So, it came to me the other day that there's a certain lack of creative ambition when it comes to mainstream film-making, it certainly seems like there are now more small-time films being made than ever on niche subjects but the big studios seem generally afraid to invest in new ideas. Hollywood is stuck in an endless cycle of either remaking the same films or remaking the same formulas with ever so slight changes - just enough new to interest people but not enough to make a really original contribution to film.
Oh, and Transformers movies.
Sitting through much of what Hollywood churns out you'd be forgiven for thinking that creativity starts and ends at films about white dudes blowing stuff up and quirky couples getting it on. It doesn't. There's a lot more out there that's never really been touched by Hollywood, and even the texts behind some of the stuff Hollywood has done already have more nuance than they usually let on. This is especially true of Sci-Fi.
On the one hand Sci-Fi has always been about the out of the ordinary being exciting in and of itself β it's easier to get excited about a futuristic hovercar chase than just a car chase (though both would be exciting) because hovercars aren't something we're used to seeing in our daily lives (atleast outside of fiction), and familiarity breeds indifference to some degree; on the other hand Sci-Fi has also been a means by which difficult or challenging issues can be raised, mostly because the fictional, often 'other-worldly' elements, create a distance to the message that allows real issues to be discussed without the kind of consequences there might be if they were discussed out in the open in real-life.
Planet of the Apes for example, hints at a range of issues, including our own self-destructive tendencies, the cold war reaching nuclear fruition (through our own destruction), the possibility that humankind could one day no longer be the dominant species on Earth, and racism and prejudice (with the differing treatment of the various primate groups and humans.)
Blade Runner explored what it means to be human, and whether being organically 'human' really counts when a synthetic lifeform can be almost as indistinguishably human as the real thing.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though not intended as a film about a potential communist invasion does have those undertones; the fear, the paranoia, the threat of seeing everything you know consumed by the 'other'. Exploring what it'd be like if everything we know was overtaken and invaded by an 'alien' force.
Sci-Fi at it's best is both enjoyable and a medium through which difficult social issues can be tackled, entertaining and challenging at the same time. Even if a movie doesn't challenge us on a relevant social issue it can offer a challenge to our world view β for example making us question fundamental beliefs say about religion, existence, or even our own worth as a human individual.
Admittedly, a lot of the Sci-Fi from the last forty or fifty years has done this already, and it's only because a challenging precedent was set by earlier Sci-Fi that I can sit here being presumptuous enough to say that forthcoming Sci-Fi should also challenge our modern world just as much as those films critiqued the society they came from.
I think it should though, especially since even today a lot of Science Fiction writing remains relevant, if not because the societies those authors depicted mirror exactly our own then because they offer an interesting potential parallel for some of the issues we face in the modern world. When I was a fair bit younger and obsessed by anything even vaguely weird and Sci-Fi I had hoped that eventually Hollywood would make it's way onto devouring a lot of this material, especially considering some of the bizarre and often difficult material that's already been put to film. It's a shame they haven't really because it means a lot of very interesting stories remain untouched and unknown to so many.
Philip K. Dick's work is a good example of this. He was a prolific short-story writer, writing just over a 120 stories, tackling some very interesting themes and issues, and though several of his stories have been the basis for some pretty big films (Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report probably being the biggest) they still only represent a small fraction of the topics he covered in his stories, with a lot of very interesting stories as yet not made into films.
'The Trouble with Bubbles', follows a future society where space travel is a reality and humankind has stretched out into space, but with it has come the shattering of man's dream to reach out and find life besides ourselves. Space is apparently empty, and we are alone, and this realisation has turned into a social malaise as people become frustrated about humanity's loneliness, with many resorting to the crafting of the 'bubbles' as a sort of relief. The bubbles are tiny encapsulated worlds, where everything works at an accelerated pace and individuals are encouraged to craft and create their own society in a bubble. The story is basically a 'What if' about what happens if we don't ever find other lifeforms and it is just us in the universe, it's about frustration and anger that a realisation of our own position in the universe might breed and the destructive tendencies it might invoke β shown in the 'tradition' that has arisen of breaking your bubble at a certain stage in its lifetime.
'James P. Crow', is about a society where war between robot and man has devastated Earth and it's history and subsequently robots have become the dominant 'species', with humans largely relegated into a social quasi-slavery. It's a short exploration of how cultural identity affects us and how damaging prejudice and bigotry can be.
'Planet for Transients' has a similar post-war vibe, with it set hundreds of years after a nuclear war has decimated the planet. The surface of the Earth has become radioactive, and as such the surviving 'human beings' have retreated underground, leaving new species to develop and dominate the Earth β many of these new species are the descendents of humans who mutated and adapted to the 'new world' and as such are both adapted to the radioactive environment they call home and capable of much of the rational faculties that people are. It's primarily about evolution and change, and how our world can shift around us β and indeed how we can lose that world if we're not careful.
I could go on listing stories, but those are some that I thought might make interesting films in their own way, they're challenging yet they aren't likely to break the bank creatively.
Harlan Ellison is another good example of a writer whose work is interesting at times, granted considering how dark and cynical much of his work is I doubt it'd ever be picked up by a major studio but nevertheless it makes for interesting Sci-Fi.
'I have no Mouth, and I Must Scream' is probably one of his best known pieces. The short story follows a group of survivors in a post apocalyptic world, tortured by an all-powerful super computer as they struggle to survive in the wasteland of a dead Earth which has become little more than a playground for the frustrated and largely insane super computer that now rules the Earth. Despite the setting it's more an exploration of the darker side of humanity than anything, and focuses more on the characters than AM (the super computer). The game explores it a little more, giving each character a dark past and showing them having to confront it, and generally the story could make for an interesting film, especially since it's essentially a very nihilistic story.
In the case of Philip K. Dick, I think it's more that his stories are challenging in the way they depict the world overall, and more often than not he leaves a trail of bread crumbs from our world to theirs to show something deeper about our own self-destructive tendencies and potential failings; Ellison's work is darker and more individualistic, 'I have no Mouth' and some of his other stories would do more on film to challenge the happy ending clichΓ©.
Admittedly a lot of these stories, and a lot of the stories that remain unmentioned (the vast majority), have elements that have been touched on in films before β we've seen post-apocalyptic worlds where man is no longer the dominant species, we've seen crazy master computer with incredible power, we've seen films where authoritatively controlled 'perfect' societies are everything (thanks Logan's Run!) but the general point is that there's always more that we could be discussing, there's always more ways that film can challenge what we think and what we know.
The best Sci-Fi comes from two things: the desire to wow and the desire to tackle challenging ideas, there's nothing wrong with explosions and action but if there's no depth, no purpose behind any of that then a film inevitably falls flat. At the moment it feels as though mainstream Sci-Fi is stuck in something of a rut, and until it get's that desire to break the mold and challenge the audience intellectually I don't think we're going to see many big budget Sci-Fi films that do anything other than wow on a superficial level. read