My friends (and especially my wife) all understand that I’m the wrong guy to take to a big budget science fiction movie. I will freely admit that this is the case. Every summer, as I sit down in one darkened cave after another to eat candy and watch some very expensive polygons interact with another bunch of very expensive polygons, I find myself swirling with a curious and unpleasant mix of emotions. Last week, we saw the latest Spider-Man reboot (I’m writing this in mid-summer of 2012), and as I left the cinema in quite a curmudgeonly mood, I thought I’d try and explain what I was feeling during and after the movie.
First, of course, there is the feeling of engrossment. There are many sins committed by big-budget adventure movies, but being boring is not one of them. Expensive, well-reviewed blockbusters generally clip along at an excellent pace. If they were books, we’d call them page-turners. A very talented group of creators have worked together to ensure that there is always something that has you watching closely, and exclaiming, chuckling, gasping, etc., as the scene demands.
But close on the heels of that is a feeling of resentment. When I see a movie like Spider-Man, it’s clear that there’s not much there there. The jokes are well-timed and well-told, but they’re not very good jokes. Likewise the dialog: never have dumber, less believable words been spoken with more conviction by a group of such talented actors. The scenery is beautiful and well-shot, but it’s incoherent. As I watch such a movie, I know that I’m not going to walk out of it having gained any real understanding of the world or the people in it. These are not movies you go to for enlightenment or even edification. But there’s a fundamental mismatch between the amount of engagement my limbic system gives over to a movie like Spider-Man and the amount it deserves, and this mismatch leaves me feeling manipulated and, yes, resentful.
Finally there comes the ire. The reason that SF movies command such a titanic amount of attention and money from audiences is because they are brilliantly wrought spectacles. What they lack in depth and introspection, they make up for in polish and craftsmanship. Every costume is perfect. Not one polygon is out of place. An army of musicians, the greatest in the land, have picked up horns and stringed instruments by the orchestra-load and played precisely the right music to set the blood singing, written by genius composers and edited into the soundtrack by golden-eared engineers from the top of their trade. The product is perfectly turned out, and this perfection attracts the eye and captures the mind.
But although these spectacles look like movies, what they really are is opera – stylized, larger-than-life, highly symbolic work that is not meant to be understood literally. And it makes me nuts.
How else to explain the glaring inconsistencies that sit in the center of these movies, like turds floating in the precise center of a crystal punchbowl carved out of the largest, most perfect diamond in the whole world? I mean, look at Spider-Man again, and think for a moment about the absurdity of its set-pieces.
In the first act, Peter Parker, the story’s protagonist, visits the enormous Science Tower built by a mysterious Science Billionaire, a Manhattan skyscraper that looks more like a Las Vegas casino from the outside. Parker steps into the atrium of the office building, a soaring multi-level lobby that is dominated by a fifty-foot-tall digital display on which a continuous loop of the Science Billionaire plays. Every 90 seconds or so, the Science Billionaire says words to the effect of ‘‘Welcome to Science Billionaire Co! I founded this with nothing but a wooden cart and a bushel of apples and a microscope. Now I am a Science Billionaire! And you are my minions! Welcome, I say, to Science Billionaire Tower, where the future of tomorrow begins today, as we advance Science through Scientific Means.’’ He winks out of existence for a merciful moment, and then he’s back again: ‘‘Welcome to Science Billionaire Co! I founded this with nothing….’’
How is it possible that the thousands of people who pass through this lobby every day have tolerated this repeating billboard? This is a building full of scientists and engineers – why have none of them found a creative way to silence the endless boss-loop that has all the rewatchability of an airline safety video? How is it that the people working at the reception desk have not turned into righteous, vengeful mobs, and set upon the facilities people who allow this torture to continue?
Let’s follow Parker up into the labs, or rather ‘‘labs.’’ Because although these are the home of cutting edge research, they look like no lab I’ve ever visited. Instead, they look like a highly polished phone-support bank, with glassed-in conference rooms around the edges that have been temporarily taken over with trade-show exhibits for new products. Every single thing in the ‘‘lab’’ – a wet biology lab, no less – looks like a product, not like an experiment. Experiments are pretty unglamorous-looking, by and large, even when they’re performed on a mass-scale. The racks of sequencers operating at the Wellcome-Sanger Trust’s genome project near Cambridge are tidy and uniform, but they’re also sited in a room where there are slightly untidy piles of consumables for the devices, carts and people moving among them, loose papers, and so on. In other words, they look like a place where busy people are doing things.
Indeed, the film’s visual designers are capable of showing us what a lived-in environment looks like. The high-school scenes are somewhat stylized, but it’s clear that we’re meant to understand that these are rooms for learning in, not factory showrooms. The scenes of Peter’s home are, well, homey. The convenience store in a run-down neighborhood looks like a convenience store.
The funny thing is that while Peter’s home life and school life and even the convenience store are all important to his story, none are as specifically vital as the lab. Spider-Man is a creature of a laboratory, and the whole mcguffin turns on the extremely specific circumstances of his experiences in the lab. To a large extent, the Spider-Man story is the story of a person who’s survived a toxic industrial accident, and his attempts to cope with the aftermath of it.
Now, obviously, the actual science of Spider-Man is hand-wavey. We don’t know of even a theoretical basis for giving people spider powers through spider bites, no matter what is done to the spider before the bite takes place. But the method of the science isn’t hand-wavey at all. Science is science. It takes place in rooms that are slightly cluttered, with some combination of Dilbert and XKCD cartoons (or local equivalent) on the door. The scientists look like scientists: a bit nerdy, a bit harried, and extremely focused. The characteristic tasks of science – arguing, staring intently at screens, begging for funding, writing down stuff and revising it, and getting heated up about something cool and unexpected – are all visually interesting, and there’s no good design reason to omit them from Science Billionaire’s Science Tower.
It’s true that most of the audience for Spider-Man will never set foot in a working lab, and the lack of verisimilitude won’t loom out of the screen for them the way it does for me. But humans can distinguish between realism and its opposite, even when we lack direct experience. I haven’t been an arena locker-room since I quit little league hockey at the age of 13, but when a cheap movie cuts away to a sterile locker room that has obviously been installed on a backlot for the day, I can spot it a mile away. A locker room isn’t a generic room filled with lockers. If Spider-Man had a locker room scene, the locker-room would look like a real locker-room. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it also wouldn’t be jarring, obvious, lazy rubbish.
Of all the fakey, uninspired visual tropes that plague science fiction and action movies, the top of the chart is computer user-interfaces. Anything vaguely visually interesting but not really the sort of thing anyone would ever use (Tom Cruise’s multiscreen touch interface from Minority Report) becomes de rigeur for future films, each one of which elaborates on the details of its workings until every contradiction, logical flaw and impracticality is made obvious.
Unlike labs, computers are something that practically every viewer will have direct experience of. I’ll freely stipulate that computers aren’t visually interesting, but the failure of screen-writing and directorial imagination in feature films is sheer laziness. If there’s some bioscience to be done on a computer and you can’t think of a way to make it interesting to look at, then have the young scientist say, ‘‘I’ll just tweak the parameters and re-run the simulation and we can go off for lunch while it re-calculates,’’ and have the knowing billionaire smirk as the result is rendered instantaneously on the console, and say something smug about the sheer number of nanoflops on tap at Science Billionaire Co’s private server farm. The young scientist stares agape, and his fingers rattle on the keyboard as he runs a bunch of stuff in parallel until he actually brings the server farm to its knees with his exuberance. ‘‘Now let’s go get some lunch,’’ he says with a bit of sassy so-there. Science Billionaire is visibly impressed. Now you’ve got humans talking plausibly about science, interacting with one another, in a way that is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever stared in frustration at a watch-cursor as something updated in the bowels of her computer.
I understand that I’m the guy who seems most thoroughly irritated by this business. Maybe if I could relax and treat it as larger-than-life opera, it would be better. Though I don’t understand why the operatic elements, the ones treated as mere set-dressing and metaphor, to be manipulated with impunity and without any regard to realism or believability, have to be the things that actually animate the story: technology and science.
My friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden has pointed out to me that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is actually a very pretty movie, and if you switch the DVD to Italian and pretend it’s opera, it’s rather enjoyable, too (this only works if you don’t speak Italian).
Teresa has another top tip: if you want to know how a SFX-heavy movie was sold to its investors, stick it on your screen on a long airplane ride. Don’t put on the headphones, just run the video, and go on with your business as you fly from A to B. The scenes that snag your eye and make you go, ‘‘Woah’’ were the scenes that were roughed in on the powerpoint deck that was presented to the people who controlled the hundreds of millions of dollars that went into this production. The actual production was an exercise in figuring out how to execute the set pieces in as grand a fashion as possible, and to join together the set pieces with a minimum of fuss.
After all, Hollywood has always been primarily a means of turning moderate-risk capital into larger pools of capital. And like all capital businesses, Hollywood has become another branch of the financial industry, all swollen and distorted by the cheap credit bubble, until every big blockbuster has a price tag in excess of $100 million. Those big price tags are good for the people on the sell-side of Hollywood, but they’re not such great news for those of us viewers on the buy-side.
There’s one similarity to all films in that price-range: they are being funded by risk-averse bankers (or pseudo-bankers) who want to hedge their bets. That means tying together as many sure things as possible: use the actors who did best in last summer’s movies to make sequels to the stories that did best in last summer’s movies. If you run out of room for sequels, reboot the franchise and start over again. Anything to create as many known quantities as possible for the cells in the investors’ spreadsheet.
It’s this, I think, that makes me saddest and maddest at summer blockbusters. It’s the sensation that the Dream Factory has turned into a place where the brightest writers, composers, musicians, painters, CGI artists, actors, directors, stunt-workers, and designers get access to a nigh-infinite supply of capital, provided that they promise to never, ever take an avoidable artistic risk.
It’s the artistic version of what’s happened to the math world: if you’re a brilliant mathematician, you are sucked into the high-speed stock-trading vortex, never to emerge. Any theoretical insights you might have brought to the field are swallowed by the titanic finance world.
It feels like we’re living in an artistic version of the court of the Sun King, where all the greatest painters in the land can earn as many francs as they can carry, provided that they confine their work to painting moles on the cheeks of courtly ladies, composing inoffensive music to accompany courtly gossip, and producing frescoes and statues for Louis’s pleasure gardens. All the artifice in the world, on tap, but exclusively reserved for the trivial and unimportant.