Science-Fiction Movies of 1998

[The assistance of the Internet Movie Database at http://www.imdb.com/ was invaluable in the making of this essay. The Canadian independent feature CUBE isn’t covered, given that it was seen in 1998, but made in 1997.]

It was not, conventionally speaking, a good year.

Compared to 1997, which featured CONTACT and GATTACA (or even 1996, with TWELVE MONKEYS and -to a much lesser extent- STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT and THE ARRIVAL), 1998 was in many ways both a let-down and a throwback to the stooopid Sci-Fi movies of years past.

Not convinced? Three titles: ARMAGEDDON, GODZILLA and LOST IN SPACE.

Now, to be fair, I enjoyed all of these three movies. Despite their awfulness in such fields as screenwriting, logic, plausibility or even character development, all three delivered exciting scenes, fun visuals and perfect popcorn fodder. I went in expecting less than zero and came out vaguely entertained. What’s less pleasant, however, is the image vehiculed by these movies: Just as SF was starting to get a respectable image, here comes this…

Oh well… onward.

Closer to drama than action, DEEP IMPACT also used the celestial-objet-smashing-into-Earth motif but treated it as an excuse for a compressed soap opera. Didn’t work, but New York got trashed pretty good…

Two TV series made it to the big screen this year, and the results were almost identical in both cases: Overblown -but underwhelming- big-budget, big-screen episodes. Viewers were disappointed by the curiously coy X-FILES movie, and most complained that STAR TREK: INSURRECTION was a bit… well… pedestrian.

THE FACULTY was an interesting update on the "alien possession" theme. Not as good as might be expected, but still fun. Some precious meta-references to Heinlein and Jack Finney…

I usually force myself to go see every SF movie, but couldn’t overcome the unanimously bad reviews earned by SPECIES II (the fact that I still haven’t watched the original also helped) and had moral objections (based on a vehement hatred of the book) to spend money on the cinematographic adaptation of Michael Crichton’s abysmal SPHERE. Also unseen: The low-budget SIX STRING SAMURAI and the horror/SF hybrids PHANTOMS, DEEP RISING and DISTURBING BEHAVIOUR. That none of those were especially popular, or well-reviewed, didn’t really upset me.

I did see SOLDIER, however, and lived to regret it. Much more was expected, but the result was an incredibly moronic cheap-looking film. I award it, without hesitation, the title of Worst Movie of 1998.

So it’s ironic to see that despite SOLDIER, all the high-budget, spectacular bad movies and the TV adaptations, one SF movie can be crowned Favourite Movie of 1998: DARK CITY.

Visually impressive and imaginatively put together, DARK CITY is a hidden gem of a movie that disappeared far too soon from our screens. It brings back memories of 1984, BRAZIL, GATTACA… but without in any way seeming like a rip-off of any of them. See it as soon as possible… but mute the opening monologue, which gives out too much right away.

It’s no coincidence if two similar-in-concept "semi-SF" movies of 1998 also got high ratings from me: PLEASANTVILLE and THE TRUMAN SHOW, both excellent exercises in metaphorical "what if?"… They’re so good, they have to be SF!

On the borderlines of SF and Horror, moviegoers were treated to two vampire movies in 1998. If BLADE was a tremendously enjoyable action movie that’s unarguably the coolest film of the year, JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES had more than its share of problems, script-wise, and would only deliver twenty minutes of good stuff.

I was mildly disturbed to realized that supernatural movies have become so commonplace that there isn’t really much of a "genre" for them any more. Without giving ratings (most of them didn’t interest me enough to go see in theatres), just consider these titles: FALLEN, PRACTICAL MAGIC, BRIDE OF CHUCKY, BELOVED, CITY OF ANGELS, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME…

What’s coming in 1999? The "first" STAR WARS movie, obviously. But also the "something bad is on this ship and we’re stuck with it!" VIRUS, the smart-shark techno-thriller DEEP BLUE SEA, the sure-to-be-weird-because-directed-by-David Cronenberg EXISTENZ, Paul Verhoeven’s THE HOLLOW MAN, David Twohy’s PITCH BLACK (I’m really looking forward to this one), the great-looking THE MATRIX (with Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne), the minor Emmerich/Devlin project THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR, the said-to-be-hugely-unoriginal SUPERNOVA and the steampunk Will Smith / Kevin Kline 4th-of-July blockbuster THE WILD, WILD WEST.

Rumours are persistent about such things as a cinematographic version of DUKE NUKEM and THE X-MEN, as well as film versions of COSM and RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. There are also hints about several TV projects about Mars… including a script by Gregory Benford and an adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy by James Cameron. (!!!) Remakes include a big-screen MY FAVOURITE MARTIAN and another version (as if we actually needed one) of PLANET OF THE APES. Plus the supernatural END OF DAYS, with Ahnuld. Oh, and maybe a PREDATOR 3.

What else? Why, if you look at past years, the best SF surprises have often popped up out of nowhere. Just take a look at the titles promised for 1999 by the IMDB: ABOMINABLE, ALLIED FORCES, THE ASTRONAUT’S WIFE, COLONY 12, ECLIPSE, FOILED, IMPOSTOR, MATO GROSSO, MOTHMAN, NEMO, PLUTO NASH, PROTEUS, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIAN, STATIC and UNDER THE RAINBOW.

It would take only two good ones out of this list to make me happy…

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