Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hollywood Sci-Fi Sucks

Erik Sofge looks at Hollywood's latest sci-fi and notes that the reliance on comic books as inspiration may be part of the downfall.
Hollywood has never been a safe place for smart science fiction. Since square-jawed actors first stepped into soundstage rockets, geeks have watched countless classic sci-fi novels beaten into 90-minute pulp, often filled with useless comic relief, bizarre romantic subplots featuring implausibly attractive research types, and a bold corruption of core scientific principles. Either that, or the movies just didn't make any sense—the 1984 David Lynch film adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic Dune was so incomprehensible to the uninitiated that some theaters passed out a glossary of the film's lingo to moviegoers.

Even among sci-fi scripts that weren't pulled from the pages of classic novels, the influence of Flash Gordon was hard to shake. The “What if?” thought=experiment premises that were the hallmark of great sci-fi gave way to decisions over how much clothing a Martian lady should or shouldn’t wear ("less" usually won). But failure, like most things, occurs in degrees. There was a time when big-budget science fiction wasn’t completely brainless. In fact, some of it was good, even brilliant, and a source of inspiration for generations of researchers. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator, the promise (and the apocalyptic threat) of technology was sometimes presented with a surprising level of authority and thoughtfulness. The plotlines still veered toward pulpy melodrama, but by respecting the science, these films helped shape the years that followed.
Sofge notes that the rise of the graphic novel has sort of coincided with the death of really good sci-fi in movie theaters.

That is not to say that comic book based movies are lacking in any appeal, just look at the box office numbers. But some of the best movies, Spiderman 2 for example, dealt with real human emotions and problems, just placed into the context of the "super hero." Note Dr. Octupus' horror at what he had done or Peter's struggles with his "normal" side and his Spiderman side. But Sofge is corrent when he writes:
There’s a reason to pick on these movies. It’s not that they’re claiming any level of realism. But superhero movies, with their alrflagrant, built-in disinterest in getting any aspect of science or technology right, have taken a bite out of science fiction’s market share. Not only do they appeal to much of the same demographic, but they vie for the same studio funding, and the same creative personnel.
But comic book movies are easier to write (someone else has largely done most of the work) and there is something of a built in audience with a deep background knowledge (see the joke in the first X-Men movie about black leather vs. yellow spandex for Wolverine).

Now not all the blame for the dearth of hard sci-fi can be placed at the feet of Hollywood. To a large extent movie goers are not looking for depth and meaning in their films (at least not all of us), so if a movie provides a two hour escape in a darkened, air-conditioned theater, I don't mind paying $8.00 so long as the plot is moderately engaging and the characters and dialogue are not inane.

But I do wish for science fiction that is real science fiction. I remember when James Cameron's The Abyss came out, I thought it was brilliant, so brilliant that I frequently skipped class to go see it first in the full run theaters and then in the sticky floored $1.00 theater. I still think it one of the best science fiction movies around, in part because it was real, it was thinking and it dealt with real people, with real personal problems, looking for real solutions to a deadly situation.

There are writers out there who are really advancing the vision of hard science fiction, but what makes such things movie possible are the characters, based in a real science environment. Take Battlestar Galactica now on the Sci-Fi channel. The driving force of the series is the interaction and the development of the characters. They, human and Cylon alike, drive the story with how they cope with their various situations and the blurring of the lines between human and Cylon. The Cylon's have very real, very human problems despite their appearance as either humanoid or machine. BSG also possesses some odd anachronisms, like clunky telephones and Ship to Ship communications, along side things like a faster than light speed drive (but one that requires some "spin up" time).

Still, I think that the comic book fad will fade in time (there is a finite number of possibilities) and like all these fads it will cycle back sometime in the future.

1 comment:

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