ALIENS fired imaginations in 1986, and remains a touchstone for screenwriting. So why does it look a bit dated now, and what lessons does that reveal for writers today? Ian Kennedy looks at how to get the details right in your sci-fi script.
So really, as we saw in my last article, most sci-fi is just fantasy, in a different setting, where we pretend that technology and scientific possibilities (rather than magic) are the reasons why things work differently from how they do in our world. And that’s fine by me. I’m writing this article to help writers avoid future-writing which is already suspect, and very unlikely to look plausible in the real future. Let’s start with ALIENS – which was directed with great vision by James Cameron, after all, building on excellent work by Ridley Scott and the team of the first ALIEN film. These filmmakers stand the test of time, and their stories too. So where did its details go wrong for me now from a modern point of view?
- The screens. There a lot of very analogue screens in ALIENS. It’s always tempting for filmmakers to load their future-visions with the best technology that the present has to offer. But there’s a lot that’s already very dated about these screens themselves. We see them close-up. A lot. They are split into very analogue patterns and none are remotely High Definition, never mind Retina quality. Pretty dated already. How many centuries in the future are we supposed to be? Nope. We’re three decades back in time here.
- Then there’s the stuff that’s on the screens. Nearly all of it is flat. And monotone in colour. Some of the photos are even black and white. Very little is moving. And the video feeds show the kinds of interference and distortion and low quality that nobody has experienced since DVD replaced VHS. When digital signals cut off, you get nothing, not static. The blueprint-like maps that the Corps use in ALIENS are also flat and two-dimensional – which even in the movie turns out to be woefully inadequate, when the aliens are able to get above and below them to breach their security. So again, in ALIENS we’re 30 years ago, not even now.
- There are the haircuts. Not much vision of the future going on there. I’m not in any way ruling out a lengthy revival in all-80s haircuts in future centuries. It could happen. But let’s be honest. It won’t. (In 1991, the original KNIGHT RIDER was forward-tracked for a TV movie set almost 20 years after the original series – KNIGHT RIDER 2000. But all the haircuts and moustaches don’t even belong in the 1990s, let alone the 2000s. We’ll amuse ourselves with some of its other errors later.)
- The tech used by the (apparently elite) Corps of marines in ALIENS also looks pretty suspect. Sure, the human soldiers are teched up by helmet cameras and gyro-stabilised machine guns, and other stuff. The cameras and other kit in the film look pretty clunky now, and Ripley even uses duct tape to bind guns together at one point, but all this we can OK for the time being; manufacturing standards are gonna be different in hostile deep space territories, and 3D printing and nanotechnology aren’t fully proven alternatives just yet. Mainly I’m bothered that these marines are still using their own actual bodies – not even under protective clothing on their faces and arms – to do most of the work. I don’t know about you, but I think the public horror whenever US troops get killed abroad, and the growing significance of air strikes and drone warfare, in our own time, is all pointing in a different direction. There’s no way human beings will be directly fighting our own battles unshielded, even in the medium term, let alone the distant future. Ethically and legally, this creates plenty of issues, but compared to having actual people actually die (and their relatives sue the government), it’s clear that non-human combat is going to be the future of warfare. (If our next major war doesn’t bomb us all back to the Stone Age in the meantime.) ALIENS even has a ready-made answer to this, in the creepily competent androids it gives other roles to. An android medic? While the humans go to war and die horribly? Who signed off on that?
I could go on endlessly about other visions of the distant future and how kitsch they look in hindsight, but FUTURAMA has basically done all that for me. Clever and deliberately backdated in its detailing, this funny show imagines that the year 3000 might have more in common with the kitsch, dated sides of the 20th century, than anything else. It’s no sillier a vision of the future than the ones it endlessly satirizes, and at least it knows it.
NEXT UP – WRITING THE NEAR FUTURE (AND THE FUTURISTIC PRESENT DAY)! Check out part one here: https://writemovies.com/insights-nothing-dates-faster-future-wheres-going-next/