I have a theory that there is a fundamental thematic difference between cinematic and literary science fiction. It's a gross generalization, I'll admit, but nonetheless one that I often find useful. It has to do with the different mediums' response to what I call the "intrusion."
In (a large degree of) cinematic science fiction, there is the threat of some "intrusion" on the status quo - an imminent alien invasion, an asteroid on a collision course with earth, a man who has discovered invisibility and is now stalking his friends, an unstable person given access to dangerous knowledge or new weapons, etc... The narrative that follows will be about how our heroes prevent this intrusion and return us to the normal world of the status quo. How do they stop the comet? How do they catch the monster? How do they defeat the aliens? In other words, how do we get things back to normal. For the span of the movie, we've taken the toys out of the box, played with them for an hour or two, but when we finish, we're required to put them all back as close to how we found them as possible, and the audience can go home, reassured that the world is once again as it should be.
Whereas, in (a large portion of) science fiction literature, the "intrusion" has already happened and it is the consequences which must be dealt with. And in so doing, some aspect of humanity is examined through the lens of the extrapolation. So, a comet has hit the earth, wiped out 90% of the population and created a nuclear winter. It's now 100 years later and civilization is just now reemerging. What challenges do the survivors face? Aliens have invaded, it's 300 years later, and Earth is now a planet home to two species. How do they get along? Half the population has been turned invisible. What does this do for society as a whole? How must life adjust and function? Would you hire an employee you couldn't see? Would you mind if the invisible boy dated your teenage daughter? Would it bother you if their kids were only partially visible? Do you see what I'm getting at? In other words, the status quo has been irrevocably altered. Now what do our attempts to carry on reveal about our nature? What about humankind is eternal and what of that which we take for granted is actually ephemeral?
This fundamental difference in perspective is what relegates a lot of "scifi" cinema to the realm of "pure escapism," while making the best of the written genre what some have called "the literature of estrangement."
By way of example: I believe that this is one of the reasons The Matrix Trilogy so utterly failed. Granted, there were a lot of things wrong with Reloaded & Revolutions on many fronts, and to list them all here would take up quite a lot of space, but I believe we can identify one primary flaw out of which many of the others flowed.
The first film, The Matrix, is actually a very smart movie, indeed, a movie aware of the history of the science fiction genre, which borrows heavily and knowingly from the works of science fiction writers like William Gibson and Philip K Dick. To use our vocabulary, it is set up as the latter kind of story - the literary kind - but the narrative defaults in it's subsequent films to the first kind - the cinematic variety.
The first film sets up the world of 1999, the status quo, as that which must be overcome, and establishes that the action of the film will be about shattering this illusion. Neo's last words to the machines, spoken on the pay telephone, are that he is planning on revealing a world "without rules, without controls" to an unsuspecting populace. In other words, the heroes of the film - not the villains - are the intrusion. They are not trying to maintain the status quo of conventional reality. They are trying to destroy it, and the result will be a much altered world. Their victory will be achieved when they have radically altered consensus reality. Our reality.
I remember walking out of the Warner Bros. press screening in 1999 and glancing up at a slate gray sky made unusually artificial by my mood, driving back to West Hollywood and wondering if the world really was, as the Buddhists say, merely an illusion. For that evening at least, The Matrix made me question my realities, if only metaphorically. It made me wonder about the status quo.
However, the subsequent films lose all interest in this goal. We aren't shown the world of the Matrix itself as anything more than a playground for rebels and agents again, and we don't interact with anyone human still under the illusion of "reality." Instead, the focus shifts to Zion, a drab and rather boring cavern world under threat from the machines. Zion, the last human city, has endured for countless decades or even centuries in a stable tension of humans below, machines above. But now, we learn, a new crop of giant drilling machines are tunneling their way down, and suddenly Zion, which we've never cared about before, is threatened. For the next two films, the emphasis is on saving Zion, which is accomplished by forcing a truce with the invaders. In other words, a new status quo is established, and then two films are concerned with maintaining its equilibrium. So that when we end, we are right back where we started. The Matrix still exists, the machines still exist, Zion still exists, and while the war has come to what is largely implied as only a temporary halt, drab reality reigns over Neo's initial promise of a world "without controls." It's hardly the revolution that the third title promises.
The harder, more challenging trilogy to write would have been the one concerned with events inside the Matrix, where we saw the contemporary population rise up in Neo's wake, wake up to their potential, and begin to radically alter their realities according to their own desires. Where we saw the recognizable world of our own turn-of-the-century reality begin to alter. Where we saw a world without controls, where anyone could learn to fight like Bruce Lee, or leap tall buildings in a single bound, or even fly. The movie trilogy we were promised and never received was the triumph of the "intrusion" over the status quo, the movies of actual transcendence at the close of which nothing would ever be the same again. Ever. This would have kept the emotion of the first film on its upward arc, and provided a much, much more satisfying conclusion. A truly revolutionary one. That we were not given this trilogy is nothing short of a betrayal, one whose results may be, I fear, a return to Hollywood's status quo of unexceptional "scifi" films that owe little to their literary counterparts. Thanks to the Wachowski brothers, smart is the new dumb.
Oh look, is that another comet heading our way? Whatever are we going to do to stop it?