We’ll have good SF films when the geeks finally rule—or destroy—Hollywood

With geeks gaining power in filmdom, will Hollywood finally treat science fiction with respect? 

The frequent lament of science fiction lovers is “Where’s my jet pack?”, a playful rant referring to the flying cars, easy space travel and the Jetsons-like future created during the Golden Age of SF. In short, we’re now living in the 21st century, so why haven’t all our SF dreams come true?

But while we still can’t don a jetpack for a quick jaunt to the store, we do benefit from many technologies which only a few years ago would be considered SF, including iPhones, e-readers, and an online world where I can write this column and instantly upload it to the world. And in what may be the biggest 21st century joy for SF fans, Hollywood has fully embraced the exciting world of CGI, or computer-generated imagery.

Before the arrival of convincing CGI, SF movies faced a tough go. Many of the special effects employed by movie studios were so cheesy and simplistic that the resulting movies were, well, cheesy and simplistic. And if the special effects were in any way convincing they tended to be extremely expensive.

Consider the following pretend discussion between a 1960’s SF movie producer and director.

Producer: “Wow! The special effects on that spaceship landing blew me away. Too bad we can’t show the ship taking back off.”

Director: “The hell you say! The ship has to take off again. Otherwise the film ends in the first five minutes.”

Producer: “You blew your entire budget with those 10 seconds of special effects. Maybe you can run the film backwards to show the ship taking off.”

There’s a reason Star Trek developed the idea of transporters. It was much cheaper to transport crew members from one adventure to another than to create special effects showing their ship landing over and over on new worlds.

Now, though, CGI is so cheap that even the extremely frugal BBC—which drove Neil Gaiman crazy on the set of his Neverwhere miniseries with their inane cost-saving moves—now produces beautiful effects for their Dr. Who series. And when the BBC produces good special effects, you know anyone can do it.

You’d think the removal of this barrier would mean we’ve entered the SF promised land, where endless cinematic starfields roll before us in all their CGIed glory. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Yes, more SF movies are being produced than at any time in history. But very few of these are truly thought-provoking SF.

There are a few exceptions, most notably James Cameron’s Avatar and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which were both good SF films, although neither was overly original in plot or ideas. But for every film like those there are dozens more like the Transformer series, or the horrible Battle: Los Angeles, where CGI is mere excuse for explosions and giant spaceships ripping the world apart.

At first I didn’t understand why Hollywood continually throws bad SF at audiences when for the same money they could create something amazing. Then, at a recent convention, I heard Hugo Award winning author Mike Resnick explaining his experiences in Hollywood, including several botched attempts to film his space-western Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future (which, for the record, would be an absolutely amazing SF film).

Resnick says the reason we have so many bad SF movies is simple: “Hollywood holds science fiction fans in contempt. They know if they call a film science fiction and include a robot and a zap gun they’ll make $100 million.”

Basically, Hollywood doesn’t care about making better SF movies. They don’t care that ideas and writing are at the heart of the science fiction genre because they have no respect or love for SF itself. To them, it’s a better to throw $50 million in CGI at audiences than to pay writers a minimum amount to come up with solid SF in the first place.

So what’s the solution? Will SF movies eventually improve or are we doomed to great looking—but bad—SF films for the rest of our lives?

I’m actually optimistic. And the reason for my optimism is that, thanks to the very technological changes which allow cheap CGI in the first place, the geeks are beginning to win out over Hollywood.

We first saw this trend a decade ago when Peter Jackson released his Lord of the Rings trilogy. No matter whether you love or hate the trilogy, you must admit there couldn’t be a better director than Jackson to handle the franchise. After all, Jackson is a fantasy lover who approached the trilogy from the point of view of a genre insider.

The same can’t be said for the people who created many of Hollywood’s classic genre films. Ridley Scott, for instance, said he couldn’t stand Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and never finished the novel, which goes a long way toward explaining why Blade Runner—while a great film—isn’t the story Dick wrote. Scott is one of many Hollywood bigshots who love playing with SF tropes and effects but give the genre itself little or no respect.

But now we have genre fans like Peter Jackson and Joss Whedon as the new powers in Hollywood. When the studios killed Whedon’s series Firefly, one of the best SF TV shows of all time, there was nothing he could do to stop them. But with his Avengers film now one of the highest grossing film of all time—a success which I believe results in large part from his deep love of comic books—Whedon has the power to create nearly any film he desires exactly as he desires.

Hopefully Whedon won’t forget that with great power comes great responsibility.

My belief is that as more genre fans come to power in Hollywood better science fiction films will be created. But even if that doesn’t happen, ever-cheaper CGI will soon allow nearly anyone to create SF films.

And that will also address another issue which has long plagued Hollywood—the lack of diversity in those who create our big-screen SF visions. The directors mentioned in this essay are all white men. While this reflects the fact that up until now white men have directed most of the big-budget Hollywood SF films, this doesn’t reflect our world’s current reality nor the future we’re heading toward. (And thanks to Rose Fox for pointing this issue out to me in an earlier draft of this essay.)

We are already seeing this brave new world of SF film-making with independent films like District 9. And even more exciting independent SF films are in the pipeline, such as the upcoming release of Who Fears Death by Kenyon film director Wanuri Kahiu. The film is based on Nnedi Okorafor’s novel of the same name, which is one of my favorite works of fiction from the last few years. Okorafor is working with the director on the film, which is being totally created outside the Hollywood system and should be a sight to behold.

So if Hollywood doesn’t step up to the plate—or even if they do—I expect more independently produced films to fill the SF void. And as the online distribution of films through places like Netflix and YouTube becomes the norm, it won’t matter if a great SF film comes from Hollywood, the kid down the block or someone half a world away. All that will matter is we have a great SF film.

So let Hollywood continue to give SF films no respect. Let them continue to wrongly believe SF is a white-male-only affair. Either they’ll be changed from the inside by the geeks, or we’ll destroy them from the outside. And either way, science fiction lovers will be the winners.

Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. Follow his Sci-Fi Strange Medium collection at https://medium.com/sci-fi-strange.