Daily Elysium: Don't Feed the Cynic
People say to me all the time, "you must be some kind of joyless shell; a soulless form treading forever bitter the banality of this tired earthen firmament, doomed to languish in your own well cultivated scorn for the great multitude of people and ideas which you've placed far below your vaulted pedestal of pedantic musing." Well, duh!
Listen, there's no smooth way to put this. I'm a snob, a nerdy sci-fi snob from time to time, but a snob none the less, and I wear that label right there on my sleeve. Whenever someone tells me my standards are set too high I get a warm feeling, like a well aged single malt scotch slipping its beautiful fire down the tender linings of my fleshy insides, and I think 'preach on, brother mundane!' I think there's a serious possibility that I became a Literature Major just so I could walk around with my nose stuck in the air frowning on all the people who've never deeply considered the scathing social commentary of Mrs. Dalloway or the conflict between the body and mind of Metaphysical Poets. For a week after memorizing the first pages of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in their original Middle English, with all the archaic inflections, I tried to squeeze bits of it awkwardly, and pointlessly, into conversations. Yeah, I'm that guy.So, when I say popular movies, in a general sense, are deeply vapid these days, you should understand from what lofty self-erected heights I speak.
And it is because of that well tuned scorn that I take great pleasure in finding a site like Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics. Look, I write science fiction stories - whether they are good or bad is a matter for another time - and I take pretty considered steps to understand the dramatic process, so I'm not completely without perspective when it comes to the necessity of drawing an audience into the world of your fictional epic. I even understand the desire for modern audiences to have something big and preferably on fire scream past their wide-eyed field of vision, but honestly, the world is big on its own, and there's no reason to throw out the generally universal laws of physics just so your spaceship goes WHOOOSH across the interstellar void. I'll make you a deal, Hollywood: you start setting your movies on black hole singularities - of the ultimate cheat: virtual reality - and you're welcome to do whatever you want with physics, but in this universe, you're just going to have to accept that glass hurts when you burst through it.
My basic problem with serious errors in portraying melodramatic visual hyperbole is that it makes me lose interest in the plight of the characters. Ultimately all drama, and I mean without exception, is about the characters moving through the events of their universe. And, to maintain the highest sense of dramatic conflict, the rules of that universe must be both consistent and predictable. Those characters can be people, aliens, robots, or a floating red balloon, but what motivates an audience to keep watching is concern for how the protagonist shuffles ever tenuous the mortal coil. When Hollywood comes along and changes the most fundamental rules of the world, when things that would kill any and all of us are randomly ignored then the suspension of disbelief falters, and the value of any conflict is lessened. You begin to sense the author's/director's/executive's deific hand working its deus ex machina. I don't care who you are, when you're wearing a bullet proof vest and get shot three or four times, you're staying down for a good long while.
Everytime I watch a movie where someone plummets through a plate glass window and jumps up relatively unscathed on the other side, maybe inflicted with as much as some itchy looking scratches, I just want to dump out the popcorn I've been eating and put the bucket over my head so no one will see me while I leave. Just once I'd like to see someone fall through a plate glass window, start to get up and notice that his arm's nearly severed, and he's bleeding from a dozen different deep wounds. As the site mentioned above puts it: "There are individuals who have accidentally fallen through windows without sustaining serious injuries. There are also people who have survived the Ebola virus. However, in both cases the odds are not particularly good."
And let's not just pick on the failings of physics here. For having the word science stuck in the name of the sci-fi genre, you'd think they might apply it from time to time. From Armageddon's multiple failings of basic physics, to Pitch Black's absolutely laughable theories of evolution, to Starship Trooper's heavy handed and awkward use of dramatic metaphor, to the ridiculous temporal mechanics of pretty much every movie where someone travels through time, sci-fi has pretty much come to simply mean 'we unnaturally blow stuff up in space instead of just earth'. For as much as I enjoy a lot of the literature of the genre - Dan Simmons, Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, to name a few - I've practically given up on the genre as a theatrical form. As films like The Matrix, The Core, and Prequels become the staple of sci-fi films, I find myself less and less interested.
As I said from the start, maybe my reliance of being treated with intelligence at the theater is, itself, my own shortcoming, but I can't help but notice how much more often the literature of the genre succeeds where films fail. I can't help but think that focus groups, narrative by committee, and the pressures of marketing forego a reasonable story in favor of ruptured eardrums and the predictable tedium of tired and illogical cliches.
I just had to get that off my chest.