Too much and yet too little: Big Ideas and Big Images in Sci-Fi Criticism

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Time critic Daniel D’Addario recently posted an alarum over the state of American science fiction cinema in the shape of a review of writer-director Neil Blomkamp’s new entry in the genre, Chappie. Blomkamp was heralded as the genre’s possible saviour with the release of District 9 in 2009, a film that critics generally praised as a revived example of classic sci-fi, a genre that possessed the ability to balance visceral thrill with the exploration of “Big Ideas”. District 9’s meditation on what it means to be stateless in its depiction of an alien race forced to live in the slums of South Africa like interplanetary refugees managed to balance and contain its tendency toward the more visceral excesses it adopts from splatter horror, making it, for one reviewer, an exemplar of the genre’s ability to “tackle thorny moral issues while splattering the screen with gloopy creature effects.”

While Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium seemed to be striving for a similar amalgam of social commentary and spectacular action, some critics felt the director tipped his scales too much to one side or the other, either drowning insightful commentary in run-of-the-mill spectacle, which, for one critic, “blunts his more interesting statements,” or insufficiently exploring his parable on the division between classes in favour of the excitement of his action sequences. Reviews of both films assume an unacknowledged but often implied definition of what constitutes good sci-fi that rests on a well-worn tension between a rigorous exploration of relevant ideas and an appeal to the sensual pleasures of action and CGI-driven spectacle. The one must always be in the company of the other, with neither side winning out, for a film to be praised as good, or even true, sci-fi. District 9 was such a “sensation” with viewers, D’Addario claims, due to its ability to balance these twin demands, “because it applied verve and brio to a set of ideas in a way that got audiences legitimately excited.”

For Greg Tuck this “relationship between the rigorous, logical development of ideas and their extraordinary and wonderful presentation” is both one of the primary sources of pleasure for audiences of the genre, and one of the main points of contention for those who write about it as part of a larger debate in film studies over whether the medium’s essence lies in its capacity to tell stories or in its capacity to create wonder, to “offer pleasures more visceral than rational.” While there is no consensus amongst film theorists who range along the visceral/rational divide, there is a tendency in journalistic criticism of sci-fi toward a suspicion of the visceral if it comes at the expense of the rational, so that the two are repeatedly placed in opposition, as if the pleasures associated with spectacle can only be admitted to if they are accompanied by good ideas expressed over the course of a good narrative.

For D’Addario, Chappie cannot be heralded as good sci-fi because it both fails to sufficiently explore the “timely subject” of artificial intelligence, and because it ultimately abandons the ideas it raises about that subject “in favour of broad villains and big explosions.” In other words, it bypasses the relevance that should stand at the heart of sci-fi in favour of something formulaic. In doing so, Blomkamp drifts too close to those films that raise the type of ideas sci-fi should tackle to only a minimal degree as nothing but pretence for spectacle. The Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Terminator may place A.I. at the center of their respective narratives, but only to “set into motion a bunch of well-drawn fight scenes — not insights about technology and the future.”

Lisa Marie Schmidt characterizes this tendency to use genre as both a “high and a low standard” against which sci-fi films are judged as a tension between “too much and yet too little.” In their tendency to steer audiences away from serious consideration of the ideas underwriting their generic premises, these films are both “not genre enough” – incapable of triggering the intellectual stimulation of good sci-fi – and “too much genre” – due to their reliance on familiar stratagems for piquing our excitement, or on clichéd character types and formulaic narratives. But for D’Addario these films are not simply bad examples of sci-fi, but also pernicious consumers of “creative talent and funding” that could be used to produce something that might right the generic balance.

In its “insistence on dwelling on ideas about human nature and family” while telling a well-wrought story, Interstellar serves as D’Addario’s exemplar of what sci-fi should be, the “opposite measure” to films like Chappie. It may have employed an “old story” explored in countless other sci-fi films that charted humanity’s attempts to survive away from Earth, but it avoids being dismissed as “too much” because those ideas elevate the generic nature of the narrative, redeeming it from any accusation of appeals to the formulaic.

It is always tempting to adopt an evaluative definition of a genre, so that declaring a film’s admittance would serve as a commendatory gesture rather than simply a matter of slotting movies into categories. To define sci-fi by what one thinks it should be offers an obvious rhetorical advantage for the polemic in which D’Addario is engaging. Good sci-fi can offer a viable path away from the excesses of blockbuster sequels, which seem to crowd out good ideas and good stories alike, and the success of which has created a Hollywood incapable of recognizing a “good original property,” let alone actually investing in bringing one to the screen.

I have written before about the tendency to value certain responses to film over others, and of the difficulties that poses for me as a film fan and scholar. The “too much” but “not enough” tension that swirls around sci-fi is one example of the tendency to value intellectual engagement over sensation, or to at least insist that the two remain in some sort of productive balance. Genre is a fraught category for distinguishing between groups of films, considered as everything from a simple marketing strategy to an important guide for story comprehension. But to found a definition of a genre on some evaluative ideal (whether based on a specific type of response or something else entirely) risks automatically dismissing films as inferior if they prove incapable of fulfilling that ideal.

Genres are not free of evaluative assumptions. Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror have typically been associated with low culture in their tendency to appeal to both visceral thrills and belief in the irrational – UFOs, magic, ghosts – in order to distract, rather than rationally engage us with the world. And distraction always carries the taint of triviality. Drawing an evaluative definition of sci-fi based on its ability to address important ideas, however, serves to rescue the genre from any such association with triviality, offering D’Addario a way to preserve the pleasures many audiences seem to seek out in the sequels he derides, while also nudging major studio production toward the qualities genres like sci-fi seem to lack. Yet to do so insists on the inadequacy of those pleasures as a measure of quality while nonetheless recognizing the importance of their appeal, which only serves to fold sci-fi back into the divide between cognition and sensation that subtends D’Addario’s complaints about the state of Hollywood’s sequel-dominated film production. We may very well need to have a discussion about A.I. and our relationship with technology as it drifts into more and more areas of our lives, but to damn a sci-fi film for not doing so simply because it’s deemed necessary falls into the trap of evaluating a film for what it should be rather than what it is, and reinforces a fairly limited set of assumptions of what constitutes “good sci-fi.”


References:

Greg Tuck, “When More is Less: CGI, Spectacle and the Capitalist Sublime,” Science Fiction Film and Television 1 no. 2 (2008): 249–273.

Lisa Marie Schmidt, “Sensational Genres: Experiencing Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror,” doctoral dissertation The University of Austin, 2010.

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