Sci-Fi Circuit: Movies with a Message

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One of the primary reasons I love sci-fi is that it provides a powerful vehicle for exploring social issues that might otherwise be too politically incorrect to tackle head on. I cut my sci-fi teeth watching Star Trek, which is known for its many messages and moral explorations, and I’m quite sure that it hugely influenced my own perspectives on how we treat each other on this small planet we call home.

Although many people argue that of the Star Trek series the Voyager story lines in particular were too heavy-handed with their moral overtones, I adored watching Captain Janeway tackle issues of ethnicity, equality, sexism, and more. I loved that she was a female in the captain’s chair, one with a strong mind and moral compass. Yes, I’ve seen articles bashing her moral inconsistency online. Yes, I’ve seen arguments that she’s the worst captain of them all, that her decisions were questionable, etc. etc. I don’t care. I loved her, and I loved watching her think. (My only complaint about Janeway was that she was rather asexual, rarely (if ever) getting involved romantically, nor having children.) The fact that her character has sparked such debates about whether her morality was consistent shows that her moral explorations were a central hallmark of the show.

The Messages of Elysium

ElysiumRecently, watching Elysium, I was again struck by the power of how well a message can be delivered with science fiction. Elysium gives a rather direct illustration of social inequality, of the haves and the have-nots, and the desperation forced on the people who have less — they’ll do anything, rush across guarded borders at the risk of their own lives to get what they need. In Elysium, it’s miraculous medical care that can cure anything instantly that drives much of the struggle.

The parallels between our current world and this invented world are crystal clear. Some of us have more than others, and we aren’t willing to share it with those who don’t. In fact, we’ll fight hard to keep those who don’t from having it, even if it means taking lives. And to people without Western medical care, our own level of access must look like the most miraculous of resources. Look, let’s face it, in the Western world, we take so much for granted. This movie picks up that reality and puts it right in our faces.

What Worked

What I thought Neil Blomkamp did so brilliantly was to SHOW us the contrast. There wasn’t a lot of pontificating or exposition about how unfair the medical system was, or the pain, struggle, and risks people faced to get care, but he illustrated that lack through the action of the story. Whether or not you think Elysium was a good storytelling, Blomkamp put us right into the position of feeling the unfairness. The closing scene, which finally shifts the inequity, left me thinking, “Why didn’t they do that before?” And indeed, why can’t we do that now? He leads us to ask the questions OURSELVES.

To me, this is the essence of sharing a powerful message. To illustrate it clearly, and to design it such a way that the audience itself can’t help but questioning the way things are.

The Power of District 9

district9I had a similar experience watching Blomkamp’s District 9. Again, it portrayed an obvious example of the social inequities and racism in South Africa. The story didn’t tell us it was wrong, it just showed us. And the chilling tale of a man caught up in the apartheid-driven events only illustrated the story at an even deeper level.

Blomkamp showed us not only the bad behavior of our own past, but also where we are highly likely to go under similar circumstances. I felt entirely convinced by his depiction of one possible way human-alien relations could play out.

And again, I felt that he delivered the message in such a way that left me asking questions and wondering how we would react, what we would do, and what we are and are not doing right now. Bam!

Not So Much With Avatar

avatarOn the other hand, as much I loved Avatar, I felt the many, many messages of spirituality, corporate greed, private militarism, and environmentalism (among others) were heavy-handed and hard to swallow. Just when I was hit by one message, another would come along.

And what’s the difference? Is the core of the problem just the sheer quantity of message-laden scenes in Avatar? Or did it just fail to deliver fully on an emotional level? Again, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie very much, but at the same time, there were some very awkward notes hit along the way. (I still can’t get that scene out of my mind where they first introduce the concept of extracting the “unobtanium” from under the Hometree.)

Just One Message?

I’m reminded of Chris Soth’s interview with me for Sci-Fi Circuit, where he mentioned the importance of changing only one thing in the sci-fi world in order to have the greatest impact, to avoid watering the story down, and to keep from wandering into fantasy instead of sci-fi. Perhaps the same is true for movies with a message: Focus on one core message and illustrate that with your storytelling, lest it becomes too on-the-nose, preachy, or heavy-handed.

Perhaps the adage “show don’t tell” is the key here.

What are your favorite examples of messages in sci-fi movies? What made them work?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “Sci-Fi Circuit: Movies with a Message

  1. jeffguenther

    Theme is a single issue or question about the human condition that is explored by the work from all sides. It is naive to assume that merely showing instead of telling is sufficient to convert propaganda into art or PC drivel into literature. Even Nazi propaganda films showed those who opposed them as evil just as clearly and crudely as if they’d told it by spelling it out on title cards.

    To fully explore an issue, the positives and negatives of each POV must be made clear. Viewers must not be transparently manipulated to reach the writer’s desired conclusion; viewers must decide which POV is most valid based on a full and honest exposition of the issue. This may be difficult.

    A project without nuance wherein one side is all evil ab origine and the other purely good is doomed to become a ¿how-many-fish-in-a-barrel-can-you-kill-with-a-shotgun exercise. There’s not a lot of sport in such PC plots.

    In Forbidden Planet, the theme is the flawed nature of humankind, flawed in such a way that merely increasing our knowledge or intelligence can’t prevent the eruption of evil, and may instead expedite it. Even the use of intelligence to prevent evil can be dangerous. Often, intelligence is only a tool to rationalize pure self-will.

    See The Dark Crystal and Schindler’s List for examples of nuanced villainy.

  2. DamonNomad


    Your article sucked! Just joshin’. I can respect criticism when the critic admits to enjoying a movie for what it was intended to do, yet have problems with many things in the movie. I too enjoyed Avatar — only because I went into it for the visuals and knew the story was going to be a stretch. I’m still trying to figure out how those city-size “boulders” defied gravity. I hope they didn’t use the electro-magnetic field, which is what I remember the reasoning was. That would create more problems than the levitation thing.

    Good point you make about messages. Though I’m aware of how to avoid heavy-handedness, it’s good to be reminded of its pitfalls. My technique (which I’m sure I adopted from my readings) is to never, ever, say the message. At best, allude to it. Even better, perform the message. And I think you know you got it right when people argue/debate over what the message is.

    Thanks for the reminder. It was a nice slap for me as I need to do one last polish of my script before I hand it in to my agent. In case you’re wondering, my script is about a man who returns home from military deployment and discovers his wife murdered and his daughter kidnapped — with a most unusual ransom demand, which the man knows he can’t deliver. You think this has any chance in the marketplace?

  3. K. Rowe

    Great article.

    I have wrestled with some of the messages in my “Space” series of novels. The first book, Space Crazy, delves into the past life of the main character and what makes him tick. He’s a half-breed alien, and as such, isn’t tolerated too well on his home planet. He’s constantly being bullied, beaten, and discriminated upon because of his breeding. I chose to follow that theme in the next two books, where he calls the stars home in hopes of changing his life and fleeing the discrimination of the past. He finds, however, that no matter where he goes, he’s looked down upon. His lifelong dream is to simply be accepted by those he considers his species, and it takes a monumental effort to finally get that approval.

    Despite everything going on in society today, discrimination is still a large nasty smear in our world. Each and every one of us deals with it, some have it easier than others. It’s a shame to say that we have to deal with the issue at all. Life would be so much easier if we didn’t have that to contend with.

    Yes, sci-fi is a wonderful outlet to handle some of the edgier social and moral issues that we face as Earthlings.