In no other genre is setting as important as it is in science fiction: No matter how intricate the book's plot, or how chisel-jawed that Hollywood manpile on the movie's poster might be, the universe is always going to be the real star. If you strip out the setting from an action film, you'll still have bankable hunks kicking ethnic people in the throat. If you strip out the setting from a literary drama, you'll still have quirky protagonists exchanging meaningful looks while sharing a tragedy together. But if you strip out the setting in even the most classic and well-constructed science fiction properties, you'll wind up with a whole lot of nothing. And if you guessed that this column was going to be just lousy -- absolutely filthy -- with thinly veiled plugs for my own sci-fi serial novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, the second episode of which just came out this week, you get a gold star!*
Let's make sure we get the tone right from the start: Nobody's knocking any of these movies or books. I legitimately believe that a properly built world can function as a lead character in a story, and for evidence of that, I point to Blade Runner.
Blade Runner was an amazing movie, and if anybody disagrees with that, it's probably because they first saw the original version with Harrison Ford's terrible, atmosphere-breaking forced monologue slapped on top. If you were lucky, like me, the first you saw of Blade Runner was the 1992 director's cut, with narration removed, bullshit sappy ending changed to brutal existential metaphor, and the whole thing just riddled with sweet-ass unicorns.
Just look at the sweet ass on that unicorn.
See, the official 1982 version was never Ridley Scott's intended film, nor was the hasty, stilted narration ever Ford's fault -- the studios forced every one of those changes on the movie just before release. They're the ones who inserted the dreary, awkward first-person narrative, because they were worried that viewers wouldn't be able to follow the objectively simple (if occasionally muddy) noir plot. They're the ones who inserted that bullshit ending shot of Deckard and Rachael driving happily through pastoral landscapes like German tourists on vacation, and they're the ones who cut the galloping unicorn, because they hate magic and the laughter of children.
In the director's cut, however, there are fewer distractions from what was actually set down on film, and so the dystopian Los Angeles of 2019 really gets a chance to shine. Although to be fair, both versions opened with this shot:
Which told you everything you needed to know about this world. That one setpiece was worth an entire screenplay: The huge, looming mega-scrapers, the obtrusive, unregulated, gargantuan billboards, huge factories belching fire into the sky -- this was a logical extension of our reality, except for the obvious fact that nobody was taking human needs like space, or privacy, or even clean air into account. In short, this was a world without empathy.
That's not a throwaway message in there just to make the dystopia even dystopier -- Philip K. Dick's original story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? revolved entirely around empathetically caring for animals and a virtual religion that allowed people to jack into a Christlike figure's torment. Empathy was an extremely important element to the story that was exclusively relayed through the setting of Blade Runner. The plot doesn't do it -- at its heart, it's just a basic bounty hunting/detective tale. The characters don't do it -- Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer are badass and all, but there's just not enough screen time for either to get across any grandiose, abstract moral lessons in between bangin' future-broads and poundin' future-whiskey.
Philip K. Dick wrote that story because he wanted to talk about empathy; Scott had to settle for showing you what a world without it looked like. Well, that, and what titties look like covered in Saran Wrap.
"You want me to wear what? Isn't this movie about determinism?" "Oh yeah, baby. Totally. Now, let's wrap them titties!"
The man was an artist, but he was still a man, after all.
Avatar is the highest-grossing film in history. Why is that? For characters, it had Generic Damaged White Boy and Sassy Ethnic Girl versus Evil Authority Figure. For plot, it had 'Fern Gully fights some battle mechs.' For setting, it had Pandora:
And we, as a collective audience, said, "Fuck yes; should I throw this money at your face, or would you rather I pack it into a wad and shove it directly down your throat?"
Say what you will about Avatar (for example, the story is exactly as complex as a childhood game of cowboys and Indians, if the kids playing forgot to take off their Halloween costumes first), but James Cameron painstakingly built every inch of that world. Pandora had not only a unique look, but a functioning ecosystem, an indigenous culture and a complete back story. It shouldn't be surprising: Cameron first started working on Avatar in 1994, and the movie wasn't released until 2009 -- 15 years later. So what was he doing for that decade and a half? He sure as hell wasn't creating complex and likeable characters or filling up his plot-bucket from the Well of Intrigue. It took him 10 years to build that amazing setting, a drunken weekend to sketch the characters, and the run time of Pocahontas to come up with the plot.
"God, I am going to blue that guy so hard." -- James Cameron
Think I'm exaggerating? Consider this: Cameron was far enough along with Pandora that, in 2005, he started consulting with a linguistic professor to develop a useable language for the Na'vi, his giant race of Smurfy hair-rapists.
He didn't start on the screenplay until 2006.
Minority Report was all about the setting. The plot and characters were both background noise.
If Minority Report is famous for one reason, it's for the Dickish (hey, Dickensian was already taken; what else are we going to call something Philip K. Dick-like -- Philipino?) plot structure full of mind-bending twists and bizarre philosophical concepts.
It sure was. But do me a favor and go Google Image search Minority Report right now. What do you see? Ah, who am I kidding, this is the Internet -- you were all too lazy to do it. This is what you see:
Tom Cruise. Miming.
Minority Report tried to tell a story about awareness and destiny, free will and inevitability through a complex framework of predictions, faux-predictions and anti-predictions, and what did we all take away from it?
That we really fuckin' wanted Tom Cruise's operating system.
But the Finger Kinect wasn't the only oddly memorable part of this universe -- the retinal scanning billboards, the bizarre, vomit-based Tasers, the self-driving cars -- the universe of Minority Report was strange and alien, but just accessible enough to be compelling. That's because Spielberg was doing the same thing I did for Rx: He started researching actual fringe science and cutting edge technology to extrapolate the most believable version of this weird future possible. But where I got hung up on cliches like recreational nano-tech and pharmaceutical time travel, Spielberg focused on the burgeoning virtual-window-resizing and puke-based weapons industries.
What can I say? I can't compete with that; the bastard's psychic or something.