American and European Thought & Culture in Science Fiction
May 18th, 2010
Science Fiction Cinema's Addiction to Violence
If one looks at the science fiction films released in 2009, one common characteristic is violence. Across the board, every single science fiction film released by a major studio featured various amounts of action and mayhem. The only non-violent films, such as Moon and Sleep Dealer, were independent productions that were never given wide release. So, it appears that the science fiction genre has become fundamentally violent. Where does this violence stem from? Sometimes extreme violence is used satirically to test on the audience's desensitization. These movies are often somewhat hypocritical, as they glorify the same thing they deplore. In worse cases, sci-fi movies begin thoughtfully but devolve into action or horror cliches. And in some cases, the film is so reliant on action and death that the genre seems to be fundamentally a violent one. The apocalypse and dystopia setting is ripe with potential for death. But aliens and robots are not necessarily violent creatures, yet are invariably portrayed as such. This essay will seek out the current incarnations of violence in the genre, and use box office figures and movie trailers to show how the movie industry has created a necessity for violence in marketing, if not all science-fiction film.
At the risk of mass generalizing, violence in science fiction typically serves one of several purposes. At its best, violence is used as commentary on violence in the real world. Seemingly silly action movies such as Repo Men, Gamer, and Starship Troopers all use pervasive, graphic violence to paint pictures of societies completely desensitized to death. These films do not neuter the on-screen carnage. Instead, satire is magnifying violence to such large levels the audience cannot ignore its presence. In Gamer, inmates on death row are thrown into "Slayers,"a real-life first-person shooter video game. Dead bodies may disappear in actual video games, but in this slaughterhouse giant snow plows clear the body parts off the roads and away from video cameras recording the action. Even silly cartoons like Superjail use a similar approach towards the prison industrial complex. The health care system that currently sacrifices human ethics for profit is exaggerated in Repo Men to the point that the titular employees hunt down patients who can't pay their bills. They proceed to remove artificial, thus still financially viable organs, from the patients corpse. And in Starship Troopers, the film excuses its violent nature by presenting the story as a propaganda infomercial for a fascist regime. The brutal comic book adaptation 300 played a similar trick. By having the film narrated by a captain trying to rile up his soldiers before a battle, the film openly acknowledges its fundamentally violent nature.
Other science fiction films seem to resort to violence to create false suspense. District 9 begins as an ingenious mockumentary before morphing into a much more typical shoot 'em up. Huge amounts of set up and exposition are given in the initial thirty minutes. Parallels to the apartheid and countless other instances of inhumanity are made by using aliens as the victims. As the narrative shifts into a more traditional story, guns that explode people take center stage. At first the evil corporations are vilified for researching these weapons. But when the film asks the audience to cheer on the hero annihilate the same foes with such guns, the film becomes hypocritical.
Sunshine suffers from an ending that also attempts to create thrills through endless death. Eight astronauts are on a mission to detonate a massive bomb to restart the sun. That premise promises the potential for plenty of peril. In between more verbal scenes, Sunshine piles on the suspense when the crew members must attempt to repair one part of the ship after another. When the crew eventually lands on the original, marooned ship, someone jokes that they might get killed off one by one. That's basically what happens for the last third of Sunshine: the only surviving crew member happens to be a bloodthirsty psychopath. One can only assume a lack of imagination, or perhaps script re-writes, forced the filmmakers to tread such familiar, lazy ground.
In fact, ever since Alien frightened audiences in 1979, there have been countless rip-offs. Assorted crew members float along a giant space ship. Crew members encounter mystery. Mystery turns out to be an ornery monster that eats them one at a time. It wasn't the first time this story was told (credit must be due to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None) but the influence of Alien on the genre should not be underestimated. Alien represents a third, more frequent form of violence: violence moving the story forward. Intrepid astronauts having to avoid death has been oft-repeated by countless rip-offs: Supernova, The Thing, Event Horizon, Sunshine, Jason X, Pandorum, Star Trek: First Contact, and many, many, many more.
Are science fiction films violent because the material is fundamentally so? The apocalypse is a primary theme of the genre, requiring the majority of mankind dies. Afterwards, the survivors tend to kill each other off too (Book of Eli, The Road, The Road Warrior, etc.) Likewise, body transformation is arguably a fundamentally violent change. Films such as The Thing, The Fly, and Star Trek: First Contact embrace this theory. But why must so many aliens arrive intent on destroying us? Non-violent aliens like the ones in The Day the Earth Stood Still are a rare breed compared to the war-monger aliens inspired by War of the Worlds. In 1950s films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, aliens stood in for Communist subversion. Perhaps the alien invasion fable has remained so potent because there are always new enemies to fear, most of all the unknown. Likewise, there are countless instances where robots run amok. The Terminator, Blade Runner, Westworld, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix all push a fear of technology turning on us. Perhaps this is simply the most narratively efficient strategy out there.
After all, where sci-fi literature has more freedom to be speculative, American cinema is constrained by a widespread desire to entertain. In our current society, entertainment and violence are intertwined. Even the sci-fi films that criticize violence seem required to use it as a tool for action scenes. In 2009, the two biggest films of the year were both science fiction actioners. Both Avatar and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen dilute science theory in the name of plenty of digital pyrotechnics. There is very little to speculate about alien robots who do little more than turn into cars and hit one another. When these giant machines begin to brawl, there is, however, plenty to passively stare at.
Even science fiction films that don't have action scenes seem compelled in their marketing to sell themselves as such. The following trailers, for thoughtful science fiction dramas, sell their films as thrillers:
This false advertising stems from the idea that science fiction films need action beats in order to sell to the mainstream. Science fiction films that rely heavily on satire don't make nearly as much money as the ones that focus on adventure. Compare these two lists of movies:
boxofficemojo.com....htm vs. boxofficemojo.com.htm
The one notable exception is The Truman Show. Its trailer confidently sold a relatable premise--what if your life was just an enormous reality TV hoax--with Jim Carry, one of the most reliable stars at the time, in the lead role. The Truman Show is noted for its prescience. It came out just before shows like Survivor made reality television the norm. A combination of bold marketing, a big star, and a concept that later products proved profitable, led to The Truman Show being the rare comedic science fiction satire that sells.
Will Smith, currently the most bankable star in Hollywood, could do the same. Unfortunately, his films I, Robot and I Am Legend were both much more action-oriented than the source material. He carries on Arnold Schwarzenegger's tradition of making big, entertaining, and occasionally smart science fiction. Arnold was in fact originally planning on starring in I Am Legend ten years earlier. Both Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr. Smith have made many quality science fiction films. And in every single one of them, they shoot very big guns.