The OF Blog: I suppose some SF movie fans won't like Anthony Lane's "Out There" column in The New Yorker

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I suppose some SF movie fans won't like Anthony Lane's "Out There" column in The New Yorker

I was just now reading the March 21, 2011 issue of The New Yorker when I came across Anthony Lane's movie column, "Out There," which discusses the movies Battle:  Los Angeles and Paul:

As shown by “Battle: Los Angeles,” and hordes of films before it, science fiction is nothing if not mockable. The very extravagance of its imaginings lays it wide open, to the crowing delight of a movie such as “Paul.” Directed by Greg Mottola, it was written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also star as a pair of hapless British dorks named Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings. They visit San Diego to attend Comic-Con, like pilgrims journeying to Santiago de Compostela, and then rent an R.V. to tour those hot spots beloved of U.F.O.logists—Area 51 and the rest. And then they meet an alien.

What happened here? I yield to no one in my joy at Frost and Pegg’s earlier films, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” which also thrived on parody, and stung with satirical precision. But they were set in England, whereas “Paul,” adrift in foreign territory, feels at once secondhand in its eagerness and unknowing in its scorn. The secondary figures look especially thin; just as I was thinking, Oh well, at least the writers haven’t resorted to some crazy-eyed trailer-park Bible-thumper toting a shotgun, in came Moses Buggs (John Carroll Lynch). More vexing, though, is the thought that science fiction is so inherently close to the absurd that the toughest challenge is not to lampoon it—as movies like “Galaxy Quest” have done before, and as Mottola does here with his blatant gestures to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.”—but to play it straight, as Spielberg managed to do. Only thus can we probe, to borrow a key verb from the aficionados, the ridiculous for the sublime: those terrors, or unlikely consolations, that lurk within. 

I suppose I could feel outraged; doubtless some reading the final paragraphs of Lane's dual review might take umbrage.  Yet, when I stopped for a moment and thought about it, I just didn't.  Rather, I find myself agreeing to some extent with Lane's comments, as they are applicable to SF movies.  There really is something ridiculous about the presentations in the vast majority of SF movies I've seen.  It might have to do with the emphasis on spectacle at the expense of characterizations.  In a novel, I can forgive powerful novels who might skimp a bit on character development, but whenever it comes to a movie, if there are not well-realized, dynamic characters, I'm likely going to tune out and become bored at the so-called "eye candy."

Having seen previews of Paul, I have no desire at all to see this movie.  I suspect I can chart its probable plot/gag path without straying far from actual events.  The same holds true to the few other SF/adventure movies I've seen in recent years (comic and serious alike).  It's just so dull and played out, the close following of a particular movie formula, that I just cannot help but sympathize with Lane's disdain for SF (or is that now SyFy?) cinema.  Maybe others more knowledgeable than I can weigh in on this?


Martin said...

Why not simply agree with Lane's eminently sensible comment? It seems odd to frame this as "hypothetical people might disagree with this but I don't" when that adds absolutely nothing to the post.

Anonymous said...

Surely what you should take from this is not to watch mainstream Sci-Fi films, If you don't want to be able to guess the plot watch something like Primer which makes you think.

Ben Godby said...

Obviously, there's a problem with SF cinema when people think "District 9" and "Inception" are good movies.

Derrick said...

please, no SyFy. It is just dirty...

jason said...


Then what are examples of good recent SF movies?

Jason said...

Sci-Fi movies aren't for everyone. Just like stuffy period piece dramas or schmaltzy romantic comedies aren't for everyone. It's like burgers. Sometimes you just want a McDonald's burger even when you know it's inferior to, say, In-n-Out or Fat Burger. Sometimes you want a popcorn movie, something filled with spectacle and excitement, and the argument that such movies aren't worth the film they're printed on--though I imagine, in the digital age of film making, that's a poor analogy--is old hat.

Unfortunately, Battle L.A. was in short supply as far as even the spectacle and excitement went. Too much shaky cam--I like to SEE what's going on--and unimaginative aliens. There were attempts early in the film to endear the audience to the cast through characterization, but they didn't pay off in the end. About what you'd expect from this type of movie.

But does this mean ALL Sci-Fi movies are horrible? No. Take "Moon" for instance, an indie Sci-Fi flick with a great actor in Sam Rockwell and excellent writing. No explosions, no aliens, but riveting and thought-provoking nonetheless. Proof that Sci-Fi isn't a bad word in the movie industry.

Larry said...

I'm glad no one beat me down for being near-totally ignorant of SF cinema (or of most cinematic genres, to be honest). I'm guessing, from the 1 or so movies every year or two I see is that I seem to miss the more daring work, as those might be lost in the sea of formulaic work?

Grobstein said...

There's just very little correspondence between what a SF movie is likely to be about and what I find interesting in (reading) science fiction. I don't enjoy science fiction because it supplies recycled settings for adventure stories, but that's broadly what SF movies use SF for (or comedies? viz. "Paul"). (Of course there are exceptions; I hope to see "Moon.")

There is a lot of media which treats SF book readers, SF movie fans, and "Doctor Who" fans as a unified fandom. I guess that means that my preferences are not universal (and / or that people want to be part of a larger fandom). For me, a site like io9 has no reason to exist -- it corrals a collection of interests that increasingly have nothing in common. Obviously it's for someone, but it's alien to me.

All of this casts an unfavorable light on the still-alive notion that "fans are slans" -- smarter better more interesting people somehow. No. Fans are people who will pay money to see Transformers 2.

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