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Posts Tagged ‘monster movies’

It is widely disseminated that if you can take the science out of an SF story and still tell the story, it’s not truly SF. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume the same theory holds for fantasy.) I myself have believed for a long time that this is a valid, albeit somewhat simplistic, test. But now I wonder.

You see, there has been a lot of “science fiction” that does not really contain any “science.” So what do you call it? Star Wars is a prime example, with many characterizing it as “science fantasy” because it has the trappings of SF, but upon any review its science is well, bad.* Look at the spaceships: They don’t fly right. They act as though they’re in an atmosphere instead of a vacuum. (We’ll ignore the sounds. That’s artistic license.) And it’s based on “the Force,” a mystical energy field (later retconned to be some kind of micro-particles in your blood, but no one believes that). So is it science fiction? Or is it fantasy with spaceships?

I’m a fan of the 50s B&W monster movies I used to watch on “Creature Features.”** Giant ants, spiders, gila monsters, teenagers… Really, even I wasn’t buying it. But it was considered science fiction. Why? The science was worse than what you see in Star Wars. You couldn’t take the science out to see if the story could still be told, because there was no science. And yet we call it SF to this day. (And yes, that applies to Godzilla, too–all the versions.)

The question becomes, then: How do you test a story for being science fiction if there is no recognizable science in the story in the first place?

I guess you could try to recategorize Them! and Tarantula and Village of the Giants as science fantasy, but good luck.*** That ship has sailed (or launched). Better, I think, to avoid ironclad definitions and hope that the next generation of SF is better than some of the things that have gone before.

Or has that ship launched, too?

*When I say Star Wars, I mean the original. Since the first trilogy, it’s only gotten progressively worse.

**Creature Features was cancelled, and years later, revived. Ironically, the host of the new show was a friend of mine.

***These three movies share a distinction: Each had an actor who went on to achieve fame. (Them! actually had a couple.) Points if you can name them.

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I spent the Christmas break catching up on my laziness. Work has been more than usually busy lately, the ebb and flow having gained flow quite noticeably as the year ebbed.* And one evening, as I flipped through the 4000 channels in search of something to watch, I found a gold mine: a Thin Man movie marathon. I think Nick Charles (as played by the iconic William Powell) is the paragon of Thirties’ suavity, urbane, witty, cool under fire, a genius detective…I want to dress like him, talk like him… yes, I want to be him. But not because of any of those qualities I just described. Oh no. I want to be Nick Charles because he’s married to Nora.

Nora Charles. Brought to life by the incomparable Myrna Loy, Nora is unflappable, game for adventure, and fiercely loyal to her Nicky. What man could want more? The first time I saw The Thin Man, I fell in love with Nora Charles and Myrna Loy. I still love them today. (It’s okay, the wife knows.)

Now, I have all the movies on DVD already, and the only reason I haven’t watched them all is because I don’t want to finish the series: I always want to have at least one to look forward to. So the fact that they were now on TV should not have meant much, but we all know the joy of that serendipitous discovery is greater than that of knowing you could just pull the movies off the shelve and watch them any old time.

And then–disaster. Idly scanning the channel guide during a commercial, I discovered that at the same time there was playing on another network a Godzilla marathon. Great Scott! What to do? There are a lot more Godzilla movies than Thin Man movies, and I don’t have most of them on DVD.

Have you ever channel-flipped between the most charming crime-fighting marriage of the 1930s and the greatest man-in-a-rubber-suit monster of the 20th century? I have–now.

And let me tell you, it ain’t Heaven. First, you miss a lot. No matter which one you favor, you’re going to miss pieces while you’re watching the other. Second, there can be too much of a good thing, even with your favorite shows. I could probably watch two or three Thin Man movies in a row before my eyes started to fall out, but it was late that night and I was getting sleepy, so I stopped after 1 1/2 when I realized I’d seen the next one anyway.

But at the point, I didn’t know what “too much of a good thing” meant. It turned out the Godzilla marathon ran for three days. And for three days, I spent all of my free time in front of the TV sucking down the movie equivalent of empty calories. Big calories, but empty. And I started to appreciate what I had known for years: Although all Godzilla movies are not the same, but they might as well be. Honestly, it’s hard to get invested in the Japanese army with its super-weapons when, even if they manage to hit Godzilla (how do they ever miss?), they can’t stop him. It’s one thing to watch such an exercise in futility once in a while, but for three days straight?

So yes, it is possible to get too much of a good thing, no matter how much you love it. At least, it is as far as television is concerned. At the end of the day, I realized something else, something far more important: The person with whom I spend my life doesn’t watch Godzilla movies, but she left me alone that whole weekend to do as I pleased. So I went back to her. Some things that you love, you never get enough of.

 

*A tortured metaphor, I know, but indulge me.

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I am a fan of bad old SF movies, the kind they made in the 1950s-1960s with giant grasshoppers, and big-headed aliens stalking amorous teenagers, and animated rugs chasing people at 2 MPH (and catching them). You know, the kind of movies Mystery Science Theater made famous again. (And yes, I am looking forward to the new MS3T.)

I love these poor things so much that I once, many years ago, helped compile a list of 50 of the worst, with annotations. I have tried very hard to find that list and repeat parts of it here, but alas… (Perhaps I shall try at some point to re-create some portion of it from memory, but like I said, this was written down many years ago and if I can remember more than a half-dozen, I’ll be doing well. Besides, it didn’t include Manos, Hands of Fate, which would now be #1.*)

But the point of this meandering is to ask: Why are so-bad-they’re-good movies popular? If you tried to do a staged MS3T with short stories and novels, you’d get past “The Eye of Argon” and find yourself completely out of material. Sure, there are loads of lousy books out there, but their shortcomings are seen as pathetic or boring, not amusing. Why, then, movies?

As with so many of life’s mysteries, I have no answer. I would theorize it has something to do with movies being more passive than reading, or perhaps the added visual dimension gives them an edge. I just know it’s so.

There have, of course, been many bad movies since our original list, but no so many enjoyable ones. (Granted, one tends to be less charitable when one is actually paying for the privilege of viewing.) Perhaps some of these newcomers could still make the list–I’m looking at you, Godzilla…

*For the love of heaven, if you must watch Manos, watch the MS3T version. The original has probably been outlawed by the U.N. anyway. The fact that the last three digits of its IMDb URL are “666” should tell you something.

 

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