“I Like Science Fiction, It’s Got Like Giant Robots and Stuff, Right?” Science Fiction’s Self-Esteem Problem Part III: Robots, Reboots and Remakes. How Hollywood Kills Serious Science Fiction

The only time the public pays attention to Science Fiction is when that great machine of mass marketing and “entertainment” called Hollywood inundates the collective consciousness with that most dreaded of phenomena: the Summer Blockbuster. But isn’t that a good thing? Should we not rejoice that the tools of cinema capitalism put our beloved Science Fiction in front of more eyes, into the frontal cortices of a public who is ignorant of our grand literature?

Not on your life.

Ask yourself this: what was the last intelligent Hollywood Science Fiction movie you saw?

I’ll tell you my answer. Gattica. Yep, 1997.

(Distict 9 came close, but what subtext and theme it had was subsumed by Hollywood action-movie-ness. I recently saw Looper and it’s just behind District 9 on my list. Sadly, the plot became transparent less than halfway through and while it could be called an intelligent science fiction film, those best able to appreciate it will be the ones that see the ending coming from a light-year away.)

Instead, we are given pseudo-philosophical, half-baked political theory masquerading as a Batman movie; Dances With Aliens; an overly-complicated-because-we-need-to-keep-cutting-to-six-separate-protagonists comic book film; and Yet Another Star Trek. These are just the ones at the crown of the heap of crap that has a SF white-wash. Generally, when Hollywood decides to make a SF movie they give us Transformers. When Hollywood decides it wants to make an intelligent SF movie they give us Prometheus.

Lest someone take offense (and someone will) at me calling their new favourite films trash, allow me elucidate: there is a difference between entertaining and intelligent. Yes, The Avengers was entertaining, but don’t for one minute think it was intelligent. I am no enemy of entertainment. My favourite science fiction film this year, the film that I have seen more than once and have already purchased on pre-order is Dredd. No one will accuse Dredd of being an intelligent film, but it will entertain the hell out of you, citizen.

The problem lies in the fact that movies have a huge, passive, captive audience. Almost all strata of society go to the local mega-plex and for the vast majority of the movie going audience, Hollywood SF movies are all they know of Science Fiction. This does not help the cause of serious SF. The modern block-buster movie is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator because it is the largest audience possible. That means explosions, impossibly pretty women and dazzling computer generated imagery.

The masses have been taught, like Pavlov’s dogs, that Science Fiction is naught much more than giant robo-gladiators, non-sensical space battles and advertisements for toys and video games. The segment of the audience that decides to broaden horizons and read an SF book seldom goes further than the media tie-in shelves (and thus the publishing industry is complicit in the crime against intelligent SF). They’ve been given the taste and when the bell rings they salivate.

Can an intelligent, well written Science Fiction film with a logical plot and three dimensional characters be made in such an environment? Certainly, but no one will go see it. A big part of the problem is that good SF is either impossible to film or simply too intelligent to put enough asses in seats to justify the budget of a major Hollywood movie. There is no incentive to make such a film. Not when Transformers: Dark of the Moon grossed $1.12 billion.

Hollywood kills serious Science Fiction.

It provides us with an endless, enormous, impossible to resist spectacle that we shovel into our brains even though we know we shouldn’t, even though we know we will only be disappointed again and again. By any metric The Phantom Menace was a pretty terrible film, but we all lined up to see Attack of the Clones anyway. What’s worse is we lined up yet again to see Revenge of the Sith. If even the hardest of hard-core SF fans can be tricked into seeing three of the worst films ever made, Hollywood knows it’s got us hooked. It will keep making crappy SF movies because people will keep seeing them. Hell, it will even make crappier versions of crappy SF movies (yeah, I’m talking to you Total Recall) and we will flock in droves to give them our money. And we are the ones who want serious and intelligent Science Fiction.

And yet, not all hope is lost. SF fandom is larger now than it has ever been. Conventions draw hundreds of thousands of people yearly. Never before has SF fandom attracted so many people from so many segments of society. There is absolutely no doubt that SF is not dying (despite what we hear constantly). Fandom grows every year, and grows ever more sophisticated and intelligent. The modern ebook and multi-media phenomena has been gleefully embraced by the geek nation. New generation of talented writers are producing intelligent and entertaining Science Fiction. Technologies like Kickstarter are only just beginning to realize vast untapped pool of funding available that will make Hollywood ever more irrelevant. All of these things mean that the content creators can (and one day will) become independent of the content providers. When that happens, the lowest common denominator will no longer dominate.

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  1. Just wondering about your thoughts on the movie Her. I realize that it was put out nearly a year after this post so it couldn’t have been considered at the time you wrote this. However, was just wondering if that was more the type of film that you hoped Hollywood would use to push SF. It was certainly reviewed in a lot of more ‘mainstream’ publications. Just curious.

  2. I think you conveniently forgot about Moon and the Solaris remake. But I agree with you, I had a student ask me "don't you get tired of spaceships exploding?" in reference to me reading sci-fi. Arg, it's not like that, but I can't blame the student because that is quickly becoming the only way sf is being portrayed to the masses.

    1. I didn't forget (conveniently or otherwise) about Moon or, what I assume you mean to be, the 2002 release of Solaris (with George Clooney).

      Moon was a British film, not a Hollywood production, which received a very limited release outside of Europe (in fact, in Canada it was released to selected theatres in only a single city), there was no marketing whatsoever in North America, and was shot on a budget of $5 million dollars US, so it hardly counts as a major movie. Yes, it showed at a few conventions but that is preaching to the choir. As good as Moon was, Gattica is still the better film. It certainly wasn't anything more than a momentary blip and left no lasting impression beyond the small circle of people who have seen it. Yes, I know, it won a Hugo. The problem, however, remains that the community of science fiction fans remains much too small for a film like Moon to have a major impact on the viewing public or western culture in general.

      As for Solaris, I thought it was nothing more than a confusing, pretentious mess. I loved Lem's novel, and the 1972 version was pretty good, but the version with Clooney was simply a trite, saccharine bore. Being such a close adaptation of one of the most challenging science fiction novels written didn't do it any favours either. Cerebral, yes; good, well that is where we differ. My opinion aside, Solaris was indeed a major Hollywood release with an enormous budget (for the time) and given wide release. The marketing, however, was confused. Half the audience thought it was getting a science fiction thriller, and the other half thought it was a science fiction romance. This completely killed any chance it had at being a major block-buster. Solaris is one of the examples of how Hollywood kills good science fiction. Had the studio made the effort of selling the film to the public in a consistent and proper way, it might have been a success.

      Would I be happier if Hollywood made films like Moon and Solaris? Absolutely. These are exactly the kinds of films that I am arguing for. The sad fact is that a film like Moon simply wouldn't (couldn't) be made by the studios in Hollywood. The base audience for it is far, far too small. As I mentioned in the article above, the mind-share that Hollywood garners is huge and what most of its audience knows of science fiction is what Hollywood says is science fiction. The small, arty, intelligent films aren't seen by that audience, if they are seen at all since Hollywood also control film distribution.

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