The Fanboys of Summer

From Star Trek and Transformers to X-Men and Terminator, four sci fi blockbusters show that Hollywood has found its inner geek. And that’s a good thing.

The summer movie war is over, and the fanboys won. Granted, the partisans of movies based on cult comic books and science-fiction franchises went into the battle with some serious built-in advantages. Period dresses, precocious children, and even the most hardened Nazis never really stood a chance against giant robots, deep space, and Hugh Jackman’s muscles and claws in the battle for the American imagination and box-office dollars. In 2007, Spider-Man 3, based on the long-running comics character, and Transformers, the first movie based on a beloved science-fiction franchise, made $656 million in the United States, and in 2008, two comic-book superhero movies, The Dark Knight and Iron Man, grossed $852 million. This summer looks to be no different. In early May, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the fourth movie based on the wildly popular Marvel Comics series about superheroes who get their powers from genetic mutations, raked in $87 million in its opening weekend.

Despite that financial success, the critics are growing restless. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott declared that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the latest evidence that the superhero movie is suffering from serious imaginative fatigue.” Slate’s Dana Stevens announced that “I'll be holding comic-book-based blockbusters to a more robust standard” this summer. And Anthony Lane, a film critic for The New Yorker, took a nasty shot at comic book enthusiasts in his review of Watchmen earlier in the year, saying the film “should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex.”

It’s easy to dismiss sci fi flicks as clumsy and loud, but the critiques miss a key virtue. Unlike other genres, fanboy blockbusters are a constantly innovating form, with an important message about the present even as they outline visions of our future. In romantic comedies, the scene can shift from the Civil War to the Los Angeles real estate market as long as boy meets girl amidst the bayonets or billboards. Horror movies can switch weapons with no fall-off in audience long as there are coeds to dice. Come Oscar season, World War II films are such a reliable source of nominations that Kate Winslet’s turn as a sexy Nazi became a simultaneous joke on the genre and a lock for the Academy Award.

Science fiction and superhero movies don’t have the luxury of simply finding the latest neighborhood where attractive singles are settling or the flashiest car on the market and plugging those accessories into a formula. By nature, those films have to imagine the future, to put something on screen that audiences would never see in their everyday lives. Sometimes, those visions are farfetched, unrealistic, paranoid, immature, or deeply cheesy. Of the four major sci-fi movies being released this spring and summer, two feature vengeful giant robots. Another centers on a guy who metalizes his skeleton, and the fourth plants spaceships in Iowa cornfields. They’ll vary in quality, and plausibility, but at least they have something to say about the perils and opportunities of the future.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first of these movies, is a perfect example of the power of a bad fanboy movie. The film is far too full of cheap-looking special effects and dialogue that seems ludicrous outside a cartoon bubble to be really absorbing. But Wolverine has far more to say about its chosen subject, the scientific manipulation of the human body, than, for example, the romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has to say about relationships between men and women.

The movie is the origin story of one of Marvel Comics’ most popular characters, a Canadian roughneck named Logan, who—thanks to a genetic mutation—can sprout claws and heal rapidly from serious injuries. In the film, Logan decides to undergo a procedure to coat his skeleton in super-strong metal after a series of tragedies leaves him seeking revenge. The experiment Logan participates in provides a breakthrough for a group of scientists who give Logan’s powers to another superhero, Wade Wilson — and then sew his lips shut. When the two modified men fight for the last time the awful power of technology is less evident in Wade’s threatening new abilities than in the mutilation of his formerly delicate, expressive mouth.

The actual science in Wolverine may be outlandish, but the dilemma is not. Debates about the potential applications of available technology color arguments over issues like the morality of screening of fetuses for genetic defects when such screenings could encourage parents to abort children with a wide range of traits. It’s one thing to think about the misdirection of science in the abstract: it’s quite another to watch those consequences acted out violently on screen against a character whose only apparent crime was his verbosity. That one striking image of a character’s mutilated face doesn’t do a lot to redeem a deeply mediocre movie. But it offers more than Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which dishes up the message that a modicum of contrition expressed at an appropriate moment makes up for a life of emotional abuse.

If Wolverine is about the chilling things human do to each other with the technology they’ve got, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (June 24) is about what technology can do to humans when it gets out of control. Based on a series of Hasbro toys that can turn from action figures into vehicles or animals, the movies (the first of which was released in 2007) trace an ongoing battle between two factions of robots from outer space, one aimed at colonizing Earth, the other dedicated to protecting humanity.

Michael Bay, the Transformers director , is notorious for using explosions in place of dialogue or character development, and so it’s fitting that the plot of the 2007 entry in the series was subordinate to images of everyday technology turning into instruments of battle. Some of those transformations have a wicked sense of humor, like the cranky stereo that unfolds into a spiny robot that skitters around Air Force One in search of a computer terminal to hack, or the cell phone that explodes into a furious insect, replete with headpiece-sized machine gun and rocket launcher.

But one scene from the first film carries some real menace. Air Force troops stationed in Qatar watch in horror as an F-22, ostensibly a friendly fighter jet, shifts itself into a giant, humanoid robot and then into a massive scorpion that chases the soldiers from beneath the sand. At a time when the American military is bogged down in two intractable conflicts overseas, it’s especially unnerving to think that our troops might not only have to contend with flawed strategies and different cultures, but that their most sophisticated technology might betray them. It’s all too real a possibility: 16 American soldiers have died from electrocution in showers and swimming pools in Iraq, and 94,000 military facilities in the country are under inspection for faulty wiring as a result. The 2009 Transformers sequel promises mainly to be bigger, and louder, and more roboty (the bad guys blow up an aircraft carrier this time!), but its basic premise will remain unsettling no matter how distracting the special effects are.

The Terminator movies go a step beyond the Transformers franchise to abandon any pretense that we might have control over the everyday technology that we rely on. Terminator, unlike Transformers, also boasts an actual backstory rooted in contemporary technology. In the movies’ dystopian universe, a sentient computer system called Skynet has mass-produced robots that are hunting humans and harvesting them for use as test subjects. In Terminator Salvation (May 21), a group of rebellious humans struggles to defeat the machines and win freedom for the captives.

Warner Brothers has drawn an unsettling connection between that future and our present in the film’s advertising campaign. Phrased, and sometimes shot, like a panicked public service announcement, the ads purport to be broadcasts from John Connor reaching out to the audience for help. “We’ve been fighting for so long…and we’ve all lost so very much,” he intones into a microphone. “Make yourselves known to us and we will find you….If you’re listening to this, you are the resistance.”

That pitch ties into one of the movie’s central plot points: Connor and his allies are forced to join forces with a robot who has been given human flesh and human consciousness. Technology has advanced so far that humanity is no longer a matter of biology: rather, it is a matter of choice. Instead of the humans who experiment on each other and with their own bodies in Wolverine, robots are making the rules in Terminator Salvation, with devastating consequences.

And then, there’s Star Trek, a franchise that has endured for more than 40 years by using science fiction conceits to engage real social and political issues. The latest installment opens on Friday. It sweeps into theaters with upgraded special effects, a cast of attractive up-and-comers, critical darling J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair, and predictions that the movie will earn as much as $90 million on its first weekend.

The new movie begins back on Earth, and charts the journey of the franchise’s mainstay, James T. Kirk, from the American heartland to leadership in the multi-planetary military force Star Fleet. This being Star Trek, Kirk will team up with a pointy-eared logician, a sexy linguist, and the requisite nerdy technician in order to stop a guy with facial tattoos and a bad temper who is taking his revenge for the destruction of his home planet by imploding other worlds with the super-sized drills from his mining guild. Also, he can time-travel. It’s all a lot of nonsense in keeping with Star Trek’s high-camp roots.

While Star Trek is set further in the future than the other sci-fi movies out this summer, the film still has echoes of today’s discontents.. In the midst of an economic meltdown, the specter of rampaging industrialists armed not with credit default swaps but gigantic and potentially genocidal mining equipment is particularly unsettling. And in a world grappling with terrorism, a distraught man’s decision to collapse a planet in on itself by turning everyday technology into a weapon is an image that carries a tragic resonance. The chant “Drill, baby, drill” sounds different against the background of planet being destroyed by mining equipment.

That doesn’t mean that anyone will see Star Trek and rush to halt off-shore drilling. Or that Terminator will propel audiences to move off the grid in order to avoid being captured by robots, or that Transformers will convince anyone to get rid of their cell phone. These are movies, after all, not environmental advocacy propaganda or graduate-school lab sessions. And that’s the point. It’s summer, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting air conditioning, an extremely large soda, and something on screen that makes you gasp. But audiences could walk out of theaters with far less illuminating things than stars, robots, and science, in their eyes.