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Big Dumb Opticals: Film Considered as the Motion Pyramid
The Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film—the work in progress now sprouting in the Interzone website that I feel obliged to explain—was my first project inspired by greed. Years ago, at a time when I felt especially impoverished, I resolved to create a book that might interest a major publisher, make its way to bookstores, and earn money for its author. Such a book, I realized immediately, would have to be about science fiction film, not science fiction literature.

This was hardly a stretch, because like everyone else I had long been fascinated by movies and found it easy to discuss them. But why are we so fascinated by movies? It has little to do with aesthetically satisfying storytelling, as was apparent after the mind-numbing experience of watching The Mummy. How, I wondered, did a movie that is so manifestly awful, so deficient in all aspects of capable filmmaking covered in introductory cinema classes, become so popular?

At first, the movie brought to mind the pyramid-shaped Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, which features three thrill rides linked by some senseless plot about uncovering ancient superscience in an Egyptian archaeological site and observing its effects on humanity's future. On one ride, like Disneyland's Star Tours, you sat in synchronized moving chairs while a television screen displayed your enclosure's purported flight through a cavern. So, I thought, The Mummy might be considered an amusement park ride without moving chairs. From that perspective, traditional expectations of narrative logic are irrelevant. One can protest that the film's idiot plot rests upon not a single group of idiots but upon generation after generation of idiots; that if ancient Egyptians had actually possessed the magical abilities displayed in the picture, they would now be enjoying their fifth millennium of world domination; that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt a thousand years after the pyramids were built and spoke a language unlike modern Hebrew, so an Egyptian from that era wouldn't recognize Hebrew as "the language of the slaves"; that a resurrected mummy savvy enough to adjust to twentieth-century Cairo would figure out that he didn't need to be afraid of a house cat. But this would be like critiquing a roller coaster. ("For what reason does this vehicle slowly climb to a great height, then abruptly veer downward and to the right?")

Then, recognizing that not all popular films recall thrill rides, I hit upon another reason for the appeal of contemporary movies, also suggested by The Mummy, that has nothing to do with skillful narrative: movies are fascinating because they are big. Specifically, they are monumental.

*   *   *   *   *

The impulse to construct and admire huge monuments is ancient, and Egyptian pyramids were only one early expression of that impulse. Other Mediterranean civilizations constructed less enduring Wonders of the World, remembered now only as evocative names and imaginative drawings. Rome built the Coliseum, China the Great Wall, India the Taj Mahal; Meso-America created its own pyramids, medieval Europe erected cathedrals, Easter Island raised gigantic statues. In the last two centuries, new materials and techniques brought more monumental marvels like the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and Golden Gate Bridge. To impress the world and attract spectators, it seemed, you needed something huge and striking; and if you built it, they would come.

In recent decades, though, massive monuments have been less attractive. A sign of changing attitudes came in the 1960s, when the city of St. Louis unveiled, with great fanfare, its answer to the Washington Monument and Arc de Triomphe, the Gateway Arch, expressly designed to become a major tourist attraction. It didn't. While older icons like Big Ben and the Empire State Building continued to draw crowds, other massive new projects, like the Space Needle and Sydney Opera House, also did not garner much notice. If there was a fundamental human desire to gaze in awe at bigness, big buildings no longer satisfied it.

Enter Hollywood.

From the beginning, films often aspired to largeness, as demonstrated by epic fossils like Intolerance and Napoleon. But it was in the 1950s that the American industry, threatened by something very small—television—responded by visibly striving to be Big. Some innovations, like Cinemascope, 3-D, and Cinerama, were efforts to literally make films bigger, and in other ways—extreme length, lavish spending, huge sets, all-star casts, and special effects—Hollywood struggled to lure audiences with the sheer, egregious hugeness of its products.

As Nick Lowe suggests, bigness temporarily went out of style in the 1960s, since big films of that era, mostly biblical epics and sentimental musicals, kept bombing. Instead of being bigger than television, Hollywood resolved to be more naked, foul-mouthed, and violent than television. But bigness roared back a decade later in several forms, including the big disaster movie (Earthquake, The Towering Inferno), big horror movie (The Exorcist, The Omen), and big science fiction movie (Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture). As the films got bigger and bigger, people started paying more and more attention.

*   *   *   *   *

After moving to the Los Angeles area in the 1970s, I was amazed by how extensively the local media covered the movie industry: every new film was reported and reviewed, and there was a constant flood of news about planned and forthcoming films. I seemed in a privileged position, close to the center of film production and privy to insider information. Today, I am privileged no more: thanks to Entertainment Tonight, the E Channel, Premiere magazine, websites, and countless other resources, people in Montana or Manchester can learn just as much about movies as people in Burbank. Each weekend, all of America watches film openings like the Super Bowl, anxiously waiting to see if Stir of Echoes can top The Sixth Sense in the Friday box office receipts. During the week, everyone checks out the latest on the on-again, off-again James Cameron-Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator 3 project. (News flash: as of last week, it looks to be On again.)

All this attention surely reflects, in part, an understanding that building a modern motion picture is far more difficult and complex than building a pyramid. At first, equipped only with a script or scenario that can be epitomized in a catchy sales pitch ("It's Godzilla Meets The English Patient!!"), an enterprising player with clout essentially must create an entire company devoted exclusively to making the proposed film; persuade a few "bankable" performers to front the project; attract financial support in the neighborhood of a hundred million dollars; recruit a small army of talented craftspeople; work out dozens of deals for merchandising, novelizations, promotional tie-ins, world rights, video rights, and television rights; plan the entire filmmaking process in the manner of Eisenhower preparing for D-Day; and shepherd the film to completion while coping with daily disruptions that threaten to bring the campaign to a dead halt. Films like Titanic are precise analogues of the Egyptian pyramids: on the one hand, they represent the collective labors of thousands of diligent workers; on the other hand, they embody the vision of one domineering individual determined to immortalize his personal obsessions.

(This is, by the way, why Warren Beatty is a credible presidential candidate—not because he is an actor, but because he is an experienced producer. Anybody who can keep launching and completing film projects under current conditions undoubtedly can effectively manage a large, pre-existing bureaucracy.)

To appreciate movies as the modern equivalents of monuments, remain in the theatre after the film ends, as I do, and watch all the credits. First, you can hear some excellent music through a sound system better than anything available for the home. Second, the credits may provide surprising information: at the end of The American President, for example, I stared incredulously at dozens of credits for special effects (not recalling any explosions, spaceships, or monsters in the film) until I realized that all the crowd scenes—the President at the ball, the President addressing Congress—must have been filmed in front of a blue screen. Finally, the endless credits persuasively communicate just how massive an accomplishment you have witnessed; true, a few names don't really belong in the credits (does providing sandwiches for cast and crew really make you a co-creator of the film?), but the vast majority of the people listed are essential to the film's completion. Even a stinker like Lake Placid, which invites consideration as a rejected script for the old Outer Limits modernized and padded out to pass for a film, culminates with ten minutes of credits, proudly recognizing the thousands of people who conspired to ruin your Saturday afternoon.

So, following the modern blueprint for successful filmmaking, Stephen Sommers takes his 115 million dollars, hires a few performers and legions of talented technicians, and resurrects an ancient Mummy. Its inadequacies as narrative don't matter; the film is Big, accompanied by trailers and commercials promising a frenzied grandeur, and strategically unveiled a few weeks before the summer's most celebrated pyramid, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, is available for viewing, this lesser edifice manages to attract an impressive number of awestruck observers.

I am describing a pattern, not a rule, and occasional "little" films like The Blair Witch Project, lacking big stars, big budgets, and big effects, may be unexpected hits. But like Marty or David and Lisa, such films never start any trends. Hollywood keeps returning to the safest strategy to attract audiences, namely giganticism. So, if The Blair Witch Project Part Two gets made for under twenty million dollars, I will be very surprised.

*   *   *   *   *

And what does all this have to do with science fiction?

An obvious answer is that the genres of fantasy and science fiction may be particularly well suited for full-scale monumental filmmaking. Realistic films must spend some time in realistic settings, too familiar to be truly impressive. Non-realistic films can economically construct, with computer graphics, any sort of spectacular world the director may envision. Realistic films may be limited in their extra-cinematic extensions: Cameron couldn't copyright the name "Titanic" and couldn't interest toymakers in selling little Titanic boats that would split apart and sink in your very own bathtub. Non-realistic films can be entirely owned by their creators, and stories can be specifically shaped to enhance marketing possibilities—remember George Lucas's animated stuffed animals, the Ewoks? And building and inhabiting you own world may especially appeal to the egomaniac star or director often required to actually get a movie project off the ground: think Judge Dredd. Think The Postman. Or think (but don't get me started on) Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Still, contemporary films may be best seen as a replacement for, not an expression of, science fiction.

A forthcoming essay by Peter Nicholls, "Big Dumb Objects and Cosmic Enigmas: The Love Affair between Space Fiction and the Transcendental," offers the argument suggested by its title. He finds a characteristic "sense of wonder, the sublime, the transcendent, or the romantic" in science fiction and adds that "one rather mechanical way of creating this effect is for the storyteller to imagine something very, very big and mysterious, like the spaceship Rama, or like Larry Niven's Ringworld." For the less imaginative, I submit, large and distinctive monuments long served to inspire similar emotions; what happened in the 1960s to diminish their impact may have been the newly available photographs of Earth from orbital space. From that cosmic vantage point, we were repeatedly informed, only one human artifact could be seen, the Great Wall of China; even that, it turned out, was undetectable. Suddenly, the monuments of Earth were diminished in stature; if the vaunted Gateway Arch could not be observed from space, was it really important at all?

Now, perhaps, only the artificial and natural wonders of space would suffice to impress the masses, so images of the Saturn V rocket and close-up photographs of the Moon and Mars were proffered to the public. A few films also endeavored to be conspicuously Big in this respect, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey, with depictions of planetary alignments, the spaceship Discovery, and the immense monolith orbiting Jupiter. But usually this sort of Bigness proved more alienating than inspiring. Consider that uneasy blend of 2001 and Star Trek, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film driven from the start by the studio's insistence upon making it "big." The result was a dull, lifeless epic, with the Enterprise crew doing little more than gazing in awe at cosmic immensities. A livelier space film, Star Wars, gave viewers touches of such majesty—an opening shot of a huge imperial dreadnought, brilliantly parodied in Spaceballs—but otherwise entertained audiences with other sorts of spectacle—exotic aliens, zooming spaceships, big explosions.

Gradually, the films themselves, as well as what they displayed, came to play the role of contemporary monuments, as people grew equally fascinated by the stories behind the screen—the huge budgets, huge egos, huge lawsuits, and so on. And why not? Whether it's pyramids, cathedrals, or films, monuments can always be criticized as criminal wastes of a civilization's resources, particularly when they seem tacky or tasteless. However, people always feel compelled to build them, and it would be churlish to condemn such a characteristic human activity. We have devised an interesting new sort of monument to construct, and in a world cluttered with massive structures, there is something appealing about a monument that can be preserved in a roll of celluloid or a computer. So, with no aspirations to become a regular reviewer, I will keep gazing in awe as new monuments are erected, and occasionally record my frank opinions about the modern-day equivalents of Cheops who create them.


Originally published in Interzone, No. 150 (December 1999), 52–53.

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