Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Orange County Screenwriters Association


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Passengers is Great Science Fiction - Even Without Aliens

 passengers 1For years I've been railing against the general perception of science fiction in Hollywood.  Without spaceships, aliens and laser beams it isn't scifi, the consensus thinking goes.  As a lifetime reader and 20+ year writer of scifi I know better. 

I've been the victim of pseudo scifi thinking from producers and film execs.  Two or three of my films and/or scripts have fallen to the thinking that something "alienish" has to happen to grab and entrance people.  "How about a shapeshifter character?"  "We need more alienish shit, Mark." "Three more heads need to explode." This in a film where no heads exploded.  "But it's not sicifi - it's horror!" Uh...

A cure for wellness movie release date 330x246Now don't get me wrong - I'm all for "alienish shit" or gore happening.  I write that a lot.  The issue is that it doesn't have to happen in every film that can be or is considered science fiction.

As true scifi fans know the genre runs the gamut both in film and books.  The key to scifi isn't the players as much as the themes.  Science fiction is an extrapolation of worlds past, present and future or worlds that have never existed.  It is anything and everything any other book or film is - romance, pain, longing, nationalism, etc. - and more since it takes those very literary themes and pulls them into directions never before imagined.

In a way, using a broad definition, "30 Rock" is scifi since the world that genius Tina Fey has created is so out of norm that it's another dimension.  Not really but my point is the definitions are wrong if all anyone is thinking is that "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" are representative of the genre.

J.G. Ballard's "Crash" or Ursula Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness" are scifi - one has been made into a film the other not yet.  They don't exactly fit the mold of what most people think of as being scifi.  Ellison, Niven, Asmiov, Brunner - the giants of the genre have written challenging books (some into movies and TV) that can only be considered scifi and yet what Hollywood consistently pulls into the mainstream is the most - actually least - challenging of the genre.

"Star Trek" (the original) was probably the most comprehensive science fiction series.  It's widely reported that the original series was "Wagon Train" inimuddhd0333 outer space.  Roddenberry may have said that but he actually saw it differently.  The first interracial kiss on television was Kirk and Uhura.  Episodes showed a Frank Gorshin character who was black on the left side of his body, white on the right and the man he most hated was reversed.  Enterprise crew couldn't figure out why they hated each other since they were almost exactly the same.

Passion, greed, anger, ugly in many forms stalked the halls of the Starship Enterprise because Roddenberry knew what he wanted to do with his series - he wanted to write about themes he couldn't do if a series was placed on Earth.  Themes. not aliens!  So he took his writerly skills into space to do what had been done so masterfully before (and after him) - extrapolate those societal themes by creating new worlds where they could reasonably be explored.

Remember the intergalactic pimp, "I, Mudd?"  The women were enhanced by pills that turned a plain bird into a peacock.  The women were enhanced far beyond their natural state.  What is makeup and plastic surgery if not that?  Lesson for the episode: we make people beautiful by enhancing them with our appreciation because beauty is only "skin deep" and does not last.   Not a laser beam to be found.

Over and over again, Roddenberry and his crew explored not so much "strange worlds and new civilizations" but rather the all too human failings of the crew.  The show imagined a future where we sought out our place in the 6e0188ab18f581ccf7e12c148b4b2390Universe and where war was anathema; violence used only as a last resort.  Kirk's future society disdained nation building.  They stayed out of people's cultures  Much of "Star Trek" (and the series that came after) reflected not aliens and phasers but the way we carried our foibles and failings with us into outer space.  These concepts are not "alien" concepts - they're human.  They're us warts and all but we just also happen to be warping between galaxies.

Now I"m not really saying anything new here.  I'm sure any number of people have pointed a lot of this out in other forums.  The point of this is that "Passengers" was roundly booed by the critics.  Many pointed out that it was basically a "stalker film in outer space."  "A light-hearted romance with terrible underpinnings."  "A story that implies "bigness" but delivers small."

And, your point?

science fictionIsn't this what science fiction is?  All those criticisms are true in one form or another.  But that's exactly the point.  Would this story have worked better in NYC in present day?  Actually, you couldn't even do this story in any other setting but a generation ship on a 130 year voyage because of the persistent and relentless isolation of Chris Pratt's character.  Imagine if you were the Pratt character faced with a lifetime of isolation with just a robot bartender for your companion?  Imagine having thousands of people within arm's reach and not being able to talk to any of them.  A communication back to Earth, round trip, would take 57 years.  You're alone and likely to die that way.  Wow.  I cannot fathom it.  But Jon Spaihts did - brilliantly in my opinion.

The whole point of the effing movie is that we, as pack animals, will do desperate, horrible things not to be alone.  And yet, we can be redeemed by our actions. That what Spaihts showed.  I just don't get how the critics weren't terribly moved by Pratt's desperately flawed character.  How you couldn't imagine Jennifer Lawrence's horror and despair.  My god this film kicked me in the nads over and over again as I stalked the corridors of this massive spaceship and watched little robots scurrying about doing mindless work but at least with purpose.  Something that both characters had to discover.

But that's just me.

hugo award e1378143764707Sicience fiction allows explorations that other genres don't.  And if you're watching a film that takes place in a world that doesn't exist, even if it doesn't have future tech or aliens - that's science fiction.  Because scifi isn't, as I've expressed, about the flashy, outer stuff - it's about the dark, cold, ugly inner stuff and rising above or falling under those inner themes.

I see hope in television which is putting on more and more thematically-based science fiction since production costs are a consideration.  This is great news for fanboys like me who love to explore both the inner and outer worlds; to stand on the deck of a starship and regret leaving friends and family to explore space.  I want the total immersion and it's my opinion that people do too.  It's one of the reasons I became a writer and the main reason I remain a fan of scifi.

Until you can consistently find that those immersions, there's so much great scifi out in books.  Read!  You have all the masters who defined the genre in the early and middle parts of the last century like Bradbury, McCaffrey, Brunner and scores of others, and the ones who have continued like Gaiman, Leckie, Stephenson, and on and on.

Explore those strange new worlds and civilizations - both inside you and outside you.

And watch "Passengers" when it comes to streaming.  It's a beautiful and painful science fiction story - but no aliens.  Sorry.