The Incredible Shrinking Brain
It’s evident all over the place. Here’s a short piece I wrote on the subject last year (70% of what I write gets killed. Some pieces end up on this blog – this is one).
‘I Am Legend’ had the best first half of any popular film I’d seen for a while, and the worst remainder. The reason? A triumph of style over ingenuity. Post-apocalyptic New York’s return to nature, all buzzing insects and grass thrusting through cracked concrete, was rendered in impeccable detail. But then the zombies arrived and everything went to CGI hell. In ‘The Omega Man’, the second film version of Richard Matheson’s story, you may recall that the war between scientist Robert Neville and the infected is one of conflicting ideologies; Neville’s technological determinism is the cause of the world’s end. The infected now shun technology and have turned back to faith in order to save the planet. Once the relationship between Neville and his infected opposite number, the intellectually conservative Matthius, has been established, we know the conflict cannot be resolved without Neville’s death because he is the last representative of the old guard, the true Omega Man who must be superseded by religious zealots as the clock of civilisation is reset. So the virus may be halted – it can’t eradicate the new ideology – and to that extent Neville is as extinct as a dinosaur. This is the idea that drives the story and gives it so much power.
So in the new version, it is of course the first thing to go.
Now the infected aren’t real people, but have been replaced by superhuman computer animations. They can’t even speak, so there’s no real conflict at all, except the bog-standard Zombies VS Survivors tropes we’ve all seen a million times before. When Charlton Heston sat in a cinema and mouthed dialogue from ‘Woodstock’, he was making a point about free will. Will Smith gets to duplicate the scene by mouthing dialogue from…’Shrek’. Is this how far down the brain-stem we’ve dropped in popular entertainment, that a simple idea can’t be communicated to a mass audience anymore for fear of alienating them?
More pernicious is the creepy use of the escape to Eden that ‘I Am Legend’ offers. Instead of a white Neville having sex with an independent black woman, we have a black man chastely hanging out with a God-fearing and safely mixed-race Brazilian girl. Instead of heading off to live in a flawed, argumentative commune built around new alternative families, something that will replace the traditional failing model of family life, we have the survivors arriving in a heavily guarded fortress town that looks like an isolationist Mormon Disneyland sponsored by the National Rifle Association.
SF is required to reflect the era of its creation, which is why ‘I Am Legend’ rankles. ‘The Invasion’, the fourth version of ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’, disturbed in the same way, with its suggestion that it might not be so bad to be a pod-person after all; at least people do what they’re told.
From Guts To Garters
The dumbing down continues over here too, even in something as silly as ‘St Trinian’s’. In the beginning, artist Ronald Searle sketched cartoons of badly behaved schoolgirls to amuse himself and his family during wartime. His cartoons were collected into books, then became novels and finally films. Searle enlisted a surprisingly highbrow group of people to help him, including the author D B Wyndham-Lewis, the composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, Johnny Dankworth, the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, Bertolt Brecht, Flanders & Swann, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder.
In the original 1950s film series, cynicism at the inefficiency of bureaucratic England seeped through the stories like damp. The men from the Ministry of Education sang ‘The Red Flag’ on election night, praying that Labour would win and abolish private schools because they were too ineffectual to act, and had to be reminded by a passing charlady that, as civil servants, they were not expected to have political affiliations. Shiftless workmen repairing a hole in the ministry floor became long-term fixtures accepted by everyone. Civil servants seduced by the promise of sex and sloth hid in the school greenhouse for months on end rather than return to work. Councillors took their lift-man along on a money-wasting European fact-finding mission. Ultimately, the school – financed on stolen money and immoral earnings – was seen as a far more decent institution than the inert, corrupt and powerless state, because at least it was honest about the way it earned its money.
Not in the new version. Now it’s about tough-girlz, posing, pouting and pissing about to pop. It’s great fun of course, but how hard would it have been to insert just a few lines of sharp dialogue, something to show there was an intelligence at work behind the scenes, to prove that the girls were truly the embodiment of modern market forces, as they were in the originals? Instead, only the subversive presence of Rupert Everett is left.
Does any of this really matter? Who cares if ‘The Golden Compass’ has had its heretical (not blasphemous, mark you, the books are about the corrupting influence of the church, not religion itself) balls neutered so long as it makes for a good story?
My point is that you don’t have to sacrifice anything to make it a tad smarter. US TV shows manage to do this. A story can still be exciting, sexy, scary and youth-targeted. You just add a little more, and allow the ones with enquiring minds to find more meat on the bones.