They blinded us with science—and love: defining the great SFR film
As both a movie fan and science fiction romance writer, there is just nothing better than settling down with a big ole tub of popcorn in anticipation of seeing SFR come to life on the big screen. I love the eye-popping special-effects depictions of other worlds. I love the action/ adventure or the noir mystery or the techno-thriller or even the comic book plots. And most of all I love the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and happy ever after of the romance, especially if boy or girl is an alien, a replicant, a scientific experiment gone wrong or the target of black ops bad guys for any reason.
If the filmmaker gets it right, the film can be a thing of timeless beauty and emotion—AVATAR (2009), BLADE RUNNER (1982), even STARMAN (1984). So what makes for great science fiction romance onscreen?
First, of course, the film has to be outstanding by all the criteria any critic would apply to any other film. In other words, the plot must make sense, the dialogue should ring with great lines, the acting should be stellar, the directing should set a seamless pace and so on. This should go without saying, but SF fans often want to exempt their favorite films from this filtering process. We should remember a fun movie is one thing. A great film is something else.
By anyone’s criteria James Cameron’s AVATAR and Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER qualify as great films, hitting the AFI Top 100 list and several other critics’ lists of significant films. They are films that changed the art. John Carpenter’s STARMAN is a much more modest movie, but it still qualifies as competent—well-written, well-acted and well-directed.
We have grown to expect science fiction films, and by extension, SFR films, to be visually stunning in this age of big special effects. Certainly AVATAR and BLADE RUNNER used ground-breaking visual effects to show us the worlds of Pandora and future L.A. in a gripping and thoroughly believable way. But it is the creation of an exciting new world that is important (in SFR film as much as in SFR writing), and that world can sometimes be just as believable with fewer effects.
We never see the home world of the alien in STARMAN, but we are shown a universe in which it can exist through the character of the Starman himself. His reaction to our Earth, and a few tricks of his own, open the heroine’s eyes to world entirely different from the one she has known. Almost from the first frames of the film, we believe.
But what about the romance? Like any good SFR story, the romance in a great SFR film must be integral to the story and balanced with the other elements in the plot to make a satisfying whole. Of all the films mentioned here, AVATAR does this best. There could be no AVATAR without the romance between Jake and Neytiri. Their cross-cultural/cross-species attraction is what drives the story. And yet the setting on Pandora, the exploitation of an alien species and its resources is at the heart of the story’s conflict. Perfect balance. That the story ends in HEA is even better.
BLADE RUNNER is not usually thought of as a romance, but the romantic elements are integral and balanced in Ridley Scott’s iconic film, too. Without his attraction to advanced replicant Rachel, blade runner Deckard would never have confronted his doubts about the nasty job he was doing “retiring” the troublesome self-aware cyborgs—or about his own origins. There is conflict inherent in his love for her, of course, but that love also changes everything for him, opening his eyes to the world around him. Love is the catalyst for the entire plot. Without it, BLADE RUNNER would just be another shoot-’em-up set in the future. Oh, and it also has a happy ever after for the lovers.
Not so for our couple in STARMAN. Earth is a cold place, as ET also learned. Despite being the most openly romantic of all the movies I mentioned, the heroine in STARMAN, like the heroine in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, must watch as a starship carries her alien away home at the end of the film. But all is not lost. Our Starman leaves something behind for (or is it with?) his lover. Kleenex, anyone? Emotion, even if it isn’t in the form of an HEA, makes this film stand out as great SFR.
So, believable worldbuilding, romance that’s integral to the story, emotional connection. Yeah, sounds like SFR to me. Pass the popcorn!