Our need to classify things is a fundamental trait of human development. Ever since scrolls were first written, people began dividing groups of things into smaller groups of things. There is even a science for it, Taxonomy, the science of classification. Aristotle began this process with literature, dividing theatrical work into Drama and Comedy in Poetics, as well as discussing lyric poetry, epic poetry, and the satyr play. Even at that earliest stage, Aristotle had to admit that dramas often have comic elements, and the reverse. Genres hardly break down along set in stone lines of demarcation, and science fiction is the worst violator. Because Science Fiction often has to do with context of a situation, or a fundamental plot point, SciFi works can be horror films, they can be comedies, they can even be murky indie mumblecore films.
Personally, I don’t find genres very helpful to discuss films. For years, people have been trying to pin down exactly what SciFi is (I wrote a blog about it). As a writer, my mind has been trained to classify story along more useful strata. Blake Snyder (my structure hero) breaks down plot into things like ‘monster in a house’ or ‘buddy love’ or ‘the golden fleece.’ This explains how STAR WARS has actually more in common with THE SEVEN SAMURAI than EVENT HORIZON, yet both are classified as Science Fiction. In fact, Event Horizon is a lot more similar to APOCALYPSE NOW than Star Wars. (By the way, I LOVE Event Horizon.)
And yet critics and Hollywood continue to cram genre conventions in our face. This summer’s EDGE OF TOMORROW is clearly Tom Cruise in GROUNDHOG DAY with guns, both ‘dude with a problem’ films and last spring’s DIVERGENT, though clearly a dystopian SciFi setting, is really just a rewrite of the Harry Potter franchise, both Rites of Passage stories. So with genre a mutable classification, I’ve started to visualize SciFi and similar genres more like Venn diagrams – you remember from grade school those two circles that overlap? There are a lot of films that fall under the major science fiction guideposts (aliens, robots, time travel, etc.). What makes a film really SciFi rather than a movie that just happens to have a gun-toting raccoon alien? Let’s look at the intersection of a few genres.
SCIFI and HORROR.
This is the most common one, the classic example being Ridley Scott’s amazing ALIEN, a film that is far more frightening minute-for-minute than THE EXCORCIST. Alien has several obvious science fiction elements, including space travel (they are on a space ship run by a mining company) and, well, an alien. There is also a major character (sorry, spoiler alert) that turns out to be an android. However, the plot is pretty standard horror when broken down: a group of people go somewhere they shouldn’t and mess with something they shouldn’t, which then puts their life in peril. Even better, they are trapped somewhere from which they cannot escape (the spaceship) and so they must face the evil they’ve unleashed or die.
Often Zombie films are both SciFi and Horror films. Almost all of them include a post-apocalyptic setting where society has broken down (due to the influx of zombies). More and more zombie films emphasize the cause of the outbreak, which is usually some disease gone-bad, often of our own devising, and the quest to undo the damage (think I AM LEGEND or WORLD WAR Z). Other zombies end up just being monsters chasing people around (like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or THE EVIL DEAD) – I don’t consider those films SciFi, just Horror. On television, The Walking Dead has made Zombies big business. I consider the Robert Kirkman/Frank Darabont series SciFi because most of the story arc actually comes from the new society the lead characters are trying to build in the midst of a post-apocalyptic landscape. The conflict comes more often from facing off with other bands of survivors than the actual ‘Dead’ (much like MAD MAX with zombies). By contrast, American Horror Story, is purely horror. Even in the second season, when there was clearly (spoiler) alien abduction and alien scientific inquiry, these are merely small plot points that play into a storyline of terror and escape.
So when looking at these films, I like to do some simple tests to assess its SciFi ‘cred.’ For ALIEN, if you took that alien and made it, just say, Vin Diesal with an array of guns that they accidentally pick up on a mining colony, would it still be SciFi? Yeah, it would basically be PITCH BLACK. Stepping out of Horror for a second, consider PREDATOR, one of my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks (“if it bleeds, we can kill it”), concerning a group of top notch killers (think EXPENDABLES before that was a thing) tracking down an alien in the jungles of South America. If that heat-seeing Boba Fett-looking predator was just Mel Gibson with a cool gun and heat-sensor glasses, would it still be SciFi? No, it’d just be a great action film (and basically THE EXPENDABLES 3). Let’s look at THE TERMINATOR (I love me some Arnold). The plot, a killer robot hunts down a woman and her unborn son, is really a horror standard. The robot doesn’t make it SciFi. What makes it SciFi is that Kyle Reese time travels back to this time to save his friend (the unborn son) from a dystopian future where robots run the world. (Oh, sorry, spoiler alert, but really, you can’t have NOT SEEN The Terminator, right? Seriously?) Looking at it from the other side, one of my favorite films from the last few years is THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. The film plays on the classic horror film trope of a group of teens heading out to a cabin... in the woods... a being slaughtered one by one. But as the plot plays out, the true mechanics at work reveal themselves and the film becomes a view into an alternate reality, very much a SciFi concept. Other examples of great films that clearly both science fiction AND horror are INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE THING, THE FLY, 28 DAYS LATER, APOLLO 18, SPECIES, EVENT HORIZON (see it) and of course, ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR.
SCIFI and FANTASY.
I feel like this line is even murkier than the line between SciFi and Horror. Clearly LORD OF THE RINGS is fantasy, creating an entirely different world with its own set of rules and politics and history that in no way resembles our own. But what about STAR WARS, one of the obvious gold stars of SciFi, where Luke is using a mystical ‘force’ to lift objects in the air and bomb the Death Star without his view screen (I’ve given up on not spoiling some obvious ones – Rosebud is a sled by the way). Even the opening title crawl tells us it’s ‘long, long ago.’ Really? How is that possible? Or how about all the Superman movies, where the lead character has these ridiculous abilities (like reversing time by flying around the earth really fast in counter-orbit) but basically has them because he is an alien?
In fact, most superheroes derive their powers from a SciFi origin: Spiderman is bitten by a genetically engineered super-spider (technology with unexpected consequence), The Hulk is affected by Gamma radiation (technology with unexpected consequence), Thor is from another dimension (alternate reality), Professor X can read minds, plant suggestions, and even take over someone’s body (paranormal abilities), The Green Lantern is given his magical ring by a dying alien and joins an interstellar space cop agency (obvious), Iron Man develops an unstoppable suit of armor himself, which he uses to combat villains (technology again). Of course Iron Man represents a significant problem in that there is nothing particularly special about him, he’s mostly a genius and great engineer. Batman is the best example of this. A mere tinkerer of inventions and martial artist, Batman is just a guy with a serious revenge complex.... except he lives is these odd dystopian settings where arguably we are not on the earth as we know it.
And let’s go back to Harry Potter, which actually takes place in OUR WORLD, but we just can’t normally see it. The series is clearly, geo-politcal allegory. JK Rowling even said herself “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world.” Science Fiction writers often create worlds that are thinly veiled versions of the world in which we currently live. By setting it in the future, a writer can say ‘this is where we are heading if we are not careful’ (1984) or merely change one aspect of the world (X-Men is set in the USA of today with one difference, people have started to develop psionic powers).
So how to classify what is SciFi Fantasy and what is purely fantasy? I like to look at just how much of the world of the film/book is based on reality, and how much conflicts with what we know to be true. THE HOBBIT OF THE RINGS films are clearly another world entirely, with no connection to ours whatsoever. That’s clearly fantasy. Another example is one of my favorite films of all time, THE DARK CRYSTAL, another world that has absolutely no connection to ours. CLASH OF THE TITANS may be our world, set in the time of ancient Greece, but it’s not the actual version of our world, it’s a world of Gods and Gorgons and mechanical owls (I’m talking about the original one of course, I never saw the ridiculously unnecessary reboot). On the opposite end of the trajectory, STAR TREK (the films and series) is clearly our world, just set in the future. Something like HUNGER GAMES is the same. It’s our world, sometime in the future, after something terrible has happened and a dystopian society has been established. I think most of the superhero films are SciFi, although I wouldn’t defend BATMAN or IRON MAN as such – I don’t even think they are fantasy, more just like great action films.
Sometimes Fantasy stories are set in our world, only to quickly leave it. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA begins in WW2 England, and then quickly transports its characters to an alternate reality. The same is true of THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE NEVER ENDING STORY, LAST ACTION HERO, LABYRINTH, and undiscovered gem MIRRORMASK. All of these films I would classify as fantasy. However, something like TIME BANDITS, based in a fantasy world but involving a great deal of interaction between that alternate reality/realm and our own world is definitely SciFi. In fact, much of what that film is about is the mechanics of the travel and cause and effect of the two worlds. Another window into another world film that I’d make a SciFi argument for is WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, where the human characters investigate a crime going in and out of the world of classic cartoon characters and the power of the pen that created them. MARY POPPINS has paranormal abilities AND takes a trip into an alternate world (an animated one as well), but that’s not really what the film is about, so I’d keep that in fantasy.
So how about an investigation into the mechanics of the plot devices being fundamental to having science fiction? Back to GROUNDHOG DAY, where Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again until he gets it right? Again the film doesn’t seem to be concerned with how or why, it just happens, so to me, that makes it more of a fantasy film. THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (and other Indiana Jones stories) often features fantasy elements in the plot, but in this case, the world is too much the same as ours, just with this one magical relic added. It’s basically JUMANJI with sex appeal. I love the Rod Serling quote “Science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.” So basically, how improbable is the world of the story? Is it something that could be made manifest in our world?
One factor to consider is how much of what is ‘fantastical’ in the film comes from science? Paranormal abilities based on what the mind can do ala Professor X are intrinsically scientific – we know we only use a tiny percentage of our brain: this is what the latest Luke Besson foray into SciFi LUCY was all about. Aliens are intrinsically scientific – we know (whether you care to acknowledge it or not) that the vast numbers of worlds in this universe mean that in all likelihood there is a species that developed somewhere on another planet, and that’s even assuming the species have to have developed in similar conditions: this is the foundation of (and making another appearance in this blog) Tom Cruise’s SciFi ‘Groundhog Day’. (I would argue aliens have already been here based on such obvious clues as the Nazca lines and Easter Island and the Pyramids, but I may be a crazy person). FLATLANDERS and THE SIXTH SENSE are both about communication with the afterlife but Flatlanders is much more SciFi because it is all about the science of how that might be possible and what it does to a person to experience that. The Sixth Sense is just a boy with a special power. If Bruce Willis were Harrison Ford, Haley Joel Osment would just be an ancient relic. He is just a vessel for the storyline, rather than an entry into another world. I can buy an argument for GHOSTBUSTERS as SciFi because they develop a scientific process to trap the ghosts and they are very much a part of our world. And then again, there’s Luke’s paranormal abilities in STAR WARS. Ignoring the whole midi-chlorians fiasco, the Force seems to actually be religiously based, or at least, being in tune with nature. This is not particularly SciFi, but of course, Star Wars also has space travel, and robots, and aliens, and geo-political allegory.
Which brings me to the very special case of THE HIGHLANDER. Do you go by the Sword and Sandal trappings of the original installment, which is very much a fantasy story of a showdown between immortals, or by the explain-them-all-as-aliens second film, which involves building a heat shield to protect the earth from global warming? Or the third film, which seemed to ignore the second film altogether? Or the fourth film and television series, which seemed to pick and choose what they want from the mythology? Considering the only one worth watching is the original (really, ‘there can be only one’), let’s just leave it in fantasy.
SCIFI and ROMCOM.
Sometimes two people finding each other and living happily forever can seem like the biggest fantasy or science fiction of them all. Premises in rom coms, despite being set in our world, are often less believable than ENDER’S GAME. Real relationships can feel like a horror film, where no matter what you do, you are still wrong and made to suffer. But in the movies, the two most unlikely people can come together and ‘fit.’ In just that same way, the genres of SciFi and RomCom fit together quite nicely. Most SciFi films include a romantic storyline, with Han and Leia being the perfect example (Leia: I love You. Han: I know.) . Terminator almost gets hijacked by its love story and, being one of the first films to really have an ass-kicking female lead, is a great ‘couple’ film. I think THE ABYSS has one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever seen on film, still makes me cry every time. Unfortunately there are just a few romantic comedies or romances that are also full-fledged SciFi, but the trend is improving. My favorite is ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, a film about former lovers rediscovering each other despite having the memory of each other erased from their minds. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, the film features standout performances from Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson – if you have not seen it, it is really a special film. Another recent SciFi love story is Spike Jonze’s HER, in which people begin to fall in love with their phone’s OS. For something a little more indie, try Michael Winterbottom’s CODE 46, a disquieting love story about two people in love discovering they are genetically linked due to government tinkering in the chromosomes. But it’s about so much more than that. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. For something with a little more action, go for THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, another film about two people trying to get together despite a predetermined code of what can and cannot be, in this case an alternate dimension where every minute and interaction is set according to plan. For a teen love, look no further than WARM BODIES, a zombie romance story where the traditional ‘sickness’ is given an untraditional cure, love. If you want to cry, and I mean really cry, THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE is second to none. The film stars Eric Bana as Henry DeTamble, a man with a genetic disorder that forces him to hop about in time randomly as he tries to build a relationship with his love Clare, played by Rachel McAdams. Despite being a bit of a box-office underwhelmer and critical kicking-bag, it is really a beautiful film full of beautiful people being beautiful to each other. However, I’ve saved the best for last, because the best SciFi Romance is WALL-E, whose love for EVE causes him to follow her across space. They become the ultimate couple, one that can get by hardly saying a thing to each other.
SciFi is not nearly as limiting as some people would like you to believe. Its settings and constructs can be used to add color and depth to other kinds of stories and can get people to consider a storyline that might not otherwise have come across. Have I missed any great cross-genre pieces? Want to argue what is and is not SciFi? Let me know in the comments. And happy watching!