Science-Fiction Movies of 1999

[The assistance of the Internet Movie Database at http://www.imdb.com/ was invaluable in the making of this essay. The excellent foreign films RUN LOLA RUN (LOLA RENNT, Germany) and OPEN YOUR EYES (ABRA LOS OJOS, Spain) aren’t covered, given that they were seen in 1999, but respectively made in 1998 and 1997.]

Pretty good year, really.

There was certainly something for everyone, from the funky mindtrip of Cronenberg’s EXISTENZ to the safe-as-a-sandbox ordinarity of STAR WARS EPISODE ONE. We ran the whole excitement gamut from the cerebral THIRTEENTH FLOOR to the slam’em action of VIRUS. We indulged in retro-SF nostalgia with THE IRON GIANT and witnessed the birth of a new cinematic style with THE MATRIX. There were masterpieces and disasters, blockbusters and dismal failures, but SF had a strong showing in 1999, and at least one bona-fide classic.

Things were not off to a good start. VIRUS was delayed from summer 1998 to January 1999, and expectations were low for this ALIEN ripoff. Expectations were fulfilled. But it wasn’t -by a long shot- the worst SF film of 1999, as WING COMMANDER clunked in theatres in March to claim this honour. WING COMMANDER -originally slated for a straight-to-video release- is actually so atrociously bad that it generates a certain MST3K wisecracking pleasure. Most of its dismal business was attributed to people wishing to see the attached STAR WARS trailer.

Things improved shortly afterward. The main feature of SF cinema in 1999 was an existentialist thematic trilogy of rather good movies questioning the nature of reality. The high-octane version debuted in late March with THE MATRIX, a roller-coaster action film that nevertheless delivered the goodies as far as SF concepts went. It made ($175+) millions, acquired a cult following, quickly became the top-selling DVD ever and deservedly stands to become one of the SF highlights of the decade. This reviewer saw it twice in theatres and now own said DVD.

The remainder of the trilogy seemed far weaker after this dynamic first entry. Cronenberg brought his usual weirdness on screen with EXISTENZ, a quirky but increasingly engaging thriller. In any other year, THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR would have gotten some deserved accolades, but after the one-two punch of THE MATRIX and EXISTENZ, it got some unkind reviews for a slow pacing and a predictable plot. It’s still visually interesting, though now mired in what seems to be an overlong "Outer Limits" episode.

There was another trilogy of sort, a trio of satires about media-SF fans. While your reviewer hasn’t seen either TREKKERS (a documentary) or FREE ENTERPRISE (a low-budget film), GALAXY QUEST managed to be a competent SFish comedy, and a slight jab at the whole idea of media-SF fandom.

Wildly anticipated by a gaggle of newsworthy fans, (who probably wouldn’t appreciate the satire of GALAXY QUEST) STAR WARS EPISODE ONE managed to gross over $400M, produced one instant cultural icon (the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks) but otherwise proved to be a disappointing empty shell of Lucas over-indulgence: Okay, so he’s got complete control over every frame of film delivered to theatres… and yet he can’t manage to do better than this? Boo!

WILD WILD WEST, for its part, betrayed its initial steampunk promise with juvenile silliness and incompetent pacing. The result has its place in the bottom five films of 1999.

The end of Summer’99 held one more surprise for SF fans, however, in THE IRON GIANT. An animated film with honest emotional power, it tanked at the box-office despite near-unanimous good reviews but now seems destined to be a popular video release. See it if you haven’t already done so.

Finally, Robin Williams and director Chris Colombus surprised many pundits by producing a mostly-faithful adaptation (keeping the original shmaltzy tone) of Isaac Asimov’s celebrated novella, THE BICENTENNIAL MAN.

Unseen but mercilessly trashed by critics: MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, BABY GENIUSES, BEOWULF, THE PROGENY, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN and THE ASTRONAUT’S WIFE, etc…

Tangentially, SF also popped up in several non-genre films. OCTOBER SKY presented a coming-of-age story about intellectual discovery through a fascination with space exploration… a wonderful film, and even moreso for the average young SF fan. DEEP BLUE SEA was a superlative action film, based on the JURASSIC PARKish SF premise of genetically-engineered sharks. INSPECTOR GADGET and AUSTIN POWERS 2 were similarly shameless in stealing characteristic SF device as plot drivers for fun, fast-paced comedy. MYSTERY MEN also borrowed liberally from many genres, and the result was mixed but generally enjoyable as a superhero parody.

Horror and fantasy also had a very strong year, due to the presence of some really pleasing genre films (THE MUMMY, TOY STORY 2, THE SIXTH SENSE, DOGMA, SLEEPY HOLLOW, THE GREEN MILE) in addition to a bunch of decent ones (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, STIR OF ECHOES, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) and few high-profile failures. (THE HAUNTING and END OF DAYS)

SF Prospects for 2000 include two highly-anticipated Mars project (RED PLANET and De Palma’s MISSION TO MARS), the much-delayed-and-troubled SUPERNOVA (which already gets an award of some sort as having 1999’s most wildly inappropriate trailer music), David Twohy’s promising PITCH BLACK, Schwarzenegger’s clone thriller THE SIXTH DAY, THE X-MEN comic adaptation, Disney’s animated TITAN A.E., the dread-inducing BATTLEFIELD EARTH, the techno-thrillerish SPACE COWBOYS and the sure-to-be- ultraviolent-‘caus-by-Verhoeven THE HOLLOW MAN.

Persistent, but so far unfounded rumors continue to surround upcoming cinematographic adaptations of COSM, DUKE NUKEM, ENDER’S GAME, FAHRENHEIT 451, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, LOBO, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, MEFISTO IN ONYX, MEG, RENDEZ-VOUS WITH RAMA and THE SPARROW. Wilder rumors surround sequels and remakes such as BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, MEN IN BLACK 2, EMBRYO: JURASSIC PARK, TOTAL RECALL 2 and X THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. No one knows anything solid about the Spielberg/Cruise/PKDick project MINORITY REPORT. Finally, the IMDB lists more than fifteen intriguing-sounding SF projects for 2000, such as ABOMINABLE, AQUARIUS, THE CALLING, COLONY 12, THE CONVENT, DOGWALKER, FOILED, IMPOSTOR, MARS AND BEYOND, THE NEW WOMEN, ROBOT LOVE, SPLIT and WHERE PLANET ARE YOU FROM. Chances are that most of these will never make it to the big screens, but if they do, it would only take one of two of them to be any good to make me happy…

If you’re curious, here’s my top-ten list for 1999…

  1. FIGHT CLUB: Personally affecting, savagely funny, great direction.
  2. THE MATRIX: Entertaining high-energy SF with great SFX.
  3. TOY STORY 2: A great sequel that improves on the original.
  4. OCTOBER SKY: Touching coming-of-age story without the clichés.
  5. SOUTH PARK: Completely successful social satire; great musical
  6. THE IRON GIANT: Genuinely touching story; No Disney annoyances
  7. LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS: Simply very funny
  8. DEEP BLUE SEA: Mean, lean thrill machine; technically awe-inspiring
  9. THREE KINGS: Edgy political opinion; darkly funny
  10. THE MUMMY: Purely enjoyable crowd pleaser; great special effects 

…as well as the bottom 5…

  1. WILD WILD WEST: Singularly unenjoyable, unfunny, embarrassing mess.
  2. WING COMMANDER: Science-Fiction so bad it’s actually kinda funny.
  3. VIRUS: Totally average monster-rampage-though-isolated-ship film.
  4. END OF DAYS: Awfully silly and boring Arnold-versus-Devil "thriller".
  5. CHILL FACTOR: Action/Buddy movie that fails on several levels.

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