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John Scalzi – Science-Fiction Films Through the (Rather Critical) Eyes of a Child

Not too terribly long ago, my daughter and I were flipping through television channels when I came across the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, which caused me to snicker and pause for a moment while I watched it.

To which my daughter, age 12, groaned. “Please tell me you’re not really going to watch this,” she said.

“Why shouldn’t I watch it?” I asked.

“Because it’s bad,” she said.

“I know it’s bad,” I said. “That’s part of its charm.”

“No, it’s not,” she said, waving at the screen. “Look at it. Everything looks so fake. How can you stand it?”

At that point, I was going to go into a long discursive monologue about how the effects of Flash Gordon were intentionally retro at the time — cheesy eighties special-effects technology being used to re-create cheesy thirties special-effects technology was just another heaping of meta — but my daughter had a look on her face that persuaded me to stop. She was 12. No argument I could make would convince her because, as a 12-year-old, she had never lived in a world where photo-realistic CGI was not a common special effect. Photo-realistic CGI is what, for her, a decent science-fiction or fantasy movie should have; not having it there was a deal breaker.
Which doesn’t seem fair, perhaps, to every science-fiction or fantasy movie made before Jurassic Park, but we’re talking about a 12-year-old girl here. Fair doesn’t enter into the picture. Maybe when she’s 25 she’ll have gained
enough cinematic perspective to enjoy films despite clunky green screens, matte paintings, stop-motion monsters, and optically printed
spaceships. Right here and now, however, all of that throws her out of the
movie. Fair enough.

And my daughter’s question — “How can you
stand it?” — is also a fair question. I can stand it because I’m old
enough not to hold a film’s level of technology against it, but if I’m
entirely honest it’s also because I grew up with it. My own personal baseline for special effects technology is represented by the first Star Wars movie, which I saw when I was 8 years old. So, for me, the films after Star Wars
have effects that don’t faze me — they seem like “real” effects —
while the films before it just seem fake. And the line
really is that abrupt: I can’t watch Logan’s Run, which came out a year before Star Wars, without being painfully aware how its effects
are “last generation,” even if they were cutting-edge for their time. And they were: the Academy gave the effects folks a special award for
their work. Doesn’t matter. They still throw me out of the film.

can’t blame my daughter for having the same dividing-line reaction to
special effects that I had when I was near her age, but it does make me a
little sad to know that there is a whole class of films she won’t enjoy
until she’s old enough to get past the antiquated effects and that within
that class of films are a whole bunch I personally treasure.
There’s a lot I want to share with her in science fiction and fantasy,
but I don’t want to do it before she can appreciate them. Too soon, and
they’ll just bore her. So, for example, I suspect it’ll be at least a
couple of years before I spring Buckaroo Banzai on her.

in the meantime, it’s been fun looking for the borderline cases that
will entertain my kid with effects that don’t get in the way. When I was
a kid, Star Wars was my effects dividing line, but I still managed to be impressed by 2001 and Planet of the Apes. I’m looking for the same sort of films for her. You would think Star Wars itself would be a natural, but Lucas has fiddled with that film’s effects on a regular basis, so it’s not a fair test.

So I’ve tried other ones. So far the most successful have been two Steven Spielberg films: Raiders of the Lost Ark, which he directed (she thought the lightning at the end was cheesy, but the melting faces are still awesome even now), and Poltergeist, which he produced (the effects are cheesy, but she doesn’t care). E.T., interestingly, didn’t do much for her the first time she saw it. I may try that one again later. My wife just showed her Back to the Future; she thought that was just okay.

And that’s fine. I’m looking forward to the day, at some point in the
future, where she has the same experience with her own kid: she flips
past some cheesy film from this era — let’s say, oh, 2012 — and
lingers on it for a second while her own kids roll their eyes. I figure
that’s about the time my daughter will finally be able to appreciate
how I felt about Flash Gordon. It will be a sweet day.

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