February 18th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

A Think-Piece with Exploding Helicopters

There's a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, that the TV series Alien Nation was canceled because the executives at the network felt that they'd been lied to. They supposedly shouted at the producer that he'd promised them a science fiction TV series, and this wasn't science fiction. How could a TV series about former alien slaves dumped into Los Angeles and the clash of cultures between them and us not be science fiction? No spaceships, no zap guns, no robots, no super-smart cute kids. Science fiction fans pass this story along amongst each other because it's exactly what we're afraid of, of that becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. Isaac Asimov, in an essay for librarians, famously defined science fiction as the real "literature of ideas." His argument was that science fiction is defined by the process of asking "What if?" What if we changed one or more things about society, or about the human race, or about history, or about the technologies we live with? How would things be different, and how would things still be the same? The rest of the story, the basic human conflict or the adventure drama, is told against that backdrop. And what we're afraid of is that the film, TV, and publishing industries will conclude that there are only two science fiction backdrops that can be marketed: Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, or if you prefer to say, Buck Rogers and Dungeons & Dragons.

Well, last July a science fiction movie came out that had no robots, no aliens, no zap guns, no laser swords, no space ships, and no precociously brilliant teenage scientists. You probably barely even heard of it. I'd been keeping an eye out for it since I'd seen the trailer, and it appeared and disappeared from theaters in a single week. It was barely advertised. Me, I took this as evidence that the studio had lost faith in it, which might have meant something or might not have. But that nobody called me up to tell me how good it was, or posted any rave reviews in the places I look for science fiction fannish reactions, left me thinking that it might have deserved to vanish. But then it got mentioned in passing in an article in Slate this week, called "The End of Originality." So I finally got around to renting it.

Is it a great movie? No. Nor is it completely original. I don't hold that against it; I've heard it somewhat persuasively argued by Spider Robinson that there hasn't been a completely original science fiction plot in the last 50 years. It is, however, a fresh take on its subject. It's well acted, extraordinarily well directed, has great art direction and special effects, and was a lot of fun to watch. I wish I'd seen it in theaters, on the big screen, like I originally planned to. It really sucks that so many movies now live and die only on that opening weekend; it means that there's no time for harder-to-market movies like this one to build up word of mouth before they vanish. But I can't help but feel the shame that as someone who went to see Star Wars III in the theaters but didn't get around to seeing this until I rented it on video, that I'm part of the problem and not part of the solution. I feel like I voted with my dollars for more crap: more franchise movies, more space opera, more remakes of 1970s science fiction TV series and movies.