Years ago I remember reading about an American Ultraman movie that was supposed to be written by author Alan Dean Foster. Actually, my memory of the entire paragraph, which I believe ran in “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” is a bit fuzzy, so it may have been that he was writing the adaptation of the movie, which actually makes more sense. It turns out that neither was true.
I contacted Foster about my recollection of this, and he stated, “No, I never had an involvement, in any way, shape, or form (no puns intended) with a prospective Ultraman film.” Regardless, the movie never materialized, though Japan has pumped out several Ultraman films since. I read about that more than twenty years ago and still remembered it — no matter how incorrectly. Why? Because I was really excited by the prospect. Of course, it was probably a blessing that a major American studio never made this film.
This column was originally going to be about Hollywood’s failure to embrace any kind of movie that might be considered “different” while at the same time releasing features that can’t help but be garbage. Talking with Foster, however, brought up a very interesting point about sci-fi and fantasy films that I feel needs further examination.
“Note,” the author observes, “that of the top 12 grossing films (domestic) of 2004, eight were fantasy or science-fiction. Yet these are precisely the genres the average Tinseltown producer does not understand.” Foster feels that an even more important point is that “they have not yet figured out that you can make good SF and fantasy on a low budget (witness Universal’s failures with “Van Helsing” and “Chronicles of Riddick”).”
So, if these films make some decent money, why don’t we see more of them? Think of all the romantic comedies that fail, yet there are new ones on an almost monthly basis. Why aren’t there more sci-fi and fantasy films out there?
Foster attributes this aversion to risk to a simple “lack of knowledge and understanding of what the audience wants.” He is right. The suits see a fantasy or sci-fi film that fails — a film they all thought would be a hit — and they say, “People don’t want to see these kinds of films.” And that’s where they are wrong.
The new Babylon doesn’t get that these movies aren’t about the special effects. They are about the stories. They are about people making tough decisions when faced with adverse situations. They are about humanity and how society deals with the individual. They are often morality lessons in a coat of chain mail. The decision makers think it’s all about spaceships and dragons, which isn’t helped by the fact that some of the top grossing films of these genres had mind-blowing special effects. Those special effects only helped to sell the story, though. They weren’t the story, but Hollywood can’t comprehend that … and probably never will. Special effects are easy to understand.
“Blade Runner” takes some work.
Doing sci-fi and fantasy films as pure entertainment now and again isn’t exactly a bad thing. A steady diet of that, though, will turn off even the most hardened fan. People like good stories more than they like special effects. Combine the two, however, and you have a winner. It’s why “Star Wars” has become a classic and William Davidson’s “The Shape of Things To Come” is barely remembered.
Hollywood may not want to listen to me, but it should pay attention to Foster. He’s been doing his thing since the late ‘60s, which is longer than some of those Hollywood executives have been green lighting slop like “White Chicks.” He keeps getting his books published because he knows what people want to read. If the executives won’t heed him and make a serious attempt to understand the sci-fi and fantasy audiences, we’ll continue to be assaulted with substandard genre films that never should have been made in the first place, and those executives will keep proving themselves right. There’s a term that describes their actions quite accurately. It’s called a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” And while that sort of thing usually ends up doing harm to the person who causes it, we are the victims in this case … and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
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