Did you know that humans only use, like, ten percent of their total brain power? Ohmahgod, insane, right?! I saw it in the trailer for that new movie, Lucy. It’s totes cray.
It’s also totes wrong, but it’s one of those tropes sci-fi filmmakers just love to keep tossing around because… it sounds cool, I guess? Or because they’re lazy? But writers—you should stop. It doesn’t sound cool. You don’t sound cool when you fall back on bogus, outdated tropes that have been beaten into the ground ad nauseam. Consider this your intervention. Call it quits on:
1) We only use ten percent of our brain power.
The trope that inspired this post, the “ten percent” malarkey is most recently seen in Luc Besson’s Lucy, where Scarlett Johansson plays an unwilling drug mule who gains superpowers when blah blah blah bogus drug blah blah blah pseudoscience. Look. I will always want to see Scarlett Johansson beating people up. But no reputable scientist has ever thought the ten percent myth was even remotely true, so can movies stop treating it like it’s this grand scientific possibility, please? I get that suspension of disbelief is a thing, but it’s a cliché at this point. Let’s not.
2) Aliens are always smarter than us.
I’m all in favor of a heathy slice of alien-induced peril, but can humanity not come into contact every once in a while with an alien species that has yet to invent the wheel? They’re (almost) always super-advanced, particularly in the area of tech, and look down on the human race as puny booger creatures who are inferior in every way. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but why not have the human race, in all its sort-of wisdom, stumble upon an extraterrestrial species that’s pretty much on-par with us in terms of intelligence and strength? We can swap mug brownie recipes and chat about our respective reality TV shows. It would make for a riveting movie. And speaking of aliens…
3) Aliens keep looking way too human.
There’s a practical consideration here: In a live-action movie, it’s easier for a human actor/stunt performer to play an alien if that alien has the same basic configuration of elongated body/two arms/two legs, maybe with some tentacles attached. But this is the 21st century! We can make Andy Serkis look like an ape and Nicolas Cage look like some vague semblance of a human being! We should be more creative with our aliens at this point. Bring me my superintelligent shade of the color blue.
4) Humans are the good guys, aliens are the bad.
There are some notable subversions of this trope—District 9 and Ender’s Game come to mind—but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule: Those evil aliens are always trying to blow us up, and not the other way around. That they even want to blow us up is, of course, because we are Important: Our planet has some precious resource no other hunk of rock hurtling through space has, or humans are just inherently special snowflakes. Independence Day was 25 years ago. We’re never going to exceed that. Let’s think outside the box and have us trying to get over our own political/social problems by banding together to invade Mars. Because you know we would.
5) Science bad!
Also known as the “There are just some things humanity isn’t meant to do!” or “Playing God” trope. See: Transcendence, where Johnny Depp gets a little too ambitious with his tech and ends up creating an AI that tries to destroy the world. Or something. I don’t know. I didn’t see Transcendence. Did anyone see Transcendence? Granted, we have a pretty glaring example of science taken (arguably) too far in the atom bomb, and I’m not saying sci-fi writers should forego examining the moral and practical consequences of science in favor of writing characters who throw up their collective arms and yell “Yaaaaay! Let’s make robots that can kill people!” But it’s still decidedly odd that a genre that has at its core the idea that humanity should evolve to new scientific and technological heights should have such a hangup about science being inherently dangerous. For a nice counterpoint to this trope, I recommend Europa Report, available on Netlix Instant. It’s a horror movie set in space, but it’s very conscious about not losing the attitude that, hey, going out into the stars and exploring is dangerous, but it’s also pretty f*cking cool.
6) All that impressive stuff ancient races were able to accomplish? Aliens did it.
Stargate, I love you for introducing young, floppy-haired James Spader into my life, but I don’t love your participation in the “Aliens built the pyramids!” trope. It has an undercurrent of “…because there’s no way those brown people could have done it!” that is decidedly racist, and it also dismisses actual human ingenuity and intelligence in favor of bogus conspiracy theories that people still, to this day, actually believe in.
7) “Time travel’s totally OK because _____.”
This is a bit of a personal pet peeve of mine. Stop trying to explain time travel. Your reasoning for “But if we do this we’ll cause a terrible paradox!” or “If we kill Hitler, all we have to do is this other thing and the world won’t end!” are meaningless, because time travel makes no damn sense ever. There is no logical way to explain it. So just do what X-Men: Days of Future Past did: Send your character back in time and explain away any pesky space-time continuum concerns with a shrug and a “Meh. Time travel.” If you want to create a playbook of rules for dramatic effect, that’s fine, as long as you stick to them. (Looking at you, last few seasons of Doctor Who). But time travel is a glorious, stupid mess, and unless you’re willing to pull a Primer and flipping commit, stop wasting my time by trying to make it rational.
8) Scientifically inaccurate (and boring) space battles.
I’ll let you go on the “But should there really be explosions in space?” question, because I love explosions and it would just feel wrong not to have a good BOOM, even with sound not traveling in a vacuum and all. What’s inexcusable, however, is space battles that play out like World War II dogfights, with hero and enemy fighters traveling on a single plane, moving only forward, to the left, and to the right. Hey, battle designers: Your movie takes place in space. The ships can go in whatever the heck direction the pilots want, and you give us this boring terrestrial crap? You’re all fired.
9) Angsty supernatural creatures.
The Edward Cullens of the fictional world need to get over themselves. They’re immortal. They have infinite money due to wise investment decisions, or at the very least you tend to not see vampires or werewolves worrying about the rent. Is there existential angst inherent in being a creature of the night? Sure. But for Christ’s sake, pipe down with your emo self and have some fun with your unlife.
10) Only the Chosen One can save us!
Please. Please stop this. Or at least do something creative with it. Take it to its logical extreme, where there’s a planet entirely comprised of Chosen Ones. “Hey, Gary, can you do me a favor and change the lightbulb in the kitchen?… What? There’s a Chosen One for changing the lightbulb in the kitchen? Dangit, Gary.”