Kenneth Burns: I wish there were more good science fiction movies

Jun. 14, 2014 @ 09:32 AM

I'm going to share something private. Normally I only talk about this with close friends and family members.

I'm a science fiction fan.

Actually, there is no shame in this. Many people are science fiction fans, because when it comes to movies, science fiction is a mainstream taste. Three of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time, adjusted for inflation, are science fiction: Avatar, Star Wars, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

When I say I'm a science fiction fan, what I mean is that I'm a fan of written science fiction. That's a less mainstream taste.

In high school, I was fond of the novels and stories of Robert Heinlein, who famously wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, about an Earthling raised by Martians. I also enjoyed books by Arthur C. Clarke, including Rendezvous With Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I didn't talk about this much. I was a deeply anxious teenager, and I worried about certain, shall we say, assumptions regarding science fiction fans.

I've since gotten over my self-consciousness, and I've revisited the Heinlein and Clarke books many times. I also read books by other masters of the genre, like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert.

At its best, written science fiction is thoughtful about technology and resourceful in the way it describes the interactions of people and machines.

I wish the same were true of more science fiction movies.

Yes, Avatar, Star Wars, and E.T. are very good. More commonly, however, what we think of as science fiction films are essentially thrillers, horror movies or action movies with technological themes, especially space-travel themes. That's thanks in no small part to Star Wars, which tells a lively story but is perhaps most influential because of its special effects and battle scenes.

I thought about this last weekend, when I revisited Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the wonderful 1977 science fiction movie. It was written and directed by Steven Spielberg, who was just 30 when it came out.

Close Encounters is the rare science fiction movie that features dazzling special effects and also tells a beautifully compassionate story about people who are recognizably human.

It stars Richard Dreyfuss as a man who sees a UFO and can't get the experience out of his mind. He is driven to obsession, as are other people who saw what he saw. Meanwhile, scientists study the alien appearances and try to reach out to the otherworldly beings.

Spielberg is coy about what is happening. What do the aliens want with us? Why do they only communicate with some people? How is what they do technically possible?

We don't get many answers, and that is part of the movie's strength. There's a clichéd principal in writing: Show, don't tell. That's what Spielberg does.

Other science fiction films might fill in the blanks with technobabble. Spielberg encourages us to ponder the mystery.

There is a scene in which the Dreyfuss character, apparently driven by alien-inspired mania, drives his family away and all but destroys his house, as he attempts to build a model of his vision. Contemporary critics interpreted the sequence as low comedy, and believed it was distracting.

I think it's essential, and it's one reason Close Encounters is a great science fiction movie. We're not looking at aliens or ostentatious special effects. We're looking at a man who is behaving outrageously because he can't get an idea out of his head. It could be anybody, and aliens need not be involved. The scene made me cry.

I also cried this past winter, when I went to see Her, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer program, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I wasn't necessarily crying at the story. I was crying at the miraculous fact that a quietly thoughtful science fiction movie had somehow worked its way into the multiplexes.

Her wasn't marketed as a science fiction movie, and that may, ironically, explain its success. I hope many others like it hit the big screen.

I'm not getting my hopes up.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to