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Redeeming SF Cinema
by Thomas Myer

Films. They range from the oh-my-gawd incredible (Pulp Fiction, Gandhi, Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner), to the offbeat (Tank Girl, Clerks), banal (anything with BeastMaster or Police Academy in the title), and overtly commercial (Star Wars, anyone?).

As you can see from the range of titles that I've plucked from my synapses, the whole medium of film is capable of a wide spectrum of expression, mood, plot, and character. As a story-telling vehicle, film can often reach a larger audience than stage drama and novels. And with a lot of the same effects as a literary novel.

With all the variety of expression available to cinematic artists, why are Science Fiction movies so... one-dimensional compared to Science Fiction novels? I know that film is a medium that must be selective, extroverted, action-oriented, but there are mainstream films that rival literary masterpieces. Gandhi, for one. Chariots of Fire, for another. Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. And while we're on Bogey, how about The African Queen? I could go on and on.

Plainly, most Science Fiction films fall outside the realm of "literary masterpiece" -- by which I mean a work of storytelling art that explores some aspect of humanity and reveals something about ourselves. Even the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, with its dragon and fiends and old grudges and the occasional revenge, highlights that all-too-human preoccupation with courage in the face of a doomed fate.

Hence the "barbaric" medievals could have the modern equivalent of car crashes, boobs, and gun battles in their stories, with a dash of rational thought. (Sean Stewart calls this type of genre the "Meaning of Life Thriller" -- a good name for it.)

On the other hand, a lot of Science Fiction literature can manage to combine the action-packed stuff with the "human" in humanity. Most of Iain M. Banks' novels bristle with a ripping good plot, lots of hardware, ships with funny names, and lots of humanity elevated by technology. Stephen King's books do a fair job of capturing the human moment, too. And so do other novelists, many of whom we review twice a month here at SF Site.

But SF films... yikes! Too many of them focus on military/action-thriller story lines, with lots of loving attention to hardware, special effects, and not much else. Mostly because the "not much else" doesn't sell. If you don't believe me, take a look at some of the highest grossing SF films of all time, and then tell me they made it to the top because of their rounded characters, thematic sweep, and insight. Right.

Just in case you may not be a mindreader, let me spell out those "highest grossing SF movies of all time" for you:
Jurassic Park ($358 million)
ID4 ($306 million)
Lost World ($225 million)
Teminator 2 ($205 million)
Star Wars (oh, never mind!)

A lot of people saw and enjoyed those movies. Quite a number of those viewers probably never read Science Fiction regularly, or even at all. To them, I would argue, Science Fiction equals lots of special effects, not a whole hell of a lot of characterization, and certainly no introspection into the human condition. This is mostly because introspection only comes when you slow down a bit. And in action movies, you're either slowing down because you're dead, or because you're reloading.

Those SF movies that have a better story line and characterization (Twelve Monkeys, Fifth Element, etc.) either never make it on the top sellers list, or are on the list because they release on January 2 and hang on for a week before going to video. Or at least, they seem to. Others become cult classics, like Blade Runner, in which case, it gets to "thumb its nose" at the kind of people who value stuff solely on the basis of box office rewards.

Hold on, some of you may be saying. What about E.T.? Yes, granted, that movie belongs in the aforementioned "oh-my-gawd incredible" ranking. And for a long time, it was the top-selling movie around anywhere. But this past year, the re-release of Star Wars knocked our favorite E.T. off the number one slot. That, and the whole premise behind ID4 and Starship Troopers ("Let's kick E.T.'s butt!" and "Kill them all!" respectively) -- and not to mention the hardware -- equals too much mayhem for E.T. to clean up with one little-lighted finger.

Let's face it. Who wouldn't want that cool gun with the replay feature in Luc Besson's Fifth Element? The fans shell out their bucks because they enjoy the fare. Carnage, Incorporated. If I weren't a Metallica fan, I'd be shivering.

When I think of the vast range present in Science Fiction literature, and that the quality of SF literature increases every single year, I have two conflicting, instantaneous thoughts:

  1. Man! Snow Crash would make a rockin' film! It would really show everyone how deep, multi-faceted, and protean SF really is.
  2. Man! They really screwed up when they filmed Hackers!

I don't know why Hollywood (except for Spielberg, Luc Besson, and Ridley Scott) can't make a masterpiece of a Science Fiction movie. There have to be more talents out there who can actually tell a friggin' story without getting wacked out with the techno-FX, right? Right? (Shiver...)

Copyright © 1997 by Thomas Myer

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