Why sci-fi can be more powerful than reality-based dramas

Aside from offering imaginative visions of alternate worlds, sci-fi can often provide more emotional resonance than realistic dramas, Ryan writes…

For some, science fiction offers little more than breezy escapism, a retreat from the real world and into an alternate dimension of rip-roaring space opera, such as Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. It’s a function sci-fi served before the genre even acquired its name; Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and From The Earth To The Moon, for example, offered imaginative, humorous adventure to readers of the 19th century, and they’re still widely read and adapted today.

It’s often the case, however, that the sci-fi genre can deal with weighty issues in a more powerful and intelligent manner than realistic drama.

Had HG Wells written a realist novel dealing with the cruelty of the British Empire under the reign of Queen Victoria, it’s likely that few would have read it. Instead, Wells wrote The War Of The Worlds, an 1898 novel that not only served as an exciting, breathtakingly harsh account of aliens invading Victorian Britain, but also as a launch pad for the author’s anti-expansionist views. A powerful nation is attacked by intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, a satisfying reversal of the inhumane treatment the country visited on its conquered lands in the Empire.

Science fiction has always tried to make sense of contemporary, real-world fears through imaginative means. In so doing, writers of sci-fi novels, television shows and movies often explore weighty issues in a way that is palatable and often exhilarating.

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The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ novel about youngsters fighting in a futuristic televised sport, isn’t the finest piece of dystopian fiction ever written, but the themes it explores aren’t necessarily ones a teenage audience would rush to Waterstone’s to purchase. A brisk adventure at heart, the book briefly touches on the themes of state control through media, and the strange sensation of living in a post-reality TV world, where our every action can be reinterpreted by an unseen audience.

In the world of cinema, David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly functions wonderfully as a gory fusion of sci-fi and the director’s own trademark body horror. But at the same time, it also functions as a beautifully observed and moving account of love terminated by premature aging and disease. It’s this strand of Cronenberg’s film that gives it a resonance beyond the obvious blood and goo; at the start of The Fly, its central couple, played by Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in two career-best performances, are young, handsome and carefree. Goldblum’s fraternising with the bleeding edge of science is merely a trigger for a meditation on the effects of sickness and time – it’s a standard human relationship, sped up by applying science fiction as a catalyst.

The Fly explores themes that, if presented as realist drama, would be unbelievably bleak and depressing. Without its sci-fi elements, The Fly would be about a man dying of a hideous disease, with his partner looking on, powerless to assist. Those sci-fi elements act as a cushion, behind which the audience can hide, should it choose to, from Cronenberg’s deeper and more disturbing themes.

By the same token, look at how Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly handles the effects of drugs on relationships. Now, we’ve all seen plenty of depressing, rather worthy dramas that show us, in very serious terms, how dangerous drug abuse can be. By divorcing itself from reality, A Scanner Darkly is able to explore the nature of drug addiction in a manner that is surreal, funny, and ultimately tragic. In relocating what is a partially autobiographical account of the writer’s contact with addicts to a near-future world, the film frees itself from the restraints of realistic drama. Its fictional drug, Substance D, becomes an analogue for all sorts of real-world narcotics, as it twists and ultimately destroys its central character’s mind.

What A Scanner Darkly offers is a distortion of real-world concerns – drug addiction, state control, surveillance – presenting them in a manner that would be difficult or even impossible in a conventional drama.

It’s often the case, for this writer at least, that when dramas confront difficult topics, such as drug addiction in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, or domestic abuse in this year’s Tyrannosaur, the results, brilliant though these examples are, leave me with little appetite to watch them for a second time.

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When sci-fi movies deal with similar issues, I’d happily watch the better examples over and over again. Although its sci-fi shroud is light, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is a beautifully made, imaginative look at the interpersonal impact of depression. Mike Cahill’s forthcoming Another Earth is a gentle, ambient exploration of guilt and grief, shot through with a silver thread of science fiction.

Going further back in time, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is rightly held up as a fine crystalisation of 80s greed. But I’d argue Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, released the same year, was a far more sly satire of the Reagan era, and as resonant now as it ever was. RoboCop could also be read as a meditation on the existence of the soul, an ironic introduction of a right-wing, trigger happy messiah, a send-up of cop movies like Dirty Harry – and, of course, just a great, absurdly violent action flick.

A film that could so easily be dismissed as bullet-ridden nonsense to a casual observer, RoboCop is packed with more layers of meaning than the average Best Picture Oscar winner.

These are but a handful of examples of the sci-fi genre’s ability to explore difficult, even depressing themes in a manner that almost anyone can engage with. A multiplex audience probably wouldn’t flock to see a drama about a young man growing up and briefly getting to know his aging, violent father. But add a few space ships and glowing swords, and you have Star Wars and its sequels.

This, I believe, is what makes sci-fi such a great platform for gloomy topics and relationship stories – it allows us to explore the mundane through the most fantastical means.