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The sci-fi scale: what makes a film ‘science fiction’?

Answering the question no one’s asking: is it science fiction?

I find myself watching sci-fi films and, afterwards, wondering: “but is it science fiction?”, which seems unnecessarily arduous given there’s a pretty big clue up front. Perhaps the question I’m really asking is “but what makes this sci-fi, when that isn’t?”

Part of this non-existent issue arises from the way films are catalogued and reviewed, when seemingly every possible plot element is loaded up front. Over at IMDB, Alien is Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, while ‘prequel’ Prometheus is Adventure, Mystery, Sci-Fi. It’s cinema pot luck – like buses, hang around long enough and sci-fi will eventually show its face.

There’s nothing wrong with that, except that I don’t like Alien: I don’t think it’s satisfying sci-fi. In fact, I think it’s a something of a film con – the kind where you go in expecting androids and chatty ship computers, and come out traumatised by that bit in the ventilation duct.

So, with zero scientific method, and 100% subjectivity, here’s how I think it goes down.

Is it sci-fi?

Poster with the words 'ask more questions'

Science fiction (also SF). Noun:

Fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.


Space, aliens and the future … if that’s what science fiction comprises, it likely covers every film in the genre you can think of. The Martian. Oblivion. Star Wars. Men in Black … Space Balls.

The definition clearly isn’t wrong – precisely because it covers every film in the genre you can think of – but it is loose. On paper The Road the sounds like a match for the above, but it’s not really sci-fi; however, it does firmly sit in a subset of sci-fi: ‘dystopiana’.

Here’s what I think the key elements of science fiction boil down to:

Speculative technology is crucial to the story. Technology has changed society (typically for the worse). The main themes question what it means to be human. The story is set in, or is about: space, the future, aliens, time travel or machines.

Spec tech is crucial to the story: does the story rely on technological or scientific developments (such as space travel or how we might live in the future), or is that window dressing for a story that could have been set anywhere?

Technology has changed society: society has been altered by, or in the process of change, as a result of technology.

The main themes question what it means to be human: this is the broader sense, i.e., themes which affect whole societies, rather than individuals or groups battling to survive. The latter limits us to how one particular person reacts under pressure, rather than saying something more universal about the human spirit.

Space, the future, aliens, time travel or machines: because they’re an obvious clue/shorthand for the genre.

Sci-fi my foot

Footprints at the beach

Films, it turns out, can have more than one genre at a time, and that seems eminently reasonable in a democratic society – but sometimes those other genres give few returns on sci-fi. Here are the potential red herrings.

Other genres dominate

It’s hard to imagine a ‘pure’ sci-fi film untainted by other genres, but I expect it would be mighty dull. On the other hand: Alien. This is a film whose tag line was “in space no one can hear you scream”: it’s a horror movie first and foremost.

Aliens and machines and space (oh my)

Space doesn’t always equal sci-fi. Apollo 13, for instance, is all sci- and little fi- seeing as it’s based on a true story. Gravity, meanwhile, is about an astronaut lost in space who, against the odds, makes it back to Earth … but that could be any other disaster movie. Does it matter that Gravity is set in space, or could it have been set under water and still have the same story arc?

It’s set in a galaxy far, far away …

At some point, plots move so far into the future that they’re not about us any more; they’re about alien civilisations and flashy gadgets (cough, cough, light sabre). That doesn’t mean that I think sci-fi should be navel gazing and self absorbed; just that perhaps such films are as much another genre (fantasy, space opera) as they are sci-fi. Or perhaps I’m just looking for reasons why I outgrew Star Wars.

The sci-fi scale

This isn’t about whether a film is good or bad – that’s a whole different can of paranoia. In fact, comparing these total scores with, say, IMDB ratings shows that one has no bearing on the other at all. People like films for all kinds of reasons far beyond genre – and that’s exactly as it should be. Likewise, nothing I say may convince you that Star Wars isn’t the apex for sci-fi superiority. So be it.

Note also that this is a random selection of films (partly based on things I’ve seen most recently). I’ve included some left field choices (Mr Robot), along with films no one considers to be sci-fi: they score zero, which is reassuring!

The scores

These are based on my definition of sci-fi.

  • Space, the future, aliens, time travel or machines: +1 for each
  • Spec tech is crucial to the story: Yes (+2), somewhat (+1), No (0)
  • Technology has changed society: Yes (+2), Somewhat (+1), No (0)
  • Main themes question what it means to be human: Yes (+2), Somewhat (+1), No (0)

Infographic: the sci-fi scale

You can download this graphic as a PDF (for personal use).

Weighing up the scale

This was much harder than I anticipated. If nothing else, because it is very subjective, and slotting things into neat categories is something of a fool’s errand. That said:

  • All the films which scored 8 are undoubtedly part of the sci-fi genre. Interestingly, though, they’re all also ‘action’ films. You could call that a partnership, perhaps, like custard-and-cream: action and sci-fi often go together (it just may not always be to your taste).
  • While space, aliens, the future etc. are handy tropes for the genre, not everything that features them are your average sci-fi. Likewise, some films don’t include these, and therefore aren’t considered part of the genre, yet have much in common with sci-fi. Perhaps it’s worth considering them, too.
  • I haven’t included all my notes here, but these themes/elements appear frequently: “Several/main characters are androids, machines or robots”, “Alien technology” and “An individual or group battles for survival”.
  • The Nicholas Cage film Knowing is strongly sci-fi on paper, but not in our hearts – which perhaps explains why it was so badly received.
  • I decided not to include genre in the scale (-1 for each genre logged at IMDB), but the results are quite different without them. Event Horizon, Men in Black, Gravity, Jaws and Now You See Me all fall off the scale. Perhaps that’s as it should be, but we’ll leave that for another day of musing.


Words: my own. All rights reserved: no copying, pasting or re-using without permission.

Infographic & main image: my own

Ask more questions: Jonathan Simcoe at Unsplash

Sandy footprint:  Zack Minor at Unsplash

Supporting images in the infographic: and kjpargeter