Science fiction in films was once an outlet to comment on society, often with a critical view, such as Fahrenheit 451 and Silent Running. As recently as ten years ago I was intrigued by the British Science Fiction film, Moon, which ending in a startling critique of business ethics. But, very few Americans even know about that film.
However, when I watch science fiction produced by Hollywood now, I feel I am viewing a slick version of an early Hitchcock short. It was shot at night with existing light, and watching it was like trying to find the bath room in the middle of the night in a strange house. Because of the low lighting, I had to watch and listen intently in order to absorb what was happening. But even that is not true of current films.
The invention of CG special effects has made creating the illusion of mystery easier. There are not only shadows, but bird’s eye views of of gleaming sky space ships and whirling galaxies, accompanied by the dance of flickering lights, and punctuated by the occasional flare of a engine. The camera zooms in and out, leaving me both spooked and dizzy.
These scenes are jam-packed with mood, but the special effects make it difficult to attend to what is actually happening. And, I noted a habit that I’ve developed when a scene like this starts in modern movies. My attention wanders because frequently not a lot is happening beside special effects. When action does occur, the close-up might slam it right into my face.
So, I’ve also learned not to worry about missing any clues as to what is occurring. The dialog in the next scene will be an info dump that tells me everything I missed. As I view these films, the question asked in an article by David Sterritt almost twenty years ago still echoes in my head, “Are we witnessing what some critics call the dumbing down of American cinema?
Actor Simon Pegg also notes the dumbing down of movies in the U.S. “Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste.”
So, I continue to watch not caring if I miss anything important in the movies, because there doesn’t seem much important in them. And, I bemoan that movie producers seem ignorant of what I really miss–movies that have real characters with moral struggles, in which the ending isn’t obvious, and the dialog is subtle enough that I actually have to pay attention.