Science fiction shows us a world up ahead full of hope, progress, danger and adventure. It's not only a frontier of space but also a frontier of mind. Unfortunately, this brave new world of imagination challenges those who see a future of more sophisticated fart jokes and computer-generated explosions. These are the purveyors of Sucky Sci-Fi, armed with cheap digital effects, buckets of alien goo, and sets badly cloned from production stills of Blade Runner. In an attempt to educate the next generation of science fiction filmmakers and create better-informed science fiction fans, I offer the Seven Deadly Sins of Sci-Fi, the state of the art in suck.
How Good Science Fiction Works
Good science fiction takes us out of the context of the world we live in order to explore ideas that would otherwise be prejudiced by our real world sensibilities. It is the extreme sport for suspension of disbelief. An early science fiction film like Metropolis, for example, was really telling a story about the abuse of power and the plight of the individual in the increasingly mechanized society of its 1926 audience. The future of Godard's Alphaville was really a commentary on soulless science and the hubris of a post-industrial society at the dawn of the information age. Blade Runner's far-flung future addresses problems relevant to us today: the individual caught in the gears of society, the nature of reality in an increasingly complex society and the disparity between the rich and powerful and the rest of us. All these films were about the world their viewers lived in, but they entertain and inform us by bringing us into a world far ahead of our own.
How Bad Science Fiction Sucks
Fast forward to the over-hyped 1998 version of Godzilla which explores one of the questions of our age: "How do we blow up a big, bad lizard when we're all a bunch of schmucks?" The original Godzilla, which was graced by an actor in a rubber suit trouncing through a paperboard model of Tokyo, owes part of its success to the anxieties of the atomic age and worries about humanity's possible self-destruction. Its 1998 counterpart, rendered in near realism thanks to its complex digital effects, has none of this original tension. People loved the original Godzilla, but the remake sucked. It sucked because it didn't have anything to say to anybody beyond its own trivial story. It doesn't connect to anything that means anything to anyone. It's digitally enhanced masturbation. This is a pattern that repeats itself in Steven Spielberg's recent movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. A.I. degrades from Kubrick's original question about the nature of consciousness in the information age to the Spielberg-conceived "robot wants its mommy" ending. When science fiction sucks, it's because it doesn't have a story to tell that's relevant to us and the time we live in.
The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fiction
In lieu of having something meaningful to say, sucky science fiction films need something to keep the audience's attention. The result is an endless string of film clichés that are especially recognizable in science fiction. These are the seven deadly sins of science fiction. Hopefully, awareness can help prevent a few more stinkers from gracing the silver screen. With your help, there will never be another season of Mystery Science Theater:
1. High Explosives are Not a Substitute for a Real Story
Although it seems like something that wouldn't need pointing out, high explosives are not a substitute for creating a real story filled with interesting characters that face compelling challenges to be resolved in a clever and entertaining way. The mentality in Hollywood, however, seems to be that the old adage "one thousand monkeys typing randomly will eventually write Hamlet" may be true, but that "one thousand monkeys lobbing sticks of dynamite will quickly arrive at a summer blockbuster." Witness the mega-suck-buster Armageddon, which asks the question, "How can we blow up a big, bad meteor when we are all a bunch of schmucks?" Beyond a few laughs and some spectacular digitally generated explosions, this film has nothing to offer. Avoid films where the trailer seems entirely preoccupied with the high explosive money shot.
2. Big Budgets for Trivial Stories
Hollywood gave up on spending their way to a mega-blockbuster after event-film flops like Armageddon and Godzilla. However, Hollywood still hasn't gotten the message that paying big bucks for trivial stories is a sure-fire formula for suckiness. The problem in science fiction is that there are so many trivial things to spend money on like big explosions, fancy spaceships, elaborate sets and morphing aliens overflowing with goo. Take for example one of the biggest flops to date, Kevin Costner's Waterworld. Vast amounts of cash were consumed building and filming on elaborate water sets that also had to be blown up spectacularly later in the film. Sony Pictures went broke making a film whose message was "this place sucks, lets go someplace that doesn't suck so much." Compare Kevin Costner's Waterworld-on-land The Postman. Same plot, smaller budget, same result. When Hollywood gets the picture that big budgets don't mean big success and that high production values don't mean anything without a real story, maybe we'll start seeing some better films from the majors. In the meantime, be skeptical of films that boast about their budgets before telling you what they're about.
3. Technology Infatuation
Also known as the "Jar Jar Binks Correlation Coefficient," the quality of a science fiction film is inversely proportional with its fascination with technology. Just because you have the money and technology to create a loathsome computer-generated, floppy-eared alien who speaks in a barely comprehensible Jamaican accent doesn't mean you should. Someone should mention this to George Lucas while shaking him violently. Another good example is the Denzel Washington film Virtuosity. It's a standard "murderous baddy is pursued by protagonist with a gun who emotes sparingly" movie. The shocking twist is that this bad guy is from virtual reality. However, since a virtual murderer can only murder virtual people (what most people call a "video game"), through an implausible twist of fate, the virtual murderer becomes real. Of course, the film is then just another film about a cop chasing a murderer. However, this murderer is from the dizzyingly bleeding-edge high-technology world of virtual reality. I'm sure those fans of The Sims are shaking in their boots at this very moment thinking that their virtual playthings could come alive, raid their refrigerators and leave dirty dishes on the floor. What these filmmakers are missing is that technology is just something that takes us from scene to scene in a science fiction film; it advances the plot, it helps give us the feel and experience of the world, but it isn't the centerpiece of a story.
4. The Unnecessary Sequel
"There should be only one," especially in the case of the Highlander series that dragged on into an incomprehensible third movie when we thought we resolved that "there can be only one" in the first movie. Sequels are generally green-lit based on revenues, not because there's a further story that needs to be told beyond the original. Take for example the Alien series. The first sequel, Aliens, had legitimate questions to explore: "What happened to Ripley after the original?" and "What about all those other alien eggs in the spaceship?" These served as a launching point and a justification for the sequel. The further sequels, however, didn't have any discernible reason to exist. The final two sequels seem like an action-adventure version of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" -- Ripley wakes up, Ripley turns into a bug, Ripley dies. Granted, science fiction has a great tradition of sequels that goes back to the Flash Gordon serials, but people tend to overlook that the sequels in that tradition generally sucked. Was there ever any doubt that Flash would somehow find a way to defeat Ming the Merciless and his flavor-of-the-week ray? Sequels with no reason to exist are just another exercise in boredom, as Highlander demonstrated. We know Christopher Lambert needs the work, but if his filmography is any indication, he'll have Highlander rip-offs to star in for the foreseeable future.
5. Weak Arch-Nemesis
Sucky science fiction generally relies on obvious plot devices, like the arch-nemesis. An arch-nemesis is a servable substitute for a real plot. Need to move the plot forward? Have a bad guy plot to blow something up. The really sucky science-fiction films, however, can't even manage to brew up a convincing arch-nemesis. A good example of this is the cyber-schlock epic Circuitry Man/Circuitry Man 2, and its arch-foe, Plughead. Plughead has plugs in his head to access computers. His formidable threat is not unlike what would happen if you went down to CompUSA and bought a USB hub, wore it as a hat and started to laugh maniacally as if drunk with power. The weak arch-nemesis can also be readily identified by a lame catch phrase. Plughead's catch phrase is, "Why jack off when you can jack in?" Most people's favorite movie villains aren't known for their memorable advice on masturbation alternatives.
A similarly classic science fiction villain is the homicidal robot. The 1970s stinker Saturn 3, for example, features one such homicidal robot. So ponderously slow that Steven Hawking could outrun it in his motorized wheelchair, its main ambition seemed to be to kill Farah Fawcett's character. I can't fault that as a goal, but it isn't really a lofty ambition for an arch-nemesis. Homicidal robots can usually be identified by classic catch phrases like "must protect!" or "eliminate the biological contagion!" or the favorite, "Exterminate!"
6. Introduction of Time Travel Renders Plot Irrelevant
Another favorite plot device of sucky science fiction epics is to introduce time travel into the movie, which often has the effect of rendering the plot irrelevant. Are the characters in an impossible situation? No problem, just have them leap somewhere else in the space-time continuum. The problem is that once you start jumping through time the obvious questions come up about what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather and why the good guys got in that tight spot in the first place. A good example of this is the not-completely-sucky movie Millennium, where future time-travelers attempt to populate their dying society with victims of plane crashes from the past. Of course, they screw up and leave some physical evidence of their tampering with the past. Why didn't they just go back in time and fix the mistake after it happened? Because of the many complex rules of time travel that inevitably invoke terms like "causality loops" and "quantum reality branches" that turn the film into a lecture on temporal physics. The problem, of course, is that time travel only exists as a cheat to advance the story and not because time travel is being seriously examined as a theme. The story is clogged up with a series of rules about time travel that leave most audiences scratching their heads instead of enjoying the film. Most films that get away with time travel plots are comedic in nature, like Dr. Who or Time Bandits, or don't spend too much time dwelling on it, like The Terminator.
7. Goofy Aliens and Goo Does not Equal Humor
Although sucky science fiction films offer a wealth of inadvertent humor, occasionally, in an attempt to be entertaining, films consciously attempt to introduce humor. Perhaps the best example of this is 2001: A Space Travesty, featuring that science fiction stalwart Leslie Nielsen. Besides containing the most fart jokes in any science fiction movie ever filmed, it is replete with aliens with big bug eyes, large asses and multiple breasts. Of course, unlike us, aliens always spew, excrete or sleep in some form of goo that our protagonist inevitably is spewed with or falls into. If you look at a really funny science fiction movie, like Galaxy Quest, the trick isn't so much slapstick but exploding the stereotypes of the genre -- and then you can insert the occasional farting, goo-spewing alien to go for one or two of those gutter laughs. Nerds without a sense of humor should stick to fixing flux capacitors and sealing warp core breaches.
Check out Andy's Sucky Sci-Fi list. See one that doesn't suck? Come and defend it.