This week Neil Calloway argues that one thing unites all the best science fiction…
Guardians of the Galaxy, the original Star Wars movies, Alien, and Firefly all have something in common. The obvious thing is that they’re all science fiction, but if I was just listing sci-fi surely I’d have included Star Trek, too. They’re all science fiction, but they’re also what I’d call “dirty space movies”.
You know a dirty space movie when you see it; everything is a little more battered in it, a little bit darker, the characters are a lot cooler and more likeable. Clean utopias might be nice fantasies, but how many times did you pretend to be characters from Star Trek when you were a kid compared to how many times you pretended to be Han Solo? The fact is, we prefer our science fiction darker, dirtier, the good and bad to be a bit more ambiguous.
Even within dirty space films we tend to prefer the dirtier stuff; would you rather be a passenger in the filthy Millennium Falcon, which can outrun Star Destroyers or in the clean, sterile Tantive IV, that gets caught in a tractor beam almost immediately?
There’s a reason that everyone wants anthology films about Han Solo and Boba Fett rather than any other characters; they’re far more interesting, whether they’re in their battered old space freighter or their tarnished Mandalorian armour. It’s why everyone likes the Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One is superior to The Force Awakens.
“Dirty Space movies” sounds like you’re describing that porn film that was shot in zero gravity and had a soundtrack by Liam Howlett from The Prodigy and 3D from Massive Attack, but it’s actually a good label when making the distinction between science fiction films. Part of the lacklustre response to Prometheus was perhaps down to it being probably the “cleanest” of the films in the Alien franchise. The exception to the rule is of course 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that was made in 1968, before man had stepped on the moon; since regular space travel has become a reality, we like sci-fi to be less clean.
Think of a sci-fi film and you’ll be able to place it in the “clean” or “dirty” column pretty quickly, and I’d bet good money there are more of your favourites in the dirty list. The sterile utopia of Star Trek obviously has its fans, but it’s never really been entirely socially acceptable to be a Trekkie, whereas fans of Star Wars have been able to be more or less open about their obsession. James Cameron made Aliens (dirty) and Avatar (clean). Which do you prefer?
This article was originally posted in April 2017.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive.