Thu
Jul 7 2011 6:31pm

Can SFF Do a Quiet Drama on our Screens?

My favorite joke to make while sitting through trailers preceding an independent drama is to turn to whoever has come with me to the theater and quietly whisper, “I think this is the new X-Men movie” in reference to a trailer for something like Win Win or Beginners. But the deeper accusation being made by this joke is a simple one: could there be a film or television science fiction drama that has relatively low character stakes that doesn’t involve epic plot structures? The evidence seems to point to one answer. Yes on television, no in cinema.

Tirelessly, people like George Lucas like to talk about the power of myth and how the structure of classic myths is burned into the brains of collective of art-consuming humanity. While the hero’s journey structure serves well something like Harry Potter or Star Wars, not every good piece of drama needs to depict the young hero besting some kind hardship and come into there own in the end to defeat their evil/fallen adversary. And before I make this next statement, I’d like our wonderful readership to remember two things: 1. I love Star Wars. 2. The film Free Enterprise backs me up on this. Ready? Here it is.

The reason why Annie Hall deserved to beat Star Wars for best picture in 1977 is because Annie Hall was better written than Star Wars.

Now before everyone freaks out, let’s think of this an opportunity to discuss what works and what doesn’t in these two films in terms of big themes that everybody connects with. Everybody connects with relationship stories, because everybody has relationships. Both movies have relationship stories. Everybody also connects to being an outsider. Both movies have that, too. In the overall arc of the classic Star Wars films, Darth Vader is redeemed, just barely, at the end of the story. In Annie Hall, Annie slowly becomes distant from Alvy, and eventually moves to Los Angeles and changes to the point where he can’t be in a relationship with her. In short, she turns to the dark side. At the end of Annie Hall however, Alvy recalls all the great stuff about his relationship with Annie, and this redeems her for the audience. Just like Anakin Skywalker, appearing to Luke at the end of Jedi. So Annie Hall and Star Wars are the same? Well not really, because the stakes of Star Wars aren’t just about whether or not Luke is going to make a new friend in Han or if Leia is going to figure out which one of them she likes. The stakes are about planets blowing up and people getting their freedom back. Also it takes three movies for some of the character stuff to get sussed out. Brevity? Soul? Wit?

Now the themes of Star Wars are great, but they’re not really themes I can relate to. I know what it’s like to have an ex-girlfriend call me at two in the morning to help her kill a cockroach; I don’t know what it’s like to swing across a chasm on a rope. Okay, okay. So I’m comparing apples and space oranges. Why bother? One is escapism, and the other is kitchen-sink pseudo realism. Just leave it alone, right? Well, here’s what I’m saying: there could be a science fiction version of Annie Hall. We could have quieter, low stakes SFF films.

Arguably, that’s what the The Time Traveler’s Wife is, though I think that movie probably wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been a book first. And the reason that’s relevant is because a low-stakes human drama that just happens to be science fiction exists all over the place in print. Our most recent short story from Charlie Jane Anders is a great example! As are many of the books I highlight in my Genre in the Mainstream column. Point is, it’s possible. (Just look at the submission guidelines for something like Asimov’s. They’re looking for stories about PEOPLE.)

Anyway, we could argue movies like Kate and Leopold or 13 Going on 30 count, but those are bad movies. Most good science fiction or fantasy films have big huge stakes. It’s rarely ONLY about a family or a couple; at a certain point the entire world gets involved. But consider the possibility of that not happening. What if something with a similar premise to the X-Men movies was only about the X-Men doing regular stuff, having relationships, falling in love, having problems with their parents. Would this movie be good? Maybe. What was it really like for Xavier as a teenager? Or even as a young man? I can completely see a great drama that deals with the very real life application of telepathy. And no, it wouldn’t have to be What Women Want. It could be good, complicated, nuanced.

On television it occasionally happens. Take Alien Nation. Now, here’s a show about aliens living regular lives, raising their family and dealing with all sorts of stuff aliens would really deal with like prejudice and holding down a job. Sure, like a lot of high concept TV shows, this one also had to be a cop show, but still, pretty original stuff when you think about most SFF on television. Caprica tried on this front, too. In fact, I’d argue the pilot episode did a pretty damn good job of it to. But the problem with Caprica is that it was a prequel to Battlestar Galactica meaning we know it’s ALSO about a big explosion, and not just about these people. What if Caprica hadn’t been a prequel to BSG? I think it might have lost some of its baggage and need to reference the big epic stuff that was to come later. As a stand-alone show, people might have taken it more seriously, and they probably wouldn’t have needed to put Zoe in the big clunky 70’s Cylon body.

Quantum Leap is another great example here. By having Sam “set right what once was wrong” the scope is all over the place. In very few instances is Sam there to stop a ticking bomb, or even a murder. Usually it’s a small human injustice that needs correcting. The science fiction premise of inhabiting another person’s body is what makes the drama unique, but it doesn’t over power it. In fact, Quantum Leap, despite some of its occasionally heavy-handed social messages, is one of the best-written science fiction shows of all time. Why not a Quantum Leap movie? It kind of happened with Source Code and as our own Danny Bowes pointed out (and I agree after seeing it months later) Source Code was pretty good! But could it have been done without the stuff blowing up and the terrorist stuff? Probably not that particular script, but it was closer to being a human drama that just happened to be science fiction than something like Inception or The Matrix. Not surprisingly a science fiction character drama/comedy was recently done quite well by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris.

So if I get my way, the next big SFF movie will be about a robot bartender who falls in love with an alien and all the quirky problems they encounter. It wouldn’t have to be a comedy, though parts of it could be funny. Even Star Trek: Voyager pulled this off a few times. In the episode “Someone to Watch Over Me” Seven of Nine takes dating lessons from the Holographic Doctor. It’s a pretty sweet episode that illustrates all the problems people have with the world of romance and it does it through a great science fiction concept. In support of their possible romance Tom Paris quips, “A hologram and Borg? Stranger things have happened.” And if screenwriters employ a little imagination and some faith in the audience, strange things like that could happen. Not everything needs to be about the end of the world.

Like the tagline for the first Trek film said: “The human adventure is just beginning.”


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

25 comments
Kimberly Unger
1. Kimberly Unger
All fabulous examples! It has occured to me that some of the longest running and most popular SFF properties have been products like these, where the SFF element is present as part of the universe, as part of the lives of tha characters, but it is not the *focus* of the story. In essence, these are all dramas set in a world with SFF elements.

I think the reason dramas like T:SCC and Caprica fell short is because they became the suck before the Grand Event. They got depressing, hopeless and while I adore grit, after a certain number of kicks in the teeth, I'm going to look for something that doesn't make me want to start drinking everclear shots the minute the end credits roll.

This is where I think SFF fails when it tries to make the jump to drama. A sucktastic, gritty universe where noone ever smiles or has even a glimmer of a good day isn't drama. The best drama has a balance, the best drama can have an ending where everyone dies but the viewers, are still *satisfied* with that as an outcome. Drama doesn't mean soul-suckingly depressing, but these days that seems to be what the SFF genres are producing in the "grand scale" shows.
Kimberly Unger
2. Breda
Honestly, this is exactly what I wanted from the new X-Men movie: two hours of Charles & Erik running around recruiting mutants and training them, with all the cool interpersonal stuff that goes along with that. Rivalries! New friendships! Conquering fears! Group bonding! (Some of which we got, in a really lovely way. For example, the scene when the kids turned the awkward "let's make the mutants bond" fishbowl into a pretty fun-looking party, or - of course - that incredibly powerful scene with the satellite dish.) I wanted to watch them building something together before it all fell apart. Honestly, I wanted the two montages to be the whole movie. And I really think they could've done it well, but that's not what we expect from an X-Men movie, so instead we got the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Chris Modzelewski
3. elflands2ndcousin
I suspect it boils down to economics. When a screenwriter mentions "science fiction" to a Hollywood producer, that producer hears "big budget summer blockbuster." While this is an over-simplified generalization, there's still a fair bit of truth to it. And ultimately, that tendency is driven by consumer tastes: more often than not, the crowds want to see plot-driven action and not character-driven beauty.

TV - by contrast - is governed by entirely different economics. For a show to be profitable, it needs to maintain a stable, loyal audience over time to generate ratings (read: sell ads). Producers have to focus on the longer term, which is always going to rely on the characters. USA Networks does a great job of this with their (often vaguely SFnal) shows built around distinctive, quirky characters. HBO seems to have figured out how to do this fairly consistently as well.

With the costs of producing a book far lower than a movie, editors (thankfully) can still acquire beautiful, quiet titles (John Crowley? Gene Wolfe?) even if they won't sell ten million copies first printing. If a single title were to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, then I suspect publishing might develop the same blockbuster-mentality that so afflicts the film industry.
Kimberly Unger
4. Amy B.
I know it was pretty universally panned, but Bicentennial Man strikes me as a prime example. (And I remember enjoying it, at least for the exploration of longevity and a vision of the future that felt not too far out of reach.) Personally I'm a fan of crazy-big stakes, but nothing wrong with the other side as well.

From what I hear as a lit agent, I predict more small stakes SFF films, though more likely in line with small-budget effects like Midnight in Paris than a robot and alien falling in love. :)
Ashe Armstrong
5. AsheSaoirse
We need a Kurt Vonnegut for TV and movies to come along. That'd be fantastic.
Del C
6. del
What about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? They have a technology of memory erasure and the biggest thing they do with it is forget bad relationships.
Michael Burke
7. Ludon
I can think of two (largly forgotten) movies that fit as quiet dramas. K-Pax (2001, Kevin Spacey) and Instinct (1999, Anthony Hopkins). Granted, Instinct is not usually thought of as science fiction but listen closely to Dr. Ethan Powell's theories and look at his flowcharts (all over the walls in his cell) and think about those in relation to the resolution of the movie and see if you don't see a science fiction idea dressed up as a drama. On the other hand. Prot's claim to be a visitor from a distant planet gives K-Pax its footing within the realm of science fiction. Both are low key stories about people seeking truths - first seeking truths about other people then truths about themselves.

A third movie, not quite as low key and more fantasy than science fiction, to consider is What Dreams May Come (1998, Robin Williams). Beyond all the special effects, this movie is ultimately about two souls trying to hold onto the love between them.
marian moore
8. mariesdaughter
#6's choice "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is an excellent one.

I would add "Gattaca" where the denouement is an endurance swim by two characters.

Unfortunately, movies are canted toward 18-35-old men and producers assume that they want explosions.

Also TV series give more time. You can see the difference in the movie production of "Dune" which got the visuals right but concentrated on battles. The TV version got the political struggle right but only because they were willing and able to spend the time to do so.
C C
9. Hatgirl
Gattaca, Moon, Franklyn and Sean of the Dead.

Sure, these films "contains scenes of moderate peril", as the ratings systems say, but so did Little Miss Sunshine. What these films have in common is that it's the emotional journey of the main characters that are the core of the film, not a battle against a Big Bad.
Ryan Britt
10. ryancbritt
@2 Brenda. I felt the same way about X-Men:First Class. More hanging out. Less stuff blowing up.

@Everyone who mentioned Eternal Sunshine and Moon. Totally agree. Check out what I said about them here:
http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/05/just-go-with-it-how-eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind-succeeds-by-not-explaining-anything

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/04/where-are-the-brainy-non-violent-sf-films

@4 AmyB I'll take a dozen Midnight in Paris type movies over most things any day.
Kimberly Unger
11. SF
Two more: Monsters and Soderbergh's remake of Solaris.

And maybe They Came Back, a French film from 2004, kind of an art house zombie film. And The Quiet Earth, a New Zealand film from 1985.
Ryan Britt
12. ryancbritt
@1 Kimberly I couldn't agree more. I'm really quite ready for "drama" to no longer mean dark and depressing.
Kimberly Unger
13. Matt Finch
Definitely Eternal Sunshine... and The Quiet Earth!

Also doesn't Iain M. Banks periodically threaten to write a low-stakes comedy of manners set in his Culture universe?
Tia Nevitt
14. Tia
I remember some low-stakes SF from the 70s and 80s (yeah, I'm dating myself): 2001, Close Encounters, Cocoon, Starman, and Enemy Mine immediately come to mind. But I haven't seen any of these more recent ones that everyone is mentioning. I'll have to do some surfing on NetFlix.
Ashe Armstrong
15. AsheSaoirse
Oh, how could I forget. The Man From Earth.
Kimberly Unger
16. Laura S.
TiMER. Oh my god, TiMer. It's great sci-fi, it's a great character-driven movie, it's a great sci-fi movie that's driven by character! And it stars Anya (Emma Caulfield), so really, it kinda has it all.

Too bad no one ever seems to have heard of it. :/
Kimberly Unger
17. Breda
@16 Laura S.

OH MY GOD, TiMER. I loved that movie! I keep forgetting it exists, but you're right, that's exactly it. It uses sci-fi elements to explore human nature, which is exactly what this post calls for. (Also, it's way better than that trailer makes it look, AND it's available streaming on Netflix.) Best part is, at the point where you think that the only way they can go with the plot is to fuck up all the moral & emotional stuff they've delved into, they figure out a way to mostly make it work. So yeah, pretty great, and I've totally heard of it. :D
Kimberly Unger
20. S.L.D.
@elflands2ndcousin - Totally agree. When studios, and most people for that matter, hear the term "Science Fiction", they seem to automatically think aliens and laserguns.

If anybody's seen the film Mr. Nobody take a look at THIS scene that I've linked to and ask yourself how cool it would be to see some sort of human drama take place in that Mars megacity that we only get a small glimpse of, in whatever year that is. Then, if you want to, take a look at the rest of my comment (which is probably better placed in the forums -- which I've never used). Hopefully someone gets something out of it.

-----
The question posed in the article runs through my head literally every day. In an interview Duncan Jones (director of 'Moon') did a little while ago he mentions this very thing -- a story that could be told during any time period, but just HAPPENS to take place in the future (or some similar Sci-fi setting).

Whenever I see old Syd Mead illustrations, or any futuristic cityscape, I always wonder what it would be like to be plucked from this world and just dropped somewhere in that city on a random day. What's it like? What are the people like? The politics. Cultural problems. Technological advances. Day-to-day stuff. For the purposes of a film a little adventure is fine, but something more subdued. Something that sort of asks you to sit back and take it all in.

The best hard Sci-fi seems to take today's politics, culture, technology and just go wild speculating on how those things might exist 2000 years from now. I'm very much interested in directing/producing films or creating some sort of story-driven video game and if I'm ever able to do it my dream would be to create a game or film that might use the effects and production of an Avatar, but only for worldbuilding. For making the universe feel real. The meat of the story though would lie in the characters, with the Sci-fi setting simply serving as a backdrop (though not so far removed that you're not aware of it -- ideally the audience would be shocked at both how amazing everything looks, and the fact that the film isn't actively trying to draw your attention to it).

Big ups to the author for raising this question though. And if it isn't considered poor form here, I might see if I can't strike up a conversation about this in the forums because I could talk about this all day (and probably already have judging by the length of this "comment.")
Tim Maughan
21. TimMaughan
"The evidence seems to point to one answer. Yes on television, no in cinema."

I'm sure someone must have beat me too it - but: you've not seen Monsters or Code 46 then?
John Adams
22. JohnArkansawyer
I'd like to say a kind word here for the television series Early Edition.
James Whitehead
23. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Don't forget Unbreakable with Samuel L. Jackson & Bruce Willis. The premise was definitely scifi/fantasy-ish but definitely quiet. This quiet was why it did not do well in theatres; although I do like it a lot simply for the fact that it wasn't filled with 'loud.'

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was much more like the episodes than the typical blockbuster movie. Yes, the crew had to save the earth by going back in time, but the story was about relationships. And is, in my opinion, one of the best Trek movies.

Overall, however, I do think it is easier for TV series scifi shows to have 'quiet' episodes. The fans are involved, have bought into the storyline, and want to know more about what's going on. That leads to more dialogue and less action, and if it is paced well, the viewer doesn't mind.

Movies, on the other hand, only have a short time to pull viewers in - 90 - 120 minutes usually. So there is great pressure to pull out all the stops, especially if special effects are in use.

I think X-Men: Recruiting Class might not have worked simply because viewers who weren't fanboys/girls would be waiting for the mutants to be mutants. Not just sit around talking. Me, as a big X-Men fanboy would love to see more exposition and less explosions but the movie studio already has me going to see their product. They need to bring in the casual movie goer and so often fall back on explosions & climatic battles to do so.

Kato

PS - I must confess that I actually enjoyed Kate & Leopold quite a lot, as did my wife. ;-)
Kimberly Unger
24. Scott Laz
The Man Who Fell to Earth!

Silent Running?
Samuel Davis
25. samdavis
@Scott Laz - The Man Who Fell to Earth is an absolute classic. Something about the way it was presented made everything feel incredibly alien even though it all took place on Earth (a lot of 70s films seem to have the quality for me though).

I think the juxtaposition of a hyper-futuristic setting and a quiet, human drama could be even cooler though. Gattaca, for instance, is one of my favorites but I've noticed that a lot of the SF films seem to take us to a near-future setting, or a post-apocalyptic one (probably for budgetary reasons) where things don't look radically different than they do today. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but changing it up wouldn't be a bad idea.

How else are we gonna get our live action Protector, Ringworld, or Foundation films? :)

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