You'll geek to anything

I swear I don't fault the film editor for sending me to review Dungeons and Dragons, the movie (based on the game) coming soon—but just for a minute—to a theater near you. Tech writer, Lord of the Rings fan—how hard was that, especially on a staff that otherwise abounds in hip, cool people? Better send the nerd.

It's not just the film editor—he didn't drop $36 million on a first-time writer/director to make this thing; that was New Line Cinema. And a person hates to snarl too much at New Line; after all, they're paying hundreds of millions of dollars for a three-film Lord of the Rings trilogy that ought to be hitting theaters about a year from now. There's a rumor going around that New Line is planning to tack a Lord of the Rings trailer before this movie, ensuring that thousands of sci-fi/fantasy geeks (including me) will line up with their $8.50 in hand this weekend to buy a ticket solely to see a commercial.

No, the fault, dear Boo Boos, lies not in the stars but in ourselves: We are pathetic fanboys and fangirls that'll put up with just about anything that purports to entertain us. There's a reason so much sci-fi/fantasy entertainment is bad and that so much more is ghettoized as bad by the nonfan universe: It is bad, stinky, ugh.

I'd like to think that the sci-fi/fantasy community, which substantially overlaps the tech/geek community, could do better than that. We're bright people; many of us are fairly creative. The original Dungeons and Dragons—the game, y'all—was a testament to how lively and rich our imaginations could be if turned to matters recreational. From dice and maps on graph paper, we created worlds, shared universes with rich, storied characters and intricate plots. Our universes even operated on a theme: Chance governs all. Anyone who's managed an NT server or written a program knows that a little whimsy can mess up the best-lain plans—or snatch success from the jaws of fire-breathing defeat. And we could keep that stuff up for years, damn it, years.

You'd never know how smart and creative we are from most of the stuff that passes for sci-fi and fantasy, though. Good movies and books are swamped by the flood of bad ones, and then the bad ones suck the life out of the good ones. Elves and dwarves and halflings in Lord of the Rings are vital, multi-layered races drawing on Tolkien's knowledge of history, philology, and European myth; in most garden-variety fantasy fiction, they're reduced to pointy-eared, grumpy, and short guys, respectively, all existing to provide contrast to the human hero. The hero's quest is one of the great human story types; your average fantasy movie reduces it to some doofus looking for loot, lovers, or AWOL family members. Even the cover illustrations on the cheap drugstore paperbacks are numbingly same, stupid, and unutterably ugly: white guy in tights plus busty wench plus sword plus tree plus mutated human figure representing one of the aforementioned not-human peoples. You can spot them a mile away, but you can't tell one from the other, inside or out.

What do we lose? I don't worry about the respect of the mainstream fiction-buying public. First of all, the mainstream doesn't buy fiction, and secondly, the state of "good" fiction these days indicates that most of those folk are just talking among themselves like we are. (They just know when to put down the thesaurus.) I worry that the worse it gets, the worse it's going to get: If there's no expectation that sci-fi and fantasy ought to be well-written and original, the next Douglas Adams or J.R.R. Tolkien or Neal Stephenson or Terry Gilliam might not bother. I worry that smart, thoughtful things that need to be said, that ought to be said by us, won't be, or will be but will be lost in the septic tide. I worry that the geeks coming after us won't have anything to feed their heads.

CGI pyrotechnics do not a great fantasy film make, even though we are the audience who can best appreciate those skills. (But isn't it more impressive if you don't notice the CGI?) Medieval-like costumes do not a fantasy film make. Magic swords do not a fantasy film make. Skinny elves with pointy ears do not a fantasy film make. But if you let the New Lines of the world make films like that, those films will an entire genre make.

While we're standing in line together, let's say a little prayer for Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings, currently wrapping up principal filming in New Zealand. Then let's enjoy the trailer. Then let's get the hell out of there.

 
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