Movies treated science fiction well this summer, in terms of quality and popularity. The period between the middle of April and the Labor Day weekend saw the release of four major motion pictures—Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Guardians of the Galaxy—that not only fit comfortably within any reasonable definition of the genre (which often stretches to include superhero movies and the kinds of action fantasies that seem a cross between Three Days of the Condor and The Andromeda Strain mixed with the pace of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to the point that the defining material becomes so thin that it resembles Silly Putty pulled so tightly across a newspaper’s surface that one can read the headline through the dermis-colored, taffy-like material) but also allowed one the pleasure of watching without feeling the need to scour one’s brain beneath a chemical shower after the end credits rolled. Yes, studios served some unpalatable cinematic dishes—both Transformers 4: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles passed through multiplexes quickly, leaving unsuspecting viewers with only the mildest cases of cultural indigestion, while The Purge: Anarchy and The Giver made one leave the theater feeling as if having snacked on two five-pound bags of Haribo sugar-free gummy bears—but for the most part, the summer served genre fans with reasonably entertaining, if modestly satisfying, offerings.
Fourteen years ago, Robert Zemeckis defended his decision to divulge major spoilers in the trailer of What Lies Beneath, arguing that audiences prefer attending a movie when they know going in precisely what they will see. “It’s just one of those things,” he told David Poland, an excuse of such disingenuousness that one might presume his statement belied a possible run for political office. (Indeed, when I first read that line several years ago, I envisioned Zemeckis cowering behind it with the same hunch of a candidate waving his hands to a dissenting crowd during a stump speech after letting slip a flog of lore and shouting, “Statistics don’t lie!” over its incredulous din. No, statistics don’t lie, but statisticians often do.) Regardless of his claim’s dubious veracity, the resulting mindset permeated a medium already denigrated by inept craftsmen and second-rate artisans to the point where its most readily available trifles resembled the ramshackle cuisine rolling from the never-ending assembly line between McDonald’s golden arches. Even those celluloid confections crafted with the utmost care by auteurs demonstrating a love of both form and content nonetheless face audiences fully aware of both text and subtext before the theater lights dim. Gone forever are the days of arriving at a theater on a whim and casually perusing the posters before asking the pimply adolescent working in the box office for a summary of one or two features. We can blame Internet culture for their demise—it certainly didn’t help—but the rise of focus groups placed them in the crosshairs long before.
Recently the esteemed editor of this weblog asked if I wanted to contribute on behalf of SF Signal to Time Out London’s list of the 100 greatest science fiction movies ever made. Of course I said yes. As a chronic list maker, I always enjoy putting together what I consider among the best the genre has to offer, be it in print or on celluloid. (Or perhaps I should say in visual media, as few movies today actually use film today, either during production or in distribution.)
Thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its follow-up trilogy The Hobbit), the Harry Potter series, and HBO’s own A Game of Thrones, audiences think they have a good understanding of fantasy, or what they think of as fantasy: a setting with a medieval or quasi-medieval feel, with feudal systems and fiefdoms dotting lands plucked from European storybooks; epic battles waged amid the thunder of hoofbeats, the wail of battle cries, and the clang of swords; magics, both subtle and overt, cast by white-haired, robed old men or children brandishing wands (at times with uncomfortable Freudian overtones); and of course a dragon or two—indeed, seldom does an audience member find a fantasy movie lacking enchanted animals.
A few days ago, like most Internet denizens, I brought up YouTube to watch the brand-new trailer for Gareth Edwards’s film version of Godzilla, coming this summer. And, like most who reloaded it multiple times, goggling at the waves flooding a small coastal town and Bryan Cranston’s desperate shouting to others about the impending danger of the Big Green One, the trailer caused me to embrace my inner ten-year-old, who spent far too many Saturday mornings and afternoons glued to the television resting in the corner of his apartment as it took him to Monster Island, where Mothra, Mecha-Godzilla, Rodan, and other oversized monsters did battle among scientists who knew almost nothing of real science, screaming mobs, and military men growing more and more desperate to save Japan from more destruction. Add to this elements of Ligeti’s “Requiem” and I was able to feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I even forgave the loud BWAARRP of horns that seems a permanent fixture of the modern American movie trailer. I was excited.
And then held myself in check. Yes, it looked good. Yes, Edwards, with his landmark Monsters, seemed knowledgeable enough about genre and genre tropes to make an interesting movie. It looked impressive, and even somewhat scary, much in the manner of Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic…
And therein lay my problem.
This was a remake.
More than two decades ago, when I was banging my head against a keyboard in desperation trying to write fiction, I somehow became convinced that I should abandon prose and begin writing screenplays. I read several books, some of them concentrating on formatting (useful because I had, at that point, never considered that writing a screenplay required different textual semiotics from prose), but learned the most from those focusing on structure, such as Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay, among others. Although they never quite get me to the point of actually writing more than a few pages of half-baked ideas (though I did collaborate with one friend on a spy story made obsolete by the abrupt conclusion of the Cold War), they taught me enough about what made stories work to allow me to begin finishing prose fiction at a regular pace.
Had Dan O’Bannon’s and Matt Lohr’s Dan Obannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead been published at that time, it easily would have been one of the books I absorbed. It certainly would have been something I studied carefully. McKee’s Story offered a wealth of dos and don’ts, Syd Field’s Screenplay broke down three-act structure in a way that made sense, but this particular manual came from the same mind that produced one of the greatest science-fiction horror movies of all time, one of the best-known zombie movies (made before zombies shambled into the cultural zeitgeist), and one of science fiction’s best known indie movies. He also worked on one of the greatest movies never made, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, so what he said would have carried a great deal of weight for this budding science fiction writer. In fact, his work views drama in a manner that seems self-evident but that other writers seldom explore. It’s a work I’d recommend not only to screenwriters, but also to those who want to write fiction.
Dan O’Bannon died in 2009, before he and Matt Lohr could finish their collaboration. I got the chance to talk to Matt about the book, and about what makes his approach to writing different from others.