Simon Pegg Thinks We’re Being Dumbed Down By “Childish” Sci-Fi: Is He Right, Wrong, Or Super Hypocritical?

In an interview and subsequent blog post, Simon Pegg has raised concerns about how ‘spectacle’ films are saturating the cinema landscape: "We’ve been infantilised by our own taste.”

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Actor, screenwriter and all-round nice guy Simon Pegg has come under both fire and praise this week, after an interview with Radio Times, in which he lamented the “dumbing down” of movies to suit all those “infantilised” as a result of “consuming very childish things”, like sci-fi, comic book and superhero films. The interview went viral after being picked up by io9, who asked, “Is he trolling, or has he really gotten so little out of years of science fiction?”

Grabbing quotes out of context from the interview, however, doesn’t quite do the British star justice. Read the full thing, and what Pegg was really critiquing was the decline of the gritty, amoral art movie. “Before Star Wars, the films that were box office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde, and The French Connection,” he said. “Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.”

Pegg acknowledged he was a huge fan of the genres – he’s personally benefited from their rise, after all, most famously with Star Trek and the Cornetto Trilogy – but, he argued, their dominance at the cinema was selling audiences short: “Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions,” he said. “[Nowadays] 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.”

The message would have been less explosive if it hadn’t come from that particular messenger: as Pegg himself noted, he’s unwittingly become the “poster child for that [geekdom] generation”. So it didn’t take long for the storm to leap from the teacup and into the Twittersphere, where many (and in keeping with the kitchenware idioms) took glee in pointing out that Pegg looked very much like a kettle calling a pot black.

In a follow-up essay published to his website, Pegg clarified his point: “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!’,” he wrote. “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 Film Reigns Supreme

It’s undeniable that Marvel Comics’ recent ascension over the global box office has resulted in more spectacle and less substance, with DC Comics’ attempts to play catch-up only compounding the trend. On Medium last week, Sady Doyle went as far as to claim that Marvel are killing the popcorn movie: “What I really dislike about Marvel is what they’re doing to stupid popcorn movies. This is a genre I care about, and they’re fucking it up.”

As good as your Thor, Iron Man or Captain America films look, there’s very little emotionally or thematically taking place, and the action in these films are leaving some of us feeling empty rather than exhilarated. Watching Chris Cavill’s Superman destroy a couple of boroughs’ worth of Metropolis wasn’t half as engaging to me as when Christopher Reeves’ version of the character struggled with newfound mortality in Superman II.

It’s not all Marvel and DC’s fault, though; Peter Jackson managed to turn a beloved trilogy of novels and the stand-alone The Hobbit into six films totalling some 1000 minutes, which, at various stages, featured the character Legolas surf a shield down a set of stairs; surf down the trunk of an Oliphant; and defy gravity by running up falling stones.

And let’s not forget the countless shoddy-looking CGI battles he subjected us all to.

Even JJ Abrams’ recent Star Trek films — in which Pegg himself stars — have turned what was once a slower-paced show, that balanced intergalactic politics with action, into full-blown spectacle. And if box office figures are anything to go by, we seem to have an insatiable appetite for films constructed around big set pieces and special effects. Currently the top ten highest grossing films list is dominated by the likes of Avatar, Furious 7, Iron Man 3, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and LOTR: Return of the King.

And seemingly not content with the billions of dollars being pulled in by standalone films, trilogies and franchises, studios have begun mining every crossover comic ever written, lest they lose our attention for one second. We’ve already had two Avengers films, with another on its way, and next year we can look forward to Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad. Isn’t there a possibility that Pegg was right; that maybe, just maybe, it’s all a little bit of overkill?”

Where Have The Daring Filmmakers Gone?

Since its debut, Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy has been used as evidence that dark, intelligent comic book films do exist, and that the action set pieces we’ve come to know and love can be balanced in a film that has something to say. But as gritty as Nolan has made Batman, or as adult accessible as Joss Whedon has made the Avengers, neither risked pushing so many boundaries that toy manufacturers would be left in the lurch.

There’s also something to Pegg’s claims that only a relatively small number of us are bothering to see films by the modern day equivalents of Ford Coppola or Scorsese.  There are always exceptions to the rule — edgy, arty, dark films that make it into the mainstream, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Alfonso Cauron’s Children of Men, or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (which used a similar lament to Pegg’s as its jumping-off point) — but part of the problem could also be that many indie filmmakers end up absorbed into the franchise, spectacle, blockbuster juggernaut.

Rian Johnson of Brick and Looper fame is set to direct Star Wars VIII; Gareth Edwards, who made the incredible Monsters (which, for an alien film, featured very little aliens) and Godzilla, is attached to the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One. It’s nothing new, of course: Darren Aronofksy (Requiem of a Dream) made Noah; Tim Burton made the CGI saturated Alice in Wonderland; and Sam Raimi made three — threeSpiderman films.

It’s perhaps unfair to expect every young, talented filmmaker to make spectacle-free films all their lives, like those ‘70s auteurs who resisted the siren song of big budget crowd-pleasers; after all, times have changed, the film market is more crowded, and people want to escape doom and gloom, not roll around in it. But as Pegg wrote, “Sometimes it’s good to look at the state of the union and make sure we’re getting the best we can get” — and for the most part, spectacle filmmaking isn’t delivering a great deal of substance. It’s a point Iñárritu himself has made: “[Superhero films] have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.”

How refreshing it was, then, to walk out of Mad Max: Fury Road, into conversations that started with “How f**king awesome was it?”, and ended in a feminist discussion about the very same film. That sure beats the hell out of a film full of ten superheroes, unrestrained CGI, and one scantily clad female character relegated to love interest.

Garry Westmore is a Melbourne-based educator, freelancer and Film Editor of Spook. You can find him on twitter @GarryWestmore