ByBrian Finamore, writer at
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Brian Finamore

The Terms & Players: Hard & Soft Science Fiction

Recently, I've sort of been on a big Science Fiction kick that began with the releases of Under The Skin & Interstellar last year -- two very different Sci-Fi films that both have ambiguous elements. Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin deals in more ambiguity than Christopher Nolan's Interstellar does -- a split between the kinds of cerebral Sci-Fi films that have been made over the years.

They are apart of a Science Fiction movement's 'Hard' science fiction, & 'Soft' science fiction. The terms hard and soft in these cases don't mean that hard is more heady & cerebral than soft. Some argue that the two definitions are basically the same.

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both. It is one of the natural or physical sciences. Physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy, fall under hard science. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction (formed by analogy to "hard science fiction") first appeared in the late 1970s. It's a field that deals with humans. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and political science are examples of soft science. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the "hard" (natural) and "soft" (social) sciences. The science fiction critic Gary Westfahl argues that neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy—instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful.

Katherine Roid defines them: If you focus on the story or the character in a science fiction setting, you must focus on one of the soft sciences. The whole point of using a science fiction world is to explore the possibilities of the what-ifs. You really have two options while exploring a what-if: focus on the (hard) science behind it, or how it affects the humans (or other sentient forms). Hard science or soft science. Science or story and characters.

Many people think the two definitions are contradictory because of how definition two generally continues. “Soft science fiction does not always bother to use realistic technology, relying on black boxes and vague definitions.” How can something which, by the first definition, focuses on science not bother to be realistic? But if you look at the actual definition of soft science, you will see it focuses on the humans themselves, not the technology. While focusing on science, it doesn’t focus on technology.

Commentators & Scientists have criticized the use of the term "soft science," because when you hear “science” you automatically think of the hard sciences. Indeed, soft could possibly be interpreted as not as heavy or heady as hard. Indeed, when I first heard the terms that's what I thought -- however, the difference is merely the approach to the material in the story. Soft science to me seems to deal with subjects that can also be used as themes in hard science fiction. The terminology in soft science is more open to interpretation.

Today, the term "soft science fiction" is often used to refer to science fiction stories which lack a scientific focus or rigorous adherence to known science. The categorization "hard science fiction" represents a position on a broad continuum—ranging from "softer" to "harder".

To use an even more recent example -- and this won't be of great shock to anyone -- The Wachowskis Jupiter Ascending is quite the soft SF

Novels & films can sometimes both be hard & soft science fiction. Another trait shared by both their ability to bend reality & blow your mind.

Subgenres & Related Genres of Hard & Soft Science Fiction

Subgenres typically include, but are not limited to: Cyberpunk, Biopunk, Time travel, Alternate history, Military SF, Superhuman, Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, Space opera, Space Western, & Social science fiction.

Related/Intertwining genres typically include, but are not limited to: Fantasy, Supernatural fiction, Science fantasy, Cli-fi, Horror fiction, Mystery fiction, & Superhero fiction.

Hard Science Fiction

Interstellar would be an example of Hard sci-fi -- because it has the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers/viewers, at least) the "hardness" or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for Hard sci-fi is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible. For example, the development of concrete proposals for spaceships, space stations, space missions, and a US space program in the 1950s and 1960s influenced a widespread proliferation of "hard" space stories.

In Interstellar, the aspect of the film dealing with Hard sci-fi is the rigor and research put into the scientific accuracy -- as seen in the video above. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was a scientific consultant for the film, to ensure the depictions of wormholes and relativity were as accurate as possible. He said:

"For the depictions of the wormholes and the black hole, we discussed how to go about it, and then I worked out the equations that would enable tracing of light rays as they traveled through a wormhole or around a black hole—so what you see is based on Einstein's general relativity equations."

The obvious question (Spoilers!) is what about the extremely ambitious ending of Interstellar -- does that adhere to Hard sci-fi? Surely, when Cooper & TARS emerge in an extra-dimensional "Tesseract", where time appears as a spatial dimension and portals show glimpses of Murphy's childhood bedroom at various times -- that's not Hard sci-fi, right? As it turns out -- while Interstellar does contain some more "softer" elements -- it does adhere to the principals of research Hard sci-fi.

Don't believe me? Well, perhaps you'll believe leading astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson -- who has explored the science behind the ending of Interstellar. He explains his thoughts in a video made for Business Insider below:

Tyson, who's brilliant at explaining this kind of science -- as fans of Cosmos know -- says rather simply that in life space & time coordinate or combine.

The idea of a Fourth Dimension should not be shocking news to anyone....and so if you go to a higher dimension it's not unrealistic to think that you step out of the time dimension and now you look at time as though we look at space.

Tyson then goes on to mention that if you had access to your life's timeline you can jump in at any point to relive it -- much like Cooper does at the end of Interstellar. Now, of course, he does go on to say that we don't know yet if you can interfere with events that have already happened like Cooper does -- but nonetheless, Tyson recognizes that asking these questions makes for great science fiction.

It's that kind of strict attention to scientific detail that makes Christopher Nolan's film even more fascinating, now that I've revisited it a few times.

Hard Sci-Fi Genealogy & Influence

Some accurate predictions of the future come from the hard science fiction subgenre, but numerous inaccurate predictions have emerged as well. Some hard SF authors have distinguished themselves as working scientists, including Gregory Benford, Geoffrey A. Landis, David Brin, and Robert L. Forward, while mathematician authors include Rudy Rucker and Vernor Vinge. Other noteworthy hard SF authors include Isaac Asimov (first video above), Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Greg Bear, Larry Niven, Robert J. Sawyer, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Charles Sheffield, Ben Bova, Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Egan.

When one thinks of Hard sci-fi, the biggest name that comes to mind is science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke -- whose writings & ideas inspired legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick to make the science fiction film that forever changed and some say legitimized the genre -- 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kubrick told Clarke he was searching for the best way to make a movie about Man's relation to the universe, and was, in Clarke's words, "determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe, ... even, if appropriate, terror". Clarke offered Kubrick six of his short stories, and by May, Kubrick had chosen one of them—"The Sentinel"—as source matter for his film. In search of more material to expand the film's plot, the two spent the rest of 1964 reading books on science and anthropology, screening science fiction movies, and brainstorming ideas. Clarke and Kubrick spent two years transforming "The Sentinel" into a novel, and then into a script for 2001. Clarke notes that his short story "Encounter in the Dawn" inspired the "Dawn Of Man" sequence in 2001.

Before 2001 the science fiction film genre was full of ridiculous "soft" science fiction -- designed more for kids with a Saturday morning matinee type feel. Clarke & Kubrick changed that notion -- it was the first time people took science fiction seriously.

The influence of 2001 on subsequent filmmakers is considerable. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and others, including many special effects technicians, discuss the impact the film has had on them in a featurette entitled Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001 (as seen above) included in the 2007 DVD release of the film. Spielberg calls it his film generation's "big bang", while Lucas says it was "hugely inspirational", labeling Kubrick as "the filmmaker's filmmaker". Sydney Pollack refers to it as "groundbreaking", and William Friedkin states 2001 is "the grandfather of all such films".

Some like Blade Runner director Ridley Scott, and film critic Michel Ciment believe 2001 was the unbeatable film that in a sense killed the science fiction genre. Others, however, credit 2001 with opening up a market for films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, Contact & Interstellar proving that big-budget "serious" science-fiction films can be commercially successful, and establishing the "sci-fi blockbuster" as a Hollywood staple.

Director Christopher Nolan said influences on Interstellar included the "key touchstones" of science fiction cinema: Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), & Blade Runner (1982). About 2001, Nolan said:

"The movies you grow up with, the culture you absorb through the decades, become part of your expectations while watching a film. So you can't make any film in a vacuum. We're making a science-fiction film... You can't pretend 2001 doesn't exist when you're making Interstellar."

Noteworthy Films That Are Considered Hard Sci-Fi

Gattaca (1997) - Andrew Niccol

Besides the aforementioned films above -- Hard sci-fi, depending upon who you talk to -- has included a variety of films, and not just those dealing with space travel.

Interestingly enough, in 2011, NASA released a list of The Most Realistic and Unrealistic Sci-Fi Films of All Time. Number one on their most realistic list, is a film from 1997 called Gattaca -- written & directed by Andrew Niccol. The film presents a biopunk vision of a future society driven by eugenics where potential children are conceived through genetic manipulation to ensure they possess the best hereditary traits of their parents. The film centers on Vincent Freeman, played by Ethan Hawke, who was conceived outside the eugenics program and struggles to overcome genetic discrimination to realize his dream of traveling into space. Young Ethan has a dream and that dream is space. So he borrows some genetic material from Jerome Morrow, played by Jude Law, to try to fake his way into a space program.

The movie draws on concerns over reproductive technologies which facilitate eugenics, and the possible consequences of such technological developments for society. It also explores the idea of destiny and the ways in which it can and does govern lives. Characters in Gattaca continually battle both with society and with themselves to find their place in the world and who they are destined to be according to their genes. The film's title is based on the first letters of guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine, the four nucleobases of DNA.

The film's dystopian depiction of "genoism" has been cited by many bioethicists and laymen in support of their hesitancy about, or opposition to, eugenics and the societal acceptance of the genetic-determinist ideology that may frame it.

This film is particularly interesting because you get two hard sciences instead of just one. It takes a probing look at a genetically-obsessed society, and then swings straight into space exploration.

Primer (2004) - Shane Carruth

In 2004, writer/director/actor Shane Carruth burst onto the scene in a big way with his debut film Primer. The film is of note for its extremely low budget (completed for $7,000), experimental plot structure, philosophical implications, and complex technical dialogue, which Carruth, a college graduate with a degree in mathematics and a former engineer, chose not to simplify for the sake of the audience. The film collected the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, before securing a limited release in the United States, and has since gained a cult following.

Although one of the more fantastic elements of science fiction is central to the film, Carruth's goal was to portray scientific discovery in a down-to-earth and realistic manner. He notes that many of the greatest breakthrough scientific discoveries in history have occurred by accident, in locations no more glamorous than Aaron's garage.

Whether it involved the history of the number zero or the invention of the transistor, two things stood out to me. First is that the discovery that turns out to be the most valuable is usually dismissed as a side-effect. Second is that prototypes almost never include neon lights and chrome. I wanted to see a story play out that was more in line with the way real innovation takes place than I had seen on film before.

While writing the script, Carruth studied physics to help him make Abe and Aaron's technical dialogue sound authentic. He took the unusual step of eschewing contrived exposition, and tried instead to portray the shorthand phrases and jargon used by working scientists. This philosophy carried over into production design. The time machine itself is a plain gray box, with a distinctive electronic "hum" created by overlaying the sounds of a mechanical grinder and a car engine, rather than by using a processed digital effect. Carruth also set the story in unglamorous industrial parks and suburban tract homes.

Carruth chose to deliberately obfuscate the film's plot to mirror the complexity and confusion created by time travel. As he said in a 2004 interview:

This machine and Abe and Aaron's experience are inherently complicated, so it needed to be that way in order for the audience to be where Abe and Aaron are, which was always my hope.

Carruth's second film, Upstream Color, was released in 2013 to much acclaim -- is more metaphysical, but does include elements of Sci-fi. Even though he's only made two films, Carruth is still held in high regard by other filmmakers. In recognition of Carruth's idiosyncratic and, at times, bizarre filmmaking, director Steven Soderbergh told Entertainment Weekly, "I view Shane as the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron."

Soft Science Fiction

One of the boldest science fiction films to come along in quite a long time was Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin -- released last year to a tremendous amount of critical acclaim. The film was a loose adaptation of the 2000 surrealist novel by Michel Faber. Both the book & film concern a protagonist (named Isserley in the novel, but in the film has no name) -- played by Scarlett Johansson in the film -- an extraterrestrial sent to Earth by a rich corporation (made more clear in the novel) on her planet to pick up unwary hitchhikers. In the novel, "she" drugs them and delivers them to her compatriots, who mutilate and fatten her victims so that they can be turned into meat, as human meat, or "vodsel", is a delicacy on the aliens' barren homeworld. In the film, she invites the men back to her apartment, as they unwittingly follow her into a black void and are submerged in an abyss of liquid. Underneath the surface, their bodies vanish, leaving empty skins behind.

The novel & film, in my mind, is a textbook example of Soft sci-fi. The novel touches on political themes around big business, factory farming, and environmental decay; and reflects on more personal questions of sexual identity, humanity, snobbery, and mercy. The film takes a much more ambiguous approach -- & while the political themes are alluded to -- it's more concerned with the questions of sexual identity & humanity.

One of the film's key scenes in Johansson's transformation from cold alien killer to her realization of humanity comes while "the woman" is in a panic due to not knowing how to properly manage her new found emotions (empathy, etc.). "The woman" trips & hits the ground hard (this was famously thought to be real as paparazzi in Scotland didn't realize -- as did the men she picks up in the film -- that Johansson was in fact doing this for a movie) in the middle of broad daylight in the crowded streets. When she looks up, dozens of people come to her help to see if she's alright. It's the moment when "it" starts to develop thoughts of compassion & is the main arc of the film.

Under the Skin -- like most Soft sci-fi -- is not concerned with portraying it's scientific elements accurately -- there's been no academic studies, as far as I know, about extraterrestrial's sent to Earth to harvest the organs of human beings. As I mentioned above, with soft science fiction, we are dealing with social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.

Noteworthy writers in this category include Ursula K. Le Guin & Philip K. Dick. The term can describe stories focused primarily on character and emotion; SFWA Grand Master Ray Bradbury was an acknowledged master of this art. The Eastern Bloc produced a large quantity of social science fiction, including works by Polish authors Stanislaw Lem & Janusz Zajdel, as well as Soviet authors such as the Strugatsky brothers, Kir Bulychov, Yevgeny Zamyatin & Ivan Yefremov. Some writers blur the boundary between hard and soft science fiction.

Related to social SF & soft SF are utopian and dystopian stories; George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, & Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale are examples. Satirical novels with fantastic settings such as Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift may also be considered science fiction or speculative fiction.

Dune is a landmark of soft science fiction. Frank Herbert deliberately suppressed technology in his Dune universe, so he could address the politics of humanity, rather than the future of humanity's technology. Dune considers the way humans and their institutions might change over time.

Soft SF deals a lot with the notion of what is real & what isn't real, as well as being more concerned with character and speculative societies, rather than scientific or engineering speculations. It is the complement of hard science fiction. The term first appeared in the late 1970s. Some of the headiest works of fiction have been a result of soft SF.

Noteworthy Films That Are Considered Soft Sci-Fi

The Films of David Cronenberg - From Shivers (1975) to Naked Lunch (1991)

Now we enter the realm of soft SF, much like all of David Cronenberg's work from Shivers (1975) to Naked Lunch (1991). Cronenberg's sci-fi during that period is considered science fiction horror -- specifically the terminology is "body horror".

Cronenberg has cited William S. Burroughs & Vladimir Nabokov as influences. Perhaps the best example of a film that straddles the line between his works of personal chaos and psychological confusion is Cronenberg's "adaptation" of his literary hero William S. Burroughs' most controversial book, Naked Lunch. The book was considered "unfilmable" and Cronenberg acknowledged that a straight translation into film would "cost 100 million dollars and be banned in every country in the world". Instead—much like in his earlier film, Videodrome—he consistently blurred the lines between what appeared to be reality and what appeared to be hallucinations brought on by the main character's drug addiction.

Some of the book's "moments" (as well as incidents loosely based upon Burroughs' life) are presented in this manner within the film. Cronenberg stated that while writing the screenplay for Naked Lunch, he felt a moment of synergy with the writing style of Burroughs. He felt the connection between his screenwriting style and Burroughs' prose style was so strong, that he jokingly remarked that should Burroughs pass on, "I'll just write his next book."

The film's star Peter Weller is no stranger to soft SF -- the most famous being 1987's Robocop. In the case of Naked Lunch -- it's a remarkable meeting of the minds -- Cronenberg & Burroughs are an all but perfect match if you ask me. I love how personal Cronenberg makes his adaptation -- not only to Cronenberg himself, but Burrough's as well -- the hallmark of a true fan.

Blade Runner (1982) - Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott's 1982 landmark science fiction film Blade Runner is one of the most influential works the genre has ever seen. The screenplay, written by Hampton Fancher & David Peoples, is a modified film adaptation of the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

The film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles in November 2019, in which genetically engineered replicants, which are visually indistinguishable from adult humans, are manufactured by the powerful Tyrell Corporation as well as by other "mega-corporations" around the world. Their use on Earth is banned and replicants are exclusively used for dangerous, menial, or leisure work on off-world colonies. Replicants who defy the ban and return to Earth are hunted down and "retired" by special police operatives known as "Blade Runners". The plot focuses on a desperate group of recently escaped replicants hiding in Los Angeles and the burnt-out expert Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who reluctantly agrees to take on one more assignment to hunt them down.

The film, although packaged as an action film mixed with film noir motifs like a femme fatale, is way more than that. It is a "retrofitted" future that still has many themes & technology very relevant in today's world. Among Dick's themes as well as the film is: the future implications of technology on the environment & society by reaching into the past using literature, genetic engineering & cloning, religious & philosophical symbolism, environment & globalization, & what it means to be human -- which is, of course, one of the most famous themes associated with the film.

A high level of paranoia is present throughout the film with the visual manifestation of corporate power, omnipresent police, probing lights; and in the power over the individual represented particularly by genetic programming of the replicants. Control over the environment is seen on a large scale but also with how animals are created as mere commodities. This oppressive backdrop clarifies why many people are going to the off-world colonies, which clearly parallels the migration to the Americas. The popular 1980s prediction of the United States being economically surpassed by Japan is reflected in the domination of Japanese culture and corporations in the advertising of LA 2019. The film also makes extensive use of eyes and manipulated images to call into question reality and our ability to perceive it.

The film's best scene is near the very end when Roy Batty (a brilliant Rutger Hauer) spares the life of Deckard in what's been called "Tears in Rain" - a soliloquy delivered by the replicant Roy to Deckard before dying. The final form, altered from the scripted lines and much improvised by Hauer on the eve of filming, has entered popular culture as "perhaps the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history" and is an often quoted piece of science fiction writing. When Hauer performed the scene, the film crew applauded and some even cried. This was due to the power of the dying speech combined with coming to the end of an exhausting shoot.

"I've… seen things you people wouldn't believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like [small cough] tears… in… rain. Time… to die…"

Is Deckard a human or a replicant? There are various interpretations by critics, fans, & even those involved in the making of the film.

The Films of Terry Gilliam - Brazil (1985) & 12 Monkeys (1995)

Well, I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it – I do actually like it because it says certain things. It's about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we're just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television's saying, everything's saying 'That's the world.' And it's not the world. The world is a million possible things.
—Terry Gilliam: Salman Rushdie talks with Terry Gilliam

One of the most brilliant surrealist filmmakers of all time is Terry Gilliam -- what an incredible, unique imagination this man has. Gilliam's two science fiction dystopian fantasies are his two best films (along with Fear & Loathing) & are also pretty distinctly soft SF.

The first was Brazil in 1985 -- The film centers on Sam Lowry, a man trying to find a woman who appears in his dreams while he is working in a mind-numbing job and living a life in a small apartment, set in a consumer-driven dystopian world in which there is an over-reliance on poorly maintained (and rather whimsical) machines. Brazil 's bureaucratic, totalitarian government is reminiscent of the government depicted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, except that it has a buffoonish, slapstick quality and lacks a Big Brother figure.

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low-level government employee who has frequent daydreams of saving a damsel in distress. One day he is assigned the task of trying to rectify an error caused by a fly getting jammed in a printer, misprinting a file it was copying, resulting in the incarceration and accidental death during interrogation of cobbler Archibald Buttle, instead of the suspected terrorist, freelance heating engineer Archibald Tuttle.

The film's setup reminds me a lot like the plot of a Marx Brothers film -- there's kind of a Duck Soup feel to it -- very much an anarchist film. Brazil was developed under the titles The Ministry & 1984 ½, the latter a nod not only to Orwell's original 1984 but also to by Federico Fellini, a director whom Gilliam often cites as one of the defining influences on his visual style when directing. During the film's production, other working titles floated about, including The Ministry of Torture, How I Learned to Live with the System – So Far, & So That's Why the Bourgeoisie Sucks, before settling with Brazil relating to the name of its escapist signature tune.

Gilliam sometimes refers to this film as the second in his "Trilogy of Imagination" films, starting with Time Bandits (1981) & ending with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). All are about the "craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible." All three movies focus on these struggles and attempts to escape them through imagination—Time Bandits, through the eyes of a child, Brazil, through the eyes of a man in his thirties, & Munchausen, through the eyes of an elderly man. In 2013, Gilliam also called Brazil the first instalment of a dystopian satire trilogy, it forms with 1995's 12 Monkeys & 2013's The Zero Theorem.

Gilliam has stated that Brazil was inspired by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four—which he has admitted never having read —but is written from a contemporary perspective rather than looking to the future as Orwell did. In Gilliam's words, his film was "the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984." Critics & analysts have pointed out many similarities and differences between the two, an example being that, contrary to Winston Smith, Sam Lowry's spirit did not capitulate as he sank into complete catatonia.

Ten years later -- Gilliam released the spiritual sequel to Brazil -- 12 Monkeys -- inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 brilliant short film La Jetée, & starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt, with Christopher Plummer and David Morse in supporting roles.

Producer Charles Roven chose Terry Gilliam to direct because he believed the filmmaker's style was perfect for 12 Monkeys ' nonlinear storyline and time travel subplot. Gilliam had just abandoned a film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities when he signed to direct 12 Monkeys. The film also represents the second film for which Gilliam did not write or co-write the screenplay. Although he prefers to direct his own scripts, he was captivated by the Peoples' "intriguing and intelligent script. The story is disconcerting. It deals with time, madness and a perception of what the world is or isn't. It is a study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth, set in a world coming apart."

Gilliam originally believed that Brad Pitt was not right for the role of Jeffrey Goines, but the casting director convinced him otherwise. Pitt was cast for a comparatively small salary, as he was still relatively unknown at the time. By the time of 12 Monkeys ' release, however, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), Legends of the Fall (1994), and Se7en (1995) had been released, making Pitt an A-list actor, which drew greater attention to the film and boosted its box-office standing. In Philadelphia, months before filming, Pitt spent weeks at Temple University's hospital, visiting and studying the psychiatric ward to prepare for his role.

12 Monkeys are memory, time, & technology -- it studies the subjective nature of memories & their effect upon perceptions of reality. Examples of false memories include Cole's recollection of the airport shooting, altered each time he has the dream, and a "mentally divergent" man at the asylum who has false memories.

"Cole has been thrust from another world into ours and he's confronted by the confusion we live in, which most people somehow accept as normal. So he appears abnormal, and what's happening around him seems random and weird. Is he mad or are we?"
— Director Terry Gilliam

The film also features plenty of cinematic allusions -- Like La Jetée, 12 Monkeys contains references to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Toward the end of the film, Cole and Railly hide in a theater showing a 24-hour Hitchcock marathon and watch a scene from Vertigo. Railly then transforms herself with a blonde wig, as Judy (Kim Novak) transformed herself into blonde Madeleine in Vertigo; Cole sees her emerge within a red light, as Scottie (James Stewart) saw Judy emerge within a green light. Brief notes of Bernard Herrmann's film score can also be heard. Railly also wears the same coat Novak wore in the first part of Vertigo. The scene at Muir Woods National Monument, where Judy (as Madeleine) looks at the growth rings of a felled redwood and traces back events in her past life, resonates with larger themes in 12 Monkeys. Cole and Railly later have a similar conversation while the same music from Vertigo is repeated. The Muir Woods scene in Vertigo is also re-enacted in La Jetée.

12 Monkeys is a complex & challenging sci-fi fantasy -- fully doing Chris Marker's brilliant film justice, while at the same time, Gilliam makes it his own. The acting is solid all across the board -- this is probably Bruce Willis's best performance. Brad Pitt is simply brilliant -- he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and won a Golden Globe for his performance. The undervalued Madeline Stowe does a fine job as well, & one of the films best irony's is when Stowe's character & Willis's character switch beliefs on who's right when claiming to tell the truth.

For Gilliam -- who has made a few extremely expensive movies beset with production problems -- 12 Monkeys is kind of a watershed film. After the lengthy quarrelling with Universal Studios over Brazil, Gilliam's next picture, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, cost around US$46 million, & then earned only about US$8 million in US ticket sales. 12 Monkeys, however, was a financial success -- in part to the soaring popularity of Willis & Pitt at the time. That's fine because it did introduce a large American audience to Terry Gilliam -- while re-infusing his already cult fan base.

Major Action-Sci-Fi Film Hybrids:

I wanted to quickly highlight some sci-fi action films that have been made that are also examples of hard & soft SF. Four directors typically jump out (at least for me) in this category: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven & John Carpenter -- all four world class filmmakers that have used the action genre within science fiction, while never losing its philosophical or political edge.


First, Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. (1982), Jurrasic Park (1993), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), & War of the Worlds (2005), are all foundations of hard & soft SF -- often times coinciding.

Of those films mentioned; I'd say Close Encounters, Jurrasic Park, & A.I. are probably in the hard SF camp. With E.T., Minority Report, & Worlds being more soft SF with certain hard elements. It's interesting to note that the tone of his Sci-fi outputs has varied greatly. Look at A.I. -- more of a Kubrick/Clarke picture & Minority Report, which was based on loosely based on the short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick.

However, it's hard to simply classify those films in one camp. In particular, A.I. & Minority Report are relatively realistic portrayals of the future -- with A.I.'s primary focus what it means to be a human -- & Minority Report has a whole bunch of themes it focuses on. The film's central theme is the question of free will vs. determinism. It examines whether free will can exist if the future is set and known in advance. It also concerns itself with the role of preventative government in protecting its citizenry, which was apt of the time of the picture's given America's debates over the government's expanding powers after 9/11. Minority Report also includes familiar Philip K. Dick themes like drug addiction.

I still carry my childhood along with me. I'm old enough now to compartmentalise it - so I consciously try not to go too far back into my childhood, but the subconscious part of me still creates traces of it in Minority Report. Tom Cruise has suffered a tragic personal loss - he has lost his child and his wife has left him. It still reminds me of the divorce of my parents. As much as I try to get away from it I still can't avoid it.—Spielberg

All of Spielberg's science fiction films are unified usually by the unifier of all of Spielberg's work -- the family, especially the concept of the broken family.


Jim Cameron's science fiction output, like Spielberg's, deftly combines the hard & soft elements. Proving to be both entertaining & thought provoking at the same time. He first found success with the science-fiction hit The Terminator (1984). He then became a popular Hollywood director and was hired to write and direct Aliens (1986); three years later he followed up with The Abyss (1989). He found further critical acclaim for his use of special effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) -- and after winning the Oscar for Titanic (1997), embarked on a project that took almost 10 years to make: his science-fiction epic Avatar (2009), which was also up for a lot of awards.

Always combining scientific accuracy with social themes -- you can find Cameron's Sci-fi is always working on multiple levels -- even if there's a sort of stigma associated with Cameron films not being smart. Simply not true. His Terminator films dealt with time travel, as well as masculinity, cyborgs, & strong female protagonists. So, of course, after the success of Terminator -- he was the perfect choice for Aliens & distinguished his sequel from Ridley Scott's original film.

Out of all those films, his most ambitious is probably 1989's The Abyss -- which instead of going into outer space, he brings his characters to the deep inner spaces of the ocean. Twenty years later -- he made the highest grossing film of all time, Avatar -- which is a textbook definition of hard & soft sci-fi.

The blockbuster has provoked vigorous discussion of a wide variety of cultural, social, political, and religious themes identified by critics and commentators, and the film's writer and director James Cameron has responded that he hoped to create an emotional reaction and to provoke public conversation about these topics. Discussion has centered on such themes as the conflict between modern man and nature, and the film's treatment of imperialism, racism, militarism and patriotism, corporate greed, property rights, spirituality and religion.


We now come to one of my favorite unsung filmmakers of the past 30 years -- Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. Explicit violent and/or sexual content and social satire are trademarks of both his drama and science fiction films. He is best known for directing the science fiction films RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), & Starship Troopers (1997).

RoboCop was written by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner. Neumeier stated that he first got the idea of RoboCop when he walked with a friend past a poster for Blade Runner. He asked his friend what the film was about and his friend replied, "It's about a cop hunting robots". For him, this sparked the idea about a robot cop. Allegedly, while the two were attempting to pitch the screenplay to Hollywood executives, they were accidentally stranded at an airplane terminal with a high-ranking movie executive for several hours. Here, they were able to speak to him about the project, and thus began the series of events which eventually gave rise to RoboCop the movie. The film marked the first major Hollywood production for Verhoeven, & he scored big time.

Verhoeven is a very political filmmaker, and these three films have plenty of political undertones -- making them more soft SF than hard. The character of RoboCop itself was inspired by British comic book hero Judge Dredd, as well as the Marvel Comics superhero Rom. A Rom comic book appears onscreen during the film's convenience store robbery. Another Rom comic appears in a flashback of Murphy's son. Although both Neumeier and Verhoeven have declared themselves staunchly on the political left, Neumeier recalls on the audio commentary to Starship Troopers that many of his liberal friends perceived RoboCop as a fascist movie. On the 20th Anniversary DVD, producer Jon Davison referred to the film's message as "fascism for liberals" – a politically liberal film done in the most violent way possible.

His 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Total Recall -- another Philip K. Dick adaptation. In the film, the hero, renamed Quaid, actually travels to Mars, but the initial memory implant scene foreshadows much of what he achieves while there, thus causing the viewer to doubt whether or not everything that happened after the Rekall scene actually happens or is all in Quaid's purchased memory.

His third major sci-fi film, Starship Troopers -- adapted from the influential science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein's novel of the same name & is one of the greatest subversive films ever to be released by a major American studio in the past 25 years. It is soft SF of the highest order -- with many themes & allusions that weren't initially picked up on by critics.

The story follows a young soldier named Johnny Rico and his exploits in the Mobile Infantry, a futuristic military unit. Rico's military career progresses from recruit to non-commissioned officer and finally to officer against the backdrop of an interstellar war between mankind and an insectoid species known as "Arachnids".

Verhoeven says his satirical use of irony and hyperbole is "playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society... of course, the movie is about 'Let's all go to war and let's all die.'" The film included visual allusions to propaganda films such as Why We Fight, Triumph of the Will, and wartime newsreels. The symbols, and certain clothing styles, of the Federation are modeled on those of the Nazis (e.g., windbreaker, suits, cap, etc.; moreover, the military intelligence officers' uniforms bear a striking similarity to those of the Allgemeine-SS). The satire was embedded in action sequences with special effects.

In the DVD commentary, Verhoeven states the film's message: "War makes fascists of us all." He evokes Nazi Germany—particularly through its use of fashion, iconography and propaganda—which he sees as a natural evolution of the post-World War II United States. "I've heard this film nicknamed All Quiet on the Final Frontier," he says, "which is actually not far from the truth." Edward Neumeier (who had previously worked with Verhoeven on RoboCop) broadly concurs, although he sees a satire on human history, rather than solely the United States. Since the filmmakers did not make these statements at the time of the film's release, viewers have interpreted it variously: as a satire, as a celebration of fascism or as a simple action film. The answer I believe is 100 percent satire -- a brilliant stroke by Verhoeven was to cast young, up & coming popular names, who wouldn't necessarily be associated with material that is slyly thought provoking.

In 2012, Slant Magazine ranked the film #20 on its list of the 100 Best Films of the 1990s.


Our last filmmaker is extremely subversive as well -- perhaps the most of the lot. I'm referring to, of course, John Carpenter. He has quite a cult fan base following, and Carpenter has been acknowledged as an influential filmmaker. Although Carpenter has worked in numerous film genres, he is most commonly associated with horror and science fiction films from the 1970s and 1980s.

Carpenter's science fiction output suggests both hard & soft SF -- often working in multiple subgenres of science fiction. His first Sci-fi film, 1974's Dark Star, has been described as a comic science fiction motion picture directed, co-written, produced and scored by Carpenter, and co-written by, edited by & starring Dan O'Bannon. Dark Star can be considered a black comedy, although it was marketed by Harris as a serious science fiction film. As a result, most of the cinema-going audience did not expect the humor and Dark Star's reception suffered from not reaching the intended audience. The home video cassette revolution of the early 1980s saw Dark Star become a cult film among sci-fi fans.

After the critically acclaimed 1976 action film Assault on Precinct 13, the horror classic Halloween (1978), & the commercially successful (however, Carpenter describes this film as his most difficult shoot) 1980 horror film The Fog -- Carpenter would begin a string of science fiction pictures that are all MAJOR cult classics. The first of these is the 1981 science fiction action picture, Escape from New York.

The film is set in a then near-future 1997 in a crime-ridden United States that has converted Manhattan Island in New York City into a maximum security prison. Ex-soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given 22 hours to find the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), who has been captured by prisoners after the crash of Air Force One.

Carpenter, originally wrote the screenplay for Escape from New York in 1976, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Carpenter said,

He had been inspired by the film Death Wish, which was very popular at the time. He did not agree with this film's philosophy, but liked how it conveyed "the sense of New York as a kind of jungle, and I wanted to make a science fiction film along these lines".

This film in particular is hard SF & soft SF -- it's depiction of a 1997 New York, of course, didn't turn out to be true, but back in the early 80's, New York City was a scary place. Carpenter's intention was to put then modern day America in the future. One of the staples great Sci-fi is the allegory the genre deals with a lot.

This is one of Carpenter's most overtly political films -- as the script was written during a time where Carpenter truly thought the country was going to hell. However, unlike right wing action films, which ended up booming during the Reagan administration -- Carpenter subverts them with his own political agenda & beliefs. I would also compare Carpenter to a more left wing Howard Hawks.

Carpenter followed Escape with another cult classic that has gone on to receive tremendous critical acclaim over the years -- The Thing. The film is based on John W. Campbell, Jr.'s novella Who Goes There?, which was more loosely adapted by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby as the 1951 film The Thing from Another World.

On June 25, 1982, The Thing opened #8 in 840 theaters and remained in the top ten box office for three weeks. The lower-than-expected performance has been attributed to many factors, including Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was also released by Universal Studios around the same time and featured a more optimistic view of alien visitation, & another popular science fiction film, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, being released on the same day. However, The Thing has gone on to gain a cult following.

Like Blade Runner, Carpenter's The Thing features excellent special effects -- back when artists used to make special effects more real. This film is considered a benchmark in the field of special makeup effects. These effects were created by Rob Bottin, who was only 22 when he started the project. Kurt Russell is back as the lead, and is right at home in the material. Much like most of Carpenter's 80's output -- The Thing received mixed contemporary reviews, but the film has been reappraised substantially in the years following its release.

This is the first of John Carpenter's films which he did not score himself. The film's original choice of composer was Jerry Goldsmith, but he passed and Ennio Morricone composed a very low-key Carpenter-like score filled with brooding, menacing bass chords.

The Thing’s brilliance rests on the equilibrium between implied & visceral horror, often incompatible ideas that Carpenter stirs together in a stylish, engrossing way.

The last Carpenter Sci-fi film I'll take a look at has become in many ways just as big a cult classic as Escape & The Thing -- a fantastically fun satire from 1988, They Live. Starring "Rowdy" Roddy Piper -- in what's still the best performance by a professional wrestler turned actor -- It follows a nameless drifter referred to as "Nada", who discovers the ruling class are in fact aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media.

The more political elements of the film are derived from Carpenter's growing distaste with the ever-increasing commercialization of 1980s popular culture and politics. He remarked, "I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something... It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money." To this end, Carpenter thought of sunglasses as being the tool to seeing the truth, which "is seen in black and white. It's as if the aliens have colorized us. That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space." (Turner had received some bad press in the 1980s for colorizing classic black-and-white movies.) The director commented on the alien threat in an interview, "They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, 'Where's the threat in that? We all sell out every day.' I ended up using that line in the film." The aliens were deliberately made to look like ghouls according to Carpenter, who said: "The creatures are corrupting us, so they, themselves, are corruptions of human beings."

The social & political awakening message is so unmistakable that the film is now a cult movie among the social & political activists. One of the strengths of the picture (in common with a lot of Carpenter's films) is that it takes complex subject matter -- the negative effects of mass media, & reduces it to a simple metaphor in which even a child could understand.

"They Live is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. ... The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. ... When you put the sunglasses on you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom."
- Slavoj Žižek, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology


I'm sure there's a ton of films I left out, but I just wanted to hopefully show you a little bit of where I come from as an avid fan of the genre. I like to do that by educating the reader as well -- I feel it establishes the credibility of not just rattling thoughts off the top of my head, but backing that up with links & research where I was looking to further educate myself as well.



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