A short time ago in a galaxy pretty much right here, I remember getting into an online debate over the state of Cinema Sci-Fi. This was about the time that Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) finally arrived on home video (I had missed it theatrically), and – like the critics – viewers were trying to figure out what to make of it.
My contention – at the time and it remains to this day – is that Sunshine was pretty good Sci-Fi. Not perfect. Little that we get rarely is. The problem the audience had with it was that – given what develops in the film’s last half – many dismissed it as some kind of glorified “slasher in space” movie. (FYI: Jason Voorhees had already done that in Jason X circa 2002.) The point I argued was that to reduce the film to its lowest common denominator – to simply accept the violence as bloodshed for the sake of bloodshed – dramatically distorts the underlying message of the film.
What was that message?
Well, (again, in my opinion) I thought Sunshine very smartly supposed that protracted isolation in an environment wherein man isn’t at the top of the food chain might very well produce the psychosis highlighted in the film’s second half. Clearly, Alex Garland’s script confronts the “man out of his element” premise head-on so many times from so many perspectives I can’t understand how most folks missed it; but a less than $4M domestic (US) gross probably says more about what audiences want in their Sci-Fi than I ever could. (I say this on-the-heels of Transformers 4 making another kajillion at the box office. Blech.)
The central point of my argument was that there is some very, very, very, very, very good Science Fiction worth watching at home if and only if you’re willing to go out and find it. What need not look any further than the Sandra Bullock smash Gravity to know that smart stories find a way to enrapture viewers, but not every film need budget $100M to do it. (FYI: Sunshine was budgeted at circa $45M per IMDB’s stats converted from pounds to dollars.)
In order to save you the research, let me give you a few examples. I encourage you to check these out knowing full well that these may not be your cup of Raktajino but I defy you to tell me that they aren’t (A) smart and (B) Sci-Fi.
Europa Report (2013). Again, I think audiences didn’t quite know what to make of this story. Basically, it treads thematic ground similar to the aforementioned Sunshine but the risks aren’t as galactic: the first manned mission to Jupiter’s fourth largest moon encounters ‘something’ once they arrive, but it isn’t quite what they expected. While it would be easy to dismiss it as a contemporary monster movie, Europa Report actually spends quality screen time exploring these characters and the events they experience together. Sure, the ending is what it is (there’s no changing that), but it’s also a fitting reminder that Outer Space is undoubtedly going to be populated with one unknown after another: the first folks to come face-to-face with those mysteries are likely to suffer the same fate as these explorers.
Upstream Color (2013). The number of people (online) who have beat me over the head for loving this picture just astounds me. Am I such a bad guy for wanting my Sci-Fi to occasionally have something heartfelt to say about us, as a species? Upstream Color explores what happens when one man and one woman find themselves ‘connected’ in ways far too fringe to describe, but their connection leads them to put their (and others’) lives back together in ways that transcend even the extraordinary. Methinks pacing is the problem – everyone wants to know what’s going on as events unfold because that’s half the battle to appreciating a great story – and Upstream Color functions on a different level. It rewards its audience for its patience. Granted, some may be disappointed with what they learn come the big finish (which is actually a smaller, quieter, gentler finish), but the brilliance once more is in the journey, not the destination.
Vanishing Waves (2012). Even I’ll admit that I found this one a bit hard-to-digest in the finish. Without spoiling anything, I tend to think that writer/director Kristina Buozyte’s script took this wonderfully ‘heady’ idea and reduced it to some rather obvious, soapy finish in its last reel; but there was so much going on with the previous 100 minutes or so that I didn’t mind the convention climax. The basic premise explores the joining of two minds – one a scientist and one a coma victim – and the secrets that are uncovered along the way. Sometimes, there’s something vindicating when Sci-Fi gets linked back to more mainstream plots; it shows those folks that maybe we’re not all that different after all. Great visuals, but be warned that the pacing is slow.
The Machine (2013) has certainly enjoyed a lot of art-house praise, which unfortunately tends to be a bad thing for most Sci-Fi films. What you have is the story of two brilliant artificial intelligence engineers working together in a race to assemble tomorrow’s super-soldier, but government forces end up seizing the project for their own gains. But what happens when the genetic army decides it doesn’t like what the powers that be have planned? The visuals are good (though a bit too theatrical to make sense – I mean, what scientist wants to work in a lab so poorly lit?), as are the performances (Caity Lotz is impressive as the next generation of cyborg); but you’ll probably see more influences of other great films in it than you will any original ideas.
Sleep Dealer (2008). This one is a bit harder to come by (FYI: it’s a relatively low-budget Spanish/English spoken language production); I had to order mine from an online dealer as to my knowledge it’s never had widespread distribution in the US. Even though some of the effects work for this $2.5M flick aren’t exactly up-to-snuff, its story is all the more captivating. In the near future, big countries are able to outsource even their most difficult jobs to Third World nations whose workers are outfitted with Matrix-like sockets allowing them to plug-in from anywhere and operate robots and drones to do the job. However, one young man uncovers a conspiracy that puts his life and that of his family at risk. In my opinion, the downside to the flick is that its writer/director Alex Rivera used the flick to shuck his political views; I simply ignored the politics, and I found myself totally digging the world he created.
Seriously, I could go on and on ad infinitum with recommendations, but I hope you catch my drift.
There are some very good films out there worth your time; they just aren’t going to be as predictable or as accessible as the latest Michael Bay, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, or Stanley Kubrick wannabe. (FYI: I tend to think Kubrick’s overrated, myself. And it’s been a long time since Spielberg made anything I’d sit through twice. So sue me.) The difference as I see it between the films I’ve cited above and what I’d christen to be lesser quality, more mainstream Sci-Fi is that these stories are generally big on ideas, big on characters, and maybe a bit lower on special effects, pyrotechnics, and the like. Leave me with something to think about. Leave me with characters I cared about. Most importantly leave me with something to my imagination: don’t think you’ve got to show everything that CGI can do because there’s something to be said for pieces things together in our minds.
The brain is, after all, the best instrument for discovery we’ve found yet.
See, I tend to admire pictures that present honest-to-God scenarios at their heart instead of chattering robots, carnivorous aliens, or yet one more reason to undo the Kennedy assassination. To each his own, but there is something to be said for trying something different from time to time. And me? I tend to get swept up in tales that not only boldly take me where no one (or few) have gone before but also then show me a damn good reason to have gone there in the first place.