The Geomancer


Thoughts on Science Fiction Film & Television

There's a really interesting article up at Popular Mechanics right now, "Hollywood Sci-Fi's Bronze Age: Are Comics to Blame?" by Erik Sofge. Erik runs a comparison of the SF films that were released in 1982 - Blade Runner, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing and Tron, and compares it to 2007's Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, 28 Weeks Later, I Am Legend, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Invasion, Resident Evil: Extinction, Spider-Man 3 and Transformers. He then asks if the wealth of comic book projects isn't gobbling up the same resources that once went to smart SF.

Now, personally, I love a well-made comic book adaptation, and I think that there's always been loads of crap peppered with a few gems coming out of Hollywood and always will be. It wouldn't be hard to make a list of 100 smart SF films and another list of 100 dumb ones; and the smart ones aren't necessarily the good ones and the dumb ones not necessarily the bad ones (I love The Fifth Element!) Furthermore, the boom in effects technology, coupled with the lowered cost of same, means that the coming years are going to see more SF films than every before, smart and dumb, because the coming years are going to see more of everything than ever before. So I'm sure we've got some gems in the works right now, and some clunkers. And I'm not too worried about it.

Of course, Erik is right to be worried that "interest in science is at a low point in this country. Gadget and robot-related news might score high marks online, but there’s a difference between reading a blog and getting a doctorate." Here he links to "Educator Panel: U.S. Science Needs a Sputnik-ian Wakeup Call" by Matt Sullivan, who says " With American high school seniors performing below the international average for 21 countries in math and science...there needs to be an ambitious plan to increase awareness of scientific education." Amen.

And you know I think more SF is good for that. In fact, the top comment on Erik's article is:

james cameron made me a robotics engineer. i watched terminator 2 when i was 10,and it was the first time i went to a cinema.cameron rocks!!!!

Lately I've been considering how even the dumb stuff (and I'm not counting Terminator 2 in that category) has a role to play in inspiring people. I think that anything expansive and imaginative has benefits, even, you know, that dreadful Lucas stuff... Anything that inspires sense of wonder can inspire, right?

Of course, I have to applaud Erik when he concludes, "What’s missing from Hollywood sci-fi, and what the comic adaptations continue to smother, is a celebration of smarts. The smaller movies have them—films like Sunshine and Primer. In fiction, writers like Charles Stross are pushing the limits of the genre. Maybe next year’s Star Trek reboot will make quantum physics look cool again. And if anyone can return some credibility to science-fiction movies, it’s James Cameron, whose long-gestating Avatar (about a human remote-operating a robot on a distant, alien planet) also shows up next year."

Again, they'll be a lot more films like Primer coming down the pike, as it just gets cheaper and cheaper for a basic level of SF effects to be produced by the almost-average Joe. And they won't all be from Hollywood either. I imagine there's at least one or two mind blowing SF films being cooked up on someone's home computer right now, if not their cellphone.

And I would point to this article from Fast Company, "Rebel Alliance," by David Kushner. It's about the cabal of sf fans that are revolutionizing television with their visions (quite a few of whom - like Battlestar Galactica's Ron Moore - are very knowledgeable when it comes to literary SF.) The article is really about "transmedia" - how TV producers have to think about extending their storylines into other media such as games, comics, and online sites, but it also illustrates without calling out the fact that as movies seem to be getting sillier, television is getting better and better, richer, more "novelistic."

And David's article echoes my own optimism when it concludes, "
The Geek Elite are well aware that they're creating a future that may ultimately pass them by. 'There's someone out there who will figure out how to relate the Internet and narrative beyond my old-fashioned notions,' [Joss] Whedon says. 'But I think whoever cracks that is not going to be someone who's made it huge in television. It's going to be some guy we just don't know about yet.'"

I, for one, can't wait to meet 'em.


  1. I'd say there's no bigger 'celebration of smarts' than Doctor Who. It's *what it's about*. The monsters have guns and starships. The Doctor has knowledge. When I was a kid it made me want to be an astrophysicist, and got me all the way to UCL. I think it's probably still doing that now.

  2. I agree. I think, for all the criticism it takes, Harry Potter does that too. Their magic isn't that insipid "if you only believe in yourself" wish fulfilment stuff of most Hollywood magic.

    The kids are in school, study hard, and the answers to their problems are usually found by combining copious research (in the library!) with practice.

  3. Perhaps the smarter stuff is happening on TV these days? Not just in sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica, anyone?) but in most everything else? Deadwood, the Wire, and, of course, my own favourite brain food, America's Next Top Model? Are blockbuster movies being drawn ever closer to disposable pulp, while quality writing gravitates to the longer, more flexible, perhaps more adventurous medium of the tellybox?

  4. Yes. Film has to appeal to an ever-wider audience, not even an English speaking audience but a global one, which pressures it to be more and more about easily-understood, wide-appeal spectacle. By contrast, television is becoming more and more about secondary markets - that DVD boxed set, that iTunes $1.99 download - such that complexity is rewarded by repeated viewing. In a world of options, you're only going to shell out your $$ for the tv show that is complex enough to sustain multiple viewings. There is too much to watch everything, and too too much to watch everything twice, so you watch as much as you can, and you only rewatch the cream of the crop. Therefore, pure economics drives television to be more nuanced, complex, detailed, rich... TV becomes the new novel.

  5. The wide availability of TV series on DVD has really changed the way people watch them, I think. For the past few months I've been on amazon's scheme where you give them a list of dvds - pretty much anything they stock, so pretty much anything there is - and they just mail them to you one or two at a time, and you mail them back when you're done.

    It's transformed my viewing experience, I can watch pretty much whatever I want whenever I want, in the comfort of my own living room, and it's meant that I've watched all kinds of stuff I missed the first time round and was vaguely curious about, but would never buy. Plus I don't have to wait a week for the next episode, I can, for example, watch an entire series of The Wire pretty much back to back. Heaven. And at £1-2 for a disc, it beats the hell out of £10 for the cinema where inevitably some bunch of fools are explaining the film to each other in your ear for two hours.

    I have seen the future and, ironically, it is posted to you by traditional mail. At least for now.

  6. This is called NetFlix in the states and it's brilliant. Chris Anderson's The Long Tail talks about how their ability to stock an infinite variety of films (as opposed to Blockbuster video, our major brick'n'mortar store here, which must stock only those films with the highest turnover rate) is encouraging people to to discover films further down the list from just the top 100 hits or so, and, again, pure economics is driving cultural diversity.

    My wife and I use NetFlixs to watch a lot of foreign films and independent movies, as well as to watch whole seasons of tv shows we've missed.

  7. Anonymous9:47 AM

    The cool thing that happened to TV was that the writers became the most important people in the industry. In movies, Hollywood tries its best to ignore the writers where ever possible (is 'best screenplay' the sixth highest profile oscar, or the tenth?)

    You look at all the top TV producers, they all started as writers and were put in charge of their shows. Because some bright spark worked out that the most important factor in creating a long running, successful TV show was the writing. Of course, TV lends itself to this simply because of the sheer amount of writing that needs to be done, compared to movies. But even so, I think there's no question that the key to TV's increasing popularity over movies goes straight back to that -- TV is the writers' medium, movies aren't.

    I think the result is that TV is raising the bar for movies, while the best writers abandon films because there are more opportunities in TV, and the movie producers become ever more conservative with SF in particular because it's expensive, and with box office revenue declining they don't want to take big risks -- so more sequels and comic books. Which in turn drives away writers with original ideas, so the downward spiral continues.

    I think maybe one day Hollywood will run out of sequels and comic books, and will have to turn to the TV people to tell them what to do next, and how to get more creative with their revenue streams. Maybe one day soon, with cinema attendance falling and the old distribution models rearranging, the walls between TV and movie industries will disappear entirely. Maybe the former will take over the latter.

  8. I think that's very astute, especially "the walls between TV and movie industries will disappear entirely." It will just be narratives of different length, all available online.

  9. It is a bit misleading to base the comparison on 1982 and 2007. 1982 was an unusually strong year for SF film, while last year was rather slow.

    Try comparing the top science fiction and fantasy films from 1981 (Outland, Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Escape from New York, Clash of the Titans) and 2006 (Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, A Scanner Darkly, V for Vendetta, The Prestige) and you will reach a very different conclusion about whether SF/F films are becoming less intelligent.

  10. Good point Aaron.
    Of course, Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men were both non-US films and A Scanner Darkly a lower budget one. But again, I'm very hopeful for the future of SF&F film, and I expect more and more things to come from outside the Hollywood system that blow us all away.

  11. Anonymous2:38 PM

    I'm anticipating a surge in non-Hollywood sf films too, Lou. I'm sort of waiting for a revelation to arrive, like I had in the early 90s when all the great stuff from Hong Kong finally made it to the US (or to my TV at least).

    A great example would be if Wisit Sasanatieng in Thailand did a sf movie on par with Tears of the Black Tiger (available on Netflix) or Citizen Dog (only available as a Japanese import for now). Fresh eyes are needed, I think, and the rest of the world has been digesting and internalizing Hollywood's output for decades.

  12. You put it beautifully. This remake of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, for instance, and the fact that every single "serious" SF film looks like a mashup of 2001, Blade Runner, and Alien. This is why I loved The Fifth Element - simply because it's look was completely new (to Hollywood). Unfortunatley, no one picked up on it.

    Hollywood contains too many people raised and fed on a diet of Hollywood. This dovetails with something else that gets me. The reason our galaxy is peopled with humanoid aliens with funny ears is because for decades we were limited to human actor. Now, we aren't, and yet George Lucas, when he creates the first entirely CGI character in the person of Jar Jar Binks, still makes a biped with two eyes. I'm reading for the alien to be truly alien again, as it was in the days of The Outer Limits.