Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 10, 2012
When I was a kid, a grace period that lasted from, oh, 1968 (a point at which I became more or less fully cognizant) to, oh, 1978 (the year before I turned 18), science fiction meant flights of fancy and fantasy… space voyages and alien invaders, brave scientists, committed military men, and regular Joes and Janes joining the fight to save humanity. Sci-fi outings like CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), and PLANET OF THE APES (1968) put mankind in the crosshairs, intended victim of nature or evolution gone awry. In extremis, the heroes pulled slide rules and put the coffee on. The military intervened, of course, but invariably lost, with the answers proving in the long run more elemental, more subtle than bazookas and napalm could stanch. I have a home video library full of 50s and 60s science fiction (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, WAR OF THE WORLDS, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, THE MAN FROM PLANET X, CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, TARANTULA) and I revisit these films often because they comfort me and they’re smart, too, most of them, and even if they’re not smart they’re put across with wit and charm and that goes a long, long way for me. I don’t go for much current science fiction, though. It just doesn’t pop for me somehow. Maybe it’s all the guns.
1.) I am not anti-gun. I get the appeal of firearms, even among the non-violent. However I do favor stronger gun control and an outright ban on ownership of all assault rifles – assault rifles are for the army. I am not anti-movie violence either and count THE WILD BUNCH (1968) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) among my very favorite films.
2.) This post was not inspired by the Aurora, Colorado cinema shootings, though I will allow that the horrific events of that day did urge me to concretize thoughts that have been swirling around in my brainpan for months. No, the inspiration for this discussion came one day when I walked through the Science Fiction aisle at my local Blockbuster.
Apart from Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927) — which had just been put out on a new DVD in restored form — the offerings on hand that day looked more like Action Adventure to me. Every DVD cover, it seemed, depicted a disenfranchised-looking white guy of 25-35 years holding an automatic pistol. Scowling, the lot of them, as if to say “Don’t push me.” Now, again, I’m not anti-gun. And guns have long had a place in genre entertainment in general and science fiction in particular: think of Charlton Heston and his burping M-76 in THE OMEGA MAN (1971), one of my favorite movies, or Peter Graves and his .45 Army issue in IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), to name but two examples. But things are different now. Am I the only one who feels things are different now?
I suppose we might blame this on THE TERMINATOR (1984), one of the first modern science fiction films to hardwire a prominent character to his weaponry and make that association an integral part of the promotional materials. Go back and watch THE TERMINATOR today, post-Columbine, post-Dunblane, post-Virginia Tech, and now post-Aurora and it makes you a bit queasy to see the T-1000 allowing the laser site of his AMT Hardballer Longslide to drift over the throng in search of “Sarah Connor.” The low budget programmer was a surprise success, launching the star of muscleman-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. His subsequent films followed the successful template of THE TERMINATOR; though he was transformed in the crucible of celebrity into a good guy, Schwarzenegger remained welded to weaponry. Poster for COMMANDO (1985): Arnold and M67 hand grenades. Poster for RAW DEAL (1985): Arnold and Heckler & Koch HK94A3. Poster for PREDATOR (1987): Arnold and M16. Oddly, TOTAL RECALL (1990) features more gunplay, I think, than any of Schwarzenegger’s previous films and some pretty outlandish violence that endeavored (in true Paul Verhoeve fashion) to rub the audience’s collective snout in gore, boasted a theatrical poster devoid of guns… almost as if the studio releasing the film was embarrassed by the wholesale slaughter contained within. And yet…
… when the film was remade recently, with Colin Farrell in the role Schwarzenegger played twenty some-odd years ago, one-sheets and other promotional materials went out of their way to show prospective moviegoers that its main character was strapped. I haven’t seen Len Wiseman’s remake of the Paul Verhoeven original but I would bet you medals to navy beans that there isn’t nearly the level of grotesque violence seen in the original. So why is it important to show Colin Farrell carrying ordnance? Part of it, I fear (and I further fear that part is 90%) is fashion. It has just become a custom for big studio science fiction films to show their protagonists wielding handguns. Always automatic. Even when those weapons play a negligible part in the movie itself. I suppose the guilty party in this regard is THE MATRIX (1999) and its sequels, THE MATRIX RELOADED (2003) and THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (2003). The freakish success of these films, set as they are in a virtual reality world in which heroes and villains alike exchange automatic weapon fire with the fetishistic elasticity of a porn movie money shot, set the tone for big ticket science fiction in the coming decade. Moving forward, sci-fi had to be Big. Noisy. And leave the air filled with smoke. The vogue for gun noir extended well beyond the parameters of science fiction, infecting Gothic horror as well. In the vampires vs. werewolves franchise represented by UNDERWORLD (2003), UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (2006), UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (2009) and UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING (2012), bloodsuckers and shapeshifters settle their grievances in public spaces, pulling 9x19mm pistols and Heckler & Koch submachine guns out from under their leather dusters and blasting away while innocent bystanders scatter in abject terror. Being a horror lifer, I had to check out the first installment. Werewolves v. Vampires – what’s not to love? Yet watching these supernatural constructs, the very stuff of nightmares and legend, fingering assault weapons, I had to ask myself “Why am I here?” I’ve never seen any of the sequels.
I have seen SOURCE CODE (2011), directed by Duncan Jones from a script by Ben Ripley. It’s actually a sweet sort of film, one of those race against time dramas where time keeps folding back on itself, forcing protagonist Jake Gyllenhaal to relive terrible, tragic events as he attempts to stop them from happening in the first place. I do recall gun violence in the film and a surprising scene in which Gyllenhaal’s determined hero and his helpmeet Michelle Monaghan are gunned down by the villain of the piece and die, actually die on camera… only to have the whole shebang roll back again. It’s a great shock moment, even if it is a bit of a fake-out: great mostly because Gyllenhaal and Monaghan imbue the moment of their dying with great humanity. And also because guns haven’t played a big part in the movie up until that point. And for the life of me I can’t remember if they play any part in the movie moving forward. And yet check out the poster: there’s Gyllenhaal soldiering forth with a Ruger SR9 like Jason freaking Bourne. Puh-POW! Automatic weapons did play a more dynamic role in Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION (2010), about people with the ability to invade your dreams, but watching it I kept wondering why in a movie set so far afield from reality did automatic weapons have to play such an integral role. Short answer: they didn’t. And yet… puh-POW!
Whenever something like Aurora happens, people rush to take sides as if there is some stigma attached to being left standing in the middle. One side rails that Hollywood’s predilection for ultra-violence, married to a presumed diminishment of Old Testament values, is the cause for mass shootings, while Hollywood quickly turns out its pockets to prove its innocence, claiming man’s inhumanity to man is as old as mankind and predates movies by millennia. I always feel like a man without a country during these arguments. As an atheist and sometimes screenwriter, you’d think I would be on the side of the movies. I’m also old enough to remember mass murders that pre-date Hollywood ultra-violence: the Rose-Mar College of Beauty killings and Charles Whitman’s University of Texas-Austin kill spree separated each other by only three months in 1966, a year in which the big movies were THE SINGING NUN, THE UGLY DACHSHUND, THE FORTUNE COOKIE and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. And yet, strolling through the Sci-Fi section at Blockbuster that day months and months in advance of the Aurora massacre, I had to ask myself “What’s wrong with this picture?” When did science fiction go from being an arena in which we are given the freedom to question everything to being a shooting gallery? And if it’s not the movies themselves that are this way — for, really, the majority of science fiction films don’t contain excessive amounts of violence — it’s the marketing. The posturing. The push. And the need, or the seeming need, by the moviegoing public to want to be reflected this way.
Advertisers and PR men are amoral – they don’t care how we want it, they just want to give us what we want. If there were money to be made in imagery of people hugging their King James Bibles or prostrate on prayer mats or hugging their kids, then those images would be used to sell everything. But apparently we’ve communicated to Madison Avenue and Hollywood that we want to appear armed, armed at all times, armed and dangerous. At all times. And pissed off. Always. Just look at Justin Timberlake’s face in the poster for IN TIME (2011). Look how angry he is! And check out Scarlett Johansson’s mug in the insert for THE ISLAND (2005)… she is clearly un-happy! Okay, before you ask the questions formulating at this moment in your brain (IN TIME? THE ISLAND?) I’ll address the reality that these movies bombed. Nobody went to see them. Even with guns in the posters! All of which leads me to ask my own question: if more sci-fi gun movies fail than succeed, what’s the point? Why has this patina of sameness been washed over an entire film genre? THE MATRIX is THE MATRIX, THE TERMINATOR is THE TERMINATOR. IN TIME is not THE TERMINATOR; THE SOURCE CODE is not THE MATRIX. And yet some Don Draper-like genius is sitting in a corner office somewhere saying “Mmmm… needs more guns.”
No matter what side of the fence you’re on, you will probably agree that we live in an age of gun chic. Even if most of us wouldn’t keep a gun in our homes, we like or don’t mind seeing them in the movies… and advertisers understand this. Ultimately, whether the movies fail or succeed at the box office is immaterial because our landscape is cluttered with gun imagery; even if a movie lasts but two weeks in the multiplex, it generates thousands of billboards, bus stop advertisements, and TV spots in which the guns are out and in our faces. We’ve grown accustomed to the vogue and the next generation of movie fans will accept it as-read, as standard. Or maybe they already have. It’s been nearly thirty years since THE TERMINATOR and thirteen since THE MATRIX and a certain demographic has grown up admiring itself with a gun in its hand. At this juncture, those of us invested in storytelling, in Hollywood or elsewhere, might want to do better than writing off the accusations of Christian fundamentalists (and the lobbyists who cater to them) as Wertham-like finger-pointing or taking refuge in face-saving bromides on the order of Karl Sutter’s “I write for the billion,” which seemed more self-absolving than revelatory or healing. Our chances of putting man’s inhumanity to man into remission are slim at best but why is the bar always set so high? Let’s lower our expectations. Let’s experiment with the idea that a culture that fetishes handguns as essential storytelling props just might have a dog in this fight and own a percentage of the total liability and do something about it. What’s the downside of turning science fiction back towards mind expansion and away from gun range wish fulfillment? With an endgame of lessening the frequency of assault weapon massacres by dimming the luster of gun chic, how can we really go wrong? And if, in the bargain, we stop short-changing our dreams and return the science fiction genre to the realm of infinite possibility, that’s not such a bad thing either, is it?
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