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.