Friday, May 30, 2014

Godzilla, Science Fiction, and Polymaths

I saw "Godzilla" on Memorial Day.

It was pretty cool, I suppose.  Lemme give you the rundown.

Scientist Bryan Cranston and stuff-nasal-voiced hunk Aaron Taylor-Johnson are sad because BC's wife died in a suspicious prologue.  They have to overcome their father-son issues, I think, which involve dad being the kind of scientist who (loud sigh) posts newspaper articles on the wall.  "I know, it's the worst idiosyncrasy, but the only way to respect your mother's memory is by becoming a conspiracy theorist."

Then for plot reasons, there are huge.  huge.  monsters.  Partially I don't like them because none of them are MothraGhidorah, or Gigan.  Then Godzilla shows up, more like an afterthought than a built-up, meaningful Second Coming, and fights them.  And then there is destruction and smoke and fog and a lot of staring at intense stuff, and then the monsters are gone and the movie's over.  Seriously, done deal.

I loved these films as a child largely because of the monsters and largely because I was a child.  I know that I am using a much less appeasable instrument (adult brain) and comparing it to distractable ten year old brain, but I watched half an hour of "Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster" on Netflix and enjoyed that much of it Way more than this new, apparently good reboot.

The new reboot is not good.  Trying to find the flaws in Godzilla is not hard.  The problem, in fact, is listing them.  The film is more about being a reboot than anything related to monsters or Japan or even Bryan Cranston.  It relishes in greyscale.  It refutes campiness by resorting to a tone of unending dreariness, so much so that Ken Wanatabe was payed (hopefully) a million or so to STAND LOOKING OUT AT THE WATER WITH WORLD-WEARY WORRY.  He probably has six lines, one of which is the obligatory (never happy) only sighting of the world "Godzilla".  The monsters fights are mostly skipped over, as if saving us from the experience we paid money to see.  Pacific Rim was thirty times more fun and even if the writing was campier I actually enjoyed the freakin movie.

I'm just gonna stop reviewing the movie right now and tell you what's up, and this is actually what this post is going to be about: Movies are doing fantasy and science fiction wrong.

I repeat: They're doing science fiction and fantasy the wrong way.  "Why do you say that?" you ask, adorably naive reader, "There are sf & f movies all over the place?  All these comic book movies, not to mention all of the adaptations of children's lit like Hunger Games and Divergent, plus The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and everything else that's been engendered by it!" You're right, they exist, and some have been nice, but most aren't right.

Science fiction is a place to explore new ideas.  You would be shocked to know how many incredible inventions and ideas of today can be traced back to a few writers.  William Gibson's "Neuromancer" is theorized to have played a key role in the invention and development of the internet.  Neal Stephenson's novels have never been smarter or cleverer commentary on culture and technology.  And fantasy is no exception.  Where science fiction makes science into magic, fantasy makes magic into emotional reality.  Great fantasy writers like China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, and others allow us to see the world in splending, colorful new ways.

The entertainment machine, the hydra with such recognizable heads as Disney, Legendary Pictures, and HBO, has seen half of this world--they have seen the money.  They've seen nerdy boys apprenticed by their fathers in the way of science fiction, given books that change them.  They've seen how these nerdy boys spend money--lots of money--buying more books, or games, or comics, or whatever.  It inspires something in them, and inspiration, as we all know, means box office sales!

But it also means reduction, which is our first (1st) problem.  "Yes, we can make movies with spaceships and dragons and robots and all the things you want, but they're going to be movies.  Action movies, with lots of explosions and enough drums and percussion so no one gets bored or has to think too much.  Delving with issues or figuring out themes that matter is for dramas.  Except those will probably just be more about sex or murder."

So that's obvious.  I'm not saying anything new, just complaining about the commercialism of film.  Obviously they are trying to entertain.  Or I should say "we", as I am also a professional in this business at least to a degree.  Entertainment is important, and selling tickets is important, and though people are not as foolish as to simply want explosions and violence, they also aren't looking to read some new philosophical manifesto every time they walk into a theater.

So our second (2nd) problem isn't related to money.  It's related to the entertainment industry and specialization.

Specialization is an old time-honored thing.  You want to do something, like be a film director.  You get training, whether it be from Obi-Wan Kenobi or from a university or both.  Then you are qualified to a degree and join the ranks of people who have specialized.  Other people, who have not had the training and are thus not a part of the community, simply are not a part of it because they don't have the specialized skills.  They're not "special" in the right ways.

This system has worked for a long time, and is failing us now.  Why?  There are lots of people who want to do entertainment.  Lots of people want to be film directors and writers and actors, and so it's hard to know who to trust.  Walk down the street in NY and ask for a raise of hands "Who's an actor?" You'll get a lot.  Even though you're weird for asking for a raise of hands in public.

So now, instead of just specializing, we network.  Afraid of unknown quantities, communities of artists become centralized, trusting certain people and working with them.  This works great for many individuals and many communities--people get to work with people they like again and again, and they can feel comfortable and safe in their careers.  Entertainment can be especially scary, so it feels very safe to have a group of friends who are also co-workers in a sense.

But This.  Hurts.  Art.  There are diverse individuals in different communities who could work well with each other.  It's amazing to me that a mind like Neil Gaiman's and a mind like Christopher Nolan's have never met up and done a project.  It's far more likely that director Guillermo del Toro will turn to some friend from college to co-write his screenplay than to call up China Mieville, who would be an incredible match.  There are science fiction and fantasy authors out there capable of writing incredible films.  It's not like there are no good writers and we Have to turn to some doofus to write the screenplay for Godzilla.  Get a real writer to do the science fiction, and Max can put it in screenplay format.  I mean, the science used in Godzilla is at about the seventh-grade level.  The big reveal of the movie revolves around the idea of ECHOLOCATION.  I knew what that word meant in second grade, and I knew it related to bats and communication.  Who pooped out this screenplay?  Yeah, the formatter doofus.

The world values polymaths (Renaissance Men, people who are experts at many things), and so we all want to be them.  Joss Whedon is an inspiration to lots of people because he has roots in SF & F but makes great movies and writes great dialogue and also writes music, why not.  And so everyone wants to be him.  Every young director wants to write and direct, and hopefully star in his movies.  But being a polymath is not a matter of ego.  When it is, you often make crappy movies.

Being a polymath is a matter of being abso-freakin-lutely insane.  Polymaths are obsessive.  They are nerdy and often socially difficult.  They work their butts off day and night to keep up with the things they are good at.  Sometimes they might pick up new skills, but it's never without effort or work.  It's because they are willing to put in the time an really do it right.  There are incredible people, but "just being you" doesn't qualify you.  Even if you are hardworking or talented, it doesn't qualify you.

But heck, don't worry about that.  Polymaths are not the solution to bad movies, or bad science fiction and fantasy.  The solution is people doing what they're good at.  It's really seeking to make good art, even when we have to put aside working with our friends or the people we like, or getting the most money for it.  I think that really, really matters.  And even if he can't always tell the difference, I think ten-year-old Ted does too.