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The Holy Trinity of Sci Fi Storytelling: Science, Religion & Politics

By Steve Duncan

“It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder,” Klaatu warns the People of Earth in the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. This movie struck a chord of dread with the audience because screenwriter, Edmund H. North, and director, Robert Wise, extrapolated the angst and fears of an audience who had just experienced a world war that had been ended by the use of thermonuclear bombs. At the time, the social issues complicated the politics—wives and mothers had lost their husbands and sons in a world war. The storytellers use a space ship landing in the Mall in Washington, D.C. with a bona fide space man in a silver suit, his relationship with a single mom and her son, and an all powerful robot named Gort to remind the audience of these grave issues.
Writer Ralph Ellison wrote elegantly about storytelling: “There must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

Science-fiction-fantasy films are enormously popular these days. As of the end of June 2013, four of the top ten box office earners are sci-fi-fantasy: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Oz, The Great and Powerful and Star Trek: Into the Darkness.

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With the advent of the 24/7 news cycle, news outlets devoted to one side or the other of political issues spout so much information it’s coming out viewers’ eyeballs. Politics is not just politics anymore: it’s an integral part of the fabric of entrainment in the media.

And politics is fair game for storytellers, especially of the science fiction fantasy genre. The most entertaining screen stories should not only convey events in images and sounds as a means of entertainment but must also educate, preserve culture and instill moral values (which is sometimes confused as politics). But it’s that last little bit—the moral values—that’s the challenging one for writers to get their imaginative hands around. While it’s true that science-fiction-fantasy more often than not concerns itself with scientific or technological change, these will quickly draw yawns if only communicated through fantastic computer generated images (CGI). It’s the moral values—the rules by which a society conducts itself—that are ultimately the most interesting element of a story. It’s exactly what Klaatu is getting at.

The times in which any generation lives is always wrapped in its politics and its religion. Of course, the trick—as a screenwriter—is to cloak these elements in way the audience doesn’t readily recognize them until the screenwriter or director talks about it during interviews or at awards ceremonies.

As it turns out, science-fiction-fantasy is a near perfect genre for combining “morally challenged politics” using fantastic technology with a thin coating of religion.

In 1977, the same political and religious themes used in The Day the Earth Stood Still were updated in a new film but with an incredible boost in technology. That film was George Lucas’s Episode IV: Star Wars: A New Hope (known then simply as Star Wars) and modernized the brutality of the Third Reich. But one important reason Star Wars storytelling is universal is its pantheistic expression of religion – “May the Force always be with you.” So, no matter the audience members’ religious affiliation, each one understands this to mean “‘my religion” is what sets me apart from the machines.’” If one does not have a religion, there’s no offense. The world is again saved from the Evil Empire. And it wasn’t to be the last time.

The Matrix (1999), written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, is—when you strip away all the stylish storytelling devices—about the second coming of Christ. Neo is referred to as “The One.” But instead of feeding the multitude with five loafs of bread and two fish, he’s to lead them against a clandestine computer that controls all of humanity. Even Neo’s clothing resembles the robe of a priest. Morpheus, a computer hacker tagged a terrorist, represents John the Baptist from the Bible, a man predestined to find the Messiah. And the Agents are the arbitrators for the political institution of Rome. But there’s a twist in The Matrix—it’s us— a Utopian multi-cultural collective—who are the insurgents in the film. We—the audience—are the religious extremists.

Indeed, The Matrix’s focus on computer hacking was timely: in 1999, when the film was released, the entire world waited in nervously for midnight when the Y2K programming mistake would cause all computers to crash. It was as if the world was on the precipice of the apocalypse. The Matrix also exemplified advancements in the science of CGI and Neo dodging hot lead using “bullet time” is now in the Smithsonian.

Like Star Wars and The Matrix, Avatar (2009) advanced visual entertainment standards through technology. Writer-Director James Cameron led the invention of a new camera system of motion capture to bring images to the screen in ways never seen before. And the film was released in IMAX 3-D with stunning visual realism.

In Avatar, we get a cautionary tale of the destructive nature of intolerance and greed. It is, at once, a feminist, environmental, political and spiritual film—the Tree of Souls compiles all the wisdom of the past for the present to share; perhaps a metaphor for The Bible. But above all, Avatar is a love story. The classic story of Romeo and Juliette but the star-crossed lovers inhabit ten-foot tall blue bodies in a futuristic lush jungle moon somewhere in the universe.

These films use the power of storytelling incorporating technology (science), politics and religion to reflect the time in which they are released and in which the audience lives regardless of the time in which the story takes place (the future).

And it’s not just feature films. Each new generation of CGI on the big screen makes it more affordable to advance visual storytelling on the small screen. Thus, the envelope is being pushed on the visual quality of television. Television is a more compatible platform to explore the complexities of politics and religion because the storytelling unravels over many episodes. There’s a television network—SyFy—branded to science-fiction storytelling taking advantage of the advanced but cheaper technology. Its new series, Defiance (2013), even has a companion online video game, bringing two technologies together. Other television programs taking advantage of more advanced visual technology are TNT’s Falling Skies (2011), the saga of an alien invasion, NBC’s Revolution (2012) with its backdrop of a world without electricity, HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011), an epic medieval fantasy and CBS’s new summer series based on the Stephen King novel, Under the Dome (2013), which is attracting a record number of eyeballs.

Television series’ produce thousands of hours of entertainment each year. These days, there are so many stories being told, The Digital Age is beginning to look like a Walmart—a big store with anything your heart desires. All of these trends benefit writers of the science-fiction-fantasy genre because, hey, somebody’s gotta write all this stuff.

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Steve Duncan is a Professor of Screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. A current member of WGA West and Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, his production credits include Co-creator and Executive Consultant of the CBS-TV Emmy-winning series Tour of Duty, Writer-Producer of the ABC-TV series A Man Called Hawk, and Co-writer of the Emmy-nominated TNT film The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson. He’s the author of A Guide to Screenwriting Success: How to Write for Film and Television (Rowman-Littlefield 2006) and Genre Screenwriting: How to Write Popular Screenplays That Sell (Continuum Books 2008). He’s a contributing author to The Handbook of Creative Writing (Edinburgh University Press 2008) and Now Write! Screenwriting (Tarcher/Penguin 2011). Steve also consults with the NFL, mentoring professional players’ transition into the film and television industry. He earned an M.A., Communication Arts: Television and Film, from Loyola Marymount University.


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