Okay, so maybe I’m a little bit biased…but then again perhaps not.
What makes a great science fiction movie after all? Well, in no particular order I’d say; fully developed characters who use clever and engaging dialog, a good balance between emotional elements such as tragedy and comedy, a well thought out plot based on a scientific possibility, a well constructed and believable universe, and lastly general movie stuff like great acting-directing-special effects-ect. (like I said, no particular order).
Shall I start this discussion with an example of a terrible science fiction movie? Sure why not kick up some controversy. I strongly dislike 2001: A Space Odyssey! In fact, it sucks.
To be frank, Stanley Kubrick’s “sci-fi classic” simply lacks too much of the above criteria. Engaging characters? Nope, astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole are as cardboard as they get and their dialog is as flat as the surface of an ice cube in October. In 2001, there is no balance in emotional elements because there are no emotions. Aside from Hal’s deactivation, the audience feels little to nothing as sterile event after sterile event unfolds upon the screen. Does the movie at least have a fascinating plot? Nope again, perhaps we are as curious as the astronauts about the nature of that big black board thing, but we never get a satisfying answer and neither do they. The universe is also shallow where it’s developed at all and by this point, in this yawn-fest of a film, it’s too late for outstanding visual effects to save it.
There you go, internet, you may now hate on me in the comments to your heart’s content.
So why is 2001: A Space Odyssey considered by many to be the greatest science fiction movie of all time? My theory is because it beat the pants off of much of what came before. In the late 1960s, Americans were crazy for our space program and 2001 took us up into orbit with the astronauts for the very first time in film. Achievement though that was, however, the movie itself hasn’t aged well. And for writers and directors looking to make a good science fiction story, it’s a poor example to follow.
So why do I think Joss Whedon’s Serenity is such hot stuff? After all, it’s not nearly as famous as 2001: A Space Odyssey and is often found in discount DVD bin these days.
I’m glad you asked. First off, If you are familiar with the TV show Firefly, I’d like you to forget about it. True, the show was extremely cool, however, part of what makes Serenity so great is that you don’t need to know anything about Firefly to enjoy the movie that was inspired by it.
The film starts out with a brief “history lesson” scene that introduces the universe, which evolves into backstory scene as Simon Tam rescues his sister River from a government laboratory, which flows into an exposition scene where we meet the villain, which concludes with a scene on the space ship where the captain talks to (and introduces to the audience) each crewmember in turn which includes Simon and River Tam. Honestly, I think the beginning of the movie is pure genius as the audience is engaged from square one and by the time your butt has gotten really comfy in the theater’s seat, you know everything you need to understand the story unfolding and the universe it’s set in.
The actors are all well versed in their characters (having played the parts already on TV) and are given top notch dialog to banter with one another. The comedy is never silly or distracting but is always there to counterbalance the heavy elements of the story giving the audience a roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs. This helps, as the plot is quite heavy by itself; dealing with concepts of freedom vs. science run amok in a misguided endeavor to make people “better.” I especially like how the bad guys are not entirely bad guys. The chief antagonist is not a mustache-twirling villain or a knight of the dark side but a human man who sincerely believes that what he does is for the best of mankind in the long run.
Finally, the special effects, photography and directing are all very well done. Of course, we now live in the 21st century and are used to special effects that would have blown an audience out of its seats back in the 1960s. Therefore, a one to one comparison of filmmaking between Serenity and 2001 in that sense is not reasonable and I concede that.
If you have not seen Serenity, I, of course, recommend it. I think you will see that as a film, it is exactly the kind of work that inspires good storytelling while entertaining scientific concepts of social engineering. It shows us what is possible in modern science fiction and serves as inspiration for any aspiring SF enthusiast.
By Clayton J. Callahan