Warning: Though I was quite careful to avoid plot elements of movies discussed below, there may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Summer is here and so are the aliens. In the movies, that is. You may have the impression that these stories are full of laser cannons, gelatinous monsters, or the long-buried artifact on the moon that will change humanity’s destiny. Your impression is misleading. The best science fiction films – even the summer blockbusters – have a human story at their core.
I recently watched Guardians of the Galaxy II for the second time and realized how much more I enjoyed it because it is about family relationships. We also had a second viewing of Arrival this week (see my blog 2016-12-14), an alien invasion tale that is completely encased in and interwoven with a woman’s life with her daughter. Those two films stress how the heart of even a good futuristic adventure should contain the same themes of all great epics – mothers and daughters, sibling rivalry, prodigal sons, coming home, or the birth of a child.
Not all of the landmark science fiction films revolve around human stories, to be sure. When I started making a list, there was clearly a category of great films that didn’t fit my definition: 2001, Planet of the Apes, Gravity, The Martian, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Rollerball, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, just to name a few. Dysfunctional families aren’t the only fuel for all interesting speculative fiction. As much as anything, these films are about “where is humanity headed” as a species — that other little philosophical question. As the man says in Blade Runner, “All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?”
Big questions, but not family story questions.
Still, when I started to think about it, I was amazed at how many of the big epics known for their cutting-edge CGI models or edgy introspection around how time is perceived and whether we can control the future were just as much about fathers and sons or who said what at Thanksgiving that the rest of the family never get over.
Take Arrival as an example, based on the award-winning short work by Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life.” Even though the movie changes the title and, through the poster and foreshadowing trailer, centers the story on the alien landing, the plot is about Louise wrestling with thoughts about the death of her daughter. The way Chiang writes it, that story is the shell that encases everything else. You can’t understand the plot or feel what it means to experience the world as the aliens experience it except through that scientist and her memories.
In the short story and in the movie, the aliens don’t even show up right away. The arrival is mentioned almost an afterthought, used as a device to explain why mommy and daddy decide to have children. The movie begins with a flashback of scenes throughout Louise’s life, which is standard cinema writing for Character Setup, except that this film is about those scenes. There have been a lot of movies trying to address time travel and how aliens might live multi-dimensionally, but having a backdrop of a human experiencing it makes it more understandable.
Arrival, arguably, is not a blockbuster or action movie but one of those cerebral scifi stories. Perhaps those are a category by themselves? What about the the kickass epics? Suppose we’re not interested in these namby pamby well-written heartfelt chick flicks? Let’s talk about Ahnald.
The Terminator and its five sequels is one of the most innovative violent action-packed nail-biting funny scifis series ever. Who doesn’t love a naked Schwarzenegger beating the stuffing out of a few bullies ‘cause he needs to get clothes so he can look human rather than robotic (which he is) while he goes and hunts the guy who went back in time to prevent humanity from being exterminated? Yet, what is the The Terminator about? John Connor’s friend Kyle Reese goes back in time to protect John’s mother who then falls for Kyle so that they produce John. The ideas lead to something called the Predestination Paradox, but the film is about raising a family.
What about the greatest blockbuster science fiction film of all time? The teenybopper favorite – the movie that changed how movies are created and sold and led to the shaping of the summer blockbuster: Star Wars. The first in the series was fun with its alien musicians and Jedi mind tricks, but the plot was standard bad guys vs. good guys stuff, the vision quest for the young orphan hero. The Empire Strikes Back – where Luke confronts who he is and ends up needing psychoanalysis – is where audiences sat up and said Well, how interesting. And if you think that plot was just for the adults, ask people what is the most quoted line from the movie and even the seven-year olds will say, “Luke I am your father…..”
Fast forward to 2017, and we have Peter Quill, resentful that he was abandoned as a child by his spacesman father. Father Kurt Russell shows up to bring Peter to his rightful place in the universe as a demigod. We knew Peter had powers; he was able to hold the Magic Thingie in the first movie. (Yes, I know it’s an Infinity Stone, who can remember the names of all these talismans… Sorcerer’s Stones, Excalibur, Light Sabers, Cloak of Levitation, Eye of Agomatto…they all blend togather).
Galaxy II, like other Marvel blockbusters had the obligatory shooting and chasing and explosions and whatnot. But what made ME sit up and take notice was that there were four human stories – family stories –integral to the plot. In the beginning, where our band of heroes must Subdue Opening Scene Giant Monster, they also have to keep pulling Groot out of harm’s way like babysitters. One eye on the Abilisk’s twenty feet teeth and another ready to swat at Baby Groot as he tries to eat a fly. We know this is a family story because even at the end, we see Groot as a teenager.
Meanwhile, Quill has some serious Daddy Issues to cope with at the core of the plot, where a key scene shows him and Pops Kurt playing catch with an energy ball. That very human activity is, in fact, thrust in to cue the viewer that trouble is a brewin’ because the scene recalls this simple contemporary father and son bonding interaction.
Then, there’s green-skinned Gamora fighting with sister Nebula, all because their father made them compete for his attention. Unfortunately, when Nebula lost her fights, daddy Thanos would replace one of her body parts, so more reason for therapy there. And we have the bio-engineered cyber-racoon Rocket who needs a lot of Anger Management. He and the pirate Yondu have an encounter session which lets them both express their feelings… while killing hundreds of other smugglers as “Come a Little Bit Closer” echoes through the hull of the ravager’s ship. More like a group therapy kind of thing.
Where is Dr. Phil to mediate this stuff when you need him?
The best of science fiction helps us speculate on the nature of our very selves and our society by grounding the concepts in stories about people like us.
You can play along at home. Want to play family therapist? Here are more blockbuster films with core human backstories: Fury Road, Back to the Future, Inception, the Star Trek 2009 reboot (plus best original episodes like Amok Time or Family), Hunger Games and Logan. Ah – Logan! What a tearjerker! His daughter – all those adopted kids! I’m getting misty-eyed just thinking about the genetically engineered big galoot.
I’ve got my eye on the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok. Because nothing says epic fight scenes like an adopted brother who feels slighted.