Are meta, self-referential or recursive science-fiction films doomed?
They're certainly difficult to make well
The hype machine has been tuned to 11 for Steven Spielberg's metafest Ready Player One, which opened in time for Easter.
Ernest Cline's novel shot to the top of bestseller lists in 2011 so inevitably there would be options on a movie. The only surprise is it took seven years.
The book follows a kid – Wade Owen Watts – growing up in a massive, dystopian trailer park, in a world ravaged by global warming and overpopulation. Wade is only content when plugged into the OASIS, a massive multiplayer VR world where he goes by the moniker Parzival and indulges his love for 1980s gaming and pop culture. The aim of the game is an Easter egg of unlimited wealth and power hidden by the OASIS's dead creator. But Wade is up against massive corporate-funded teams who want the egg for their own sinister reasons.
Cline, who also wrote the cult classic movie Fanboys, is obsessed with 1980s nerd culture. Ready Player One is packed with nostalgia for the golden age of geek, and it's clear from the trailer that we're going to see that in the film, too. We caught glimpses of the Lara Croft, RoboCop, several Overwatch characters and even a Knightrider/DeLorean Hybrid.
With Spielberg at the helm, there was bound to be a nod to Back to the Future and what could be more meta than a director directing a movie that has heaps of nostalgia for his other films. Ready Player One asks: is all sci-fi meta, self-referential or recursive now?
Recent sci-fi is so self-referential that with every reboot we expect an iterative Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo. But transforming metafiction into memorable cinema is no simple task as they involve complex intersecting narratives. Just ask Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, who polarised opinion with their fragmented, bloated cinematic adaptation of David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, which flopped at the box office in 2012.
Some novels have made the crossover more successfully than others and then there are instances when meta novels have been used to create something new and surprising. A perfect example being Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. It's near the top of my personal and somewhat controversial cult sci-fi hit list. Critics slammed it on release, but this film is now considered, in retrospect, a satirical and comedic sci-fi masterpiece.
Based on Robert Heinlein's Hugo-winning 1959 novel, the story was written at the height of the Cold War by a veteran with a fascism fetish. This subsequently demonised volume became the darling of the US military establishment for its glorification of recruitment.
Verhoeven found the novel "too boring" and never finished it, but he amplified the disturbing propaganda and brutal militarism of Heinlein's novel, resulting in a self-aware satire where shallow characters still uncomfortably defy cinematic convention. What makes Starship Troopers engaging is its critical and ironic approach to the source text for a new medium rather than just packing pages on a screen.
At its release reviewer Roger Ebert suggested Starship Troopers was "pitched at 11-year-old science-fiction fans" but it has since been suggested that it is the most subversive major studio film in recent memory. Fitting in the age of Donald Trump and social media as a propaganda tool that we should now hear industry whispers of a Starship Troopers reboot.
Revisiting and expanding upon the narratives of sci-fi novels can create prosperous additions to franchises and reboots. After successfully managing audience expectations and delivering a modest financial success with Blade Runner 2049, the next project for Denis Villeneuve is a reboot of Frank Herbert's novel Dune.
David Lynch's adaptation in 1984 was poorly received and seemed to confirm a belief that some sci-fi novels can essentially be unfilmable. Much was made by critics and audiences of its shoddy special effects, convoluted, confusing screenplay and impenetrable dialogue that seemed like a step backwards after the accessibility and feel-good atmosphere of Star Wars.
Both Star Wars and Dune deal with the theme of religious orders, but Star Wars engages where Dune feels more like a painful ritual hallucination. Herbert's 1965 novel is a famously dense work of fiction filled with political, scientific and social themes, and a significant time jump that any director would have trouble condensing into a two-hour film.
The director's cut of Blade Runner 2049 came in at around four hours long, indicating that reworking Dune might be a blessing rather than a chore for Villeneuve. Dune's sequels are equally dense, but have never been tackled – maybe their time is now?
Another recent sci-fi novel to film adaptation is Alex Garland's Annihilation. This has suffered by being too intelligent for its own good, as pre-screenings suggested the narrative was too complex for a mass audience while the lack of sympathetic characters taking a journey of self-destruction into the unknown didn't appeal.
Paramount did a lightspeed backtrack on cinema distribution, suspecting these factors might result in a box office disaster and quickly sold it off to Netflix.
Annihilation is based on Jeff VanderMeer's novel, which is part of a trilogy. VanderMeer's works make no mention of a shimmer or a wilderness of warped plant life and animals. In all, it makes me wonder why Garland didn't just craft his own vision.
Is this a display of mainstream distribution nerves towards sci-fi meta cinema?
There is hope and the future of the meta sci-fi movie seems hopeful with Neal Stephenson's Seveneves now on the horizon. Seveneves is a glorious post-apocalyptic genetic epic spanning thousands of years that has been optioned by Skydance Media – the production company behind Annihilation. Let's just hope that producer Brian Glazer and director Ron Howard, both of Apollo 13 fame, have enough pulling power to turn Seveneves into the 21st century's 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film that attempts to encompass the journey of humankind.
Here's hoping that if it's a box office success, we can look forward to a cinematic adaptation of Neal Stephenson's meta Anathem, described as a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the philosophical debate between Platonic realism and nominalism. Deep.
In the meantime, the collective cinematic experience of recognisable meta references and Easter eggs in Ready Player One gives us the social interaction and human connection that Wade finds by plugging into the OASIS. ®
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