Science Fiction Films

So, I have a question for everyone.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Jupiter Ascending and I fucking loved it. I’ve been flailing about it a lot on Tumblr, and will probably get a post together about why I loved it and what it did right (and a bit that it did wrong–looking at you, terrible Russian stereotypes), but that is not what I am asking right now. There have been some talk online about how Jupiter Ascending is not a sci fi, but a fairy tale wrapped in the cloak of a sci fi film.

Which, okay, when I read that, that makes sense. But I pose this question, then: what makes a sci fi film, then? Bear in mind, I am by no means and expert in sci fi or film. I like sci fi, and I like movies, but I’ve never really been super excited about either in that kind of no-holds-barred sort of way that fans tend to experience.

So if Jupiter Ascending, a movie very heavily based on the idea of futuristic aliens being able to grow humans and harvest their genetic material and turn it into a fountain of youth, a movie filled with aliens and space ships and cool pew-pew guns, if that’s not a sci fi film, then what is a science fiction film? Because I honestly do not seem much of a difference between Jupiter Ascending and Star Wars, a movie that is mostly a soap opera but with cool space ships and weird, yodeling dog aliens and laser beam swords.

Jupiter Ascending may be a retelling of a fairy tale–it certainly has lots of fairy tale elements and a Trial of Three plot structure–but I’m not sure if that disqualifies it from being a sci fi. And if it does, then what is a sci fi? What are a sci fi film’s qualifications? What makes a movie a sci fi?

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Author: Eris O'Reilly

I'm a writer, artist, knitter, crocheter, cat wrangler, zombie hunter, and law enthusiast. Also, I am a complete and utter fangirl. I like silliness.

9 thoughts on “Science Fiction Films”

  1. You can define it pretty much as you like. Regular fans who aren’t trying to be critics observe the broadest genre descriptions. To them everything fictional is either comedy, drama, action, horror, sci-fi, animation or (various kinds of) exploitation. So Jupiter Ascending is whatever it’s the most like, which is sci fi.

    Those who have professional or non-professional aspirations toward writing about movies as a member of an elite will use more specific criteria and sub-categories. You’ll get dramedies, fantasy, magical realism, noir and other niche categories. In the example you used, anything with a fairy tale backstory would be fantasy, rather than sci fi, if the person doing the labeling is in the second category of amateur and professional critics. Ray Bradbury (for example) was very sensitive about the distinction, saying he was a fantasy writer, NOT a science fiction writer. He would have called Jupiter Ascending fantasy, because it uses an invented myth structure behind and beneath all the gadgets.

    Part of the confusion is that writers don’t limit themselves as much to these genres when fashioning stories. So you can get a film like “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which some call sci-fi and others call comedy or superhero or graphic novel adaptation or fantasy or something else.

    1. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. My question is now, then, what do professional critics use as their criteria to define what makes a film science fiction? Because I feel like there are a lot of sci fi films out there (what regular fans would call sci fi films) that use some kind of myth structure or operatic structure or a shakespearean retelling, pushing it into other other sub genres… and if that alone is enough to disqualify them from the category of “science fiction” then what then makes science fiction?

      I’m asking because the more I learn about it, the more I really do not know.

      1. I consider knowing you don’t know to be a perfect attitude for learning.

        Part of the fun of serious critical analysis is that you get to invent and promote your own labels, or agree/disagree with ones others wrote about.

        The key to deciding what genre a film’s in (for me) is to weigh what aspect is key to the work’s identity. Let’s use Jupiter Ascending as an example. Which is more important, the tech or the shape of the story? The tech is indeed cool and impressive, but to me what gives the work it’s identity is that it is an opera, an operatic type of plot set in outer space. So I would call it a “space opera”, a term related to “soap opera” or “horse opera” in other genres.

        Some other critics would call it a “planetary romance”. The difference in those two terms is what they evolved from in literary history. Planetary romances come from the lost worlds and lost civilizations traditions. Space opera connects to westerns and sea adventure stories. To me, Star Wars and Ender’s Game are space operas, but Avatar and John Carter are planetary romances.

        You can start at wiki (or really any lit indexing resource) to get lists of key works from the past these current film adaptations owe allegiance to. OR, get to work inventing your own terms!

      2. Yes. I definitely agree that Jupiter Ascending is a space opera. That’s how the narrative flows, anyway. It does, however, have a lot of major themes of “does genetics define our fate?” and a lot of the core conflict stems directly around the the technology that allows people to manipulate dna (harvested from real live humans!) in order to extend life. So it’s more science fiction-y than say, Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars (two movies of which that I can’t think of a single piece of tech that cements the plot).

        I’m going to go ahead and say that Jupiter Ascending is Science Fiction Lite. It’s story structure is Operatic but its themes and commentary are heavily rooted in Science, both hard (genetic engineering) and social (sociological scrutiny of classism, not to mention sexism).

  2. To me, science fiction has always been distinguished by whether it was something that could plausibly happen according to science, and most of the time it takes place in our world/universe, even if it’s far into the future (and sometimes the past).

    Sci fi and fantasy can, and do, merge, but usually fantasy consists of things that could never happen in our world. And it usually (but not always) has magic.

    Sometimes, mainstream critics seem to define science fiction as ‘does it take place in space’, though, without any other considerations.

    1. Yeah, I think I lean towards the “sci fi it rooted in the (somewhat plausible) application of science.” Like, Stargate for example, the movie doesn’t really work if you take out the device that allows people to travel to another world via wormholes. Heck, the movie is named after that particular piece of tech. Star Wars, however, well… honestly there is very little about that movie that absolutely needs to the cool spaceships and light sabers to make it work. I can’t think of one piece of technology of scientific application that like, is the cornerstone of the plot.

      I’m thinking Jupiter Ascending lies somewhere between the two. It’s definitely very soap opera-y (you could take the bare bones of the plot and put them in, say, and 1850 romantic pastoral), however a lot of the movie does hinge on the “does our genetics define our fate?” and the application of advanced genetics and dna manipulation in order to extend life. So there’s some harder science elements to it, too.

  3. I think the primary dividing line between science fiction and fantasy is, “is it caused/powered by magic?” If yes, then fantasy. If no, then science fiction. But of course, genres get merged and blended all the time and some stories span several genres.

    1. Yes definitely. I was thinking about this a lot last night, and I’m pretty sure Guardian of the Galaxy is a fantasy that just happens to be set in space. Because I’m not sure what scientific application is being used to explain the whole “magic shiny rock that can destroy worlds” thing. On the other end, Stargate is like, PURELY science fiction because you cannot have the movie without advanced astrophysics (e.g.: wormholes).

      Jupiter Ascending I think lands somewhere kind of between those two. Sci fi lite, or something.

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