Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sci-fi, it’s not just for geeks anymore.

Science fiction as a genre has given audiences different views of the past that never existed, presents that are warped, and futures that can either give us hope or terrify us.    While much of the genre takes a look at where we are going others seem be reflections of the time.  The genre also mixes well with others.  Just about every variation of the formula has been tried with waves of success.

The several sci-fi movies that represent the past are usually put into the category of steampunk.  Some great examples of this are “The Golden Compass,” “The Prestige” and the anime “Howl’s Moving Castle.”  They give us a past where the technology is more advanced for the time period.  Some of these movies work well and others are incredibly weak like “Wild, Wild West,” and “Sucker Punch.”  

Movies that take a present look at the genre.  “Cloverfield” made a modern monster movie utilizing the P.O.V. camera craze.  Movies like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” and “Back to the Future” while not modern by todays standards capture their time period like a snapshot of the time period.  Of course there are exceptions to the steampunk genre.  “Super 8” and “Cowboys and Aliens” are recent examples of sci-fi movies that take place in the past that are not steampunk.

Modern sci-fi has expanded by developing themes that are identifiable to a wider audience.  Take movies like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” for example. It’s a story almost anyone can identify with in the way that almost all people have had that type of heartbreak where they wish they could forget the other person.  “Chronicle” is relatable to audiences because it takes a look at teenage angst through kids who have developed telekinetic powers.  

Futuristic sci-fi is now and has always been incredibly common.  It more often takes a look at where society is headed. Futuristic sci-fi uses a variety of themes, be it a dark Orwellian way like in movie “Brazil,” or a more upbeat fantastic universe like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The views of this genre have given us fun new visions and hope of technology that is both promising and helpful.  Often these tales use stories that have been long told such as “Star Wars,” which is much like the Akira Kurosawa film “The Hidden Fortress.”  

Sci-fi movies play to our weakness as a species or our fears.  In the “Terminator” movies it was a fear of reliance on machines.  In “They Live” it becomes a fear of an over consuming society that is blind to the woes of the lower class.  In another John Carpenter movie, “The Thing,” the fear is created as the paranoia and isolation of the alien creature takes over human beings at the molecular level.

Sometimes writers use sci-fi to examine themes that are otherwise too deep for most audiences.  “Blade Runner,” for example, is at its core a story about the very nature of the human soul.  “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn” has a basic story with a wildly two-dimensional villain, yet what makes this movie poignant is the way the audience can relate to Captain Kirk’s aging. “District 9” is a more recent film that strongly uses the theme of apartheid.  Sci-fi has the ability to take taboo topics and make them more palatable and entertaining. 

Science fiction has mixed with many other genres as well.  These collaborations have made it so viewers who wouldn’t normally be a fan of the genre can now enjoy it.  Take children’s movies for example.  Movies like “The Iron Giant,” “Secret of Nimh,” and “Wall-E,” have allowed young children (as well as adults) to be exposed to themes that are both entertaining and advanced, while keeping in the genre of science fiction. 

The rise of comic book inspired movies has created many sci-fi superhero movies.  Movies like “X-Men,” “Iron Man,” and “Batman Begins” introduce people to worlds were mutants exist or where a person can create suits and weapons to defeat colorful villains.  This surge in popularity is bridging the gap between comic book fans and sci-fi fans. 

Of course sci-fi has worked well with horror as both of them look into a realm of the unknown.  This is seen as early back as the 1930s with “Frankenstein,” where Boris Karloff terrified audiences clumping about in pounds of makeup as a corpse brought to life by mad science. More recently, sci-fi and horror teamed up to create “Cloverfield.” The special effects of monsters have grown significantly since the days of the “Frankenstein.” 

Later came movies like “Alien” and “Predator” where the humans are no longer the apex animals compared to the creatures that hunt them.  Both versions of “The Blob” show a lot of interesting themes from the era they took place. In the 50s the theme is the boy who cried wolf, while in the 80s the theme is that humans shouldn’t trifle with things they don’t understand.    

Science fiction comedy is fairly common as well.  In the campy movie “Earth Girls are Easy,” three aliens crash land on Earth and hook up with women on Earth. It’s as silly as it sounds.  In “Ghostbusters,” a group of out-of-work parapsychologists find they have a knack for catching ghosts using proton packs they invent.  It’s a funny and inventive movie with a lot of great special effects for the time. 

One of the best combinations of movies I’ve seen with sci-fi comes from one of my favorite movies.  “Back to the Future” is a sci-fi, a comedy, a teen movie, and a romance; eventually its sequels even became a western.  This movie took the science of time travel and causality, and creates a plot that makes your head spin.  Marty McFly has to juggle getting back to 1985 along with getting his parents back together, all while avoiding the king of assholes Biff Tannen and warning Doc Brown of his imminent death by Libyans in the future. It’s a really smart movie that I enjoy every time I watch it. 

Two classics of the genre are famous Stanley Kubrick movies.  “A Clockwork Orange” is one of his best movies.   In it a young sadist, Alex, goes to prison for his horrendous crimes but finds a way to get paroled.  He signs up for a treatment that will supposedly cure him of his desire to kill and do violence on others.  The question is: Is it better to program a person to make a decision or for them to do it willingly?    “2001 A Space Odyssey” is one that confuses me to a great degree.  Some aspects are good and creepy such as H.A.L. the robot who decides that the humans are jeopardizing the mission and begins killing people off.  Then we get monoliths and star children, and frankly it’s too strange for me at times.  It’s made a lot like an art film.

On the topic of art house style movies I normally have never been a fan of David Lynch movies.  There are two exceptions: “The Elephant Man” and “Dune.”  “Dune” is a sci-fi movie that has a grand cast and an almost Shakespearean feel to it.  The story of households in a battle over the goods that make space travel possible becomes fascinating when it all comes together.  

Speaking of Shakespearean themes, one of the classics that takes it’s inspirations right from “The Tempest” is “Forbidden Planet.” It’s a wild and outlandish adventure that involves monsters and robots and yet it works.  It’s considered by many to be one of the best sci-fi movies of all time.  “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is better in my opinion.   It’s a plea for world peace brought from a man from beyond the stars.  Oddly enough, this story has been used as an allegory for Jesus Christ but still has a decent following.

I am a big fan of science fiction.  Some of my favorites of the genre are the movies “Blade Runner,” “Brazil,” “The Thing” and “Back to the Future.”  Many are very thought provoking and a lot of fun.  Luckily, like some of the worst horror movies the cheesiest sci-fi can be fun with the right group of friends.  Great shows like “Mystery Science Theater 3000” still continues to make many laugh watching some of the worst of this classic genre.

I brought up “Blade Runner” earlier, which is an amazing movie.  In it the villains are replicants, which are human-like robots that have a short lifespan. Deckard, the Blade Runner, is a cop whose purpose is to kill replicants after finding them.  Roy Batty is a replicant soldier who is killing people to find a way to prolong his life.  He questions the very nature of the human soul since the company that made him was able to create him with implanted memories.  Is it possible for any thing sentient to have a soul even if it is not human?

Another movie I brought up earlier was “Brazil”. It’s a dark, comedic, romantic movie that takes place in a dark Orwellian version of the world.  It involves a world full of inept bureaucrats, endless flawed paperwork, and police that arrest you for the stupidest crimes.  The fun thing is the hero is an imaginative romantic that sees the girl of his dream and fights the system to get to her.

Science fiction is a genre that truly is for everyone.  It is insightful and has crossed into so many other genres that it is hard to imagine that anyone could not appreciate that it has done so much for film.  It has influenced a great deal of moviemakers and it continues to get more and more interesting as long as the imaginations of folks are allowed to thrive. We are already looking forward to the remake of “Total Recall”, “Looper” and “Branded”. As long as there is fiction, there will be science fiction. 

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