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I've spent the last week traveling the width and breadth of this great North American continent of ours, and wherever I go people want to get into a debate with me, per my column a few weeks ago, over how I judge what movies count as science fiction. This is what I get for opening my big mouth, I suppose, but the debates did get me thinking more about this obviously divisive topic.
A lot of my discussions centered around the argument that a movie's status as scifi is dependent upon the percentage of the movie that's "science fictional" -- that is, if a movie contains enough science fictional gadgets or creatures or concepts, it eventually becomes science fiction. This is why Monty Python's The Life of Brian or the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There or (my favorite) Alex Cox's Repo Man are not science fiction, even though each of them features a key scene involving UFOs. At the end of the day, or so it's been argued to me, one minute of scifi isn't enough to clutch these flicks against our geeky chests and proclaim them official property.
The problem with this theory is that a significant number of science fiction geeks feel pretty strongly that any amount of science fictional material makes a movie (or book, or TV show) scifi. This "single drop of blood" philosophy has almost a tit-for-tat flavor to it: If the screenwriters and producers are going to make their jobs easier by positing technology that doesn't quite exist, we get to claim that flick in the name of science fiction -- so there. This is why I know people who not only believe Repo Man is scifi, they will fight you on the matter. Seriously, man: The spittle will fling. I've seen it. I've been sprayed with it. It's not pretty.
In the earnest desire to avoid further spittle, allow me to suggest a refinement to the "percentage" theory of scifi, which is simply this: Whether a movie counts as science fiction depends on whether the science fiction elements are crucial to the plot. "Crucial to the plot" in this case means that if you pull out these elements, the story collapses; it literally cannot go on because the mechanisms that move it forwards no longer exist. If that's the case, it's science fiction. If your movie is still standing, then what you've got is another genre with some scifi thrown in for flavoring.
Applying this new theory to Repo Man and our other two contenders, we see that none of them are science fiction because if you dropped the UFO elements -- though you might lose a chunk of humor, a bit of allegorical resonance and smudge of random weirdness -- the stories themselves would not be materially harmed.
Another excellent example of this to my mind is the James Bond series. I know several people who will swear up and down that by dint of all his gadgets and the preponderance of laser-wielding satellites, James Bond is fundamentally a science fiction hero. I see it differently. Get rid of the gadgets (as the last two chapters in the series essentially did) and both James Bond and his plots still work. Even the laser-wielding satellites are mere window dressing to what's really going on in the story: Goldeneye, which featured a laser-wielding satellite in the title, was actually about Bond working through a betrayal by his best friend and fellow spy. The satellite was the MacGuffin (the arbitrary object that got the movie rolling and kept it ticking), not the central plot point. For true scifi Bond, you have only (ugh) Moonraker to content yourself.
The beauty of looking at possibly science fictional movies this way is that doing so gives you a nuts-and-bolts view of cinematic storytelling: You become aware of just how often screenwriters and filmmakers use science fiction as a shortcut and a crutch to get out of whatever plot corner they've written themselves into. You also realize just how often scifi is used as a spectacle to make you feel like you got your money's worth (see again: Bond). In a way, it's nice to know that Hollywood can't live without science fiction, even in movies that are not themselves scifi.
What are your thoughts? Does my revised theory pass muster?
Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man's War and Zoe's Tale. He's also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.