Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The year sci-fi struck back

The sci-fi genre, like any, has seen quite a few ups and downs. From the early, cheesy B-movies of the 40s and 50s, to the rise of the space opera in Star Wars, to the fusion with horror in the Alien quadrilogy starting in 1979. Now, 30 years later, at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, the film release gods aligned the stars for a spectacular slate of sci-fi films spread across 2009. There were also the Star Wars prequels and two Terminator sequels, which raked in the millions but weren't so satisfying to series fans on many levels. What the sci-fi genre needed was something different, something innovative, something willing to push the conventions of what sci-fi could accomplish as a genre. And thanks to four very different films, that's exactly what happened.

First was JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot, blasting off into theaters in mid-May, and taking in just over $250 million domestically. Add to that the hugely positive response from critics and audiences alike, Abrams reboot became more than just 2009's Iron Man 0f sorts. Boasting snappy editing, and young, fresh-faced cast (with best-in-show honors going to Zachary Quinto as Spock), slick special effects, and quite a few genuinely emotional moments amid the flashing lasers, the film stands as a great achievement not only because it breathed new life into a franchise long on life support, but was also totally accessible to those who have never seen an episode of "Star Trek" before. The humor wasn't always executed sharply, and the final act wasn't as thrilling due to a ho-hum villain, but overall this hip, modern, reboot of the classic franchise deserved every penny and rave it got. Even after seeing it three times, it's still a blast.

Bottom Line: The movie that showed us that not only is sci-fi cool again, but that in the right hands, any franchise can bounce back.

Then we have the midsummer psychological thriller Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. What makes this one different from all of the others? It's *gasp* totally an art house movie. Sci-fi has for decades now been associated the big, the flashy, and the expensive. So for Moon to rank as one of the year's best films, and star the most criminally overlooked performance of the year from Mr. Rockwell, is something special, even if it didn't light up the box office. Duncan Jones' debut feature is an elegant psychological thriller, starring Rockwell and, really, ONLY Rockwell (in dual roles, no less) as an astronaut on contract to oversee a mining station on the moon. In his two roles, Rockwell shines, never leaving the audience begging for something more. It's truly a one man show and Rockwell takes command of it, and the results are excellent. The film itself has a few problems, mostly from hinting at trying to take on something grander, but never actually going there. On the whole, however, Moon stands as a stellar achievement, bolstered by impressive debut direction and Clint Mansell's haunting score.

Bottom Line: The film that showed us that sci-fi could not only work in "art house" territory, but also be driven by performances instead of spectacle.

August isn't exactly the high point of the summer movie season, but along with Inglorious Basterds, August brought us a genuine sci-fi wonder: Neill Blompkamp's District 9. The best part of the film was its premise: aliens have landed on earth not as bringers of peace or destruction, but as lost refugees. Add to the fact that the mothership was stranded over Johannesburg, and not a traditional city like New York, and the parallel's to apartheid, and what you get is a non-stop thrill ride, centered around a surprising performance from unknown Sharlto Copely. Even more impressive is the seamless way in which the effects blend in with the environments, and this is in a film shot for only $30 million. The use of faux documentary and security tape footage throughout helps up the intrigue, and despite the villains being too easily swayed to doing nasty things, the overall result is a charge of energy packed with gritty thrills and a heart-wrenching story.

Bottom Line: The movie that showed us that there are still unique sci-fi ideas out there.

Last is Avatar, which I've already talked about in my review, and still need to see a second time to settle my thoughts on the screenplay and acting (the same is true for Nine). The true star, as I've said, are the special effects, and they are indeed special. The best part of Avatar is simply getting to experience the creatures and vistas all generated from nothing, and how real they feel. The myriad creatures that inhabit Cameron's world are impressive and there were even times when I wished the film had simply been nothing more than a full faux documentary about Pandora. Where Cameron's world comes alive is when the least is said; the epic battle, the soaring flight sequences are all evidence of this. Like a sci-fi equivalent of Moulin Rouge!, sometimes it's not the story you tell, but simply how you tell it, that can make it great.

Bottom Line: The movie that showed us what special effects were capable of, and that motion capture can actually look realistic.

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