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John Scalzi Answers the Burning Question – Can SciFI Movies Be Cool?

An interesting question from the mailbag:

“Hey, Scalzi: Was science fiction ever cool?”

The answer: Well, no, not generally, but it depends on what you mean by “cool,” which is a fairly fungible cultural term.

For example, there’s “cool,” as in “the studied indifference to cultural judgment regarding what you like,” which means that you like what you like and you don’t care if other people like it. Science fiction fails this definition utterly, because science fiction fans are monumentally uncool — not because they are geeks and nerds, or at least, not directly because of that, but because generally speaking they really really really want you to love what they love, too, and that sort of insensible urge to share is the opposite of cool. Mind you, scifi fans understand other people don’t love what they love, but rather than not caring, they feel a little sorry for those people. Which is a different dynamic altogether.

Related to the above is the definition of “cool” as the “avoidance of being seen as too enthused” — i.e., the sort of cool that doesn’t get too excited about anything, at least in public. And again, science fiction epically fails at this. Go to DragonCon sometime and watch 40,000 people dressed up as their favorite scifi characters migrate from hotel to hotel, and you’ll know what I mean.

None of the above, incidentally, is bad; one of the reasons that science fiction rakes in huge amounts of money at the box office and is an essential part of episodic television these days is all those geeks evangelizing for their favorite genre. Science fiction is popular rather than “cool,” and I think both geeks and studio bean-counters are happy about that.

All that said, there’s another definition of “cool,” which is “being at the right place at the right time with the right stuff,” and that sort of cool can happen even to scifi. I present to you two examples of this, one from 1968 and the other from 1999.

In 1968, science fiction hit cool with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Three things worked in its favor: First, the movie was in fact formally and cinematically “cool” — Stanley Kubrick, never the warmest of directors, was even chillier than usual here, pushing back the humanity of his characters to such an extent that a computer was the most human of all (and it was a mass murderer). Second, Kubrick lardered the movie with trippy special effects that were exquisitely timed to be a favorite freakout of the psychedelic generation. Third, the United States was on its way to the moon, and the explorations of space (and attendant contemplation of the various mysteries of the universe) were on everyone’s mind. Add it up and 2001 was serious cinema, seriously weird, and seriously cool.

In 1999, cool struck again with The Matrix. Like 2001, it had a number of things going for it: To begin, it effectively exploited the aesthetic styles of Blade Runner, anime and Hong Kong cinema, all of which had marinated long enough in the video store-fed consciousness of teens and 20-somethings to become an instantly recognizable cinematic grammar. Add to that the goth/industrial costuming and design — which had yet to twee itself into acceptance — and the fact that its leather-dusters-and-bullet-time freshness stood in contrast to the gargantuan letdown that was The Phantom Menace (released two months later), and you’ve got cool. Yes, I know. Shame about the sequels. But those were later, my friends.

And you ask, “Well, what about Star Wars? If ever there was a case of right place, right time, right stuff, Star Wars was it.” And on paper, I would have to agree — but in the real world, I’m thinking no, not really. 2001 and The Matrix rode the wave of their coolness to success and cinematic notability, but Star Wars was a tsunami — a once in a generation event that swamped everything it touched. Star Wars was simply too damn big to be cool, and in rapid order became too much of a commercial and cultural institution.

Also, you know: Luke Skywalker, astro-dweeb. He’s no Neo. Hell, he’s not even HAL. Not even becoming a Jedi could cool that boy up. And you know that for sure.

My question to you: Can you think of other examples of science fiction movies achieving “cool” — that is, not just popular, and not just something geeks connected with, but which the culture as a whole looked at and went, “Whoa. That’s cool”? I can think of at least a couple more, but I’m interested in your thoughts. Hit me with ’em in the comment thread.

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 Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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