The Emerging Genre: Science Fiction Films Then vs. Now

In the past, I have made mention to the gradual genre shift occurring in cinemas. While the superhero movie still reigns supreme at the box office, there is a new genre taking a larger and larger focus in the spotlight. Simply put, it is an excellent time to be a fan of science fiction. First off, what is meant by “science fiction”? It is a large term with many possible applications. The Merriam-Webster definition is as follows:

Stories about how people and societies are affected by imaginary scientific developments in the future.

So obviously we’re talking about a lot more than just little green men here.

Yet with science fiction films, I feel that there is an important distinction to be made, and that is plot vs. setting. There has never been a real shortage of movies with science fiction settings. By that definition, a movie with any amount of sustained space travel is a science fiction film. Yet if the plot does not focus on it, I make the case that it is not really in the science fiction genre. Let’s look at the newest Star Trek movies from J.J. Abrams. Love them or hate them, there is little attention paid to the technology and cultural advancements. Much of the focus in those movies is on the action/adventure elements, so that would be the genre I would place them in. Years ago, there were a lot more films like Abrams’ Star Trek: sci-fi in setting only. I aim to provide a brief analysis focusing on how cinema has gone more sci-fi friendly in the recent years.

Planet of the Apes (2001) vs. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

This is a great example. Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes was very much a science fiction movie in setting only. When the plot is broken down, there is little that really hinges on anything involving the science fiction element. Mark Walberg plays an outcast who visits a foreign land and leads a rebellion against the established order. The questions of morality and social order (so present in the original film) are greatly downplayed to help the plot along to its conclusion – a great big fight that solves all the conflicts.

While the idea of equality and slavery is tossed around, the movie never really focuses any scenes on exploring it. There's a lot more time spent on running and shooting things.
While the idea of equality vs. slavery is tossed around, the movie never really focuses any scenes on exploring it. There’s a lot more time spent on running and shooting things.

Ten years later and audiences would see a very different film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells the story of Caesar, a being created as the bi-product of experimentation. Caesar must find his place in the modern world, and the movie focuses largely on the challenges therein. Does the film still climax with an action sequence: yes, but the real attention is not on the fact that the apes are fighting their way free. The movie does not build to it, it simply occurs as the next step in Caesar’s path to finding his home.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes could also be summarized as a movie telling the effects of a fictional new drug.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes could also be summarized as a movie telling the effects of a fictional new drug.

Sunshine (2007) vs. The Europa Report (2013)

This is a little trickier but I think it proves a good example. Sunshine is, in large part, a pure science fiction movie. The plot centers on an imagined problem: the sun is dying. To try and save itself, mankind has dispatched two ships to try and resurrect the sun with use of a plasma bomb (or some such fictional technology). The first ship disappeared, so the movie focuses on the second. What makes it worth mentioning is that the conflict in the movie does not really relate to any of the science fiction elements. A crazy man boards the ship and stalks the crew. This bizarre injection of horror takes away from the sci-fi nature of the film. It is almost as if director Danny Boyle felt the movie was too weak to stand on just the thrills and dangers of a deep space mission to the sun.

The problem with the villain in Sunshine is that he isn't needed. Interjecting a religious fanatic proved to be a fantastic way to make the story less interesting. That said, it made this movie feel like Doom, just better than the actual Doom movie.
The problem with the villain in Sunshine is that he isn’t needed. Interjecting a religious fanatic proved to be a fantastic way to make the story less interesting. That said, it made this movie feel like Doom, just better than the actual Doom movie.

The Europa Report is a very similar movie with one crucial difference: the horror has been removed. This movie also tells of a deep space mission, though this one is to examine Jupiter’s moon, Europa, for any signs of life. The entire movie revolves around this mission and the complications that arise during it. There is no external force, no bad guy needed to force a conflict. It is in this omission that the movie is allowed to pursue different questions. How would human beings hold up to long isolation? What problems would arise naturally in deep space travel? What would it be like to try and land on a strange planet that we know very little about? What would we find on Europa? These are the questions being pursued in The Europa Report, rather than just saying “watch out for that crazy guy.”

The Europa Report is constantly walking the line between horror and wonder. In that regard, it perfectly nails the feeling of exploring a great unknown for the first time.
The Europa Report is constantly walking the line between horror and wonder. In that regard, it perfectly nails the feeling of exploring a great unknown for the first time.

I, Robot (2004) vs. Robot and Frank (2012)

I know what you’re saying: how am I really comparing these two movies? I base this comparison on the fact that both plots involve robots interacting with morality, and both films center on friendships between humans and robots.

I, Robot is, at its heart, a thriller. Will Smith plays a detective investigating a murder believed to have been committed by a robot. The movie does explore a lot of science fiction questions involving robots and morality, but ultimately still feels driven by the typical constraints of a mystery thriller. Chase sequences and robot fight scenes abound. Is there a villainous robot to destroy to save all mankind? Of course.

There is more to this movie than just the mystery - but the thriller is always center stage.
There is more to this movie than just the mystery – but the thriller is always center stage.

Robot and Frank tells the story of an elderly man suffering from alzheimer’s, and the robot brought it to help him regain a life. The twist is that said man is also a jewel thief, and he wants to teach the robot to be his accomplice. This movie is much more focused on the question: do robots have morality and what would that be like? Throughout the entire film, the audience joins Frank in wondering just how human the machine is. There is a constant blurring between the line of appliance and friend. Yes, Frank is a jewel thief and the movie devotes time to that as well, but the robot feels essential and not just like dressing to the story.

This film plays a lot with the concept of memory being tied to identity.
This film plays a lot with the concept of memory being tied to identity.

There are countless others but I will stop at three. I may do a follow up to this piece in the future. The point is this: science fiction is becoming more and more integrated into today’s film culture and, while there are a lot of films that still only use it as dressing, it is increasingly becoming a strong ingredient to the plot.

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