Wed
Apr 20 2011 3:49pm

Where Are the Brainy Non-Violent SF Films?

Brainy non-violent science fiction films

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.)

The Matrix

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.)

Brainy non-violent science fiction moviesThe 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.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage HomeI’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.

Brainy non-violent science fiction filmsIndie-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.

87 comments
Lucas Vollmer
1. aspeo
I agree with you. Contact is one of my favorite movies, and one of the few that I will watch anytime I see it on. I enjoy both action sci-fi and thoughtful sci-fi, but I think I feel more satisfied watching a film like Contact or Moon than any others.
Chris Palmer
2. cmpalmer
You covered most of my favorites, Contact, Eternal Sunshine, and Moon. I would add Primer and The Man From Earth. I think 2010 is underrated and pretty good as well.
sg
3. sg
Great write-up! I've noticed this about SF movies as well. The trend seems to be toward blending sci-fi with action, or sci-fi with horror, etc. And maybe it's cliche but I couldn't help but think of other films that cause that sort of introspection, namely both version of Solaris. Personally, I like them both, but I attribute that to having seen the more recent version first and being able to see it on its own terms. Both seem to be films made for 'thinking people' as they tend to ask the questions that cannot be solved with the pull of a trigger or a well-placed karate chop. The lack of violence in either film I think lets us focus on those questions, meditate on them. Perhaps we come to some conclusions, perhaps not. Either way, the films accomplish something I really admire about SF in general and that is to ask and re-ask the question of identity. What does it mean to be human? Does that notion of human-ness evolve as we discover beings not like us, and how?

Anyway, thanks for this post. I need to go watch Solaris again. Both of them.
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
@Cmpalmer I like everything you mentioned also. 2010 IS underrated. It's like you aren't allowed to talk about it because 2001 is such a classic. Because it's a little easier to follow, I always liked 2010 better as a kid. Now, I'm not saying it is better than 2001, but you know what I mean. :-)
sg
5. DavidA Still
I think the trends and characteristics you are complaining about are trends and characteristics in movies in general today, not just science fiction movies. The movie business makes formulaic movies; I don't think that is news. Though I admit I can't think of any sci-fi rom-coms -- and I would like to see one.
sg
6. dwndrgn
How about Blade Runner?
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@sg I recently watched the old Solaris. I actually don't mind the remake either, though I hear Stainslaw Lem didn't like either version. Oh, well.
sg
8. sg
@ryancbritt - really? I guess that's his right. The book's really great too.
Ryan Britt
9. ryancbritt
@DavidA still

Woody Allen's Sleeper is def a sci-fi romantic comedy. You could also make an arguement for Being John Malkovich.
I agree with you that it is a trend in movies lately. But when I walk by a movie theatre and I see ads for a bunch of SF-type movies (like Suckerpunch or Source Code) that I have no interest in seeing, it gives me pause.

@dwndrg I feel like we talk a lot about Blade Runner on the site. I figured I'd give it a break. It's sort of in a class by itself.
sg
10. Joseph2000
You seem to have a problem with any violence in SF, even though you say your'e not, sometimes gratuitous violence isn't gratuitous at all and is simply there to advance the plot or as part of the plot. Violence doesn't always need to have a specific purpose and I think it IS used very well in both District 9 and the first Matrix movie (I've yet to see part 2 and 3) District 9 was an allegorical movie about apartheid in South Africa I highly doubt that no blood was shed in that part of history and The Matrix needed a phyical way to show the struggle between people trying to run the matrix and people trying to escape from it.
Ryan Britt
11. ryancbritt
@Joseph2000. Fair points. I simply totally disagree about the Matrix. The Matrix could have explored that concept in all sorts of different ways rather than having the movie be most remembered for its violence/action.

With District 9, I just felt that the violence was dialed up a little too high for the kind of movie that it could have been. My problem is the degree to which the violence/action overtakes the movie and the ideas are lost. And how ulmiately making that choice in a movie is pandering to a bloodthirsty audience. I'm all about the ratio situation. I understand a lot of people will disagree with me about District 9, and you might actually totally be right. :-)
sg
12. reaeverywhereelse
Hitchhiker's Guide is of course totally nonviolent, if you don't count the destruction of all humanity (apart from two characters) by malicious aliens.
sg
13. lopeg128
I agree with everything you said. I especially agree with what you said about movies like Eternal Sunshine... like what if your world, YOUR VERY world was actually like this... And what you get in that kind of movie is a potentially perspective altering story with nuance and specificity as opposed to the archetypes and platitudes which pervade most sci-fi films. It seems that people can't separate "big ideas" from "big budget effects" - Good sci-fi is usually pretty complicated. And if 30 of your 90 minutes are eaten up with chase sequences and laser tag, the "big ideas", the nuance and specificity...the good stuff - will always take a back seat.
sg
14. Helen Lowe
Two of my favorite SFF movies are Blade Runner and Gattuca. I definitely put Gattuca forward for a smart SFF movie with a very low violence quotient.

Blade Runner is violent, but I think the violence is not about splatter-fest but underlining the point of the movie which to me is all about 'when is a human being really a human being' and is it ok to hunt and exterminate human beings like vermin, which is effectively what is happening in Blade Runner.

Oh, and then there's Galaxy Quest ...
sg
15. ChakaTodd
Don't forget Gattaca!

I also enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau. It's relatively non-violent and brainy.
sg
16. joelfinkle
@ryancbritt - don't skip Source Code. It looks mindless, but it's very thoughtful. Same director as Moon, by the way (Duncan Jones, nee Zowie Bowie) -- but off topic, since there is violence (the train that keeps exploding isn't all of it either).

Gattaca was pretty minimally violent, a great example of a thoughtful SF film. Going way back we have Silent Running, The Quiet Earth. But there's not much more than that out there, and it's a shame.
sg
17. DRickard
Why are SF films all violent action flicks? Capitalism did it!
Films are incredibly expensive products to make; the studios that finance and distribute them want to make a profit on them; action and violence are easy sells.
Serious SF (SF about ideas) requires either an informed audience (by no means guaranteed even in economically-developed countries) or info dumps (which require linguistic and cultural translations when exported). You don't have to explain or translate stuff blowing up.
Rikka Cordin
18. Rikka
As I was reading this I was chanting Gattaca, Gattaca but I have, as they say, been beaten to it. I also feel like Cargo's was purposeful...
Irene Gallo
19. Irene
I was going to throw Gattaca in there too. One of my favorites. Slow, thoughtful, and a lot of fun to watch. Whenever I re-watch it, I'm reminded how engaging it is despite being such a quiet movie.
Abigail Johnson
21. AbigailJohnson
Gattaca, like everyone else said. Along the same lines at Eternal Sunshine, The Timer was also really interesting.
sg
22. Patricia Mathews
Hollywood is totally convinced that the core audience for science fiction films is teenaged boys and young men. It's also totally convinced that this demographic demands violence, car chases with massive property destruction and risk to life, T & A, and precious little else except maybe fart jokes.

I'm totally convinced that you could run the concept for Little Women past some producers and they'd try to add mindless violence, car chases with massive property desctruction and risks to bystanders, T&A, and fart jokes.
sg
23. NilsM
I am supprised nobody mentioned one of my favourites until now: K-PAX. Very psychological and character driven with a great Kevin Spacey
Ashe Armstrong
24. AsheSaoirse
The Man From Earth is bloody brilliant. Everyone should watch it.
sg
25. Joseph2000
@ryancbritt I definitely agree on Eternal Sunshine and Hitchhiker's Guide and I completely agree with your ideal that there's too high of a ratio between violence packed sf-movies and intelligent sf movies but violence in film is a tool that can be used to make a film good just as it can be used to hurt the main ideas of a good film. And then there's Michael Bay, let's not mention him. I'm just saying don't lump them all in one category. There's mindless violence and there's violence for the sake of story and drama. Maybe I'm oversimplifying because you have a point about overuse in even the best of films. So I liked watching the alien technology splatter corporate goons in District 9, SUE ME.
Brent Longstaff
26. Brentus
The quote from the adult actor's trite rationalization actually proves the opposite of his point. Sex and nudity in media have a much higher probability of affecting people's behavior than watching violence does, simply because violence is more obviously bad to well-adjusted people. Violent events linked to entertainment are terrible, but at least they are exceptional and rare. For every Columbine there are many, many examples of marriages ruined and people becoming porn addicts and messing up their lives. Studies also link porn to violence, so the argument doubly fails. I'm not saying violence in entertainment is OK; links between them and tragic events would suggest otherwise. But the whole "sex is normal therefore porn is OK" argument is utter hogwash. I'm glad the MPAA understands that.
sg
27. Kvon
Another vote for Gattaca (too bad I can't vote for it in the movie poll). Another indie sf film was Code 46, which had the lead investigating the forgery of travel papers in a domed world and falling in love with a clone of his mother.
john mullen
28. johntheirishmongol
The reason that those films don't do very good is that they are borrrrrrrrring. Sorry, I pay 10 to 14 dollars to see a film and I want some spectacle. Now it doesn't mean I like every shoot 'em up but ones that are decent and fun are enjoyable.

I'm not exactly a kid either, since I am well over 50. Take a look at the big movies from when I was younger and they were the same. They may not have been scifi, but other genre's still had those elements in them, whether musicals or westerns, war movies or romance, there was always that factor.

There is the occasional small film that catches the public interest, but that's still pretty few and far between. A pretty good example of that is The Sixth Sense, with it's surprise ending.

However, one last comment is that this whole article is a bit condescending, like people cannot like what they like and if they do they have no taste. Great entertainment isn't just for the highbrows, but it should be for the masses as well. Even Shakespeare knew that.
sg
29. DarrenJL
Sunshine. Yeah, I know what you're going to say... "the second half?" But even so, the first half of that film is magnificent hard sf, where the danger is just space and the Sun. It's a crazily underrated film.
M B
30. selidor
"Often, very violent films are rated PG-13 but movies containing sex and nudity are rated R."

US-centrism alert! No, really - the rating boards of Australia and NZ, to cite the ones with which I am familiar, tend to veer in the other direction, with NZ more so than AU.

I'd be interested to know if this greater acceptance of violence by the censorship boards is unique to the US. Any callouts from Europe, etc?
sg
31. USSWylie
I love all the quiet, thoughtful sci-fi films mentioned here, except I had never heard of Primer. When I added it to my netflix queue I got a recommendation for Lathe of Heaven, based on the novel by Ursula Le Guin. Then, I found a second, more recent version. Any opinions about these?
Joe Romano
32. Drunes
I'll cast two votes: one for the totally cool The Brother from Another Planet and one for Stalker, a 1979 Russian SF film based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's book, Roadside Picnic, if you're not familiar with it.
sg
33. Azeke
You're REALLY missing out for passing on Source Code. And it's not really all that violent.

It's definitely up there with District 9 and Moon in top of good ol' smart sci-fi-ness.

And i really don't understand your problem with violence per se.

Is Terminator-2 a worse movie for having a tons of violence? Or District 9?

Oh, and if we're on Camerion, there is a VERY GLARING omission in your post. Abyss is an amazing movie, very hard sci-fi and criminally underrated.
sg
34. AgingComputer
Someone already tossed out "Primer"... when I think of quiet, brainy, non-violent sci-fi films, that is what I think of. One of the best movies I have ever seen; had to watch it three times all the way through to make heads or tails of it. Of course I could have answered my questions about the film with a quick Google search but that would have ruined it, no?

A mind-blowing film (albiet very slow in the first 30 minutes).
sg
35. The Picard
Although I don't turn my nose up at action, your post has got me thinking about great SF that doesn't feature violence. The Prestige comes to mind, which I think is terrific and gets better with repeated viewings. Some other titles: The Truman Show, Sunshine, Close Encounters, and Brazil.
Michael Burke
36. Ludon
The Picard just beat me to The Truman Show and Close Encounters. I'll throw in the third I was going to suggest - Bruce Almighty.
sg
37. The Picard
Oh, and I love Starman which has some violence but it doesn't take over the movie. I suppose that's also true with Sunshine.
sg
38. afterthefallofnight
It is true that there is a shortage of quiet, smart Science Fiction. But perhaps it is not quite as bad as first impressions would lead us to believe. I thought about this for a bit and came up with a surprisingly long list of (mostly) quiet and (mostly) smart science fiction films:

forbidden planet
pleasantville
gattaca
fantastic voyage
andromeda strain
the forbin project
solaris
the man who fell to earth
close encounters
on the beach
the world, the flesh and the devil
ET
brother from another planet
cocoon
the truman show
the bicentennial man
space cowboys
k-pax
the last mimzy
wall-e
happy accidents

I enjoyed every one of these films - even fantastic voyage (ok, I was young) and bicentennial man. And I am certain there are several films, especially films that did not get widely distributed in the US, I don't know about.
Ryan Britt
39. ryancbritt
@brentus
You know, that's a fair point. I think I'm often taken by sort of
iconoclast viewpoints that sort of buck conventional wisdom. I guess I
viewed that soundbyte as a talking point, rather than something that was totally "true." But your comment has certainly given me pause
in the same way that initial quote did. This is why we like having these
discussions.

@selidor Interesting! I don't know. But I want to!

@johntheirishmongul I hear you about wanting a spectacle. I love spectacle. I am a dictionary of knowledge about James Bond movies. I do think however that people are capable of digesting more sophisticated material than what is usually offered by the majority of SF movies. But yeah, I'm torn too.

@jospeh2000 I think we agree more and more! And no I will not sue you.

@joelfinkle and @azeke That's it! I'm going to see Source Code this week! Looking forward to it too!
Brent Longstaff
40. Brentus
@ryancbritt Thanks for your considerate response to my comment. I was just reacting to that one quote, but I really liked the article. I never thought about violence in sci-fi that way before, but I agree with you. I loved Inception, but it was the sci-fi concepts, not the action scenes, that made the movie my favorite. For example, while the hotel fighting was neat, my favorite part of it was when (SPOILER) the guy was chased down the staircase and used the dream architecture (rather than a gun) against his pursuer. And my favorite parts of the movie didn't involve fighting at all.
sg
41. Maxim Kammerer
Well, it's not exactly a film as such, but The Prisoner? That totally broke the mold.
Mike Conley
42. NomadUK
brentus@26: Studies also link porn to violence

Um, no. No, they don't.
john mullen
43. johntheirishmongol
@38
Half the films in there, most of the good ones, have huge elements of danger in them. Maybe they aren't shoot em ups but there is a lot of violence.
sg
44. John Seven
There's action violence that dominates a story and is meant to tittilate, which I think is more the problem, and then there are movies with moments of violence that are just a part of a larger, more complex package. I suggest you check out Sleep Dealer, or one of these episodes of FutureStates - http://futurestates.tv/episodes/digital-antiquities
Chris Palmer
45. cmpalmer
@USSWiley, the older version of Lathe of Heaven is much better, even though the production values are quite low (it was made for PBS in late 70's(?) or early 80's). The remake was screwed up on many levels.
sg
46. rocketman
BTW, Afterthefallof night.

Let us not forget the brief, quirky and delightfuly twisted,

Teknolust,

followed by my favorite, (and even more twisted) guilty pleasure:

Liquid Sky.
Chris Palmer
47. cmpalmer
@ryancbritt, I agree with you about District 9. I think it is truly one of the best hard SF movies ever and it has a great historical/sociological message in its apartheid connection, but the early word from several non-SF reviewers was that it was violent, creepy, and gross. It was, and that didn't bother me too much, but I think it limited the audience. I'm not saying it should have been PG-13, but it could have been less of a horror show.

In fact, Wikus' transformation, while understandable from an allegorical point of view, was some of the weakest "science" in the science fiction of District 9 and word of mouth about it drove several people away.

I was really surprised at how many people I knew who didn't want to see it.
Irene Gallo
48. Irene
Oh yeah, Close Encounters -- another great one that doesn't have any bad guys. I was a kid when it came out but I remember liking it a bit more than Star Wars...maybe that’s why.
Ryan Britt
49. ryancbritt
@cmpalmer Less of a horror show. Exactly.

@EVERYONE I'm really thrilled that this article created so much conversation. The comments have been so insightful. Nice work.
sg
50. dav
Can't I like a violent sci-fi movie like the Matrix AND Contact for the completely different experiences they bring to the table? I can't image the Matrix as anything other than what it was, guns, karate and all. In the same way, I can't imagine Jodie Foster warping to an alien world and shooting up her alien dad either.

The biggest budget movies need the violence to draw the larger crowds to justify those dollars spent. The smaller budget movies can take chances on the thought provoking sci-fi.

Seems like this article should be more about "Why doesn't big budget Hollywood make brainy sci-fi?" Plenty of brainy sci-fi exists and its success and the audiences who seek it out has begun to seep into mid-budget territory (Adjustment Bureau, Source Code, etc.) Why one or the other? Let's have it all and let ME pick and choose what I want to consume.
sg
51. polygonwrangler
Agree. Agree, agree, agree. The craziest turn on cerebral SciFi in my recent memory came from 2007's 'Sunshine'. It was a film based on a short story by Clark Ashton Smith entitled 'Phoenix' (Seriously, it was. The *pacing* owed more to the movies quoted on IMDB). It started out as solid SciFi and then became really nothing more than a loose stool slasher film.
Michael Burke
52. Ludon
I've thought about this overnight. While I think it's easy to tag Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica series as the albatross of violence around the neck of Sci-Fi, I think that doing so is unfair and ignores the history of sci-fi in flims and in general. The early sci-fi shorts were in competition against the western and detective shorts and out of necessity of competing for the same audience used the same formats. Many later films were thinly disguised cold war stories. The same is true of much of the written work of the period. The brainy non or less violent stories have always been the standout in sci-fi.

In looking over my tastes in sci-fi movies I feel that I must look at my taste in movies in general. While I loved the action and suspense in the first two Alien movies, Contact is in my personal Top Ten while the Alien films are lower in the list. While I can love a movie like In Bruges and series like Dead Like Me (people die in every episode!) and Battlestar Galactica (the new one), it's the movies Holes, Searching for Bobby Fischer and Nobody's Fool (Paul Newman) that join Contact in my top five. The fifth title (but not in that order) is Once Upon a Time in the West. I'm interested in storytelling. I'm more accepting of violence as a necessary part of the story than I am of the story being a vehicle for violence.
Ryan Britt
53. ryancbritt
@Ludon. Great point about SW and the original BSG. I also think you are totally right about the influence of westerns and detective stories on early sci-fi serials and film.

Personally, I love the original Alien, but I'm not crazy about Aliens. The first represents what I like about action/violence being used well, the latter does not. But that's just me!
sg
54. Black0
There are a number of issues here with respect to storytelling and conflict and the role of violence, but really, I think a real issue is that we SF fans feel very proprietarily towards our genre in a way that fans of other genres are not. So we claim anything that has a hint of our genre in it, and then get annoyed when it isn't to our liking.

What happens when we change the question to just "where are the brainy non-violent films?" Sure, they get made, but they aren't generally the big money makers, so they are less common. It shouldn't be at all surprising that taking the modifier SF onto that reduces the number even further. Hollywood is attracted to SF, but it isn't for the brainy bits -- it is because the SF makes absurd, over the top spectacle possible/acceptable. What we are seeing is not the dumbing down of SF but the injection of SF into action movies to make them bigger. The number of brainy SF movies looks piddly because we are lumping them into the same category as all of these "augmented" action films. Honestly, as much as I love a nice brainy SF film, I think we are actually fairly well served considering how SF fits proportionally into the rest of our culture.

And, if I'm fully honest, I'll admit that if I'm ponying up the ticket price to see a movie in a theatre (for two + dinner usually), I like a bit of spectacle myself. The spectacle doesn't have to be action/violence, I'll accept visually stunning, but it has to be something to make the effort/money worth it (as much as I like Gattaca and Moon, they quite frankly don't lose anything on the "small" screen).
Chris Palmer
55. cmpalmer
@polygonwrangler, I always thought Sunshine was a remake of Dark Star (it even has a character named Pinbacker). I, too, thought it was going to be a more cerebral SF movie until it turned into a monster/slasher film.

@ryancbritt: I was remarking to some friends of mine the other day that Tor.com has the best, most well-written, intelligent, and worthwhile comments of any online site I visit, hands-down.
Ryan Britt
56. ryancbritt
@cmpalmer You're making us blush. Thanks. We try.
Ryan Britt
57. ryancbritt
@Blacko I like what you're saying about the injection of SF into action movies to make them bigger. That exactly what it going on. Do you think that has to do with the fact that we are living with so much more science fiction in the real world than ever before?
L S
58. foundling
Fantastic article and really enjoyable comments.

I tend to gauge the quality of a movie by what impact it had on me (not a very strong gauge and very biased, I know). I watched The Matrix when I was thirteen and it had a big impact on me - the philosophy (such as it was) and the amazing shift into a whole other world that wasn't actually a world, just a computer program.

But a few years later I watched Contact. Contact hit me so deeply and so personally I still watch it and have the same emotional and philosophical reactions, I still love the sequence with Ellie in the pod - it is elegantly written and powerfully composed. Contact influenced me toward thoughtful science fiction and I always look for films and books with similar impact.

To be honest, I've stopped watching films like The Matrix. I am tired of watching films with no consequences, where the hero or heroine engages in acts of violence that realistically would get them thrown in prison, but are lauded as cool and inspiring and well-done, as necessary to the plot (sure, some of it is and I have no problem with that), or just an excuse to add in another big explosion.

Give me thoughtful sci fi any day.
sg
59. Will L
Interesting that there's no comment about "finding SF books lacking violence can prove pretty hard". I can't pretend to be familiar with all the books that get published, so I'll let it go too.
Patricia Mathews is largely right that "Hollywood is totally convinced that the core audience for science fiction films is teenaged boys and young men... that... demands violence, car chases with massive property destruction and risk to life, T & A". It follows that thoughtful, less violent SF movies will be independent productions instead of studio films. And some stories can't be done as a live action indie film because there's not enough money for the special effects.
I'm not familiar with the reviews of District 9 - I loved it so much I don't care - but the "creepy & gross" aspects were integral to the message. There's far too much cinema/TV SF where visually attractive equates to good & unattractive equates to evil. Similarly, the transformation of Wikus may have been weak science, but it was visual poetry - as he became less human physically, he regained the best part of his humanity morally.
René Walling
60. cybernetic_nomad
Will L said:

"Interesting that there's no comment about "finding SF books lacking violence can prove pretty hard".

It's probably becasue those comments have been made in this thread
sg
61. afterthefallofnight
@43: Your memory is probably better than mine, but I don't remember these films being overly violent. And I don't think the intent of the author was to rule out any film with danger or limited on screen violence. Of the films cited by the author, Contact has a terrorist attack, The Day the Earth Stood Still had multiple on screen deaths and ever increasing sense of danger and Star Trek IV involves plenty of death and destruction.I agree that several of the films on my list involve a strong sense of danger and some have a few moments of on screen violence - but I don't think any of the films on my list ballon into big action or violence riddden stories.

@46: Never saw them, though I intended to see Liquid Sky. Maybe someday.
Linden Wolfe
62. Lilith
I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but I'd like to throw in Code 46 - a non-violent 2003 SF movie, starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, that no one I've asked seems to have heard of, let alone seen. (I'd never heard of it either, until I spotted the DVD in the bargain bin and bought it for the cast).
sg
63. MWarsha
I think you are dancing around the difference between inclusionist fiction and escapist fiction. I don't think there is much demand to see someone like yourself in a situation that you could somewhat reasonably experience. A large majority of science fiction is about escapism. Escaping to new worlds, new and dangeous lives and situations... Our lives are incredibly mundane for the most part and we live in one of the least violent times in history. Being threatned by dramatic, explosive danger is a thrilling novelty. Being threatned by lawyers... less so

As for non-violent scifi, I really enjoyed The Man From Earth.
Ryan Britt
64. ryancbritt
@Lilith- I'll have to check out Code 46! Thanks!
Helen Peters
65. Helen
My post from the other day isn't here, I must have only hit preview not post and I can't remember all of what I said. But to the point....

My brother was over today and I asked him where the non-violent (didn't say brainy) SF films were and he said people don't want to see that, but then we had a good think and along with some listed above came up with Flight of the navigator and Explorers as two, both kids films. Also ET, Starman and a few others. But the main thing about them was we could remember when they came out, they were 80s films, before all the effects and stuff we have today, maybe they had to have a bit more story back then, when the effects were simpler.


The gist of my post the other day was that Gatacca got away with being non-violent, in my view because it still provided us with the 'fear' that we crave. With the violent action films it's about fear of the baddies defeating/killing/maiming our hero. In Gattaca we had that same fear without the violence, it was the fear of him being found out.


Edit to add: Deep Impact, we're not sure of the name, with Bruce Willis and Liv Tyler, meteorite coming to hit earth and they need to go up and blow it up. There's another very similar one with Tea Leoni as well.
sg
66. Larry-DK
I just want to put in:
Mr. Nobody

eventhough it is not a "real" sci-fi movie, I think that most of the people reding this will love to watch it!
Ryan Britt
67. ryancbritt
@Larry-DK Another one to ad to the list! I've go so many new movies to see. It's so great.
sg
68. apokalypsis
A.I. didn't strike me as relying too much on violence, but it's been awhile. How about A Scanner Darkly? (but I'm more familiar with the book than the animated movie). Both PKD.... Go figure.

I think we crave violence in storytelling, because it is part of our history (since our ancestors survived to reproduce), and because death is one of the great mysteries. But yes, Hollywood takes something powerful and horrifying and makes it trite, all too often.
sg
69. michael f. flynn
1. Charly. Based on "Flowers for Algernon."
2. Disaster in Time. Based on "Vintage Season." Made for TV, but not bad, despite the budget.
3. Frequency. Another time-travel -sorta. Some violence, because it involves some NYC cops and a serial killer.
4. The Man in the White Suit.
Michael Burke
70. Ludon
@68 apokalypsis
A.I. did have the Flesh Fair scene but the violence in that scene was important to the story. (Spoiler text below in white.) The violence in that scene was over the top but it needed to be to stress the people's reaction to David. When the drop of acid hit his arm and he cried out in pain and transformed from being a hated meca to being a threatened child in the eyes of the audience in the stands. They were ready to riot. When you add this scene to the views of the production line near the end of the film you realise that it was through the 'children' that meca was able to gain the upper hand. This, then, set the stage for the advanced meca finding David and granting his wish at the end of the movie.

@ michael F. Flynn
I agree on both Frequency and Disaster in Time. And I felt Disaster in Time worked despite its budget because they made some fine casting decisions.
sg
71. finch749
I'm sorry, I don't ever really comment on these things, but calling Kick-Ass a movie about how dangerous it would actually be to be a super hero is an incredibly poor analysis. I'm not even convinced you have a proper grasp of what it is for a film to be metafictional. It's metafictional in its references to the comic book genre, but no one's going around hailing it as a metafictional masterpiece a la Tropic Thunder or Being John Malkovich (talk about your brainy science fiction, by the way). But I digress. Kick-Ass is a movie that certainly deals with violence, but in a manner intended to look at societal desensitization by presenting such over-the-top violence that the viewer finds the image of a ten year old girl brutally slaughtering contingents of thugs comical. It certainly says something about our culture and violence, but to say it's a movie about becoming a superhero is like saying the Godfather is a how-to on becoming a Mafia Don.
Ryan Britt
72. ryancbritt
@finch749 I love Being John Malkovich! So much in fact I write about it on the blog all the time! Here's an example in which I talked to SF author Paul Park about meta-fiction. http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/12/i-am-not-a-blogger-and-this-is-not-a-blog-adventures-in-meta-fiction-with-paul-park

I think Kick-Ass is a lot of things, I think it's just a little smarter than most people give it credit. I see where you are coming from, but was mostly using it as an example in which I personally don't think the violence was being used just for violence sake. At first perhaps yes, but when Nick Cage's character is burned to death, I think the consequences of the happy-go-lucky movie violence are pretty spelled out. It's by no means a perfect film or concept, but for a movie that dealt with the way we think about violence in film and comic books, I think it struck some insteresting chords.
sg
73. TrAvis DRIScoll
Doctor Who any one? admittedly not a movie and it has its' violent scenes but itis Definetley (IMHO) the most brainy, absurd, and terrifying show out there.
John Massey
74. subwoofer
Nope, not buying it... and that's the problem- you want thought provoking good sci-fi- it usually bombs at the box office. It also resembles the boring bits in Phantom Menace where Jar-Jar goes on forever and a day. The kind of sci-fi you want is best left to books and the imagination because the chances of it making film are growing less and less. Sad but reality. Direct to video.

As for the Matrix- let's be honest, it was groundbreaking and amazing. The opening sequence was simulated and immitated in dozens of movies since. As for violence, one of the best scene in the movie... or ever for that matter, was when they did a jail break for Morpheus. Beautiful.

For me, movie going is time for suspension of reality and getting away from the garbage of the world. It is also a release for things like not being able to smack your boss upside the head or giving that annoying persontextingorsurfingontheircellphonewhilewatchingamovieweall paid $12-14 to go see the beating they deserve without going to jail, or the crappy driver tail gating you... gah... you see where I am coming from, sometimes it is nice to watch some stuff that is just not real. And it is good to see some folks get their commuppance.

As for Bladerunner...

Woof™.
sg
75. Cantú
2001. The best sci-fi movie ever made.
Helen Peters
76. Helen
Waaay too late for the discussion, but....

Further to my comment above about fear being what we're after and the violence is used to make us fear for the charaters we like, I'd like to nominate The Butterfly Effect for a non-violent SF film. I know there's violent parts, with the blowing up of the mail box (again and again) and the brother walloping/being walloped by Kutchter (also again and again), but overall it's not a typical film with huge amounts of blood and guts, car chases, flames etc. The fear is generated by us not knowing, but being afraid of, how he's going to muck up this time. And I love how he 'fixes' it all at the end!
sg
77. Niela Miller
To slightly veer off from the discussion thread, I am wondering what non-violent thoughtful SF books people have read that they WISH had been made into movies.
My first choice would be More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
and there are tons more.
Peter Cawdron
78. PeterCawdron
Great insights. This post, along with movies like Contact and Sphere, helped insire my novel Anomaly, and is credited in the after word. We all love heroes, but we need more scientific heroes, not thugs that just happen to be on our side
sg
79. isaacb
you guys should really watch Christmas On Mars, one of my absolute favourties, along with 2001 and Moon, its great and weird
sg
80. Sharky
Why is sex R rated but violence less so? The most compelling argument I have heard is that it is because the industry is self-regulated.

Sex sells and the studios got a nasty shock in the 60's as production costs allowed small outfits to shoot porn. The only barrier to entry to shooting porn is a camera...we have all the other necessary equipment! No need for acting skills, big names, expensive executives and all the rest if you're making a skin-flick. If supply could flood the market, ticket prices would tumble. So, Hollywood got moral and put Rs and Xs on films for the protection of us, society and most importantly, their profits.

Except for violence. You see, violence is expensive; you need props, licences and know-how for explosions, fake blood, at least a semblance of a plot (therefore writers) and now CGI. Until recently this largely protected the Studios from independant film due to budgets.

Now things are getting interesting with production costs falling faster and faster and distribtion basically free thanks to the internet. Porn is now free at commodity level with some big-budget Hollywood knock-off (cough cough) productions doing well at the high-end of the market. If the Studios had invested heavily in porn instead of creating a censorship fire-break, they'd be struggling. However, it is the start of a trend and film makers who want to tell more sophisticated (and sometimes violent) stories are starting to see it is affordable.

People have quite rightly mentioned Gattaca and I think it is a likely future of sci-fi film making. Clever use of a few locations, sparing but great CGI and all for a low budget. You can see more of the same with Equilibrium. Obviously not non-violent, but the choice of location and CGI seem to be working to maximise effect while minimising cost.

Where are the brainy non-violent SF films? In the future. Close now.
sg
81. All_Day_SCI-fi
I mostly agree with the article but I do not quite agree on The Matrix. I do not think it qualifies as trite. The trouble is movies are expensive. They must attract a large audience. If you read Arthur C. Clarke's Sands of Mars from 1951 he talks about the crew of the ship having IQs over 120. That is only 10% of the population. How do you have a block buster movie if only 10% of the population likes it?

That was the brilliant thing about The Matrix. It had the superficial characteristics to make it attractive but there was a level under that and levels under that. How many viewers never saw the yang and yin of the Oracle and the Architect? Why is there so much complaint about the sequels?

But for good sci-fi you must find and read books. Movies cannot escape their economics.
sg
82. E. Steven Newby
A very insightful article. You made some good points. I especially wanted to comment on @sg, who said that scifi asks the question of identity. Violence is integrated into our identities--we're all desensitized from it at very young ages. But will humans always define ourselves as violent creatures? Will we always reach for a phaser to settle our differences? I'm surprised more scifi doesn't explore the prospect of humans evolving beyond a need, and an impulse, for violence
sg
83. David Lehning
A very good article and I mostly agree. It is very hard these days to find good science fiction that is not loaded with violence. You also should have mentioned 2001 A Space Odyssey, and 2010. Most of what passes for sci-fi these days are tales involving various twisted love stories, and soap opera like drama. The only sci to the fi might be that they are set in the far future and involve ailiens of one type or another. To me, these types of plots get very boring. Even though it had its share of violence, I did like the recently ended Fringe series. It had some thought provoking storylines. The kind of sci-fi that I like are the ones that are more adventures into the unknown like 2001, 2010, Contact, etc. They make the science fiction interesting and also make you think. Anyway, very good thoughts that you shared.
sg
84. Annabella
This is very important topic to talk about. Sci-fi sould be the most complex and mindblowing genre but instead they just blow eachother up in these movies. I never underatsnd what this is - writers have no fantasy or what? There are endless possibilities to creat fantastic worlds, situations both physical and psychological but most sci-fis is just boring, full of predictable black and white charactets, situations, relationships and mindless violence. I love good sci fi and I´ve been dissapointed many times. Writers have an opportunity to create other civilisations but they just rewrite the same old storie about our own violent species :(. It´s like people have the need to project their own inner life to outside objects. But where´s the imagination?
Thanks for this article, you make very good points.
Btw, "Contact" is one of my all time favoutite movie :).
sg
85. Phaek Bob
Most SciFi is written from the human perspective. We - as animals - have - as part of our animal nature - violent tendencies.

One can't have a story, with tension and passion and angst and movement unless you fully explore the full range of human emotion and psychology.

That includes violence.
Christopher Mangus
86. chritopher_morrison_mangus
On an unrelated note...I found this 16mm work print of a ridiculously paranoid atomic-age sci-fi film at an estate sale, and the canisters were labeled "Fear of a Red Planet" (fortunately my friend has a 16mm projector so I could watch it, and MAN is it hilarious!). Has anyone heard of this film? Because it is not listed on imdb and when I researched it further, I could not find ANYTHING about its distribution/release or year of production.
sg
87. Andrea Parke
You should check out the Australian ultra-low budget psychological sci fi film Purge by David King. It not only has an intelligent screenplay and a cerbreal concept but contains almost no violence and what violence it does contain is more about the idea of violence than the thing itself.
It's set in a parallel universe much like ours except people are created by genetic engineering companies and programed for roles in life. To fail to assume the role you're bred for is to become a Stray and be treated worse than a criminal. It follows the trials and tribulations of a young woman who finds she is unale to assume her role as BDSM mistress-slave and is forced to flee underground to survive. Instead of trying to flee to a better world, she strives to return to her rightful role.
It was made for under AUD$50,000 and is very inventive, using a variety of unconventional techniques to tell its story. It is almost experimental. You can find it on Amazon at
http://www.amazon.com/Purge-Sarah-Breen/dp/BOOWE4DNE

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