I missed Moon at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and I was bummed, because it looks like the first “proper” science fiction film since Gattaca. My friends have heard my sci-fi film rant before, and I’ve mellowed a lot, but it boils down to this: science fiction isn’t just a backdrop.
Isaac Asimov called science fiction a “flavour” that can be added to any genre – best-loved Robot books are detective stories – but that flavour isn’t just the superficial set of tropes: space exploration, time travel, aliens, a future setting and so on. A film (or a story in any media, for that matter) can have some or all of those and not be science fiction.
Science fiction is about exploring possibilities, about asking “what if…?” and answering “then maybe…” Every great science fiction work explores the human answers to the technological and social questions they raise. “What if we invented robots that could truly do the work of any human?” “What if we colonised Mars?” “What if our population continues to grow at its current rate?”
Moon promises to do something like this, and using reasonable science (rather than technobabble) to boot. I don’t want to give much away – the trailer spoils the key premise of the film, but if you haven’t seen it it’d probably be more fun to go in blind – but Sam is a solitary worker on the moon, running a largely automated mining operation. His situation could be the setting for any type of film, but it’s “proper” science fiction because of its exploration of the effect his situation has on him, and its wider social and ethical implications.
I didn’t miss District 9, and I was cautiously optimistic. A spaceship comes to Earth and hovers above Johannesburg – no message, no destruction, not even any motion. Eventually the authorities land on it and cut their way in, revealing squalid conditions and a population of bipedal, crustacean-like aliens who don’t resist being moved into a camp on the ground, called “District 9”. It’s a pretty clear allegory for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, especially here in Australia where we do keep those a large number of asylum seekers in detention centres for an unspecified time. (And, until recently, billed them for this – though thankfully this practice has just been abolished by the current government.) It devolves into a bit of a shoot-’em-up towards the end, but the emotional journey of the protagonist – forced by an accident to appreciate how the alien “prawns” feel – isn’t compromised. It’s pretty good science fiction, if not terribly deep and far too wobbly. (My beloved felt quite ill through most of it, thanks to the incessant shaky-cam.)
This isn’t to say I disapprove of pure entertainment, even when it uses science fiction tropes. I enjoy Star Wars (by which I mean Episodes IV-VI) as much as any card-carrying geek, it clearly isn’t science fiction, falling more into the science fantasy/space opera camp. Its story is mostly drawn from classical mythology and American history (in case you’re wondering about the latter, I don’t think it’s an accident that nearly all the Imperial officers have British accents, while all the rebels are Americans – though quite how Alec Guinness fits in I’ve never been able to work out).
I bring this up because of a little thing called Suburban Knights. Star Wars is full of cool ideas developed badly (especially in the case of Episodes I-III), and while there are a lot of fan-films out there, most of them don’t do anything new or interesting with those cool ideas. Most of them ape the original films, and not just the lightsabers and costumes – they even re-use or mash-up the dialogue, often to awful clunky effect. Suburban Knights is different: it takes a cool idea – Jedi Knights battling evil Sith – and takes it entirely out of the Star Wars context. Obi-Wanker and Darth Death are not Star Wars characters, even if they do throw lightsabers and Force lightning at each other. They’re more like the archetypal wanker and bogan, in Australian terms, but with Force powers.
What does this have to do with me, I hear you ask? Well, Suburban Knights Episode Two: Death Crush is about to get a premiere in Melbourne – and yours truly is in it. I won’t give anything away, but you should definitely check out the Suburban Knights web site, where you can watch the first episode and find details about the premiere. Note that it’s invite-only, but if you’re keen to come along and see both episodes of Suburban Knights, then please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll see what I can do.