Recently, I was speaking to a friend about the state of science fiction in Hollywood and film. The conversation came about mostly as a reaction to Prometheus, which I’ve discussed previously, but I also stated that I couldn’t see a modern day studio greenlighting a film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is by no means a perfect film. The pacing is slow to the point where it feels like the film crawls towards the actual central plot premise of the internal computer system of a spaceship trying to kill its inhabitants. The film is so scarce with actual facts that it practically begs the viewer to read Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name just to be sure what the hell is actually going on. And looking back on the film now, the overall appearance is rather dated. And it’s a very retro idea of what the future would look like. Having lived through the year 2001, the speech and attire of the characters in the film seem unintentionally silly rather than sophisticated and remarkable, as it would have been when it was first released.
Of course, who’s to say that James Cameron’s Avatar won’t look asinine in forty four years time? Avatar is set in the year 2154, more than a hundred years from now, but even by the year 2053, I suspect that advances in technology will make Avatar little more than a stepping stone through which filming and particularly three-dimension shooting evolved. But after fifty years will Avatar be as iconic as 2001: A Space Odyssey? I don’t think so.
For all of 2001’s failings, it’s hard to ignore the film as one of the greatest films of the genre. This is partly to do with good writing and directing that made a red orb like eye a believable, menacing threat. And the depiction of space, as 2001 showed, was largely unheard of in film at that time. Kubrick displayed space as cold and silent. Not only was the depiction realistic, for the most part, but it was also the perfect setting for the tale of horror and death. Yet, all of this was working in the background. The characters never converse about how creepy the silence of space is. The closest that they come to touching upon the mechanics behind the scenes is when HAL states that no system of his kind has never malfunctioned. The statement is ominous and foreboding but clues the viewer into what is to come.
“HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amer. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.”
The important point to make about this is that the comment may be a subtle remark about what’s to come and the true motivations behind HAL’s systematic elimination of the crew but it is not the director pointing to his own camera tricks or the writer’s highlighting the cleverness of their plot. It is absolutely necessary to include this remark, from a storytelling point of view, because otherwise it leaves the viewer wondering why no one ever though the system might need to be tested before hand. This stands in stark contrast to Prometheus, where characters readily make offhand comments about the aliens and their surroundings with no prior evidence or basis and are proven to be correct, and Avatar, in which the good guys are noble and have their naivety rectified by the mystic other while the bad guys hide behind warfare and twiddle their moustaches.
Aside from poor storytelling, the problem with modern science fiction films is that they feel the need to throw the science fiction in your face, just in case you forgot that the film you paid to see actually has science fiction in it. I should clarify that when I talk about the problems in science fiction films, I’m talking about films on a Hollywood level. It would take more time than I have to discuss the problems with the cheap, made for television sci-fi movies. I feel that Prometheus, for all its flaws, is actually better at this than some recent science fiction films in Hollywood. Unfortunately, instead of throwing the science fiction at us, it withholds the aliens and advanced technology until the plot demands a horrific c-section or necessitates wiping out the rest of the seventeen crew members. Avatar is even less effective in the way that we are constantly reminded of how closer to nature the aliens are than us puny humans and how our superior technology is destroying their home. It forgets to mention, however, that even if we could get as close to nature on Earth, it wouldn’t have the same magical benefits that the Pandora offers.
One film recently that did manage to incorporate science fiction elements without constantly rubbing it in our face was Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The layering of dreams is science fiction. It’s just a different kind of science than the usual physics and biology that are usually portrayed. The science is lucid dreaming. Aside from a brief sequence near the start of the film where the new girl, and by extension the viewer, is shown how dream extraction works. Once that sequence is over, Nolan never again reminds us how it is done. There are references occasionally to kicks and the subconscious but those are, like HAL’s comment, necessary to drive the plot along. Generally, once they’ve gone into a dream layer, they’re much more focused on immediate concerns than the science of how they got there.
I could also mention In Time but it feels like a less polished example. Unlike Inception, we are never told how the time=money concept actually works in practice. That’s probably a good thing because it might slow the film down considerably but as a result In Time lacks the seriousness of the previously mentioned films. The soon to be released Looper, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt chasing down his future self, played by Bruce Willis, also looks like a positive example. The science fiction revolves around Levitt as an executioner for time criminals but the main thrust of the story looks like it will centre on the more Bond-ish or Bourne elements of tracking down the escaped man. However, it can’t be fully commented on until I see it in full.
Overall, it seems like modern science fiction in cinema owes much to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is simply unfortunate that what most directors and writers seem to have taken away from the iconic 1968 classic is that science fiction can be used to spice up a rather mundane plot. Instead of trying to create a epic science fiction film they should focus more on writing a great story, which just so happens to have science fiction elements.