On Fantasy in Realism and Realism in Fantasy

Yesterday I read an article cataloging 7 tips on film-making from director Michel Gondry. In a passage where he name checks my favorite director, David Lynch, this bit caught my eye:

“If you’re already in science fiction... it’s already a heightened world so the dream in the film doesn’t take you away.”

I agree completely. Not only does this principle account for the visceral effectiveness of films like Gondry's and Lynch's, where the fantastical illuminates the forces at work underneath day to day life, but it also explains perfectly what I'd like to see more of in today's franchise films. 

Realism in fantasy and sci-fi can be extremely effective and I can think of no better example than the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. While BSG did have thrilling space battles, its primary drama came from the confusion of people trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances. And rather than try to model 'right' or 'wrong' behavior in resolving its crises, Battlestar set up its characters and conflict separately and then let them interact organically. The decisions the characters made were based on a believable cocktail of incomplete information, pain, instinct, and prejudice. The consequences of those decisions didn't end, but rolled forward to become the conditions for the next conflict.

This is why the religion storyline was fantastic in the first season but detracted from later seasons. In the first season we didn't know if the visions were real or if beloved characters were losing their minds. Given the catastrophic stakes in the story, that tension was gripping. Once confirmed as real, though, religion lost its interest as a theme. The story was already, as Gondry said, in a heightened world and didn't need magic on top of robots and spaceships.

I miss this element of realism in today's franchise blockbusters. If everyone is Super and the world is Super and the villains are Super and every scene builds toward a climactic battle between good and evil, well, that gets boring. And I say this as someone who subsisted on an unfiltered diet of Star Wars, anime, fantasy novels, and comic books for about 15 years.

I get that people are tired of 'gritty reboots'. Humor and light are good. But genre fiction is at its best when it acts as a funhouse mirror for our own world and I'm finding the cartooniness of today's franchises a bit underwhelming. The world is a mess and I look to fiction to help me make sense out of the deeper impulses at work in life. Gondry and Lynch use fantastical elements to evoke the inarticulable but nevertheless real things that we feel and experience. Sci-fi and fantasy can do this too, and do it well, so it's a shame to see their time in the global limelight take so little advantage of this fact.