Every year the films put out by the big studios seem to get a little worse. In their attempt to blandly appeal to everyone, they appeal to no one; in their desire to offend no one, their vapidity offends everyone. We are increasingly treated to the same plots, characters, and cinematography repeated ad nauseam in what claim to be different films. Even the idea that every “new” production is a remake, sequel, or prequel has become cliché.
Science fiction movies suffer even worse than those of other genres, mainly because expensive special effects makes studios even less willing to take a gamble on unconventional material. Between that and the typical process of rewriting every script into watery gruel before allowing it to be filmed, it’s easy to see why science fiction cinema doesn’t hold a candle to science fiction literature.
That’s where you come in. As independent filmmakers at a time when the industry is undergoing rapid technological democratization, you bear a unique responsibility. Modern computer and camera technology allow the creation of breathtaking visual effects for a fraction of what they once cost, while online distribution lets you reach an enormous global audience. You have the potential to bring the inspiring and mind opening worlds of science fiction to life in a way never before possible.
You’re not living up to it.
Last week I was feeling down. I had seen mention on several websites of a passel of new independent science fiction short-films, so I figured taking a look at them might help. I was dismayed to find that nearly every one I saw was dystopian or, if not set in an explicit dystopia, was wholly focused on the worst aspects of humanity. According to you humanity is monstrous; a greedy, violent, horror whose civilization is but an excuse to extend its corrupting infestation over more of the Universe. Not that it matters, since civilization is doomed anyway and the few, dwindling survivors will cower in the darkness until the last man slays the penultimate for his Nikes.
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not demanding a utopia of frolicking unicorns and free beer. As a student of history I’m well aware of the darker aspects of the human animal, and I tend to be drawn to accurate fictional portrayals of them. But there’s that word: accurate. If the vision outlined above were true our species would never have built the globe-spanning technological civilization that affords you the opportunity to create your films.
I wholly understand the difficulties inherent to science fiction. As Robert Heinlein once said, the ideal science fiction writer must have a working knowledge of history, geography, politics, every field of science and engineering, and also be a good writer. Which, he pointed out, is impossible; we should be more surprised that there’s any good science fiction rather than that so much of it is bad. This issue is compounded with science fiction filmmaking, as a whole additional suite of technical proficiencies is vital to the creation of a good film.
I also don’t demand perfect scientific and technical fidelity in the movies I watch, though it does impress me when it occurs. I am more than willing to suspend disbelief in the face of fine storytelling, but a work can contain plot elements so flawed, so ridiculously out of touch with reality that this willing suspension of credulity breaks down. To assist you in vetting ideas for future projects, the following are some of the worst offenders I’ve encountered.
Myth: A nuclear war will kill us all! The few left will haunt blasted ruins, suffering from radiation that lasts for centuries!
Reality: I like to call this the “Fallout fallacy,” after the popular video game series. As popular as imagery associated with this myth is, a nuclear war will not destroy the world, humanity, or even technological civilization — though it could potentially set us back by a century or so. The threat of nuclear war, however, has done more than any other single factor to deter major conventional wars.
A major nuclear conflict would likely play out over at least several weeks, in contrast to the “30 minutes, then Mad Max” way such conflicts are often depicted in fiction. Similarly, It would almost certainly not change the climate for more than a decade. “Nuclear winter” is mythological; the result of one computer simulation that was poorly conceived at best and scientific fraud at worst. More recent simulations indicate a rather more interesting situation where, for several years, high altitude temperatures greatly increase and the variation of temperatures at ground level is somewhat evened out. The radiation from such a war would also mostly disappear within the same period of time. Roughly speaking, the more radioactive something is, the faster that radiation decays away.
An interesting parochialism to this myth involves ignoring the non-participants. Like any war, such a conflict would involve a limited set of countries or coalitions with most of the world more or less neutral. If the Cold War had gone hot the US, USSR, Europe, and maybe China would have suffered enormously, but what about the nations of South America, Africa, and Oceania? Even if the war is followed by a collapse of global trade (likely) they would still have much of their industrial infrastructure and resources intact.
Myth: Climate change will kill us all! The cities will drown and crops will fail all over the world!
Reality: Climate change, or any change to the global environment that takes centuries, will also fail to destroy civilization. After all, the entire point of culture and civilization is to allow humans to adapt to their environment on shorter time-scales than most large-scale natural phenomena. Please note that I’m not saying we shouldn’t concern ourselves with such problems, just that they will not bring about the apocalypse. As much as some people really seem to want them to.
I tend to attribute a lot of doomsday-thinking about such issues to a failure to think marginally. Even in the worst case scenarios the sea will not rise up and swallow NYC in a week, month, or even decade. This myth also represents a failure to recognize that humans have adapted to wider swings in climate in the past. Though in some ways technological civilization is less resilient to environmental changes there are many other ways in which it is far more so, such as the ability to predict changes before they occur.
Myth: A plague will kill us all! A few survivors will cling to life in the abandoned husk of civilization!
Reality: I’m beginning to notice a trend… Anyway, it’s very unlikely that a single disease could kill more than about three quarters of the human population, even if we had no way of effectively fighting it. As people die the population density declines and makes transmission of the pathogen less likely, and technology increasingly allows us to perform many activities without coming into direct contact with other human beings.
Myth: In the future, we will able to upload, download, and transfer our minds at will.
Reality: Even assuming that human consciousness can be digitized, trying to upload a human mind in seconds a-la The 6th Day would result in the production of so much waste heat that the apparatus (and the human head attached to it) would likely explode. Without some very serious cooling equipment, your digital being won’t be effortlessly hopping from computer to computer. What’s worse is that there is a physics-imposed minimum on this inefficiency that no technology can overcome.
Myth: Aliens will be wise, gentle pacifists who fear the expansion of ignorant, warlike humans into the universe.
Reality: This is probably unlikely. Any hypothetical extraterrestrial technological civilizations would be graduates of the same evolutionary “school of hard knocks” as us, and so will likely also be greedy and violent, though such characteristics may manifest in different ways.
Indeed, the alien invaders of blockbuster scifi films would be a more realistic projection if not for the fact that there’s pretty much nothing they could get from Earth that isn’t more abundant and easier to access in the rest of the solar system. Not to mention that anyone who can engage in interstellar warfare would consider our defensive capabilities as fearsome as we consider those of an ant colony in the backyard.
It’s also humorous how the benevolent aliens always proclaim the total truth of whatever ideology the author is beholden to. The poorer end of Soviet science fiction, for instance, offers a veritable cavalcade of wise alien civilizations gravely pontificating on the inevitable victory of interstellar Marxism-Leninism. In contrast, plenty of poor western science fiction offers a veritable cavalcade of wise alien civilizations gravely pontificating on the inevitable victory of… um… something that sounds suspiciously like interstellar Marxism-Leninism. Never mind. Anyway, just try not to make this mistake in your own work.
Even in the films that exhibited none of the science-based shortcomings above, there was a deeper and more pernicious element that took me longer to identify. It wasn’t just a general pessimism about the human race or where we’re going. The more of your work I watched, the more it came to me that these movies treated humanity like a disease. Like a malignant, unnatural entity whose continued presence is to be mourned and whose inevitable self-annihilation is for the best.
I wholeheartedly invite any reader who truly believes this to live up to their principles and, by their own standards, make the world a better place. Right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Everyone still there? Good, that’s because no one actually believes that steaming pile of bull-excrement. Anyone who says otherwise either isn’t thinking too hard about it or doesn’t think people are a disease, they think that the wrong sort of people are a disease. Never themselves, of course. Hopefully it’s now obvious that you probably don’t want to be associated with such a school of thought.
It tremendously saddens me that this reprehensible concept seems so deeply embedded in your visions of the future. It is the works of Asimov, Heinlein, and Rodenberry that have inspired myself and countless others to seek science or engineering degrees. If yours rather than theirs had been the default vision of science fiction, I wonder if we would have bothered.
Increasingly it is the visual media that define public perception of a genre. Your work can provide the spark that inspires thousands of potential scientists and engineers to solve humanity’s most pressing issues. It could open the public’s eyes to some of the myriad possibilities that lie in humanity’s future. It costs no more to make a film that accepts our innate weaknesses but exults in our strengths than one that screeches like a raven circling our open grave.