Hollywood and Science Fiction

Most science fiction produced by Hollywood sucks. The reasons are simple.

  1. Producers don’t understand the implicit rules of SF.
  2. Producers like to make stories as immediate or as far-reaching as possible.
  3. Producers like stories that can be conveyed in simple sound bites.

Okay these are generalizations. There are some people in Hollywood who get science fiction. They are, I think, vastly outnumbered, and certainly not usually the ones generally in charge of the cash that funds film production. So let’s talk about these points in more detail.

Producers don’t understand the implicit rules of SF.

Most producers don’t understand SF, where the greatest challenge for SF writers is to make their story as plausible as possible. Oftentimes, producers don’t even read SF, or if they do, they only read ocassional works. I read an interview with one producer who was so enamored with special effects that he said: “If we can imagine it, we can put it on the screen.” I snorted with disbelief when I read that, because it’s not enough to just put something on the screen, any more than it’s enough to just put something on the page: things have to have a reason for being there, and a purpose within the overall plot.

When producers don’t understand the need for plausibility, you get movies (and TV series) like Alien Nation, where water burns the aliens like acid if they’re exposed to it. Water is one of the most common chemicals in the entire universe, and generally considered necessary for life. It’s hard to imagine a creature that breathes oxygen and can generally exist on our planet, but not be able to withstand something as simple as rain.

Producers like to make stories as immediate or as far-reaching as possible.

In SF films, we’re constantly saving the world or the universe or the human race. How many films set in the contemporary time are about saving the world (and please exclude super-hero films and James Bond films — that’s another whole discussion right there)? Right. Not many. According to Hollywood, the world of the future always needs to be saved. Our heroes can’t have lesser goals or aspirations. This makes so many SF films seem overblown, unlikely and downright pretentious.

In the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, the Earth undergoes some sort of mysteriously vague “cold snap” and enters a worldwide ice age in the span of a few minutes. It’s so implausible that any SF fan worth their salt couldn’t help but cringe. The cold snap also wasn’t necessary. Instead, if they’d shown a collage of volcanoes erupting around the world, with excerpts from newscasters commenting about the unprecedented number of eruptions, the blockage of the sun by volcanic dust, the ensuing long winters, and ice that continually builds up over a 30-year period…that might have seemed not only more plausible, but also much more horrifying.

Hollywood also loves artificial deadlines because they theoretically heighten suspense. With SF films, they go even further — we’re constantly bombarded by generally ridiculous time limits. You’ve probably seen numerous examples. We’ve got seventy-two hours to save the Earth before a black hole eats it. Or, oh no, time has been changed — we need to go into the past and change it back before the ripple effect destroys the universe. Or, we’ve got thirty minutes to “do something” before the nuclear bomb goes off.

It’s not that deadlines are inherently bad. Think about how effective it was in Star Wars; the rebel fighters had to destroy the Death Star before it rounded the planet and pulverized their base. But most such deadlines in SF films are just arbitrary.

Producers like stories that can be conveyed in simple sound bites.

This point is harder to pin down, so let me come at it from an angle. Non-SF stories can be about realistic events: a detective trying to track down a murderer, a shy man trying to win the love of a beautiful woman, a boxer trying to win the World Championship, etc. The audience already understands a great deal about these stories, e.g. – they know what detectives do and what rules they have to follow.

One of the burdens that SF stories carry is the need to introduce the audience to the world, whether it’s Middle-Earth or the far future. With die-hard SF fans, a sort of short-hand is available — mention that it’s a story set on a generation starship, and they already know a lot about your story. The amount of explanation, generally referred to as exposition, required goes up dramatically when the story is for a more mainstream audience, and the cost of even relatively low-budget films mandates reaching for that larger mainstream audience.

It’s no wonder that producers want to simplify any SF story into a simple sound bite. “In space, no one can hear you scream” (Alien). The world of the future has been ruined by pollution, so colonists have gone back in time to achieve a fresh, new start (Terra Nova). Or even, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The problem is that this simplification also removes much of what can be remarkable in SF stories.

If you’d like a great example of an SF film done right, watch James Cameron’s Terminator. As much as possible, he integrates the exposition into the action sequences. Reese, the soldier from the future, has to explain to Sarah Connor in bits and pieces that: 1) she’s being hunted by a robot, 2) that he and the robot are from the future, 3) that he couldn’t bring any weapons from the future, and 4) that the robot wants to kill her because her son will win the future war against the machines.

Conclusion

I’d like to see better, more ambitious SF films. I fully understand the pressures that producers are under and how the constraints they’re facing often lead to bad SF films. The real disappointment for me is when I see an SF film from Hollywood that could have been a great film if they’d just paid attention to a few more SF-related details.

It’s not enough to just put computer-generated special effects on the screen. I need an SF story that’s plausible, a plot that makes sense, and characters that I can care about. Hollywood, is that too much to ask?

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