Here’s a v. quick post: have you been dying to see an intelligent SciFi movie or series? They are are few and far between right?! One I am waiting for on DVD is The Martian (2015), I’ve heard ok reviews and the book it was based upon had very good reviews and listening to interviews with the author, Andy Weir, it seems like a quality piece of hard scifi that had some sound engineering physics thought behind it. Hard to know whether to read the book or watch the film. Film is faster! Life is short! Therefore watch the film and sadly miss the book? Too many mathematics texts to read anyway, so the film it is [sigh]!
If I’m not feeling wide awake enough for a mathematics or physics lecture during my lunch break, I might try a bit of scifi TV or read a science blog article, or sometimes find a good movie to dip into.
And I do mean “dip into”. I eat fairly quickly, and not too huge helpings, so it’s all over in 15 minutes. And that’s about as much of a movie I can watch in one session. Heading out the the theatre is a rare event these days, and besides that, I like to watch a good movie in comparative solitude.
So every purple moon I might find an intelligent SciFi movie. But I will start watching and get nervous that any moment the story will sensationalize and lapse into horribly saccharine, physically implausible unreality. You cannot even begin writing a critique of the SciFi genre because 99% of what the film industry turns out is utter crap. That might seem too harsh, the SFX are vastly better than in days of old, but the stories are the critical component of any good film or book. And it is the plot, the dialogue, and the whole story structure that really sucks in just about every recent Scifi film I have seen in the past decade or more. (Hold on now, I am getting to a good recommendation.)
The problem I think is that the improvements in SFX have outpaced improvements in screenplays. Older screenplays could be just as good or a lot better than modern scripts because the focus in the old days had to be on stories because the SFX totally sucked. Take Star Trek as an example. The modern Star Trek stories have a lot more fancy CGI and the screenplays use a lot more modern science ideas, so they seem pretty cool compared to the camp TV series. Similar comments could be made about Doctor Who, another generation spanning SciFi series. But if you analyse them a little more deeply, and think about the dialogue and the psychology, not a lot has really improved. The dialogue in Start Trek Into the Darkness (2013) was fairly childish. Whenever a cool science point could be made the pseudo-science explanations lapsed perhaps into even worse quasi-science than the dialogues from the original TV series. They just use a few more modern science buzz-words. The actual meat of the scifi science explanations is often a lot worse. The logic is a lot worse, the liberties taken with reality more extreme. (Recall the “photon torpedo”? … OMG, … let’s not even go there!) The Star Trek franchise should be consulting the chap who wrote the Science of Star Trek books, or Michio Kaku, who can rhapsodize endlessly about plausible scifi science.
I could write a long essay on this, but I won’t.
Can I then get to my recommendation?
Sure dude. Just hang on one more minute though. The thing is, I suspect, what makes a really good scifi story is one that dials back the fantasy and aims for a lot of hard realism. So something like the “near future” genre is always promising, but using plausible and reasonable extrapolations of current science. Especially stories that obey the principles of conservation of energy, momentum, and the second law of thermodynamics. Those are perhaps the most blatantly violated principles of science that bad SciFi movies in particular routinely abuse. My point is that if you discipline your story to obey just these three principles then you will be constraining your plot. Such constraints are beautiful things. It forces the other human aspects of your story to be more powerful and it helps make the audience more involved and engaged, even if the average audience member is not aware of the principles. (I lose count of the number of CGI-mediated violations of conservation of momentum in crashes and fight scenes. Each instance just makes me more and more nauseous. even fairly serious film makers like Peter Jackson, routinely violate conservation of momentum — both linear and rotational — in their CGI spectaculars.)
So when someone makes a SciFi film that does not even begin to worry about spectacular CGI, then I am extremely interested. So here is the recommendation: go and grab a copy of Robot and Frank (2012).
I have only seen the first 15 minutes, so I am still nervous the plot will get derailed later by unrealistic physics or computer science. But I think this is one film I can happily watch to the end based on the story premise. Give it a go.
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I guess it is possible the artificial intelligence postulates in this movie will degenerate into implausibility, but over the next week of lunch breaks I’ll risk it. 🙂