Fly Me to the Moon: Romance and SF Movies
Coming off a polarizing political season, we’ve come to think of ourselves as “red states” and “blue states.” You’re on one side of the divide or the other, and there’s no middle ground. That sort of binary thinking gets transferred to all sorts of subjects, and in the field of movies that means there are “guy movies” and “chick flicks.” A compromise is something like Knocked Up, which crossed fratboy humor with a romance. See? Something for everyone.
In the realm of science fiction films marketing considerations usually result in something with lots of action and special effects, and the “love interest” relegated to a minor subplot. After all, were the viewers who made Inception a hit talking about the twisted relationship between Cobb and his dead wife, or about the intricacies of the “dreams within dreams” action set pieces? However, just because that’s the way the suits who have to market the films think, it doesn’t mean that that’s how the filmmakers see it, and there’s no reason we in the audience have to buy into it either. In fact, romance—successful or not—is at the core of a number of science fiction films, sometimes in a way that no one can miss, and sometimes more subtly.
One can go all the way back to Metropolis (1927) and see that a bitter romantic triangle is driving the plot. It’s not simply that Freder, the son of wealthy industrialist Joh Frederson, has fallen for Maria, the young woman trying to better the lives of the workers living down below; nor that the scientist Rotwang has transformed his robot into an evil version of Maria. The key romantic triangle actually occurred a generation earlier, as has become apparent now the film has been systematically restored to its original version over the last twenty-five years. Frederson and Rotwang were once rivals for the same woman and Rotwang has never forgiven the industrialist for besting him. She married Frederson and bore him his son, dying in childbirth. Frederson has sublimated his love for his late wife into his work and into raising his son, now grown to adulthood. Rotwang, on the other hand, seems to have become loonier. He has put himself into Frederson’s employ and has been biding his time ever since. When Frederson asks him to find some way to prevent Maria from riling up the workers, Rotwang sees his chance. His robot Maria will not simply discredit the do-gooder; it will bring down Metropolis in the process. This is the vengeance he has been seeking for having lost the love of his life to Frederson. Generations who saw the severely truncated versions that eliminated this storyline had to accept Rotwang as a generic mad scientist who acted crazily simply because that’s what mad scientists do.
Similarly it is a doomed love story that is at the heart of Bride of Frankenstein (1933). The traditional romance is between Dr. Frankenstein and his new bride, Elizabeth. When evil Dr. Pretorious has the monster kidnap Frankensein’s wife it is in order to coerce his cooperation in new experiments to create life. Elizabeth’s job is the traditional one of standing around and screaming whenever the monster appears. However, it is the experiment that creates the romantic tragedy of the film. When the female monster is awakened, the intention is that she will be a mate for the original monster. Instead she is repulsed. It is a heartbreaking moment. The monster has become humanized, especially after his sojourn with an old blind man who teaches him to speak. Due to his blindness the man doesn’t know he is supposed to be afraid of the monster, instead treating him with warmth rather than fear, with the monster responding to this. Now the monster reaches out longingly to his newly created “bride,” eager for similar companionship. Her recoiling in horror may be understandable, but it leaves the monster bereft. As Frankenstein’s laboratory is destroyed, the monster sends the human couple away to rescue themselves while he, the inhuman bride and the monstrous Dr. Pretorious are buried in the rubble. If he can’t know love at least the monster can protect it in the form of Frankenstein and his wife.
Many of the SF classics of the 1950s turn on romantic relationships, even if that’s not often acknowledged. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) features a war widow who turns on her obnoxious boyfriend when he tries to call the authorities on the benign visiting alien, Klaatu. While Klaatu has to return to the stars at the end, she’s clearly taken by him and the way he seems to have bonded with her young son. Likewise in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the growing relationship between Miles and Becky—both newly divorced—provides a startling contrast to the emotionless beings they will become if taken over by the pods. Indeed, when they object to a world with no love, one of the pod people points out that both of them are living examples of how love can fail. Life will be simpler without this troublesome emotion.
However, the most interesting film of the period in this regard may be Forbidden Planet (1956), in which a United Planets cruiser discovers the fate of a lost Earth colony, now reduced to two people, Dr. Morbius and his daughter Altaira. How the men react to Altaira, and she to them, is as important to understanding the film as is figuring out the secret of the “Monster from the Id” and, in fact, is directly related to it. Dr. Morbius’s interest in his daughter is, at best, an unhealthy one, as we see when he creates an image of her using an alien device which has her in a sexy, skimpy outfit. Several of the officers try wooing her and her lack of reaction, due as much to her inexperience as anything else, provides some moments of humor. The one who finally connects with her is Commander Adams, and the implications are subtle enough that some may miss it. Earlier we see her dealing with a variety of animals around Morbius’s house without any fear. After she has experienced adult love—which in a 1956 science fiction movie is limited to a heated kiss—a tiger tries to maul her and has to be zapped by the commander’s ray gun. She expresses surprise. The animals have never reacted that way before and she can’t figure out what’s different. What’s different, of course, is that she is no longer the innocent girl her father has tried to preserve and has now experienced the romantic feelings of an adult woman.
Romance is at the heart of movies from more recent decades, such as the 1986 remake of The Fly. The film is a romantic chamber piece in which Seth Brundle can’t believe his good fortune when sexy, brainy journalist Veronica Quaife takes an interest in his matter transporter experiments. Seth is a nerd’s nerd, having a closet full of identical clothing so he never has to make any fashion decisions, but with an infectious enthusiasm about his project that Veronica finds very attractive. Unfortunately she has a troubled relationship with her ex-lover and editor, Stathis Borens, a man clearly unhappy that she has left him and has begun thinking for herself. Once this triangle is in motion, the science fiction tragedy plays out as an unreasonably jealous Seth risks running himself through the matter transmitter, not realizing there’s a fly in the chamber with him, with horrific results.
Noting that the film is about jealousy and romance is not, as some would have it, a way to say it’s not “really” science fiction. Of course it is science fiction. It’s a science fiction story about how a bad romance can become worse when the people in the triangle are involved in a strange experiment that will change life as we know it. By the film’s end, things have spiraled out of control for all three characters, and it is in the intersection of romance and science fiction that the horrors of the story play out.
Another 1980’s film is fondly remembered as a romance, but a recent viewing suggests that time has not been kind to it. Starman (1984) is the movie that caused Columbia Pictures to pass on E.T. since they already had a visiting alien movie in development. The Starman has landed in Wisconsin and needs to get to Arizona to meet up with his spaceship. He transforms himself into the genetic double of the late husband of Jenny Hayden. We first meet Jenny drinking by herself and watching home movies of herself and her husband, clearly still broken up over her loss. At the time this seemed like a touching story as she not only gets a chance to say goodbye—since, like E.T. and Klaatu, Starman has to return home—but also gets the opportunity to have the baby she and her husband always wanted. She had some medical problem that prevented her from getting pregnant, but Starman has miraculously fixed this so that when they make love he can ensure that she will have a baby. Since he is, in effect, her husband’s clone, this is the baby she was meant to have.
Well, that’s how it seemed in 1984, with everyone remarking over Jeff Bridges and his Oscar-nominated performance. Seen today, however, it seems downright creepy. Starman literally kidnaps her and, like a victim of Stockholm syndrome, she comes to identify with his mission. Whatever his temporary genetic makeup, he is not her dead husband, and his having sex with her seems closer to rape than love, however gentle he may be. That he then abandons her with child provides one of the saddest “happy endings” of any science fiction film. Whether seen as a touching love story or interstellar molestation, it is the romance between the two—and the debate over whether it really is a romance or not—that provides the engine for this movie.
Many science fiction love stories seem to turn out badly, however all is not bleak. The terrific social satire The Truman Show (1998) posits a situation where Truman has been encased in an artificial world from birth, for the entertainment of a worldwide television audience. While everyone in his life is an actor and everything that happens to him has been carefully scripted, accidents do happen. He falls in love with Lauren instead of Meryl, the woman the script says he is supposed to marry. The actress playing Lauren is quickly whisked away and Truman is led back on the scripted path to marriage with Meryl. However, late at night we see him cutting up pictures of women trying to create a composite face that will resemble Lauren. He’s been told that she now lives far away and is beyond his reach, but even though he’s oblivious to his real situation he’s not giving up. In the outside world the actress has become part of a group of people protesting the show, although she’s powerless to help him. Their bond is real but until he gets away there’s nothing she can do. Truman’s ultimately successful escape is motivated by the desire for truth and freedom, and that includes his being able to pursue the woman he really loves, not living a lie with the character created for that role on the show.
More recent films have continued to play with romance as a motivator. In Moon, Sam Bell is going slowly mad running a moon-based mining operation with no company except a robot. His one link to a normal life back on Earth is his wife, although as the film progresses we begin to wonder whether his understanding of their situation is realistic. In Avatar, Jake, a paraplegic soldier, comes into his own when his mind is transferred into the constructed body of one of the planet’s native population, allowing him to interact with them. For all the “big picture” issues ranging from ecological concerns to corporate greed, it is Jake’s falling for Neytiri, one of the native females, that opens him up to the perspective of her people, the Na’vi. Ultimately his goal is not only to protect and defend her people, but to find a way to cross the species boundary so that he can be with her permanently. It’s not a surprising development as the emotional bonds of his characters have served filmmaker James Cameron throughout his career, including in the Terminator movies, Aliens and The Abyss.
However, to end on a happy note, it is the little known science fiction film Happy Accidents that gives us a traditional romantic comedy in its purest form. Ruby Weaver has dated a bunch of losers and doesn’t see her life going anywhere. Enter Sam Deed, who is energetic, smart, funny and absolutely crazy for her. Crazy may be the operative word, however, when he announces he’s a visitor from the far future and has come back to the present after seeing a picture of her. Time traveling romances are not all that unusual, as with Somewhere in Time and Time After Time, but this one is more a romantic comedy than a drama or adventure. Ruby has to decide if Sam’s for real, or just another loser, and the clues go back and forth as to his real story. Once again the romance here is not subplot or subtext, but the driving force of the plot. It follows the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl outline for such stories, but the science fiction elements aren’t an afterthought or mashup, the way dirty jokes are included in Knocked Up so that guys would accept the love story. Happy Accidents has a lot of fun dealing with time travel and its paradoxes, and it satisfies as both romantic comedy and SF story.
It’s not surprising that love and romance should figure in so many science fiction stories, since it is part of the human condition. When people trying to defend a science fiction movie say it’s not really science fiction because it’s “about people,” they’re missing the point. All science fiction—all good science fiction—explores some aspect of humanity. The question isn’t why some SF films have offered up love stories, but why haven’t we seen more of them?
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran film critic and author of Jar Jar Binks Must Die... and Other Observations on Science Fiction Movies (Fantastic Books) He is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and reviewed for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 25 years. His reviews now appear at NorthShoreMovies.net. He is a correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University. In addition to being a frequent contributor at CLARKESWORLD and Space and Time, he is the author of an award-winning history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (2004), a history of DreamWorks, The Dream Team (2006) and I'll Have What She's Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.