By Bob Clark
Classic science-fiction has done a great job of looking forward into the future and predicting many of the major and minor concerns that we find as we move forward in time ourselves– granted, much of the time they really shouldn’t be called “predictions” as much as “suggestions”, the position of any great sci-fi work being a little like the scientist who winds up unconsciously affecting the outcome of an experiment by merely observing it in the first place. From our own minor vaunts into the baby-step realm of outer space, or growing anxieties of how we may render our world into a post-apocalyptic waste by the slow erosion of climate change or the flashbang of war (if it’s even an either/or proposition), all the way to big shifts and small miracles on any number of technological fronts, the way that sci-fi can throw off any number of pre-concieved notions and offer up imaginative speculation gives it an almost automatic thrill of curiosity that most other genres have to work a little harder for. As with so much of sci-fi, however, it’s often best for such speculation to take place in something of a void, some field of science that hasn’t been fully tested or explored. This is true in a number of ways, chief among them being the novelty of the frontier sentiment, giving the creator enough freedom to come up with what they like without pesky reality getting in the way. The more is known, the more a sci-fi story is bound to be scrutinized, and sometimes the very technology that the genre can anticipate can again poison the conversation before it’s even started in earnest– in other words, the Internet.
Restricting ourselves to cinema for the moment, how many classics of the genre would’ve been nitpicked to death right out of the gate, had instant mass-media communication been around at the time? Some masterpieces like Metropolis or Blade Runner already suffered savaging even in the time of print– it’s tempting to believe that wider audiences might’ve found each other online and rescued the films’ reputation during their initial release, but who’s to say that the atmosphere might not’ve gotten worse? How many old-school post-war flicks might’ve been given heavier doses of criticism and snark if there were websites, message boards and blogs waiting to tear them to pieces? Plenty of what are recognized today as classics of the period rest upon at least a handful of fairly major technical limitations, thematic decisions and overall storytelling hiccups that might’ve derailed them to more media-savvy viewers. We remember the beautiful surrealism and dream-logic of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars, but forget how much of the movie’s running time is bloated by stock-footage padding and the occasional moment where even the master designer’s imagination went a little too far into the ridiculous. We remember the spectacular design and effects of Forbidden Planet and the novel way it appropriates The Tempest for a new genre, but can forget how so much of the script and acting veers towards the stiff and wooden– the only really natural performance probably comes from Robby the Robot. As such, when new sci-fi finds itself under an online critical assault long before it’s even screened for the public, I find it wise to take it with a grain of salt and tie a string ’round a finger to remind myself to keep an open mind, though if one keeps tying strings like that every warning sign, you’d likely cut off circulation when dealing with a movie from M. Night Shyamalan.