In today’s world, there is almost nothing seen in the mainstream that is not taking elements from something else. Everything is somewhat derivative of its predecessors, and this framework has been fairly rigid over the last 100 years. Even when you look at some of the earliest forms of media, you can see that the same framework, ideas, and symbols are still being used today. This is where genre comes in. Specifically in regards to film, there are 11 genres that mainstream film can be categorized into some way, whether it be something as broad as comedy or as specific as a spaghetti-western. A lot of the generic tropes we see in film today come from literary and theatrical genres, but they have evolved their own specific images and tropes which can be seen in: the scores of many genre pieces, the diversity of production design, and the particular way different actors approach certain works. Certain conventions of genre have changed over time to fit into current cultural trends, but overall the main tenants have stood firm.
Genre itself can be seen as wavering as trends have come and gone, and though it may seem as if the entire gamut have ideas have been run through, this is far from the case. Everyday storytellers are finding creative ways to tackle familiar and relatable subjects, and where genre comes in now is less so dictating the pace of the story. Instead, the story is controlling the genre. Science-fiction fits this trend perfectly, as the genre itself was pushed to its limits many years ago and many films have emerged in the years since that put the genre under intense scrutiny. Films in other genres have both critiqued and made heartfelt odes to their respective genres, but what is particularly fascinating about science-fiction is that as a genre, one of the core tenants is earnest examination. Science-fiction films dig into not only humanity and society, but also the genre fixtures that it has come to rely on.
Structure and Deconstruction of Genre
Genre can be determined through similar narrative structures, iconography, and the overall aesthetic of the film. Westerns can be delineated from film noir based on these factors, but what makes storytelling so complex is that the conventions of both can be subverted. It is in these subversions where some of the most interesting stories can be told. One of the most iconic films to do this is Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), an artfully crafted blend of science-fiction and horror. The tropes of the genre that have existed for so long—futuristic technology, outer space, aliens, androids—were all used and deconstructed to emphasize the dread and terror that Scott wished to inflict on the audience. The genre—in my understanding—is one centering on the seedy underbelly of the future and the evolutions that society has undertaken, putting human fears front and center. Science-fiction was Scott’s vehicle to tell this story of worker exploitation and sexual violence, and the claustrophobia and isolation that one can feel in these circumstances is wholly ingrained in the spaceship setting, making it perfect for his film. This is an example of the genre’s conventions being used in a way that fits into the established model while expanding on them in narratively and visually compelling ways. Horror has always been somewhat related to science-fiction in that it is examining speculative futures that are constructed by society’s anxieties, and an attempt is made to find what truly makes us human. Where films like Alien succeed though while others fail is in their exploration of the cracks in the genre. Genre is fallible, and there are points where it breaks. Science-fiction has been notorious for taking these breakages and analyzing them—pushing the boundaries—but where the genre has gone in the last decade that it had generally left previously unexplored, is not what the events the future hold for us, but what we as humans hold for the future.
A recent film that demonstrates the use of the science-fiction world to dive into the human psyche is James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019). The film follows astronaut Roy McBride who is sent on a mission to find the source of mysterious power surges that are a threat to human life. The film follows astronaut Roy McBride who is sent on a mission to find the source of mysterious power surges that are a threat to human life. The source of these surges had been traced to a mission that his father was on approximately 30 years ago that had been silent for the last 16 years. It was believed that his father was dead, but now they may believe he is alive and related to the surges. This description simplifies much of the technological jargon that exists in the film, but this is simply the accoutrements of the film. The actual nucleus of the story is the isolation that Roy has felt and the unemotional man that he evolved into. Without his father, whether he be light-years off in space or simply not nurturing, Roy grew up alienated from his more sensitive side and instead grew into a jaded masculine figure that has been absent from his own family’s life. The film also examines humanity’s collective fears regarding the potential for other life and the desire for purpose in a listless world. Science-fiction has had its faults—such as its tendencies to focus on the worlds rather than the individuals—broken up by a multitude of other films over the last few decades. Though Ad Astra may not challenge the status quo of science-fiction to the same degree as others, instead of boiling down its themes into a world of cold figures alienated from any semblance of humanity, it focuses on the individual Roy and his father who, much like the genre itself, seeks transcendence and a greater perspective of the entire world.
How Approachable Can a Genre Be?
A more widely known science-fiction film that wears the tropes of the genre on its sleeve is James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). The film goes down the more dystopian lane of science-fiction as humanity is forced to look beyond the stars for refuge and resources, and it lands in the lush, undisturbed moon of Pandora. The film tackles themes of colonialism and exploitation as well as ideas of mechanized warfare. Narratives surrounding these themes in a film could have them easily be boiled down to a tired good vs bad story and feel moralizing, but what Avatar does with the help of the genre is turn it into an immersive film where the issues are given weight and the viewers are not passive, but actively engaged. Much like the avatar machine that transports the humans into a Na’vi body, the viewer is similarly transported into the film and feels the gravity of the conflict first hand. Where postmodern science-fiction films like Blade Runner (1982) blend a multitude of genre signifiers and lifts from other genres such as film noir to service its theme of identity, films like Avatar use the generic tropes to create a story that still probes the question of what makes us human. An additional way to examine the film and the genre tropes it falls into is the film’s relationship with weapons. Technologically advanced weapons have been a part of science-fiction since the beginning with films like Flash Gordon (1936), but as time went on, advanced weapons inflicting higher and higher levels of carnage became the norm, seen in films like James Cameron’s own Terminator (1984). These weapons and their users are posed as evil, but they are still framed in a voyeuristic light where their action is a visual spectacle. This use of weapons would be parodied in films like Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997), but their use would continue and become the norm for years to come. Cameron attempted to portray machinery and weapons as an evil in Avatar, but what he characterized as the ultimate evil was the exploiter, the human behind the gun that was willing to turn it on other life. This moralistic positioning is not unique to Avatar, but what makes it unique is that this positioning sticks throughout the film, and the boundaries of science-fiction are not breached to reach it. The genre and its speculative look into the future as well as its iconography is used in full force instead of skirted around, and a story that is easily understood and approachable is produced.
On the opposite end of being approachable, two science-fiction films that explore similar ideas to one another are Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014). Both films, contrary to the genre’s norm of high-budget spectacle, are more reserved in the futures they explore in that they both are on Earth and their future is not far from our own. The feelings of isolation and alienation are central to both films, and they coalesce to uncover what exactly it means to be human. Under the Skin follows an alien that becomes increasingly curious with humans and what separates itself from them; Ex Machina meanwhile tells the story of an artificial intelligence that fully develops consciousness and escapes the confines of the facility that she is in. What it means to be human sits at the core of both of these works, and though both of them have feminist themes as they counter the tropes of the submissive and passive female character, the theme that shines most brightly is that of empathy and connection. The science-fiction setting is present and both films, instead of having the genre take over the story, use it to support their larger narrative. Had these films been approached from a traditional science-fiction first perspective, the events of both films would be just the beginning; these new films would use them as stepping stones to ask questions such as what would Earth look like if aliens or artificial-intelligence were living among us and disrupting our society. What makes us human would still be analyzed in these films, but the toned-down and intimate exploration that leaves us with more questions and ambiguous answers gets more to our reality than any alternative would.
The Interpretation of Genre
All of these films and many more both use and are used by the science-fiction genre to creatively tell stories, entertaining and challenging audiences all along the way. Media is complicated and something that can complicate it even further is the way that we try and understand it, or how it tries to understand itself. Genre is certainly a consideration for a viewer when they are determining whether they want to see something, so even in a world where genre is broken and any film can surprise you, it can be used to filter out some while closing in on others.
Similarly filmmakers can feel restrained by some genres while empowered by others, and science-fiction is one that I feel empowers filmmakers to tell some of the most personal stories that they can tell. The far-off and futuristic, the alien, the abstract, can oftentimes feel the most human. Genre is broken, but really what this means is that the signifier and the signified are more open to interpretation from both filmmakers and viewers than ever before. Whatever “genre” something may be, does not restrict but rather opens the film up to be appreciated from a variety of perspectives.