Monday, July 7, 2008

The problems of science fiction in movies

A few weeks ago, John Scalzi had an article at SciFi Scanner, arguing that movies widely considered classics of science fiction cinema are not at the level of the classics in other genres. This got me thinking more generally: why are so many science fiction movies bad? I don’t think it’s just a matter of most movies in general being poor- there’s plenty of horrible dramas, comedies, action movies, etc., but there are still lots that I like, whereas the pickings in science fiction are very slim.

First is a problem inherent to the genre: science fiction is usually just ill-suited to film, in my opinion. Science fiction tends to be much more setting-based than other forms of fiction, be it “genre” or “literary.” In a two-hour movie, you just can’t build that much of a world. You can show what a world looks like, but that’s not the same as the way the written story can really show you its guts and workings, or just a slice of them. The same is largely true of imagined technologies. Thus, science fiction has to a great extent become simply a subgenre of action movies, or sometimes horror, with generic sci-fi tropes used for coolness factor or visual pizzazz.

This also has the effect of reducing the talent pool, since many science fiction writers would likely chafe under the limits of the medium even if Hollywood treated the genre more respectfully than it does. Imagine if, for some strange reason, a large percentage of jokes were just inherently less funny when shown on a screen, or couldn’t (even in the absence of any censorship) be made at all. This would hurt comedy films directly, of course, but it would also discourage talented comedians from wanting to do movies in the first place; a greater number would remain in vaudeville or radio or stand-up. Comedy films would have to be graded on a curve, if they were still made at all; we would probably have some dramatic films with comic relief, but few full-fledged comedies, and even fewer good ones.

The other major issue that no one really insists that science fiction movies be good. Generally speaking, Hollywood neither understands nor respects the genre. Gregory Benford wrote an article for Baen’s Universe addressing this. (A subscription is required to read all of it, but the preview has the relevant quote.) Benford recounts a meeting with some producers who wanted to adapt one of his ideas as a movie:

We had gone over the whole plot structure, the breakdown into three acts (a Hollywood commandment, Act I ending at 30 minutes and II at 90 minutes in a two hour film)—plus character, logic, setting, the works.

Everything seemed set. Everybody agreed. They thought that the female lead character seemed particularly right, a match of motivation and plot.

Then the producer, a woman in her thirties, leaned across the lunch table and said, "She's just about right, now. Only . . . how about, halfway through, she turns out to be a robot?"

I looked around the dining room, at the murals depicting famous scenes from old movies, at stars in shades dining on their slimming salads in all their Armani finery, at the sweeping view of little purple dots that danced before my eyes because I had neglected breathing after she spoke. "Robot . . . ?"

"Just to keep them guessing," the producer added helpfully. "I want to really suck the juice out of this moment."

"But that makes no sense in this movie."

"It's science fiction, though—"

"So it doesn't have to make sense," I finished for her.

There’s more at the link.

Hollywood can’t be fully blamed for acting like that, though. There simply aren’t enough people who actually care strongly about the specifically science fictional virtues of science fiction to make that group worth catering to very much- not with the budget of a modern feature film, anyway. Thus, science fiction serves mostly as a way to amp up the degree of visual spectacle possible in movies, especially action movies. Perhaps more cynically, it also allows a greater degree of sloppiness- it’s science fiction, it doesn’t have to make sense.

The fans can’t be blamed for being few in number. Some of them can however, be blamed for something else. Put simply, there are many science fiction fans who will simply consume whatever slop is put on their plate, at least where movies and (even more so) television are concerned. That’s somewhat understandable, especially where TV is concerned; SF is a niche genre at the best of times, and until fairly recently there was almost no SF on television. Even in movies, there are usually only a few big science fiction films a year. One can’t condemn a starving man if his palate is less than discerning.

Of course, the problem is much exacerbated by the fact that many people get their science fiction only from visual media, or if they read, only read media tie-ins, and thus have to take what they can get. Simple rule of relationships, whether personal or narrowly economic: the more willing you are to just walk away, the more power you have. But for those who like (or love) science fiction but don’t read much, there’s simply nowhere to walk away to. And of course, even people who do read a lot would often like to see what they love in other formats.

So, simply put, Hollywood doesn’t make much good science fiction because Hollywood doesn’t have to. People respond to incentives. If people in the market for a new automobile were just as likely to buy a tinfoil-covered cardboard box with the word “car” written on the side as they were to buy an actual working motor vehicle, the major car manufacturers would probably let their quality standards slip.

The problem is probably insoluble, given cultural constraints, because I don’t see any realistic way to change the incentives. I suppose the most effective way of combating this problem would be to get more science fiction fans reading, so they have more alternatives to what Hollywood puts out and thus less reason to tolerate mediocrity in movies. That would require a lot more people to get interested in actually reading for fun, though, which doesn’t seem to be in the cards any time soon. The relative weakness of science fiction film compared to other genres is probably something we must resign ourselves to.

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