Six Damn Fine Degrees #68: The trouble with Sci-Fi

To quote Harrison Ford: it took me a long, long, long, long, LONG time to warm up to sci-fi.

You travel through space and time and end up with what is supposed to be an exciting new planet with an unknown species – played by clearly human actors standing around in what looks like – oh, I dunno, the Moroccan desert? Yes, I know, there is a limit to every budget, but sci-fi has such promise to dazzle me with something I have never ever seen before, only to disappoint me with the constraints of movie-making and its financial limits. If you want me to follow you to a place where no man has gone before, make sure the make-up department isn’t already there before us, setting up their trailer. Needless to say, I was never a Trekkie and never understood the exuberance of the operatic derring-do of something like Star Wars. To me, A New Hope looked like fun, but it was essentially a western set in space. It was all too familiar because most things and places and beings looked… too close to home. Not strange enough.

There was the welcome, standalone exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that does not concern itself with the looks of an alien race because there isn’t any. There is just an unknowable force, unseen, unnamed, unacknowledged, toying with the tiny human protagonists for aeons. Yes, here was a puzzle that I couldn’t solve because precious little in Kubrick’s movie has anything to do with humanity.

It’s also what bugs me about shows like X-Files. Why do aliens look like little green men? Or grey ones? They look like child actors in costumes, which is essentially what they are. In its essence, and for all its great moments, X-Files is really rather a conservative show catering to all those UFO sightings of the last half-century. I very much prefer something like the Drej in Titan A.E., an alien race made up of technology and energy, in a shimmering blue that hurt my human eyes so much that I thought that this might be what it feels like to be blind. It’s not a great movie, but someone thought up those E.B.E.s and ran with it.

Does an extraterrestrial race even need a graphic representation at all? We’ve been inconvenienced, constrained, frightened and killed those last two years by something we can’t even see, but is all around us and very much part of the biological plan on our little blue sphere that stubbornly insists on hurtling through space. Seen from that angle, it’s preposterous to give aliens any number of legs.

So maybe this is the partial solution to my problem: go all out – don’t make aliens look like anything ever seen before. Make them strange, make them unfathomable, if only because that is what they are. (I know that this is harder to pull off on screen than in literature because movies and TV series are mercilessly graphic.) Turn that strange planetoid into something barely resembling something that even the most outrageously fantastic race could call home, and I’m interested.

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