by Joe Coluccio, Parsec President
Spectacle is the last of the six components of tragedy according to Aristotle in Poetics. In order of importance are Plot, Character, Thought (here’s one Hollywood seems to miss altogether), Diction, Song (or melody – got to have a chorus, of cour-us.) Yeah, I know, it says tragedy, but when comedy and tragedy are the choices in drama, today’s “serious” SF films fall under the rubric of “tragedy. When I get enough energy to shuffle off to a movie theater, the films I am doomed to view only manage to present spectacle. The argument that special effects and noise are the only things that bring in the money are pretty poor ones from almost any but the point of view of corporate greed. If I see one more, confusing transformation of a mobile vehicle to autonomous alien simulacrum or the cranking view of explosions in the workings of the internal combustion engine, I may turn my drinking from a sipping glass of Jack in the evening to a quart of 10W30.
My viewing, of late, has been of early television SF. Science Fiction Theater (with Truman Bradley as you host), The Outer Limits (which takes control of my television set), The Twilight Zone (in the middle ground between light and shadow) and much as folks would like to say the technology to show the flying saucer, space ship or time machine would have been used, but wasn’t available, I think there is another issue at play. Those dramas were, at root, interested in story, character, and thought. Spectacle in the form of music and special effects were just about sixth on the list of aesthetic principles. (Only Woody Allen and Sophocles can pull off a Greek chorus) All of the more technologically savvy remakes of those same earlier TV shows have pretty much been lackluster failures. Most based on the idea that gore and the shiny bobble of effects would carry the premise. It is, after all, what we, the public, want.
To point out a couple movies light on special effects but fantastic in scope, I urge you to take a look at John Sayle’s “The Brother From Another Planet.” It is ET the way an extraterrestrial should be done. OR Take a gander at Chris Marker’s “La Jettée,” done with only still photos, an effective a time travel piece later “repurposed” by Terry Gilliam and his twelve monkeys. AND When I first came home after a difficult Saturday and turned on the TV to about the fifteen minutes of “Alphaville,” I thought without knowing the name of the movie or the director (Jean-Luc Godard) that I was either looking at the work of a genius or an idiot. I have still not made a decision. But when the special effects are a Ford Mustang and an Instamatic camera, you just have to suspend your belief at the door.
Science Fiction Cinema seems to lag Science Fiction Writing by 15 to 30 years. Wow, what a great job, we say to tropes in movies, that have been thoroughly mined a generation ago by the community of science fiction writers. Yes, I agree, the effects are startling, sometimes beautiful, sometimes inspiring, enjoyable in the moment. Time to work on the substance.