Bouquets And Aliens: Making Movies Better With Science

Super-commenter Gabriel Rossman pointed me in the direction of University of California, Davis professor Greta Hsu’s work on movies that span multiple genres a while back, and in the wake of Cowboys and Aliens, it seemed like an opportune time to dive deeply into a couple of her papers. Her research into the relationship between how active movie watchers assign categories to movies, and the commercial and critical reception of those movies, demonstrates a fairly unsurprising conclusion: “Producers who target a broad area of the market have access to greater potential revenue; the extent to which they capitalize on this potential, however, depends on the clarity with which they communicate their fit with targeted genres.”

This makes a lot of sense. If you take a gander at the top 10 all-time grossing movies (leaving aside for the moment factors like problems in calculation, the growth of the industry, the high cost of 3D tickets), they’re all very clean, effective genre-bridging movies. Avatar is a sophisticated science fiction adventure story that’s animated in part by a gooey romance. Titanic is a gooey love story facilitated by intense action sequences. James Cameron is a visionary film director who is pushing movie technology forward, but he’s also the undisputed master of working across genres. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is an epic struggle that’s also substantially concerned with whether our Bearded Hero Other Than The Short Dudes will get his elfin princess. Pirates of the Caribbean entwines its love story with its adventure story — Will falls in love with Elizabeth essentially at the moment that she steals a piece of cursed pirate gold from him when they’re both children. Toy Story 3 doesn’t really feel like a genre movie at all to me — it’s the only move in the top 10 that doesn’t fit into an easily identifiable genre category, which demonstrates the strength of that sort of simple categorization. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides brings back one of Jack Sparrow’s lost inamorata. Alice in Wonderland is the reverse of most of the movies on this list, which are largely movies men could take women to and the women wouldn’t mind, accomplishing this gender switch by turning Alice into a warrior. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 would have been a giant hit no matter how good or bad it was, but it’s also the movie in the series that is most a genre mash-up: it’s an intense adventure, during which the main characters’ romances come into full flower. The Dark Knight is perhaps the movie on the list that has the smallest amount of genre-crossover; Rachel Dawes and Bruce Wayne aren’t together in the movie, and while her death is a blow, it’s definitely a B or C plot in the movie, which is otherwise a very focused action morality play. And I don’t even know what to make of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.As Hsu points out, there are obvious risks to this sort of approach — consumers like art that appeals to their expectations for a genre, and get annoyed if they aren’t met:

When producers target multiple positions, they increase the total size of the market that they have the potential to appeal to and glean resources from. When producers bridge multiple positions, however, audiences have more difficulty interpreting their identities and become more likely to ignore producers. Moreover, audiences are likely to disapprove of the broad-aiming producers who do gain their attention because of poor fit with their expectations and preferred tastes.

Or, as she puts it, “generalists are less efficient than specialists at exploiting environmental positions because they spread their capacities across multiple positions.” In another paper, she and a fellow researcher suggest that “category spanning violates cultural codes and, therefore, meets with sharp punishment.”

But that actually leads to a question I have about genre flexibility. If a show or movie or book is exceptionally strong at expressing genre attributes, does that give it leeway to do add elements from other genres? In other words, does the original Star Wars trilogy, for example, also get to be a great, extended romantic comedy precisely because the world is so well-developed that sci-fi audiences trusted George Lucas and Co. not to be trying to slip them a mickey and sell them something else?

Similarly, as I wrote about District 9 shortly after it came out, the movie is both a really gritty, imaginative, detailed, dark science fiction movie — and a deeply romantic tragedy:

Wikus van der Merwe…is a mortal dork, sweater-vested, unable to get a body microphone on, convinced of his own competence, with a streak of cruelty wide enough to allow him to merrily destroy alien eggs and compare the sound to popcorn. When we hear that he’s married to the daughter of an executive of the company he works for, the dastardly Multinational United, we figure him for an even deeper nebbish than we initially supposed, and her for some sort of deluded crazy…[After his transformation begins] Tania is kept from him, and her father lies to her, telling her that Wikus is dying as MNU experiments on him, ultimately deciding to harvest his organs. After Wikus escapes, his father-in-law spreads rumors that Wikus contracted his mutation by having sex with aliens, leading Tania to reject him. But she changes her mind, telling him she wants them to be together again…Most movies would give them that reunion, and would give the audiences that relief….These characters have been through something dreadful…and when the movie ends, they’re still going through it.

Conversely, the assumption around romantic comedies seems to be that knowing that the main character wears shoes she couldn’t possibly afford is as important as having a meet cute, a misunderstanding, a wacky best friend, and a dramatic proof-of-love resolution. But if all of those emotional elements were extremely well-done, would female audiences mind if the story itself was set in a science fictional universe of varying intensity? Romantic comedies are perhaps the most calcified of the genres, so I can’t think of a single movie that’s really done this, with the exception of Penelope, which I liked but didn’t adore, and that shaded over into fairy-tale territory, which I think is distinct from romantic comedies. If anyone can think of examples that test this proposition, I’d love to check them out.

In any case, I’d love to see research that really gets at everything that people expect out of a given genre — I don’t think, for example, that in sci-fi and fantasy, people don’t expect the absence of romantic and sexual relationships, they just expect them to play out in a certain way when they’re there. Figuring out what genres have elements that match up or overlap in audiences’ expectations might help directors find interesting and startling juxtapositions — and make better, and more original, movies.