Popular Sci-Fi Films: What Makes Them So Great?

November 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

What makes a science fiction movie critically acclaimed and monetarily successful, and what makes one a box office flop? Why do we respond so positively to some films and not to others? And why has the popularity of mainstream sci-fi relatively increased recently?

First, there’s something to be said for the advent of more sophisticated technology that allows directors and producers to execute their visions more thoughtfully. No longer do we rely on cheesy costumes to bring alien monsters to life- CGI can handle that. Claymation planets (a la The Twilight Zone) are a thing of the past, replaced by detailed set designs and animation. As these films increased in quality, they increased in believability and popularity as well.

Actual image from an episode of The Twilight Zone.

It’s no secret that studios have been pouring more and more money into special effects recently; the proof is easily seen. Avatar, released in 2009, had special effects that were revolutionary at the time, mixing animation and live-action with part of what amounted to their $237 million budget. However, a critical eye might consider the animation “unrealistic” by today’s standards. The art of animation and special effects that is growing so quickly has contributed much to an increase in the quality and thus popularity of these films.

Science fiction has, in my humble opinion, slowly become more relatable. Seeking wider audiences, networks pushed writers and directors to make more universal movies, ones that didn’t require extensive knowledge of science or detailed histories of characters. People who didn’t consider themselves “sci-fi fans” flocked to Avatar and Her not because their genre resonated with them, but because their critically-acclaimed content did.

Science fiction movies focus on love, climate change, impending doom, friendship, teamwork, good versus evil, and any other commonly used thematic trope in cinema. These films now generally occupy a space wherein their scientific aspects are mere dressing to the philosophically- and emotionally-impactful features. Take Avatar as an example. Yes, the Na’vi live on a moon in a different solar system, and the humans inhabit Na’vi bodies by scientific means. However, one could argue that many resonate with the film because of its messages about the treatment of our natural ecosystems, the importance of family, and cultural differences. While clearly a work of science fiction, part of what people loved about Avatar operated independently of its scientific features.

On the other hand, many movies in the science fiction genre are critically panned. With one quick Google search, you can find list upon list of the “worst sci-fi movies” (the Internet is a magical place!). One such film is 2012, which follows a family attempting to escape certain death as the world ends. I consider this to land safely in the sci-fi genre if only because it makes heavy use of quasi-scientific jargon (and the main character is a science fiction writer, coincidentally).Many critics found the film’s plot and screenplay to be derivative, but audiences were entranced; the film made $769.7 million, despite mixed reviews.

Once again, I give credit to big-budget special effects and a wide-reaching plot that allowed audience to forget that the movie included scientific themes. They make the science fiction more relatable and palatable to an increasingly diverse audience, one that often doesn’t care about the genre of a film as long as it’s entertaining.

–JR

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