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.

- Elysium


"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."

You know, now I think the big words syndrome has clearly moved from "natural speech" to "he's just doing it to piss me off".

I'd like to echo your sentiments and then caveat that with the fact that I long ago learned to stop caring. The world movies purport as real is not in any way reflected by reality. I grew up in the 80's man, the 80's, any belief I had in rational physics in movies is long dead.

I almost choked on my sandwich with the Starship Troopers comment, then realized you were talking about the movie. I had almost blocked it from my mind since reading the book and watching the TV show, thanks Elysium, all the memories are flooding back now.

I suppose someone has to say, "Just relax and have fun with it!"

But I think you've touched on a few not-quite-related issues here and lumped them together.

One sometimes frustrating aspect of some SciFi movies is the occurence of extremely unlikely things, such as in Pitch Black.  But I tend to let most of these slide, as the movies are really "What if..." stories that we call science fiction due to our lack of proper nomenclature.  And these things certainly depend on some personal metric of acceptance, but I'm willing to go along with some leaps because unlikely stories are entertaining.  When we watch a movie that is actually based on reality, sometimes it is because the story is historically important, but quite often it is because the story is just so unlikely.  Playing around with statistically unlikely events should be fair game in my mind.  Yeah, it gets taken too far, so maybe we should append the word "fantasy" to the genre heading.

Other issues like the heavy handedness of Starship Troopers seems like not so much a complaint against sci-fi as a complaint against Verhoeven's style.  That is what it is, but it's a personal issue.

I think it's tough though.  So much of science fiction is predicated on the discovery of a space drive that makes interstellar travel possible.  Be this by wormholes, warp drives, or just near-light speed travel and cryo-sleep...I think you'd find many scientists who say these things aren't going to happen, so the whole story is pointless.  But some of us carry on believing: either we enjoy the fantasy or we want to consider those what-ifs because they're sufficiently removed from our everyday experiences while still retaining that familiar taste of human existence.

As Susan Sontag said in her excellent genre critique: "Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art." The nature of the disaster is very specific, during the course of the film, The Other is encountered and, generally with lots of fire and flying debris, destroyed. I would encourage you, if you insist on continuing to expose yourself to that which you revile by seeing these films, to view them as examples of absurdism. Rather than simply accept the obvious surface meaning of heroism and the triumph of the rational, look to the ironic subtext that the violation of the natural provides: the whole notion of a hero defeating the other is ridiculous in an absurd and existential existence. Rather than Bruce Willis leaping through a plate glass window (or whatever), think of it more as Don Quixote tilting at a windmill (mixing my genres only demonstrates the universality of my argument!).

Culture, literature, and entertainment used to be created without a care in the world about 'market appeal', and the world was better off for it.  No one would make Casablanca or Citizen Kane today because the movie wouldn't test well.

There is a difference between a 'popcorn movie' and film.  And there are more and more of the former than the latter.  Good books and films challenge us and make us grow.  The popcorn variety of either reinforce our ignorance.  I'm not saying I didn't enjoy Bad Boys II, merely that I liked Brannaugh's 4 hour Hamlet and wish more movies like it were made.

The greatest compliment I can give to a book is that it makes me buy other books because it sparked my desire to research its topic in greater depth, or it used words that made me reach for a dictionary (unlike Elysium....sheesh man....try harder!).

or it used words that made me reach for a dictionary

You consider this a good thing? For instance, in the part I quoted above poking a little fun at Elysium, I may not have memorized every definition of every word in that sentence, but in context I knew what he was saying. When I have to go look up whatever word you are using, unless it just fits perfectly after I know what it means, I feel like you were using big words simply to use them. There are plenty of times I've had to look up a word only to go, "Why didn't you just use (insert common word here)". Very often unnecessarily large and/or obscure words are simply used to make the writer feel intelligent or superior, which is the literary equivalent of "l33t sp34k".

"very often" maybe, but I find myself more often wishing that an author had displayed some more informed word choice as the right words can not only more precisely communicate a concept, they also help define the rhythm and tone of a sentence.  The beauty of language is not readily apparent in the multiplexes these days.

Ok, English Nerd Mode On:

I just love the sound of words.  I love the way they can flow in a rhythm, and while I do enjoy some tasty literary hyperbole in these articles, because ultimately their just for fun, I think the right word is more than just the word that describes the action in the most efficient way possible.  I think there is an art to wordsmithing.  Again, I'm not really talking about Pyro's example, because for all intents and purposes, he's right.  I was just futzing around.  I like the juxtaposition between all those big, flowery, largely ancillary words, and 'well, duh'.  That felt fun in my head.

As for exposing myself to popcorn cinema, largely I don't these days.  I've only been to three movies this year I can think of off hand, and none over the summer months.

- Elysium

he's right.

No words will ever sound better than those.

Seriously though, I didn't mean that long obscure words were bad, just that they aren't necissarily good. If you read my posts you realize real quick I don't use them that often but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate a well placed obscure word. Just that I appreciate it because it fits, or sounds right, not because it's obscure.

I grew up in the 80's man, the 80's, any belief I had in rational physics in movies is long dead.

But one of the greatest SF movies of all time came from the 80's:  Blade Runner.

One of the few instances where the movie was actually better than the book it was based on.  I don't think it resorted to any crazy physics.  Although there might have been a scene where someone ran through a plate glass window... but she was a replicant, so that makes it okay.  

Pyro, language should never be an obstacle to communication.  But that goes both ways.  I shouldn't have to dumb down my language just so you don't have to exert yourself a bit.  And by 'you' I mean big picture you, not you personally.

Hey English Nerd!


Wouldn't that actually be "they're just for fun"?  I think that one of the facets to the art of wordsmithing would be proper use of grammar! 

I agree with you, but in your original post you said you enjoy a book when it makes you look up a word. I was pointing out that looking up a word doesn't necissarily mean that it was used well, or that it added to the understanding of the situation. I don't think that's what you meant but that's how it read.

I was thinking more of 80's action movies.

"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."

Less is more.

Yes, but without an edit option I had no option but to pretend it didn't happen.  Since we have no edit button, I've decided to blame Pyro for the error.  Nice job, Pyro!

- Elysium

I don't know, I think you should claim it was an intentional error designed to give your readers the impression that you're a mortal, just like them.  It gives the post an everyman humility that it was lacking before

Where did you get that quote Polq?

Hahahaha...  *ba dum chee*