"Sci-Fi" or "These Days The Earth Stands Swill."
What's my beef this time? Science fiction, that most ill-used of genres, which has managed to snake its way into our collective gullets despite the way it's been misunderstood and mangled by adolescent practitioners. What is good science fiction? Might as well ask which Jim Carrey movie is the funny one. If you're going to create a science fiction project, (and if you've yet to work on a science fiction film, be patient, there's only three guys in line ahead of you), let me lay out a few easy guidelines that will make your job easier.
1. Know your history
Though historians are hesitant to put too fine a point on it, science fiction was invented by James Cameron sometime in the mid-1980s. Sure, there was a smattering of "speculative" fiction prior to Cameron, and even a film or two that one might categorize as "non-documented scientific theory," but put every pre-Cameronian idea out of your mind as you approach the genre.
2. The future will suck
No two ways about it, we'll live in squalor with no hope. We're all doomed to a gloomy dystopia, where we'll be relegated to emotionless servitude as depicted in Cameron's triumph, "Titanic," which featured a sleek, futuristic craft piloted by powerful snooty people who force the unsnooty people below deck, where they must chop wood and Riverdance. (Truth be told, I nodded off four hours into the film, only to be awakened by the audience chants of "ICE-BERG, ICE-BERG!") Another excellent illustration of this noirish forecast can be seen in the film "Dark City." That's the one with the perpetually rainy, neon-lit city run from behind the scenes by several dozen clones of "The Addams Family's" rascally Uncle Fester. Turns out it's all some kind of intergalactic real estate scam that gets exposed by this pouty British guy. And, of course, there's "Blade Runner," which, as I recall, has something to do with knives and running. The plot isn't important. What's important is that in the future everyone is very damp and unhappy. The penultimate film in this sub-sub-sub-genre is undoubtedly "The Matrix," which takes all the tired old "future dystopia" conventions and turns them on their ear by adding the crucial element of mid-air limbo dancing. (Special kudos for casting Laurence Fishburne against type as Luke Skywalker's wizened mentor, Yoda). Again, I must stress, forget plot. Even the guys who wrote this baby don't understand it. You might argue that casting doughy stumblebum Keanu Reeves as the Savior of mankind was a miscalculation, but let's face it, the guy can limbo like Tommy Tune! In short, the "dystopic future" is the most popular strain of sci fi because it is the ultimate slacker's dream: "Why should I try? The future's gonna suck anyway."
3. Dazzling dialogue
Keep in mind that no matter how breathless the action, how fast-paced the story, how perilous the situation, there's always time for the protagonist to pause and make a wisecrack. This, too, was a Cameron innovation. Before his "Terminator," heroes never uttered wisecracks. Now, there's no escaping it: "Hasta la vista, baby," "I'll be back," and "I burned my tongue on that skim latte!" Among my favorites is Bruce Willis' line from the 16 or so "Die-Hard" films, "Yipee ki yay Mother Fletcher!" He is, of course, misquoting the oft-sung cowboy phrase "Yippee Oh Ti Yay," but the way he mangles it is adorable.
4. It's inevitable: Your robot will go haywire!
This originates, of course, with HAL, the talking computer from Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey," and it is one of a very few sci-fi conventions James Cameron did not invent. Since its debut, EVERY robot in the movies has run amok, killing its creator and wrecking the neighbor's lawn. (Incidentally, there has been much speculation concerning the acronym HAL. Some think it stands for Human Artificial Life, others say it was chosen because H, A, and L precede IBM in the alphabet. Hal was, in fact, the director's pet-name for a large-mouth bass he nailed while vacationing in Lake Winnebago.)
5. Plan for sequels
They're already casting "Matrix's" 1 through 7. Keanu will just be turning 60 when number eight wraps. And even if your film bombs, you can slap together SOMETHING with a numeral after the original name and pray to God that things pick up when it hits video stores. As an example, I cite the excellent "Species II" starring Natasha Henstridge and George Dzundza (rhymes with Rzundza), which was the Forbes "Video Pick Of The Day" just three weeks after it shipped!
6. "It's a good popcorn movie!"
This phrase was coined, I think, by Roger Ebert to describe all the movies he's ashamed to admit he likes. For instance, anything with the name Bruckheimer attached to it is a '"good popcorn movie." Are "good popcorn movies" necessarily "good" movies? Nope. Take Bruckheimer's "Armageddon." Watching it is a little like being strapped to a jukebox and pushed over a cliff. It must be very exciting to live in Jerry Bruckheimer's world, where the camera is always jiggling, Aerosmith is always blasting and everything is always exploding. (Interesting side note: Of all the films produced in the past 50 years, only "Judgement at Nuremberg" was NOT a "good popcorn movie.")
7. Don't get caught up in that whole "originality" thing
Heck, they can't even decide what to call this genre. Some call it "Scientifiction," others insist upon "Science Fiction." Another camp is adamant that SF is the most respectable sounding term, while the breezy "Sci fi" will do just fine for others. I personally hoped that my own coinage, "Skiffy," would catch on. Look, if there's one thing James Cameron has taught us, it is this: Call it what you will, but science fiction is not about innovation. It is instead a lush, plagiaristic mosaic. A piece of this movie and a piece of that movie. A melting pot, if you will, where a savory bisque of unoriginality is forever simmering. Wasn't it the ancient philosopher Pliny the Junior who asked, "Sic transit stealus, copius, plagiarus appropriatum?" or "Why innovate when you can skirt by with stale notions the public will eat up with a spoon?"