Cinematic Discussion: When Does Sci-Fi Become Fantasy?
by Brandon Lee Tenney
September 17, 2009
Note: For this discussion, the definitions below are localized to the medium of the motion picture and the genres of science fiction and fantasy films only. Though there are many examples in television, literature, and even video games, here is not the place for such examples to be entered as evidence.
We can probably all agree on the broad-stroke definitions and differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy. Where fantasy, at its most generalized, contains elements of magic, the supernatural, and a plot centralized and dependent on one, the other, or both, science fiction differentiates itself by utilizing elements that, while extraordinary and often times imaginary, are grounded in the basis of actual, established scientific law or scientifically-postulated theory. In other words, Rod Serling's to be precise, "Fantasy is the impossible made probable; science fiction is the improbable made possible." Using these definitions, it's often very easy to differentiate one film from another (a process that most probably is so easy and devoid of any real brainpower that discussing it at all may seem a bit silly) and dub it either sci-fi or fantasy.
As I'm writing, I'm listening to Nicholas Hooper's orchestral score for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (iTunes) -- a film that, without doubt, is firmly born and resident of the fantasy genre. Earlier this summer we bore witness to the big screen-release of the re-imagined, franchise reboot of Gene Roddenberry's classic sci-fi television show Star Trek. Again, an easy fit into its respective genre. As are the likes of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (fantasy), 2001: A Space Odyssey (sci-fi), The Chronicles of Narnia (fantasy), Contact (sci-fi), the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Pan's Labyrinth, Stardust, Edward Scissorhands, King Kong (all fantasy), and Sphere, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Stargate, Soylent Green, Jurassic Park (all sci-fi). All of the films above (and many more, of course) are firmly rooted in the conventions of either the fantasy or science fiction genres.
But it's not these films that I want to discuss.
When the the line separating fantasy and science fiction becomes a bit blurred, when each genre begins to feel the creep of the other straying into its genome, the categorization process may be more difficult than one has previously realized. Of course, the first question that must be addressed is also the most irrelevant: Why does it matter? Well, does it? To most people, probably not. To most, strolling past the line of movie posters at their local theatre, using the broadest of definitions will always be enough -- "Look, a dragon! Fantasy. I hate fantasy." "Look, a spaceship! Sci-fi. Nerds." But to some, to those reading this especially, the debate of whether a film is more stably balanced on the edge of science fiction or if it has toppled into fantasy will undoubtedly arise. And more often than not, the film in question will always travel from science fiction to fantasy, not vice-versa. As science fiction has more stringent qualifications, fantasy acts as more of a catch-all than its lab-coat wearing cousin. But it's this process of discussion that is able to upend the balancing act.
In fact, this article was born of exactly such a debate. A while back, Genevieve "ScarletScribe" Blaber and I were at odds over James Cameron's upcoming film Avatar. On the surface, the film could easily be placed in either genre. I suggested, and still believe, that because of the catalytic conceit of the film itself is one born of science fiction, that the entire film is therefore science fiction. That is to say that discovering intelligent life outside our own solar system and the science (albeit the fringe-science) of consciousness transferal are both sci-fi markers. Genevieve's opposing argument was that this just isn't enough to label the film as sci-fi, as (from the looks of it) most of the film takes place on an alien world, with impossible (at least by our science) creatures, with a story grounded in the fantastical, not the possible. That the sci-fi percentage is far below that of the fantasy elements in the film.
So, is that the gauge, then? Mere numbers, a checklist of sci-fi and fantasy elements compared to one another, whichever has most triumphs? What of films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Vanilla Sky? Both films are very much not of the generalized science fiction tradition, but both are, at their nuclei, definitely science fiction films. Without the science fiction elements seen in each (both having to do with futuristic technologies that are able to erase or re-write a part of one's memory), the films would have been unable to explore the more traditional dramatic elements of relationships, destiny, and happiness. So, then, to label a film as science fiction can not be solely based on the sheer amount of science fiction presented within.
And this holds true when applied to fantasy. Synecdoche, New York, another Charlie Kaufman script, lends itself perfectly as evidence. The film, a heart-wrenching exploration of mortality, family, regret, artistic struggle, and creation, could not have delved so deeply and to such affect without its fantastical elements. It is, of course, scientifically impossible to build a full-scale replica of New York City inside New York City itself and to continue to build full-scale replicas of each interior New York City exponentially within each subsequent "city." It is pure fantasy that a woman's house would be perpetually ablaze. And though small plot points, they are crucial and the film must therefore be considered fantasy.
Just having exited a summer filled with excellent additions to the science fiction tradition (Star Trek, District 9, Moon, to name a few), what of the classics before them? The discerning reader may have wondered why Star Wars, of all films, was left out of paragraph two. Well, is Star Wars science fiction? "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…" certainly doesn't breed immediate thoughts of science fiction. Again, the possibility of intelligent life outside our own solar system is a definite scientific possibility, space travel being even more concrete, but space travel that's faster than light remains fantasy. As do light sabers, mind you. So, like Avatar, where does one place Star Wars on the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum? Does setting a film in space instead of in some fantastical, alternate Earth make the adventure, the encounters, the story any less fantasy? Planet of the Apes -- fantasy or science fiction? Armageddon -- fantasy or science fiction? Terminator -- fantasy or science fiction? 28 Days Later? Minority Report? The Matrix? Wall-E?
When applying the tactics above, it's not so easy. While the genre of science fiction may be overfilled, it's no wonder why. As a brand, science fiction remains a much more acceptable descriptor than fantasy. Science fiction films, while impossible now, always provide its viewers with glimpses into the future of what may be. However tenuous, that connection alone is enough to solidify one's suspension of disbelief. In fantasy, it's much more difficult to earn an audience's suspension of disbelief because, at its core, what's being presented to them is not, and will never be, possible. Hence why, when compared to science fiction, there are so few fantasy films. And with that in mind, it's also much easier to understand why films that may very well be fantasy brush so closely against the line of sci-fi. So, perhaps when asked to name a few of your favorite fantasy films, you'll now have a newly refreshed list of former sci-fi stalwarts to add.
So, when does sci-fi become fantasy? What amount of each is necessary to tip the scales in favor of one or the other? In my opinion, the amount is insignificant, it's the ultimate effect of the element that matters most. A film becomes science fiction when present science can not replicate what is seen, but with all probability may be able to do so in the future. A science fiction film becomes fantasy when even the most speculative of sciences can no longer account for or explain the elements within a film. And a film that teeters between the two must be categorized as one or the other when its most crucial plot device, the story element without which the story would cease to exist is identified as either science fiction or fantasy, which will therefore dictate the film itself as either/or.
But, as always, it's all up for discussion. And now, it's your turn. Let the debate continue…