Science fiction and explanation

I’m going to touch again on my earlier post about Science Fiction’s enticing of present-tense curiosity.

I made passing reference to the opening scroll as something that is so often forced upon science fiction film, to its detriment. Science fiction can create a whole world that the audience isn’t familiar with, and out of fear that the audience will be unable to orient themselves, they provide a quick introduction to that world. But I think it’s often the equivalent of starting a murder mystery with an opening scroll that says, “The butler did it.” There’s some pleasure to be had in slowly learning about the world instead of having it all front-loaded for you.

Cory Doctorow wrote an article about an element of science-fiction movies that bothered him and used the Spider-Man reboot to illustrate it. It’s mostly about the superficiality of how the science gets done; the labs look more like theme parks than like places where actual research gets done. Spider-Man is super-hero fiction, which has different expectations than science fiction, but I think that ties into what I was talking about. You can’t entice present-tense curiosity about a world that only has a surface.

And one element he focuses on is much like the opening scroll I mentioned:

Parker steps into the atrium of the office building, a soaring multi-level lobby that is dominated by a fifty-foot-tall digital display on which a continuous loop of the Science Billionaire plays. Every 90 seconds or so, the Science Billionaire says words to the effect of ‘‘Welcome to Science Billionaire Co! I founded this with nothing but a wooden cart and a bushel of apples and a microscope. Now I am a Science Billionaire! And you are my minions! Welcome, I say, to Science Billionaire Tower, where the future of tomorrow begins today, as we advance Science through Scientific Means.’’ He winks out of existence for a merciful moment, and then he’s back again: ‘‘Welcome to Science Billionaire Co! I founded this with nothing….’’

This giant looping video exists for similar reasons that opening scrolls do. They want to immediately tell the audience what Oscorp is as soon as Parker enters the building. Cory’s objection is that they sacrifice realism to do so. But they do very similar things in movies that purport to be science fiction, which sacrifices the present-tense curiosity. (Super-hero fiction usually puts less emphasis on present-tense curiosity, {With some notable exceptions, such as Watchmen.} so neglecting that in favour of other priorities may be more forgivable.)

Further to the opening scroll, some science-fiction movies will use variations, like the opening talking head. Unlike the Oscorp talking head, it might be non-diegetic, or it might be material with a diegetic context, but which is presented to the audience outside of that context.

For examples:
The opening of Zardoz begins with Arthur Frayn in blackness, telling us some stuff that is a big deal, but given this movie is Zardoz, there’s still plenty of unexplained stuff left. It’s non-diegetic and he directly acknowledges that this is only a story. Even with that intro, Zardoz relies on the audience having some familiarity with dystopian fiction to keep up, I think.

Dune, depending upon what version you’re watching, either explains almost everything in exhaustive detail with pictures or Princess Irulan hilariously fading out, making you think it’s done, but no, she comes back to tell you a little bit more. Both are non-diegetic, but like Arthur Frayn, Princess Irulan stays in-character, except for the fact that there’s nobody in-world that would need all this explained to them.

Moon starts with a diegetic promotional video for Lunar Industries which explains what Sam Rockwell is doing on the moon, but still leaves room for present-tense curiosity about the nature of living and working on the moon.

The Aeon Flux movie begins with an opening scroll telling us about a disaster that lead to the world as it is. This was especially disappointing, since the Aeon Flux cartoons very much did not explain themselves.

Perhaps I should collect a list of intros to science fiction films, and make my own decisions as to how they helped or hurt the film.

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