We’re just two weeks into this year’s crop of summer blockbuster movies and already the Interwebs are afire with the usual praises for both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Star Trek, most of which is emanating from the Geek Nation.
And while the small, disenfranchised segment of the Geek Nation (which would seem to be a redundancy, but really isn’t) is complaining that Gambit wasn’t Cajun enough, or that they got Wolverine’s girlfriend wrong, or they smirkingly remark that Vulcan hasn’t any apparent planetary defenses and no one thought to just shoot the drill in the first place, they are largely outshouted (and rightly so) by those of us who recognize the value of such spectacles and take them at face value.
But there is another, more condescending voice, making its once and every other appearance this year: the critics, blog-pundits, and marginal personalities steeped in Internet-Fame (the 21st century equivalent of a Martinet), who take gleeful delight in informing the rest of us that, you know, Star Trek really isn’t any good.
I mean, it’s not real science fiction, now, is it' And Wolverine is just so ham-fisted; I mean, fighting with knives coming out of your hands is just so seventh grade, and OH, the PLOT HOLES, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
I’m sick and tired of it. And I’m serving notice, right here, and right now: until you become an expert in the field of popular culture, shut up about the summer and holiday movies. Just. Shut. Up.
Who ever said that movies had to be rigidly plotted, tightly constructed, and carry a linear thought through from beginning to end? What media studies professor made that promise to any of you ersatz hipsters?
The first movies ever made were pure spectacles: a train pulling into the station, right over the camera, that was so intense the first time people saw that they jumped up and ran for the exits; magicians doing elaborate versions of their stage acts, complete with trick photography in place of some of the mechanical miracles they normally pulled off; stop-motion dinosaurs that people initially thought were real and living.
That’s movies. That’s your great art. That’s our history. That’s the legacy of popular culture.
I’m not saying that movies aren’t capable of being more than bread and circuses. They are. We can all name a dozen films worthy of praise and widely considered to be classics, must-watches, and so on and so forth. But just because they can be worthy of more doesn’t preclude them from being exactly what they are: at their best, they deliver spectacles.
For more years than not, movies have delivered spectacles, things we couldn’t see in everyday, mundane life, and have delivered them better than any other medium. The audio and the visual are our two most easily accessed, and most influential tools of communication.
It’s one thing to describe a tiger climbing up a tree, right into your face. But when you can watch the film footage of this ten-foot long great cat climbing the tree in the span of two seconds, coming closer to the lens (and your perception) than you ever thought possible, that’s the thrill factor that movies have always delivered.
Those thrills are influential, and it’s incredibly short-sighted, not to mention disingenuous, to say otherwise. Case in point: when I first read Jurassic Park, pre-2001, in my head, I could only envision the dinosaurs as if Ray Harryhausen were animating them. They were sped up, in keeping with Crichton’s descriptions, but they were still stop-motioned. I had no other frame of reference for how dinosaurs looked in motion. Then the movie came out, and it altered my perceptions so completely, that when I re-read the book the next year, all I could see were the CGI and Stan Winston versions of the dinosaurs.
There are other examples, to be sure, but there’s a very good reason why the term "magic" is so often associated with the movies. You want to watch two people perfect encapsulate the concept of existentialism' Go watch Waiting For Godot in the village. You want to go to another time and place and have your breath taken away' Watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or Star Wars. Or even something with minimal special effects, like The Godfather. Or movies that have gobs of special effects that you don’t even realize, like Gone With the Wind.
Movies do what movies have always purported to do, and just because they are bigger and louder now than they ever were, it doesn’t invalidate them.
More to the point, movies are an integral part of the American Cultural Experience, and as a key component in popular culture, they can often magnify another aspect of popular culture and create new fans as well as validate old fans as to the worth of their chosen fandom.
Case in point: Harry Potter books had a huge following, but that following multiplied ten times over when the movies came out. So, there’s a precedent set for the role that movies play in popular culture.
That said, if you are unfamiliar with a particular aspect of popular culture, or perhaps just not a fan of a particular popular culture, then stay the hell away from the movies made out of the popular cultures subjects in which you are not a fan or unfamiliar. Why is that so hard for near-critics and blog-pundits to do?
You should have seen the bile spewed over the Speed Racer movie that came out last year. Film students across the country accused the Wachowski brothers of having "lost it," whatever "it" is, and complaining that the Speed Racer movie was full of needlessly saturated colors, physics-defying cars, and a strange flatness of depth that made the whole thing look like a badly-drawn cartoon.
They said this without a trace of irony, too, because they never saw the Speed Racer cartoon series in their lives. As fans of the series, the Wachowski brothers made exactly the movie that they, as fans, wanted to see. And for fans of Speed Racer, anyone under the age of 13, and racing fans in general, it succeeded wildly. The only people who didn’t like it were, you know, the near-critics and blog-monkeys.
People who get it, people who don't
It really comes down to people who get it and people who don’t. Let me be clear: I’ve seen more than one lambasting review of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill
movies that started out with "I’m not a big fan of the seventies or Kung Fu movies, so maybe I’m not the best person to review this film."
When the whole film is a love note to Shaw Brothers, The Streetfighter trilogy, and Sergio Leone films, and you’re not a fan, WHAT ON EARTH MADE YOU GO WATCH THE MOVIE IN THE FIRST PLACE?
If one of you, any one of you, would just say, out loud, one time: "I didn’t go see Inglourius Basterds because I don’t like war movies," I would have so much more respect for the things that you write about, because you wouldn’t betray your abject ignorance with every sentence you write.
For those of you who suddenly think this is a good idea, take my advice: if you don’t like war movies, or Sam Fuller (he’s a director), then you may want to skip Inglorious Basterds because that is exactly what Tarantino is going to be wallowing in. Why pay money for an experience that you’re going to hate?
I know some of you may think “Yeah, Mark, but shouldn’t a movie be, like, you know, accessible to everyone' If I don’t like a movie, then doesn’t it fail as a summer film?” Absolutely not. If you don’t like a movie, it’s because you didn’t like it. Maybe you don’t like the genre. Maybe you don’t dig the actors. Maybe you have seen a variation on the same kind of plot and story eleventy hundred times and are sick of the formula (this would be most romantic comedies), but the movie isn’t a failure.
Most films out of the Hollywood (and even the independent studio system) have stories, plots, characters, and are competently filmed, acted, and directed. It takes work to screw them up to the point that you can’t watch the movie.
You might also think I am endorsing everything, simply because it is spectacle. Not so. It’s okay to be critical of things. Movies and especially television shows in the genres that you love deserve tough love. A laser and a silver halter top does not automatically make a show into science fiction.
I submit to you that we’ve not had more than five REAL science fiction films in the past ten years, and do you know why' They all tend to be downers.
People who go see them end up not liking it very much, because they thought it was going to be Sci-Fi. You know, lasers and silver halter tops. Save your scorn for the Sci Fi Channel.
But if you’re really going to pick on something in the pop cultural eye, you can’t find a bigger target than Star Trek.
And why would you do that? Most SF fans have a love-hate relationship with Trek. We all have our "favorite," and it’s the really rare fan who likes all aspects of Trek equally. Despite those vast differences in quality over the past four decades, the show is one of the most influential in the fields of science and technology, ever. I’ll bet you money that last Thursday, when Star Trek premiered, all of NASA shut down. And hey, I was a Star Wars kid, so I’m not just toeing the party line, here. I have the wisdom to recognize certain truths.
Captain Kirk, without a doubt, went into the alchemy of what I thought constituted Being A Man. If you can’t admit that about yourself, maybe you should stop reading right here.
About this new Trek
If the Internet is to be believed, there is a plot hole in the story. This, apparently, is what’s ruining our country and making our children fat. The people that are most upset about this plot hole are the people that, ironically, would be most inclined to go see Star Trek
in the first place. Maybe people with marginal Asperger tendencies shouldn’t be allowed to review science fiction films anymore, because in the broadest terms that the genre implies, there’s a plot hole in every single movie and television show out there, starting with the idea that you can fly faster than the speed of light.
Such things are usually called "conventions of the genre" and no pop cultural touchstone has as many conventions of the genre as the forty year old franchise, Star Trek.
Is the plot hole what’s really bothering you' Or is it that more people are flocking to Star Trek (which we all widely accept isn’t very good science fiction) than ever before' That, right there, is the base hipster reaction: "I’ve got to find an excuse to decry this, so that I’m not included in the zeitgeist."
I get it. I have tendencies in that direction, too; no one likes to be pigeon-holed. I personally go to great lengths to not draw any kind of franchise-based nickname.
Even after someone showed me the Plot Hole I was able to explain it away with virtually no effort on my part. And in subsequent viewings of the movie, it turns out that my explanation is backed up and validated by the movie. It’s not a plot hole. Go watch it again, and pay attention, this time. I know it’s hard to do; there’s a lot of pretty pictures whizzing by.
This isn’t something you want to take a hard stand on, here, because your hipster cred comes off as douchery instead. You don’t like Star Trek, when 65% of the population considers themselves Trek fans' Our next question becomes, inevitably, "what’s wrong with you?"
Instead, take the high road, and just don’t go see it. It’s torturous, I know, because everyone will be talking about it for weeks to come. Phil, in accounting, is dusting off his old toys and models, because he’s suddenly become the cool kid, as the resident expert of the Star Trek universe.
Just stay away from him, and go rent some old Woody Allen movies, and comment on them, instead. You can re-establish your hipster cred easily with those, because no one really cares in the first place. You make them relevant, then you can lord it over the rest of us as we download the phaser app onto our IPhones.
Star Trek isn’t any better or worse than any of the other big summer blockbuster films to come out over the last ten years. It’s not badly written, nor is it badly reasoned. Not really. It’s just that you, the blog-monkey, near critic, and pseudo-hipster, refuse to have your disbelief suspended. That’s fine with me.
But the other side of it is this: you, pointing out the places where you refuse to have your disbelief suspended, in a forty-year old franchise that every generation from the Baby Boomers to Generation X grew up with, does nothing to make you look smart, nor us feel bad for liking it.
You just don’t get it. If you stood outside of Spider-Man and told people that radioactive -- excuse me, genetically-modified -- spiders can’t pass along their powers to humans, you’d get the same pitying looks from people as you’re getting now, trying to educate the masses about something that is well on its way to transmogrifying into the kind of meta-mythology that forms the basis of our pop cultural understanding. Meaning, we tend to accept things within that sphere far more readily than if we are handed something new and told to make it meaningful or legendary.
Time is the true litmus test, and most of you complaining about the new movie aren’t as old as the franchise itself. So do us all a favor and disappear into Independent Film, where you can know some very obscure directors and it will impact absolutely nothing, or simply jump on board with the rest of us. You don’t have to wear the pointy ears in public. Just give Trek its due and shut up about it. I’ll be far more inclined to read your next review that way.