Sci-Fi for the Win

Science fiction has never been easy to pull off in movies.  In some ways it is harder than fantasy.  While often wondrous to the point of the absurd, its roots are usually firmly grounded in the physics and reality we know and love(?).  I make a distinction between the venerable histories which include The Day the Earth Stood Still (NOT the Keannu Reeves version), 2001, and Contact rather than the more operatic/scifi-fantasies like Flash Gordon, Ice Pirates and even Star Wars – still fun, but often blurring the line between fantasy and true science fiction.

ice pirates

A fantasy movie like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter can beguile with magic and creatures that require no further explanation other than they exist.  The audience/readers make that pact from the beginning. “We are suspending all disbelief!  Just be somewhat logically consistent and throw in a few dragons and we will be there to enjoy it with you!”  … and I’ve spent many a happy hour doing just that.

Over the years, I’ve consumed much of the fantasy that has been written for print and screen.  There are a few fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy.  By default, fantasy and scifi-fantasy is more about pure dreaming without constraints AND is meant to be consumed rather than questioned.  Even my current favorite, Game of Thrones, doesn’t really ask us/the reader any meaningful questions about how what happens in Westeros has any implications/consequences to us mortals here on Earth.


Good science fiction is always more relevant because it says “if you take where we (humanity) are now and then…. “  the edge of the universe and beyond is the limit.   The readers immediately have a stake, whether they want to or not, in the outcome of the story because… that story is THEIR future!

Science fiction is also held to an (admittedly arguable) higher standard of disbelief because things have to look and feel like they will be a reality in a few (or few hundred/thousand) years.  An increasingly tech and (hopefully) science savvy audience contributes to this evolution.   Various actuators need to move correctly and give off a convincing (if somewhat dramatized) hiss or crank.  Aliens and celestial phenomena need to at least be plausible if not probable.  It’s science with a wink and a nudge.


What I’ve personally enjoyed most about science fiction are the questions that are able to be asked and explored.  For instance;

  • The fundamental nature and evolution of humanity in Theodore Sturgeon’s, More than Human (anything written by him is worth it btw).
  • The ENDPOINT of the universe itself in Stephen Baxter’s The Ring.
  • What would society look like if no one could deceive each other in James Halperin’s The Truth Machine?
  • What are the fundamental purposes and relationships between men/machines/the universe in the Hyperion Cantos?
  • What would you do in a society with technology that, near as to make no difference, was boundless in The Culture books by Ian M. Banks.
  • Dune
  • Blade of Tyshalle
  •  I could go on and on.

In movies, some examples of this type of exploration are Bladerunner, Dune and even the Matrix.

In recent television, Star Trek:TNG (barring some questionable “we ran out of ideas” holo-deck episodes) and Battlestar Galactica (excising the ridiculous angel ending of course) and maybe even Firefly (I said it) are the apex of modern speculative science fiction on screen.  All tackled modern day culture and political issues head-on and with aplomb (not with a plum, which is messier)– often leaving the viewer simultaneously more knowledgeable, but still questioning.


The best sci-fi asks questions about being human in the present day and throws it into a technologically enabled future social grinder to see if anything interesting comes out.

I enjoy fantasy fiction.

I learn about myself and humanity from science fiction.

Which, in the longest preamble possible, brings me to Neil Blomkamp.  This man is the current avatar of gritty, realistic SF design.  I have been a fan of his work for quite a few years now.  In his Tetra Vaal movie short about a company marketing a security robot for conflict zones, I had a flash back to the sensation of awe and wonder experienced when witnessing the first brontosaurus in Jurassic Park.  When a bullet shattered a wall that the CG robot was taking cover behind, and the machine flinched backwards and responded in an almost frighteningly realistic and human way, I think I had a geekasm.  He followed this up with another brilliantly seductive short about an android on the run in Yellow.  Finally, talks of him helming a live-action movie version of Halo culminated in some impressive, combat shorts but support for it ultimately fell apart.

However, a pattern was emerging.  This guy knows how to merge the real/unreal.  Almost as an exact counter-point/foil to the CG laden MESS that were the Star Wars prequels, here was a leader who intentionally took lo-fi, often hand carried, camera footage and married it with CG that could be mistaken for absolutely real.   The only question was whether he had the writing/director chops for a full length movie.


Thankfully, we received District 9.  The film is not without its flaws, but overall it is simply a genius film and a pleasure to watch.  It took a carbon copy of apartheid and replaced black people for “prawns” (aliens).  What could have been an inspirational but forgettable movie rehashing the well trodden issues between the oppressor and oppressee, becomes those things AND an exercise in human nature and character development. Blomkamp’s main character is a white middle-aged idiot who is just smart enough to marry his boss’ daughter but too dumb to do more than what he is told, or to question his life or his bigoted beliefs.  His only saving grace is that he is not smart enough to be devious and is endearingly genuine and human, despite his beliefs.  By the end of the movie, and because we got to witness real horror, racism and oppression through the eyes of the opressor, District 9 will remain as one of my favorite sci-fi movies.

This is not up until now mentioning Blomkamp’s REAL talent which is to have designed and filmed a world that feels and looks real – for around $30M.  $30M! In an age when studios toss around $150M like it’s the new cost of entry for special effects movies, this number is simply mind-boggling.  This guy could make 6 great movies for every crappy “blockbuster”, I told myself.

So it is with a heavy heart that I come to watch and review Elysium.   I won’t spend much time on it.  To be honest there isn’t much to it.

DO go see it for the impeccable future world design and production execution.

DON’T go see it for almost anything else.

It is hard not to see a similar theme with Elysium that Blomkamp had in District 9.  What are the issues faced when there are a privelaged minority exploiting the powerless masses? But, where District 9 took a risky, creative move and explored these issues with a privileged character growing and exploring, Elysium isn’t nearly that courageous.  Matt Damon’s character, I have no idea what his name is, is a recovering con-artist/future-car thief.  This serves no other purpose than to dislike and hate him as far as I can tell.  He is one of the masses on Earth, being continuously exploited by the affluent overlords in the floating wagon-wheel called Elysium, in space.  His lower plebian status inherently means we are supposed to like him – but we never do.  His humanity, skill in technology and planning is never on display but is talked about occasionally through pointless side-characters to make us believe he is a real person  – don’t believe them.

Bad decision after ridiculously bad decision somehow results in a shallow “happy ending” which makes absolutely no sense.  Matt Damon, no doubt cast because of his ability to play the “every man” appears to have phoned it in.  I can’t remember one thing that was interesting or worthwhile about his character.  So much was made in the media of how Damon got ripped for this role, but I can’t see a single plot reason why this was even necessary. The supporting cast is little better with Jodi Foster getting a special mention putting in a ridiculous accent and pretentious walk worthy of the shiniest Razzie this year.



But it’s pretty – real pretty.  The design of everything from future Bugatti space-cars, robot security, to human implants implies some of the best/worst that our technology driven society will offer.

asgari_fem utilitarian_chassis_mod

But alas, what could have been an ACTUALLY interesting tale about inequality, privilege and opportunity, turns into a boring “hero’s journey” where the “hero” is a bumbling moron, but not written as one, and his journey is linear with: no surprises, transparent villains in his way, and an ending that rings as soulless and uplifting as an Anthony Weiner apology tour.  Its worst crime though is that it never asks any new or interesting questions of the viewer.  It doesn’t demand him/her to examine their own ideas – in this way it is more fantasy than science fiction. It just asks you to sit back and consume – like Transformers.

In the end, it’s less the Elysian Fields and more like the Plains of Armageddon (and not in a good way).

Neil, I forgive you, but you’re better than this.  Go back to making science fiction.



6 Replies to “Sci-Fi for the Win”

  1. Damn. I was really excited for this movie. I was a bit leery of the “haves v. have-nots” story line that was obvious in the trailers, but as you said in D9, it can be done. Five years after the 2008 crash, I think the story is a little played out though. Maybe I’ll get around to watching it…next time I pass by a Chinese black market DVD store. So, tomorrow.

  2. Sci fi is one of those genres which is inexplicably ridden with terrible movies. Barring some of the gems you mentioned above too many directors/writers simply miss the point of science fiction which is too explore the human condition in new and evolved environments. Losing that human element is all too common when filmmakers are given pretty new toys or worlds to play with.
    I’ll check out Elysium eventually, and I’ll keep my hopes for Blomkamp high, but its unfortunate to hear that one of the up and comers decided to go the brainless route.

    Personally, I’m pinning my hopes and dreams on Joe Cornish. Attack the Block, though blurring the lines between sci fi and fantasy, was one of the best movies I’ve seen in years and was his debut film just like D9 was for Blomkamp. Don’t let us down, Joe!

    (On an unrelated side note, the robot from Tetra Vaal is a total ripoff of Briarios from Appleseed..)

  3. I appreciate your explanation of the lure of sci-fi. I wonder if you’d count certain forms of fantasy as coming near to that sci-fi ideal of exploring humanity with minor changes. Sanderson comes to mind, as he seems to always create an almost “scientific” magic system in any of his works that I’ve read. (Wheel of Time doesn’t count in that, since he wrote Jordan’s systems and tried to stay true to how those work.)

    Re: Elysium – Thank you for sparing me some money I might have spent to check that out.

    1. Thanks for the comment Son! I think certain kinds of fantasy can possibly meet the same standards I outlined above, but it’s quite rare. If you’ve ever read the Sharon Shinn books about a planet where actual angels exist, and you might like it considering your background… that book starts out as a fantasy but changes to a sci-fi tale, which inherently makes it more interesting in my book. Rather than pure fantasy, it is fantasy made plausible. Fantasy is still more escapism than anything else, the best of which can still ask interesting questions – the Lucifer comic series by Mike Carey is one that comes to mind for instance. But just because someone comes up with an interesting logic to magic that is consistent – and DOES make reading it more enjoyable – doesn’t mean that they aren’t inherently making it up. Not saying there is no value to that, but the extra work required to make it a possible future or past elevates those stories from mere fantasy to the wonderment of what our future could look like. My wife read those Sanderson books and highly recommended them. They are on my short list when I get 2 seconds to rub together. Thanks again and come back again!

  4. What are you talking about?! Sci-fi movies are *easy*: ripped abs, chicks that kick ass, some kind of inexplicable/pointless kind of weapon, and some kind of future/concept-y version of a BMW, Mercedes, or which ever brand pays for the placement. oh, and explosions. duh. It’s a movie…
    Your standards are just too high. You should take my approach: never see movies. You know when they’re worth watching when more than one person you actually respect recommends them. Until that happens, assume they are pointless, vapid entertainment.
    As for respectable sci-fi movies, there have been a few, but I think Idiocracy does more insightful and entertaining social commentary than most movies that claim the same…
    What gets me is how *many* social, political, and technological topics we could be dealing with in *great* sci-fi. It isn’t like there are no topics!!! Our screwed up economy, the dynamics between the East and West or the Middle east and the West, or developing Africa and everyone else, the *massive*, *scary-ass* challenges we are already on the cusp of with nanotechnology and biotech. We’re going to blow ourselves up or poison ourselves at some point. Our toys are just getting too dangerous. ANY of these could make a great background for a great sci-fi movie. For god’s sake, we’ve even got Kurzweil making science fact a pop phenomenon in relatively consumable form. We just need to cast a believable physicist, say… ummm… maybe Elizabeth Shue, and have her take off her shirt. Recipe for success and a revolution in Sci-Fi…

  5. WTF is wrong with you lol??? Lets be truly honest here. This article looks to be more of an Internet troll who dislikes Blomkamp for some other petty reason or perhaps sheer jealousy of his AMAZING talents. District 9, Elysium, & Chappie are all SUPERB movies, 3 of my favorites. Of course growing up in the Nevada desert, having family employed @ area 51, & being both roboticist & software designer myself, Science, art, and creativity the likes of which mold our future society are naturally appealing to, and recognized by me. I can assure you that your mindless blundering, shifty opinion & poor criticism skills, even combined with your awful journalism tact, still don’t hold a candle to Neils epic story telling abilities contained in just his pinky finger. Basically, YOU SUCK, your opinion sucks, and I would prefer you flipping my cheeseburgers……wait….no…no I don’t even want you near any food. Please just find some dark place to crawl into and stop watching movies and logging onto the internet, you’re just crowding theater’s and using up bandwidth that is intended for his loyal fans such as myself. (You suck huge donkey balls and should be slapped)

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