Saturday, November 29, 2014

"How 'Star Wars' ruined sci-fi"

I just read this article, "How 'Star Wars' ruined sci-fi" by Lewis Beale at CNN.com. I felt the need to post a rebuttal here, not because of my love for "Star Wars," but as someone who loves movies, in general, and as a non-professional movie critic.

Lewis Beale is an American journalist, film critic and film lecturer whose articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, Interview, USA Today, Film Journal International, and other publications. He was also a senior writer at Us Weekly.

"Now that the trailer for the seventh "Star Wars" movie is out, you can imagine the anticipation among the millions of fans of the film franchise. And why not? The six "Star Wars" films have been enormous successes: they have grossed over $2 billion domestically at the box office, spawned scores of books, comic books and merchandise (how many kids have their own light saber?) and made household names of characters like Darth Vader, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker."

You can't deny any of that.

"They've also been the worst thing ever for the science fiction genre."

No, they are not. I'm guessing he's never seen any of the movies made by The Asylum for the Sy-Fy channel, which I'm not necessarily saying those movies are bad. They are bad, in a good way. I'm actually a fan of those movies, but this entry isn't about those.

"I say this as someone who has been a devoted sci-fi reader since childhood. I was so blown away by the first "Star Wars" film when I saw it in 1977, I went back two more times the same week to wallow in its space age fantasy. But here's the thing: George Lucas' creation, basically a blown-up Flash Gordon adventure with better special effects, has left all too many people thinking science fiction is some computer graphics-laden space opera/western filled with shootouts, territorial disputes, evil patriarchs and trusty mounts (like the Millennium Falcon)."

I don't remember how many times I saw Episodes 4 and 6 in the theaters, but I remember seeing episode 5 twice. Both times, the sight of Han Solo being dropped into the carbonite freezer freaked me out a little bit, for some reason. Chewie's sorrowful howl almost did me in.

The special effects were a little sketchy in places (sometimes you could see the outlines of the ships as they were pasted into dog fights in space), but this was movie making on a grand scale. There were huge sets, miniature sets and those beautiful painted backdrops....those were art forms in and of themselves!

John Williams? That man single-handedly made me start to listen to the movie scores. His music was a narration to those movies.

""Star Wars" has corrupted people's notion of a literary genre full of ideas, turning it into a Saturday afternoon serial. And that's more than a shame -- it's an obscenity."

Ummmm, I'm sorry, did Lewis see the same original trilogy as me? It never came across as a Saturday afternoon serial. "A New Hope" was 121 minutes long. Did he leave in the middle of it to make a bathroom run or to get popcorn?

As far as "Star Wars" goes, it was a wonderful fairy tale that anyone could appreciate. There was a princess that needed saving from a horrible villain in black, There was the sweet farm boy that felt out of place, who lost everything he had, to try and make a difference in his world. There was the scruffy looking nerf-herder/space pirate that only wanted to protect himself and not be a hero, and his gigantic furry best friend. It was a tale of travel, excitement, action and adventure, with just a touch of romance thrown in. And that was just Episode 4. I don't think George Lucas ever tried to hide that idea of it being a fairy tale. 

It was a smart move. Aside from being influenced by aerial dog fights in war, I always figured "A New Hope" was ultimately written as a fairy tale because it would attract so many more people: parents would take their kids to it; science fiction fans would go to it; action adventure fans would enjoy it.

The first movie, "A New Hope," left so much open to the viewers' imagination. What was the Clone Wars? How and why did Darth Vader kill Luke Skywalker's father? Why did the movie start out as being Episode 4? What happened in the first three episodes? 

And the waiting for another "Star Wars" movie...those were the days, before the internet, there were no spoilers.

"Science fiction is in fact one of the most creative literary genres around. The best of sci-fi is filled with meditations on what's "out there," what makes us human, how technology is used and how it is changing us. It takes up issues of race, sexuality and quite literally everything else under the sun. It is essentially about ideas, not action, and that's the problem, as far as Hollywood is concerned."

True.

"There are, for example, no light sabers, spaceships or Death Stars in the 1979 novel "Kindred," by Octavia Butler, who won the Hugo and Nebula, sci-fi's top awards, and was also awarded a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant.

"Butler's main themes are race and sex, and in "Kindred" she wrote about a modern black woman who travels back in time to the antebellum South, where she is enslaved. The novel is regularly taught in classrooms and has made at least one list of "Great Books By Women."

"But Hollywood has yet to adapt it for the screen. Maybe if the lead character had a Wookiee by her side...

"Many of the great works of sci-fi have not been made into films -- The Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov, Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War," William Gibson's "Neuromancer," among others -- partially because they are too smart, too dense and too thoughtful."


Lewis is correct here. How many wonderful sci-fi books are published every year? And how many of those would make incredible movies? But just because Lewis liked a handful of them and wishes for movies, doesn't mean that's a slam against the book because of "Star Wars." That's like saying I didn't get a job I wanted, so it must be Obama's fault. Makes about as much sense, doesn't it?

I think Laurel K. Hamilton is an awesome writer. Some of her books would make really interesting, visual movies. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein would be a killer movie! The fact that it hasn't been brought to the big screen is not George Lucas' fault. 

"Sure, some classics have made the transition, but the track record is spotty: David Lynch's "Dune" was a disaster, for example, and the recent "Ender's Game" was a mixed bag that was not successful at the box office. Francois Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451," although stylish and intellectual, was a bit too frigid for a mass audience."

So now, we are only talking about sci-fi books that are turned into movies? I thought we were just talking about sci-fi movies in general. This guy jumps around a lot!

And saying a movie was intellectual and a bit too frigid for a mass audience...well, that comes across as condescending. It is an insult to the average movie-goer to say they weren't smart enough to "get" a certain movie? While an excellent book, maybe the source material for Francois Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" just didn't translate well to the big screen. Maybe the screenplay adaptation wasn't well written.

"Which means that Hollywood studios, not known for thinking outside the box, opt for the "Star Wars" template -- lots of whiz bang, plenty of quirky alien characters, CGI to the max, plenty of explosions and little thought of any kind."

The powers-that-be at the major film studios probably have the final say on what movies will be made. Those powers don't agree with the average sci-fi book reader, at least, for right now. That doesn't mean they aren't thinking outside the box. 

If I think about sci-fi movies that are outside the box, "A.I." and "Her" come to mind. What about "The Fountain?" Those original, quirky kind of sci-fi movies are out there. Lewis Beale might not be opening his mind to them. It makes me wonder if he's ever been to an art movie house or used Netflix. He might find what he's looking for there.

Or, if we are still talking about mainstream sci-fi movies, how about "Dead Snow" or "Rammbock"? There was even a movie made from a German or Russian book about were-animals. It was called something like "Daywalkers," "Nightwalkers" or something along those lines. It was a good movie that I borrowed from Nicole the Knitter; I just don't remember the title.

"To be sure, the first "Star Wars" was a breath of fresh air, a fun flick for sci-fi geeks. But the series quickly ossified, a victim of its own success. Only two of the films -- "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" -- show any originality. The rest tread water, give the hardcore fans the same old, same old. I mean, how many light sabre duels can you sit through before you're bored out of your skull? How many outer space dogfights? How many seemingly profound Yoda-esque thoughts?"

How was "Return of the Jedi" unoriginal?

And when you think about the existing six movies, "The Clone Wars" movie, and the animated series...hell, just for fun, throw in "Star Wars Holiday Special" from 1978...the answer is: us hard core Star Wars fans will sit through every lightsaber duel, outer space dog fight, and Yoda-esque thought that is offered to us. No one is forcing us to see any of those movies. 

And we are also capable of knowing what we didn't like about the individual movies. Jar Jar Binks, anyone? The lack of chemistry between Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman. I personally would have preferred to see Anakin Skywalker as crazy and dangerous, instead of whiny and sad.

And if Lewis Beale hates them so much, then why is he still writing about them? Is he hoping to change people's minds? Or, why can't he move on and find out if there's a sci-fi movie out there that he would like?

"Me, I'm giving up on the whole thing. I don't care that J.J. Abrams, a director with talent, is helming the new flick. He's hemmed in by audience expectations -- like casting the stars of the original in this film -- and recycling stale material. I'll pass."

I love this: it takes him an entire article to state that he's not going to see the new Star Wars movie. How does he even know it includes "recycling stale material?" J.J. Abrams is notorious for having locked down sets and not letting anything get released until he says so. Sure, we've seen footage of the Falcon flying, and what looks to be X-wing fighters, plus even a few Storm Troopers. But you can't make a Star Wars movie with out that, just like you couldn't make a James Bond movie without a couple of beautiful women for Bond to bang, some vodka martinis to swill, and a Walther PPK pistol to shoot. There are mainstays of certain film genres that have to be included.

And yes, the stars of the original trilogy are going to be in this new movie. All you have to do is look at the IMDB page for "The Force Awakens" to know that. Look at it today, and you'll see a lot of blank spaces. Abrams et al are still building hype for this. A teaser trailer doesn't tell you everything you need to know about a movie, but we all become movie critics when we see a trailer, don't we?

"Instead, I'll queue up "The Matrix," and enjoy the most original sci-fi movie of the past 25 years. I recommend "Star Wars" fans do the same. They need to be reminded what real creativity is all about."

Yes, "The Matrix" was good and very original. The scene where the phone is ringing in the TV repair shop as the group tries to escape from the agents really stuck with me. But I notice that Lewis does't mention the somewhat dismal sequels that came after it.

Real creativity in sci-fi cinema...how about enjoying it while we wait for the next Star Wars movie to come out? I know I can come up with some good options, with something for everyone, in  no particular order. I can enjoy these over and over again, and I won't feel the need to boycott the next movie.
  • "Explorers" (1985) comes to mind, with River Phoenix
  • "Back to the Future: (1985)
  • "Ghostbusters" (1984)
  • "Beetlejuice: (1988)
  • "Tron" (1982)
  • "Modern Problems" (1981) with Chevy Chase
  • "Spaceballs" (1987)
  • "Iron Man" (2008)
  • "Spider-Man" (2002)
  • "The Avengers" (2012)
  • "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (2003)
  • "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011) 
  • "Starman" (1984)
  • "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" (1982)
  • "Firestarter" (1984) 
  • "Paul" (2011)
  • anything "Star Trek"
  • The "Army of Darkness/Evil Dead" movies
  • "Galaxy Quest" (1999)
  • "Avatar" (2009)
  • The "Terminator" series
  • The "Planet of the Apes" series
Sci-fi movies started in 1902, with Georges Melies' "La Voyage dans la Lune" ("Voyage to the Moon"). 

I think Christopher B. summed it up best: "The first outstanding science fiction film--outstanding in that it influenced later films--would probably be "Metropolis," in 1926. 

"King Kong" in 1933 was probably the first sci-fi movie that appealed to a mainstream audience.

"2001: A Space Odyssey," in 1968, is usually considered the first science fiction film that had a deep, philosophical level to it. It is usually considered one of the greatest films ever, and it used realistic special effects that are impressive even today."

Since 1902, there have been so many different types of sci-fi movies, that there are sub-genres within it, and you can have your favorite types. Me, I prefer sci-fi movies that are hopeful about the future. Apocalyptic movies don't really do it for me, with the exception of the Terminator series.

Lewis Beale comes across as petty and whiny in this opinion piece. He's right and if you don't agree with him, well, he's going to continue to tell you why he is right. I think he could have made a better argument for his view and come across as better educated about sci-fi movies in general. I'm no expert on sci-fi movies. I just know what I like and why, but I am open to suggestion.

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