Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On Fantasy and Sci-Fi

I had this discussion last week on my MovieQuest 2014 Facebook group. I found it pretty fascinating and wanted to share it here. It began with my review of the 1988 film Willow but led pretty quickly into my issues with the fantasy genre as a whole and pondering what the genre was meant to be.

The Part of My Review That Triggered the Discussion

"It's hard for me to judge fantasy movies, because as a whole I feel like they're depressingly (and weirdly) unimaginative, falling back on the same tropes and mythical creatures over and over again. (If you have an opportunity to make up a world all your own, why wouldn't you take advantage of that more?) And this does have a lot of that. The characters are familiar, the plot is familiar, and while there are one or two new creatures, a lot of them are pretty standard."

The Discussion Begins

Jennie: I'd also argue that part of what fantasy is IS tropes. That's what fairy tales have always been. Three brothers, three wishes, talking animals, good vs evil, good guy always wins against all odds, etc. That's part of what is attractive about them, for me, at least, is they follow similar rules, and teach the same lessons.

MeIt's not necessarily just the plot tropes, though. More than anything, it's the creatures. Why on earth would you create your own world and then only use species that other people made up? I mean, that's partly why I like The Hobbit. Hobbits were new. Gollum was new. But most fantasy stories feature humans, dwarves, trolls, goblins, elves, The End.

JennieAnd now I'm curious -- out of all the fantasy movies you've seen, which might you say is your favorite?

MeI checked out my list of fantasy movies on Flickchart. Typically, I like fantasy/reality mixes -- stories clearly set mostly in our world or populated with characters from our world but with a couple fantastical elements (at the top of my list are Beauty and the Beast, Monsters Inc, Mary Poppins). I like ones that play around with the tropes a bit (Into the Woods is #4). The highest straight-fantasy one is The Princess Bride, but again, I grew up with that one so I love it for more nostalgic reasons. Ditto Ladyhawke, which is a bit further down.

The highest all-set-in-a-fantasy-world movie that I didn't watch a child is... The City of Lost Children, maybe? (#385 on Flickchart.) I can't remember how strictly fantasy that is. It's REALLY hard to find a movie high on my chart that most people would instantly think of as belonging in the fantasy genre. Oh, there we go. Stardust is #903. But that's almost halfway down my chart.

I'm not sure what to do with Studio Ghibli, though. Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro fall somewhere in between the fantasy/reality dichotomy, and they're both quite high on my list. But they're also wonderfully imaginative in the characters they create.

JennieOkay, I can concede that point. It is difficult to find a fantasy anything that uses the other-than-standard creature array.

Me: It's just WEIRD to me that so few of them do. You'd think SOMEONE would want to make up something new once in awhile.

Jennie: I think some prefer that their creatures be familiar to their audiences, or it's possibly a lazy choice. Some, however, perhaps play on a different IDEA of a creature, such as Tolkien did with his books. Elves have been in stories forever -- he turned them into ancient wise warriors for, I believe, the first significant time, choosing to imagine the "truth" behind all the "devolved" elves in the fairy tales and stories, the kind that would help a cobbler with his shoes or make toys for Santa. Willow's idea of trolls is different from Harry Potter's is different from Tolkien's, etc.

Perhaps they stick to the standards because that's what sells. Different is beautiful to create, but we both know the mass audience likes the accessible and doesn't always like to stretch their imaginative muscles to accept something so foreign to them as, say, garthim and skeksis, when they can have comfortable, familiar monsters such as werewolves and goblins. (btw, I'd nominate The Dark Crystal for an amazing new array of original creatures).

Me: I think it's nice when people play on creature ideas, it's just weird that the creativity so often stops there. I mean, compare it to sci-fi, which is superficially more grounded in reality. Sure, there are plenty of stereotypical aliens that we see all the time in movies, but there are also a LOT of new types of aliens that look different and seem different and relate to us differently. There's a moderate chance that if I watch a sci-fi alien invasion movie, I'll see something new I haven't seen before. That chance is nearly zero if I watch a fantasy flick.

I do need to see The Dark Crystal sometime. Jacob owns it, I've just never watched it.

Derek: You have to also consider that there's money and sometimes digital effects involved in creating different creatures. In 1988 when Willow came out, it was years before all these other movies made us sick of the same types of creatures. It's hard to see a movie from the perspective of the people who saw it when it first came out. This is why it's extremely difficult to watch black and white movies and see them as original, because you are only aware of all the people who have copied -- and often parodied -- these movies.

Me: I actually was thinking about that a bit, but I run into the same thing with pure fantasy books, which don't require effects. Granted, I haven't read as many fantasy books as I have seen fantasy movies (I got tired and stopped reading them when they all seemed the same) so I may be missing out on the ones that stretch the genre.

But the point about the same creatures not being overused at that point is a good one. I don't have a good sense of when specific incarnations of fantasy creatures became canon, so to speak.

Jennie: They've been canon for ages. Perhaps the reason is because those incarnations are so SET is because fantasy has been around so much longer than Sci-Fi. Those legends and myths go back centuries in our literature, some of them all the way back to ancient Greece. Fairies, goblins, elemental spirits, etc.

Also, in some ways, the creatures of fantasy depend upon the world we live in now, where science fiction has no such boundaries. It can choose life forms that never would develop on this planet and bring them here in spinning flying saucers or interdimensional portals or massive warships. Humans can also travel out to the stars and encounter all these for themselves, where in most stories humans aren't allowed in the realms from which the fairyfolk originate, so their origins are traditionally rooted in myth and mystery.

Derek: When they became canon and when they became canon AT THE MOVIES are two different things, though.

Jennie: Well, yes, I suppose I'm talking in general. AT THE MOVIES might have become canon with Disney, really, as that's when full-length features of fantasy became big. Evil witches, the fairies from Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan, dragons and mermaids and wizards, oh my!

Me: "The creatures of fantasy depend upon the world we live in now" <-- That's an interesting thought, because I would definitely have thought of it the other way around. For example, sci fi still depends on, to some extent, adhering to the laws of physics and at least on-the-surface plausible scientific explanations. I think of fantasy stories as being an opportunity to create an entirely new world from scratch, including impossible things like magic. But maybe that's not the idea.

Jennie: I've personally always considered fantasy to be a vehicle, rather than it's own end. Think about the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales, myths, etc. They were told not only to entertain, but to teach the morality of the day. Good vs evil, as I said. Kindness pays back. Appearances can be deceiving. Be careful who you trust. One of the main points of fantasy was and is to explore humanity. That's why the stories have lasted, that's why the tropes endure, that's why everything repeats and it still has an audience, is perhaps because we see ourselves in it. (This is all my own theories and speculations, and are you guys enjoying this discussion as much as I am?)

Me: Huh. That's an interesting thought. *Especially* because I feel like that's what a lot of sci fi does now, if sometimes with less straightforward morals (but not always). A LOT of sci fi is very moralistic -- District 9 is about immigration, WALL-E is about about technology making us lazy, dystopian "government controls the world" movies are about the dangers of giving up freedom, post-apocalyptic movies are about war... the list can go on and on. Maybe fantasy has lost its edge a little bit in that department BECAUSE the characters and the world become comfortable for us? (Although obviously reality-based movies can present strong morals and lessons as well.)

I am really entertained and intrigued that everything you say about fantasy, I keep saying, "But sci fi does that!" Maybe we'll find out in the end that they're really the same genre. TWIST!

Jennie: Which is why you notice I didn't say that scifi DIDN'T do those things, because it totally does. In fact, you could argue that there is QUITE a large overlap because fantasy and SciFi. Superheroes, for instance. Fantasy or SciFi? Hulk is scifi -- or is he an iteration of The Beast from Beauty and the Beast? Thor is fantasy/myth -- or is he an alien from another dimension? Spiderman is sci-fi -- or is he a were-spider? Fantasy is magic, Sci-fi is science -- but isn't magic just science we haven't discovered yet? Fantasy leans more to the medieval and the earth-bound (or at least earth-connected) and sci-fi leans more to the futuristic and the other-planetary, but you are right in that they are both Stories and Vehicles in the manner I discussed above. Perhaps SciFi only seems more varied and new is because it is so young in it's own development. Perhaps after another millennia sci-fi will go the same way, and we'll be tired of starships and large-eyed aliens and blaster-ray-guns.

Or not. Perhaps as time goes on they will continue to merge until the differences are picky, or they are only differentiated by their origins.

Or maybe we are tilting back the other way, developing new fantasies. Slenderman is an excellent example of this, as is, I think Avatar. With the modern technologies we have that make literally anything possible onscreen, perhaps we're only a turn away from a new era of fantasy creation.

Me: I do agree there's a lot of overlap there. Perhaps for me, sci fi is (often) simply a fresher, more inventive way of telling the same stories. Except for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is clearly fantasy, rather than sci fi, and does EVERYTHING PERFECTLY.

Oh, Slenderman is an interesting example. That IS a fantasy character who is only about a decade old, and I love him. I would be a big fan of a new era of fantasy creation. When that happens I'll start paying attention again.

And the discussion ended there. What do you guys think? Chime in with your comments!

1 comment:

  1. I tend to group scifi and fantasy together in the same general "speculative fiction" group (though that's an awful name). "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    And I don't think I agree with the general criticism of fantasy as being unimaginative - for sure there is a lot of really unimaginative fantasy, but there's also a lot of really unimaginative scifi! Both of these manifest in a lot more ways than just reusing the same creatures (and I don't necessarily agree that something is automatically unimaginative just because it uses a creature someone else came up with first, though it can certainly be a symptom of unimaginativeness), and as ever Sturgeon's Law applies.