I just realized that in the last few years I’ve been pretty much living among non-geeks. It’s sad but true. I teach non geeks, I work with non-geeks, and lately, I’ve been hanging out with non-geeks on my free time as well. Some days I feel like Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger in a Strange Land – a man of two worlds. As much as I might try to fit in and grok the people around me, I know I will never fully belong. I am a geek at heart, and I think and perceive the world differently than they do. We are simply broadcasting on different wavelengths. They will never get my jokes, or get the literary, movie or TV references that I’m making. In similar vain, I will never fully grasp their conversations either because I do not watch reality TV, or follow celebrity gossip.
The worst thing about this is that non geeks seem to have some sort of involuntary gag reflex whenever someone brings up science fiction. Oh, they will watch a SF movie and love it. They will just deny that anything they like has anything to do with the genre. They will swear up and down they are not into SF, scoff and sneer when they see your Facebook status mention Battlestar Galactica. Then they go and have a blast watching the new Star Trek movie – but definitely not because it is SF. Go figure. It’s quite funny actually. Science fiction is something unclean and shameful to them.
This is the sort of cognitive dissonance I have to deal with on a daily basis. One day we were talking about movies and one of my non-geek acquaintances brought up Battlefield Earth as an example of why Science Fiction sucks. I countered that this atrocious movie is hardly a representative of the genre, and that there are many smart, thoughtful, ambitious SF films out there.
“Name one that I would know off” – she challenged me.
At that point my mind went blank. I actually realized that most of the stuff she might have seen was actually crap. In fact, we have probably discussed quite a few SF movies in the past and I pretty much described each one of them as either horrible, dreadful or atrocious. I needed to come up with a list (preferably a long one) of above-average pictures to show her that SF is more than just summer blockbusters and elaborate SFX demos. Science fiction is your go-to genre for intellectual discourse, speculation and scientific social and psychological commentary. The whole concept revolves around asking the question “what if” and then building worlds and stories around it. It it is about answering questions that no one has asked yet. It is about examining the human condition from new and previously unexplored angles.
But, I couldn’t think of any concrete examples. Hollywood being what it is, releases a lot of crappy pictures every year and a lot of them could be classified as SF. But epic, monumental works of cinematic art are rare and far between. If she has asked me for literary examples this would have been much easier – I could just throw out couple of big names (Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Herbert, Simmons, etc..) to shut her up. Actually, scratch that – no one in that room would know any of these names. But we were talking about movies so there ought to be at least a few well known examples of solid SF I could mention.
After some consideration I replied with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Good hard SF movie, well known, and quite philosophical. Sadly she did not watch it because “it was too boring” and somewhat incomprehensible. I shifted gears and tried Donnie Darko which is popular, has a cult following and is also newer and therefore a bit more accessible. That only moved the discussion towards an argument regarding what exactly is science fiction. She claimed that Donnie is a psychological thriller rather than SF. I couldn’t really disagree but I guess it could be both – depending on whether you actually believe that time/dimension travel has really occurred in the film.
Blade Runner I blurted out. Great movie, based on Dick’s excellent novel. It poses some fairly deep questions about nature of humanity and it stars Harrison Ford. Unfortunately she was convinced that I was talking about The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. You know, the one when he is on the game show and has to fight for his life. Yeah… I tried explaining which movie I was referring to but it was clear she has never even heard about it. A swing and a miss…
I wish I brought up Gattaca but it completely slipped my mind. Not the deepest or most profound movie ever, but it did present an interesting case against genetic engineering and eugenics – she might have watched that. I tried bringing up The Truman Show but just like Donnie Darko it was quickly reclassified as non-sf. Apparently, if there are no space ships, lasers, teleportation, robots or aliens or time travel it is not Scifi. I should have brought up 12 Monkeys but I forgot. She would probably try to reclassify that as well since it does not fit into the Hard SF bracket.
The Matrix I tried desperately.
How is that smart and thought provoking? – she countered – It’s an action flick.
I tried to explain that the idea Wachowski brothers came up with is actually quite profound. It has these a gnostic overtones with a mad demirug (the architect) creating a flawed world (the matrix) to exert control over humans who can overcome the illusion by questioning their perception of reality (there is no spoon) and save themselves via enlightenment. Of course she did not agree. Where I saw references to gnosticism, Zen philosophy and deep questions she saw Keanu Reves saying “Woha!” and killing people while running up the walls. I don’t blame her.
It’s funny how our lovely genre gets shafted by the mainstream public. Any good SF movie gets appropriated by the mainstream as something else. Everything that sucks on the other hand gets permanently placed in the SF ghetto even if it does not belong there.
We Polish people actually recognize SF as a sub genre of a bigger category called Fantastyka. I’m actually not sure if there is an equivalent for this word in English. I guess the closest match is Speculative Fiction. It covers Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and everything in between. If the story could not happen in real life, if it contains gadgets that don’t exist, ghosts, monsters or strange phenomena it belongs in that category. Mainstream critics always pluck out the best pieces and proclaim them to lie outside of the genre. But I digress…
After going through several titles like that I realized that there was really no way for me to change her mind about this. She had an answer for each movie and it usually was “never heard about it” or “that’s not really SF”. There was no way I could win this argument:
“I hate SF! I never saw a good SF movie in my life. I don’t know anything about the genre, I don’t follow it and I have no interest in it. Prove to me that SF is not shit by mentioning a good SF move that I have seen or heard about.”
I submit that this can’t be done. There is no way I can change your mind about SF using only the limited subset you are familiar with, which as you mentioned is composed solely of bad movies. I could give you a good movie to watch and thus expand your horizons. But you won’t watch it, cause you have already decided you hate SF. It is a silly argument.
It did give me an idea for a blog post though. Here is your mission dear readers: give me some epic science fiction movies that are smart, thought provoking and memorable. Feel free to be as obscure as you want, include anime, foreign films and anything you want. I leave defining what is and is not SF up to you. Screw the non geeks. What I want is to watch some good SF out there. Stuff that even I might be ignorant about.
Let’s make this a list of worthwhile cinematic works of Fantastyka – speculative fiction, fantasy, horror – whatever. If we get some good suggestions maybe we can make it into a top N movies list or maybe a poll. Hopefully we can make this thread into a useful guide for people who are looking for something good to watch this weekend. The video game thread two weeks ago was pretty good, so let’s make this into something similar.