Another year, another batch of ho-hum Science Fiction films. Despite everyone’s best intentions and most ardent hopes, Cinema SF in 2005 was once again a collection of spectacular special effects and big script disappointment. Very few "pure" science-fiction films were released, and even fewer of those didn’t already depend on an existing franchise. Focusing on movies that you conceivably had a chance to see at the local cineplex, let’s survey the wreckage of the year that was…
It would be wildly optimistic to actually call any of 2005’s best-in-show any good. At best, several of them were acceptable to existing fans and tolerable by the mainstream population.
And so it’s a bit of a surprise to find out that the best three SF films of the year were STAR WARS III, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and SERENITY, three franchise films that aimed to please existing fans while also crossing over to "the mainstream". The least one can say is that all three barely managed to fulfil core expectations. THE HICHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY puzzled general audiences and grated on some fans’ nerves, SERENITY passed away without a trace (though fans were quite pleased) and STAR WARS, well, STAR WARS proved to be a STAR WARS-sized juggernaut. The audience was built-in from the start; all it had to do was not screw it up too badly, and it didn’t.
As a pleasant footnote to massive studio films, it’s worth noting that the fan-made STAR TREK/BABYLON 5 parody/crossover STAR WRECK: IN THE PIRKINNING proved to be a worthwhile film: Amateurish, sure, but with fabulous special effects and plenty of fun moments. Given its free distribution through Internet Peer-to-Peer networks, it’s worth a look.
They were no less than three versions of H.G. Wells’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS this year, right on time to celebrate the novel’s hundredth anniversary. Of the three versions, only the Stephen Sielberg / Tom Cruise project got wide distribution. The result was (once again) acceptable, but far better seen as a loose collection of scare sequences than an actual SF movie: in "adapting" the novel to modern day standards, screenwriter David Koepp made a number of crucial blunders, the most important of which being the disappointing material stringing together all of Spielberg’s fabulous action/horror sequences. Of the two other versions of the story released this year, one (directed by David Michael Latt) was modern and enjoyed a decent video distribution. The other, directed by Timothy Hines, is billed as a historical recreation of the story. I can vouch for neither of them.
As if that wasn’t enough, the animated children feature CHICKEN LITTLE spent most of its third act going through the motions of a WAR OF THE WORLD rip-off: pleasant enough, but hardly essential material for adults. Overall, the other SF-tinged animed kid’s film, ROBOTS, was generally more interesting. Plus, hey –robots!
All told, you know it’s not such a good year when the "original SF film of the year" title goes to THE ISLAND, whose sole claim to this honour was that it wasn’t explicitly based on something else. (Unofficially, some wags have found troubling resemblances between the film and 1979’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 graduate CLONUS.) You actually get three movies for the price of one with THE ISLAND: A tolerable THX-1138 rehash, a dumb-but-fun action film and a pretty awful last third. I’ll let you figure out whether any of the three is worth your while. Though if you want dumb-but-fun, it’s hard to beat STEALTH, especially for the "dumb" part.
I gave a pass to THE CAVE and A SOUND OF THUNDER given their critical drubbing. Who will blame me? On the other hand, strange forces compelled me to undergo the particular psychological torture that were DOOM, FANTASTIC FOUR and AEON FLUX. Three shining examples of "we’re adapting known franchises, so screw everything else" film-making, these films pretty much exemplify everything that’s wrong with SF cinema from Hollywood. Good technical credits can’t compensate for bad design, weak scripts, awful pacing and the sense that we’ve seen all of this elsewhere. DOOM has an intriguing beginning and a decent finale, but everything in-between is dull. AEON FLUX is both dumb and ugly despite a number of decent gadgets. Meanwhile FANTASTIC FOUR goes through the motions of a superhero film, not realizing that we liked THE INCREDIBLES and the whole X-MEN series a lot better. I’d suggest never thinking about those films ever again, but I suspect that the universe, as a whole, will quickly forget about them on its own.
Once again, fantasy proved to be a slightly more respectable genre this year: KING KONG got some half-serious Oscar buzz at some point, and if the end result feels bloated and naive, it was a decent remake to a classic SF&F film. Generally more successful from both a critical and popular standpoint were HARRY POTTER 4 and NARNIA 1, both of which earned better-than-fair reviews and boffo box-office receipts. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and BATMAN BEGINS also did well. Perhaps less successful, but quite enjoyable were CONSTANTINE, CORPSE BRIDE and WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERERABBIT. Not a bad year for fantasy.
(A tangent: Out of the 10 top-grossing films of 2005 in North America, fully eight were of SF or fantasy pedigree: The exceptions were WEDDING CRASHERS (#5) and MR & MRS SMITH (#10). The rest, from STAR WARS III (#1) to MADAGASCAR (#9), all incorporated SF&F elements.)
It’s always amusing to speculate on the year ahead. At best, it keeps you humble: a look at the list twelve months later is invariably accompanied by cries of "what was I thinking?" Even the lowest expectations are usually far too optimistic.
As usual, the year ahead seems packed with promise. A few SF auteurs are coming back to the screen, and their previous track record is reason enough to hope. EQUILIBRIUM’s Kurt Wimmer is back on the big screen with ULTRAVIOLET, though hoping for more than a Big Action Movie at this point seems needlessly premature. Darren Aronofsky (of PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) is capable of much more, so all hopes are still possible for the long-delayed THE FOUNTAIN.
Then there are the literary adaptations. V FOR VENDETTA (from the Alan Moore graphic novel) has already earned its share of raves, but given that those were from a sleep-deprived film festival audience, it’s perhaps better to be prudent. A SCANNER DARKLY (from the Philip K. Dick novel) is similarly promising, but director Richard Linklater’s record is spotty enough to be cautious. Nobody knows anything about THE PRESTIGE (adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel) except for the casting, but that’s already a lot better than the long-rumoured, never-materialized adaptations of THE CHILDREN OF MEN, PATTERN RECOGNITION, MEG, ERAGON, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and MASTER OF SPACE AND TIME. There a little bit more hope for JOHN CARTER OF MARS, but we’ll see it when we’ll see it. Adaptations of video games are still, despite everyone’s better judgement, a hot subject, and so 2006 may or may not see cheap movies based on DEUS EX, METROID and TEKKEN.
But what would a year be without its share of sequels and remakes? On the sequel front, we’ve got rumours of two new HIGHLANDER films (THE SOURCE and VENGEANCE), HOLLOW MAN 2, JURASSIC PARK 4, TERMINATOR 4, X-MEN 3, RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE and SUPERMAN RETURNS. (If the line blurs between sequels and adaptations, don’t worry: this is the twenty-first century) As far a remakes go, the IMDB lists stuff like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE FLASH, THE FLY, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, KNIGHT RIDER and LOGAN’S RUN. Feel my pulse and sense my excitement.
Naturally, all of the above isn’t nearly as interesting as the bunch
of titles about whom we know nothing at all. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something interesting in the following list: 2176, ADINA, ALIEN AUTOPSY, ANA ROHY FEEK, BLUE ROAD, BOOKS OF MAGIC, THE BREAK, CARGO, CHASSIS, COWBOYS AND ALIENS, THE CRAZIES, DEATHLOK, DEJA VU, DEVIL ON THE MOUNTAIN, DISPLACED, DREAMLAND, THE ENTITY, EVIL BEHIND YOU, FRANKIE THE SQUIRREL, FREAKY FARON, GADKIE LEBEDI, GB: 2525, THE GENE GENERATION, THE GHASTLY LOVE OF JOHNNY X, GIN-IRO NO KAMI NO AGITO, GODSPEED, HARVESTER, HE-MAN, HIGH RISE, THE HOST, HUNTER’S MOON, I.D., IDIOCRACY, KRRISH, KURZZEITHELDEN, THE LAST GUY ON EARTH, MAINLINE, MECHENOSETS, THE MEN WHO FELL, NIPPON CHINBOTSU, OUT/THERE, OUTLANDER, PARAGRAF 78, PARASYTE, PINK_D, POINT THUNDER, PROJECT GREY, PUSH, RAM, RAZOR’S EDGE, SIMON, SIPHON, SOUTH OF HOPE STREET, SOUTHLAND TALES, SPECTROPIA, A SPELL FOR CHAMELEON, STATION 13, THE SWINDLERS OF DOOM, UNIDENTIFIED, VERNUTSA VOVREMYA, THE VISITING, WALDO’S HAWAIIAN HOLIDAY, WARRIORS OF TERRA, THE WATER WARRIORS, WOW! (GENERATION P) and YESTERDAY WAS A LIE. Don’t be surprised if you never hear those titles again.