Science fiction film is a film genre which emphasizes actual, extrapolative, or speculative science and the empirical method, interacting in a social context with the lesser emphasized, but still present, transcendentalism of magic and religion, in an attempt to reconcile man with the unknown.
Science fiction film uses speculative, fictional science-based depictions of phenomena that are not fully accepted by mainstream science, such as extraterrestrial life forms, alien worlds, extrasensory perception and time travel, along with futuristic elements such as spacecraft, robots, cyborgs, interstellar space travel or other technologies. Science fiction films have often been used to focus on political or social issues, and to explore philosophical issues like the human condition. In many cases, tropes derived from written science fiction may be used by filmmakers ignorant of or at best indifferent to the standards of scientific plausibility and plot logic to which written science fiction is traditionally held.
This definition assumes that a continuum exists between (real-world) empiricism and (supernatural) transcendentalism, with science fiction film on the side of empiricism, and horror film and fantasy film on the side of transcendentalism. However, there are numerous well-known examples of science fiction horror films, epitomized by such pictures as Frankenstein and Alien.
The visual style of science fiction film can be characterized by a clash between alien and familiar images. This clash is implemented when alien images become familiar, as in A Clockwork Orange, when the repetitions of the Korova Milkbar make the alien decor seem more familiar. As well, familiar images become alien, as in the films Repo Man and Liquid Sky. For example, in Dr. Strangelove, the distortion of the humans make the familiar images seem more alien. Finally, alien and familiar images are juxtaposed, as in The Deadly Mantis, when a giant praying mantis is shown climbing the Washington Monument.
Themes, imagery, and visual elements
Science fiction films are often speculative in nature, and often include key supporting elements of science and technology. However, as often as not the “science” in a Hollywood science fiction movie can be considered pseudo-science, relying primarily on atmosphere and quasi-scientific artistic fancy than facts and conventional scientific theory. The definition can also vary depending on the viewpoint of the observer.
Many science fiction films include elements of mysticism, occult, magic, or the supernatural, considered by some to be more properly elements of fantasy or the occult (or religious) film. This transforms the movie genre into a science fantasy with a religious or quasi-religious philosophy serving as the driving motivation. The movie Forbidden Planet employs many common science fiction elements, but the film carries a profound message – that the evolution of a species toward technological perfection (in this case exemplified by the disappeared alien civilization called the “Krell”) does not ensure the loss of primitive and dangerous urges. In the film this part of the primitive mind manifests itself as monstrous destructive force emanating from the freudian subconscious, or “Id”.
Some films blur the line between the genres, such as films where the protagonist gains the extraordinary powers of the superhero. These films usually employ quasi-plausible reason for the hero gaining these powers.
Not all science fiction themes are equally suitable for movies. In addition to science fiction horror, space opera is most common. Often enough, these films could just as well pass as westerns or World War II films if the science fiction props were removed. Common motifs also include voyages and expeditions to other planets, and dystopias, while utopias are rare.
Film theorist Vivian Sobchack argues that science fiction films differ from fantasy films in that while science fiction film seeks to achieve our belief in the images we are viewing, fantasy film instead attempts to suspend our disbelief. The science fiction film displays the unfamiliar and alien in the context of the familiar. Despite the alien nature of the scenes and science fictional elements of the setting, the imagery of the film is related back to mankind and how we relate to our surroundings. While the science fiction film strives to push the boundaries of the human experience, they remain bound to the conditions and understanding of the audience and thereby contain prosaic aspects, rather than being completely alien or abstract.
Genre films such as westerns or war movies are bound to a particular area or time period. This is not true of the science fiction film. However, there are several common visual elements that are evocative of the genre. These include the spacecraft or space station, alien worlds or creatures, robots, and futuristic gadgets. Examples include movies like Lost in Space, Serenity, Avatar and Prometheus. More subtle visual clues can appear with changes of the human form through modifications in appearance, size, or behavior, or by means a known environment turned eerily alien, such as an empty city.
While science is a major element of this genre, many movie studios take significant liberties with scientific knowledge. Such liberties can be most readily observed in films that show spacecraft maneuvering in outer space. The vacuum should preclude the transmission of sound or maneuvers employing wings, yet the sound track is filled with inappropriate flying noises and changes in flight path resembling an aircraft banking. The filmmakers, unfamiliar with the specifics of space travel, focus instead on providing acoustical atmosphere and the more familiar maneuvers of the aircraft.
Similar instances of ignoring science in favor of art can be seen when movies present environmental effects as portrayed in Star Wars and Star Trek. Entire planets are destroyed in titanic explosions requiring mere seconds, whereas an actual event of this nature takes many hours.
The role of the scientist has varied considerably in the science fiction film genre, depending on the public perception of science and advanced technology. Starting with Dr. Frankenstein, the mad scientist became a stock character who posed a dire threat to society and perhaps even civilization. Certain portrayals of the “mad scientist”, such as Peter Sellers’s performance in Dr. Strangelove, have become iconic to the genre. In the monster films of the 1950s, the scientist often played a heroic role as the only person who could provide a technological fix for some impending doom. Reflecting the distrust of government that began in the 1960s in the United States, the brilliant but rebellious scientist became a common theme, often serving a Cassandra-like role during an impending disaster.
Biotechnology (e.g., cloning) is a popular scientific element in films as depicted in Jurassic Park (cloning of extinct species), The Island (cloning of humans), and (genetic modification) in some superhero movies and in the Alien series. Cybernetics and holographic projections as depicted in Robocop and I, Robot are also popularized. Interstellar travel and teleportation is a popular theme in the Star Trek series that is achieved through warp drives and transporters while intergalactic travel is popular in films such as Stargate and Star Wars that is achieved through hyperspace or wormholes. Nanotechnology is also featured in the Star Trek series in the form of replicators (utopia), in The Day the Earth Stood Still in the form of grey goo (dystopia), and in Iron Man 3 in the form of extremis (nanotubes). Force fields is a popular theme in Independence Day while invisibility is also popular in Star Trek. Arc reactor technology, featured in Iron Man, is similar to a cold fusion device.
The late Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Past science fiction films have depicted “fictional” (“magical”) technologies that became present reality. For example, the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) from Star Trek was a precursor of smartphones and tablet computers. Gesture recognition in the movie Minority Report is part of current game consoles. Human-level artificial intelligence is also fast approaching with the advent of smartphone A.I. while a working cloaking device / material is the main goal of stealth technology. Autonomous cars (e.g. KITT from the Knight Rider series) and quantum computers, like in the movie Stealth and Transcendence, also will be available eventually. Furthermore, although Clarke’s laws does not classify “sufficiently advanced” technologies, the Kardashev scale measures a civilization’s level of technological advancement into types. For example, an interstellar Star Trek can be described as a Type II civilization while an intergalactic Star Wars can be described as a Type III civilization.
Alien life forms
The concept of life, particularly intelligent life, having an extraterrestrial origin is a popular staple of science fiction films. Early films often used alien life forms as a threat or peril to the human race, where the invaders were frequently fictional representations of actual military or political threats on Earth as observed in films such as Mars Attacks!, Starship Troopers, the Predator series, and The Chronicles of Riddick series. Some aliens were represented as benign and even beneficial in nature in such films as Escape to Witch Mountain, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Fifth Element, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Avatar and the Men in Black series.
In order to provide subject matter to which audiences can relate, the large majority of intelligent alien races presented in films have an anthropomorphic nature, possessing human emotions and motivations. In films like Cocoon, My Stepmother Is an Alien, Species, Contact, The Box, Knowing, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Watch, the aliens were nearly human in physical appearance, and communicated in a common earth language. However, the aliens in Stargate and Prometheus were human in physical appearance but communicated in an alien language. A few films have tried to represent intelligent aliens as something utterly different from the usual humanoid shape (e.g. An intelligent life form surrounding an entire planet in Solaris, the ball shaped creature in Dark Star, microbial-like creatures in The Invasion, shape-shifting creatures in Evolution). Recent trends in films involve building-size alien creatures like in the movie Pacific Rim where the CGI has tremendously improved over the previous decades as compared in previous films such as Godzilla.
A frequent theme among science fiction films is that of impending or actual disaster on an epic scale. These often address a particular concern of the writer by serving as a vehicle of warning against a type of activity, including technological research. In the case of alien invasion films, the creatures can provide as a stand-in for a feared foreign power.
Disaster films typically fall into the following general categories:
Alien invasion – hostile extraterrestrials arrive and seek to supplant humanity. They are either overwhelmingly powerful or very insidious. Typical examples include The War of the Worlds (1953 film), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 film), Independence Day (1996 film), War of the Worlds (2005), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), Skyline (2010), The Darkest Hour (2011), Battle: Los Angeles (2011), Battleship (2012), Pacific Rim (2013), and Ender’s Game (2013) .
Environmental disaster – such as major climate change, or an asteroid or comet strike. Movies that have employed this theme include Soylent Green (1973), Waterworld (1995), Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998), The Core (2003), The Day after Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009) and Snowpiercer (2013).
Man supplanted by technology – typically in the form of an all-powerful computer, advanced robots or cyborgs, or else genetically modified humans or animals. Among the films in this category are The Terminator (1984), The Matrix (1999), I, Robot (2004) and the Transformers series.
Nuclear war – usually in the form of a dystopic, post-holocaust tale of grim survival. Examples of such a storyline can be found in the movies Dr. Strangelove (1964), Planet of the Apes (1968), A Boy and His Dog (1975), Mad Max (1979), City of Ember (2008), The Book of Eli (2010), and Oblivion (2013).
Pandemic – a highly lethal disease, often one created by man, threatens or wipes out most of humanity in a massive plague. This topic has been treated in such films as The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Omega Man (1971), 12 Monkeys (1995), 28 Weeks Later (2007), I am Legend (2007) and the Resident Evil series.
While monster films do not usually depict danger on a global or epic scale, science fiction film also has a long tradition of movies featuring monster attacks. These differ from similar films in the horror or fantasy genres because science fiction films typically rely on a scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) rationale for the monster’s existence, rather than a supernatural or magical reason. Often, the science fiction film monster is created, awakened, or “evolves” because of the machinations of a mad scientist, a nuclear accident, or a scientific experiment gone awry. Typical examples include The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Cloverfield, Pacific Rim and the Godzilla series of films.
Mind and identity
The core mental aspects of what makes us human has been a staple of science fiction films, particularly since the 1980s. Blade Runner examined what made an organic-creation a human, while the RoboCop series saw an android mechanism fitted with the brain and reprogrammed mind of a human to create a cyborg. The idea of brain transfer was not entirely new to science fiction film, as the concept of the “mad scientist” transferring the human mind to another body is as old as Frankenstein while the idea of corporations behind mind transfer technologies is observed in later films such as Gamer, Avatar and Surrogates.
Films such as Total Recall have popularized a thread of films that explore the concept of reprogramming the human mind. The theme of brainwashing in several films of the sixties and seventies including A Clockwork Orange and The Manchurian Candidate coincided with secret real-life government experimentation during Project MKULTRA. Voluntary erasure of memory is further explored as themes of the films Paycheck and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Some films like Limitless explore the concept of mind enhancement. The anime series Serial Experiments Lain also explores the idea of reprogrammable reality and memory.
The idea that a human could be entirely represented as a program in a computer was a core element of the film Tron. This would be further explored in the film version of The Lawnmower Man and Transcendence, and the idea reversed in Virtuosity as computer programs sought to become real persons. In the Matrix series, the virtual reality world became a real world prison for humanity, managed by intelligent machines. In movies such as eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor and Inception, the nature of reality and virtual reality become intermixed with no clear distinguishing boundary.
Telekinesis and telepathy are featured in movies like Star Wars, The Last Mimzy, Race to Witch Mountain, Chronicle, and Lucy while precognition is featured in Minority Report.
Robots have been a part of science fiction since the Czech playwright Karel Capek coined the word in 1921. In early films, robots were usually played by a human actor in a boxy metal suit, as in The Phantom Empire, although the female robot in Metropolis is an exception. The first depiction of a sophisticated robot in a United States film was Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Robots in films are often sentient and sometimes sentimental, and they have filled a range of roles in science fiction films. Robots have been supporting characters, such as Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, Data in Star Trek, sidekicks (e.g., C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars, JARVIS from Iron Man), and extras, visible in the background to create a futuristic setting (e.g., Back to the Future Part II, Total Recall (2012), Robocop (2014)). As well, robots have been formidable movie villains or monsters (e.g., the robot Box in the 1976 film Logan’s Run, HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, ARIIA in Eagle Eye, robot Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the battle droids in Star Wars). In some cases, robots have even been the leading characters in science fiction films; in the 1982 film Blade Runner, many of the characters are bioengineered android “replicants” and in the 2009 film Astro Boy, the leading character is a boy who became a robot.
Films like Bicentennial Man and A.I. Artificial Intelligence depicted the emotional fallouts of robots that are self-aware. Other films like The Animatrix (The Second Renaissance) present the consequences of mass-producing self-aware androids as humanity succumbs to their robot overlords.
One popular theme in science fiction film is whether robots will someday replace humans, a question raised in the film adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (in jobs) and in the film Real Steel (in sports), or whether intelligent robots could develop a conscience and a motivation to protect, take over, or destroy the human race (as depicted in The Terminator, Transformers and in Avengers: Age of Ultron). Another theme is remote telepresence via androids as depicted in Surrogates and Iron Man 3. As computer power increases exponentially, some sci-fi dreams have already been realized as computers become adept in logic reasoning and language understanding. For example, the computer Deep Blue beat the world chess champion in 1997 and a documentary film, Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, was released in 2003. Another famous computer called Watson defeated the two best human Jeopardy (game show) players in 2011 and a NOVA documentary film, Smartest Machine on Earth, was released in the same year.
Building-size robots are also becoming a popular theme in movies as featured in Pacific Rim. Future live action films include popular television series like Voltron and Robotech and may include an adaptation of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The CGI robots of Pacific Rim was greatly improved over the past decades as compared in previous films such as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. While “size does matter”, a famous tagline of the movie Godzilla, incredibly small robots, called nanobots, do matter as well (e.g. Borg nanoprobes in Star Trek and nanites in I, Robot).
The concept of time travelâ€”travelling backwards and forwards through timeâ€”has always been a popular staple of science fiction film and science fiction television series. Time travel usually involves the use of some type of advanced technology, such as H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine, the commercially successful 1980s-era Back to the Future trilogy, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the Terminator series, DÃ©jÃ Vu (2006), Source Code (2011), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Other movies, such as the Planet of the Apes series, Timeline (2003) and The Last Mimzy (2007), explained their depictions of time travel by drawing on physics concepts such as the special relativity phenomenon of time dilation (which could occur if a spaceship was travelling near the speed of light) and wormholes. Some films show time travel not being attained from advanced technology, but rather from an inner source or personal power, such as the 2000s-era films Donnie Darko, Mr. Nobody and The Butterfly Effect.
More conventional time travel movies use technology to bring the past to life in the present, or in a present that lies in our future. The film Iceman (1984) told the story of the reanimation of a frozen Neanderthal. The film Freejack (1992) shows time travel used to pull victims of horrible deaths forward in time a split-second before their demise, and then use their bodies for spare parts.
A common theme in time travel film is the paradoxical nature of travelling through time. In the French New Wave film La jetÃ©e (1962), director Chris Marker depicts the self-fulfilling aspect of a person being able to see their future by showing a child who witnesses the death of his future self. La JetÃ©e was the inspiration for 12 Monkeys, (1995) director Terry Gilliam’s film about time travel, memory and madness. The Back to the Future series and The Time Machine goes one step further and explores the result of altering the past, while in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and Star Trek (2009) the crew must rescue the Earth from having its past altered by time-travelling cyborgs and alien races.
Genre as commentary on social issues
The science fiction film genre has long served as a useful vehicle for “safely” discussing controversial topical issues and often providing thoughtful social commentary on potential unforeseen future issues. Presentation of issues that are difficult or disturbing for an audience, can be made more acceptable when they are explored in a future setting or on a different, earth-like world. The altered context can allow for deeper examination and reflection of the ideas presented, with the perspective of a viewer watching remote events. Most controversial issues in science fiction films tend to fall into two general story lines, Utopian or dystopian. Either a society will become better or worse in the future. Because of controversy, most science fiction films will fall into the dystopian film category rather than the Utopian category.
The types of commentary and controversy presented in science fiction films often illustrate the particular concerns of the periods in which they were produced. Early science fiction films expressed fears about automation replacing workers and the dehumanization of society through science and technology. For example, 1951’s The Man in the White Suit used a science fiction concept as a means to satirize postwar British “establishment” conservatism, industrial capitalists, and trade unions. Another example is HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. He controls the shuttle, and later harms its crew. “Kubrick’s vision reveals technology as a competitive force that must be defeated in order for humans to evolve.” Later films explored the fears of environmental catastrophe, technology-created disasters, or overpopulation, and how they would impact society and individuals (e.g. Soylent Green, Elysium).
The monster movies of the 1950sâ€”like Godzilla (1954)â€”served as stand-ins for fears of nuclear war, communism and views on the cold war. In the 1970s, science fiction films also became an effective way of satirizing contemporary social mores with Silent Running and Dark Star presenting hippies in space as a riposte to the militaristic types that had dominated earlier films. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange presented a horrific vision of youth culture, portraying a youth gang engaged in rape and murder, along with disturbing scenes of forced psychological conditioning serving to comment on societal responses to crime.
Logan’s Run depicted a futuristic swingers’ utopia that practiced euthanasia as a form of population control and The Stepford Wives anticipated a reaction to the women’s liberation movement. Enemy Mine demonstrated that the foes we have come to hate are often just like us, even if they appear alien.
Contemporary science fiction films continue to explore social and political issues. One recent example is 2002’s Minority Report, debuting in the months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and focused on the issues of police powers, privacy and civil liberties in a near-future United States. Some like The Island (2005) and Never Let Me Go (2010) explore the issues surrounding cloning.
More recently, the headlines surrounding events such as the Iraq War, international terrorism, the avian influenza scare, and United States anti-immigration laws have found their way into the consciousness of contemporary filmmakers. The 2006 film V for Vendetta drew inspiration from controversial issues such as the Patriot Act and the War on Terror, while science fiction thrillers such as Children of Men (also 2006) and District 9 (2009) commented on diverse social issues such as xenophobia, propaganda, and cognitive dissonance. Avatar (2009) had remarkable resemblance to colonialism of native land, mining by multinational-corporations and the Iraq War.
Lancaster University professor Jamaluddin Bin Aziz argues that as science fiction has evolved and expanded, it has fused with other film genres such as gothic thrillers and film noir. When science fiction integrates film noir elements, Bin Aziz calls the resulting hybrid form “future noir”, a form which “… encapsulates a postmodern encounter with generic persistence, creating a mixture of irony, pessimism, prediction, extrapolation, bleakness and nostalgia.” Future noir films such as Brazil, Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Dark City and Children of Men use a protagonist who is “…increasingly dubious, alienated and fragmented”, at once “dark and playful like the characters in Gibson”s Neuromancer”, yet still with the “… shadow of Philip Marlowe…”
Future noir films that are set in a post-apocalyptic world “…restructure and re-represent society in a parody of the atmospheric world usually found in noirâ€™s construction of a city-dark, bleak and beguiled.” Future noir films often intermingle elements of the gothic thriller genre, such as Minority Report, which makes references to occult practices, and Alien, with its tagline ‘In space, no one can hear you scream’, and a space vessel, Nostromo, “that harks back to images of the haunted house in the gothic horror tradition”. Bin Aziz states that films such as James Cameron’s The Terminator are a subgenre of “techno noir” that create “…an atmospheric feast of noir darkness and a double-edged world that is not what it seems.”