What Makes Science Fiction Movies So Sexy?

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What Makes Science Fiction Movies So Sexy?

That's how I'm going to attack the audience; I'm going to attack them sexually.

By Johannah King-Slutzky

It's summer, this is America, and our seasonal science fiction is the highest of grades. Pacific Rim, a movie described to me informally as “Neon Genesis Evangelion for non-anime nerds” is making waves as a long-awaited quality monster movie, while a new preview for the techno-horror junket Gravity was just released to Gizmodo readerships everywhere. Not to mention the cheese fests Star Trek Into Darkness and Sharknado. It's been a productive year.

Figuring out “the point” of science fiction is good sport. The people who study science fiction and cinema professionally tend to come up with a wide variety of explanations for sci fi's draw: it expurgates us of our fears, it helps us to re-experience childhood through wonder, it's a safe outlet for revolutionary sentiment. But the explanation given most often (thanks, Freud!) is that science fiction is just plain old sexy.

Sometimes this comes in the form of straightforward visual metaphor. The example that comes to mind most readily is of the first Alien movie, home of the most dickheaded monster maybe ever.

Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon made his intent even more explicit: “One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said, 'That's how I'm going to attack the audience; I'm going to attack them sexually. And I'm not going to go after the women in the audience, I'm going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.'” Horror movies are about making people uncomfortable, and often, that's sex. 

In time travel and interdimensional movies, time and space become relative when characters go to a “past” that the audience recognizes as their present. For example, in The Matrix, the alternate world is our own becubacled universe. Not only is the in-movie “real world” orgiastically exciting, it also becomes an origin story for the audience.

Neo and Trinity show us why we're bored, why we experience deja vu, why we're always working. Science fiction, as a rule, shows us an exciting alternate universe (Flying cars! Warp Drive!) paired with a flatly sensible modern-day. The one-two punch of other-world excitement and in-universe legibility is important. Futuristic movies are formally encouraged to be sexy because when it comes to adult audiences, sex amps up the alter-world's contrast with the boring present. Think, for example, of the totally gratuitous use of furs and boob jobs in the alternate universe of Back To The Future II. Marty's present is denim, Marty's alter-present is zebra print.

Something that is especially interesting to me about science fiction is the idea that even if a movie isn't metaphorically or literally about sex, the experience of watching a film can still be sexy. B-status monster movies, techno-thrillers, and space operas are all about confronting impossible creatures or places. What's cool about this is that each of those genres uses the same impetus (shock) to instill a different feeling in its audience. Shlock monster movies like Sharknado are cheesy and make us laugh. Monster movies and techno-thrillers (Pacific Rim) excite us. And space opera (Gravity), for which lingering panoramas are a must, instill a sense of wonder.

Shock, surprise, and growth are essential to all sub-genres of science fiction; what differentiates between these genres is the way we, the audience, react to the shock of speculation. And because our emotional reaction to science fiction is oriented around the idea of shock, science fiction is often an implicit turn-on. This, too, is why so many science fiction movies, though not about sex, are still highly sexualized. Machines are long and lean; space surrounds and threatens to swallow. When Guillermo Del Toro explained the impetus behind Pacific Rim, he said he wanted to make something with “epic beauty,” something with “the control cockpit of the robots in the head…almost three stories high,” something which “flows with their bodies” before, overwhelmed, "every guy broke." When it evades camp, science fiction is sexy because sex, like science fiction, is fundamentally about the pleasure of losing the self.