The genre of science fiction has been defined saying that it describes,
The probable consequences of some improbable or impossible transformation of the basic conditions of human (or intelligent non-human) existence. This transformation need not be brought about by a technological invention, but may involve some mutation of known biological or physical reality" (Baldick 1991, p. 200).
Another source says that:
Sci-fi tales have a prophetic nature (they often attempt to figure out the future) and are often set in a future time. They are usually visualized through fanciful settings and advanced technology gadgets, scientific developments, or by fantastic special effects" (Dirks 2002).
While these aspects of science fiction films are generally true, such as having special effects, the one aspect that makes a film science fiction is that it is not based in the current reality. Beyond this, the genre varies from films based on alternative realities, such as The Matrix, to films based on projections of what the future might be like, such as Minority Report, to films based on what science might allow to happen, such as Jurassic Park.
The history of SF feature films begins in the 1920s with Metropolis (1926), the first successful SF film (Dirks 2002). SF films continued to be made for the next two decades but without any major developments. Then in the 1950s SF films really took off, with SF films being seen as a good financial decision for the first time. This has continued up to the present time, where a significant number of successful films are in the SF genre. For example, of the top 20 grossing films of 2002, as listed by the U.S. Box Office, five can be classified as SF (MovieMarshall 2003). These films are Spider-Man, Star Wars II, Men in Black II, Minority Report, and The Ring.
The range of subjects that SF films can cover makes the genre a broad field. To consider some specific films, it is useful to break the genre down into subgroups. One recognized subgroup is alien contact. This theme first emerged in the 1951 film The Thing From Another World (Dirks 2002). SF films featuring alien contact then continued right up to the present with major films such as the recent Men in Black II (2002).
To consider the development of feature films involving alien contact, three examples will now be discussed. The first will be Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The second will be Contact (1996). The third will be the most recent, Solaris (2002).
These films will each be discussed for the purpose of showing how they fit into the SF genre, while also showing why they are all good examples of the genre, and illustrating the variability occurring in science fiction films.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is a film based on the subject of the first human contact with aliens. This alien contact is the subject that the film revolves around. However, the actual aliens are not the focus or the major part of the film. Instead, the major focus is on the human characters who are encountering these aliens. These human characters are three average people: Roy Neary, an average man who encounters an alien spacecraft while alone one evening and is then drawn to the landing place to see these aliens; Jillian Guiler, whose son is taken by the aliens and travels to the landing place with Roy to find out what happened to her son; and Claude Lacombe, the scientist who is in charge of the alien investigation.
The basis of the film in following the experiences of these three characters is what makes this film a good example of the science fiction genre. Firstly, the film is not based on a current reality, therefore making it a science fiction film. The next question is why it is an example of a good science fiction film. The answer is that it is not based only on the science fiction component.
The important point is that a science fiction film needs to have a plot. In one source the author notes the error made by directors who believe that a film will be "magically transformed into sf by the addition of sf furniture" (Harrison 1978, p. 6). In the case of Close Encounters of the Third Kind the important point is that Spielberg does not make the mistake of thinking that the aliens will make the film effective. Instead, he creates a science fiction film with a human story behind it. The three main characters are the center of the film and it is these characters that the viewer can identify with. The major point of any great film is that the audience identifies with the characters and journeys with them. This is why the film Titanic is not a documentary about how the ship sank. Instead, the basis of the film is the human love story at its center. In short, a film requires a background upon which to work from. But the film is only effective, when a human story is added that the film can follow across this background. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind the background is the impending alien encounter. The human story of the three characters travels across this background, emerging the viewer into the story. It is this feature that makes the film a good example of a science fiction film. Spielberg knows that the science fiction element is not enough to make the film effective. He adds the human drama to engage the viewer in the film, so they journey with the characters and experience the film actively, rather than passively. In short, the audience is not just viewing events, they are experiencing them on an emotional level by identifying with the characters.
The other important part of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that makes it a good example of a science fiction film is the use of special effects. This is another case where Spielberg puts special effects to good use without making the error of believing that a good movie can be created based only on special effects. Spielberg knows that special effects must serve a purpose, and that purpose is not just to create something visually appealing. If visual appeal were all that was necessary, Spielberg would be creating art, not films. Several authors describes Close Encounters of the Third Kind, along with Star Wars, as marking a turning point in films, based on the sudden acceptance of special effects in films (Gross 1995, p. 7., Sobchack 1987, p. 282). The important thing, though, is not that Spielberg used especially great special effects. The important thing is that he shows how effective special effects can be when used well. In the film, Spielberg does not uses these special effects just to create visual appeal, he uses them to create mood. This is especially apparent in the final scenes were the spacecraft arrives at the landing zone. In this scene, Spielberg uses special effects in the form of lighting and the scene has a strong visual appeal. However, this visual appeal also creates a certain mood. The entire focus of the movie is based on showing that aliens encounters are not necessarily going to be the feared event that everyone should panic over. Spielberg's perspective is that it is more likely to be a peaceful and moving event. The visual appeal effectively creates this exact response in the viewer. The beauty of the lights and the scene creates a sense of calmness and awe, rather than anything that suggests fright. The important point is that the special effects create a mood that enhances the meaning of the film. It is this effective use of special effects that resulted in the new era. Spielberg showed how special effects could create meaning and this was the basis of their success, not just the fact that it was a nice scene to look at.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Contact (1996) is another film describing the events leading up to the first human contact with alien beings. The story revolves around the main character, Ellie Arroway, an astronomer searching for alien life against all the odds, including other astronomers who consider her project a waste of time. The film follows Ellie's continual struggle just to be able to continue searching for alien life to the turning point where she does receive a signal from an alien life. This is just the beginning as Ellie than struggles against the bureaucracy just to maintain control of her project. Then, when the message is revealed to be blueprints for a machine, bureaucracy has her rejected again as the person to go on the mission to meet the alien life. Finally though, Ellie does achieve her goal and she becomes the first human being to make contact. Then on returning, the struggle continues because…