What Makes a Sci-Fi Film Great?
by Aaron Lowe (@loweaaron)
Science-fiction is essentially a vehicle whereby people of vision can convey social and political ideals in a metaphoric format that the masses will connect with. For thousands of years, great teachers have used metaphors to convey such ideals; the parables of Jesus were brilliantly designed to teach important life lessons in a memorable fashion. Most of the greatest movies of all time ask very deep difficult questions or make statements which are buried in the plot of the movie.
The difference between vintage Star Trek, which is full of ideals and grand ideas, and 2012’s Battleship is not the CGI, art direction, or the casting, It is the very fact that while Battleship is literally about nothing, being a formulaic exploitation movie, both captains Kirk and Picard carried a vision of humanity that is better than we have today.
Star Trek paints a picture of humanity united in common goals, war on Planet Earth is eradicated, and humans have become wise and benevolent. Gene Roddenberry believed this could be our future, and each episode was a virtual showcase of how with the prime directive humans could be among the best the universe has to offer.
Great sci-fi like Star Trek is about more than photon torpedoes. In fact, if you pay attention, the Enterprise was often outclassed in terms of its weapons and shielding systems. It was always through diplomatic or social endeavors, or through the ingenuity of the crew that they prevailed in each episode. This is truly why some movies and TV shows endure for decades, even when our own technology meets or exceeds the imaginations of the creators.
What makes the first two Star Wars movies stand out as some of the best movies ever in any genre? Surely, a great story, attention to detail and a very talented director add to the mix; but I would argue that those movies were about something, something that has been very nearly missing in sci-fi since Independence Day was released in 1996. Not to demean Independence Day, it was a memorable movie, too; but it seems to have blueprinted a formula that has been used over and over for the last fifteen years to tell the same story without any deeper meaning attached.
For the last fifteen-plus years, movies have been more about showcasing the great strides that are being made in CGI technology, and less about conveying moral and ethical ideals which work on our subconscious long after we have stopped watching the movie. We learn more about ourselves by watching these truly great films and TV shows.
Professor X teaches us that wisdom is greater than violence, and Wolverine teaches in his self-titled movie of 2011 that revenge only leads to heartache. Jurassic Park asks: Should man step on God’s toes, treading without fear and wisdom in the arena of creation, without foreseeing the consequences?
Stanley Kubrick in his 1971 classic A Clockwork Orange asks: Can evil ever be truly cured, or is man destined for his fate? And in his visually-stunning A Space Odyssey, Kubrick is one of the first to address the ancient alien theme in film, supposing that aliens were responsible for humans rise from apes to modern man. A millenniums-long trek then ensues while man searches and eventually finds the source of this enlightenment.
Sci-Fi and fantasy films aren’t the only ones with hidden meanings; all genres have themes and discussions within the script. The distinction between an enjoyable movie and a good movie should be made when considering movies in this light. Although some may disagree, the Star Wars prequels, including The Phantom Menace, are “enjoyable” movies for the most part, but are far from “good.” In a certain context, a movie such as the aforementioned Battleship can be enjoyed for its straight-ahead action without being appreciated for its literary or intrinsic quality. Everyone has different tastes, and some movies appeal to some people that inspire hatred in others.
Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an incredibly important movie, and definitely “good,” but not in my top ten most enjoyable. It is a story of a man played by Richard Dreyfus who, after suffering alien contact of an abduction nature, goes on an emotional and spiritual journey of discovery leading him through his mashed potatoes to a greater alien encounter at the end of the movie.
There are many movies that stand over time without carrying important messages. Many, such as the work of Mel Brooks in 1987’s Spaceballs, are great because of the subject matter and humor. Playing with our beloved heroes is, in my opinion, far funnier than most situational comedy today. As I said, there are movies for everyone, and it is the variety that provides us all something to treasure.