We’re in our sixth decade of SF movies and it’s chaos out there. Despite a truly vintage year (it takes two hands to count the good ones) SF quality is erratic over the long term.
Folks, it’s as obvious as requiring two up quarks plus a down to make a proton. We need standards! More specifically, we need a set of gold standards that can be the guiding principles for SF filmmakers, enthusiastic audiences, and of course, humble film critics.
So power up your implants. The future of SF film needs Film Junk’s hive mind toggled on. Let us know where we got it wrong, if at all.
(Government Health Warning: We are talking about hard core SF â€“ not comic book poseurs or fantasy fluff heads.)
1. The Smart Idea Planted in a Great Story
Any SF film that aspires to greatness needs a compelling idea that engages the brain. And this idea needs a good story to make them fertile. Yes. You can say these two criteria are important to any movie but they are especially critical in a film genre that has so many potential distractions. Action themes, alien locales, unrestrained CGI, and ADD (Attention Deficit Directors). Their reliance on black SUVs, overwhelming effects, and scripts that constantly repeat “Go! Go! Go!” are bad for us all.
Smart: Gattaca, Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Code 46
Self-test: Watch Daybreakers. Does it show fresh ways to think about vampires? Or will it be stale blood tropes of the been there, done that variety. Early word suggests 50/50. If so, it fails.
2. Authentic Characters
The best SF is about the human condition. It’s something we all care about especially when the characters are believable. This second standard is tricky because it relies on the actor(s) and the director playing brilliantly together. They have to create an inviting human (or non-human) character(s) that we find so intriguing, we simply join them in their world.
Secret Standard: The best SF films have non-marquee names. Believe it. (And don’t give me Blade Runner. That exception proves my point).
The Standard in Action: Watch Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe in District 9. His performance as he transitions from office doofus to the first blended being is nothing short of astonishing.
3. Sense of Place
Place is supremely important to SF. More so than in other genres. The best SF films are set in places we’ve never experienced – another time, a space ship, a planet or moon, another dystopia, or a combo platter. If the filmmaker gets it right, the impact of the setting is palpable. You leave the theatre knowing you have been somewhere else for awhile.
Not of our world: Pitch Black, Screamers, Outland, Avatar (but maybe it was the marketing campaign)
Really Fast Forward: Luc Besson should have handed out seatbelts for his extravagant car chase set 250 years in New York’s future.
4. Plausible Science
Science is one of the trickiest balancing acts in SF films. But just like quantum mechanics, you don’t have to understand it. You just have to know how to use it. Certain accepted conventions will enable the story (FTL travel, aliens, energy weapons, etc). But the writer or director who can imaginatively project a biogenetic advance or introduce us to aliens one brane over will be revered for years to come.
Science elevates: Sunshine, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Iron Man (even)
The Standard in Action: Contact admirably uses some slippery worm hole speculation to deliver a nicely twisted conclusion.
5. Credible Unfamiliarity
This standard is the holy grail of SF. It’s something – a setting, an alien, a twist – that we almost know but really doesn’t fit our human experience. It’s a conceptual shape shifting thing, always just slightly out of reach of our comprehension. It leaves us with a feeling of having been out there. And that’s what we’re in it for.
What works: Tarkovsky’s sentient planet in Solaris, The Pilot in Alien
Really Works: Planet of the Apes. Taylor now understands that what was unusual but knowable is no longer understandable. And the audience gets the shivers. Good SF.
A final thought: Is there a positive nexus that spins off good SF films when they deal with racism?
Think about it: Gattaca, District 9, Planet of the Apes, Avatar