When I talk to people about my interest in science fiction I run into trouble when we start talking about movies. Do I like Star Wars? Sure, but outside any sort of argument of whether it is or is not actual science fiction, the thing about Star Wars that bugs me is the same thing that has been bothering a lot of SF fans for several decades now. Though entertaining, Star Wars created a slew of monsters: science fiction movies that are mostly shoot-em’-up blockbusters full of mindless action violence. Why is the genre of unlimited imagination often so predictable at the cinema?
As mentioned in Jo Walton’s recent article, finding SF books lacking violence can prove pretty hard. That problem is even more prevalent when you take a look at SF movies. Often, very violent films are rated PG-13 but movies containing sex and nudity are rated R. Adult actor Ron Jeremy pointed out this fallacy last year saying, “…unlike sex, the average person will likely not kill anyone in their lifetime…” And while I’m definitely NOT saying all violent movies should be replaced with titillating ones, or that the porn industry is here to save us all, it is an accurate point. Torture films like the Saw series are incredibly popular, as are a host of other movies about killers and murders. And the majority of high-profile science fiction films from the last decade alone are replete with violence and Hollywood-style action. From the groan-inducing Transformers to trashy violence like Repo-Men, these painfully bad movies require action and violence to get through their “plots” because ultimately the stories are built around such sequences.
But these kinds of movies are probably a little too easy to go after, because, supposedly, we all know what we’re getting into. (Though the excuse that something was “just a popcorn flick” is getting a little stale at the point of which the vast majority of films in the SF genre seem to be of this ilk.)
Because movies likeTransformers or Repo-Men don’t really have good premises or stimulating science fiction ideas, these movies weren’t really “ruined” by all the violence or action. However, many other movies, which seem to be made for thinking people are brought down by violence. I think District 9 is a good example. You could argue that there is a necessity to depict the brutality of what is going on in order to make the audience sympathize, but I’m confident an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Doctor Who could have pulled off the same philosophical quandary without so many guns.
Similarly, the incredibly popular Matrix trilogy has at its core a very inventive concept concerning a real world versus a digital one. Which one is more preferable? Do we really have free will? But these cool ideas ultimately take the form of ridiculously trite speeches exposed by characters whose only real personality traits are their ability to shoot/chop at people. The problem of the action/violence in the Matrix movies is compounded by the fact that the stakes of said violence are dubious. When characters are granted physical powers previously reserved for video game characters, not only does the action/violence cease to be interesting, it betrays what its real purpose is: violence for violence’s sake. Is this brand of violence any different than the goal of pornography? Should you stand for it in your science fiction?
Well sometimes, yes. Superhero movies are about heroes and villains, so it makes sense there will be some action/violence there. It’s not like the new X-Men: First Class movie should be all about Professor X and Magneto going to psychotherapy and figuring out what’s going on in with their addiction to caffeine pills. (Though honestly, I would be more interested in seeing that kind of movie than the one that’s forthcoming.)
The recently released Hanna (which basically has the same SF conceit as Captain America, or any other story involving genetic engineering) is a beautiful SF action film in which the violence is totally necessary to the plot and raises the emotional stakes every single gunshot. The violence of Kick-Ass incensed a lot of people, but ultimately was making a very specific point about just how dangerous and gruesome being a real-life superhero would be. Kick-Ass is meta-fictional and not delivering violence to people who crave violence in their films. (Though those people will probably like it too, so I suppose that helps with ticket sales.) Either way, these movies do violence and action right.
But why are there not more intelligent science fiction films that are actually about ideas and conflicts that don’t need to balloon into big action or violence? The best example I would cite of a contemporary movie like this is Contact. The most visually violent thing that happens in this movie occurs when terrorists blow-up the first space/time platform. But this is not the worst thing that happens to Jodie Foster’s character. The real chaos she goes through involves faith, science, rejection, prejudice, and all sorts of dramatic struggles that regular people experience. I personally can’t relate to shooting a gun or being in a kung-fu fight, but I can relate to Jodie Foster being discriminated against for her beliefs.
I’ve written previously about how the next Star Trek movie doesn’t need a villain, and I always delight in pointing out that if you want to get someone into Star Trek who has never seen it, show them Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It has an original science fiction premise, it’s a fun well-paced movie, and it’s actually about something. Sure, it’s nowhere near as legit of a SF movie as Contact, but I’ll take it over any Matrix movie any day of the week.
The little talked-about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is another good example here. And just because it’s basically a comedy and adapted from a great, great book series, doesn’t mean there can’t be more science fiction movies about regular people. My personal favorite science fiction movie from the last decade was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Memory erasure is not some new mind-blowing science fiction concept, but I dare you to find me a movie in which it is depicted better. The science fiction of Eternal Sunshine is about people, remove either the people or the science fiction from that movie and there is no movie. It blends the two perfectly. It sounds like such a simple formula, and leads me consider that maybe the thing that keeps messing it up for SF movies is guns.
Indie-darling Moon deserves a mention here as it was not only aesthetically great, it explored the classic science fiction conundrum of cloning and what that could mean; not only for one’s personal identity, but in regards to the exploitation of disposable labor and free will.
And for as great as the new Star Trek film was, I ask again: what was the new Star Trek movie about? Blowing up planets is evil? Being brave is good? Huh? The Time Traveler’s Wife is more original than the latest Star Trek movie in this regard, and though I wouldn’t argue it is a better movie, it is a better science fiction movie. And although I don’t need to remind any SF fan of this, I’ll say it anyway: the original The Day the Earth Stood Still is about how humans are too violent. And it’s a really good science fiction movie.
I know the purposes of going to the movies is to be entertained, but one of the great things about science fiction is that it actually does open your brain up to new possibilities while you’re being entertained. Science fiction can touch your brain and your heart at the same time in a way a violent action scene never can. And despite how exciting Chris Pine might be when he’s riding a space motorcycle, I’d rather watch a great SF movie with a character like Contact’s Ellie Arroway. She’s sitting there in a little space pod, ready to travel in space and time to meet aliens for the first time ever. She’s nervous and scared. And she bravely says, her voice cracking, “I’m okay to go.”
Now that’s a movie.
[Update 5/12: Continue on to this thoughtful rebuttal: “Why Science Fiction Needs Violence”]
Ryan Britt is a staff blogger for Tor.com. He really does like Star Wars and James Bond movies. Honest.