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Science-Fiction in Cinema: Between Mode and Genre

(Villeneuve, 2021)

Defining cinematic science-fiction (sci-fi) can be a difficult task, as it has a long history of approaches, sensibilities, and esthetic choices. However, sci-fi literature has an even longer history, which also involves an important body of written works that aimed at theorizing some key science-fiction conventions. This article does not seek to answer the question of “What is science-fiction?”, but rather to understand essential elements of sci-fi literature, which are workable in cinema. The second part of the article focuses on relevant examples that show the range of approaches in cinematic science-fiction.

Toward a Definition of Science-fiction

At its core, science-fiction can be categorized as a literary genre that bases its narrative on science and its vast potential. Darko Suvin, an essential scholar for this discussion, saw science-fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment” (Suvin, 1979, p.7-8). This is a workable definition, especially because it applies to cinema, a medium that suspends cognition and estranges the viewer from the immediate environment.

A key component to understand when trying to define science-fiction is that it represents a space of interference between two opposite visions of reality. This is the reason its literary evolution is a paradox: science-fiction was rejected by the scientific community as a trivial subject, while also being shunned by the literary world, which saw no esthetic value in it.

(McDowell, 2014)

However, once sci-fi literature was accepted both by scientists and writers, the problem of exile was passed on to cinema. Until the late 1960s, the genre was associated with inferior filmmaking. But, in 1968, films such as Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrated the esthetic and intellectual potential of the cinematic genre, which is now a staple of mainstream filmmaking.

A significant break from the genre perspective is understanding science-fiction as a mode of framing a narrative. Some scholars argue that in the case of sci-fi texts (written or otherwise), the reader’s expectations “are governed less by what happens than how that happening is described” (Mendlesohn, 2003, p.1). For example, judging by genre conventions, Phil K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its film adaptation Blade Runner (1982) can be classified as detective stories with romantic elements. Nonetheless, both the novel and the film are considered foundational works of science-fiction.

Science-fiction as a mode of narrative construction is not defined by a specific action or character, but rather by a certain atmosphere and sentiment, which has been named the sense of wonder. Simply put, this concept refers to “the emotional heart of science-fiction” (Mendlesohn, 2003, p.3). It can represent admiration of futuristic technologies, the vastness of space, or other essential elements of sci-fi.

However, the sense of wonder also includes a critical component. Named the grotesque, by science-fiction scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., this sentiment deals with the consequences of technological evolution. The relation between the two concepts is aptly portrayed in the following phrase: “The sense of wonder allowed one to admire the aesthetics of the mushroom cloud; the sense of the grotesque led the writer and reader to consider the fall-out” (Mendlesohn, 2003, p.4).

These foundational principles open the debate between recognizing science-fiction as a genre or a mode that structures the narrative. At the same time, they provide a solid framework for analyzing the dialogue between conventions and techniques, in cinematic sci-fi.

Film and Science-fiction

To better understand how sci-fi is used in the cinematic medium, this article takes a look at three relevant films, which portray different approaches to the genre/mode.

The first example is Primer, a 2004 film directed by Shane Carruth, a former engineer. The low-budget movie deals with the accidental discovery of time travel and it’s filled with complex technical details. Its minimalist cinematic style leaves room for the development of an intricate story around science and the repercussions of a ground-breaking discovery. In a cinematic sense, Primer goes against the tradition of mainstream sci-fi, rejecting any spectacular special effects or over-the-top situations.

However, Carruth’s experimental film reads like an old-school science-fiction novel. Its complex narrative, combined with the psychological repercussions of the discovery places it closer to the sensibility of what is called hard science-fiction. This literary genre is characterized by the focus on scientific accuracy and logic and contrasts with soft science-fiction, which deals with socio-political and anthropological aspects of sci-fi.

(Carruth, 2004)

Carruth’s story focuses on science, rather than using it as a framing device. While the grotesque is present in the repercussions of the mind-boggling discovery, the sense of wonder is somewhat limited to the groundbreaking revelation. Nevertheless, the 2004 film is a relevant example of the dialogue between the traditional literary genre and 21st-century cinema.

The One I Love, directed by Charlie McDowell, is a suitable example of how science-fiction can be used as a mode for constructing the narrative. The 2014 movie focuses on a troubled couple who temporarily withdraw to an isolated getaway, to relax and solve their marital problems. However, the secluded estate provides a disturbing service: it produces doppelgangers of the couple.

The narrative is not focused on the scientific implications of the doubles. While they can raise discussions about androids or clones, the film is entirely focused on the romantic and sentimental implications of the twins and their effect on the original couple.

McDowell masterfully uses sci-fi tropes as a mode, to produce an intense story of love and marriage. Both the sense of wonder and the grotesque are expressed through the emotions of the two main actors, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss. Their performances and McDowell’s sensibility are framed by a science-fiction diegesis that touches on Suvin’s concept of cognitive estrangement, yet refuses to delve deeper into the genre’s conventions.

Finally, Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 blockbuster adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) encompasses a complex take on cinematic science-fiction, both as a genre and as a mode of filmmaking. The film closely follows the narrative of the novel, which focuses on the political and strategic struggle of several noble families over the control of the planet Arrakis. However, the breathtaking cinematic elements of the movie extract the story and place it in a diegesis of carefully crafted cognitive estrangement.

The fact that Herbert was so attentive to the details of the novel helped Villeneuve to embark on a massive world-building endeavor. However, the film balances aspects of hard and soft science-fiction with precision, inviting even readers of Herbert to discover a new Dune. All aspects, from technology to religion and politics are presented through stunning cinematography and meticulous mise-en-scene. At the same time, Hans Zimmer’s otherworldly score acts as a suitable accompaniment to a cinematic production that perhaps embodies the sense of wonder.

The film has been criticized for both being too respectful to the source and for being too loose of an adaptation. At the same time, the story of Arrakis is such a fundamental part of science-fiction “that at times Villeneuve’s film may seem deceptively derivative” (Kermode, 2021). However, the blockbuster is an attentive exercise in filmmaking that portrays Herbert’s universe through the lens of a decades-long visual culture it helped create.

Villeneuve’s Dune is probably one of the most important cinematic sci-fi works in recent years. It's a remarkable achievement in visuals and world-building, which gets the viewer excited about the concept of science-fiction, both as a genre and as a framing device for the narrative.

While it’s easier to tell how cinematic science-fiction is constructed than to explain what it is, the genre/mode includes a recognizable formal canon. This tradition is behind concepts such as cognitive estrangement, the sense of wonder, and the grotesque, which aid in understanding how science-fiction works in film. In the following years, it will be interesting to follow the migration of these ideas towards a sort of converging sci-fi phenomenon, which will include video games and virtual reality.


  • Suvin, D. (1979). Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Yale University Press

  • Mendlesohn, F. (2003). Introduction: reading science fiction. In James, E., & Mendlesohn, F. (Eds), The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Cambridge University Press

  • Kermode, M. (2021, October 24). Dune review – Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic gets off to an electrifying start. The Guardian.

Image References:

  • Villeneuve, D. (2021). Dune [Photo].

  • McDowell, C. (2014). The One I Love [Photo].

  • Carruth, S. (2004). Primer [Photo].

1 Comment

Didem Bezek
Didem Bezek
Jan 30, 2022

I took some film advice from this article, and already watched one :)

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Sergiu Inizian

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