Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Camp with a Straight Face

Cylons and Big Transforming Robots are being elevated from low camp to serious stories. Only in 2007 could those in their twenties and early thirties want to revisit the 1980s.
By  · Published on February 21st, 2009

So I’m late to get on the colossal bandwagon that is Battlestar Galactica. I’m about three episodes into the second season, and at this point I can’t stop watching it. It’s taking over my life. So the other day, while I was procrastinating writing another Culture Warrior column, I checked out an episode of the original 1978 Battlestar on imdb (most episodes can also be seen on Hulu), and I was aghast at its simplicity and perplexed by its campiness. It made me wonder how something so silly could have ever been revamped into something of such immense depth and complexity (even executive producer Ronald D. Moore openly refers to his version of the show as “the good Battlestar” on his commentaries). But, then again, it seems that Battlestar isn’t the only popular franchise in recent years to go from silly to serious.

Much buzz has been made about the Transformers sequel since its teaser debuted on Super Bowl Sunday, and while Michael Bay’s first swing at a “live-action” (as everything seen in movies now seems to be somewhere between captured reality and digital manipulation, is this term even relevant anymore?) adaptation of the 80s Saturday morning cartoon is certainly not free of silliness, the scope, technological breadth, and massive box office intake of the franchise’s remodeling are nothing if not dead serious. The original animated big-screen debut of Optimus Prime, Transformers: The Movie, made a scant five million dollars in 1986, but its renovation twenty-one years later made over 700 million worldwide, now polished as a $150 million summer tentpole film from a major studio and helmed by a famous filmmaker not exactly known for subtlety or fiscal conservatism. How is it that a weakly-plotted television show that was only created to sell toys and which had not produced any new content in over twenty years actually gained appeal rather than lost it?

While the revamped Transformers (like the tragic CGI makeover of TMNT) was certainly an appeal to new young audiences otherwise unexposed to these characters, the core audience—those of us who actually watched the show—are to be most credited for its success. And, when we were kids, we probably did not snub our noses at the animated series for its silliness, contrivances, or transparent consumerist exploitation of children (reportedly, characters were killed off routinely just to make room for new toys), but instead treated it as seriously as anything else in our single-digit lives. So a more serious, arguably more adult, big-ass big screen adaptation of the franchise is something of a natural wish fulfillment—the ultimate manifestation of the serious gaze with which we looked upon the original series as children.

From the 1990s to the early 2000s, we’ve had ironic adaptations of out-of-date television shows. The tongue-in-cheek Brady Bunch movies and the “comedic” (I use the term loosely) spin on Starsky and Hutch are good examples. However, in 2006, the reverse occurred with Michael Mann’s big screen adaptation of Miami Vice, forgoing the original 1980s pop camp and Don Johnson-fueled melodrama for a straight-faced contemporary update more in line with the style with which Mann has been known for in recent years. Sure, the film is painted with such deliberately thick layers of cool, and the movie (Linkin Park in tow) will probably look comparably dated twenty years from now as the original series does now, but Mann’s style has matured and, as displayed here, is much more Heat and much less…well, Don Johnson. But, unlike the original Transformers or Battlestar, Miami Vice was a show intended exclusively for adults, and its particular brand of camp and melodrama were part of its adult appeal, something sorely missed from the 2006 adaptation.

And while the original Battlestar wasn’t a show exclusively made for kids, it was made with the intention of banking off the Star Wars phenomenon enabled mostly by younger audiences. I can only imagine that Moore—having been born in 1964 which would have made him 14 the year the original series debuted—was an ideal spectator, the perfect age to treat the silly camp of the late 70s Battlestar seriously and later envision it as a matured, thoughtful, and complex drama.

I hate how the word “reimagining” has replaced the word remake. Whenever I hear it, I fear that Tim Burton, the man whose unfortunate reimagination of Planet of the Apes and Willy Wonka threatened the legacies of both originals, is setting out to ruin yet another American classic. But the original Planet of the Apes and Wonka were masterpieces of their own time that have been beloved and cherished by generations since. While the original Battlestar does, for some reason, sustain something of a cult following, the show was bad in its own day and hasn’t aged well since.

Thus, Moore isn’t “reimagining” a film or television show whose timelessness doesn’t warrant an update; rather he has taken an object largely uncherished and unbeloved by popular culture and made something sustainably great, integrating theological questions with sociopolitical relevance but wrapped in challenging themes regarding necessary procedures for survival that will likely prove to be so universal that they outlive the series’ impending finale in the upcoming weeks. Sometimes the first version of a filmic narrative is not the definitive one—sometimes it warrants revision until it emerges in its best possible form. Moore’s Battlestar is a second (or, actually, third) draft of a narrative, and will likely prove to be the definitive one. Thus, Moore’s sci-fi remake is less like Planet of the Apes and more like The Fly. Like Cronenberg, Moore has taken a largely forgettable product of its time and, while only retaining its basic structure, revamped it into something wholly unique. Moore isn’t repainting the Mona Lisa—he’s making art from fleeting camp.

When it comes to Transformers, Bay, unlike Moore, was not a former young admirer of the original product. Reportedly, he originally passed on the big screen adaptation, saying that the source material was too silly. But Bay’s previous film, the abomination that was The Island, superficially echoed (or, more accurately, borrowed) big high culture ideas from great literature like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World—an odd combination with the film’s excessive style and relentless product placement. Bay is more in his element adapting something like Transformers, taking something so low cult that even in the hands of Bay it can’t help but be elevated, rather than forcing the pretenses of high culture into the Bay aesthetic.

The original Transformers animated series was also a product of its own time, and the adaptation to its more “serious” form could not have been timelier, as the nostalgia warranting such an update probably would not have worked, say, twenty years from now. Only in 2007 could those in their twenties and early thirties want to revisit the 1980s.

That being said, the producers of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li are going to have a rude awakening when they realize that 90s nostalgia hasn’t kicked in yet.

Let’s see what happens when the Thundercats movie comes out…

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