Columns / Discourse / September 28, 2011

Check the Reel: Sci-fi Renaissance

If you remember one thing about the Hollywood corporate system, remember this: studio executives are hardheaded bastards. They’ll fall upon some idea of what movie audiences want and stick with it through thick and thin. Well-reasoned arguments will not move them. Evidence to the contrary won’t make a dent. Hollywood only changes its mind when a big bag of money appears in front of them or is taken away, i.e. “Avatar” used 3D and made billions of dollars. Every movie should use 3D from now on! Often the second opinion ends up no better than the first.

Sometimes Hollywood gets it right, though. Case in point: their current, more sympathetic stance on the science fiction genre.

“Hold just a tick,” you say. “That can’t be true. Hollywood loves sci-fi, right? ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘The Matrix’, sci-fi is everywhere and audiences are eating it up!” Except, while these are sci-fi films, they belong to a soft, light version of a genre originally known for speculative, hard-hitting philosophy rather than the advent of bullet time.

Science fiction in its purest sense—the exploration of contemporary themes against a hypothetical, technological backdrop—has a rocky cinematic history. In the early nineteenth century, it was the strict domain of European filmmakers. “Le Voyage dans la lune” and “Metropolis,” two of the earliest great sci-fi yarns, were made by a Frenchman and German, respectively. The United States remained oblivious to this genre for almost fifty years, until developments in film technology and increased interest in the sciences led to a sci-fi boom in the decades after World War II, creating heady classics like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These works presented strange aliens and cold, aloof robots alongside questions about what distinguishes humans from technology and the universe around them.

In an ironic twist, “Star Wars” marked the death of this filmmaking era. Its roots in pulpy action and intrigue, along with the blockbuster-based studio system it helped usher in, delivered a crippling blow to speculative sci-fi. It became so only big-name directors like Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”) and Steven Spielberg (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “ET”, “Minority Report”) could dip their finger into the pot of mainstream, cerebral filmmaking, leaving others to settle with independent and foreign releases for their kung fu-free science fiction. This continued until a few years ago, until around the time Abrams rebooted “Star Trek” as a swashbuckling adventure that happened to be set in space. Hollywood found a new idea it couldn’t let go of.

Then a certain director named Christopher Nolan released a little movie called “Inception.” Hollywood began changing its mind.

While “Inception” featured plenty of breakneck action and visceral thrill, its premise—the existence of “dream thieves” who peddle their services for deceitful corporations while battling the inherent existential dilemmas of occupying a dream world—raised fascinating questions and broke new ground. A big-name film asking an audience to think at the same time it provides them with car chases and gunfights? And the film earned money?

The results were felt months later, when “The Adjustment Bureau” and “Source Code” were green-lit. One raises questions about free will and is an adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick short story. The other features ingenious use of technology to make us consider what constitutes personal identity and fate. In a typical Hollywood move, the lead actors in both are young and attractive big names, yet they possess enough talent to justify their looks. When each film fared more than sufficiently at the box office and earned critical respect, the new idea’s seed was planted: thoughtful science fiction earned a second lease on life.

This excites me beyond belief. There now exists a real possibility, a rising hope, that repeated successes along these lines will show Hollywood that filmgoers respond to intellectual simulation as much as exploding cars and female jiggly bits. It calls attention to a frequently undervalued genre and its artistic merits. It’s also one of the few film trends that promises to open up moviemaking opportunities rather than limit them.

We won’t see if this holds true until several more films are released—particularly Andrew Niccol’s spiritual sequel to “Gattaca,” “In Time,” and Scorsese’s take on the family sci-fi drama, “Hugo Cabret”—but if the stars align correctly and the horoscopes point to good luck, we just might have a science fiction renaissance, deep and thought provoking, on our hands.

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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