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November, 2005 : Feature:

Missing in Action

The Genre of Military SF Onscreen

Military SF in its literary form is unmistakably militaristic. Chains of command and snappy uniforms, decisive battles and epic campaigns, ensigns swabbing the deck and generals inspecting the troops... all extrapolated to their 30th-century (or whenever) equivalents. Thereís a reason why Honor Harrington is called a futuristic Horatio Hornblower: her world is not so different from his, and he could probably fill an officerís slot on her ship without too long an orientation period.

Thereís no movie equivalent of those books, though, not as a genre. Ask the average SF fan to name some ďmilitary SFĒ flicks, and chances are two films will be named quickly: 1986ís Aliens and 1997ís Starship Troopers. Aliens, of course, is James Cameronís brilliant depiction of an outfit of Colonial Marines in a ďbug huntĒ for acid-bleeding aliens. Iíve never been a Marine, of course, but the film has the ring of truth to it from the soldiers and their attitudes, to their distrust of the inexperienced new lieutenant who barges into their team; even one of the filmís more speculative elements—female Marines fighting alongside the men—succeeds fabulously: thereís more than just one token girl, and theyíre as believably tough as the guys. That aspect surely influenced Paul Verhoeven a decade later, when he departed from Heinlein to introduce female soldiers in his Mobile Infantry in Starship Troopers, a satire on a fascist future Earth society dominated by its military forces. (Thatís an ironic bit of turnaround: Heinleinís novel surely influenced aspects of Aliens; Cameron may have borrowed the term ďbug hunt,Ē for one, from the 1959 book.)

Think on ďmilitary SFĒ a bit more, and you might concede that the Star Trek films qualify, perhaps as a mirror image to Starship Troopersí extrapolation: the military in the 23rd and 24th century here has morphed into a kinder, gentler, paramilitary science and exploration corps that can blow stuff up if necessary but is not primarily a fighting force—Starfleet doesnít seem to have infantry or cavalry or Marines or any kind of grunts to put on the ground if needed (good thing it never seems to be needed).

Dig a bit deeper, into military films that, on second glance, could be considered SFnal, or into SF films that, on second glance, could be considered military, and we end up with two basic scenarios: contemporary 20th- or 21st-century military forces face SFnal situations; and stories set in the future that feature characters who serve or have served in their equivalent of a military force, though the stories in which they appear are not overly concerned with military procedures or hierarchies.

The second scenario is by far the more infrequent one. Han Solo is a former Imperial trooper—though that tidbit isnít revealed in the films; you have to turn to the Brian Daley novels about the character to learn that—but remnants of his uniform seem to be the only lasting remnant of that experience. And while 1977ís Star Wars is about a galactic war, it isnít military SF—its hero is an interloper into the military arena of the Rebel Alliance, in fact; one can imagine some up-and-coming young pilot whoís paid his dues in the Alliance ranks, steaming over the fact that he didnít get to move up to fight in the Death Star battle because Luke Skywalker got the X-wing fighter that should have gone to him.

And then thereís Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), in the recent Serenity. A former army platoon sergeant, his experience on the losing side of the war he fought colors absolutely everything about his character. But the war is over, and though we see hints of the militaristic structure of the ruling Alliance, thatís not what the film is even remotely about.

The first plot, on the other hand, has been a standard of popcorn SF and SF-horror films since the U.S. Army battled giant radioactive ants in 1954ís Them!—whether itís alien invasion or mutant-monster attack, men in uniform with guns who havenít even considered, never mind trained for, such contingencies are called out. Recent films that fall into this subgenre tend to feature somewhat more savvy professional fighters, guys who grew up watching exactly the kind of cheesy SF flicks they now find themselves in: Will Smithís fighter pilot in 1996ís Independence Day is a lot less rattled by the idea of aliens and seems to treat flying against them almost as a video game.

Sometimes the speculation contemporary military films engage in is so close to our own reality that you canít even be sure whatís conjecture and whatís real. Does the technology actually exist that makes the experimental Russian sub Red October run so quietly? And does it make 1990ís The Hunt for Red October any more or less SFnal if it does? After all, the plot hinges on new and innovative uses of technology, from the Red Octoberís noise-smothering baffles to the clever way Courtney Vanceís naval sonar operator learns how to find the sub despite its stealth. Can we consider 1998ís The Siege military SF? In the wake of terrorist attack in New York City, an army general played by Bruce Willis polices martial law in Brooklyn and rounds up Arab-Americans—if the filmís speculation is entirely in the realm of how the military exists within the society at large, is that enough? How about 2000ís Space Cowboys, which pits out-to-pasture Air Force pilots against younger Air Force hotshots in a story about secret satellites and a surprise trip to the moon? Has the real world become so SFnal that itís getting hard to find the boundaries where SF begins?

Some contemporary military SF leaves no doubt as to its provenance, however. The Final Countdown, from 1980, throws a modern aircraft carrier (at least, modern for 1980) back into World War II; with all its ethical wrangling and scientific debate over the integrity of timelines, this is one of the more thoughtful military SF films of recent decades, and one of the few that more resembles literary SF than action movies. 1994ís Stargate throws Air Force special forces through a wormhole to a distant planet, where they fight an alien: definitely SF. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, from 2003, gives us a close look at the military machinations that produced SkyNet and the first generation of the smart machines that would later attempt to wipe out humanity: definitely SF. That same year, X-Men 2: X-Men United showed us a hint of the secret military project that created Wolverine: definitely SF.

Why donít we see movie versions of Honor Harrington or Miles Vorkosigan, or original creations in a similar vein? Their stories are too episodic, perhaps, more suited to television than feature films, though of course we havenít seen them on television, either. Or Hollywood may simply find the cross-genre character of military SF too difficult to sell to mainstream audiences. I donít doubt, though, that many movie lovers, whether they consider themselves SF fans or not, would love to see more films like Aliens—more good films like Aliens, that is: the nonstop slew of poor imitations, like the recent Doom, suggests that Hollywood at least recognizes the potential of the genre. With a few fresh ideas in the mix, it might eventually succeed in creating it.


Copyright © 2005, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.

COMMENTS!

Nov 9, 22:40 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of Military SF in film, or MaryAnn Johanson's essay.

The article is here.
Nov 10, 11:57 by Denny Nelson
I agree that there is not really a genre for military Science Fiction in film. I'm not really sure I'd appreciate
one in theater films. It would take something along the lines of Peter Jackson's LOTR to film something like Jerry Pournelle's Falkenberg and the 42nd or Spaceship for the King. There are too many plot twists and threads. The big screen has to limit the time involved for a two or three hour film. I shudder to think of the cuts in a great piece of literature just to keep it short enough for a two hour feature. It wouldn't surprise me to find out the author's themselves were reluctant to place their stories out there for a director to chop up under studio pressure. The only stories I can think of which could possibly work would be segments of David Drake's, Hammer's Slammers novels, or some of Christopher Anvil's Short stories.
DVD's on the other hand can handle hours of plot development, and can add additional discs as necessary. Look at the 4 1/2 hour Dune, or the extended versions that come out on the DVD. Most of the military SF that I know of goes on for at least two novels, and some go on for several, Miles Vorkosigan is a prime example. Could you imagine the out of control style of Miles lasting into a box office movie. I would like to, but I doubt it will happen.
I think that there is plenty of directing talent out there to do the genre justice, if pressure was kept off of them for length involved. I'd love to see the director of Tears of the Sun Antoine Fuqua, direct Ian Douglas's The Legacy Trilogy
Nov 10, 12:09 by Randy Ernst-Meyer
You seem to have forgotten Forbidden Planet the film that arguably forms the basis for Star Trek and clearly demonstrates what a military/peace keeping force (at least by 1950's standards) was all about.
This was no slam BTW. Your article is quite astute. It is very odd that an industry that can turn out megabuck schloc like the Star Wars six has not produced The Mote in God's Eye yet. Military SF has been a staple of the TV market for more than forty years. Twilight Zone, Outer Limits heck even Doctor Who have done many episodes about future soldiers and their armies. Stargate SG1 is one of the most successful SF shows out there and Battlestar Galactica is not only popular but a critical success as well. It is a little odd that the movie industry will film almost every other imaginable military story with the exception of SF.
Nov 10, 14:09 by Scott Parrish
In my mind there are several general types of stories in Military fiction/media. All examples are generalizations and I know that there can be more than one type

The first is the Historical: Stories like the Longest Day, Midway, and Gettysburg. I would also include These are stories in which the larger contect is geneally assumed to be known and which the dramatic conflict is provided by the battle(s) itself. This type is very hard to do in SF simply because of how much context much be given. Aliens is a SF example here, though the battle is a very small engagement.

The next is the Contextual. Stories in which the context of the war provides the settings and much of the overall plot but the stories themselves tend to be about the indivuals reacting to the situations. Band of Brothers, Aubrey/Maturin, Horatio Hornblower. The stories tend to be how the war/battle is affecting the character and how the character affects the war/battle. This is my personal favorite and is the hardest to do. To do it correctly needs time and pacing which movies dont' have. I think Battlestar Galactica falls here, As do the Honor Harrington Novels.

The third type is the Incidental, which stories set in a military and even in wartime, but the stories tend to be more about external or internal factors than the conflict itself. Bye-Bye Blacksheep, Big Red One. SF examples would include Star Wars, Lord of the Rings.

The Last type is the Coincidental where the Setting might provide Ranks and Uniforms, but the stories really have nothing at all to do with the military. Kelly's Heroes, and Apocolypse Now. In SF Most of Star Trek falls here.
Nov 10, 14:17 by travitt hamilton
I agree with elements of both the previous posts. It's almost counterintuitive in some ways, but it seems obvious that the best medium for long form SF and military SF in particular is TV/DVD. On the other hand, it doesn't seem a surprise to me that theatrical film has not met these needs. See the David Lynch Dune. It's sort of interesting in its own right, but it isn't successful SF by a long shot.

The advent and popularity of large format widescreen TVs means that there isn't even a huge image quality loss by filmakers shifting their attention to the formerly less prestigious medium. Also, TV has been known for decades as a writers' medium.

Battlestar Galactica, by the way, is outstanding SF, I think. Whereas Star Wars is often grouped with SF, it strikes me as having more fanatasy elements. It gets thrown in with SF because of the spaceships.
Nov 11, 23:30 by Matthew Rees
Maybe Star Wars doesn't fit the military SF mold, but one could make a case that the latter part of Return of the Jedi qualifies, between the Rebel Commandos' assault on the shield bunker on Endor, and the fleet's assault on the Death Star. For that matter, Revenge of the Sith has its share of military action.

If you include small-screen SF as well, many episodes of Babylon 5 would qualify, and of course there's Space: Above & Beyond.

And if The Siege qualifies as military SF because of its speculative political events, then Crimson Tide should certainly qualify as well.
Nov 12, 09:09 by Denny Nelson
Any or all of the above could, under the proper cicumstances be considered military SF. However all of them lumped together, not even considering good or bad, do not make up a hundreth of the other drivel out there. I'm only counting the B movies which have little going for them aside from an actor's name. The reason for this, in my eyes, is that there are so few of us who enjoy good Science Fiction, let alone the military type which takes a particularly bent view point. One, I am proud to say I posses. Whether it be ship to ship combat of Honor Harrington, or the desperate foot sloggers of John Ringo, I like them all. I'm sure that in the middle of a Con with someone's elbow in your eye, that it doesn't seem like there are that few of us. (I haven't been to one so I'm conjecturing.) but place the total attendance of a Con next to the total attendance, televised as well as in person, of a football game.
Ain't no comparison Jack. We are definitly out numbered. We don't even get stats.


If there were a way to convince one (1) studio to put out one or two well written short story movies, (Big screen, or DVD I think you would see at least a short period of interest. But there are so many other distractions which are taking everyones attention, and rightfully so. The War, Terrorists, The political fisticuffs between the liberals, and the conservatives (always bares carefull attention). (Kinda like the Terrorists....Sorry ....not), Making ends meet with the energy prices up. Jobs, kids, and repairs etc... I use to read a book a week. Now I'm lucky to read one a month. (Currently The Sharp End by David Drake.) Not complaining, just adapting. I would love to see a good SF movie. Military or otherwise.

The small screen has done a lot. Babylon 5, Firefly, The various Trek's, SG-1 and sequels, and Battlestar Galactica. Most of these are from the Sci-Fi channel or other cable networks. The regular networks would rather chase each other with their reality crap, or sitcoms which even a beer drinking couch potato can figure out by the first station break. News shows, oh lord don't let me forget the ever depressing, liberal news programs. Two or three time a night on all broadcast channels. Here let us show you how bad the government really is, if it isn't liberal.

Sorry, I digress. Science Fiction has always been the red headed step child in the Media, and only over the last thirty years or so has it been actually acknowledged as a viable medium. Can anyone remember what happened to the first Battlestar Galactica. Constantly pre-empted, or time changes with out notification. Anyone besides me think that was a little odd. (It's not paranoia, they really are out to get us.) Only last year was a fantasy awarded several well diserved Oscars. This is thanks greatly to the small screen, Star Trek, and to the large screen Star Wars. Any one remember the problems both Roddenberry, and Lucas had to get these projects started. Since these we have picked up a few good series and one or two good movies, and a lot of pablum (Battle between the stars, and Lost in Space).

I have no idea how to interest any studio into making what we like when there are so few of us. If anyone has ideas let's hear them cause I'm fresh out at the moment.
Nov 14, 12:20 by Grant Coble
You may have hit on it in referring to the episodic nature of military stories. In television, film and literature, these stories do tend toward the episodic, detailing the day-to-day routines of the characters, punctuated by moments of extreme violence. The exceptions are stories which focus on a single battle - but even these will spend the first two acts involved with the lives and backgrounds of the characters, and then devote the final act to the battle.

A prime example in SF - and I'm surprised you didn't mention it - was the short-lived Fox series from 1995, Space: Above and Beyond.
Nov 15, 06:39 by Denny Nelson
I didn't get to see very much of that particular show. I was on swing shift at the time. I only saw, I think, two on the Sci-Fi channel a few years back. One of those was in a combat situation on a planet, and looked pretty good. (I don't recall much of it.) In the other they were pilots???? I know Marines are good but Geeeeez, what happened to specialization.

I can see where the show would be excellent if it could be done as Band of Brothers, Tears of the Sun, or Saving Private Ryan were done. With the special effects currently available, it could be a awsomly, intensive series, or mini-series. I don't know what the budget was on B.O.B. but I rather think that a network would balk at such expense. Especially for such a limited audience. You would have to manage to interest HBO, Showtime, or one of the major film studios to pull it off. (Could you imagine HBO doing a series like Rome, or Deadwood on something from Jerry Pournelle, or David Weber.
My mind tries to boogle at the thought.)
Nov 15, 13:30 by Jennifer Adams
I heard they are doing "Ender's Game". That could be a very nice addition.

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