The lackluster box office performance of Ad Astra was disappointing to me: I saw the movie, and although it may not have been perfect, it deserved much more attention and accolades than it has received. But then, the fan response to Ad Astra has been pretty typical of serious SF movies since… well, pretty much forever.
I wish I could say I was surprised that science fiction seems to get so little respect in American society. But I get it. Because despite SF’s incredible potential to teach, to reveal and to enlighten, the notable bulk of its fans seem to be interested almost exclusively in its more juvenile aspects.
If you examine the most popular science fiction movies over time, a clear trend emerges. SF fans have clear attitudes and preferences for what they like in their movies:
- The power fantasy desire to see problems solved with violence;
- The transplanting of our military industrial complex to space;
- The belief that all strangers are naturally dangerous;
- The idea that humanoid robots are destined to revolt and destroy us;
- The preference of phasers, lightsabers and bat’leths over sonic screwdrivers, tricorders and universal translators;
- The idea that, in a galaxy potentially full of alien races as intelligent as we presume to be, all of them must ultimately want to enslave and/or kill us and;
- The idea that humans have, and will never be dislodged from, the intellectual and moral high ground.
If you examine most of the so-called intelligent SF movies of the past that either did badly in the box office or took a while to become popular with audiences—movies like 2001, The Andromeda Strain, Solaris, Soylent Green, Contact, Moon, Arrival, Ex Machina, The Martian, Annihilation—it is clear that they bucked most of the above trends. In fact, even many badly-acted, poorly-produced sci-fi flicks that have followed the above trends have done much better than many of the much-better-produced serious SF movies of the past.
I realize this sounds like a rant against all “fun” science fiction movies, but really, it’s not; I can enjoy popcorn sci-fi as much as the next guy. It’s also not a reaction against/about the “Science Fiction Makes You Stupid” article in The Guardian that suggested, then refuted, a study that suggested SF was essentially low-brow entertainment. Science fiction can be, and often is, just harmless fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But I still find myself wishing that the stories I grew up to appreciate were better received and remembered more fondly than stories about killer robots, acid-blooded monsters, time travel shenanigans, superheroes and weird aliens being killed by exotic weapons.
Stories that show people in SF settings embracing new technologies and new people, moving human understanding and enrichment forward… discovering and learning things about themselves and others… seeing the error of approaching new problems with the same old solutions… realizing that there’s more to the universe than our own narrow viewpoint… those are the real meat and potatoes of science fiction. The stuff that encourages real thought and creative problem-solving, cooperation and advancement.
All the other stuff… that’s the burgers and sodas of sci-fi. It’s leftover Halloween candy, every day. It’s tasty, it’s fun… and it’s the main reason science fiction is thought of by the world as the junk-food of genres. And I think the sugar rush is affecting our collective vision and ruining our ability to think clearly. We’re no longer talking, we’re reacting… and more often with guns and fists than with hands and help. We’re becoming surly, testy, impatient and downright dim. We’re acting like tantrum-prone little kids who need to be put to bed.
Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I want more meat and potatoes from my science fiction diet. And everyone else should get that, too: This world needs stories that properly enrich our minds, so that when we have the inevitable square-peg-into-round-hole problems, we don’t try to solve them by nuking the holes.
Again… I’m not swearing off the candy, nor telling you you should, too. I am saying SF is much more than just candy. I am saying we need a more well-rounded diet of science fiction in order to be really healthy. Let’s break open the cookbooks and get busy.