Could Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity actually be a science fiction movie without people shooting at each other? Could its plot possibly lead to a climax that doesn’t involve major explosions, as if the universe itself were experiencing apocalyptic orgasms? Since it has premiered to acclaim at the Venice film festival and screened at Telluride, I know there are answers to these questions, but they arose for me as I watched a preview for Gravity while attending a showing of Elysium, a science fiction movie that was rife with explosions, shootings, and sundry mayhem. When I left the theater, I was depressed that, while not an awful movie, Elysium was a prime example of what you can expect these days if you see a science fiction film (with the exception, perhaps, of Jody Foster’s incredibly weird performance, a self-contained work of science fiction if ever I’ve seen it). Namely, it will be well-designed, ridiculously easy to follow (no David Lynch’s Dune impenetrability to contend with), and filled with explosions.
Of the seven science fiction films I’ve seen this year, only Upstream Color—which arguably might be more accurately described as speculative fiction, not a euphemism for science fiction as I used to believe, but rather a mode of fiction that takes the what if aspect of fiction to extremes, science be damned if need be—didn’t conform to the current template of the form. It’s a template that is purely economic in its contours. If studios are going to spend as much as they do on science fiction movies—mostly for the special effects—then they need something that will appeal to as many people on the planet as possible, which means it needs to be spectacular and not much else. In fact, anything else could get in the way. Ease of consumption in science fiction films has become so ridiculous that the simplistic division depicted in Elysium—the 99% live on the hell that is earth, while the 1% live on an Edenic space station—which is clearly indicated within minutes by the movie’s visuals and editing, is explained by captions, too. After all, you don’t want a six year-old to miss out on the “premise.”
I blame Star Wars for this. It’s not the first science fiction movie bloated with action to distract from a creaky plot and a dearth of ideas, but it was the first to show just how much money could be made from it, as long as it looked neat. I realize that before Star Wars there weren’t a lot of science fiction movies being made that weren’t B-movies, but with the financial stakes lower, the low budget pictures could get a lot more creative. Not that they necessarily were, again many were made just to make money, but rare is the contemporary science fiction movie that can elicit the existential dread that The Incredible Shrinking Man does. If that movie were made today, it would either be a comedy à la Honey I Shrunk the Kids or the emphasis would be on all kinds of high tech action set-pieces. I suppose the protagonist would even be saddled with the task of being responsible for preventing an alien invasion or a terrorist plot from unfolding, a series of explosions increasing in intensity and duration finally petering out to signal that the world, once again, was safe thanks to our diminutive hero whom, we discover, is cured and returns to normal size.
Science fiction loses by being so singularly tied to spectacle. It’s time to bring it back concepts. The other day, Yahoo! News listed seven science fiction movies that would be coming out in the next year. Four are guaranteed to be action films and one is guaranteed not to be (Her by Spike Jonze—but that film follows that well-worn premise that a man falls in love with his computer—Hello? 2001: A Space Odyssey?). Heck, even Gravity looks like it’s designed mainly to be a nail-biter. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think one of the reasons science fiction used to appeal to nerds is because it made you think. Now it seems to occupy the same terrain that used to be the domain of superhero comics: relatively empty-headed, though sometimes thrilling, stories designed to lead you from one fight to the next until the hero perseveres. It’s no accident that an increasing number of films with fantastic if not science fiction themes these days focus on superheroes. I hope, instead, that filmmakers start revisiting science fiction literature’s masters for inspiration and away from the debacles that clog up the cineplexes to breathe some new life into a genre that too often confuses pyrotechnics for dramatic action.