Why do Science Fiction Movies Suck?

Slashdot (which I still occasionally visit) pointed me at an interesting article on MSN (which I never visit unprompted) about why SF has such a poor image and why serious writers and film makers baulk at being classified as science fiction (or, worse, “sci fi”).

Two word summary: George Lucas.

Bladerunner is almost the exception that proves the rule.

It’s a good action movie that uses ideas from the book on which supposedly it’s based as texture (it’s at best a story set in the world of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”). It has some excellent dialog, almost none of which comes from the book.

Oddly enough, Philip K. Dick is pretty much the most filmed science fiction author, and every one of his books, including Bladerunner, ends up being an action movie, despite the fact that none of his books even remotely resemble something that might be made into an action movie.

Dick’s protagonists are usually flawed and weak observers, buffeted by events. They’re the kind of guy you’d imagine being played by Paul Giamatti or maybe, on a good day, Kevin Spacey, and certainly not Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, or (heaven forfend) Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bladerunner is perhaps the most faithful rendering of a Dick novel in that the hero of the book is a bounty hunter who shoots androids for a living. That’s about the end of the resemblance, since every detail of the book at best is snuck in through a back door. Roy Baty isn’t a philosopher poet uber warrior — he’s a victim, gunned down matter-of-factly by a guy who finds it easier to kill people than face his wife’s scorn.

The fundamental problem — as always — has been economics. SF movies were expensive to make (today, it’s almost cheaper to make them since virtual sets are getting to be cheaper than filming on location) and expensive to make means you need a mass audience (including overseas non-English speaking markets) which means dumbing your content down to the lowest common denominator.

It’s very heartening to see brilliant, serious movies such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” being made today that transcend genre, and use special effects extensively but not gratuitously.

Going back to Bladerunner — it was made very cheaply for what it is, it was mangled by the studio in an effort to reach a mass audience, and it was a commercial disaster anyway. “Gee,” thought the studio execs, “we ought to make more of these.”

The one hope for science fiction fans is that Studio Execs will look at Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and think, “maybe it’s better to base movies on well-loved books than on something George Lucas pulled out of his ass”. More likely they’ll produce Eragon. D’oh.

Still, there’s always hope.

  • Andrew Barry

    OMG, Eragon had no redeeming features whatsoever. Needless to say my daughters enjoyed it.

    I suppose the question is where are these “well loved” Science Fiction stories that have wide recognition?

  • Tonio

    I’d suggest (off the top of my head) Eon, Dune (which has been mangled several times), Foundation, City, Startide Rising (Brin’s “The Postman” was mangled by Kevin Costner), The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin’s “The Lathe of Heaven” has been done twice with low budgets), Consider Phlebas, Lord of Light (Zelazny’s stuff would translate well into Action movies anyway).

    Of course if you’re willing to adapt books that weren’t enormously popular but had great ideas, there are far, far more options (and it’s not like Philip K. Dick was a roaring commercial success, yet Hollywood seems to make movies out of even his short stories).

  • Tonio

    Oh, and The Diamond Age!

  • Andrew Barry

    Well, I wouldn’t exactly call those books “widely recognized”, except outside of a very small group.

    Putting that aside for the moment, the question should probably be “Why do you care?”

    Is it merely to dress one of your preferred genres in the cloak of respectability (not that I believe that Hollywood provides that)?

    For the books you’ve quoted, could a single movie do them justice? Or would they just provide them with the names of the main characters and perhaps some locations – but otherwise tell the story that the screenwriter/director wanted to tell. All too often it turns out to be: “Oooh! Bullet time!”

    Harrumph. At least J K Rowling got kids (and adults) reading again.

    I haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth yet, but it does look interesting. Perhaps your wish is for Hollywood to make interesting movies, irregardless of what genre it gets pigeonholed in.

  • Tonio

    I think there are two significant benefits to being taken seriously by the “mainstream”.

    1) Criticism. Science fiction gets no useful criticism, which means it doesn’t seem to improve much.

    2) Better quality films. Most science fiction productions seem to suffer from bad dialog, acting, and direction (just look at all the fixed camera shots in various Star Trek series).

    How many times has one seen a $100,000,000+ film destroyed by utterly awful writing?

    Currently, an actor who works in a science fiction series has either fallen from grace to be willing to do so, or effectively limits his/her future career by doing so. Good directors, actors, and writers all appear to avoid doing science fiction.