Science-Fiction Movies of 1997

[This was originally a section of the "SF in 1997" retrospective, but it really deserved its own article]

Despite a few high-profile failures, it can be argued that 1997 was a very good year for SF in movies, mostly due to the presence of two genuine SF movies in this year’s crop.

Without a doubt, the best two pure-SF movies of 1997 were CONTACT and GATTACA, both which can proclaim to be "true" SF, compared to most of the attempts popping up nowadays.

CONTACT’s script was full of trivial annoyances and convenient simplifications -not considering the self-destructive ending that tried too hard to reconcile science and faith while ending up contradicting itself for the sake of ambiguity- but the movie still is the most scientifically accurate -and one of the most mature- SF ever to grace the silver screen.

GATTACA works better as a fable than as realistic SF, but brings back fond memories of New Wave SF more concerned about social changes and storytelling tricks than gadgets or character considerations. I can see why some will find this movie a cold, interminable bore but for me, GATTACA is one of the most uplifting movies I’ve seen.

Historically, SF has always been more successful as a hybrid of SF mixed with other genres. This year, for instance, MEN IN BLACK and THE FIFTH ELEMENT were kinda stupid, but really enjoyable examples of simili-SF comedies. Both can be readily re-watched, and don’t aspire at more than being entertaining mental candy. They succeed admirably.

On an entirely different emotional register, the Horror/SF shlock-o-rama EVENT HORIZON had the potential to outdo ALIEN… but the script failed miserably. It still remains a stylish, effectively scary movie. To me, it’s the disappointment of the year; the initial premise, the talent, the SFX was there to make the all-time best SF movie… but managed not to do so.

Further away from the field, both LIAR, LIAR and FACE/OFF managed to be excellent movies in their own genre by borrowing concepts from SF and Fantasy.

Other less-successful movies included the uneven ALIEN: RESURRECTION, which managed to be okay without being great, the (unseen but said to be hugely bad) adaptation from David Brin’s novel THE POSTMAN, the really stupid THE LOST WORLD, the forgettable MIMIC and the incoherent SPAWN.

Somewhere at the bottom of the heap lies STARSHIP TROOPERS, a pointless excuse for gory visual effects. Not only have they betrayed Heinlein’s ideas (by perverting their meaning, and then treating everything as a big joke.) but by including them in a plot that could be panned by eight-graders. That the movie is aimed at these eight-grader while being violent enough to warrant an R rating is proof enough of Hollywood’s hypocrisy. STARSHIP TROOPERS not only deserves a whole paragraph of easy criticism, but exemplifies almost everything that’s wrong in the SF/Hollywood equation. (Where "SF is divided by Hollywood"… okay, so you got that one.)

Prospects for 1998 looks dismal, again (an echo from last year’s report): Stuff like the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s SPHERE (thwack! thwack! thwack!), the American remake of GODZILLA (by the producers of INDEPENDENCE DAY: you know what to expect), the unsettling DARK EMPIRE, a retooled LOST IN SPACE (reportedly darker and smarter than the original TV series, although that’s not saying much), comic adaptations FANTASTIC FOUR and X-MEN, sequels SPECIES II and STAR TREK 9 plus the long-awaited (but not by me) X-FILES: THE MOVIE.

If that wasn’t enough, there are two planet-smasher movies coming soon: Pick between Mimi Leder’s DEEP IMPACT or the Bruce Willis/Michael Bay flick ARMAGEDDON. (My favourite is ARMAGEDDON, if only because they had the support of NASA) Sounds big, sounds stupid, sound like definite fun.

Of course, a low-budget surprise might come in and surprise everyone, much like GATTACA came out of nowhere this year and managed to impress a lot of people (if not make much money at the box-office…)

If anyone’s curious, here’s my Top Ten Favourite Movie list for 1997:

  1. TITANIC (Genuinely moving; manages to combine romance and SFX.)
  2. CONTACT (Purest, hardest SF movie. Almost-magical movie-making.)
  3. GATTACA (Cold but thoughtful SF movie that has the right spirit.)
  4. FACE/OFF (Transcends the usual action movie. Beautiful direction.)
  5. LIAR, LIAR (Funny even beyond Carrey. Some maniacal moments.)
  6. THE PEACEMAKER (Good techno-thriller. Liked the harder edge.)
  7. THE FIFTH ELEMENT (A visually gorgeous, funny roller-coaster ride.)
  8. IN & OUT (Tight script, good characters, hilarious scenes.)
  9. CON AIR (Very stupid action flick, just the way we like ’em.)
  10. MEN IN BLACK (The essence of coolness, 1997 vintage.)

…and the Bottom Five…

  1. STARSHIP TROOPERS (Sorry half-excuse for gore and nipples.)
  2. BEVERLY HILLS NINJA (Makes you want to rejoice in the death of…)
  3. MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION (Far from being entertaining.)
  4. KULL THE CONQUEROR (Bottom-basement fantasy shlock.)
  5. SPAWN (Interesting comic adaptation, but most of it still sucks.)

See you at the movies! Don’t forget the popcorn!

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