Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Stop This Now

I just came across a terrific interview with science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling (Involution Ocean, Islands in the Net, Heavy Weather) from a couple of years ago in which he discusses Hollywood science fiction cinema - and it put me in mind of the big film release from Universal Studios at the end of this week.

Super-hipster Bruce refuses to be drawn on what he likes and what he does not like about modern American cinema and instead focuses on what he finds interesting. Asked if he thinks there is anything truly exceptional about modern science fiction cinema, Sterling deadpans: "Yer, the ancillary rights. The light sabres, the puppets the plastic dolls. I am not kidding, these things are worth billions of dollars. The Star Wars properties are some of the biggest entertainment properties in the world. There are Star Wars dairy products, there are Star Wars clothing products. You never would have seen that in the fifties, the sixties or so forth. It is really a major industry."

I do not think it necessarily accurate to apply Sterling's jaundiced schema to every Hollywood science fiction film, but Battleship - possible the first film to be supported by both a NASDAQ-listed games company and the US Navy - practically demands such a cynical appraisal.

At this point, I think it is important to clarify that I have not seen the film, nor do I have any intention of ever seeing it. I know it is a dangerous road to go down, but there are exceptions to every rule, and I have no hesitation slamming this sort of exploitative trash on purely ideological grounds. I feel sorry for the genuine innovators involved (the special effects guys and gals), your efforts deserve a better vehicle than this brainless brand management masquerading as cinema.

It is the corruption of innocent childhood adventure that so offends. The fact that Battleship is a film based on a children's board game is a crime against cinema, but the crass corporatism and unabashed militarism of the entire enterprise makes it all the worse. I suppose writing about Hollywood cynicism is about as effective as stamping ones feet about death and taxes but here goes.

Battleships is a game that is best played between a pair of people using two sheets of paper and a couple of pencils - the fact that Hasbro markets a set with little model boats one can affix to a plastic board is really by the by - the vast majority of the action takes place inside the players' head. Here, quiet and strategic reflection is inverted, turned into bombast and noise in the service of a derivative, hyperthyroid blockbuster with Transformers-style space ships, Iron Man-inspired aliens and enough explosions to make Michael Bay weep envious tears. Worse still is the fake Hollywood moralising and ham acting plastered over a badly disguised advert for the video game pleasures of modern military-industrial-drone warfare, with no wit, irony or satire to rescue it from complete moral oblivion.

Enough is enough. Last year saw the release of more film sequels than any previous year in the history of recorded cinema. Nine out the top ten biggest box office films of the year were sequels - Harry Potter 8, Transformers 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Fast and the Furious 5, Mission Impossible 4, Twilight 4 , Kung Fu Panda 2, The Hangover 2, Cars 2. The only film in the top ten that was not a sequel was The Smurfs...

Hollywood films play to a narrower spectrum of people than ever before and draw their ideas from a narrower range of sources than ever before: sequels, comic books, computer games, theme park rides and now children's board games. As Bruce Sterling says: "When I see these properties I see industrialists trying to do two things. First they are trying to advance the state-of-the-art in graphic representation, and second they are trying to sell puppets, dolls, bumper stickers - and, at those two goals, they are succeeding splendidly."

Well, that's as maybe, but I am not yet ready to give up the ghost. Not that I expect or even want Hollywood to start making European Art Films. But the rot, the cynicism, the hollow, dead-eyed corporatism was never this bad in the past. The original Star Wars was a proper film, with a story and some characters. In fact, it was only relatively recently that Hollywood decided it no longer to even attempt to make innovative and entertaining movies in order to make money.

For what it is worth, my advice, therefore, is to avoid this film. Don't be tempted by the camp/kitsch appeal of watching macho mega-millions spent on an alien invasion; ignore the thought of Liam Neeson embarrassing himself with lines of dialogue like "boom" and "hit"; avoid the allure of Rihanna dressed in battle fatigues getting all hot and sweaty and shouty. I'm serious, the only way this sort of thing is going to stop is if people like you stop going to see it. And if you made if this far, I certainly mean you.

This has been a public service announcement.


Blogger Paul said...


Do you do requests?

I'm looking for someone to write me a blog post (800 words max) on the subject of climate change and Hollywood in the 00s. Whatever angle on it you like and no other guidance other than that.

I'd like to host it on my site at and maybe even a joint posting on this site too.

what do you think? I'd like to read it that's all.

(and finally get someone to contribute to my pet project...;) )

There's a drink in it for you. And I promise not to buy you a copy of Battleship when it comes out on DVD.

5:41 AM


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