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Science-fiction genres

Science-fiction films include many of the most financially successful releases in the cinema. This is a brief survey of the major types.

Science-fiction

Science-fiction is a very broad definition but within it are some of the most impressive event movies of recent years. They are ideally suited to incorporating action and humour, often lend themselves to reaching a broad audience and are capable of bringing in a crowd in which an elderly man is sitting next to a teenage girl. Despite this, the term 'science-fiction' itself is not always understood in the sense the industry means it.

So, if SF is such a wide definition, how do we work out whch of its sub-genres we're sitting down to write?

Exploration

If the film is about finding the secrets of another world then the type is likely to be exploration.

The main emotional resonance of this type is wonder, at least at the beginning. The exploration can be physical, emotional, or intellectual and there may be a specific antagonist but, if so, it's more like a disaster movie in that the antagonist is an agent of the wider universe.

This can be seen as translating into the future the explorations of the past. If Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Lewis and Clark were astronauts or futuristic diggers into the earth's mantle then this is the tale of their exploits.

  • Location is new, exciting and dangerous.
  • Antagonist is mostly the location.
  • Physical threat is more common than intentional violence.
  • Objective is noble, scientific, revelatory.
Space opera

In the Space Opera the main themes of a wide-sclale high-intensity epic are translated into a futuristic world. Here we find war and government, adventure and loss. The main purpose is not to engage the audience with the translation of their own, limited, personal goals into a SF environment, it is to put up there the sweeping, galactic, greater themes.

The protagonist here will be a true hero or true villain, protrayed agains a vast backdrop of immeasurable depth. Set War and Peace in space and you have a space opera.

  • Location is epic in scale and has its own character.
  • Antagonist is epic, with everything at stake.
  • Battles are frequent, clearly defined sides.
  • Resolution is a breathless climax.
Alien invasion

The aliens are coming, and they're not coming to share fishing stories. The alien invasion film casts the aliens as terrible, threatening, dangerous and usually superior or numerous threats. The film can be on a small, local scale, or on a planet-spanning epic canvas, either way the aliens are here and we need to fight them off.

It's fair to say this is a pretty simple type of film, for the most part. Moral ambiguity is left at the door and we can just get on with the killing.

  • Location is homely.
  • Antagonist is real and physical.
  • Much tension and violence.
  • Natural cause and resolution.
Arena

The arena film is one in which the good guys and the bad guys end up arriving at a neutral location to hold their war, sort of the way Europe used Belgium for many years. Both sides are invaders, both sides need to win for the same reason.

Arena films redude moral ambiguity and ethical restrictions because the battle is taking place somewhere else. Both sides feel this equally.

Monster movies are excellent vehicles for anything from subtle tension to high farce. They remain popular and varied.

  • Location is alien.
  • Antagonist is dangrous and equally matched.
  • Heavy action and violence.
  • Cause and resolution very militaristic.
Time-travel films

Time travel in movies is largely the domain of the science-fiction writer. In these type of films the entire purpose of the movie is to alter history in one way or another. Time-travel isn't just the canvas against which the story is played, it is the tool used for resolution of the plot.

Of all the science fiction sub-genres, time travel is the most complex in plot. It's the one where the audience is half way home before they really grasp the significance of the second-act. Writing time-travel is like writing technical instructions for how to fly an airliner, tiny errors or misunderstandings rapidly consume the plot. Critically, an error made in plotting can undermine the entire film, even if it's a seemingly trivial problem at the bottom of page 44. Remember, if you've established the act 1 rules and you then break them, even slightly, then the audience won't understand the third act at all.

  • Location is futuristic.
  • Antagonist is time-traveller.
  • Complex plotting and strict understanding of the mechanism of time-travel.
  • Scientific resolution, often implausible.
Superhero

The superhero film is a sub-genre of science fiction, but in industry terms may be the most important of the lot. In superhero films it is the personal characteristics of the protagonist that allows them to oversome impossible odds.

There's a really easy mistake to make in superhero films. The superhero isn't a superhero because he can fly, or turn invisible. What makes him a hero is that he acts heroically. If he doesn't act like a hero, if he's cowardly, deceitful, fraudulent, then he's not a hero and if he's no hero then he's no superhero either. The best way to think of superheroes is that they are the embodiment of an archetypal concept of greatness. Batman isn't just some well-trained billionaire who gets his joy from beating up the underclass. No, he's a terrifying embodiment of the law. He is, to the villain, exactly what the villain is to the citizen. Terror incarnate.

Spider-man is very human. He is flawed, conflicted, nervous and something of a nobody. He makes mistakes, feels fear, shows weakness and spends too much time thinking about getting a girlfriend. It is humanity that makes him decent, however. It is his fear, his doubt and his willingness to throw himself into danger despite being afraid that makes him heroic.

The central first act in a superhero movie contains the narrative set up but it also contains one other, crucial, element: Reluctance. A superhero doesn't want to fight, doesn't want to use violence. He is reluctantly forced to use his talents in the service of the innocent when all other options have failed.

  • Location is valuable.
  • Antagonist is archetype.
  • More action than violence, more violence than tension.
  • Plot can range from realistic to utter fantasy.
Alternate history

Sometimes people don't realise this type of film is science-fiction, but it is.

Here's a thing people don't know, there are two types of alternate history and they differ based upon when they were written. Orwell's 1984 is alternate history because in 1984 the world didn't actually turn out the way he wrote (though it has overall become much too close for comfort), but when written 1984 wasn't alternate history, it was future speculation. On the other hand Thomas Harris wrote a book called Enigma about Bletchley Park during the war, but he wrote it many years after it was set so it was the traditional definition of alternate history.

Whichever type of story this is science fiction, though often written with the traditional style of history, biography or thriller on the page. It would be tempting to suggest that this gives almost limtless scope to the writer, which is true but not useful as a distinction; all speculative fiction gives such scope.

  • Location is our own past.
  • Antagonist is contemporary with plot.
  • Detail becomes critical, character less so.
  • Resolution usually found in the unchanged parts of the story.
Dystopian future

This requires a special category, unlike the utopian converse, because we bring to the dystopian future our own superiority.

We live is an environment that has many flaws, unfeeling politicians, criminal corporations, war, hunger, disease. The dystopian future film looks at all these things and says it could be so much worse. The audience brings their real experience of living in a flawed but functioning world to a fictional world where they can easily and clearly see what's wrong with this picture.

Now this comes with a warning. Just because it's obvious to the audience that the leaders are corrupt and the underclass is being sent to death-camps, not resettlement camps, it doesn't mean it's obvious to the characters. Your characters have been brought up under a system that they perceive to be the norm, allow the audience to be aligned with some great heroic protagonist because he and he alone can see the evils of his world. He, he alone, and everyone watching the movie.

  • Location is our own future.
  • Antagonist is extensions of our own worst excesses, greed, lust...
  • Protagonist must be compelling and charismatic..
  • Resolution usually found in aligning the future with our own era.
Tone in science fiction

Science fiction is a very broad field, but the way it's presented can be as important as the main plot. More than many forms of movie, a science fiction film can set its tone early and use screen grammar to inform the audience about the forthcoming narrative very quickly.

Shiny
Some science fiction views of the future are almost impossibly shiny. The universe is polished and flawless, everyone is beautiful and healthy. Choosing this for your tone immediately makes the viewer think of classic science fiction on screen.
2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek (all of them)
Lived-in
Spaceships are dirty and covered in oil, people are dressed in worn clothing, not shiny uniforms. In this universe it's possible to identify the two sides of the story, frequently, by their relative grimyness. Sometimes the hero is flawless and the villain grubby, sometimes it's the other way around. In either case the texture of the film is more realistic and therefore more immersive.
Star Wars, Blade Runner
Steam-punk
Steam-punk is a set of tropes that rest on the conceit that the future, whatever it is, was set into motion during the first golden age of science fiction, the latter Victorian era. It imagines a universe where staggeringly advanced technology may exist but it looks and feels as if it had been designed by H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne or Edgar Allen Poe. The universe may contain spaceships, but if so they are made of brass or bronze. Weapons often have ornate optical sights and intricate stocks of polished wood. Imagine what a Victorian man would have considered modern and you're in the right area. Airships, dreadnoughts, steam-turbines and polished brass controls are everywhere. The term has moved beyond its original setting in the Victorian world and now represents any retroactive styling with a futuristic plot. The texture might come from between the world wars or even the 1980s, if the feel is of the past but the technology is of the future then it's essentially steam-punk.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Cyber-punk
In a cyber-punk universe the industrial revolution is a distant memory and the new revolution is entirely in the computerised world. Our heroes and villains are usually astonishingly adept at using this technology for their own ends, much of the action is inside the virtual world of cyber-space. Tonally there's oftena huge difference between the perception of a character in real life and in the computer, two evenly-matched and similar people doing battle online may actualy be a corporate lawyer with a team of thousands facing a street-kid and his gang of misfits.
The Matrix, The Net


"My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel, he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book. In the midst of the conversation, as I'm now trying to recall, I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up."

Woody Allen