John Scalzi wants to know why so many classic sci-fi films suck so bad:
It’s strange that such legitimately bad films are considered classic, but there are reasons. The first, I regret to say, is that for a very long time — from just after 1927’s Metropolis through 1968’s 2001 — the number of truly good science fiction films could be counted on one’s fingers. So the entire genre is graded on a curve. But the other thing is that science fiction films — like science fiction literature — value the idea over the idea’s delivery system. So if you deliver a 150-foot reptile who is the embodiment of the mid-20th Century fear of nuclear annihilation (like Gojira), or tap into the Baby Boomer terror of the death of its own beautiful youth (a la Logan’s Run), you can get away with letting a lot of other stuff slide, like plot, acting and production design.
Science fiction is a genre of ideas, but that’s still no excuse for shoddy production levels. And while I disagree about Gojira,* he does have a point: an awful lot of sci-fi films coast by on cool factor with hardly an effort at all given towards making it a good film. Sadly, this hasn’t really changed. Just because A list actors like to take a workman’s holiday and slick CG is now affordable, it doesn’t mean the widespread use of either as plot caulk makes the new crop of sci-fi films better than their rubber monster and stiff B actor progenitors.
We could just tally it up to Sturgeon’s Law, that 90% of everything is crap. But there’s more to it than that.
For many years, sci-fi was ostracized as kiddie fare. These were films to occupy the youngsters and if they taught a ham fisted moral along the way, all the better. It would keep the RIAA off their back and let the studio have the wiggle room to get that new starlet’s top off. For dramatic reasons, of course. Hollywood didn’t want to spend money or time investing in science fiction when their was adult drama to be made. And if a few weirdos back in the early days of cinema made some art out of sci-fi, well that was an accident. Let’s not let it happen again. It took the likes of Kubrick and the success of Star Wars to let Hollywood execs know that there was money to be made in science fiction. But they have yet to grasp that their can also be artistic gain from making good science fiction rather than just summertime cash cow action movies with vaguely science fictiony elements. And they won’t until some weirdo director’s sci-fi pet project wins an Oscar for something other than costumes or make-up.
* The Godzilla films have their own unique aesthetic. The amateur effects and implausible biology are part of that, not a detractor form it. Godzilla is a pop art fever dream. It’s what goes on in your subconscious after coming down from a sugar and caffeine high and falling asleep in the clothes you wore to the amusement park. It jangles and unnerves and works under its own weird logic, like a Warhol painting or a Dada exhibition. It’s mythology and so doesn’t have to play by George Lucus’ or Stanly Kubrick’s rules.