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By David Young · February 16, 2022
You’re either going to love me or hate me for this one.
Fans of sci-fi are notorious for their hard-and-fast personal fandom rules about what constitutes science fiction in a movie. So am I. And we all know that not everyone always agrees.
However, there are some genre conventions that all writers of sci-fi should be aware of. So, let’s take a look at 10 of the best, most iconic sci-fi films to see how the genre has evolved and expanded over the years and learn a little bit more about what makes or breaks a science fiction film!
As always, I’m your guy for spoilers, big and small. Watch the movies first if you don’t want them spoiled for you!
What better place to start than a futuristic Los Angeles? No better place, I’d say. Blade Runner is known mainly for its broody, atmospheric score and its equally broody noir hero portrayed by Harrison Ford. But what you need to learn from this movie is the fact that questions are the answer to every sci-fi film.
If your audience isn’t asking questions and developing opinions on humanity — and what constitutes things like sentience and emotion — then you’re not writing sci-fi. Your story should encourage questions, and it should encourage pitted points of view.
Take this scene in Blade Runner for example. Rachael asks Deckard one of the most important questions in the entire movie — “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” That one question is the driver of the whole narrative.
Didn’t expect that much romance could qualify as a science fiction story? Well, surprise! Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind embodies everything a sci-fi film needs to be successful. Namely, it uses the element of an imagined scenario that’s possible: a “What If?” that doesn’t break the willing suspension of disbelief.
What if you could erase all the memories you had of a person you want to forget? That’s the premise, and it’s the reason why this explorative psychological drama plays out as a true science fiction masterpiece: instead of aliens and spacecraft, it’s just people dealing with extraordinary circumstances in an ordinary way. Some fight, some forget, and some make other choices, but the reachability of the concept is one thing that tends to separate fantasy from sci-fi. If the world and the conflict are feasible, you’re probably closer to sci-fi.
Lots of elements in Sorry to Bother You play out the way you’d expect in a sci-fi: there’s some mad science involved, because how else would you have the Equisapiens? There’s also the element of possibility: a modern, cruel, corporate business might not balk at the idea of drug-induced obedience, and the believability of Cash’s first dilemma regarding his code-switching success makes for a strong tie with the realities of today.
However, much of the story in Sorry to Bother You also has to do with surrealism, and that’s where the boundaries start to bend. We see conspiracy, allusions to today and to the past, and we see an alternate reality of sorts; but it’s all touched with dark comedy and a sense of strangeness. The lesson here is this: Sci-fi can be weird fiction, too. And by weird, I mean, it can get really freakin’ weird.
Though many are dystopian, a sci-fi movie can definitely instill hope and wonder, and that’s very much true of Close Encounters. This story is what happens when real life is interrupted by the world of the unthinkable: a family man is visited upon by an extraterrestrial presence, and the effects on him and his family are increasingly obvious as the story goes on. Via subliminal messages en masse, Roy Neary finds his way to the landing site of an actual UFO.
While things may not have turned out the way the audience expected right away, the sheer mass of opportunity is not lost on them as we see Roy enter the mothership as one of those chosen to visit with the aliens — and the prospect isn’t daunting, it’s exciting. While some may be used to science fiction that can be disheartening, this is one movie where the introduction of an alien visit doesn’t mean certain doom. Eat your heart out, Independence Day.
The following lesson is hard to notice in some cases, because sci-fi often encompasses a very different world: the future, an alternate reality, or even a whole other planet, like Mars. But the lesson taught to us by The Martian is relatively essential to building a sci-fi story anywhere, in any world, for any audience. The lesson is that science fiction stories are deeply personal stories.
While adventure stories, action and superhero films of today, and yes, even high fantasy, can often tend toward the conflicts faced as a group (or even just the main conflict, without much personal conflict at all), movies in sci-fi are about the individual. They may chronicle multiple individuals, of course, as many do, but the personal struggles that come with extraordinary circumstances are very much human. Sci-fi never forgets this element, which is partially why superhero and action films don’t count, and why certain adventure films tend to only house sci-fi elements superficially. Watching a man deal with interplanetary isolation with only his wits and few resources makes a person think about him as a human, and that’s what The Martian accomplishes.
While some are relatively grounded, there’s no reason your sci-fi can’t be spectacular as well. Look at Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where everything is spectacular, but ultimately still believable. Its notability in scientifically accurate depictions and its existential themes make this film an introspective crowd-pleaser for the fan of hard sci-fi, while still including a grandiose score, ambitious pioneering in cinematic execution, and more make it a proud accomplishment for Hollywood.
It goes to show two things: firstly, including the realistic limitations of science only makes sci-fi cooler, because sci-fi is made by using science as inspiration for storytelling; secondly, despite what many sci-fi writers complain about, Hollywood does love a great sci-fi film every now and again. Sci-fi can be a crowd-pleaser and an artistic opus, while still achieving what you want in terms of story.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from Men in Black, it’s that sci-fi isn’t always serious. It has charm, and it can appeal to everyone — while still raising questions, using questionable probabilities, and even introducing surreal or fantastical elements, you can create something that’s not hard sci-fi and still make it thought-provoking and emotionally poignant.
There’s one more thing to remember about sci-fi from movies like this, too: sci-fi opens a lot of doors and it makes it easy to have fun. From faux pas in alien languages to high-brow jokes about the bureaucracy of space travel to slapstick humor or blue puns regarding alien anatomy, there’s a lot to be used for the fun and the funny alike.
Anyone who knows me knows about my obsession with Frank Herbert’s iconic novel and titular book series, Dune. But I have to make a concession: Dune isn’t just sci-fi. I could argue a lot of things, like the fact that the story’s focus on environmental conflict and political thriller elements make it a very human-centric story, or the fact that its depictions of space travel and futuristic imperialization are very much in tune with what sci-fi puts out on a regular basis. That’s because Frank Herbert is the grandpappy of interstellar sci-fi.
But on top of all that, Dune is also a fantasy movie. It’s not like Star Wars, which are all fantasy-adventure films (and not at all science fiction, despite what you might think or hear from others). Instead, Denis Villeneuve’s loyalty to the novel shows audiences that some films are not either-or, but instead can be science fiction and fantasy — exploring human conflicts in extraordinary worlds, while facing extraordinary conflicts to boot. Oh, and it’s also just a gorgeous film.
There’s often an “after” in sci-fi. The “after”, or the way things are after a huge event has changed the world, makes for a distinct separation in climate from now to whatever day the story takes place. In Children of Men, the “after” is a world where no one has babies — total human infertility. The impending doom of human extinction after years of this stop in births begs the question: what would society look like? Turns out, it’s pretty damn bad. Chaos ensues, as most people don’t like the idea of mass extinction, but while everyone freaks out about the consequences of the condition they’re in, there might just be a light at the end of the tunnel.
That said, while some stories in sci-fi emphasize hope and wonder, the genre also must show just how bad things can get in the “What if?”.
If you already know Julie Delpy’s work, then you know she doesn’t stay put in one genre. As a filmmaker, her evocative foray into science fiction is a drama that is almost mundane in its treatment of the material: namely, it treats the act of human cloning as something that’s very much real. It’s a near-future world that feels all too close to present day, but what My Zoe accomplishes best is its way of making each event, from death to rebirth, feel like it could happen to you.
The deeply personal but unplanned events of life are reflected through this film in a way that only drama seems to do, but the conflict at the crux of the story’s latter half is one that really begs the question: What would you do? That’s a human story, all right. And that’s why it’s great science fiction.
It’s hard to pin a genre down, isn’t it? But the thing is, we’ve gotten so used to genre-mashing that it really doesn’t matter whether something is “pure” science fiction or not. What matters is whether you’re putting forth questions, telling human stories, and creating a sense of wonder or impending doom (or both). Use science as the inspiration, and whether your story is mundane or fantastical, you’ll be telling a story that really makes people use their imaginations. That’s what sci-fi does at the core of it all.
David Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David’s obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he’s formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.