The State of Sci-fi Movies

2013 was a bad year for sci-fi. There were a lot of sci-fi films with potential that just didn’t pay off. I saw a few of them in the theater and none were really satisfying.

I went to see Oblivion because a group of friends was going and I like my friends more than I dislike Tom Cruise. And while I admire Oblivion’s restraint in the action and pacing departments, the script was riddled with the screenwriting equivalent of explosions: dumb, pointless plot twists. None of it made any sense but they were hoping the audience wouldn’t notice in the moment.

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I wish this had been an Elder Scrolls movie instead. Also, the actress on the left looks like Chell from Portal. A Poral movie would have also been preferable.

Most of the group thought it was okay. A few thought it was boring and a few liked it outright. But I’m guessing that all of them have virtually forgotten about it now. I haven’t because I found it so offensively vapid and boring that it kind of stuck with me. That’s what you call ironic.

I had high hopes for the sequel to the 2009 semi-reboot of Star Trek. I cordially like the 2009 movie even though there’s not a lot going on under the surface, it still did a lot of things right.

I cannot say the same for Star Trek Into Darkness. I hated this one. I don’t mean to be a hater, but I can’t help it. Instead of a proper story (Star Trek-appropriate or otherwise) we got a set of action scenes, references to older, better Star Trek stuff, and Benedict Cumberbatch playing a character named Khan who wasn’t anything like Khan.

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Borrowed pathos – this movie tries to invoke the feelings stirred by the best moments from old Star Trek and fails miserably

Into Darkness is bad on almost all non-technical levels. I have so many problems with this film that it’s not even worth going into. The screenwriters thought they were being clever by ripping off Star Trek II – the real Star Trek II. Sometimes reusing ideas works but here it just comes off as bad imitation. And it’s imitation without purpose or thought.

If I judge the movie on its own merits, it’s not very good. It’s shallow and empty and doesn’t do as much with the characters as Star Trek 2009 did. But if I judge it as part of the greater Star Trek canon (and the writers seem to be begging me to do this with their constant references and callbacks) then it’s a horrible, derivative mess. I left the theater offended and annoyed.

I had a passing interest in Elysium, the sophomore effort from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, but I lost the interest as soon as I saw the trailer. Reviews and word-of-mouth affirmed my lack of interest. Detractors cite its heavy-handed political commentary as a negative. I have no problem – theoretically – with movies that borrow current political issues for themes, but I have rarely seen it done well. Subtly is the name of the game. In Elysium it was not subtle unless I was very deceived by the trailer and other commentators.

My biggest sci-fi hope for the year was Gravity. I already talked about that in another post. If anything, my feelings about the movie have further cooled since I’ve seen it. I really don’t care if I ever see it again. It had no story. I didn’t really even have ideas. It also failed to connect with me emotionally. It was just a ride. If I want that sort of experience, I’ll go play a video game where I have some level of input into what’s happening.

There’s quite a few smaller sci-fi films I didn’t see but I indent to. I fully admit it’s possible there was a really good sci-fi this year that slipped under the radar. But the big names disappointed.

Fortunately, 2014 will bring us some more sci-fi movies with potential. Hopefully more of these will turn out well.

Christopher Nolan’s longtime director of photography, Wally Pfister, is taking the reigns of his first movie. Transcendence starring Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall is ostensibly about the technological singularity – a theoretical event where artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. This has been a plot point in a lot of fiction before, but Transcendence will attempt to guess what this might look like in the not-too-distant future of our modern world. Check out the trailer below.

Again, I don’t want to be a naysayer, but I am highly skeptical of the film industry’s ability to handle technology – and particularly artificial intelligence – in an interesting or remotely realistic way. It doesn’t happen very much.

I have two major problems with this trailer. One: the movie purports to be about the singularity but the plot actually seems to be centered around a character uploading his consciousness into a computer. That’s really not an exploration of superintelligent AI then, is it?

My bigger problem is that the whole thing seems to devolve into stupid action tropes by the end. There are lots of other ways an advanced AI would change the world besides causing lots of violence. We’ve seen computers go rogue before. The computer being evil twist has been done in countless other films. I was really hoping for something new and different.

I don’t have a problem with action movies – I really don’t. I have a problem with action films passing themselves off as something more intelligent when there’s really nothing to them. Why do so many sci-fis also have to be action movies? Why can’t they just be about ideas and characters and choices? Why can’t they be subtle and take their time anymore?

I really hope the trailer is just showing all the action to get people into the theater and that the movie itself is actually a lot more thoughtful than it appears here.

But I doubt it.

A bit more promising is the new X-men film: Days of Future Past. I’m cheating a little with this one. It’s probably more of a superhero film than a sci-fi, but since the plot revolves around time travel I’m going to say it’s close enough.

I really like this trailer a lot. Why? Because it’s about characters rather than action. I can sort of sense where the movie might be going, but I haven’t had the plot explained to me with clunky, pieced-together exposition. It makes me way more excited to see this movie than if it had just been a bunch of mutants fighting each other.

I always say X-men has the best central conflict of the big name superhero franchises. It’s great because our villain (Magneto) is right about human nature but his methods are morally wrong whereas our hero (Professor Xavier) is a bit overly optimistic – maybe a little naive – about humanity but his methods are morally admirable.

It’s easy to see how Xavier might have become jaded and hopeless after being betrayed by Magneto and crippled in X-men: First Class. It seems like it’s up to Patrick Stewart’s Professor X to redeem James McAvoy’s Professor X and restore sanity to the future. Or something like that.

The X-men film timeline is a bit of a mess right now. I’m not sure if they’re intending to fix that with a time travel story, but I like the idea of getting all these great actors in one movie.

And finally we have a sci-fi film from Christopher Nolan called Interstellar. Inception was arguably a sci-fi movie, but functionally it was more of a dressed-up heist film than anything else. This time around it looks like we’re going full science fiction – in space!

Interstellar is about… we’re not really sure yet. It’s a Christopher Nolan film and it’s a year away so details are scant. The teaser trailer provides very little information; in fact it’s mostly stock footage. Sadly, there is no space.

I’m up for a movie about interstellar travel and wormholes. Nolan’s films have been generally pretty grounded so it’ll be interesting to see how things go and what it’s all about.

Here’s hoping that 2014’s science fiction is more thoughtful than 2013’s!

Gravity

This summer was a disappointing time for films. Thankfully award season has started. From now until the end of the year is our best chance for movies that hit that sweet spot of artistic integrity and entertainment value.

Most people seem to think Gravity is the epitome of that. Naturally, I disagree.

Let me start by saying I was reallyreallyreallyreally excited for this movie. I love space. I grew up reading books about NASA and the space program. I love space movies. I’m a real sucker for them. I’ll enjoy the space stuff even if there’s not a great movie surrounding it.

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I can say that Gravity is the best sci-fi of the year. It’s not inane and stupid like Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s not “just for fun” like Pacific Rim. And it isn’t preachy like Elysium.

So how is it, actually?

It’s very, very, very pretty. Look at that space! Space! Space!

The movie is an absolute marvel of visual effects and cinematography. The “camera” takes full advantage of the freedom provided by a zero-gravity environment. This leads to some lengthy free-flowing shots including the thirteen minute opening shot. Very impressive stuff.

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Also impressive is the sound design. I love it when there’s no sound in space, but so few movies respect this basic scientific fact. Gravity cleverly maintains scientific accuracy here. It’s only completely silent a few times. Elsewhere, the silence of space is covered by radio chatter, breathing noises, the muffled sounds of objects contacting the astronauts’ suits, and an effective score. Fair enough.

I willingly saw this movie in 3D.

That never happens.

I’ve been an avowed 3D hater for years now, but I read in all the reviews that it was worthwhile so I gave it a shot. I worried during the previews that I’d made a huge mistake. For example, the preview for The Hobbit gave me a headache. It was way over the top. And maybe it was because my eyes adjusted or maybe the effect was more subtle in Gravity but I was actually fine with it. I would be interested to see the movie again in good ol’ 2D just for comparison, but I don’t regret seeing the 3D version at all.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star as astronauts who become stranded in space. The acting is good as you would expect from these two though I wonder if it might have been less distracting to have had lesser-known actors filling the space suits.

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George Clooney is playing George Clooney. He’s charming and fun to watch. He’s also a hugely comforting presence in a very frightening situation. That both helps and harms the film. Bullock is the real star here. I’ve heard lots of people rave about her acting here and I find no fault in it, but it didn’t blow me away either. I never stopped seeing her as an actress in a movie.

I think the problem was the writing. In terms of dialogue – there’s not much of it, but there are things that really bothered me. Bullock’s Dr. Stone gets a bit of backstory that I didn’t connect with at all. It came off as a desperate attempt to get the audience to care about her. The film didn’t need that. I would feel sorry for my worst enemy if they were drifting alone in space. That is a completely terrifying thought.

The other distracting “problem” is the scientific accuracy. It’s really, really good in most places, but there are some egregious deviations from reality that, depending on how much you know about physics and space travel, may really pull you out of the movie.

Director Alfonzo Cuarón has freely admitted Gravity is not about being scientifically accurate. Some concessions needed to be made in order to tell the story. Okay, that’s fine. But there’s really not much of a story to tell. It’s a very basic survival story and that’s fine. But for me it isn’t a happy medium. I would have personally preferred either more science or more story.

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For whatever reason, the film never really pulled me in. It is gorgeous to look at but felt distant from it most of the time. There were only a couple times I felt frightened or concerned. It didn’t ask me to invest much and I didn’t get much out of it. It was a fun ride. But it was just a ride.

Nevertheless, Gravity is absolutely worth seeing and I’m glad it’s done as well as it has at the box office. But for me it simply isn’t the transcendent experience I was led to expect and that other people are apparently having. In terms of effects and cinematography it breaks new ground, but it falls short of inspiring my imagination like other science fiction of the past.