Interview: Donna Scott

STB_INTL_BEAM_DGTL_LOS_1200x900px_UKPrior to the release of Star Trek Beyond, Empire Cinemas commissioned new research which looks at which space films Britons deemed to be the most realistic. The poll revealed that the true story of the perilous Apollo 13 (1995) mission topped the list of most realistic space films by a landslide vote; convincing 29% of Britons with their realistic portrayal of space exploration. Coming in second place was Sandra Bullock’s Gravity (2013) with 8% of the vote, while the SF classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) rounded off the top three with 7% of the UK vote. Donna Scott, Chair of the British Science Fiction Association, chatted with Paul Simpson about the balance between scientific realism and the demands of filmmaking in sci-fi movies…

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IMG_2926In the Empire list, people thought of the original Independence Day as realistic – but it isn’t really…

Some aspects of the film are realistic, and some of the technology. Apollo 13 was at the top of the list. Yes, it’s about space but things are about space aren’t necessarily science fiction – it was a dramatic representation of a real event, rather than something like Gravity or The Martian.

Do you think people want science to look good when they see it in the movies?

Yes, and they like the cleverness behind an idea, such as when in The Martian, he’s pitted against the elements and has to use all his resources to survive. It’s not his brawn, it’s his brains – it’s a triumph of the underdog against all the odds. It’s a very plausible looking landscape and habitat (compare it to the ship he arrives in which has a fully working gravitational gym!). We expect to see lifepods like that because we’ve seen mock-ups of what they’re planning on sending people to Mars in.

Do you think then people consider The Martian is what NASA is really like or do they buy into the fiction?

OblivionWe definitely buy into a look. Technology has a certain look for it. We don’t necessarily see the factory and the people that make the product. We see the sleekness of the design.

On Oblivion, for example, everything is all very sleek, it’s all white – it could be done by Apple. There’s this corporate wash over everything that hides the real intent and purpose behind technology; all the things that are not good for society are behind the technology. It’s very good for the two people who live there and are privileged to have that life. For the rest of the people on the planet but it’s not so good.

We’ve got that sleekness on Star Trek since the reboot…

It does look very sleek.

Do you think that sort of sleekness is what people expected to see in 2008 when the first film was made – or that search engines are like the ones in Minority Report?

There are things we expect in films that we don’t expect in real life when it comes to technology. In a film where you have a computer geek, they’re always working on a musical computer: every time a graphic appears on screen it makes some kind of inappropriate noise. Working in a day to day situation, the noises on computers are something we don’t want; we turn off the sound on our phones. In a film, we want to know that the thing is working so it has to make a noise.

When you look at a film, do you go “that couldn’t happen” or do you get swept away by a good story?

MArtian potatoI’m very easily swept away. I’m not as sceptical as a lot of my friends who saw The Martian with me; I came out saying it was awesome, and they were going, “What about the potatoes? Why would you do that?” It didn’t quite make sense when you talked about it, but you got swept along with the story.

What should be the priority for Hollywood when they’re balancing what’s good for a story against accuracy?

I think it’s getting narrower. In the 1990s, we would let things slide and go, “It’s Hollywood and they don’t know any different”. Now we are getting more lab coats in Hollywood, it makes it more tricky for the filmmakers to come up with stuff that works and works with science. They have excuses: they say, “We want to do a certain thing in order to have this role development for the character; for that to happen, this can’t happen.”

They will bend science… even when it comes to sheer fantasy like the movie Thor. They had consultant scientists on there who discussed how a wormhole would work between Asgard and Earth.

stormtrooper-death-star-star-wars-a-new-hopeDo you classify the Star Wars movies as science fiction or science fantasy?

I’d class them as science fiction, in that we’re talking about a set of tropes that are present: warp drive, spaceships, other planets, Death Stars and different technology for fighting. But at the same time, a lot of people don’t think it’s science fiction because of the black and white and linear and romantic elements to the story.

Good science fiction isn’t necessarily going to be about the hard science of the story; you do want some entertainment in there to pull you in and drag you along as a viewer.

So how would you define science fiction?

It’s very broad. I would class a lot of fantasy as a shade of science fiction. Science fiction can be anything from hard science space opera through to some aspects of urban fantasy. If we’re talking about aspects where scientific thoughts or theories can affect the story in some way, even if it’s a small way, it’s science fiction.

It is an incredibly broad church then. Would you count Sliding Doors?

Yes. What we don’t know in that film is what creates the alternative timeline and how they merge at the end. That’s a mystery.

What does it more successfully is a film like Donnie Darko, which a lot of people get confused by but I love. It talks about the ideas behind the thing that causes it within the context of the film. What happens there, where does the loop begin, where does it end?

When you go to see a science fiction film, what do you look for?

I think I look for a good story, escapism, entertainment. Working with a lot of academics, a lot of people can be very critical about what they see on screen, about what it can deliver. I love the humour of Guardians of the Galaxy.

I think I’m a very happy bunny when it comes to a lot of modern science fiction films: I appreciate the intellectualism of a good science fiction story but I also appreciate the narrative behind it as well.

Star Trek Beyond is in cinemas now. Thanks to the team at House PR for their help in arranging this interview

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