Why Aren’t There More Good Science Fiction Movies?

Saturday , 19, August 2017 31 Comments

Cool movie posters like these are a lost art these days.

The thought that there are nowhere near as many good science fiction movies as there should be is one that I’ve had for a long time, probably since my teens, but it’s only recently that I decided to investigate it.  Certainly, everyone’s tastes are different, and we can quibble about the quality of individual pictures, but in a broader, macro sense, it’s hard to deny that the genre under-performs.  The list of great science fiction films is much shorter than, say, one of the great comedies or dramas, and possesses many more questionable choices.

Some years see no good science fiction releases at all, and no other genre has been so disappointing when it comes to adapting great works.  DuneStarship Troopers, and The Dark Tower all come to mind.  And yet, this makes no intuitive sense.  It’s a genre brimming with the most vivid imagination and ideas in all of movies!  Why aren’t there a plethora of great releases thrilling us with their originality and entrancing action?

Oddly, the answer to this is largely provided by the best science fiction films.  First, let’s examine Blade Runner. Perhaps no movie has built as amazing, gorgeous, and vivid world as this picture does.  It’s somber and dream-like, but incredibly detailed and hypnotic.  I have an acquaintance who does visual effects for a living, and it’s solely because he watched Blade Runner as a kid.  Ridley Scott, a great director, is at his very best here, perfectly capturing the mood of the individual scenes, pacing everything superbly, and coordinating a number of iconic performances.  It’s a fantastic achievement in film-making.  A masterpiece.

And yet…I still prefer Philip K. Dick’s book.  Because while the style of the movie is sublime, it only conveyed a small portion of the substance of the novel.  Much of the thoughts, ideas, and storyline were either abandoned entirely or greatly simplified.

This indicates the extraordinary difficulty in conveying the intellectual heft of great science fiction in a popular movie format.  While I love them, movies are intrinsically less deep than books.  A superlatively brilliant film like Network or Wild Strawberries has enough ideas for a very good book, but not a great one. And this is especially difficult with great science fiction, where the most interesting ideas are conveyed through thoughts and invisible descriptions, not anything that can be shown on screen.

In fact, I believe many great science fiction books are impossible to translate effectively to the screen.  Even without the ridiculous Social Justice casting (which makes major plot points utter nonsense, as the black character Detta Walker/Odetta Holmes hates Roland for being white), I had no interest in ever watching The Dark Tower despite how much I loved the books.  The mood, description, and ideas, so expertly conveyed through words, cannot be reproduced in a movie.

Blade Runner did a decent, competent job translating a shell of the book’s ideas onto the screen, and then did a phenomenal job in every other respect.  Dune is an example of what happens when a movie does a horrendous job in translating the substance and merely a good one with the style.  And David Lynch was no slouch of a director, either.

Thus, we see the fundamental difficulty in adapting any great science fiction work.  Additionally, if a director wants to make a serious, intelligent movie, it’s far cheaper and easier to make an insular drama instead of spending a fortune on special effects, costumes, etc.

The best, and likely ONLY good thing about the movie is the excellent soundtrack by Queen.

What about a less intelligent, but plenty exciting movie, like the original Star Wars?  It’s not complex or thoughtful, but it’s damn entertaining!  Well, we should observe that at its core, Star Wars is a swashbuckling adventure.  And here again, we must consider the costs.  It’s far simpler to make a swashbuckling adventure in the present day than having to spend several times as much money building an imaginary, picturesque world to house it in.  It’s also far less of a risk; Star Wars went massively over budget and was an unexpected success.  If a few elements went wrong, it could have easily been a failure. And indeed, most such movies are, whether Flash Gordon or Waterworld.

So whether a thoughtful work or a fun yarn, science fiction movies are more costly, risky, and difficult to succeed with than a standard drama in the first instance and a standard action picture in the second.  This may be moderately improving in recent times with movies increasingly relying on CGI.  Unfortunately, it’s occurring simultaneously with Hollywood being creatively dead and pumping out fewer worthwhile works than ever!

31 Comments
  • Anthony says:

    I must disagree about Blade Runner. The scenic design is amazing and the climax is one of the best scenes in movie history, but the pacing is awful. I almost gave up on it, though I’m glad I didn’t.

  • Anthony says:

    I found the book merely okay.

  • Nathan says:

    Hollywood is about 15 years behind print SF in ideas. Has been for about fifty or so years. Unfortunately, the 90s and early 00s were a dry time for print SF, and the last ten years or so have been no better–at least until indie.

  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    Have to disagree regarding Blade Runner: bored me to tears. Visually stunning but otherwise… meh. I found the movie Spacecamp more entertaining.

  • Chris L says:

    A book like Dune is all but unfilmable, as it has much too much in it for any one movie. Starship troopers is what happens when the producers hate the source material. You can make a good movie out of it, but you have to get your head out of your ass first.

    • Nicholas Archer says:

      Isn’t the common myth about Starship Troopers is the claim that it is some kind of Fascist Manifesto?

      • Chris L says:

        That’s the claim, usually made by people who never read the book. While the book can be called pro-military (particularly the infantry), it doesn’t qualify as fascist. Fascism is another form of state worship, and from the beginning it’s clear the state is barely tolerated. Johnny’s dad has nothing but contempt for it and no one is afraid of voicing opposition to it. So no fascism, just lots of praise for folks who give their all to keep us safe. Some folks can’t handle that.

    • jic says:

      If you treat *Starship Troopers* as an adaptation of the book, it’s awful. If you treat it as a semi-intentional splatter-comedy, it’s great. When my friends and I saw it on release we were roaring with laughter, and we weren’t the only ones.

      • Chris L says:

        And if they had kept the original title (Bug Hunt on Outpost 9) and made no references to the book, that would have been one thing. They didn’t. The director sorta read parts of the book, decided Heinlein was a neo-fascist, and punished him for his ideological sins by making a parody.

    • Vlad James says:

      Oh, I agree completely about Dune being unfilmable.

      The same is true of many other science fiction classics, and hence, one of the reasons there aren’t more quality science fiction movies.

      And yep, Paul Verhoeven never actually read “Starship Troopers” (written during Heinlein’s leftist, socialist phase!) but had someone describe it to him as some evil right-wing propaganda, and proceeded to make an insulting parody of it.

  • Matthew D. says:

    I think the need for mass appeal is a major issue. Science fiction movies are usually expensive due to the need to depict a futuristic world. Unless it’s done on a different level, like the Twilight Zone, or some of these recent more intellectual flicks, like The Arrival and Interstellar, then it requires a big budget for production costs and needs to make it back across cultures (languages), in theaters around the world.

    You might like reading Harlan Ellison’s screenplay of “I, Robot” (the Asimov stories). I don’t know how out of print it is. Surely available used or through interlibrary loan. The picture in the top right of “God, Robot” reminded me of it, but I believe there was a nice introduction detailing the difficulties had at trying to get it made.

    I wish Kubrick had lived to make A.I.

    I think the visual, editing and audio qualities of a film, as well theatrical/thespian qualities, should be considered as their own substance, not as “style” — as one does not call a painting or piece of music merely “style — so these elements provide content that you cannot find in text alone.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Vlad
    the dearth comes from contempt. They see sci-fi as a puerial adventure stories for boys. Thus they interfere with the movie equivalent of Lituratur ™

    Until directors and script writer stop being such insufferable snobs and just entertain us we won’t get any good sci-fi movies. In fact amateurs posting stuff on YouTube will be far more fun than studio movies

    • Vlad James says:

      Certainly some of the failures come from contempt. Starship Troopers, as others mentioned above, is a prime example.

      But it’s not always that. David Lynch, a very talented director, genuinely wanted to make a great adaptation of Dune. He failed miserably.

  • Mark says:

    Seems you can divide most sci-fi movies these days into one of two categories:

    1. A “high-concept” film. The high concept can in fact be considered (and usually dismissed) by a 5 year old, and/or has plot holes a Star Destroyer could fit through, but Hollywood isn’t known for its brains.

    2. Paint by numbers. ’nuff said. See all the MCU superhero stuff, Jupiter Ascending, and so on.

    It’s a rare film that doesn’t slot neatly into one of those two categories.

    = + =

    The problem with a lot of sci-fi works of course is trying to represent some of it – consider psychic powers that don’t cause a light show, or some cyberspace stuff. I think JMS did rather well with the first in Babylon 5, but I don’t see how a Lensman movie would be practical from this regard.

    For that matter, you have to try and explain a lot of aliens and super-science to the audience in ways that don’t sound too much like expository logorrhea – whereas in books, an author can spend paragraph upon paragraph explaining how weird the Palainians are, or why such-and-such tech works this way.

    = + =

    I think the best you can hope for, at least if you want a box office success (ie, if you want a movie made these days) is something like a merger of the best of Star Wars and B5.

    I had some hopes for the Honor Harrington movie, but the studio closed in 2015. That might’ve been good, at least so long as someone was on hand to make David Weber’s dialogue more plausible 😛 .

    • Vlad James says:

      Heh, I think you can divide ALL movies into two basic categories,

      1- Deep, intellectual art films.

      2- Pure entertainment.

      There is nothing wrong with 2., and the vast majority of good films I’ve seen fall into that category. (“Star Wars” is an example)

      In fact, one of the most common errors movies make is trying to shoehorn a picture that should just be 2., pure entertainment, into the first category, resulting in pretentious bullshit.

      And you make a fine point about exposition. Long explanations are more necessary in science fiction than they are in other genres. But of course, that would come across terribly in a movie.

      • Mark says:

        Oh, I’ve absolutely nothing against movies that are pure entertainment, believe me. Love the classic Star Wars & Indiana Jones movies for that reason. The fact that they do actually raise a few interesting questions, or are superversive as well, is just icing on the cake.

        My thinking with those two categories though is that they only account for most sci-fi. I wouldn’t put the original Star Wars into either category (though I’m aware it’s hardly an original story when you strip it down to the basics)… the problem is just that you have to do a fair bit of hunting to find the good stuff.

  • Bruce says:

    There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit nobody’s grabbing at- NASA footage, a simple adventure story, ’nuff said. Most movies are made by people who only know previous movies, and nobody has done it yet.

  • Loyd Jenkins says:

    I have many bones to pick with George Lucas, but the original Star Wars showed how to explain the world — visually, with references to unexplained events. Something that is so often mishandled in sci-fi movies.

  • Dr. Mauser says:

    The big problem with Hollywood is that it treats SF as just another form of Horror, except the monster comes from a lab or space instead of hell.

  • I’ll disagree with you about Flash Gordon, but overall I find your premise solid. And those reasons I like Flash Gordon apply to other films as well.

    It boils down to viewing it as opera: larger than life; filled with conventions; and playing the ridiculous straight.

  • Film–even a small indie film–is a collaborative venture by its very nature. One person may get popular credit or blame, but it takes the creative work of several people to make a film.

    Science Fiction, on the other hand, tends to rest on a single creative vision. (Yes, there are writers who can share a vision, some very good ones like Niven and Pournelle or Murphy and Sapir, but I think that kind of collaboration is different from the sort of team effort needed to make a movie.)

    In a modern studio there is a culture of shared responsibility and shared risk–no one wants to be the one left hanging if a project bombs, but neither does anyone want to let other people have the final say. So there are multiple competing visions and the result is too often a confused mess.

    The first Transformers movie, in my opinion, is a good example. It felt as if there were three different films spliced together–a “weird war” story about soldiers encountering alien war machines, a quirky coming of age story about a boy and his pet robot, and an oddball political intrigue story. Either of the first two could have been a good film on its own, but combining them and adding in the NSA business left me, as a viewer, unsatisfied.

    • Anthony says:

      I sort of like the first Transformers. It took itself just not seriously enough that I was able to laugh and enjoy the giant robot fights without being insulted about what it assumed about my intelligence.

      • David says:

        There were definitely some good parts in the first Transformers movie. Unfortunately the sequels somehow identified the good parts and the bad parts and made sure to reduce the former and increase the latter.

    • Ingot9455 says:

      But you got to see Donald Rumsfeld fighting alien robots with a shotgun, so you got your money’s worth right there.

  • Nigek says:

    Deathworld by Harry Harrison needs to be filmed. Read the book and you’ll agree.

  • DanH says:

    I’m still waiting for a movie of “Ringworld” and the “Dream Park” I’ve always wanted to see those in film. Of course with Hollyweird these days perhaps I’m glad they’re not.

    I also love “Flash Gordon” it was so perfectly done. If you watched the old black & white serials from the 1930’s then the movie was just like them only in brash pulp-comics color.

    “Starship Troopers” was awful as an adaptation. Plus if you don’t have power battle armour then it’s not Starship Troopers.

    As for Lynch’s “Dune”, Frank Herbert said that the look of the movie was very close to the images in his mind.

    The movie itself IMO was a fair attempt at a very difficult source material. Trying to put it all in one movie was doomed to failure.

    • Non Compos MENTOS says:

      I’ll never forgive Lynch for the “floating refrigerator” ornithopters, and the “rock-em sock-em robot” personal shields. Talk about taking some of Herbert’s most elegant details and replacing them with pure crap! And what was with the “voice amplification” weapon?

      I’ll second a request for a Ringworld movie. But first, I want to see a faithful adaptation of The Mote in God’s Eye. Of course, today’s Hollywood would never go for something so refreshingly patriarchal…

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