Science-fiction film: Are we on the cusp of a golden age?
District 9 is just one of many classics of recent years
Welcome to a new column called Geek Speak, in which we take on an aspect of geek culture each week.
Pacific Rim, a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters, is about to open in hundreds of theaters nationwide, released by a major studio and accompanied by a gigantic ad campaign. It's at least the fourth blockbuster sci-fi film this year, and if you count superhero fare as science fiction, then you can add two more. Throw in smaller releases and that number doubles. Between now and the end of the year, that number will double again, at least. That's no anomaly, either -- look back a few years and you'll find the same pattern. Science fiction movies are more mainstream than they have ever been, and there's no end in sight.
Even better, a surprising number of them are really fucking good.
Not most of them, mind you, but a lot. In the last five years alone, we've seen the release of half a dozen future classics, minimum. In 2009 alone we got District 9, Moon, The Road and the Star Trek reboot, not to mention Avatar and a handful of other good, if not quite great, films such as Splice. The years between then and now brought Inception, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Source Code, Super 8, Chronicle, Looper and The Hunger Games, just to name a few of the best, with dozens of other solid films ranking just behind them. For fans of the genre, it's beginning to seem as if we're on the cusp of a new golden age of science fiction film.
If you haven't seen Looper yet, you are missing out.
All of those films are top-notch entertainment. Even better, a good number of them also dig deeper into the places that only the best science fiction can, using aliens and the unknown not just as spectacle, but as a unique way to pose questions about the human condition. District 9 dealt masterfully with racism and South Africa's history of apartheid, all in the context of great sci-fi action film. Moon dealt with the ethics of human cloning, corporate malfeasance and even what it means to be human -- wrapped in a lunar mystery. Looper offered a stirring meditation on fate versus free will via a time-travel story. These kinds of science fiction movies have traditionally been few and far between, but the past five years have offered a generous bounty of thinking man's science fiction.
Sure, there's also been plenty of stupid shit like Transformers and Battleship, but when has there ever been a shortage of terrible garbage from Hollywood, regardless of genre? That doesn't detract from the good stuff. And just to be clear, we're not there yet: We've had a great five-year run, and if the next five years can match or even top them, then we'll be looking back at the teens as the best period of science fiction film ever. The real question is, will it continue?
The good news is the pieces are all in place. There are three reasons that the past five years, and to a lesser degree the five years before that, have been such a fertile period for the genre. The first is technical: It's simply easier now to make a good-looking science fiction film than it ever has been before. As much as people like to piss and moan about CGI, the truth is it's good and getting better every day, and it's allowing people to make the science fiction films of their imaginations real without cutting corners or costing more than the GDP of a small South American country. That's a trend that is only going to continue, and it can only mean good things for science fiction fans.
More important than any advances in effects technology is the simple fact that some of the most talented and in-demand directors of the current era are drawn to science fiction film. Blockbuster mainstream directors like Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and James Cameron working within the genre are just the tip of the iceberg. There's also the inner circle of genre stars, including JJ Abrams, Guillermo Del Toro and Joss Whedon, who are all currently doing their best work. Throw in the next generation of rising stars like Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), Neill Blomkamp (District 9, the upcoming Elysium) and Rian Johnson (Looper), and it's easy to be positive about the future of science fiction film.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is that audiences are receptive to science fiction. It's no longer seen as a novelty, or as kids' stuff, to film-going audiences. The truth is, most of them grew up loving that "kids' stuff" and have come to expect it as just part of their normal entertainment budget. That means that Hollywood is willing to spend the big money for big films, even if they aren't named Star Wars or Star Trek, and that even smaller studios know that they can take a chance on science fiction with the knowledge that not only is there an audience for ray guns and space wizards, but also for more intellectual fare. When Lars Von Trier can make a science fiction film, it's safe to say that the genre is finally shaking free of its reputation for triviality and becoming recognized as a legitimate arena in which to make serious film, and that's a damn good sign for the next few years, and the genre as a whole. The next generation of young directors coming up will know that making a sci-fi film isn't necessarily going to pigeonhole them into making Star Wars knock-offs for the rest of their careers, which could lead to some incredible risk-taking and groundbreaking films that embrace the more intellectual and emotional side of science fiction, putting the real gold in this hoped for golden age.
Don't worry: We'll still gets lots of giant robots fighting giant monsters, so everybody wins.
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