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Many elements factor into the production of a great movie. To list a few, you’ll usually need an interesting script, motivated actors, creative direction and precise editing to make a movie that people will love.

For certain genres, the focus of efforts is often put into different areas so that the film can appeal to its target audience and get across its meaning as smoothly as possible. Horror movies often focus on scares, action movies on effects and editing, and dramas might only need exceptional acting to be a success.

What is it, then, that makes a great science fiction movie? Is there a formula that all classics of the genre follow, or is breaking the rules precisely what makes movies about space and time so inspiring, so thought-provoking, and so thrilling?

Some would argue that an intriguing story is the base of every great sci-fi movie. Sci-fi is best when it plays with our perceptions of our universe, and has us dwell on where we are now and where we’ll go in the future.

Take, for example, last year’s Her, a futuristic love story about a man who falls in love with his operating system (personified with the voice of Scarlett Johansson) that won Spike Jonze the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Besides creative production design, the film didn’t require expensive effects or profound cinematography to sell us its meaning.

Compare that to Gravity, an infinitely more expensive production that swept all the technical awards categories, and focused far more on the pure spectacle and dangers of space with a story about as deep as the paper it was printed on. HER

Many would call Her better science fiction, while others would argue on the side of Gravity. What it all boils down to is our perception of what makes sci-fi great – substance or spectacle. Granted, Her is not void of spectacle nor Gravity of substance, but the focus is certainly different in each. The end result of each focus is a dramatic, emotional and thoughtful romantic drama in one movie and a scary, involving and inspirational thriller in the other.

Which of the films, then, is truer to the genre?

For me it has to be Gravity, though that does not make it the better film. When I think of Her I do not immediately think of science fiction – the film is a romance in futuristic clothing – but I could compare Gravity to 2001, Avatar, Star Wars, Close Encounters and most of the other seminal sci-fi movies in a heartbeat.

Good sci-fi does make us think, but it also motivates, excites, and inspires us. It is not interested in facts and realism but in appealing to our senses and our faculties for wonder and awe. People didn’t watch Avatar for the story – we have Pocahontas for that – but for the groundbreaking visuals and boundless artistry. Star Wars ranks amongst the greatest movies ever made because it is shamelessly fun and filled with adventure; it makes us want to go out and explore the world, and grasp every opportunity we get.

Such characteristics make sci-fi the ultimate film genre, the only genre that can truly capitalize on everything that makes film unique. Good sci-fi plays to all of our senses and emotions, and is romantic and enlightening. Film, the medium that combines narrative with visual and audible spectacle, is the perfect medium for science fiction, the ultimate genre of escapism. If a film ever inspires me to change the world, it will be a wondrous science fiction film full of ambiguous imagery and magical diversity, not a drama with completely believable elements. How can certainty inspire change?

sci fi

To attempt to answer the question I put in the title, a sci-fi movie need not have a specific combination of substance and spectacle, but needs to have both to truly be great.

Spectacle, I feel, is more important, it being the selling point of the cinema, but no one is ever going to complain about a film having a good story.

What’s ultimately important in science fiction is its ability to inspire and elevate, to send the kind of shiver down our spines that makes us feel part of something grand and beautiful. The universe is incalculably huge and time goes on for eternity; sci-fi is our attempt to celebrate this infinity. My point, then, is that sci-fi need not value realism as much as it should value creativity and, yes, spectacle. 

Written by guest writer Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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