On Simon Pegg and the state of (Hollywood) sci-fi


Because the Internet suffers from staggering security issues about their interests, desperately seeking validation from anyone with even the remotest radar presence and quick to pounce on those who speak ill of their precious pop-culture pillars, it took only moments for websites to hurl sentiments expressed by Simon Pegg on the state of mainstream science fiction—that is, Hollywood blockbusters—at headlines to trawl traffic. And because to criticize popular media is somehow a criticism of its fans, One of Ours quickly became a Judas.

"Part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we've been infantilised by our own taste," Pegg told Radio Times. "We're essentially all consuming very childish things—comic books, super heroes... Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

"It is a kind of dumbing down because it's taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys. Now we're really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot."

Of course, he's right.

For starters, Pegg's statement isn't a blanket condemnation of science fiction's value as a whole. He is very specifically, and quite clearly, referring to the current crop of Hollywood's highest-grossing films. Transformers: Age of ExtinctionGuardians of the GalaxyThe Amazing Spider-Man 2InterstellarJupiter AscendingAvengers: Age of Ultron. All movies that are as fun as they are facile. Exceptions like Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina—both of which Pegg points out in a response post of his own—are atypical. And that's the problem.

These two films prove their importance by virtue of staying power and the sort of response generated by viewers. Conversations about Fury Road tend to revolve around the role of women in an action-heavy sci-fi flick and, by reflection, society at large. Debates over Ex Machina puzzle over which of its three main characters might be the hero or the villain. Any one of them could be, depending on the lens through which they're viewed. Ex Machina and Mad Max breed interpretation.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (and Guardians, and Jupiter Ascending, and Transformers, and Amazing Spider-Man 2) does not. At best, Whedon's second Avengers outing has only managed to breed Internet vitriol because a lifetime of watching dumbed down, skin-deep cinema has left an entire generation unable to read between the lines and divorce a character's POV from the writer's or director's worldview. And none of these films are science fiction in anything but appearance—it's drapery for what is otherwise a Saturday Morning Cartoon that deals in moralistic binaries and one-dimensionality (two, if you're lucky).

This is at the heart of Pegg's complaints—how today's most popular "science fiction" promotes outmoded (read: unchallenging) ideologies. Us Against Them. Fear of Technology. Hell, even Captain America: The Winter Soldier—the only Marvel movie that's managed to leave a lasting impression on me since the original Iron Man (and select aspects of Iron Man 3)—escalates to Big Sweeping Change brought on by literally Taking Down the System, as if it could possibly be so simple. As if all the invasions perpetuated by the NSA could be put back into Pandora's Box by passing a law or burning the building to the ground. Has making prostitution (mostly) illegal curbed its practice? Has the War on Drugs put a dent in production, distribution, and consumption of narcotics? No. If anything, Richard Nixon's bullshit crusade only managed to reveal the futility in combating something that's systemic and woven into the fabric of society with the same blunt-instrument approach a caped vigilante might take to his or her requisite Hitler analogue.

Unfortunately, whenever science fiction or fantasy tries to hold a mirror up to society and show its ugly reflection, people get uncomfortable. They recoil from the grimdark and demand the warm, safe blanket of escapism. Paint the world in rose-y tints and show us a better, brighter tomorrow. Romanticism is a lovely thing, but it ultimately amounts to idealistic flight from reality. Trying to see the world for what it could be can only go so far in fiction. At some point, conflict needs to emerge, and the most effective conflict comes from hard, uncomfortable looks at reality. Even Star Trek: The Original Series understood this.

Meaningful interrogation is what Pegg wants. He's not out to make anyone feel bad for liking a building-breaking fight between Hulk and a robot—he just thinks something more from a film should stick with the audience beyond another rote action beat in an equally rote story about humanity's capacity to rally against the tyrannical threat of a wisecracking Terminator. Pegg wants what I want: for mainstream moviegoers to actively desire adult content. It doesn't have to be True Detective dark-as-fuck Frown Town, just, you know, a little more nuanced.

You can say something meaningful and still have a robot wearing a robot suit punch a not-so-jolly green giant into submission.