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Transformers and Tentpoles – John Scalzi Dives Once More Into the Mailbag

Transformers and Tentpoles – John Scalzi Dives Once More Into the Mailbag” width=”560″/>

Hey, you know what? Today looks like a fine day to go through the mailbag and answer some reader questions. It’s also a fine day for pie. But let’s do this one thing at a time, right?

First question:

It’s entirely possible that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will bring in over $400 million at the box office. In the interest of keeping me from killing myself over this fact, please assure me that we’re in no danger of it becoming the most successful science fiction film of all time.

Well, if we’re talking about domestic box office, in order for the new Transformers flick to become the number one science fiction movie of all time it would have to gross $461 million, which would squeak it past Star Wars (this is assuming that you don’t count The Dark Knight as science fiction). I don’t think the Transformers are going to manage that, frankly. But even if they did, you could take solace in the fact that when adjusted for inflation, a whole bunch of other science fiction movies have done better than $461 million, including Independence Day, Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, four Star Wars movies and E.T.

Next question:

Why do idiotic films like Transformers and Wolverine get put into thousands of theaters while really excellent science fiction movies like Moon don’t show up anywhere?

The short answer is that Transformers and Wolverine are “tentpole” pictures — i.e., the sort of movies that studios spend millions on in the hope of making millions from — so naturally they’re going to be screened far and wide as well as promoted in a screaming haze of advertising, while Moon — starring Sam Rockwell as a schmoe on a 3-year moonbase stint — is sort of the exact opposite: A small movie, made for roughly the cost of Transformer shoot’s craft service budget and without the help of a major studio. Moon was never destined to get onto 4,000 screens on opening day.

Now, this avoids the implicit question, which is why studios choose to spend millions and millions on movies based on toys and comic books and not on movies that grownups might not be embarrassed to be seen coming out of in the first place. The answer to that is actually the solution, which is that if you want studios to make those sorts of movies, go out of your way to see them in the theater, rather than just waiting until they wash up on Starz or HBO. It’s not that humans are getting stupider, it’s that people interested in entertainment that doesn’t EXPLODE aren’t going into theaters. So, you know. Go.

Next question:

Does Up qualify as science fiction? You have to admit, using balloons to fly a house is a good use of science. And then there’s the translating dog collars. Those are pretty science fictional.

I’m going to give you the dog collars, but let’s note that the collars don’t explain how the dogs also fly airplanes or cook multi-course meals or play poker, so it’s a thin science fictional candy shell over a thick creamy center of fantasy. Also, while I applaud Pixar’s use of the scientific principles of buoyancy as regards the balloons, I’m going to get nitpicky and say that the mere use of a scientific principle does not science fiction make. I mean, Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz was lifted up by that twister in perfect confirmation of physical principles. It doesn’t mean her landing in Munchkinland was achieved through the offices of science fiction. I love Up, but I’m pretty comfortable calling it fantasy.

Final question:

Why aren’t more movies being made from today’s science fiction novels?

I’ve discussed at length before why you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for your favorite science fiction novel to come to the screen. That said, I’ll note from my own experience and from the experience of several author friends of mine that there is at least some interest in today’s science fiction authors by filmmakers: A number of them have recently announced their novels have been optioned, including Cory Doctorow’s current Hugo nominee, Little Brother (which is on my list of books that should be made into movies). An option doesn’t mean a movie is going to get made, but it’s an encouraging first sign. So if you’re a fan of modern written science fiction, there are some (small) reasons to be hopeful.

There. NOW it’s time for pie.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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