(Between the VT shootings, the Baghdad bombings, and Debbie Schlussel, I’m too wiped out to post anything substantial. And so, trivia!)
Well, it looks like the producers of the upcoming Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer have given the matter a lot of thought and decided that the movie should suck.
Actually, I have no idea if the movie’s going to suck and frankly not that much interest since I wasn’t crazy about the first one. (Oh, will Reed ever let Sue know his true feelings? Oh, poor Reed. WHAT THE FUCK? This is the Fantastic Four. Where are the giant goddamn mole monsters?) But the whole business reminds me of something that’s been on my mind about the current spate of science fiction movies in general. Why has science fiction become so timid?
Printed sci-fi is in a deep dark hole, but sci-fi on film and TV seems to be riding higher than ever. Battlestar Galactica is one of the most highly regarded programs on television, and Children of Men* was one of this year’s best-reviewed movies – both deservedly so. The third X-Men film was one of the top grossing films of last year, and as Stan Lee would say the world will tremble when Spider-Man 3 drops next week. So why are they so afraid to show us a giant guy in purple metal armor who likes to eat the occasional planet?
I think part of it has to do with a fear of alienating the audience that seems to have recently discovered science fiction. Obviously, the success of and prestige granted shows like Galactica and films like Children of Men is due to their artful portrayal of the waking nightmare we’re all currently enduring. Fair enough – but have we come down so squarely on the side of science fiction “saying something” that we’ve forgotten how to have some fun with it? I’m not advocating camp. I hate camp. But science fiction can take off on some intense flights of fancy without having to become goofy. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good example of this, as is Forbidden Planet. When was the last time you saw a well-acted, well-written sci-fi movie that had the scale and ambition of Forbidden Planet? That movie’s over fifty years old, for heaven’s sake.
Nerve.com recently compiled a list of twenty comics that will change your life. All the usual suspects were represented – Maus, Love and Rockets, Watchmen – but the Lee-Kirby run on the Fantastic Four also made the list, precisely because the stories were huge and completely and utterly mad while playing it straight. That’s an achievement; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The only show I can think of that’s even attempting anything like this is Doctor Who, at least the Christopher Eccleston episodes. (I haven’t seen any of the David Tenant episodes so I can’t comment on them.) The Doctor’s survival guilt over being the sole survivor of a war fought across all of time and space that devastated entire civilizations including his own – talk about scale! – provided an anchor strong enough to secure our sophisticated, 21st century sensibilities, but it’s chain was slack enough for us to float with the story in whatever mad, wondrous direction it took us.
Wonder. That’s really what I’m getting at. Has wonder become too much to ask of an audience? How much grounding is necessary to make wonder palatable? Science fiction’s role as social critic goes back to H.G. Wells, but Wells’ work is also filled with wonder, and horror. Jules Verne was less of a social critic but even more an architect of dreams. Wells’ grounded his work, “matured” it for a broader audience if you prefer, with his social criticism while Verne “matured” his work with as rigorous a basis in scientific fact as possible. (In fact, Verne’s specifications for the rocket used in From the Earth to the Moon are remarkably similar to those of the actual rocket that took the first Earthmen to the moon.)
Wonder is essential, necessary, and I miss it, because lately I don’t need Battlestar Galactica to tell me life sucks, however brilliantly it does so. Lately I find myself needing time traveling phone booths, ten-mile deep planetary power generators, and titanic alien monoliths to remind me why I should care, and what I might miss if I stop.
*An aside regarding Children of Men: can you think of a single American or European filmmaker who could have adopted a Mexican aesthetic sensibility as well as Alfonso Cuaron adopted an English one for Children of Men? He used a King Crimson song, for God’s sake – and he used it well. What would the Mexican equivalent of that be? I have no idea.