Yesterday Jennifer and I watched another film on our 50 pack set of “Classic Sci Fi Films”: Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. For what it was, it was a fairly decent film, though it seemed somehow disjointed. In essence, a group of astronauts land on the planet Venus and encounter all kinds of monstrous critters, like man-eating plants with long tentacles, and dinosaurs. Fun times. Meanwhile, there’s a woman astronaut aboard a ship orbiting Venus, and Basil Rathbone as a scientists stationed in a lunar colony monitoring the entire mission. And it was these different settings that made the film seem so disjointed; it was almost as though there were two films, spliced in with each other. It reminded me of the American version of the original Godzilla film, where American-produced scenes starring Raymond Burr were interspersed with the original Japanese scenes.
Turns out my feeling was right. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet was originally a Russian film called Planeta Burg (which apparently translates to Planet of Storms). Roger Corman picked up the rights to this film, and filmed the additional scenes to make the film more appealing to an American audience. Of course this sort of thing never ends well, and that’s why Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet seemed so disjointed.
I’ve already given a brief synopsis of the story. I’ve left out a few details, like the robot that accompanies two of the astronauts to the surface of Venus and that ultimately nearly kills them while trying to save itself from the lava flowing from a volcanic eruption (apparently the robot had not been programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics). All in all, it’s a pretty simple story, even if the American version doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (Jennifer and I were left confused more than once and asked each other, “Okay, what just happened and who’s on what planet?”).
Other films from this set of discs have had simple — if occasionally incoherent — storylines. And that makes me wonder about increasing complexity in narrative in general in movies and television. In Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven R. Johnson argues, among plenty of other things, that narratives in movies as well as television have grown more complex over the years, requiring more emotional and intellectual investment from audiences. Even modern reality shows, which many people deride, are more emotionally complex than something like I Love Lucy or any other show contemporary to it, since they require analysis of the emotional complexities of the participants in the show and their agendas. Television shows in earlier years did not have the series long story arcs that shows like Lost or the reboot of Battlestar Galactica had; even some modern sitcoms feature this sort of ongoing plotline (I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’m sure someone else can).
Which made me think: what if we took someone who had just seen Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and transported them instantly through time and stuck them into an IMAX theater to watch Avatar, what would happen? (I’m not talking about taking someone who’s just moved through time the normal way, by aging — such a person would have gotten used to the increasing narrative complexity.) Would their minds be utterly blown? Many critics have said that although Avatar is visually stunning, its storyline is relatively simple. But would our theoretical time traveler be able to track the story at all? Or would they be utterly confused?