The romantic relationships in sci-fi stories typically aren’t the draw. These are stories written with boys in mind, filled with the stereotypes of what young boys like. While that’s changing with a new generation of storytellers, the existing canon prefers to replace human relationships with space warfare.
As much as I love a good laser gun, I like sci-fi much more when I actually care about what happens to the characters. So here are some sci-fi romances that are worth thinking about, both good and dreadful. Because mocking stuff is fun.
Princess Leia Organa & Han Solo: Star Wars V
A love most expanded upon in the Legends continuity, Han and Leah are a tag team of hell-raising, party-crashing, gun-shooting super diplomats who just manage to wind up at the coolest place in the galaxy each book. They’re the best. Not this cranky old pair we got in the sequel continuity, but that’s time for you, inevitably but incrementally betraying your wishes for an orderly world.
My favorite moment between Han & Leah, however, comes during the evacuation of Hoth at the beginning of Empire. (Sidebar: in a franchise where Carrie Fischer wears a highly fetishized metal bikini, who would imagine that her hottest look is bundled up for the icy winds of Hoth?)
Here, we see Leia in full princess mode, astonished but also attracted to how flippantly Han ignores her insistence. But we also see the marks of a tender relationship, of the give and take between two adults trying to give each other room. Han knows he has to live his life on the edge of death. Leah knows it too, and it’s part of the reason she loves him. But it also scares the living daylights out of her, especially when they have children in the worlds of Legends.
Sure, their kids basically maunder through like the most boring intergalactic war against a malignant evil you can imagine, but that’s more of a problem with how generically villainous the Yuuzhan Vong are (plus they disable Force powers, the unique selling point of the Star Wars universe) than the Solo children’s admittedly bland characterizations.
The relationship between Han and Leah is warm and difficult. They both make mistakes constantly, and they can never quite figure out the right balance between distance and intimacy. Throughout most of the books, Han and Leah are renegotiating their relationship constantly, always hoping they’ve found the combination of behaviors that will finally please this person they love so completely. And yet, they are a perpetual disappointment to one another. You might write that down to a lack of character development, but if you choose to see those relationship choices as authentic to the characters, it becomes the richest and most complex relationship in the Star Wars canon. Not that there’s a ton of competition…
Padmé Amidala & Anakin: Star Wars II
Here’s one of the sci-fi romances that’s well known only because of how thoroughly unbelievable it was. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Perhaps the most unlikable pairing on the screen, the relationship that supposed to drive the heart of Attack of the Clones and the following films is so pathetically sketched that even teenaged-super-fan Alex Fox could tell it was contrived on opening night.
The couple is emblematic of how Lucas set fire to his own legacy with gleeful ignorance, apparently unaware that he was producing unwatchably bad gobbledegook. What happened to Lucas in the early 2000s is happening to J.K. Rowling today, in real time. They both traveled from visionary worldbuilders to hapless futzers in their own sandbox, endlessly futzing with stuff that’s better off left alone, contaminating the beauty of their pure, original worlds with afterthoughts, half-baked explanations, and cutesy handwaves about the artistic process. Nothing expressing that more clearly than the relationship between Padmé & Anakin, a relationship that a marble statue of Qui-Gon Jin would describe as cold and inhuman.
Vanessa Carlysle & Wade Wilson: Deadpool
Let’s just say it: Wade Wilson is an unbelievable dick in the world of Deadpool. On one hand, that’s part of his character’s appeal. On the other hand, he’s a total tool to people that care about him. Take his raucous and untamed love Vanessa, the hooker with a heart of gold that Wade woos into a slightly-more-romantic woman. She’s an excellent match for him, the Amy Santiago to his Jake Peralta, eager to fool around with him but with an edge of maturity he lacks.
When he walks out on her, you know his justification is weak. You know she deserves better. And you know this is all a cop-out so Wade doesn’t have to face scary feelings about commitment. Yes, I too have seen a Woody Allen film. So, as a viewer, you’re not too pleased when he stomps off into superhero land, and it’s a little hard to find sympathy for Wade’s hangdog expression over his self-enforced isolation.
The fact that he imagines it to be noble is even more infuriating. But this is the texture of real life, the meat of the moment. This is the fiber of a relationship that lives and breathes, even inside a film that revels in its own lack of seriousness. Wade never quite gets the smack in the face he deserves, but the eventual reunion between Wade and Vanessa is a great mix of tender and bittersweet.
Caleb Smith & Ava: Ex Machina
A relationship built on manipulation is a relationship nonetheless. The protagonist in Ex Machina is Caleb, an awkward computer program given the opportunity to test Ava, the latest model of the fantastically advanced near-human artificial intelligence built by the obviously wealthy nutjob Nathan. As Caleb arrives in Nathan’s remote computer-automated ranch, cracks of mistrust and conspiracy form rapidly.
As the situation becomes ever more unstrange and surreal, the potentially romantic relationship between Caleb and Ava becomes the central part of the film, even as Caleb begins to doubt the veracity of his own perceptions. Those who have watched the film through to its bleak ending (no spoilers!) know the kind of reward Caleb gets for his trouble.
EVE and WALL-E: WALL-E
The most charming robotic romance every set to celluloid, Wall-E and E.V.E. have the kind of chemistry that would make George Clooney blush. As with all Pixar films, the level of humanity in these non-human characters is remarkable. Pixar has always brought a special magic to their animation style, something fluid and energetic and human that other companies cannot seem to capture.
It provides this rich backing upon which to paint the story of the characters’ relationships. And when you do that, even watching two literal robots fall in love is charming. Never have I see such a pure expression of nervous excitement that in the character of Wall-E as he tidies up his little container when he knows E.V.E. will be staying there.
Sarah Connor & Kyle Reese: The Terminator
Nevermind the senseless continuity! Remember how bad-ass Sarah looks in Terminator 2 when they go to the camp out in the desert? She’s got the guns and the weaponry if you know what I mean. Plus those wild steampunk shades. And then she takes apart a robot’s brain! So Sarah is obviously incredibly cool. Kyle Reese is… less exciting. But Michael Biehn is so indescribably cool that his difficult to care how bland his character can be. There’s electric chemistry between the two pays off throughout the rest of the franchise, but it’s the most real in the first film.
The Doctor & River Song: Doctor Who
David Tennant is my favorite doctor. Not only because he’s the future version of Willy Wonka, but also because he captures the barely organized, devil-may-care charisma the Doctor has always contained in one form or another. But the doomed romance between River Song and Tennant’s Doctor is one of the most bittersweet romances of recent sci-fi memory.
Sure, there are tons of other romantic moments throughout the series. Tennant’s goodbye to Rose, for example, is painfully abbreviated for fans of the show. She’s left with ragged nothingness as her lover is wrenched away from her. But the relationship between the Doctor and Song feels more like a pairing of equals, two supreme beings that really just happen to get along super well.
The tragedy of her story is that she’s captured and corrupted by the Silence, which forces her to hunt the Doctor at the edge of rabid obsession. But though her murderous rage dissolves into love, things never quite work out for Song and the Doctor. She’s always being brainwashed or ripped away from him, but it never diminishes her love, nor the compassion with which the sometimes casually-cruel Doctor treats Song.
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