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.