The Two Ways Science Fiction Is Slowly Destroying Itself

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Science fiction is in trouble and it’s not a lack of presence. Science fiction fans complain endlessly about the lack of sci-fi on television, but the truth is that there’s plenty of science fiction on television. There’s plenty of science fiction everywhere. It’s just the wrong kind.

Here’s a list of the science fiction movies being released through the rest of this year. See if you can spot a pattern…

Men in Black III
Chernobyl Diaries
Piranha 3DD
Safety Not Guaranteed
Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
Total Recall
Resident Evil: Retribution

Did you catch it? Here’s the answer key…

Battleship: humanity doomed by alien attack
Men in Black III: time travel
Chernobyl Diaries: humans doomed by science run amok
Piranha 3DD: humans doomed by angry prehistoric fish
Prometheus: strange and dangerous discoveries on an alien planet.
Safety Not Guaranteed: time travel
Seeking A friend For The End Of The World: humanity doomed to a post-apocalyptic future
Total Recall: mind manipulation in a dystopian future
Resident Evil: Retribution: humanity in a doomed future full of zombies
Dredd: humanity doomed to a dystopian future
Looper: time travel

See the pattern? All of those movies, except for Prometheus, fit into one of two categories: Time travel or doomed, post-apocalyptic, dystopian future. Why should you care? Here’s the thing…

Time Travel Is Just An Excuse

Time Travel used to be the most surefire of science fiction premises. It gave us brilliant movies like Back to the Future, The Terminator, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Things started going south when Hollywood noticed how much money those time travel movies were making and wrongly assumed it was because of time travel, not great writing and directing. So they began working to insert time travel into all manner of ill-fitting vehicles, but that’s not what really killed it. Things really went wrong when time travel stopped being an actual premise and became more of an excuse.

At some point Hollywood had overused time travel so much that audiences became accustomed to it, so accustomed to it in fact, that they began to accept it shoehorned in just about anywhere. These days time travel isn’t actually used so much as an exciting science fiction premise but as an excuse for Hollywood to remake movies as a way to cash-in on their name recognition.

Time travel is now largely responsible for the destruction of the Star Trek franchise. The franchise’s last television series overused it until it lost all meaning and drove fans away. After a break they’ve managed to bring Star Trek back, but only by using time travel as an excuse to recast recognizable characters with hot, young actors. And Hollywood will keep using time travel to ruin existing franchises. They’ll keep changing the timeline in the Terminator universe as long as the name sells tickets. And now they’ve started using time travel as a way to sell decidedly not science fiction based films to people who wouldn’t normally be interested. Did we really need The Time Traveler’s Wife? I loved Hot Tub Time Machine as much as the next guy, but how many more of these time traveling mashups can we actually stand?

Time travel used to be great but thanks to overuse and misuse it’s become a tired, worn out cliché. It’s a crutch lazy writers use to tie up loose ends. It’s a way to save money on production by shooting on leftover wild west sets. It’s killing franchises and tricking men into seeing romantic comedies. Time travel is not going to get any better than it was in Back to the Future. Maybe Doctor Who gets a pass since he predates the cliché, but unless you’re telling a story about a character who flies around in a blue police box, just stop it. Time travel has become an excuse, not a premise. Enough.

Humanity Is Doomed Or Self-Loathing In America

There hasn’t been a single space opera on television since the early cancellation of Stargate Universe, but your boob tube currently plays host to no fewer than three series set in a post-apocalyptic future (Falling Skies, The Walking Dead, and soon to arrive Revolution) with even more on the way. Even Terra Nova, which was recently cancelled, used a dystopian future in which humanity was doomed as a catalyst for its time travel story. The offerings in movie theaters are much the same; every other science fiction premise seems to involve telling the story of a future where Earth is doomed or society is repressed and everyone has to struggle to survive or be free. It’s no accident that the most popular sci-fi movie of the year so far is The Hunger Games, which tells the story of a future where humanity is fractured and forces its children to murder each other for sport. Things are no better in the world of literature where this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award winner, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, is about a future where our pregnant women all end up dead. Post-apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction sells, but its usefulness is rapidly wearing thin.

The “we’re all doomed” premise used to be edgy and insightful, but now it’s become so overused that it’s no longer interesting, it’s a cliché. It’s evidence that science fiction is stuck in a rut. This sub-genre’s popularity is more a commentary on the depressed and hopeless modern day mental state of most American entertainment consumers than an actual window into what people want to see. Our insistence on assuming that humanity’s future is doomed is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. That dismal outlook does nothing to inspire anyone to greater heights or really do anything to fire the imagination beyond, say, thinking up new ways to fortify the fallout shelter you’re digging in the backyard.

In 1976 NASA named its first space shuttle “Enterprise” after the starship featured in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, a show which inspired many of its scientists to reach for greater heights. It’s unlikely that any future advancement will be named after anything in The Walking Dead.

Whether it’s alien or zombies or angry prehistoric fish attacks, asteroid fall out, freak power failures, mad science run amok, or just a run of really bad voting from an under-educated electorate… we get it. If society collapses and things go post-apocalyptic, life will be hard. If the future ends up all dystopian things won’t be very nice. There’s not really anywhere else to go with it.

Predicting the end of the world is easy. What happens, though, if the Earth keeps right on turning? The possibilities of a future in which we don’t kill ourselves or force our kids to become gladiators are as endless as they are endlessly exciting. Maybe it’s time science fiction went back to exploring them instead of using time travel to avoid innovation or giving up and predicting our doom. We can do better.


  1. Lena V says:

    You got something right there. While dystopian futures make for pretty powerful stories, the whole doom scenario is seriously being overused. Some of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time have tinges of dystopia in their plotline, but they do not let it morph the film into a one liner. They are symphonies of beauty and complexity, part human struggle, part psychological drama, and part special effects, and part transgressing and questioning known scientific boundaries. Think 2001 Space Odyssey, THX 1138, The original Alien Franchise (first two actually), Minority Report, Total Recall (anything based on Philip K Dick’s work), Brazil, 12 Monkeys, City of Lost Children, Metropolis, Solaris, Sunshine, Gattaca, Bladerunner, Star Wars: A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Planet of the Apes, Clockwork Orange, Mad Max, Moon (Highly underrated)….but these recent (of the past three or so year) films are just so formulaic…like most other genres of entertainment, it’s more about appealing to the masses as opposed to making something of substance. Do I agree with the above…sort of…maybe if directors stopped trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator or moviegoers who are willing to shake a dollar at anything with 3D animation sequences and explosions, they’ll come back to their senses.

  2. Doc says:

    The simplest solution is to look at the huge body of works out there from such prolific writers as Asimov and Heinlein. The Caves of Steel stories could inspire amazing films, and imagine how huge films like Heinlein’s Friday or even Stranger in a Strange Land could be. This is of course as long as they avoid the pitfalls shown to us by films like I, Robot, and go more the route of Bicentennial Man (which I still have nits to pick *cough*novella-turned-3-hour-movie*cough*).

    As overused and cliched as time travel and post-apocalyptic premises are, they do serve a purpose, and if the writing alone were better, a lot of these arguments wouldn’t be as valid as they are. I’m not a fan at all of Walking Dead, but it’s for the simple fact that the story did not engage me at all, and the actors weren’t to blame, nor is it the zombified future’s fault. And honestly, the alternate-reality of the new Star Trek series is done amazingly. Time-travel is simply the onus that allows us a glimpse into some of the most iconic characters’ potential events that were impossible at the time of their relevance in media. The simple fact that the writing is spot-on and the actors nail their roles gives the new Star Trek its punch. I think you’re terribly wrong for including it in the list of problem features.

    All in all, the concepts of time-travel and a post-apocalyptic future are both incredible tools that can be used to spark the imagination. The pitfall here, though, is in how realistic the story must be. You need to resonate with something on-screen to be engaged and really enjoy it, but it doesn’t need to slap you in the face with the possibility of this very thing happening. Do we honestly believe anymore that computers will suddenly gain sentience and take over the world through nuclear hellfire? No. Does it still serve as a cautionary tale that just because we CAN make something we SHOULD make something? Yes.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t consider some of those quick-fire generalizations accurate at all. Is Dredd a dystopian future? No. Is humanity doomed in it? Not at all. It’s simply an evolution of the human condition and how it’s handled. Star Trek, as I said above, uses time-travel not as an excuse, but as a catalyst.

    The problem itself is Hollywood, not the premises onto which they latch. The film industry is just that. A business. They’re in it to make money. They will keep producing crap as long as people keep going to see crap. Crap is cheap and easy to pump out. Startlingly amazing films are not easy or cheap. If we stop going to see the movies that so many complain about, then they’d stop making them (eventually).

  3. Jon Melius says:

    Enders Game movie gives me much hope for the Sci Fi genre if they do it right.

  4. squigeon says:

    PROMETHEUS is about preventing doomed humanity, so that means its the same as the rest. Also most of them are prequels sequels or re-makes thats what the problem is, lazy directors, writers and producers more worried about money than creating something original

  5. kwak says:

    okay, we can’t call our shuttle “enterprise”
    how about “nomandy”?

  6. GotChewZ says:

    Looper was a great example, that time travel movies can still be awesome.

    Dredd was awesome too. So much better than Judge Dredd. It’s one of the most overlooked and underrated movies of 2012.

  7. Joah, please kill yourself. You are part of the problem.

  8. Massively agree. Good analysis. Ready for something sci-fi that is actually COOL and interesting for a change.

  9. I don’t think Hollywood has ever gotten over the success of The Road Warrior. I movie that only works because its limited budget forced tight scripting around restrained set design and locations. The film stays on track because its world is strictly limited by the interaction of the characters.

    Film makers love fleshing out an apocalyptic world because it is fun to get the audience to identify with a familiar ruined landscape.

    Hollywood forgets the symbolic nature of honest speculation.

    A detailed ruined world is more realistic and easier to relate too? WRONG.

    Who really knows what a ruined world would look like? We only know about localised disaster zones. In a dead world there is no unharmed area from which help can arrive.

    A ruined New York is just disaster porn. A wrecked statue of liberty on its own is a far more effective dramatic device. Hitchcok’s opening door writ large.

    Throwing a lot of money at epic post apocalyptic films has ALWAYS dilutes the story. Modern post apocalyptic films meander aimlessly over ruined landscapes that have no symbolic tension. They also destroy credibility.

    People simply cannot survive in endless deserts without food and water, no matter how fantastic their fighting skills are.

  10. Hellgramite says:

    So many people can’t see the main problem. The problem with these thing is that all too often the writer is merely using a fantastic setting for a DRAMA. Remove the sci-fi trappings and if you still have a movie, then it’s not sci fi, it’s a drama with some “fantastic elements thrown in to draw an audience of geeks and nerds”. The Walking Dead is a PRIME example. It’s a survival story – a drama about people surviving an apocolypse. OLD OLD OLD. In the beginning it wasn’t, but that’s all it is now. LAZY writers use comfortable plot line and hang them on a sci-fi rigging and BAM, they just wrote Sci Fi. NO NO NO NO NO ….. now we have night time soap operas with an element of sci fi or horror to keep us interested, and it’s BS. The audience by and large is not intelligent enough to support real science fiction. Look at Dr Who – hard core fans, it can’t exist without science fiction elements, and it’s despised by soooooo many in the US. The US audience simply can not handle real science fiction. We are a stupid people who become angry easily when confronted with something that challenges the intellect in new and different ways – so the “popular” crap is nothing but warm, fuzzy dramas with a sci-fi seasoning thrown on top. And the stupid train continues to run and even seems to be picking up speed.

  11. Guy Caballero says:

    Very True.. but I agree as well that a lot of the writing and acting is very poorly done. Also this is yet another phase/ “flavor of the month” of zombie-post apocalyptic Doomed time travel genre— we just have to wait it out with a few compelling and original stories in the mix until an original new premisecomes along (a la Star Wars 1977, Alien 1979, Blade Runner 1982). Plus remember you are dealing with Hollywood which is famous for being trite, unoriginal, and only in it for the money. There are probably 100’s of great stories and new genres sitting in the studios basement–simply because they do not have the guts or forsight to make them.

  12. John says:

    Isn’t walking dead more survival horror then sci-fi?

  13. Jim Bob says:

    I for one am tired of all the the end of the world “doomsday” settings. Stories need to be made much simpler and about fewer characters. That way there is plenty of room to completely realize the sci-fi setting that the story is set in, and to flesh out the character adequately enough for the audience to actually care about them.

  14. Three words: POOR STORY CHOICES.

  15. John Timothy Pepper says:

    OK, I will agree whole heartedly where you’re coming from. But you’re preaching to the choir. There is good Sci-Fy still out there but it’s the shock awe that the movie companies are trying to sell. You need to tell the studios and the writers themselves. True, a lot of sci-fy writers have lost their way. But they write what they think what you want. Real Sci-fy is about life not death. If you notice in all the movie remakes; Everyone has to die instead of just enough to establish the story like in the original. Everyone involved has forgotten that WE are suppose to win not THEM. And, we are suppose to win over insurmountable odds with a hope of an acceptable future. There has got to be something in the future to look forward to besides a post Armageddon world ridden with blood splattered scenario’s.

  16. dosmastr says:

    Doom doom doom doom doom,
    doom doom do DOOM,
    DOOOM doom do-doom,
    DOOM do-doom doom doooom,
    doom doom dooom, do-do-DOOOM!

    [| From: http://www.elyrics.net |]
    (6 months later)

    Doom doom doo doom doom,
    doom do do DOOM,
    Do do DOOM,
    Doom doom doom THE END
    Lyrics from eLyrics.net

  17. dosmastr says:

    in other news, noah is right, you couldn’t do a star trek the next generation today… its too “bubbly and clowie and happy” (yeah thats a ds9 reference sue me) people saw that as something we could and should aspire to in the 80’s and 90’s… today we know that more likely than not, we will destroy this planet to some degree or another, that corporations are the true rulers, and that things are getting worse, not better.

  18. John says:

    The biggest problem is neither of those two things.
    It’s that the majority of films in that list were either part of a series (prequel or sequel) or remakes.
    A few better ideas and a few less effects? A film, built to that formula, would be far more memorable than those listed above.

  19. Steven Roberts says:

    I’d say American sci-fi is in trouble. With anime I’m getting sci-fi of alien princess landing on Earth and crazy hijinks, massive fleets of ships battleing it out, and armies of giant robots at war. It’s good to be an anime fan.

  20. Denice Laws says:

    Thank GOD I’m not the only one. Can we please, please, PLEASE have a new Star Trek series now????????

  21. I agree, dystopian futures aren’t the problem, it is poor writing or attempting to make every lead character have a happy ending by finding their lover.

    There really isn’t any bad plot, only bad writing to get to the plot. You can have the star crossed lovers who fight the world to be together… But you need to have good writing to make it work and not become whinny.

    You can have characters who send a good moral message, if you don’t try and make them perfect or change too quickly. Take starwars IV, V and VI for example.

    Han had a conscious and quit the Empire, but he still had to pay the bills and to do that, he had to become a criminal. When he joined the alliance, he didn’t magically become the good guy he was in return of the jedi, he transitioned into the good guy he became.

    I think too many books and movies try and force the change too quickly. Namely the redemption of a character too quickly and as a result we get poor writing, because the writer isn’t able to wait… They lack the patience to get their beloved characters to the place the writer desires them to be.

    This is likely why most of my book ideas turn into series spanning 3-4 books or span a number of years for the character to change who they are with small nudges rather than one great big bump.

  22. patrick zazzaro says:

    could someone please explain to me how piranha 3dd is a science fiction movie ?
    (i would also argue that “seeking a friend for the end of the world” is in no way a science fiction either)

  23. Neoflux says:

    ‘They’ll keep changing the timeline in the Terminator universe as long as the name sells tickets.’

    When was Terminator not about time travel and changing the timeline in an attempt to stop a dystopic future? If you take those things away form the Terminator series what are you left with?

  24. Mike Frett says:

    Most of those, like Piranha and Resident Evil are Horror movies, not Sci-Fi. Time Travel is just a poor excuse for lack of creativity in some Movies and TV Shows; very few do it right. Sliders, Stargate and Firefly are real Sci-Fi and that is what we have a lack of.