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Hitting the Mailbag – Monsters, Tron, and More Influential Sci-Fi

Hi. Thanks to lingering sickness and general fatigue (for which I blame Australia — curse your antipodean flu bugs), my brain is the consistency of goo. So what better time to go to the mailbag and answer some questions?

First question:

Any thoughts on Monsters?

For those of you who don’t know, Monsters is
the upcoming science-fiction film about the aftermath of an alien
invasion that was made with off-the-shelf video cameras and an
alleged budget of $15,000. I’m skeptical that’s the film’s actual
cost — I would imagine the postproduction required to get the film to a legitimate theatrical-release level would expand that budget
considerably — but no matter how you slice it’s a very cheaply made film.

My thoughts: I’m looking forward to it,
and I hope it works. If it does, and does well, it will be a reminder
that the best special effect a science-fiction film can have is a good
story. This will mean nothing to the folks making the next Transformers film, of course. But it might be useful for everyone else.

Next question:

Last week you gave two examples of science
fiction films that changed the world. Can you give an example of a
science fiction film that changed the world — that most people don’t
know of?

Well, I don’t suspect most people knew about Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), one of the films I mentioned last week, because it’s over 100 years old and we’re in a cinematic era that dictates that any movie
from more than three years ago is ripe for a reboot, so a sense of
history is not precisely cherished at this moment in film history. But I
sense that my reader is asking specifically about a film that is
influential but not popular — something beloved by filmmakers and
filmmaker wannabes, if not by the masses.

In science
fiction, I think the film that best fits this mold — although I
think not as well as my questioning friend might want — is 1972’s Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and adapted from the novel by Stanislaw Lem. Slow moving, icy, and more than a little weird, Solaris wouldn’t
have been a movie that American moviegoers would have warmed to, even
if it weren’t created in the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War.

both scholars of film and of science fiction consider it a highly
significant and influential film in the genre, and it’s made its mark on
a generation of filmmakers, including, of course, Steven Soderbergh, who
directed a remake of the film, and also, I suspect, James Cameron, who in Avatar
posited a world-spanning intelligence that was presaged by a similar
sort of intelligence in Tarkovsky’s film. (Cameron produced Soderbergh’s remake, incidentally.)

I say the
film doesn’t quite fit the mold because, although it has influenced
significant filmmakers, what those filmmakers have done with it hasn’t
amounted to much: Soderbergh’s remake was not notably successful,
financially or creatively, and whatever elements Cameron might have
nicked (or, to put it more charitably, internalized) are overwhelmed by his other
cinematic and technical choices. This is one of the downsides of being a
largely obscure film.

Next question:

Am I the only person confused about how excited people are about Tron: Legacy? Don’t people remember that the first Tron film was awful?

I want to save most of my thoughts about Tron: Legacy for when we’re a little closer to the film’s release date, but I will say that I sympathize with this concern. The original Tron is unarguably an important film in science fiction, but that importance is
purely on technical grounds — the extensive and integral use of
computer graphics and animation — because the story is juvenile and the
acting is bad. (Among other things, this was during Jeff Bridges’s “I let
my smirk do my acting for me” phase.)

But then again, the audience for the original Tron back
in the day was largely 11-to-15-year-old boys, the sort that spent
their days hovering over a Xevious game in the arcade and would later
look on those days fondly. I don’t think anyone who is not delusional
thinks Tron is a good movie, but they’re willing not to think
about it too hard in order to enjoy the warm glow the memory gives them.
So when that good ol’ feeling gets trotted out again with superspectacular new graphics (in 3-D — don’t forget the 3-D), well, why wouldn’t they get excited all over again?

If Tron: Legacy actually turns out to be a better movie than Tron (that
won’t be difficult), then that will be a bonus. But if not, then
everyone gets to imagine having a light cycle again — in 3-D — and
that will probably be enough.

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