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Sci-Fi: Getting it Right


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The trinity of death for Sci-fi is: a cute kid, a smart dog or a dumb robot.

If you see any one of the three, the probability that the series will be re-newed approaches zero.

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Muppit & Boxey (Noah Hathaway) from BSG 1977. Cute but DOOMED!

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I would argue that Lost in Space was never good science fiction. I watched the show as a kid, but even at the age of 10, I thought, "Jesus H. Christ, this show is stupid." When you had episodes like this one...

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...you know things were going right off the cliff. I think good science fiction can encompass a lot of factors, but a lot of it boils down to, "don't make things too stupid," "don't be boring," and "surprise the reader." As far as I'm concerned, the same rules that govern any good fiction also apply to good SF.

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The problem is that the producers of sci-fi television aren't sure who they are making it for.

Lost in Space target market was kids. It was written for kids. Even the time slot and the advertisers were specific to the target audience.

Later series were profoundly confused on this point. Star Trek wasn't specifically written for children but it's time slots and promotions were.

This confusion reached it zenith with Battlestar Galactica(1977). The theme was exceptionally dark: a wagon-train of human survivors of a nuclear Pearl Harbor Apocalypse. A real Cold War era nightmare complete with an unreasonable and unfathomable genocidal enemy. This was marketed to kids, with the inclusion of Boxey and Muppit.

The original BSG series was great for about four episodes before the writing and production collapsed into mediocrity. The whole thing was kept alive by fan outrage for another season and then morphed into the horror that was BSG 1980 which real fans like to pretend never happened.

Where things go terribly wrong is this production confusion only gets worse. Adults get bored with kid oriented writing and kids go to bed at 9:00.

It wasn't until BSG 2003 that a sci-fi series was targeted at the adult market. It was a great hit but we have yet to see anyone follow up the success.

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Pec: I agree! Cheese is a poor ingredient for sci-fi!

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I have warm memories of my father walking through the house with his arms waving and declaring, "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" before he would grab me, throw me to the floor, and tickle me senseless.

Like Pecman, even at the age of 8 or 9, I knew when L.I.S. was off the mark. I knew that we would not be sending expeditions to Alpha Centauri in 1997, but it didn't matter to me because I was in love with Will Robinson and I never thought he had enough screen time on the show.

The one thing about Star Trek that always drove me crazy was when Kirk or Picard would order, "All Stop," or something to that effect. One does not "stop" in space. One is ALWAYS moving in relation to something. Once again, however, I was willing to forgive because at the age of thirty, I had the hots for Patrick Stewart.

Just don't get me started on the Lost in Space movie. Even a grown-up Billy Mumy wasn't enough to save that catastrophe!

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Pre-dating the post fifties sc-fi were my mother's favourites, Flash Gordon (as opposed to Flesh Gordon which I liked), as well as the movies of her early years like, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Shape of Things to Come, The incredible Shrinking Man, and a few others I have forgotten.

The thing about these movies is that they had a message on the human condition. By the time we reached my childhood sci-fi had largely become a children's genre with second rate production values that had us kids laughing our heads off at the stupidity of various horrors from Outer Space that were clearly shot on the B studio sound stage. I also remember a number of imported Japanese movies with laser (ray gun) wars on the moon, all with predictable plots.

Then came MGM's Forbidden Planet, based loosely on Shakespeare's Tempest. It took space travel seriously (humans in a flying saucer, no less) and despite a dialogue much less than Shakespeare, it had a message, a warning of the misuse of technology. MGM were very proud of its four channel stereophonic sound track and released the movie with a short film explaining the new sound's attributes. Robby the Robot was by far the most popular robot since Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Sill.

My teenage friends all agreed that we longed for Sci-fi movies to treat the subject seriously. We had read the various sci-fi comics including Batman and Superman and then groaned at the movies that were made of these characters who were nothing like the serious images we had in our own minds. Instead, those movies spoke down to the audience as if we were all 3 year olds. The latest movies have stunning imagery and effects, but the characters are still way too two-dimensional. And what ever happened to thematic soundtracks?

Then came Star Wars, but with the introduction of the Ewoks, many of us were not all that surprised at the missed opportunities of the later episodes. We were disappointed but hardly surprised...we had suffered it all before. The first Star Wars, (episode 4) hit all the right buttons for the audience. As fictional as science could be with nary a need to 'explain' the science, whilst entertaining us with oddball robots, and swashbuckling laser sword fights, and a music score that Erich Korngold could have used in the Errol Flynn, Robin Hood.

It's not my purpose to list every sci-fi movie, but I feel I must mention the first Planet of the Apes as a prime example of believable science fiction with a message.

Running as a backdrop through the years, was Star Trek - the TV Series, with its underpinning 'armchair' philosophy and adult treatment of the story telling. The movies were often laboured but never the less entertained us.

The original Battle Star Galactica was one of the movie vehicles for Universal's (MCA) thunderous low frequency sound system, Sensurround. The story was less than well developed and did not match the depth of the sound.

The culmination of cinema technology, philosophy, modern Art and Sci-fi came in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here at last, hidden in the immersive subjectivity of the large screen Super Panavision 70 presentation, a science fiction movie fulfilled its destiny of demanding the ultimate in objectivity from its audience. No mean feat.

The question remains, however, why, with such a history, do we still have to put up with fictional stories that talk down to us as if we are all still in kindergarten, watching very bad actors in the pantomimes of mediocre imaginations?

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Hardcore SF fans would probably argue that there have been very few Hollywood films that have done SF "right." Even some that are now regarded as classics, like 2001, were very controversial when they first appeared. I think there are a handful of recent films that are sorta/kinda SF that I think were well-done on many levels, like Inception and the original Matrix. (God help me, none of the sequels.)

E.T. just had its 30th Anniversary -- and if that doesn't make you feel old, nothing will -- and you know, it's still got some good moments. I think Close Encounters is very dated. Avatar has moments, but cardboard characters and very silly dialogue (sometimes). It's interesting to look at the all-time box office gross list of the Top 50 American films and mull over how many of them now are science-fiction... or at least, purporting to be a "version" of science fiction.

Hardcore fans often argue back and forth on what's "true" SF vs. the dreaded sci-fi, a word they spew out with dripping condescension. I honestly don't mind stuff like Alien or Predator, stuff that's a lot of action and occasional stupidity, as long as they keep things moving and surprise me on occasion. What's really baffling is when they do things like remake The Day the Earth Stood Still (which I actually worked on for about a week), and it gets completely screwed up from top to bottom.

I'm a huge fan of several major 1950s SF films, like Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth. Wonderful movies -- they really take you to another time and place. Even the hokey 1950s B-movies like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and Invaders from Mars (the original) are really fun films on a certain level. Lost in Space... not so much.

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Yes, that's about where I am too, Pec. Especially with the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Absolutely horrid...what were they thinking? Or more likely, not thinking.

Like you I can enter into a variety of fun movies, just so long as they have an internal logic.

I was thinking about E.T. and Close Encounters after I wrote my post above, and I think they don't transfer well to the small screen. They need to be seen on a large screen with a large audience in a cinema. Form over content, if you will. Whereas those 1950s B-movies are fun to watch anywhere.

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I've just seen the 2012 re-make of Total Recall which, though pretty much panned, I thought was very good indeed. It doesn't have Arnie, and doesn't go near Mars.

The problem with watching old sci fi films - which were great in their day - is that their special effects can't hold a candle to modern CGI. Remember when bullet time (Matrix) was all the rage?

The writing is the thing: throw the best crew, cast, director and effects at a crap script and you have a crap film.

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Was Sixth Sense sci-fi?

I'd call that a horror story with elements of fantasy.

Signs is definitely science fiction, and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit -- except for the [plot spoiler] "aliens harmed by water" bit, which makes no sense on a planet that's 2/3 made up of water.

Mars Attacks wasn't horrible, but it's a weird movie that kind of goes overboard with the whole spoof deal. If you know the original bubblegum cards on which they're based, it's actually kind of faithful, only the cards were really scary, dark, and gross. Burton did at least get the "ack ack!" right.

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God, The Village made me howl and scream and say rude things and throw Jujubes at the screen... and that was during the opening credits! A terrible movie, just a lame Shaggy Dog story that makes no bloody sense. Plot holes big enough to drive 20 trucks through.

But Lady in the Water might have been one of the worst studio films of the last 20 years, and that's really saying something. Unwatchable and horrible, just stupifyingly bad. I recently heard Mark Wahlberg in an interview, and the host asked him if he though he ever did a bad film. He named two which were huge disappointments: Planet of the Apes and The Happening, both of which he said were terrible films. But in the same breath, he said he loved working with the two directors (Tim Burton and M. Night Shyamalan), and would absolutely consider doing more films with them someday.

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God, The Village made me howl and scream and say rude things and throw Jujubes at the screen... and that was during the opening credits! A terrible movie, just a lame Shaggy Dog story that makes no bloody sense. Plot holes big enough to drive 20 trucks through.

But Lady in the Water might have been one of the worst studio films of the last 20 years, and that's really saying something. Unwatchable and horrible, just stupifyingly bad. I recently heard Mark Wahlberg in an interview, and the host asked him if he though he ever did a bad film. He named two which were huge disappointments: Planet of the Apes and The Happening, both of which he said were terrible films. But in the same breath, he said he loved working with the two directors (Tim Burton and M. Night Shyamalan), and would absolutely consider doing more films with them someday.

I do agree that The Villiage had huge plot holes. But if you could suspend your disbelief at some of the sillyness, it was fun to watch.

I also agree with you about Lady in the Water. That was so bad I couldn't sit throught the entire picture.

C

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The saddest thing is to watch the "Making of" documentary on Lady in the Water. All the crewmembers (and especially Shyamalan) truly believed that this was going to be a huge, successful film in every possible way.

There's an entire book on Shyamalan and how this movie came to be made, titled The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale and Lost, and it's a sobering tale about hubris in Hollywood. The Disney execs who had previously helped M. Night make Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were not happy with the script, and he was crushed when they told him the story was terrible. Sadly... the studio was right on this one.

Haven't seen Last Airbender. I may have given up after The Happening, which (to me) was just a version of The Birds only with an invisible virus.

John Carter is another example of a big fantasy/sci-fi film that was just awful. To me, it failed because Taylor Kitsch looked great but was/is a very wooden actor without a lot of charisma, and the script was just humorless. I think there was a way to tell the same story in a much better way, but we'll never know now.

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The saddest thing is to watch the "Making of" documentary on Lady in the Water. All the crewmembers (and especially Shyamalan) truly believed that this was going to be a huge, successful film in every possible way.

I couldn't believe they actually built the entire apartment complex from scratch. They could have saved a fortune by filming on location.

Haven't seen Last Airbender. I may have given up after The Happening, which (to me) was just a version of The Birds only with an invisible virus.

John Carter is another example of a big fantasy/sci-fi film that was just awful.

Hmm, IMO The Last Airbender royally sucked. But I saw John Carter (knowing it had been panned) and liked it. Yes, at $250 million the budget was well out of order (what did they spend it on?) but it wasn't that atrocious. It seems, Pec, that I like movies you hate and visa-verse. Maybe, then, you'd like Last Airbender...?

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Very few films get Sci-Fi right. For a serious film, 2001 has to be up there, and for less than serious (I hesitate to use the word comedy) Dark Star has to be a contender, despite a budget of only $60,000.

For older films, Fritz Lang's Metropolis made in 1927 and a silent is worth a watch, especially if you can catch the restored version with the music by Giorgio Moroder although there are those who say the original version is better.

However, nothing comes close to the vision generated generated in the reader's mind by a good written story, and this short story is both old, saw a future that never happened, yet deserves to be a film. Trouble is, there are no behind the sofa moments, it's all about the atmosphere so it'll never happen. Suspend your belief, cast aside any prejudices against the author and read:

http://www.telelib.com/authors/K/KiplingRudyard/prose/ActionReactions/nightmail.html

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Haven't seen Last Airbender. I may have given up after The Happening, which (to me) was just a version of The Birds only with an invisible virus.

Don't watch The Last Airbender.

Do, however, take a look at the original cartoon series that it was based on, Avatar: The Last Airbender. I ended up watching it on a recommendation from a student, and got completely hooked. I think it's one of the most well-written kids shows I've seen.

As for The Happening, I think it's worth watching just for the laughs. To this day, impressions of Mark Wahlberg from The Happening are a constant source of entertainment. "Whaaat? Nooooo."

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