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Driving Down the Supernerd Highway With the Cars Films


A question this week about last weekend’s number one film:

My husband and I went to see Cars 2 this weekend (it’s cute) but are now having a difference of opinion about what genre of film it is. I say that talking technology means it’s science fiction. He says talking cars with no evidence of humans ever existing means its fantasy. Who’s right?

Hmmm. Well, strictly from a marketing point of view, it’s neither a science fiction nor a fantasy film; it’s a Pixar animated film, which is its own category — and its own highly desirable category, since the average domestic box office gross of the previous eleven Pixar films is just under $260 million dollars, and even the runt of the litter, A Bug’s Life, racked up over $160 million. The Pixar brand is so useful that even those films from the company that are unambiguously science fiction — The Incredibles and Wall-E — weren’t marketed as such; they were marketed as Pixar films. This isn’t a complaint, mind you, and even if it were, Disney (which now owns Pixar) would be right to ignore it. Its job is selling its film effectively, not satisfying genre purists.

With that caveat out of the way, and with the additional caveat that things are about to get supernerdy up in here, let’s look at Cars 2 (and its predecessor, Cars). The filmmakers at Pixar, as far as I am aware, have been mum about how anthropomorphized automobiles have become the dominant species on the planet, so we’re going to have to do some speculating. Here are the scenarios as I see them:

Scenario One: The Cars movies take place in a world where the
cars were initially designed by humans, but the humans have disappeared
in some way or another, leaving their automobiles to carry on without
them. This strikes me as a reasonable theory for a number of reasons.
One, at this point we’re loading our cars with all sorts of computer
processing power, and we’re even now at the point where self-driving cars are legal in one state
(Nevada, the crazy car nut of American states, apparently). And of
course cars have been talking to us for a while now, telling us to put
on seat belts and the like.

It’s not that hard to make the leap
from where we are today to full autonomous, self-driving, self-aware
automobiles that have outlived their initial purpose of ferrying about
human beings — whose cultural preferences and bias they would still
continue to exhibit without knowing why, or even that they are. Whether
the humans are gone due to their own hand or due to, say, an automotive
uprising in which Skynet and Lightning McQueen are mashed up into the
most adorable autopocalypse ever, is perhaps best left unexamined at
this point. The point is, if this is the scenario, then the existence of
the cars has a rational basis, and the Cars series of movies is indeed
science fiction.

Scenario Two:
The Cars movies take place
in a world where some celestial Henry Ford or Karl Benz reached down
from the sky and with a touch of his finger animated the (necessarily
metal-rich) mud into the very first cars. In this world, humans never
existed, which makes the general morphology of the cars a little
puzzling, and which makes one wonder if automobile philosophers (of
which there must have been some) ever theorized as to why they all had
spaces inside them clearly designed to convey some sort of creature from
one place to another.

No doubt there is a rich vein of
automotive teleological debate that has been engaged in over the
millennia on just this subject, none of which reaches us the viewers
because in the films we’re following the adventures of an arrogant jock
and his genial but dim best friend, neither of whom is what you would
call the deeply introspective sort. Which is fine; no one expects a
Pixar version of A Man For All Seasons, featuring cars. Be that
as it may, in this scenario, the Cars movies have a non-rational and
magical basis, and would be fantasy.

Scenario Three: The
Cars movies take place neither on earth nor on a planet watched over by a
mystical creator, but rather on a planet where the processes of
evolution have given rise to a metal and internal combustion-based form
of life, the predominant form of which just happened to (and unbeknownst
to them) mirror to an unsettling degree the design of automobiles found
here on Earth, not to mention the parallel cultural development. The
details (and fundamental likelihood) of such an evolutionary and
cultural path I will leave to others to discuss, except to say, hey,
it’s a quantum physics universe and anything can happen. In which case,
the Cars films are neither science fiction nor fantasy, but simply
contemporary action comedies.

There’s a fourth scenario, in
which the Pixar filmmakers simply said, “Hey, talking cars are cool!”
and gave little if any thought about where the film could be slotted, in
terms of the science fiction and fantasy genres. But come on. That’s
the unlikeliest scenario of all.

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