Science-Fiction Movies of 2009

After nearly a decade in the wilderness, Science-Fiction was back on the big screen in a big, big way in 2009 with a mixture of successful updates, original concepts, successful blockbusters and ingenious smaller-scale films.  Many of the lousier films even had their good moments, and plenty of mildly successful movies had a lot going for them.  (And, as usual, genre movies reigned supreme at the box-office, where 8 of the year’s top-10 grossers had genre elements in them.)

The good

The Internet Movie Database lists about thirty “Sci-Fi” 2009 films with more than 1000 votes, but only a few will be remembered in a few years.

Avatar is a triumphant return to the big screen for James Cameron twelve years after Titanic.  The story itself isn’t all that original for SF fans: The “noble savage” shtick’s been done before.  But the real appeal of the film is the meticulous world-building, which very few SF movies even get the chance to get right.  Here, the world of Pandora may not make entire sense, but it’s right there on the screen in gorgeous 3D, with a lot more detail than anyone may be willing to absorb in a single sitting.  Add to that some top-notch action filmmaking and the result is one of the best blockbuster SF films of the year, nay, the decade.

Put together with considerably less money, District 9 isn’t flawless either in terms of storytelling, but it has a provocative premise, an unusual setting, some fantastic action sequences and a writer/director who knows what he’s doing.  Neil Bomfkamp has emerged not just as a filmmaker to watch, but one who’s already doing some amazing things.  For a film that emerged from nowhere to become a fairly solid late-summer hit, it’s almost as good as B-grade action/SF films can be.

Finally, Star Trek very successfully rejuvenated a franchise that even I had abandoned.  It’s hardly perfect and I like it a bit less every time I think about it, but it’s one of the most preposterously entertaining time I had at the movies this year.  Director JJ Abrams made Trek fun again, and injected a considerable amount of energy in the film, making many other genre movies look pale and lifeless in comparison.

And while Watchmen is Science Fiction almost by default, it, too was one of the good films of the year.  Not perfect, no, but pretty good, and as faithful an adaptation as could reasonably be made.  As a fan of the original graphic novel, I’m pretty happy with the results, even without the squid.

The not-so-bad

To those top choices, we can add a few other titles worth a look.

The most unusual of those is probably Moon, a dirt-cheap film that looks fantastic and presents a fairly ingenuous premise.  Where it misses the mark, ironically, is that it’s almost too good an attempts at hard-SF: it exposes itself to a lot of credibility problems because it raises the bar so high.  I respect it a lot, but ultimately can’t actually like it… but I acknowledge that other less-critical viewers may enjoy it.

At the complete critical antipodes, you get 2012, which was widely derided by reviewers (including myself) but still contains two or three of the most fantastic action sequences of the year.  The Los Angeles destruction sequence was worth the ticket price alone.  And while the scientific elements are ludicrous, there are a few signs here and there that someone knew what they were doing in writing the excuse for so many destruction sequences.

To say that death and destruction unites 2012 and Knowing is to spoil a bit of Knowing, but it’s also the shift that makes the movie worth seeing for SF fans.  It impressively goes from a mildly supernatural drama to full-bore catastrophic SF in gradual increments, ending with a beautiful doomsday sequence that… well, that would spoil too much.  There are a few great action sequences along the way as well, and Nicolas Cage is always fun to watch when he plays harried.

This whole “great sequences” argument also holds true for The Surrogates: Plenty of plot holes, no worldbuilding worth caring about, but a few amusing segments here and there.

On the other hand, Push works better as a whole than in individual segments.  It’s an action thriller obviously aimed at teens and laboriously reinvents a jargon for various paranormal powers, but it generally work better than you’d expect, and doesn’t necessarily takes its audience for idiots.

The could-have-been-better

Other films, some of them with an unimaginable budget, were seriously lacking in many ways.

I feel bad about deriding 9, it’s because the central premise is not without a certain flair, and because the entire film is just a wonder to look at.  Visually, it’s stunning.  Narratively, though, it’s an overlong mess, and even the dour visuals get to be repetitive after a quite.  I’m very curious to see what else director Shane Ackers will do next, though.

Terminator 4: Salvation shows how poorly the franchise is doing without James Cameron.  It’s too grim to be enjoyable, and ultimately too familiar with the Terminators to present effective dread.  The result is a brown unlikable mess, with a few good sequences but an overall dour atmosphere that makes it a hard sit.

Pandorum is, let’s admit it, not a very good film.  But there are a few twists and turns (especially towards the end) that make it a little better than the average “bug in a spaceship” creature feature.  It’s probably not worth a look by itself, but it will do if you’re stuck with it.

Gamer isn’t much more than an action B-movie with a few science-fictional elements.  Some of them are intriguing, and could have been even better in a more thoughtful film.  As it is now, though, it’s not much more than a see-and-forget straight-to-DVD feature.

Finally, well, I wish I could just hate Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.  It’s a colossal waste of time, talent and resources, mashing promising concepts and action sequences in a blur of incomprehensible visuals and lousy screenwriting.  But trying to muster any kind of emotion for this film just seems like overkill on something strictly designed to make money in an automated fashion.  It exists.  It features tons of special effects.  The rest Is up to you.

The quasi-SF

Every year brings its lot of films that contain SF elements but really are about something else.  Some of them are even successful.  The Time Traveler’s Wife, for instance, may not be much as science-fiction, but it’s a capable romance featuring a titular time-traveler and the woman who loves him.  G.I.Joe may use fancy high technology, but it’s an action film at heart, and its best moment (a high-speed chase through a nanotech-threatened Paris) is pure kinetism.  For the kids, there were the SF-ish features Astro Boy and Race to Witch Mountain (both of which could have been better) and Monsters versus Aliens (which is actually quite a bit better).  Finally, it was a limp year for superheoes when only the dull X-Men: Wolverine came out to play, and play badly.

Farther away from Science Fiction, there were a few surprisingly good fantasy and horror genre films this year.

In fantasy, the year got off to a good start with Coraline, continued on to a decent Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and concluded with a trippy Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  Twilight: New Moon may not have earned any respect, but it made serious money

The unseen

There are a few intriguing titles out there that either haven’t made it to my local theatres, or are waiting at my video store.  Alien Trespass looks like campy fun, while Ink hits the right “visual spectacle” notes.  I wish that Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel will get some American distribution, whereas I fear that The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations and The Devil’s Tomb did get some and are lurking at my video store.  Maybe I’ll get to them.  On the other hand, I feel genuinely sorry for missing out on The Box, which came out at an eventful period of the year and disappeared before I got to see it in theatres.  The DVD should be available soon.

The upcoming

So, what am I looking forward to in 2010?  Quite a few things, actually.  Even though there doesn’t seem to be much of a slate for purely Science-Fictional movies,

Perhaps the most promising is Christopher Nolan’s return to SF with Inception: Nolan is a solid filmmaker, and no details are required to be intrigued by what he chooses to do –although the intriguing trailer definitely helps.

Daybreakers is days away from it’s early-January opening as I write this, but it looks like a solid SF exploration of an obvious premise, with a few action sequences thrown in.  Similarly, The Book of Eli may or may not be any good, but it’s SF with Denzel Washington, so at least it qualifies as “interesting”.

Hot Tub Time Machine gets points (but no respect) for its ridiculous title, while Repo Men looks like it’s meant to take the ridiculousness of Repo! The Genetic Opera inside-out.

I’m probably the only person who has no real affection for Iron Man, so the prospect of an Iron Man 2 doesn’t do much for me.  I’m also not particularly intrigued by another Predators film, but that may have more to do with bad memories of the latest Alien versus Predator crossovers than any particular prejudice against those helming that particular production.

Ultimately, we’ll do what we do best, which is to wait and see.  At the same time last year, 2009 didn’t look all that promising either, and look what we got.  I’m never going to bet on good things coming out of Hollywood, but you never know… nobody ever knows.

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