Science fiction movies, in terms of special effects, have come a long way. Some of the early movie’s effects were so bad as to cause instant laughter (a toy rocket ship tied on a string, string clearly visible, merrily bouncing in the “winds” of space?). Certainly what is being produced today is far better in terms of sheer eye-candy.
However, all too often, today’s movies concentrate so much on these special effects that they forget that they also need to tell a good, convincing story with believable acting. Some of the older movies, as bad as their special effects were (and just as frequently, atrocious science – but that’s still true today), are still watchable today because of the fact that the directors of these movies remembered that they were telling a story. I was forcibly reminded of this by a couple of those older movies that I recently had the chance to watch: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Them!
Now clearly the special effects in The Day the Earth Stood Still are nothing to brag about, but both the story and the underlying message do what good science fiction is supposed to do – make you think about the human condition and how people would respond to “What if..?” I’m very much afraid that the new remake due to hit the theaters shortly will have all it’s emphasis on scenes of massive destruction, to the strong detriment of what the story is all about.
Similarly, Them! doesn’t have much in the way of special effects. The giant ants are clearly either little clockwork models blown up via camera to giant size, or real ants subjected to the same magnification. And the science involved here is pure hokum – insects can’t physically reach sizes like this, as their physical structure can’t support the weight, and their air system would also fail, due to the square-cube law of area versus volume. But at the same time, there are statements made throughout the movie about the habits of real ants that are very much spot-on, and these details are used to make a believable and suspenseful story. It also doesn’t hurt that there is some decent acting going on here. This one is one to watch with your popcorn already in hand, as you won’t want to get up to go get it after the movie starts – it’s a story that grabs.
I have little real hope that most future SF films will remember story first, visuals second. Hollywood looks for and tries to make what sells, and for a very large percentage of those movie-goers who go to see SF films at all, the blow-em-up, stunning visuals are the main reason they go at all. Hollywood will continue to pander to this demographic, its a given, its how they stay in business and make money. But here and there, hopefully there will be a few gems that still remember to tell a fascinating story.