The Peculiarities of the Sci-Fi Genre
The desire to identify and describe the essence of a particular movie genre makes a researcher follow a difficult way of the search for content and specific definitions disregarding the diversity of films and their actual artistic features. Indeed, in the framework of the genre theory, it is sometimes easier to say to what genre a particular film belongs than to define the genre. Science fiction extends its area of concern in the fields of science, technology, sociology, social psychology, psychology of the person, and the economy. Thus, the purpose of the current paper is to study the sci-fi genre in movies, its peculiarities, and characteristics, as well as to explain why this genre is becoming very popular nowadays.
There are many definitions of a science fiction genre. Johnston in his book Science Fiction Film proves that “a definition of the science fiction genre from an academic perspective might focus on thematic areas around technology, science, futurism, or the figure of the Other”. At a glance, a sci-fi movie appears as an exciting space where all genres can meet and melt into the new hybrid forms with the borders typical for the documentary genre being erased. Indeed, the works that can be referred to as science fiction are simultaneously subject to other genre definitions.
Many films of this genre combine elements of science fiction and horror, visually transforming the space ships and laboratories into the equivalent houses with ghosts. Other films of this genre are reminiscent of romantic comedies as the hero conquering a woman simultaneously fights with the monster, the victory over which opens the way to the heart of a beautiful assistant of an elderly scientist. Some films have the characteristics of a psychological, ideological, or philosophical drama. At the end of such films, there may be a radical point incorporating the features of sci-fi horror, thriller, and even western. For science fiction, it is difficult to give a universal descriptive definition. It is associated with a broad spectrum of themes and subgenres, such as cyberpunk, steampunk, utopia, dystopia, and many others.
Movies that belong to the science fiction genre are movies that show science and the empirical method in its connection with people and also unite different aspects such as magic, religion, and transcendentalism. Thus, there is a constant tension between transcendentalism, which is referred to supernatural and empiricism, which is related to a sensible and practical experience. The genre of science fiction is connected with empiricism, while horror and fantasy films are more connected with transcendentalism. In her book Science Fiction Cinema, Cornea suggests that “since the interception of the science fiction film, the genre has been built upon a thematic interest in the social and philosophical delights and dangers associated with industrial, communications, and biological technologies”. It is also typical of comic books of the same genre.
Science fiction is combined with horror and fantasy and involves something unknown that is different from one’s everyday experience. James Chapman claims that “distinctions between genres are sometimes blurred”. Thus, vampires, spirits, and elves, which refer to the mythological and religious traditions, are as different from an empirical experience as the other forms of life, space, and time that are regarded as the basic concepts of modern scientific picture of the world. However, in science fiction, the state of the spectator and their attitude toward unknown is quite different. Fear and trembling give way to involvement and a belief in unknown. Therefore, science fiction is not just a fantasy without fairy, miracles, and supernatural forces. Science fiction identifies fantasy with the fact using the atmosphere of scientific probability for artistic speculation in physics, space, time, social sciences, and philosophy. To a large extent, everything different from a normal experience and portrayed on the screen is possible within scientifically established or hypothetical physical laws. Therefore, the main problem in science fiction becomes the ration of something unnatural and absolutely impossible. Finding the ways of creating incredible authenticity is a key to the perfect formula of the genre of science fiction.
The principal components of a science fiction film are conventions, iconography, campaign setting, and narrative. However, to describe a particular genre, it is necessary to select the main defining elements that create the genre formula and explain the ideology of the genre. Narrative of science fiction, which includes the main themes and stories, is based on fantastic assumptions and fiction in the sphere of natural and social sciences. There are several components that provide the focus on art in such films. The first one includes inventions, technologies, and scientific discoveries. The second is contacts with extraterrestrial life forms and non-human intelligence. The last component includes possible future, the alternative to the course of history, and the construction of models of society. The main problem is the impact of scientific assumptions on human society and the individual. The narrative of science fiction films is built around the conflict between the scientific assumptions and their potential positive or negative consequences, as well as around the paradoxes and contradictions that may arise. In this sense, any sci-fi movie becomes an embodied reflection of the scientific and human thought of time and its inception and indirectly expresses its socio-political context. Virtuality of the screen becomes the possibility of constructing the artistic reality where the most daring and controversial ideas can be tested. Such sub-genres as cyberpunk and dystopia can provide an outrunning reflection of reality and the possibility of modeling the future reflecting on the dangers of the thoughtless use of the achievements of progress and repressive forms of government and society. In its best samples, science fiction raises deep philosophical problems of morality, identity, and the nature of the human in contact with the unknown, including robots, the artificial, and extraterrestrial.
The setting – the space and time, in which the story of the film occurs – is an unreliable criterion for sci-fi movies. The action can take place in the conditional present, past, an alternative course of history, in the space of Arctic stations, and even inside the human body. Place, time, and conditions of actions are determined by the area of the fantastic assumptions and specificity of the subgenre. For science fiction as a genre, it is more important how something is shown on the screen rather than what serves as the physical environment. The same principle determines the iconography of the genre – visual presentation of objects that have an important symbolic meaning.
The problem of iconographic consideration of sci-fi films is that the technology objects are found in numerous sci-fi movies. It is even possible to create a list of sci-fi such objects as spacecraft, which are really a part of the genre. Nevertheless, such objects as a new planet, a robot, a laboratory, or nuclear devices are in fact not important to such a genre. If to consider one of the most common objects of science fiction, spacecraft, it is possible to come to a conclusion that there is no consistent and coherent set of values suggested by the image of spacecraft. This object does not work as a sign of the sci-fi movie and does not carry a large semantic load. It is deprived of accumulated symbolic power because a visual representation of the spacecraft differs from one film to another, and sometimes can be significantly different even within a single film. There are films in which spacecrafts are considered with love and optimism. In some other films of this genre, silvery smoothness of spacecraft friendly sparkles in velvety and starry beauty of mysterious but non-hostile space. There is no doubt about the perfection of technology that produced such a magnificent miracle that promises adventure, and ecstatic liberation from the gravity shackles of the Earth, sending people in the journey of the thrilling discovery of the unknown. In other films, spacecraft appears as a trap, passages of which embody a risk to humans. It appears visually cold and menacing and its interiors are hostile and gloomy. Ultimately, there are many science fiction movies without technological and other objects other than the material world. Therefore, it is a determining question how sci-fi images are presented on the screen and how they function to make a movie peculiar to the science fiction genre.
The visual world of science fiction is based on the principle of suspension of disbelief, which is fundamental for sci-fi. It is such a state of awareness of the audience, during which a person partially abandons critical thinking, neglects some knowledge about the real world, and focuses on the space of the film, forgetting about the real world. Improbability portrayed in science fiction movies is different from horror and fantasy in the fact that while sci-fi aims to ensure a viewer’s belief in the image that they see, horror and fantasy try to lead people into a state of doubt and distrust. Something that creates suspension of disbelief creates incredible authenticity that is a key to the genre. Sci-fi has a visual function and a peculiar view of the depicted. This unique perspective incorporates all the films of the genre, identifying them. Visual connections between films make sure that they do not use certain images and pictures, but use particular types of images instead. They create an artistic world, where images are removed from the real world and simultaneously are related to it. The style of sci-fi films can be defined as a conflict between familiar and alien images. This encounter is realized when the alien image becomes familiar.
These days, movies of the science fiction genre are extremely popular. Robert Ring proves that “the genre seems to have experienced a renewed public perception”. Every year, different world-famous directors make several films of this genre that become blockbusters. Thus, Steven Sanders claims that “the science fiction film has a remarkable hold on the filmgoing public”. It is associated with the fact that development of the sci-fi genre is inseparably linked with the actual scientific and technical progress as this genre is directly dependent on technologies that allow implementing fantastic images on the screen. Criticizing the development of scientific technology, sci-fi in reality initiates technological innovations. The fictional world is useful to science in expanding boundaries of the technologically presentable and potentially possible. Moreover, exciting special effects are one of the special pleasures of the genre. For many viewers, the artistic effect of sci-fi films is determined by the quality of computer graphics and staging tricks. A genre of fiction has become a showcase of cutting-edge cinematic techniques and fantastic special effects that act as a representation of the technological possibilities and not as an imitation of the technologically impossible. Sci-fi is free from the shackles of documentary realism. Therefore, sci-fi films are able to conduct a conversation on topics that people are interested in at a more abstract and symbolic level. The science fiction movies focus on a number of interrelated problems. They include inter-social issues relating to interaction between states of different social and economic systems, problems associated with the relationship between a person and society, natural and social global challenges that exist in the interaction of a man and society with nature, and many others.
Sci-fi movies are rather popular today. Such films do not have any boundaries in contrast to the films of other genres. They depict the unreal world with the use of various special effects that make a viewer plunge in the world of the unknown. The role of special effects is extremely significant in sci-fi films, while the role of time and space is not as important as the actions can be performed either in the future or in the past and present. Besides, there are no universal special effects and equipment typical for this genre. Frequently, there is connection of sci-fi movies with horror and fantasy.