Classics professor gives his take on not-so-classic films


photo by Chloe Sonnier

If you haven’t had a class with Benjamin Stevens, assistant professor of classical studies, get into one as soon as possible. Additionally you should try to go to all of his movie nights, held Thursdays at 7 p.m. in the Richardson Communication Center, and listen to his expert and intriguing analysis of great movies.

So far, this year hasn’t seen the release of any stand-out sci-fi movies, but a few coming this fall and the spring of 2018 could ease the pain of having to watch any more summer blockbusters. To receive some expert insight into where the sci-fi genre is going and how Hollywood has impacted it, I talked to Stevens. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Austin Davidson: The new “Blade Runner” movie, are you excited for it? Skeptical? Optimistic?

Benjamin Stevens: I am excited for it. I love “Blade Runner”. I have screened it for my courses for a long time and, while I was at Bryn Mawr College, I had the chance to do a public screening of director Ridley Scott’s “Final Cut” in 2007. It was amazing. So you could say I have a lot riding on this movie being good, or me enjoying it. I love the film as a cinematic exercise, but not as a story. Its source material is much more creative and interesting and less heavy-handed. But the movie is beautiful visually and it’s a vehicle for a dense vision of what the future could be.

Based on the trailers I’ve seen, with its very interesting and beautiful shots, the movie stands a chance of being very good. The director is also one I really love, Denis Villeneuve. His last two movies, “Arrival” and “Sicario,” are each masterful and emotionally powerful pieces of film.

AD: I definitely agree with all of that. What about “Thor?” You could say that’s one of the movies Hollywood is relying on to make up for its weak summer. I, myself, am pretty skeptical of it. It doesn’t look like anything new and could really be just more of the same Marvel superhero formula they have been spitting out these past 5 years.

BS: I take that point, that the movie does look like it’s par for the course plot-wise, and I think that’s due to the film having to be part of the Marvel cinematic universe. And it has to be that way due to them all having to lead up to the big one, “Infinity Wars” and the “Infinity Gauntlet.” I can’t say that I’m looking forward to that, because Thanos really looks silly and kinda goofy. But, specifically with the “Thor” franchise, it has a nice combination of a sense of wonder that you find in science fiction with the level of technology turning into magic, and of boyish humor that brings the movie back to Earth.If the director combines that sense of magic and humor while also not taking it too seriously, I think it could be good. I’m looking forward to it.

AD: Do you think that the direction that Hollywood is taking science fiction is positive or that there are new things being added to it movie-wise? Or do you feel like they are rehashing or digging stuff up?

BS: Well, we started with two examples of franchises, or at least of shared universes. But we could certainly think of examples from the last couple years of independent sci-fi films, and by independent I mean in the studio process and in terms of not being part of a shared universe. But those independent sci-fi films are superb and rather successful, like “Arrival,” “Her,” and “Ex Machina.”

AD: Do you think Hollywood is trying to bring some new traditions into the fold, or is it like they have a folder of the five they always use and they refuse to shy away from it?

BS: If we are talking about Hollywood, then yes, there are a handful of story types that do get tossed around over and over and, in terms of drawing on cultural traditions like the Greek and Roman classics, it’s not clear to me that there is a conscious, collective attempt to break new ground.

Like, here is an example of a movie failing to successfully draw on classical traditions: “The Mummy.” A film like “Wonder Woman,” which is making the attempt to draw on ancient traditions and from those traditions focalizing on a woman hero or at least a woman protagonist.

And for various reasons I think “The Mummy” was not successful but, particularly to your question, I think the movie failed because of the ham-fisted way it hoped to draw on this alleged ancient tradition. This movie was also Universal Studios’ attempt to jump-start a monster universe, to rival Marvel and DC, and, as you could see with their first attempt, it was a disastrous failure.

AD: Yeah, I agree. Well, another big movie coming out this year is the new “Star Wars.” It’s has people either over the moon or beyond mad. What’s your take on the newest installation of the intergalactic franchise?

BS: The most recent two movies left me sort of cold and unmoved, emotionally. And I had the very strong feeling that in both films, certain aspects of the story or certain characters were highlighted and drawn out more instead of being left to the dust like they generally were. An example would be in “Rogue One,” the story of Jin’s father deciding to leave the empire and be a farmer. I wanted a whole hour on what led up to that decision and his life as a simple farmer. And I wanted less of the gap-filling to bridge the two films. I just kept feeling like the story we were being given was crucial to the plot but not essential to my emotional investment in the franchise or its characters.

That being said, I am looking forward to each different director’s attempt to live up to the spectacle and to the pulp fiction feeling that is “Star Wars.” Suffice to say I will, of course, go see it, but I have my doubts.

Talking to Dr. Stevens is like talking to a humble library. He’s a limitless fountain of knowledge and care, a person everyone should try to speak to at least once. While I mainly talk to him about movies and sci-fi, he knows equally as much about almost anything else.

As Dr. Stevens said, there is hope for sci-fi and movies in general. The masses are starting to demand better movies and it seems that Hollywood is listening, leaving room for more films like “Arrival”, “Big Hero 6″, and “Wonder Woman.”

“Vote with your feet,” as Dr. Stevens says. Don’t allow Hollywood to take your hard-earned bread and your valuable time on less-than-stellar films.