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Truth between the spaceships: An alternate view of science fiction films

Fantasy MattersTomorrow the results of the Fantasy Matters "Best Science Fiction Movie Ever Week!" will be announced, and my choice will not win. It will not even place; the movie I would have voted for was not on the ballot. Neither was my second choice. Nor my third. The Best Science Fiction Movie Ever ballot has almost no overlap with the list I would create if asked to name the best science fiction movies ever. There is only one movie (maybe two if I am feeling especially generous) on the ballot that I think even belongs in the conversation.1 I expressed my disappointment with the list on Twitter, and management has kindly given me the opportunity to discuss which movie I would like to have voted for, and more generally why this list is so divergent from my own. [Note from management: In case you haven't voted in the poll, head over here to let your voice be heard--either by voting, or by telling us in the comments how wrong we are.]

The ballot, for anyone who has not looked yet, is The Fifth Element, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future Part II, The Matrix, and Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Three sequels, four franchise films, five movies that made $100,000,000 or more. It would be tough to come up with a more mainstream list of SF films. The reasons given for each film's selection reveal some interesting similarities. Here's a summary:

  • The Fifth Element: chosen because, in addition to a "fine" story and "adequate" effects, has a unique color scheme and soundtrack.
  • Back to the Future Part II: chosen because it is a "gold standard in time travel literature"2 and depicts a believable-looking near-future.
  • The Empire Strikes Back: chosen because it is a Star Wars movie with "believable" characters.
  • The Wrath of Khan: chosen because, while it is "lacking any philosophical depth," it is "the greatest pulp adventure movie ever made."
  • The Matrix: chosen because of an influential visual style and because it "changed the way we think about reality."
  • Blade Runner: The Final Cut: chosen because of an influential visual style and explorations of the nature of humanity. 

Five out of six of the respondent's favorite SF movies were selected at least in part due to visual considerations. I am including The Empire Strikes Back on that list because of the primacy of visual effects to the Star Wars franchise. Star Wars, in fact, seems something of a turning point. All of the films on the list are big name productions from the post-Star Wars era. Cinema is a medium that does spectacle well, and ever since Star Wars, SF has become distinguished as the genre in which this strength can be most excessively capitalized. This has resulted in a different set of expectations for science fiction movies: SF movies are eye candy where other elements of story, like character or thematic significance, get graded on a curve.

The Empire Strikes BackThe curve is evident in the nomination posts. I am going to pick on S. Miller's post, because he chose a Star Wars movie and spent the most time discussing character issues. While I agree with him that the characters in Empire Strikes Back are believable (due to it being the only Star Wars movie not written by George Lucas), celebrating a movie for having characters that fail to be ludicrous is a low bar. Every greater claim in the post is hyperbolic. Lando Calrissian does at one point have to choose between his friends and his city, yes. But after making his questionable decision he reverses it a few scenes later, with seemingly no consequences for the city he was attempting to protect. It is not exactly Sophie's choice that moves Mr. Miller to say "Sci-fi characters are rarely placed in such convincing moral dilemmas." And Darth Vader, we are told, is the "best character in all of sci-fi" by virtue of not being a chaotic, unpredictable psychopath; he is a remorseless super powered killer, but he is often calm about it. Is this all it takes to earn the crown of "best character in all of sci-fi?" And do we really suspect the title would be so freely granted if he were not also a seven-foot-tall sleek-looking cyborg with a black cape and a laser sword?

My intent is not to call anyone out as having poor taste. I like all six of these movies. But I want to point out the grade curve. When we say that these films have good characters, there is an an unspoken but understood addendum: this movie has well rounded characters for a science fiction movie. What we are really saying is, "this is a movie where everything takes a back seat to spectacle, and yet characterization was not completely ignored!" Damien Walter admits to this in his nomination post for Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. He says that it is not a science fiction movie he would consider art, but is the most fun SF movie he knows. All of the movies on the ballot are clearly motivated, explicitly or not, in whole or in part, by this impulse. Blade Runner gave a visual aesthetic to then-nascent cyberpunk. The Matrix gave one to the CGI era. Back to the Future Part II is distinguished from its siblings by having a lit-up and hosed-down suburban version of the Blade Runner look. The Fifth Element is a beautiful empty box. Empire Strikes Back is Star Wars.

It is an excellent list, if you interpret "Best Science Fiction Movie Ever" to mean the movie that best encapsulates SF movie culture, with its history of pulpy power fantasies and glorious sprawling set pieces. But I would like to interpret it to mean the best movie that happens to be science fiction. I do not want to grade on a curve. When choosing whether to more highly value story and character or spectacle and cinematography, I choose the former. As such, this list looks nothing like my own.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindThe best example of the kind of movie I am advocating for is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the movie gets my imaginary vote on my fantasy ideal ballot. For those who have not seen it, it is a 2004 movie written by Charlie Kaufman3 and directed by Michel Gondry about a man (Joel) who discovers that, after a fight, his longtime girlfriend (Clementine) has had her memories of him erased. He retaliates by having his own memory sanitized of her, but has second thoughts halfway through the procedure. Much of the story is delivered in a sort of meta-flashback as characters run through Joel's memories like lucid dreams. In the process we see a fully realized romantic relationship, with frivolity and mistrust and intimacy and insecurity born of childhood trauma. Han and Leia are tiresomely juvenile by comparison. The movie's complex humanity is not reserved for the main characters; every character, no matter how ancillary, is treated with the same nuance. In Eternal Sunshine we get, in three lines of dialog, a more rounded view of Joel's mother than we get in several minutes of The Fifth Element from the stereotype that apparently birthed Corbin Dallas. This is a movie that has characters engage with moral dilemmas that are actually complicated: is performing cosmetic alteration to a person's brain ethical, even if it is requested? Do friends and coworkers have an obligation to be complicit in one's efforts to censor life experiences?

More importantly, the moral weight of the story does not matter only to the characters, it matters to me. I have never felt anything remotely like Adam's claim that The Matrix "changed the way we think about reality" (I was already a guy who sits in front of his computer all night suspecting he is the most important person in the world, hey-o!). But Joel and Clementine's struggle toward an awareness that one must be accepting of one's own fallibility before it is possible to meaningfully connect with another resonates with my actual efforts towards maturity, the ones I wrestle with outside the theater. This is science fiction as it is best employed: not as set dressing, but as a lens for exploring true human experience.

As it happens, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also a visually beautiful movie, brilliantly edited to be the most effective nonlinear storytelling I have seen in a film since Memento. But that is not why I love it, and while that might play a role in my placing Eternal Sunshine at the top of my fantasy ballot, it has nothing to do with why I want it nominated. I enjoy spectacle, but letting it be a determining factor when we decided what the "best" science fiction movies are is to diminish what science fiction is capable of. Yes, science fiction can present us with thrilling images we will never really encounter, but it can also be a tool for understanding things that we will. Just like any kind of storytelling. There is no reason to hold science fiction movies to a lower standard. There is room enough for truth between the spaceships.

1Blade Runner. Some days I feel sentimental enough about The Matrix that I might let it slip in without complaint.

2 This is an aside, but Nathan Ilten's claim that the Back to the Future movies depict time travel in a manner nearly free from contradictions is unsupportable. Every moment of the film where a change has been made to the past that has not yet "caught up" to the protagonists constitutes a contradiction. Coherent time travel narrative is only logically possible within a deterministic framework, and the Back to the Future movies are aggressively libertarian (in the philosophical sense, not the political sense). For an actually coherent time travel narrative, try 12 Monkeys or, for certain values of "coherent," Primer.

3 I would not argue that awards are necessarily indicative of quality, but it is worth noting that Kaufman won an Oscar for this script. It is the only time the award for Best Original Screenplay has gone to a work of science fiction.



E.J.--Each trip to the past in "Back to the Future" is not to the existing timeline, but results in the creation of a new timeline/universe. This is explained in some detail in the Q&A on the BTTF DVD. I thus do not see the contradictions you mention.

For what it is worth, I seriously considered writing about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". However, while it is an excellent film, I found that the love story between Joel and Clementine dominates to such an extent that the scifi aspect of the film fades into the background.

Nathan--I haven't watched the DVD special features. That's an interesting interpretation, but is there anywhere that it is supported in the text? To my mind the most lasting image of paradox in BttF is a photograph of someone who doesn't exist anymore fading away as Marty looks on in horror, clearly indicating that changes in the past are propagating through the future in a single timeline. It's an interesting argument though, and if there is support for it in the movie I've forgotten, do please remind me.

As for Eternal Sunshine, the thought process that made you ultimately decided against it precisely the one I'm trying to shine a spotlight on. The science fiction in Eternal Sunshine does fade into the background in comparison with the ballot movies, and yet is still a crucial part of an undeniably SFnal story. (While it might have been possible to tell a similar love story with more mundane forms of brain damage, the ethical and emotional implications would have been drastically different.) I think that the "It's science fiction, but not science fiction enough" viewpoint is a common one that causes us to elevate to greatness the merely good and to deprecate things that ought to be celebrated.

EJ--I'm willing to admit that viewers of BTTF may not be hit over the head with the interpretation of multiple timelines. There is at least one hint, though, which comes to my mind: in BTTF2, Doc Brown claims that future Biff's trip to the past has created an alternate 1985 lying on a brach off the original timeline, illustrating his point with a crude yet effective chalkboard drawing. At least Doc Brown believes that time travel back in time is not justing changing past events on the exisiting continuum, but creating alternate realities. 

EJ, It seems to me that you're just valuing one movie trait over another -- you say that movies do spectacle well, which is certainly true (in the same way that books are well-adapted to pithy wordplay or music is well suited to intertwined harmonies) but saying that popular scifi undervalues character development in favor of a misplaced emphasis on spectacle is to say that the last 40+ years of science fiction have defined a genre incorrectly. Why shouldn't spectacle be as valid as character development in the way we rate films?

I'm not entirely sure I'm understanding the question. I'm with you up to the part where you say, "saying that popular scifi undervalues character development in favor of a misplaced emphasis on spectacle is to say that the last 40+ years of science fiction have defined a genre incorrectly." Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Sure - you mention how Star Wars is a turning point where everything began to take a back seat to spectacle. (I would posit that Star Wars is really just a continuation of an even older sci-fi film tradition going back to Buck Rogers in the 50s, but unfortunately I'm not close enough to be confident in that, having never seen that series). Implicitly, it sounds to me like you're valuing rich character development over spectacular visual imagery. Scifi films have been generally favoring spectacle since at least 1977 when Star Wars was released, so in my mind your implicit statement means that scifi has gone down the wrong road this whole time. (Also I just noticed that when I posted last night I subtracted wrong - I should have said 30+ years...)

Thanks, I think I'm with you now. I have a few different responses.

 I don't think this is about genre definition, I think it is about Hollywood economics. I would argue for Star Wars as the turning point over Buck Rodgers, as it was the first Sci-Fi spectacular to come along after the blockbuster era was ushered in by Jaws. But the fact that it was suddenly clear to Hollywood that a certain type of movie would make wheelbarrows full of money doesn't mean that movies defined by spectacle dominate the whole field, or even the whole financially successful end of the field. ET, for example, doesn't trade primarily on spectacle, and a relatively low budget doesn't stop Terry Gilliam from making Brazil. So I wouldn't agree that spectacle has defined the genre for the last 30 years, just that it has been the most visible/profitable element of it. Yes,Transformers is all flash and no substance and makes oodles of cash, but we still get to have Moon too. What the thrill/expense of spectacle really means is that producers hoping to recoup their outlay on the visuals are rarely willing to take risks with story, and that movies which don't aim to be all things to all people can't afford the best visuals. (The only real exception I can think of is Pixar, though in discussing spectacle animated films are kind of a special case.)

 On the topic of the best visuals, the problem with valuing spectacle over story is that spectacle fades. George Lucas had to make the Star Wars: Special Edition films for the original series not to look dated to a new generation of viewers. When The Matrixwas in theaters it looked like nothing anyone had ever seen. Watching it now, in the wake of so much imitation, doesn't have nearly the same effect. These movies will still get watched, they are good movies. But I suspect part of the reason you haven't watched Buck Rodgers is that today it looks silly, and looks are all it really has going for it. (This is just a's certainly the reason haven't watched it yet!) Meanwhile, despite them being comparatively dull, visually, people are still watching and enjoying, say, Hitchcock movies. Or, to keep it in genre, The Day The Earth Stood Still. It's not because of the visuals that these films have lasted. It's because story and character age well, even when visuals don't. I strongly doubt people will be watching Michael Bay's Transformers in 50 years.

Finally, I want to reiterate, in case it didn't come through in the post: I do like these movies. The movies on the ballot aren't in the Transformers category of being pretty but awful. They are pretty and fun. But I think the best art should have something meaningful to say, and to point at pretty, fun, but ultimately fairly simple adventure stories as the best that the genre has produced undervalues what the genre is capable of. So that is another respect in which I fundamentally value character development more than visual intricacy when I rate films. It's fine if, as a film maker, thrilling me is your ultimate goal. I love movies like that. But they are a lesser achievement than a movie that tells me something meaningful and true. And the two aren't mutually exclusive. I'd probably point to WALL•E as a movie which manages both. (Though, again, animation might be a special case.)

I recently rewatched the Star Wars: Special Edition and was met with two surprises. First off, I found the imagery and aesthetics of the scenes from the original films incredibly satisfying. On the other hand, the added scenes were a complete turnoff. Spectacle may fade (the new scenes were almost solely spectacle), but good imagery does not. Sure, when I originally  watched The Matrix, I was blown away by the bullet-time fight scenes, and now they don't have the same effect on me. However, the greenish hue omnipresent inside the matrix, the drab grays inside of reality, the no-nonsense suites of Agent Smith and his colleagues, the unintelligible characters scrolling down the screen--these images equally impressed me, and continue to do so every bit as much today.

Film is a very visual medium. I would no more be interested in seeing a film lacking with respect to this quality than to, say, go to an opera with terrible music. I, for one, appreciate Hitchcock movies because of the pictures I am seeing, not despite of them.