Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



I was wondering why many of my favorite SF movies lately are comedies, or even more to the point, parodies. In fact, just about all of them. It’s been a long time since there has been a “serious” SF movie that I could take seriously. What’s going on here?

I recall that the two SF movies that rocked me the most were 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Wars. One obsessively realistic, and one nothing but pulp nonsense … but fun! I got over Star Wars after the first film; the rest kept the nonsense and though they were great to look at, I just didn’t care. I never, not for a millisecond, took any of the many incarnations of Star Trek seriously. Back to the Future was a comedy, though not a parody. A Clockwork Orange worked as real SF, though it was largely satirical and was quite a while ago. {{Miracle Mile} was near-future, apocalyptic SF, and worked well and played fair, and so did Deep Impact, more or less. Terminator was time-travel SF, and worked, but it was a rockem-sockem action pic, mostly. Frankly, I can’t think of an outer-space or time-travel movie in the last 20 years that I’ve both believed and enjoyed. Not one.
I’ve developed a theory, and it may be an odd one, since I make a living writing this stuff, and it is this: True, hard outer-space or time-travel stories work better on the page than on the screen. Take my own private disaster, Millennium (please!). The short story it was based on, “Air Raid,” was a trifle, a kick in the gut and then over and out, and worked pretty well, I think. It was nominated for a Hugo. The novel I made from that worked okay, too, I was able to sustain my suspension of disbelief so vital to a story like that. But when it got onto the screen, it looked ludicrous … and I’m not talking about critics (who almost to a man and woman ignored it), but to myself … and I wrote it!

Take another example of serious SF translated to the screen: Barry Longyear’s Enemy Mine. The story worked very well, but when it came to the big revelation in the movie, audiences laughed. Was it just that they weren’t sophisticated enough for “serious” themes in an outer space story? (And if so, what’s the point of making big budget space films that ask deep questions, if all the audience wants is more Star Wars?) I heard Barry bemoan that the director and screenwriter fucked it up, but I was watching, and I thought the scene was handled fairly well. But it didn’t work for me, either, and I knew what was coming and had liked the source material. Would they laugh at The Dispossessed, one of our iconic books when we talk about serious SF? I think they would, and I’m wondering if it’s the fault of the big screen. I know this is a radical notion and I’m not saying it’s true, but I keep thinking about it. If it’s true, then no amount of great screenwriting—not even Bill Goldman or the ghost of Paddy Chayefsky—would rescue a proposed HBO series of my Gaean Trilogy from looking foolish. (Which is not to say I wouldn’t happily sell them, if we can come to terms with the guy who wants to do them.) But Red Thunder and Red Lightning would translate well, I think, because they’re light-hearted, if not exactly comedies. More in the vein of Back to the Future.

It’s a puzzle. But the fact is that the SF movies that I’ve enjoyed the most, with the fewest reservations, in the last 20 years or so have been comedies or parodies: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Galaxy Quest, Tremors, Sean of the Dead, Morons From Outer Space.

Which is a very long-winded and not particularly relevant way of getting around to this film, Idiocracy, which I thought was very funny, and is SF, no matter how you may hate the way it sends up SF conventions. The premise was stolen (I don’t know if it was conscious or not) from a classic 1951 short story by Cyril M. Kornbluth: “The Marching Morons.” Basically, smart people had small families or none at all, while the teeming idiot masses reproduced like bunnies. A time traveler (two of them, in the movie) is sent 500 years into the future, where everybody is stupid. And I mean everybody; in the Kornbluth story there was an intelligent elite behind the scenes that kept things running, but here there’s nobody. And I mean really, really stupid. Dumb as a box of rocks? A box of rocks would invent calculus in the time it would take one of these people to figure out how to fling a booger. And that’s where the fun comes in. If you want plot logic, go elsewhere. What’s keeping things running, given the level of destruction these people wreak on their surroundings all the time? Well … machines, I guess, built by the last generation that had any brains.

But figuring out things like that is not the point of this movie. Forget about worrying about it. The point is satire, and big laffs! The creators—the same dudes who made “Beavis and Butthead,” which I am not a fan of, and which caused a long internal debate before I rented it—have taken everything awful and tacky about our world that makes you wonder every day if our civilization really is falling apart, and amplified it 1000 times. Ubiquitous commercials. People are named after products; the lawyer for our hero is called Frito Lexus. Trails are like “Let’s Make a Deal!” Executions take place at monster truck rallies. The president is an ex-porn star and professional wrestler. The Secretary of State is 14. The Costco looks like it covers 50 square miles, and has a law school. Stuff like that. Maybe this isn’t your cup of tea, but it sure is mine. And yes, the acting sometimes leaves something to be desired, but this movie isn’t as bad as the distributor apparently thought, when they essentially killed it by releasing it in only 6 theaters in small markets, then dropping it. Why? Nobody seems to know.