Sunday, 23 June 2013

How Not To Do A Sci-Fi Story; After Earth Review

Something a bit different to my usual film reviews; I've decided to do an examination of things you should not to do when you're creating a science-fiction story, through the focus of the film "After Earth". As you may have guessed I wasn't impressed; though it had a few moments that were visually stunning or interesting, overall the film falls completely flat, thanks in large part to the humongous problems with the science bit of the science-fiction setting. If you have nothing better to watch it's a reasonably diverting 100 minutes, but it isn't worth the price of a cinema ticket.

I will be talking about major plot points in the below, so if you do want to see the film I suggest you stop reading here. *Spoilers ahead*

If you're still with me, here then is my personal and subjective opinions on how not to do a science-fiction story. This is based on the huge amount of good stories I've read/watched in the genre, along with the masses of bad I've suffered through. As ever, all opinions are entirely my own and are personal suggestions on how to go about creating a science-fiction story.

1. Don't ignore the "Science" bit from "Science-Fiction"

I'm putting this first because it feeds into a lot of the points to come and is often the biggest problem when taking on a science-fiction project; how do you make the technology, worlds, and mechanics of the thing seem realistic? After all this is a story, you're meant to make things up. But how to stay believable?

This is where an ability to be logical is incredibly important. If you want to create a universe where pink unicorns transport people from one planet to another, that's fine. Just make sure you can answer the key question; how? A really obvious problem with After Earth was no one seems to have thought through things logically. For example, there are giant aggressive creatures, created solely to kill humans and they hunt us down by smelling the pheromones we release when we are afraid. Okay... but why do we only seem to have transforming double edged spears to kill them? Where are the guns? Where are the explosives? Why do we only have the equivalent of a magic stick to kill them with?

There may be reasons for the need of a spear but they aren't hinted at in the film, leaving those of us using our brains to wonder and become less invested in the story we're seeing. The lesson being; think logically about what you create and ensure you explain just enough (not too much and not too little) why things are the way they are.

2. Don't create creatures for the sake of it - and think them through

Speaking of the giant aggressive creatures, supposedly so terrifying that humans can't help but to hormonally wet themselves in their presence; why don't they have eyes? Can they even hear anything? These things were supposedly created by an enemy alien race, who wanted to destroy our species. So why no eyes? And why have they only got claws and teeth to kill us with?

In line with the logical thinking of above, After Earth does not explain any of this, leaving you wondering why these animals are deemed so dangerous when they CAN'T EVEN SEE YOU! Yes it still takes the Rangers to be taught how to not feel fear, so they can sneak up on the beasts and put them to their deaths (with the big pointy stick I mentioned), but seriously; why haven't they got eyes? Dogs have an incredible sense of smell - it doesn't mean they cease to be able to see or hear (and in fact can do both better than humans).

Creating creatures is one of the coolest things about creating made-up worlds and galaxies but they still have to make sense. Because if you the creator don't ask yourself every logical question you can about them, you can be damned sure your audience will.

3. Don't be Mr. Po-Face

This is a crime that I have found a lot in the years I've enjoyed sci-fi, that of the "this is a serious story, so everyone is going to be serious". Wrong! This is not how people actually react in serious situations. Giggling and making inappropriate jokes is, for many people, how they cope with stressful situations. After Earth does attempt some levity here and there, but it never really gets past Will Smith's uber-serious expression, making the film a lot less fun than it could have been.

Maybe the characters are particularly humourless, there are plenty of people like that in the world. But ask yourself if those are the kind of characters an audience are going to root for. Game of Thrones is a great example of how to do serious with a healthy dose of humour; despite the terrible things that happen, there are still plenty of characters quipping and insulting people, bringing in some much needed humour to lighten things up a little and get the audience to relax. It doesn't have to be a laugh a a minute, but just an occasional easing of the stress meter will do wonders for your audience's engagement and investment in the story and the character's lives.

4. If you're including anything that actually exists, don't ignore reality

The single most ridiculous thing about After Earth was when they arrive at Earth and Will Smith's character imparts these wise words;

"Son, this is not training.  This is a “Class One” quarantined planet.  The threats we will be facing are real.  The temperatures on this planet fluctuate dangerously.  Everything has evolved to kill humans."

Humans have been gone for over 1000 years and yet "everything has evolved to kill humans". How exactly, if they aren't there anymore? How can creatures evolve to kill a creature that is no longer living in its environment? Don't even get me started on the temperature fluctuations... somehow, in the time humans have been away, the planet has changed to the point where it's tropical during the day and below sub-zero at night. And yet none of the plants die, even those not in the "hot zones" where the temperature remains stable. No explanation is given for this, though to be fair I don't think any explanation would work because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, causing the audience to yet again disengage from the story. Oh, and did I mention that in these 1000 years the oxygen level has lowered so much humans can't breathe unaided on the planet anymore, and yet all the animal life is absolutely fine and there seem to be more plants than there are right now? Yeah, 'cause that makes sense...

The Earth exists. We know how its climate works, we know how animals evolve, how oxygen is made and we know what is probable and what is impossible. If you use anything real in your story (like Earth) at least try to make any changes to it probable - or have a really good explanation hidden within the story somewhere.

5. Question your character's characteristics

This is true of all stories, not just sci-fi, but it bears mentioning. One of the few positives from After Earth for me was that the main characters were all African-American. It's rare to find any mainstream film where all the main players are non-white, so it was a refreshing change. The next radical suggestion I would have made is; why not have mum and daughter face life and death situation in your unconvincing setting, while dad waits worried about the fate of his loved ones.

It's very easy to write characters that are just like yourself, which inevitably leads to a lot of the same kind of characters filling the fiction world; white, male, straight and fully abled physically and mentally. But just think how incredibly interesting a character who isn't these things could be. The downside is you have to do more research to make sure you get the characters right and all too often that makes creators not bother and instead put a cypher for themselves on the page or screen. It can also make your story harder to sell, as publishers/film companies are risk-averse. But there is a better way, and one that can then result in more interesting and unpredictable stories.

6. Predictability is the death of Sci-fi - don't do it

Again this can be applied to other types of stories too, but I think it's particularly important for a science fiction or fantasy story. These are meant to be "fantasy" worlds, really pushing the limits of imagination; so why give them such a staid and predictable storyline? After Earth has this problem in spades; the end is not surprising, and the journey there is filled with pointers and heavy-handed clues that mean nothing comes as a surprise (apart from the plot holes).

7. Do not ignore significant plot points, even if they happen before your main storyline starts

Here's another quote from After Earth; see if you can spot the glaring omission:

"Our time on earth, for millennia, was a consistent slow technological evolution.  But an extraordinary event changed our course.  We used the alien technology to make astronomical leaps.  But our unnatural acceleration was too much, causing us to destroy natural resources, ravaging our planet for our own consumption.  Mother earth fought back.  In 2071, forced to leave home, we found refuge on a new planet."

Did you see it? "Mother earth fought back". How? What happened? Why did we have to leave? This is skipped over in the above commentary at the start of the film, the whole point of which is to set the scene, and it doesn't tell us a key piece of information. While exposition should be minimal, only one more sentence was needed to summarise what mother earth did that was so bad we had to leave. And no, it isn't really explained visually either, apart form some scenes of destruction that are happening for no apparent reason. Unless you accept "mother earth" as a sentient being. Which I don't.

If it relates to the scene or story you're trying to set up, always take the time to explain it. It's better to do it in the course of the story itself, but this kind of voice-over can work too. Just don't forget any key details...

8. Use Theme; don't abuse it

The theme of After Earth seems to be a standard "father/son learn about each other and in the process the son has his coming-of-age moment". But wait, there's also stuff in there about conquering your fears, through the power of will and some stuff about nature being our friend and not our enemy but worthy of our respect (a giant bird rescues the main character after he tries - and fails - to save her chicks. Nope, makes no sense to me either). In the end it feels like it's all too much; Jaden Smith's character just suddenly overcomes his fear, despite spending the whole movie scared out of his britches, for no other reason than because he has to in order for the movie to end. His Dad doesn't seem to change at all, other than deciding to retire (which was likely anyway given his age in the film) and the respect he develops for his son is due to his son conforming to his expectations. This is not really what I call inspiring but hey, some might like that message.

One of the few things After Earth has going for it is the fact it has themes running through it, but they do at times feel contrived (like a lot of the story) so the impact is somewhat lost.

It's pretty clear that I didn't like After Earth all that much. I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough and so all through the second half I was just watching it as an observer and not as an engaged audience member. The single most important thing to not do when writing a Sci-fi (or any) story, is to under-estimate the importance of your audience engagement. If you make them go "huh?" too often than you'll lose them - and end up with them writing reviews like this one.

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