Saturday, 9 April 2011

'I am number 4', The Fringe, and Heroes - Blurring SF and fantasy

I went to see the SF film 'I am number four' [titled 'Numero 4' in France] which was supposed to be a Science Fiction film. The storyline certainly sounds like SF: a young man from another planet is being hunted down by aliens who destroyed his world. He finds he has special powers... Hmm. Hang on a minute - that last part sounds like a Marvel Comics blurb...

The hero looks and acts human, having grown up on Earth under the watchful eyes of his mentor, also from his planet, and is suffering the pangs of teenage love for a cheerleader... A Paris review said it was a cross between SF and Twilight, and I agree. It plays too much to the unrequited love aspect, including one horribly cheesy line: "unlike humans, when we love it's forever" which elicited groans from the audience, especially the girls.

There is no explanation of his powers, except the nice-and-easy 'I'm from another world' line. Doesn't cut it for me - SF should have some scientific plausibility that is not only skin deep. The TV series Heroes, which for me started off really well then lost it completely in succeeding seasons, was more fantasy than SF, but at least the heroes' 'gifts' were interesting, and the acting was better. The TV series The Fringe has more attempts to be scientific, usually by one of the characters uttering a complicated but mercifully brief pseudo-scientific - or rather, paranormal - rationale of what is happening. Sometimes this works and sounds plausible (I used to study both science and the paranormal). Other times it reminds me of the first series of Star Trek, and good old Scotty saying something like: "I cannae do it, Cap'n, the warp engine hopple scramblers just cannae take it anymore." [If you're a 2nd gen ST fan, then Scotty = Geordie, Deep Space Nine = O'Brien, etc.]. You can cheat like this on screen, never in a book, though. But I enjoy The Fringe because of the tight, gritty script, and its cheese-free diet. And I've watched DS9 four times now...

So where is the line between SF and fantasy? There is a movement in SF called 'mundane SF' which dictates that SF must be a reasonable extrapolation from what is known today about science. So, faster-than-light travel is (just about) conceivable, but you need to specify your warp drive mechanism (Alcubierre being one of the more credible options) and your fuel (I opted for dark matter). But telepathy is not 'mundane SF', because there is no evidence for it and no scientific rationale of how it could work.

To me this goes too far, and limits us to what we know now, which is changing usually by the year. SF isn't just about working out what is possible technologically - that's what the magazine New Scientist is for. It's about exploring humanity's response to different possible situations and worlds. Like all fiction, it's about trying to know who we are, whether in normal life (as in fiction or memoir) or in abnormal life (SF, Fantasy), and what we're capable of, good and bad. Something like telepathy or teleportation might have no scientific basis now, but could have one in the future, and would change our lives in ways we can imagine, via SF.

Like all fiction, the idea, be it an alien with special powers, warp drive, or telepathy, or vampires for goodness sake (sorry), is only half the story. It's how you build a convincing world around the idea, and compelling characters who we believe in, and since they believe in the world they're in, so do we. This is what great writers do: Tolkein created Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings; Frank Herbert created an entire universe (Dune), and Iain Banks more recently created The Culture.

So, back to the film: SF or fantasy? To me it fell between too stools, and for that reason, along with an entirely predictable end followed by yet more cheese, was unsatisfactory. Mainly fantasy if I had to choose. If they'd worked a little harder on either the fantasy or the science, and less on staring into a cheer-leaders' eyes with a mournful look, and if the film hadn't killed off the best character too early, and if our hero had gone for the other far sexier alien instead, then maybe. Too many 'ifs'. And one last thing for the film director who I'm pretty sure isn't reading my blog, again from the end of the film. A Ducati is a serious motorbike, and should never, ever, be shown driving along at 30 mph, no matter how hot the blonde who's riding it.

I suspect the SF/Fantasy blurring trend is likely to continue, however. Fantasy is very popular now, including an endless procession of my boyhood comic heres thanks to Marvel-inspired movies. A lot of SF writing these days is great, but difficult to transpose onto screen. Hollywood is there to make money. Can't you just imagine somewhere some film producers kicking around a SF plot that isn't quite working for them, and someone says: "Hey, why don't we make the female astronaut a vampire?"

How people react in abnormal worlds...

One last thought. Life today would have been seen as science fiction by some people fifty years ago, and as pure fantasy by others. Maybe it's the viewer/reader who gets to decide.

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