The movie viewer usually does not have to think as much as a person reading, with one notable exception—the occasion extraordinary science fiction film. These films were once an outlet to comment on society, often with a critical view, such as Silent Running and Fahrenheit 451 (which made a few unfortunate detours from the book). As recently as ten years ago I was intrigued by a British film in this genre entitled Moon, which ending in a startling critique of the lack of ethics dealing with humans in a profit driven society. But, very few Americans even know about that film.
However, when I watch many of Hollywood’s current science fiction offerings, I feel I am viewing slick versions of the early, moody Hitchcock films shot on another planet. Watching actors dash through dark sets is like trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night in a strange house. Despite listening intently in order to absorb what is happening, I still must depend on the obligatory explanation provided by dialog near the end of the film.
The invention of CG special effects has made creating the illusion of mystery easier. These scenes are jam-packed with mood, but the startling special effects make it difficult to attend to what is actually happening. Bird’s eye views of gleaming space ships and whirling galaxies are accompanied by the dance of flickering lights, and punctuated by the occasional flare of an engine.
As the camera zooms in and out, my attention wanders because frequently not a lot is happening beside special effects. When action finally occurs, the close-up view will 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 science fiction movies not caring if I miss anything important in them, because there often isn’t much important to miss. I bemoan that producers seem ignorant of what I really desire—movies that have characters with real moral struggles in which the ending isn’t obvious and dialog subtle enough that I actually have to pay attention.