The Dilemma of the Brainy Sci-Fi Blockbuster (BSFB) Part 1
The Flatiron Hot! Critic deconstructs the Sci-Fi Blockbusters – Part 1 …
One can select any number of summer blockbusters to support the cliched assertion that Hollywood has lost its magic. Loud, flashy, and utterly bereft of such cinematic staples as storytelling, characterization and directorial vision, the films in question are unashamedly tailored to deliver the biggest possible adrenaline rush to the widest swath of the testosterone-fueled young male demographic.
For those interested in curmudgeonly reflections on contemporary cinema, check out David Denby’s recent piece for The New Republic, which examines in painful detail how Hollywood, once the playground of brilliant directors like Coppola and Scorcese, has degenerated into a purveyor of empty spectacle.
This article will focus on a specific breed of modern film that I have dubbed the “brainy sci-fi blockbuster” (BSFB). The last few years have the seen the release of a number of movies that fall into this category. They may show sparks of innovation, even genius, but never at the expense of meeting Hollywood’s all-important gunshot and explosion quotients.
Some examples of BSFBs include Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and, more recently, Rian Johnson’s Looper, Andy Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas and BSFB pioneer Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. To be sure, all five films differ in style and subject matter, their only superficial similarity being an abundance of sci-fi elements. Nevertheless, they are remarkably similar in their approach and, one suspects, their objective: to woo critics with an intriguing sci-fi conceit that triggers associations with real-world issues (the “topical factor”) while also netting the young males.
The efforts of said filmmakers pay off because critics and film buffs are desperate to find mainstream entertainment to praise, thereby staving off accusations of elitism. Alas, following the establishment of a brainy premise in the first third or so of a BSFB’s running time, the sheen of intellectual ambition dissipates to make way for stylized action sequences that young male audiences know and love.
There is nothing inherently problematic about sci-fi action movies with artistic aspirations. The 1970s were the heyday of this type of film; think George Lucas masterpieces THX 1138 and the phenomenon that is the original Star Wars trilogy. In his prime, aforementioned sci-fi auteur Ridley Scott was particularly effective in blending pulse-pounding action and cerebral elements in classic films such as Alien and Blade Runner
Alas, not all directors are able to pull off the delicate balancing act of producing a quality BSFB. Dwell too much on the intellectual elements, and you leave the action movie demographic snoring. Pack in too much action, and you lose your credibility with the critics. Such is the dilemma of the modern BSFB.
Stay tuned for part two of this article, which will further explore the phenomenon of BSFBs by means of an in-depth analysis of Rian Johnson’s Looper.