A Good Year For Sci-Fi?

Science fiction films of late have been somewhat lacking in the science fiction department.  In fact, due to the success of Independence Day, The Matrix and of course, Star Wars, the whole notion of science fiction has become somewhat blurred.  Of course, The Matrix is rife with quasi-religious cyberpunk stylings and spiritualism, but more memorable are its mammoth action set pieces and fight scenes.  So if anything, 2009 has been a year where we learned to appreciate that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, science fiction was more than explosions in space.

Three films spring to mind this year that have recieved general acclaim and all of these films are the works of talented filmmakers making their feature length debuts, or in JJ Abrams’ case, merely their second.  Indeed, Abrams’ formula for success with Star Trek borrows heavily from the aforementioned action films, and yet the reinvention of Star Trek  captured the imagination of cinema goers all around with its wonderful characterisation reigniting the failing star; an excellent step for a series that never really qualified as an acceptable subject in public discussion. Star Trek, always a cerebral entity, feels fresh, young and hip again, and as a flagship icon it can now evolve as a platform for allegorical science fiction where no well liked men have gone before.  And I didn’t even like Star Trek before I saw it.

Moon, the debut of Duncan Jones (I’m reminded by compulsion to mention he is David Bowie’s son, although he’s since proved that such trivia is unnecessary), was a highlight of the summer blockbuster season, offering a perfectly engineered alternative to the brash, throwaway bonanza’s that infiltrate the summer evenings – and became a savour for cinema against the corrupting nightmare of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  It featured the delight of Sam Rockwell giving two masterful, nuanced performances with pathos that equal or better his finest work.  Of course, Sam Rockwell wouldn’t be Sam Rockwell if – even when playing a serial killer – he made you want to become his best friend, although the kind of friend you’re sure is privy to an excellent joke that you aren’t.

The film, set on a lunar mining installation, hangs on his performance to succeed, yet it is much more than a film of performances: Moon is atmospheric and haunting, its ethereal score permeating the sterile white labs and corridors and the grayscale deserts outside – and with its commentary on themes of identity, corporate control and cloning, Moon works on the mind and the eye.  And it was made for only five million dollars – five million fucking dollars (not even five million pounds)!  It’s a fine work of fiction, a fine homage to the great works of science fiction like A Space Odyssey and Soylent Green, and a fine debut for someone clearly in control of such fine artistic talents.  I only hope the funding arrives for his next film, Mute.

Moon was not the only film to provide a visual and mental feast.  District 9, the thinly veiled allegory of apartheid – although it would be fair to add that its sentiments stretch outside of South Africa – was a knock out effort.  Neill Blomkamp, swindled alongside Peter Jackson on their prospective Halo movie, was given a budget and freedom to create a science fiction film with $30 million, and by god did he do well.  Despite certain shortcomings, District 9 was a film that delivered on its hype, providing us with thrills, scares and awe inspiring events that allowed an audience to enjoy an action romp and still be worked upon by the films more weighty themes of intolerance and xenophobia.  With its critical and commercial success, D9 proved that audiences were able to handle allegory and even take it to heart – many times I was asked whether I had seen that “film about apartheid,” before being assured it was very good.

Discussions about Star Trek’s sequel have begun appearing on media sites all around, and the writers seem to have reached the consensus that the follow up  – while of course living up to the spectacle and adventure that the first film delivered so well – should and will incorporate the franchises hallmarks of analogy and allegory,to some capacity.  That capacity better be wide enough to prove the point of this flippin post.  I hope they realise that their sequel bears a heavy burden now.  But more to the point, they hopefully realise that the franchise they are dealing with is not just important to the purile, insolent fans – who should be forgotten, by the way* – but to the science fiction genre itself.

Audiences have shown that they will respond to science fiction that talk to the mind as well as the eyes, D9 was one of the years most successful films, and Moon, despite a horrendous absence from all but a minority of theatres, was able to recoup its budget with ease.  Both were received well by critics and both were made for extremely tight and restrictive budgets.  Will Star Trek take up their mantle? Will it be a champion of a new age of science fiction? Or will Star Trek decline? Will it become simply another action blockbuster set in space?

I feel as though I’ve been spoiled already this year.  My hunger and thirst haven’t quite been clenched, but I won’t be greedy.  Greed would only stipulate the production of lesser films and expecting Avatar to be more than a humdrum retelling of Braveheart and a more respectable, yet ultimately arbitary work, the name of which escapes me right now, would border on gluttony.

*This should include fans of ANY to-be-adapted work. Nothing they say matters.  Nothing.

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