off the beaten path

Intelligence FTW!

It’s no secret I’m a huge nerd. I’m a devout Trekkie, have Daleks in my kitchen, and a closet full of geeky costumes from conventions gone by. And I may or may not own a copy of the Klingon version of Hamlet.  (Keep reading! This isn’t a sci-fi post!) But there’s one thing I can’t stand, and that’s bad sci-fi – or ANY bad movies, or even TV shows. Like Star Wars.  Star Wars is full of aliens, robots and spaceships, all the elements that should make a geek’s dream come true.  So why can’t I stand it? Because it’s built for the mainstream.

We see it all around us: in music, it’s not intricate melodies, talented musicianship or well-written lyrics that are going to shoot you to international superstardom. Throw in a computer-generated beat, lyrics about promiscuity (or ones stolen from somebody else, originally written 20 years ago), a generic rapper and a pretty girl, and you’ll be guaranteed millions in sales, and played on radio stations and in clubs around the globe, sitting comfortably on wads of cash you made from the people who aren’t going to remember you this time next week.

It’s the same with movies – Star Wars is definitely on the top five list of highest-grossing movies of all time, and this week’s tops at the box office include something by the name of Furry Vengeance, full of bad writing, bad animation and animals defecating on people’s faces; The Backup Plan, a predictable romantic comedy short on, well, romance and comedy; and Nightmare on Elm Street, a recycled story with some updated effects, second hand material and cheap scare tactics that wouldn’t frighten my cat.

I like my entertainment to be clever, yet it seems that the mediocre continues to flourish and triumph.  Many sci-fi fans love both Trek and Wars, but I can’t class them in the same category.  Star Wars is an easy escapist fantasy that has nothing to do with actual science, and is undeserving of the sci-fi genrefication.  It was originally based on comic books, which are ultimately aimed at children, easy to digest, and requiring little in the brain department. It’s full of action, basic storylines, and good guys versus bad guys who swashbuckle their way through the galaxy blowing things up. Scare value is minimal, and is done in a family-friendly manner involving lots of heavy breathing and swishy black cloaks. In short: it’s fluff, just like the Hollywood blockbusters and hot-selling albums currently circulating amongst the masses.

I avoid horror movies, not because I’m a wuss (although that’s debatable), but because it all seems so futile. Costumes and special effects equate to smoke and mirrors, and often combine with poor writing, bad acting and some cheap thrills in the form of things jumping out of the dark, and I can’t really see the point. It’s completely far-fetched, and more than anything else, easy. As with so many things in life, many people gravitate toward things that don’t require as much effort.  With music, I’m devoted to talented musicians, masters of lyricism, and appreciators of the form. And, as you no doubt know by now, I appreciate what’s real.  They’re not on the Bestseller wall at HMV, nor are they on the weekly top 40. They’re not going to sell platinum records. But they’re going to ignite the senses and fill me with passion.  With blogs, I read the people who take the time to construct good pieces, full of interesting stories and a real sense of the person behind the screen, unafraid to wear their hopes and dreams, fears and victories, and hearts on their sleeves.

With movies and television, there’s no denying science fiction holds a very dear place in my heart. But as with any form of entertainment, it can be done sloppily, without thought to writing or storyline or ethics. Or it can be done brilliantly, scaring the audience with everyday situations, engaging them with witty dialogue, or provoking thought through morally ambiguous situations.

In the ‘60s, Doctor Who was the scariest thing on television. Aimed at both young and old, a child who could sit through an episode without retreating to the safety behind the sofa was the coolest kid in school. But with new generations come new expectations; what was scary fifty years ago isn’t going to hack it by today’s standards.  Today, I’m loving the shows and movies that provide genuine chills, not through CG monsters and fantasy, but through making the commonplace terrifying.  Watching the television when all of a sudden the TV host starts asking you if the life you’re living is even real. Every stone statue around the country actually a species of “Weeping Angels” ready to come after you and turn you to stone when nobody’s watching. Our irrational fear of the dark not irrational at all… The nature of human life, battling death (literally) and how one copes after death… Scientific – real, scientific genetic experiments going wrong, and the evolution of technology into holographic life forms and their “rights”, and government conspiracies, our defences failing and every child just… stopping… and being taken over. A parent’s worst nightmare.  (You can’t tell me that last clip isn’t terrifying!)

This stuff’s way closer to home. What’s really scary these days isn’t in the form of something in another galaxy, or another big screen axe murder. It’s not 3D movies that make you jump out of your seats – a reflex to the unexpected, not a sincere sense of fear. The intelligent shows and movies build upon some of our most basic fears – what’s hiding in the dark? What if science doesn’t have all the answers? What if everything we know is a lie? It works because it’s not something that could end as the credits roll up the screen. It leaves us with a fear that’s genuinely real, and verges uncomfortably on the cusp of possibility.  The clever shows also provoke thoughts that continue long after the episode has finished, questioning religion, existentialism, morality, the nature of time, corruption, philosophy and redemption.

I’ll take science fiction and intelligent dramas over Hollywood blockbusters and soap operas any day, which leave me thoroughly more inspired, thrilled, scared and entertained. If I’m going to spend a couple of hours on the couch – well, I may as well give my brain a workout, right?