Kids these days don’t really need to be introduced to science fiction; it’s a genre that’s all around them in television, video games, books, and of course movies. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are both a parent and a bit of a geek, and you want to introduce your young kid — who is between the ages of 6 and 10 years old — to science fiction films in a more formal way. An Early Education Science Fiction Film class, as it were. Which science fiction films would work for such a thing?
I think you would have to set down some criteria for your curriculum. Here’s some of the criteria I would use.
1. It Should Have Age-Appropriate Content
Meaning that it
shouldn’t be overly violent, overtly sexual, or occupy itself with
themes that go right over kids’ heads. This chucks out a lot of
excellent science fiction films right off the bat, including Alien, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Terminator films, and anything by Paul Verhoeven.
2. It Should Stand on Its Own, Without Too Much Reference to Pop Culture
Because while most 6-to-10-year-olds are vacuuming up cultural
references every day, there’s still a lot that goes over their heads.
The film shouldn’t be all in-jokes; the kids should be able to get most
of what’s going on. This tosses out inside-joke-heavy family films like Monsters vs. Aliens or Chicken Little, as well older-skewing films like Men in Black and classics like Young Frankenstein.
3. It Should Take into Consideration Kid-Sized Attention Spans and Understanding
think 6-to-10-year-olds can be smarter and more patient than they
are often given credit for. They’re still 6-to-10-year-olds,
however. Whatever you show them has to get them engaged and keep them
engaged. Kid protagonists help; so do shorter films with lots of action.
The idea when showing science fiction films to young kids is not
to make them appreciate the scope and breadth and complexity of the
film genre. It’s to give them the idea that science fiction films are
fun. If you manage that, everything else will follow in
So with those criteria in mind, what films would I use to formally introduce science fiction to a kid?
When The Phantom Menace
came out and people started criticizing Jar Jar Binks, one common
rationalization from apologists was that the Star Wars films were meant
to be kids’ films. Like Greedo shooting first, this is an after-the-fact
change to reality. Star Wars wasn’t made specifically for kids.
But it sure has everything most kids would love in a movie: action,
adventure, unambiguously good and bad characters, spaceships, robots, a
young hero, sword fights, and eye-popping special effects that continue
to amaze 35 years on. I first saw Star Wars when I was 8; I think that’s still a great age to see this film.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
I think a lot of people see this film as a good one to show younger
kids, and I wouldn’t blink at letting a 6-year-old see it. But I would
say it’s really more effective for 10-year-olds, who are just old
enough to appreciate the sacrifices E.T. makes for Elliott and the
meaning of the bonds of their friendship. It’s also a good film to make
the point that science fiction can be about people (alien and otherwise)
as much as it is about special effects.
Lilo & Stitch
This is E.T. in
need of Ritalin: a surprisingly funny and anarchic film that features
broken characters, some human and some not, fixing themselves by being a
family. Lots of classic science fiction tropes are employed but don’t
depend on kids knowing the references; it’s mostly self-contained
classic science fiction. Also: Two women as the main human protagonists.
It’s not made a big deal of, but it’s important.
This is the film I would make a child’s very first foray into science
fiction: It’s gentle and funny, the first third of the film is nearly
dialogue-free so kids can just soak up the characters, and Wall*E himself
is immensely appealing, both as someone for kids to relate to (he’s
small and bumbling) and as someone trying to do the right thing at all
times. Plus lots of slapstick, very well done.
A Trip to the Moon
This 1902 short film is considered the very first science fiction film,
and for a kid who has shown interest in science fiction, it’s
interesting to see how far the genre’s come in 110 years. As a plus, the
film is quick and kinetic, and while the effects are old-fashioned — in
every sense of the term — the more savvy kids will be able to marvel at
how well they were done despite the limitations of the times. A fun and
fast history lesson. And you can find it on YouTube.