Sometimes I need to let my inner nerd out for a romp. Recently I have been musing - in my head - about science fiction movie archetypes - visual and thematic. So I wrote it down. It's a little messy, but that's ok. Here it goes...
Cowboys and Indians, Starfleet and Romulans, Light and Dark, Logic and Emotion, Man and Nature
There are two distinct and contrasting visual styles of the future; one bright, technological, modern, optimistic, another dark, decaying, organic, ominous. Simply put: Bright and shiny vs dark and grimy. Blade Runner and Star Trek are probably the most iconic examples of each. Another, more crucial distinction between the two is where they take place: One in densely populated city, another in the vast frontiers of space. Frontier stories more likely to feature a group of heroes facing off with fearsome foes, while the in the city it is all about the lone hero searching for answers.
Ridley Scott's 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner stands as one of the cornerstones of modern science fiction movies. It has defined a visual and narrative style that has became a major part of the science fiction cinema language. However Blade Runner did not invent this language, but translated it directly from the Film Noir style of the the 40's and 50's. These films were shot in moody black and white, full of grit, grime, and moral ambiguity. These films themselves were influenced by the hardboiled detective novels of their time, works of Dashiell Hammet, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler. Not only the most iconic ones were directly based on their novels, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (Cain), The Big Sleep (Chandler), but Chandler also worked as scrip writer for many of these now classic movies (Double Indemnity, Strangers on a Train).
One very intriguing aspect of these films is that while most of them take place in perpetually sunny California, their visual style is defined by their darkness - most of the action happens in dark alleys, dive bars, seedy motel rooms. As if they were nature documentaries of the ground level of a thick urban jungle where the sunlight doesn't penetrate any more, and the denizens mostly come out at night.
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness." (Raymond Chandler)
The heroes of these stories are usually private eyes, who have problems with authority, they walk more or less on the right side of law, but have an antagonistic, distrustful relationship with the cops. Decard in Blade Runner is full embodiment of this character. He is as likely to be squaring off with a dubious dame as licking his wounds with a glass of scotch in hand as Philip Marlow is. He walks the streets of a Los Angeles that is wrapped in a perpetual night. Maybe the smog has gotten so bad that the sunlight can't penetrate it any more. It's also always raining, and even indoors there is water drizzling from above. This inexplicable wetness has come to represent danger in science fiction movies - a dark cave of our subconscious, with unimaginable horrors lurking in its moist recesses. A perfect example of it is the scene from Alien when we first encounter the fully grown creature: It's a large dark room, with chains hanging from the ceiling, and water dripping everywhere. What is all that excess moisture doing dripping inside a space ship is anyone's guess.
The hero of the Noir style does not necessary have to be an actual detective, it's the element of mystery, a search for answers what's relevant. Dark City is a good example.
The private dick is close relation to the lone gunman of the westerns - another genre that scifi has heavily borrowed from. The most enduring theme that scifi appropriated from westerns is the idea of entering dangerous uncharted territories, "To boldly go where no man has gone before." Many scifi films and shows are westerns in space. Joss Whedon very consciously referenced this theme in his sadly short lived tv series Firefly, and the following movie Serenity. Beyond classic westerns, Whedon's creations have roots in the less idealized, more sweat and dust covered, morally ambiguous world of spaghetti westerns. A not so deliberate, and far more optimistically Utopian iteration of the space western was the original Star Trek and its many follow-ups. Its heroes are the law, their ship is clean, brightly lit, full of crisp uniforms. It's also uplifting, optimistic, a world where law and order prevails. Firefly and Star Trek not only have different visual styles, but represent contrary point of views of basically the same societal structures. Both worlds are tightly controlled alliance/federation of planets, outwardly represented by a strong military, but in one the heroes are the military, in the other they are the outlaws, barely getting by at the edge of known space.
If Captain Kirk and crew are John Wayne and the cavalry marching into the wild vastness of space, Captain Malcolm Reynolds and crew are the cowboys and misfits. The "Indians," i.e. the "other" that they both have to fight and beat are however very similar. In Serenity it is the "reavers," a band of humans driven to extreme madness by a chemical compound. In the immensely enjoyable 2009 Star Trek movie it is a rogue band of Romulans, driven mad by grief and anger. Both are propelled by raw emotion, can't be reasoned with, inaccessible to logic, and bent on destruction. Simply put they are pure manifestations of the Id. The creature from Alien and Aliens can be put in the same category. While we don't really know much of its "emotions," its single-minded drive to breed and kill make it the same type of primal force.
The primal foes and their environments share the same visual language. It's all dark, jagged, wet, sinisterly organic. Not surprisingly, the Romulan ship, the Narada and the reaver armada all resemble deep sea monsters. The dark deepness of space and the ocean are very similar; they both fascinate and frighten at the same time. "Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence." (Leonard 'Bones' McCoy).
Star Trek XI contains within it both the bright and the dark visual styles, but they are firmly devided between the two opposing forces of the narrative. In sharp contrast to the brightly lit, ordered corridors of the Enterprise, the Narada's interiors are dark, tangled. In one scene we can see pipes sneaking on the floor, in several baffling inches of water. The Enterprise is shiny plastic and chrome, with a crew in dressed in bright primary colors. The Narada is jaggy, corroding metal, subdued dark greenish grays and browns, it's tattooed crew dressed in worn leather. Similar tones, but even more organic are many interiors where the creatures of the Alien franchise dwell. By nature they take over spaces that are not their own, yet dark and cavernous, obscuring their angular shapes with their own creations. Water here is replaced with sticky goo.
Like Native Americans did in classic westerns, Romulans, acid-blooded aliens, even reavers, come to represent the primal force that you can fight or run from, but can't reason with. Ultimately, they are mother nature in many disguises. Our plucky heroes triumph over their much stronger foe, using cunning and bravado - brains and balls against brute force. And that's what conquering frontiers is all about. Despite of their ideological differences Serenity and Star Trek have this in common. Not Blade Runner however; Deckard hunts down and kills all the replicants, but there is no triumph. Perhaps because he is not on the frontier, but in the city jungle where there are no good guys and bad guys, just different rungs on the food chain.