A decade into the 21st Century and we have arrived at the future. The promise of Tomorrow. But instead we have looming energy crises, endless middle east conflict and more disappointing, we have no flying cars, Heck, for all the bright and clean future promised in 2001: A Space Odyssey, none of the real companies used as brands in the film even exist anymore. Even moving from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, nobody makes DeLoreans (although they occasionally sell on Ebay), but cloning and tablet computing (as promised by Star Trek: The Next Generation) have more or less come to pass in this century. It is not the gizmos or the distopian aesthetics, that have brought Science Fiction into the new millennium, but the questions it asks of people or society in a future time or place and how they reflect on our own times. There have been a surprising number of excellent science fiction films to come about in the past decade that do this and do this well. After the 80s and 90s were more or less defined as CGI test-beds and blockbuster multiplex fodder, it is nice to see we are in a bit of a high point for lovers of ‘harder,’ ambitious science fiction. The films that tackle ideas in a significant and sophisticated way has actually risen dramatically even as cheap digital effects and mega-budgeted event pictures have also increased the number of bad films that are bad fantasy with science fiction trappings. If it seems there are fewer smart science fiction pictures out there, it is more a signal-to-noise issue than a reality.
Below are over two dozen science fiction pictures that are worth your time. Fans of their respective franchise may cry foul on the lack of Star Trek or Serenity, but really those films are about the characters and plots and not really about the loftier ideals of science fiction. In an attempt to quickly go through the list, I will offer up the general idea of the film and how it relates to the ideals of science fiction, namely exploring the consequences of the fictional part of the science in a way that it relates to the real world.
In the interest of talking about the films, it should be noted that *SPOILERS* are sprinkled through out the list.
Welcome to a world with borders, very difficult to permeate borders. Cloning has become de riguer in Michael Winterbottom’s near-future to the point where you do not necessarily know who you are genetically related to anymore without a government check-up. The title of the film refers to a sexual act, a pregnancy resulting between two people with too-similar DNA. But the film has much more to offer in its vision of the world. It spends a good deal of screentime on how communication has evolved – an extreme example of this is how learning (and empathy) can be achieved by the injection of a virus – and how the gap between the poor and rich has widened immensely. Code 46 is a slightly more subdued but no less stylized version of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, in which Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton and every other human being are all replicants living in a brave new world.
Children of Men
How would social mores change in a world without hope? This question is enticingly asked in Alfonso Cuaron’s fast and loose adaptation of PD James’ novel. In the near future, people have simply stopped having children, the youngest person on earth is 18 years old, and when the last couple of generations die out, that’s all she wrote for the human race. Suicide kits are distributed by the government, and the whole environment is left to rot, as who needs clean, responsible energy if everyone is going to dead in 60 years. While the film is mainly a chase-movie with tour-de-force long takes and set-pieces, it never stops being a thoughtful piece of science fiction on the value of hope and the consequences of taking things for granted.
Time Travel has never been more ‘real’ than in Shane Carruth’s debut film. Shot for only a few thousand dollars, it does not have budget or stars or even significant locations to rely on, it has to exist on pure ideas and conjecture. What a wonderful job it does of exploring the morality and logistics of ‘realistic time travel’ (and by realistic I mean it is awful similar to physicist Ronald Mallett‘s extension of Einstein’s theories. It is one of the few films that the themes are easier to elucidate than the plot logistics (to figure out how everything fits together in the film, a flow chart is darn near necessary!) But Primer is not so much about the puzzle-box plot, but the implications of morality in the onrush of new and powerful technologies. Primer is without a doubt, a mind-bender. It most certainly appeals to fans of science fiction for both its insanely complicated structure (it is a puzzlebox of the highest order) as well as its grounding discovery and science in the most mundane terms possible (home garages, U-Haul lockers, and my favourite, stealing palladium from the catalytic converters in their cars). It is a ‘hard’ science fiction film without any special effects and set in the present. It is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue matched to gritty and disorienting camerawork. Beyond the surface of its lo-fi aesthetics and nested plot, lies all sort of moral and ethical traps. These engineers may have the technical chops to invent something which could change the world (or like most game-changers, recognize the potential of an accident or unintended side-effect) but wowsers do they go off the rails in terms of dealing with it. The invention, a form of time travel, offers power in the gather limitless wealth, the potential to change events, or simply muck with causality: Abuse the stock market, prevent a potential murder, punch your boss in the face then go back and stop yourself, or the real kicker – kill yourself. Fear, paranoia and greed supersede any chance of trust. (“What’s worse, thinking you’re being paranoid or knowing you should be?”) There is a lot of 21st century post-tech boom subtext from the characters behavior and it has a lot to say about the way things are done in high-tech (nay the entire business world) sector since the 1990s of instant-riches-today, burnout-crash-tomorrow. Ethics in business, Morality (and boy-oh-boy the difficulty) of playing God and the power of filmmaker may be summed up with this line of dialogue, “You want to put my camcorder inside the box that’s so dangerous we can’t look into it.”
After 1979’s Alien, nothing gets hammered harder than corporate culture (usually the functioning body of government) in science fiction films. Duncan Jones’ film seemed to be undervalued simply because of its visual references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solyaris, and Silent Running, but really the film is its own beast. As Sam Bell (a versatile and understated Sam Rockwell) nears the end of his 3 year mining contract on the moon he starts falling apart (literally) and hallucinating. Sam Bell wrestles with himself (again, literally) on what his existence actually means, while holding out for joining back up with his wife and daughter. Ironic, indeed, that the corporation, Lunar Industries, is willing to cross some interesting ethical lines (lets just say extreme exploitation of its workforce) in the name of ‘clean’ energy (the Helium-3 on the moon is what is being mined). Contrary to what the detractors of this great piece of science fiction often say, the film is much more than the sum of it is parts, and has a lot of interesting things to ponder about the use and abuse of cloning and the mental strain of meeting ‘yourself’ in ways that you are certainly not prepared to do. Moon finally offers a little tease of the social significance (again hammering on the corporation-behaving-badly) of Sams return to earth to meet himself once again.
Despite being set at the dawn of the 20th century, Christopher Nolan’s magician movie is most definitely a science fiction film. Think about the early 1900s. Electricity, the telephone, the car, airplanes, motion pictures projected on a screen, all of these technologies sprung up in a relatively short period. Renowned science fiction author, Arthur C. Clark wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” and The Prestige takes that and runs with it in the tale of two determined magicians struggling with each other and with their own desires to be at the top of their art. The sabotage, subterfuge and showmanship of their aggressive competition is echoed in the Thomas Edison Nicola Tesla battle to define how electricity is going to integrate fully into society. How far will we go as a species into the dark corners of our own soul for the fulfillment of the promise of art and technology?
Time of the Wolf
Here is another film ripe for examining the human condition stretched to its extreme limits. There is little in Michael Haneke’s film other than the spoken language and the make and model of the family car to identify the time and setting of the film. Some sort of undefined, likely global, apocalypse has occurred, and civilization has collapsed. How does a family continue to survive in a survival-of-the-fittest new world? Things are gray, bleak and the world feels very lonely in this film. In France, nobody can hear you scream. It is certainly a companion piece to John Hillcoat’s The Road, it is actually the better of the pair, but both films examine how morality is relative to the comfort and the implicit enforcement of law and behavior of civilized society and how we are only a few days away from the line at any given moment.
I believe that this is the only comic book movie on the list. The problems with style and tone are often noted in talking about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s ‘Citizen Kane’ of graphic novels. But that does not change the fact that the writers actually fixed ‘the squid’ problem with the books. Thus, Watchmen, with its alternate-history 1980s setting, an escalated cold war with the Soviet Union and a doomsday clock set at 1 minute to midnight, gets a bit more oomph out of the ‘for the greater good’ scenario by postulating humanity would be better off with a bigger, post-human entity as a threat. In re-purposing the the threat to Dr. Manhattan, a godlike being who is beyond time and space, but really a glorious stand in for the nuclear age, Watchmen the film asks some fundamental questions of human nature which favours contradiction over logic more times than not. Then again, nothing is black and white.
of the Spotless Mind
The experience of following Lacuna Inc. a loose small-business that specializes in erasing memories, and two patients, former lovers, who submit themselves to treatment spans the gamut of romantic nostalgia, comic farce, science fiction, drama, you name it. Michel Gondry’s fascinating take on the first blush of falling in love (twice) is surely one of the best films of the Aughts. You can be swept up in the pure entertainment of the movie, or you can dive down the moral rabbit hole. How much right to do have to exert over your own body? Is it illegal to chop off your own arm? Commit Suicide? Erase significant portions of your memory? Should an easy way of absolving oneself of guilt and conscience exist as a business venture (some would argue that most commercial ventures do this to one extent or another!)? The curious thing is that the film, showing a surprising romantic streak for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, makes a fairly compelling argument for emotion to trump morality. Maybe he is right.
Neill Blomkamp, who miraculously struck commercial pay-dirt (making it the only film on the list to find a wide audience theatrically) with an urban apartheid allegory District 9. But the film seems to abandon the segregation/racism thread at about the half-way mark, opting for a (literal) transformation of its central corporate stooge, Wikus Van De Merwe, into the very aliens he was working to relocate. This may simply be the plot of the film kicking into high gear. The governing body, the MNU (some sort of state-corporate privatized military operation) upon discovering the half-alien, half-human immediately attempts vivisection (why beat around the bush) to get to its sole purpose, alien weaponry. This forces Wikus into a fugitive of the very organization he worked for and is a genre staple from Minority Report to Logans Run, but it is also a bleak commentary on how we eat our own – especially if they ‘go native.’ At the end of District 9, I am not sure if Wikus ever becomes a ‘hero,’ or even the everyman finding his moral center, but he is a creature who generates empathy (or at least pity) despite his shortcomings.
Like most great science fiction films, Solaris (and I mean the 2002 Steven Soderbergh remake) was not appreciated all that much on initial release. I am not sure if a re-evaluation of the film has started yet, but if not, here is as good a place as any. While the film may on the surface come across as a strange love-story in space (the One-Sheet, to the left, would seem confirm this.) Indeed, Soderbergh took that one thing that was rather clunky in the 1972 Tarkovsky film adaptation Stanislaw Lem’s novel and expanded it out to his significantly shorter remake. It is notable that Lem himself calls the 2002 version a remake of the 1972 film rather than and adaptation of his own novel. Setting that aside, if you want to dig a little deeper, there are a variety of subtle and interesting notions are explored beyond simply flirtation, love, loss. Delicately sprinkled with the debate on divinity vs. astronomical probability, the film seems to tap out on the side that Solaris, the planet, is in fact The Almighty (or at least an intelligence that is close enough to God so as to be splitting hairs). The entity-planet affects the cosmonauts on the station with mirrors of their own thoughts, in essence resurrecting dead or far away family members. After requesting friend and psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) to come up an evaluate the problem on the orbiting space station, the scientific leader on the shuttle, Dr. Gibarian, commits suicide. Later, the Doctors ghost (or perhaps Kelvin’s own conscience or even, more daringly, God Himself) offers, “There is no solution, only choices.” (Earlier Gibarian also equates space travel as the search for divinity in another choice quote, “We do not want other worlds, we want mirrors.”) Kelvin has to make the choice between returning to earth and his morbid, regretful existence, or living with a ‘sub-atomic-particle’ version of his deceased wife who is more of a collection of his own impressions of her, than *really* her. Events lead up to the orbit station being sucked into the Planet’s energy mass with Kelvin still aboard. Is it a ‘moment of fear’ or a ‘moment of truth,’ because Kelvin has made his decision. The last minutes, visually, are akin to an awakening. First, pain and suffering, then help by way of the Solaris-version of Gibarian’s Son (corporeal in essence – The Son of God) who reaches out a comforting hand and a offers a serene Jesus-face. That Kelvin ends up in Heaven in the heart of Solaris (where it feels like earth, but “everything we’ve done is forgiven. Everything.”) in the company of his deceased wife – all radiant and finally at peace – seems to cement a spiritual read, but the question of whether it is OK to destroy an alien race because it happens to freak you out and seemingly has no motive for doing so remains unanswered. As Viola Davis’ fearful physicist puts its so succinctly, “We are in a situation that is beyond morality.” That’s love.
Can the last gasp of humanity look god in the face, take destiny into their own hands and survive the experience? Danny Boyle’s foray into hard science fiction is as much a religious allegory as it is the nuts and bolts of flying to the Sun. It postulates that the best of humanity can indeed see beyond the awe and magnificent ‘face of god’ and survive the experience to give Sol a much needed jump-start. But overcoming religion, and sacrificing oneself for the greater good is not without its challenges. Sunshine is not only a stunningly gorgeous film, but it is a sophisticated look at human interaction, specifically in dealing with hard, hard choices. If only those blockbuster adventure ‘mission’ movies like Armageddon, The Core, or even Mission to Mars had the wonder of the majesty of Sunshine.
If you look past the glossy ‘chase’ aspect of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, and ignore the rube-goldberg crime solution embodied by pool-confined super-psychics and wood-grain marbles, you will see that the film is actually at its best in depicting the ‘all knowing’ future society through the mundane details. Animated cereal boxes and newspapers, intrusive hyper-targeted advertising, and just how important your unique eye balls are to navigating this strange world. John Anderton’s drug addled policeman who ends up on the wrong side of the law thanks to the experimental Future-Crimes program – those psychic women who prevent crime by predicting it and allowing the enforcement officers to arrest and prosecute you on the basis that you WOULD HAVE committed the crime. So much for self determination, but being able to see, really see what is going on is at the heart of this film. When down in the muck of humanity, it is harder than it looks.
One simple message, “Make the most of the time you have,” is given in the most convoluted (but stimulating) of ways. Three narrative threads all find Hugh Jackman separated from his love. In the past it is his queen, who remains behind in a dying Spain. In the present it is for his wife, who dies (slowly and radiantly) at home, while he struggles for a cure to her disease. In the future, it is for the essence (his memory, his ideal representation) of his wife, contained in a spirit tree, and his journey to a nebula which will perhaps resurrect her. Darren Aronofsky attempts to ask the big question of life – Why is it worth striving? or living? or running around on faith? – by tackling a man in three different states of mind and time. Duty is put above enjoyment in all three cases, and it is letting go that achieves transcendence. Science Fiction or Fantasy? Most of us could use a little letting go, and The Fountain reminds us of this. It is essential science fiction and drama and a wonder to behold.
28 Weeks Later
Why the sequel and not the original, which ‘invented’ the fast-zombie? Well, for one thing, 28 Weeks later takes survival and destruction to a far more visceral level. How does fear and survival instinct destroy the nuclear family? How does government hubris and control fold inward in the face of infection gone wild? Fear and panic spread faster than the virus in 28 Weeks Later. Months of rebuilding shattered in less than 24 hours. The film is one of the ultimate chase films, from the prologue of Robert Carlyle fleeing his life and thousands of the running dead, to his children fleeing the collapse of the Green Zone in London as infection spreads (again) through the small populace. More importantly, the film asks (urm, like Star Trek II) at what point do we lose our humanity upon facing the societies dilemma – “The good of the many versus the good of the few?” – empathy and good Intentions or pure Darwinism? The zombies, blossoms of fire, or creeping chemical clouds do not seem to care.
Sitting satisfyingly in the middle between Jaws and Godzilla, Bong Joon Ho’s The Host, uses the ‘giant monster terrorizes city’ as a big fat metaphor. Yet a playful sense of humour, a quiet and sad bit of mourning, and clumsy but quite rousing bit of heroism all factor into the mix of tonal shifting that the Korean’s do so well. When the exiting American military order several tones of formaldehyde dumped into the Han River, an amorphous tadpole roosts under one of the large concrete bridges before going on a feeding frenzy that culminates on it spiriting off the very young offspring of a narcoleptic father, one member of a dysfunctional family unit who are ground up in the crucible of the misinformation, confusion and quarantine before taking the monster head-on in its lair. It is the clan vs. modern society locked in a farcical struggle to survive a crisis. In this movie, a bumbling family is far more effective than the American military presence, and the media is comically clueless in their coverage and hysteria of the anomalous event. Truth and cliche and more than a little genre-bending are all rolled up into a satisfying and stimulating package.
Paprika is a film about dreams, and dreams about film. A breathtaking visual achievement grafted onto a rather interesting bit of science fiction. When the DC Mini, a machine that allows the operating scientists to enter peoples dreams, is stolen, one of the chief architects of the project makes it her personal mission to recover the device. Is this because of the threat of smashing others subconscious, or the addictive and personality altering thrill she achieves by becoming the ghost in the Machine. Satoshi Kon crosses all cultural barriers with images and alterations of well known film genres and images. Seeing the collective imagination bust through the screen as pure cinema unleashed is overwhelming and intoxicating to anyone ever bowled over by the power of the movies. And identity and ego are placed under the microscope in novel and interesting ways. Ultimately Paprika is a celebration of creation and creativity; it certainly practices what it preaches, and goes into some dark and disturbing places along the way. Suspend your biases of what anime is capable of, for Paprika (along with Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers, also on this list) is science fiction inquiry and evocation at its finest.
What is the difference between hearing and understanding? Is language itself a virus? Can talk radio save the world or is it really the pestilence? Pontypool may be a small Ontario town, but it is also an interesting linguistic confection, “TYPO” is in fact buried in the middle of the word. The film is unafraid to wear its brains on its sleeve, yet still remains thrilling, not the least from taking the well-trod Zombie subgenre and giving it a solid and fresh new premise. Bruce McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess surprisingly inject a lot of playfulness along the way. Words are ideas and ideas are passed along through words like a form of contagion. As addictive as an adventure flick, yet never leaving it’s only location, a church basement, Pontypool is the real deal.
A Scanner Darkly
A man trying to escape his own demons end up spying on himself by way of a shape-sifting scramble-suit and copious amounts of surveillance equipment. Thus is the rather nested loop narrative of Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel. Never has animation style, a rotoscoping technique of animating over top of filmed footage Linklater tested out with dreaming-talk-piece Waking Life, been more suited visually and thematically to a film. Who are we? What we project to the world? How we act? What we believe? Everything is mixed up for poor Bob Arctor who lost his family from addicted to Substance D, a ubiquitous narcotic that has more or less escalated the war on drugs to ludicrous proportions. We are all the watchers and the watched, and the world is a strange place. You are indeed paranoid if you are really following yourself.
The few works of anime director Mamoru Oshii that I’ve seen, namely the two Ghost in the Shell pictures are fascinating motion pictures. Subverting genre conventions into lengthy philosophical tangents along the lines of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Takeshi Kitano’s various yakuza pictures (Hana-Bi comes to mind), Oshii’s films are always gorgeously crafted but ponderous to those raised on Hollywood fare. Avalon is his first (and only) live-action picture. It takes the Gibson-esque cyberpunk future and injects it with an anime-tinged heroine. Ash is one of the top players of a massive worldwide multiplayer war game. This is not an ordinary game. It is underground and illegal, due to the unfortunate side-effect of rendering losing players brain-dead from time to time. She plays by herself even though the norm is to play with a team. Her old team was top ranked until a serious error of judgment (not hers) caused one member to be lobotomized. When she gets wind of a secret level in the game called “Class Real” she goes looking for it only to find the cusp of reality and virtual existence colliding. All of this sounds like comic-book stuff and it is. But watching the film, set in Poland, with a polish cast (keep in mind, the Writer/Director is Japanese), there is a dark atmosphere which belies the slick video-game roots. Ash’s reality is as cold, dank and repetitive, featuring long pauses of meditation and contemplation. It is quite the opposite to as the game she plays which is sepia toned, fast-paced and people explode into pretty showers of polygons when the are killed. At one point the film breaks into ‘natural colour’ of the modern day Poland and the effect is jarring to say the least. Avalon evokes Andrei Tarkovski’s Solyaris and Krystof Kieslowski’s Blue (from his Trois Couleurs Trilogy) over the course of Ash’s quest to find the nature of her game/existence. How many genre pictures can do that?
Has quantum physics and romantic fantasy ever been successfully combined in a large-scale science fiction epic? It has now. The arrow of time points supposedly forward, but it is thorny and messy and vague (with more choice and tangent universes than Donnie Darko). The resulting film is delightfully confusing, sublime and above all else visually impressive. Writer director Jaco Van Dormael is clearly a fan of Vonnegut, but he manages to drop in a whimsy and lovey-dovey warmth as well. Following the death-bed recollections of Nemo. the last mortal man on earth, we soon learn that the brain is a mysterious beast. Nemo seems to recall several significant decisions in his life he may or may not have actually made, yet he remembers all the outcomes. Which one is real? Which one is a dream? Does it matter? The perception is in the pudding, and the final climax of Mr. Nobody proves there is always one more divinely perverse trick up the universes sleeve. What if?
At the dawn of the millennium, the nation collapsed. At 15% unemployment, 10 million were out of work, 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence, and fearing the youth, eventually passed the ‘Millennium Educational Reform Act.’ That is the opening text crawl for a film that has a class of Japanese school kids, ages 16 to 17, slaughter each other against their will on the anxieties and fear of revolution against the totalitarian government. They are forced to kill each, via randomly assigned weapons distributed at the start of the ‘game,’ until there is only one student standing. This student will become some sort of celebrity (the film is never clear on this) which acts as a symbol of will of the country (like breaking a horse) on the uprising youth, while also, providing some sort of entertainment outlet for the masses. During the ‘contest,’ the crucible of the high-school experience: Self-discovery, cliquism etc. are captured here, is amplified by the high-stakes of the situation. With Uzi’s and cross bows, things are elevated up to levels of serious ultra-violence. The kind of gauche visuals (kids killing each other) that science fiction stands best to carry out (see the films of Paul Verhoeven, particularly Starship Troopers.) The gory onslaught plays out as part melodrama, the other part black comedy, part action-adventure. It is a tricky balancing of tone which gleefully posts the kill numbers and remaining students while simultaneously building character and perhaps motivation beyond the trials of youth.
Perhaps the most baffling film on this list (and that is certainly saying something,) Hitoshi Matsumoto’s farce on both the human and the divine condition sees the painfully awkward birth of God in the form of the director himself in pastel pajamas trapped in a white room with baby-cherub penises as the only potential form of escape. In the meantime, an impoverished Mexican family prepares for a low-rent luchador match. How the twain shall meet? Recalling Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker novels, Matsumoto’s take on life, the universe and everything is spiritually absurd, but also telling of many of the human contradictions, desires and motivations. You can be a good person or bad, and be punished or rewarded for either. Perhaps Symbol, despite its high amount of sight gags and silly laughs, is the most depressing film on this list. We’re all going to hell in a hand-basket because some clown pushed the wrong button just for kicks.
A prestige co-production from several countries, a adaptation of a Pulitzer prize winning novel, and a high-profile international cast, Blindness certainly aims to play as high-brow filmmaking. It is a disaster film, where an unexplained Blindness (again, big fat metaphor) takes over the population and there are the obligatory scenes of society collapsing, deserted and trash strewn streets and the various accouterments that accompany these types of tales. The anarchy that allows for men to indulge their evil side because nobody is watching (made very much literal in this case) is an interesting (and rather unique) on the rights of privilege. This is clear early on in the film as it indicates the privileges of the rich Japanese couple contrasted with the petty thief and a prostitute. You see it in the doctor (an optometrist, naturally!) and his wife and the dynamics of their relationship. He is the career driven man, calm and the focus of the relationship; she is not too responsible for much housewife. Their dinner at home and how the conversation and the texture of their interaction reflects this. When the blindness epidemic hits you see the evolution of these privileges amongst these characters and the palette gets richer in the ecosystem of the quarantine cell. The entrance in particular of a man born-blind character who becomes an accountant/adviser of the all-male ward lead by a violent thug. This privilege (a more proficient blind man) enables the ward to prey off of the more benevolent and mixed ward being lead by a more committee approach and the good Doctor. Of course, our heroine, (a superb Julianne Moore) who can actually see, uses her position of privilege to help in subtle ways to allow for the democratic approach the group enjoys. It’s not till the kinder ward is overtly and drastically threatened that Moore begins to assert her significant perquisite to declare all out war in the quarantined zone and later lead the surviving members into the wide and smashed world. The surviving members get to reform a semblance of civilization not because they are better or more moral than the other parties, but rather this privileged few and their Queen (she who possess sight) are given an exemption from falling back down to the animal-state only from the privileged (all seeing) leader.
We can all agree that the first half of Pixar’s WallE is the stronger part, both in terms of visuals and overall establishment of its science fiction tale, but when our hero arrives to greet the last vestige of humanity on a far-flung cruise ship, there is some solid social commentary about American pop culture. Government take-over by big box stores, privatization and consumer detritus have made life on earth forfeit. That all is left is a single garbage handling unit (and the cockroaches, natch). Mountains of garbage and dust-clouds seem to cover the planet and its non-human survivors. The story kicks in when another robot drops in from outer space on a surveying mission and provides ‘the last sentient being on earth’ with some desperately needed companionship. The plot arrives when WallE finds a plant, for which the possibilities and significance are lost on him, but not his new-found ‘lover.’ Pixar throws a loaded cannon ball across the bow of the mother corporation for making the hermetically sealed Disneyland (happy ignorance) and the endless merchandising of instantaneously disposable plastic toys (happy meal) be the destruction of the planet, and (over the process of 700 years) turning people into immobile slugs. Underscored triply by the last vestige of civilization blissfully ignorant on a pandering paradise of a cruise ship, every whim indulged with zero (actually, negative) progress as the result. And get this, the ship is called Axiom, where Wikipedia tells me, ‘is a proposition considered to be self evident.’
The iconic image of a charcoal horizon and two small figures, parent and child, pushing a cart of few, precious belongings through the snow is a powerful one. This is drama and struggle boiled down to the essence and only slightly, sparsely contrasted by warm moments at night in front of a low fire. Perhaps the polar opposite of most films of this type, (apocalyptic disaster) where the night is much more dangerous, here it is someone spotting you during the day that is the biggest danger, beyond starvation. Human encounters are the key danger which punctuate a journey to ‘the coast.’ A quest which hopefully has some sort of sanctuary for the emaciated duo. Alternating between the full blown horror of people butchering other people for food, to lone travelers that shuffle forward only because that is the only thing left to do. How each of these two encounters play out shows the poetry of The Road. The father wants his young son to be able to defend and fend for himself, but also (and perhaps more importantly) he needs to protect his son’s innocence as it is the only thing left keeping him from turning into one of the lost, blank foot shufflers. Even the suicide of his wife (cameo flashbacks feature a grave but gorgeous matron opting for the group suicide option many chose as the world went into its rocky slide into savagery in slow motion) is made bearable by the survival of his sons innocence and will to live. His flame. It is tough to watch The Road without comparisons to its slightly more affecting source novel, but there is still a exemplary film on offer here. A minimalist science fiction film that focuses on family and hope in the face of the collapse of society. See also Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, the films are remarkably similar.
Time Travel. Coming of Age. The End of the World. Richard Kelly is well known in his over-ambition. But when the studio forced him to trim down his debut film to the bone, it created a mysterious and elliptical mythology. One of the first and most significant cult films of the new millennium it crossed into the mainstream, endured a backlash and a dreadful ‘fully restored’ directors cut. Nevertheless, any film that has its characters go to a pre-Halloween double bill of Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ, debate Graham Green, expose the sexualization of pre-teens via popular culture, discuss smurf genitalia and have Patrick Swayze as an empowerment guru is doing something wonderful. The film has been read as a Christ allegory, an examination of determinism, and a nostalgic 1980s fantasy. Scott Tobias, of the Onion A.V. Club says it even better: “A dense and wonderfully stylized amalgam of genres and influences, Donnie Darko resists any clear definition, which is perhaps its most appealing quality. Is it the flip side of Blue Velvet, a blistering satire of Reagan-warped suburbia? Or is it an anarchic, Fight Club-style punk film about the impulse to tear down a corrupt world in order to build a new one? Is it mind-bending science fiction? An adolescent romance? Catcher In The Rye?” It is all of those things. It doesn’t tell, it evokes. More movies, both science fiction and otherwise could take a lesson from this so-called mess of a film.
I believe the director of Aeon Flux, Karyn Kusama, and her screenwriters did aim to move past the super-cool action extravaganza promised by its blockbuster mandate and into science fiction head-space (shades of the Matrix, which no doubt was in large part inspired by the original Aeon Flux cartoon series). She is somewhat successful here, riffing on the Crichton/Spielberg “Life will find a way,” Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four and the body modification of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. The end result is a fizzy and brightly coloured bubblegum version of its influences, but many of the images are memorable and the passion and misguided intentions of people to ‘evolve’ are dealt with in an interesting (if rather expository) way. It may be one of the weaker entries on this list, but do not be tempted to write this off (as it was at the time) as another post-Best-Actress Oscar disaster, a la Cat Woman.
With David Cronenberg’s recent efforts moving towards more traditional narratives, his last explicitly icky exercise in social science fiction coming in at the tale end of the 20th century with eXistenZ, it is a good thing we have Vincenzo Natali to pick up the (eye)ball and run with it. His science experiment, elegantly named Splice pushes the merging of genetic materials where mainstream hit The Fly left off. Wherein the anxieties of the 1980s, The fear of STDs (after all, the merging of Seth Brundle and an exterior ‘bug’ and the body decaying in a very explicit fashion) are updated to post-millennial parenting pressures. The number of social and medical choices which stress out the anxieties of expecting parents is one of the interesting paths that Splice unexpectedly wanders down. When two prominent geneticists start combining human and animal DNA on the side of their pharmaceutical research grant, their ‘baby’ proves to be as challenging as it is fascinating. It rapidly matures through a lot of physical changes, leaving the emotional and mental side of things rather left in the dust. Science and technology, say hello to the human race!
The Sky Crawlers
The world of The Sky Crawlers is a social and geographical fusion of 1950s America, Japan and Western Europe that favours propeller styled fighter planes along with satellite television, large multinational corporations and genetic science. While it is a time of apparent peace and prosperity, the large corporations conduct ‘real wars’ (mostly over the border ocean zones), televised of course, to placate any unrest or rebellion from the masses. Contrary to Orwell’s “1984″, where London is a perpetual war wreck and society fragmented and controlled, Oshii (and the writer of the original novel, Mori Hiroshi) postulate that for the most part, this ‘perpetual war’ has actually benefited society. Wars and equally importantly, all the social problems of an idyll, purposeless populace, involving real people can be avoided if they are fought in a fully manufactured way which has ‘real consequence’ built into the equation. The fighter pilots that fight for their parent corporations are of a genetically modified race who never age, fittingly called Kildren. Set in state of perpetual adolescence, they live to fight and pilot the fighter planes, and die for the entertainment and attention of the worlds citizens. The fact that this race is immortal otherwise, only ups the ante and the dramatic spectacle of flaming angels falling from the sky from the fantastic machines. “Somewhere, in a country similar to ours There are children who do not become adults. They are very similar to us.” The Sky Crawlers is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game melded to Kazuo Ishiguro’s with Never Let Me Go and it is bloody good science fiction for those with a little patience.
Richard Kelly, with his sophomore film, upped the ambition of the narrative, the politics, the kitsch imagery, and the religious noodling which made him a cult sensation with Donnie Darko to a pitch that deafens the all important humanity (which was a significant key to making Darko a hit) out of the equation. Maybe that is his point, but much like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, if you have a film which requires a world populated by crass imbeciles, you may just have shot yourself in the foot. Phillip K. Dick had to good sense to keep his people human, even as they were being slowly digested by the machine. In short, the writer/director’s insistence on keeping things messy makes it awful hard to keep any honest-to-goodness emotion (thus, interest) on the table. To say the narrative lacks focus, is an understatement of the highest order. So in the end, we are left with a zesty enterprise, signifying nothing other than the fact that US is going to hell in a hand-basket. Only in such a miasma of media saturation could a movie like Southland Tales be even possible. It is a bitter pill and we don’t have to like it, but there is no denying that it is a product of our times. I’m still waiting on that energy drink though – The Rock tells me that it is mighty tasty (its the electrolytes); but then who is to trust a schizophrenic movie star with political ties.
I actually rather loathe the execution of Steven Spielberg’s overly ambitious, but ultimately flawed science fiction drama. A blunt screenplay and some fairly clumsy narrative contrivances (not to mention the painfully obvious Pinocchio moments) mar what is otherwise an interesting tale of how parents value their biological children, to the point of wishful self-indulgence. When given the opportunity to replace their sick and in cryo-stasis child with an artificial surrogate, two clueless and shallow parents are left with a number of difficult decisions, and consistently choose the easy wrong path. Thus, audience empathy is (more or less) transferred to the robot who is on the verge of transcending into sentience. Spielberg throws in his usual whimsy, and also some over-indulgent action set-pieces before an awkwardly grafted on conclusion says something halfway between trite and vague. I am not saying that Kubrick would have handled this material any better, but there is something interesting at the core of this film struggling and ultimately failing to get out.
Now, bring on Never Let Me Go, Looper, A Topiary and Inception, three of brightest candidates as we push into the next decade. I am sure there are more on offering as science fiction filmmaking continues to break new and interesting ground in this still young century.