The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Fistfights in Science Fiction

April 10, 2014

This* is something that has bothered me for a long time. In fact, I can remember the exact moment it started bothering me. I was watching Star Trek III, which I think holds up pretty well for an odd-numbered Star Trek film. I’d seen it three or four times before, first in the theaters, then a couple times on television. It was on TV again, and I was watching when my father walked through the room. He stopped in front of the screen and asked, “Why the heck does this movie end with a fistfight?” Now, that’s not just any fistfight; it’s a knuckle-bloodier between legendary science fiction over-actors William Shatner and Christopher Lloyd. However, it unfortunately is still a fistfight that determines the fates of everyone that’s still alive in the Mutara sector, even while the Genesis planet’s unstable proto-matter decays around the combatants.

Fistfights as a major form of dispute resolution went out a long time ago. Their usefulness is basically limited to children and others without access to effective weapons—and in particular, firearms. Whitey Bulger, during his rise to preeminence in Boston’s Irish mob, got in to a bar fight with his rival Tommy King in 1975. It’s unknown what business the two toughs were arguing over, but what’s important was that the fight did not actually settle anything. Things were settled between Bulger and King later, when Whitey sent a hit man to put a slug in King’s head.

As I see it, hand-to-hand combat—and especially unarmed hand-to-hand combat—should be even more obsolete in most science fiction settings than it is today. As weapons technology gets more advanced, fists are going to get less and less useful. Gilgamesh could plausibly take on the toughest enemies the gods had to offer with nothing but his arms. However, with Wolverine it doesn’t make so much sense. What good would his healing factor really be against enemies who could barrage his head with constant machine gun fire?

Sometimes, using fistfights can be a stylistic choice, and this may be good or bad. However, there are lots of examples, in virtually all media, where I think it doesn’t work. Even in The Prisoner, there seem to be distractingly many fistfights. Number Six’s use of his fists is highly symbolic: he refuses to fight with more deadly implements; he prefers to rely on his human attributes, rather than technology; and his fisticuffs are always ultimately futile, since he cannot compete directly with the advanced powers arrayed against him. However, even so, I think Number Six spends way too much time, especially early in the series, punching people.

In film and television, there seems to be a desire to base action sequences on human bodies (and other things) in fluid motion. For whatever reason, this has never really worked for me. I admit that there can be something thrilling about seeing stuff flying every which way, but I have always enjoyed action scenes that just feature one guy picking off his enemies with a skillfully aimed gun. There’s an old expression: “A Smith and Wesson beats four aces,” and when the bad guys with blasters are persistently inferior to heroes with bare knuckles (or melee weapons, at most), I can only tolerate it for so long.

I guess I like me protagonists to be badass, but not too badass. Maybe Vance’s Planet of Adventure hero Adam Reith is my ideal science fiction tough guy. He can kill you with his bare hands, but he’d rather ambush you with a laser rifle. Superman also works to a certain extent, because he’s so invulnerable that he can just shrug off blaster fire and pummel the bag guys with his fists even if it makes poor tactical sense. Unarmed combat is something familiar to everyone; everybody knows what it means to slug somebody in the face. Not everyone today is as familiar with guns, and nobody is familiar with pulsed x-ray lasers. Using high technology in a fight is not as visceral, nor as near to reality, as throwing punches, so the punches end up getting overused. Fistfights have a place in science fiction, but it seems to me that are way too many of them.

* With apologies to Eugene Wigner.


11 Responses to “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Fistfights in Science Fiction”

  1. CaveBear Says:

    The ‘four aces’ comment is frankly juvenal. How is it any different than a drill sergeant justifying the fact that troops are not being trained to communicate with civilians who speak another language by saying ‘EVERYONE speaks .556!’ (.556 is the diameter of a standard NATO round, WHICH, I’ll note is inferior in pretty much every respect imaginable to Warsaw Pact 7.62 rounds, so it was a stupid comment on several levels. Here’s another example–two acquaintances of mine were speaking enthusiastically about Gong Fu (which they were both excellent at) while we were all standing around bored. They exchanged words with a third party, god the hint he didn’t care for it, and retreated twenty feet, whereupon the last party announced to the rest of us that his M-16 was much more effective than any of their moves. We were filled with respect, and it certainly did not occur to any of us that his M-16 spent approximately 99.5% of its time being locked up in a securely walled armory, and the rest of the time, when he had it out, he usually had no ammunition available. Plus, it was an assault rifle and not particularly useful in close combat. But I’m going to stop talking now.

    Oh. One final thing. The reason everyone spends gunfight dodging and missing is so they can last longer for purposes of dramatic tension. That’s all. There is nothing remotely realistic about Hollywood fighting. In reality, most movie fights would end up with everyone screaming with their ears blown out several seconds into the fight.

    And: re: fluid movement, there are really four examples of that I’m aware of: The Matrix takes place in fantasyland, so nevermind. Right? Okay. Iron Monkey and ‘Crouching Tiger’ are both Hong Kong period pieces which use primarily blades, so it’s different. And ‘Equilibrium’ is kind of stupid, so, maybe your complaint applies there.

  2. CaveBear Says:

    Actually, I’m going to jump in one more time to just emphasize that, especially is science fiction, the amount of physical trauma the human body is put through via fisticuffs is absurd. You can’t do that. People just die. It IS stupid. So is all the people who get shot and live, no infection, but…you know, whatever, I guess.

  3. CaveBear Says:

    Having thought carefully about this, and studied some combat for film, I can only say that
    1) combat in fiction and especially cinema is truly, absurdly unrealistic
    2)Based on your listed preferences, you might enjoy John Yoo’s Hong Kong action Films (‘A better Tomorrow,’ ‘Hard Boiled,’ and my favorite, ‘The Killer,’ which is truly a magnificent dance of just killing everything in sight instantly with single shots)
    3)Fistfights are indeed used excessively, from an American point of view (there’s an entirely different aesthetic/cultural/conceptual thing going on there…best just skip discussing it for now and watch ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ again), but it’s done, in SF as much as anything else, because Hollywood thinks we’re morons (admittedly, the box office seems to bear that out at times) and use the intimacy of hand-to-hand crap for cheap drama. It won’t change until someone shows how to do it better (it can be done better: the Chinese don’t tolerate that garbage). ‘The Matrix’ was a big step up…but it didn’t solve all the problems. All it did was put an end to the reign of Bruckheimer’s action films in which bullets and fighting vaguely existed but you couldn’t tell what the shit was going on and didn’t care, and lots of big things blew up. Now where to go from here? The Chinese have clearly played out their historical epic series. Best thing I can think of would be a proper medieval war epic.
    4) I really, really hate dance fighting. It is an abomination on mankind.

    • Buzz Says:

      I agree that fistfights offer an immediacy and intimacy (as well as potential for length) that gun battles typically lack, and I understand why entertainment does this. There are good stories where people come to blows because they don’t have more effective weapons near at hand; however, if this is a major, potentially life-and-death conflict, somebody is probably going to introduce firearms (or laser cannon) into the situation as quickly as they can.

      Sometimes this immediacy and motion works for me, but that’s not what I watch action films for. Nonsensical action sequences can interfere with or ruin a decent plot. Alternatively, when the plot is weak (and in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I think the plot is too weak to sustain a movie of that length, for example), I often lose interest in watching the people fight, however, elegant it may look.

      I can’t say I share your universal hatred of dance fights, but they are obviously not for everyone. I just tend to think there are a few good ones mixed in with the bad. Compare West Side Story with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for example. Moreover, there are definitely musicals that could be improved through the addition of a dance fight, such as Company. “Here’s to the ladies who punch!”

      • CaveBear Says:

        If you want GOOD dance-fighting, watch some Hong Kong martial arts flicks; no matter what, film battles are nothing like reality (there’s no shaky camera…also, people don’t fly, and you do actually have to punch someone to knock him or her down…). But it’s all informed by deep knowledge of Gong Fu or Karate and is not at all pansy. The dance fighting in West Side Story, however, makes me want to grab an unsilenced M-4 (silencers barely work anyway), teleport back in time to 1957 or whatever, and mow down every last one of those pathetic mother’s boys.

        Haven’t seen Seven Brides, though. Just the Monty Python version. I’ve always assumed the quality was similar. Also haven’t seen ‘Company’ but I know of it and assume it deserves the ‘Arnold breaks through the wall with a minigun and M-79 40mm rifle grenade launcher and slaughters everyone in what would have been the the penultimate scene.

        • Buzz Says:

          For the record, I was saying the dance fight in West Side Story was the good one. If you hated that, Seven Brides will make you want to claw your eyeballs out.

          • CaveBear Says:

            Ah…I get you. Problem is, the dance fight in West Side Story already makes me want to claw my eyes out (well, actually it makes me want to bludgeon the actors to death with a pipe filled with cement–you know, Zombie-fight style, where you have to make sure the head is really completely bashed into pulp so there’s no possibility activity in some remnant of the brainstem gets them up and trying to dance again), so…yeah, I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that it’s difficult and traumatic for me to imagine the same phenomenon, only worse.

      • CaveBear Says:

        I thought I’d add…see, this is why poeple wonder if you want to fight. You accuse ‘Crouching Tiger’ of having a weak story? …It’s filled with material–yes, more character based, but the line between plot and character does not actually exist, at least in a well-made narrative, which it clearly is. Example: two days ago, a friend of mine on the street were both just rhapsodizing about how amazing that film had been, and how we’d never forget many moments (bamboo forest). I don’t know. Maybe we can watch it again some time.

        You say what you don’t like about action films: obstacles, often implausible, that prevent people from reaching a weapon. Very well. You have just described about 97 percent of all action films. Is it possible you just don’t like action film? Hmm?

        It’s sad: Crouching Tiger is one of few which includes subtle and powerful acting, social commentary, non-obnoxious symbolism, and beautiful cinematography, yet you find IT wanting…? I really don’t get it (wait–did you watch it dubbed? I assumed not, but…tell me you watched it with titles please?).

        If you want a completely different take on the same material, an example of a scene some find aweing but in which guns are dispensed with, see the first big action scene between the Shang Tsing and the Wing Kong in ‘Big Trouble in Little China.’ Have a drink first, of course. But the moment when, after an initial, substantial salvy of fire from two small armies in a large alley has done its damage and forced everyone under cover, both sides drop their firearms and engage in a battle of honor, hand to hand. If you can stomach the entire scene, it’s incredibly entertaining. If you can deal with stupid dance fighting you can damn well deal with trouble in Little China, all right!


        • Buzz Says:

          I own Big Trouble in Little China, and I watch it every couple of years. (I wish I could drink what Jack Burton drinks before each viewing.) It’s quite entertaining, in large part because it makes no attempt whatsoever to take itself seriously. Some of the action sequences are thrilling to watch; some of them are played entirely for comedy, and things happen the way they do because that’s just how things work in action films (which some of the characters seem almost aware of). It also helps to watch the film knowing that Kurt Russel is not really the hero; he thinks he is, but he’s actually the the plucky comic relief (although he is the one who nails James Hong at the end). (Did I mention I love James Hong? It’s hillarious to watch the development of his Chinese restaurant owner characters over the course of the last six decades.)

          • CaveBear Says:

            Yeah, that’s pretty dead on–the not taking itself seriously part is important (‘Crouching Tiger’s’ biggest flaw might be tragic moodiness, which does come off as, well, taking itself seriously; it’s necessary for the film, but sometimes it’s hard to shake the problem that all this seriousness is supposed to apply to flying Wuxia action. In fairness, that genre does, to western eyes, appear to take itself pretty seriously most of the time, and that one does have occasional moments of comedy)…though I think Carpenter and his crew actually meant the film to be taken a bit more seriously than we tend to: it was a very deliberate attempt to bring large components of Hong Kong action films (which are often filled with eastern alchemy) to a western audience, and even though it was ridiculous, Carpenter claims vehemently that he constantly asked his chinese cast and crew whether he was doing it properly and being respectful of their culture and tradition, and they always assured him he was doing it properly. …For what it’s worth, I don’t think they quite threaded the needle properly on communicating what Kurt Russel’s actual role in the film was–Wang (or the actor who played him) wasn’t an especially experienced martial artist, so he doesn’t really manage to shine properly until he fights Rain in the first half of the climactic fight, while other film conventions (screen time) clearly misdirect the audience’s focus to Russel, and he has enough good moments to counterbalance his character’s bizarre douchiness to confuse the matter further. …So, yeah, I guess like you said, it does help to just know beforehand that he’s just not really the protagonist.

            Didn’t know that about James Hong. He seems to have had an interesting career.

  4. Buzz Says:

    From a comment on Facebook:

    I wonder if this is a movie thing. I am nowhere near as well-read in science fiction as you are but I find a lot less fist fighting in books than movies. Probably because it’s hard to verbally describe a fist fight in a way that isn’t boring but you can stretch it out for many minutes of screen time.

    I find similar annoyance even when high-tech weapons are used if they are used in a stupid manner. For example, the movie version of Starship Troopers involves humans flying at faster-than-light speeds to another planet, demonstrating amazing technical prowess. Then, for some reason, they send a battalion of infantry to occupy one tiny corner of it in an open-topped portable metal base thing. What was the point of that? If the giant insects had chosen to ignore them, what was their plan? Split up and start looking in caves?

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