The Good Genre Guide: Sci-Fi

In a new series, Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, examines a particular cinematic genre each month, exploring what makes a great film in that particular genre and then suggesting a Top 10 for that genre. This month: Sci-Fi. 

Genre, I’m Only Dancing (or The Good Genre Guide): An Introduction 

The Bowie reference is deliberate – a playful introduction to the whole idea of genre in cinema and why it is so important, arguably more so than in any other artistic medium. An alternative title that I considered was “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Genre”. With both titles, the idea was to confront the whole issue of genre head-on and then demystify it, or even defuse it, because there is no doubt that for many screenwriters (myself included, until recently) the idea of genre can be an intimidating, if not downright explosive, one. 

The fear is that genre can be a prison cell; a set of rules and regulations about what you can and cannot write. And yet genre can also be liberating, a set of guidelines or, yes, even constraints, within which a screenwriter can still construct their own unique and even genre-defying or genre-shattering stories. In effect, genre can be a prison cell like the one in The Shawshank Redemption, which you can decorate yourself (perhaps with a near life-size poster of Rita Hayworth) and then ultimately escape from (using said Rita Hayworth poster as a cover for the tunnel that you have patiently been digging for decades). 

The Online Oxford English dictionary definition of “genre” is simply that it is a “particular style or category of works of art”. However, what is more interesting than the simple definition of “genre” is its derivation, which Professor Susan Watkins of Leeds Beckett University explains in an Online OED blog (https://public.oed.com/blog/gender-and-genre-students-researchers-and-the-oed/) is closely related to the derivation of the word “gender”: “Both the words gender and genre come from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French, and if you search the etymology for the word genre the OED links to the etymology for the word gender.” 

Perhaps those Hollywood studio execs or press officers who coined the term “women’s picture” in the 1930s and 1940s to describe the particular genre of romantic dramas with a female lead, such as the Bette Davis classic Jezebel (1938), were on to something. More interestingly, though, the idea that “genre” and “gender” are etymologically linked suggests that there may be some internal or even physiological basis to the whole notion of genre, whereby genre is somehow linked to our own natural or emotional states. Put simply, the fact that there are so many different genres, and even sub-genres, might just correspond to the complexity of our own physical and psychological make-up. If we want to laugh, we want to see a comedy; if we want to be scared (safely scared, that is, rather than actually being terrified), we want to see a horror film; and so on. 

In addition, the reason that genre may be particularly important for film is because of the unique nature of film in comparison with all other artistic media, whereas all other artistic media, from music to visual art to performance art such as dance or even stand-up, attempt to a greater or lesser extent to recreate, re-imagine or even capture “reality”.  That is what film (and its close cousin television) does as its starting point. It photographs (literally reproduces) reality, even if that is a staged or faked reality, and then allows for the representation of that reality in a different way or order. 

However, that USP of cinema is also one of its greatest constraints. Whereas music, visual art and to a lesser extent literature, do not have to be enslaved or even beholden to reality, enabling them to pull completely clear of it relatively easily, film both captures reality and is captured by it. 

At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare wrote: 

“The poet’s pen

Turns them” 

(“Them” being the “form of things unknown”, which surely encompasses ideas and concepts)

“To shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.”

Perhaps more than any other artistic medium, and certainly more than music, visual art and most literature (especially poetry), cinema seems to demand that “airy nothing” (artistic thoughts or intentions) is given “A local habitation and a name”. In other words, cinema practically demands that we know exactly where and when a story is taking place before that story is told. That is why so many films, especially those that are not set in the present day, open not with images or even dialogue but captions: “Los Angeles, November 2019”; “London, 1594”; or whatever. 

I fear that I myself am guilty of engaging in “airy nothing” rather than the specifics of providing “A local habitation and a name”. So, to be clear, the two points that I am trying to make in this general introduction to the concept of cinematic genre is that in addition to genre simply being a particular style or category of film it may also have: a) an emotional/physiological basis, corresponding to the wide range of possible human emotional states; and b) cinema may be more reliant on genre than many, if not all, other art-forms.

Now, introduction over, let us consider what is probably the defining cinematic genre of the 21st century so far, and probably also the most commercially successful (undoubtedly, in fact, if we include “Superhero Movies” as part of it, although increasingly they are a genre of their own, which could perhaps be called “Science Fantasy”). That genre, of course, is science fiction, or sci-fi for short. 

The Sci-Fi Genre 

Sci-fi is arguably the quintessential cinematic genre, because its own history closely mirrors that of cinema itself. Just as cinema was initially largely dismissed when it emerged at the end of the 19th century, because it was viewed as being inherently inferior to what were then the far more popular and long-established public dramatic forms of theatre and opera, so sci-fi was very much the runt of the litter of cinematic genres for most of the 20th century. However, just as cinema itself ultimately outgrew and eventually overwhelmed its previous competition, far outstripping theatre and opera in its sheer global domination, so too did sci-fi, to the point that from Star Wars (1977) onward it has become by far the most commercially successful (if not always the most artistically impressive) genre in cinema. 

The Online Cambridge Dictionary definition of sci-fi is “books, films, or cartoons about an imagined future, especially about space travel or other planets”. That is as good a working definition as any, although it must be emphasized that, as many of the greatest sci-fi films exemplify, sci-fi is not always about the future, or even set in it. There are great sci-fi films that are set in the present, and even the past. And even if a sci-fi film is set in the far distant future, for it to any have contemporary relevance and resonance it must refer, however obliquely, to our own day and age. After all, that is what the original Ur-texts of sci-fi literature (all of which have been adapted for the screen), from the novels of H. G. Wells in England at the end of the Victorian Age to the short stories of Philip K. Dick in post-war California, have always known. Put simply, even as sci-fi stories, including cinematic sci-fi stories, set sail for the stars, they must also somehow remain moored to Planet Earth.  

Before I give my humble little list of “The Ten Greatest Sci-Fi Films Ever Made”, I will just say something about the future of the sci-fi genre in cinema. On the one hand, it appears completely secure, with ever more sci-fi films (and “sci-fantasy” films, such as superhero movies) being made. And yet just as theatre and opera were eventually superseded by cinema, perhaps cinema itself will ultimately be superseded by the newest artistic kid on the block, Extended Reality (or XR), which is the increasingly ubiquitous catch-all term for all forms of virtual reality and augmented reality. 

At the moment, XR is in its relative infancy. In fact, it is almost precisely at the same stage that cinema was in its own infancy (say, to about 1910), whereby it is not yet a fully successful story-telling medium but rather something of a “spectacle” or even “freak-show”. Many of the most successful or even notorious early films were not so much narrative-driven as effects-driven, for example the Lumière Brothers’ legendary 1895 film, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), which supposedly sent audiences running from the cinema in fear. (Even if, as increasingly appears to be the case, that is pure mythology or publicity on the part of the Lumières, cinema has always preferred to print “the myth” rather than “the fact”.)

It seems to me that XR is in the same position now, whereby it has obvious technical limitations, in particular the nausea or near-nausea induced by the seemingly obligatory head-sets, which limit the average user to wearing them for a maximum of 10 minutes or so at a time, thereby ensuring that so far, short-forms and formats have been prioritized in XR rather than longer ones. However, given the potential commercial prizes on offer, it is almost inevitable that those technical limitations will eventually be overcome, perhaps even as soon as in the next year or two with the arrival of Apple’s “XR glasses”, which could be the game-changing technology that the industry has long been seeking. If and when that happens, the full commercial and artistic potential of XR could finally be released and realized, to the extent that XR could soon come to rival and even overtake cinema as the dominant story-telling medium. 

So, it could just be that the following 10 masterpieces, which virtually encompass the entire history of cinema, come to be regarded in time not just the greatest sci-fi films ever made to this point, but the greatest sci-fi films that ever will be made, as sci-fi transfers wholesale to XR and audience members no longer just watch others travel to the stars but ride right alongside them. 

For FREE downloads of some of the greatest Sci-Fi screenplays of all time, visit the TSL Screenplay Library 

THE TEN GREATEST SCI-FI MOVIES

10. LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE (A TRIP TO THE MOON) (1902)

Being less than 10 minutes long, silent and filmed in black and white, Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip To the Moon) is unlikely to impress, let alone amaze, any YouTubers coming to it cold. Nevertheless, it remains the original sci-fi film and still provides arguably the defining image of all science-fiction cinema, namely the truly iconic image of The Man In The Moon with a rocket in his eye. That one image alone encapsulates so many of what would prove to be the defining traits and themes of sci-fi cinema, in particular the potential dangers (for both parties) of any encounter between human and extra-terrestrial life.

9. ALIEN (1979)

Alien exemplifies one of the most important aspects of genre, and one that I will go on to examine at length throughout this series; namely that the greatest films are rarely genre-faithful, or limited to only one genre. Alien is the ultimate hybrid of sci-fi and horror, which is entirely appropriate for a film that is ultimately about the hybridization, or cross-fertilization, of human and alien life. And having just said that Le Voyage dans la Lune still provides the definitive image of sci-fi cinema, then a close second, or at the very least a late 20th-century updating of it, would be the scariest “body horror” shot of them all – the titular alien baby bursting out of John Hurt’s chest and killing him in the process, which was originally inspired by writer Dan O’Bannon’s own crippling stomach pains. 

8. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

It must be acknowledged that some of the greatest sci-fi films have been so popular and influential that they have spawned entire franchises full of sequels, spin-offs and series in other media, particularly TV. Invariably, though, it is always the original that is not just the starting point for those mini-worlds or even mini-universes but by far the best manifestation of them. Of no film is that truer than the original Planet of the Apes, in which a spaceman discovers that he has crash-landed on an ape-world where the apparently natural or Darwinian order of things has become completely inverted. Inspired by the extraordinary Pierre Boulle’s novella of the same name, which itself was partly inspired by his own experience of being a Japanese prisoner-of war (an experience that also provided the basis for his great realistic masterpiece, Bridge On The River Kwai), the original Simian cinema masterpiece still endures as one of the greatest sci-fi films. It is also one of the most slyly radical, from its subtly serialist soundtrack, which arguably did more to introduce 12-tone music to the world than its creator Arnold Schoenberg ever did, to the comparison between questioning young apes and protesting hippies. 

7. DARK STAR (1974) 

Like Alien, John Carpenter’s Dark Star, which he co-wrote with Alien creator Dan O’Bannon (who, with two films on this list, is arguably the most influential but least well-known sci-fi cinema writer there is), is a classic genre-bender – the only truly successful sci-fi comedy. Self-billed as “The Spaced-Out Odyssey”, it was originally Carpenter’s student film at the University of Southern California, and in its ramshackle sets and plotting it certainly betrays those origins. However, it was gradually expanded to become a feature and the first full-length vehicle for the multiple talents of Carpenter, who is the closest that cinema has come to the all-encompassing genius of musicians such as Prince or Stevie Wonder, in that he writes, directs and even composes the music for his films. Most importantly, though, Dark Star is funny, a quality that is all too rare in sci-fi, a genre that often forgets its origins in pulp fiction and low culture, and takes itself waaay too seriously, something that no-one could ever accuse Dark Star of doing. 

6. LA JETÉE (1962) AND 12 MONKEYS (1995)

It might seem strange to include two films in one entry, but as I argue in another new series that I am writing for Script Lab – The Story Behind The Screenplay – La Jetée and 12 Monkeys effectively form the greatest double-bill in cinema history, and certainly in the history of science-fiction cinema. That is because the latter is an updating, an expansion and, yes, a Hollywood-isation (but a good one) of the former, a short, silent nouvelle vague classic that is largely made up not even of moving pictures but still ones. As a result, they demand to be seen and even thought of together. Both have essentially the same story: in a post-apocalyptic future, a prisoner is given the chance to regain his freedom but only if he will undertake experimental time travel to try and retrieve vital, life-saving information from the past (and, it transpires, the future). And both explore, more convincingly than any other time-travel movie (yep, including even Back To The Future) whether such inter-temporal journeying is possible. And if, ultimately, it is not possible, then La Jetée and 12 Monkeys are probably the closest approximations to it that we will ever have. 

5. SOLARIS (1972)

Along with Le Voyage dans la Lune, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the only “foreign language” (i.e. non-English) film on this list, which, sadly, is a testament to the fact that sci-fi, even in its B-movie beginnings, has always been the most expensive of all movie genres and therefore the one that has traditionally been most limited to the US studio system. Hopefully, that will all change in the 21st century, with rapidly (relatively) falling costs for making sci-films, and we will see the great Chilean or Papua New Guinean sci-fi cinema that we have been denied so far. For the time being, Solaris stands alone, not only as the pinnacle of Soviet sci-fi (one of the greatest cinematic sub-genres, which I hope to explore far more fully later in this series) but as the pinnacle of non-English language sci-fi cinema (Le Voyage dans la Lune being, of course, silent). The use of a foreign language, even if it is accompanied by subtitles, only adds to the eerie sense of dislocation for non-Russian viewers, as we watch the crew of a space-ship orbiting the planet Solaris and somehow encountering not just memories of their lost loved ones but, apparently, real-life avatars. 

4. BLADERUNNER (1982)

Legend (cinematic and literary) has it that when Philip K. Dick saw the opening credits of Ridley Scott’s BladeRunner, in which the camera swoops and soars over what remains the definitive cinematic future cityscape (all exploding oil-wells and skyscraper-sized advertising), he almost wept and exclaimed with joy, “That’s what I’ve been dreaming of all along!” Dick died soon afterwards, before the film was commercially released, and so did not live to see or experience the near-infinity of different “Director’s Cuts” and “Extended Director’s Cuts”, with or without added voice-over, that have followed the film’s initially poor reception at the box office. And yet what could be more appropriate for a film about the apparent ease with which “humanity” can be created and recreated than that there should be multiple versions of that film and, apparently, no one defining or definitive version? BladeRunner is itself a replicant of sorts, endlessly inspiring and endlessly regenerating, to the point that the notion that there should be one absolutely definitive or core version becomes faintly ludicrous. 

3. STAR WARS (1977)

Like the original Planet of the Apes, which it was partly inspired by and modeled on (hence the inclusion of Chewbacca, a gigantic fur-covered creature who was literally meant to “ape” the apes in the earlier movie), Star Wars has outgrown its origins and arguably outgrown cinema itself, to the point that it is perhaps easier to think of it is as a science-fiction fable or myth rather than a science-fiction movie at all. And yet all the vital sci-fi cinema ingredients are there in the original movie, which George Lucas also self-consciously modeled on Joseph Campbell’s classic 1949 study of mythology and heroic archetypes, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and rather less self-consciously on Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese epic, The Hidden Fortress (1958). There are plenty of sci-fi purists who will protest at such a high ranking for Star Wars, but for sheer cultural influence and heft it should be No.1, not so much a movie at all but the great founding story or myth of late 20th/early 21st century cinema and, it could be maintained, of late 20th/early 21st century culture.

2. ARRIVAL (2016)

Arrival is the greatest feminist sci-fi movie ever made, and not simply because its hero is not a hero at all but a heroine, one who uses what were once described as “female intuition” or “womanly wiles” to outwit the more mundane male minds around her, especially the military ones that would rather launch missiles at a newly arrived extraterrestrial spacecraft than attempt to reason with its inhabitants. It is more that the whole story and structure of the film is more fluid, sinuous, interlinked and, well, female than so much of the male-made cinema, particularly in the sci-fi genre, that preceded it in cinema’s first century. Encompassing both the highest forms of intellect (the heroine in question is a linguistics professor who, understanding the basic building blocks of language, might just be able to communicate with the aliens) and the highest, or at least most powerful, forms of emotion (in particular the unimaginable joy and grief caused by first having a child and then losing it), Arrival really should be the starting-point and future point of reference for all 21st century sci-fi movies. 

1. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

As I have written elsewhere for Script Lab, in the future the top spot for cinematic sci-fi may well be occupied by Arrival, or at least Arrival might share that spot with its current occupant. For now, however, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey just about clings to it alone, if only because it has already existed for more than half a century and so can claim the kind of longevity that Arrival has yet to enjoy (but surely will). For many younger viewers, particularly many younger sci-fi fans, 2001 may just be too slow to be “the greatest sci-fi film ever made”, and yet that supposed slowness is actually one of its strongest points. Just like the Viennese waltzes that accompany the orbiting of its spacecraft, 2001 proceeds not at a stately pace but at the right pace, one that more closely resembles the actual time involved in real space travel than the crash-bang-wallopery of so many of the sci-fi films that have followed it. From its script (the first third of which, set amid our Simian ancestors in Africa, is silent) to its music (not just waltzes but the otherworldly buzzing of Ligeti, which heralds the discovery of the mysterious black slab that sets the events of the film, and apparently all human life, in motion) to its direction (including, of course, the most famous cut in cinematic history, between a bone-weapon being hurled into the air and a waltzing spaceship), 2001 is not only one of the few truly perfect films ever made but one of Kubrick’s own “Magnificent Seven”, the masterpieces that he made in wildly differing genres that are each the greatest film in that particular genre. That strengthens the argument that Kubrick, like precious few other directors in the history of cinema, is in effect his own genre. But that will be the subject of a future Good Genre Guide. 


Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/


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