Sci-Fi Movie Cop-outs

Science fiction is easily the most expensive film genre to produce.  Sci-fi stories come with all the expenses of any other genre plus all the costs associated with special effects, otherworldly sets, time-consuming make-up applications, and an entirely new set of costumes and props.

Quality movies in any genre cost money, and making a good sci-fi film costs that much more.  The best way to get a movie made in this genre is to cut your costs at the outset.  This makes for bad movies and are backdoors to plain old intellectual apathy (i.e., you don't have to think something up if you're not going to show it on screen), but you got your movie made, did you?

Cop-out #1:  Time Travel... back to the present

If you want to have a story about the future but don't want all the expensive trappings of having to build futuristic locales and costumes, then just have your characters travel back in time... to the present day.  That way you can just film on location anywhere in Southern California... and it's still a sci-fi movie!
Worst offenders
  • Terminator series... - Each film takes place in the year it was made.  You know what would make a better movie?  The one based in the future that the Terminator always travels back in time from to star in the lame shoot-em-up films in this series.
  • The Matrix - It's the post-apocalyptic future, there is a giant city beneath the earth with magnetically power hovercraft.  Humanity is waging war against swarms of flying robots.  So where does this movie take place?  In a virtual reality "simulating" LA.  Huh?  Not time travel per se, but still a cop-out.  (Thankfully, the sequels had the budget to rectify this cop-out.)
  • He-Man - Remember the cartoon?  All the monsters and castles and the whole other world?  Then they made a live action movie where a mere handful of characters travel back to (where else?) Hollywood, California.
  • Beastmaster II - The original took us across a land of magic and myth right out of a Robert E. Howard novel.  The sequel takes our aging protagonist across Los Angeles. 
  • 12 Monkeys - Terry Gilliam has a genius for putting pure insanity on film.  The worlds depicted in Brazil, Time Bandits, and the Adventures of Baron Munchausen are breath-taking.  So why did he spend all the set design budget on Bruce Willis' salary and so much screen time in a modern-day insane asylum?
  • Millennium - A forgettable sci-fi film in which people from the year 3000 AD travel back to our present to steal people who are destined to die in plane crashes in order to repopulate the future.  The whole movie takes place in the the 1980s,so if you rent it today, you will be traveling through time.
  • Just Visiting - You probably never even heard of this one, but Jean Reno travels forward from the 13th century to present day, where the producers don't have to spring for period costumes.
  • Kate and Leopold - Same as the above only with Meg Ryan, who the tabloids have reported has done some time traveling herself (of a sort)... with a plastic surgeon.
  • Happy Accidents - Vincent D'Onofrio travels back to the present day to woo Marisa Tomei.  Admittedly, I like this one in spite of the cop-out.
  • Trancers - Cult sci-fi cop flick (or series thereof) in which Jack Deth travels back to 20th century LA to chase a killer.
  • Star Trek: First Contact - After the success of Star Trek IV, the producers obviously hoped to replicate the magic with another trip back in time to our near-future.  Why?  Who knows!  This doesn't do anything for the story which works just as fine without this device.  All anyone remembers are the Borg and all the plot inconsistencies.
Variations on this theme: Travel to an alternate universe that is merely based on something else already familiar (i.e., the props already on hand at the studio): 
  • The original Star Trek television series in the Nazi universe and the planet that looks exactly like ancient Rome and so on...  Basically, they visited every period in history that yielded the artifacts and icons that fill prop departments of television studios.
Movies that get it right
  • The Time Machine - As flawed as they may be in other respects, both the 1960 and 2002 versions delivered the goods when it came to seeing the far future.
  • Back to the Future II - Flying cars, flying cars.  It wasn't Blade Runner, but I can't complain.  Even alternate versions of both the present and future are explored.
  • Matrix Reloaded & Revolutions - Sure, we spent a little time in the virtual world, but this time around the audience got to see the "real" world.  Revolutions still sucked though.
  • Freejack - Emilio Estevez is pulled forward 20 years into the future so aging Anthony Hopkins can steal his body.  If anything, the movie could be criticized for exaggerating the vision of the future beyond the stated 20 span.
  • Star Trek IV - Here's a great series set a couple centuries in the future.  There's tons of space battles, phasers, and transporters.  Then we make the movie on a shoestring budget by filming about 90% of the picture on location in San Francisco.  However, they do bookend the film with grand sets in the 23rd century, and the humor is all there, so I can forgive them this time around.

Cop-out #2:  The Human Condition ...or just as human as human

Once again the aliens and robots the audience came to see are disguised as humans.  Not much work for the make-up department when you do it like that, is there?  Typically there is a scene in which some aspect of the true nature of the character is revealed (e.g., a patch of skin is cut off, etc.), but this is a mere hint.
Worst offenders
  • Terminator - In this semi-autobiographical series, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a robot covered with a fleshy facade.  Aside from the premise established in dialogue and the judicial use of a few effects shots, the first film in this series as much science fiction as Kindergarten Cop.  Which is to say, this is the Citizen Kane of this genre.
  • The Arrival - While we do occasionally get to see some aliens, as usual they're disguised as bad actors for most of the film.  And to make things even worse, Charlie Sheen plays against type as the human protagonist!
  • "V" - Lizards invade the Earth disguised as humans.  Early on, they're revealed as reptiles, but they still feel compelled to don latex to appear human for the rest of the series, even when it's just aliens meeting with aliens in the privacy of the own, um, giant flying saucer.  Paradoxically, this is so the humans who play them don't have to wear prosthetics themselves.  (If you're dyslexic, please have someone explain this with a diagram.)
  • Contact - I hate to admit that one of my all-time favorite movies falls into this category, but it does.  Granted, the story justifies this point of the plot (and it was written this way in the novel long before it was under consideration as a film), but in the end it has the same effect.  Or as South Park's Mr. Garrison put it, "Waited through that entire movie to see the alien, and it was her god damned father!"
  • Starman - There is some blue light that supposedly qualifies this film as science fiction, but I honestly don't see much difference between this movie and Rainman.
  • Cocoon- There is so little sci-fi in this movie that I have to remind myself that aliens were in it.  Admittedly, I liked it best when Tahnee Welch kept her skin (and nothing else) on.
  • Village of the Damned - Interesting premise, but these kids are supposed to be part alien.  Sure, they're creepy, but no more alien than Christina Ricci.  Okay, bad example.
Movies that get it right: 
  • Star Wars - Just hum the theme from the cantina and let the music take you back. 
  • Aliens - Well, the first flick played it a bit coy, but that was part of the suspense.  Generally, this series put H.R. Giger's creations prominently on the screen.
  • They Live - An interesting John Carpenter film about a global conspiracy.
  • Independence Day - Man, these things were weird!  It's like the Joan Rivers' version of The Picture of Dorian Gray!
  • The Blob - Hardly the most imaginative movie monster, but effective on screen.
Turning a cop-out into a plot device
  • The Thing (From Another World) - Having the monster take human form works here.  The film actually does show some freaky stuff besides, but it mostly relies on the premise of mimicry.  The John Carpenter remake is pretty good as well.

Cop-out #3:  Invisible Monsters ...or show me the mummy

While it is a good plot device to keep your ace in the hole and build dramatic tension, keeping your star attraction off the screen is also a good cop-out when you want to cut costs or otherwise allocate resources.
Worst offenders:
  • Forbidden Planet - The fantastic sets more than compensate in this case, but a truly invisible monster is fairly insulting to the audience's intelligence.
  • Children of the Corn - Not a sci-fi film per se, but didn't you think of Bugs Bunny when those things were burrowing beneath the ground?
  • Signs - This movie is unspeakably awful in too many ways to catalog.
  • Relic - Oh, just skip this one.
Movies that get it right: 
  • Predator - Rather than being employed as a cop-out, the literal invisibility is actually the stand-out plot device of the film.  In fact, production-wise, it was more expensive to make the title character invisible.  That, my friends, means this is the opposite of a cop-out.  Whatever that's called.
  • Mimic - The concept of "hidden in plain sight" really works here.  The film is very atmospheric besides, if a bit short in other areas.
  • Tremors - The creatures are shown in due course, but the suspense is built by initially keeping them underground.  I mean, they could be anywhere...
Variations on this theme: Aliens that look like us 
  • Star Trek - The only requirement to be an alien is to have a single distinguishing characteristic.  Pointy ears or a bad haircut typically satisfy this prerequisite.

Cop-out #4:  Aliens visit present-day Earth

Yet another cop-out has aliens visiting present-day Earth.  And while there are certainly themes to be examined here, it is absolutely a cop-out for the reasons cited above: budget, budget, budget.  In most cases, the story would be more challenging, humorous, and/or otherwise interesting if the setting were moved into the past (e.g., aliens last in the Wild West) or in the distant future where they could take a story to a higher level.  It all depends on what the film attempts to achieve... but, no, they're going to land in Hollywood, just down the block from the studio financing things...
Worst offenders:
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Given the fashions of the 1970s and the flashbacks from the rampant recreational drug use from a decade earlier, it's no wonder aliens could visit Earth virtually unnoticed by anyone but the government and a few kooks like Richard Dreyfuss.
  • E.T. - The funniest bit was when E.T. hides in the closet and blends in with all the toys.  Within six months, the merchandising geniuses ensured that everyone under 12 had the same scene in their closet.
  • *batteries not included - By visiting present-day Earth, the producers ensured that I would remember absolutely nothing about this film.
  • Cocoon - Sure, it's a cute movie, but the only thing futuristic about this is the fact that its cast are practically from another century. 
  • Signs - The worst movie every made. Ever!  Clearly this was released for only one purpose: To ensure that aliens will never, ever visit this planet.
  • Mars Attacks! - This movie should have been set in the 1950s where every other aspect of it originated.  There's no reason why a movie this bad should have been made in this day and age.
  • Predator series (including AVP) - A more interesting idea might have been that these creatures are the basis of many of our ancient myths (e.g., Grendel), but, no.  We're going to set it in the present like every other movie not made by Woody Allen.

Cop-out #5:  Artificial Gravity

This technology is so ubiquitous in the sci-fi realm that it is taken for granted.  We take it for granted because we don't typically imagine zero-G environments.  Of course, most of the universe is essentially zero-G, but so this simply a cop-out in most movies.  Why do they do it?  Well, for the time being, pretty much 100% of all sci-fi films are filmed right here on Earth.
Worst offenders:
  • 2001 - Sure they have artificial gravity in the middle of the ship (via centripetal force in the rotating section), but somehow they overlook the fact that there shouldn't be any in the hanger or elsewhere. 
  • Star Trek- Everything on the ship manages to break except the artificial gravity.  Isn't that interesting?  No, wait.  It's a cop-out.
Movies that get it right: 
  • 2001 - Yeah, I know.  Even though this is an offender, it's also the best movie for acknowledging this pitfall (no pun intended) of space travel.
  • Apollo 13 - The crew filmed aboard the "Vomit Comet" in order to recreate zero-G conditions, but the rest of the Hollywood is literally grounded.

Copyright 2004-2007 Ale[x]tra-terrestrial.
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