Asimov’s Foundation and Movie Reboots

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There is a passage in Isaac Asimov’s original “Foundation”* story that comes to mind when I think about the state of movies today. Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Terminus City responds to a colleague who calls the people of Terminus scientists:

Are you, though? That’s a nice hallucination, isn’t it? Your bunch here is a perfect example of what’s been wrong with the entire galaxy for thousands of years. What kind of science is it to be stuck out here for centuries classifying the work of scientists of the last millennium? Have you ever thought of working onward, extending their knowledge and improving upon it? No! You’re quite happy to stagnate. The whole galaxy is, and has been for space knows how long.

With just a few subtle changes, this same argument describes the state of originality and creativity in movies today:

Are we (original), though? That’s a nice hallucination, isn’t it? Reboots are a perfect example of what’s been wrong with the motion picture industry for a few decades now. What kind of art is it to be left remaking the movies of the past century? Have we every thought of working onward, extending the range of film, producing something original? No! We are quite happy to stagnate. Audiences have been willing to accept it for too long now.

I despise the term “reboot” as much as I despise the term “reality TV” because it’s meta. The term itself is a reboot of “remake”, just like “reality TV” is a different way of saying “game show”. But this is the next step in the evolution of movies, apparently. At first when Hollywood was desperate for a blockbuster, they shunned original writing and went to literature and broadway. Then, when those weren’t enough, they started to “remake” old movies (The Karate Kid, for instance). Now, it seems, originality is at an all time low. We are moving into what I would call forth-generation reboots. Take Superman for example. It started out as a comic. If we skip over the many TV series and focus on movies, we move into the second generation which is the Superman franchise starring Christopher Reeve. Next was the third generation, another reboot of Superman, Superman Returns in 2006. And word now of yet another reboot of Superman, a fourth generation being produced. The same has happened with Batman, and will likely happen with Spiderman. And it’s not limited to superhero movies.

The recent Lord of the Rings trilogy can be considered a third generation “reboot”. The Transformer movies are reboots. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. It is no surprise that I don’t go to the movies much any more. The level of originality and creativity is at an all-time low. You can bet that at some point in the next generation, there will be a Harry Potter reboot.

Asimov’s caution was regarding scientific knowledge but it applies equally well to the creative arts. We are in a cycle of unoriginality. We make great strides in special effects. Just about any movie these days is not only HD, but 3-D. But the special effects only mask the lack of original content. No work is safe from remake after remake, and in the meantime, as Salvor Hardin said, we are quite happy to stagnate.


* Originally published in 1942 in Astounding and appeared as Part II, The Encyclopedists, in Foundation (1951)