My wife and I went to see The Source Code the other night. We really liked it. It was directed by David Bowie’s son, who sensibly goes by Dalton Jones instead of his more loonie-celeb birth-name possibility Zowie Bowie. Anyway, Jones had previously written and directed an awesome low-budget sci-fi film I’m really fond of, Moon, and Source Code was similar–intricately plotted, character-driven sci-fi, movies with brains and a heart.
For a Theatre major who flunked high school chem, I’m sort of a science goof–I like to read popular science books, and I like science fiction because I dig the science, even though it’s usually pretty bogus. In Source Code, the idea is that you can link one person’s mind to the mind of a dead person, but only for the last eight minutes of their life. I’m pretty sure they actually can’t do any of that, but the movie says it’s because of quantum physics, which is sci-fi talk for ‘magic.’ I think they also use computers, because, hey, it’s called Source Code, right? Anyway, Jeffrey Wright is convincingly grumpy as the mad scientist running the program, and Vera Farmiga sort of walks off with the movie in what could have been the thankless role of the lab tech who interfaces with Jake Gyllenhaal, who keeps getting sent back into this dead dude’s last eight minutes, so he can kiss Michelle Monaghan.
My wife and I are also fans of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, that old TV show in which two robots and a guy make fun of awful old movies. And in the wretched sci-fi movies they diss, one constant is the time the movie wastes explaining the science. There’s always this scene in which some guy with glasses and a lab coat goes into all this detail about how exactly the radio-active isotopes turned that praying mantis into a twenty foot tall killing arachnid. I don’t actually know that praying mantises are arachnids, but you get the picture. Point is: we don’t care. We do in fact know that praying mantises, exposed to radiation, probably just die. Like radio-active spiders who bite some guy might give him a rash, maybe, but not the ability to climb walls and swing from Manhattan skyscrapers.
It’s like the Star Trek TV series. (What’s the plural of series? Serieses?) I always love the moment when they’d be facing some terrible outer-space potential catastrophe, and they’d all look solemn, and then Picard would ask for recommendations, and Data or someone would go “we could reconfigure the warp coil conduit,” or Geordi would go “we could vent plasma from the aft relays,” and Picard would say “make it so.” As time went on, the explanations got more and more detailed and complex, probably because they knew their Trekkie nerd fan base would go all ballistic if they got something wrong. I understand it became part of a series of Star Trek TNG drinking games: every time they’d get out of a problem using techno-babble, everyone had to take a drink, same as every time Worf talked about ‘honor,’ or everytime Deanna Troi used her psychic powers to figure out something patently obvious to absolutely everyone:”Captain, I sense deception!” Yeah.
That’s why, for me, the perfect sci-fi movie explanation scene ever is in the Back to the Future movies. How do you travel in time? The flux capacitor. Christopher Lloyd is brilliant anyway as Doc Brown, with all that crazy white hair, and when he shows some idiot diagram and says ‘flux capacitor,’ I’m good. Don’t need anything else. Done. And we can spend the rest of the time dealing with character and story and watching Mike Fox solo on Johnny B. Goode. Which, comes to think of, offers the most disturbing time/space paradox in the whole movie. (So Chuck Berry hears this song, records it as his own, so that in the future Marty McFly can hear it, learn it, go back in time, so he can play it, so Chuck Berry can hear it wait wait wait my head’s about to explode!)
They don’t overexplain. Is what I’m saying. And I think it’s a writing problem those of us who don’t do sci-fi also share. We set our story in Tahiti, and we do all this research, and we know all this stuff about Bougainville and Captain Cook, and so we try to cram it into our story because, hey, we know it, except maybe it doesn’t fit. Maybe it feels forced or unnecessary.
So (Mormon lit connection!) I think we do the same thing with Mormonism. Include material that we don’t need to, that doesn’t advance the story, because we want to fit in the First Vision, or details about who slept where in the Lion House, or our aunt Patty’s funeral potato recipe. Because we’re Mormons writing about Mormons, we just want people not of our faith to get all the details. But maybe they just want to know who-dun-it.
I mean, yeah, we absolutely need to do research, and we absolutely have to get the details right. But maybe at times research can get in the way. Maybe we can just say ‘flux capacitor,’ and get back to the characters and the story. Because, really, we just want Jake to kiss the girl. Don’t much care about the computer/quantum mechanics of it.