Roundtable: Summer Movies

N. K. Jemisin

I like movies where stuff goes boom, but I’ve been so buried in deadlines and day-job responsibilities that I’m seriously behind in my stuffwatching.  The only blockbuster I’ve seen thus far is X-Men: First Class — and while I really liked it, I also had a strong negative reaction to some elements of it. I still really want to see Thor, but I think that ship has sailed in my area, and there are no second-run theaters nearby enough to be worth my while.

I’m waffling on Super 8, because I’m actually not a fan of Spielberg, and JJ Abrams is hit or miss for me.  The previews just don’t wow me.  All that said, the summer film I’m looking forward to most is not a blockbuster, but a film that actually had to struggle to get US distribution because it focuses on a bunch of kids from the London projects.  (Note that this is the “red band” trailer — lots of profanity.)

Postprocessing what I’ve made time for/what excites me and what’s ringing the “meh” bell, I think I’m just really tired of Hollywood’s depiction of the genre as full of Pretty White People (mostly men) With Problems and full of people who’ve apparently never watched a Hollywood summer blockbuster.  I mean, really, you’d think no one in a zombie movie has ever heard of “Shoot them in the head.”  (PWPWP is a reference to an old Mad TV skit, if you haven’t seen it.)  So any film that shows even a hint of complexity, of realistic social construction, of brains (not braaaaains), gets my attention, and any film that stays by-the-numbers isn’t worth the $20.  And I repeat, I like movies about Stuff Blowing Up.  As a writer, I love going into some other media presentation and shutting off my own creative brain for awhile.  But the problem with these by-the-numbers flicks is that I can’t shut down; they’re so illogical or frustrating that I spend the film trying to fix what’s broken in my head.  I come out angry that what could’ve been a great thrill ride was instead a chore.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I find that there’s a genuine disconnect between what I read in science fiction and how I see science fiction presented on the silver screen. In part, that’s because most films presented as science fiction are effects-driven spectacles. Without CGI effects, pyrotechnics, and big things blowing up loudly in the vacuum of outer space, it seems that directors can’t find a big enough audience to generate a big enough box office to pay for films that have the “look” and feel of science fiction.

Interestingly, most of the science fiction films I have seen the last few years–Super 8, District 9, Monsters, Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline–have all been riffs on the alien invasion theme. A classic science fiction theme, to be sure, but not one that has been in vogue for quite some time in the fiction.

Interestingly, I saw kinship between Super 8 and Tree of Life (spot-on analysis Liz–I’ve been describing it to people as “as beautiful as it is annoying”): The best part of both movies, to my mind, is their child’s eye view of how the world works and the many contradictions you have to embrace en route to becoming an adult who can navigate it. Super 8 is pure genre, Tree of Life visionary, but both express that youthful–dare I say it?–sense of wonder I still pick up from science fiction.

James Patrick Kelly

I see very few films in a theater anymore, which is partially a function of how far away all the theaters are from my home and partially a function of a nice home theater setup with streaming Netflix.   The only big budget flick I saw this summer was Thor and that only because I was travelling. It was dumb, but then superhero movies often are. What sets one apart from another, it seems to me, is the ability of the lead to overcome the inherent contradictions in the character (I’m super, I’m human; how the hell do I cope?)  Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal of a football quarterback with a magic hammer and wonky Shakespearean speech implant failed to convince, unlike say, Christopher Reeve in the first Superman installment or Toby Maguire in the first Spiderman or Christian Bale in the first Batman reboot or Robert Downey, Jr. in the first Ironman.  Notice a pattern here?  Even when they succeed, superhero movies carry the seeds of their own downfall. They are not sustainable. I’m afraid that it is very hard for me to close my story doctor app when I watch a dumb movie.  I keep thinking of all the other things I’m supposed to be doing. But I did see a wonderful time travel spectacle this summer, and that was Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D.  I am not a fan of 3D but if it’s still playing anywhere within an hour’s drive, go.  GO!  I’ve been to the caves in France’s Perigord region, and this movie captures their Neolithic magic with verve.  Jaw-droppingly wonderful; I had to dust my chin off as the credits rolled.

Liz Hand

Ditto Jim on Cave of Dreams — I forgot I’d seen that, though not in 3-D.  Puts the other “blockbusters” to shame …

7 thoughts on “Roundtable: Summer Movies

  • July 6, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    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?

  • July 6, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    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.

  • July 6, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    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.

  • July 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    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.”

  • July 13, 2011 at 7:39 am

    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.

  • July 14, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    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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