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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Does Science-Fiction Matter?

Very recently Simon Pegg made some comments about science-fiction and fantasy novels and movies that, more or less, said that all of this over-saturation of comic book movie and science-fiction action film has dumbed down the whole of cinema. Naturally, many people have been hurt by these remarks. After all, Pegg is a nerd hero to many and for him to decry something that so many enjoy, well, it is fucking painful to see.

However, I do not intend to break down or explain his statements. I do not desire to argue, though it may well seem that that is what I am about to do. No, I merely wish to ask, is science-fiction and fantasy as moving or meaningful as the classics, both in regards to film and the novel.

Let us first look at the classics in questions. Before recent memory there was not an overabundance of comic book, superhero, science-fiction/fantasy film. That is not to say that they did not exist. Tim Burton's Batman, a film of over twenty years of age, is of course one of the most beloved superhero movies to ever exist. Yet, Burton does not direct this movie in the style of today's superhero blockbusters. Rather, he brings the training and eye of a classic filmmaker to the table, allowing it to transcend the bonds of the superhero movie and transform into a noir character study.

Yet, barring such examples, what movies really made a big impact on us? Why, it was films such as The Godfather, or Taxi Driver, or Rock, or even Fight Club for a more recent example. These were dark and gritty films that focused on the real as well a the surreal. They forced the viewer into a dark world and demonstrated exactly what the repercussions of a police sate could be, or the importance of personal freedom, of the dangers of a government that spies on us at all turns. They were character studies and were political by nature.

In short, these films challenged the audience to think. There was no other way but to think when you watched such films.

Then, in the blink of an eye, things began to change and that change was called Star Wars. Now, I will not say that Star Wars does not play with themes as it most certainly does, yet even Star Wars is a departure from the other films Lucas had made at that point in his career.

So, what was it about Star Wars that changed everything then? And, further, is there anything wrong with this change?

Well, Star Wars is, in many regards, the film equivalent to Tolkien's Lord of The Rings. Both of these creations had multiple influences, some within the genre they inhabit and some outside of it. However, they were both trying to capture something grand, something that was perhaps lost. Whereas Tolkien hoped to recreate the power and depth of the long lost Epic, Lucas hoped to recapture the spark that was the Pulp story.

Both succeeded in their own rights and both are well loved for good reason.

However, just a Tolkien spawned the likes of Robert Jordan, Lucas wrought his own imitators (which, ironically, was himself in the form of hi prequel films).

Since the creation of such things we have been left with films that try to grasp at the depth and grandiosity of their inspiration, and yet somehow fall short. Yet another parable can be seen in the comic book industry as, since the creation of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, many have sought to get at the heart of Moore's work and yet they always miss out on his literary mind.

So, now that we see the history the question remains, do these new pieces of science-fiction and fantasy hold any water?

On the surface, no. They are pale imitations in most cases and at worst you are watching a Micheal Bay film. However, in many cases, one only need look a little deeper to see that there genres still have much to say and teach.

Without calling out the obvious names of Whedon and Gaiman, I will attempt to show that there are still a great many great things coming from the genres.

In terms of film, with the Marvel universe exploding ever outward, it is a wonder that something a brilliant as Captain America: Winter Solider could be birthed. Simply said, this film expertly tackles the themes of big government, of the danger of surveillance and of the militarization of the police. These are very topical and talked about social issues that we face today and for any movie, let alone a fucking comic book movie, to tackle them with any sort of grace is a miracle. Captain America does it with ease and shows that following orders leads us down a rabbit hole that may well bring our doom.

Even Iron Man deals with the concept of responsibility of the justice system, a theme we will see further explored in the upcoming Civil War arc of films, just as has been done in the Civil War comic books (like below).

Even outside of the superhero movie we have films like Ex Machina that tackle the complex issue of artificial intelligence and what makes someone human. Those Dickan (see: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) themes are ones not often tackled in any form and are best examined in genre films and literature.

In regards to books we have the likes of Susanna Clarke, writer of the elegant and excellent Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell, a novel that inhabits the realm of fantasy yet still manages to be profound, well written, and expertly researched. Hell, even Gaiman proclaimed awe when first meeting and reading Clarke's work.

The likes of Patrick Rothfuss also hold onto the pillars of great fantasy that, be it the authors intent or otherwise, manages to tackle hard themes in clever, subtle ways. Then, for your science-fiction fix we have the likes of William Gibson who, even now, uses his strange and powerful language to tackle themes of technology and our dependance on it, drug use, street life, and cooperation corruption and power. Or Neal Stephenson who tackles similar themes, yet with the same zeal and bat-shit crazy attitude of the likes of comic book master Warren Ellis.

This is, of course, not to say that the classics are not masterful or profound. Or even that all genre film and fiction is a masterwork that deserves praise. Far from. What I am merely saying is that science-fiction and fantasy inhabit a very special world in which they can entertain as well as engage, which is a thing of beauty and rarity.

Were it not for the fantasy slant in Wim Winders film Wings of Desire we would not find any aspect of it to be entertaining as it is, yet were it not for his literary mind and skillful direction we would find that it lacks the depth that makes it such a masterpiece (in fact, if you want proof of that, go watch Wings of Desire and then watch the American butchering of it, City of Angels. No joke),

Everyone wants to be entertained, at least to some extent, yet it is possible that we can think while we are entertained. In fact, it is imperative that both happens at once because, lets face it, some people are not interested in art films. So, yes, there is an oversaturation and a dumbing down that can be linked to genre film, yet there is also an untapped potential that peaks through from time to time and shows that science-fiction and fantasy is not merely an escape, but rather a different route to the same end.

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