The Realistic Sci-Fi Genre

One film is an oddball. Two films is an oddball and a rip-off. Three films is a genre.

Just today I saw the film Monsters. It is not a perfect movie. It actually has a lot of flaws. I liked it quite a lot. Not only because of what it is, but also because it shows what could be.

The trailer basically tells most of the premise. A space probe crashed on earth. It contained alien microbes. The microbes spread and presumably mutated in a region in Mexico and created alien monsters. Two people need to travel through that region in order to get home.

A couple of things make the movie stand out. First, the visuals are very subtle. Mostly, wrecks of tanks, planes and ships were put into shaky hand-held camera pictures. The special effects are rarely the focus of the picture. The actual monsters are rarely seen. The result is that the movie feels much more like a realistic documentation of actual events. The technique has been done before but only recently we reached a point where it is being used effectively and consequently by filmmakers.

In this case, the visuals mirror the story. In a typical Sci-Fi movie about aliens, the story will focus on the fantastic gimmick of the aliens themselves. Not so much in Monsters. When it comes down to it, the movie is very much about two people struggling together to get home. It is very much about what they left back home and how the journey brings them together. The monsters are almost a complete backdrop.

But of course they aren’t irrelevant. Because the story doesn’t really have any twists and turns. In the first 5 minutes, you see a guy and a girl and you know how they end up. What carries the movie are the individual moments, even individual shots. Kids playing in gas masks, ruins of cities, people trying to survive near the infected zone. The movie takes it’s sweet time to explore the fantastic topic of aliens on earth simply by showing the effects and not showing the aliens. And if you really want to, you can also interpret it as a metaphor for xenophobia.

And sure, you could call it boring. But it’s also very bold. It treats the subject in an intelligent and mature way. It resists the temptation to cash in on the fantastic. It seeks for depth beyond the premise. Even if it doesn’t really find it, the simple fact that it expects depth is what is so liberating about it.

It rediscovers two rules of classic Sci-Fi for a modern era:

  1. Get the science right. It’s SCIENCE fiction. If science is preventing you from telling your story, then you need a different story.

  2. Tell a story about Humans. Nobody really cares about aliens or robots. We are humans. We can only relate to other humans. That’s ok. Good Sci-Fi finds insights by telling a human story about a fantastic subject.

But Monsters is not alone. It joins Cloverfield and District 9. Among those three, it’s the quiet, artistic and emotional indie movie. It ties together a genre established by Cloverfield and District 9. It also shows that the formula works repeatedly and can be applied to do much more than simply action.

P.S.: I strongly recommend this podcast about how the movie was created. It blows my mind that most of the scenes and dialogs were improvised on location and that the team consisted of just 7 people.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

9 responses to “The Realistic Sci-Fi Genre”

  1. Igor Hardy

    The trailer reminded me of Stalker (the film, not the game). Well, except for the monster appearances.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    I have never managed to watch Stalker but I read comments of people comparing it to Roadside Picnic.

  3. sirleto

    I have never managed to read Roadside Picnic but i read comments of people comparing The Salvage to it ( ).

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Looks awesome, but it’s not finished yet, right?

  4. Matt

    Interesting. I decided to skip this after reading a review from io9 where they thought it wasn’t enough of a monster movie and the alien/immigrant allegory was too ham-fisted. But now you’re saying it’s good because it’s not a typical “big, evil alien destroying earth” movie. I might just have to watch this myself.

  5. Matt
    1. Krystian Majewski

      Ah! Excellent review.

      I do agree that movie is flawed. Funny enough, the preachy part didn’t strike me as much. Maybe it’s because the US immigrations issues are quite alien to me.

  6. Bribase

    I’ve read Roadside picnic, seen stalker and adore the game! Roadside is an amazingly fresh take on the whole extra-terrestrials arriving on earth thing.

    The movie and game (both very different, I know) have a texture, tension and atmosphere that nothing else matches. Maybe until trauma is finished.

    I was excited about monsters but I feel the subtext was badly handled. And I wasn’t sure which was more tacked on, the love story or the aliens!


    1. Krystian Majewski

      Haha, I don’t think I can match Tarkovsky’s work. You are too kind. I still need to both, read the book and watch the movie. I was once THIS close to watch it. I just couldn’t find the right mood.

      Funny that you compare the game with the book / film. Do you see a relationship there that goes beyond simply the name and the broad setting?


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


follow Krystian on Twitter
follow Yu-Chung on Twitter
follow Daniel on Twitter