Cheats and Tricks of Sci-Fi and Horror
Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999
This article appeared in Issue 18 of Frontier, Australia's sci-fi media magazine
We see them every time we turn on the television to watch the latest episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" or "The X-Files". We see them so often in sci-fi and horror movies that we hardly notice them anymore and often take them for granted. If you look closely at your average sci-fi and horror television shows and movies, you will notice that writers, producers, and directors rely on a number of narrative 'shortcuts' when telling a story-- little cheats and tricks in plot and production design that have little bearing on reality. These conventions and contrivances arise from the need to tell a story as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible (one might also add 'with as little creativity as possible' to the list), and can be attributed to one of three reasons: economy of storytelling, production constraints, and just plain laziness.
Economy of storytelling refers to providing only the necessary details or making certain assumptions to move a story forward, instead of bogging down each scene with unnecessary action or dialogue. This is why that in movies and television shows, characters will usually find a parking space right in front of the building they are going to (unless the search for a parking spot is the point of the scene), that every apartment in Paris will have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower, and the watches of all characters are perfectly synchronized. This is also the reason why the villains of the James Bond movies, after having captured the titular secret agent, will go to great pains to explain away their elaborate scheme so that the audience is 'reminded' just how evil they are.
Production constraints are also another reason for the odd rules you find in movies and television shows. Everything you show the audience has a price tag attached, and by removing unnecessary characters or props, a producer can tell a story with the least outlay of cash. This is the reason why artificial gravity is so prevalent in outer space adventures, since it would be too expensive to simulate weightlessness (and in certain movies, may even stretch the acting abilities of the cast). In addition, because cameras require an unobstructed view of the action, you'll notice that cars in certain movies will lack rearview mirrors, which would otherwise cover an actor's face). Similarly, the majority of the apartments seen on television and in the movies are extremely spacious (providing room for the production crew to work), even if the character has a low-paying job and could not possibly afford such a place.
Finally, there is 'just plain laziness'. As a quick look at your local megaplex theatre will tell you, Hollywood is short on original ideas, since it is often easier to recycle something. Hence, writers and directors 'borrow' bits of dialogue or concise visual statements from other films and television shows instead of finding a new means of conveying the same thought. As a result, skydivers and paratroopers always make snide remarks about 'jumping out of a perfectly good airplane', noises in dark houses or alleyways are always caused by cats, cops tend to die just a few days before retirement, and the poignancy of a plane crash is often highlighted by a child's doll (appropriately charred) amidst the wreckage.
So next time you're watching a sci-fi/horror movie or television show, see how many of the following clichés and conventions you can spot:
- Time travelers learn the date of their destination by picking up a newspaper off the ground or out of a garbage can, but never verify if the newspaper is actually from that day.
- In the future, vast galactic empires will conquer hundreds of star systems, despite its foot-soldiers being notoriously bad shots (Imperial Stormtroopers as a case in point).
- Even though space is three-dimensional without any true 'up' or 'down', spaceships tend to always line up on a single plane (as in "Star Trek", "Babylon 5", etc.).
- The non-corporeal nature of ghosts allow them to pass through walls and living people, yet they are still able to sit down and walk on the upper floors of the houses they inhabit (as seen in "Ghost" or "The Frighteners").
- Nobody goes to the washroom in space.
- If you are being chased by a monster, be sure to stop at a telephone booth only a few steps from where you saw the monster last, where it will surely kill you as you are calling for help.
- Humans are able to eat foods from alien worlds without any ill effects from previously unknown proteins, enzymes, or other organic substances (witness how readily the "Voyager" crew eat food offered by alien hosts).
- The more idiotic a movie is, there's a good chance that there will be a scene in a strip club (as in "Universal Soldier: The Return" and the Walter 'Chekov' Koenig 'classic' "Moontrap")
- Not only can aliens speak English, but they can speak it with British accents
- Cell phones are able to work anywhere (including underground bunkers and inside elevators), unless there is a dramatic reason for them not to work (as in "The X-Files").
- When confronted with a superheroic crimefighter, the bad guys will always shoot at the hero's impervious body armor instead of the unprotected face area ("Robocop", "Batman", "Blade", etc.).
- After being bitten by a vampire, the more important a character is, the slower they are 'turned' into a vampire (as witnessed in "John Carpenter's Vampires" and "From Dusk 'til Dawn").
- Unlike the cultural diversity found here on Earth, beings from other planets all speak the same language, wear the same clothes, and worship the same god.
- Though in the present we have the means to hit targets thousands of miles away (such as with cruise missiles), in the future, all forms of weaponry (phasers, lasers, photon torpedoes, etc.) have reverted to line-of-sight firing. Also, despite advanced targeting technology, it is still possible to miss.
- The best way to attack a well-armed and dangerous alien species is to send out all your troops onto open ground armed only with machine guns and without the benefit of mechanized units or air cover (as in "Starship Troopers")
- Genetic mutations will have almost immediate effects on a living creature and always turn it into a deadly killer
- The best way to defeat a technologically advanced race is to destroy the mothership, since the remainder of the alien fleet will be immediately demoralized or cease to be a threat, despite still possessing overwhelming numbers or advanced weaponry (such as in "Independence Day" or "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace", or with the Borg and the Shadows). Furthermore, the more advanced an alien race is, the more likely they will rely such a centralized organizational structure, which would allow them to be defeated by such a tactic.
- Most warlike alien races seem to have adopted the mores of Japanese culture, especially the emphasis on personal honor (including the Klingons, the Minbari, and those mean-looking critters on "Space Rangers").
- In the future, no matter where you are in the universe, everyone accepts 'credits'.
- Getting blown out an airlock instantly makes you weightless too.
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