Ok, I have a confession to make: I’ve never really loved science-fiction films. Whenever I’ve been dragged to the movies to see one, I always walk away with a slightly icky feeling. Susan Sontag in her article, “The Imagination of Disaster,” articulated why paying to see all those big budget sci-fi films always leaves me with the lingering pain of buyer’s remorse. It’s because, they suck. And Sontag agrees with me.
Now, before you come after us with your pitch fork and torches, all you sci-fi fanatics, please hear us out. Sontag does make some valid points. Have you ever seen that spoof on horror films, Scary Movie? Or that spoof on big Hollywood dance productions, Dance Flick? Well, Sontag is making the same point about sci-fi flicks. Sorry but they are a little generic. Seen one, seen them all. Want to get paid and make a blockbuster sci-fi film? Just turn to pages 318-319 of Sontag’s article, follow all the steps she’s written out and you too can have a sci-fi hit. Better yet, find some “poor or trivial [sci-fi] novel,” (Sontag 322), and hire some out of work screen writer to write a script based on the book. Bam! Top of the box office! You see, the problem with that formula for sci-fi success is that films are art, right? So, it should be creative and innovative like any other art form. A one size fits all approach “strips [it] of sophistication… [and makes it] a naively and largely debased commercial art.” (Sontag 332) In other words, don’t hold your breath for any Academy Awards in any categories except for special effects and wardrobe. Oscar for best picture? I think not.
Ok yes, I do agree with you, sci-fi is fun to watch. What’s wrong with a few hours of harmless fun? Movies are meant to be “fantasies [that] lift us out of the unbearably humdrum [of life]…by escape from exotic dangerous situations [on screen]” (Sontag 316), right? Think again. Remember Stephen King’s article, “Why We Crave Horror Films” and how he said we all have a screw loose? Well, that’s what has Sontag so disturbed. Her issue is not that we enjoy sci-fi films, it’s the reason we enjoy them. Sontag warns us that watching meaningless mob violence and mass destruction only reinforces a deep subconscious fascination with dangerous anarchist ideals that finds psychotic pleasure in the “particular beauties… of making a mess.” Also, Sontag doesn’t come out and directly say it but these films reek of warped male patriarchal ideals. How many plots surround some macho “hunger for a ‘good war’ which poses no moral problems,” (Sontag 327) and omits the human tragedy and social ills war leaves behind. Add all this up and you have something that is at the very least, “questionable from a moral point of view”(Sontag 317). Society has enough problems and we don’t need films that encourage “complicity with [the] abhorrent” (Sontag 317) by normalizing what in real life would be tragic and disturbing.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of King and the subconscious, let’s talk about sci-fi mirroring our deeply buried collective social nightmares. In Eric Camarillo's "Vampires and Why We Love Them" he discusses how vampire stories reflect our deep seated fears. Sontag says sci-fi does the same with, “… [our] deep anxieties about contemporary existence.” (Sontag 328). From our greatest fears resulting from “…perennial human anxiety about death,” (Sontag 331) and invasion by some foreign "other" (Sontag 324), to our more modern preoccupation with the “the theme of dehumanization”(Sontag 330) in relation to advances in science and technology (Sontag 326), sci-fi pampers all the phobias locked deep within in our psyche. All of these topics are worth discussing, but instead of marching us bravely into the psychological abyss to confront and analyze these fears, sci-fi falls flat on its face. As Sontag puts it, sci-fi films overemphasize “sensuous elaboration…by means of images and sounds,” (Sontag 320) with scripts that trump special effects over meaningful dialogue leaving us with “… [an] emblem of an inadequate response...” (Sontag 332). It’s like potato chips for your heart, mind and soul. It’s not good for you and leaves you wanting more.