Guaranteed: many spoilers
Science fiction novelists know something many filmmakers do not: the genre, like classic detective fiction, is very rule oriented, and every problem must be solved within the rules. An essay, I think by Larry Niven, I read fifty years ago pointed out that if your character has a telekinetic power which can only lift objects not more than a foot away, the solution to the final emergency cannot be the character straining to lift a hammer fifty feet distant. That wouldn’t be science fiction.
Most so-called science fiction on television and film couldn’t care less about rules. Interstellar was a gross aberration, a terrible mish-mash that made no sense, even though the same auteur’s Inception was a cool paradigm of rule-based genre work. Then most movies set on spaceships and far planets still tend to be barely disguised horror stories; almost any alien with mandibles can be read as a masked man with a chainsaw. The horror genre, as exemplified by Stephen King, is all about exceptions, not rules; even the best Stephen King novels (and films based on them) are barely cooked puddings stuck with chunks of inconsistent and inherently unbelievable tropes.
While some science fiction classics are amazing machines with not one human character (the Foundation series), the great genre writers discovered, more or less accidentally, they were also novelists and artists. Philip K. Dick, whom I adore, led this trend, with his pre-occupation with using science fiction to discover what is human (a question Isaac Asimov and other fore-runners didn’t really care about). . This leads to a small subset of work which portrays extremely human and familiar moments in extraordinary environments.
Film science fiction, which has always lagged far behind written, took decades even to figure out that worlds unfamiliar to the audience, might be routine and rote to the characters. In Forbidden Planet, a good science fiction film as 1950’s efforts go, the characters all wear uniforms which could have been tailored yesterday, the ship is shiny and new, and they react to everything, even small details like navigating the ship, as if they have never seen or done it before. It took twenty years, until the first Alien movie, for directors and designers to figure out that spaceships might be as dented as old cars, and the crews might wear uniforms laundered a few too many times. I call this, which is the hallmark of great genre work, “making the extraordinary ordinary”. The character in Blade Runner who says, if this was a real snake, I wouldn’t be working in a place like this, the child in 2010 who is late for supper because he is too busy playing with dolphins, are examples of good science fiction craftsmanship.
Most science fiction movies are unmemorable failures, even some quite big efforts by talented people. Another sign of an ambitious failure is when, like the pudding I mentioned above, the movie is a collection of references to better works: a dab of 2001 with a reference to Alien thrown in, for example. Good extraordinary worlds, even if not sui generis, will contain elements of striking originality.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014), directed by Doug Liman, is a good science fiction movie. The plot, of repeating a day until you get it right, is not original; Groundhog Day is a classic, and I couldn’t help thinking that the writer was also secretly recapitulating the video gamer’s experience of trying everything, dying, and restarting until you solve a problem. Nonetheless, the film respected its rules and also had a human element. Fighting an invasion, Tom Cruise, trying to make his way to and kill an alien queen, keeps dying and waking up at the same preliminary moment, using his knowledge of all his failures to solve problems and stay alive longer on the next effort. He falls in love with an exemplary woman soldier, and this leads to one of the best science fictional human moments I have ever seen. They are at an abandoned farmhouse looking for the keys of a nearby helicopter, and the woman learns that Cruise has them in his pocket. He knows that she dies in a few minutes in every imaginable variation, and he has simply been stalling, in order to spend a little more time with her. Another great example of the extraordinary made ordinary is that, when they are definitely in a wrong pathway, in “zugzwang” or forced moves as chess players say, she must kill him sometimes to restart the day. He accepts this but they bicker and joke about it. At the end, the alien queen destroyed, the day restarts a last time, and he meets the woman once more for the first time. Its a lovely, satisfying, human ending.
Fury Road (2015), directed by George Miller, is the fourth installment in the Mad Max series. One of the indications of the maturity, not just of science fiction, but of any movie, is whether it can have quiet moments, in which not much is happening; the scene at the farmhouse with the keys in Edge of Tomorrow is an example. The Mad Max series can’t have quiet moments; this film is essentially one long car chase. Yet Miller manages to respect the other elements, of sticking within rules and making the extraordinary ordinary, and has human moments along the way. Critics have noted how surprisingly feminist this installment is, bizarre for an essentially macho series in which the second one began with a gratuitous rape-murder. But Max for almost the entire film plays second fiddle to Imperator Furiosa, a woman who is as smart and fights as well as Max, and though he saves her life, it is as an equal; she is never tied to the railroad tracks. I admire Charlize Theron, by the way, who is very beautiful, for her willingness to be dirty, ugly and (here) one-armed on screen. What Miller is so adept at is what could be called sociological science fiction: there are no spaceships or aliens, just a deeply strange but recognizable society. It is, as so often, the small details which make the whole: the warlord who symbolically spraypaints the mouths of his followers as a religious ritual, to indicate they are glittery and immortal; or a specialized war-fighting role, the “pole cats” who climb bending poles to traverse from one rapidly moving vehicle to another. Miller also departs from genre stereotypes when one of the bad guys, who has climbed aboard Furiosa’s truck, changes sides in an instant: he is human and just trying to get along, to get by, like the rest of us.
I have never really liked anything the Wachovskis have done; I felt the Matrix series failed the rules-consistency test (the underlying premise, of humans as batteries, was ridiculous). I love the novel Cloud Atlas, and felt their attempt to film it was a well-intentioned failure. On the other hand, I thought Michael Straczynski’s Babylon Five was good science fiction. Now they are all collaborating, on a Netflix series called Sense8, which is surprisingly good television, not just at the routine level of a well-working entertainment machine: it is a show which can get away with having a character perform most of a Beethoven piano concerto in an extended scene, or set another in a Mexican museum in which we are treated to a long but interesting conversation about the work of Diego Rivera. The conceit is that eight people around the world are telepathically connected to each other in a cluster, while other people are hunting them down to destroy them, not wishing a new species to come into the world. This kind of complicated back story risks incoherence and deus ex machina, from which the series is not completely exempt. But the story telling has stayed mainly consistent with its own rules about the circumstances in which members of the cluster can see, hear and help one another. The human element has come to the fore as even the weaker members have discovered within themselves skills helpful to the others; among the most interesting is a gay, closeted Mexican actor who is physically and morally rather cowardly, but the guy you call on when you need to tell a persuasive lie or charm someone. A Kenyan matutu driver shows up if you need to hot-wire a vehicle, or to drive for you if you are being chased by the bad guys. There is a cop, a hacker, a woman kung fu fighter, a German gangster who is a sociopath and who sits in for the cop at a moment when it is necessary to persuade a supervillain that the heroes have a complete disregard for human life. There are quiet moments when cluster members visit each other just to shoot the breeze, hence the Diego Rivera conversation.
On a higher level, and this is what makes it great television, Sense8 tells stories about widely varying cultures. The Korean kung fu fighter lives in a patriarchal society, confesses to a business crime she didn’t commit in order to protect her father and brother. The Kenyan is trying desperately to obtain AIDS medicine for his mom. The Mexican actor is trying to succeed in a macho world while hiding the fact that he has a male lover to whom he is monogamously committed. This story alone is a lovely example of a new breed of story-telling. The first movie in which I remember seeing gay characters was Mel Brooks’ The Producers, a farce of course, but in which the gay men were relentlessly campy and frivolous. Here, the actor’s lover is a quiet, intellectual, bearded man who is much smarter than him. For older heterosexual viewers who may never in their formative years have known an out gay man, portraying the normality, the every day ups and downs of this relationship, is another way of making the extraordinary ordinary. The hacker is a transgender woman (as is one of the Wachovskis). There is an Indian woman scientist wondering whether to go through with a semi-arranged marriage (and praying to a statue of the elephant god, Ganesh, for guidance). Characters drop little comments that help to paint the worlds they inhabit, and which suggest that the film-makers have tapped into a real knowledge of the various cultures. An Icelandic woman DJ with a famous pianist father comments that Icelanders adore compatriots who became known elsewhere, then came home. This is the kind of dialog that would light up any kind of movie, and take it out of the merely pedestrian realm.