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INSIGHTS: Nothing dates faster than the future, part 2 – How to get the details right in your sci-fi script

INSIGHTS: Nothing dates faster than the future, part 2 – How to get the details right in your sci-fi script

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.


© WriteMovies 2017. Exclusive to WriteMovies – To syndicate this content for your own publication, contact ian (at) writemovies dot-com.

INSIGHTS: Nothing dates faster than the future. Writing Science Fiction…

INSIGHTS: Nothing dates faster than the future. Writing Science Fiction…

Most sci-fi is just fantasy in a different setting. But when writing science fiction all writers need to pay attention to what’s really changing and happening now, if they want their writing to catch our imaginations and stand the test of time.

Watching ALIENS again after twenty years (it’s actually over 30 years old, but I was 4 then), I’m seeing all kinds of things that now look quite dated – the opposite of futuristic. Despite the fact I’ve always thought this was one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, and that it’s still a touchstone for screenwriting theories. The experience brought home something I’ve been saying for a while: that nothing dates faster than the future. As writers, the same things that make it such an attractive subject can also leave our works quickly stranded.

There are plenty of trends we need to recognize, if we want to write science fiction or show the present in a way that’s, well, future-proof. You’d be amazed how many ‘futuristic’ scripts we receive that feel outdated now, never mind soon. Even worse are the ones set so near in the future that by the time the film would make it to cinemas (a minimum of 18 months, realistically, for any mainstream production) they’d already be almost backdated. So much for making a long-term profit thanks to the ‘long tail’ life of DVD/Blu-Ray sales, TV screenings or streaming. And here’s what’s even worse – lots of the scripts we receive don’t even seem up-to-date now, never mind for a release date two years from now and a ‘long tail’.

What will the future look like, even ten years from now? We won’t know until it hits us. A lot of what happens now in the news feels like a surprise at the time – 9/11, Trump, Brexit etc – but wouldn’t be if we all had our ears to the ground more and faced up to reality a bit more honestly. These articles aim to help writers do that, to avoid getting left behind by reality, it’s only human nature to not want to face uncomfortable truths. Wherever possible I try to take a fully inclusive view and avoid bias, but hey, I’m only human – and not everybody will want to agree with the picture painted here, and that’s an important thing to reflect in your writing too.

Many future-proofing issues for writers aren’t so much about machines, technology and other advances – they’re about what people will be like in the times ahead. Writers should keep an ear out for changes and subtle long-term trends in all aspects of life – just to reflect the world as it already is, in fresh ways. That’s true even if you don’t have any need to envisage the future within your writing. After all, a huge part of making your writing sellable is about tapping into something that’s both fresh and convincing. All writers should listen out for changes that will influence our futures – because even historical or fantasy stories still have to anticipate what we’re about to become interested in, and our unconscious desires for the kinds of world we’d like our imaginations to occupy (to escape our dull realities).

A lot of the things that still bug me about future-writing are the same things that bugged me about sci-fi TV shows and films when I was a teenager, which inspired a lot of my own best writing. I studied science hard and tried to push whatever technology I included towards the absolute limits of what might eventually be possible within the laws of physics – but no further. In contrast, most future-writing doesn’t pay much attention to facts. It’s far more interested in creating a dream – or a nightmare. And that’s fine too, as long as it can convince us.

Science is much abused by the fiction that takes its name. I prefer the Italian word fantascienza – a dream or a fantasy of science. Because that’s what most sci-fi really gives us. When writing science fiction, the writers start with a dream of what a future (or alternate reality) could be like, and explore that vision rather than anything that corresponds to science or realism. Then they dress it up with silly science-lite technobabble to make it sound more plausible. While pretending that, for example, we can fly faster than light, and arrive at distant stars in a couple of minutes, rather than the many years it would do even then. (Our bored imaginations are yearning for space to become an intensive and exciting place, rather than the overwhelmingly vast, empty, and almost action-free reality revealed by astronomy.) Relativity has implied – for 100 years now! – that flying faster than light might mean travelling back in time anyway, even if it were possible to put more than 100% of the energy contained in our mass into propelling ourselves forward to make that possible. Ridiculous, and impossible, but STAR TREK and other franchises take this as their premise. Meanwhile, other SF has relied on parallel universes, or controllable ‘wormhole’ portals instead – both ideas that badly distort an obscure scientific speculation in order to imagine the kind of exciting universe we’d much prefer to the reality. But most sci-fi would be very dull and empty if we couldn’t let our imaginations fly away from reality. If we’re honest, that’s the main point of the genre. Scientific realism and caution is usually the opposite of what writers and audiences go to sci-fi for. We yearn for a flight of fancy, not a cautious science lecture. We want the ‘What if’, not the ‘but really’!


© WriteMovies 2017. Exclusive to WriteMovies – To syndicate this content for your own publication, contact ian (at) writemovies dot-com.