Are Sci-Fi Films are as Dead as Westerns?

Ridley Scott, famed director of not one, but two certifiable sci-fi hits (Alien and Blade Runner) said at the Venice Film Festival that science fiction films are riding off into the sunset:

“There’s nothing original. We’ve seen it all before. Been there. Done it,” he said. Asked to pick out examples, he said: “All of them. Yes, all of them.”

Strong words coming from the man who directed the most popular sci-fi film of all time. (Sigh.) He also says that no film can surpass Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Talking about Blade Runner, which sees life again on DVD as a “Final Cut” 25 years after its original release, Scott says there were “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

I put the question to our readers: Are sci-fi films dead?

18 thoughts on “Are Sci-Fi Films are as Dead as Westerns?”

  1. Only as dead as the imaginations of the writers, directors and producers. Some would take that as a sign that we may as well toss dirt in the grave, get drunk at the wake and go home. That being said, once in a while, there’s always some new talent that crawls out of the woodwork to inject a little vitality into cinematic sci-fi, if only for a moment. And sure enough, that stirs things up and we see a flurry of new screenplays and a bunch of adaptations of classic novels, short stories or comics – some few of which are worth while. Seems to me it wasn’t too long ago that The Prestige, The Fountain and Children of Men shone a bit of light on movie screens (and all within a few months of each other) amidst all the other dreck. There have been low points on the curve for sci-fi movies before, they will come again. Point is it generally picks up sooner or later.

    As to “we’ve seen it all before” – so what? People have been saying there’s nothing new under the sun for a long, long time. While we may ideally prefer something original, there’s nothing wrong with a remake as long as it’s done well. How many times has Shakespeare been redone on stage and screen? Some attempts have been better than others. There aren’t too many of us sci-fi geeks who object to the fact that Forbidden Planet is a remake of The Tempest. It’s a good flick. Let’s not dismiss the possibility that other films now or later won’t be worth seeing if they happen to be remakes.

  2. Somehow this reminds me of pre-Star Wars, with the emphasis these days on gory slasher flicks; and I think they have been somewhat displaced by more fantasy-esque films. But I would not discount SF films at all.

  3. The complaint and thought that SF films are dead is about as silly as the recently floated idea that SF novels are dying,too.

    The lack of originality in Hollywood goes far beyond the SF genre and its a symptom of Hollywood, not of SF.

  4. Mr. Scott’s example of the classic and unrepeatable Space Oddessy 2001, struck a chord. I had read the book years ago and when I saw the film advertised on a movie channel, I was eager to see it. However, when it came on, I was very disappointed. Slow-paced and dated, it was not the thriller I’d enjoyed on the written page.

    I agree that a well-made, fast-paced sci fi film will catch the viewers’ attention. The current crop of adventure films are like so many cookies lined up on the baking sheet. If TV scifi/fantasy is any indication, the media is glutted with gore and demonic fantasy, usually perpetrated on sexy innocents. Where are the Anne McCafreys and Andre Nortons to show us new worlds?

    The Mindsinger

  5. Probably it was just the way I read it, but I thought this line…

    Talking about Blade Runner, which sees life again on DVD as a “Final Cut” 25 years after its original release, Scott says there were “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

    …implied that Scott was talking about the Final Cut version. He was talking about the initial movie and the forced voice over track as a result of focus group testing.

    Scott also stated he felt that modern sci-fi films suffered from ‘an overreliance of special effects as well as weak storylines.’ He’s right about that to a large degree.

    However that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make an entertaining sci-fi film just like it isn’t impossible to make an entertaining western (another genre declared dead). Entertainment is the key word here. I don’t care that Independence Day had some oddities in its science (do we really think a human could create an computer virus that could attack an alien computer system in only a few hours?) The film was entertaining.

  6. Spoken like a man who hasn’t seen much recent science fiction. Yes, no one has repeated Kubrick’s “2001” — but who would want to? The film is brilliant at what it does well (while arguably slow and tedious at what it doesn’t), but the fact is, it’s been done. I think there’s plenty of very good science fiction being made today. Yes, there’s lots of lousy stuff out there, too, but that was ever the case.

    Even the “dead as westerns” premise doesn’t hold water — if only because of things like “Unforgiven” and “Deadwood.” Every time somebody says this or that genre is dead, they’re usually wrong or soon to be proven wrong.

  7. Things happen in cycles. I hope the next good sci-fi cycle is soon! As for westerns – I am curious to see if 3:10 to Yuma will revive the genre.

  8. I kind of agree with Ian,

    Just some hurried rambling thoughts here but I think SF today is where it was before Star Wars 1977 came out. Also the horror genre in films seems to be taking over the small and big screens, since there isn’t anything in the fantasy film genre other then Harry Potter and LOTR. I liked Zelda that was going in the right direction. Lots of fantasy in print. As if that wasn’t enough. I’m surprised HP/LOTR hasn’t opened up the flood gates for fantasy on TV like Star Wars 1977 did for Sci fi after Star Wars 1977. Lots of fantasy in print and in games though. Space(sci fi channel) has a lot of horror in it since anything Fantasy these days is relgated to FRPG’s and print. The vast numbers of players playing games like EverQuest or World of Warcraft and with the success of HP and LOTR you’d think Hollywood would be cranking out the fantasy genre on TV. So far there’s little evidence that Hollywood is even considering the fantasy genre. Hollywood is too wrapped up in television shows like House, makeovers and dramas catering to the mainstream. I don’t watch Hero’s or anything sf’ish because I’m not home when these shows are on and we don’t have Tivo here in Canada. But what shows I’ve seen look interesting. We need more HP/LOTR type shows for television. HP/LOTR type fantasy for television is the great untapped resource in the SFF genre.

    Anyone have any thoughts on this?

    Jim

  9. We can blame the writers, directors, and producers all we want to, but the hard truth is that the Scifi movie never was common or popular. Science Fiction is a limiting and limited genre for anyone to try to write in, causing most writers to Technofantasy or Science fantasy like I do so they will be able to use their imagination. This has given us the popular films: Star Wars and The Matrix.

    Science Fiction is fiction where the science is rooted in known physics and necessary for the plot. It is hard to write anything that fits in those constraints.

    With the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still in the works, there is a hope for Science Fiction Films, but it will probably be turned into a suspense fugitive film, so not much hope there.

    Is Scifi Film dead? It always has been.

  10. “Science Fiction is a limiting and limited genre for anyone to try to write in”

    Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Gene Roddenberry would take issue with that statement.

  11. Personally, I would prefer SF films to be dead like westerns. My parents loved westerns and I have seen way to many to count. They started to become formula, and if you had seen one – you pretty much could predict how the next would play out. Now in recent years, there have been new western movies made (3:10 to Yuma is only the most recent rendition), and these are fantastic films that really break the mold of these older films. If this is the way SF movies go, then is it truly a bad thing?

    Also, I question why anybody would want the saturation that horror/slash films currently have in the market. Most are crap and we all recognize that, but do you really want that same level for SF films? I think that a couple really good movies a year are more than enough for the genre to succeed.

  12. If you read their essays on Scifi writing, they agree with me. Ray Bradbury and Gene Roddenberry favored use of imagination over science for the sake of a good story, and both created more soft science fiction and science fantasy than hard science fiction.

  13. Sci-Fi is only dead to those who are scientifically challenged and lacking in imagination… sorry but Ridley just placed himself in that camp. This is a shame since I still consider him my favorite director.

    Sure, there is a pile of crap labeled sci-fi- but 90% of everything is crap. A lot of the stuff passing for science fiction is simply fantasy in disguise or a sci-fi wrapper around a current “big problem” in an attempt to sell it as intellectual.

    Science fiction is the only important form of fiction that we have. Historical fiction is simply reminiscing about glory days, contemporary fiction amounts to not much more than shallow navel gazing, fantasy and horror are pure entertainment with little pretension to anything more. While they all can entertain us… that is about the extent of it. Anything important in the other genres can be done inside of science fiction… nothing important in science fiction can be done in any other genre.

    Science fiction warns us, informs us, challenges us and helps us plan for what will be coming out of the worlds R&D labs. The human race may well live or die based on how we tackle what science will bring us in the next fifty years – science fiction, done right, may be considered our fist line of defense against the future gone wrong. It can also help guide us towards a future gone right.

    “There is nothing original.”? Mr. Scott, you couldn’t be much more wrong.

    Jim Shannon – I’ve written a pilot for a fantasy series but it has been moved to the back burner while I try to pitch a hard science fiction drama for television. I agree that television would be a great place for a really well done fantasy series… as far from Xena and Hercules as you can get. The best way to describe what I was aiming for with my pilot is a combination of the fantasy elements of LOTR and the gritty reality of the HBO series Rome- with the heroes journey built around a boy dragged into imperial intrigue very much against his will.

    Eric – “Science Fiction is a limiting and limited genre for anyone to try to write in,” – You sound like you’re right there with Ridley in the scientifically-challenged-and-lacking-in-imagination camp. While fantasy can be seen as liberating, it is far more often a crutch for ignorance and laziness. Even a cursory knowledge of where scientific inquiry is taking us opens a vast panoply of possibilities right up to the Technological Singularity where it surpasses what we are capable of imaging.

    It isn’t that I have anything against fantasy, I’d love to do a good fantasy series and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the best television series ever to air while Firefly had the potential to be even better… and Joss Whedon seems painfully uneducated in the sciences.

    What I want is a modern day Robert Heinlein who can do hard science with a great story… that’s what I’m aiming at and if I even make it half way there I’ll be happy.

    One of the biggest problems getting hard science fiction onto the big or little screen is the painfully under educated people running the film and television industry. I am pitching a hard science fiction series right now… you wouldn’t believe how little knowledge the majority of the people working in the industry have! They know story, they know cinema, they know budgets, they know television… they are scientifically illiterate about how the universe actually functions! That said, there are some who understand what I am saying and for the others, I’m making sure that the story is exciting and not so dependent on prior knowledge about anything outside the liberal arts.

  14. I’m glad to see some largely thoughtful debate on this subject, and largely agree with what Clint Johnson had to say as it is very obviously the voice of experience rather than speculation speaking. That, and the fact that my own experience and knowledge of Hollywood matches what he says, as well as an ongoing assessment of what’s being published, and the larger context of socio-political agenda (see FreeDocumentaries.org‘s Operation Hollywood, Merchants of Cool, and Manufacturing Consent documentaries, among others) to realize just how intimate the political, military and media industries are. Hollywood is a propaganda machine much better at population control and distraction than Rome ever was. It is very effective at making people dumb. And when it does this effectively you get increasingly dumb tv, and movies, etc.

    I do not however agree “that science fiction is the only important form of fiction.” All styles and genres are important, and diversity of form and communication is one of the things that imagination requires.

    Author, Sir Ken Robinson’s lecture at TED on “Do schools kill creativity?” (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/66) pretty much states that yes, they do, and that they have been killing it since the industrialists (the manufacturers of deathstyle sillivization) set the hierarchy of importance for education at the beginning of the industrial age. So, for that long, the educational system has been busy marginalizing, stultifying and eradicating imagination – it makes populations easier to control, and if one finds that hard to imagine, then I rest my case. “We get educated out of creativity” is one of Sir Ken’s conclusions.

    When you want workers and not thinkers marginalizing creativity and imagination and the arts is but one of the ways one can shape society.

    Ever looked for artistic professions on a drop-down menu? Very hard to find the profession of Poet, Writer, Storyteller, Songwriter, Photographic Artist, etc. That’s discrimination by exclusion folks. And because it’s all you know, you accept it as “the way things are” which once again, makes the lack of imagination, real.

    Here and there, if one is able to look beyond the remote and “clear” channel among others one will find enclaves of creative imagination at work. Belandir.com is an example of a fantasy world building collective of no little talent, and there are many imaginative writers there. Quite frankly, they’re not permitted to be anything else other than imaginative, designing a system to liberate imagination is a challenge, and now an accomplishment.

    But take these notions of marginalization of creativity and imagination to their logical conclusion and you realize that the situation of lack of imaginative new creative work is the outcome, and that people (who have not yet succumbed) will say “Where is the good stuff?” Well, the more one is educated away from really being able to use one’s intellect the less capable one is of producing original intellectual work. Scarcity is the result, along with a host of other, rather horrifying, outcomes.

    This also begins to provide some answers to a lot of other questions about why society so often seems more intent on eradicating artists (starvation anybody?) than supporting them. So if you want a better world, one that truly is capable of sustainable living, reverse this 200 years of nonsense and support more independent publications and artists. Stop accepting, start questioning. Find real answers.

    “The daze of bait-and-switch and bullshit are over. This is the 21st Century. Apple pie will kill you.” – Enn

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