Why the best sci-fi TV and movies don’t *feel* like sci-fi

Last week, I suggested that sci-f/fantasy readers and authors could benefit from reading genres other than SFF. I contended that the quality of SFF stories can improve from exposure to mainstream genres, reduce the barrier of entry for newcomers to SFF, and create an even larger community of fans.

Today, I’d like to illustrate this by geeking out on some movies and TV shows that inject high doses of SFF elements into their stories, yet proved to be completely accessible to mainstream audiences. Some of these stories aren’t usually classified as sci-fi by norms, which is awfully cool: it shows us that SFF need not alienate audiences with a high barrier of entry, and that the surly “us vs. the world” underdog/junkyard dog attitude a vocal few SFF audiences and authors have need not exist.

I’ll then follow up with why I think these SFF-in-sheep’s-clothing stories are so successful, and what we fans (and writers) can learn from them.

  • Back to the Future: A time-traveling DeLorean. Often found in the comedy section.

  • Groundhog Day: A loop in the space-time continuum. Comedy.

  • Somewhere In Time: Accessible time travel. Drama.

  • The Truman Show: Super surveillance, for a society of one. Comedy/drama.

  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?: Toons in the real world. Comedy.

  • The Road Warrior: Post apocalypse. Far more often considered action than SF.

  • E.T.: Often considered a “family” movie, but sci-fi all the way.

  • The Time Traveler’s Wife: SF packaged as romance.

  • Jurassic Park: Cloned dinosaurs. Nearly always found in the action section.

  • The Abyss: Aliens in the ocean. Typically associated with action.

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Mindwipe technology. Found in comedy/drama.

  • Galaxy Quest: Funny SF movie. Found in comedy.

  • Cocoon: Biological rejuvenation thanks to alien pods. Drama.

  • King Kong: Giant ape terrorizes Manhattan. Action.

  • Iron Man, Batman Begins, X-Men, Superman: Most often found in action.

  • Contact: Sagan’s SF masterpiece, often found in drama.

  • Quantum Leap: Time-jumping. Often classified as comedy/drama.

  • Third Rock from the Sun: Brilliant show about incognito aliens. Comedy.

  • The Six Million Dollar Man: They rebuilt him. They had the technology. Action.

  • The Boys from Brazil: Hitler clones. Drama.

  • Short Circuit: Sentient robot. Comedy.

  • Ghost: Victim’s soul sticks around to solve his own murder. Drama.

  • The Matrix: We all live in a computer simulation. Action.

  • Innerspace: Submarine inside a dude’s bloodstream. Comedy.

  • Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Time travel. Comedy.

  • Gremlins: Muppets gone bad. Comedy.

  • Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The title says it all. Comedy/family.

  • Deja Vu: Space-time paradoxes. Drama.

  • Sliding Doors: Parallel universes. Drama.

I’m certain there are dozens more (which you can share in this post’s comments). So why were these movies and TV shows so successful at attracting non-SFF fans—especially when the beating heart of each of these stories is a skyscraper-sized SFF conceit? Nearly all of them take place in present day, which helps: the storytellers don’t have to send much time building a brand-new world.

But I believe it’s far more than that. Examine wildly successful properties that are known as SFF, yet attract millions of mainstream viewers—Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Alien and Aliens and The X-Files. These stories sport the same successful characteristics as the list above.

Yet they rarely let the SFF elements eclipse the story or characters. They give enough information about those fantastical elements to deliver understanding and relevance for the audience, but not so much as to alienate them. They focus on characters. Their protagonists—even if they were born on other planets—are immediately grokable thanks to their very “human” behaviors and characteristics. Audiences want to emotionally identify with characters, and whenever possible, the world in which they occupy.

I believe these are the most successful traits of great SFF (and stories, period): nigh-universal appeal. To be clear: I’m not criticizing fans or writers who love to deep geek in their fiction—one of my favorite novels, Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness In the Sky, is hyper-granular in its worldbuilding and geekery. There is absolutely a place for this content, and a thriving subculture exists that will support it.

But I do believe that these movies and TV shows (and more—sound off in the comments!) can provide priceless inspiration for SFF storytellers, and opportunities to grow our community well past the SFF section of our book- and video stores. If storytellers and evangelistic SFF fans can accomplish that, then we all win.


J.C. Hutchins is the author of the sci-fi thriller novel 7th Son: Descent. Originally released as free serialized audiobooks, his 7th Son trilogy is the most popular podcast novel series in history. J.C.’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

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