What was it about last year's superhero blockbuster that turned out to be so ... average?
The Avengers is a triumph not of filmmaking or even entertainment, but logistics. Before the movie was even out, the single most widely bruited thing about it was the mere fact that it was being made—that someone had managed to corral several disparate comic-movie franchises under one roof and give them a single film to play together in. When people refer to a given movie as an “entertainment machine”, The Avengers might well serve as the textbook reference example. It entertains, but only in the sense that they got the bear to dance.
Perhaps they couldn’t risk doing anything more than that, given how much money was at stake. That and the fact that the film is a sequel of sorts to not just one movie but several at once: Iron Mans I and II (of which only the first one was worth any salt); the Incredible Hulk, which didn’t even retain its star; the half-a-great-movie of Thor; and the remarkably inspired Captain America: The First Avenger. There are good movies in that mix, and at least two great ones, but what made any one of them great had little to do with its presence in the continuity of a franchise. Iron Man was a lightning-in-a-bottle experience, where most of the free-floating alchemy of the film was transmuted through Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance. And Captain America, again, made good more on the strength of its central performance than because of the exact story it was telling, a story which was essentially a lead-in to this one.
Isn't it tiresome how so much SF looks like it rolled off the same assembly line?
One of my common complaints about SF&F is how the culture that both produces it and consumes it tends towards being unthinkingly insular, with the end result being an increasingly samey product. They don't know what they're missing half the time, and over time, neither does anyone else.
How this hits home for me sometimes comes via rather roundabout paths. Case in point: the other day I was browsing Apple's iTunes movie trailers section, and I mistook the new Hunger Games movie (Catching Fire) for another film entitled The Patience Stone. I clicked on the latter, thinking it was the former:
For a second I thought, "Now that's an eye-catching palette for a film, especially an SF film!"
And then I realized I was looking at the wrong page.
Wouldn't it be something to have an SF film that had the color palette of something like The Patience Stone? Granted, I understand that Catching Fire is a dystopia, and that dystopian futures are not meant to look inviting, but the same drab brushed-metal gray seems to predominate in just about every SF movie's color scheme these days: Elysium, Gravity, Oblivion, Europa Report, Pacific Rim. Maybe it's just resignation on the part of the designers to the idea that no matter what we do, the future's going to look like it came either from Detroit or Ikea (or a landfill). Or maybe it's a simple lack of real imagination.
Digression. I suspect one of the reasons a lot of hardcore SF&F movie buffs tend to lavish so much affection on the products of earlier, "analog" decades is not just because those movies featured that many more real things photographed by real cameras (although that's a big part of it). It's because the design work that went into such films drew on a broader, more eclectic pool of influences -- one bigger than just the imagery of previous movies. Brian Froud's The Dark Crystal comes to mind, a film that for all its flaws had no shortage of original imagery and flavor.
SF ought to be about people building things. Emphasis on all three of those ingredients.
I had to comment on this post, and not just because Steven plugs my Flight of the Vajra along the way:
... a lot of the modern fantasy and urban fantasy leaves me cold. Warmed over chosen-one plots, half-baked conspiracies, parades of demons and vampires and the usual stuff. A core that is often about cycles and with no sense of agency, and repetitious. Throw that mess into the Hollywood blender and . . . yech. No wonder people are bored.
... There’s no sense of agency, of building, of making. ... What I miss from SF is a sense of building a future, of wonder, of construction, of creation, of agency.
Steven goes on to cite how Pacific Rim had a little of that, and I agree there: I enjoyed the worldbuilding in the movie, to the extent that it rather paradoxically made the background of the film more interesting than the foreground.
What's clear to me, though, is how it's too easy to write SF and fantasy that are made out of recycled parts of other SF and fantasy -- in big part because the writers of said works end up being trained, unwittingly, to do just that. There's no real disincentive to write SF that blithely recycles its forebears, because the people who read it, create it, edit it, and market it have all been trained to expect nothing more than such recastings.
"Too Much Explanation Disease" as it applies to SF and the movies.
Now that I actually have seen Pacific Rim, I can finally talk about one aspect of the movie that I'd been wondering about since first word about it started to leak: the way del Toro explains why things exist as they do in the film. Why send giant robots after giant monsters when you could just nuke them? (Well, for one, then we wouldn't have a movie -- or if we did, it would be about seven minutes long.)
I noted before how too much of this can be just as bad for a movie as not enough, because if you give a fanboy mouse a plot cookie he's going to want a glass of plot milk to wash it down with. Not enough explanation and people are bewildered; too much of it and people get overwhelmed and bored. This goes double for SF&F, which more often than not require explanations to set limits and establish rules about how things can unfold. A movie where everything is possible is also one where nothing matters, so you don't want to go too crazy with any of that. But all too often you're forced into explaining everything.
"... then this movie will seem like every other one. Do you read me?"
A lot of familiar points are made in this excellent article:
Star Trek (2009) is thematically not about science fiction, exploration, speculation about alien cultures, or any of the other nifty stuff that defines the spirit of Star Trek. Instead it’s a movie about destiny, good versus evil and unlikely heroes coming together. In other words, it’s the the same stuff that makes Star Wars awesome, but also what makes it really generic.
... the J.J. Abrams brand reminds me less of storytelling and more of a product. ... just because he’s good at assembling something that looks the way it should, doesn’t mean it’s good.
... We shouldn’t care if the boxes are being ticked off on the Joseph Campbell/Jungian archetype chart. We shouldn’t care too much about rapid fire editing or awesome cuts. Instead, we should hope for something new and interesting that might linger in our thoughts and consciousness for longer than we’re sitting in the movie theatre.
The problem, of course, is that it's no longer practical to do anything else but tick off boxes. The pipeline won't stand for it; the marketing apparatus won't stand for it; the financiers and merchandisers won't stand for it; and neither will the audiences who have been trained to believe there's not supposed to be anything else out there but one archetypal, template-filling product after another.
The power of imagination requires grounding.
The title's from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and Mr. Wonka was actually speaking those lines in defense of being bold, rather than being dismissive of imagination. But it's all too easy to dismiss imagination as mere daydreaming, a sentiment which reached its nadir in the mid-century witticism "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"
Talk of the power of imagination reminds me of another good line, this one from Paul Krugman: "Never trust an aircraft designer who refuses to play with model airplanes." Meaning, don't put stock in people who don't give their imagination free rein -- especially when their work depends on having their eyes and minds wide open.
What I'm wondering now, though, if there's more than one way to say "what if" about things. The most basic version of this is the obvious counterfactual -- "What if God is a computer?" -- but a lot of the time that one bit of speculation is often just used to plug right back into things we all know and take for granted.
On how we love a movie with our guts and hate it with our heads.
The arguments over Man of Steel have brought me back to an old standby about art: we forgive whatever it is that grabs us by the heart. The tighter the grip, the more we forgive.
I know I'm like this. I forgive Mack truck-sized plot holes if something that ensnares me emotionally from the git-go. But if I'm unensnared, then I have all the more freedom within myself to look back over my shoulder and mutter, "Well, this didn't make sense, and that didn't make sense," and before long the whole sweater has unraveled from having that one thread tugged.
When that particular ball gets rolling, get out from under it lest you hanker to be tomato paste. Oldboy has some fairly preposterous plot developments late in the film, but by that time the film has latched its teeth around your ankle so firmly, you're inclined not to budge. On the other hand, think about the last dim-witted straight-to-video thriller you suffered through: you couldn't be compelled to care about anything going on, and so any degree of preposterousness on the part of the film is met from the gut with derision. It becomes automatic. Suspension of disbelief begins with the heart and the gut, not the head.
SF&F fandom shouldn't be a monolith, from either the outside or the inside.
In the comments to a previous post, Tim Hall pointed out something that I agreed with: "Does the world divide that neatly into "Fans" who buy into the whole SF subculture and people who won't touch SF with a ten-foot pole?"
My answer: "I get the impression a lot of SF fans think of it that way. There's "them", and then there's all those Muggles over there. I don't really buy this view of the world either, but at the same time it sure feels like there's a lot of people on both sides who see it that way. So I wanted to start with this (admittedly binary) POV and make my discussion more nuanced as time goes by."
I think part of the problem is that the people who most staunchly and vocally defend the term fan have this dread of what for lack of a better description could be called brand dilution. For them, fandom is this fixed thing, like a fort to be defended at all costs -- not a fluid and porous phenomenon in which a lot of things both come and go.
More on the mistaken idea that a given work of SF/fantasy can "convert" the non-fandom masses.
My friend Tim Hall (a/k/a "Kalyr") has a good piece over at his blog: "Science fiction for people who don’t read SF". I chimed in with a few suggestions of my own, but a bunch of my previous ruminations on this subject came back to mind.
The first and biggest reason why many people don't read SF is because of all that's associated with the things that explicitly assume the label. To most people, SF equals nerdery, and so the only way to get people to read "SF" is to get them to read something that is in a genre that is entirely safe -- a thriller, a romance, whatever -- and drizzle some melted SF over the top of it.
This page contains an archive of posts in the category Science Fiction Repair Shop for the month of July 2013.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind