Sci-fi is a wonderful genre, full of story–telling possibilities as endless as the stars themselves. This is true from both a science and fiction standpoint. Far too often, however, science fiction films rely on the same tried and true methods to keep the audience entertained. This in not necessarily a bad thing, it makes science fiction more accessible to a wider audience. A few years ago science fiction was not as mainstream as it is today. After the success of Star Wars (1977) that all changed.
Recent years have given us critically acclaimed sci-fi films like Inception (2010), Her (2013), The Martian (2015), Arrival (2016) and many more. With the ever expanding market for sci-fi, now is the time to break away from the familiar tropes, to boldly go where… Well, you get the idea. Forget what you have seen in other films. Watch a few Carl Sagan videos or read a bit about string theory or entangled particles, really open your mind to the vastness of possibilities the genre holds.
Below is a list of common sci-fi tropes, many of which can be found in the great films listed above. You don’t have to avoid all of them or any of them, but keep them in mind when writing your script. Ask yourself ‘can this be done another way?’ Maybe all it needs is a new twist or take on the trope. In the end it’s up to you.
A common trope used in many different genres though sci-fi films seems to be the more common offender. This trope usually comes in the form of a tear in a space suit or hole in the hull of a spaceship. We can all relate to the panic caused by not being able to breathe, so this one is an easy way to build tension or create a sense of urgency.
Offenders: Total Recall (1990), Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014).
Time Travel is one of the most common sci-fi tropes to the point it could be called its own genre. Time travel can be used to bring a character from a more contemporary setting that the audience is familiar with to a more spectacular world in the past or future. The excitement or fear the characters then feel upon arrival can be shared with the audience. Another way is the timeline repair storyline in which the protagonist has to travel back in time to undo a wrong.
Offenders: Back to the Future (1985), 12 Monkeys (1995), Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).
When you are introduced to an intelligent robot or A.I. in a sci-fi film do you get nervous? Suspicious? Are you just waiting for the moment it loses its mind and tries to kill the entire crew? If so you’re not alone. A very common sci-fi trope is the sinister robot or A.I. Often times they start out functioning normally but due to damage, hidden directives, or misinterpreted protocols they go haywire and attempt to kill all the fleshy things.
Offenders: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982),
Faster Than Light
Faster than light travel is a wonderful plot convenience that is used in many sci-fi films and T.V. shows. It is used to allow the characters to zip around the galaxy as casually as going to the corner store. More often than not the technology that allows us to do this is left unexplained. In reality faster than light travel is impossible based on our current understanding. Near speed of light, however, is not and is a much more interesting idea. The time dilation that comes with those kinds of speeds could make for a very different kind of ‘time travel’ movie.
Offenders: Star Wars (1977), Star Trek (1966 – 2017), Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Space Is Like Air
What’s more thrilling than zooming around in a star-fighter shooting down the dark forces of the galaxy? Space battles in films while exciting, often look like traditional Earth-bound dogfights with pilots zooming around doing barrel rolls and chasing the enemy. It is uncommon to see pilots to really take advantage of the nature of the zero gravity environments. I have played enough video games to know dog fights in zero gravity usually boil down to who can keep a tighter orbit on the target while trying to keep your guns on them at all times. You both end up doing a sort of floating ballet in one spot. It’s kind of hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it but check out the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica for an example this kind of space combat.
Offenders: Star Wars Franchise, Star Trek Franchise, Stargate Franchise.
Space is Noisy
With audio being such an integral part of a film this is a tough one to criticize. In reality sound does not travel through the vacuum of space, but in films we often hear the deep rumble of the ships engine as they pass by or the loud crash of a ship exploding. This one may or may not bother you. I think the more realistic silent portrayal of space in the film Gravity (2013) works great but that same approach would never work for a film like Star Wars (1977). So keep in mind both approaches and maybe even try and throw a new twist on it.
Offenders: Pretty much every space movie aside from Gravity.
Oh no, we’re doomed, were trapped, there is no way out! Thank God we have the ‘Statiophonic Oxygenetic Amplifiagraphiphonodilliverberator’ or we’d be in big trouble. Science fiction often uses techno-babble to explain fantastical, unreal and often impossible technologies. Many times it is used as a plot convenience, to get the main character out of a jam with no prior set up and often with no scientific foundation. Star Trek is probably the most well-known offender though much of its techno-babble is at least based on real world scientific theories. All the explanation we get (and need) in Back to the Future is that with some Plutonium, a Flux Capacitor, and 1.21 ‘Jigawatts’ of electricity you can turn a Delorean into a time machine.
Offenders, Star Trek (1966), Back to the Future (1985), The Matrix (1999)