Tuesday, January 12, 2010

After seeing *Avatar*...

I finally got around to seeing Avatar last Sunday. Nice. It came across to me more as fantasy than science fiction. For me there is a big difference between the two (and using the mashup term "Sci-Fi/Fantasy" is a cop-out) for the purpose of this exercise. Science-fiction as the term implies explores possibilities grounded on reasonably plausible conjecture. Fantasy, on the other hand makes use of, well, fantastic concepts, settings, and characters as literary devices for telling stories or delivering messages. I guess in a sense, science fiction is a fantastic story built upon scientifically or logically plausible conceptual underpinnings.

Perhaps I could demonstrate what I mean by personally classifying some films I've seen (and and at least liked) that are relevant to these two categories. Note that I will list only those that I think fall within that gray area of "SciFi/Fantasy". This means that movies and stories like the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings series of books and movies which make no attempt at all to even look remotely plausible are hands-down classifiable as fantasy.

So here they are expertly classified:


- The Star Wars episodes
- Star Trek and its spawn
- War of the Worlds
- Transformers
- Battle Star Galactica
- Avatar

Science Fiction:

- Alien
- The Thing
- 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010
- Blade Runner
- Contact
- Thunderbirds are Go
- They Live
- The Matrix
- Jurrassic Park
- Tron

The most notable feature that spells the difference between the two lists is the application of the concept of aliens, specifically intelligent extra-terrestrial life forms. The movies included in the "fantasy" list not only all contain aliens, they depict them in a matter-of-fact way. It's like, they (the aliens in those stories) just are, they are there among us and interacting with us, and there are stories behind why they are and are among us but are irrelevant to those movies.

On the other hand, not all the movies under the "science fiction" class are about aliens or include aliens in their stories; and those that do have them depict them in a more abstract way; in a way, as a matter of fact, that highlights, explores, and focuses on their very alien-ness. For that matter, the movies under my "science fiction" heading all attempt to propose to and immerse the audience in truly alien experiences (interacting with alien creatures being one such subset experience proposed). Perhaps I can describe good science fiction with the following one-liner:

Good science fiction proposes the plausible existence of a truly alien experience.

There is no alien experience in any of the movies in my "fantasy" list even as they pitch themselves as "science fiction". The human drama in the movies listed there hook onto experiences that even the most reptilian recesses of our minds can relate with -- our propensity to war and violence, our instinct to mate, and the primitive fight-or-flight impulse we share with other animal species -- regardless of the underlying premises of their plots. In contrast The Matrix, for example, builds the drama of discovering the phoniness of our world (and exploring the possibilities of the "real" one) squarely upon the arguably fictitious science of using computers to simulate a virtual reality in one's brain.

Avatar obviously may as well be a story about what happened to the people we call native Americans and Aboriginal Australians. The only difference is that Avatar has a happy Hollywood ending. And to a huge chunk of humanity, there is nothing alien in a well-executed entertainment product coming out of Hollywood, which is why extraterrestrial alien intelligences may be good storytelling devices but don't necessarily make true science fiction. For that matter, glossy special effects deliver good entertainment (and immensely entertained I certainly was while watching Avatar, prior caveats to the experience being helpful as well), but only in the same sense of the way that sixty-year-old technology called television also succeeds in this regard.

No comments:

Post a Comment