Science Fiction has been with us for as long as we’ve had cinema. Méliès made his Trip to the Moon, Lang built and displayed his dystopian Metropolis and Jules Verne’s rich science fiction novels fed into cinema’s early efforts to showcase the fantastical.
Thankfully, cinema’s relationship with science fiction has also generally proved to be intelligent and thought-provoking. Spectacle, as with the disaster epics of Irwin Allen’s 1970’s heyday, has always had its place, but alongside that films as diverse as Planet of the Apes, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Metropolis, Soylent Green and Invasion of the Body Snatchers gave us much to consider about human nature, society and our relationship with our fragile planet.
More recently, Independence Day, Armageddon, War of the Worlds, Mars Attacks, Men in Black and even more sci-fi inflected comic book entries like Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, The Avengers and Man of Steel have persevered with bombast and retina-searing set pieces, but there has been a resurgence too of intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction.
It’s not simply a question of whether the scale or imagery of the films makes us say “Wow!”, it’s whether there is something profound or important is being said about the human condition in the process. Roland Emmerich can keep demolishing famous landmarks, but it doesn’t give us food for thought, any more than Michael Bay laying waste to millennia-old Egyptian pyramids. With War For the Planet of the Apes hitting our screens to rave reviews, it gets us to thinking – what are some of the more eye-opening, mind-opening science fiction films of recent years?
Neill Blomkamp has seemed to have spent the time since District 9 proving the law of diminishing returns, with Elysium and Chappie each successively inferior to his previous output. Whatever merit those films have, Blomkamp’s debut remains a scintillating one and very much a textbook example of intelligent 21st century science fiction.
Drilling down into the racial, historical and social problems that beset his South African homeland, Blomkamp uses an alien arrival (not an invasion) to comment on apartheid, racism, ignorance, refugees and compassion. Sharlto Copley’s prawn-hating administrator finds out the hard way what it means to suddenly be an outsider and lose one’s place in the world and all of the assumed rights and privileges that go with that place.
We see venal human opportunism, we see xenophobia, we see corruption, we see inhumanity and we see hope, compassion and courage. We also see big-ass guns, gore-filled explosions and enough f-bombs to well and truly earn that 15 certificate. It is a thrilling film, with the action beats hitting harder and meaning more because of the hard work done to develop characters, human and alien, about whom we care.
With its consideration of isolation, a doleful but human-sounding computer and over-arching themes of existence, survival and identity, Moon has more than a whiff of the none-more-iconic 2001 about it. Except it is (a) very much its own creature and (b) miles better than the (whisper it) interminably dull and full-of-self-importance Kubrick film it appears to draw upon thematically.
Duncan Jones (much like Blomkamp) has struggled and failed to match the quality of his debut, despite plenty of interesting elements in his follow-ups. Moon is disarming in its structural and conceptual simplicity and certainly lacks the eventfulness of many of its peers, but that simply provides space for the film’s ideas to breathe and for us to contemplate what is happening and what it means.
Sam Rockwell should have had far more starring roles with so much eye-catching talent characterizing his supporting work in Galaxy Quest, The Green Mile, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens, Matchstick Men and The Assassination of Jesse James…. but he remains resolutely off the radar, likely inadequately heralded until he eventually passes and everyone starts to say, “oh he was in that too, I forgot he was in that, he’s great!”
Here he delivers an immaculate case study in self-realisation, intelligence and determination, working with little more than a sterile echoing set and Kevin Spacey’s disembodied voice.
Rise/Dawn/War – The 21st CenturyPlanet of the Apes Trilogy
The action elements have increased and the quality of the CGI and performance capture has improved film by film for this phenomenally accomplished franchise, but the intelligence and subtext have remained steadfastly front and centre too. Adding bleeding-edge technological advances to the already intelligent and nuanced 1968 film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes delivered a plausible development of simian intelligence alongside a corresponding downswing for humankind’s welfare. Commentary on man’s inhumanity, as well as wide-ranging consideration of what it means to be humane, in community, kind, savage and civilised all have found expression across three engrossing, engaging and thrilling films.
Whether it is the crushing weight on James Franco of the mental deterioration of his father, or the monstrous cruelty of Tom Felton’s
Malfoy Landon, or the heartbreak suffered by Caesar as he sees the treatment meted out to his kin, time is taken by each film so that we feel the weight of what is happening, rather than the director and editor rushing on to show off the latest CGI miracle they’ve achieved.
Denis Villeneuve looks to be a director on the up and up, delivering phenomenal work across an already impressively eclectic range of genres. Sicario, Arrival and Prisoners have already showcased his deftness with all sorts of intelligent, complex material but Arrival is arguably his masterpiece, at least until we get to see what he’ll do with his follow up to Ridley Scott’s none-more-lauded sci-fi opus, Blade Runner.
Arrival, like Moon, is marked out by its lack of bombast. There are no big set pieces, no scenes of large-scale destruction, just a film that is happy to take its time, inviting us to draw close, pay attention, invest and then enjoy the rich pay-off.
Considering the heptapods that do the titular arriving spend the entire film out of focus, Villeneuve does a phenomenal job of investing them with personalities and weight and when the film eventually delivers on its promise we realise that it has even more to say than we thought about memory, pain, loss, fate, free will and purpose. It is, once again, an intelligent consideration of all that it means to be human.
More light-hearted than any film on this list, though no less powerful in its more affecting moments, The Martian showcased a rarely appreciated lightness of touch from director Ridley Scott and Matt Damon’s under-utilised comedic chops.
Whether it was swearing across the vast empty spaces of our solar system, dissing disco music, or renaming himself as a space pirate, Damon’s eponymous Martian was the heart and soul of this incredibly refreshing film. As opposed to what is often put forward in less nuanced sci-fi offerings, brute strength and military might do not win the day on this occasion. Instead, it is brains, intellect, determination, creativity, inventiveness. Be the smartest guy in the room and apply that brainpower towards problem solving.
Director Ridley Scott bookended this superior offering with two lacklustre Alien entries, both of which had far more incident, but far less intelligence, heart or nuance than The Martian, which given the depth, calibre and intelligence showcased in the first Alien film is itself a crying shame.
Sometime the intelligence in a film is less to do with a complicated narrative, or the PhD in astro-physics that is needed to make sense of the film, than it is to do with the questions that the film forces us to consider and the moral dimensions it encompasses. Spielberg is of course no fool and is a decades-long master of intelligent blockbuster delivery, but with Minority Report he also had the benefit of Philip K. Dick’s source material and all of the pre-determinative shades of grey it lined up for Spielberg to then deftly execute.
Again, it is not a film without flaws, but that is not the point. This is not a matter of faultless film-making but of intelligent, thought-provoking, adventurous crafting. Do the pre-cogs see what someone means to do, or what they will do? What does it mean to punish someone for something they have not yet done? Tom Cruise communicates a (these days) rarely-seen weakness and conflictedness as Anderton and perfectly sells the film’s pivotal moment, when he must decide whether to thwart the USP of the programme by refusing to do what the pre-cogs saw him do, or commit the crime that he actually turns out to desperately want to commit.
As Jeff Daniels rightly elucidated in the superlative Looper (more on that later), think about this stuff too much and you’ll fry your brain like an egg – the pre-cog vision propelled Anderton towards the room where he met Leo, so didn’t the vision put him there, rather than his own impulse? How can Anderton be held guilty for a crime that he was only able and willing to commit because the pre-cog vision sent him down that path? Yeah, like I said…..
There is a lot to digest here, specifically to do with fate, character, morality, punishment and forgiveness. Great, important themes, deftly handled by a director working near the top of his game.
Nolan’s Interstellar seems to still be dividing critics and audiences, even a few years on from its release. Some rank it at the top of his CV, others consider it to be a carbuncle on the bottom of his resumé. Certainly the tesseract/time-travel elements were a strain on the grey-matter, but rather than merely a very clever story (which we know Nolan can always deliver), here Nolan also gave us some much-needed heart and soul, as McConaughey’s Cooper openly wept at the years of his daughter’s life that he had forever lost and experienced genuine anguish at leaving her despite her protestations, knowing that to do so meant to save her life at the cost of their relationship.
Much thought and work went into the configuring of the (largely theoretical) astronomical constructs featured in Interstellar – the wormhole and then the black hole Gargantua on the other side – but there is also a rigorous intelligence about the script and story-telling, with time being treated as the relative phenomenon that it really is and gravity wreaking havoc on the mission and the people struggling to complete it. Whether or not the film “works” for everyone is secondary (at least for these immediate purposes) to whether the film is intelligent and ambitious, which it patently is.
Any idiot can blow up the White House, or reduce the Golden Gate Bridge to mangled metal shards. But science fiction that can touch our hearts while giving us a layman’s introduction to Einsteinian relativity is precious indeed.
Looper is great, great, great. Director Rian Johnson seems to be preternaturally gifted and after the 1, 2, 3 of this, The Brothers Bloom and Brick earned himself a dream gig – this year’s The Last Jedi. Looper is undoubtedly his fullest and most challenging film yet, with time travel always throwing up its fair share of paradoxes and narrative challenges. Johnson navigates them with aplomb, delivering a story that makes sense and affects in equal measure. He clearly has buckets of ideas, both narrative and stylistic, and here showcases both with equal success.
He navigates the initial expositional dump without getting bogged down, he covers the time travel elements without having to get Michael York to tell us to just sit back and not worry about anything and in one breathtaking set piece kills off the older version of one time-travelling character by mutilating the younger version. And all within a world populated by Loopers, TKs and The Rainmaker (cf Brick for Johnson’s love of nicknames) that mark it out as a distinctive and instantly recognisable universe with its own rules and robust internal logic.
Joe (Gordon-Levitt or Willis, take your pick) wrestles with his own destiny, the consequences for him and others of the life he has committed to and his love for the woman who saved his life and gave him a reason to hope. An almost unrecognisable Emily Blunt gives a great performance as a strong but tender mother, unsure as to what to do with her child, not understanding who or what he is, but committing to protect him regardless – unconditional love versus trying to re-write the future – such extraordinarily weighty themes are covered with an almost inconceivable deftness of touch.