Sci-Fi and the Sense of Wonder

It’s a vast, empty desert vista. A binary sunset bleeds twilight colours onto a lonely moisture farm. Enter young Luke Skywalker, on the threshhold of adulthood, unfulfilled, yearning for a life of adventure in the stars. He knows he’s destined to be out there, but duty’s holding him back. Most of his friends have gone. He looks hard, he sees far—the breadth of the galaxy awaits. One day soon, he’ll get to follow his dreams…

Binary Sunset on Tatooine

Binary Sunset on Tatooine

I watched that scene the other day (on blu-ray) and it hit me with a maelstrom of emotions. It always has. But for the first time, it actually hurt a little. Partly through nostalgia, I think—I was a little kid when Star Wars first captivated me on video—but also because real life has dug its cynical claws in lately, and I badly wanted to be that callow boy again, looking to the future with a sense of wonder. He’s still there, I know it, but I think the binary suns have lost some of their lustre, and are that much lower in the sky.

So what brings him out for a stroll? What’s fired my imagination lately?

Science fiction. But really—the wonder of science fiction. Luke Skywalker, John Carter, Flash Gordon, Paul Atreides. Books in particular are a neverending source of SF wonder. I read eight in a row last year that I consider masterpieces of imagination. So I’m covered there—there’s a lifetime of great books to explore.

But what of movies? They were my formative sources of wonder before I knew how to read, as I’m sure they are for most people.

To be honest, I think science fiction in the movies is missing something. For most of its history, film has struggled to convey the scope and depth of an “out there”. Inadequate special effects, meagre shooting budgets, its B-movie reputation: sci-fi, for the most part, has not been allowed to break out into the cosmos in any substantial way. Our imaginations have been left to conjure their own sense of wonder, often from cardboard sets or really, really bad costumes. That awe and excitement we felt vicariously through Luke Skywalker has remained elusive.

There are exceptions: Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds (1953), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and others. But this is the age of CGI, 3D, mega-budget spectacles. Where’s the galactic awe and excitement, the rollicking adventure that made Star Wars such a phenomenon? Where’s the fun? Avatar rolled the dice and won big. What else? The two recent Star Treks. Absolutely. High quality stuff. What else? Umm…

Even a quick glance down the list of recent big budget sci-fi efforts can’t fail to spot a wearying trend…

They’re major freaking downers.

Oblivion. Looper. Prometheus. Elysium. After Earth. Inception. Knowing. The Hunger Games. Hell, even Man of Steel (Superman is a sci-fi character) could do with a Prozac.

That’s not to say they aren’t good movies (except After Earth and Prometheus). They are, brilliant even. But let’s face it, they’re products of a cynical age. Hollywood is convinced we want doom and gloom because that’s what we’re buying tickets for. But we don’t only want doom and gloom in our sci-fi, do we?

Can we get over this dystopian funk? Yes. Easily. Filmmakers are always claiming Star Wars inspired them to make films. Well then, prove it. Make something optimistic, fun, filled with wonder, a space-set adventure that might inspire another generation of kids. You might not be able to match Star Wars, but there are countless intergalactic sagas waiting to be brought to life.

I keep defending last year’s charming John Carter, yet even I have to admit it lacks mainstream appeal. Apart from the misguided title, marketing, and some of the plot changes, it’s ultimately retro sci-fi, and that’s niche by definition. I enjoyed the living hell out of it, but there weren’t many who did.

We need something fresh. Something majestic. Something to really take our breath away.

Looking forward, I’m very curious about Jupiter Ascending, a space epic directed by the Wachowskis. The plot sounds like pulp sci-fi heaven:

Jupiter Jones was born under a night sky, with signs predicting that she was destined for great things. Now grown, Jupiter dreams of the stars but wakes up to the cold reality of a job cleaning toilets and an endless run of bad breaks. Only when Caine, a genetically engineered ex-military hunter, arrives on Earth to track her down does Jupiter begin to glimpse the fate that has been waiting for her all along – her genetic signature marks her as next in line for an extraordinary inheritance that could alter the balance of the cosmos.

Stars Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum aren’t among my faves, but I love the Wachowskis’ ambition in films like The Matrix, Speed Racer, and Cloud Atlas. If anyone can give us a fresh, exciting vision of an “out there”, they can. An injection of original, space-set action adventure is exactly what I want to see.

The three Avatar sequels can’t come soon enough for me. Cameron loves pushing that envelope, and he’s never lost his sense of wonder. The new Star Wars cycle looks promising too, as long as they keep it optimistic. We might still be in a post 9/11 malaise, but our sci-fi doesn’t have to be. Luke’s binary sunset is just as powerful now as it was 36 years ago.

Let’s see if we can recapture that.


Robert Appleton is an award-winning science fiction and steampunk author. He lives in Bolton, England. His published works include Sparks in Cosmic Dust, Prehistoric Clock, and Pyro Canyon.



  1. Excellent post. I would love for a new generation to have its own SF epic that inspires them. I think too many people making movies assume that dark and dystopian is the only way to make something exciting and tense. and yes, we do live in a cynical age. I, for one, still see a future of possibilities and wonder & love media that has that.

  2. Thanks for commenting. That’s nicely put–a new SF space epic for a new generation. The mind boggles with all the possibilities.

  3. IMO Lucas undermined the fun and innocent wonder of Star Wars by making the “first” three episodes so dark (killing kids?), ridiculous (Jar Jar?) and boring (council meetings?), and changing things like who shot first. Do you think maybe he contributed to the subsequent loss of fun, innocence and wonder from SF movies, and/or is it just a reflection of the times we live in?

    1. Good question, Jen. I think ROTS got the darkness just about right. What the prequels really needed, IMO, was Han Solo–not Han himself, but another irreverent, roguish main character to deflate a lot of the pomp and self-seriousness. Han was fun. No one in the prequels was fun.

      Phantom Menace was where the innocence and wonder should have come into play–but delicately, not with slapstick. Lucas bungled it, plain and simple, by consciously aiming it at kids. Imagine if Card had written Ender’s Game as a nursery pop-up book, knowing that Ender was going to commit genocide at some point (like Anakin).

      Anakin’s arc starts proper in AOTC, when his mother dies. TPM is nothing but a kiddie prequel to the prequels. I do like most of the adventure stuff in AOTC and ROTS, though. Lucas has a lot to be proud of in those installments–they’re loaded with old-fashioned SF serial sequences.

      The less said about the love story the better.

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