Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Thirty Year Spree: A 2012 Retrospective of 1982 SF Cinema

“You're getting on. You're pushing 30. You know, it's time to think about getting some ambition.”

“I always figured I'd live a bit longer without it.”

-Charlie and Terry,
On the Waterfront

By all accounts, 1982 was a watershed year for science fiction films. This has been noted by film writers and historians for decades, not because of the sheer proliferation of films that made use of the genre, but because of the quality of the product. 1982 was the year before the Star Wars trilogy was brought to its conclusion, but the crest that these films were riding had little to do with the saga itself and more to do with momentum. It was the year we were given not one, but two Spielberg-produced masterpieces of the classic kind, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist (and yes, I am bending the definition of the genre here, but stay with me). It was the year where a remake was applauded (John Carpenter’s The Thing); the year of Tron, a film that most people ignored, but which every film that has embraced computer effects owes a debt to; the year Star Trek was in essence rebooted long before the names J.J. and Quinto appeared in the credits. Like today, there were comic book adaptations (Swamp Thing, directed by soon-to-be horror superstar, Wes Craven, and John Milius’ take on Conan, which introduced the world to a pre-Terminator Schwarzenegger), even if they were not held as highly in regard as today’s Iron Man or Dark Knight. It was the year Jim Henson took us to The Dark Crystal -- a world that did not involve the “Yip Yip” aliens of Sesame Street. There was even a time travel movie – however utterly ridiculous -- that predated Back to the Future’s fetish for sporty time travel vehicles and its preoccupation with Freud. Most significantly, it was the year that gave us Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which is still one of the most aesthetically stunning, philosophically confounding, and genre-pleasing takes on a classic PKD  novel. Writers, film scholars, and fans look back at this era as a golden age, and lament that nothing has been as good ever since. 

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender”

-Terry, On the Waterfront

1982 was also a waterfront: it was the year when the metaphorical pot that had been simmering by the stove was placed on the burner and upped to a boil; it was the launching point for a boatload of ideas, effects, and careers like a dock at the edge of a city.  Blade Runner stripped down a complex and unsettling novel into a series of questions about the nature of humanity, and did it amidst a kaleidoscope of imagery. The Dark Crystal built an entire world that readers of Tolkien or would recognize, but was still its own entity. Tron spun The Wizard of Oz on its head amidst the sheen of revolutionary (for its day) CGI, and brought viewers into a digital age where Dorothy became a computer hacker and flying monkeys were “Recognizers.” Star Trek II, rather than scaling up the setting from the first film, scaled down in every way (from budget to bombast) and set the series on a course that would keep it alive and morphed into a “franchise”—in a tale that not only borrowed its villain from its television past, but mimicked Moby Dick and had Spock quoting from Dickens (I suppose PKD fans could form a valid conspiracy argument here about the prevalence of that surname appearing that year in so many movies). Scaling down also meant focusing on the characters as much, if not more, than the innovative plots and effects – think of the power of Spock’s death, which was something almost unheard of for its day. E.T. became the darling of the year and the decade for similar reasons—KILL THE MAIN CHARACTER??? – and it was rewarded for its efforts by topping Star Wars and making grown men weep as much as it made kids want their own alien (the reason for this is the subject of a whole other article). E.T. then was a surprise; no one saw it coming, no one knew what to expect, no one had seen anything like it. What is the E.T. of today (other than a Katie Perry song)?

Not all of these films were hits. Blade Runner and Tron were, from a financial perspective, colossal flops, but they left indelible footprints on the minds of filmgoers; the truth of this can be seen in the ongoing Tron saga (in film, comics, and video games) and its impact on cyberpunk to come (I’m looking at you, Matrix), as well as in the recent announcement that Ridley Scott plans to create a Hampton Fancher-scripted sequel to his Replicant story. There most certainly have been quality genre films -- both profitable and otherwise -- since 1982, make no mistake, but not in as varied or as concentrated a time, and certainly not with as much food for thought. To paraphrase Babylon 5, It was a year of change; a year of promise…so what happened?

The issue here is that these films, while heavy on effects, were also heavy on ideas, and on mythic borrowings: they were morality tales, but they were literate; they made viewers think with their hearts AND their heads. Looking at the films of 2012, we can see that there is as much heart as there is quality to the production, but they lack true thinking-person ideas, philosophical drives. Most genre films have one or the other, not both, while 1982 films had both in spades. In comparison, witness Marvel’s The Avengers: A well-scripted story, characters balanced with story arcs, and even moralistic underpinnings, but it essentially ends up a slug fest in NYC, and the “science” of the Tesseract is nothing new to fans of SF or comics; it’s the Macguffin that gets the characters to Assemble. It’s Transformers with heart and characters you actually care about, but at the end of the day, you “Marvel” at the spectacle and how well the film weaves itself from its own mythology. It’s reverent, it’s fun, it has feeling—but it’s not asking you to think.

Dark Knight, Amazing Spider-Man, MIB III – all of these films have characters we like and effects galore, as well as (probably) an interesting, well-scripted story, but ultimately, what are these films saying? Are they feeding from myth and literature, or are they feeding from their own source material? There is a world of difference – ask any fan of Star Wars to compare Episode IV to Episode I and you’ll see how the prequels are the snake that eats its own tail. The only upcoming genre film that seems to be dangling the carrot of “big SF” ideas is Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s rumored return to the universe of the Alien series. The trailers show a film with the visual treats you’d expect to see from Scott; those who have read The 1979 Book of Alien can whet their appetites by turning to the section about the first third of the film that was dropped before scripting and get an even bigger clue. But Scott’s also given us some terribly simplistic films, like Gladiator, and since the scriptwriter is Lost’s Damon Lindelof, one has to wonder if the film won’t ask more questions that annoy than those which provoke discussion. We’ll know in two weeks.

Unfortunately, the end result of Hollywood 30 years after the SF-laced summer of ’82 is best compared to the whitewashed “happy” ending of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece from that year, complete with droning voiceover narration telling the audience how to feel, rather than letting them “get it” on their own (1992 re-release and 2007 “Final Cut” aside). In the end, 1982 was a Waterfront more than a watershed; it could have been a contender, but its promising launch was never guided properly, and, while there were bouts of greatness and money along the way, the genre in cinema never really found its ambition -- even after thirty years.