Space, the final frontier. Every year, mankind gathers together in small, darkened rooms around the world, staring at the abyss, fantasizing what might there be – or not to be. That is the ultimate question. Is there intelligent life out there, or not. These darkened rooms serve as projection chambers to realize our wildest dreams, to answer our worst fears. This year, the projection they are showing is Ad Astra, a film about Brad Pitt in space, in search for his father, and ultimately, the answer to the question of whether there is intelligent life out there, ’cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth, as Monty Python sings.
Making a science fiction film is a hard job. I can tell you because I’ve made a bunch of them. There’s a selection of very common mistakes, problems and challenges each scifi filmmaker faces, ones they end up solving in many different ways. In this post I’ve listed the six most common challenges scifi stories encounter, and how they are being solved – or then, not. I’m going to be viewing them through the lense of my top-10 scifi movies, which are, in no particular order, Children of Men (2006), Alien (1979), Interstellar (2014), Solaris (1972), Moon (2009), Twelve Monkeys (1995), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), E.T. (1982) and Blade Runner (1982).
Oh, and obviously, spoilers ahead!
1. PLOT RULES OVER CHARACTERS
Scifi is a sandbox of concepts, not of characters. Ever since sci-fi writers have started publishing the science fiction novels, they’ve started with an interesting setting, concept, theory or scientific improbability, which they’ve then started to solve, introduce further or write about. The characters, nearly always, come second. When facing the most complicated sci-fi setting we need the main character who, more often than not, is just a plain observer, someone who goes through the events and witnesses them – and eventually, solves them not through personality, but brawn, wits and the deeply imprinted need to save humanity.
This means that the characters area easily forgettable. In Interstellar, Solaris, Moon or 2001, the characters are nearly interchangeable; none of them are in any way characteristic, we can barely remember their names – what happens in the movie is more important than to who it happens.
But there are great examples of well-written and memorable characters. While the main character in Children of Men may not be remembered by his name, the devotion he shows to the mission to save humankind and leave everything else is so vigorous it becomes a characteristic trait. Who could forget Ripley from Alien or Luke from Star Wars, and when the movie’s name is the main character – Deckard from Blade Runner, or the extra-terrestrial creature from E.T. – without them, the films would have been completely different.
Each sci-fi film walks on a tightrope when trying to figure which is more important, the characters or the setting. The best ones manage to find a neat balance between these two worlds and deliver an amazing science fiction setting, added with characters we cherish for a long time. But still, I’m yet to see a scifi film which is built around such an interesting main character than it overshadows the scifi setting totally.
2. UNSOLVABLE CONUNDRUMS
One of the most typical pitfalls of a scifi film is when the writers end up writing their characters in such an impossible-to-solve conundrum that the only way to get their asses out of the situation is to stretch the laws of film physics, the agreement between the viewer and the filmmaker on what’s possible in this world and what’s not, the suspension of disbelief. These issues are usually solved either through going completely abstract, like Interstellar or Solaris, or just bringing a well-timed deus ex machina to play – like in Blade Runner. Usually, these solutions are the most divisive elements of the movie – I mean, who hasn’t had that conversation about Solaris or Interstellar, where one claims to have loved the movie, but didn’t “get” the ending. Still, when crafted masterfully, like in these two movies, it can be artistically fulfilling, even though it may not be the strongest written plot ever seen.
When the writers brute force their characters out of the unsolvable conundrums, it usually becomes slightly awkward. Ad Astra sends the main character flying through Neptunus rings using a thin metal plate as a shield to block the oncoming meteors, while hitting a bulls-eye some 40-50 kilometers away with his body. In Gravity, the main character skips from orbit to another like they were changing lanes on a freeway. These solutions break the suspension of disbelief -effect and the audience becomes aware of the brutal force the writer is using in forcing the otherwise solid script through a loophole that’s just too tight to fit.
Great scifi films have this taken in consideration already when setting up the plot. Either the solution is rather simple and understandable, like in Alien – just kick the creature out of the airlock and be done with it. There, the solution doesn’t feel too alienated, pun intended, or forced, but follows a logic the film has drawn from the beginning.
The question is not how improbable the solution is, but does it fit into the general agreement the audience and the filmmaker have created. Either we follow physics down to the smallest decimal, or we skip physics altogether. Whatever it is, everything needs to circle around that decision or the audience feels betrayed.
3. THE SCALE IS OFF … BY SEVERAL BILLION UNITS
“Space… is huge, Margaret. Where do you recommend we go? Second star to the left and then straight on ’till the sunset?“, Udo Kier says in Iron Sky The Coming Race. I know, quoting my own film is kinda lame, but since we are talking about scale, it fits here. One thing the science fiction filmmakers tend to drop pretty quick is the sense of scale. We forget that everything in space is so far apart from each other than it takes several lifetimes to connect the dots. We humans are so infinitestimally tiny creatures in this infinite universe that writing stories that center around us and the limits of our feeble minds and the sacks of mostly water we call our bodies usually becomes the biggest challenge.
Distance between objects has been easily the biggest problem each writer needs to tackle at first. Einstein, the great party-pooper of science fiction, says we can’t travel faster than light and that’s a fact. Interstellar shows us wormholes which bend space and time; Star Wars introduces hyperspace and Alien introduces stasis, or hypersleep (but also features faster-than-light travel, only doesn’t really talk about it).
Another thing are the forces in space. When colliding with an asteroid, whatever size of the object, it travels with such an immense speed it will tear through the hull and destroy everything. One of the few films that really take this in consideration is Aniara, a beautiful swedish poetic film which introduces a particle that hits a spaceship on its’ way to Mars, and sends it off course.
Aniara does other things right as well. It reminds us that when adrift in space, we will remain so, and the probability of us ever reaching any target is immeasurably small. Thus, after being set off course, the next time they reach another planet is six million years later, long after all human life has perished onboard the ship. And even that is, if I’m not wrong with my assumption, quite a stretch.
4. SCHRÖDINGER’S ALIENS
Is there anyone out there?
Yeah, there is. And no, there isn’t. Both are true, at least for now.
The thing is, we know absolutely nothing even about the possibilities of life, let alone intelligent one, existing in other planets or other celestial bodies. Ever since we started serious space exploration, we have found absolutely zero evidence that there are any other living creatures out there – save predictions and probability calculations, which indeed suggest there should be something else out there, but just as possibly, we are the wacky misstep of nature and remain so until we either kill ourselves or our Sun scorches us to smithereens.
Still, in science fiction we usually predict the aliens being quite similar creatures than us, sharing similar feelings, physical features and even translatable language. We assume they have somehow heightened versions of us – either more hostile, or more intelligent, or more technologically advanced. We interpret them as creatures that have similar goals, wishes, and needs as humans.
In reality, if we were ever to meet an alien race, we would need to spend decades in just understanding what it might want or need. Their whole conceptual world would most likely be totally different from us, they might see the world using totally different senses than us – hell, we might not even know they are aliens, actual sentient beings, if we ever were to meet them.
Again, there are few approaches to aliens in science fiction: films like Alien introduce them as purely evil, hostile creatures we can’t negotiate with – or E.T., where the alien is friendly. Interstellar and Solaris, again, take a more abstract approach, where the aliens communicate with us on a whole different conceptual level.
One of the few interesting representations of aliens in recent years was Arrival, which focused mostly around just trying to find a similar conceptual drawing board to understand even the basic concepts of the aliens. It was a linguistic science fiction film, where the biggest challenge was not what the creature wanted, but how to communicate with it. Much earlier, this issue was presented in Solaris, even more strongly in Stanislaw Lem‘s original novel, where most of the film was mostly about trying to find a way to communicate with the creature – the Solaris planet – or even more so, to try to figure out if the creature even tries to communicate. If it actually was sentient at all.
Solaris’ approach to aliens is the most believable. While we can’t know until we know, after which everything will change, I’m putting my money on the fact that whatever we might encounter out there will be so different than us that we don’t even know if it is sentient.
5. WE ARE THE ROBOTS
While much of science fiction takes place in space, the more grounded stories happen on Earth, where the science fiction element is a human-made, sentient creature, a robot. These films usually fall into two categories: either the robot evolves out of control and tries to overtake mankind or the robot tries longs to be human. Rarely we see stories of robots actually doing what robots are supposed to do, which is, to assist humans. Artificial intelligence is seen as a threat that can any second go rampant and erase humans, where, in reality such outcome would be highly improbable. Mostly, we are talking of our own fears when we speak of artificial intelligencies becoming a threat to mankind: we see what humans do to this planet, we see the only solution being the one where we get rid of this pest, the humans. In many ways, films, where robots overtake mankind, are environmental statements. They may not be built as one, but the ultimate claim is: if an intelligence far more logical than us was to view our behavior on this planet, they would want to get rid of us because we are not worth saving.
6. TIME OUT OF JOINT
Time is a harsh mistress. The issue with it is that it’s all bullshit, there is no such thing as time – not in the sense we like to think of it. We think of it as history, things that have happened, and future, things that might happen. So often we say: “next week I will do this” or “last week I did that” and consider them being elements on the same line, a railroad that one can travel back and forth, when in fact, neither next week or last week exists anywhere. They are mere memories and speculation.
Thus, in order to write a typical time travel story – think of Twelve Monkeys or Terminator – the writer needs to take the main scifi topic of their movie – time – and completely break the whole concept of time and introduce a completely new universe where there *is* a railroad called time, and then place us travel along it.
Somehow, though, and much of that has to do with the fact that our brains are capable of storing vivid memories and speculating the results of our actions before we actually do them, this is one of the most easily acceptable concepts of science fiction, one that people rarely challenge. Still, it’s bullshit.
Time exists, but it works in completely different terms than the time travel concept usually suggests. Interstellar was one of the few films that actually try to tackle time in film format.