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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 36
What We Expect -- and We're Expecting

In the winter of 1982 I caught a showing of Trail of the Pink Panther, and, by the time it was over, wished I hadn't. I don't remember expecting much from it going in -- Peter Sellers had been dead for two years, after all, and Blake Edwards's mishmash of deleted scenes turned out to be as exploitative as the ads suggested -- but after two hours of trying with great effort to laugh, I was grateful it was over. As I left the auditorium a poster in red and black hues framed by a trail of blinking lights grabbed my eye. It was the teaser for the new Star Wars movie, then titled Revenge of the Jedi, and showed the silhouettes of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader amid a lightsaber duel against the backdrop of Vader's helmet.

My interest kicked into overdrive. For the next few months, practically until it opened (under the revised title Return of the Jedi) on May 25, 1983, I obsessed over what the new epic might have in store for the heroes and villains introduced to audiences in Star Wars (none of this A New Hope nonsense for me; at fourteen, I considered myself a purist) and The Empire Strikes Back. I pondered, with a zeal shared by the religious fanatics whom I bumped into between classes at Alief Elsik High School, how Jedi might resolve the questions posed in Empire, absorbing movie magazines that broadened the worldbuilding of the first two movies and seeking clues to the third. (My fervor probably kept a good number of people, including said religious fanatics, away. Guidance counselors worried.) I rewatched Star Wars over and over (not a difficult feat since both HBO and The Movie Channel secured broadcasting rights and seemed to be running it 24 hours a day) in preparation. I was primed, I was pumped.

Trail of the Pink Panther Revenge of the Jedi Cowboys and Aliens Zero Dark Thirty

I stood dutifully in line for several hours on opening weekend to see it. As the lights dimmed, I felt my heart stop...

And as I left the theater once the fanfare blared against the end credits, I tried to assess what I had seen. I liked it, I was sure of that, yet something about it just felt... Well, I couldn't put it into words. The space battles were there, as were the aliens, the exotic planets (though I questioned why, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas decided to revisit Tattooine), and sure, Princess Leia in the slave girl outfit fueled a few thousand fantasies even before the credits rolled. Everything was there. It just didn't match the movie in my head.

Today we'd call it "rationalizing disappointment," something an entire generation would do sixteen years later, with the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

We do this a lot. We hear of a new movie (or perhaps an old one) and we begin to anticipate its release (or perhaps find a showing of an older one on our DVR's schedule). Excitement rushes through our veins as we catch the trailer before a feature (or on YouTube); depending on the movie we've already paid to see, we wonder if we could somehow watch that one instead. By the time of the movie's release we may have gotten caught up in the groundswell of media (from television commercials and radio spots to, these days, Twitter updates and Facebook posts) and slip a sawbuck to the cashier at the multiplex for a ticket on opening day... only to leave the theater somehow dissatisfied.

It happens often. From summer blockbusters like Cowboys and Aliens and The Dark Knight Rises to winter Oscar bait like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, from high-profile event movies like John Carter and Tron: Legacy to small-scale projects like Midnight in Paris and The Future, our chosen entertainment seldom meets our expectations. So we make excuses. We tell ourselves how much we did like what we've seen, even when our insistence fails to match our feeling.

Our particular genre often appears to be the worst of offenders. We expect the slob comedies and their diminishing sequels (Bridesmaids and The Hangover 2) to be almost painfully laugh free, we anticipate a leaden pace and fatuous characters in modern dramas (Broken City and Life of Pi), we time our watches by the plot points ticking through the latest thrillers (Snitch and Jack Reacher), and only stay awake for modern action movies (A Good Day to Die Hard) with great effort. And yet, despite our inherent cynicism and routine dismissal of such Hollywood fare as Gangster Squad and The Guilt Trip, we always seem to convince ourselves that this particular movie -- be it Oblivion or After Earth -- will be the instant classic, the masterpiece we've all waited for.

After Earth Oblivion Pacific Rim Man of Steel

The reverse is true, too. A trailer might pop in between segments of a television show and fill us with dread, or it might convince us that the movie advertised won't draw flies. You could hear my dry heaves through the entire theater when I saw the original ad for Die Hard, and I expected to hate Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. (Yeah, I was wrong on both counts.) More recently, my eyeroll at the television spot for Jack the Giant Slayer came almost unconsciously.

Regardless of what the trailers make us feel, we seem to love the anticipation. Moreover, I'm finding that the arrival of a coming attraction, and the debate that often follows, offers far more interest than the movies themselves. The interwebs tangled itself into euphoric knots at the release of the first preview of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Cyberspace denizens went nuts at what they glimpsed. Jackson might be able to breathe life, as he did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, into J.R.R. Tolkien's classic children's book. There were detractors, and even a few who retained their cool. Jeff VanderMeer, responding to the near-universal gushing opinion, remarked on his Facebook page that, while Jackson's movie looked good, we shouldn't treat it as if we were witnessing new footage from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Of course, almost nobody listened.

One thinks that, as a critic, I might be somewhat immune to such cinematic tulip crazes (especially after my first disappointment with Return of the Jedi), especially with what seems to pass for film anhedonia in most. Yet even today, I can feel myself awaiting something that looks so awe-inspiring that I practically dance in my chair as I await its arrival, or wish I had a motion-sickness bag for what I am often certain will be a train wreck of epic proportions.

This hit me full force with two previews that opened the press screening of Jack the Giant Slayer. The first was Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, which showcased Lovecraftian Old Ones infused with the DNA of Gojiro, Mothra, and other denizens of Monster Island, a narration that offered an explanation for how and these otherworldly behemoths came to Earth and why they decided to terrorize us, and an army of giant robots ready to meet them of the field of battle. The second was Man of Steel, Zack Snyder's reboot of the Superman franchise starring Henry Cavill in the role defined by Christopher Reeve. One of these whetted my appetite for the summer, the other elicited a groan.

Both movies recast familiar ideas and tropes (and, in the case of Man of Steel, characters) for modern audiences, and both promise the requisite giant set pieces (big monsters tossing big robots across oceans and cityscapes, the last son of Krypton protecting earth from Michael Shannon's General Zod amid the crumbling cityscape of Metropolis). But the responses differ. Few people engage in discussion over Pacific Rim other than how effing cool it looks; Man of Steel inspires shot-by-shot breakdowns of what might happen, and how it fits with the characters as we've known them, and how this darker vision (influenced no doubt by Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy) might play.

My own response to them should be fairly obvious.

Del Toro's work, though occasionally scattershot (The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth astounded; the Hellboy movies bored), certainly possesses enough vision to spark my curiosity. And besides, if Pacific Rim delivers the required melees between fearsome aliens and human-piloted mechas, then it will meet my minimum criteria.

Man of Steel, though visually striking, has much less going for it. The casting (Cavill as Kal-El, Shannon as Zod, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White) mostly works (I don't care what anybody else thinks, Kevin Costner, who plays Jonathan Kent, makes me break out in hives), but Zack Snyder is completely wrong as director, for the simple reason that emotion makes Superman interesting. Because he is incapable of being hurt physically, the villains have to find ways to hurt him emotionally. Snyder's work, as far as I can tell, lacks anything resembling human beings. Additionally, I still question the need to retell Superman's story, especially after Richard Donner's groundbreaking Superman: The Movie. This isn't slavish adoration, but simple efficiency. We know Superman's origins; we've had the basics of what he can do for over 75 years. Move on.

Even still, at my advancing age, I look at what these movies have to offer, and can remember my excitement at the potential that Revenge of the Jedi poster held for me in 1982. The expectations game, as it does for any ardent moviegoer, has begun. It won't conclude until release day.

Copyright © 2013 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.


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