So I was watching High Plains Invader a Syfy original cowboys versus aliens flick that, against the clear designs of the film's makers, got me thinking.
There's a factoid my wife likes to share. I don't know where she got it from. I don't even know if it's a true story or from a novel she read, so I present it here in the spirit of philosophical musing rather than a statement of historical fact.
There was this museum in the Victorian Era that shelled out a king's ransom for a truly amazing horse statue from the Etruscan period. For decades, this Etruscan horse was the pride of the museum, the iconic piece that served as the synecdoche for the museum the way the Spirit of St. Louis is shorthand for the Air and Space or the two-headed turtle was the symbol of the Freakatorium.
But, as the decades dragged on, the horse looked less and less like an artifact of the Etruscan period and more and more like an embarrassing bit of Victorian hack work. Eventually, the museum launched a study in the piece's origins and found, much to their chagrin, that they'd been conned into buying a fake.
The point of this mini-parable is that you can be so close to your own era's critical assumptions that you are no longer able to grasp them.
In the Great Victorian Horse Swindle story, the end result is that the prized pony ends up an embarrassing failure. Though I think the story can work in reverse too. Which is what brings back to Syfy originals, like the High Plains Invaders.
Syfy channel has made itself into a modern B-movie engine. Like B-flicks of the subgenre's golden era, SFOs are cheaply produced, populated with second-string celebs, filled with not-so-special-effects, frequently rip-off larger budget successes, quick to turn headlines into cheese (see the monster snakehead fish films), and happily recycle concepts (Syfy made two different films about the snakehead fish). The acting, as befits a B, is wooden. Often the dialogue is achingly bad. At their best, they're lively shambles. At their worst, they're God awful, soulless cash grabs. This has always been true of B-movies.
So why are B-films from previous eras so beloved and Syfy originals to roundly hated?
I'm not about to make a claim for the hidden greatness of Syfy originals. In fact, I think they're usually pretty horrible. I believe I've even used "Syfy original" as an insult to describe the failings of other films. High Plains Invaders isn't the worst of a bad lot, but it gives one ample examples of the sort of half-assed filmmaking that's made the brand a shorthand for broad-spectrum systematic cinema suckitude.
The plot is a classic rag-tag band of holdouts story. In the late 19th century, a swarm of giant insect-like alien invaders attack a small Denver town. An unlikely band of folk - from the town's doctor to a mercenary bounty hunter who was just passing through - hole up in the jail and fight for their lives. While never so painfully awful that it punishes the viewer, there's ample evidence of phoning it in on all levels of this thing:
Exhibit 1: Nobody could be bothered to provide the actors with period correct, or even vaguely period correct, firearms. Even if you're not a gun nut - I'm certainly not - you can't help but notice that some of these cowboys are packing heaters from the modern era.
Exhibit 2: The presence of several mini-McGuffinish moments in the script: odd turns of story that seem to happen mainly to pad out the running time and to semi-regularly put our protags in harm's way. There are several abortive attempts to leave town that could be justified as necessary in order to show how thoroughly and completely screwed our protags are, but other plot points are less explicable. For example, at one point, our heroes decide to make it to the jail because of the store of rifles in the jailhouse. However, after getting to the jailhouse and loading the rifles, our heroes promptly forget them and never really use them at all for the rest of the flick. Which raises a question: Does firing a fake rifle really put that much more of a strain on your effects budget? How many pistol shots make up a rifle shot? Could you have deducted four pistol shots and then at least used one of the rifles we spent all this time acquiring once?
Exhibit 3: The entire plot hinges on the fact that one of the characters is a uranium miner and that he understands a) that it is radioactive and b) that is can create massive explosions. The problem with this is that the radioactive properties or uranium were discovered in 1896. Our character is ahead of the curve on that discovery. But that's a pretty minor quibble compared to how the same character creates a nuclear explosion with the stuff: He grinds it into a powder and then sets off a stick of dynamite near it. Without getting deep in the physics weeds on this, releasing the explosive properties of uranium requires action that takes place on an atomic level. Grossly simplified, the element needs to be bombarded with neutrons which then break apart uranium isotopes into two other elements. It isn't like gunpowder. Heat has nothing to do with it.
I don't bring these up in an effort to show I'm smarter than the makers of High Plains Invaders, but rather to show that, from the smallest detail to the largest, the makers responded to cinematic challenges with a resounding, "Whatever."
And, honestly, that's pretty typical of B movies regardless of the era. Anachronisms, meandering plots, and a metaphorical-at-best understanding of science are hallmarks of the subgenre.
But you won't get hordes of monster kids defending Syfy's excretions in their blogs. Navy versus the Night Monsters, sure; but High Plains Invaders, don't be silly.
There are numerous reasons - not the least of which is nostalgia - but I think High Plains Invaders underscores a specific issue. I propose the following: We accept high levels of cheese in older films because, as time moves on, all older films look increasingly stylized and artificial. The distance between, say, The Thing and Tarantula seems smaller to us than the distance between successful modern horror flicks and High Plains Invader. But this is less a product of critical discernment than the byproduct of the fact that we accept the conventions previous eras of filmmaking as baselines (hyper-artificial rear projection work from the 50s, for example, strikes us as a singular thing, rather than a technique with gradations of successful execution that can be critiqued) while the we're alive and sensitive to fine distinctions in the cinema techniques of our own time (the quality of CGI in a flick can make or break a film for many viewers).
We approach films from our cinematic history with a benign prejudice that what is clunky or awkward in them was simply a given trait of films of their era. So, when we approach a 1950s B-film, we're simply not making the same demands on it.
The curious thing about this phenom is that, unlike the Great Victorian Horse Swindle example that kicked off this post, it actually elevates the works in question. Which makes me wonder, in the year 2060, will High Plains Invaders seem like a better film?
I think it might.
Take, for example, the whole uranium thing. Admittedly, the depiction of uranium in this film is far more accurate than the depictions of nuclear material from '50s and '60s films, where it could be relied upon to throw of a pulsating glow and make humming noises. That said, it is still quite wrong-headed. But, to some degree or another, all scientific claims grow quaint with time. Event correct understandings of the workings of reality tend to come with a fringe of era- and culture-specific oddness that ages poorly. (Darwin, for example, grasped evolution's core truths, but frequently suggested consequences of these truths that now strike us as products of his own Victorian cultural biases.) The result is that, retrospectively, the distance boneheaded depictions of the world and earnest depictions of the world shrink.
For speculative purposes, let's assume that, in the year 2024, somebody in some lab somewhere finds a way to synthesize unobtanium, the currently strictly-theoretical element that serves as the causus belli in Avatar. If this happens (or if some scientist finds a reason why unobtanium cannot exist) then Avatar's visions of militarized intergalactic unobtanium mines will look as quaintly incorrect as the bullet rocket of Méliès's Le Voyage dans la lune. When that happens, retro-cinema fans will have less reason to hassle High Plains Invaders for its boneheaded handling of science. Rather, it will just look like people of the first decade of the 21st century didn't really have any grasp of science. (A fair assessment, really.)
Advances in CGI will make even our best efforts at the art look clumsy, further narrowing the gap between crappola like High Plains Invaders and supposedly state-of-the art flicks like Avatar. When the stuff we thought was cutting edge looks hopelessly clunky and out of date, the distinctions we made between good and bad CGI will vanish for later viewers.
This not to say that you can't make quality distinctions between old films. We do, and should. But it seems to me that these distinctions always come to rest on those most primal artistic elements: plot and character, empathy and insight, line and form. It's these things that remain clear when all the other details blur.