It’s hard to deny that science fiction is popular right now. Currently in the top 10 grossing domestic films of 2014 there are examples such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. All of these have ample futuristic technology to blow our minds away with the beauty of computer graphics.
However, in my opinion, they all lack something: any semblance of hard science to back up their wondrous visions. Films like Guardians are often thought of as science fiction. But, in fact, there’s no science in them. A better term for this genre might be “space fantasy” — a completely implausible make-believe story which just happens to occur in the depths of space.
The Joys and Follies of Space Fantasy
Space fantasy has with a long history of financial success: this is epitomized best by the original Star Wars. As a genre, it can be very enjoyable for a few hours. In terms of sheer entertainment, I found Guardians of the Galaxy be a fantastic movie. Its use of nostalgia, comedy, and action were expertly woven into an amazing story. Not only was it fun, but it may have brought a new generation to science fiction. Looking at the box office numbers, it’s obvious that Guardians crossed over into the mainstream.
The irreverent Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) flips the authorities the bird in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Yet, since it was a fun and engaging film, not many folks stopped to think about the reality behind the science-based concepts it presented. Blasters, starships, planets… These are often seen in true science fiction. But here, in a space fantasy, they’re just props as the film hurriedly jumps from one scene to the next. You could exchange these instead for swords, horses, and kingdoms (well-worn items in the fantasy genre) and the primary meaning of the story would stay the same. Guardians is really just a fantasy movie set in space.
Since the filmmakers have no concern for scientific detail, the movie quickly falls into well-worn tropes of space fantasy — and lazily-written science fiction! To my mind, Guardians of the Galaxy has three rather large problems in this regard: humanoid aliens, no language barriers, and magical technology.
Besides a tree and a raccoon, the alien species in Guardians are humanoids with various skin colors.
In Guardians, as in many films which claim to be sci-fi, all the aliens are humanoid shape. Even Groot, a tree-like root, is a basically humanoid with a head, torso, limbs, etc. This type of anthropomorphizing shows a severe lack of imagination. If we ever did encounter true aliens — beings that originated and evolved light years away from our Solar System — it’s extremely unlikely they would bear any resemblance to us.
The heroes of Guardians have no trouble communicating, even though they are different species.
Another easy trope to fall into is to have all of the characters speak a universal language — even more conveniently, it’s always English. This is just as ridiculous as every creature evolving to be humanoid. Think about it… Humankind doesn’t have a single language. There’s about 6,500 different tongues spoken on our planet today. Yet in Guardians — like so many other space fantasies — they never mention anything about communicators or translators. Just speak English and get on with it.
About the closest thing we get to any communication difficulty is Drax’s inability to understand metaphors — more of a psychological barrier, actually. The sad part is that there are so many science-based communication alternatives which could enrich a story about coexisting with alien cultures. On Earth, we see a variety of different communication tools such as bioluminescence or chemical signals. Why not stretch the audience’s self-imposed boundaries a bit and challenge them to think upon other possibilities?
The über-plot of the Marvel Universe films revolve around techno-magic stones that can do anything.
The third trope I want to mention is magical technology. There’s a ton of it in Guardians: I could write a whole article just about that. But let’s focus on one MacGuffin (a nonsensical plot device), the Infinity Stone. This object seems to follow Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the film, the origin story and usage of the Stone is more like a magical ritual — even though it claims to be based on some type of scientific theory.
Hard Sci-Fi Isn’t Hard
Already by the 1950s, the term “science fiction” had become so watered down, after decades of mis-appropriation by fantasy concepts, that a new term needed to be created: hard sci-fi. The genre of hard sci-fi features stories which have some type of emphasis on scientific accuracy. It is the true heir to the initial intent of science fiction.
Rather than exist as an escape FROM reality, hard sci-fi returns science fiction to its true mission — to have the audience engage WITH reality — by seeing it and themselves through a different perspective. I’d like to suggest a few examples of this type of fiction worth checking out, if you haven’t seen them yet:
Echo (Eliza Dushku), the lead character of Dollhouse, gets her mind erased.
The short-lived TV series Dollhouse (2009), set in the near future, imagined a possible device that could alter people’s memories. What are the repercussions of such a technology? The show dealt with the abuses and morality of using such a capability to erase, shape, and rebuild people’s minds.
Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) talks with an alien who takes the form of her dead father.
The 1997 film Contact — based upon a book by Carl Sagan and directed by Robert Zemeckis -– is a great example of a science-rooted fiction that asks its audience to think realistically about the possibility of alien contact. Since the early days of the Cold War, people have imagined aliens descending from the sky in a giant disk-shaped spaceship. Basically, little green men in flying saucers.
Thus, Contact is refreshing in its presentation of many of the trials and tribulations that actual scientists go through in searching for life elsewhere in our galaxy. Its hero, Dr. Ellie Arroway, is a SETI scientist who encounters strong evidence for extraterrestrial life. Ultimately, the film theorizes an interesting and perhaps plausible means by which aliens could make first contact with humankind. At FutureDude, we think the Arroway character is one of the smartest women in science fiction and she deserves to be a hero to both women and men.
Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) is a dependable AI robot in the recent sci-fi film Moon.
The low-budget drama Moon (2009) is another example of a film that explores the realms of scientific possibility. It centers on a Moon base which was built for the mining of helium-3 — a real element in abundance on our planetary neighbor which may be harvested in the near future.
Besides the base’s human caretaker, Sam Bell (portrayed by the always-great Sam Rockwell), there’s an artificial intelligence assistant named Gerty. As opposed to many AIs and robots in sci-fi, Gerty appears to something that humans would actually design to help them in such a situation. In fact, the smiley-faced AI makes our Top 5 List of Most Original Robots in Science Fiction. Take the time to watch this film: it’s a true mind-bender, if there has ever been one.
FutureDude Makes Hard Sci-Fi
At FutureDude, we love hard sci-fi. We find it fun, thought-provoking, and inspiring. So, to make it ourselves, we do our research. We delve into scientific theories and examine problems in our world, then we extrapolate what possible paths for society the future might hold. Right now, we have three properties which follow in the tradition of the best hard sci-fi: Brainstorm, Parallel Man, and Oceanus. Let’s take a brief look at each one.
Dr. Cale Issacs reviews a 3D holograph of a deadly storm in the weather manipulation comic, Brainstorm.
In the comic book mini-series Brainstorm, authors Jeffrey Morris & Ira Livingston IV examine the potential hazards in trying to direct one of nature’s most deadliest forces, the hurricane. Designed by the volatile Dr. Cale Isaacs, the Project Zephyr weather control system has worked successfully in the past. But, when the momentous task of dispersing a hurricane becomes too much, it takes a terrible and unexpected turn. Ultimately, in Brainstorm, Cale must face his own personal demons to stop a man-made storm of his own creation.
Soldiers of the Ascendancy, from another Earth, hover above a lake in the multiverse epic, Parallel Man.
As opposed to time travel stories, Parallel Man deals with the implication of traveling between spatial dimensions. The first mini-series, Invasion America, is an epic science-fiction adventure in the multiverse. This exciting comic book, written by Jeffrey Morris & Fredrick Haugen, reminds me of an age-old question that we don’t think upon often: What do we do when we come in contact with a civilization that is far less advanced then ours? Do we impose our own rule over them or let them develop by themselves? These questions and more populate each page as the hero, Agent Nick Morgan, jumps from one world to the next — trying to stop a sinister plot.
AquaShuttle 5 follows a pod of whales in this pre-production art from the underwater adventure, Oceanus.
While the first two stories from FutureDude have premiered as comic books, the third is a short film which will debut early next year. Oceanus travels to the closest unsolved mystery humankind has yet to fully investigate — the depths of the ocean. In fact, with less than 8% of the ocean floor explored, there is much to learn from it. Writers Jeffrey Morris & Kimberly Morris have constructed a compelling narrative. During the film, the underwater Oceanus Base is suddenly cut off from the surface. A disaster of epic scale has occurred on land. Thus, in Oceanus, the crew must learn to survive in the unfathomable and dangerous environment of the deep sea.
What Do You Think?
What piece of science fiction has inspired you the most and why? Let us know down in the Comments!