Men Are From Mars, and Women Don't Get SFX

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

Recently, I was sharing some thoughts on science fiction with Republibot 3 and the conversation started to sound like something that viewers of this site might find interesting, or at best, amusing. I ran the idea of stringing the comments into an article, and he said it was OK by him, so what follows might be titled "Men are from Mars, And Women Just Can't Understand SF."

Mama Fisi: I was thinking about doing an op-ed article on "Comedy and Science Fiction." It seems to me that SF takes itself way too seriously, and most of the films I've seen seem to think that they've got to have some kind of Profound Message, which is usually phrased in Obscure Terms. This is why SF comedies are such rare and precious jewels. And I'm not talking about the
unintentionally funny movies, either--I mean movies like "Galaxy Quest" and "Men In Black," "Back to the Future" and "Quark," that not only give us some good, creative laughs, but have some honest-to-goodness SF chops behind them.

I bought my husband "100 Great Sci-Fi Movies" for our anniversary. The box had Gamera and Galaxina on the cover, and said the movies included "Mark Hammill! Bill Paxton! James Earl Jones!" ...but probably not in the movies you think. Scott's got a vast collection of SF movies, most of them painfully unwatchable unless you're stoned or comatose or both. He says that there's at least one good or interesting thing in every SF film, no matter how bad--be it a costume, a space ship, a set, a concept, or some chick with great hooters.

I find that my tolerance level for ridiculous premises accompanied by junk science and wooden acting has a far, far lower threshold than his does. I've tried reading SF, and in my opinion, too many stories get lost in the
pedantry. Remember when I needed advice from you when I was writing "Star Sheep...?" Now I realize that the stories I enjoy reading don't get too heavy with the
science aspect, they pick you up and carry you along with the narrative. A friend of ours recently sent us the anthalogy "Escape From Earth." The title story was very engaging, told from the perspective of a teenaged boy who stumbles upon some cadets from the future who are trying to steal depleted uranium so their training ship can make the hyperspace jump back to their own
time frame. There's also one, "Mars Girl" which is narrated by a teenaged girl whose parents were selected to colonize Mars, and she's a rather reluctant passenger. The first few "chapters" were pretty good, realistic SF, but she went for a walk outside the colony and fell through a sink-hole and I think she's now being rescued by a Martian native, so it just went off the
reality-rails. I haven't finished reading it yet.

I think the big problem is that many people don't quite understand science to begin with, so science fiction starts off sounding incomprehensible to them; this motif has been expanded upon so that "it ain't SF if it doesn't leave you going 'Huh?'" This may be why the original "Star Wars" was such a huge hit--it was a story most folks could undertstand, the good guys won, and the ending was totally unambiguous. How many other SF movies can say that?

R3: I actually agree with Scott: every SF movie has something good in it, no matter how awful. That's part of the fun of pre-21st century SF: you have to *Look* for the good. It's more interactive. Yes, the special effects in Forbidden Planet don't look realistic, but they're gorgeous! Yes, 2001 is possibly the most boring english language film ever made, but it's got that great centrifuge set. Yes, Superman 1 eats ass, but it's got that great scene where Reeve almost drops the dead Margot, then catches himself and looks terrified, and it puts me on the edge of tears every time. Also there's that lovely piece of music, "Leaving Home" (2:16 on)

I actually agree with YOU about most SF sucking. My repeated head-against-the-wall conversations about the need for literary criticism in SF are pretty much all about that. You got people like Clarke who can't write their way out of paper bag. Then you've got people like Asimov, who can, but choose not to. Then you've got people like Heinlein who *can* write, but they're only good compared to people like Clark and Asimov. Compare ANY Heinlein novel to ANY literary novel by a non-genre writer from the same year, and you'll see the difference between shitty genre fiction and literature, and it's *NOT* just a matter of professors making themselves feel better. Nabokov and Steinbeck kick Heinlein's ass from the first sentence of any given book onward. So that's
part of it: Most SF fans never read anything more than SF. SF authors (Like that insufferable Heinlein) say "Literature is bad! You are too smart for people who appreciate art!" and the fen say "Baaa baaaa" and never check it out for themselves.

And a part of it is science, too. Most people don't get it. Most hard SF reads more like a technical journal than a story. Worse yet is fake 'hard' SF written by people who actually don't know any science themselves. that's pretty bad, and there's a lot of it.

I myself write semi-hard (Or semi-soft) SF. My whole thing is that technology and the universe are a giant grandfather clock, and humans are ants that live inside it. They can figure out a way to make a life for themselves, or they can be crushed by the gears. I don't care about the machines or the exploration or the aliens that much, I'm interested in people who choose not to be crushed by an uncaring world/universe/whatever, but hold on to their humanity. Usually. If that makes sense.

Mama Fisi: We were watching "The Snow Devils" this evening, a terrible Italian-made SF film where even though the actors seem to be speaking English, it still looks dubbed. If you have some brain cells to kill, you might want to try finding it--I think TCM was playing it. It's about a futuristic weather station in the Himalayas that gets attacked by Yetis. The chief Sherpa looks more like a Negro--an African-Italian? The fiancee of one of the scientists at the research station stows away as a porter and doesn't get noticed for, oh, days. I notice that nobody ever has to pee in SF films. Ever.

Anyway, it turns out that the Yetis are really hyperinteligent aliens from another galaxy who have been warming the North Pole in order to flood the Earth before freezing it to simulate their home world, which is about to drift into a radioactive cloud of cosmic dust.

Ohhhkayyy, so the Yetis are responsible for global warming. Nice.

The one good line in the movie comes when the impeccably-coiffed leader of the expedition shouts angrily, "You care nothing for human life!" and the cape-wearing leader of the Yetis replies in a dry, perfectly urbane English accent, "I care nothing for *yours*..."

There is the interesting premise that other beings could want to "terra-form" the Earth over the objections of the inhabitants, in order to make it more suitable for their needs. Kinda putting the shoe on the other foot. But the Earth wouldn't make a very good ice planet for long. I guess this movie came before they discovered those frozen moons of Jupiter and Saturn. (later in the film, the aliens had a base on one of the Jovian moons.)

But the science is so hokey that one can't help doing the MSTK3 treatment...hey, I just noticed that looks like "mistake." I wonder if that was intentional?

R3: It's called "Xenoforming:" The process of making a planet less earthlike and more alien. Opposite of Terraforming. Cool, huh?

Nah, the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" name was just a deliberately cumbersome name for the show that Joel Hodgson came up with to sort of parody all those local saturday morning horror movie fests with names like "Monster Chiller Horror Theater" and "Dr. Paul Bearer's Creature Feature" and stuff like that. The similarity to "M(i)ST(a)3K(e)" is coincidental, and I'm not sure, but I think it might have been started by the fans. (I know the fans came up with the idea of calling themselves "Misties" (MSTies).

Ironically (And I use that word correctly) MST3K was intended as an homage to the old Saturday Morning Monster Fests, but it actually ended up being the thing that finally killed 'em off once and for all. There were still a bunch running in the late 80s/early 90s, but given the choice between some local channel guy showing a Godzilla film, or three sarcastic guys making fun of
Godzilla DURING the film, which one are you gonna' choose?

Mama Fisi: I'd've bet dollars to donuts that the explosion of cable channels killed off the networks' ability to just run any old crap in the dead zone
program timeslots. Now it's cheaper to pay some doofus to go stick his head in a pig, and film that, and call it Reality TV...

R3: DING DING DING! On the nose! The shows were dying, but MST3K ultimately killed 'em off.

Mama Fisi: We finished watching the movie with the space Yetis. I think I've figured out why girls bury their faces into their dates' shoulders during sci-fi and horror movies.

It's not because the movies are scary.

It's because the effects are SO AWFUL they can't bear to watch.

Worst effect moment? The astronauts open the door of their rocket--with a silver-painted broomstick--to go to the space station, which is a torus, but they use THE MODEL hanging from a thread against a sheet with holes poked in it, on the same soundstage--the model is like eighteen inches across...they have to try hard not to cast shadows onto it...Second worst effect--the astronauts are planting bombs on sparkly styrofoam
asteroids, and they use what look like plastic army men painted up and dangling from wires for the long shots.

I was writhing in agony. Scott said he was enjoying it...mostly because of my reactions.

The worst part is that I don't have any agonizingly bad films to force him to watch in revenge. He's already seen the movie version of Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera." And I wouldn't inflict the movie version of "Hitchhiker's Guide" on my worst enemy.

And I hate chick flicks. They're the female version of bad sci-fi.

R3: Space Yetis or no, I don't mind bad special effects all that much. I think it's part of the charm: an unspoken agreement between the audience and the producers: they pretend that a horsefaced dude with pointy ears and eyeshadow is an alien, and I pretend not to notice. They pretend that TIE fighters are attacking ludicrously-designed spaceships, and I pretend not to notice the obvious trash matte lines around 'em. We're all in this together! Having to squint to ignore the obvious fact that the sets are plywood is part of the

'Course it can easily be taken too far. The miniatures in Logan's Run are fantastic, but they ain't fooling anyone; They're miniatures. AND it's a crap movie. And that was a big budget movie. Or as I said in one of my reviews of some flick: when I thought it was made in 1967 by amateurs blowing someone's trust fund money, I thought it was pretty good, but when I realized it was
made by an actual studio, I was pissed off. It's somewhat - but not entirely - like Rock. Rock is always supposed to sound a *little* bit crappy. A little unpolished. It gets too smooth, it gets too easy, and it requires nothing from the listener. (And it did, and that's why rock is dead, really) Likewise, utterly believable FX in SF just kind of mean you don't have to work for it, and where's the fun in that? It's like all
those idiots who identified with the blue people in Avatar too much because the FX were so good, and then got all depressed and 'wanted to be blue aliens'
and what have you.

I think the point is suspension of disbelief, and not actual belief.

HEY! That's it! I'm on to something there, thank you!

Mama Fisi: There's "suspending disbelief" and "Oh, my God, I can't believe I'm watching this crap!"

R3: Yeah, well, as I said: it's easy to take it too far. And some people have a greater tolerance for it than others. That's why I always get a kick out of it when people say "Plan 9 from Outer Space is the worst movie ever made!" No it isn't. It isn't even the worst film Ed Wood ever made, it's just the worst film that *YOU'VE* heard of. I've powered through much, much, much worse stuff.

Mama Fisi: You probably have a good point there, though--movies should be fun. Sure, some will move you (not that that's the reason they're called "movies") and some will get a visceral reaction from you, but above all, they should provide entertainment value.

That I told Scott, I could have done better SPFX with no budget at all, just a little more ingenuity. In eighth grade, the kids in one of the
social studies classes put on a parody titled "Star Trip" and they had a cut-out wall panel behind which they dangled a model of the Enterprise to simulate
a viewscreen. In the rehearsals they'd used a Klingon ship, but when they cut the string to vaporize the ship, they were a bit too successful. You could hear it shattering as it hit the floor. That's great stuff for an eighth-grade play. When you actually have a budget, you should at least try to spend some of it on making convincing--or at least not totally crappy-looking--

I'm not even going to address the problem of bad acting. Carrie Fisher once said that it wasn't easy to react to something that wasn't there, and wouldn't be there until the model guys got done with the process shot. I guess in a movie where there's an eighteen-inch space station dangling in the background, and you're moving v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y to simulate zero gravity as you don your Electrolux helmet and your auto mechanic jump suit with the two Thermos bottles attached to the chest, the hardest thing you have to keep in mind is
not to laugh out loud. Do not crack up, either, when the guy in the blue fur make-up and the too-tight wrestling costume threatens your life. Try to look
appropriately impressed when they play stock footage from a 1930's travelogue on a glacier calving to illustrate how the poles are melting. And mostly,
when you have to look at a giant peach that's standing in for Jupiter--I'm serious, they didn't even paint the stripes on it, and in the mid-1960's I'm pretty sure they were aware of the fact that Jupiter has bands--do not, under any circumstances, explode in a fit of the giggles, or go pummel your agent for getting you into this dog.

R3: Shatner said kind of the same thing: "Ok, stand here and look there and react, only we don't know how tall the monster will be yet, so we're not sure how high you should look, so we'll shoot it a dozen times. And look like you're reacting to whatever it's doing, but we havent' actually written that part yet, so just we'll shoot it a bunch of time with every possible reaction.
Oh, and it might have fangs, we haven't really decided yet, so, you know, we'll do it with a 'fang' reaction and without. And that's what it's like acting in a science fiction movie."

Mama Fisi: It's a shame he followed that advice in every other film he ever acted in...