal Man", (which is almost classically anti-science in its "some things man is not meant to know" - Chrichton was a very persuasive half-assed thinker and not always the best researcher as a writer, IMHO) and any of the possession myths, from Gods entering mortals, to full moon loup-garous would suffice as a premise that doesn't need science at all to work, but matches the plot.

I think Gilgamesh could be a big part of DWAGH, it's one episode of chain of adventures that Trent evidently is in for, each giving him more information (another finger) as to his life's meaning.

A lot of noirs are Beowulf-ian, some are Oedipal. Westerns by nature are built from myths like say, Beowulf, into new myths by H'wood.

I mentioned at Siren's that Doc Smith coulda written SW, it was that kind of pre-Golden Age Sci-fi Space Opera, and I bet you wouldn't have had to hit him with a hardback volume of "The Golden Bough" for Smith to be flattered about mythological connections to "Skylark of Space", or the Lensmen series, but he would've defended to the death he was a science fiction writer.

Greg said...

The science may be "harder" in "Demon with a Glass Hand - but only because we can more easily appreciate it as such when it's presented as machine oriented reality; "The Force" from SW is only a step away from the time travel accouterments of the Kyben, however, and the fairy-tale aspects of SW are no further from sci-fi than the Blue Fairy in A.I.

The problem, as I see it, that the two of us are having with this, is that you're basing the claim that all sci-fi is mythology on an original premise whereas I am writing about the specifics of genre storytelling after the premise. That's why I said any urban drama could fit the mold as well. The idea being that if we did that then there would be only one genre, myth. That's it. So we create maps and guidelines as to what makes a certain genre the way it is.

In the above quote of yours, I wouldn't accept that the Kyban's time travel is only a "step away" from the spiritual mysticism of the Force. That seems to me to be begging the question (in the fallacial sense, not the colloquial misusage sense), that is, a conclusion is stated (the time-travel is only a step away from the Force) based on the assumption that the premise (both are the same according to mythology) is proven when, in fact, it is simply a statement you have made to support your declaration.

Also, the blue fairy is a straw man in that it is not presented in A.I. as an original creation as it is in Pinocchio but as an allusion to Pinocchio. One can't site a sci-fi plot making a litarerical reference, pretend it is basing its plot on the reference and then tear it down.

This also applies to "The Terminal Man", (which is almost classically anti-science in its "some things man is not meant to know" - Chrichton was a very persuasive half-assed thinker and not always the best researcher as a writer, IMHO) and any of the possession myths, from Gods entering mortals, to full moon loup-garous would suffice as a premise that doesn't need science at all to work, but matches the plot.

Again, it also applies to drama and every sitcom on television if we're reducing everything to its original premise. And what of The Terminal Man being anti-science? Isn't that kind of the appeal of most science fiction? Sci-fi rarely shows us a two hour story of a utopian future where nothing goes wrong. The conflict inherent to sci-fi stories is usually that, in fact, science has, in some way, fucked things up. There's the creation of a mechanical human brain that runs amok in 2001: A Space Odyssey with HAL9000 in the most famous example. Going all the way back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (I'd hardly call her "half-assed") the basic idea was science doing things it shouldn't. That's par for the course, not a reason to disqualify something from the genre.

I think Gilgamesh could be a big part of DWAGH, it's one episode of chain of adventures that Trent evidently is in for, each giving him more information (another finger) as to his life's meaning.

A lot of noirs are Beowulf-ian, some are Oedipal. Westerns by nature are built from myths like say, Beowulf, into new myths by H'wood
.

This goes to what I said before, about going back far enough to an original premise so I'll just say, "See above."

COMMENT CONTINUED BELOW

Greg said...

COMMENT CONTINUED

I mentioned at Siren's that Doc Smith coulda written SW, it was that kind of pre-Golden Age Sci-fi Space Opera, and I bet you wouldn't have had to hit him with a hardback volume of "The Golden Bough" for Smith to be flattered about mythological connections to "Skylark of Space", or the Lensmen series, but he would've defended to the death he was a science fiction writer.

Finally, I would say this is most definitely an "Argument from Authority" fallacy. If I found a writer of gothic romance novels who claimed her work was properly classified as "spy novels" that wouldn't make it so and would be irrelevant to the facts of the matter.

Let's use the "out of Africa" model of human evolution as an example to get at what I'm trying to address. All humanity emerged from the African continent between 70,000 and 125,000 years ago. Now, today, we classify people as being European, African, Asian, North or South American or Australian to identify their continent of origin. This is because if we all said "I'm from Africa" it might get confusing or, at the very least, someone who wanted a more specific, recent example of where you were from, would come up empty-handed. So, we don't do that.

But that's what you're doing. I'm saying, "I'm from North America" and you're saying, "No, Greg, you're from Africa. Well, if you go back far enough." That is correct, if I go back far enough but it does little to help the descriptive needs of the present, doesn't it?

Now, to better understand stories we break them up into genres. To do this successfully, so that those desiring to understand the difference can do so, we don't reduce everything to its original premise, rather, we deliniate the differences in storytelling in the here and now that make one genre different from the other.

So, with Star Wars, we can point to the story, and how it is told, and its characters - its wizards and knights and princesses and dark lords - and say, "It is squarely in the realm of mythological/fantasy genre." In creating a road map for what is contained in the storytelling elements of a genre we can help discern one from the other. This is how we know Star Wars is not science fiction, because it does not contain the storytelling elements of that genre.

They may all come from mythology at some point in the distant past but that isn't a very good roadmap for understanding the here and now. That's why we have genres in the first place. To get past the original premise and understand the present methods.

Vanwall said...

Oh, I don't argue with the premise of cultural road maps. I'm just not one to exclude based on the territory one stands upon, and where in time it's set. The "as we know" qualifier implies some subset of all-knowing interpreters of SF that I don't seem to, or care to, belong to.

As for spiritual mysticism in SW, that's one interpretation of the implied vast psi powers, which however far-fetched, could be a real thing based on a physical actuality - which could also be said of time-travel, it's as mythological empirically today, that's the step I meant. Neither one is a proven reality, or dis-proven, they're both meant to be interpreted by the viewers as possibilities. I mentioned Zelazny, and his form of "The Force" in "Lord of Light" could easily be applied to SW, and it is in no way spiritual.

And the allusion to Pinocchio in A.I. wasn't to tear it down, as I mentioned my personal views of SF are more catholic than many, I suppose, and I like the fairy tale aspects, I'm not disqualifying it at all - it enhanced the movie, regardless of genre.

As for "The Terminal Man", I wasn't arguing that anti-science thinking isn't endemic to the genre, I was using that as an example of the un-original thinking of Mr. Chrichton, at a very basic level - he was as bad as any at borrowing from others, including the boogie man. I never said that was reason to disqualify it, either.

I'm not dissing any of these films from a genre, BTW, I like them where they are, in my SF canon, thank you very much, and have never argued for exclusion in any of my statements, in fact I've been arguing inclusion.

You asked for mythological reference for DWAGH, and I think the one I provided fits, but that's what interpretations are for. Again, I'm certainly not disqualifying it.

As for Doc Smith, his genre, as are all, is set by the readers, and few "harder" SF authors will be found - I've never read anywhere that he placed himself in some other genre. He was pretty singular in his fiction writing, which is adamantine SF, and is most certainly relevant. I was speculating from firm ground, unlike many whose reductos about SW are closer to quicksand.

I'm not the original thinker regarding SW and Smith, BTW, his Lord Tedric story ideas have been bandied about for many years as the inspiration for "The Force" in SW, as well as the Death Star and light sabers. Hard SF.

As I also mentioned at Siren's, "The Hidden Fortress" is one of the main plot inspirations, in mine and many others opinions, so it's actually a Japanese historical romance. Maybe.

Greg said...

As for spiritual mysticism in SW, that's one interpretation of the implied vast psi powers, which however far-fetched, could be a real thing based on a physical actuality.

And, in fact, that is what Lucas made it out to be by the second trilogy, by introducing the device of midichlorians. Of course, they weren't there for the first film so I still see that using the force as a spiritual experience which I prefer and wish Lucas hadn't taken it down the path he did for the second trilogy.

Vanwall, you are a formidable force yourself when it comes to discussing science fiction and if I haven't already, let me thank you for an invigorating and thoughtful discussion. You've certainly made me think twice about many assumptions I had about sci-fi going into this post. Thanks for the thorough and well-educated comments. Sincerely.

Greg said...

As for Doc Smith, his genre, as are all, is set by the readers, and few "harder" SF authors will be found - I've never read anywhere that he placed himself in some other genre. He was pretty singular in his fiction writing, which is adamantine SF, and is most certainly relevant. I was speculating from firm ground, unlike many whose reductos about SW are closer to quicksand.

By the way, I missed this a second ago when I commented. I see what you are saying here so I should make clear I was trying to say that whatever genre an author thinks his work belongs to is irrelevant to the actual facts of the genre they do belong to. I did not mean to say that your statements were irrelevant, which my comment about arguing to authority probably implied. Sorry about that.

Vanwall said...

Gregg, I had a ton of fun on this thread myself, thanks for making me understand where a lot of people are in thinking and writing about SF. You brought up some excellent points, and I, too, have some thinking to do. I admit to a large segment of my life, my reading, my convention-going, and my library has been devoted to SF, fantasy and comics, so this was like a fine dessert. You're post was well worth reading, an excellent piece of personal writing. Thanks, for letting me blab!

Bob Turnbull said...

Excellent post as always Greg...

There are more "sci-fi" films than you've mentioned from the modern age that cover ideas rather than action, but they sure aren't rolling out of Hollywood as a general rule. My friend Kurt at RowThree put together this list back in May of 31 films from the last decade that cover pretty much exactly what you were discussing - the effect of technology or even just scientific ideas on society and humanity . I expect you won't come close to loving all these films, but I think it shows that there are still some filmmakers out there who want to explore concepts and not just blast aliens. Both Moon and Primer are on the list as well as A.I. and Solaris.

My favourite example of this kind of movie (and Kurt mentions this in his first comment as an omission to the list) is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Pulse". Usually thought of as a horror film, it really fits nicely into the mold you've carved out.

Greg said...

Bob, thanks and that's a great list. I don't like a lot of those films but that's probably to be expected. No one is going to like everything.

Many of those on the list though have the same problems for me as the action/thriller sci-fi I talk about here. Sunshine for instance is more of a killer thriller and District 9 devolves into a chase scene with the requisite gunfights and explosions for practically the entire second half of the movie.

I've seen just about all of them though and do like several. And even though I'm not wild about it, I must say that Wall-E is definitely classic sci-fi. Before it became a keystone cops chase in its second half, which disappointed me greatly, it had a real intensity to it. The scene where the captain watches the video of the Earth leader saying, effectively, it's over, we've destroyed the planet, was downright chilling. I would have loved to have seen a live action version of this movie where there was no central robot character, just a destroyed earth and a captain discovering what happened and deciding to take everyone back. Remove the usual Pixar slapstick and "aw shucks" robot romance and you've got a powerful science fiction tale.

Bob Turnbull said...

Greg,

Yeah, I figured the list wasn't quite what you were looking for, but I think there's still plenty of quality stuff to chew on there. My wheelhouse pulls in a lot of Kurt's list, but a lot of the older films as well. I enjoy lots of kablooey action on screen as well, but I'd rather something that either engages my thinking gears or at least leaves me in a state of wonder. My favourite book as a youngster just getting into sci-fi was "Rendezvous With Rama" - a book that to this day has been the greatest "page turner" for me ever. I couldn't wait to find out the next technological marvel or solution to a mystery (usually involving scientific principles). Though I'd be very curious to see what David Fincher would have done with it, I'm kinda glad it never made it to the big screen...

Greg said...

Bob, don't get me wrong, there's plenty on the list I like even if I don't consider them straight up sci-fi. Like Sunshine, for instance. I liked that one a lot even if I consider it more of a whodunnit/thriller set in sci-fi dressing. I still like it, though.

I never read "Rendezvous with Rama" but looked it up quickly and I think that's going to be one of my near future downloads on kindle. I'm already loaded up with reading for several months but that's definitely going on the list.

brencahill said...

Have you seen 'Code 46' from a few years ago. It's a not perfect-but pretty good movie by Michael Winterbottom which is definitely 'real' SF.

Will said...

From my DVD collection alone:
12 Monkeys
Brazil
Code 46
Contact
Dark City
Existenz
Gattaca
The Lathe of Heaven (PBS)
Solaris (Soderbergh)
Vanilla Sky
But that list conforms with the proposition that action & ideas are mutually exclusive, which itself is invalid.
Therefore I disagree strongly with you about District 9.

Greg said...

Brencahill, I have not and since both you and Will in the comment recommend it, I'll definitely check it out.

Greg said...

But that list conforms with the proposition that action & ideas are mutually exclusive, which itself is invalid

Will, I hope you don't think I feel that action and ideas are mutually exclusive because I use 2001: A Space Oddysey as an example of a movie in which, in my opinion, the action is the expression of the idea. They go hand in hand.

My beef is with sci-fi that takes action (as in action movie style action) and substitutes it for ideas. For instance, Demon with a Glass Hand is another good example of action (the constant pursuit and physical confrontations Trent has with the Kyban) expressing the idea (a journey, or pursuit, of a mystery through time).

I think District 9 could be argued by its supporters to do much the same thing, that is, take its pursuit as an expression of the idea of the "other" or "alien" among us and chase them and herd them into a prison we're comfortable with.

For me personally, I felt the action went beyond this and became too much of a shootout, action movie kind of action, however, I could have been expecting something different and so played up the action differently in my mind. Maybe upon a second viewing, knowing what was going to happen, I might see it differently.

Looking at your DVD list I own, or have seen, all of those except for Code 46 and Lathe of Heaven which leads me to think of a different angel at which to come at this: Given that other movies, like Moon and Primer, are also mentioned that I saw and loved, maybe what all of this is about is simply a sci-fi lover bemoaning the fact that none of the better sci-fi movies make money, except in the case of District 9, which did quite well.

Dark City, Gattaca and Contact are all movies I thought should have been a lot more popular than they were but weren't because they dealt with ideas more than action.

In fact, this whole post changed because of a list by a writer I love talking about her favorite sci-fi and including Star Wars and when I read that I thought, "There are so many great sci-fi flicks out there, why does Star Wars always get mentioned?!"

One thing I've learned from writing online, and engaging readers in the comments, like you or Vanwall, is that often the initial written post is just a stepping stone to a better understanding of what I was trying to say but didn't quite express well enough.

Greg said...

That should be "angle" not "angel."
Ugh.

Bob Turnbull said...

I'll third that recommendation for Code 46 (it's got a damn spiffy soundtrack too).

I think you're spot in regards to why some of these films haven't done boffo box office - a discussion of ideas simply isn't what a large percentage of people want to see. Or at least, not what they think they want to see.

I can't help but think that one of the reasons Contact didn't fare well was that it asked a lot of questions (including ones about religion), but didn't really answer any of them explicitly.

It always baffles me that some people can't find genuine excitement in scientific discovery. I loved the scene where they break apart the signal from space to find out what it's sending - sure it's perhaps a little unrealistic, but the ideas and concepts are there and the film approached it with a breathless pace and brought it to a fine reveal.

In the end, I do agree with you to a great extent - there's a frustration that most people think of sci-fi movies as Star Wars. We'll just have to keep digging for the real ones (Kurt from RowThree is currently working on a follow-up post to the one I linked to above - he's aiming to publish it a few months from now).

Greg said...

It always baffles me that some people can't find genuine excitement in scientific discovery. I loved the scene where they break apart the signal from space to find out what it's sending - sure it's perhaps a little unrealistic, but the ideas and concepts are there and the film approached it with a breathless pace and brought it to a fine reveal.

Bob, I love so much of Contact and that part is definitely one of my favorites. From the moment Ellie hears the signal to the point where Hitler's image appears the next day is pretty incredible. Then, as they slowly but surely figure out the noise in the background is schematics and then further figure out how to put them together three-dimensionally and on and on - it's just great, gripping viewing.

And I love that opening, even if we all know that the recordings are receding in date far faster than they would (I think they're in the 1950's recordings before they reach Pluto which isn't even 4 lights hours from earth, much less forty light years!). Still, the idea of it is beautiful and the long quiet period at the end is transfixing.

Anonymous said...

tdraicer:

I'm late here (I have an excuse-I was moving to Florida from NYC) but I don't find the end of AI optimistic. The human race is dead, the robots who have inherited the earth are trying to use a robot "boy" to understand extinct humanity, and the robot boy dies. Seems pretty bleak to me.

Greg said...

Yes, but we're never really connected to the human characters. It's the robots that are the center of the story, particularly our robot boy and with the ending the way it is, he does die but at least with mommy closure, which he doesn't have if he shorts out wishing at the bottom of the sea.