Simon Pegg in The World's End

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Simon Pegg talks to the press, and gets fans bickering about what it all means. In this case, though, Pegg’s controversial comments aren’t about the secret cameos in the next Star Wars movie, or about the true identity of a Star Trek villain, but about the very state of mainstream geek culture.

In short, Pegg has suggested that sci-fi and genre films since Star Wars are “infantilizing” us, and “taking our focus away from real-world issues.” Though once he gets going, it turns out his argument is a little more complicated than that. Read the Simon Pegg sci-fi comments after the jump. 

Here’s what Pegg said to Radio Times (via The Guardian):

Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed … I don’t know if that is a good thing.

[…] 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 just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now 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, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.

It’s a surprising sentiment coming from a man who’s built a successful career off of his love of geek culture, from Spaced all the way up through the upcoming Star Trek 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. As you’d expect, his comments sparked a firestorm of criticism from sites like io9, and so Pegg took to his own site to clarify.

His essay is worth reading in full, but here’s a lengthy excerpt:

Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.

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. The spectacle of Mad Max is underpinned not only multiple layers of plot and character but also by an almost lost cinematic sense of ‘how did they do that?’ The best thing art can do is make you think, make you re-evaluate the opinions you thought were yours. It’s interesting to see how a cerebral film maker like Christopher Nolan, took on Batman and made it something more adult, more challenging, chasing Frank Miller’s peerless Dark Knight into a slightly less murky world of questionable morality and violence. But even these films are ultimately driven by market forces and somebody somewhere will want to soften the edges, so that toys and lunch boxes can be sold. In that respect, Bruce Wayne’s fascistic vigilantism was never really held to account, however interesting Nolan doubtless found that idea. Did he have an abiding love of Batman or was it a means of making his kind of movie on the mainstream stage?

[…] Also, it’s good to ask why we like this stuff, what makes it so alluring, so discussed, so sacred. Do we channel our passion and indignation into ephemera, rather than reality? Not just science fiction and fantasy but gossip and talent shows and nostalgia and people’s arses. Is it right? Is it dangerous? Something to discuss over a game of 3D chess, perhaps.

It’s a complicated argument, but one that’s definitely worth considering. I don’t think thoughtful movies and thrilling genre entries are mutually exclusive, and even Pegg admits as much by name-checking Ex MachinaMad Max: Fury Road, and Tomorrowland.

Moreover, it’s certainly possible to look at big-budget spectacles through a serious critical lens. Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s Black Widow sparked a million conversations about feminism. While her fictional character arc may pale in importance next to, say, the Nepalese earthquake, that doesn’t mean representation of women in pop culture isn’t worth discussing.

But as Pegg points out with regard to The Dark Knight, there’s a hard limit to the risks these types of movies can make. To my mind, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is another great example. It was a disturbing examination of post-9/11 security… until it was just another $200 million sequel smashing superhero stuntmen into CG cities.

Plus, while films like these can raise heavy questions, a lot of the loudest chatter surrounding them is feather-light. Is there a better example of “infantilization” than 30- and 40somethings crying on Twitter that the new Ghostbusters reboot is somehow retroactively “ruining their childhood”?

Ultimately, I think what Pegg is saying isn’t that we should reject comic books and sci-fi blockbusters out of hand, but that we should step back and examine what we’re consuming and why. Pure pleasure isn’t a bad thing, but it’s dangerous if that’s all we’re getting. If it turns out our culture is feeding us little more than sugar water, maybe we should step up and demand more.

Do you agree with Pegg’s comments?

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