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“Contagion,” George Lucas, and Women in Scifi Film: It’s Mailbag Time

It’s been a few weeks since I did a mailbag column, and some e-mails are piling up about recent movies and columns. So … hey! Let’s do a mailbag column!

First question:

My friend and I are having a philosophical disagreement about whether Contagion qualifies as science fiction or not. I say it does because the virus is fictional and it’s an end-of-the-world scenario. He says no, mostly because it takes place in present day. Who’s right?

Well, just because something takes place in “present day” doesn’t mean it can’t be science fiction. Look at Source Code or the latest Transformers film, or E.T.,
or two of the four Terminator films, or the Men in Black films, or so
on. Science fiction can take place in the future, but it doesn’t have

That said, when science fiction films take place in the present
day, it’s useful for them to have some technological or story element
that’s generally considered to be out of the ordinary experience: Time
travel in the case of Source Code or the Terminator films; aliens in the
case of E.T or Men in Black; talking robots in the case of Transformers. Those are the elements that kick it into science fiction land.

The virus in Contagion is fictional, but it’s still a pretty commonplace variety of virus; it doesn’t turn people into vampires (Ultraviolet) or zombies (28 Days Later),
it just kills them. Likewise, the way people in the film combat the
virus is with modern technology. And yes, there’s something of an
apocalyptic scenario in the film, but not every possible apocalypse is
science fiction.

So my vote is: No, Contagion is not science fiction. It just makes you want to coat every possible surface with hand sanitizer.

Next question:

A couple of weeks ago you wrote about women in science fiction films, but you didn’t go into why women in science fiction films are poorly written. Why do you think it is?

My opinion: Because science fiction filmmakers don’t think they
have to bother. There are two reasons for that: One, I think science
fiction films are assumed to have a generally young, male audience,
which is not an audience assumed to particularly value strong female
characters outside the “spinny killbot” variety. Two, it’s a shibboleth
of Hollywood that women will go see films with men as the primary
characters more readily than men will go see films with women as the
primary characters.

Both of these assumptions are highly arguable and become
something of a “chicken and egg” problem, in that if you don’t write
strong female science fiction characters, how do you know guys won’t
watch them? They seemed to watch Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor just
fine. But when it costs you $100 million to make a film, you end up
being conservative in your thinking and going with what you think you
know works rather than taking one more risk in the film production.

think it’s a little silly to still be worried in 2011 that science
fiction fans won’t watch female characters who can’t gyrate wildly and
behead at the same time, but I also admit I’m an optimist about human
nature. Perhaps filmmakers feel they can’t afford to be.

Last question:

Come on, Scalzi. Do you really believe
without George Lucas, modern films would be that different? Someone else would have come
up with most of the technological advances that Lucas did, sooner or
later. Probably Spielberg.

Well, to be clear, I do agree that even without Lucas, the
technological state of the art in the film industry would have advanced,
and that the 2011 film-going experience would be closer to what it is
today than to what it was in 1977. But I don’t think it would have
advanced as systematically.

Whatever else George Lucas is, he
was, is, and always will be a huge film nerd, and because of that he has a
very deep focus on the quality of film presentation. His film company
didn’t just advance visual and sound effects and presentation because
there was a market for it — it did it because at the end of the day, Lucas
wanted as much control over every aspect of the process as possible so he could
make exactly the film he wanted (and when he couldn’t, he worked the
tech until it could fix what he saw as a flaw — and in the process
drive the fans nuts with his “improvements”).

Would these things have happened without Lucas? Probably; he’s not
the only hyper-exacting film nerd in Hollywood by a long shot. But it
would have been all over the place — and very possibly less well done
— than it was with Lucas calling the shots. The cinematic world
of today would be different enough to be noticeable, at the very least.

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