“Game Changers”

Watching Pacific Rim last Friday made me wonder: What constitutes a 21st century sci-fi “game changer”? What determines the kind of movie that gets labeled “instantly iconic” or “revolutionary,” that accumulates a fandom by the end of its first weekend in release? Pacific Rim, for example—whose goofy kid-in-a-bathtub mayhem I really enjoyed—struck me as kin to a couple of other recent movies, Avatar and Inception. Here’s what the three have in common:

  • They’re written and directed by men with considerable nerd cachet. (Co-written, in the case of Pacific Rim.) They all started life as “original” projects, but are banking on audience members’ knowledge of their auteurs—and willingness to see anything from the mind behind AliensThe Dark Knight, or Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • That “original” status. Although all three draw heavily from their sci-fi forebears, they’re brand new properties, with minimalist titles calculated to tease. At least prior to their respective releases, they all looked new, mysterious, and intriguing.
  • The near-future worlds crafted for these movies are all dependent on CGI for their size and detail. Each of these worlds also centers on a series of conceits—e.g. avatars, dream theft, drifting—meant to hook the viewer, with “rules” which must be explained via endless exposition.
  • Brooding, recently bereaved white men headline these movies, each of them leading a team on a redemptive mission. Outside of a few minor flourishes in Inception, they’re all very conventionally plotted, with conflicts that are easy to grab hold of: “natives vs. imperialists,” “thieves vs. the mind,” and of course “robots vs. monsters.”
  • As decidedly PG-13 action movies, they lack any sexuality (beyond a single chaste scene in Avatar) or graphic violence. They disengage from the reality of human bodies, opting to make them one more glossy component of these digital fantasy worlds instead.
  • Given their shared interest in charting the mind’s interior and playing with characters’ identities, they’re all indebted to the work of Philip K. Dick, as well as to The Matrix—their most obvious predecessor as far as conceit-driven sci-fi sagas go.

None of these traits are inherently negative, but together they do lay out some very narrow parameters for Event Movie sci-fi. I don’t expect to be blowing any minds here, but given how familiar these three films’ stories, ideas, and visual grammar are from countless earlier movies, maybe (just maybe) “game-changing” has less to do with content and more to do with packaging.


Filed under Cinema

5 responses to ““Game Changers”

  1. Huni

    if the words “game changer” are being thrown about in earnest regarding Pacific Rim then your post is fully warranted.

    i’ve heard it being hailed by fanboys as instantly iconic, something i feel is arguably appropriate.its kinda what Sucker Punch aimed for but done right, with good honest intentions (lemme holla at ma boy Guillermo).

    Avatar and Inception are woefully pretentious however (Sucker Punch even more so by far). Inception is the only one that actually does have substance to it but is still bogged down/dominated by its conceit/trick. in Pacific Rim there isnt anything for the conceit to bog down, and you can just gleefully watch the splosions.

    as soon as i get my hands on a divx file im gonna try and cut most of Ron Perlman out plus the Australian father/son crap and see if that version doesnt run more streamlined like water off a ducks ass..

  2. Art R

    Iconic means that it wasn’t done before in this medium or any other. Unfortunately, most of these movies are actually rip-offs of other well known works and will by their existence make it harder to make movie versions of the original properties. Star Wars has made it nearly impossible to make a movie version of the Lensman series by E.E. “Doc” Smith (Green Lantern comics and movies are also ripoffs of the Lensman series). Pacific Rim has done the same for any BattleTech movie. Avatar is a ripoff of many different stories most notably Dances With Wolves, Call Me Joe by Poul Anderson and Delgo, an animated feature. Not very original, just smart repackaging. James Cameron was sued by A.E. Van Vogt over the movie Alien for ripping off his stories “The Black Destroyer” about an alien hunting a crew on a spaceship and “Discord In Scarlet” where aliens implant eggs in humans that later hatch and eat their way out. These movies are raved on by people that do not know the sources and don’t care. It’s like raving about a velvet painting that looks similar to the Mona Lisa and forgetting that Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa doesn’t exist!

  3. Huni

    wow Art

    gotta say, your ideas are intriguing to me and i wish to subscribe to your newsletter

    seriously though, thanks for pointing out the Van Vogt lawsuit, don’t think i was aware of that. it sounds like the Black Destroyer cast quite the shadow (influenced Star Trek too) but give HR Giger and O’Bannons credit where its due.

    regarding Battletech (last time i checked it originates from Heinleins Starship Troopers but isnt even featurred in the motion picture) there almost isnt any story or plot to Pacific Rim so im not sure which film you feel has lost it’s chance to shine on the big silver screen?

    also, surprised you didnt mention the worst villain of all, Promethus robbing us of a Mountains of Madness film by Guillermo.

    ps. not so sure the dictionary agrees with your definition of iconic, but it is overused anyway

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