Summer is upon is, which means that summer blockbusters are too. As per tradition, most of the movies are of the superhero genre (X-Men: Days of Future Past; The Amazing Spider-Man 2), or epic fantasy (Godzilla; Maleficent), or plain old science fiction (The Signal; Transformers: Age of Extinction). There has also been much discussion about an upcoming Batman flick, and even the granddaddy of the blockbuster, Star Wars, has a franchise of follow-ups in the works.
I was never much of a sci-fi buff, but as a casual viewer I’ve noticed how the medium, at least in its cinematic form, has become so popular and so profitable that believability – elaborate back stories, hyper-realistic special effects, intricate technical details – has become a key component of inherently unbelievable entertainment. We used to accept giant monsters or caped crusaders at face value, but today’s incarnations, though derived from comic books or fairy tales, are treated with an emotional solemnity to rival that of Ingmar Bergman or Harold Pinter. What’s happened?
In the 1960s and early 70s, the so-called Silver Age of comics, the US Comics Code was revised to sanction the inclusion of racism, drug abuse, and other topical issues in comic tales; the Hulk, Green Lantern, and their cohort were placed into contemporary society, in all its troubling complexity. Later, the market for comics shifted to mature readers and collectors, who demanded an internal consistency in the plots and characterizations that their gee-whiz predecessors never worried about. The most sophisticated writers (and fans) constructed labyrinthine Marvel or DC “universes” to explain all the time warps, team-ups, and alternate realities depicted in thousands of ostensibly unrelated narratives. And the Star Wars phenomenon of 1977 and beyond established new standards of total immersion in imaginary worlds, with passing references to the Clone Wars, womp rats, and the spice mines of Kessel. George Lucas intended his movie’s environment to be “not futuristic, not designy, and not noticeable,” while co-producer Gary Kurtz added that “George wanted spaceships that operated like cars. People turned them on, drove them somewhere, and didn’t talk about the unusual thing they were doing.” Every science fiction drama now had to come with its own carefully constructed, all-encompassing cosmology. The slightest sci-fi graphic novel or television series had to be backed up by a concordance worthy of The Lord of the Rings.
Yet by straining to put an advanced naturalism into otherwise fantastic material, filmmakers and other creators have set the bar of credibility impossibly – unbelievably – high. In the same way that a white lie spun into a complicated alibi will make the fabrication more obvious, speculative fiction tends to collapse under too much background. Despite the cutting-edge hipness granted them by their authors, for instance, the vampires of Anne Rice, Twilight, and True Blood are still (no kidding) mythical beings who couldn’t exist in real life. Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining, posited a traveling band of malevolent psychics operating in modern America, but depicting the supernatural nuts and bolts of the operation rendered it far less compelling than the inexplicably haunted Overlook Hotel. And from what we know of history and science, intelligent robots and light-speed space vehicles are unlikely to exist in the same civilization as the innocent farm boys, mystical hermits, and aristocratic social order of Star Wars: A New Hope. Science fiction and fantasy are most effective when they make no pretense of being plausible.
Mad magazine once mocked the made-up tech jargon of the Star Wars ripoff Battlestar Galactica thusly: “Hurry! It’s two tacos past a burrito…Not tonight – I have a cranium megahurt.” That is, the show was so determined to saturate its invented settings with invented minutiae that it became sort of ridiculous. Similarly, the more slice-of-life verisimilitude applied to premises of costumed crime fighters, clans of zombies and werewolves, and outer-space dogfights, the more their fundamental absurdity becomes apparent. Suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing to accomplish. The harder you lift, the heavier it becomes.