Films That Aren’t The Sort Of Films You Thought They Were

It’s been a while since I had this argument, but Star Wars isn’t a science fiction film.

Wait, come back. Just because it’s set in another galaxy, with aliens and spaceships, doesn’t mean it’s science fiction. Sci-fi tends to be about hypothesising future technological advances or discoveries and the effect they have on humanity (directly or metaphorically). Star Wars isn’t about that – it’s effectively a fairy tale in space.

Yes it is – innocent farmboy becomes a hero, guided by a kindly wizard. He saves a princess. The bad guy is a big dude dressed in black armed with mystical powers. The Force is magic, the Death Star is the Dark Lord’s castle. It’s obvious.

Now, I’m far from the first person to point this out – heck, George Lucas based it all on the Hero’s Journey – but it’s worth noting. Despite Jar-Jar, despite wooden acting and horrifying wibbling about sand, my biggest problem with the prequels is that they came up with a sci-fi explanation for the Force. Suddenly it became mundane and reductionist, rather than the magic substitute it was originally. There was no need for it.

Then you’ve got the Terminator and Alien franchises – not science fiction. The first films in both series are horror – an implacable enemy from beyond that you can’t stop or reason with or understand and that you don’t stand much chance against – they’re in the same genre as Halloween or Jaws. Then their follow-ups are action movies – the bad guys could just as just as easily be terrorists. Interestingly they both have a theme of parenthood running through them…

And is Firefly/Serenity science fiction or a western? Is Hot Fuzz a western? They made Highlander sci-fi in its sequel, but that was just stupid. Transformers: The Movie is a road movie in space (so’s Star Wars according to a friend from university).

And that’s before we go really crazy. Galaxy Quest is the best Star Trek film, which isn’t that original or controversial a claim, but I’d argue that The Iron Giant is the best Superman movie. And yes, I’m including Superman: The Movie and Superman II in that.

Anyway, all this is to say that genre is a slippery thing. The trappings of a story, be they spaceships or sharks, aren’t as important as what the story is about, its themes and tropes. You can’t figure out Star Wars using the rules of science fiction, otherwise you get The Phantom Menace (you could possibly say that lots of talk about politics, punctuated by action sequences and space battles is actually more a Star Trek thing…). Terminator 2 gains something if you see it not as sci-fi, and not just as peddle-to-the-metal action, but as a screwed up ‘man’ and woman learning how to be parents.

So what are your favourite films that aren’t the sort of films you thought they were?


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