Three key ingredients in great science fiction

There's no shortage of 'must watch' science fiction movie lists on the internet, and even more debate about what films should be included. Personally I don't believe that THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE meets the criteria of "brilliant" science fiction that has contributed to the development of the genre, but others have disagreed. I do agree with io9's criteria of representing cinematic excellence as well that was part of their "50 Brilliant Science Fiction Movies That Everyone Should See at Least Once" list. 

While watching film submissions for this year's Other Worlds Austin Film Festival programming, I've had plenty of opportunities to contemplate what makes for really great science fiction.

My favorite subgenres of sci-fi include technology and post-apocalyptic worlds as I'm fascinated by what the future holds for the human race. However, without an engaging narrative supported by complex characterization and a connection to humanity, a science fiction film can fall flat no matter how much cool technology and special effects it uses.

Here's three recent science fiction-related milestones that that serve as reminders of these critical elements:

October  21, 2015 -- BACK TO THE FUTURE

#1 Technology

For BACK TO THE FUTURE fans, no date has been more eagerly anticipated since its release than October 21, 2015 -- the date that Marty McFly travelled to in BACK TO THE FUTURE 2. While admittedly the sequel did not live up to the original, what was fulfilled was a lot of the technology represented as futuristic in the 1989 sequel. Big screen televisions and video teleconferencing have existed for several years, and video glasses and news drones are of present day use.

Hoverboards are the one technological advancement depicted in the film that's still conceptual, and as far as the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series --- yeah, that's still fantasy.

BACK TO THE FUTURE is an entertaining blast into the best that while dated, is still timeless when it comes to its place in the genre of science fiction. 

Speaking of technology, how about.....


#2 Engaging Story

There was a great disturbance in the force as online ticketing crashed across multiple platforms including Fandango and The Alamo Drafthouse ticketing server. Hardcore fans flocked to their local theaters to purchase tickets to the December 17 premiere of the latest installment of the STAR WARS saga.

The irony is not lost that with our societal dependency on technology, many ticket purchasers were irate at having to drive and wait in line to purchase tickets in person two months prior to the official release. I find that mildly humorous as I recall waiting in line for over an hour to watch the original STAR WARS in June of 1977.  

Sure the special effects captivated audiences, but it's the story that captured our hearts and gives STAR WARS fans chills when we see old familiar faces in the new trailer. The mythology of the Jedi and the Force within major characters, the complicated romances between stateswomen and rogues -- that's what drives the enthusiasm for many.

These sci-fi stories can also be experienced in our homes on television and build audiences, including AMC's The Walking Dead which brings me to the next key ingredient in great science fiction...

"Thank You" -- The Walking Dead 

#3 Character Development

While it can be argued that The Walking Dead is more horror than science fiction as there's no longer an emphasis on how the zombie apocalypse happened or could be cured, I still consider the series as sci-fi due to the post-apocalyptic survival aspects.

In The Walking Dead season 6, episode 3 entitled "Thank You," written by Angela Kang and directed by Michael Slovis, a major character appeared to have suffered a tragic ending, and another was left in a dire predicament. Yes, I realize that it's a comic book series so some of these events were foretold, but as a fan who has chosen not to read the comics until later I retain the pleasure and excitement of watching the story unfold over the course of the television series.

Even with a partial spoiler from social media trolls, I was and am still emotionally shaken by this week's episode which was well-supported by the first two episodes of this season. Why such a reaction?

Answer -- because while the trappings of The Walking Dead are post-apocalyptic survival amongst the undead, it's the character-driven narrative amid this world that connects us to the humanity. The development and growth of the characters can be exemplary -- from a boy to a man, whose character strength of compassion may also have been his greatest weakness. This trait does not make him flawed, but rather makes him human.    

The Sum of These Elements -- OWA programming

As part of the programming team for Other Worlds Austin, I hope that our friends, fans, and filmmakers will find those same connections in our selections this year. There are several films high on my list for their ability to engage and captivate the audience, and connect through its character development and intriguing futuristic views.

One narrative in particular that I find especially exciting is that the lead protagonist is a young woman, yet it does not define the role -- a very refreshing approach in filmmaking. Another film I hope makes the cut involves a very minimalistic set and dialogue, yet will catch the audience off-guard in its creative delivery.