An article on IO9 caught my attention the other day: It wondered why Steven Spielberg’s movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn’t popularly considered one of his best movies. The article examines the movie and its overall quality, which the author claims doesn’t explain its lower popularity among Spielberg’s other movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Jaws, Minority Report, etc, etc, etc.
I spend a lot of time wondering about why this is popular and not that, why no one talks about this old movie while they won’t stop talking about that one, why this is a classic and that is a joke, etc. I wish I could say I could apply the question to my old novels… but since none of them ever reached a level of legitimate popularity, the question just doesn’t apply. (Yeah, yeah, poor me. Shaddup.)
But it’s an interesting question when applied to science fiction films, because its answer says a lot about the changing nature of American society and science fiction films in the US. Honestly, the answer to science fiction movie and TV popularity came to me in no time; and the answer applies to most popular American science fiction (and fantasy) movies and TV shows of the last few decades.
Put simply, the popularity of certain forms of American SF and fantasy has a lot to do with the modern-day audience’s continually growing fascination with physical conflict and violence.
Early SF has had its violent moments, to be sure: Monsters, rampaging robots, attacking aliens and warring civilizations have been part of SF since it was SF. But a lot of SF was also about heady concepts like investigating alien mysteries, finding common ground with outsiders and dealing with futuristic technology and its impacts on society. And yes, there is still SF that deals with these intelligent concepts without resorting to violent confrontations.
As time has progressed, however, audiences have steadily shied away from the more intellectual concepts of SF, in favor of more extreme action and exciting adventure. The introduction of Star Wars, with its spaceship skirmishes and chases, lightsaber and blaster battles and exploding planets, redefined the concept of the blockbuster and took over a market of movies and TV shows that formerly spent more time looking inward and seeking intelligent means of solving problems. And as newer movies have continued to ramp up on the levels of adventure and violence, trying to outdo the last box-office success, audiences have signed on with eagerness. Perhaps the ultimate examples of those are the superhero movies, with wildly-costumed characters and extreme action and punch-ups, which have become the most financially successful movies of the time.
When viewed through this lens, it becomes understandable why Close Encounters isn’t as popular as many of Spielberg’s other movies, and incidentally, why some of his other movies, like ET: the Extra-Terrestrial are thought of as “kid’s movies” versus “adult movies.” As good as CE3K is, about the most violent act in the entire movie is the army’s gassing a trespasser from a passing helicopter. Compare that to sharks and dinosaurs eating people, gunfire across battlefields, fighting archaeologists and peace officers, Nazis, and even CIA agents pulling guns on kids on bicycles, and suddenly CE3K seems downright pedestrian.
Take a look at other SF movies that bombed in theaters, and you’ll see a steady stream of minimal-violence movies. A great example is Steven Soderberg’s Solaris, which was a well-done and well-acted movie, but which had absolutely no on-screen violence. Peter Hyams’ 2010: The Year We Make Contact was also an excellent movie, but with no onscreen violence, it didn’t do well in the theater. And when Paramount brought Star Trek to the big screen, a series known for its intelligence and treatment of heady concepts, each of the heavy-action movie versions were largely more popular than the more intellectual stories.
By this measure, it seems that while serious science fiction might get you award nominations, ultra-violence is the thing you need to make popular and financially successful SF for today’s market, especially in movies… and CE3K just doesn’t hit that mark, due to its significant lack of audience-pleasing violence.
I wish I could just note the reality of the situation and be satisfied; but to be honest, I still believe SF’s greatest strength is its smart and futuristic concepts, its demonstration of people using their heads to overcome obstacles, and its nonviolent solutions to problems. There will always be anomalies, like The Martian, winning the box office despite having none of the violent action that so pleases audiences; but they will be the exceptions that prove the rule. To me, turning SF media into more excuses for juvenile power fantasies cheapens it and dilutes its value as a medium and genre. But perhaps, like older SF movies, I am an anachronism too.