Despite many moviegoers not having any clue who or what John Carter was all about, the movie did prove one thing: bygone pulp SF heroes never die, they just get remade, rebooted, re-imagined or subjected to a host of other transformative verbiage. And even though John Carter hasn’t made its money back yet; the critical consensus from the SFF community, (including a review by yours truly), seems to be generally positive in an “it was fun” kind of way.
Now that we’ve had some old-fashion fun with John Carter, which aw-shucks SF pulp hero will be invading our movie or TV screens next? Based on the mood of the times, my space dollars are on Buck Rogers. Why? Because he’s the classic-fish-out-water sci-fi adventure hero, and unlike John Carter, EVERYBODY knows his name.
Since the release of Philip Francis Nowlan’s 1928 novel Armageddon 2419 A.D., Anthony “Buck” Rogers has been finding various ways of falling asleep Rip Van Winkle-style and waking up in the 25th century. Whether he existed in comic strip format, radio serial, movie serial, or his (triumphant?) rebirth in the 1979 TV show, the big premise of Buck Rogers has remained relatively the same. He’s a man from a contemporary era, who eventually wakes up in a future world and becomes an unexpected hero. The basic conceit of Buck Rogers is effective because all the science fiction world-building stuff automatically has an audience/reader surrogate in the form of Buck. The trick of a contemporary every-person being plucked from their surroundings and thrust into a futuristic/fantastic setting works almost every single time; Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Sleeper, Farscape, Futurama, The Last Starfighter, and naturally, John Carter.
But unlike John Carter, a new film/TV version of Buck Rogers probably wouldn’t benefit from a throwback kind of aesthetic. Though Hollywood is having a nostalgia love affair with films like The Artist, an intentionally pulpy Buck Rogers would likely come across a little too much like 2004’s Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow. This isn’t to say that the aesthetic of Sky Captain doesn’t work, really, really well. It does. It’s just that the average person doesn’t care because the things being homaged are just well known enough to come across as corny. In very, very subtle contrast, the aesthetics of the John Carter series are just slight more obscure to a mainstream sensibility, meaning for a lot of audiences, it probably came across as brand new. Part of that has to do with the CG being near flawless; the other aspect is the source material’s relative obscurity.
But a sepia-toned, leather-studded belt or silver-suit clad Buck Rogers in the style of Buster Crabbe won’t do right now. James Cawley of fan-made Star Trek: Phase 2 fame already re-made a retro Buck Rogers as a web series a few years back. Though admirable, this project was a lot like Star Trek: Phase 2; cute, but not very memorable or accessible. (This isn’t to say something has to be memorable or accessible to be good, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.) In any case, a new Buck Rogers would need to be approached fairly radically, insofar as it should be primarily unconcerned with appeasing its core audience, because in reality, it doesn’t really have one. People like me and many of you know and care about Buck Rogers, but that won’t help everyone else love him!
So how would the big studios do it? How would they sell Buck Rogers to the masses? In my head, just like in John Carter, it would likely rely on the casting. Which means, for me, the best new Buck we could hope for would be Vin Diesel. It sounds nuts, but think about it.
Diesel excels at playing a fish-out-of-water character. He does it in both Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. And despite how terrible people claim it is, he does it in xXx, which is actually one of the most entertaining Bond-esque spy movies in the past two decades. (Notice I said “entertaining” not “best.”) If you’ve seen the tea cup scene in Chronicles of Riddick, then you know that Vin Diesel has this weird/dry humor that is more sophisticated than Arnold, but not as slick as Harrison Ford. He’s not all dumb muscle like The Rock, but he somehow exudes an endearing sweetness. In short, there’s a reason why Vin Diesel is a movie star. The role of Buck Rogers, would, in my opinion, be his magnum opus. Vin would get to be an amazing action star and do some awesome space-age stunt stuff. But, he’d also get to play to his strengths: big action star, weird/dry humor, and a strange sweetness. Buck Rogers is also a romantic/sexy hero but not one who is obsessed with sex. True, Buck Rogers needs be charming, but the character is so inherently goofy that you need an actor who could really own that. It’s difficult these days to be both badass and sort of fun at the same time, but Vin Diesel can.
Make no mistake, a new Buck Rogers shouldn’t be a Vin Diesel vehicle, but rather Vin Diesel should be a vehicle for Buck Rogers. A bunch of people have been attached to a Buck Rogers revival in the past few years. Frank Miller, Paul W.S. Anderson, but nothing has stuck yet. Another thought would be to revive Buck in the comic books like Dynamite did a few years back, but the aesthetic there is tricky too, and despite becoming popular in comic-strips, Buck may now only be able to survive on film of some kind.
I’m not sure I necessarily want Vin Diesel to write the Buck Rogers movie with David Twohy (of the Riddick movies), because I’m not actually in favor of the movie being anything like the Riddick movies. Instead, I think someone like J. Michael Straczynski might be someone they could consider for basic story ideas. (His contributions to the Thor screenplay were certainly welcome!)
As for a director for this brave new Diesel-fueled Buck Rogers, I guess I’d have to go with a new kid on the block and say Duncan Jones. He’s won me over with Moon and Source Code. A Buck Rogers film could allow Duncan Jones to go REALLY big. And if we’re lucky, maybe Duncan’s dad might get involved with the soundtrack. When the 1979-Buck Rogers in the 25th Century enjoyed a brief theatrical release, that version contained a questionable theme song with lyrics.
Whereas J.J. Abrams turning Star Trek into an action movie was mildly blasphemous in some camps; making a high-octane action flick out of Buck Rogers would actually be an appropriate and respectful interpretation. I don’t think Philip Francis Nowlan wouldn’t be offended by Vin in a contemporary action-packed Buck flick. And I don’t think Glen A. Larson or Gil Gerard would be either. And if Vin can’t do it, there’s always Ryan Gosling. (Hey girl, I’ve been frozen for a few centuries but I think your space ship is out-of-this-world.)
The only question now, is: do they include Twiki? Beedee beedee beedee.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. Growing up, he didn’t refer to the 70s Buck Rogers show by its proper name. Instead he asked his parents “What time is Beedee Beedee on?”