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The Horror of Science Fiction Movies

11/13/2014 01:09 EST | Updated 01/13/2015 05:59 EST

I recently saw a Canadian-made movie called Debug -- a new science fiction-horror film (note the hyphen -- it's important). It's what I would call a "modestly budgeted" film. It's low-budget but they do a decent job of stretching their dollars. Put another way: it's cheap viewed as a feature film but okay-looking if seen as a TV movie.

My intention wasn't to review Debug, but it's probably the elephant in the room if I don't. It's written and directed by David Hewlett who, as an actor, has accrued a string of genre (i.e.: science fiction and horror) credits from Pin to Cube to the TV series StarGate: Atlantis. The cast has no obvious big "names," but it has some familiar faces to assure you of its professionalism. It's about a group of mostly 20-something cyber-hacker convicts who are assigned to wipe the memory banks of a derelict spaceship -- only to discover its artificial intelligence is still active. And much carnage ensues.

And it's kind of a "meh" movie (as I once saw an online reviewer define something not good enough to praise, but not bad enough to disparage). If you're predisposed toward the sub-genre, you'll probably find it a passable waste of 90 minutes. And if you're more ambivalent, you probably won't.

And therein lies today's rub.

Debug is a "haunted house in space" story. Characters in a closed environment get killed off one by one, often in grisly ways.

What struck a nerve with me was when I was glancing at some comments about it on the IMDB and someone suggested it was a "classic" science fiction movie.

If you happened to have heard a primal "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" echoing through the air a day or two ago that was just me reacting to such a declaration.

The problem I have is that movies like Debug aren't "classic" science fiction -- rather they are the kind of movies that have hijacked science fiction. They are, essentially, walking around in an "Earl suit" (to borrow a line from Men in Black).

It basically started in 1979 with the release of the mega-popular horror-SF hybrid, Alien. Prior to that, then-recent science fiction movies explored themes about society, morality, the fate of civilization and the human condition. They were movies like Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run, Soylent Green and Silent Running, and on TV the genre was still represented (if only in reruns) by Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.

And then came Alien. It was a great movie -- no argument from me. It was spooky and atmospheric. But it was really just a horror movie with flashing lights. And it presented a template that any low-budget producer could emulate. Just lay down some metal grate flooring, order a bunch of cargo pants and T-shirts from Army Surplus (preferably grey or green) and -- and here's the crucial bit -- whip up buckets of artificial blood and get props to make some severed limbs. And Bob, as they say, is your mother's brother.

And we've been living with the Alien legacy ever since. The "science fiction" shelf of the video (now DVD) store is crammed with scores of these horror-SF hybrids like zebra mussels forcing out the native inhabitants of the category. Actually the horror-SF sub-genre has faced its own alteration -- again thanks to those pesky creatures from Alien. Because the sequel, Aliens, added an action movie template (further entrenched by the rise of video games).

Horror has always overlapped with SF -- Frankenstein is equally considered an SF novel and a horror novel. Old Star Trek episodes had spooky aspects, while a staple of Dr. Who is the "base under siege." But maybe the distinction is in an SF movie with horror undercurrents, deaths are part of the story. In a horror movie with flashing lights, deaths are the point of the story (the degree of gore is another giveaway).

There is a reason for all this. It's safer. Aim low, and people will still watch it on a slow night (if only as camp). Aim high -- and you're Icarus, facing a big fall.

Heck, I once heard someone dismiss the 1960 movie, The Time Machine, as just a "cheesy Star Trek episode." So a classic science fiction movie, based on a seminal novel, is compared to a ground-breaking TV series -- and apparently that was a criticism!

But it just goes to show the higher you reach creatively, the more you expose your soft underbelly. American filmmaker Roger Corman became one of the most successful filmmakers in the world, not by making ambitious movies that earned huge profits, but by making low-budget movies that rarely lost money.

And I'll freely admit that I've seen a few "ambitious" science fiction movies that left me going "meh." I do, after all, like my SF pulpy, with suspense and thrills -- but pulpy with brains.

Science fiction movies still exist -- but they tend to be the preserve of big budget studio releases. While even middle rung movies get seduced by the easy lure of the horror-SF hybrid. Movies like the Canadian-made The Colony, starring Kevin Zegers and American actor Laurence Fishburne, or the U.K. film The Last Days on Mars which boasted good sets, atmosphere, a classy, drool-inducing cast (including Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, and Canadian Elias Koteas) and both movies expended their potential on derivative horror plots.

Debug didn't have the same budget as those films, nor am I saying it had a drool-inducing cast -- although you might drool for other reasons, the lovely Jeananne Goossen fronting a collection of attractive enough men and women. But it was a talented enough cast. And you can't help wonder what sort of movie could they have made with those same actors, those same spaceship sets, but aiming higher in the story department?

Thanks to a couple of decades of Canada being a hotbed of genre TV productions (from American series like The X-Files to co-productions like Andromeda to Canadian series like Orphan Black) the country has a whole array of actors and filmmakers with an international "cult" profile. Yet when it comes to movies, theatrical and made-for-TV, they settle for churning out derivative horror-hybrids that often are sneered at even by science fiction fans!

But if someone were to tell me they just saw a Canadian science fiction movie that reminded them of a "cheesy Star Trek" episode -- man, I'd be the first in line the next day!