by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
As I checked my Twitter feed in the hotel lobby where, one floor away, novels, stories, graphic novels, and television episodes received rocket ships in their respective categories, I found myself little surprised at the announcement that Joss Whedon's The Avengers won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. Little surprised, and somewhat disappointed.
Could you blame me?
It's not that Whedon's loving (and lovingly faithful) adaptation of the classic four-color assembly was not deserving of receiving a statuette; for all of its faults, The Avengers stands as one of the stronger comic book movies released in the past several years, a fugue that draws its power from a talented pool of actors and a screenplay that finds a remarkable balance between action and character. One could make the case for anemic nominees contributing to its win. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, even during its best moments, labored under a bloated running time, while The Hunger Games ran its strong young cast and competent director through ultimately pedestrian places, marking time until its sequel. On the other hand, Looper, even though it hardly matched great cult science fiction movies like Bladerunner, demonstrated a degree of intelligence and skill not normally seen in most science fiction thrillers (and keep in mind that's not saying much; most mainstream thrillers also show little intelligence). Meanwhile, The Cabin in the Woods crossed the absurdities of corporate cubicle life with the cosmic horror of the Cthulhu Mythos, all laced with knowing metatext: Scott Adams's Dilbert as written by H.P. Lovecraft and assessed by David Foster Wallace, though far more lean.
So I knew that The Avengers, all things considered, would take home the Hugo. Audiences loved it. It raked in scads of cash at the box office and as it spun into DVD and Blu-Ray cases. Whedon filled the screenplay with arch quips and breathtaking (though, in the final analysis, perhaps a little boring) action sequences, and ensured every actor, from Robert Downey, Jr., to Chris Hemsworth, brought their A-game in front of the camera. Yes, I would have loved for The Cabin in the Woods to win; its elements blended more smoothly, and its execution possessed more assuredness. But it also felt more specialized, and less accessible than the otherwise breezy semiotics of the eight hundred pound cinematic gorilla serving as competition. The Avengers taking the prize seemed obvious.
And yet, looking at the nominees, the thought runs through my head: Is this the best they could do?
I understand that the Hugo is primarily a fan award, and that its voting block may miss some of the movies that find their way on theater screens. I understand that, given the limited number of science fiction and fantasy movies published in a given year (though the numbers often appear far greater), and then given the limited number of good science fiction movies, anemia might strike nominees, and even the psychics consulted by the National Enquirer might pick the winners.
But come on. Even in a down year, how can anybody honestly consider The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as anything resembling an award winner? Even if one does not consider the awful 48 frames-per-second 3D version, how did viewers not develop advanced narcolepsy and slip into dreamland, their faces buried in buckets of popcorn? How does The Hunger Games get much more of a mention than the fact that it didn't completely suck, much less wind up on any kind of awards ballot? Looper may be a pretty good science fiction thriller by most standards, but ask yourself if its rather byzantine time travel plotting and adrenaline-fueled chase scenes are really that much better than, say, Men in Black III…or if, as a movie, it was that much more memorable.
Frankly, the category seemed about as exciting as a millionaire winning the lottery…and about as unfair.
The thing is, discounting The Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods, the rest of the nominees faded from memory as soon as I walked out of the theater, as do most movies I see these days. I really tried to keep the images of Gary Ross's The Hunger Games in my cranial cavity, but all I could remember was that Jennifer Lawrence was in it, and how much I enjoyed her in Winter's Bone. (Then again, Silver Linings Playbook bored me to wracking sobs as well, though that may have been more because of Bradley Cooper, the Kevin Costner of the Internet age.) The book's fans flocked to it, yes, but it served as little more than a placeholder between winter and summer releases. Indeed, even as the nominees showed up in WalMart, I seldom found myself thinking of picking up copies.
I did find myself browsing my Netflix Instant Watch queue, and suddenly seeing a few gems that I did remember, and that perhaps others might have enjoyed as well.
There was Safety Not Guaranteed, a romantic comedy that used the possibility of time travel as a metaphor for the chances not taken and lives in stasis. Aubrey Plaza plays a reporter covering a story about a man (Mark Duplass) who has placed an ad asking for people travel back in time with him. Though composed only of liminal genre materials, genre suffused every scene, and with far more intelligence and wit than Looper.
If one wanted a superhero movie with a little more gravitas than The Avengers or a thriller with a lot more grit than The Hunger Games, then Dredd would have served quite nicely. Eschewing all of the bloat and blandness of the awful Judge Dredd, this lean, mean version of the classic character who metes justice on the streets of Mega City One kept the action barreling ahead at a breakneck clip while never forgetting its origins. It did so many things right -- from providing no backstory to the title character to ensuring that Karl Urban never takes Dredd's helmet off -- that it might have been off-putting to some. A farm more interesting thriller than most, regardless of genre.
Those with a need for fantasy had Wes Anderson's deft Moonrise Kingdom, though the fantasy elements, as in Safety Not Guaranteed, appeared only slightly. A tale of first love and odd characters, it managed to display an air of otherworldliness with such ease that it makes most of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey look labored.
Perhaps these options might not have been to all tastes. But they certainly would have made the ballot more interesting, even if The Avengers still won.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His stories have appeared in Rayguns Over Texas edited by Rick Klaw and Le Bon Temps magazine. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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