Austin Film Festival: Science Fiction vs. Science Fact

The facts of the matter must serve the characters and story

Austin Film Festival: Science Fiction vs. Science Fact
by Jack Plunkett

While science fiction has become one of the major tentpoles holding up the Hollywood system, it’s not all lasers and aliens when it comes to making a quality sci-fi flick.

On Friday, several writers of the genre discussed its evolution, its relevance and pondered whether “science fact” has any place in the discussion.

Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), Ashley Miller (X-Men: First Class), and Eric Heisserer (The Thing) all agreed that while advanced technology and cool effects are important, story is paramount.

“Drama comes down to three things,” Miller said: character, goal, and obstacle. It’s the existence of rules that creates the drama, and in science fiction those rules have special considerations.

The fictional science can go one of two ways. According to Burns, a writer can take the seeds of a technology then build. The existence of the Monitor and the Merrimack gave rise to the Nautilus of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In other cases, the technology of tomorrow seems fantastical, more than a hyper-jump away from the here and now.

Ultimately, the choice of how to use the technology is a practical one to Heisserer’s way of thinking. If it’s plot-based, the science has to pass a believability bar. If it’s character-based, the writer can get away with more. The later declaration becomes even more important because actors will gravitate to stories in which the science fiction doesn’t cripple the story.

At its best, a good science fiction movie grapples with the issues of our day.

“I tend to like things where the genre is used to make larger points,” Burns said, citing social commentary, the likes of which The Twilight Zone subversively pumped into people’s living rooms for years. Heisserer said that Rod Serling and company would place their controversial stories on other planets so the censors wouldn’t realize it until it was too late.

For his own work, Heisserer uses his gut to choose which issues to tackle.

“I find out what makes me angry, and I know there’s something to explore there,” he said. He’s currently distraught by the state of race relations in this country and had the panel’s most insider moment as he gave a pitch for a potential movie, an alternate reality wherein everyone randomly changes genders and races every ten years. That created a buzz among the other panelists, as they claimed their next move was to call their agents and steal the idea. Who knows? Maybe someone will end up making it.

Of course, without the special effects that have become such an integral part of modern movies, science fiction wouldn’t be where it is today. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars gave the genre a kick start, but without the light and magic of an industrial nature, going to see a summer blockbuster just wouldn’t be the same.

“People love spectacle,” Miller said, while Burns lauded the proliferation of tools available to help paint the canvas.

Often that means just “blowing shit up” but it doesn’t have to. All of the panelists agreed that there are multiple ways to tell a story, and the bigger-budget option isn’t always best.

That said, we do continue to pay good money to see New York City flattened again and again and again. Maybe that’s some sort of sick West-Coast wish fulfillment, but more than likely it’s that we the audience like to sit in a darkened theatre and watch something be destroyed.

What’s wrong with us?

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Austin Film Festival 2014, science fiction, Scott Z. Burns, Ashley Miller, Eric Heisserer, Austin Film Festival, AFF 2014

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