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THE MANIC MANIAC- We Are Standing Still

Sci-Fi is Going Nowhere in a Hurry

By Joe Crosby     December 11, 2008


The famed robot Gort from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL(1951).
© 20th Century Fox

 

Sad news came out of Los Angeles last week, when we found out that genre icon Forrest Ackerman had died. More obviously, this is significant because Ackerman was the steward of present-day genre--sci-fi, horror, fantasy, among others. He nurtured it from its toddler days and helped launch or inspire the careers of many of those who have brought it into maturity. And, as Mania commentor Bill_the_Pony said, Ackerman "made loving the strange and wonderful a thing not to be ashamed of." Not least, every time we say, "sci-fi," we're offering a nod to him. But maybe his death is significant not just because of who he was, but what he stood for. He stood as the old guard, a godfather of that from which nearly everything after derived. Maybe his death means there's room for a new guard, the likes of which we haven't seen.
 
We're reminded of this on Friday, as The Day the Earth Stood Still opens, a remake of the sci-fi classic released in a year at the (very lengthy) height of Ackerman's career, 1951.
 
Ackerman did, indeed, make it OK to be weird and interested in the bizarre. He fostered an environment of originality. But remakes are arguably the least original thing that occurs in entertainment, but we're seeing them in numbers before unseen. In genre, this year alone has seen renewals of Day of the Dead, Death Race, The incredible Shrinking Man, Prom Night, Quarantine and Shutter. What's worse, is that genre remakes account for the vast majority of of 2008 film re-interpretations.
 
The argument is cliche, we all know that. I'd be the 100th person today to say the industry is suffering from unoriginality, remaking and adapting nearly anything to capitalize on a fan base, while neglecting many original storylines. What's surprising, though, is that genre seems to be suffering the most, at least in film.
 
If Ackerman made it OK to flaunt our the darkest corners of our imaginations, then why aren't people still doing that? In what is supposed to be a creative avenue--film--genre is arguably supposed to be the most creative we're afforded. A drama or comedy might be original in its approach to the human condition--there are vaults overflowing with legends. But genre films are doing these same things, while giving them life in other worlds. They're removing the restrictions of what we see and feel and hear and touch. At least they were.
 
With regard to sci-fi specifically, we're at a low point. If it isn't a remake or a sequel we're seeing, then it's the regurgitation of the same old atmospheres. Aliens attack. Machines take over. Zombies eat your face. You can almost always find exceptions, but they are few.
 
As Ackerman has died, there isn't a torchbearer to lead sci-fi film into a new era, where dimensions untold are explored. Almost everything is derivative of another film or book or comic, and almost every one of those are derivative of Ackerman's influence. His indirect footprint spans genres, mediums and decades.
 
Now that the face of the old guard is gone, may he rest in peace, so too should every The Day the Earth Stood Still. Just like the creators are supposed to be somewhat mad by conventional standards, the genre audience is driven by different standards of creativity. And it's being neglected by this mostly stagnant state.
 
That's not to say films aren't entertaining. You could easily identify The Dark Knight as an immensely enjoyable film, but could that same creative energy have been thrust elsewhere, rather than at the sequel of a remake? Further, are those creators even capable of producing something as good, or better, without a loose model to lean on?
 
We'll likely never know. Because the earth is standing still. We're operating in safe mode, just as Gort does after the incantation Klaatu barada nikto. Ackerman didn't live his life in his life in safe mode. If he had, we'd likely not have seen much of what we have. We need a generation like that--one that spawns a new era as another is laid to rest. Until then, you'll find me at the cinema, seeing a movie I've already seen.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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1 
popa 12/11/2008 3:52:38 PM

¬†I‚€™m not so sure there‚€™s really a category we can call science fiction anymore, not in the original meaning anyway. It‚€™s worth remembering that science fiction as a genre began when going to the moon was a weird and wacky idea. Right now we‚€™re searching for signs of life on Mars and no scientist I know would be particularly surprised if we found it. Yes, they‚€™d be excited, jubilant and drinking lots of champagne. But surprised? Not really. We wouldn‚€™t be spending billions looking for it if we weren‚€™t pretty sure we‚€™d find it. What about time travel as another example? These days more scientists do it (by accelerating particles) than fiction writers write about it.




Science fiction began as a way to dramatically show how the application of science to technology might radically change our lives. Just going to the moon was once a mind-bending concept that made us look at ourselves in a startling new way.


But all that has changed now. The idea of science changing our lives is old hat. Everyone understands it and most of us accept it as the normal course of civilization. In truth, there has always been science fiction. At one time just the idea of a clock that told time was an amazing invention that radically changed lives.




The difference now is, we understand our relationship with science. We have embraced it, and for better or worse, it is a permanent part of our culture. We have come to view science fiction as a mainstream, integral part of society, only different in viewpoint, but not substance from other types of writing. As scientific progress accelerates, the difference between fiction and science fiction begins to blur and meld together to the point that we begin to question whether there is really any difference at all.

mckracken 12/11/2008 8:50:43 PM

I would agree that hollywood (as far as the sci/fi genre) is creatively bankrupt, i often wonder why films as recent as the 1980's and 90's have to be remake while pooling science fiction from literature is virtually unheard of these days...unless its been made into a movie once before.

I mean, adapting sci/fi from a novel is actually permissible if it's never been adapted before.

1968 saw the creation of a Charlton Heston movie, Planet of the Apes this was an original fictional work of literature before the movie was made. This was ambitious to say the least. Today we're adapting Harry Potter books into films, I was venture to say that adapting a Harry Potter novel into a movie is far easier today than making Planet of the Apes back in 1968.

I think that directors need to focus more on adaptations from novels rather than remaking, reimagining, retreading, retooling, sequelizing or prequelizing other flicks that have come before only this 2nd time, with BETTER special effects.

we dont NEED better special effects, we're there, these days our special effects stop just short of actually being anything "special" or groundbreaking, or breathtaking. What we need is for Hollywood writers to step up and be original in their ideas. Ten years ago i would have said it wouldnt be such a difficult thing... now its next to impossible.

rsmith511 12/12/2008 12:01:16 PM

It's interesting to me, how often people decry the "remake" trend in Hollywood--- let's include "sequels" in that, for the sake of discussion--- without acknowledging how far back the "remake/sequel" trend actually goes.
And while I agree with McKracken, personally, that I'd like to see more adaptations of genre novels, I also have to point out that we get *plenty* of adaptations; we just don't acknowledge or recognize or respect them when we get them, any more than we respect original screenplays. (After all, "Jurassic Park" was an adaptation--- and did very well--- while "The Fountain" was a totally original work that didn't do well at all, financially.)
Thomas Edison's Edison Studios gave us the first version of "Frankenstein" in 1910, and stylistically the film was more-or-less plagiarized in 1915 with "The Golem". James Whale broke new cinemagraphic ground in '31 with his version, but Universal didn't hesitate to spin up a sequel as quickly as possible, and for all that Whale hated the idea (and deliberately tried to construct a failure) the public wanted more horror, was eager to see "The Bride of Frankenstein," and the film was an unqualified success.
And that's why the *studios* make movies: they want successes. They want to make money. To the studios--- not to us, the fans, but to the executives who run the business side of "entertainment"--- the objective isn't to make art, or to break new ground, or to show us something that's never been seen. They'll do those things, if necessary, in the pursuit of their goal, which is really "to make money." Questions of "art" or "narrative originality" or even "narrative integrity" come second; the primary goal is only "to make money", and that is accomplished *only* by making what the public is buying.
There have been, after all, many fine and original projects ("Serenity", anyone?) that The Public At Large wasn't interested in, and that don't get discovered until long after their initial release.
We complain that the movie industry lacks originality, but long after Karloff quit playing The Monster, Universal kept pumping out "Frankenstein" films, ultimately pitting their monsters against Abbott and Costello. "Dracula" spawned it's own series of sequels, as did "The Wolfman". And while "The Mummy" with Karloff wasn't given a direct sequel, Universal still trundled out a series with "Kharis", and Hammer films didn't hesitate to get into the act in to '50s with their own cycles of "Frankenstein", "Dracula" and "Mummy" movies... and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing did really fine work in those amazingly unoriginal and blatantly exploitative films.
Remakes aren't anything new; "The Blob" was remade in the '80s, "The Phantom of the Opera" has a slew of different iterations, "Jekyll and Hyde" has been not merely remade numerous times but also serialized as TV shows (both in Britain, and as "My Own Worst Enemy" in the US.)
The earth, Mr. Crosby, isn't standing still. It's simply turning the way it always has. We *do* get original stories that excite and thrill us; we always have. And because the entertainment industry is always about making money, we then get variations on the exciting and thrilling theme for as long as possible, until the theme is no longer exciting and thrilling and the projects no longer make money... and then Hollywood and its executives look for the next project that will entice their audiences into spending money.
"Planet of the Apes" was a small, inexpensive project in the '60s, by necessity: Rod Serling's original script was considered too expensive, which is why the apes wound up in a more primitive village. It did, however, make a boatload of money, justifying more expensive sequels (for far too many movies) until the final production "returned to the cheap" to see if just one more film could be squeezed out.
If it seems like science fiction and horror is creatively bankrupt, the real issue may be that many of us, as lovers of the genres, don't tend to notice the overwhelming numbers of retreaded and thinly disguised films being made in all the other genres. There are only so many plots that can be told about losing sports teams that are turned into winners by dedicated people who *believe* in them; after a while, even the true stories seem flatly familiar. Most men shake their heads at "chick flicks" because the themes tend to be so familiar that it's impossible to be even remotely surprised by what happens, although the familiarity might be part of the appeal. The "Families during the Holidays" genre has nothing left to offer; most of us know what will happen in these stories after we see the trailer and a few commercials.
How many different ways can cop stories be told, to keep the narrative fresh? And if an action/adventure story manages to break new ground, even by just creating an entertaining new character, it's a safe bet that we'll see more of the same, because "breaking new ground" and making money at it is sufficient justification, in Hollywood, for doing more of the same, and that's *always* been the case.
Whether you love or hate the "Lethal Weapon" franchise, it doesn't hurt to point out that "Martin Riggs" is the spiritual stepson of "Dirty Harry", and Harry was churned out reliably for years. Harry Callahan is the spiritual forefather of John McClane, as well, and all three of them gave rise to Frank Martin, and I'd like to suggest that "The Transporter" franchise ran out of originality a long time ago.
We aren't standing still. We just aren't moving as fast as we might wish, and when we *do* move, we have a tourist's habit of then stopping and admiring the scenery until we've seen everything there is to see. And then we move on to something else. Of course, after enough years, there's a whole new audience behind us who haven't seen these sights, who think they're looking at a whole new horizon, who want to check out the entire landscape, and Hollywood will always be there to happily show them around.
It's when we start to complain about the lack of originality--- because we recognize the source material--- that we reveal ourselves to have, finally, become Old Farts... and since that's not a demographic that Hollywood tries to cultivate, we notice the many ideas that are being repeated, and miss that time when we thought the ideas were new.

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