THE EDITOR’S WORD
by Mike Resnick
Welcome to the twenty-eighth issue of Galaxy’s Edge. That’s right: twenty-eight issues and still going strong. This issue features new stories by new and newer writers Rachelle Harp, Robert Jeschonek, Stewart C Baker, James Wesley Rodgers, Zach Shephard, T. R. Napper, Sean Patrick Hazlett, plus a pair who have sold us enough that they’re not quite in the “new” category any more—Larry Hodges and Nick DiChario. We’ve also got some classic reprints from some classic and classy writers: Barry N. Malzberg, John DeChancie, and Kevin J. Anderson. We’ve got the usual Recommended Books column by Bill Fawcett and Jody Lynn Nye, Gregory Benford’s science column, and Robert J. Sawyer’s column on literary matters. The subject of Joy Ward’s interview this issue is Nancy Kress. And finally, we have part two of our serialization of Joan Slonczewski’s novel, Daughter of Elysium.
I wrote the following almost twenty years ago. Not much has changed. The title, then and now, is “Stoopid is as Stoopid Does”:
Science fiction movies have a lot in common with the Cincinnati Bengals football team. Stick around and you'll find out why.
The question everyone asks is: Why are so many science fiction films so dreadful? Why can't they at least try to do something proud? No one says Blade Runner or The Matrix were perfect, but at least they treated both the material and the audience with some respect.
So why aren't there more of them? Who is responsible for this endless stream of science-fictional dreck coming from Hollywood?
You're not going to like the answer.
Let's confine ourselves to a discussion of movies that aspired to something more than just being a "product". After all, no one expects Space Sluts in the Slammer—yes, there really was such a film a couple of years back—to make people forget about Lawrence of Arabia and The Maltese Falcon.
So let's start with Godzilla, living proof of the adage that Hollywood never met an old idea it didn't like. Cost $115 million to make. Starred Matthew Broderick, a fine young actor. Had the Japanese films on hand so they could correct the more glaring errors.
And Lord, was it a turkey! You know it. I know it. More to the point, the producers knew it. At the last minute, they upped their ad budget to $120 million—more than the cost of making the movie—to try to salvage something from this disaster.
How about Armageddon? Another disaster. It is absolutely ludicrous to assume you can train oil riggers to be astronauts faster and cheaper than you can train astronauts to do whatever the hell it was that Bruce Willis' company of social misfits did. And the director knew he had problems—that's why you rarely go more than three seconds without cutting away to a new shot. It was a good theory: dazzle and confuse them enough and maybe they won't notice there's no plot. And since, as I said, Hollywood has yet to meet an old idea it didn't like, and Armageddon came out a few months after Godzilla, they quickly upped the ad budget to more than $100 million.
Waterworld? Plot holes you could drive one of those silly ships through.
Even the supposedly good sci-fi movies have serious problems.
You think not?
Let's look at E.T., which grossed $900 million worldwide, and is still among the top five grossers of all time. Nice tight plot, right? I mean, this is Steven Spielberg here; there aren't any clumsy mistakes in a Spielberg film, certainly not a hit like E.T.
Well, let's consider that plot, shall we?
1. If E.T. can fly/teleport, why doesn't he do so at the beginning of the film, when he's about to be left behind? (Answer: because this is what James Blish used to call an idiot plot, which is to say if everyone doesn't act like an idiot you've got no story.)
2. What mother of teenaged children walks through a kitchen littered with empty beer cans and doesn't notice them? (Answer: in all the world, probably only this one.)
3. While we're on the subject of the mother and the kitchen, what is a divorced woman with a day job doing living in an $800,000 house in one of the posher parts of the Los Angeles area? (Even I don't have an answer to that.)
4. Why does E.T. die? (Answer: so he can come back to life.)
5. Why does E.T. come back to life? (Still awaiting an answer, even a silly one, for this.)
6. When E.T. finally calls home, the lights in the room don't even flicker. I would have figured the power required would have shorted out the whole city.
How hard would it have been for Spielberg, who can have anything he wants, to fix those little problems?
But why should he? After all, the film made $900 million.
And now we come to the crux of it.
Why does Hollywood keep turning out such intellectually offensive fare? Why do they keep arming science fictional villains with computer-operated weapons that keep missing when everyone in the audience saw one of our smart bombs go down an Iraqi chimney a full decade ago? Why do they ask you to believe, in Independence Day, that the President of the United States will don his leather jacket, hop into the pilot's seat of a fighter plane, and lead a jet attack on the aliens? (But you bought it—and remembering that adage about old ideas, you'll notice that Harrison Ford became Teddy Roosevelt and Hulk Hogan and Doc Holliday all rolled into one heroic president in the next season's Air Force One.)
Why do they do it?
Godzilla, disaster that it was, is in profit. They advertised and you came.
Armageddon became Disney's biggest earner of 1999. Same scenario: they trumpeted the fact that it was an action-filled sci-fi movie, and you bought your ticket.
Independence Day pulled over $300 million domestically and even more than that worldwide. The knowing critics, the opinion makers who know zip about the field, all concluded that this was the purpose of science fiction: cheap laughs inside a dumb plot. And still you came.
E.T.—well, you know about E.T.
Everybody admits that The Phantom Menace was an artistic flop—but even with horrible word of mouth, it grossed $400 million domestically, and is closing in on $1 billion worldwide.
Starting to make sense to you?
You are the culprits. You knew Godzilla was dreadful, but most of you saw it anyway. Ditto The Phantom Menace and Armageddon. The buzz was good on E.T. and most of you loved it, and were willing to forgive its ton of logical flaws—and by forgiving its faults to the tune of $900 million, you made Hollywood decide that those faults were virtues.
Back to the object of the exercise:
Remember I mentioned the Cincinnati Bengals? I live in Cincinnati. So do the Bengals. They had the worst record of any team during the recently concluded decade. Five different times they won either three or four games and lost either twelve or thirteen. (Quality-wise, this equates to being on a somewhat lower level than Space Sluts in the Slammer). They started bad, they stayed bad through the middle of the decade, and they remain bad today.
Because they still sell 50,000 tickets a game—just about what they sold during their Super Bowl seasons in the 1980s. And as long as the owner can make a substantial profit putting a poor team on the field, he has no incentive to assemble a good team.
Now take the Cincinnati Reds. They used to be The Big Red Machine, feared everywhere in baseball. Then they broke up the machine to save money. The team stunk—and attendance dropped three hundred percent. The Reds got the message. It took them over a decade to rebuild—their latest move was to pay through the nose to add Ken Griffey, Jr. to the team—but they're playing to full houses again.
Now transfer that to Hollywood.
They know how to make good science fiction. They did it back in the 1950s with Forbidden Planet, and the 1960s with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more recently with Blade Runner and a couple of others.
But as long as they know science fiction fans will pay to see anything labeled "science fiction," they're under no pressure to try to produce anything better than Godzilla and Waterworld.
If you want better films, there is only one way to get them, and that is to stop supporting bad films.
It's up to you. Hollywood is sure you'll buy anything they put on a screen, as long as it's got a spaceship or a zap gun and some nifty special effects.
Prove them wrong.
If you don't, you've got no one to blame but yourselves.
OK, back to the present. I stayed away from science fiction movies for a few years, then finally broke down and watched a recent zillion-dollar-earning science fiction film, Guardians of the Galaxy. All I’ve got to say is that Hollywood hasn’t learned much about making non-intellectually-insulting science fiction films—but they have learned one thing: pour enough CGI into a truly stupid piece of celluloid, and it’s almost impossible not to gross a billion dollars. *sigh*