Four Reasons I Love Science Fiction (as Experienced Through Prometheus)

I thought Prometheus was a heck of a movie. The review Paul posted yesterday accurately illustrates its occasional tendency to bite off more than it can chew, but I for one am just so happy that it got made in the first place that — for me — those complaints are pretty inconsequential.

Why? Because it’s a great example of why I love the sci-fi genre above any other. So I thought I’d write an article that went through the things that make me keep coming back to this genre, no matter what I find elsewhere.

And, for simplicity’s sake, I’m only talking about the good ones. But, here’s what the good ones allow us, the audience, to do…

Travel the world… and beyond.

Let’s go ahead and get the obvious one out of the way. Science Fiction is THE genre that explores new worlds. Whether it’s the coolly dangerous streets of Dark City, the arid desolation of our own satellite in Moon, or the inside of the human bloodstream in Fantastic Voyage, the settings in these stories are unique and compelling — often independently of the story that takes place in them. Even something as grounded as War of the Worlds shows us a different view of familiar places — a field covered in red alien vines, or a neighborhood destroyed by an errant airplane.

This aspect of Science Fiction is often classified as mere escapism. While that’s certainly part of it — who doesn’t just want to get away for two hours every now and then? — there’s much more to it than that. Humanity has always been looking for the new frontiers. We explore the depths of the oceans and the vacuum of space for science, but also because, well, “they’re there.” Sci-fi worldbuilders are doing the film equivalent of exploring a foreign wilderness, and as anybody who’s traveled will tell you, having new experiences is important in and of itself.

Gain a new context

It’s hard to see anything from another perspective. Novel ideas rarely get much consideration before getting filtered and sorted according to our preconceived notions. Having a productive discussion about something like the death penalty can be nearly impossible with all the baggage that entails. And when watching a film about hot-button issues, we’re unlikely to consider the issue on its own terms unless you can really show us something NEW.

Science Fiction, more than any other genre, allows us to see familiar ideas in a fresh context, so that the ideas themselves can come to the forefront. A movie like Splice reframes the potential dangers of experimental genetics. Minority Report makes us question the invasion of privacy via technology. Heck, even Jurassic Park makes you admit the logistical problem of seeing that particular fantasy lived out in the real world, if only for a few minutes before you get back to the fun of it all.

Prometheus was a great example of this. I’ve had more than one conversation since seeing it about some of the issues it raises — faith, sacrifice, our place in the universe — that genuinely felt like new conversations. Instead of having to draw on my own limited experience on earth, I could draw on my interpretation of events from across the galaxy. The ideas rose to the surface.

And on a more basic level, Science Fiction is really the only genre that allows us to deal with problems that haven’t come up yet, and particularly technology that hasn’t been perfected yet. If you want to talk about the ethics of artificial intelligence or the isolation of space travel, there’s nowhere else to go.

Come to terms with the human condition

If seeing ideas from a new perspective is difficult, seeing ourselves objectively as human beings is nearly impossible. Science Fiction is the genre that asks the big questions about our role as people, both on a scale small and cosmic.

Sometimes this involves pointing out our deepest fears. Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays with our fears of alienation; a movie like The Thing takes the threat of trust issues to an entirely different level. Where science fiction differs from traditional horror is the creeping suspicion that this could happen. Let Me In doesn’t feel plausible in the slightest, but if an extraterrestrial being got involved on earth or a spacecraft… who knows?

Another cool version of sci-fi horror is the self-inflicted kind. Halloween’s Michael Myers is just an escaped lunatic; he’s not under our control. Splice’s Dren, however, is the creation of the two main scientists. While Halloween is scary in an unearthly way, Splice feels eerily plausible.

Or take The Fly. The story is devastating, largely due to its speculative trappings. A struggle for identity in a movie like Citizen Kane can certainly be compelling, but all of us have met a megalomaniac. It’s too easy to think of Kane as “someone else.” But when that identity struggle involves a man slowly transforming into a giant insect, the audience is forced to confront something they haven’t seen before — and it’s much easier to put ourselves in his shoes. For me, the questions (and answers) posed in sci-fi stories tend to feel more universal than similar quandaries in other movies.

Contemplate what we don’t understand

All the other points in this article have been circling this one, which I consider to be the ultimate gift of sci-fi storytelling. Science Fiction allows us to tell stories about things we don’t understand yet.

I’ve heard it referred to as the most spiritual genre, which I think is absolutely true. Prometheus was a great example. This is a movie that essentially makes us think about what it would be like to meet our creator, and what that creator might think of us if we did. Another Ridley Scott thinkpiece, Blade Runner, asks us to find the definition of humanity itself. And in Contact, the presence of alien technology questions the validity of miracles.

This genre is also right at home with unanswerable philosophical conundrums. Whether it’s the nature of reality and perception in The Matrix, fate and free will in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, or the simple quandry of good and evil in Star Wars, the genre seems to lend itself to taking on bigger questions than other stories typically allow. And as I said, a lot of these questions are more or less unsolvable, yet Science Fiction grapples with them anyway.

That’s ultimately why I liked Prometheus. No, it doesn’t have all the answers, but it took the time to pose the questions. Science Fiction, the “what if” genre, has a responsibility to explore what other genres cannot.

Now, you’re on this site; you obviously invest in the genre to some extent. What is it about Science Fiction that keeps you coming back for more?

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  1. I think the thing that keeps me coming back to SF is the level of pure creation involved in every piece. I have read some really bad SF before (some of the Star Wars books are terrible). But for me, the better ones allow a freedom of creation and a level of artificial construction of imaginary worlds, places, people and peoples that make SF very different from other genres.

    For example, in general, most stories based in real life/modern day settings are relatively the same situations and people recombined in a different arrangement. To some extent this can be wildly different, like a kaliedoscope, but ultimately within limitations.

    SF, by comparison, is like shattering that restriction and adding new, purely imaginary elements to traditional humans, and normal stuff. It allows us to ask questions that cannot be asked in other genres, and I’m drawn to that because it offers something that cannot really be acheived in most other styles of writing/film.

    I just finished reading War of the Worlds, and I can really recommend the book H G Wells wrote, as it is one of the most interesting pieces of SF I have even encountered. His version of a “heat ray” is apparantly the first evident example in literature of energy weapons (it said it in the introduction of the book, feel free to disprove me). I find that fascinating.

  2. Groundhog Day and Source Code are not conventional time travel, but they deal with reliving a strand of time over and over, which I find fascinating. I strive for a perfect day, just like the ones in those movies, and the message in groundhog day has stuck with me my entire life. Source Code added more of a scifi twist, but i argue that fantasy movies, while not considered scifi, effectively teach the same lessons.

  3. IMO the secrete to making Sci-fi successful to the average viewer is to tricking them into not knowing that they are watching sci-fi. As the poster above me mentioned, Groundhog Day is a perfect example of this method.

    I find that even the television show “community” is sci-fi at it’s core.

    I’m sure there is more examples of this, just not in the mood to find them.


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