Requesting a break from overly serious science fiction
THE SANTA CLARA
October 29, 2015
Nerds kill the fun of space flicks. They cross-reference the physics of every interstellar explosion or derring-do flight maneuver, and howl with fury when they find an error. They demand accuracy, and film directors risk mockery if they don’t deliver. This might be for the best.
In our lifetime, humans may start wafting from Earth like dandelion fronds, terraforming colonies on distant dots. We wouldn’t want them bearing false expectations. But what we gain in gritty realism, we lose in the joy of make-believe.
Recently, “Gravity” zipped through 91 minutes of breath-holding splendor, terror and tension, but never left inner-orbit. “Interstellar” tapped Cornell scientists, but generated only ho-hum earth-like planets and a stonery hypothesis of upper-dimensions. “The Martian” portrayed by-the-textbook survival on Mars, but remained emotionally sterile.
This somber, fact-checking emphasis is a regression to the stuffy old days of uber-accurate science fiction literature that cared more about proper equations than, like y’know, cool characters or fun plots. In the 1930s, the genre had become so catatonic that writers shrugged off the yoke of realism and dove into the limitless possibilities of the unknown. They penned Space Operas.
These epics were printed on pulp, in dodgy periodicals or yellowed paperbacks. They featured a grizzly, daring hero, a buxom sidekick and a lovable crew of ne’er-do-wells defending an innocent planet from gleebling and globbling alien invaders with sinister intentions.
The stupefying scale of the universe came to graphic, jaw-slackening life. The plots strained at the seams with melodrama and romance, and repackaged literary touchstones like swashbuckling pirates or chivalrous knights.
The literary merits of these mass-produced sagas are dubious, but they pointed sci-fi in the right direction. A Space Opera didn’t want to teach you anything. It sought solely to grab you by the eyeballs and plunge you into a universe governed by its own internal logic.
Films have since dabbled in these techniques. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” had the dashing, cavalier hero Star Lord, but Marvel-ness muddled the purity. “Star Trek” tracks plenty of galaxy-saving conquests, but uses space as a forum to discuss issues like racism, artificial intelligence and general ethics. “Avatar” gave us the Na’vi, a complex tryst and gripping warfare, but mucked things up with James Cameron’s ham-handed, anti-colonial message.
The Joss Whedon series, “Firefly,” is the best modern example, but the extraterrestrial spaghetti Western needed more interplanet laser battles to be a true Space Opera.
The only film to ever check all the boxes is “Star Wars.” “Star Wars” succeeded to such a degree that it supplanted the paper-bound versions. Once we saw the infinite inner-workings of Lucas’ alternate reality, words became obsolete. He showed us what the early pulp writers could only describe.
We swaddled ourselves in the expansive sets of the early films. They gave us the dazzling version of space that we secretly hoped existed —not the uncaring void that actually encircles our pale blue rock. We projected ourselves into that clear vision through the unstoppably cool, but endearingly insecure Han Solo.
The prequels tried their best, but faltered. We got sucked out of the action every time we saw a false shadow on some digitally-rendered reptile. We yawned through the bureaucratic jiving of Palpatine. We couldn’t access the cold, mind-bending power of the brooding Jedi. The films flubbed our favorite parts.
The upcoming Star Wars flick must grow from pulpy roots. I want worlds so vivid I can smell the air. I want luminescent lightsaber showdowns. I want a bad guy that’s really, really bad. I want gargantuan scale free of physics, or realism, or nuance or any of that crap. I want unfettered fantasy to milk my dopamine squirters. I want a Space Opera.
We revere space because of its ever-unfolding possibilities. We should imagine what exists in the 99.999 percent of the universe that we don’t understand rather than sticking to the tiny knowledge nuggets we possess. What we’ve learned about space isn’t that interesting. We’ve only examined a proverbial snowflake on the tip of a mega-ton iceberg. In “The Martian,” water, potatoes and email still aren’t very exciting even if they’re in space.
In space, fiction is still stranger than truth. And I’d rather have my mind blown by semi-plausible, rollicking adventures than endure another populist science lesson.
Technology offers us two choices. We can operate within the narrow parameters of what we know to simulate the near future. Or we can create brand new worlds in meticulous detail that refill us with the awe that has been stripped by our scientific expeditions. To properly worship space, we must submerge what we know, and build from belief.
The world needs a proper Space Opera. To rightly resurrect “Star Wars,” J.J. Abrams must burst free from this resurgence of scientific stodginess and return to the fantastical realm. I know the way things are. I want to see the way they could be.
Contact John Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.