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Can Hollywood Make a Good Hard SF Movie?

Science fiction seems to be the genre of choice in Hollywood these days, but it mainly comes in the forms of superheroes or action based sci-fi. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy both types of movies when I’m in the right mood, but I’m starting to wonder if Hollywood just isn’t capble of making a good hard science fiction movie.

What is Hard SF?

Well now there’s a question. I’m not a fan of genre definitions. I think that on the whole they’re just limiting allow people to exclude more often than included. However, it’s hard to have a discussion about this without setting up some sort of baseline. So how about using Wikipedia’s definition of Hard science fiction:

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both

There’s still a lot of room for interpretation in that of course, but it gives us a starting point.

A Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far Far Away

The majority of Hollywood’s sci-fi output falls in line with the movie I just referenced, but in the past there have been instances of Hollywood making hard SF and doing a good job of it.

2001: A Space Odyssey (novel)Image via Wikipedia
The classic example is of course 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which is about as pure hard science fiction as you’re ever likely to see on screen.

Somewhat more recently there’s Blade Runner from 1982. It’s a classic all right and while hardly a faithful adaptation of the book I think it is successful in its own right as a hard SF movie.

Moving closer to the present there’s Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys which was released in 1996. It’s a little quirky of course, but its handling of time travel paradoxes puts it firmly in the hard SF field and it’s certainly popular with reviewers.

1997’s Gattaca, directed by Andrew Niccol is often held up as modern serious science fiction, but that is 11 years old now.

Spielberg has made a couple of good stabs at hard SF this decade with A.I Artificial Intelligence in 2001 and Minority Report in 2002 but I’m not sure if either of those fully qualify.

But What Have You Done For Me Lately?

So if I’m being generous we’ve had a decent hard SF movie as recently as 6 years ago and that’s despite the fact that the number of sci-fi movies being produced is clearly on the increase. Why is that? I think it’s almost fundamental to the nature of Hollywood. Success in Hollywood is not defined by critical acclaim, it’s defined by money. And in order to achieve big box office the movie has to open huge.

Hard SF doesn’t particularly lend itself to that format. There big bangs are few and far between; there’s a lack of snappy dialogue for the trailers and the plots are hard to boil down into a couple of sentences. In short, they’re not “high concept”.

There are very few directors who have the name power to even pitch these sort of projects successfully.

To The Future and Beyond

But perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic. Have I missed out on some recent movies that are good hard SF? And of course there’s always Ridley Scott’s upcoming project…

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Eoghann Irving is amongst other things the creator and Editor of Solar Flare. He has a life long interest in all forms of science fiction and fantasy and a pressing need to share this interest with anyone who will listen. Find out more at his personal website

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13 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Jeff Carroll

    Though an independent film, I believe Primer qualifies as one of the better hard SF films of the last 10 years. Its pace and sales numbers certainly support your thesis.

  2. 2004 saw the release of both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Primer. Smaller films, but both very hard SF. However, I don’t think you are asking “can Hollywood make a Hard-SF movie” so much as “an Hollywood make a *real* SF movie” - i.e., something that would actually be recognized as legitimate science fiction by readers and writers of the literature, and not just films like Star Wars which use the iconography of science fiction as the backdrop for an adventure tale. I should also point out that while I thought it was “just okay” the recent I, Robot film was indeed science fiction. And we have James Cameron’s Avatar to look forward to. While on the tv front, we have Battlestar Galactica and certain episodes of Doctor Who (anything by Steve Moffat), and there’s the George Clooney produced adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age on the horizon. Plus, isn’t Morgan Freeman attached to a film version of Rama. Future looks pretty bright from where I’m standing.

  3. warplayer

    What about James Cameron’s Avatar? Every time I hear something new about this film it excites me more. Sounds like it will be amazing.

  4. I’m not familiar with Primer so I’ll have to look that one up. Of course if it’s an indie movie it still fits into my basic argument that “Hollywood” can’t make good hard sf.

    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an interesting suggestion though. In my head I seem to have classified it as a drama and that’s maybe a presentation thing. If I look at the plot, clearly it is science fiction. I may be struggling with a personal dislike for Jim Carrey biasing me against this one.

    I’m not sure I agree about I Robot though. It feels more of a sci-fi action flick to me and that’s how I enjoyed it. I tried to divorce it as far as possible from my memories of the Asimov stories.

    I do agree that some of the best examples of science fiction in recent years have come from TV.

    Looking to the future I’d completely forgotten about Avatar which certainly has potential.

    I’m really nervous about an adaptation of The Diamond Age because I love that book and it’s going to be a tough one to adapt. But to their credit Sci-Fi channels mini-series (as opposed to their original movies) are frequently high quality.

  5. (I’m an atheist)

    I know it’s not polite to say, but most filmmakers are jewish, thus they’re religious people, or are at least strongly tied. So, almost every SF movie is somehow about magic and more than not the lead character is a “messiah” or sorts, which are still waiting for according to their mythology. That’s why SF is rarely ever SF.

    Meanwhile, most comic book films are about as SF as you can get and most focus on science fantasy. Superman is much more likely than Neo being some messiah of cyber reality or whatever the crap.

    All of this is sad to me because out of the hundreds of SF books I’ve read almost none rely on mideast mythology to wrap up the plot. I believe that when you get some different types of people in the film industry, or a rival one develops, then you’ll see different stories.

  6. While it may be the case as is commonly asserted that there are a high number of Jews in Hollywood (I’ve seen numbers like 59% thrown around, but without any validation), there’s no real evidence that they are all in fact religious people.

    Even those who are religious do not necessarily have a bias against science. The two are not diametrically opposed, no matter what some extremists on both sides of the argument like to say.

    So your argument is starting from a very flawed assumption. I’m not a fan of making statements that sweeping without some solid facts to back them up.

  7. Edghann,


    It’s difficult to escape the influences of your culture, especially when it’s fairly insulated and has been singled out by your group and others.
    It will shape your mind.

    I’m not religious, but still have an ethical system influenced by mostly Christian ideas and Asian philosophy, which was very popular when I was younger. I have absolutely no ethical and mythological influences from Amazonian tribesmen for instance. That’s because I’ve had no exposure to them.

    Just the same, if you asked an Amazonian tribesman to write a SF story, I doubt it would contain “messiah” overtones because as far as I know, there is no such concept in their belief system. This is easier to see in Japanese SF stories which tend to have their cultural ideas where the hero dies (out of the box it bad), there’s ghosts, demons, and all the stuff from their mythology. Rarely, is there a magical savior.

    As far as books go most of my favorite authors aren’t Jewish, I’m thinking of say, Iain Banks, and you never hear a peep about religion. Most seem Existentialist to me and atheist. Other than fantasy novels, I can’t think of a SF book I’ve read that has the messiah theme.

    I would assume that’s because most authors haven’t been indoctrinated into thinking that they and their cultural belief system is extraordinarily special. Rather, they’re speculating about the future, not trying to say that their present will live on in some other form.

    My argument isn’t flawed, it’s a deep, yet brief, analysis of human psychology and what shapes the mind. If you believe in the concept, it’s not a reality, that you’re “Jewish” it will carry an influential weight. The word itself is a heuristic which has a huge number of definitions attached to it. As soon as you think the word a flood of stuff comes to mind. Behavior is colored by one’s identity.

  8. JB

    I would name CONTACT as the best hard sf movie to date.

  9. And I would add Frank Herbert’s DUNE as an example of a famous work of literary SF that deals with messianic themes, as does Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, and Walter Miller’s classic A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, to name just a few.

    As to I, ROBOT - no the film had little to do with the Asimov story. In fact, the screenplay was already written when the studio realized they had rights to the book and so they just retitled it I, ROBOT and changed the characters names, and dropped in a reference to the Three Laws. Voila. But leaving aside the fact that it has nothing to do with the book, and that Asimov himself would NEVER have condoned a story in which the robots with their lack of human emotions were the BAD guys, the film is VERY reminiscent of Jack Williamson’s 1947 story, “With Folded Hands,” in which the robots take us over for our own good. In fact, had the story been called WITH FOLDED HANDS rather than I,ROBOT, I’d probably be right behind it.

    Re: Jim Carrey - I hear you. I only like him when he’s not being Jim Carrey, as in ETERNAL SUNSHINE or THE MAN IN THE MOON.

  10. Lou,

    Exceptions do not make the rule.

  11. Some more good suggestions. Contact definitely deserves to be on the list, not sure how I skipped that one. And I think I can agree that Dune is a brave if badly flawed attempt at hard SF on the big screen.

    Hmm, perhaps I should take all these suggestions along with my original ones and do a new list.

  12. CUBE was another example of a low-budget SF that at least attempted to be intelligent and philosophical. And I think that THROUGH A SCANNER DARKLY is actually the best, and most faithful, of all the Philip K Dick adaptations - but they should ALL pretty much be counted. And isn’t UBIK in development now?

  13. Oh, and I can’t believe I forgot DARK CITY. I also enjoyed BICENTENNIAL MAN, and SUNSHINE was flawed but interesting. Dan Simmons HYPERION is in development, as is a new DUNE. Ian McDonald’s RIVER OF GODS, which we published in the US at Pyr, is at least in the scripting stage, and that was a Hugo nominee. I’m not big on BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, but that should probably be counted. And Michael Gondry is now at work on the adaptation of Rudy Rucker’s MASTERS OF SPACE AND TIME. And the Coen Brothers are going to do Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, an alternate history novel which is a current Hugo-nominee and just won the Locus awards.

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