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John Scalzi – The Look, Not the Idea, Makes a SciFi Movie

Let’s talk about genre for a moment, shall we? Specifically, what is it that makes a film a genre film? The easy answer here is that something is a genre film if it has particular plot elements, or if it attracts a certain audience. So, for example, a movie is a “Western” if it takes place in the American Old West, or it’s a “chick flick” if the audience it draws is primarily women. These definitions are fine as far as they go, but here’s another definition of “genre film” which I think is more on point for where I want to go:

A movie that uses some thing as a crutch, because it knows fans of that thing will wade through a lot of crap to get it. 

The word “crutch” is essential here, because while lots of movies use genre settings or elements, they’re using them as tools for the story rather than a crutch. For example, The Exorcist undeniably uses horror as a tool but it doesn’t merely stand pat on that: It’s got characters, plot, sub-plot and a great story to go along with the pea soup vomit and Linda Blair’s head twisting. It’s a great horror movie, but its genre distinction is merely a subset of its being a great movie in general. You can say the same for High Noon (western), Platoon (war movie) and so on. When a film is content to be a genre film, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad, it simply means that it relies on a crutch to get it through, and is not likely to have huge appeal to people who aren’t already fans of the genre.

How Do SciFi Fans Get Their Fix?
This is all a rather lengthy set-up to ask the question: What is the element in science fiction movies that fans are willing to wade through lots of crap to get? You might think it’s actual science fiction — that is to say, stories of the future, in which technology (or in the case of many post-apocalyptic SF films, the sudden lack of it) is key. But once again I’m going to go off script and suggest that what SF film genre fans really want out of their science fiction is visual effects and design.

This should not, of course, be any surprise to anyone, because it’s
in the very DNA of the genre. I’m fond of pointing out that the very
first science fiction movie, 1902’s Georges Melies’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune
was produced not out of the director’s huge love for the stories of
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (whose work he used as plot scaffolding),
but because he wanted to show off the special effects processes that
he’d developed. The entire point of the movie, in other words, were the
nifty special effects. And the audiences of 1902 ate it right up.

Even the great films of the genre — the ones that have managed to
jump the genre fence, as it were — are more about effects and design
than story or characterization. The top four essential movies of the
science fiction genre are case studies of this fact: Metropolis , 2001: A Space Odyssey , Star Wars and Blade Runner are all great movies, but they’re all definitely meant to be seen rather than heard — close your eyes watching Blade Runner
and you just have lots of clunky faux-noir dialogue, especially if
you’re watching the original theatrical release; do the same with Star Wars and you’ll have George Lucas in your ear and THX notwithstanding, that’s really no good. Metropolis is a silent film, and 2001 might
as well be. So if the genuinely great movies of the genre need to rely
on visual effects and design more than story, acting and dialogue, what
chance do the mediocre and bad genre films have to get around it?

This is not necessarily a criticism, I should note; as a lover of
science fiction film, I’m as much in the tank for nifty special effects
as any genre fan might be. I am willing to tolerate a whole lot to get
my visual fix. And I’m not even the worst supposedly responsible adult
to feel this way — in 1998 Roger Ebert declared Dark City the best film of that year,
because (in my opinion) he fell so much in love with the look and feel
of the movie, he unlocked that place in his heart where he kept his
inner 13-year-old boy, and let that boy run free all around his brain.
I like Dark City a whole lot and for many of the same reasons as Ebert — but best film of the year? Come on.

Good Movies That Don’t Rely Only on Effects
To be sure, there are genuinely good science fiction movies which
manage to get around the genre obsession for effects: Off the top of my
head A Clockwork Orange comes to mind (although you can’t say it doesn’t have a distinct visual look) and Godard’s Alphaville ,
which was almost perversely effects and design-free (the most
impressive futuristic effect was a light bulb behind a fan).
But at the end of the day, wherever science film genre fans come
together to get their fix, the main ingredient of the fix is not the idea of science fiction, but the look of it.

So that’s my thought on the matter today. Now, tell me how off base I am.

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale, which was released this week. His column appears every Thursday.

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