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Elements of a Movie: Science Fiction

Updated on June 27, 2012


Like horror, science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy, but with science fiction the subject often involves either a strange new world with strange creatures and strange new technology, or an interpretation of our world in the future with strange technology, or creatures. Fantasy is a genre that many people find fascinating; because of the ideas of a different world, but the sub-genre of science fiction has a particular audience, one that gets very involved with the fantastic characters, creatures, and technology.

This genre originated way back in the days of Ancient Greece, with the stories like "True History" and "the Lost City of Atlantis". But arguably the first step towards modernized science fiction stories came from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818).

For film the first science fiction film came from French filmmaker, George Méliès in 1902 with "Le Voyage dans la Lune" (if you have seen "Hugo", remember that picture of the moon with a rocket in it's eye? That's the film where this image came from). It was a short film, about 14 minutes long, and it's really well noted for it's break through special effects at the time. But science fiction was not a genre of film that was immediately taken seriously (in fact, film was still not seen as a serious art form).
When we enter the 1930s and 40's, science fiction was often associated with horror, and we get films from Universal Studios like "Frankenstein", "Bride of Frankenstein", "The Invisible Man", "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "The Vampire Bat", "Doctor X", and "Dr. Cyclopes". Usually the movies were about scientific experiments gone wrong, or had a mad scientist of some sort, and these were about bad science experiments gone wrong (and the consequences of "too much knowledge").

In the 1950s, Science Fiction became huge, and is known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction. After World War II and into the Cold War, American Science Fiction started getting political, and responded to the Red Scare. Science fiction became more than just your typical story about science gone wrong, but about the evils of communism, or of the evils of war and nuclear weapons. One of my favorite films out of this decade is Robert Wise's "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), which is a film about an alien coming to earth to warn the people of earth to not expand aggression to space. It has some special effects, which, although they are dated, were very advanced at the time, the story is timeless, and (although many people today will think it's slow) it's just a well-made film. In addition to the great films of the time, we are also introduced to the "B Films", from filmmakers like Roger Corman ("It Conquered the World"), and Edward D. Wood Jr. ("Plan 9 from Outer Space"). Out of the "B Films" of the 50's, one of my favorites is definitely "Forbidden Planet", for a "B Film" the special effects were good (but again, now a days dated) and it is an interesting adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest".

Joseph Campbell's Chart of "The Hero's Journey"


Some Key Elements in the Story

Typically, the science fiction movie/stories usually have one, more, or all of the following:

  • An establishment of the world in which the story takes place!
  • The establishment of the rules of the world!
  • The establishment of strange technology and/or creatures
  • Joseph Campbell's The Hero’s Journey (which originated from "Star Wars")
  • Character is an underdog who learns about a power that he/she never knew he/she had before.
  • A mentor who guides our hero.

These are only a few elements that are in most science fiction stories. In good science fiction films/stories the audience should be able to relate to the main character (just like any other good film/story), and this usually means that the character is an underdog, a nerd who starts off having no special qualities only to find out that he/she does indeed have a great power inside of himself/herself. Maybe the main character has a tragic past, maybe the character just starts off seeing himself/herself as being insignificant, or maybe the character is living in a post-apocalyptic world being oppressed, the possibilities are endless but at any rate, the main character needs to be someone you feel can relate to the audience. You can definitely start off with more than one character, maybe this main character has a friend, family member, robot, talking animal, or some kind of sidekick that could add comedy relief, maybe try to improve the main character's attitude, begrudgingly follows the main character into impending doom, or is just a sacrifice waiting to be made later on in your story (someone who needs to die in order to get the plot started or to help the main character with their character arc).
Now usually the main character is introduced with an opportunity to accept the call to adventure, and although he/she may or may not be interested, he/she might at first turn down the offer (or maybe a side character forces the main character to turn down the initial offer) to allow the story to develop our main character some more. Eventually, the main character does give in to the call to adventure, and is then introduced to the mentor who guides the main character. The mentor is there to help them achieve the overall objective, introduce more characters, explain what is wrong with the universe, how our hero has a power that he/she has always had inside of them, and how our main character can use this power to save the world/universe from the unspeakable evil. It's important to note that the mentor doesn't have to explain EVERYTHING to out main character, but just enough so that our main character can discover things on their own (it helps if the main character is trying to find out a secret, or an answer to a question that has been bothering them, this keeps the audience engaged and if done right can lead to shocking discoveries that could blow the audience's mind).
There also needs to be a love interest for the main character or one of the main characters, because this helps develop the characters, their relationship with one another, and can help develop our story (plus it can help create some humorous moments, and keep the audience engaged).
Sometimes there needs to be a character who has a tough exterior (a "tough guy/tough girl"), maybe not trust the main character, but comes to accept him/her by the end of the film/story. This can also help develop the characters, their relationships with one another, and the story (which in turn will keep the audience engaged).

You can develop the main characters in many ways, but there needs to be a potential threat that makes the perfect match for our main character or characters. The prime antagonist needs to either:

  1. A similar goal as the protagonist.
  2. Prevent the protagonist from achieving his/her goals.
  3. Prevent the protagonist from foiling the antagonist's plans.

I prefer that the prime antagonist be complex when I write a story, someone the audience can relate to and at the same time are glad when the villain gets what's coming to them at the end. Complexity shows the villain as being human, and gives them a proper motive to their actions. You could just make the antagonist evil and have the audience accept the fact that he/she is evil, but I find that it helps to give the villain depth. Maybe the villain is a tortured soul, maybe he/she had tragic things happen to him/her, maybe he/she had failed at achieving something, or maybe he/she slowly became obsessed about something and that lead to him/her to become mad, insane, or crazy, there are many ways one could make your audience still relate to the antagonist and make them complex. But if one thing's for certain, the villain needs to be powerful, influential, strong, and smart otherwise they pose no challenge to our main character. The villain can have allies, or henchmen who go forth and do his/her bidding, so that there we can have some more time to develop our characters, their relationships, and the story, but never develop too much in a short time, otherwise the audience gets bored, and wants some action. So give it to them!

There needs to be obstacles in the hero's path. Usually the obstacles go in this order:

  1. When our hero is attacked by someone/something that he/she is instantly defeated by, but then is introduced to our mentor, and/or new allies who rescues our hero from the attacker.
  2. After the mentor has trained our main character for a bit we are introduced to a challenge that our hero easily overcomes with virtually no difficulty (with either the help of our mentor, new found friends, or just by himself/herself).
  3. A successful-failure obstacle (a time when our hero(s) have lost a battle, another character dies (usually the mentor), the hero's reputation is damaged, someone or more than one person is kidnapped, or the villain steals something, but at the same time this gives our hero a chance to regain his/her reputation, discover his/her power, gain confidence to take on the prime antagonist, or save the world and his/her team, and many other ways that help progress towards the ending of the film.)
  4. The hero's main success against the antagonist. This is the confrontation our audience has been waiting for, you need to make it epic. But timing is also important when handling this confrontation. If this confrontation is too short, the audience will forget about it quickly, and if it's too long, it feels padded, and the audience will lose interest. You can't just kill the villain either, you need to kill the villain in a way that shows that your main character has changed, and learned throughout the course of the story, otherwise it's a disappointment. Surprise the audience, don't just write what is the easiest and/or most obvious. Don't use coincidence to get your character out of trouble, that is just lazy writing (coincidences to get your character INTO trouble however, is not as bad).

The obstacles are important for the main character's transformation, to keep the audience engaged with the story, make the audience root for the hero, discover a twist that the audience didn't see coming, and show the audience that the ending is right around the corner.

Once our hero finally triumphs over evil, and prevents the further destruction of the world, he/she has finally transformed from an underdog to a hero. He/she gets the love interest at the end, the respect from the "tough guy/tough girl", the pride of the mentor, the admiration of the fans, and what Joseph Campbell referred to as "the journey home." This could literally be the return to the main character's home or it could mean the return back to normal, or it could just mean that our hero has finally discovered his/her purpose and will live happily ever after with his/her team.

This is at least a start for you as to how to create your own story, but with science fiction you need to remember to add elements of fantasy, establish the rules of your world, the creatures of your world, the technology, and emphasis these qualities in a way that makes your audience believe in this world. This world can be realistic, or formalistic, dark and gritty, or comforting and safe, but it needs to be visually interesting, and strange.

Here are some films to get you started!

Textbook Movies to Watch

Now here is a list of some films that I have seen that I feel people who are interested in making science fiction films/stories should check out. Some of the films I didn't particularly like, but even the bad films have some noteworthy things to check out, about the story, music, characters, special effects, etc.

  • "Le Voyage dan la Lune" (9.0 out of 10)
  • "2001: A Space Odyssey" (9.7 out of 10)
  • "Frankenstein" (every version) (7.8 out of 10)
  • "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (9.7 out of 10)
  • "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (7.5 out of 10 )
  • "Forbidden Planet" (7.0 out of 10)
  • "Plan 9 from Outer Space"(2.0 out of 10)
  • "Star Wars" [movies 4, 5, and 6] (all together, 8.9 out of 10)
  • "Star Trek The Motion Picture" (7.0 out of 10)
  • "Planet of the Apes" (the original) (7.6 out of 10)
  • "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (7.9 out of 10)
  • "E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial" (9.3 out of 10)
  • "A Clockwork Orange" (7.0 out of 10)
  • "Inception" (9.2 out of 10)
  • "Blade Runner" (9.0 out of 10)
  • "Alien" (9.4 out of 10)
  • "Tron" (5.0 out of 10)
  • "Terminator" (8.3 out of 10)
  • "RoboCop" (7.9 out of 10)
  • "The Iron Giant" (9.4 out of 10)
  • "Total Recall" (4.7 out of 10)
  • "The Matrix" (7.9 out of 10)
  • "Jurassic Park" (8.0 out of 10)
  • " Armageddon" (6.0 out of 10)
  • "Independence Day" (4.5 out of 10)
  • "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (4.5 out of 10)
  • "Men in Black" (8.2 out of 10)
  • "iRobot" (4.9 out of 10)
  • "Avatar" (6.9 out of 10) [This one is an important one to watch, and understand the making of because this will help the science fiction filmmakers of the future.]

    BOLD titles are movies I highly recommend checking out.

These films make interesting textbook films (in my opinion), movies to watch to better understand how to make a good sci-fi movie. Again, I admit some of these films I do not really like, but I feel like it helps to understand what works and what doesn't. Plus, even though I didn't like them, you might, and you will definitely find something about them that you can help you learn about the Science Fiction genre.


Carl the Critic © 2012


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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      4 years ago

      Thank you. It is an interesting perspective. You have a good list, which includes some of the best and some of the worst. Such as Total Recall, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The day the Earth Stood Still is it correct to assume you are rating the originals? Have you seen Metropolis or Things to Come?

    • CarltheCritic1291 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thank you for your insight aliciaharrell, I think you may have miss understood my point about it being a sub-genre of fantasy. I am not saying that stories like "2001 A Space Odyssey" is the exact same as "The Hobbit" but rather sci-fi is a form of fantasy that incorporates "science" (the science that mostly works in the world of the story) fantastical worlds, strange creatures, etc. Sci-fi and fantasy are two different genres, but much of sci-fi comes from fantasy but in a different way. Almost all of the fantasy stories you have read have the same elements you yourself had listed culture(s), people, inventions (that are fantastical) and much more. The story elements that I had written above do apply to sci-fi but of course as you pointed out it is not the only one. There are approximately 32 different stories, and the one I picked was the one which was most used and noteworthy.

      You are absolutely right about there being more that what I had written in this article and I am glad you had pointed it out. Thanks for stopping by.

    • aliciaharrell profile image

      Alicia Rose Harrell 

      7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      I enjoyed your article; well written hub Carl. I disagree with the genre I write in as a sub-genre for Fantasy. As a Science Fiction author, I can attest it is regarded a separate and unique genre (has been for years thanks to great authors like Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein). Fantasy covers works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Hobbit" and Piers Anthony's "Xanthe" series where it is a magical land/realm with mythical creatures. Another point: Science Fiction does not have to have all you listed above. It can be something completely different. The only thing Science Fiction has to have in it is science (in background or forefront of plot and subplots). You cannot have Science Fiction without science. You can have all genres in a Science Fiction work because Science Fiction reflects entire planets, culture(s), people (as well as extraterrestrials), inventions and much more.

    • CarltheCritic1291 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks hbng, there are some good films here glad you like them:)

    • hbng profile image


      8 years ago from Malaysia

      voted up.. great movies i've always loved watching :)

    • CarltheCritic1291 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks for the comment and vote ishwaryaa22 much appreciated :)

    • ishwaryaa22 profile image

      Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 

      8 years ago from Chennai, India

      Well-scripted guidance for science-fiction plus fantasy budding writers! I watched many films you mentioned in the above list. Good Job! Vote up.

    • CarltheCritic1291 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Why thank you very much Alecia, I hope you enjoy the films. (P.S. "The Hero's Journey" can apply to more thank just science fiction, but all most all fantasy related genres.)

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      8 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I'm not much into science fiction but the way you laid everything out is amazing! I'm actually looking forward to watching at least a few of the bolded titles. Thanks for sharing!

    • CarltheCritic1291 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      You're very welcome Cindy, I hope you do well, and I look forward to reading your sci-fi story :) Thank you for your comment, always great to hear from you!

    • homesteadbound profile image

      Cindy Murdoch 

      8 years ago from Texas

      I absolutely love science fiction and have seen most of these and look forward to seeing the others. I would love to write a science fiction story someday, and you have shared lots of tips here, so thank you very much!

    • CarltheCritic1291 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      @alocsin: Me too :) So far, so good. Thank you very much Aurelio for your comment and votes.

      @Tammyswallow: I'm not a fan of "Hancock" the movie, but you are right about the character development. But I feel that the problem came when we learn about Charlize Theron's secret, and that just dog-piled onto the plot, creating major plot holes, and began telling a different movie than it originally did. But yes, again, the first part of "Hancock" when it was focused on Will Smith developing into a more dignified super hero as oppose to a slob as he started out as, that part was good, it's just what happens after that really feels unnecessary (in my opinion). But Thank you for commenting Tammy, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      @All: I look forward to reading your work, it's always great to hear from you all :)

    • tammyswallow profile image


      8 years ago from North Carolina

      This is great Carl. I think the best character development I have ever seen in a science fiction movie is Hancock. He goes from being hated and at the bottom and rises to a beloved super hero. His transition is such an excellent example to study for screen plays. I enjoyed this!

    • alocsin profile image

      Aurelio Locsin 

      8 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Yikes, I've seen all these films. I must be a science fiction movie buff. Hope this gets better reaction, Carl, than the other review. Voting this Up and Interesting.


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