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Cory Doctorow: Why Science Fiction Movies Drive Me Nuts

My friends (and especially my wife) all understand that I’m the wrong guy to take to a big budget science fiction movie. I will freely admit that this is the case. Every summer, as I sit down in one darkened cave after another to eat candy and watch some very expensive polygons interact with another bunch of very expensive polygons, I find myself swirling with a curious and unpleasant mix of emotions. Last week, we saw the latest Spider-Man reboot (I’m writing this in mid-summer of 2012), and as I left the cinema in quite a curmudgeonly mood, I thought I’d try and explain what I was feeling during and after the movie.

First, of course, there is the feeling of engrossment. There are many sins committed by big-budget adventure movies, but being boring is not one of them. Expensive, well-reviewed blockbusters generally clip along at an excellent pace. If they were books, we’d call them page-turners. A very talented group of creators have worked together to ensure that there is always something that has you watching closely, and exclaiming, chuckling, gasping, etc., as the scene demands.

But close on the heels of that is a feeling of resentment. When I see a movie like Spider-Man, it’s clear that there’s not much there there. The jokes are well-timed and well-told, but they’re not very good jokes. Likewise the dialog: never have dumber, less believable words been spoken with more conviction by a group of such talented actors. The scenery is beautiful and well-shot, but it’s incoherent. As I watch such a movie, I know that I’m not going to walk out of it having gained any real understanding of the world or the people in it. These are not movies you go to for enlightenment or even edification. But there’s a fundamental mismatch between the amount of engagement my limbic system gives over to a movie like Spider-Man and the amount it deserves, and this mismatch leaves me feeling manipulated and, yes, resentful.

Finally there comes the ire. The reason that SF movies command such a titanic amount of attention and money from audiences is because they are brilliantly wrought spectacles. What they lack in depth and introspection, they make up for in polish and craftsmanship. Every costume is perfect. Not one polygon is out of place. An army of musicians, the greatest in the land, have picked up horns and stringed instruments by the orchestra-load and played precisely the right music to set the blood singing, written by genius composers and edited into the soundtrack by golden-eared engineers from the top of their trade. The product is perfectly turned out, and this perfection attracts the eye and captures the mind.

But although these spectacles look like movies, what they really are is opera – stylized, larger-than-life, highly symbolic work that is not meant to be understood literally. And it makes me nuts.

How else to explain the glaring inconsistencies that sit in the center of these movies, like turds floating in the precise center of a crystal punchbowl carved out of the largest, most perfect diamond in the whole world? I mean, look at Spider-Man again, and think for a moment about the absurdity of its set-pieces.

In the first act, Peter Parker, the story’s protagonist, visits the enormous Science Tower built by a mysterious Science Billionaire, a Manhattan skyscraper that looks more like a Las Vegas casino from the outside. Parker steps into the atrium of the office building, a soaring multi-level lobby that is dominated by a fifty-foot-tall digital display on which a continuous loop of the Science Billionaire plays. Every 90 seconds or so, the Science Billionaire says words to the effect of ‘‘Welcome to Science Billionaire Co! I founded this with nothing but a wooden cart and a bushel of apples and a microscope. Now I am a Science Billionaire! And you are my minions! Welcome, I say, to Science Billionaire Tower, where the future of tomorrow begins today, as we advance Science through Scientific Means.’’ He winks out of existence for a merciful moment, and then he’s back again: ‘‘Welcome to Science Billionaire Co! I founded this with nothing….’’

How is it possible that the thousands of people who pass through this lobby every day have tolerated this repeating billboard? This is a building full of scientists and engineers – why have none of them found a creative way to silence the endless boss-loop that has all the rewatchability of an airline safety video? How is it that the people working at the reception desk have not turned into righteous, vengeful mobs, and set upon the facilities people who allow this torture to continue?

Let’s follow Parker up into the labs, or rather ‘‘labs.’’ Because although these are the home of cutting edge research, they look like no lab I’ve ever visited. Instead, they look like a highly polished phone-support bank, with glassed-in conference rooms around the edges that have been temporarily taken over with trade-show exhibits for new products. Every single thing in the ‘‘lab’’ – a wet biology lab, no less – looks like a product, not like an experiment. Experiments are pretty unglamorous-looking, by and large, even when they’re performed on a mass-scale. The racks of sequencers operating at the Wellcome-Sanger Trust’s genome project near Cambridge are tidy and uniform, but they’re also sited in a room where there are slightly untidy piles of consumables for the devices, carts and people moving among them, loose papers, and so on. In other words, they look like a place where busy people are doing things.

Indeed, the film’s visual designers are capable of showing us what a lived-in environment looks like. The high-school scenes are somewhat stylized, but it’s clear that we’re meant to understand that these are rooms for learning in, not factory showrooms. The scenes of Peter’s home are, well, homey. The convenience store in a run-down neighborhood looks like a convenience store.

The funny thing is that while Peter’s home life and school life and even the convenience store are all important to his story, none are as specifically vital as the lab. Spider-Man is a creature of a laboratory, and the whole mcguffin turns on the extremely specific circumstances of his experiences in the lab. To a large extent, the Spider-Man story is the story of a person who’s survived a toxic industrial accident, and his attempts to cope with the aftermath of it.

Now, obviously, the actual science of Spider-Man is hand-wavey. We don’t know of even a theoretical basis for giving people spider powers through spider bites, no matter what is done to the spider before the bite takes place. But the method of the science isn’t hand-wavey at all. Science is science. It takes place in rooms that are slightly cluttered, with some combination of Dilbert and XKCD cartoons (or local equivalent) on the door. The scientists look like scientists: a bit nerdy, a bit harried, and extremely focused. The characteristic tasks of science – arguing, staring intently at screens, begging for funding, writing down stuff and revising it, and getting heated up about something cool and unexpected – are all visually interesting, and there’s no good design reason to omit them from Science Billionaire’s Science Tower.

It’s true that most of the audience for Spider-Man will never set foot in a working lab, and the lack of verisimilitude won’t loom out of the screen for them the way it does for me. But humans can distinguish between realism and its opposite, even when we lack direct experience. I haven’t been an arena locker-room since I quit little league hockey at the age of 13, but when a cheap movie cuts away to a sterile locker room that has obviously been installed on a backlot for the day, I can spot it a mile away. A locker room isn’t a generic room filled with lockers. If Spider-Man had a locker room scene, the locker-room would look like a real locker-room. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it also wouldn’t be jarring, obvious, lazy rubbish.

Of all the fakey, uninspired visual tropes that plague science fiction and action movies, the top of the chart is computer user-interfaces. Anything vaguely visually interesting but not really the sort of thing anyone would ever use (Tom Cruise’s multiscreen touch interface from Minority Report) becomes de rigeur for future films, each one of which elaborates on the details of its workings until every contradiction, logical flaw and impracticality is made obvious.

Unlike labs, computers are something that practically every viewer will have direct experience of. I’ll freely stipulate that computers aren’t visually interesting, but the failure of screen-writing and directorial imagination in feature films is sheer laziness. If there’s some bioscience to be done on a computer and you can’t think of a way to make it interesting to look at, then have the young scientist say, ‘‘I’ll just tweak the parameters and re-run the simulation and we can go off for lunch while it re-calculates,’’ and have the knowing billionaire smirk as the result is rendered instantaneously on the console, and say something smug about the sheer number of nanoflops on tap at Science Billionaire Co’s private server farm. The young scientist stares agape, and his fingers rattle on the keyboard as he runs a bunch of stuff in parallel until he actually brings the server farm to its knees with his exuberance. ‘‘Now let’s go get some lunch,’’ he says with a bit of sassy so-there. Science Billionaire is visibly impressed. Now you’ve got humans talking plausibly about science, interacting with one another, in a way that is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever stared in frustration at a watch-cursor as something updated in the bowels of her computer.

I understand that I’m the guy who seems most thoroughly irritated by this business. Maybe if I could relax and treat it as larger-than-life opera, it would be better. Though I don’t understand why the operatic elements, the ones treated as mere set-dressing and metaphor, to be manipulated with impunity and without any regard to realism or believability, have to be the things that actually animate the story: technology and science.

My friend Teresa Nielsen Hayden has pointed out to me that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is actually a very pretty movie, and if you switch the DVD to Italian and pretend it’s opera, it’s rather enjoyable, too (this only works if you don’t speak Italian).

Teresa has another top tip: if you want to know how a SFX-heavy movie was sold to its investors, stick it on your screen on a long airplane ride. Don’t put on the headphones, just run the video, and go on with your business as you fly from A to B. The scenes that snag your eye and make you go, ‘‘Woah’’ were the scenes that were roughed in on the powerpoint deck that was presented to the people who controlled the hundreds of millions of dollars that went into this production. The actual production was an exercise in figuring out how to execute the set pieces in as grand a fashion as possible, and to join together the set pieces with a minimum of fuss.

After all, Hollywood has always been primarily a means of turning moderate-risk capital into larger pools of capital. And like all capital businesses, Hollywood has become another branch of the financial industry, all swollen and distorted by the cheap credit bubble, until every big blockbuster has a price tag in excess of $100 million. Those big price tags are good for the people on the sell-side of Hollywood, but they’re not such great news for those of us viewers on the buy-side.

There’s one similarity to all films in that price-range: they are being funded by risk-averse bankers (or pseudo-bankers) who want to hedge their bets. That means tying together as many sure things as possible: use the actors who did best in last summer’s movies to make sequels to the stories that did best in last summer’s movies. If you run out of room for sequels, reboot the franchise and start over again. Anything to create as many known quantities as possible for the cells in the investors’ spreadsheet.

It’s this, I think, that makes me saddest and maddest at summer blockbusters. It’s the sensation that the Dream Factory has turned into a place where the brightest writers, composers, musicians, painters, CGI artists, actors, directors, stunt-workers, and designers get access to a nigh-infinite supply of capital, provided that they promise to never, ever take an avoidable artistic risk.

It’s the artistic version of what’s happened to the math world: if you’re a brilliant mathematician, you are sucked into the high-speed stock-trading vortex, never to emerge. Any theoretical insights you might have brought to the field are swallowed by the titanic finance world.

It feels like we’re living in an artistic version of the court of the Sun King, where all the greatest painters in the land can earn as many francs as they can carry, provided that they confine their work to painting moles on the cheeks of courtly ladies, composing inoffensive music to accompany courtly gossip, and producing frescoes and statues for Louis’s pleasure gardens. All the artifice in the world, on tap, but exclusively reserved for the trivial and unimportant.


Comment from Ross
Time September 1, 2012 at 5:52 pm

What makes Doctorow think these “artists” are the brightest in the land? Where’s the proof? Certainly not in their product.

Comment from David Marshall
Time September 1, 2012 at 10:33 pm

As a lawyer, now retired, I have exactly the same reaction to every movie and television show that purports to show the reality of practicing law, whether in the office or the courtroom. But in our shared reactions, surely the common denominator is that the mis-en-scene is arbitrary. For entertainment, we’re only supposed to be watching the interactions of the people in the foreground. It’s impractical to reproduce the reality of people’s lives as lived 24/7, so fiction distills reality down to as much essence as is needed to move the plot forward and no more. Yes, that means most of what we see and read about the context for the action is less than credible, but accepting the limitations of the media is a necessary sacrifice if simplifications are to be entertaining and distract us from sometimes worrying complexity.

Comment from Lauren Weinstein
Time September 2, 2012 at 12:15 am

Cory, technically you’re correct. But as Alfred Hitchcock famously would say, and as a director said to me many years ago when I was involved in the biz, and as other Hollywood folk have no doubt said innumerable times since the dawn of film: “It’s only a movie!”

Comment from ymmv
Time September 2, 2012 at 10:20 am

Funny, I would have never mentioned Spider-Man as an SF movie. I don’t consider any comic book movie an SF movie. MOON, now that was an SF movie. But Spider-Man? Meh.

Comment from Marisa Wikramanayake
Time September 2, 2012 at 10:27 am

*stands up and claps*

Thank you. I know not all movies coming out of Hollywood are like this BUT a huge number of them are and I LIKE to see realism in even a sci-fi movie where I am able to suspend disbelief because I can believe that a process, scientific or otherwise operates on some kind of logic even if it’s not the usual kind. And that humans are still humans and still behave much the same if put in certain situations/occupations.

Because yes otherwise I get turned off. And it’s not worth making a movie, at least for me, if your script isn’t anything more than the usual plot points with a few obvious jokes thrown in and the big breathtaking CGI scenes in between.

In other words, I want to be emotionally drawn into the movie but I also want to be intellectually engaged not pandered to. They can do the first easily enough but not the second. I want to be left thinking AND entertained when I leave.

Maybe I am in the minority however.

Comment from Nick
Time September 2, 2012 at 10:37 am

I agree. Another example: the Total Recall remake was abominable in many ways, but one of the things that ruined it for me was the appallingly bad understanding of basic Newtonian physics: a pod drops at free-fall through the centre of the Earth and out the other side, but somehow inside there is full gravity until it goes through the core, where the direction of gravity suddenly reverses… ugh. How hard is it to get a scientist? Movies like Contagion are the rare exception.

Comment from Marcus Kempton
Time September 2, 2012 at 12:01 pm

What gets me going also, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, the indie film world, for example-trying to emulate its Hollywood counterparts, by being just as risk-averse spending what would amount to the catering budget on a big-budget film. I would expect a studio would take greater risks with material if less money was at stake… but ideas considered to be profitable are rarer than a bigfoot corpse.

Comment from Algot Runeman (@algotruneman)
Time September 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Focus and story.

The background need not be fully credible or even carefully prepared, if the story demands my focus on the main action. When the background substitutes for the story, then the background needs to be more credible.

When the focus is on story, the shots can be done in an ordinary room, not a carefully constructed space. Way too many movies have embraced the CGI and modeling of imagined spaces in direct relation to the decline of the story. The money and effort spent there may explain the decline of the focus on story. However, it also may be that “blockbuster” is the only measure of “quality” in Hollywood these days. Story and character don’t a blockbuster make.

Comment from J S
Time September 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm

The biggest source of the problem is that any field requiring dedicated years of study and long industrial/business experience to master (science, engineering, medicine, law) are difficult for most script/novel/story writers trained in literary/journalism/etc to do well. They spent years learning to craft a perfect twist of words not how to cast a brake calliper so it doesn’t fracture stopping a semi. So they fall to generalising and stereotyping or injecting bland humor into a scene because they just don’t have the background. And where do the script writers graduate to? Management of other writers and producers and so on up the entertainment pyramid. If they hire someone to write a script, do they bring in a pile of engineers and lawyers to select ‘the best candidate’ from? Nope, they want someone with writing experience and great degrees from writing colleges. [ disclaimer: I’m an experienced engineer who happens to write novels, maybe well 😉 ]

Comment from DragonDon
Time September 2, 2012 at 6:20 pm

I think you just hit on how I felt about the movie but could put my finger on it. I saw the movie and liked it but thought “it was an ok reboot”. i mean I wasn’t wowed, or all pumped up over it….it was just kinda “ok”.

We have started a little writing group of foreigners here in South Korea and were discussing character-driven plot. We felt that a story works best when the characters actions tell you his background. After reading this article, I feel that Spider-Man’s background was kinda glossed over. Oh he talked a lot of big words but the sudden development of those Web-slingers was kind of a big leap. I shall endeavor to not make this mistake in my writings.

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Time September 3, 2012 at 2:34 am

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Comment from colan
Time September 3, 2012 at 11:01 am

Having agreed to go and see Spiderman and anything to do with Star Wars I suggest you have only yourself to blame. Avoid them like the plague and write another of your excellent books.
Personally, I avoid anything by Lucas, Spielberg and such ilk. I only watch superhero films after my son and his friends have vetted them for me.
If you really must see a sci fi film, watch “The Fountain”.
As to Minority Report; am I the only one who smells Kubricks influence in it? There were bits that were way too good to really be by Spielberg.

Comment from narcy calamatta
Time September 3, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Spot on. No risk. Well tried and tested story plots. Bankable artists. Inflated budgets to ensure there is a top to cream. Art nil. Audience consideration none. Least common denominator is the undemanding bored semi-educated citizens out of the gravy train circuit. In winter the cinema is warmer than home and cheaper too. Good suggestion to wait till movie comes to DVD and watching it with sound turned off. Then the SFX look like childish back-garden shed experitments. I would not watch a sci-fi movie if you paid me for it. European cinema is inspiring. That is what Hollywood should invest in.

Comment from andrew
Time September 4, 2012 at 8:01 am

Mr. Doctorow makes some excellent points here, but I would have loved to see a little light shine through in terms of science fiction films he does like. What are the films that he thinks get both the science and the fiction right? Pointing out that blockbuster scifi movies are shallow and unrealistic is an easy argument to win. Linking the film industry to the financial industry is a more compelling thesis, but is there no art out there at all?

Comment from John Barnes
Time September 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Cory, you’re very convincing except it leaves me mystified as to why I really like opera but haven’t seen a sci fi blockbuster past the first 25 minutes or so in years. (I’ve read a lot of paperbacks while waiting for friends in movie lobbies). What you say makes sense but for some reason opera is fun and sci fi movies are not.

Obligatory stray observation I make all the time: I know of no profession that movies get right. I’ve made a hobby of asking people in occupations that movies depict whether there are any movies that really show anything of what their lives are like. Never heard an unqualified yes. Usually hear a flat no. The qualified yeses are usually about one time when some movie surprised them by getting something unexpectedly right. The qualified noes are usually from movie nut practitioners of the occupation, who just don’t want to say anything negative about movies. (E.g. one cop who saw about 4 movies a week. No, he said, nothing is accurate with regard to the real world, but it’s highly consistent, so he just thought of it as being accurate with regard to Movie Cop Land).

And the great mystery remains: why do movies get screenwriting, acting, technical work, and directing wrong, when there are generally people standing right there who know better?

Comment from Will
Time September 4, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Definitions aside, my thoughts are close to those of CD in regards to big budget science fiction movies. Some sub-genres of science fiction demand expensive FX – it would be difficult to film a convincing space opera on a low budget. So, within limits, there’s an inverse relationship between budget & creativity. There’s more interesting work on TV & yet more on the internet. For example, like him or not, Joss Whedon is cashing in on his wildly successful (in ticket sales) Avengers with a new TV series (SHIELD) rather than a feature film. This speaks directly to how the prestige of feature films is more than negated by the limitations imposed by the major studios.

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Comment from Mouse
Time September 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm

The problem is these movies are desserts. They’re supposed to be the tasty fun that follows your meal, but audiences are ditching the meals for the desserts. They’re eating nothing but candy, ice cream, and cookies. There’s no meat, not salad, no bread, no vegetables, nothing of substance in the annual top 20 movies. Just a lot of sugar, and they’re being marketed as the main course.

Obviously they’re not meant to be taken seriously, but when Hollywood isn’t producing anything to take seriously, this is all we have left. Thankfully, other countries are still making meaty films.

Comment from Mr. Blue
Time September 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Things like this are why I can count the number of Hollywood movies I watched in the last couple of years on the thumbs of one hand, and that’s representative of the last decade at least. Big shiny blockbuster films are things that you need to be in the right frame of mind for, by which I mean, you are content to unleash your inner 12 year old and let them enjoy it for you.

If you can’t switch off the adult need to actually consider what it is you’re watching, then you can’t help but notice that they’re all style over substance, and, all too often, properties that have been adapted as the execs go through the business of ruthlessly strip-mining their own childhoods, be it fifty year old Spiderman or thirty-five year old Alien, to take a couple of recent examples.

Comment from jasonmd2020
Time September 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Got an idea. Cory, next time you have an idea for a novel. Don’t write it. Write a screenplay about the idea and try to get it pitched. Sometimes you just gotta D.I.Y.

Comment from Kiteman
Time September 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I have similar reactions school scenes, where pupils lounge around with feet on desks, or supply teachers coach genius from the detritus within minutes of taking over the “sink” group. Or where the teachers have time to waste in the pub every day after school…

Comment from drumbum
Time September 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Watch a non-Hollywood SF movie for a change, for example “Enter the Void”
A lot of visuals, great soundtrack, exquisitely made, but has a soul.

Comment from stringcheese
Time September 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm

As a cog in the wheel, what I keep hearing is gumming up mid-range “substantive” movies is the following tail-wagging-the-dog logic:

It is insanely expensive to SELL movies. The “P&A” costs are exorbitant and not adequately scalable. Therefore, if it cost roughly the same to promote a $3oM substantive movie as a $200M effects fest, it’s more cost effective to swing for the fences and get an Avengers, rather than a mid-range hit that, at most, will top out at just over $100M.

The other issue is the fact that foreign box office is increasingly important. These films travel well. Variety tracks this issue with a vengeance, recently pointing to the way ICE AGE only made sense based on receipts from non-English-speaking territories. Maybe the idea of these films being best viewed through the veil of a language barrier is by design!

Comment from Zack
Time September 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Then again, there’s Looper to look forward to. Rian Johnson makes moves about characters—complicated ones—in complicated movies. Both Brick and Brothers Bloom were investments in story. I’m expected Looper to be no different.

Comment from john talcott
Time September 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I feel exactly the same way about SF movies (especially the computer UI’s). I would like to hear Cory’s top 10 list of sci fi movies.

Comment from Moschops
Time September 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm

“There are many sins committed by big-budget adventure movies, but being boring is not one of them.”

Did you not see Avatar?

Comment from Brett
Time September 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Cory complains about the computer interfaces presented in futuristic SF movies, but don’t you think that if the writers/directors had the keen insight to design brilliant new interfaces to show off in their movies, they’d actually be designing brilliant new interfaces instead of making movies? The future is hard because we don’t know what it’s going to look like.

Comment from MarkPritchard
Time September 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm

I’m not so sure about the “army of musicians.” I used to think that was the case, but someone in the know told me that almost all movies now — unless they specifically say they feature the London Symphony Orchestra or somesuch — are actually scored entirely by one or two guys with synthesizers, along with a few studio vocalists. No matter how good it sounds.

Actually I hope the person who said so was wrong about that. I’d like to believe that Hollywood blockbusters provide work for an “army of musicians.”

Comment from Gerry Corrigan
Time September 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Well I agree but its for the kids you see. Could SF aspire to literery heights if the SF elements were more real & gritty? Say an intangible business process is solved with technology. Small shop keepers who short change alot. Just a pound or two a day, it all adds up. But getting caught? Some quite possible piece of gadgetry appears. You rig up some CCTV to face recog software, some CRM, and then add more fiendish or cool stuff about computers becoming evil, 2 hours later Skynet. Chritoneque? But hang on, see that all this approach would do is explore the human condition but with the sights of computers and the strange logic we must have put in them. I hate to come across all Ted style but maybe its time to throw out the the computers that make movies and start making movies about real computers, move on from CGI.

One if the things that get me is the Ugly creatures in Epic Quest type nonsence World of Warcraft type spectacles, perhaps Orlando Bloom is too old for another shot a legolath but whoever is young and pretty enough eventually meets that years iteration of what I call the Trogladite With the bottom of the mouth pulled more and more up its forehead, or an iteration of a dragon.

Comment from Tue Sorensen
Time September 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm

When you’re right, you’re right, mr. Doctorow! But I think this can only go on for so long, without the creative community objecting to it. Mostly, they are shut up by money, but once enough people are comfortable enough not to depend on that money any more, I think there will be a new counter-culture movement which insists on being properly creative and artistic.

But, although I largely agree with what you say, I do believe there is *sometimes* more to the big Hollywood movies than soulless spectacle. I think they sometimes *do* have the grand and symbolical quality of opera – it may often be hidden deep down in arcane plot allegories, but I think the writers sometimes do manage to sneak very progressive messages into the movies, and although most people do not consciously discover this, it still has an effect on them, and on us as a culture. But your point is a very good one, and I agree that it is deeply disheartening to watch movie after movie with awful story and characterization but splendiferous production values. Can’t they do just *one* movie which is really, really good? Well, perhaps the big-budget movies can’t be good, precisely because they need to play it safe with audiences. Well, then, we have to look to smaller movies for the good stuff. Fortunately, SFX are getting cheaper all the time, so the future for good-looking *and* well-told SF movies is not all doom and gloom.

Comment from Mark L.
Time September 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm

I just saw this film this past weekend. I’m a big comic book fan, but didn’t rush out to see this one. About half-way through I’m thinking how *sterile* this film felt, and it was saved only by some charismatic performances. It was a like a collection of ideas and camera shots thrown together without regard to reality in order to make sure the audience completely understands what’s happening on screen. It almost feels like watching early silent films that were limiting themselves by aping staged performances. Many big budget films limit themselves by aping the summer blockbusters that came before them. Funeral scene? Lets have it happen on a rainy day and we’ll do an overhead shot of black umbrellas. All the same size, and all the same shade of black. Because everyone buys their umbrellas from the same place.

Comment from Shane Adams
Time September 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm

As a professional aviator, writer, and photographer, I can only agree. There hasn’t been a movie that got the flying or pilot behavior right, and photography hasn’t fared well either. Writers and writing often get treated well and there are a few police procedurals which were written by, ahem, ex-police – who became writers. But other disciplines have been rendered with sufficient accuracy – and the viewing public WILL notice the difference – all it takes is a little basic research.
The larger issue isthe creativity-stifling approach of emulating last year’s blockbuster until nothing original is left. Copies of copies with no signature to differentiate.
Anybody remember “Primer”?

Comment from Barry
Time September 5, 2012 at 5:47 pm

The stuff that most bugged me about a lot of science fiction was not the sidelong winks at physical constraints, but the blatant disregard for logical consequences of whatever future tech they came up with. I don’t care what sort of universe a writer builds, so long as it makes sense. If you are going to have Stormtroopers running around with laser guns in spotless armor, great. But the armor better be able to deflect something. Anything. At least small rocks hurled by Ewoks. Seriously, wtf?

Comment from John Romero
Time September 5, 2012 at 6:54 pm

I agree with you, but this is a realization at which I arrived some time ago. If I want real SF, I read it. I accept SF movies for what they are, space opera, and eat ’em up like cotton candy. Yes, they’re bad for my mental diabetes, but they are just a bunch of fun to watch.

Comment from whitey
Time September 5, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Chill out dude, it’s just a story.

Comment from Gary61
Time September 5, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Cory, followed you here from BoingBoing … lots of great comments, and maybe I can add another …
The reason for humdrum spectacles is, of course, money.
It’s a pendulum, swinging between business and artistry. You know this, being a very creative fellow yourself –
the business side wants a stable, marketable, almost ‘production-line’ creation to sell and markup, while the artistic side wants freedom to create and innovate.
When the pendulum swung to the business side, money-making becomes all important, and the portion of the cash set aside for the HUMAN storyline gets a smaller and smaller cut.
Only when the pendulum is at the center or swung into the artistic side will a storyteller like yourself find enjoyment – you, a producer of quality work doesn’t enjoy the poorer offering of those who can afford much better.
Let’s work on making it swing back to the human side.

Comment from Erf Burger
Time September 5, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I bail when critics mention super heros movies like Spiderman under science fiction and not fantasy. No wonder they bug you as your definition apears far too broad.

Comment from Katana Dufour
Time September 5, 2012 at 8:33 pm

And that is why I read boingboing even though I’m not a sciences type; the art and creative things posted always seem worth aspiring to; and it’s a shame so many children and young people only aspire to blockbuster status – which is indeed been there done that no risk “art.”

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Time September 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm

[…] Many, perhaps the most ever, great comments to Cory Doctorow’s latest […]

Comment from AndrewSuber
Time September 5, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Hard science fiction is inimical to the American blockbuster. A truly engrossing film is a dream come alive, ideally it is so engrossing that one does not have the time to nitpick about veracity or logic. What was the science behind Fritz Lang’s Metropolis? It is such a polished vision of the future, that one cannot quibble.

I am afraid that you are a bad judge of these films because you spend so much time working on this art in another medium. They are made so that the average, escapist American can forget their problems for ninety minutes. No more, no less. It is unfair to judge them by any other standard.

Comment from Joel
Time September 5, 2012 at 11:35 pm

Great article, Cory. I think the Internet, and the knowledge and easy research people can do, is impacting many people’s ability to suspend disbelief as big-budget SF movies try to move the action along at a fast clip, ruining the experience for more and more people.

I found a lot of what happened in Spider-man unreasonable, but enjoyed it well enough. For me, I thought the spectacle of Star Trek was great, but later the nagging questions drove me nuts until I really do NOT want to see the movie again.

For me the enduring problem of most SF films, though, is that far too often, the premise of the film is something that would never, ever be done. For example, the justice system of Minority Report, or the milieus of any Andrew Niccol film — Truman Show, Gattaca, Time; all compelling in their way, and yet…

These SF films ask the audience to bemoan the unfairness of people subjected to things that no one does IRL because it would be totally unfair.

I realize these unrealistic dilemmas are thematically similar to general prejudices or problems or whatever in today’s society IRL.


There is a reason no one does the things IRL that are done in those films (at least to that extent) — because it would be unfair and horrible.

Sorry, Rick Deckard and Andrew Martin, your situation seems unfair and horrible, but that’s why we don’t have robots who think they are people. Or people who are owned by a reality show. Or people who pay for everything with minutes of life. Or whatever.

You mention the Phantom Menace, above, but one reason why I enjoy the Star Wars films is because they are free of the entire-story-based-on-unfair-conceit problem.

Comment from Hunttut
Time September 5, 2012 at 11:36 pm

Obviously everyone has their own taste when it comes to entertainment of any genre. The suspension of disbelief is a practice as old as storytelling. Frankly, in all the science fiction ever written or brought to life on film or video, for every tale of space travel, giant monsters, alien invaders, and utopian futures, I find there is one concept that is the most implausible of all – that in the face of the eminent demise of mankind, all the peoples and governments of the earth would come together to save the human race.

Comment from DasKleineTeilchen
Time September 6, 2012 at 12:28 am

well done cory; so, cinema is becoming finaly the opera of our time, doesn´t surprise me. but there is the other side without the big money and thats stuff like this, just made possible by internet and new technology, maybe this could be the “new” independent cinema:

german SF-short without any FX in the tradition of something like…i dont know, but it has this familiar feeling of progressive sf cinema of the seventies..

btw. its subtitled 😉

Comment from Andrew Davison
Time September 6, 2012 at 1:35 am

Good artists involved in these pot-boilers can leverage the box-office ‘success’ to get more personal work made. Joss Whedon is an example.

The studios don’t force you to see this rubbish (unless you happen to be a Dad), so don’t go. If enough people went to see “Much Ado About Nothing” then financial backing would start appearing for more of the same.

Comment from Steve Taylor
Time September 6, 2012 at 3:44 am

I know whgat you mean, and I agree with you – but that’s a little harsh on opera. I love opera, but I can’t find a good word to say about most SF blockbusters. I wish it weren’t so.

Comment from Raff
Time September 6, 2012 at 4:17 am

I agree that Spider-man isn’t very deep or great but Science fiction is speculation on moral issues that arise in possible futures with scientific possibilities which follow the laws of nature. Because you are writing about crime fighting action heroes with magic powers, it is Fantasy. Star Wars is technically also Fantasy which looks back at archetypes and movie cliches more than possible science. Mayhaps you should watch classic well made Science Fiction. It is true that propaganda was used in the genre with Commie invasion fear in the ’50s and pro military Reagan/Schwarzenegger dumbed down action in the ’80s. Comic book superheroes are for little boys who feel helpless & need a strong violent alter-ego to vent. Thus Transformers and the other dreadful non stop metal smashing films are trashy hits. 2001, Gattaca, Forbidden Planet, Day the Earth Stood Still, Metropolis & Blade Runner live on because they bring up issues which are timeless. The look helps but Twilight Zone doesn’t have to have any special effects to be classic sci-fi. Hollywood took the meaning and gutted the soul of Sci-fi to create monster spectacles. With good Science Fiction you can talk about the oppression of your own time without the political threat of straight drama (1984/ Brazil). P.S. Phantom Menace doesn’t look good to me.

Comment from Max
Time September 6, 2012 at 5:36 am

So a short summary:
In a lot of the classic sci-fi, the story and scripts were there to dazzle, and the sets and effects were cardboard that was there to help string it all together.
Today, the sets and effects are there to dazzle, and the story is made of cardboard and just kind of there to string it all together.

Comment from Medievalist
Time September 6, 2012 at 7:48 am

Cory, you haven’t been an arena locker-room since you quit little league hockey at the age of 13?

I’ve never been a locker-room at all! What does it feel like?


Comment from Ben Thayer Dunnthaedt
Time September 6, 2012 at 9:15 am

My goodness, why not just opt out of watching SF films if they bug you so much? It’s an easy thing to do….just don’t go, problem solved!

Comment from INterWEBmoron
Time September 6, 2012 at 9:37 am

Spiderman is not SF, it’s just silly comic book for children! Christofer Nolan should have to do this reboot! it would be least stupid.

Comment from Rusty Shackelford
Time September 6, 2012 at 9:51 am

The good news: for the first time that I can remember, Cory is yammering about something other than open source and “copyleft”. The bad news: when he starts spouting about movies, he sounds like Paul T. Riddell.

Comment from Rick Bryant
Time September 6, 2012 at 10:22 am

Latest brain-melt…..Prometheus..where did the implant in the doc room get the bio-mass to get so huge??? In a closed off room!!!!???!!!!!!! GGRRRR!!!!!How did that det by the writer, Editor, Director, anyone standing around!!!!

Comment from Uncascrooge
Time September 6, 2012 at 10:48 am

Anyone who takes the time to sit down and read a Science Fiction novel, much less write one, is not the intended audience for these films. The intended audience for these films is a young boy who has not seen many movies before.

But on the other hand, I think that the greatest Science Fiction movies of the last ten years are: Timecrimes, Idiocracy and Moon. All of which are medium to low budget.

Comment from StanSki
Time September 6, 2012 at 10:59 am

1) I refuse to pay the outrageous amount of money at the box office to see a movie that has SPACESHIPS WITH SOUND TO THEIR ENGINES AND WEAPONS WHILE IN THE VACUUM OF SPACE. 2001: A Space Odyssey got it right.

2) Cory wrote: “I understand that I’m the guy who seems most thoroughly irritated by this business. Maybe if I could relax and treat it as larger-than-life opera, it would be better. Though I don’t understand why the operatic elements, the ones treated as mere set-dressing and metaphor, to be manipulated with impunity and without any regard to realism or believability, have to be the things that actually animate the story: technology and science.”

Cory, I’m the same way about it all. The conclusion I keep coming to is that most theater-goers are spectacle-seeking, mouth-breathing morons who’s deepest scientific questions are: Magnets? – How do they F*ckin work? (Yes, a gluggalo reference). They have no, nor want a background of reality. They just want to see boobs and guns going ‘pew! pew!’ against a backdrop of more boobs and some apocolypsy space stuff.

Comment from TulsaTV
Time September 6, 2012 at 11:33 am

@ Shane Adams. September 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm “Anybody remember ‘Primer’?”

One of the best SF movies ever made. Primer’s director, Shane Carruth, did some work on “Looper”, coming soon.

Comment from Kaleberg
Time September 6, 2012 at 11:44 am

I’m one of those strange people who goes to movies to be entertained. If I want to find out about science, I’ll read science books or journals. I expect grand set pieces in the scenery, and I expect grand movie tropes. Everything is supposed to be bigger than life, not shown actual size. Why waste time watching a movie if it’s just the same as a day at work? I’m not getting paid to watch movies.

Movies are about narrative, story telling. I’ll let an awful lot slide if the story moves and the characters are interesting enough to drive it. Of course the science and computers look like something out of a demo. Steve Jobs probably used a text only interface to get work done, but when he was on stage dishing out the Apple narrative, he showed off the high priced special effects. So what if the sequencing lab looks like a hundred photoshop clones of a journal ad. I can see a messy desk at the office.

You actually can learn a lot about the real world and real life from movies, even if their style is exaggerated. Exaggeration is at the heart of satire, and satire is a great way to shed light on the real world.

Pingback from Science fiction and explanation | Horrible Pain
Time September 6, 2012 at 1:09 pm

[…] Doctorow wrote an article about an element of science-fiction movies that bothered him and used the Spider-Man reboot to […]

Comment from YourMessageHere
Time September 6, 2012 at 2:23 pm

I agree with the detestation of risk-averse culture in media, and while I sympathise to some extent about the willful misrepresentation of stuff (I get the same thing with guns. I find guns really interesting, so I know a bit about them, even though I can’t shoot in this country. Doesn’t mean I don’t sit there thinking “He’s out of bullets already. And it doesn’t even work like that. Plus it can’t make that noise when she does that anyway” or whatever) but I think there’s a basic attitude disparity at work here. On one hand, when you see a film, you want to take away from it “real understanding of the world or the people in it”, but on the other, you’re calling Hollywood the “Dream Factory”. Dreams and reality are fundamentally different.

Hollywood’s thing, usually, is not to show us a facsimile of the real world, but to show us the world as they think we want to believe it is. That’s why the Spiderman lad scenes are so glossy – because the people who designed them were told to make them look cool and high-tech, not cluttered and usable, never mind what labs actually look like. This happened because the people with the money think that people generally want labs to look that way.

Why do they think that? Because they are so personally invested in the business of making movies and submerged in the culture and society of that business that they have no clue what their audience actually want; all they have is sales figures to tell them that. They could take to the internet to find out what people are saying, but who has time for that? They have people to do that for them anyway. Those people probably have people. They could hire someone, some expert, to tell them how things work, but they are largely confident that their version is more aesthetically pleasing, and it would also expose them to people who might not understand that they, not the experts, are the people who define what constitutes reality in films.

The point is, movie reality isn’t reality, and expecting it to be is just wishing for disappointment by another name. Wishing it was, well, yes I do that all the time, for everything, not just the few things I know are wrong. But I stopped expecting movies to truly resemble the real world or be anything other than escapism, or at best some sort of convoluted cypher for the real, a long time ago.

I think it helps to think of realism as a noun. Specifically: realism refers to attributes that lend media qualities that make it credible in context. Imagine using it as a noun to describe a feature of media as “a realism”. This therefore means that Star Wars, A Scanner Darkly and anime can be said to contain realism as a quality, and “realisms” as specific features, as they present a set of rules in constructing their realities and then stick to them. Whereas Bad Boys 2, while realistic in that it’s set in something visually recognisable as our real world, is quite devoid of realism, as either adjective or noun, because having established that this is ‘the real world’, the film then goes into a huge parade of things that don’t ever actually happen. Sh*t, in point of fact, does not get real.

Pingback from Geek Media Round-Up: September 6, 2012 – Grasping for the Wind
Time September 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm

[…] Cory Doctorow: Why Science Fiction Movies Drive Me Nuts […]

Comment from Peter
Time September 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm

I think you’re being a bit harsh on the music heard at the court of Louis XIV. Check out Marin Marais (viol) or Charles Mouton (lute). Plenty of other composers there too who wrote more than ‘inoffensive music to accompany courtly gossip’. But as far as the essential awfulness of Hollywood blockbuster SF spectacles goes, I think you are bang on the money. Best solution is to ignore them and do something interesting like listening to Marais …

Comment from Russell Letson
Time September 6, 2012 at 7:33 pm

This is more by way of a footnote/recommended-reading list–

Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, John Gregory Dunne; Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman.

I suppose some conditions have changed, but I suspect that the basics remain the same.

BTW–how many crime *novels* get the machineries of police/PI/criminal prosecution right?

Comment from Robert Laughlin
Time September 6, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Watching a sci-fi movie to improve your mind is like using garlic-flavored mouthwash to sweeten your breath.

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Time September 6, 2012 at 10:24 pm

[…] of attention and a few silver coins there is really not much there there. As Cory Doctorow notes in Why Science Fiction Movies Drive Me Nuts: “What they lack in depth and introspection, they make up for in polish and […]

Comment from Jellodyne
Time September 7, 2012 at 6:47 am

No doubt a modern Barton Fink would be asked to work on scifi blockbusters instead of wrestling pictures (though I think Aronofsky’s The Wrestler as something Fink could have written). Anyway, nothing new about Hollywood feeding the lowest common denominator, following successful genre releases with with more of the same safe tepid crap. And every now and then there’s an Avengers to be happy about.

Comment from Stuart Ward
Time September 7, 2012 at 9:14 am

It is possible to put real computers into movies and make them cool. The Matrix Reloaded is an example of one of a number of movies that have used real programs like nmap.

Pingback from Imperfekt Nr. I | till we *)
Time September 7, 2012 at 2:24 pm

[…] Doctorow spricht SF-Filmen ab, sich ernsthaft mit Technologie und deren Folgen auseinanderzusetzen, und hält sie eher für eine […]

Comment from Enyaw
Time September 7, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Spiderman is fantasy, not science fiction.

Pingback from Weekend Links « Gerry Canavan
Time September 8, 2012 at 7:15 am

[…] * Cory Doctorow, against science fiction film. […]

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Time September 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm

[…] -Cory Doctorow […]

Comment from steve davidsaobn
Time September 11, 2012 at 3:57 am

One thing that Cory never got around to mentioning is that SF (and quasi-SF like superhero stuff) films are not for science fiction fans; they’re for mundanes and for those who think they are SF fans by virtue of having consumed lots of SF-y media content. Everything except literature. The problem for consumers like Cory (and myself and many who are commenting here) is that we are compelled to think about what we consume, as opposed to blindly consuming. See Cory, that’s your problem. You’re thinking about stuff again.

Comment from Robert Whitaker Sirignano
Time September 12, 2012 at 6:45 am

Most films aren’t profound enough for me to keep them in my head once I leave a theater. The reboot of SPIDER-MAN was fun, but there were no sticking points for discussion beyond the curiosity of wondering what #2 will be about.

Pingback from Science Fiction | Pearltrees
Time September 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm

[…] Why Science Fiction Movies Drive Me Nuts One anthology contains the most amazing visions of future Japan In his introduction to <i>The Future is Japanese </i>, co-editor Nick Mamatas notes that Japanese Science Fiction is just like "Western Science Fiction, in that it is hard and soft, dark and whimsical, rigorous and fantastical." {*img:m418daaac88fc9e029bb7a212752312da,l=300×169,w=270×152,f=186×105,i=300×169:300:169:*}The most memorable characters in science fiction and fantasy are often the people who made a huge impression the very first time we meet them. […]

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Time September 13, 2012 at 9:29 am

[…] about legal eagles with some degree of scepticism. In a recent posting on the excellent Locus site, Cory Doctorow enlarged on his consistent frustration when science fiction movies fail to represent the […]

Comment from Dee
Time September 13, 2012 at 9:51 am

It’s hilarious to me that you use a word like MacGuffin without any real understanding of what Hitchcock meant when he famously invoked it.

Secondly, I love the operatic. As a visual medium, film has every right to operate on an operatic level and be great for it. It can also choose to go a more realistic route, with great results. A film is never bad just because it is operatic. There are TONS of problems with Spider Man. Its operatic nature is NOT one of them.

Thirdly, there is such a thing as a realistic Sci-Fi film. SF films are not OBLIGATED to be realistic, and are often great without being realistic, but there are also some great realistic ones, like Cronocrimenes and Primer. It seems to me that due to your own biases regarding the genre, you haven’t really explored it.

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