“Science Fiction and Fantasy Films: Overlap in the Undiscovered Country”
Science fiction and fantasy films have individual defining characteristics but they also have characteristics that overlap between them. This overlap can be seen in science fiction and fantasy films, including The Matrix. Overlapping characteristics include an emphasis on the unknown, the journey or quest plot, and the use of stock characters, particularly outsiders and people thrown into a situation where they must save the day, often reluctantly.
The characteristic of an emphasis on the unknown overlaps between science fiction and fantasy films. “Because the possibilities are endless within the realm of science and technology, science fiction films also fall under the category of fantasy films. Reflecting the limitlessness of the unknown, science fiction films often explicitly question the traditional understanding and acceptable limits of time, space, and setting” (162). Fantasy films encompass “…any film that requires a leap of faith or the suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part in terms of the logic of plot, plot elements, setting, or characters can be categorized as a fantasy film” (163). Both science fiction and fantasy deal with the unknown, their approach is different. For example, time travel can be explained by science (albeit theoretical) in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home or The Time Machine while time travel might be explained in a fantasy film by magic (Groundhog Day) or angels (It’s a Wonderful Life).
The characteristic of a focus on science and technology and the tensions and anxieties they create drives the stories in science fiction films . “The social, philosophical, political, and psychological impact of science and technology and anxieties about their abuse or misuse are the root of science fiction films” (161). Science fiction films can show the benefits of advanced technology such as the hopeful future of seen in films such as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and 2001: A Space Odyssey. More often, they show the possible dangers when science is misused, as seen in dystopian films like Omega Man and The Matrix. In The Matrix, machines built to serve humanity turn on their creators, enslaving humans in order to power themselves.
Science fiction and fantasy films differ when it comes to their time, space, and setting. Science fiction films are more likely to be set in laboratories, dystopian futures, and space while fantasy films tend to be set in a magical realm, often in the past. Like any characteristics, there are exceptions such as the fantasy films E.T. and the Harry Potter films which are set in the present, and the fantasy film Dune which is set in the future. The Matrix puts a spin on things, depicting a world that appears to be set in the present (1999) but which is actually an illusion created to mask a dystopian future.
Both science fiction and fantasy films share the plot of the journey or quest. Characters can take a literal journey such as in the science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey or embark on a heroic quest such as the fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. These journeys and quests often involve strange lands and expose one or more characters to a trial by fire in which they experience personal growth. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Samwise’s quest to Mordor transforms them from innocent young men into battle-hardened (and scarred in Frodo’s case) men. The character Dorothy Gale finds herself engages in a quest to find her way home in in the fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz. In The Matrix, Neo leaves behind a world of illusion when he challenges the Matrix, taking a journey of sorts as he transforms from a computer programmer into “The Chosen One,” the man who will save humanity from the oppression of the machines. He also journeys from the illusory world created by the machines into reality, transferring back and forth between reality and the Matrix.
Science fiction distinguishes itself from fantasy films with its use of invasion plots. Invasions can come in alien incursions such as seen in films The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Mars Attacks!, and Independence Day. In some cases, invasions are due to man-made creations such as The Terminator and The Matrix,where man-made machines seized control, enslaving humanity.
Another form of overlap in science fiction and fantasy is the use of stock characters. Stock characters can be found in several genres, including science fiction, fantasy, action-adventure films, horror films, thrillers, war films, and westerns. Stock characters in science fiction include scientists. These scientists come in all shapes, sizes, and mental states. There are mad scientists ready to bring destruction to man (such as Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) and eccentric ones like Doc Brown in Back to the Future, whose well-meaning experiment causes unexpected havoc in the time stream. The scientist stock character often overlaps into horror whether it’s Victor Frankenstein’s well-meaning experiment going wrong in Frankenstein or ruthless scientist Joseph Heller making gruesome experiments in The Human Centipede.
Another stock character is the outsider who is called upon to save the society he rebels against. This can be a person living on the fringe of society such as Randy Quaid’s Russell Casse in Independence Day, or an iconoclast in a rigid structure such as the military (Will Smith’s Captain Steven Hiller in Independence Day). A related theme is a person who is thrown into saving the world, sometimes against their wishes (such as Samwise in The Lord of the Rings trilogy). In The Matrix, Neo is a type of outsider, working as a computer programmer while also working as a hacker. He finds himself thrown into the world of the Matrix and called upon to save humanity as “The Chosen One”. Neo reluctantly transforms from programmer Thomas Anderson to the hero, Neo. Female protagonists have become more common in science fiction films such as Ripley in Alien (and its many sequels) and Sarah Connor in Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day.
Fantasy films have their stock characters whether they be heroic knights, wizards, or fantastic creatures such as elves, gnomes, or giants. A careful examination shows similarities between stock characters in science fiction and fantasy films. A character on the fringe of society may be called upon to help save the day such as the reclusive Aragon in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It can be argued that wizards are the magical equivalent of scientists, wielding power through tapping into supernatural forces while scientists wield power through tapping into scientific forces. Wizards can serve different roles in fantasy films just as scientists do in science fiction films. Wizards can use their power for good such as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, or for evil such as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Overlap can present problems when a film appears to be one type of genre but which may be another. An example is the overlap science fiction and horror films with their use of monsters. Graves and Engle note how “…critic Bruce Kawin concludes that although both genres often include a ‘bug-eyed monster’ as Kawin calls any number of fantastic creatures, the genres differ in their attitudes toward the unknown” (162). Karwin concludes science fiction films tend to favor an attitude of discovery and knowledge from these creatures while horror deals with preventing the monster from “disrupting the status quo” (an important characteristic of horror). A person looking to identify a genre needs to be aware of the subtle differences between genres and where characteristics overlap if they are to avoid confusing one genre for another.
While science fiction and fantasy films have overlapping characteristics, it would be an error to say they are the same type of genre. The concept of overlap is seen in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, where each genre has characteristics that overlap amongst each other such as the emphasis on the unknown. However, science fiction and fantasy have individual characteristics that distinguish them from one another, even if these characteristics are subtly different.
Graves, Mark and F. Bruce Engle. Blockbusters: A Reference Guide to Film Genres. Greenwood, 2006.