Science fiction is great. It gives us the opportunity to use our imaginations to project the potential paths (and consequences) of our ambitious scientific desires, and provides a creatively liberating landscape in which we can build a new world or culture. However, science fiction isn’t fantasy. In fantasy, you’re given the freedom to create any type of world you can imagine, oftentimes from scratch.
Though the lines are blurry, science fiction typically tries to stay grounded in some type of realism; these are plots that, hypothetically, could happen. If they couldn’t happen, the genre tries to accurately convey what would happen if it did.
Sci-Fi Tropes in Film and TV
Science fiction is a strong genre in TV and film, with plenty of examples of excellence. But unfortunately, many times, entries in the genre fall flat due to falling for generic tropes that undermine the realism of the story, or have become repetitive and predictable clichés.
These are five of the most egregious offenders:
- Nobody seems to have an emergency plan. Anybody in the modern world will tell you that emergency plans are must-haves. Whether you’re a data specialist protecting servers’ worth of information or a small business owner just trying to prepare for the worst, without an emergency plan, you’re asking for trouble. So if these modern-day, average people all realize why an emergency plan is so important, why do so many futuristic corporations and organizations seem to fail at putting one together? From Weyland-Yutani to Blue Sun, none of these organizations (good or evil) seems to have the redundancy plans or proper procedures in place to deal with an impending catastrophe.
- AI is remarkably humanoid. With only a few exceptions, artificial intelligence (AI) systems in movies tend to be unrealistically humanoid. When it comes to robots, or guidance systems like HAL 9000, these human-like systems are basically human—for all intents and purposes—except with some monotonous or otherwise mechanical voice. In reality, an AI able to mimic human patterns of cognition would likely display thoughts and express ideas in ways that seem foreign or alien to us. And as a side note, it’s unlikely that they would come up with schemes for nefarious purposes, the way so many AI systems tend to.
- Complex theoretical constructs become cheap plot devices. Centuries of scientific advancements have led us to some profound and downright creepy discoveries about the way our universe works, from quantum entanglement to black holes. These concepts are extremely complex, counterintuitive, and in many cases, have yet to be directly observed. So why is it that so many shows and movies leverage these complex constructs as cheap plot devices? Black holes and wormholes are frequently used as explanations for time travel or faster-than light travel, and quantum weirdness is used as a justification for practically anything.
- Alien life resembles that of Earth. Again, we have anthropic bias worming its way into our sci-fi stories. We tend to view other complex systems, even ones foreign to us, as exhibiting human-like tendencies. As a result, many of our sci-fi stories involving extraterrestrial life tend to portray that life as remarkably similar to our own. Aliens are basically human, with only a few quirks differentiating them, such as pointy ears or green skin. In reality, alien life would probably be so far removed from our conception of life that it would almost be unrecognizable.
- The distant future is a lot like the present. Oftentimes, in movies and shows that attempt to project the distant future—we’re talking thousands of years here—you’ll notice the cities and people sharing a lot in common with today’s society. They might have flying cars, or their cities might be a little more developed, but these narratives fail to take our potential imagination for these landscapes to the “next level.”
These tropes don’t necessarily “ruin” the story, and if you look hard enough, you can find examples of both popular and critically acclaimed movies and shows that have found success, despite using some of these tropes in their narratives. Still, they compromise what would otherwise be considered a realistic or original plot, and hold back the genre from being taken more seriously.