The Hunt For Red October as hard science fiction

On reflection after a recent re-watch, I've decided that The Hunt For Red October has everything I look for in a hard science fiction film.

  • A complete, functional universe with its own rules and jargon. This film mostly takes place in the north Atlantic Ocean, an extremely hostile environment where life, while practical and even routine, has to follow completely different rules from those that most of us are familiar with. Red October presents a relatively small window on this universe, or maybe a tour of its most interesting parts. The sensation, though, is that this is a place where these people have been carrying out difficult work for decades, work which is going to continue for decades after the film is over. The scenario is consistent and convincing. "There are other stories here, but today we show you this one."

  • Everything's explained, but never dumbed down. The audience has to pay attention. I'm thinking of things like the Crazy Ivan manoeuvre, the caterpillar drive's noise, or navigating "Red Route 1". These things are almost certainly new to the audience. They do get explained, reasonably articulately at that, but the film is loaded with them, and you need to keep up. And while you don't have to catch all of them, you're rewarded if you do, because none of it's wasteful. It all feeds back into the action.

  • Highly competent characters. It's customary in a film set in an unfamiliar environment - as much of science fiction is - to throw in a viewer surrogate character. This character can ask the questions that the audience wants to ask, and the explanation comes back to both the character and the audience simultaneously. In Red October, not so much. Certainly, it would be highly unrealistic for someone with no experience to lead the action. It would also slow the film down. Having competent characters also means that the stakes always stay real. And it's refreshing that the conflict isn't caused by mistakes, stupidity or irrationality.

  • Plausible technology. This is where we get into "hard" part of "hard science fiction". Barring the possible/probable/inevitable technical inaccuracies and exaggerations for the sake of the thrill, the only thing in the film which is actually impossible is the caterpillar drive. Red October takes that single conceit and uses it well, actually framing the story around it, making the artifact work to earn its place in the story. And the rest is concrete. We never pull nonsense technology out of nowhere to get out of a horrible jam. "Oh, if I crosswire the nuclear reactor to the caterpillar superconductors, we can accelerate to faster than any torpedo-- but just for a few seconds!"

  • The technology's capabilities/limitations drive much of the action. The north Atlantic is, from all of the above, not just a hostile environment but a highly constrained environment in which to tell stories. In science fiction, it's extremely easy to write oneself into a situation where the thing that needs to happen for the story to progress is made outright impossible by the established rules of the universe and its technology. This is true regardless of whether the universe and the technology are real or not! It's extremely easy to let the rules to become an obstacle.

    Red October does what all good science fiction does, which is to turn the rules into an asset. The caterpillar drive completely changes the dynamic of the Cold War, but it becomes far more than just a MacGuffin when the titular submarine needs stealth. And more: a submarine can only stop so quickly; a helicopter has a strictly limited range; countermeasures can confuse a torpedo, but they don't work every time...

And, astoundingly, unaccountably, in addition to all of the above, Red October is also a genuinely tense thriller with a great story, great actors, great direction, fun character moments and memorable dialogue.

It may actually be one of the best hard science fiction films out there.

The lesson is that you can have both. You don't have to sacrifice scientific accuracy for the story. You can use the rigid rules of the real universe to propel your action forwards, and then make a great story out of it, and then make a great film out of the story.

Once every few decades, anyway...

Discussion (12)

2013-11-30 06:15:23 by Psycho:

This articulated a lot of the reasons that I liked the movie a lot. Also, why I liked a lot of Clancy's (earlier) work.

2013-12-01 01:03:10 by M:

Should "technical accuracies and exaggerations" be "technical inaccuracies and exaggerations"?

2013-12-03 15:17:25 by Vic:

The Hunt for Red October is probably my favorite movie. Thanks for helping me put it into words. Now let's hear about the metaphysics behind the Russian boat captain having a Scottish accent!

2013-12-03 22:06:48 by john:

My guess? The Russian submarine crew in general are speaking English, as a convenience for the audience. A character's accent is part of the information their dialogue conveys. In-universe dialogue from one language is mapped to equivalent dialogue from another language, in such a way as to convey the same information (as much as possible). Therefore, the in-universe captain had an accent characteristic of some region which relates to the rest of the Soviet Union in approximately the same way Scotland relates to the rest of the English-speaking world. Azumanga Daioh does something similar, giving the character from Osaka an exaggerated New Jersey accent, with the corresponding idioms, in place of the Osaka accent and idioms which would make no sense if translated literally.

2013-12-04 13:49:52 by Vic:

I was just making fun of the fact that Connery doesn't do accents. He's played characters of various cultures in the past, all of which seem to have a Scottish accent. Also, and I'm not an expert, he seemed to even be speaking Russian with a Scottish accent in the early part of the film.

2013-12-14 18:58:45 by ThatGuy:

A similar movie that's often overlooked is Phantom. Came out last year and it's pretty similar to Red October. Also, fits all your criteria. The only "implausible" technology is the "Phantom Drive" which acts as a very advanced ECM device. And it has well defined limitations and abilities. The characters are highly competent, the environment believable, and while there is a bit of dumbing down it's minor and easily overlooked.

2014-01-05 13:25:27 by Jed:

I think it was Bruce Sterling who said that a thriller is a SF story that includes the President of the United States. POTUS does appear in the novel, but is replaced in the film by his National Security Advisor. (Without changing his lines, apparently: "Listen, I'm a politician, which means I'm a cheat and a liar, and when I'm not kissing babies I'm stealing their lollipops").

2014-07-05 08:03:59 by Mark:

Love your blog. Thank you! One example of "explaining things to the audience" that did happen in the movie was when Seaman Jones got the first contact from the Red October. From the IMDB "goofs" page for the movie ( 'When seamen Jones first hears the Red October he says ..."We hit a boomer coming out of the barn" and then says "probably a missile boat out of Polijarny." In U.S. submarine slang 'boomer' means a missile boat and 'the barn' was slang for the Polijarny inlet in Russia. Seaman Jones repeated himself, obviously for the understanding of the audience but not something that would be done on a U.S. missile sub.' And, is the caterpillar drive really "impossible," or merely unfeasible?

2014-07-05 11:07:37 by qntm:

Actually I seem to recall that the caterpillar drive is technically possible but in practice it actually makes a huge amount of noise, or uses a huge amount of power, or something like that.

2015-10-04 23:05:02 by Fred:

A couple of years after the book came out, I had taken on a job as an engineer at a couple that built simulators for the Navy. When I asked how to learn about some of the concepts, I was told to go read the book, as it provided a very accurate depiction of the concepts we were dealing with. It was a fictional novel, filled with science fact.

2016-11-04 02:48:43 by Stan De Leeuw:

I agree with both your premises about Science Fiction and its use in this film with one exception.... Just as daVinci's drawings...seemed impossible so to is that Caterpillar drive! It is said that fiction is often the vehicle of TRUTH! And Science fiction has certainly proved that truism, has it not?

2022-03-07 05:29:18 by Joshua:

So this is out of date. Somebody did make a working caterpillar drive (the movie version) and used it to get from San Fransisco to Hawaii. It has no moving parts but provides propulsion. The power rate is actually quite good; apparently better than propellers for the same distance traveled; however the speed is terrible. You get about three knots. Saw it on the news a few years ago. They called it something else; but I recognized it when I saw it.

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