In the geek community, we’re fortunate enough to have a lot of really positive and thought-provoking individuals at the forefront of new genre material. Names that immediately come to mind are the likes of J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Tina Fey, and several others who bring their intelligence and dedication to telling stories that are universally appealing, but just the slightest bit more fun to the initiated.
Another one of those keen minds is actor Simon Pegg, an insightful commentator on geek culture as well as one of the most well-liked entertainers working today. Recently, Pegg came under fire by some in the geek community for his classification of the culture as being on something of a downward spiral. In an interview with the Radio Times (via the UK’s Independent), he said,
Obviously. I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously! It is a kind of dumbing down because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys. Now we’re really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.
That last statement seemed to be a shot at the recently released Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Pegg prefaced his statement by saying that he was basically reticent about becoming a “poster child” for geek culture. Many took his words as some kind of blanket insult toward spectacle in geek-oriented films that often involve superheroes or science fiction, and lashed out at Pegg on social media.
This spurred the writer/actor to respond in a blog post on his official website, where he wanted to take the opportunity to clarify the intent of his message, and try to reassure people that he wasn’t indicting geek culture or films for simply being a part of the genre: he just wants to make a delineation between spectacle for the sake of spectacle, and using the various mediums and genres to provoke something in the minds of audiences. He said in part,
One of the things that inspired Jessica and myself, all those years ago, was the unprecedented extension our generation was granted to its youth, in contrast to the previous generation, who seemed to adopt a received notion of maturity at lot sooner. The children of the 70s and 80s were the first generation, for whom it wasn’t imperative to ‘grow up’ immediately after leaving school. […] The ‘dumbing down’ comment came off as a huge generalisation by an A-grade asshorn. I did not mean that science fiction or fantasy are dumb, far from it. How could I say that? In the words of Han Solo, “Hey, it’s me!” In the last two weeks, I have seen two brilliant exponents of the genre. Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which had my head spinning in different and wonderful ways and are both very grown up films (although Max has a youthful exuberance which is nothing’s short of joyous, thanks George Miller, 70) I’ve yet to see Tomorrowland but with Brad Bird at the helm, it cannot be anything but a hugely entertaining think piece.
I guess what I meant was, the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become.[…] Fantasy in all its forms is probably the most potent of social metaphors and as such can be complex and poetic. No one could ever accuse Game of Thrones of being childish. George RR Martin clearly saw the swords and sorcery genre as a fertile means to express his musings on ambition, power and lust. Perhaps it milieu makes it more commercial though, would a straight up historical drama have lasted so long? Maybe Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been made at all ten years ago. A world without Game of Thrones?! if Baudrillard had predicted that, I probably would have dropped out of university and become a cobbler.
Pegg has clearly given his conclusions a great deal of thought, and he’s absolutely right: there’s a difference between a movie that features explosions and giant battles, and one that uses those genres to present ideas about society. The franchise that he’s currently most closely associated with, Star Trek, is perfect proof of this. In the 1960’s when the original series was airing on NBC, the United States and the rest of the world was going through a tumultuous social and political upheaval, with Vietnam torn apart due to war, and large swaths of people making massive social statements about their place in society.
Instead of simply talking about contentious social issues, though, “Star Trek” used the veil of science fiction to talk about the important issues of the day, while presenting them in a context upon which it could communicate those ideas. In a notable episode dealing directly with racial bigotry, for example, a war between two alien cultures over a minor aesthetic difference helps to accentuate exactly why that kind of bigotry is so ridiculous and destructive.
This, among others, is a primary reason why we should feel thankful that Pegg will be writing the sequel to Star Trek Into Darkness. I recently wrote a piece about how Star Trek, as a franchise, needs to return to its storytelling roots, and it seems that Pegg has similar feelings on the wider canvas of geek entertainment. Any vilification he received, even after his own clarification, should be taken with a grain of salt. These are exactly the kinds of questions we should be asking, and the kinds of standards we should largely hold our entertainment to. If it’s not pushing us to think in new ways, then what effect would that ultimately have?
It sounds like Pegg wants to divert us from that way of thinking, and for my money, that sounds like a hell of an idea. What do you think?
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