Was This the Summer that Saved Sci-Fi?
There were enough awful sci-fi movies this summer to leave discerning fans a little queasy about the state of the genre. Terminator: Salvation slumped out of the gate with an arsenal of clichés and hamfisted scripting. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra demonstrated a healthy appreciation for the idiosyncrasies of its namesake franchise and little else. And Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen plumbed as-yet-untouched depths in pandering and general brainlessness.
These are hardly shocking developments; the summer movie season has always been a dumping ground for well-polished and brain-atrophying cinematic turds. But nestled among these duds were four excellent films that injected much-needed life into sci-fi. Their unifying thread was a hearkening to the genre's roots which demonstrated its enduring power as a vehicle for incisive critique. What emerged this summer were the contours of a sci-fi renaissance.
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1) Star Trek
J.J. Abrams' slick movie reboot of the iconic Star Trek franchise is essentially a louder, flashier and sexed-up take on the '60s television show. While it eschews the series' usual M.O. of sci-fi-as-social-commentary, it's largely faithful to the source material and features a top-shelf ensemble cast. The film benefited from having the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine as its only box-office competition, but rave reviews and an impressive box-office haul speak to more than just a well-timed position in the summer release schedule.
Star Trek resurrects the idealistic flights of fancy of pre-'70s sci-fi, and offers us a compelling glimpse at what a multicultural (not to mention multicivilizational) utopian future might look like. And perhaps more importantly, this movie takes a franchise that's seemingly indelibly stamped with the scarlet letter of geekdom and gives it mass appeal. Five years ago, could you even have imagined Dr. Spock as a sex object? (If you're tripping over yourself to link everyone to your erotic Star Trek fan-fiction, please don't.)
Moon was shot on a microscopic budget, and it shows. There's no grandiose CGI, only a handful of claustrophobic-looking sets, and it leans heavily on Sam Rockwell's erudite acting to carry the film (stellar voiceover work from Kevin Spacey helps too.) But all these factors work to Moon's advantage, not the other way around. It's a smart, well-executed sci-fi flick that stands out precisely because it's not a special-effects-saturated space opera.
By virtue of the lunar setting (the Earth's backyard), the movie's handling of issues like energy consumption and encroaching corporate omnipresence have added gravity. Moon grapples with some weighty concepts, as good sci-fi should; the best examples of the genre use science and technology to ask difficult questions about the human condition. Like 2001 and Blade Runner, Moon is all the more vital because its vision of the future seems very possible.
3) Cold Souls
Like Moon, Cold Souls is a brainy piece of semirealistic sci-fi that quickly became a critical darling thanks to a swarm of positive buzz. In this relentlessly somber and mildly dystopic "what-if" tale, souls can be extracted from the human body, stored and traded like any other commodity. Philosophy and theology mostly take a backseat to Paul Giamatti's virtuosity with the scowl, wince and stammer, but the film still makes more than a few witty jabs at consumerism, the malleability of identity in modern society, and whether artistic integrity is an objective concept or a comforting delusion.
4) District 9
With District 9, first-time director Neill Blomkamp crafted a thinking-person's summer blockbuster on a budget that Michael Bay could burn up in a week. And Sony knew they had a winner on their hands; the viral-marketing campaign for the movie began more than a year before its release. Despite the dearth of big names attached to the project (save Peter Jackson as producer), and virtually no media attention until about a month before it debuted, District 9 managed to rack up enough critical acclaim to be one of the best-reviewed flicks of the year.
Blomkamp made the canny decision to set his morality tale in the country of his birth, South Africa, a country scarred by intersecting extremes of racial tension, violence, economic inequality and corporate malfeasance. But District 9 is more than a first-order allegory for Apartheid; its masterstroke is an unflinching portrayal of human cruelty. It forces us to confront our enduring xenophobia and tribalism, mercilessly meted out against an oppressed and (literally) alien "other."
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None of these movies are perfect: Star Trek's glib self-awareness borders on smarmy in parts, and it was easy to be disappointed by District 9's third-act transition into a by-the-numbers action flick. But they're still great examples of sci-fi that can handle the delicate balancing act of thoughtful genre fiction that maintains its appeal outside of the prickly core audience of devotees.
In their own ways, each of these movies proves there's a vibrant artistic edge to a genre that's been home to ever-increasing numbers of "safe bet" merchandizing bonanzas. And all of them enjoyed excellent critical reception and good or great box-office returns, meaning that there's both an audience and a market for these kinds of films. So maybe sci-fi never really needed saving. Maybe it just needed to rediscover its brains—and its soul.