Today, I’d like to try a different kind of post. I’ve been starting to take in more sci fi works recently, and there’s two in particular I’d like to discuss in more detail: Incoming and Snowpiercer. To preface, let me just say that Incoming is one of the worst films I’ve ever watched to completion. I made this post to figure out why Incoming is so bad, and I believe it all comes down to one key issue: suspension of disbelief.
First, let’s quickly define the suspension of disbelief. This term covers the idea that we must put aside our logical thinking so that we may better appreciate a given work. Though this applies to all genres, it’s especially important with regards to sci fi works, which constantly blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Above all else, it is reason which maintains this suspension; the audience must have reason to believe in a work’s basic premise. Regardless of how well everything else is developed, any work that treats itself seriously is doomed to fail if it can’t maintain the suspension of disbelief.
With that, let’s look at the premise of Incoming. This film is pretty much set entirely on the International Space Station, which in the future has been repurposed into a space prison… for some reason. This space prison holds a terrorist cell known as the Wolf Pack, responsible for destroying some famous landmarks. During a site inspection, the prisoners break out of their cells… so now it’s now up to their interrogator, a CIA operative, a doctor, and a shuttle pilot to stop them from crashing the space station into Moscow.
You may have already picked up on the big problem here. These are Earth-based criminals, and they did all their crimes on Earth… but they’re being interrogated in space. Why? What’s the point of jailing them in space, and not on Earth? Space flight isn’t exactly cheap, what made the cost of transporting six terrorists into space worth it? Aside from this, a lot of other questions arise over the course of the film. Why was it specifically set in the International Space Station, and not some other semi-generic space station? With this being a secure holding facility and all, why aren’t there multiple layers of security authorization? Why were non-personnel individuals given access cards that open every door in the facility?
Incoming doesn’t care about logistics or reason, and it clearly shows. Sure, we have the technology to make a prison in space, but why would we make a space prison when an Earth prison can do the job just as well at a fraction of the cost? The basic premise is entirely unreasonable, and there’s nothing to suggest these questions will become pertinent later on, so the suspension of disbelief is broken before the film’s conflict even begins.
For something that better holds up the suspension of disbelief, let’s look at Snowpiercer. I chose this work for two reasons: both are set in an enclosed space with no outside help available, and both require several grand assumptions in order to make the premise work. The Snowpiercer is a luxury passenger train 1001 cars in length, revolving around the continents. The thing is, the train must keep moving at all costs. Why? Well, in mankind’s efforts to reverse global warming, we went too far in the opposite direction and turned the Earth into an inhospitable frozen wasteland. Now, this ever-moving train has become humanity’s last hope. If the train stops, it can’t generate heat, and everyone dies to the cold. Of course, a train needs a crew, and Snowpiercer couldn’t survive if not for its esteemed conductor Mr. Wilford… or so it would seem…
Snowpiercer‘s plot, like Incoming, raises a lot of questions. For instance, how does the train’s perpetual motion engine work? Who built the bridge connecting Alaska and Siberia? What materials were used to build the train (the tracks too, for that matter), for it to survive years of non-stop service in conditions below -100°C? Where do the passengers get their basic survival resources? Why is the only detective a stowaway, did the genius Mr. Wilford not consider bringing aboard an investigative unit?
Unlike the snow it plows through every day, Snowpiercer doesn’t just brush aside these questions. It acknowledges the train’s faults, and it recognizes how fragile Snowpiercer’s existence really is, in everything from its mechanical troubles to its societal hierarchy. Sure, the premise may not be entirely realistic, but the work itself knows this. Snowpiercer‘s premise is believable precisely because it recognizes the impracticality of its own existence, and it uses this as a part of the central conflict, thus giving us enough reason to suspend our disbelief.
Three Points to Keep in Mind
A good sci-fi work will not ask you to just blindly accept the premise for what it is, nor will it spell out the answers for you. When it comes to the suspension of disbelief, any creator should keep these three points in mind:
- Provide reasonable answers to some basic logistical questions
- Don’t provide immediate answers to complex issues without something in return
- Redirect the audience’s focus away from unanswered questions
The first point is rather self-explanatory. ‘How does a thing work?’ ‘Why does a thing work?’ ‘What could go wrong with the thing?’ These are all basic questions that will arise whenever something new is introduced, so the creator should be prepared to address them.
As for the second point, there’s no perfect answer to complex issues. It’s irrational to assume that we’ll just one day invent a machine that can instantly cure man of all known ailments (looking at you, Elysium), or that a change in leadership will be enough to fix societal inequality. Some things are just too big for us to suspend our disbelief on. Aside from just taking the easy way out by avoiding most of these issues altogether, one good way to counter this is to lose something in return for a solution. This can be through the consequences of failure, or it can be through the sacrifice of something significant, either way works fine.
Then there’s the third point. Not every question needs to be answered; it’s actually better if you don’t answer some questions, both for time-saving purposes and to encourage audience investment via discussion. However, if the creator leaves a question unanswered, or if there are questions they can’t answer, then they need to make sure the audience doesn’t dwell too long on these questions while the work is ongoing. This point usually resolves itself unless a work is under-developed, so it’s not too big an issue for most creators.
Three Points Exemplified
Snowpiercer handles all three of these points fairly well. It answers some basic logistical questions: the train grows its own produce in designated cars, and the engine’s eternal nature is somewhat exaggerated. In terms of complex issues, everything is a delicate balancing act aboard the train. There’s the true nature of Mr. Wilford, and what a successful revolution would mean for the train’s future. There’s the problem of prioritizing who lives and who dies. Layton at a certain point is confronted by a modified Trolley Problem, of which I won’t spoil the exact scenario, but needless to say it requires a huge sacrifice. The work does its best to redirect your attention away from the questions it can’t or won’t answer; we may not know who built the tracks or what they’re made of, but these questions are insignificant when there’s greater mysteries to invest ourselves in.
Incoming, meanwhile, fails at all three of these points. It doesn’t answer basic logistical questions, such as why it had to be set in a space prison and not, say, an underground facility connected to a nuclear arsenal. The film tries to present itself as this unparalleled global crisis, but the most complex issue in play here is good vs bad, and ‘stop bad guys from doing bad things’ isn’t exactly an original plot. We know exactly how it’s going to end, and even the twist can be seen coming from a mile away. Nobody is likable, since every major character is either a radical terrorist, a corrupt gov’t agent, or an idiot. This whole film is just a team death-match in space, and it doesn’t even do that part well; the choreography is mediocre at best, most of the fights are one-on-ones, and zero gravity never becomes relevant. With everything so under-developed, Incoming gives us nothing to invest ourselves in, nothing to redirect our focus away from even basic logistical questions.
I could go on for even longer about how much I don’t like Incoming, but I’ve already gone through all my points regarding the suspension of disbelief, so I’m just going to cut myself off here and never speak about this disgrace of a film again. If I were to review it, suffice it to say, it would receive the dubious Rank I.
As for Snowpiercer… it’s certainly better than Incoming, but it comes with its own set of flaws, which I decided to cover in a separate review. If you happen to be another creator reading this, I hope you can take something from what I’ve written here, and use it to improve your own works.