Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hey! Your Politics Got Into My Science Fiction!

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, it was said you should avoid talking about religion and politics with people you just met. It was a no no at parties and certain suicide on a first date. Maybe it was the radicalized culture of the 60's that began dropping the barriers. The most noticeable bits of political content that I've noticed seeping into mainstream entertainment seemed to focus on issues with a feminist or anti-war bent-- and those topics seem to still resonate heavily today. But nowadays it seems as if you have to turn off the television, put down your books and skip movies altogether if you want something that isn't going to hit you over the head with a bias of some sort. I have no particular issue with politics in my entertainment. It would be impossible to ignore current issues if one wanted to be relevant or topical-- especially in cinematic entertainment. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. What brought this to mind was a book I was reading recently that had been glowingly reviewed on another site. I thought it must be exceptional so I paid a little extra for it since it happened to be an import. And the book was okay to a point, but once the author decided to add some ham-handed politics to the mix, I was stopped cold. Let me set the scene for you: The protagonist of the book has just been widowed and is in the process of realizing that her husband had a secret life she knew nothing about. Tagging along while her husband's brother tries to solve the mystery they end up at a science lab to interview a scientist who had collaborated with the deceased. They barge into the building and go right up to the lab area and casually stand outside the lab door just in time to see the evil scientist do evil experiments on fuzzy little bunnies. Sigh. Really? Now, I'm not invested in a pro or con animal rights message in a story. What I'm against is a completely nonsensical sequence of events just to inject a personal bias into a story. The scene was meant to characterize the scientist as a villain but it was gracelessly done. Given the antagonistic culture of animal-right politics these days, I can't credibly believe that anyone could casually walk into any such lab. The incongruity of the scene made my interest in the story come to a screeching halt. And that seems to be the crux of the problem when trying to fuse politics and entertainment. Regardless of bias there is a good probability that you're going to offend at least half of your audience and the current crop of "message" movies that have been both box-office hits and misses are an excellent example of what works-- and what doesn't. Take "Avatar." Most reviews describe "Avatar" as anti-military, pro Gaia, with a dash of white-man's guilt thrown in. And it's a MONSTER hit. Does that mean James Cameron's politics mirrors that of everyone who sees the movie? Absolutely not. What it means is that the other aspects of the film, specifically the stunning visuals, are so compelling that the political content is irrelevant. Even if you vehemently disagree with Cameron, so the reviews say, you'll probably still like the movie. That takes talent. Contrast that with Green Zone, the newest Matt Damon, Paul Greengrass collaboration with a strong anti-Iraq War vibe. The $100 million budget film is sitting on a 48% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a $14.5 million open that has been characterized as "poor" by the studio that released it. Some say that audiences just aren't into Iraq War films-- and the performance of other films with the same theme like "The Kingdom," "Rendition" and "Body of Lies" (which came in behind "Beverly Hills Chihuahua") back up that theory. But it has also been widely reported that "The Green Zone" primarily suffers from a ridiculous script and an overwhelming use of the shaky cam. Maybe I'm being bold to suggest it, but I think the success of the "Bourne" films may have convinced the director that audiences could be spoon-fed anything in a similar style and audiences would eat it up. Clearly movie-goers are more sophisticated than Hollywood gives us credit for. And television certainly brings politics to the mix as well. "Battlestar Galatica" drove some people crazy with the "one God" storyline. Mostly the core audience stuck with the show but I'm betting most viewers would have voted to tone down the cylon obsession with God. "Caprica," the spin-off series, seems determined to intensify the oppressiveness of the theme and rumor has it that the show is on the verge of cancellation because viewers are leaving in droves. Oddly, I'm not certain whether they're trying to make a statement that's for or against religion, which is a tact I normally root for. But the show seems to have a religious fixation--to the detriment of other storylines-- and I believe that is what viewers are finding objectionable. I wonder if that will have an impact on "V" since they have been very bold in correlating their plot with the very identifiable premise of "hope and change" that swept through American culture in the last couple of years. Whether you like where "V" is going, you gotta respect the risk they've taken in going down that road; though it may not be profitable in the long run. Politics, no matter the flavor, is always going to tricky to incorporate into entertainment. Personally I think an even-handed approach is always the way to go. Shows like "The Simpsons" prove that being an equal-opportunity offender can allow you to have a 20-year run. So, while I don't want my favorite authors/directors etc. to shy away from political content, I love to walk away from my entertainment not knowing where they really lean on any issue. Give me strong female characters without slinging feminist mottos. Feel the need to include a gay couple in your cast? Great. Just don't try to convince me that every other person in every random situation also happens to be gay (a recent book I read did this) because it isn't believable. And maybe avoid using the Iraq War at all. I'm no expert but that doesn't seem popular no matter what you do. Even the Academy Award winner "The Hurt Locker" couldn't sell tickets. Though they did get a pretty statue for their efforts...So what do I know? Well, what I think I know is this. My favorite movies walk a fine line. "The Dark Knight" has been embraced by conservatives even as others argue that that kind of interpretation is just silly. James Bond can throw in some politics here and there, as is appropriate given the occupation of the main character, and still be politically incorrect-- to my everlasting delight. I've read opinions that say "Iron Man" is both pro and anti military. Fabulous. Does it take a genius to notice that the best way to handle politics is to let the viewer project their own bias into the mix thanks by keeping it ambiguous? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

14 comments:

mostraum said...

I gave up on Battlestar Galactica fairly early, and it was only because of two things, alle the god-stuff and Gaius Baltar who I found really, really annoying.
I'd much rather see Stargate, lots of gods, but they all turn out to be something else.

SQT said...

Baltar walked the line for me. Sometimes I found him really funny. The god thing never bothered me, though I never really understood why they brought it in. I get that they're tying to establish where it came from in "Caprica," but it's reached the stage where it's just too much.

I need to go back and watch "Stargate." For some reason it never clicked with me early on and I've probably missed a lot.

T.D. Newton said...

Could that picture be any sexier??

Charles Gramlich said...

Sometimes events in the world catch up with events in a story. In "Wings Over Talera," there's a surprise attack on the Nysphalians by an outside force. There's a conspiracy behind the attacks, and the emperor of Nyphal gives a speech about defending freedoms and being vigilant. Quite a few people thought I put that stuff in because of 911, when in fact it was written well before the twin towers incident.

Avery DeBow said...

I don't mind politics. I don't mind religion. I don't even mind knowing the author's viewpoints sway in one direction or the other when I'm done. BUT, I don't like being bashed over the head by anything. It takes skill and a light hand to keep what should be an underlying current from sweeping up onto the beach and carrying away the tourists.

Speaking of bashing things on heads, I used to work next to an animal research lab. There was no sauntering into that place. Outside alone were coded key pads, security systems, and those little speakers that make you state your business (this info from a chatty UPS guy).

Sullivan McPig said...

Agreeing with Avery: I don't mind the author having a message as long as it fits into the story.

SQT said...

I can live with political bias but I find that most people aren't very subtle about it. Maybe I'm too nit-picky but I think it's so much more interesting if there can be multiple interpretations.

Avery-- I've heard that too about research labs.

PeterWilliam said...

SQT,
Great post. Every example included was relevant, current and telling. I couldn't agree more. People, regardless what one's estimate of them is, know precisely what they believe and, usually, why they believe it. Let them slather their own take on things and still walk away entertained, say I. Only blind arrogance believes the masses can be successfully spoon fed.

SQT said...

@PeterWilliam

Thanks! I think audiences understand subtlety more than we're given credit for.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I think politics are compelling in fiction, but no one wants to be preached to. I think if the political message is organic and comes out of theme and plot, without being the major focus, then it's a different story.

Consider these seriously political works of sci-fi: "Dune", "Foundation Trilogy" "Mote In God's Eye" "Cat's Cradle" "Slaughterhouse Five" "Planet of the Apes" (the original novel by Pierre Boulle) ..etc..etc..etc...

Hell, even "Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" were political in their own way.

Story above all else. Poltics only as theme.

SQT said...

Exactly right Stu. My original example (about the fuzzy bunnies) wasn't organic at all which is why it was so irritating.

ShadowFalcon said...

Sometimes it works brilliantly like all the episodes on new Capirca in the last BattleStar incarnation and other times you do just get annoyed and flick channels. Its a very fine line and few shows or movies walk the line well enough the keep people hook. Looking forward to Caprica hitting the screens here though

SQT said...

Shadowfalcon

I'm still hanging in there with "Caprica." I've heard a lot of grumbling with the One God storyline, but it doesn't bother me. I do wish they'd explore the development of the cylons more though. Right now they seems stuck in a teen-angst storyline and that is more of a turn off to me than anything else.

James Marsters has a small role in it too--so that's something.

paulawestonotherworlds said...

I agree. Great stories should prompt us to think about a topic - not tell us what to think.

(Great post by the way - love the title.)