Saturday, February 20, 2010

An Uncommonly Good Year For Sci-Fi

I love science-fiction movies. Alien, Starman, Blade Runner, The Matrix: to me, these are great movies, not just great sci-fi movies. But loving this genre means sitting through a lot of flicks that are either mediocre or turkey-fodder.

Many (maybe most) science-fiction movies fall short somehow. Either the special-effects are poor (an added difficulty for the genre), the acting is bad, the story is weak, or there’s just a general lack of originality.

However, in 2009 I saw four exceptional science-fiction movies. That's a lot of sci-fi goodness in one year. They were all very different from each other, and each could be said to represent a common sci-fi movie sub-genre: Deep Thought, Creature-Feature, Space-Adventure, and Special-Effects Spectacle.

Moon

  • Sub-genre: Deep Thought
  • Sub-genre characteristics: troubled humans wrestling with existential questions in a high-tech setting
  • Example: 2001

Story:

Sam Bell has been overseeing a mining operation on the Moon for three years, helped only by an advanced computer system. Just when he is about to go home, he has an accident and things get seriously weird.

Why I like it:

Because it’s a perfect movie.
The role of Sam Bell was written specifically for Sam Rockwell and his performance is flawless. I loved Rockwell in the very funny Galaxy Quest, but here he shows some serious, dramatic acting chops.

The story is original, intelligent and suspenseful. And while it moves at a slower pace than more action-oriented science-fiction fare, it’s never boring.

Finally, on a 5 million dollar budget, director Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie) and his crew have crafted a completely believable world that pays homage to old-school sci-fi like 2001, Silent Running and Solaris, without being derivative.

I really cannot emphasize enough how good this movie is. Just see it. Please.

District 9

  • Sub-genre: Creature-Feature
  • Sub-genre characteristics: alien critters, gore
  • Example: Predator

Story:

In 1982, a group of disheveled aliens become stranded on Earth near Johannesburg, South Africa. They are confined to a ghetto (District 9). Years later the government tries to evict them and problems arise: especially for Wikus, the man in charge of the operation.

Why I like it:

Because it manages to say something about xenophobia, corporate greed and human nature while splattering lots of blood and goo.

District 9 has a raw, documentary feel that is rare in sci-fi movies. The gritty setting, the dark humour mixed with horror, the fabulously icky alien “prawns”, and the fact that it’s set in South Africa (with its shadow of apartheid) make this movie stand out.

Also, newcomer Sharlto Copley as Wikus is a real find: he plays an uncommonly unlikeable main character that convincingly goes from racist buffoon to anguished victim of circumstance.

Star Trek (2009)

  • Sub-genre: Space-Adventure
  • Sub-genre characteristics: lots of space ships and space battles
  • Example: everything Star Trek and Star Wars

Story:

A strange, Romulan ship appears and wreaks havoc in the Starfleet universe. 25 years later it's up to Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew (all just out of school) to save the day.

Why I like it:

Because it's an excellent action movie with a talented, sexy cast.

Everything in this movie looks great, from the rejuvenated crew to the space ships. Plus, it’s filled with stunts, space shoot-outs and phasers. And even with all that going on, there’s still room for sharp dialogue and good acting.

The story isn’t groundbreaking, but there are some clever twists and unlike many older Star Trek movies, this one manages to be a lot of fun without being campy. Bonus: it’s 100% William Shatner-free!

Avatar

  • Sub-genre: Special-Effects Spectacle
  • Sub-genre characteristics: eyeball-popping visuals.
  • Example: Terminator 2

Story:

In the future, humans have found an extremely rare and valuable metal on a far-off moon called Pandora. But Pandora is inhabited by the Na'vi: intelligent, fierce blue creatures who don’t want their world to become a mining pit. The humans interact with the Na'vi using “avatars”: human-alien hybrids that look like the Na'vi but are controlled by humans.

Why I like it:

Because it doesn't look like anything I've ever seen before.

Pandora was created almost completely using computer graphics, and it's such a beautiful world that you might randomly start blurting out words like "dazzling", "spectacular" and "wow".

While the graphics are definitely the star of the show, the acting is solid too. That goes for both the human characters and the Na’vi who were created by blending computer graphics with the performances of real actors.

The story is not all that original, pitting nature-loving natives against big guns and a big corporation, but it is told well. And it has enough romance, strong female characters, floating mountains, giant flying lizards, and Sigourney Weaver to make it a must-see. Especially if you’re a sucker for director James Cameron’s movies like I am.

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