One night during the summer of 1977, my mother hosted a Tupperware Party and my sister and I were packed off to the movies with Daddy. I remember that I wore white plastic barrettes and that I stood through much of the movie with my arms draped over the empty seat in front of me – I was four and a half, too tiny to see well from my seat, and mesmerized. Yes, we were at Star Wars, which went on to become the #4 grossing US film of all time. Both my father and sister fell asleep, and I began a life-long love affair with the Summer Sci-Fi Blockbuster.
According to the Internet Movie Database, all the great science fiction and adventure movies I recall from my childhood were released during summer (some mid-May, which to the film industry is the true beginning of the summer season). Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi are all in the Top 50; E.T. in the Top 10; Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Batman (Michael Keaton’s original) – all released in May or June and listed among the Top 100 grossing US films. We should even give due credit to Jaws as the improbable shark-with-a-vendetta ruined beach swimming in the summer of 1975. All these recent Transformers movies? Summer releases. Turns out we love us some adventurous escapism during the summer months!
The nearer decades brought us Jurassic Park, Independence Day, and Men In Black. Then in 2005, Steven Spielberg brought us one of the original sci-fi stories, re-packaged for modern summer blockbuster consumption: The War of the Worlds, HG Wells’ 1898 alien-invasion novel that has never been out of print. That was the summer that I began reading HG Wells and realizing the debt of gratitude that Hollywood owes to an early 20th century British school teacher with a big imagination.
Spielberg and Tom Cruise, while taking poetic license with much of the plot, do a surprising justice to the original War of the Worlds story. The urgency, and horror, of key scenes, such as the ferry crossing and the narrator’s struggle with a fellow man-on-the-run, are intact. The most important features of HG Wells’ writing and a good sci-fi blockbuster movie are not necessarily the outrageousness of plot (and special effects), but the relationships between characters and how we sympathize with their situation. As I learned long ago in a college English class, the genre of science fiction (or fantasy) is about honestly rendering humanity based upon who we really are, who we aspire to be, and what we fear we may become.
My summer reading list in the last six years has always included an HG Wells novel. I’m wired for sci-fi in summertime – for some reason, I cannot read it any other time of year: The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, In the Days of the Comet, The First Men in the Moon, The Invisible Man, and The Food of the Gods.
Each summer with Wells I explore the human condition; the horror and the wonder, the base and the beautiful, the utterly brilliant and the hopelessly stupid. Wells in his “science fiction-romance” genre has got Humanity pegged – hubris and folly bring humanity to astonishing heights and stunning defeats. And we love to watch.
Why do we love science fiction? Why would a dystopian future or a blood-thirsty invading alien force appeal to us when half the world is tanning by the pool? We eat popcorn and a drink a giant soda while applauding when the aliens get their comeuppance or when the Death Star gets creamed. I wonder what a Cherokee woman plucked from the Trail of Tears might think watching The War of the Worlds. Or what a Jewish boy in 1939 Poland might think watching Star Wars. History and morality collide and we are left with an irrevocably, tragically, and often inevitably, changed landscape. Good science fiction is the allegory that helps us to digest otherwise unpalatable truths.
A New Hope
Science Fiction offers us a chance to learn about ourselves without knowing it, packaged as high adventure with dazzling special effects. Settling in to my porch recliner to read HG Wells is a Summer Classic, molded by years of visiting chilly movie theaters on steamy summer afternoons, escaping to a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Good thing Wells left a treasure-trove for Hollywood to draw on for years to come.
For those interested, the current reigning champion of sci-fi film allegory is Avatar, as of this writing the #1 grossing US movie of all time.
*Update* – As of January 2016, Star Wars: The Force Awakens overtook Avatar for the number 1 spot!