Why Do Contemporary SF Films Always Invoke a Near Half-Century Old Movie?

Some thoughts on the paucity of imagination in SF film today.

c334b00d2c1301377b1a74f046f9d463Because they have to.

I’ve not yet seen Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but I don’t need to because I’m addressing a concern that has more to do with marketing (and perhaps a paucity of originality in Hollywood) than it does with the film itself.

Early on in the run-up to Interstellar the name-checking with 2001: A Space Odyssey began.  “Draws from…”, “reminiscent of…”, “will remind viewers of…” (Indeed, I have it on good spoiler alert that the film even replicates the docking scene from 2001, although they do it a bit faster in Interstellar.)

It struck me that every (or nearly every) science fiction film that’s received wide release over the past couple of decades has gone to the trouble of invoking works from earlier decades, notably the 50s and 60s, as a way to entice viewers, and this strikes me as rather odd.  For at least two reasons.

First, I’m left to wonder (not really, I do watch film and have seen most, if not all of the past decades’ block busters in this genre) why it is that films produced in the aughts and beyond can only find redemption and justification by invoking prior SF efforts in film.  Can’t these films, with their hundred-plus million dollar budgets, virtually unlimited processing power and all the new technologies available, stand on their own?   More pertinent:  are none of these films worthy of replacing the oft-mentioned SF classics of yore?

I can’t think of a single film that the promotion for 2001 mentioned as a worthy predecessor;  nothing from the 50s was used to assure audiences that if they’d liked The Best From 20,000 Fathoms, 2001 (has numbers in the title, see!?) is the film for you!  (Indeed – the promotion for the film involved referring to our nascent space programs and turned to science fiction authors like of Arthur C. Clarke. (Video)

Kubrick’s masterpiece premiered in 1968 – over 45 years ago (OMG – and I saw it in first run!) and it is still the go-to name check for “gritty”, “accurate”, “sciency”, “adult”, incomprehensible and trippy science fiction in film.

Which, checking out the other side of the coin, means that NOTHING in SF film in over half a century has been seen as more important, ground-breaking, different and exemplary.  Nothing as awe-inspiring, thought-provoking or illuminating as 2001 since 1968.

The same year that brought us 2001: A Space Odyssey also saw Planet of the Apes, Barbarella, Charly, Countdown and Night of the Living Dead in theaters.  None of these films – with the possible exception of POTA – is held out as an exemplar of “the kind of science fiction film we want to see”.

1968 films

I can think of maybe three or four other films that are accorded the same honors as 2001:  Destination Moon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet and, ummmm….

Destination Moon is the weak one among them;  these days it’s usually only mentioned if we’re trying to convey the rock-solid (attempt at) scientific accuracy of a new film;  otherwise, well, we try to ignore the fact that Rocketship XM hit theaters before Destination Moon did.vlcsnap-2009-11-16-23h02m53s18

The Day the Earth Stood Still is invoked whenever we want to let moviegoers know that it has real story, man.  Genuine Grade Triple A story…and characterization.   It’s also often pointed out that the movie is allegory and/or metaphor, and frequently mentioned when we believe that a contemporary film has some of that.the-day-the-earth-stood-still

Forbidden Planet is the oft-called stand in for Big Budget science fiction film, a project that the studio “really got behind”; a serious film (and therefore not really science fiction if you follow that school of thought), one based on solid literary ground (Shakespeare) with top-flight acting talent.  And of course the whole film is nothing but metaphor – it only uses science fiction tropes (and it checks off on all of them – FTL spaceship, ancient aliens, robots…) to get the audience to consider things about themselves they’re not able to face directly. (Which these days doesn’t really work for that film because what people are facing is the fact that the flick doesn’t pass Bechdel). Disney even did the animation in a rare bit of inter-studio cooperation!forbidden-planet-machine

The only time something less ancient gets called upon for blurb duty is – Star Wars (infrequently and usually to proclaim a films adherence to or rejection of the Star Wars ethos/mythology/special effects/lack of SFnalness/franchising) and Alien ((infrequently and usually to proclaim a films adherence to or rejection of the Alien ethos/mythology/special effects/lack of SFnalness/franchising).  And maybe Blade Runner when the new film’s depiction of the future is “noir, dark, gritty (and rainy)”.   Or when we want to point out how many of PK Dick’s stories have been turned into film.

A few other films are infrequently called to duty – kind of like that author that everyone really liked and – what was his name anyway?

What this suggests to me is a couple of things:

1. Hollywood is trying way too hard to make the best (science fiction) film from forty years ago

2. SFX/CGI have lost their magic;  they alone are no longer enough to make watchers stop in the lobby and ask (of any random other theater-goer) “what was that all about?” or “have you ever seen anything more awesome in your life?” (and if you are a film checking off on the “just like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but for modern audiences!”, you’d best be making your audience ask BOTH questions simultaneously)

3. No science fiction film (or near science fiction film) has yet approached “the awe and mystery” dropped on audiences in 1968.  A. – it’s way, way, way too long since a film confounded the critics, confused audiences (except for the trufans) and has had such a profound effect on the genre, filmmaking and probably several other things.  (We had model kits and posters for 2001;  imagine what the world would be like today if Kubrick had been as interested in merchandising as Lucas was a decade later!).  B. the studios today are substituting our memories and experiences of earlier films for actually getting the job done in their new releases.  (About the only thing I’ve seen that comes close in recent years is Guardians of the Galaxy – and that has its weak spots (which I’m not willing to contemplate at this juncture since I want to love that film so much) – and its not strictly a science fiction film;  it straddles the superhero and sf and fantasy genres.  I’d call it comic science fantasy but then folks might think I was talking about some film starring Buddy Hacket, George Burns and Mel Brooks.image3

4. Science Fiction films today should stop striving to remind us of 2001, or any of the other films I mentioned.  They need four things and four things only:  a solid attempt at scientific realism and plausibility; a decent plot; capable acting, a budget that supports the previous and the fifth thing – the ability to invoke our sense of wonder.  Caution:  you can’t possibly achieve that last when the audience already knows that you’re going to CGI us to death with the director’s personal headscape;  that’s like violating the literary injunction about “showing, not telling”.

The greatest thing about the films that every modern day SF (or near SF) movie name-checks was – they made us think.  No, that’s not the greatest thing.  The greatest thing about those films was – they made us imagine stuff.   AFTER we left the theater.  What will future spaceflight really look like?  Can we send a manned mission to Jupiter?  How do people react when confronted by the unknown and the unknowable?  What motivates the aliens to uplift?  Are they still here, watching us?  What the fuck is up with the space baby?.  They made us imagine stuff that went beyond whatever was presented in the film;  these films were not meant to be complete, they were meant to be the opening lines of on-going thought-experiments.  Today?  Packaged playgrounds.  Playgrounds that rely on reminding us of past glory for their fun.

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