Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cory Doctorow On Summer Blockbusters

Over at Locus Cory Doctorow recently published a piece on why science fiction movies "drive him nuts," in particular the big-budget blockbusters, with this summer's The Amazing Spiderman the case in point. There is much in here that is familiar, not least such films' combination of stunning visuals with intellectual hollowness (and the gratuitous Star Wars prequel bashing Doctorow throws in), but he does offer some comparatively fresh angles. His more interesting remarks mostly have to do with his take on "How Hollywood Does Science," particularly the tendency to think of science as a magical source of cool stuff rather than a process. As he notes, the labs in the movie look not like places where working people actually do things, but showcases for finished products, while "The characteristic tasks of science – arguing, staring intently at screens, begging for funding, writing down stuff and revising it, and getting heated up about something cool and unexpected" are absent from the scenes set in the "Science Billionaire’s Science Tower."

This removes the whole from anything like a recognizable reality. Granted, as Doctorow notes one can take it all as opera, "stylized, larger-than-life, highly symbolic work that is not meant to be understood literally," but this leaves him unsatisfied - because it seems to him unjustifiable on the grounds that scientific activity is "visually interesting." I'm personally doubtful that people "staring intently at screens" constitutes compelling cinema; indeed, this has long been a significant problem for computer-themed movies, resulting in many an unsuccessful attempt to make presentations of hacking seem more interesting, with the result that ultimately the industry fell back on integrating such activity into more conventionally action-oriented storylines. Still, Hollywood's tendency to not just cut "the dull bits" but act as if they don't exist has effects beyond irking viewers with a modicum of scientific or technological literacy (like Mr. Doctorow). It also has a massively distorting effect on the way the average non-scientist thinks about the subject - much like the god-like presentation of the "Science Billionaire" in the lobby has had a profoundly distorting effect on economic thought, such that the average person seems to think of the Edisonade not as an outworn Victorian myth, but a viable basis for a national economy in the twenty-first century.

In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels
On the Eureka Paradigm

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