I'm about to lose the little bit of geek cred I've gained since I began writing for Cinema Blend by saying what I'm about to say: I don't like Sci-Fi movies. It's not that Science Fiction isn't a fruitful, intelligent, and credible genre; it is. But it's always been hard for me to feel emotionally attached to characters and story when I'm forced to put equal effort in figuring out a new world, be it an apocalyptic future or a world run by gadgets and robots. The purest and most effective science fiction movies are the ones that ignore expository mumbo jumbo and focus on character or the ones whose portrait of the future is so ridiculous, you just have go along for the ride.
Avatar is just such a film and it's likely that if you're a science fiction avoider like me, Cameron's new movie may leave you wondering about the sci-fi you've missed. We're here to help by pointing you towards these: science fiction movies for people who don't like sci-fi.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best kind of science fiction, the kind that lives entirely in the real world, save for the one technological advancement that allows the plot to exist. Because of this, it's simple to suspend belief enough to ignore the implausibility of the memory-eraser and focus on the two characters we're presented. The story doesn't center on the technology but the real people affected by the technology. The best part about this is that we're never given some painstaking explanation for how Lacuna, Inc. is able to rid the mind of unwanted memories, we're just told that it's done and asked to accept it. The movie benefits from this, allowing Michel Gondry's fantastic imagery and Charlie Kaufman's wonderfully odd and human script to drive the story.
Back to the Future
Back to the Future has yet to be recreated in the 25 years since its release. You would think that some studio would've tried to take advantage of its simple concept. A teen-focused science fiction movie that tackles one of the most prominent science fiction tools: time travel. The truth is, the only dude who could probably pull something like this off is its creator himself, Robert Zemeckis but he's off making creepy animated movies instead. Back to the Future wins because it makes science fiction's most complicated, debatable, and impossible-to-understand concepts accessible. They do this by using a now iconic car, an undeniably likeable actor (Michael J. Fox), and simple rules like “if your parents don't get together, you won't exist anymore.” Doc Brown didn't go out of his way to explain time travel (things got a bit more complicated in the sequels). Instead, he put some shiny neon tubes behind the driver's seat and called it the flux capacitor and a digital clock to pick where in time you wanted to go. That's easy enough, right? Why can't all science fiction movies pull that off?
Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men does something beautiful: it builds an entirely new world set twenty years in the future without giving us the basic ten minute opening to explain everything to us. You know exactly what I'm talking about. It's usually a newscast or a bunch of headlines or sometimes a couple pages of dialogue spoken awkwardly by a main character. Instead Cuaron uses context clues, background shots, and subtlety to build his world, allowing his characters to act naturally within it. The touchscreen, clear computers in Theo's office aren't marveled at, the futuristic cars are beat up and used, and the fancy advertising campaigns are ignored. This allows a place where babies can't be born and the world's increasing panic causes paranoia and oppression to feel not only plausible but frightening in its implications.
Pixar does everything right. They pulled off a superhero movie with The Incredibles, a grown-up movie with Up, and a science fiction movie with Wall-E. Wall-E is particularly successful because it doesn't dumb down its message for its audience. While kids can catch the flick and enjoy the beautiful scenery and cute characters, adults can check it out and be amazed that a kids' movie with beeping robots and oblong-shaped human characters has so much to say about the world we live in. Wall-E makes elements of science fiction movies that are normally tired and boring feel fresh and soulful. The long shots of star-filled space as Wall-E floats around. The overly stylized contraptions and technology that have taken over the daily functions of humans. The evil robots that have gotten smarter than the ones that built them. These can all be found in many science fictions movies, yet they're somehow made new here.
Idiocracy has something weird going for it. In Mike Judge's seemingly absurdist vision of 2505, he is able to create a world that is so ridiculous, it kind of makes sense. Idiots do have more babies than smart people. Our culture does reward stupidity over intelligence. And you're damn right we prefer shitty language over that intellectual crap. In a way, Judge uses dick and fart jokes as a means of measuring the smarts of his audience. If you're laughing with these characters, you're part of the problem. If you're laughing at them, then why aren't you doing anything to stop stupid people from breeding?! The best science fiction doesn't tell us what will be wrong with the future but what is wrong with us right now. Science fiction can be a warning to the masses, and if Idiocracy is even close to right, we better start poking holes in the condoms of Nobel laureates.
The Truman Show
How do you choose an Andrew Niccol penned flick for a column like this? There's the beautiful Gattaca, the often ignored but surprisingly decent S1m0ne, and then there's the not-so-sci-fi-anymore The Truman Show. Before Lord of War, Niccol seemed destined to become the new sweetheart of science fiction but has now become simply a great writer and director. The Truman Show, directed by the great Peter Weir and written by Niccol, did so many spectacular things. It presented Jim Carrey in a new light, aside from his normal, sophomoric comedic antics. It commented on the world's obsession with celebrity and fame and the extent we're willing to push people for our own enjoyment. Most importantly, it set up a world where voyeurism had become a means of entertainment just years before reality television struck gold. The Truman Show didn't get it exactly right, but it's scary how close the flick got.
Sunshine is by far the most science fictiony of all the movies on this list, but it has the advantage of having Danny Boyle as its director. On the surface, this story has little to offer to the non-sci-fi fan. It's about a space crew traveling to the dying sun before everyone on Earth perishes. Along the way, they deal with lost ships, empty space, payloads, and all the goods that come with a science fiction movie. But Danny Boyle's film (well, the first two thirds anyway) finds solace in its quiet moments and moral questions. How do you decide to sacrifice someone you've spent years living with? Is one life worth the life of millions, even if its your own? Boyle knows how to make genre films that deviate just enough from their genres to make them interesting (see: 28 Days Later), and without the film's third act transition into a slasher flick, this could have been a classic. Instead, it's mostly a great entry into the science fiction genre from a guy who doesn't make science fiction movies. And that alone, is interesting.
There's nothing more universal than a good blow em up movie, and if there's anything Roland Emmerich knows how to do, it's blow shit up. The science fiction elements of Independence Day are interchangeable. Aliens could have been terrorists or even flying donkeys. And sometimes, that's what a science fiction movie needs to be, that is, terrible at its scientific elements, especially if it's one that wants to have mass appeal. We don't need a complicated explanation of where the aliens came from or how their spaceships work. We just need Will Smith smoking a cigar, punching aliens in the face and throwing out ridiculous one-liners. Independence Day made $300,000,000 domestically and not because it was a quality flick or because it had anything meaningful to say about society and culture. It made that much money because it's damn fun, science fiction movie or not.