Monday, August 9, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Sci-Fi B-Movies?

A friend talked me into watching Despicable Me last night. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would* and I started thinking about it on the way home—not the themes of family and life's passion and happiness, but the way they handled the science fiction elements.

There's a whole class of children's films that basically pay homage to Golden Age comics and B-movies (The Incredibles, Sky High, Monsters vs. Aliens, Igor, Jimmy Neutron, Planet 51, the upcoming Megamind), and they all seem to use the same stock elements in the same zany, irreverent way. Aliens are green and evil. The villains caper with glee, cackle, rub their hands, and don't pose much of a threat to the hero. There are shrink rays, laser guns, death rays, and freeze rays, as well as a variety of robots and flying vehicles.** More specifically, there's little to no actual science behind anything. Even live-action Sky High ignores the laws of physics.

The only adult films I can recall that do the same things are Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and Mars Attacks. Most adult sci-fi movies seem to be either comic book adaptations that play true to modern life, tales of space travelers, or idea films like Inception. This isn't a bad thing, although the comic book trend is getting kind of old, Marvel aside***. I like what's being produced for people my age, though I only watch the stuff that looks good.

I'm all for having science in science fiction, but at the same time I really like the goofiness of old B-movies and serials, and the same goofiness we find now in kids' sci-fi. I'm not the only one. So why don't we see more of this in adult films? Is Hollywood assuming adults are now too smart and cynical to enjoy the story of Joe Scientist, his trusty sidekick, and their race to destroy Doctor Von Evil's death ray? Is Hollywood trying to be realistic and true to scientific fact? Are screenwriters rebelling against the tropes of the B-movie, or unable to produce a script that uses them and still gets picked up?

I can't say, of course, but I'm betting the answer to all those questions (except the first, rhetorical one) is "no". Hollywood routinely ignores actual science in adult films. There are enough screenwriters out there that someone must be talented enough to write a second Mars Attacks. Movies like Hot Tub Time Machine, The Hangover, and Sex in the City II prove that Hollywood will gleefully release movies without much substance.

So where's my primary-colored world of The Giant Space Tarantula and The Man With the Heat Ray?****

*I go into every film expecting disappointment. And kids' summer movies tend to be on the lower end of the quality scale anyway.
** I generalize. Not every movie I've listed as all these tropes.
*** I badly want to see Thor and Avengers, and Iron Man is just awesome.
**** On a side note, why don't we have books that revamp the old tropes, in the vein of Doctor Horrible or The Incredibles?

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