Roundtable: Summer Movies
I recently tossed out the following topic to the Roundtable discussion group: The summer blockbuster movie season is upon us, and as usual various forms of genre film are dominating the screens. This year the offerings range from comic book movies (Thor), sequels to sequels (Pirates of the Carribean 4), kids films (Cars 2), and new outings from big-name directors (Super 8). Is it easy to sit back and enjoy the spectacle or do you find yourself trying to re-write the film as you go? How well do these movies represent the genre as it stands today?
I was afraid that this topic wasn’t going to get very far as the first few responses were from people who can’t stand today’s movies and stay as far away from them as possible (by way of excusing themselves from participation). However, I soon heard more diverse opinions…
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I will unabashedly admit that I went to Thor in order to see the man-flesh. I’ve found I am usually disappointed by the structure of movies – for example, I thought Midnight in Paris was a rancid POS with a light glaze of Allenesque witticisms. And I react with irritation when Hollywood movies try to manipulate my emotions because they’re so ham-handed about it.
But I do love spectacle in a movie, which Thor provided in spades with the rainbow bridge and Asgard in general. Green Lantern’s another recent example of something where I went to see the landscape, not the storyline. I’ve found the superhero movies tend to supply this, and it’s one reason why I’m pleased that special effects have gotten to the point where we can’t see the strings enabling the superhero to fly anymore.
Short answer: contemporary skiffy films have no relationship to the literary genre, and never did. I’m a film fan, read reviews and seek out offbeat and/or ambitious films when I hear about them and have time to see them (albeit less and less often in recent years). Very few of them are sf/f. As has always been the case, most skiffy films play off tropes from literary sf from 30 or 50 years before, when it was not even literary sf, more accurately pulp sf – and I’m not sure cinematic skiffy has caught up much since the ‘70s, in this way – and lately, if I believe Gary Westfahl’s Locus Online review of Super 8, they are playing off tropes from earlier skiffy films of three or four decades before, not even based on literary works (or by ideas advanced therein, or by advances in speculative science) at all.
Though I still feel it worthwhile to cover sf/f/h films on Locus Online, and have Gary Westfahl and the team of Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person cover them, I rarely see those films myself.
OTOH Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has a visionary recognition of the expanse of time and space and the context of a human life therein, such as what we typically appreciate in SF; though far from being SF, it seems a tad inclined toward naïve religious imagery. Nevertheless this film is more of interest to me, as a reader of SF, than any of Hollywood’s generic offerings.
Yes, ditto Mark — in my (extremely limited) moviegoing experience this summer, most stuff seems to be scavenged from earlier movies and not literary sources. I will admit that it’s far easier for me to remove my critical brain when watching a movie than when reading — I set the bar a lot lower, and also I don’t watch much stuff. I did see Malick’s visionary Tree of Life, which was about equal parts brilliant and terrible — I thought the whole Genesis sequence was brilliant, loved the dinosaurs, and had no problems with how bizarre it was within the context of an ostensibly realist film. And I was very glad I saw that in a theater, because I would probably have turned it off if I’d been watching it at home. I also saw Super 8, which was dopey and had more stuff blowing up than in anything I’ve ever seen (I don’t know as I’ve ever watched a Michael Bay movie so can’t compare), but I found it mindlessly diverting for 87 minutes. Derivative, etc., but the young actors were good. Mostly I just kept wondering about the destruction of the town and the absence of TV crews. Given recent real-life catastrophes, it was disturbing to see a city destroyed so blithely, and then have that ridiculous ET-ish ending tacked on. I hate zombies, but I was SO HAPPY to see the zombie movie-within-a-movie at the end. That was cute.
I’m rarely impressed by movies of any sort, and almost never go to see them in the theaters, preferring to wait for On Demand or Netflicks for those few that I do want to see. Some of the Big Budget Special Effects genre films can be entertaining eye-candy, but rarely have any real substance to them. You’re more likely to find interesting work on TV these days, especially HBO, with shows like Game of Thrones, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, and Justified, which strike me as considerably more intelligent and edgier than almost any genre film out there at the moment.
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7 thoughts on “Roundtable: Summer Movies”
What worries me about the slick CGI, totally believable (almost) SF/Fantasy worlds in the modern summer blockbuster is that they leave no room left for the viewer’s visual imagination to interact with their story. Every facet of those worlds has been imagined for us. Same thing with point and shoot ‘video’ games (or, for that matter most genre jacket art). When I was a kid (1950s & 60s) and watched a Ray Harryhausen film or Invaders from Mars or Forbidden Planet I needed to supply quite a bit of poetic imagining to make the goings on up on the screen even remotely believable. This, of course, helped train my ability to tell stories and vividly imagine what was running around in my head.. It seems to me that today there is no need for the viewers imagination to supply anything at all to a film like Transformers or Green Lantern. So I have to ask myself what is that going to do to the kids growing up with these entertainments?
Oddly enough, I find myself 180 degrees from Charles Vess’s point of view–one of the reasons I was stunned and delighted by 2001 (which I was able to see first-run in a Cinerama theater) was that the visuals were absolutely convincing. I had always wanted to *see* SF worlds with the same close-grained attention to detail that the best print work offered. Kubrick delivered this. Years later, it was mostly the cutting-edge visuals that had me and my wife sitting through Star Wars twice in a row. (The good-natured, popcorn-movie realization of all the space opera adventure tropes I’d grown up on didn’t hurt either.) I would argue that the great gift of modern movie-making is precisely its ability to deliver visual literalizations (yeah, it’s self-contradictory but I think it works) of the sensawonder scenery and scenarios that SF has always offered. Unfortunately, most of the time the technology is serving an idiot plot devised by a committee of industry apparatchiks following logic right out of the opening sequence of The Player. For example, visual surface is just about the only reason to watch Avatar.
I agree with Charles on this one. I recently rewatched Labyrinth (with David Bowie), and I remembered again how charming it was, how much it asked of me as the viewer. It was more like a book than the sorts of movies we see nowadays. I mostly like the modern visual effects in the recent Narnia movies, but what did they do with the plots? The old unconvincing BBC versions do a better job. So, I think CGI has to be handled carefully, and it can’t substitute for storytelling.
Russell, well yes, there is a part of me that glories in the utter believability of today’s CGI effects but then I grew up watching those older movies with their oh-so-obvious models, matte lines and rubber suited monsters and always wanted more. BUT I’m certain my imagination would not have developed as it did without the ‘poetic space’ that those 1950’s SF epics left me. Or watching on rainy Saturday afternoons all those el cheapo Italian sand and sandal epics that borrowed so haphazardly from Greek/Roman mythology for their stories. They lit my imagination and made me crave more of the same. Which sent me to the library to read Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke and The Illiad & The Oddessy for that matter. That same ‘poetic space’ concerns me as an illustrator: “How much do I show the reader? Will I take anything away from her or his experience?” And the answer is “I don’t know.”
As a child of the 1940s, I populated the world of my imagination with all kinds of heroes and villains and, without restraint of logic, engaged in naive storytelling much in the style of Sapper, Sax Rohmer and similar authors whose work I demolished. Coming to the cinema, I found a similar freewheeling approach to storytelling. The two-reelers and B-movies were all about excitement, silly cliffhangers and improbable escapes from certain death. The stupidity was half the fun.
We’ve all grown up, but Hollywood has lost the plot. Even when it greenlights a homage or parody of 1950s movies like Super 8, the narrative style gets bogged down in a morass of mawkish sentimentality. That adds the plot’s stupidity to the general embarrassment. So far this year, only Source Code had any interest and even that was flawed. Frankly, looking ahead, I’m not optimistic. The only film of potential interest is Prometheus as Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise — a statement that shows my desperation for finding something that might be interesting.
Yes, it’s (almost – a crucial word) all dross, but what always pains me most is how many great print works could also make great film – if anyone would even try. But they don’t. Quick – name ten SF stories/novels that could translate wonderfuly to the screen. (Pause). I’ll bet it didn’t even take 15 seconds, did it? The Door Into Summer, Who?, The Caves of Steel, The Wanderer, Hothouse, High Rise, The Inheritors, Bring the Jubilee, The Man in the High Castle, Hawksbill Station. These are my “off the top” titles. Maybe some of them wouldn’t work (a lot of movies that should work don’t – such is the nature of the medium), but they’re all worth a try. Several of them would be relatively inexpensive to make, from an effects standpoint at least. But the powers that be don’t even access this wealth of material. Why?
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