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John Scalzi – Passing Judgment on the SciFi Cred of Inglourious Basterds

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Warning: This column contains mild thematic spoilers for the movie Inglourious Basterds.

In the wake of my Oscar analysis column a couple of weeks ago, Niall Harrison — an editor of the science fiction site Torque Control — asked me via Twitter the following, paraphrased-because-I-can’t-find-the-specific-tweet question:

You mentioned Avatar and District 9 as science fiction films nominated for Best Picture, but isn’t Inglourious Basterds science fiction as well?

This is a fascinating question, since without going into too much detail, it eventually becomes clear that Inglourious Basterds is taking place in a somewhat altered historical timeline; it’s World War II, all right, just not necessarily our World War II. Generally speaking, “alternate history” is regarded as a science fiction genre, which would make Basterds a scifi movie in some manner.

In one sense I would acknowledge that Niall has a cogent point: Hey, if you mess with the timeline, the geeks are going to come out of the woodwork and start chanting, “One of us! One of us!” I wouldn’t suggest that scifi fans shouldn’t feel as if Basterds fits into their genre. Take it! Love it! And, if it wins the Best Picture feel free to claim it as yours.

That said, here are a couple of reasons why other folks might not be so quick to see it as science fiction.

1. It wasn’t marketed as science fiction
From a practical point of view, neither writer-director Quentin Tarantino nor The Weinstein Company made any attempt to play up its speculative elements, and indeed probably hoped to keep them under wraps until the last possible moment. Basterds was marketed primarily as first, a historical epic, and second, a Quentin Tarantino movie — the director having enough of his own style to be a genre unto himself.

In fact, such is the reputation of Tarantino that when his movie does go off its historical rails, I think most moviegoers think, “Well, that’s just Quentin,” rather than, “My God! Quentin’s made a science fiction movie!” In Kill Bill, Vol. 2, for example, Tarantino has the character Bill develop an amazing truth serum; it doesn’t mean Kill Bill becomes scifi because Bill is suddenly a mad scientist. Which brings us to my second point:

2. The science fictional aspects of the movie are not necessarily essential to it
To be sure, without the alternate history aspect it becomes a somewhat different movie in the end. But the fact is that the majority of the movie’s themes, characters and narrative are developed without engaging in or resorting to the alternate historical aspects, and nearly all of them could have survived without it — it’s just the movie would have ended up a heroic tragedy. If the movie doesn’t require science fictional elements to work, it’s probably not really science fiction. Somewhat related to this, in a nit-picky way:

3. It’s kinda more like fantasy than scifi anyway
If the Inglourious Basterds came back in time to alter the flow of history, then it’s definitely science fiction. If while tromping around the French countryside they came across a cache of advanced alien weapons that vaporized Nazis? Scifi again. But if everything in the movie is pretty much as it was during our historical era except for the point at which an alternate timeline begins — and then everything more or less proceeds technologically similarly after that point — then the alternate history isn’t really science fictional; it’s fantastical wish fulfillment. Which is still cool, mind you, and still speculative. Just not science fictional.

Finally, this point:

4. If Inglourious Basterds is science fiction, so are most historical movies
Most historical epics are about as alternate in their history as Inglourious Basterds is. For example, take Gladiator — the most recent historical epic to win the Best Picture Oscar. Turns out that Marcus Aurelius thought his son Commodus would make a fine emperor, since the two ruled jointly; that Commodus did not in fact smother his father to death; and that while Commodus was indeed eventually killed by an athlete, it was by a wrestler who strangled him in his bath, not a former general-turned-gladiator in the Coliseum. Oh, and Commodus’ death didn’t bring back the Republic. So, yeah, that’s some pretty alternate history there. I won’t even go into what a historical mess Braveheart is.

But neither of those movies is considered scifi, and neither should be Inglourious Basterds. The only difference is that Tarantino’s messing with history we actually still remember.

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 Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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