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John Scalzi – Passing Judgment on Indiana Jones and Other Pseudo-SciFi Movies

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I’m looking at the box office records for 2008, trying to figure out just how much of the $9.62 billion in domestic sales can be attributed to science fiction movies. The good news is that no matter how you slice it, scifi accounted for a pretty big chunk of the change, so it seems a pretty safe bet that we’ll continue to see Hollywood pony up millions to make big, expensive eye-popping science fiction flicks. Go us. The bad news — and it’s not really bad news; just interesting news — is that I’m having a hard time deciding which of last year’s movies should genuinely get credited as scifi, and which just have science fictional elements.

I’ve discussed this before, of course, most specifically about The Dark Knight, which I don’t think quite qualifies as science fiction. True, it features a number of scifi elements (most notably all the BatTech that gets cooked up at Wayne Industries), but at the end of the day I don’t think it tips the scale. Leaving aside the murky science fictionality of The Dark Knight, however, other major movies this year are also on the “is it really scifi or not?” bubble. Consider the following $100 million-plus-grossing flicks (and be prepared for minor spoilers):

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
It’s pretty clear this one has a distinct science fictional component, thanks to George Lucas putting his foot down during the screenwriting phase. But no one on the planet went to go see this movie because of its scifi elements (which were, in fact, the source of most fans’ complaints); people went to see it because it’s an Indiana Jones flick. Does its box office accrue to the scifi ledger despite the fact that it was never billed as such? I’m going to say yes, but I’m not going to argue it very hard.

A very cute animated movie about a dog that thinks he’s a genetically-engineered super-pup because that’s the character he plays on a TV show, and no one’s ever told him the TV show isn’t real life. It’s definitely a satire of science fiction and riffs on any number of science fictional movies including, clearly, The Truman Show . The question is, if you riff enough on science fiction and even stuff in a few ginchy special effects, do you become sufficiently scifi to count? Maybe, but for my money this one doesn’t.

Journey to the Center of the Earth
Based loosely on Jules Verne’s scifi novel, this one should be a no-brainer. But at this point in the game (i.e, 144 years after the novel was originally released), I’m going to front the proposition that the whole “there’s another world inside our world” concept is proper fantasy as opposed to scifi, and any movies based on it — even those featuring a dinosaur — don’t fit squarely into the genre.

Eagle Eye
It’s another “Supercomputer Tries to Run Things” sort of movie, a concept which is definitely science fictional (The Terminator, The Matrix, etc.). But the movie itself was marketed as a contemporary action thriller, and you actually had to be in a theater seat before you knew it was science fiction. I slot this in as a scifi credit, but as with Crystal Skull, you can easily argue that if the movie studio isn’t marketing a flick as science fiction, it shouldn’t really get to count as such.

Science fictional superhero origin story? Sorta. But science fiction like the origin stories of The Incredible Hulk or Iron Man? Not so much. You could actually have a big debate over whether this was science fiction or straight up generic superhero fantasy, with valid arguments on either side. But to do that you’d have to find two people who actually care enough about Hancock to argue the point. For everyone’s sake, I’ll just say this one’s too close to call.

So are these movies science fiction? Ultimately it’s a judgment call, and I want to hear your opinion. The bright side to all these “bubble” cases is that whether one considers them genuinely scifi or not, the concepts are so pervasive that a movie can snatch up an explicitly science fictional plot point and no one blinks an eye. When scifi is essentially part of the background noise of common culture — something that filmmakers can use without worrying whether people will follow it or not — it means that we’ve won an essential argument about the genre’s validity. Once again: Go us.

Winner 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 and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also the editor of METAtropolis, an audiobook anthology on His column appears every Thursday.

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