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Why Simon Pegg is wrong about sci-fi and superhero movies being ‘childish’

The sci-fi genre boasts some of the most interesting narratives in film. We expected better from you, Simon.

Mar 1, 2020, 3:29 am*

Internet Culture

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw 

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

For a self-professed sci-fi fan, Simon Pegg has some bizarrely outdated opinions about the genre’s cultural worth. 

In an interview with Radio Times, Pegg said that while he has always enjoyed sci-fi and comics, “Part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilized by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things—comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!” He went on to mourn Hollywood’s focus on “spectacle” over making films like The Godfather and Taxi Driver.

“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.”

This is a very shallow view of sci-fi, even in the broadest context of mainstream movies like The Avengers. It’s especially sad to hear from Simon Pegg, whose career has hinged on genre roles from Spaced to his current job of cowriting (and starring in) the next Star Trek movie—although you can understand his frustration if he’s tired of being pigeonholed.

In a way, it was brave of him to air such an unpopular opinion as a geek culture celebrity.  Of course, that doesn’t stop him from being totally wrong.

Even in the past week, a work of mainstream sci-fi/fantasy cinema has provoked mature and interesting discussions about filmmaking, storytelling and feminism: Mad Max: Fury Road. As a post-apocalyptic story about sex slaves fleeing a mutant cult leader, it did a better job of exploring topics like PTSD and toxic gender roles than many “realistic” dramas. It also played to a wider audience, expressly because it’s presented as blockbuster entertainment instead of hard-hitting social commentary.

I can’t believe we’re still having the “Comics aren’t just for kids any more!” argument, but here goes: Science fiction is not intrinsically more or less clever or mature than any other genre.

While there are plenty of simplistic and downright bad sci-fi movies, there are similarly low-quality films in every other genre. For example, Pegg’s nostalgia for gritty 1970s crime thrillers ignores the many terrible examples from the genre’s heyday. Likewise for every facile Transformers sequel there’s an X-Men or Hunger Games movie, two franchises focusing on culturally relevant narratives about oppression and inequality. They may not be 1984 or A Clockwork Orange, but they’re hardly infantilized fanboy fantasies either.

There are plenty of valid criticisms to be leveled at the current glut of sci-fi and comic book franchises. Most of the big Marvel and DC movies are aesthetically bland and rely on formulaic storytelling tropes, and studios greenlight far too many sequels for financial rather than artistic reasons.

However, Hollywood has always produced a certain amount of bad movies, and will continue to produce bad movies until it becomes a Mad Max-style wasteland. The recent trend for sci-fi means more of those bad movies are about superheroes and aliens, but that doesn’t mean the genre as a whole is doomed.

Update 11:54am CT, May 19: Simon Pegg responded to the backlash over his comments with a thoughtful and clarifying post on his blog:

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!”… 

I guess what I meant was, the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become. 

Read the full post here

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: May 19, 2015, 6:01 am